Friday, October 26, 2007

Review: Space Dealer

Space Dealer is a new game by Tobias Stapelfeldt, published by Eggertspiele. The game is for three or four players (up to eight if you combine two copies) and it plays in EXACTLY thirty minutes. Using what is surely one of the most clever mechanics I've ever seen in a boardgame, all players play the game simultaneously. I've seen some real-time simultaneous action boardgames before but this is the first one I've ever played that actually gets it right. How do they do it? Read on!


First let's talk a little bit about what comes in the box. Space Dealer comes in that ubiquitous square box that has become nearly an industry standard. Inside the box, you will find all sorts of goodies. There are numerous wooden cubes and cylinders, lots of sturdy cardboard and ten one-minute sand timers. The artwork on all of the cardboard is quite well done and very appropriate to the science-fiction/space theme.

One thing that you won't find inside the box is a game board. Instead, there are several cardboard pieces which fit together like puzzle pieces. Some fit together to make rocket ships which the players will use to transport goods. Some make up a round track with planets on it which does double duty as both a scoring track and a game board. Some fit together to make representation of the players' home planets with spaces to place the cards which are used to represent the various characteristics and state of each world.

All of these components are pretty neat but the most unique game component is a CD which has a thirty minute soundtrack which serves as the game's timer. It's filled with theme-appropriate techno background music and the occasional robotic voice which announces how much time is left before the end of the game. I'm sure there will be those who prefer to play the game to a timer (especially after they've heard the soundtrack for the fifth or sixth time) but I thought that the soundtrack was a pretty cool idea and that it really added something to the game.

If there is one criticism that can be levied at the game components, it's that the sand timers are really not of the very best quality and it's common for them to be off by as much as a couple of seconds. Thankfully, this really isn't too much of a problem. I recommend that before your first play you time all of the timers and make sure that each player gets assigned one of the faster ones and one of the slower ones (and it's probably best not to mark which is which). A little variation in the timers isn't really going to affect the outcome of the game very much (if at all) so long as the average time of each player's timers is roughly the same.


As I mentioned earlier, Space Dealer is very unique in that it is a real-time strategy boardgame. There are no turns. Instead, all players play at the same time. It would be natural to assume that this would create chaos and pandemonium, or at least an awful lot of pressure, as players raced to do as much as possible before their opponents. Thankfully, this really isn't the case. The way this is accomplished is that every player is given two sand timers (which the game calls robots). In order to do almost anything in the game, you must first put a timer on that action. Only when the sand runs out will you be able to actually execute that action. This serves to slow down the game's pacing enough that players actually have some time to consider their actions before taking them. While the time pressure is certainly an element in the game, I never felt overly rushed.

At the start of the game, every player is given a home planet, a space ship, two sand timers, ten round cylinders (used for scoring) and a small set of cards. The cards contain upgrades and technologies which can be developed and added to your home world. Some of the upgrades are mines which generate colored cubes. Some represent generators which are used to power up the other upgrades (if you can't supply power to it, you aren't allowed to build it). Most cards also have an area which lists a demand which consists of a set of resources and an associated amount of victory points. If you deliver the correct set of colored cubes to someone else's planet and fulfil one of their demands, you get to put one of your cylinders on the demand space, scoring victory points for yourself and a smaller amount of victory points for the owner.

There are also decks of cards which contain more powerful upgrade cards. In order to get at those cards, you need to invest some time towards advancing your planet's technology level. Since that investment requires waiting for one of your precious sand timers, that's going to require that you put off doing something else that you might otherwise have been doing.

This game is basically a produce and deliver game. You work the mines on your world to produce colored cubes which you then deliver to other worlds in order to score points for yourself and to a lesser extent the other player. The game is balanced well enough that success can be achieved either by delivering lots of orders to other players, or by making your own planet attractive enough that others will want to deliver to you. A successful strategy will typically contain elements of both.


There are many games which have tried to allow for simultaneous play but this is the first game that I've seen which actually delivers. It helps that Space Dealer's game mechanics would probably work well enough on their own, even without the real-time element. It also helps that the timers are slow enough to give players time to plan ahead and react to what others are doing, yet fast enough that players are going to feel just a little bit pressed for time. Successful players will be those who can force themselves to think about a problem, formulate a plan and execute on that plan without too much hesitation.

This kind of thing has been done successfully in the computer gaming world for quite some time. When you stop to think about it, most real-time simulation games (such as Age of Empires or Starcraft) have similar gating mechanisms that serve to slow the game down to a manageable pace. In Age of Empires for example, you have to wait for a building to be built before you can use it, then you have to wait for it to produce units, and finally you have to wait for those units to get to the battle field. The sand timers in Space Dealer, while simple by comparison, really serve much the same purpose. What's most impressive to me is how very well this works.

Space Dealer is one of those games that I hope to be playing for a long time to come. It's unique and it's fun. It's also surprisingly easy to play, given the nature of the game. This is a special game and I highly encourage you to pick up a copy while they're still available. Games like this don't come along very often.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Zoo Who?

Last night was game night and we had a very good turnout with several newcomers and lots of old timers.

Some of the games that I didn't play last night included: Khronos, Boomtown, Scepter of Zavandor and Space Dealer. All very fine games in their own right. In fact, you'll be hearing about Space Dealer from me very soon. But first, let's discuss what I played last night.

The opening game for me was Elasund. A friend of mine had been wanting to play this game with me for months but our schedules never seemed to match up. Well he finally got some time to join us on a Tuesday night and since this was the one game he'd requested to play, we played it. Elasund is one of the Catan Adventure games based on Klaus Teuber's monster hit Settlers of Catan. It has some Catan-like elements but it really is very different from Settlers of Catan and in my opinion, that's a very good thing. Now don't get me wrong, I like me some Settlers, but the last thing this world needs is yet another Settlers expansion. This stand-alone game is refreshingly different with just enough familiar elements to give it that Settlers flavor. I've got a full review of this game elsewhere but in a nutshell: it's got a lot of player interaction with a tiny bit of nastiness and I like it a lot.

Next up for me was this year's Spiel des Jahres winner: Zooloretto. I really like Coloretto, the card game that served as the inspiration to Zooloretto, so I expected to like Zooloretto as well; especially now that it's a Spiel des Jahres winner. I do like it but perhaps not quite as much as I had hoped to. It's very luck heavy, chaotic and light (which is expected given its pedigree and since that's often what the SdJ committee goes for) and it retains all of the elements that I like about Coloretto, but for me the added complexity didn't really result in a significantly better game. The production is first rate and I'm sure that most families will love it. I like it very much but there are plenty of games which I like more.

The last game of the evening for me was an unreleased prototype by my friend Christopher Rao, author of Pink Godzilla Dev Kit (which you really ought to check out). I probably shouldn't say much about this new game. I'll say this though: it's a card game, it's in the final stages of refinement and Christopher tells me it's about to be published. It's a lighter game aimed at the 8 and older crowd. It's not nearly as strategic as Dev Kit (and it plays nothing like it) but it's pretty darn fun to play and in fact it was fun enough that we played it twice. I think that as a kid's game it's great and I think plenty of adults will like it too although I don't see it becoming a monster hit with die-hard gamers. It's short enough to work as a filler game and I think it fits that niche well. Perhaps someday soon I'll be able to tell you more about it.

Come join us next week and bring your friends!

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Review: Khronos

One of the games that made a big splash at last year's Essen fair was Khronos. Khronos is a rather unique game for two to five players by Arnaud Urbon and Ludovic Vialla. It's played on three identical maps, each of which represents the same countryside during a different epoch (or age) in time. What makes this most interesting is that actions that are taken in earlier ages can ripple forward into later ages, altering the game balance and introducing additional scoring opportunities.


Khronos comes in a large box that is stuffed full of colorful playing tiles printed on heavy linen-finished card stock. There is also a large and very attractive tri-fold game board, several cardboard coins, a deck of special cards, and ten molded plastic figures (all unique!) in five colors, two for each player. The box itself is divided into four large compartments that are more than large enough to hold all of the many pieces.

The only complaint I had with my copy was that some of my plastic figures came slightly bent, but a short soak in very hot water softened them up enough to correct that.

All in all, it's a first-class production that should satisfy even the most picky gamer.


Gameplay involves playing cards from a hand of four in order to carry out a number of actions that allow the player to construct buildings, control areas on the three maps, and improve opportunities for scoring.

The deck is made up of an equal number of orange, purple, and blue cards. The colors correspond to the three types of buildings which can be built by playing the cards: orange military buildings, purple religious buildings, and blue civic buildings. Each building type is made up of three different sizes of building tiles: small 1x1 tiles, medium 2x2 tiles, and large 3×3 tiles. Naturally, the larger buildings are more powerful and require more cards to build.

Each player controls two pawns. Each pawn may be used to play two cards during a turn which can only be used to carry out actions in the age where that pawn is located. Pawns may be moved from age to age as often as a player likes (even in the Middle of a turn) but each time a pawn is moved the player must pay one coin. Coins are victory points so players have a strong incentive to be as efficient as possible.

Victory points (coins) may be earned throughout the game by building large buildings or upgrading to them, but the primary way that they are earned comes at the end of each player's turn in each of two scoring rounds. The game lasts for seven turns. Scoring occurs after turns four and seven. Each of the three ages is scored using a different method. What's more, each player only gets to score two of the three ages, the ones that currently host his pawns.

On the first map, representing the Age of Might, players score points for each domain (connected group of building tiles) that they control through military strength. On the second map, which represents the Age of Faith, players score points for each domain that they control through religious strength. And on the last map, representing the Age of Reason, points are awarded to players who have majority control over civil buildings.

On the first two maps, domains are controlled by the player who controls the single largest building of the appropriate type. All domains must follow a set of rules, one of which is that the largest orange and the largest purple building must each be unique within their domain. The only way to take control of another player's domain is either to build a larger building in the domain or to use blue buildings to merge his domain with a stronger one of yours (similar to an external conflict in Tigris & Euphrates, for those of you who may be familiar with that game). When that happens, one of the two largest buildings will need to be downsized.

Perhaps the most clever, and most difficult to master feature of the game is that all medium and large buildings ripple into later ages. Build a large orange building in the Age of Might and you will also be building a large orange building in the Ages of Faith and Reason. In fact, the only way to build in the Age of Reason at all is to build in an earlier age and to have it ripple through time into the Age of Reason. This rippling can be very cool and it's the defining feature of the game but it also creates enough difficult situations that the rules need to very carefully address them all. This leads to some rather complicated and, dare I say, fiddly rules. The good news is that the rulebook does a reasonably good job of explaining those rules and has plenty of clear examples. Also, all of the rules are logical and necessary so it doesn't take very long for them to become second nature.


Khronos is a unique and fascinating game. The time-altering aspect of the game makes this one that every serious gamer should want to try. Still, it's not without its flaws. I've already mentioned that the rules can be a little daunting. What's more concerning to me is that this is the type of game that encourages some players to take a very long time to consider their optimal move, particularly on turns four and seven since scoring will take place as soon as they are finished with their turn. This can become a real problem with a large group of players and, coupled with the fact that the board can change so much between turns, it's the main reason that I really don't recommend that this game be played with more than three players. However, with three players, this is a truly fantastic game, one that I am always happy to play and one that I will often suggest.

One other thing to consider is that, while this is definitely a moderately heavy strategy game, actions are strongly governed by the makeup of the cards in your hand. No matter how good your strategy may be, it can all come undone with a poor card draw. For this reason, I highly recommend that the game be played with the ''Hold-em" variant described at the end of the rules, which gives players a little more direct control over the makeup of the cards in their hand.

If you are looking for a solid medium-weight strategy game with a smattering of luck, a unique theme, and some truly original mechanics, then you really should give serious consideration to Khronos. This is one game that should stand the test of time and is sure to be played throughout the ages.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Time Warp!

Game night this Tuesday (for me at least) was almost identical to last week's. I played almost exactly the same games: Richochet Robots, Khronos, and Evo. This time we only played a three player game of Khronos though and let me say that my initial impressions were born out: this game is much better with three players. Don't get me wrong. It's still good with four or five but it's much better with three.

Rather than say the same things about the same three games I think I'll just leave it at that. Perhaps I'll use the extra time to begin writing another review. I'll have to think about it.

If you're anywhere near Redmond next Tuesday after 5 pm, come join us. We meet in Microsoft's building 50 cafeteria. If you don't have access to the building then just walk around to the back and knock on the glass door. Someone will let you in.

Oh, and if you've been waiting on the Zooloretto restock, your ship may have just come in. I'm told we should be getting some in stock within a day or two.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Time Keeps on Slippin' Slippin' Slippin' Into the Future

Another Tuesday, another Game Night! Why weren't you there? Surely you want to join us! Oh well, we made do without you just fine. And there's always next week.

Our opener was a fine game of Ricochet Robots. What a great opener. Any number of people can play and there's really no penalty to having folks join up in the middle of the game. It's a total learn as you go kind of game too. Watch someone play one round and you'll be ready to play the next. We started with three players and by the time we put it away perhaps thirty minutes later we had enough people to split into two games.

The first meaty game of the night for me was Khronos. This is a new game by Arnaud Urbon and Ludovic Vialla. It's a very unique game that's played on three identical boards, each one representing the same landscape over three different ages: the Age of Might, the Age of Faith, and the Age of Reason. Things you build in earlier ages ripple forward in time and appear in later ages as well. There are all sorts of cool things you can do such as creating a castle in the Age of Might that suddenly appears in the Age of Faith and Age of Reason, destroying buildings on that plot of land in those ages as if they never had existed. The game bears a very slight resemblance to Tigris and Euphrates in that you're building domains made up of sets of contiguous buildings (similar to kingdoms in T&E) which may conflict when they are joined, resulting in a reduction of buildings in one of the two domains. I really like the game but I have to say that the rules are a bit complex and it tends to encourage "analysis paralysis" which means that with five players the game is just a bit too long. What's more, with five players the board can change an awful lot between turns. I think the sweet spot for this game is probably three players.

Next up for me was a game of Evo. This is a delightful game which I haven't played in ages. It's a very whimsical strategy game where players control herds of dinosaurs which evolve, multiply, and jockey for supremacy on a deserted island. This game has several cool mechanisms, one of which is a very cool climate track where the climate on the island cycles over time between hot and cold. Each turn dinos that occupy spaces that are too far removed from the current comfortable climate zone die off so a big part of every turn is trying to move your dinos onto the new safe spaces to keep them around, especially since the more living dinos you have each turn, the better your score. Another cool mechanic in this game is the mutation auction. Each turn a number of mutations become available which boost your herd's abilities. Players bid on these mutations using a really elegant system. Each mutation is placed on a bidding track with numbers that range from 0 to 6. Players bid by putting their marker on one of the numbers on a bidding track. If anyone outbids you by placing their marker farther down the track, you pick up your marker and either outbid them or put it on an available space on another bidding track. Eventually all the markers are each placed on a different track at which time the auction is over. Everyone pays their bid and collects the mutation associated with the track they've chosen. It's a great game. It's just too bad that it's out of print.

The final game of the night for me was Tichu (of course). We lost. It was sad.

Other games played last night included Railroad Tycoon, Vinci and Leonardo Da Vinci.

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

What's that? It's a Game Night post!

I know, I know. I've been really slacking on the blogging lately. Life has a way of getting busy this time of year and it's only going to get busier through the holidays but I'll try not to slack off quite so much for a while.

There was a game night and I was there. So were many other familiar faces and even a couple faces we haven't seen in a while! Nice to see you again! Hope to see more of you!

I arrived just in time to watch Adam and Chris play a game of Duel in the Dark. This is a new game just arriving on our shores courtesy of Z-Man games. It's a two player game set in World War II where one player plays the British and the other plays the Germans. The Brits go on a bombing run over Germany and the Germans try to ensure that the run fails. I was thoroughly impressed with the production values and the game seemed very interesting too. It's basically a "programming" style game with elements of misdirection and hunting. The British player pre-programs his bombing run by building a deck where each card in the deck indicates his bomber's next move. On each turn, the top card is revealed and the bomber is moved accordingly. In addition, the British player controls one plane over which he has complete control. That plane can zoom about ahead of the bomber to take out various ground targets and obstacles to clear a path for the bomber, or to deliberately mislead the German player and draw away the German fighters. The German player controls a squadron of four fighter planes which he tries to maneuver into the path of the British bomber. The bomber can't really be stopped but each player earns points for things that happen in their favor. For instance, the German player earns points by having the bomber fly into a hex that contains one or more of his planes. It's a pretty cool game and I look forward to playing it myself one day.

When I arrived, another group of players was a third of the way through with Franz-Bello Delonge's most famous game: TransAmerica. Let's all have a moment of silence for Mr. Delonge who passed away just the other week... *shhh* ... OK. Now back to the game. TransAmerica is a very nice, light gateway game that's about building railroad's across America. Sound familiar? Yes, there are definite superficial similarities to Ticket to Ride but this really is a very different game. I enjoy it but I think that it's pretty light.

Several others settled in for a long night of Die Macher, everyone's favorite super-long game of German electioneering. It's a great game and I will play again some day. I just hate giving up my entire game night to play such a long game.

And yet, what did I play next? A long game. Go figure.

I had just received a box-dented copy of Glenn Drover's new game Age of Empires III. Can't sell it. Might as well open it and play it. So what's it like? Well first off, let me say that I have never been a fan of Glenn Drover's games. He tends to produce stuff that's over-produced and under-developed if you know what I mean. Most of his games don't really feel finished to me. But I must in all fairness say that this is easily his best game yet. The rules weren't overly-complicated and the game seems to be pretty solid. It runs a little long for what it is (around 120 minutes) and the theme is largely pasted on. Underneath all the chrome (more on that in a minute) is a pretty solid Euro-style game of investment, development, and area control. I enjoyed it. But there were two things that really annoyed me about the game. First, for a game that is obviously trying to be so deeply strategic, there is just a little too much luck. The discovery tiles in particular can be either really, really good or really, really bad and there's no way of knowing which you'll get until you go for one. But I can live with that. What really bothered me was (and this is typical of Drover's games) the production. The board is HUGE and very ornate. It's very pretty but it isn't all that functional (although it's a lot better than some of the old Eagle Games stuff he did). The scoring track is particularly bad. And then there are the figures. The game comes with dozens of really cool looking plastic figures. They look fabulous. Unfortunately, they're too large even for this over-sized board, they tend to fall over when bumped, and what's worse, the different figure types (particularly the captains and settlers) are difficult to distinguish from one another. I would have much preferred they use simple wooden shapes such as the ones used in Game of Thrones. It would have made playing the game a much more pleasant experience. Still, I have to give kudos to Drover for coming out with a very nice game that was quite fun to play. And given his recent experiences with Eagle Games (which just folded last year) just getting this game to market at all was a huge achievement.

Next up we played a quick six player game of Ca$h 'n Gun$. This is a silly light filler game where everyone has a foam pistol and a deck of twelve cards that say either "click" or "bang". On your turn you choose a card from you deck and put it face down in front of you. Then on the count of three you point your gun at another player. After a brief time to asses who is threatening to shoot who, there is another count of three and those who are too chicken can "hide" by putting down their weapon. If you hide then you can't be shot but you have to take a "shame" marker which costs you points at the end of the game and you don't get to help divide the pot of loot. Those who are still pointing at brave players reveal their cards. If the card says "click" then the player isn't shot. If the card says "bang" then the player is shot, draws a wound token (3 and you're out of the game) and isn't available to collect money from the pot in the middle of the table. All surviving players who aren't hidden get to divide up the pot and everyone gets ready for the next round. 12 cards per deck means that the game lasts for 12 rounds and as you can guess, they go pretty quickly. It's chaotic, simple, sometimes a little mean, and a whole lot of fun. If it were any longer it might get old real quick but it's so fast that the simplicity works in its favor. I enjoyed it very much.

My last game of the night was Tichu (as usual) and it was a wild game. There were some crazy hands including three dueling Tichu calls. I was involved in all three of those and I won two of them. I should have won all three but on one of them, the player to my right led the ONLY combination of cards (a pair of threes) that could possibly have allowed his partner to go out before me (since I'd already played a bomb of twos, his partner held only a pair of fours, I controlled any singles, and my partner had the dog). Dumb luck wasn't enough to carry the game for them though and the good guys won!