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Facts in Five

The game “Scattergories” hit the shelves in 1988, and quickly became one of the most popular family and party games in America. I liked it, but having already been a fan of Facts in Five (3M, 1967; Avalon Hill, 1976; University Games, 2008), I knew there was a superior version of the same game. In fact, Facts in Five is on my top ten list for all time. I owned the Avalon Hill product, but it was first published by 3M in 1967 (example above), and is now available through University Games (see below).

The concept is simple enough. Draw five letter tiles and record those letters in the left-hand column of the answer sheet; draw 5 categories and record them along the top row of the answer sheet. Turn the 5-minute sand timer over and fill in as many examples within each category, starting with each of the drawn letters, as you can. Scattergories is laid out differently – especially since you are focusing on examples from many categories for just a single letter – but it is still basically the same concept. In fact, they both derive from a classic parlor game that as far as I can tell was never boxed. But why, then do I consider Facts in Five to be better than Scattergories? Because of the categories.

Categories in the Scattergories game are everyday things that just about anyone should know, such as “Things in the refrigerator” or “Boy’s names.” Facts in Five, on the other hand, has far more detailed categories, with many options for narrowing a category. In the example below, a player must choose a category and can choose as broadly as “Military Figures” or as narrowly as “Military Figures during World War II.” This feature allows the players to specify the level of knowledge required for their own game, and stimulates thinking about and memory of actual knowledge. Facts in Five is far more intellectually challenging, and therefore more intellectually stimulating and rewarding.

The newest University Games version of the game has been changed to make the categories more accessible, but still are far more interesting than the more mundane categories of Scattergories (see below). The general knowledge required to play is on par with other intellectual pastimes such as Crossword Puzzles, or Trivia.

Another important and very interesting aspect of Facts in Five is the scoring system. Correct answers are indicated on the answer sheet, and final tallies are made in the scoring table on the right – except they are collapsed upwards. That is, if in the first category a player correctly listed three things, then the player would get three tallies in the corresponding column of the scoring table, and regardless of which of the five in the first column were correct, the three tallies are placed in the top three sections of the first column of the scoring table, and then so on for each column. When each column is totaled, that number is squared and placed in the box. The same is done across each row – correct answers are tallied, but regardless of where the answers existed on the regular grid, since they collapse upward the first rows will get higher scores. Once all squared numbers are entered, they are summed up for a final score for that round.

This kind of scoring yields slight differences between itself and simple counting of answers. For example, high numbers in the columns indicate a strong specific knowledge of a given category. High numbers in the rows indicate general knowledge. Overall, however, the effect of general versus specific knowledge are made moot once the answers are added back together for a final score for that round.

Scores, once they are obtained, are moved to another scoresheet (below). It also has a space for specific and general scores, but they are not crucial to the game. After five rounds of play, final scores are tallied and listed here.

It may have been the time in my life where I was just discovering how much I loved trivia, coupled with my great memories of my two brothers and I naming things from different categories as we went through the alphabet. Whatever it was, however, I have loved this game ever since I was little.

I therefore recommend Facts in Five to any person or group who you know to be more intellectually driven – again, someone who would feel comfortable working the crossword puzzle. I find it an exhilarating exercise for the brain, and I think that most who play would feel the same about it.

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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.

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Acquire

If you had wanted me, as a teenager, to play a board game about corporate real-estate speculation, I would have laughed out loud and said no, thanks. But, somehow, someone managed to get me to play Acquire (Avalon Hill, 1962). I wish I could remember how – it was probably my brother, pulling it out of the closet on a rainy day.

Acquire has had such staying power because it embodies everything fun, and nothing boring or dry, about corporate real estate. How does it do that, you say? By keeping it simple. It consists of a regular grid running from columns A-I and rows 1-12 (for a total of 108 squares). Players take turns placing grid tiles onto corresponding spaces. When these tiles are placed adjacently, one of seven corporations is formed. Once a corporation exists, players can buy stock in the companies in the hope that more tiles will be added, increasing the worth of the corporation’s stocks.

That’s Acquire in a nutshell. The key piece is the info card (below), which shows the price of one stock certificate for a corporation of a given size, and the final payout for stock owned once the corporation expires. Each player uses this payoff chart to determine what to buy, and when, and how much. Beyond buying stock and eventually selling it, each players helps control the board by placing a single, randomly-drawn tile. Thus each player has an idea of what corporations might grow, depending on which four tiles they have drawn, and in which order they are played.

Consider the two players below, relative to the game board shown. The player on the left has a tile (8C) that will allow him or her to grow Hydra, plus other nearby tiles. As the majority holder (the one with the most stock – 4 cards in this example) there is reason to be optimistic about Hydra’s growth. Player 1 has also purchased one piece of stock in Quantum; when two corporations meet, the smaller one goes away, and the stock is sold off according to the payoff chart, to the majority and minority holders. Player 1 would be smart to buy some Quantum stock, because either Hydra or Quantum are likely to take over the other sooner or later in the game. Player 2 actually has similar options, so in this game we would expect players 1 and 2 to get into tile-positioning and stock buying wars, each trying to grow the corporations they are better represented in, while buying more of the other stock to ensure a good position if they can’t manage to get the right tiles.

The game continues much the same way, and with several players each playing for their own territories, each tile played may have an impact on any number of other players. There are 25 stock certificates for each corporation, so players find themselves paying close attention to what and how many stocks other players are buying. If a player has the most stock certificates, even by one, the payoff difference is huge. If a player is third in line, there is no payoff – their stock is worthless, and represents a lost investment.

One very important detail regarding corporation size, is that more than 11 tiles constitutes a “safe” corporation. Until then, a corporation that is linked to a larger one dissolves, and the majority and minority holders get their payoff. Once the corporation size reaches 11, they cannot be linked, and the tiles that would have linked two such corporations are no longer playable, and are discarded. By the end of the game, the board consists of, usually, several safe corporations interspersed with dead spaces. The majority and minority holders of the remaining safe corporations at the end of the game are paid off at that point. The winner is simply the player with the most money!

As I said, the theme is in no way appealing to me, but this is one of my tried and true greatest games. I don’t break it out all the time – there is still a good crowd for it – but it has yet to disappoint. There is a reason that Hasbro, once they picked up Avalon Hill about 10 years ago, decided to move forward with Acquire as one of the few Avalon Hill games. It’s a relatively under-appreciated classic, but any strategy game fan would love it.

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101 Dalmations – Spoons Card Game

 

Spoons Card Game: 101 Dalmations (Friendly Games, 2008) is a licensed version of a classic card game, Spoons, of which there are many variants. The key aspects of all spoons games are fast-paced card drawing and discarding, collecting certain sets of cards, and, when one player has made his or her goal, the mad-dash grab for spoons laid out in the middle of the table, which will leave one player without a spoon and eliminated from the game.

This 101 Dalmations version has one of the simplest rule sets there can be. It consists of a standard card deck, 13 cards in each of 4 colors. There are no face cards – they are printed with different images of various dalmations from Disney’s 101 Dalmations, and simply numbered 1 – 13. In the place of spoons the game comes with five 12 cm-long acrylic dog bones, labeled with the name of the game.

dalmations spoon game layout

Each deal consists of 4 cards, and the dealer begins each round by drawing a card, then passing one card face down to his or her right. The next player picks up that card, and passes another to the right, and so on around the table. The final player will discard to a separate discard pile, and the process repeats. As soon as a player has gotten 4-of-a-kind (the same number, not color), he or she lays down their cards and grabs a bone. The rest of the players should also reach for a spoon as soon as possible. Since there should always be one bone less than the number of players, one player will always be left without a bone. That player is eliminated, and a new hand is dealt until after the final round, when there is one player left standing – the winner!

This game is very simple, and because of its theme it appeals to small kids and fans 101 Dalmations fans. It is recommended by the manufacturer for 6 and up, but any child able to read numbers can play because the rules are so straightforward. There is some strategy involved, so older kids will do better. For example, watching the discard pile is a good way to guess at what might still be coming; younger kids won’t understand this, but it is worth teaching (never too early to learn inferential logic!).

I recommend this game to any lover (or collector) of 101 Dalmations who also likes card games, but only if they’re prepared to play with children. It could be made more challenging for older kids and adults by adding variations from other spoons games; unfortunately the rules don’t come with any suggestions for doing so.

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