Thursday, July 26, 2007

Review: Shear Panic!

Imagine if you will that you are a sheep in a small flock. You spend your days staying as close as you can manage to the other members of your flock because that's what sheep do: they stay with the flock. Every once in a while a sheep might stray from the flock but that seldom lasts long. Every so often a handsome ram might show up in which case you rush to the front of the flock to get as close to him as you can. And when it comes time to be shorn, you rush to the back of the flock to retain your lovely fleece for as long as possible. All that rushing from front to back can be rather chaotic. In fact, ewe might say it's Shear Panic!

Shear Panic is a strategy game for two to four players. It's published in this country by Mayfair Games and designed by the Lamont Brothers. Typical playing time is around 45 minutes.


I'd almost be satisfied to write this section of the review and leave it at that. The components are that good. The caption on the box should give you some idea of what to expect: "The Best Game Ewe Ever Herd!" Inside you will find a sturdy score board, four player boards, four scoring markers, four sets of "mutton buttons" (wooden disks), and a very well made full-color rule book stuffed with corny sheep puns and silly illustrations.

All of that is nice enough but what is most impressive is that you also get a complete flock of nine hand-painted ceramic sheep, plus one hand-painted ceramic ram (his name is Roger), and one hand-painted ceramic shearer figure. The ceramic figures in this game are absolutely adorable. The sheep each sit on a square base that's roughly two inches square. They look like they could have been designed by Aardman Studios (Wallace & Gromit). They have that same whimsical feel: big eyes, vapid stare, dopey smiles. The game is worth its price for the figures alone. In fact, all of the artwork in the game is simply wonderful.

Game Play

This is a "perfect information" game. That means that players always know all available information. Nothing is hidden and almost nothing is random.

Each player has two of the eight white ceramic sheep (marked with a splash of color on their backs). There is also a ninth black sheep which starts in the center of the flock. The game begins with the nine sheep arranged in a square so that no player's sheep are next to one another. Players place their scoring markers and the white flock marker on the first space of the scoring track (which looks like a path winding its way through four fields). Each player's "mutton buttons" are placed near his player board which is placed in front of him.

Before the game begins in earnest, each player rolls the colored die and performs a "lamb slam" on one of the sheep whose color comes up. A lamb slam is one of the many moves that a player could execute on his turn. It means pushing a sheep of the appropriate color one space in any direction, also pushing any other sheep that might have been in her way. This serves to randomize the starting configuration of the flock a little bit but it also pays to think carefully during this phase because otherwise you could find yourself in a real disadvantage right from the start.

A player's turn consists of choosing one of the available actions listed on their player card, covering it up with one of their "mutton buttons" and then performing that action. This means that each action can be chosen only once during the entire game. Since the actions have the potential to affect the entire flock, a big part of this game is deciding when to execute which action and watching your opponents to see what actions remain available to them.

All of the actions involve shifting the flock in some way or another: sliding rows, rotating the entire flock 90 degrees (thereby changing who is in front and who is in back), hopping one sheep over another, things like that. Occasionally the flock will become disconnected and when that happens the flock must be regrouped. Usually the active player has some control over how the regrouping is done and in fact, players often will take that into account when they decide which action to choose.

Another effect of choosing an action is that it determines how far the flock marker moves along the scoring track. The scoring track doubles as a timer. As the flock marker progresses through the four different fields the game progresses toward its conclusion. Furthermore, the field that the flock marker is in determines how players score points on that turn. When choosing an action, it's a good idea to consider how far the flock marker will move since that will probably affect how and when points are scored.

When the flock is in the first field, players score points by having their two sheep near each another at the end of their turn. Roger Ram is in the second field and when the flock is in the second field, players score more points by having their ewes near the front of the flock. During the third field, players want their sheep to be as close to the black sheep as possible. Finally, in the last field, the flock is shorn and players score points by keeping their lambs as far back in the flock (and thus away from the shearer) as possible.


On the surface, this is a light and whimsical game, suitable for kids and adults alike; but scratch beneath the surface and you'll find a deceptively tricky game of analysis and careful planning. In fact, it seems that the more experienced and serious the game players, the longer this game will take to play because, like all perfect information games, it is definitely susceptible to in depth analysis and (dare I say) even analysis paralysis. This game rewards careful thinkers but at the same time, it's whimsical enough to be enjoyable by all. The sheep are so cute and cuddly that the game is nearly irresistible and the fact that it's also a solid game clinches the deal. This truly is one of "the best games ewe ever herd". I highly recommend it.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Another Good Game Night

We had a good turnout for last night's game night and there were several good games that hit the table.

When I arrived, folks were playing For Sale. For Sale is a fabulous short filler game by Stefan Dorra. It's played in two rounds: during the first round players bid on numbered property cards (the higher the number, the better the properties). In the second round, players simultaneously choose one of the property cards they bought in the first round and, in order of the number on the property cards selected, they trade their cards in for numbered checks. It's very easy to play but there are some really great subtleties to the game. It also plays in around fifteen minutes which makes it an ideal gathering game.

Next was a game that was new to me: The Thief of Baghdad by Thorsten Gimmler. This is a very nice family strategy game that was one of this year's Spiel des Jahres (German Game of the Year) nominees. In this game, players try to put their thief tokens into the six palaces on the board so they can collect the treasure chests held within each. You need to have a certain number of your thieves in a palace before you can claim the treasure. I enjoyed the game very much and I'll probably try to play it again soon. My only complaint is that the English rules were rather poorly translated. This seems to be a periodically recurring malady with rules from Queen Games. I really like that their games are all multi-lingual but they REALLY need to find someone better to do their English translation. There were a few sections that were worded poorly enough that I actually resorted to looking at the Spanish rules for clarification. (Luckily I speak Portuguese which is close enough to Spanish that I was able to decipher it and get the clarification I was looking for.) Aqua Romana (another Queen game) had a similar issue with its English rules but they were even worse. The rules in The Thief of Baghdad are simple enough that the confusion in the rules wasn't a game breaker.

While three of us were playing The Thief of Baghdad, four others started a game of Britannia. This is a very rich old-school style history game that takes players through most of the ancient history of the British isles. It starts with the Roman occupation and ends with the Norman Invasion (if I remember correctly). Over the course of this long game (our guys played for at least four hours) players control numerous civilizations, each with their own distinct characteristics and objectives. One of the best aspects of this game is that the civilizations controlled by the four players become strongest (and therefore stand to score the most points) at different times in the game. For instance, the player who controls the Romans scores big early in the game whereas the player who controls the Celts stands to score big much later. The box says it plays 3-5 players but it's really designed to play properly with exactly four. I liked it very much when I played it but the long length keeps it from becoming one of my favorites.

My next game of the evening was Shear Panic by the Lamont Brothers. This is a really cute perfect information game where players manipulate a small flock of adorable ceramic sheep in order to score points based upon their configuration. There are four phases to the game, each of which rewards different configurations. In the first phase you want to get your two sheep as close to each other as possible. In the second phase you want to get your sheep as close to the front of the flock as you can. In the third phase you want your sheep to be close to the black sheep in the flock. And in the fourth phase you want your sheep to be as far back in the flock as possible. It's whimsical and short and very cute and it would be a light game if not for the fact that it's also a perfect information game which means that gamers like us tend to analyze more deeply than I think was intended. The little hand-painted ceramic sheep are so adorable that even if the game weren't a good one (and it is) I'd want a copy.

Meanwhile another group played a game of Bohnanza with the Bohnaparte expansion. I've played Bohnanza plenty of times and I've played the High Bohn expansion once or twice but I've never played Bohnaparte before. It looked quite good and that seemed to be the consensus of those playing.

While we were waiting for that game to break up so we could mix players up a bit, we played a single hand of three player Mü. is intended to be played with 4-6 players but I think that our three player variant works quite well. It'd be a particularly effective way to teach the game I would think since the new player can learn from the way people play the dummy hand.

The final game of the evening for me was Alan Moon's wonderful game Elfenland. Five of us played using the "home city" variant. I did quite well, managing to tie for the lead. I was able to visit all but one city and I ended on my home city, meaning that I was one point short of a perfect score. I'd have had a perfect score if not for one road block that was placed in just the wrong spot. I really like this game but when I play with my kids we have to leave the road block tiles out. They can't handle the screwage factor that the road blocks inject into the game. I have to say that I kind of prefer it that way too. One road block can really screw up your turn. We were thinking that the road block rule might be gentler if, instead of requiring you to play an extra card of the specific type needed for that route, a roadblock merely required that you play one extra card of any type. I'll have to try it that way and see if that softens up the road block rule enough for my kids.

Well, that was my night. I had a ton of fun. Can't wait for next Tuesday!

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Game Night: The Rerun

This week's game night writeup could have been a cut and paste job from last week's. I played almost eactly the same set of games: Notre Dame, Caylus Magna Carta, and . In fact, I think I'll refrain from commenting on those three too much except to say that I still like all three, I still suck at Notre Dame, and Caylus Magna Carta is just different enough from the original game that the formula for success continues to elude me.

Once again I brought my three oldest sons and once again they had a good time. While I way playing my first two games (see above) my boys played the Well of Darkness Expansion for Descent. Now Descent is a gorgeous game and I can totally understand why so many folks like it but it's a little too long for my tastes so I was only too happy to let others play the game with my boys. It's a dungeon crawler where one player runs a dungeon and the other players try to raid the place, kill all the nasty beasties and take their stuff. This time the players lost. Badly. But they all had a good time. At one point, if I understand correctly, the players' desperate strategy was to kill one of their own players because he had some artifact on him that would have caused him to explode and take with him all surrounding critters. They couldn't even manage to do that though. Ha! Good times.

Also hitting the table last night was Reiner Knizia's masterpiece: Tigris & Euphrates. This is one of the best euro-games ever made. It's highly strategic with a very strong tactical element. The abstract concepts fit well with the theme. (Yes, I'm aware that some would disagree with me on that but they're wrong, and this is my blog so I get to say so!) The pieces are beautiful. The whole package is very satisfying. I can't recommend this one highly enough.

If you're in the neighborhood, come join us next week!

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Three Player Mü

Lately we've been playing an awful lot of at lunch. I recently reviewed this game so go give that a read if you've never heard of it and then come back here. I'll wait.

Back yet? Good.

Today at lunch there were only three of us, which is pretty rare. Usually when that happens we play three player Tichu, which is somewhat less than satisfying but better than playing nothing at all. Today we didn't have a Tichu deck with us. We had been planning on playing a four player game of Mü but our fourth player had to cancel at the last minute and we didn't get the message.

So what to do when you have only three players and a Mü deck? (We didn't have the rule book with us so we couldn't try any of the three player games described in the Mü & More rules.) Why not try to come up with a good three player variant? Well that's exactly what we did and I think it worked really well. In fact, the common consensus is that it's just as good as (if not better than) three player Tichu.

So, in the interest of continuing to promote this excellent game, I hereby present our rules for...

Three Player Mü

This game plays almost identically to the four player game. Four hands are dealt as normal. The major difference is that one hand is played by a dummy player. Let's call him Fred.

Fred's position rotates with the deal. He always sits opposite the dealer. The "real" players remain in their same positions throughout the game. So the second pile of cards dealt always belongs to Fred no matter who dealt them.

Bidding progresses exactly as in a four player game. Fred does not bid and no one gets to see Fred's cards during bidding. This means that Fred can never be chief, nor can he ever be vice.

Once bidding has concluded, the vice (if there is one) chooses under-trump as normal and the chief chooses over-trump as normal. The chief then chooses a partner as normal. That means the chief can either choose Fred or the remaining player as partner.

Once the partner has been chosen, Fred's hand is revealed to all players. Fred's hand is played exactly like any other player's and his play is controlled by whichever player is on his team. So if the chief chooses to partner with Fred then the chief will play Fred's hand, otherwise the vice will play Fred's hand.

Fred takes tricks just like any other player and his tricks are kept and scored separately, just as if Fred were a real player. All bonuses and penalties apply as normal but since Fred can never be chief or vice, he will never lose points due to a failed bid.

And that's how to play three player Mü. We found that it played very well. Having only three players participate in the bidding definitely alters the feel of the bidding a bit from the four player game but it didn't really seem to be an overwhelming change. The fact that all players get to see Fred's hand is definitely a huge advantage to whomever is leading but it doesn't ruin the game. Especially since all players have exactly the same knowledge. I'd definitely prefer to play with four flesh-and-blood players but as three player games go, this is definitely well worth playing.

Give it a try and let me know what you think!

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Game Night! Woot!

Last night was our weekly game night. We had a good turnout. In addition to most of our regulars, I brought my oldest three sons. Here are some of the night's highlights.

I arrived just as people were starting to divide up for games and five of us jumped right in to a game of Notre Dame. This is the latest Alea game and it definitely lives up to the standards of the line (one of gaming's finest). The game is a card driven strategy board game with some production elements, some area control elements, some drafting elements (think of the card drafting in Fairy Tale) and turn after turn of extremely difficult decisions. I don't mean difficult as in the game is hard to learn; I mean difficult as in "Drat! I want to do ALL of these things but I can only do one of them!" I really enjoy it. I'll try to write up a proper review soon.

Next up for me was a four player game of Caylus Magna Carta. I just reviewed this game so I won't go into too much detail about it here except to say that it does a superb job of shortening Caylus and making it more accessible to casual gamers. The only negative thing I can say about Caylus Magna Carta is that it does introduce a certain measure of luck and that certainly didn't work in my favor this game. But what really made this game odd was that for some reason, on both of the first two turns someone pushed the provost all the way back to the very first card on the road, meaning that only one player got any resources and the rest of us just wasted coins putting workers on the road. It was a truly strange beginning but the game was still fun.

Rounding out the night for me was a four player game of with the guys I regularly play with at lunch. Mü really shines when it's played with a bunch of people who are all pretty experienced at the game. Card play is still important, but the bidding rounds become crucial. The game is won or lost on the bids. This game saw some particularly heated bidding. One hand in particular stands out. The bidding went on forever with Jason and Mike continually jockeying for chief and Adam and I revealing card after card strengthening our candidacy for partner and encouraging Mike and Jason to continue bidding. By the time the dust settled, Jason's bid of 11 (yes, you read that right) won him chief. Making a bid that high requires taking all but ten points in play, perhaps two tricks if the points fall just right. Mike called ones as under-trump, since Jason and Adam had pretty much every yellow between them and Mike had the yellow one. Jason then called no-trump (even though a color is typically a safer bid and the bonus points for making a bid top out at 100, meaning that the extra risk wasn't worth extra points to him with a bid that high) and chose Adam as partner. (The no-trump call was a bit of a surprise but the partner wasn't.) By now, all the other guys at game night had gathered around to watch the carnage. We had to keep reminding people not to comment on the play. *grin* Play then began with Jason and Adam carefully splitting the tricks (most going to Jason). Mike an I were carefully protecting the cards that we hoped would take us just two or three tricks. Would it be enough to ruin Jason's bid? As the game wound down, I was left with two high cards in suits that I knew Jason would eventually have to lead. Sure enough, I took the last two tricks. Unfortunately they were worth only 9 points. Jason had made his bid with only one point to spare. If Mike or I had taken just two more points we'd have set them. It was a great moment.

Other games played last night included RoboRally, Augsburg 1520, and Tichu.

If you're anywhere near Redmond, come join us next week! Look for us in the Microsoft building 50 café every Tuesday night after 5.

Monday, July 09, 2007

Review: Caylus Magna Carta

One of last year's biggest games was Caylus from Ystari games so when I heard they were coming out with a card game version called Caylus Magna Carta I was very interested. Caylus Magna Carta is also by William Attia. It plays in about an hour and it supports 2-4 players. Like its big brother, Caylus Magna Carta is a deep strategy game where players take on the role of master builders building a castle but this time things have been simplified a little, shortened up a bit, and just a smidgeon of luck has been tossed in the mix for good measure. The results are… well read on.


Caylus Magna Carta comes in the Ystari small box format, which means it comes in a box that's similar in size to Mykerinos: about 11 by 7 by 2 inches. Inside the box you'll find 100 wooden resource cubes (representing food, wood, stone and gold) a wooden provost disc, a deck of cards, wooden workers, assorted coins, and prestige tokens. Each player gets a passing marker, four workers, and their own set of 12 building cards in their own color. There are also 12 common building cards (5 pink neutral buildings and 7 blue prestige buildings), a bridge card and a castle card. In the Rio Grande Games (English market) edition you'll also find one bonus prestige building: the Library, which wasn't available in the original version.

As with the original game, all of the artwork is superb and the iconography is quite good. The rule book is beautifully illustrated and well organized. In fact, the rule book is actually double-sided. Reading from one side you'll learn the "Beginner rules". Reading from the other side you'll learn the "Standard rules". The major difference between the two is that the beginner rules leave out rules relating to residences and the provost. I would imagine that most seasoned gamers will want to go straight to the standard rules but the beginner rules are a little simpler and lead to a gentler and faster game.


Each player starts with 2 food cubes (pink), 2 wood cubes (brown), 4 denier (coins) and their 4 worker pawns. Each player's deck of 12 building cards is shuffled and the top three cards are drawn to make up that player's starting hand. A number of pink cards (which depends on the number of players), the castle card and the bridge card are laid out on the table so that the pink cards form a road leading from the castle and the bridge. The blue prestige buildings are laid out face up on the table, along with the piles of resource cubes, coins, and castle tokens, where all players can have access to them.

At the start of most turns, each player collects two coins as income and then players take turns executing actions until all players pass. An action consists of either paying a coin to take a new building card into your hand, paying a coin to refresh your hand (discard all your cards and draw the same number from your deck), paying a coin to put a worker token somewhere on the road, or erecting a building by paying its construction cost and placing it at the end of the road, thereby extending the length of the road by one card.

Once all players have passed, each building in the road that has a worker token on it is executed in turn. Most buildings produce resource cubes. Some buildings produce coins. Some let you exchange cubes or coins for different cubes or coins. Many buildings offer a primary effect for the person who put their token on the building and a secondary effect for the player who built the building. All buildings are worth a certain amount of victory points at the end of the game for whichever player built the building.

After all of the building effects are executed players may choose to contribute batches of cubes toward the construction of the castle. Each batch of three cubes (1 food, 1 wood, 1 stone, with gold acting as a wild card) contributed to the castle earns a castle token. Castle tokens are divided into Dungeon tokens (worth 4 prestige points), Wall tokens (worth 3), and Tower tokens (worth 2). Since the Dungeon tokens are taken first, contributing to the castle early is more valuable than contributing late. In each round, whoever offers the most batches to the castle (ties broken by passing order) earns a bonus of one gold cube.

Finally, the start player rotates clockwise and the next turn begins.

The game ends when all of the building tokens have been claimed.

Differences From Caylus

Caylus Magna Carta does a fantastic job of distilling the essence of its big brother into a shorter game but naturally you can't simplify and shorten the game without changing it. Here are some of the more important changes.

The most obvious change is that there is no board. Instead, building cards are played directly to the table and the road leading to the castle is built from those cards. One side effect of this is that there is no scoring track. This really isn't a problem since the score is easy to calculate from the collected tokens and points listed on the cards. In fact, it's something of an improvement since it's no longer possible to tell at a glance who is leading and who is trailing.

Another, more subtle change is that there is no bailiff. Instead, the provost simply marches two cards down the track each turn. That means that it's common for the provost to be at the end of the road after every turn. Of course, by using your turn at the bridge you can move the provost forward and back just as in the original game. (For those unfamiliar with Caylus, the provost marks the last active building on the road. If there are buildings with worker markers beyond the provost, they won't take effect. You have to move the provost out far enough for them to activate.)

Another major change is that there is no concept of "favor" in Caylus Magna Carta. The favor tracks and their special privileges are gone.

But perhaps the biggest change of all is that there are no carpenters or stone quarries. If you want to construct a building, you simply pay the cost and build it. This streamlines the play significantly but it also eliminates some of the cutthroat strategy from the original game where it was possible to prevent players from constructing new buildings by denying them access to the appropriate building. Instead, construction is limited to the buildings players have in their hands and the blue prestige buildings. Furthermore, since buildings on the road come from the players' individual decks, which are color coded, there is no need for house tokens (which in Caylus identify which player constructed the building).

The hand management aspect has got to be one of the more controversial changes because it introduces luck and hidden information into what was originally a perfect information game. In Caylus, the only luck in the game was in the initial setup and it affected all players equally. In Caylus Magna Carta, each player is subject to the luck of the cards drawn into the various players' hands. It's not an overwhelming factor and for many it will add enjoyment to the game but it is still a pretty big change.


I was very impressed with Caylus Magna Carta. I really loved Caylus but its length (often two or three hours) was sometimes a barrier to getting it to the table. Also, Caylus is a relatively complicated game and therefore it's not something that I'm likely to introduce to my more casual game playing friends. Caylus Magna Carta on the other hand, is much simpler and therefore much more approachable. Its shorter length (about an hour) makes it much easier to get to the table. And as a bonus, its smaller box makes it easier to lug around. Caylus Magna Carta does a brilliant job of capturing the essence of its bigger brother and distilling it into something that's much more palatable for the casual game player. I still prefer Caylus because I love the challenge of a deep, perfect information game; but I can see myself playing Caylus Magna Carta more often because it's nearly as good and it's much easier to bring to the table. I'm quite happy to own both and, in my opinion, everyone should own at least one or the other. If you happen to own neither of them, then Caylus Magna Carta would be a wonderful place to start.

Friday, July 06, 2007

Fireworks for Game Night? You shouldn't have!

Game night this Tuesday went on as scheduled. Since Tuesday was the 3rd of July and since fireworks go on sale in this county a few days before the 4th, I'm sure there were plenty of people firing off fireworks in honor of our game night. I mean what better reason could they have?

My two oldest sons went to game night with me and when we arrived there was already a game of No Thanks! in progress. Now I've said it before and I'm sure I'll say it again, there is really no better ultra-light filler game than No Thanks! It can be taught in 30 seconds and played in about five minutes. It can be played on even the smallest of tables. The game comes in a sturdy cardboard box just big enough for a deck of cards and a small zip bag of mini chips. The whole thing can be tossed in a purse or a coat pocket and brought out whenever the mood strikes. Waiting for a meal at a restaurant? Play No Thanks! Riding in an airplane? Play No Thanks! It works just about anywhere.

My first game of the evening was a game of Colosseum. It's a Days of Wonder game so of course the bits are first rate. I really love the emperor and console pawns which look like over-sized pawns dressed in costumes. The game has some very unique qualities such as the high-water-mark scoring system (your highest score on any of the five rounds is your final score). It has some production elements and some bidding elements and enough luck of the draw that my second eldest son was able to kick butt even though he'd never played it before. (I refuse to admit that he might be good at the game. That couldn't be it.) I like the game quite a bit and I'm eager to play again.

My oldest son spent most of his evening playing a two player game of Tide of Iron. This game could be described as either a deeper Memoir '44 or a simpler and prettier Advanced Squad Leader. It's a squad level World War II game with gorgeous miniatures and a very versatile modular board system. The board is made up of reversible heavy press-board (hard as wood) panels which can be configured in any number of different ways to make nearly an infinite number of scenarios. There are also hexagonal overlays that let you configure the maps even further. He loved it and has been trying to play it again ever since.

After our Colosseum game we played a game of The Downfall of Pompeii. I've mentioned this game several times recently. I like it enough that it seems I play it every other week. It's not a deep game and it's not a difficult game. Heck, it's not even a truly great game. But I really enjoy it anyway. What can I say? I just love chucking pieces into that volcano. I suppose it helps that I usually win.

We wrapped up with a game of five player which both of my oldest boys played in. Neither of them had played the game before and I was worried that it might be too difficult for them, since they really haven't played any true trick taking games before other than Hearts (which really shouldn't count). As expected, the bidding was a bit too hard for them to get a feel for at first. But much to my pleasure, they had no difficulty at all grasping the rules. Their trouble was just that they didn't know how to evaluate how good their hands were and how high they should bid them. That's the same trouble that everyone has when they're learning this game so I don't think their ages (13 and 15) were a factor at all. My oldest over bid a couple of times and that hurt his score but he still played very well and there was really only one hand where he bid too high. The other bids he missed, he missed only by one so there is certainly no shame in that; in fact most of the time you'd rather miss a bid by one than allow your opponent to get away with a bid that he can make. We'll have to play this again soon so they can get some practice in. I'm sure with practice and a little more coaching they'll both be very good.

Finally, I want to drop a little hint that there are some changes in the works at House Full of Games. We're in the final stages of bringing on a new, larger distributor which will mean better access to new releases, an expanded product line, and a lot of great deals for you. Those of you on our store's RSS feed should see some new titles posted very soon. There may be some other surprises in the works too. We hope this is the beginning of great things. Keep your eyes open.