Guillotine

guillotine box

Sometimes the theme of a game seems totally arbitrary; the theme does nothing to guide, instruct, or illuminate game play. Guillotine (Wizards of the Coast, 1998), however, is not one of those games; the game play fits precisely with the theme, and does so in a humorous, fun, and slightly bawdy way.

In Guillotine, players are rival executioners in revolutionary France vying for heads. Heads vary in terms of point value, and some heads are more valuable if they are collected along with particular other heads.

There are three rounds, each representing a day of executions, in which 12 “nobles” (see pics below) are lined up for execution, beginning at a cardboard gallows. Players have a hand of “Action” cards, and are free to play one at the beginning of each turn. Action cards can do many things, such as rearrange the lineup, pull nobles out of the lineup, add nobles to it, allow the player to steal or swap a head from another basket, etc. After they have played the action card or passed, they then collect whatever noble is next in line for execution, and then draw another action card.

guillotine cards

It’s the use of action cards that make the game so much fun; since heads that have been collected are on public display, face up in front of each executioner, all players can gauge each others’ worth and play action cards with that in mind.

This is a fun and relatively quick game, and it’s small enough to travel with. It’s recommended for ages 12 and up, but if the sometime risque humor is not an issue (chances are it’s too subtle to be easily noticed), it can be played by ages 8 and over. The humor makes it a great ice breaker, where players may not know each other well, and I recommend it for light-gaming situations, or perhaps as a pastime when waiting for some bigger event.

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Gemlok

gemlok box

The simplicity of Gemlok (Pywacket, 2007) is what makes it so appealing. It’s as easy as rolling the dice and claiming the highest available spot…except it isn’t quite that simple.

The board, which is conveniently small, is a grid with regularly placed”gem” spots. The gems vary in color, and certain colors are worth certain points; from amethysts (2 pts) to diamonds (9 pts). The goal, simply enough, is to amass the most points by the end of the game. But to get points, a player has to move one of his or her eight men onto the gem and keep it there. And there’s the rub.

gemlok layout

Gemlok is unique in terms of piece movement and the locking-pieces feature. Movement is accomplished by rolling special dice, shown below, that show a variety of pathways. A player must move one man according to each die roll. They are allowed to land on another man unless that man is locked; if they do land on an unlocked man, they are free to move it up to four spaces away. If a player rolls a “gemlok,” they MUST then flip one of their men over (most likely the highest-scoring one) and lock its position. That man may no longer be displaced by another man. Note that, except on the first turn, if “gemlok” is rolled, the player does not have the option of passing; they must choose a man to lock, even if it is not in an optimal spot. Note also that the higher-value spaces are in the middle of the board, and the men begin the game on the perimeter.

gemlok dice

Gemlok is for 2-4 players, may be played in teams, and is advertised, appropriately, for ages 8 and up. It’s a great value for the price and has a ton of replay value. Because of its simplicity, it is a perfect game for someone who isn’t really keen on playing games. It is also great for mixed-age groups.

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Transamerica

transamerica box

For a while I was active on a real time board-gamer’s web site called Bretspielwelt (a great site, which I will discuss in a different post), and my favorite game to play there was Transamerica (Winning Moves, 2002). Transamerica is quick, it’s fun, and every round is loaded with anticipation.

The board is a map of the United states, separated into 5 geographically distinct zones and superimposed with a grid connecting major cities. Each round, each player draws a city card from each zone; a resulting hand might be Boston, Atlanta, Chicago, Phoenix, and Seattle. The round consists of players placing short “rail” sections along the grids on the board in order to be the first to connect all five cities, but any rail that is placed may be used by the other players, so a player is constantly confronted with the decision of building a line that they will need versus waiting for another player to do it for them. By the end of each round, it is common for every player to be but one or two lines away from completion – at which point the winner of the round should run and hide until it’s safe.

transamerica layout

At the end of the round, each losing player counts up the minimum number of rails it would take to accomplish their goal, and that is the amount their score is deducted. As soon as a player reaches zero or fewer points, the game is over and the highest score wins.

This is a simple game with some surprising complexity. There is a definite tendency to blame the cards when one draws cities that are very distant from one another (try Boston, Seattle, San Diego, Houston, and Duluth), but in the end the winner is the one who can simply use the most tracks laid by other players. There is an advanced rule that allows you to lay three pieces of your own color rail down, which prevents others from using that section of track and build around it.

transamerica initial plays

I recommend this game for players 8 and up. It’s fine for two players, but the more the merrier!

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Titan: The Arena

Titan arena box

Titan: The Arena (Avalon Hill, 1997; aka Colossal Arena, Fantasy Flight Games, 2008) is another of my all time favorites because of the uncertainty of outcome until very late in the game, the interactivity of the players, and the theme.

Titan: The Arena (not to be confused with its larger namesake, Titan) is a card game in which 8 fantasy creatures, each with specific powers, are battling in an imaginary arena. They battle for 8 rounds, and each round one creature is eliminated. Players place bets on one creature during each round, and then place numbered cards on each creature to represent relative power for that round. Once each creature has a number card, the round is over and the lowest numbered creature exits, so all the bets that had been placed on it throughout the game are nullified. By the end of the last round, there is one creature left standing. Whichever player has the most value of bets invested in that creature, wins.

titan arena play diagram

The beauty of this game is that each player has to simultaneously prop up some creatures while trying to undermine others, while betting accordingly. The chaos introduced by each creature’s special ability is especially fun; whichever player has the most bets cumulatively invested in any given creature gets “control” over that creature, and may invoke that creatures special ability. These abilities may prove critical late in the game! For example the owner of the Hydra can place two cards at once. If the he or she finds theirĀ  creature with a low card, they could, on one turn, put a higher number under the Hydra and a lower number on another creature. The owner of the Dragon has the ability to destroy any card in play, so what the Hydra just did the Dragon might undo. The variations are as endless as the cleverness of the players.

I would recommend this game to just about anyone who is old enough to understand the rules. It’s recommended for 8 and up, but I wouldn’t expect anyone under 10 to really understand how to deal with the contingencies.

The game play makes it essentially a very interesting card game; the theme is secondary. People with no interest in the theme should be able to ignore it and enjoy the game for what it is! Those who do like the theme will find it very easy to imagine the arena setting, manipulations of the creatures, and invocation of powers.

Note: Titan: The Arena is out of print, but has been replaced by Colossal Arena, which has new art and 4 extra creatures. This review is for the version I know, but can be safely transferred to the new one.

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History of the World

History-World box, new

History of the World (Avalon Hill, 1991; aka A Brief History of the World, Ragnar Brothers, 2009) is my favorite strategy game. I love maps, I love history, and this game is a way to indulge both. But the game itself allows all players to be equally involved all the way through, and the game is rarely decided before the 7th epoch ends. It is my strategy game equivalent of a perfect Thanksgiving meal – it leaves me full and satisfied.

Important note: This game has been replaced on the market with a newer, “chopped down” version with 6 epochs, fewer lands, and different combat mechanics, and exceptionally reduced play time. The new version is A Brief History of the World. I haven’t played it yet, so I stand by my review of the older version, but early reviews on the new game are encouraging.

The game is played over the course of 7 epochs of world history; in each epoch, the player acts as one of 7 major world empires (ie.e, the Romans, the Persians, the Chang Dynasty, they Mayans, etc). During their turn they use whatever empire they have to expand or strengthen territory, or build monuments. the longer their territories and monuments (identified by color as belonging to that player) continue into the future, the more victory points are earned.

History-World board

Empires are of varying sizes, but each epoch a bidding process based on one’s position in the game allows a fair allocation of empires so that the same player will not end up with the best empires turn after turn. Event cards confer bonuses to players throughout the game, and allow them to incur natural disasters; these cards also help level the playing field.

This game is perfect for strategy game lovers, fans of euro-games, and anyone who likes Risk but might want more. It takes a few hours, so it’s a great rainy-day game for people who already enjoy each others company.

Hisss

Hisss - boxA 4-card snake, who still lacks a tail

Hisss (Gamewright, 2006) is simple to learn, quick, and fun to play!

Easily playable by 4-year-old, fun for kids as old as 10, and parents.

Sole materials are the cardboard cards, featuring snake heads or snake tails in one of six bright colors, or else a snake trunk with different colored edges. Players take turns drawing a card and matching it by color to existing snakes. When a player completes a snake by adding the final tail or head, they win that snake, which is worth the number of cards of which it consists.

There are a few easily mastered tricks, such as linking two pre-existing snakes together; otherwise, the luck of the draw determines the winner – but since a good draw can win a long snake, it is usually the case that nobody is out until very late in the game, and tensions run high!

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User-friendly game reviews and game-buying advice for regular people