Tag Archives: Origins New Game Award

Kill Doctor Lucky

To say that Kill Doctor Lucky (Cheapass Games, 1996) was a breath of fresh air when it came out is inappropriate for two reasons: it seems to glorify something as awful as murder, plus it fails to pay homage to the spirit of the game itself. So let us say that Kill Doctor Lucky was (and continues to be), a lingering, malodorous cloud of gut-wrenching putridity. It is a sick and twisted inversion of the old favorite whodunit games, which predate even Clue by many years.

Before going further into the game, it’s important to know that the company that publishes Kill Doctor Lucky is the aptly named Cheapass Games. Their mission is to provide the games at rock-bottom prices by packaging only the unique materials necessary to play the game, and requiring the buyer to provide any generic equipment such as pawns and dice. They are also irreverently humorous, as you can see if you read the front of the game envelope. Here is a section from the “about” page on their web site (http://www.cheapass.com):

“If you ignore the clever shapes they come in, the cheap little plastic pawns are an interchangeable part of most of the board games in your house. So are the dice, the money, the counters, the pencils, and just about every other random spare part. These generic bits and pieces can account for as much as 75% of a game’s production cost, and that cost gets handed to you.”

So (most of) the games that Cheapass Games has published have come in the form of a paper envelope, containing boards of card stock that must be laid out together (or taped once they are in place) and cards of heavy paper stock, plus one sheet of directions. This is about as no-nonsense an operation as you can imagine, so it’s one of my favorite game companies – even though it did happen to allow Paizo Publishing to package Kill Doctor Lucky as a traditional game (see below); I can’t explain that, so I won’t try. But now, back to Kill Doctor Lucky.

As I mentioned, the game is an inversion of the classical “whodunit.” That is, instead of gathering clues to try to determine the identity of the killer, each player is trying to be the one who actually kills the non-player character, Doctor Lucky. In order to win, a player must have Doctor Lucky alone in a room, out of the line of sight of other players, and attack, and then hope the attack is not foiled by the other players.

The board is a layout of Doctor Lucky’s mansion (there are expansions that include other maps, too), and players take their turns by using one free move, then deciding whether to stay in a room and “snoop” to find something (in the form of a card), or to play a card or series of cards from their hand. A player may play any number of cards, one at a time. The cards themselves allow the movement of the player or Doctor Lucky on the board (either a number of spaces, or to a specific room), or they allow an attack.

There are a number of failure cards in the deck, used to counter an attack. If another player has attacked Doctor Lucky, that attack is worth a certain number of points, from two and up. Each player following the attacker has an opportunity to “fail” the attack for a number of points equal to the points on their failure cards. This system is part of the key to strategy in Kill Doctor Lucky, because eventually the failure cards are gone, and an attack on Doctor Lucky will not be failed. It behooves a player to force others to play their failure cards so that, eventually, no one will be able to prevent that player from an attack, thus winning the game.

Movement around the map is also important. A player’s pawn must move from room to room, and the rooms include hallways and stairwells. At the end of each player’s turn, Doctor Lucky moves to the next highest numbered room. This is important because only the main rooms are numbered – so Doctor Lucky does not stop in hallways or stairwells. So what? A player can attack Doctor Lucky only in a room (again, unobserved). Further, if Doctor Lucky should happen to move into a room that is already occupied by a player, that player gets to take a turn immediately. Savvy players can take advantage of this by positioning themselves downstream, so that they can quickly take another turn, and use it to do the same, and so on as long as the map allows it.

The cards used to attack are actually weapon cards, which list a base level of damage on Doctor Lucky. They also, often but not always, list a second, higher value, if the weapon is used in a particular room. The Rat Poison, for example, has a base value of 2 but a bonus value of 5 if used in the Green House. Thus it is wise to try to get yourself alone with Doctor Lucky in the Green House, so you can do more damage.

Move, room, and weapons cards are collected and reshuffled when needed, so they may recur in the game, as opposed to the failure cards that, once used, are permanently out of the game. Clever players can keep a game going for quite a long time, but sometimes a player who has enough fail cards to prevent the murder of Doctor Lucky will not use them, instead relying on fellow players to use their own – only to discover, too late, that the other players did not have enough cards to prevent it. And so there have been a few short games, too!

You might be able to tell that I enjoy Kill Doctor Lucky; I do! I actually mounted the map onto a large piece of cardboard, and I put the expansion Craigdarroch on the other side. It’s a game that’s fun with friends or family, and the degree of interaction on the board is really stimulating, sometimes aggravating, but ultimately rewarding. It’s a great ice-breaker for people who don’t really know each other, and it’s a great game to pull out when the party or game night is winding down to the last half dozen people or so, who are still up for more.

I recommend this game to anyone with an appreciation of dark humor, a practical bent, and a love of games. If you know someone with game pieces to spare, they should (and probably already do) have some Cheapass Games in their collection. It’s recommended for ages 12 and up, although a sharp 8 year old can manage the basics (the movement strategy is probably beyond for the younger kids, however).

Buy Kill Doctor Lucky at Amazon!

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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….

: )

Buy Ticket to Ride at Amazon!

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!

Settlers of Catan

settlers box

The European invasion’s “shot heard ’round the world” – or at least the shot heard ‘cross the Atlantic – was in 1995, with the publication of Settlers of Catan (Mayfair Games, 1995). Strategy games in the US had been restricted to kid-friendly games, usually based on a licensed property, and games that only hardcore gamers knew about by companies like Avalon Hill and Wizards of the Coast. Most households owned a single strategy game – Risk. American game closets were filled with party games like Pictionary, Taboo, and Scattergories, and the big box stores had only Trivial Pursuit to satisfy consumers with more intellectual tastes.

But with Settlers of Catan, the game industry changed – and it is still changing. Companies like Mayfair Games, Rio Grande, and Ravensburger started importing adult games that were intellectually demanding, more complex, and of a higher production quality. Within a few years, entire families were hooked on Settlers of Catan, and asking for more. Since then, Settlers has spawned an entire family of games – 35 expansions and spin-offs (17 of them english only).

The not-so-secret success of “Settlers” is the tile layout that can change with every play of the game (see pic below).

settlers layout

There is a basic setup for beginning players that assures different tiles and numbered discs will be equally distributed; once players understand the game mechanics they are free to follow other suggested setups, or implement their own.

The goal of the game is to claim real estate (or the equivalent of real estate in the form of cards), which is accomplished by building, which is accomplished by harvesting resources, which is what the different tile represent. Players initially place two small “cities” on any 3-part hub on the board, and build out from there. A player rolls the two dice on his or her turn, and the correspondingly numbered tile “produces” for that turn. There are six tile types, one of which is a solitary desert tile, and the other five, which each produce a resource, also in the form of a card, as follows (as pictured below): Meadows produce wool, Mountains produce ore, Fields produce wheat, Hills produce brick, and Forests produce wood. A player gains that resource if they have a building on any hub of that particular tile.

settlers resource cards

After collecting resources players may trade with the player whose turn it is, or the turn-taker may trade in 4 of any one resource for 1 other, or if they have a city on one of the ports they may take advantage of that port’s trade ratio.

After trading, a player may build a structure or buy a “development card.” The building cost card dictates the price for various items. For example, it takes one brick, one wood, one wheat, and one wool to build a settlement. There are a few simple rules regarding the placement of settlements, cities, and roads. Development cards are purchased sight unseen, and can be cashed in at the end of the game for victory points (see below: examples are the University of Catan, Market, etc.), or used to modify game play (for example, Road Building allows a player to place extra roads for free). Soldier cards are accumulated in the hope of having the “Largest Army” at the end of the game, which is also good for 2 victory points.

settlers cost card

settlers cards

The winner of the game is the first player to reveal, on their turn, that they have 10 victory points.

Some other elements make the game even more interesting. One further way to gain 2 victory points is to have the longest road by game’s end. The “Robber” piece, represented by a black pawn that initially occupies the desert (which does not receive a number throughout the game) moves to the tile of a player’s choice when that player rolls a 7 on the dice. Note that there is not a number 7 disc, so on a 7 there is no production. The player who moves the robber can choose a resource card from any player with property on the robber’s new location. During trading, any player may initiate a trade as long as the trade involves the person whose turn it is, and talk is open. If it’s obvious to one player that another player will overly benefit from a trade, it’s fair for them to point it out to the would be tradee. This introduces a very social and interactive element to the game that enhances the “fun” element.

Settlers of Catan expansions include 5 and 6 players, and can also involve city defense and further trade (Cities and Knights of Catan), seagoing exploration and trade (Seafarers of Catan), and more. There are numerous other spinoffs as well, the most popular being Starfarers of Catan.

What this game brought back in 1995 is exactly what was needed, and what is still relevant today: a board game that involves people on social and intellectual levels. After playing once or twice to learn the game, you’ll have a decent enough grasp to play with different strategies – but just like any really good game, there is no best strategy until you know your opponent. This game changes along with the people who play it, but it’s always fun and rewarding.

Buy Settlers of Catan for yourself or any body like you if you want to immerse yourself in a game experience. But prepare to make room for it in your schedule every so often, because if you don’t, you’ll miss it.

Buy The Settlers of Catan 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!

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.

Buy Guillotine on Amazon!