Saturday, April 30, 2005

Review: Geistertreppe (Spooky Stairs)

We recently managed to get a hold of a few copies of Geistertreppe (or Spooky Stairs). This game won the Kinderspiel des Jahres (German Children's Game of the Year) for 2004.

Inside the box you'll find a large game board that shows a spooky flight of stairs, four wooden colored disks (one for each player) and a large wooden die. You'll also find four colored wooden pawns with magnets on their heads and four white wooden ghost shells or coverings. When a ghost is placed over a pawn, the magnet holds the pawn inside so that both move together, hiding the pawn from view.

Spooky Stairs is a simple race game with a memory element. Players are trying to move their pawns up a flight of spooky stairs to yell "BOO!" at a ghost. Whoever gets there first wins but there's a catch. Players move by rolling a die and moving their pawn. Two faces on the die show a ghost and when a player rolls a ghost, they take one of the ghost shells and put it over a player's pawn, turning it into a ghost. If all the pawns have already been turned into ghosts then the player gets to swap any two ghosts on the board.

It doesn’t take too long before all of the players' pawns have been turned into ghosts, making it impossible to tell whose pawn is whose. Players must remember where they were and keep a sharp eye on their ghost so that they can make sure that their pawn reaches the top of the steps first.

Jessica, age 4, had this to say about Spooky Stairs: "I liked it because the ghosts made me laugh."

Christopher, age 6, says, "I like Spooky Stairs because you can turn into a ghost and get all mixed up. That's the cool part."

Matthew, age 7, says, "I liked playing Spooky Stairs because it's a very good children's game and because it's fun to try and remember where your piece is."

Michael, age 9, says, "I liked it because it's fun. You have to be a good memorizer and watch your ghost."

Spooky Stairs is a perfect game for small children. It's easy to learn and easy to play. It takes seconds to learn and only about ten minutes to play. There's no reading and no counting above four. The memory element means that children have a good chance of winning. Kids really love the playful ghost theme. It's not scary at all. If you have a young game player at your house then you should pick this one up.

Wednesday, April 27, 2005

Review: In the Shadow of the Emperor

Political intrigue in the Germanic courts of the late middle ages. Families vie for influence and power as they seek to out maneuver one another in the shadow of the Roman Emperor. Of course I'm talking about In the Shadow of the Emperor, a new strategy game from Hans im Glük and Rio Grande Games.

This is basically an area control game, but it's a very deep and very unique one. Players represent competing family dynasties who seek to place their aristocrats in places of influence and thus alter the political climate in their favor.

Inside the box you'll find a delicious selection of bits. The game board is a high quality, full color board that has been carefully and thoughtfully designed. This is a relatively complicated game but each area of the board is decorated with clear, easy to read and understand icons that help alleviate much of the complexity. Along with the game board are several wooden markers, several sturdy cardboard tiles, and a selection of full color cards, all of which share the same consistent and clear iconography. At first glance it may look relatively complex but play a round and soon everything will make perfect sense. It helps that the rule book is well written with clear full-color photos and lots of examples. This game is really not very hard to learn.

The basic object of the game is to collect victory points. Victory points are rewarded for a variety of different things but the common theme here is political power. Any time you do something that shifts the balance of political power in your favor you can expect to be rewarded with victory points.

As I mentioned above, this is basically an area control game. The board depicts seven political areas called "electorates". Electorates are populated by aristocrats, knights, and cities. Each of these elements exert a certain amount of influence over the electorate and whoever controls the majority of the influence in the electorate will get to choose the elector from among his aristocrats in that area. Each elector has the power to elect the emperor. Control enough electoral votes and you will get to help choose the next emperor. Controlling the emperor yields victory points and certain other benefits, such as the ability to break ties in electorates when they are selecting an elector. But you don't actually need to be the emperor to score, merely casting your vote for the winning party during an imperial election is enough to score you a victory point. Sometimes it's good enough to be influencing things from behind the scenes, as opposed to actually sitting on the throne.

The heart of this game is the action phase. This is where most of the work gets done. On each turn, players receive an income based upon the current political climate. During the action phase, players spend their income in order to take action cards. Each action card grants the player some action (such as placing or moving an aristocrat) or some special power (such as an additional imperial vote for that round's election). The players' actions are limited both by the limited number of action cards and the amount of wealth they have to spend. It's a system that works very well and allows for an amazing amount of tactics. A big part of this game is out-maneuvering your opponents by choosing the appropriate actions at the appropriate times.

One of the most important action cards available is the rival card. When a player chooses the rival card, his action phase is over for that round but his dynasty produces a rival to the imperial throne.

After all players have finished their action phase an election occurs. First players determine who controls each electorate. This is done by adding up influence in the electorate. If a new family controls the electorate then that player gets to promote one of his barons or couples to the elector's seat and he scores two victory points. Ties are broken by the reigning emperor. Then each player determines how many electoral votes they control and an election for emperor takes place. The rival and the reigning emperor each vote for themselves and the other two players cast their lots either for the emperor or the rival. If you vote for the victor then you will be awarded victory points.

This process repeats itself over five rounds. At the end of the fifth round the game ends, players reveal their victory points and whoever has the most wins the game.

One of the most interesting mechanics in the game has to do with the aristocrats. Aristocrats are represented by square cardboard tiles and they come in two flavors: unmarried barons (worth one influence point) on one side and couples on the other (worth two). Furthermore, the orientation of each of these tiles indicates the aristocrat's age: 15, 25, 35, or 45. At the beginning of each round, all of the aristocrat tiles on the board are rotated, causing them to age. Any aristocrats that start the aging phase at 45 will die and be removed from the board. Death is the only way that aristocrats can be removed from the board and this tends to contribute heavily to the constantly shifting political landscape that makes this game so interesting. Furthermore, it's cheaper to add barons to the board than it is couples (naturally) but once a baron is on the board, he may be married off, effectively doubling his influence in his electorate.

One other fascinating mechanic is how the game models procreation. Each action card taken during the action phase is colored either blue or pink. After the aging phase, players check which cards they took during the last round. If they have more blue cards than pink cards, they begat a son and may place a 15 year old baron anywhere on the board. Otherwise, they begat a daughter and must either marry her off to another player's baron (earning the proud parents a victory point, and the happy groom a second influence point), or ship her off to a convent (earning the parents some gold that can be used to buy actions later). It's an interesting little device that simulates how aristocratic families would form diplomatic alliances by marrying their daughters.

There are so many interesting things going on in this game that I don't really have time to go into them all. Suffice it to say that the tactical and strategic options are many and that all of the parts come together beautifully to create an extremely well balanced whole. There is no luck in this game, no "hidden knowledge". Players know exactly what their options are at all times but deciding which option to choose can be deliciously difficult.

One word of caution. Although it is possible to play this game with two players, it really should be played with four (or at least three) players in order to get the full experience.

If you like deep strategy games with varied avenues to success and non-obvious strategies then this would be an excellent choice. This is a very good game indeed.

Tuesday, April 26, 2005

Review: Ticket to Ride/Ticket to Ride Europe

Last year's Spiel des Jahres winner was the excellent Ticket to Ride. This year, author Alan R. Moon and publisher Days of Wonder have sought to improve upon that winning formula by releasing Ticket to Ride Europe.

Just in case there's still someone who isn't familiar with Ticket to Ride, here's a brief synopsis:

Players are attempting to claim routes between cities. Routes are claimed by playing sets of colored cards: three red cards claims a red three space route, six black cards claims a black six space route, and so on. On your turn you either take two cards into your hand (choosing from either five face up cards or the top card in the supply), or you may play a set of cards to claim a route, or you may take two "ticket cards" from the ticket supply of which you must keep at least one. Ticket cards list two cities and a point value. If at the end of the game you have linked those two cities with your routes then you score the points. If, on the other hand, you fail to connect those two cities then you are penalized and you LOSE the same amount of points. Players start with at least two tickets, which means that players start the game with their own unique goals.

Ticket to Ride is a wonderful game that thoroughly deserved to win last year's Spiel des Jahres. It's engaging. It's fun. It's extremely easy to learn and yet it can be quite challenging to play well. On top of all that, Days of Wonder went truly first class with the production values. The board is magnificent, the train pieces are a joy to play with, the colors are vibrant and the entire game just oozes aesthetic appeal.

This year, Ticket to Ride Europe seeks to build upon its predecessor's success. Naturally, the most obvious change is that Ticket to Ride Europe employs a map of Europe rather than the United States. But more has changed than just the map. There have also been some very minor rules enhancements that attempt to make Ticket to Ride Europe a better game.

First of all, most of the tickets in Ticket to Ride Europe are over relatively short routes. There are six long route tickets in the game which are easily distinguished by a blue background on the front of the card (the back side matches the other tickets so your opponents won't know you have a long route). At the start of the game, each player receives at random one long route ticket, the other long route tickets are removed from the game, and then players are given three more regular tickets. From these four tickets, players must choose at least two to keep. This eliminates one of the complaints that some players had with the original game: that players who lucked into longer route tickets often had an unfair advantage.

Next, two special types of routes have been added between cities: tunnels and ferries. Ferries work just like the grey routes from the original Ticket to Ride: they can be completed by a set of any color cards, the exception being that ferries contain one or more spaces marked with a locomotive symbol. For every locomotive symbol on a ferry route, players must use a locomotive card. This has the effect of increasing the value of the locomotive cards because now players are required to use them to complete some routes.

Tunnels are also grey routes but the added twist is that when a player tries to complete a tunnel route she must turn over three cards from the supply. She must produce one additional card for each of those three cards that matches the color of the cards she's played, otherwise she must abandon the route, take the cards back into her hand, and give up her turn.

The final change is the introduction of stations. Each player is given three stations. For his action, a player may elect to place one of his stations on a city. The first station placed costs one card, the second costs two cards of the same color, and the third costs three. Having a station on a city allows the player to use one of his opponents routes out of that city as if it were his own for purposes of completing the routes shown on his tickets at the end of the game. This allows players a way to complete an otherwise blocked ticket but at some expense. Each station that is left unplayed at the end of the game is worth four points.

One other minor cosmetic improvement is that Ticket to Ride Europe uses full sized cards instead of the half-sized ones used in Ticket to Ride. It's a nice touch but I don't know that it really adds all that much. The cards are certainly easier to shuffle.

There is only one complaint I have with Ticket to Ride Europe and it's a very minor one. The map is rather cramped (this is Europe after all) and as a result, some of the routes are crooked and bent in order to make them fit on the board. This makes the board a little more cluttered compared with the original.

All in all, I think the improvements are quite nice. Ticket to Ride Europe is definitely a worthy successor to Ticket to Ride and indeed, I think in many ways it's a slightly superior game. Is it enough to merit purchasing Ticket to Ride Europe if you already have Ticket to Ride? That's hard to say. If you really enjoyed Ticket to Ride and you are looking for another game that's almost exactly like it but just a bit more "gamerly" then you might want to pick it up (I did) but if you think that the original Ticket to Ride suits you just fine and you don't want another game that's very similar then you probably should pass. If you don't have either game then I would definitely recommend that you consider Ticket to Ride Europe as it's ever so slightly superior in my opinion.

Monday, April 25, 2005

Review: King's Breakfast

King's Breakfast (A.K.A. King Lui) is a nice little card game by Alan R. Moon and Aaron Weissblum.

This is what's commonly referred to as a "filler game". That's a game that you break out when you've got a little bit of time to fill. It's an hours d'oeuvre, not a main course. It supports from 3-5 people and it plays in under 15 mintues.

In King's Breakfast, players have been invited to dine with the king. Seven different courses are available and there are fifteen portions of each. Your goal is to have as many portions of the king's favorite dishes as possible without having more than the king (it won't do to out-eat the king).

Players start with no cards in their hand. The first player shuffles the deck and deals two cards for each player, face up in the center of the table. The cards are grouped by food type (hams go with hams, wine goes with wine, etc.). Then each player, beginning with the dealer, takes all the portions of a single type of food, or takes a single card from the top of the deck. When all players have made their choice, any food that's left over goes to the king. The deck passes to the player on the left and the process is repeated until there are no longer enough cards in the deck to deal out the right number of portions. At that point the game is over and the players' hands are scored.

Scoring is very simple. For each food category, if you have more portions than the king, you get nothing; otherwise you multiply the number of portions you have in that category by the number of portions the king has in that category. Do that for each of the seven categories and add them up. The total sum is your score.

There is one other element in the game that I should mention. Mixed in with the 105 portion cards are five "Emerald" cards. Emerald is the king's pet dragon. When someone takes an Emerald card, they must choose two portions of food from the King's plate to feed the dragon. These portions are removed from the game. This is one of the ways that a player can affect the other players' scores.

This is a good game for children. The colors are bright, the art is nice, there is no reading required, and the game is random enough that you can luck into winning even if you don't understand the strategy. The scoring involves enough math that if your child is working on her multiplication tables, she might find it challenging. It's also fun for adults but don't expect this to be a deep game. It's not meant to be. It's just a light filler.

If you already have plenty of filler games in your collection then there probably isn't much of a reason to pick this one up. But if you're looking for another light filler game, particularly if you want something you can play with children, then this is a fine choice.

Monday, April 18, 2005

Review: Modern Art

Going once. Going twice. Sold to the highest bidder!

If you're at all interested in auction games then you really need to know about Reiner Knizia's Modern Art.

This is one of Dr. Knizia's earlier games. Originally released in 1992, Modern Art had been out of print, and consequently very difficult to find, for several years before Mayfair reprinted it this last summer. I am quite glad they did because this is probably the best auction game ever made.

Like most Knizia games, the mechanics are quite simple. Players are dealt a hand of cards. Each card has a painting on it by one of five artists (think five suits). Each card also has a symbol on it that dictates which type of auction must be used to auction off that painting.

On your turn you select one of the paintings in your hand to auction. If one of your opponents is the highest bidder then she pays you and collects the painting which she puts face up in front of her in her "gallery". If you are the highest bidder, you pay the bank and the painting goes into your "gallery".

Play continues with the next player until one player plays an artist's fifth painting. At that point the "season" is over and players sell all of the paintings they bought that season. The artists are then ranked according to how many of their paintings were auctioned off that season. The artist with the most paintings becomes the most valued and his paintings sell for $30,000 each. Paintings from the second most popular artist sell for $20,000 and paintings from the third most popular artist sell for $10,000. Paintings from the other two artists are worthless.

The game continues for three more seasons. Each season progresses just like the first except that when it comes time to sell paintings at the end of the season, an artist's paintings are worth the cumulative value from this and all previous seasons. So say an artist came in first in season one and third in season two. His paintings at the end of season two would be worth $40,000 ($30,000 from season one + $10,000 from season two).

At the end of the game, whoever has the most money wins. Since money is kept secret throughout the game, you have to pay attention to who paid what to have some idea of how you are doing relative to the others during the game.

There are four types of auctions in Modern Art. The open auction is the type of auction you are probably most familiar with: players may bid in any order, any number of times, and the highest bidder wins. In the once around auction, each player (including you), beginning with the player to your left, gets to either bid or pass. In the closed auction, players secretly decide how much they are willing to bid and all bids are revealed simultaneously. And in the fixed price auction the auctioneer (you) sets a price and each player in turn can either buy the painting at that price or pass.

Some cards are marked with a fifth symbol that indicates a double auction. If you play a double auction card then you may play a second card from the same artist and both paintings are auctioned off together using the auction type indicated by the second card. If you decide not to play a second card then one of your opponents may play a second card by the same painter. He then becomes the auctioneer and you both share in the profits. If no one elects to play a second card then you get the painting for free.

Modern Art is a relatively simple game but the strategies are not so simple. Obviously, quite a bit depends upon choosing the right amount to bid but what's not so obvious is that it can be just as important to wisely choose which paintings to offer up for auction. Some times it's best to allow one of your opponents to buy your paintings. Other times, you'll want to keep that painting for yourself to prevent them from scoring off of it at the end of the season. There are quite a few levels of complexity hidden beneath the simple mechanics.

If I could think of one negative thing to say about Modern Art, it's that Mayfair kind of skimped on the production values for this edition. The rules look like they were photocopied and the chips used for bidding and keeping score are cheap plastic mini-chips (similar to the chips found in a Yahtzee game). At least the cards are decent enough and that's the most important thing. But don't let that sway you. All of the components are serviceable and while it would have been nice if they'd invested a bit more in the production it doesn't seriously detract from the game.

Modern Art is a masterpiece and it belongs in every serious gamer's collection. It's truly a work of art.

Wednesday, April 06, 2005

Review: Around the World in 80 Days

London in the late 19th century. You and a group of close friends have been passing the evening in the exclusive Reform Club, discussing the new wonders that the industrial era has bestowed upon humanity. You boast, "Why with today's modern steamships and steam locomotives, I'll bet that a man could circumnavigate the globe in less than 80 days!" Someone else voices doubts. "Pshaw! It can't be done my good man!" "I tell you it can! And more than that, I'll prove it! Who's with me?" Five of your club mates say "I'll take that bet!" and the race is on to see who, if anyone, will be the first to travel Around the World in 80 Days!

Around the World in 80 Days is the latest game from Kosmos and Rio Grande Games. Some are saying that this game is a strong contender for the prestigious Spiel des Jahres (German Game of the Year) Award. I think one could make a strong case for that. It has all the right ingredients. It's a game that the whole family can play. The rules are not too hard; not to easy. It plays in the right amount of time: about an hour. It's very attractive. It has a strong, enjoyable theme that doesn't intrude upon or spoil the elegant mechanics. And it requires players to make some interesting choices without being overwhelming or difficult.

The game board is a very attractive map of the world in the late 19th century. Around the edge of the board is an 80 space scoring track that records each player's travel time in days. Players start in London's Reform Club and must travel to nine other cities in turn as they circumnavigate the globe, ending back in London. Each location is connected by a route that requires players to travel either by train, by steamship, or some combination of the two (with one exception: the route between Bombay and Calcutta where players either walk or travel by elephant).

On each turn, players add a travel card to their hand of cards. Each travel card has either a steamship or a locomotive on it, as well as a number. To travel a route that has two steamship symbols, a player must play two steamship cards. The numbers on the cards represent travel time and their sum is added to the player's days on the scoring track/calendar. If a player is able to play two of the exact same card (for example two locomotives with fours on them) then they complete that leg of the journey in half the time (using only four days instead of eight). That, of course, assumes that the route can be completed using two of the same type of travel cards. Some require only one. Some require different types. Players are not required to travel on each turn; they can wait for better cards if they wish and in fact, they'll certainly have to wait at least once in a few places.

At the bottom of the board are six action spaces which are filled from left to right with cards at the beginning of each round. Each space is associated with a different action. Players take turns by first drawing a card from one of these action spaces and adding it to their hand. Then they may, at their discretion, choose to execute the associated action. One action space allows players to draw event cards which may give them an advantage. Another allows the player to take the starting player marker for the next round. Another allows the player to use a balloon to replace a travel card (you still have to play the travel card but you roll a die to determine how many days that part of the trip took). And so on. It's a very good mechanic that adds some spice to the game because when you take a card, you're not only interested in the card, you're also interested in the action associated with the card. Sometimes you'll want to draw a worse card because the action is so helpful. Other times you'll take what at the time seems to be a useless action because the card is so attractive. Each of the actions is advantageous in certain situations.

The victory conditions for the game are interesting as well. Players must balance progressing on their journey against the time they're spending over each leg of the trip. Once the first player makes it back to London, no matter how many days it took him, the clock begins ticking. At the end of each subsequent round, each player that hasn't made it back to London will be penalized one day. So while it isn't crucial for your pawn to reach London first, you'll not want to lag too far behind. Also, the final round of the game is the first round in which all but one pawn is back in London. At the end of that round, if the last player's pawn isn't back in London, that player is eliminated from the game no matter how many days are on their calendar. The winner is then determined in one of two ways: if anyone has made the journey in 80 days or less, the winner is the one who used the fewest days; otherwise, the winner is the player who was first to get their pawn back to London no matter how many days it took them.

Around the World in 80 Days is a fantastic family game. This isn't a deep gamer's game but it's got just enough strategy and fun elements to make it quite appealing to a broad range of players. You might call this a "Goldilocks game". It's not to hard. It's not to simple. It's not too long. It's not too short. It's just right. It supports from three to six players (although the rules do contain a variation for two players, it's really meant to be played with at least three and it's really best with four or more) ages ten and up. I'm sure it'll be a Speil des Jahres nominee. The question is: will it finish on top? We'll have to wait and see. I think it has a good chance. You owe it to yourself to give this one a try.

Review: Lost Cities

Lost Cities is a two player card game by master game designer Reiner Knizia. In Lost Cities, players finance archeological expeditions in the hopes of finding fame and fortune. Hirum Bingham's famous 1911 expedition to Peru where he discovered Machu Picchu could have served as a model for the theme of this game.

Like most of Dr. Knizia's games, Lost Cities' theme takes a bit of a back seat to the mechanics. This game could have been about any number of different things. Still, the theme works well even if it is mainly expressed in the wonderful artwork that adorns each of the oversized cards. There's also an attractive game board but it's rather superfluous as it really only serves as a place to mark the locations of the discard stacks.

The deck is divided into five suits or colors, each representing a different expedition. Each color is made up of expedition cards ranked 2 through 10 as well as three investment cards which have a handshake symbol in the corner in place of a number.

Game play is extremely simple. Each player starts with a hand of eight cards. At the beginning of your turn you have two choices: you can discard a card to one of the five discard piles (one for each suit) or you can play a card onto one of your expedition stacks. Then you either draw the top card from the supply or you draw the top card from one of the discards stacks (provided you didn't just play that card). The catch is that cards played on your expeditions must always be played in ascending order: first investment cards, then ranked cards from low to high. You need not play all the cards in a color (in fact, odds are very much against that even being possible) but you can never play a lower ranked card on top of a higher one.

Players alternate turns until the last card is drawn from the supply. At that point players score their expeditions. Any expedition on which you have played a card costs an initial investment of twenty points. Expeditions with no cards cost you nothing. To figure out your score for an expedition, you first add up the ranks of all expedition cards played on it. Then you subtract your twenty point investment. Next you multiply the result by one plus the number of investment cards. Finally, any expedition on which you have managed to play eight or more cards earns you twenty bonus points. So if you managed to play two investment cards, plus the 3, 5, 6, 7, 8, and 9 on the yellow expedition, you would earn 74 points: (38 - 20) x 3 + 20 for the 8 card bonus. But if you only managed to play one investment card, a six and a seven on the blue expedition then you'd lose 14 points: (13 - 20) * 2.

A complete game consists of three hands. After three hands, whoever has the most points wins the game.

A hand of Lost Cities typically progresses over three stages. In the opening few plays, players are typically agonizing over which expeditions to invest in. Eight cards aren't very many so you have very little information to go on. If you've got a lot of low cards then you've got a chance at getting a lot of cards into an expedition or two, but you run the risk that you'll begin an expedition and then not draw enough high cards in that color to make it profitable. If you've got a few high cards in one color then you could safely start playing in that color but by starting with high cards, you've automatically given up on the chance of playing any lower cards in that color and you've given your opponent the chance to safely discard some cards. Perhaps you might discard a couple of cards to buy time and allow you to draw a couple more cards. But if you do that, you might end up giving a card to your opponent that he needs. In a typical opening hand, you'll have one or two investment cards in a color with few (if any) other cards to guarantee success in that expedition. It's quite common to have to take a blind guess or leap of faith and just hope things work out for the best and that you'll be able to draw enough cards later on to make the expedition profitable. This is a game of agonizing decisions and most of the time you'll start the game feeling like you've just been dealt the worst hand in the world.

After you've both committed yourselves by starting a couple of expeditions you'll settle down into the mid game groove. For a few turns you'll have some obvious places to play. You'll have a run of cards in a color. You'll have unwanted cards that can safely be discarded because your opponent has already played a seven or eight in that color. And you'll probably enjoy the unpleasant experience of drawing a card you could have used right after you had given up waiting for it and played a higher ranking card in that color.

Before you know it, the pile of cards in the supply will be dwindling short. Now you've reached the end game. By now reality will have sunk in. You'll realize that there's little chance of drawing any more cards for the expeditions you've invested in and you're holding too many cards that must yet be played if you're to show a profit. You'll start playing cards and drawing from the discard stacks in a frantic bid to stretch the game out long enough to get those few remaining high cards out of your hand before the game ends. And your opponent will be trying his hardest to take those last cards from the supply before you can get your cards in play.

Lost Cities is an addicting blend of strategy and luck. Luck plays a pretty heavy role, as in most card games, but it isn't overwhelming and the game plays fast enough (about 30 minutes for a game of three hands) that you can always play another game to try and even things up. For such a simple game, there are a surprising amount of agonizing decisions to be made. Clever play and a good understanding of the odds are definitely a big help. It also doesn't hurt to have some math skills. Adding up those scores is just complicated enough to make you think.

A friend and I have been playing this game over our lunch hour several times a week for some time now. It's one of our favorite two player games and even when I'm losing, I still feel like playing again. The more I play it, the more I like it. If you're looking for a really solid two player game then you really can't go wrong with Lost Cities.

Sunday, April 03, 2005

Review: Ingenious

Reiner Knizia's latest game is simply Ingenious. First released at the end of last year in Germany under the title Einfach Genial, this game generated quite a buzz. To say it was well received would be an understatement.

Ingenious is an abstract strategy game for one to four players. It's a very simple game with simple and elegant rules. You can learn this game in five minutes and you can play it in well under an hour. Like many of Heir Knizia's games, its simple rules belie a deep strategy game that is easily played but is not easily mastered.

Ingenious is played on a hexagonal grid. Each piece in the game resembles a domino formed from two adjacent hexagons. Each hexagon bears a different color-coded symbol: red twelve-pointed stars, green disks, blue six-pointed stars, orange hexagons, yellow suns, and purple circles. At the start of the game, each player receives a tile rack, six tiles, a scoreboard and a set of colored cubes that mark the players score in each of the six color-shape categories.

On your turn you place one of your tiles anywhere on the board you like. Tiles need not be connected and they need not be adjacent to any other tile. (Except for the first round when each player must play adjacent to a different one of the six symbols printed on the board.)

After you play your tile you score it. Tiles score points by being adjacent to hexagons that have the same symbol. For each of the two hexagons on your tile, you project a line in each of the five directions adjacent to that hexagon and you score one point for every matching symbol in that direction until you reach a non-matching symbol or an empty space. Here's an example from the rule sheet:

Here the player on the left would score two points in red and four points in blue. The player on the right would score twelve points in green.

After a player has placed his tile he draws his set back up to six and play continues to the next player.

Play continues until there are no more legal moves on the board at which point players compare their scores. The winner (as in Tigris and Euphrates) is decided by the player with the most points in his lowest scoring category. So players are rewarded for balanced scoring. There is little advantage in getting a huge score in one category; you must instead spread your scoring around as evenly as possible in all six categories.

Ingenious is one of those rare games that's so very easy to learn and so very difficult to play well. It's fast, it's simple and it's (ahem) Ingenious. If you like abstract strategy games then this game belongs in your collection.

Review: Sleuth

Back in 1967 Sid Sackson created a little card game called Sleuth. Since then, Sleuth has been printed all over the world. Until recently it was out of print but this last year Face 2 Face games reprinted it and the world can once again enjoy this classic deduction game.

Sleuth's rules are very simple. There are two decks of cards: the gem deck and the search deck. The gem deck contains 36 cards, each containing one combination of color, gem and style. The four colors are red, yellow, blue and green. The three gems are diamonds, opals and pearls. The three styles are solitaires, pairs and clusters.

At the beginning of the game, both decks are shuffled and one gem is removed from the gem deck. Then the rest of the gem cards are dealt to the players. Players mark on their tally sheets which gems they have and which gems they have seen throughout the game.

Each player is dealt four cards from the search deck. Each card represents a line of questioning. For example, one card might let you ask one player how many diamonds she has. Another card might let you ask a player to show you all of his opal clusters.

Play progresses with each player using one of his search cards to interrogate one of the other players and then drawing a new search card to replace the one he used. As soon as someone thinks they know what the missing gem is, they mark it on their sheet and take a look. If they're right then they win the game, but if they're wrong then they've lost and can only answer questions for the rest of the game.

Clearly, Sleuth has some similarities to the old standard Clue, but it distils the deduction genre down to its essence and it's a far more elegant and satisfying game. It's also a much more difficult game than Clue. I highly recommend it.

Review: Tichu

I've been meaning to write a review of Tichu for a long time now. That time has finally come.

When I first heard of Tichu I couldn't understand what all the fuss was about. I mean, it's just a card game, right? It doesn't even use a clever, art-laden non-standard deck. There's no flash here. And yet I kept hearing phrases like "this is the best four player game ever". Naturally not everyone will agree with that statement but still, the fact that some people felt that way was an indication that perhaps there was something in this game that merited a closer look.

Last spring, after reading a similar glowing endorsement, I took a copy of Tichu to one of my son's baseball games with the goal of learning the rules. I pulled out the rule sheet (a single sheet of paper with several language versions printed in very small print) and began my attempt to figure out what all the fuss was about. The rules were short enough but I confess that after reading them two or three times I still didn't get it. It looked like a good enough game but the rules were relatively complicated and totally unfamiliar to someone who had been raised on traditional trick taking games like Rook, Hearts and Bridge. They also didn't really strike me as being well written. Three times through the rules and I still didn't feel I had a command for how the game worked and I certainly didn't understand why some were calling it the world's best partnership card game.

That's where things stayed for several months. After my first readings of the rules I wasn't impressed enough to find table time for Tichu. I would occasionally suggest it to my weekly game night group but there were always other games that interested us more and I could never find four players willing to give it a go.

On one occasion I, my wife, my son and a friend found a few moments to give it a quick try. I did my best to explain the rules and we played a hand or two … incorrectly. My imperfect understanding of the rules lead to many mistakes and resulted in an experience that left everyone rather unimpressed. Afterward I re-read the rules at a more careful pace and realized how many rules we'd gotten wrong. I was eager to try it again with the proper rules but it would be some time before the opportunity would present itself.

Then one day I decided to try it out with some friends from work over our lunch hour. By then I'd finally grasped the rules. This time, we played it correctly. And the rest, as they say, is history. We are addicted and we now play Tichu at least three times a week over lunch.

So what's all the fuss about? Well that's a little hard to explain. Tichu is a partnership trick taking game but it's a very different trick taking game from those you might be used to. It's kind of a strange cross between Hearts and Poker and another game called The Great Dalmuti (which in turn is based upon an old card game known by some as "Scum" and by many others by a more colorful name which I won't repeat here).

Players attempt to rid their hands of cards by playing sets of cards that resemble poker hands: straights, pairs, triples, full houses, etc. The player who leads the trick determines what type of set the other players must play. If he leads a pair then each other player must try and play a higher pair in turn. Whoever plays the highest ranking pair takes the trick. Unlike other trick taking games, players may choose to pass but if they play they MUST play a higher ranking set. There is no "ducking" in Tichu. Also unlike other trick taking games, play continues on a trick until three players pass in succession. This means that players may end up playing several times on the same trick. Players may even choose to play after passing if their turn comes up again.

In addition to the normal 52 cards of a standard deck of playing cards, there are four special cards in a Tichu deck: the dog, the phoenix, the mah jong, and the dragon. Each has special abilities and special rules for when and how they can be played.

Players score points in several ways: captured 5's, 10's and kings are worth points as is the dragon. The phoenix is a powerful card but it costs points to take it. Players also earn points by correctly predicting that they will be the first to "go out". And if both players in a partnership go out before anyone in the other partnership it's called a "double win" and they immediately score big points. The game is played over several hands to a predetermined score, usually 1000 points. If you are interested in all of the details then I suggest you read my rules summary.

On the box, Tichu is advertised for three to ten players but the game is really best for four and that is how I recommend it be played. Play with any other number of players and you're not really playing Tichu; you're just playing another game that happens to use the same rules.

Tichu is a deceptively deep game. There is luck involved to be sure, this is a card game after all, but the strategy far outweighs the luck. Clever play and a good understanding of the rules will almost always be rewarded. The more I play, the more appreciation I have for what an elegant and addictive game this is. I'll allow that Tichu might not be "the best four player game ever" but it's a strong contender for that title and in my opinion it is definitely worthy of the title: "the best four player partnership card game ever".