Monday, May 30, 2005

Review: Saboteur

"Hi Ho! Hi Ho! It's off to work we go!" I wonder what would happen if Dopey suddenly turned evil and decided to keep all of those shiny diamonds for himself? Would he stab Grumpy in the back? One could argue that Grumpy's been asking for it for years anyway. Pick up a copy of Saboteur, the new card game from Frédéric Moyersoen and Z-Man Games, and find out for yourself!

In Saboteur, the players are dwarves digging in search of gold. They've sunk a shaft and begun digging toward three locations that are potential gold veins. One location will have the shiny metal they crave, the other two… nothing. But there's a problem. Equipment keeps breaking and sometimes the tunnel gets dug in the wrong direction. One of the players must be a greedy saboteur who wants to keep the others from finding the gold so he can keep it all for himself.

Saboteur is a card game that's played over three rounds. At the beginning of each round, players are each assigned a random secret role. Most of them will be diggers but a small number of players might be saboteurs. Players take turns playing cards that extend the network of tunnels toward three goal cards placed seven card widths away from the start of the mine. If the tunnel reaches one of the goal cards, it's turned over to reveal whether or not the dwarves have struck gold. If they find the gold then all the diggers will share in the loot, with the one who found the gold getting the lion's share of the nuggets. However, if the deck runs out before the dwarves can find the gold, then the saboteurs will each get some nuggets. At the end of three rounds, whoever has the most gold nuggets wins.

Along with the tunnel cards (which expand the maze of tunnels), there are cards which break lanterns, picks and mine carts, cards which repair broken equipment, cards which remove tunnel segments and cards which allow players to have a peek at one of the three goal cards, giving them some information about where to dig.

The cards themselves are very nice. They're sturdy, plastic coated, and easy to shuffle. They're also nicely illustrated, particularly the tunnel cards which are all unique and contain the occasional bone or piece of mine litter.

Saboteur is a clever and entertaining game. It's easy to learn. It plays in around 30 minutes and it works well with a wide range of players. This isn't the deepest of games but it's quite good fun. Figuring out who (if anyone) is a saboteur can actually be quite tough because even if you're not a saboteur, you'll still have an incentive to stop the others, get to the gold first and collect the most nuggets for yourself. If you're looking for a nice light card game that plays well with almost any number of players, ages 8 and up then look no further!

Sunday, May 29, 2005

Review: For Sale

For Sale is a fast-playing card game about buying and selling houses. It supports from 3 to 6 players ages 8 and up and it plays in about fifteen minutes.

The recently released version from Überplay is a re-release of the original Stefan Dorra classic first released in 1997. The new version has made a couple of minor changes that make the game a little faster and allow it to support more players than the original but the spirit of the game remains the same.

Inside the sturdy box you'll find thirty property cards numbered one to thirty. Each one has an illustration of a property ranging from a cardboard box in a dingy alley, to a suburban house with a picket fence, to a sumptuous fairy-tale castle, and culminating in a futuristic orbiting space station. You'll also find thirty check cards. There are two of each amount ranging from $15,000 to a pair of voided checks. And finally, you'll find an assortment of cardboard coins. All of the components are delightfully illustrated, including the rule book whose back cover is decorated to resemble a shingled roof.

The game is played in two phases. During the first phase, players buy properties and during the second, they sell them.

In the first phase, one property card is turned over for each player and players bid on the properties. Each player may either raise the previous bid or pass, but if they pass, they must take the lowest valued property and pay half of their previous bid (if any) to the bank. They get to keep the rest of their bid. After all other players have passed, whoever has placed the highest bid must pay their entire bid to the bank but they get to keep the best property. This is repeated until all of the properties have been purchased.

Once all of the properties have been purchased, the players turn over one check card for each player. Then the players each select one of their property cards and they reveal them simultaneously. Then the players claim the checks in order based upon the value of their properties. So whoever played the highest value property card gets to claim the highest check. This is repeated until all of the properties have been sold.

When all of the properties have been sold the game is over. Players count their money (including any money they didn't spend during the first round) and whoever has the most money wins!

For Sale can be taught and played in under fifteen minutes and it appeals to players of all ages. It has a good mix of luck and strategy. It's simple, quick, attractive and a lot of fun.

Wednesday, May 25, 2005

Review: Louis XIV

Louis XIV is the latest game from Rüdiger Dorn and Alea, the company that brought us such classics as Princes of Florence and Puerto Rico.

In Louis XIV, players travel to the court of the Sun King and attempt to influence the various courtiers who are each represented with large square tiles decorated with artwork from one of the great masters. This is a beautiful game with ornate and lavish artwork that fits in well with the theme.

This game doesn't have a traditional board; rather the playing area consists of a checkerboard pattern of square tiles, each of which bears a likeness of someone from Louis' inner circle. Players take turns placing influence markers on these tiles in an effort to gain the reward printed on the tile. Each tile lists a cost and a reward. For some tiles, you must have a clear majority of influence to take the reward. For other tiles, having a clear majority gives you the reward for free, but if you have any influence on the tile at all, you can pay a bribe (in gold coins) in order to claim the reward even if you don't have a majority. And for still other tiles, you can always claim the reward provided you have a minimal level of influence. Furthermore, the tiles are double sided and they are flipped over when someone claims the reward, changing the requirement for the next round.

The rewards offered by the tiles include mission chips (used to fulfill mission cards), gold (used to bribe courtiers), coats-of-arms chips (worth victory points), influence tokens, and cards (used to place influence markers in subsequent rounds). The most common reward is the mission chips which come in several varieties: helms, orbs, parchment, rings, and crowns. These chips are traded in pairs to put a mission card in play. Mission cards are worth five victory points and they also grant an additional power to the player who plays them. For instance, some mission cards give a player an additional chance to place influence markers, some reward the player with extra gold, and so on. The mission cards are the primary avenue to victory in this game and you'll want to play as many of them as you can.

Louis XIV is played in four turns. Each turn begins with players receiving a set of five influence cards and some randomly determined amount of gold. Influence cards are played in order to place influence markers on the playing area. Each tile is then scored and rewards are given. And finally, mission chips are used to put mission cards in play. After four turns have been played, victory points are tallied and a winner is determined. The whole process actually goes rather quickly and can easily be done in well under the 90 minutes printed on the box.

This is a beautiful game and there is a lot going on. There are several avenues to victory and a successful game will require a relatively high amount of both strategy and tactics. This is a relatively complicated game but once you've played through a round it all makes sense and it's easy to play.

I have only two minor quibbles with this game. The first is that, for all the lavish artwork and production values, the theme is actually rather thin. The second (and more serious) is that one element of scoring (the coats-of-arms chips) is random. At the end of the game, players reveal their coats-of-arms chips. Players with a majority of any coats-of-arms type (there are six) are awarded an extra victory point. Typically this only adds up to an additional point or two but as the scores in this game can be quite close, this could be enough to swing the game. I didn't find it to be that big of a deal but if it bothers you, you could very easily play without this rule.

My final verdict is that Louis XIV is a solid game and a worthy addition to the proud Alea line. This is a gamer's game with a lot to offer. The replay value is high. The production values are first rate. The length is just about perfect. This one is a keeper!

Review: Pickomino

Pickomino is a nice light dice game by Reiner Knizia. This is a simple game for 2-7 players with a "press your luck" feel. It plays in around 20 minutes and it works well as a children's game.

In Pickomino, players are chickens who roll dice in an attempt to score the juiciest worms from off the bar-B-Q. It's an odd and whimsical theme that is enhanced by Doris Matthäus' nice artwork. Like most of Dr. Knizia's games, the theme is rather thinly washed over what is otherwise a rather abstract (albeit simple) game.

Inside the small box you'll find 16 domino-like pieces and 8 dice. The dominos each have a number printed on the top half (ranging from 21 to 36) and a number of worms printed on the bottom half (from 1 to 4). Each worm represents a victory point and the number at the top indicates a cost to claim that domino. The dice are standard dice except that the side which would normally have six pips has a picture of a worm instead.

On your turn, you roll all eight dice and choose a number (or worm). Take all the dice that show that number and set them aside. Now roll the remaining dice and do it again, only you can't take a number that you've already taken. For instance, if on your first roll, you rolled four fives, two threes, a one and a two, you could take the four fives and re-roll the rest. Now you might get two fives and two threes. You would have to take the two threes since you already took fives on the last roll. Continue rolling dice until either you decide to stop or all the dice you've rolled show numbers that you've already taken (in which case the roll is a failure and you have to give up a domino). When you stop rolling, you add up your dice (worms are worth five, the other sides are worth the number of pips shown) and you take the corresponding domino off the "bar-B-Q" and add it to your stack. If your roll exactly matches a domino on the top of one of the other players' stacks then you can steal that domino instead. At the end of the game, players count up the worms on the bottom of their dominos and whoever has the most wins the game.

This is a fun and simple game which can be taught and played in just a few minutes. The primary tension in the game is derived from deciding how far to press your luck. This being a dice game, obviously luck plays a large roll, and yet a good understanding of the odds can definitely mitigate that a bit. For instance, it's almost always better to take a single one, two or three after the first roll if you haven't rolled a lot of fives or worms because that increases your chances of getting lots of fives or worms on your next roll.

I'm not a huge fan of games that rely so heavily on luck, and yet in this case the game is short enough and there is just enough thinking involved that the high amount of luck doesn't really bother me. Pickomino is intended to be a very simple and quick game and I think it delivers. If you're looking for a light filler, something that packs small and can be played just about anywhere and any time, especially with children, then Pickomino is a good choice.

Review: Samurai

Samurai is a classic game by master game designer Reiner Knizia. It supports 2-4 players and plays in well under an hour.

Samurai is set in feudal Japan where players attempt to influence land (represented by rice fields), religion (represented by Buddhas), and government (represented by high helmets). Like most Knizia games, this is basically an abstract game that's been dressed up in a theme but in this case, the theme is beautifully done and the game itself is a masterpiece.

The playing surface is a beautiful four-piece board that represents the major islands of Japan. It's a modular board that is assembled differently depending on the number of players. With two players, only the major island of Honshu is used. With three players, the islands of Kyushu and Shikoku are added. And with four players, the island of Hokkaido is added.

Each island is made up of a number of hexagons with cities, towns and villages evenly distributed throughout. There are 13 Plexiglas pieces for each of the three categories: High Helmets, Buddhas, and Rice Fields. These are scattered about the villages, towns and cities.

Each player receives an identical set of twenty hexagonal tiles and a playing screen. Five tiles are chosen as the player's starting hand. The others form a supply from which the player randomly draws throughout the game.

Players take turns placing tiles on the board in order to exert influence over the neighboring pieces. Some tiles exert influence over only one type of piece, other tiles exert influence over all neighboring pieces. Whenever a piece is surrounded it is captured by the player who is currently exerting the most influence over that piece.

The end game scoring is relatively unique. If any one player has a clear plurality (more than any other single player) in any two categories, that player automatically wins the game. Otherwise, all players with a plurality in one category set aside all their pieces in that category and count up the their remaining pieces. Whoever has the most wins the game. Any player that doesn't have a plurality in any of the three categories automatically loses. It's an elegant scoring mechanic that rewards players for doing well in one category without ignoring the other two.

Samurai is a highly tactical game. There is ample opportunity for surprise maneuvers and outthinking your opponents. There is some randomness due to the order that tiles are drawn but this is more than offset by the five tile hand and the fact that in most games you will end up playing nearly all of your tiles so the randomness merely effects the order in which they can be played. The game is extremely well balanced and the pacing is nearly perfect. In my eyes, the only flaw is that as the game progresses and more pieces are on the board to consider it can sometimes take a while for some people to decide where to play.

Samurai is a masterpiece and it belongs in every serious gamer's collection.

Thursday, May 19, 2005

Review: China

The latest release from Überplay is a game called China. The game supports 3-5 players, ages 12 and up, and it plays in around 45 minutes.

China is a re-working of the award winning game called Web of Power which was released back in 2000. Web of Power has long been out of print and consequently very difficult to find so when I heard that Überplay was going to be re-releasing it I was pretty excited. One thing that concerned me, however, was that I heard rumors that they were going to be making some changes to the game. Making changes to a great game like Web of Power is a dicey thing. Some would argue that if it works, you shouldn't try and fix it. Well, don't worry because I'm here to tell you that China is even better.

So lets start with the cosmetics. First of all, let me say that I really like these half-height boxes that so many of Überplay's games come in these days. They're sturdy and attractive and they don't take up too much shelf space. In this case, there is almost no wasted space. The board fits on top and the many lovely wooden pieces and deck of cards just barely fit in the large space below. The pieces are very nice: lovely wooden houses with a nice oriental look to them and nice round emissary pieces that look like cylinders with little Chinese hats. One thing I especially appreciate is that because the cylindrical pieces have that hat, they roll in circles instead of rolling off the table, something that is always problematic with cylindrical pieces. I don't know if that was intentional but I like it. The cards are full size and nicely coated. The double-sided board is attractive, colorful and sturdy, with the linen paper that we've come to expect from the European manufacturers. Both sides are nearly the same. The network of roads on each is slightly different. One side is intended for three or four player games, the other for four or five.

China is basically an area control game. The board depicts a map of China divided into several provinces. Each province contains a number of "house spaces" or towns, connected by a network of roads. Players take turns placing houses and emissaries in provinces in an attempt to secure victory points. Each player has a hand of three colored cards. Players may place a piece on the board (either a house or an emissary) by playing a card whose color matches the color of the district on the board in which they wish to play. Two cards of the same color can be used as a joker to place a piece in any district on the board.

Players score points based on how many houses they have in a province, how many houses they have directly connected to one another by roads, and also by controlling neighboring provinces with their emissaries.

Whenever all of a province's house spaces are filled, it is scored. Players are ranked by the number of houses they control in the province. Whoever has the most houses gets one point for all houses in the province. Whoever has the second most houses gets one point for each house controlled by the player with the most. Whoever has the third most gets one point for each house controlled by the player with the second most, and so on. Players who tie both get the full points. So if Art has 3 houses, Bob has 3 houses and Cindy has 1 house, Art and Bob would each get 7 points and Cindy would get 3.

Unlike Web of Power, each province is only scored once, either when all house spaces have been taken or at the end of the game (when the card supply has been exhausted twice). I like this change because it tends to speed the game up a bit, it keeps the scores close, and it requires players to plan ahead all the way to the end of the game. In any event, it is still possible to play China with the original rules from Web of Power if you desire. (The rules are pretty easy to find on the web.)

At the end of the game, each pair of neighboring provinces is visited in turn by the emperor (represented by a large black pawn). For each adjacent pair of provinces, if one player has a plurality of emissaries in both provinces, he scores one point for each emissary (his or another's) in those two provinces. One obvious strategy is to try and get a lot of emissaries in a whole cluster of neighboring provinces so that they can be scored multiple times. Of course your opponents are going to be trying to do that as well so it might not be so easy.

Another new addition to the game is the set of black square "fortresses". These are used for an optional variant that allows players to place a fortress on a house space following the normal piece placement cost of one card of the appropriate color or two matching cards. Then, a house may be placed on the square (assuming you can pay the cost to build the house) and all points awarded to that player in that province are doubled. This variant adds a few more strategic options to an already very strategic game. I haven't decided whether I prefer to play with the fortresses or without them yet. Both ways have their merits.

Like all good strategy games, there are a lot of subtle things going on in China. The game definitely rewards developing a strategy and pursuing it, but the cards (and the actions of the other players) introduce just enough luck into the mix to require a lot of tactical thinking as well. The landscape is constantly shifting and you have to be ready to adapt your strategy to fit the situation. Since the cards limit where you can play, it pays to think ahead and try to draw the right cards in order to keep your hand flexible without sacrificing your strategy.

China strikes a near perfect balance between luck and strategy. Scores tend to be relatively close. There are a lot of tough decisions, but not so many that the game bogs down while people agonize over what to do next. And the 45 minute playing time makes this a great game for any occasion. We've been playing it over our lunch break quite a bit lately. I find that it goes very well with a nice sandwich and a cold soft drink. You should try it!

Friday, May 06, 2005

Review: Amazonas

During the 19th century, the scientific world began exploring South America's largest river, known to the Brazilians as Amazonas. The Amazon rainforest is a hot, wet, wild jungle teeming with strange life and stranger natives. It's a place of beauty and danger filled with some of the world's most exotic species. Your job is to explore it, setting up outposts in remote villages and collecting specimens to bring back to your sponsor.

The first thing that caught my eye was the colorful macaw and mysterious jungle exploration scene that graces the box cover. If you could judge a game by its cover then this would be a good indicator. Inside the box you'll find more lush artwork on the game board which represents a section of the Amazon river and the surrounding jungle. Also included in the box are several nice wooden huts in four colors, a selection of wooden coins, several cardboard counters representing different species (butterflies, lizards, fish, flowers, and birds) and several sets of cards, all lavishly and colorfully decorated. The production values are first rate and do a wonderful job of conveying a sense of the vibrant colors that make up the Amazonas.

Amazonas is a network connection and set collection game that takes several familiar mechanics and blends them together in a very attractive light family strategy game for 3-4 players. Scattered around the board are about 30 villages, all connected with a network of jungle paths and water routes that crisscross the board. Each player receives a set of huts in their color, three gold coins and a set of income cards. Each player also receives one secret directive card, selected at random, which lists four villages where the player should establish outposts.

Each player's set of income cards is (almost) identical and numbered from 0 to 6. At the beginning of each game turn, each player selects one card from their hand and plays it (similar to the mechanic in Niagara). The cards serve two purposes: they determine the player's order for that turn and they determine each player's income for that turn. If you play a 4 card then you receive four silver coins for income.

I mentioned that the sets of cards are almost identical. The difference is the small white numbers at the top of each card that are used as tie breakers when determining turn order. Ordinarily, the player with the highest income goes first but often it happens that players will tie and in that case, the player whose card has the highest number at the top of their card goes first.

Income can also be affected by the specimens you've already collected. Each card has a symbol on it. For every specimen tile you've collected that matches that symbol, your income is increased by one. This also affects turn order, so it's possible for you to play a 4 and still go before another player who played a 5 because you happened to have enough matching specimen tiles.

Once a card is played from your hand, it is unavailable to use again until you have used up all of your cards, at which point you take all your cards back into your hand.

After you've collected your income, you have the option of collecting a specimen tile and establishing an outpost by building a hut in a village. Each village is associated with one type of specimen and has spaces for one or more huts. In order for you to build in a village, you must pay the building cost but you can't build just anywhere, you have to build in a village that is connected by a path or a water route to another village that already has a hut in your color. Whoever builds first in a village pays the least so it is to your advantage to try and build before your opponents.

At the beginning of each turn a card is drawn from the top of a stack of cards called the event deck. These cards effect the rules of the game during that round. There are cards that grant additional income for having certain specimen tiles, cards that reduce your income, and monkey cards that steal coins from each player. There are also jaguar cards which render the jungle paths unsafe for travel and crocodile cards which do the same for the river routes.

The event deck also acts as a turn counter. When the last card is drawn, the game is over. The players figure their score and determine the winner. Players are rewarded both for having a lot of tiles in each specimen category as well as for having at least one of each specimen. Also, players deduct points from their score for each village on their secret directive card where they weren't able to establish an outpost.

Amazonas is a colorful, light strategy game. It's not difficult to play and there is minimal player interaction which primarily amounts to trying to be the first into a village so you can secure the cheapest hut space. Getting all four of the villages on your secret directive card before the turns run out is the main challenge in this game, but you also need to collect as many specimens as you can.

Amazonas is a very nice game for three to four players that plays in under an hour. It's very attractive and it's quite fun. If you're looking for a good light strategy game, something that the family or a pair of couples can enjoy in under an hour then this would be a fine choice.

Sunday, May 01, 2005

Review: Santiago

For some time now, Santiago has only been available as an import. That changed this month when Z-Man games decided to release the game in the US. That whooshing sound you heard was the sound of thousands of avid gamers breathing a sigh of relief. That's because Santiago is one of those games that belongs in every serious gamer's closet.

Santiago is set in the Cape Verde Islands off the coast of Africa. Technically, the name should be São Tiago (Portuguese for Saint James) because the Cape Verde islands were a Portuguese colony. These islands are warm and dry and getting anything to grow here requires irrigation. That's where this game gets its theme. In Santiago, players are building plantations and negotiating for the precious water rights that will prevent their plantations from drying up.

The game is played on a grid representing a patch of dry farm land. A spring is placed on one of the intersections and at the end of each turn an irrigation canal will be dug leading from the spring and providing water to the plantations on either side of the canal.

On each turn, a limited selection of plantations are made available. Players bid for turn order, and then each player selects one plantation, places it on the board, and places one or two yield markers in his color on the plantation.

Each plantation represents a crop in either bananas, sugar cane, potatoes, beans, or red peppers. As like plantations are placed next to each other, they together form a larger plantation which will be worth more points to the player or players who have yield markers on it at the end of the game. So the right to place a plantation and put your yield markers on it is quite important.

Whoever bid the least amount gets to be the Canal Overseer for that turn. His job is to decide which plantations will receive water, and which plantations will not. Each player gets to suggest a location for a new irrigation canal. Along with her suggestion, she may also add a bribe. After each player has had an opportunity to either suggest a different location for the irrigation canal, or support one of the current suggestions by adding to the bribe, the overseer makes his choice. He can either accept one of the bribes and build in the suggested location or he may pay one higher than the highest bribe and build wherever he pleases.

Next, any plantation that is not adjacent to an irrigation canal looses a yield marker. If there are no yield markers for the plantation to loose then the plantation is turned upside down, indicating that it has completely dried up.

Players are given a meager income of three Escudos and the next turn begins. This continues until all of the plantations have been placed.

At the end of the game, each plantation is scored. Players receive one Escudo for each yield marker in a plantation times the number of tiles that make up that plantation. So a five tile banana plantation is worth five Escudos for each yield marker on it. The larger the plantation, the more it's worth. Players add all their money and whoever has the most wins the game.

Santiago is one of my personal favorites. It has all of the makings of a great game. The components are attractive. The theme is interesting (although perhaps a bit thin). It's a simple game filled with agonizing decisions: should I bid more to make sure I can expand my banana patch or should I let the others outbid me so I can make sure that the water goes where I need it? The components are simple, yet attractive. It's easy to learn, easy to teach, not so easy to play well. A game can be finished in well under an hour if everyone knows the rules. Players are in it right up to the very end and scores tend to be extremely close.

I have only one minor complaint about Santiago (other than the fact that the designers got the name wrong, which bugs me since I happen to speak Portuguese as a second language) and that is that it uses paper money. Money changes hands frequently enough that the game would work much better with a good set of poker chips, and in fact, that is exactly what we use when we play the game.

If you don't have a copy of Santiago in your library then you really should get a copy. This one truly belongs in everybody's library along side Puerto Rico, Ticket to Ride, Carcassonne and Settlers of Catan. It's a true modern classic.