Monday, February 28, 2005

Review: Tally Ho!

Tally Ho! is another entry in the great line of two player games from Kosmos and Rio Grande Games. This is a deceptively simple game designed by Rudi Hoffmann.

In Tally Ho! players are let loose in a wilderness populated with trees, foxes, ducks, pheasants, bears, lumberjacks and hunters. Each one is out to either avoid or capture the others.

The playing surface is a seven by seven grid of squares that represents a forest area. At the start of the game, the board is covered with 48 face-down tiles. The center square is left empty. Players then take turns either revealing a tile or moving a tile.

Each tile depicts either a tree, an animal or a human. One player controls the blue tiles: bears and foxes, the other controls the brown tiles: hunters and lumberjacks. The trees can't be moved and the ducks and pheasants can be moved by either player. Tiles may be moved orthogonally (like a rook in chess). Most may move any number of open spaces but bears and lumberjacks may only move one space at a time.

One of the more interesting aspects of this game is that the two sides are not symmetrical. The bears capture (a nicer word than "eat" or "maul") humans. The foxes can only capture birds. The hunters can capture any of the animals provided that the prey is located in the direction in which the hunter's gun is pointing (which is determined by the placement of the tile at the start of the game and can not be changed). And lumberjacks are the only tiles that can remove the trees.

Although the sides are asymmetrical, they still feel pretty well balanced. Still, it's recommended that players play two games, once on each side, ensuring that neither player receives an undue advantage.

Points are scored by capturing tiles and different tiles have different point values. The game continues with players taking turns either moving tiles or revealing new tiles by turning them over. When all tiles are revealed, each player gets five more turns and the game ends.

This is a very simple game to learn and there is a fair amount of luck involved, particularly at the beginning of the game. If you're lucky enough to reveal a lot of your tiles and birds, you can enjoy a commanding lead. In spite of that, there's enough strategy here to ensure that a superior player is definitely more likely to carry the game. And the fact that it plays so quickly (around 15 minutes for a single game - 30 or 40 minutes if you play two to balance it out) means that if you got off to an unlucky start a rematch can be only a few minutes away.

If you're looking for a light, fast strategy game with some fun twists, great artwork and a whimsical theme, then look no further. This one's a keeper.

Sunday, February 20, 2005

Review: Twilight Imperium 3rd Edition

First, let me state that this is not really a review; it's a first impression. At this point, I've only played about two thirds of a game of Twilight Imperium 3rd Edition and therefore I don't feel qualified to give the game a proper review. What I can do is comment on my first impressions, the quality of the components, and give some general idea of what people can expect from the game.

Let me begin by saying that this game is big in every sense of the word. The first thing that you'll notice is the huge, hefty box that it comes in. It's nearly two feet long, a foot wide and four or five inches deep. It weighs in at around 12 pounds! Open up that huge box and you'll find it packed with delicious bits. There are roughly 350 highly detailed miniatures in this box, representing space ships, ground troops, and other military units. There are also over 400 cards, around 500 counters, and just under 50 large hexagonal tiles that are used to build the playing surface. All of the cards, tokens, counters, and playing pieces are high-quality, first rate pieces with exquisite artwork and an amazing attention to detail. This is truly a beautiful game.

One complaint that I have heard is that the cards are the mini sized cards (similar to the cards in Ticket to Ride); not full sized. I really can't see why this should be a problem though. Full sized cards would actually be a liability due to the way the cards are used. Many of the cards need to be placed face up in the player's playing area. With all these bits, the table is already quite crowded and using the smaller cards keeps the game playable.

TI3E is also huge in scope. Players are each randomly assigned one of 10 different races, scattered across a huge galaxy. Each race has special abilities that make it unique. Players begin in their home star system and, over the course of several turns, expand their areas of influence, build fleets of ships, conquer neighboring star systems, negotiate with other races, build and tear down trade agreements, enter into diplomatic alliances, pass laws in the galactic council, develop new technologies, and try to become the most successful race in the galaxy. Success is measured in victory points, which can be awarded for achieving any number of different objectives. The winner is the first to arrive at a pre-determined number of victory points (usually 10) or the one with the most victory points after a certain number of turns have expired.

Each game is played over a series of game turns (typically around ten or so). Each turn is divided up into a series of actions. At the beginning of a turn, each player chooses from among eight strategy cards. Each strategy card gives the player who chose it a special action, and every other player may choose to execute the secondary action associated with the card (somewhat similar to the way the roles work in Puerto Rico). Each action card also has a number which determines play order. Some of the actions associated with the strategy cards include making or breaking trade alliances, enacting political laws (which alter the rules of the game for all players), increasing the number of actions you can take during your turn, and developing new technologies (which alter the rules of the game for just you).

On each turn, players take turns executing actions until everyone passes. Players can choose to execute one of a standard set of actions, such as moving a fleet, producing units or attacking a neighboring system. All actions have a cost so sooner or later players are going to be forced to pass to end their turn. At some point during their turn a player must execute the special action granted by the strategy card they chose, at which point all the other players may execute the associated secondary action (assuming they can pay the associated cost). A big part of the strategy in TI3E is deciding when to execute your special action. Typically you want to do it when it will be most beneficial to you and least beneficial to your opponents. It's a very good system that adds a lot of strategy and enjoyment to the game.

Because each turn is divided up into so many actions (one player might easily execute a half-dozen actions on her turn) completing even a single game turn can take quite a bit of time. This is particularly true if players are learning the game and are unfamiliar with the plethora of options available to them. This contributes to what, for me, is the game's single biggest weakness: it's length.

This is an EXTREMELY long game. For our first game, we assembled a group of six very experienced game players. Each of us had at least skimmed through the 44 page rule book (which is available on line at so we were somewhat familiar with how the game worked. We started at around one o-clock and played through one full turn just to get a feel for how the game worked. Then we re-started the game and played until nearly eleven! By then, the leader had only accumulated around five victory points! At that point people had to leave so we were forced to quit. Technically we were only half way through with the game, however by then we had a better feel for the game, people had built up huge fleets that were ripe for invasion and it seems likely that the rest of the victory points would have been earned in only a couple of hours more. Still, over eight hours for only about two-thirds of a game is a huge time investment, to say the least. (I'm not counting the hour and a half that we spent setting up and playing through that practice turn.)

Here are some suggestions that I feel would help your first experience with TI3E be an enjoyable one:

First, play with only three or four players. Playing with a full compliment of six players dramatically lengthened the game for us. (Note that I'm not saying the game is better with fewer players; just that it's faster.)

Second, make sure that everyone has taken the time to really study both the strategy cards and the technology tree. Understanding exactly what the strategy cards do is essential to playing the game. If someone doesn't understand how they work then you're going to have to wait a long time while they decide what to do and how to do it. And if you don't know the tech tree then you're going to force everyone to wait a long time while you try and decide which technology (if any) you want to pursue and how to get there.

Third, play the regular game (10 victory points) instead of the long game (14).

Finally, no matter how tempting it seems, don't introduce house rules in the first game. There is a strategy card that gives two victory points to whoever chooses it. This seems like it's way too powerful and so, at the suggestion of many people on the internet, we changed it so it granted only one victory point. The net result was that it prolonged the game. I'm convinced that we'd have been better off playing with the original rule, at least until everyone was familiar enough with all the rules to feel comfortable changing them.

So finally, what's my overall impression of Twilight Imperium 3rd Edition? I think it's a great game. It's got an epic scope, an insane amount of replayability, lots of fantastic mechanics, lovely components, deep strategy, and it's a thoroughly engaging game. On the other hand, it's way too long for most people. Not many people can devote an entire day to playing a single game. So in the end I'm torn. There's so much that I love about this game that I'm really hoping I'll get a chance to play it again. At the same time, I just can't imagine setting aside that much time for it. This is the kind of game that it makes sense to set up on a table somewhere and play over a series of nights. If you played one or two turns each night, that would spread the game out over a week or so. I could see that working quite well.

So in the end, you need to be the judge. If you're a hard-core gamer with a lot of time on your hands and you're looking for a really deep game that does a lot of things and does them all extremely well, then this might just be your game. But if you're a casual game player who wants to play a game that comfortably fits into an evening and which doesn't require a lot of study and careful thought, then this game is most definitely not for you.

Saturday, February 12, 2005

Review: Niagara

One of the games that made a splash at the Essen trade show in Germany is Thomas Lieshing's Niagara. From the moment I saw this title I was intrigued. I'm a sucker for pretty bits and a good gimmick and this game has both.

In this game for 3-5 players, players paddle canoes up and down the river above the Niagara falls, collecting gems deposited along the river and attempting to return them safely to shore without getting pitched over the falls.

The gimmick here is that the game employs a very clever three-dimensional board. The box top and bottom are set side by side on the table and the sturdy board is unfolded and draped over them, so as to form a river with the falls cascading down the side of one of the boxes. Running down the center of the board is a groove into which are placed large clear plastic disks that represent the water. Each disk also serves as a playing space on which players move their canoes. After each turn, new disks are inserted at the top of the river, forcing the others to move down stream, carrying the player's canoes with them. Leave your canoe too close to the falls and you could end up taking a tumble.

Also included in the box are a set of sparkly plastic gemstones, five pairs of wooden canoes (one pair for each player), five sets of movement cards, and a wooden life preserver that is used to indicate the starting player. And of course there is the requisite instruction booklet (two actually: in French and English) which is a lovely full color affair that does a very good job of clearly explaining the rules and is filled with examples and illustrations.

Game play is relatively simple. Everyone has a set of small cardboard tokens or cards numbered one through six, as well as a seventh card bearing a cloud. When a turn begins, each player selects one of his seven cards and places it face down. Then, in turn order, each player reveals his card and moves his canoe(s) the indicated number of spaces up or down the river. Taking on a gem costs movement points, as does unloading a gem. There's a rule that allows you to steal a gem from an opponent's canoe (provided you're going up stream and your canoe is empty). If both canoes are on the water you get to move both canoes; otherwise you get to move one canoe or bring a canoe onto the water.

Once a card has been played, it is out of your hand until all your cards have been played, so on average you can only use each card once every seven turns. A big part of the strategy in this game is deciding when to play your large numbers and when to bide your time by playing the small ones.

If a player plays his cloud card then he gets to move the weather token (a small wooden cloud) which dictates how fast the river moves.

After all players have taken their actions, the river moves. It moves a number of spaces equal to the value of the lowest number card played, plus the number of spaces indicated on the weather chart. So if the lowest card played was a two and the weather indicator hadn't move since the start of the game, the river would move two spaces. The players would take two disks and, one at a time, put them at the top of the river and slide them downstream, causing all the other disks in the river, and all the canoes on them, to move one space closer to the falls. It's a clever mechanism that is both fun and effective.

Play continues in this fashion until one player has collected either four gems of one color, one gem in each of the five colors, or seven gems of any color.

Niagara is a simple, light strategy game that is both attractive and entertaining. It's easy enough to be played by youngsters (it's rated at 8 and up) and its lovely bits and attractive artwork are sure to attract attention. It's also deep enough to be engaging for adults. While the mechanisms and basic game play are simple, the strategy is not. This is a great "family game" in every sense.

Review: Carolus Magnus

Carolus Magnus is a game by Leo Colovini who has a reputation for making great abstract games with rather thin themes. Carolus Magnus definitely falls in that category. This game has a nice theme (battling for political influence in Charlemagne's Europe) but in reality the theme doesn't actually have much to do with what otherwise is an excellent abstract game.

This game has some lovely components. In addition to the scores of colored cubes that seem to be requisite for any euro-game worthy of the appellation, there are also fifteen oddly shaped provinces, some colored dice, five sets of numbered discs, four rectangular "court" tiles, a large yellow wooden figure representing Charlemagne, and three sets of wooden "castles". The province tiles are each shaped like four hexagons joined together and they are covered with a very attractive design suggestive of old European maps. They're made to fit together like pieces of a very attractive puzzle. Add to that the two cloth bags that come in the box and you have an attractive set of bits that go together to make a very beautiful game.

Carolus Magnus can be played with 2-4 players but where it really excels is as a two-player partnership game. Players play as partners, cooperating for political control of Charlemagne's empire.

Players start with a random set of colored cubes which represent paladins in one of five clans. These cubes can either be placed in a player's court, where they earn that player a controlling interest in one of the clans or they can be placed on one of the provinces on the board where they indicate which clan has a controlling interest over a province.

A turn begins with players bidding for turn order using their numbered discs. The lower bidder goes first. He places three of the paladins (cubes) from his supply anywhere he chooses: either in his court or on a province. Each is placed independently so it is possible to split the placement however the player wishes. Then he moves Charlemagne around the board and randomly selects three more paladins to replace the three he played from his supply. Charlemagne can never be moved more spaces than the number of the player's bid so players who bid lower will move first but will have less flexibility on where the emperor can be moved.

When Charlemagne lands on a province, players determine which paladin clan has influence over the province (determined by the majority color in that province) and which player has influence over that clan (determined by the majority color in the player's court). That player gets to place a castle in that province, to indicate his or her team's control. Castles count as a paladin when determining influence, therefore once a castle has been placed on a province, it's going to be harder for the other team to replace it with a castle of their own.

One of the more interesting elements in this game is that whenever adjacent provinces are controlled by the same team, the provinces merge to form a single province. That new province now has two castles as well as the combined set of paladins and therefore it becomes even harder to overthrow.

The game continues until there are only three or fewer provinces left (because they've all merged) or when one team manages to place all ten of their castles.

Carolus Magnus is extremely attractive and deeply strategic. It's easy to learn but quite difficult to play well. It plays well with two or three players but it definitely shines with the full four player partnership game. I highly recommend it.

Review: Chicken Cha Cha Cha

As the father of six children, I'm always on the lookout for a good children's game. So I was delighted when I discovered Chicken Cha Cha Cha by Klaus Zoch.

Chicken Cha Cha Cha is a delightfully simple game that can be played by youngsters four years old or older (and you could probably go even younger). The most impressive thing about this game is that it's one of those rare games that your kids will probably be able to beat you at! Let me explain.

First of all, what comes in the box? You get a set of four delightful wooden chickens. Each is about three inches tall and brightly colored. You also get a set of four colored wooden "tail feathers" that easily slip into holes in the chickens' back sides. And finally, you get a set of sturdy cardboard tiles that make up the board and the playing area.

The board is constructed by shuffling twenty four egg shaped cardboard tiles and arranging them in a circle. Each tile has one of twelve colorful chicken-related illustrations such as eggs, worms, and flowers. In the center of the circle, you place, face down, twelve octagonal tiles, each one with an illustration that matches two of the egg tiles. Then each chicken is given a tail feather and placed on one of the egg tiles.

On a player's turn, he first turns over an octagonal tile. If the illustration on the tile matches the next vacant egg space, he moves his chicken, turns the tile back over, and goes again. If the illustration doesn't match, then he turns the tile back over and it's the next player's turn.

Whenever a player's chicken passes another chicken, he takes all that chicken's tail feathers. Get all four tail feathers and you win the game. It's that simple.

The beauty of this game is that it rewards players who have a good short-term memory. And that's exactly what makes it so great for young children. If my anecdotal evidence is any indication, a four or five year old's short term memory is almost always superior to an adult's. My six year old routinely beats me at this game.

This is an ideal children's game. It's extremely simple. It's very colorful. The chickens and tail feathers add a very nice tactile element. It's sturdy. And it's a game that your youngster has just as much chance of winning as you do (if not more so). If you have small kids, you really need to give it a look.