Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Last Night Was Game Night - Here's What You Missed

I wasn't able to stay long last night (work beckoned) but I was able to stay long enough to play a few games.

First up was Poison. Unfortunately, I only brought the cards and didn't bring the rules. It had been long enough since I'd last played that I misremembered one of the rules until we'd already played a hand or two. It wasn't a major problem though. I'm not complaining; especially since I emerged victorious!

Some nice group at Microsoft had a catered going-away party on the lower level of the cafeteria, complete with buffalo wings, poppers, chips and dip, and a very nice chocolate raspberry cake. As they are often prone to do, they ordered far too much food so we felt it our duty to help them eat some of it. They were even nice enough to offer us some. What they didn't know was that several of us had already crashed the party. *grin*

Mike M., Jose, Wade and I played Tigris & Euphrates. That makes two weeks in a row that I've been able to get this game to the table and my streak remains intact. I won again. Mike came in a close second just barely edging out Wade. Poor Jose opened by playing two leaders adjacent to the same temple and then Mike knocked BOTH of them out by internal conflict with his very first move, effectively putting Jose a turn behind the rest of us right from the start. He never really recovered. This game just fascinates me. The more I play it the more I like it. I think that I could happily play this once a week for weeks on end.

While we were babysitting our little Mesopotamian empires, Oren was busy introducing Birch to the wonders of Go. If you've never played Go then you really owe it to yourself to learn. It's one of the oldest games there is but more than that, it's a truly elegant abstract game. The rules are very simple but it's got to be one of the hardest games there is to play well. I don't play it much anymore because I just don't feel that I can devote the time necessary to learn to play it well. Still, everyone should at least learn the rules and play it once or twice just to get an understanding of what a beautiful game it is.

I wrapped my evening up with a few games of Bluff before I strapped back on the shackles and went back to work. I don't know what the others played after I left.

Next Tuesday will be another busy night for me so I probably won't stay long. But after that I'm on vacation through the end of the year so I'll have my Tuesday nights completely free for gaming once again!

Monday, November 28, 2005

First Impression: Boomtown

Today at lunch we played Boomtown, a very nice game by "the two Brunos": Bruno Cathala and Bruno Fiadutti. This game has hit the table at game night many times over the last few months but I always seemed to be involved in another game so this was my first time to play it.

Boomtown is an auction game at heart. Each round, one card is produced for each player in the game. Players then bid to see who will have first choice. The winning player passes his bid to the player to his right, who keeps half the bid and hands half to the player to his right, who keeps half the bid and passes the other half to his right, and so on. Then the winning player chooses his card and the other players each choose theirs clockwise. In this way, the players choosing last end up with the worst card but the largest share of the money bid. It's a lovely balancing mechanism that I would love to see used again. Very impressive.

Most of the cards are mines that produce a certain amount of income when a certain number is rolled on two dice. The dice are rolled once after each set of cards is taken. As players collect more mines, they are more likely to score income with each roll of the dice. We played with a variant where the dice are rolled twice instead of once after each round. This doubles the amount of potential income but it also tends to even out the luck and I think I prefer it this way (although I've never played with the rules as written).

The Brunos have a reputation for creating slightly luck-heavy games and Boomtown is no exception. Some of the cards in the deck are arguably a little too powerful and the randomness of the dice (particularly if played as written in the rules) could be a little overwhelming. Still, I enjoyed the game quite a bit and none of that really bothered me at all. The randomness makes the game lighter than it might otherwise be and it also makes the game more family friendly as it allows a poorer player to win every now and then. And it is right in keeping with the gold mining theme (which is quite well done).

All in all, I found it to be quite an enjoyable game and I'm looking forward to playing it again. Hopefully I'll be able to pull out another win. That's right! I'm currently undefeated in this game (with a record of 1-0).

Sunday, November 27, 2005

He's baaack!

Rick Thornquist has resurrected Gone Cardboard with a new web site called quite simply Boardgame News. Many gaming luminaries will be contributing to Rick's new site. For example, The Dice Tower, Tom Vasel and Joe Steadman's podcast, is now going to be hosted on Rick's new site.

Go support him!

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Another Week - Another Game Night

I was at game night last night. Where were you?

My son Kray joined us again. And once again he played very well.

I started out the night with one of my very favorite games: Tigris & Euphrates. I think I'm finally beginning to get a feel for the strategy in this game. That doesn't mean I'm very good at it but at least I don't feel like I'm embarrassing myself any more. And in fact, I won tonight's game.

This game is considered by many to be Reiner Knizia's masterpiece. It's a true gamer's game (which now isn't so unusual for Her Knizia but at the time was very unusual) filled with lots of agonizing decisions and very deep strategy and tactics.

Also on the table tonight: die Sieben Siegel (the Seven Seals) which is a very well respected trick taking game. Personally, I'm not overly fond of this game because in order to do well you have to predict not only how many tricks you will take but exactly which suits you'll take them with. That's a little more precision than I'm comfortable with. But it's a very popular game and I can see why many people really enjoy it. It's definitely a good game, just not my favorite.

Personally, I prefer Sticheln (which we also played tonight) which is also a trick taking game but with a twist. Take as many tricks as you can but don't take any cards in your "pain" suit or you're going to lose a ton of points. This can be a brutal game and it's great fun to stick somebody with a lot of cards in their pain suit. Simple, quick and nasty. Nice combination.

Another Knizia masterpiece also hit the table: Modern Art. This is the king of auction games: containing no less than four different types of auctions. The game is about auctioning off paintings and manipulating their values in the hopes of selling them at a profit at the end of each of four buying seasons. It's a pure auction game and it truly is (if you'll pardon the pun) a work of art.

We also played several games of Bluff (or Liar's Dice) which is a pretty standard filler game with our group. This time it was notable only for the fact that Kray was able to play the game for the first time.

Games that I wasn't personally involved in include Evo. This is a great game with a rather silly evolution theme. Players control herds of dinosaurs and try to mutate their dinos and grow their herds. Control the most dinos and score the most points to win. There's also a very nice auction mechanic where players bid to secure mutations that will make their dinos more able to survive and reproduce.

Also on the table was Domaine, Klaus Teuber's sensational area control game. Players strive to carve up the countryside into kingdoms under their control. This is a remake of Teuber's earlier game: Lowenherz. It's very similar but a few of the mechanics have been changed slightly. It's a slightly more streamlined game and given that it's a heck of a lot easier to find than the original I'd recommend this one over the earlier edition (albeit only slightly).

Friday, November 18, 2005

The One Hundred

So have you been following The One Hundred? I'm talking about what is otherwise known as "'The Official & Completely Authoritative 100 Best Games of All Time Ever Without Question' ... So there!" (A little tongue in cheek, naturally.)

The One Hundred is a countdown of the top 100 games as voted by a selection of just over 60 well-known members of the international board gaming community. Mark Jackson is hosting the list and has been presenting the games over the last month. Today (Friday) they announce the final two spots. I don't think I'm going out on much of a limb by predicting #1 will be Puerto Rico and #2 will be Tigris & Euphrates.

A while ago I commented on some of the bewildering choices in the GAMES 100. Well I must say that The One Hundred has proved to be a far superior list, in my opinion. There are a few choices in there that I would disagree with but that's to be expected and overall this is a superb list and if you haven't read it yet I strongly encourage you to do so. If anything on that list sounds remotely appealing to you then you shouldn't hesitate to hunt down a copy and play it. You won't be disappointed.

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

The HFoG Buyer's Guide

Last year I wrote up a detailed buyer's guide and posted it on the store website. Since then I've tried to keep it up to date as new games have hit the market. I've just finished taking yet another pass through the buyer's guide to keep it fresh. Check it out! Perhaps there will be something there that you hadn't considered. And I'm always interested in feed back so feel free to send me email.

Saturday, November 12, 2005

Review: Beowulf - The Legend

Beowulf - The Legend is a game by Reiner Knizia for 2-5 players. Recently released by Fantasy Flight Games, it features lovely artwork by master illustrator John Howe, who is also known for having done all of the art for Fantasy Flight's many Lord of the Rings themed games. The game plays in about an hour.

I'll get the obvious comparison over with right at the start: think of Knizia's
Lord of the Rings with player competition. There. I've said it. Is it a fair statement? Well, yes and no. Read on.


I absolutely adore the square large box format. We've seen a lot of games packaged this way recently: Ticket to Ride, Memoir 44, Niagara, Lord of the Rings, Shadows Over Camelot and now Beowulf, just to name a few. The large square box (12 x 12 x 3) leaves plenty of room for a nice insert, lots of juicy bits, and a large board. In Beowulf's case, the box is filled with cards, markers, tokens, a nifty figure of Beowulf, and a very nice L-shaped linen-finished board. The illustrations are all fantastic, as is to be expected when John Howe is behind the brush. The cards are decent stock (similar to cards in other recent Fantasy Flight titles) and nicely illustrated. Opening the box and setting everything up is a very satisfying experience.


The rules are printed on a nice full-size full-color eight page glossy booklet. In typical Knizia fashion, they are reasonably short and very complete. The game doesn't take long to learn and I didn't have any questions that weren't answered by the rules or the examples provided.


The object in Beowulf is to acquire fame and fortune (victory points) as a member of Beowulf's entourage, so that upon Beowulf's inevitable death, you will be the one chosen to succeed him to his throne.

The game is played on a timeline of events in Beowulf's life. The timeline winds its way across the L-shaped board and the Beowulf figure moves from event to event. At each stop players make choices and things happen. Most of the time, what happens is an auction. At each major event there is a set of "rewards" (one for each player) up for auction. I say "rewards" in quotes because sometimes the rewards are actually bad: such as having to take a scratch or a wound. Players bid with the cards in their hands to determine the order in which they will get to choose their reward. Each card bears one or more symbols. There are five symbols in the game representing traveling, friendship, wit, courage, and fighting. There is also a sixth symbol: Beowulf, which acts as a joker.

There are two types of auctions in the game. There's a blind auction where players play a set number of cards face down and then simultaneously reveal them. And there's a round the table auction where players take turns adding cards from their hand to their bid in an attempt to match or exceed the number of symbols previously bid. If a player can't play a card or match the bid then he's out and he takes the highest available selection order token (and thus will probably be forced to choose the least attractive reward).

In spite of all that bidding, Beowulf is really very much a press-your-luck style of game. At each round of bidding, and several other times in the game, players may take a "risk". A player who elects to take a risk turns over the two top cards from the deck. If either of the cards matches one of the symbols that player needs then he gets to keep the matching cards (or add them to his bid if it's during an auction). But if neither of the cards matches then he must take a scratch and he's out of the auction. This risk mechanic is so powerful that players will almost always feel compelled to use it, and that's where the press-your-luck element comes in. At every auction players must decide whether to play it safe by playing cards from their hand, take a risk (with the potential to add many symbols to their bid), or just bow out of the auction and settle for whatever reward is left to them by the time they get to choose.

Scratches by themselves are no big deal. They don't count against your score at the end of the game and they're relatively easy to heal. However, three scratches makes a wound and that's an entirely different matter. At the end of the game, if you have no wounds you get five bonus points (winning scores are typically in the low thirties). If you have one or two wounds, you're score is unchanged. But if you have three or more wounds, each wound counts five points against your score! If you end the game with three wounds or more you're pretty much guaranteed to have lost badly. And unlike scratches, wounds are not easy to heal. There are only a few events on the board where players can heal a wound.


I don't believe that there has ever before been a game about Beowulf. I certainly can't remember any. So right there, this game is something very unique. Still, Reiner Knizia isn't exactly known for doing games with great theme so it should probably come as little surprise that, while there is a lot of theme in the flavor text, the game itself doesn't do much to reinforce that theme. Each event on the board is an episode from Beowulf's life and it's clearly marked as such, but in terms of game mechanics, each event is really just a decision point or an auction. While the symbols on the cards are thematic in nature, I don’t think anyone really thinks "I'm fighting the dragon here"; they're more likely to be thinking "I need to get two more axes or fists or I'm out of the auction".

The superb artwork, on the other hand, does do a lot to reinforce the theme. And one touch that I found particularly satisfying is that on the final page of the rules there is a summary of the Legend of Beowulf that gives a brief summary for every event in the game. For those who choose to read the summary and pay attention to the events on the board, this can definitely strengthen the theme.

The Lord of the Rings Comparison

As I mentioned earlier, this game has been described as a competitive Lord of the Rings. Is that really a fair statement? Well sort of. Like Lord of the Rings, this game is episodic in nature. You move from one event in Beowulf's life to another, taking risks along the way. Also like Lord of the Rings, there are cards with symbols that are played to drive the story. And finally, like Lord of the Rings, looking ahead in the timeline to see what's coming up is extremely important. If you know what's coming up and can plan for it you are at a huge advantage. And of course, this game is designed by Knizia, illustrated by John Howe, and published by Fantasy Flight so the comparisons are inevitable and, to a large degree, justified.

There are some major differences as well. Unlike Lord of the Rings, this game is played on a single board and players are collecting treasure and victory points along the way. And of course, players are directly competing with one another, there is no namby-pamby cooperation here, we're talking blood-thirsty, knuckle-bearing competition. I don't recall Frodo and Sam ever angrily auctioning off the Lambas bread. Do you?


Beowulf has only two minor limitations: first, the game mechanics don't really do much to immerse players in the theme; and second, the press-your-luck nature of the risk mechanic leads to a somewhat luck-heavy game. Neither of these issues bothered me significantly.

On the positive side: Beowulf is a thoroughly engaging game that keeps all players completely involved and occupied for the full hour of its length. It's easy to learn but it's filled with difficult and well balanced decisions. Although it may appear to be a bit luck heavy, the choices that a player makes throughout the game definitely mitigate the luck. Sure, a player could win by taking all the risks and simply getting lucky, but it's not very likely to happen. Far more often, the winner will be the player who knows how to plan ahead, when to take the risks and when to play it safe. Strike that balance and you've got the best chance of coming out the victor.

Beowulf is an extremely attractive game. It's easy to teach and loaded with interesting choices. I loved the game. In fact, I think I'll go ask my family if they want to play again!

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

Last Night's Gaming

Last night was game night but my busy work schedule meant that I couldn't stay very long. I had to head back to work. Still, I managed to get a couple of good games in.

While people were arriving, four of us played Take It Easy. This is a puzzle game that's very simple to play. Hexagonal tiles are drawn and can be placed anywhere on a small hex grid. Each tile has three numbers corresponding to three lines that cross the hex. If you get a matching line to stretch unbroken from one side of your hex board to the other (requiring 3, 4, or 5 tiles depending on where you put the tiles) then you score the number on that line times the number of tiles in the line. Interrupted (non-matching) lines score nothing. Everyone pulls the tiles in the same sequence so the luck affects everyone equally. It's a very nice quick game and one thing I particularly like about it is that, due to its simultaneous and independent play, it scales to virtually any number of players. Although there's only enough bits in one box for four players you can just add boxes to support more players. I believe that Oren won the game and I came in second. I believe Tejas and Michael M. were the other two players but my brain's a bit fuzzy from lack of sleep and too much work.

Next we played my favorite card game Tichu! If you can get four card players together there is simply no better card game around. I'm sure there are plenty of Bridge players who would disagree with that statement but in my opinion, all the convoluted bidding conventions make Bridge a little too unapproachable for your average gamer. Tichu is a little complicated when compared to your average German style card game, but it can easily be taught in thirty minutes or so, which is precisely what I did last night. We didn't play more than a few hands and we didn't keep score (it was a learning game for one of us) but it was still quite satisfying. I play this game probably three times a week at lunch and I never get tired of it.

My last game of the night was Queen's Necklace. This is another game that Tejas had requested I bring and I was happy to do it. It had been well over a year since I'd played so I had to spend a little time reviewing the rules but that worked out OK since nobody else at the table had played before so they were learning the rules while I was re-learning them. Queen's Necklace is an interesting game by Bruno Cathala and Bruno Fiadutti. It's about buying and selling jewelry in the decadent French court just before the revolution. One of its rather unique features is that instead of drawing cards, players purchase cards from a set of five face up cards. Each card has a value and any card not purchased by a player has its value reduced. Pass up a card too many times and it gets discarded. Three times during the game, cards in the players' hands are combined to make jewelry which is then sold. Only the best jewels in each of four categories will be sold so there's an interesting mix of blind bluffing where players try and combine more jewels in each category. But the more gems that are used, the more common those gems are and that drives their value down and reduces the amount of points you can get from selling them. It's an interesting game and I'd like to play it more often.

And that was all I had time for. After that I slogged it back to my desk and worked until the wee hours of the morning. Man! I'll be glad when this crunch time is over.

Sunday, November 06, 2005

Candy Bear

Played another game of Candamir today; or as Kray accidentally called it: Candy Bear. Actually, I think I like that name better. Candy Bear. Has a nice ring to it.

Anyway, I still like it. This time we had a few more trades but my first impression still stands: mostly there's little incentive to trade. In spite of the low player interaction, I still enjoyed it. We had a very close game. Mikey almost won the game but I managed to find a goat just before he could and I edged him out by one victory point.

Saturday, November 05, 2005

Review: Citadels: The Dark City Expansion

Citadels: The Dark City Expansion is an expansion for Bruno Fiadutti's excellent card game Citadels. It's been available in Germany for several months now but it's only just reached America.

Inside the box you'll find several things, most of which are of limited value.

First, you'll find replacement character cards for all 8 original characters plus the 10 "expansion" characters which were included in the original English edition but weren't in the original German edition. These cards are only useful if you have the original German edition or if you've played your original English copy of Citadels so many times that the cards have worn out. Unfortunately they didn't think to give the cards a white border this time; they're exactly the same as the original cards which means that their black borders will show wear just as quickly as the original ones did. Strike one!

You'll also find 8 reference cards. One side contains a brief turn summary (draw cards or take money) and the other side contains a brief scoring summary. Again: useless. What these reference cards SHOULD have contained was a list of all the roles in the game and their numbers: the single most important piece of information for people just learning the game. What you do on your turn is so simple that a reference card is hardly needed and the end game scoring doesn't require a card either: you only need that information once at the end of the game so it's not really a bother to go look it up. Strike two!

And then there's the wooden king token that replaces the cardboard stand-up crown that came with the original game. Nice, but hardly necessary. Let's call that a foul ball.

Finally we come to the good part: 14 purple district cards which actually add some spice to the game. Some of the new cards grant special immunities, others give you additional ways to score, all of them are just different enough to spice up the game without being unbalancing. For instance, one of the cards gives the owner a gold whenever the crown changes hands: making it much more interesting for someone to take the "king" role. Each expansion card is clearly marked with a star so it's easy to identify them. This time I think the expansion finally scores a hit. Not a home run perhaps but at least they get on base with this.

Still, at the end of the day, all you get for you money is 14 new cards and some replacement parts. Luckily, the entire package isn't terribly expensive ($9 MSRP; $5.95 at HFoG) but it's still more expensive than it should have been. Is it worth it? Well if you really like Citadels (and I do) and you're looking for some new purple districts to spice up the game then yeah, I have to say that perhaps it is. Just barely. And if you've worn out your original role cards then here's a cheaper way to get new ones than buying a second copy of the original game. But it's a shame that the other things they tossed in the box with these cards don't add value as well. They could have just given us the new cards in a smaller package, saved on production costs and charged us less and I'd have been a whole lot happier.

First Impression: Candamir: The First Settlers

Kray and I played Candamir today for the first time. I've been meaning to play this game for a while now but for one reason or another, I never got around to opening the shrink wrap.

This is Klaus Teuber's prequel to the Settlers of Catan series. In this game, players take on the role of individual settlers and set out to gather the resources required to build the first settlement of Catan.

Candamir is the name of one of the characters in the settlement. Apparently this game is based on a Settlers of Catan themed novel that was very popular in Germany. For those of us in the English speaking world, the literary connection doesn't really add much to the game so we're left to appreciate the game on its own merits.

There are some elements here that give the game its Settlers flavor. For instance, there's resources to collect and trade in for experience points and there's the ability to trade with other players. But really, this game feels very different. It's almost more of a role-playing game. Players take on the role of individual settlers, complete with statistics and experience points. As the game progresses, statistics improve. Statistics are used to overcome challenges, battle wild animals, and so on.

There's really very little player interaction in this game but there is some. One of the objects in the game lets you hurt someone who's ahead of you, hopefully slowing them down and allowing you to catch up. The other way you can interact is by trading but frankly, there's little incentive to do so. Any time you might trade with another player you're almost certainly going to help that other player more than you're helping yourself, and nothing in the game that you require is so hard to acquire that you feel compelled to trade for it. There are also a few instances where you compete with other players for victory points (similar to the longest road in Settlers of Catan) so by overtaking another player you can sometimes steal a victory point.So to a certain degree the game feels a bit like multi-player solitaire but it's still pretty fun and I look forward to playing again.

Review: Alhambra: The Vizier's Favour

Alhambra: The Vizier's Favour is actually four mini expansions for the award-winning game Alhambra in one box. Each expansion can be used independently or together. The expansions are: The Vizier's Favour, The Bureau de Change, The Worker's Huts, and The Bonus Cards.

The Vizier's Favour adds six wooden tiles (one for each player) to the game. On one side of the tile is a picture of the Vizier. The reverse is blank. They allow players to purchase tiles out of turn. After any player has finished his or her turn, any player whose vizier tile is face up may turn their vizier tile face down and purchase a tile by exact count. On a player's turn she may turn her vizier tile face up in stead of taking her normal actions.

I particularly like this addition to the game as it partly solves one of Alhambra's biggest flaws: that it can be very difficult to plan ahead because by the time your turn comes around again, tiles that you were saving for may have been already bought by other players.

The Bureau de Change consists of six cards that are mixed in with the regular money cards and treated just like money cards in all respects. Each of the Bureau de Change cards shows two of the four currencies. When played, they allow cards in those currencies to be used interchangeably. So for instance, a blue 4 could be combined with a yellow 5 and a blue/yellow Bureau de Change card to purchase either a blue 9 or yellow 9 tile. This adds some flexibility to your hand at the expense of giving up a turn to take the Bureau de Change card instead of other money cards.

The Worker's Huts expansion consists of 24 building tiles. Each of these tiles matches one of the colors of the normal tiles in the game. Each of them also has at least one wall. At the beginning of the game, the worker's huts are sorted into stacks by color and the top hut is revealed. In lieu of his normal turn, a player may elect to take one of the worker's huts for free (up to a maximum of three). The huts are positioned in the alhambra just like any other tile. Each like-colored tile next to a worker's hut (that isn't separated by a wall) counts as one extra tile when scoring tiles of that color. For instance, a regular blue tile next to a blue hut counts once for the tile and once for being next to the hut. Two regular blue tiles flanking a blue hut count as four tiles (instead of the normal 2).

A well placed Worker's Hut makes it possible for a clever player to lock in a lead or overtake a leader. It adds a nice layer of strategy to the game without over-complicating it.

The Bonus Cards are ten cards which each show a picture of a particular building tile. The tiles are randomly distributed evenly among the players. At any time, a player may reveal one of his cards. If that player has the matching tile then that tile counts double when scoring that color for the remainder of the game.

Each of these expansions has something to add to an otherwise great game. Now that I've played with the expansions, I doubt that I'll ever play Alhambra again without them. Two thumbs way up!

Wednesday, November 02, 2005

Rick Thornquist's Next Project

Last week we learned the sad news that Rick Thornquist would no longer be doing Gamewire, the board game news service he ran for quite some time in conjunction with a certain other site which will remain nameless. *grin*

This week he announced through a post on the Spielfrieks message board that he'll be starting a new web site that will be independent and will contain much the same content as the Gamewire but supposedly even more. His plan is to do this in conjunction with some other distinguished people in the global gaming community. He also plans to charge a token subscription fee for the service in order to cover the maintenance costs.

The current ETA for this service is sometime later this month.

Good luck Rick! And thanks for not deserting us entirely!

Tuesday, November 01, 2005

Interesting news from Uberplay

Looks like Uberplay will soon be producing a domestic edition of Traufambrik! This is an excellent auction game by Reiner Knizia. Should be great!

But even more interesting: "as of today (November 1st) Uberplay will not be working with Eagle Games any longer."* That's very interesting considering that Uberplay hasn't been working with Eagle Games for very long in the first place. I always thought that Uberplay and Eagle Games made slightly odd bedfellows. I guess that Uberplay now thinks so too. I wonder what happened? Perhaps we'll learn more in the next few weeks.

* source: Uberplay email to distributors dated 1 Nov, 2005