Tag Archives: Mensa Select Award

Dominion

dominion box

If you know someone who is a die-hard board game fan, ask them about Dominion (2008, Rio Grande Games). There is a good chance they’ll have it, and a great chance that if they don’t have it, they will want it. But don’t think that it is only for the hardcore gamer; once you’ve played you are likely to understand how much fun it is, and thirst for more.

Dominion is probably the hottest property on the American game market as I write this – it (along with its expansions, “Intrigue” and “Seaside”) has garnered one of the highest ratings on boardgamegeek.com, and there isn’t a board game fan that I know who doesn’t love it. It has made a huge splash since its release in 2008, and quickly earned some of the most coveted games awards out there (Spiel des Jahres, Origins, Mensa Select).

Despite its apparent novelty and the huge success Dominion is enjoying, it is not too far removed from another game that was revolutionary at the time: Magic, The Gathering. It’s similar in the sense that players build decks of cards that have different sorts of abilities, which then work together to achieve the final goal. It’s different in that players are largely not affecting one another, at least not directly, and the game itself is self-contained in its own box. Another very important difference is that in dominion, all players choose from the same pool of cards to build their decks, not a personal stockpile as in Magic. One very nice feature is the card storage system in the box – each card type has a clearly labeled slot, making it easy to browse and choose card types.

dominion inside box

Players start with a small deck of cards, some representing income, and some representing victory points (see pic below) – the ultimate goal of the game is to obtain the most victory points via these cards. Players use the income cards (which vary in amount) to purchase “dominion” cards, and this is where the fun starts. There are nearly 30 types of dominion cards, each with multiple copies, but only 10 of these types are used in each game. Thus, consecutive games can be slightly different from one another, if just one or two card types are changed, or they can be very different from one another if many more card types are changed.

dominion gold vp cards

Players begin each turn with a hand of 5 cards drawn from their original 10. Each turn consists of three phases: Action, buying, and cleanup. On any turn a player can use one action, and then make one purchase – UNLESS they are able to play cards that modify the number of actions and/or purchases. Playing cards in way that maximizes one’s advantage is the key mechanic in the game. Dominion cards come in many variations, and may allow a player to pick up more cards, play more action cards, convert cards into other cards, or increase buying power.

dominion village card

dominion spy card

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

During the buying phase, Income cards may be used to purchase other cards (card costs are on the lower left of each card); purchases may include more income, victory points, and other dominion cards from the common supply. The final phase of a turn is cleanup, in which a player discards all of the played cards as well as the cards remaining in his or her hand, and then draws the next five in their personal deck. All of the “discarded” cards are actually recycled, so cards are usually never lost (there is a “trash” card for those that are).

Game play is straightforward in the sense that all a player has to do is what is written on the cards, but it’s complicated by the range of options. A player’s strategy is truly dependent on his or her opponents and the choice of ten card types to choose from.

The game is over when either the highest value victory point cards (The Provinces) have all been claimed, or else when the limited supply of 3 separate dominion card types have been exhausted. The player at that point with the most victory points is the winner.

So many game players are so excited about this game and its expansions, and many include the excitement of their non-boardgaming friends and family members, that it is worth at least some investigation. If you aren’t sure, then find out who is playing it (someone you know, of course), and try it on for size. After playing with a set of 10 card types, you’ll find yourself curious about 10 other card types…and so on, and so on, and so on…

I recommend Dominion to any game lover; it is easy to learn, but not easy to pick up and play out of the box without a lot of patience. But game lovers can and will introduce it to others. The rules are easy, but the possibilities are endless.

Buy Dominion at Amazon!

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Hive

hive box

Hive (Gen Four Two Games, 2005) is a simple two-player strategy game that takes less than a minute to learn, about 15 minutes to play, and a very long time to master.

The game is composed entirely of 11 black and 11 white hexagonal tiles, and can be played anywhere because only a flat surface is required. Various creatures are depicted on the tiles: The Queen Bee (qty 1), Spiders (qty 2), Beetles (qty 2), Grasshoppers (qty 3), and Soldier Ants (qty 3). Each creature has a specific movement ability, and the goal of the game is to enclose the opponent’s Queen Bee completely, thus preventing her from moving.

Players take turns placing the tiles onto the table. The first two tiles must be in contact along an edge, but from then on any new tiles introduced into the game must be placed so they touch only a tile of the same color, also edge to edge. On a turn, a player may introduce a new creature to the game, or else move an existing creature…and here is where it gets interesting.

Since each creature gets a different move, initial placement (when they are introduced) is critical. The Queen Bee can move one space at a time, in any direction.The Soldier Ant can move any number of spaces along the outside perimeter of the existing hive. The Spider must move exactly 3 spaces without backtracking. The Beetle may only move one space per turn but it is also able to crawl on top of the hive, blocking whatever it is sitting on. The Grasshopper jumps over pieces in a straight line, from one end of a row or column to the next available space.

hive layout

There are two important rules beyond movements. The first is that all tiles must remain part of one contiguous hive, so a tile that creates a bridge from one tile to another cannot be moved (The “One Hive Rule”). The second regards “Freedom of Movement.” A tile may only move if there is room for the entire hexagon to exit the space; a tile that is surrounded by 5 other tiles may not move through the opening, since it can’t fit without disrupting the hive.

The simple rules and open-ended hive configuration make this an excellent game, but there is real value-added in a few ways. The pieces in this edition are composed of heavy bakelite, so they are substantial and feel good when you play. This edition also comes with a travel tote, so it’s even easier to carry than the small box you buy it in (see pic).

hive travel bag

The best games are simple, but have an elegant and endless array of possible outcomes. That is the case with Hive. People who like 2-player games ought to love it. The bug theme makes it appealing for youngsters (8 and up), and the size and appearance of the pieces make it great for seniors. The aesthetic value is very high, even high enough to have it out on the coffee table. It is portable and packable. But the game play itself is really what’s best about it, and that’s why I’m recommending this game to just about anybody.

Buy Hive 3rd Edition on Amazon!

Magic: The Gathering

Magic the gathering card back

In 1993, Wizards of the Coast published the very first Collectible Card Game (CCG), Magic: The Gathering. The CCG genre became a huge success, and has since then spawned a few of the most economically successful games on the market with Pokemon and Yu-Gi-Oh!

In terms of game play, the CCG was entirely unique – even revolutionary. Instead of a game being self-contained in a box, the CCG allows players to acquire individual elements in smaller quantities, via “booster packs,” until they have a stockpile. Players then choose cards from their stockpile to create a “deck” (or “library”); it’s the deck that is used in a match, which itself is the equivalent of a single game. Other cards owned by the player are not in the game, and cannot be brought into it. Thus, participating in Magic: The Gathering (MTG) is  a little like owning a sports franchise in the sense that a player is able to draw from their “roster” (stockpile) to put together a desirable “lineup” (their deck) for any particular match.

CCG’s use a basic rule structure and a large assortment of cards which each have characteristics that contradict or supplement the basic rules. Each player predetermines their own strategy by creating a particular deck. The rules define parameters, such as how many cards may be used, how many copies of a given card are allowed, order of play, etc. Matches are typically two-player face-offs, in which each player begins with a number of “life units” and the goal is to take those units away from the opponent before they do the same to you.

In MTG, players essentially play the role of powerful sorcerers, each trying to destroy the other. As sorcerers, they call upon different land types for magical energy (“mana”) which allows them to cast different spells. The five land types are associated with five colors: swamp – black; water – blue; plains – white; mountains – red; forest – green (see pics below). Each non-land  card (with some important exceptions) is also one of these colors or a mix of them, and exhibits effects aligned with the land-type from which it came. Mountains, for example, are associated with strength and fire, so there are many giants and fire spells that are red.

Magic the gathering mountainMagic the gathering earthquake

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The spells are many and varied, but there are a few major categories, and any given spell has a “casting cost,” which is how much mana it takes to use that spell. Creatures may be summoned, which are then used to do battle with the opposing player or opposing creatures; every creature has an attack/defense rating, and the comparisons of attack/defense ratings, plus modifiers, determines the outcome of creature vs creature battles. An enchantment might be cast on a player, on a creature, or on a special item, such as an artifact, which itself must be summoned. The enchantment might add or detract from the attack/defense rating, or it might totally incapacitate a certain kind of opposing card. An Instant spell is one that has an immediate effect, such as sorcery, which modifies other cards or processes already in play.

Magic the gathering black knightMagic the gathering carnivorous plant

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Players begin with a hand of seven cards, draw one from their library (the deck they had prepared and then shuffled), and are free to play whatever they can. A player must lay down land cards in order to use any spells, and once land cards are down players can execute whatever strategy they prepared for when choosing the construction of their deck. As creatures are summoned and the various spells are cast, players lose life points (each begins the game with 20); When a player has reached zero life points, they lose  the match.

Magic the gathering plains

Magic the gathering island

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

MTG is a fascinating game, especially if you have a true appreciation for layered strategies and contingency planning in games. There are so many different cards in existence that rarely do two different people ever have even similar self-created decks. What makes it more interesting, and what has arguably made Wizards of the Coast a relative overnight success, is that booster packs of new MTG cards contain a fixed number of cards, and usually include one “rare” card, some “uncommon” cards, and many “common” cards. Rare cards are generally more powerful or efficient than uncommons or commons. This fact has resulted in a massive secondary market for collectors and certain other MTG enthusiasts, not dissimilar to the lucrative collectible baseball card market.

This game, while its basic mechanic is remarkable and interesting, is not for everyone. The fantasy theme can be overwhelming, to the extent that die-hard, committed gamers who do not like fantasy will not play it despite their knowledge that game play is so interesting. It is also a game that is not fun when investment has been small;  one problem of the CCG concept is that the person who has spent the most money on cards wins, due simply to their larger stockpile. One can’t “dabble” in MTG and expect to win any games without an equally unadvanced partner.

I do recommend the game to teens and older who show an interest in strategy games, an interest in fantasy or (because of the often incredible card art) graphic novels, or those who have played similar games in the past. Pokemon and Yu-gi-Oh! players would take a very natural next step up to MTG because the game play is similar, but there are so very many ways to build a deck and execute it during play that it would not be good for the younger players.

Buy MTG Portal Starter Deck (for 2 players) on Amazon!

Apples to Apples

apples to apples boxOnce a decade a game strikes just the right chord with the public and flies off the shelves. Apples to Apples (Out of the Box, 1999) is such a game. This game has been played and enjoyed by so many people, and their friends, and friends of those friends, and so on, that people all over the world who “don’t play games” have loved it. It defied all odds and sold a million copies in the US without ever having been on the shelf of WalMart (as of that point in time).

Apples to Apples is a social game; it stimulates conversation, elicits laughter, moves fast, and keeps every player constantly involved. It is comprised of two decks of cards. One deck is green; green cards each have an adjective listed, along with a few synonyms. The other deck is red; red cards each have a noun (person, place, or thing), along with a brief – and humorous – description. One player acts as judge each round, and turns over the green (adjective) card and reads it. Each other player must choose the red (noun) card from their hand of seven that he or she thinks is best described by the green card. The judge takes the submitted red cards without looking at them or knowing which player submitted which card, and then judges them; he or she will decide which of the red cards really is the best match to the green card (see pic). The player whose card is chosen wins the green card; The first player to seven green cards wins.

apples layout

In the example above, the foreground player needs to determine which of the seven red apple cards is most likely to be chosen as ‘expensive.’ One could argue for car crash, or even for hockey, because they are both expensive in their own way, but Paris, France is expensive in many, bigger ways, so it is an excellent choice – but will the judge think so?

apples judges choice

After all players have submitted their red cards, the judge has to choose one. The key is to submit a card, if you can, that will resonate with the judge. In the example above, even though they might agree that Paris, France is a very expensive city to visit, or build, or whatever, they might have had a recent emotional experience with a hospitalization so the cost of an operation is what they think of when they see the word ‘expensive.’ The judge could also be more impressed with the cost of lobster, or skiing, or even paying taxes. And so it goes. The judge chooses which red card they like the best, and the players who didn’t win usually let the judge know exactly why their cards were better choices…and the conversation continues. Arguments are defused by the cards being anonymously submitted, and by the explicit rule that the judge can use any way of determining what is the best card.

Apples to Apples is easy to learn, and everybody plays at once (which is typical of games by Out of the Box). Game play typically lasts about a half hour, but any number of rounds can be played. Rounds are so quick that you can get a few done in very little time. It is very common to simply play the game without regard to a winner; people just like to play for the fun of it.

There are a number of expansions and variations available. Expansions ($19.99) are basically the same game with all new cards, which is nice to have because they can be mixed together with the original cards. There are at least 12 stand-alone variations on the basic Apples to Apples game, including Apples to Apples Jr (Out of the Box, 2002), which will be reviewed elsewhere.

I absolutely recommend this game to just about anyone in the market for a game, especially if looking for a game to appeal to a mixed-age group. It’s great for families, groups of friends and coworkers, and is safe as a gift to just about anybody.

Buy Apples to Apples Party Box Expansion 1 on Amazon!

Blokus 3-D, aka Rumis

blokus 3d box

Blokus 3-D (Educational Insights, 2008; aka Rumis – Educational Insights, 2003) is more than a 3-d version of regular Blokus (see review elsewhere on this site)! The goal is to be the player with the most blocks visible from above, so rather than simply building a 3-dimensional tower, a player must be mindful of what colors will be visible, and what the next player (s) might be able to do with his or her play.

There are four basic building patterns that can be used which determine the general shape of the building: the Tower, the Corner, the Steps, and the Pyramid. The number of players determine the limits of growth – for example in a two-player game the tower can only be four rows high, but in a four player game a tower can be as high as 8 rows. The single building rule in this game, short of staying within the limits of growth, is that a block face of one piece must touch the block face of another piece of the same color.

blokus 3d board

The game board is textured, as it is in Blokus, to help keep the pieces in place. It also has a lazy-susan feature so a player can inspect every angle.

Blokus 3-D is sufficiently similar to its predecessor that it would appeal to the same kinds of people. It is still relatively simple, there are very few rules – only the shapes and limits add more complexity – and it is also brightly colored and aesthetically pleasing. The goal of building in three dimensions rather than two, however, is what sets it apart from the first Blokus, and that’s what makes it a different game. There is a lot more involved in trying to get your pieces to be visible, in the end, from above within a three-dimensional space, than in claiming two-dimensional space.

I recommend this to anyone who loves Blokus, as it represents a step up. It’s another great family game for homes with young kids getting older (it’s recommended for ages 8+), but it’s fun for playing with as a toy, too! Anyone who likes puzzles, especially skill puzzles and visual puzzles, might like this game as well. Blokus 3-D would be a great game to have in a math classroom, as well.

Buy Blokus 3D at Amazon!

Blokus

blokus box

Blokus (Educational Insights, 2000) is a multiple award winner because it is fun but simple, it can be enjoyed by a wide range of players, and it has tremendous replay value. Many friends list this among their favorite family games.

Blokus consists of a plastic grid and four colors of plastic tiles that exist in a variety of tetris-like multi-unit-square shapes (see pic, below). Players take turns placing their pieces in such a way that the corner of the piece they place must touch a corner of any preexisting piece (the first piece must cover the corner square)…and that is the only rule. When a player can no longer place any pieces on the board, they are finished. Once all players are finished, they count all of the unit squares left in their hand, and lose one point for each. Players who used all their pieces get +15 points, and if they used the single one-square piece they get +5.

blokus board

There are variations, and some households introduce their own special rules, for example handicapping older children or parents by restricting the corner-touch rule. One can even play solitaire by trying to fit all the pieces onto the board.

Because it’s simple and it can accommodate adults and children and mixed-age groups, I recommend it to any group whatsoever – from children 5 and up to senior citizens. It’s especially good for people who like to dive right in without having to learn complicated instructions. The pieces are colorful and easy to manipulate, and the raised grid on the board keeps the game relatively disturbance-free.

If you have no idea what game to buy, especially for youngsters, for a birthday present, or whatever, this game is an easy choice.

Buy Blokus on Amazon!

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.

Buy Gemlok on Amazon!