Old News: Mind Games winners from 2010

(In an effort to consolidate blogs, I’m moving a few old posts over – but the opinions are still relevant!)

 

Mensa Mind games was held in San Diego this past weekend. I have been attending since 2000, and it has been one of the only reasons for me to remain in Mensa, until my local group became active about two years ago.

Game manufacturers submit games to Mind Games, where game-loving Mensans spend over 40 hours (Friday to Sunday) and get very little sleep to play them. The games are rated, and each Mensan votes on his or her top seven. The top five games are awarded the coveted Mensa Select sticker to adhere to their games, and many, many shoppers have learned that the sticker means there is a great game underneath.

Here are the top five for 2010:

Dizios (Mindware):

Players alternate adding square heavy cardboard tiles to the ever-increasing tabletop grid. The tiles have 0, 1, 2, 3, or 4 dots in their center, and are decorated with a single or multiple-colored swirling pattern such that each tile edge consists of either one or two colors. Tiles must be laid so that edge colors match exactly, and points awarded are equivalent to the total number of dots in any previously laid tiles (which may of course be from one to four tiles). The tiles were very attractive, which I think had a lot to do with this game winning. My own opinion is that it was a nice little game, but not terribly stimulating – not any more engaging than regular dominoes, at least, because one’s options on each turn are very limited. It is effectively just a matching game, at least initially. Just like dominoes, however, once a player understands which tiles are still not on the table (they are systematically coded in terms of dots and color patterns), one can strategize more. I think this game won because it was a unique take on an old idea, it was visually appealing, and one didn’t have to work hard to understand how to play.

Yikerz (Wiggles 3D):

Up to four players alternate placing tumbled, flat-sided, magnetic, hematite stones onto an arrangement of four pads, with the goal of being the first to place their final stone. The four pads are basically thin mouse pads cut in half diagonally, and can be arranged into different patterns to make the stone placement more or less challenging. The challenge is to place each stone without attracting other stones, or pushing them (via magnetic repulsion) into other stones. Any stones caused to attract have to be picked up into that player’s hand. This game was a surprise, because even after reading my explanation it doesn’t seem like a winner. At first it didn’t look appealing, and the name wasn’t appealing (to me, that is, but I know several others who felt the same way); it just looked kind of gimmicky. But the magnets are strong and when they attract, they move quickly and meet with a sharp snap! One also quickly learns that one can use the magnetic repulsion to move the other, existing magnets out of the way in order to make a spot to place a magnet. This was a pleasant surprise for me.

Anomia (Michael Innes; self-published):

Players each have a single card in front of them, and there is a common draw pile; cards have symbols and categories. On their turn, a player quickly flips a card onto their own pile – if the symbol matches any other player’s symbol a quick face-off ensues in which one has to name something from the other’s category. The first to blurt out an acceptable answer wins the other’s card – revealing a buried card that might precipitate another face-off. Wild cards are played in the middle and show two different symbols, so when any two players have those symbols they also have a face-off.

I think this game won because it blends fast-paced multi-tasking with categorical knowledge, and every player is constantly involved. it certainly was among the loudest and most exciting tables at Mind Games this year.

Forbidden Island (Gamewright):

Players compose a cooperative team of adventurers, racing against time to retrieve four treasures from a sinking island, and then escape before the water rises. Each player takes on a different role, 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/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). Players alternate, 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 (use four treasure cards to claim an actual treasure by being on the appropriately labeled tile). 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. At that point, “Flood Cards” are drawn, revealing which tiles will be flooded. Those tiles are physically inverted, or, if they had already been inverted, they are GONE from the game. Yikes! As the game progresses, water levels only get higher, so more cards are drawn, and hence more tiles flooded, 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.

Word on the Street (Out of the Box):

Players form two teams, and have 30 seconds to name, and spell, something from a given category (as determined by a drawn card). Sounds fun, no?

There is more to it, of course. The board is long and thin, and consists of two, two-lane roads separated by a median. Most letters of the alphabet (no vowels and no J Q, X, or Z) occupy the median in a long column from B to Y. As the words are spelled, one of the spelling team members moves the appropriate letter into the roads from the median, toward the edge of the board. Then the other team does the same, with a new category. The result is a sort of alphabet tug-of-war. When a team manages to use a letter enough to move it off of their side of the board, they win it. The first to win 8 letters, wins!

I expected this to be a winner. It’s exciting, it’s nice to be able to form teams, and it’s especially great for people who are fond of words with repeated consonants…(peppermint, Guggenheim, Mississippi, etc).

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Mind Games Report, 2014

It’s the same every year: I’ve been home for over a week now, but somehow I’m still tired.

LAST weekend was Mensa Mind Games 2014. It’s an annual board game marathon that starts on a Friday around noon and ends Sunday morning. It consists of 250-300 game-loving Mensans playing and critiquing new board games in order to vote to award the “Mensa Select Seal.” There is no single type of game that wins, but the games that are entered tend to skew toward the short format, family-friendly kinds (as opposed to, say, complex strategy games). The end result is essentially a fair and rigorously attained endorsement from a few hundred really smart game lovers for a game (five games, actually) with generally broad appeal. The best of BoardGameGeek this is NOT, but it is arguably one of the most valuable endorsements a board game can have because it has a track record of choosing games that stand the test of time and are loved by friends and families of all types. I’m pleased and proud to be a part of that process.

In brief, each Mensan acts as a judge and is given a randomly assigned list of 30 games that they are charged to play, critique, and consider for voting. The critique involves a small form that includes several categories on which to judge the game, as well as an “overall” category that might capture the gestalt of the game. These forms are returned to the game publishers and, very importantly, include room for comments. Mensans take this opportunity to provide the game publishers with any and all sorts of feedback (under the strict admonition that anything other than constructive criticism serves no good purpose and is not welcome). This is where comments about the pace of play, specific problems with rules, artwork, packaging, or whatever are addressed, and I understand that our comments have had impacts on more than a few second editions. Here’s what the green card looks like:

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So without further adieu, here are this year’s five winners (they are awarded in no particular order, so I’ll list them alphabetically):

The Duke (Catalyst Game Labs, 2013; $34.95, 2 players):

In a general way, The Duke is like chess, because it involves pieces with different moves being maneuvered on a simple grid to capture an opponent’s most valuable piece. The grid is smaller, however (6 x 6), the pieces are tiles printed on both sides, and only a few pieces are on the board at the beginning of the game. Remaining pieces are drawn unseen from a cloth bag.

 

 

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The game begins with the Duke piece and two of the simpler pieces for each player on their first rank. Each turn a player may do one of three things:  1) Move a troop, 2) Introduce a new troop to the board, or 3) Use an enhanced ability (held by only a few pieces, and available in expansion sets). The pieces are decorated with the symbol and name of the piece, as well as a diagram, completely visible to both players, of the moves the piece is allowed to make. That is partly what is most interesting, but does not make it unique; beginner’s chess pieces exist with movement options printed on their bottoms. But with The Duke, that’s just half of it. After a piece is moved, it must be flipped over – and this is the really unique aspect of the game – to reveal a second, different, diagram. The different moves shown on any piece tend to be either defensive or offensive in nature (involving forward or backward moves).

If a player can move a tile to land on an opposing tile, they capture it. Capture your opponent’s Duke to win! It’s really that simple – and that’s the hallmark of many great games. Simple rules, many options.

 

Euphoria: Build a Better Dystopia (Stonemaier Games, 2013; $59, 2-6 players):

This game generated quite a buzz this year, partly because it is the result of a Kickstarter campaign, in which games and other artistic projects are crowd-funded. The result is a very high quality production with a detailed backstory and a touch of complexity. According to the backstory, you live in a dystopian world and you have workers and recruits at your disposal, and need to use them to gain control over the world. The workers, represented as custom 6-sided dice, are placed on the board to accomplish various functions – primarily resource or commodity acquisition. But in order to keep the workers working they must remain dumb and happy. Separate tracks show how dumb and how happy they are; if they get too smart they “escape,” and if the are not happy enough they won’t “work.” Resources are cashed in for authority tokens, and the first to place their 10 authority tokens wins.

 

 

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Euphoria is essentially a resource control and worker-placement game. When a die is brought into play it is rolled, and adds to the cumulative “intelligence” of the workers. If intelligence gets higher than the player’s limit on a scoring track, the highest die is removed. The dice are used to claim resources (stone, brick, gold) or commodities (electricity, stone, fruit, or “bliss” (clouds)); once enough resources/commodities are claimed, dice can be placed to build “markets” for several resources/commodities. Each player holds two “recruit” cards that they can use for benefits throughout the game; one is in play immediately and the other is revealed later. Each player also holds a “moral dilemma” card that can be used once per game to incur another major benefit. An allegiance track on the bottom right of the board represents activity in each commodity type. Players’ recruit cards belong to a particular commodity, and when that commodity progresses to a certain point, all relevant players gain a benefit. This is one interactive feature of the game, and in general many goals are shared so more than one player can benefit from another’s play.  Achievements on many parts of the board can result in authority tokens, which are claimed by placing them onto the board. The first to place all ten, wins!

There are a couple of features worth pointing out, beside the high production value of the game and its components. There are ample quick-check charts (i.e., cheat sheets) that make it easy to keep track of what symbols mean and trade in values and references, and these were invaluable to learning the game quickly on the first try. Another feature is the quantity multiplier board, which is just a small board separated into three fields: 1x, 2x, and 3x. By placing a token in a particular field and applying that multiplier, it was very easy to track multiple pieces in various quantities by using just one or two tokens. This cuts down on the number of pieces as well as the price! Overall, Euphoria is a beautifully done game that offers a lot of interaction, a fair amount of (satisfying) complexity, and a fun time. No wonder it won.

 

Gravwell (Cryptozoic Entertainment, 2013; 1-4 players, $29.99)

Another simple yet surprisingly fun game with a completely unique idea (at least I have never seen it before): playing pieces (spaceships) have an attraction to each other (gravitation), so proximity to other pieces determines the direction of a pre-chosen move, which is critical because there is only one way out and you don’t want to go a long way in the wrong direction.

Players are represented on the board as spaceships, close to the center of a black hole that would lead to another dimension (the 9th one…although I don’t remember if we’re told what’s so bad about the 9th dimension). Each round begins with each player drawing 3 sets of 2 “fuel cards,” in which the top card is visible and the bottom is not. These cards represent basic elements present in space that are mined as fuel. Each different type of element is worth a different amount of energy, which translates directly to spaces moved on the board. There are two additional types of cards that can be mined – one that repulses and one that attracts nearby craft. Within a round, each turn consists of each player playing a card face down, then turning simultaneously. The cards are resolved alphabetically, and movement direction is determined by proximity of other craft: the player to move will go in the direction of the nearest neighbor (which is exerting a gravitational force), the number of spaces shown on the card they played. If neighbors are equidistant, then the total number of ships on either side determines the direction of movement. There are also two non-player ships in the game, floating out in the middle of the course, that have the same effect as other neighbors. Each round a player can choose to play an “Emergency Stop” card to prevent themselves from being flung to far in the wrong direction.

If I had been told this was a leap-frogging space game, I would not have looked twice. But that’s exactly what it is, and the interaction brought about results in an unpredictability and tension that is immediately satisfied and fun to experience. The leader changes frequently, and one can go from dead last to first place within one or two turns. This is a simple idea done in a simple way, that takes a few minutes to learn how to play, and results in a great time.

 

Pyramix (Gamewright, 2014; 2-4 players, $23.99):

Gamewright is well known as a producer of relatively simple yet interesting, high production quality games, and this year they earned TWO Mensa Select awards. Pyramix is a pyramid of ancient-egyptian-themed cubes, which vary by color and symbol. Players take turns drawing a cube of their choice from the pyramid, allowing any cubes above it to slide down. The goal is to gain points in each color by having drawn the most ankh cubes in that color.

Within each color, there are ankhs (worth 1 point), ibises (2 pts), and eyes of Horus (3 pts). If a player draws the most red ankhs, they score for the other red cubes as well. There are a few restrictions on drawing: at least two faces of the cube must be visible, the cube may NOT be touching a cobra cube face to face, and a cube may not be drawn if it would expose the base of the pyramid (i.e., cubes on the last row may not be drawn). Once drawing is complete the base row will be intact; any cubes touching cobras face to face are removed and not scored. Players then tally their ankhs, and the leaders in each color gather their respective remaining cubes from the base. Points are tallied as above and a winner is declared.

Pyramix is a game that can be enjoyed by kids and adults alike, and is also ideal for families and mixed company. It’s fun to play partly because it is fun to play with. Who doesn’t enjoy pulling something from a bottom row to watch those above cascade down to replace it? There is something aesthetically satisfying about that, especially knowing the structure is stable enough to maintain its overall shape and symmetry (as opposed to collapsing and going all over the place). Add to that the knowledge that something behind is being uncovered that may or may not be desirable for the player whose turn it is, and the basic elements of a good game are present.

 

Qwixx (Gamewright, 2012; 2-5 players, $10.99):

The second of Gamewright’s winning games this year, Qwixx is, among other things, small (i.e. portable) and affordable. It is reminiscent of Yahtzee, because each turn the dice are rolled and players have to occupy a box with a particular score. The goal is to cross off as many boxes on the score sheet as possible; the more you cross off, the higher your score.

There are four colored dice, corresponding to four colored rows on the scoresheet, and two white dice. The rows represent possible dice rolls and – this is IMPORTANT – red and yellow rows ascend from 2 to 12, while green and blue descend from 12 to 2. Players alternate rolling the dice, but every player must use the roll to score. Non-rolling players choose one colored die and combine it with one of the white dice to get a score for that color, and x-off that spot on their sheet. The rolling player does the same with a colored die and a white die, but they ALSO combine the white dice and must cross that score off on the color of their choice on their sheet. So far, so good, so easy – but here’s the thing. Once a box is crossed off, no others to the left of that box may be crossed off. So, for example, if the first roll is a blue 7 and a two white 3’s, the blue score would be 10, so the blue 10 on the sheet would be marked off. If, next turn, the same or higher is rolled (say, a blue 12), it may not be taken. Every score to the left of a taken box is unavailable for the rest of the game.

Once a row is completed, it becomes “locked.” Once two rows are locked by any player, the round is over and points are tallied. If a dice roll ever results in the inability to score, one of the four “-5” boxes in the lower right corner is marked, and a -5 point penalty will be added at the end. The round also ends if a player fills these four boxes. The scoring is listed at the bottom: if 11 boxes in a row are filled in, 66 points are taken, while 1 box earns just one point . Note that there is a score given for 12 boxes, but since the range of dice rolls is 2-11, 12 boxes is not a possible score; I didn’t check the rules to see if that was addressed…

Overall, Qwixx is a simple and quick game, it’s small, easy to learn, easy to afford, and easy to carry. It won’t blow you away with excitement, but the play value is very high, especially given the production value. Definitely a good game for kids and for families.

 

So that’s it! Stay tuned for a report on games I liked that didn’t make the top five – coming soon!!!

 

Pit

If your favorite kind of game night is loud, fast, rambunctious, and full of laughs, then Pit (1904, Parker Brothers and others; $12; 3 to 8 players) is a must have. Read that year again: 1904. Pit has been around for over 100 years, and has changed only in the slightest ways – it is essentially the same game that was played by Americans when Teddy Roosevelt was President, and it is just raucous fun.

                          

The premise of the game is that players act as commodities traders on the floor of the commodities market, and actively trade cards in order to “corner” the market in one of the commodities. In actuality, each player starts each round holding 9 (or 10) cards. The cards consist of 8 different suits, which are currently corn, coffee, oats, soybeans, wheat, sugar, oranges, and barley. There are 9 cards of each suit in the deck, and the goal of each player is to trade cards in order to obtain the 9 cards of a chosen commodity. Trading is accomplished (and this is the fun part) by choosing one, two, or three cards of a single type of commodity, showing them face down, and shouting out the number of cards to trade – in the hopes that another player will want to trade for that same number of cards. The swap is made face-down by the two players, who each then look to see if they have gotten the cards they were hoping for. After a short while, one player will manage to trade for all 9 of a certain commodity, at which time they yell “Corner (commodity)”, and the round ends. In the standard game, there is a “Corner” card that is claimed by the winner. In the deluxe version, there is a hand bell that is rung to signal the end of the round. Each commodity is worth a different number of points, so the winner of the round gains the points listed on that commodity. Play is supposed to continue to 500, which is more difficult when there are a lot of players.

 

There are two cards that are NOT commodity cards, but represent the market itself: the Bull card, and the Bear card. The Bull represents a strong market, and can be used by any player to substitute for any single commodity card (thus it would take 8 commodity cards plus the Bull to corner the market). The Bear represents a weak market, and it is an obstacle to cornering a market because the holder of the Bear card may NOT claim a cornered commodity; they must instead trade away the Bear card, even if the other 9 cards they hold are the same. When the Bear and Bull cards are used, each round two players will receive 10 cards. As noted, the Bear prevents a corner, but the Bull allows a corner with 8 cards. However, if a player manages to get all 9 cards of a commodity as well as the Bull, they get double points. But if a player is holding either or both of the Bear and Bull cards when someone else corners the market, then they count against that player. These cards can be traded singly or in combination with another single commodity.

Pit is simple and fun, and as such it’s perfect for either family or friends. Wherever people get together and have no problem letting their hair down and laughing and shouting at each other, Pit is a perfect choice. It’s a good icebreaker game as well, as it immediately lowers inhibitions and demands engagement, but always in a positive way. If I had to guess I’d say I expect to see it around in the year 2104.

Uno

Don’t know why it took me so long to write about it – I probably figured everybody already knew about it. If you’re reading a board and card game blog, then you have definitely enjoyed Uno (1971, Mattel and others; $6, 2-10 players) at some point, or some period, or all of, your life. But I’ve crowned it my #1 family game, so it’s just irresponsible to not have it discussed here. Someone might come along who hasn’t played it before, and wonders what the fuss is all about. So here it is: Uno. Uno is basically a commercial version of the traditional card game Crazy 8’s. Players start with seven cards, and go around the table playing one card at a time onto a discard deck. The card must be of the same color (i.e., suit) or rank, or it must be a wild card, in which case the player can name the new color. The goal each round is to be the first player to empty his/her hand – which can only happen after they have ONE (Uno!) card left. The beauty and fun of the game is in the surprise cards. Each color contains a few each of the Skip card, that prevents the next player from taking a turn, the Reverse card, that changes the direction of play, and the Draw Two card that forces the next player to pick up two cards instead of discarding. The ultimate surprise card is the Wild Draw Four Card, which can be played onto anything, and requires the next player to pick up four instead of discarding. That’s all there is to it – it’s not entirely random, but there is no controlling what card you’ll pick up next, or what your neighbors will do to you. The bottom line is that it’s a lot of fun and can be enjoyed by adults, kids, adults and kids, and so on. It comes as a deck in a thin box and is entirely portable, and it’s enjoyed all over the world. It also comes in literally hundreds of variations, and has featured many, many licensed entities. And for a $6 game, there is no reason why every house shouldn’t have an Uno deck.

Old News: Mind Games 2013 (much delayed)

So where were we since I last posted? Mind Games! I’m posting this for the sake of completeness, but it’s still worthwhile info – or at least I hope some folks can find my opinion here useful. The beauty of board games is that, once a game is determined to be a good one, it will always be a good one. (No! Not really – some do get old after a while, but let’s not get hung up on what’s true, or false, or whatever. There are games to discuss!)

The Mind Games winners from 2013 were, in order of how much I liked them: Suburbia, Forbidden Desert, Kulami, Ghooost!, and Kerflip. The first two were really, really my favorites, but the other three were definitely deserving. I’ll treat them one at a time.

Mind Games has been criticized, fairly enough, for not incorporating rules-rich, highly detailed games. This really becomes a problem when manufacturers decide to not submit their games for honest and critical (but constructive) judging by such an eclectic, motivated, intelligent group of board game lovers such as Mensa Mind Games provides. So it was nice to see Suburbia (Bezier Games, 2012; $60) show up, and even nicer to have a chance to play it.

Suburbia is a tile-laying game for 1-4 players (yes, you can play a solitaire version) in which players vie for various tiles with which to add to their sprawling suburban landscape. The tile layout for each player becomes an infrastructure network, consisting of commercial, civic, residential, and industrial tiles, all of which impact and are impacted by the tiles around them and elsewhere on the board. For example, one tile might represent a fine restaurant, which is good…until someone else plays the same tile, thus stealing some of the net income of the first restaurant tile. Or one might have a great reason to build an airport – but be prepared to pay the cost when the only place to “build” it is next to a residential area.

Each turn a player purchases a tile (for as low as $0) and lays it adjacent to one or more on the board. Each tile confers benefits and may also incur costs, as in our examples above, depending on where it is placed. The winner of a game is the player with the greatest population – and to get population, a player has to earn reputation points. And while it’s easy to get reputation points, it’s not wise to do it too fast, because a larger population costs a lot more money each turn – and a player needs money to buy good tiles. And so it goes, a sort of balancing act of keeping the economy in check with the population growth so that neither suffers.

Suburbia has a steep learning curve, unless someone is there to help – which in our case made the curve far more shallow. There are lots of pieces, but the pieces fit together well, and the game concepts are intuitive so they also fit together well. One interesting and very important mechanism is that changes in income or reputation can be instantaneous, one time events (such as gaining several gold coins for building something), or they can be cumulative, in which the per turn rate of income or reputation changes (such as gaining an extra gold coin each turn for building a business). This all adds up to a fun (if intimidating) game, great for any strategy-loving group of gamers, that easily won a top spot. Let’s hope manufacturers learn that Mensa is ready for more of these types of games!

We are seeing more and more cooperative games, in which players act together to try to beat the game.The newest addition to that list is Gamewright’s Forbidden Desert (2013, $25). Much like its predecessor, Forbidden Island, players are randomly assigned a specific function and work together to gather artifacts and then leave before they become victims of the forces of nature. In this case, the explorers are trying to gather and assemble four pieces of a flying ship from the shifting sands of a hostile desert (formed by a collection of tiles). They are battling a hot sun, increasingly nasty sand storms, and a shifting map.

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(image courtesy of Gamewright.com)

My fear, upon seeing this game, was that it was a cynical attempt by the company to cash in on the very successful Forbidden Island game (itself a former Mind Games winner) by making nominal changes and changing the theme, a-la Parker Brothers/Milton Bradley/Mattel. But that is NOT the case with Forbidden Desert! It is just as thrilling to barely escape an angry desert as it is to escape a howling monsoon, and equally disappointing to succumb to either, and that’s because Forbidden Desert uses a totally different mechanism to introduce storm tiles, as well as the equipment (cards) needed to deal with them (and with the blazing sun!).

The concept is similar enough, and thankfully the excitement is on par with Forbidden Island, but there is also a need on Forbidden Desert to “discover” tiles, dig them out, keep them unburied, and also seek shelter from the hot sun with limited water on hand. There are also more specialists a player can play, so the replay value is that much greater. All of these elements combine to make the game interesting and intense, and since it’s a cooperative game everyone either wins or loses together. It’s really a fun experience and one I’d recommend for a family or any group of 2-5 friends.

Every year it seems that at least one abstract strategy game wins one of the top five spots. I’m not always a fan because they tend to be variations on a theme – which might not make them bad games, but they don’t come across as unique or interesting. This year, however, we chose Kulami (Foxmind, 2013; $30; 2 players), and I am very much on-board with it! (That’s a clever pun, you just don’t know it yet)

Kulami consists of rectangular wooden tiles of varying dimensions, put together randomly to form a single contiguous playing area. Each tile has four or more hollows, laid out in regular increments, so that each tile can hold a certain number of marbles (from four to twelve, I believe).  Players (light or dark) alternate turns by placing a marble in a hollow on one of the tiles – but the placement is dictated by the previously placed piece, such that it must occupy either the same row or column. When a player has claimed a majority of hollows with his/her colored marbles, they win that tile. Bonus points can be gained by completing rows or areas. The object of the game is to claim as many tiles as possible.

Like so many other abstract strategy games, Kulami has a few simple directions, and a game can go in any direction depending on who is playing. But the fact that every starting layout is different is very unique, and coupled with the simplicity of the game’s elements as well as the aesthetics, Kulami is a winner. Any person out there who likes two-player games, or who knows someone who does, should be interested in this game. It’s attractive, it’s easy, and it’s fun.

Ghooost! (Iello, 2013; $20; 2-6 players) is a card game in which players are trying to empty their hands and their “mansions” faster than at least one other person. That is, the last person left holding cards each round, loses that round. It is definitely more interesting than your basic Crazy 8’s, however, and the “spooky” theme makes it more fun: each player is trying to rid their mansion of ghosts and other spooky things.

In Ghooost! the cards are in four suits and range in power from 1-14. Some cards also have special powers that dictate conditions for subsequent cards played. Players start with four cards in hand, and 4-12 cards in their mansions (i.e., laid out in front of them). A round of play consists of two stages, the first of which involves players moving cards between their mansion, their hand, and the common crypt (new card pile) and cemetery (discard pile), in order to prepare their hands for the second stage. Once the crypt is emptied, no one may draw a new card, and the second stage of Ghooost! begins.

During the second stage, players are simply trying to discard their cards into the cemetery – but they must do so by placing higher-ranked cards or sets of cards into the cemetery pile, or else they are forced to pick up the entire cemetery stack (this mechanic holds true for the first stage, too). So spending stage one carefully building a decent hand for stage two is what this game is all about. Plus the cards are fun to look at. What’s not to love? This is another great game for kids and families, but my adult friends and I enjoyed it very much as well.

Kerflip! (Creative Foundry, 2012; $30; 2-4 players) is not just another word game, or should I say not just dehnawomoertrag…(get it?) In Kerflip! players race against each other to claim a word from the same random pile of letter tiles. The letter tiles are double-sided, each side having the same letter, and one side is white while the other is red-orange. Tiles of less used letters (Q, for example) have a number marked on the white side. Points are awarded based on who claimed each letter first, and whether any bonus cards were awarded.

The scoring is where the game is interesting, and it affects even the speed at which words are identified and called. In a round of play, each player chooses a certain amount of tiles randomly and, sight unseen, all players drop all chosen tiles onto the SPECIALLY DESIGNED game board (this is pretty cool, but we’ll get to it later). Players immediately turn all tiles to the white side, and then proceed to visually inspect the letters until they are ready to call out a word that can be spelled using those letters. As soon as each player has called out a unique word, scoring begins. The first player to call a word spells it out as s/he flip each tile to the red-orange side. They are awarded ten points for each letter (so the longer the word, the more points, times ten), and if they succeed in turning over a numbered tile, they get that many bonus cards (which simply award points at the end of the game – but they are held in secret). The second player also flips tiles as they spell out their word, unless a tile has already been flipped, in which case it is only worth five points, and no bonus is awarded. The third and fourth players follow, each getting less and less opportunity to score big. So the game is like a race to do a Jumble puzzle, except there are more letters there than are necessary to form any one word. The key is to be quick but still come up with a decent scoring word – no one will win with “the” and “cat”, but neither will they win if they take too much time looking for a better word.

So what about that “special” game board? It’s designed to sit inside the box in which it came, which also holds the bonus cards very conveniently. But adjacent to and on either side of the bonus cards there are two wells, and when a round is over, that’s where the used tiles go – into the wells! (unused tiles are recycled – back into the bag) The tiles disappear into the wells until the game is over, at which point you remove the board to discover that the tile wells are chutes that send all the tiles into a single black box. Pour the tiles into the bag, put the bag into the box, put the box back into its spot under the board, and you have a really quick, efficient, and elegant clean up. Pretty cool stuff.

Kerflip! is good for ANY word game fans, especially those who think they’re particularly good at anagrams, but also for those who tend to be competitive. It’s that race for the best word that makes for more fun in this game. As with the other games, this one is good for families or friends, but should be enjoyed by peers, or at least with a handicap (my kids wouldn’t stand a chance against ME!!! Mwahhahahahaaaaa).

So that’s it from Mind Games 2013. I’ll be looking forward to Mind Games 2014, which will be in Austin, TX, in April. I really want to promise to write it up as soon as it’s over. In the meantime, I’ll try to add more! Adios!!

Personal favorites from Mind Games 2012

Every year five games win the Mensa Select seal, and I have to agree that one or two or three of them really deserve it, and almost always agree that all five are great games, but there are ALWAYS games that I wish had made it, but didn’t. Here I list six games that I really liked for various reasons, but didn’t garner enough votes to earn the seal. Just what is wrong with my fellow Mensans, anyway?!!!? (note: there is nothing wrong with them, it’s a rhetorical question)

Incidentally, I am listing these in order from most to least enjoyable, from my point of view, although – mind you – comparing a two-player game to a party game is apples to oranges so my metric becomes a question of which game I would rather have on hand ‘just in case’.

Fauna (FoxMind Games, $39.95): Do not run screaming when I tell you this is a game about animal trivia, as apparently it was enough to turn off some of my colleagues. There is something so cool about this game that I have never seen in a knowledge based game before, and that’s why I like it so much: it allows you to make an educated guess at an answer, and not just a single answer, but many answers, and all about a single animal. Check out the board, if you can see it: Image

(image from http://www.FoxMind.com)

Each turn a new animal card is revealed, and players (2-6 of them) take turns using several color cubes to stake their claims on the board. They may place several cubes on the map in one or more regions in which the animal is a native species, and they may place cubes on the scales below the map showing the height, length, and weight of the average adult animal. More points are awarded for being exact, but some are still awarded for being close – and the balance seemed to be just right. I like it for me because I like animals, I like it for kids because they don’t have to know it outright and can still guess, I like it for fun and I like it for schools and – what the hey – I can even see it as a drinking game! The point is it works for a lot of people, and many ages. I also fully expect that FoxMind will be hard at work making more cards for expansion packs, too. Let’s see how long it takes…

Scavengers (Zombie State Games, $24.99): So…maybe my love of animals is biasing me, I don’t know. In Scavengers, two to four players are controlling the scavengers at the Hamburger family campsite, in hopes of being the first to build an omelet, a kabob, a chili dog, and a s’more. They do this by playing scavenger cards (mouse, fox, skunk, etc) which allow them to steal scraps of food (the ingredients for those meals), or by playing predator (bear, dog, etc) or special cards (cloudburst, late night campers), that have an impact on all the scavengers. The scavengers themselves can also have an effect on each other, and many have special abilities. At the end of a round, the player with the most scavenger points at a campsite wins all the ingredients there. Unless of course another player has more mice there, in which case they get to take something first. But you wouldn’t know that, would you? So get the game – it’s cool!

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(images from http://www.Zombiestategames.com)

Flash Point: Fire Rescue (Indie Boards and Cards, $39.99): Add another great cooperative game to the recent popular hits Forbidden Island, Pandemic, and Betrayal at House on Haunted Hill (and more!). This one is based on a fire-fighting theme, and the players band together to rescue a number of victims from a burning house before the house comes tumbling down, or before they lose a certain number of victims; all players win or lose together. (That’s the point of a cooperative game. Duh!) For each turn, a player has a

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(image from http://www.indieboardsandcards.com)

number of activity points to ‘spend’ that they may use to move, lift and carry victims, or break down walls and doors – or they may save their energy (so to speak) for the next round and carry some activity points forward. After they have spent their activity, they roll to see what the fire does. Smoke may appear in a new part of the house, or smoke may turn to fire, or fire may superheat and explode; any of these may effect neighboring squares in the house as well. Cubes keep track of structural damage on the house (from the fire and from fire crew axes) and once they are gone, the structure fails and it’s game over! There is a basic game and an advanced game, as well. This was a lot of fun to play because we just barely made it out alive, and it was stressful! I can’t figure out why it didn’t get voted in – except perhaps the instructions may have been too much for some. But don’t let that scare you away, this is a great game for friends and family.

Mind Your Marbles (The Brain Store, $29.99): I may have scared you with trivia before, but this one is serious trivia. But if you DO like trivia…this is a nicely done game. We’re starting to see departures from your basic pull-a-card-and-read-the-question-and-move format (that’s a good thing), and this is a good example. Mind Your Marbles includes a 3-pronged spinner that allows the choice of three categories. When it’s your turn, you have to listen to five questions (three questions!), er, three questions, then give the correct answers in the correct order. If you get every question correct you get three marbles to place

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(images from http://www.marblesthebrainstore.com)

on your brain scorepad, for which there is a brain region corresponding to each category (cute detail, no?). If you don’t know an answer, you must pass that answer in the correct manner, because if you get an answer wrong, you get no marbles. And as the old ad goes, marbles are terrible things to lose. Or something like that…(3-6 players, btw)

Epigo (Masquerade Games, $29.99): This was my favorite two player game of the weekend, even better, in my most humble opinion, than the Mensa Select seal winner Coerceo (but, hey, they are both great games!). Note that it is actually a two or four player game (not three!), and there are also 20 variants listed in the rules, which I was NOT able to look at in any detail. Epigo is a simultaneous reveal game, on a ImageImage

much smaller scale than perhaps the most well known game of its type, RoboRally. Each player has tiles ranked 1 to 7 and marked with an arrow on one edge, and chooses three to play each round, they are revealed, one at a time – each player revealing their corresponding tiles simultaneously. The largest numbered tiles move first, unless there is a tie, in which case neither tile moves; moving occurs in the direction of the arrow, decided by the player beforehand as the tile was placed. The object of the game is to capture opponents’ tiles by pushing them off the board. In order to push, the number of tiles in a row of the pushing player must be equal to or greater than the number of tiles being pushed. The beauty of this game (and other simultaneous move games) is that, since some planned moves don’t happen because they are blocked, unforeseen outcomes result. There’s  a sort of malicious pleasure in watching one’s opponent force his or her own piece off the board…(thankfully, that kind of pleasure begins and ends in board gaming for me).

Masters of Commerce (Grouper Games, $39.99): The very popular game Pit has been around since 1904, consists of players yelling at each other in order to trade properties and corner the market in some commodity, and is loud and fun. Masters of Commerce is not nearly as simple, but it is very reminiscent of Pit – at least there is loudness and there is fun (and, hey, it’s games night! What could be better?).

Image(image from boardgamegeek.com)

Instead of simply trading cards to try to collect all of one commodity, as in Pit, Masters of Commerce requires players to take one of two roles: landlords or merchants. The good news is that there will be a winning landlord, and a winning merchant. Two winners, hooray! In each round, landlords compete at auction for parcels of land, not knowing how their market values are going to change (but knowing for sure that something will change). Then merchants have a very short period of time to haggle with landlords (all at once; this is where it gets really noisy) for a good deal on rent for those same parcels. Landlords want high rent, merchants want cheap rent. Then the market dice are thrown, rates are adjusted, and payouts are made: first to the merchants from the bank as a return on their investment in their shops, then to the landlords from the merchants for rent due. Each round, more properties are added so the amount of money and haggling only increases…and it just gets crazy!!! This game is a blast. Anyone who like Pit but has yearned for something more detailed, here it is!

Fresh Report from Mind Games 2012!

(This has been copied from my other blog, Bored Game Guy)

I look forward to this weekend every year, and it never disappoints!

Ever since 1991, board game fans belonging to American Mensa have been meeting annually to play the best new board games, judge them, and choose the best five. Those five win the right to affix their packages with the industry-coveted “Mensa Select” Seal of Approval.

I will spend another day talking about the how and why of the Mensa judging and its limitations, and compare the Mensa Select Seal to other such seals, but it’s important to understand up front that all Mind Games after the first few have drawn a pretty even cross-section of gamers, along with their varying preferences. What I mean by that is there are hard-core strategy gamers, laid back party gamers, serious-minded card and dice players, old-fashioned scrabble players, and everything in between, and every member gets an equal vote as to what the best games are. The result has been a remarkably reliable list of games that, if purchased, would prove a suitable cache for any game shelf – especially a family game shelf.

So without further adieu, Here are the five Mensa Select Winners. Soon I’ll post eight more of the best games I came across this year at Mind Games 2012 in Washington, DC, and then cover the rest:

Mine Shift (MindWare, $19.95): A two-player game suitable for kids AND adults, Mine Shift probably won votes not by wowing judges but by quietly impressing them with its simple goal, simple rules, and wide variety of possibilities (It helps that the sturdy components come in a small box that retails for $20, of course). The game layout consists of parallel mine shafts (rows of three tiles each) connected at each end by another tile; players begin with two stones in a 4th tile at opposite terminals of the mine shafts from one another, and the goal is to be the first to move both stones to the opposing player’s home tile. Players take turns sliding and turning tiles or moving stones within the perimeter of the initial 3 x 3 (plus terminals) grid. It’s that simple, but upon playing it, I wanted to play it again – and that’s always the sign of a good game.


(images from http://www.mindware.com)

Iota (Iota, $7.95): If Mine Shaft got votes for being compact and affordable, Iota got those points in spades. It consists of a deck of 64 cards that are 2″ x 2″ – and that’s it! It’s the perfect game to stash in a purse or a glove compartment or anywhere else you might want to have a game ready to go. But just being small and affordable are not enough to win a Mensa Select Seal, of course! Iota takes the best features of the instant classic from 1991, the card game Set, and goes further. Each card has one of three properties: a shape, a color, and a number. On each turn, 2-4 players may lay one to four cards down in a single line and score the total number of points that they lay down, but they must be careful to make “lots” in which cards in a line either share each of the same properties, or differ in each of them (as in the Set card game). Bonuses are scored for laying a fourth card in a line (completing a “lot”), and cards laid in two directions simultaneously are counted twice.

(image from boardgamegeek.com)

Tetris Link (Techno Source, GS Schwarz & Co, $24.99): So Tetris is finally a tabletop game. It took long enough, didn’t it? Two to four people can play this game in which they take turns dropping various Tetris-shaped pieces (the “Tetriminos”) into a vertical, hollow, transparent wall that is sectioned into columns (picture Connect 4, except it looks more like a window). As soon as a single player has three pieces connected, three points are earned and each successive piece earns another point, and other players may try to place pieces to prevent it. If a piece is dropped in such a way that a unfillable gap is left, one point is lost; two or more gaps left result in a two point penalty. Play continues until no legal moves remain possible. There is a handy and simple scoring track along the side of the vertical board, too! This was quick and easy to play, and I ended up playing it more than any other during the weekend.

(image from http://www.tetris.com)

Coerceo (Coerceo Co, $52.00): So you say you like your two-player strategy games a bit more hard-core than you’ve seen so far? We have you covered with Coerceo, a game with the unique feature of a playing board that dwindles as the game progresses, but only when the players make it happen. Movement and capture rules are simple, but when one of the hex tiles of which the playing surface is composed is left empty and unsurrounded, it is eliminated from the game, and the board becomes that much smaller. What would be just one more geometrically interesting jump-and-capture game in a long line of such games now stands out as a game that is hard to walk away from, and one for which the loser will ALWAYS want to request a rematch.

(image from http://www.coerceo.com)

Snake Oil (Snake Oil, LLC, $19.99): And, finally, a party game – hooray! And what a blast this one is, too. Players take turns acting as customers (one may be a clown, one a cowboy, one a pirate, and so on), while the others peruse their hands of word cards, choose two to combine into one convincing sounding product, and then proceed to “sell” that product to the customer. In the example below, with the clown as customer a player might want to combine paint with cannon and sell a “paint cannon.” But then the selling has to happen, and that’s up to the players. Although initial card combinations might be funny (when I played, a “married couple” customer was greeted with a “murder knife” as a product), the real fun happens when people try to come up with good reasons why a customer should buy their product. As with any party game, the cast of players will make a difference with this, but even the shy folks will come out of their shells; the cards are excellent props for breaking down those walls.

(image from http://www.gamesbyjames.com)

So, there you have it! I played each of these games, but only one was officially on my ballot, so I only voted for one of them. Would I have voted for all of them? I don’t know – I kind of doubt it. But check out my other posts when they come. I’ll speak to that then!

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