Tag Archives: International Gamers Award

Tikal

Tikal!! (Rio Grande Games, 1999) What a great game! Players “build” the board as they go, trying to give themselves an advantage, or providing their opponents the opposite. Players can hope for lucky draws, but still have a lot of flexibility in deciding what to do with whatever they end up drawing. This is a great blend of luck and strategy.

In Tikal, players are archaeologists, digging through the jungles of the Mayan ruins of Tikal. Players earn points by uncovering treasure tokens and by controlling dig sites (temples). But to get to the treasures or the temples, one must get through the jungle, and that’s where the fun begins.

The picture above shows a game after only a few turns. In the beginning, there are only two hex tiles that are not jungle; one is the sandy-colored base camp, where player pawns are introduced, and the other is a grassy spot with no structures. The first part of each player’s turn is to draw a new hex tile and place it in the location of his or her choice, following one simple rule: it must be immediately accessible. As turns continue, more of the board becomes defined, and newly opened jungle spaces will be empty, have treasure rings on them, or else have temples on them. Each hex has several borders with stones on them representing pathways to the adjacent hex. If neither one of two neighboring hexes has stones, then there is no path between them – these stones are what determine what hexes are accessible from where.

The most important strategic element in Tikal is the use of “action points.” Each turn, a player may use up to ten action points, which allow movement of pawns, “working” on a temple (which “uncovers” more temple and makes it more valuable; see the different values on the temples in the pic below), “digging” for treasure (uncovering one piece of treasure from a treasure hex), or some other more complicated things. The use of these action points is critical because they are limited; there is not enough to do everything a player might want to do in one or two turns, so each player must decide how to budget his or her action points.

The final strategic element in Tikal is the unpredictable but ever-looming volcano hex, which, when drawn, initiates the beginning of a scoring round. Since the volcano hex is mixed in with the regular tiles, it (there are several, actually, one for each of several stages of the game) can be drawn at any time, more or less. That means that, if a player does not have his men in the correct positions, he will not benefit from the scoring round. This results in something analogous to musical chairs, in which players are constantly moving but ever ready to settle into a better “point-scoring” position.

For example, a player who is in control of a temple (by having more men on that hex) when the volcano hex is turned up, will end up winning whatever value the temple is worth (see pic below: white player wins the level 3 temple). A player who is able to retrieve the most matching treasure items will get points from them – more points for more matching treasures (pictured further below). But if a player can’t manage to outnumber an opponent on a temple, or beat an opponent to a treasure spot, they will not win those points.

As volcanoes are turned over throughout the several stages of the game, scoring rounds occur in which players get one more turn and then have to count the number of points they have on the board at that time. Points are kept on the scoring track of the perimeter, and whoever has the most points at the end, wins the game.

I like Tikal so much because it’s unpredictable, but the player has a lot of control. Draw a tile you can’t use to your advantage? Stick your opponent with it! Tile placement is such a simple thing, but clever layouts could make the difference between winning and losing where just a few victory points are concerned. One other excellent feature of the game is that even most losers have a chance to win because, since treasures are being uncovered and temples are being added to, there are far more points to be had at the end, thus allowing those far behind to make a last minute run.

This game is complex at first to most casual gamers, but I have been able to teach kids as young as 7 the basics. Having said that, though, the age recommendation is 12 and up, and I agree that younger kids won’t get most nuances, and could lose interest. But it’s a perfect game for adult and teen gamers who like this satisfying combination of luck and action-points-budgeting. Three thumbs up!!

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Ticket to Ride

Railroad games are just plain fun. There have been a number of them published, and some have enjoyed a cult-like status for a number of years (see my review of Empire Builder, for example). But none have been as popular as Ticket to Ride (Days of Wonder, 2004), which has been on the short list of best games since it came out. It is considered one of a few “gateway” games – that is, a mildly complex game that is so very fun and addictive that “new” gamers will want to try other, more complex games.

The Ticket to Ride board is a map (the original version is the USA, but there are a number of other versions available) denoting major cities, interconnected with train routes of various colors. There are two stacks of cards: Destination cards depict two cities (which players would need to connect with a continuous train route) as well as a point value for connecting them (see below); Ticket cards depict a train car of a certain color, which corresponds to certain routes on the map board – or they might be multi-color “wild” cards (farther below!).

Players each have a stack of 45 trains in their own color,and they start the game with five ticket cards. They draw three destination cards and can keep either two or three of them – but the ones they keep are routes that they must complete with continuous tracks of their own color. If the routes are completed, the player gets the points; if they are not completed by the end of the game, the player loses those points.

The game consists of players taking turns drawing new tickets, drawing new destinations, or placing train routes. In order to place a train route, a player must have enough of the correctly colored tickets, and turn them in. A multi-color wild card is good for any color ticket. Each route is a certain color, or gray, and a certain number of train links long. For example, El Paso to Houston is six links long, and green, so a player would have to accumulate a combination of six green or wild cards and then turn them in – then he or she would be able to put six of their own color trains on those six links. Note that some routes are double wide, so two different players can occupy parallel tracks between the same destinations.

Points are scored throughout the game by placing routes – and the value of the routes increases non-linearly, so that one track piece earns you one point, but 6 track pieces earns you 20 points. Points are also awarded at the end of the game. Players who achieved their destination goals are awarded the corresponding number of points (more points for longer tracks), and those who failed to do so are penalized the same number of points.

During a game of Ticket to Ride, 5 cards available to be drawn are kept face up, and on a turn a player may draw two of the visible cards, unless it is a wild card, in which case it is the only card that can be drawn. If there are no colors the player wants, he or she can draw from a face-down pile once or twice (they can also draw one card here, and the next from the face up stack, again with the exception of the wild card. A player might also draw more Destination cards in an effort to bulk up their score. This mechanism of a constantly changing card availability makes the game more exciting than if they had been face down, plus it gives the alert player information about the plans of his or her opponents.

While it is “another train game,” this is one train game that has gotten a lot of people hooked. It’s complex enough to be rewarding, but simple enough to learn in 5 minutes. I recommend it for any map or train game enthusiast, of for any gamer who wants to expand their social gaming circle. It is good for families, groups, and just a bunch of friends. But be ready to accommodate more hungry zombies….

: )

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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.

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Citadels

citadels box

Citadels (Fantasy Flight, 2007), like many other card games in the fantasy genre, takes some replay in order to understand strategy – but the investment is well worth it.

The game is played in rounds; during each round, each player takes on the role of one of nine characters (first picture, below). Different characters have very different roles, benefits, and effects. For example the Assassin simply prevents a character (not a player, but a character) of his or her choice from doing anything that round (since they have been assassinated); the player with the Bishop gets gold from “religious” districts they control and prevents the Warlord from destroying any; the Architect gets to draw two extra cards and build extra districts.

citadels character cards
There is a set of 9 "basic" characters, and another set of 9 "advanced"

Players use these characters throughout the game to amass a set of district cards (second picture below), which is their “citadel”; the player with the most valuable citadel, as determined by the total number of gold coins on all cards, is the winner at the end of the game. During each round, players will claim gold, draw more district cards into their hands, play out their character’s ability, and pay gold to build districts.

citadels building cards
4 of the 5 types of "districts," each with its own color dot

There are a few more, very important aspects that really make the game interesting:

A player has some control over the character they choose; whoever was King last turn chooses their new character first, and the remainder are chosen as the cards go around the table. Thus, each person has some idea of what their neighbors might have chosen, based on what they saw in the deck.

Each character card is numbered, and the number is the order of play each round. The Assassin goes first, so whichever character they choose to assassinate will not have a chance to play that round; The order of play has a definite impact on whether one might choose to take gold or cards (a mutually exclusive option), or to build, and, indeed, what to build.

citadels character card closeups
Whoever plays the Thief in a round will have the 2nd turn; the Warlord 8th

Certain districts actually confer a bonus to the player who has built them. The Library, for instance, allows a player to keep two cards instead of just one when they draw.

citadels building card closeups
The purple-dotted "domains" confer special advantages to their owners

There are enough rules and intricacies to make this game confusing at first, but the overall game is pretty straightforward, which becomes obvious after the first play. After about 3 plays, most people should be able to identify reasonable strategies and really enjoy the game.

citadels layout
A 6-player game, in progress

I recommend this game for any serious gamer – it is relatively affordable (or you can receive it as a gift, as I did!), it’s small enough to carry unobtrusively in a backpack or travel bag, and there is a large variety of pathways one can take to achieve victory. It is not for a typical first-time gamer, or even anyone who might simply have an interest in the theme, and I wouldn’t recommend trying to convince light-gamers to give it a chance. It isn’t fun to reluctantly try a new game that one can’t master a few rounds into it.

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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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