As a non global-hopping stay-at-home family gamer sort of guy, I’m not privy to much of the Essen release crop until it filters into the common retail channels here in the US. However, I have managed to check out a number of domestic releases that have come out around or after GenCon. Here is a sampling of games that were at least new to me this fall, and I’ve managed to play enough to get some first (in a few cases, fourth or even fifth) impressions. If you are curious what I thought of the past year’s games, pop over to GamerDad.com to see my holiday boardgame recommendations for the non-hardcore boardgame crowd at that site.
Shadows Over Camelot: the card game (1 play with 3 players)
The new version of shadows preserves the idea of a possible traitor within a group of players who fled cards trying to monitor their value so that they fall within a very narrow range, 11 to 13. To complicate things, multiple suits of cards are involved and special cards in the deck modify previously played cards. Guess correctly to earn white swords while late or incorrect guesses earn black. When reduced to just a card game, the memory aspect of the game shines through. While I miss all the cool plastic pieces of the boardgame, I have to admit that this version is extremely portable. Without the advanced cards I’m not convinced the memory aspect is challenging enough to provide an opportunity for the traitor to work their devious plans. I’m willing to give the game more chances, especially in instances where space for bringing games is at a premium. However, I would much prefer to play the original boardgame in nearly every other instance.
I have to admit the colorful board and big dice were an initial draw for me. I like how I can plan out a long term strategy via drafting but then need to respond to dice and other players to modify my plans. The several “bonus action” markers have shown to be invaluable as sometimes you just can’t get the die rolls you want. The game has since cooled off for me, but I think it is because I’ve mostly played 2 player games. The dice seem to be a bit more random (with fewer being rolled) and I find the zero-sum point interaction less interesting. I much prefer it with 3, although 4 players is still pretty good but a slower game. I wouldn’t turn down a game of Seasons but it will probably be rotating out of my collection. Primarily as it is a game played best when all players are fairly experienced with it.
Smash Up mirrors my reactions to Seasons. I loved the idea, played it some but the 2 player game can drag for me in its zero sum game. Overall, the game is in constant danger of moving too slow for its depth of game. However, this game is in no danger of leaving my collection as it is a huge hit among the teens in my local high school club.
Tsuro of the Seas (3 plays)
In spite of my aversion to abstracts, I love the elegance and simplicity of a good multiplayer game of Tsuro. Tsuro adds to the basic pathmaking game through the use of randomly moving seamonsters. I do admit it adds to the fun chaos of the early game, but since the monsters clear out previous paths they can actually extend the endgame since there is no longer a hard limit to the end. Rolling dice to move the monsters also slightly slows the game. Overall, the monsters don’t add enough to the game to make up for what they take away. Thankfully, it’s trivial to play the base game with this set so there is no reason to stay away from this version if you do not yet own a copy of Tsuro.
I stumbled across this little game at GenCon and was able to acquire a review copy to evaluate. In the few games I’ve played it is clear the game should always be played with the more “advanced” rules with cannonballs, etc. It is quick and fun, but I felt the dice were too swing-y granting victory to the first player to experience a particularly hot streak. An enjoyable game for the short game play, but that’s a crowded field and Castle Panic is unique in its mechanics but not enough to stand out in the crowd.
Pirates of the Spanish Main – Shuffling the Deck Card Game (1 play with 2 players)
I was unaware of this title until I was sent a copy along with some other review materials. It reminded me of Guillotine or Sitting Ducks Gallery where players manage a queue of cards as a focus of play. In this case, players are secretly assigned several pirate captain cards and then take turns selecting from several action cards (drawn from a deck). Next a previously revealed event card is performed (typically granting pirates coins, damaging pirates, or moving coins around.) At the end of the game, the pirates are worth points equivalent to their coins. Bluffing is important as well since a player can accuse a pirate (once per game) of being owned by a specific player in order to steal half of that pirate’s coins. As a two player game, I felt the game was too chaotic. In general, it is better to have one’s pirates in the front but this isn’t always easy to do nor is it preferred 100% of the time. I think the game would be even more chaotic with more players, but it would gain some depth of play as players would now have competition for making their accusations. In the end, I expect it isn’t my style of game as it again seems to outstay its welcome for what it provides.
Lemonade Stand (2 plays)
I was attracted to this little economic card game both for its theme (I’m nostalgic for the old computer game) and its clever way of reusing cards as supplies and money. Players attempt to make a profit from setting a price, advertising, and then selling lemonade based on the revealed weather conditions. As fun games go, I liked it and enjoyed playing it. However, from a strategy/gamer perspective I felt most decisions were pretty constrained (the best choices were usually obvious) and so only the powerful $1 bonus action cards were going to make a difference for players. Some might say the winner would be the player who best used their $1 cards, but I’m still a bit concerned that it appears that they vary too much in power – so the player to luck out with the better $1 card(s) wins. I’d play again, especially in a social 3 or 4 player game, but it is’t going to be my first choice.
I was excited to see this expansion come out, since now I’d be able to store all my dice in one regular-sized game box. I like the new dice but I particularly enjoy the new streamlining of the rules to make way for new abilities. Fans of the baser game are obviously going to want this and should get their money’s worth. I didn’t see any of the production problems sometimes seen in the original game. I will also be using the new, more “hardcore” culling rules when I play with just the basic game.
This is a mass market game that is slightly better than many rool and move mass market games (you don’t even roll to move!) It’s cheap, it has lots of D&D theme, and plays quickly. This isn’t going to get play in your gaming group but could be a fun romp with younger kids who can handle the vagrancies of dice-based combat.
Dungeon Command (4 plays with multiple players)
I compare this (favorably) to Summoner Wars, but with actual miniatures. This is fantasy (diceless) combat between armies of creatures with unique powers. The action on the field is supplemented by players’ hands of action cards. Players begin by fielding creatures from a separate hand of recruiting cards up to a total power limit.. As the game progresses, that power limit slowly increases to allow the biggest creatures to enter the board. When a unit dies, that player loses morale points but has the side benefit of gaining that “space” to bring out new creatures. When a player runs out of morale, the lose the game. The tactical side of the game is a bit more detailed than I’d prefer (rules for line of sight, etc are all important) but it still plays quickly. The lack of dice allows planning but player action cards allow for surprises on both sides. The minis are what make or break the game. I think they’re great looking, but their inclusion means a single army set costs at least $30. Two sets ($60) are needed for a full game (you can play a mini game with one) and then we can talk insane… The game is set up so that players can make custom armies and action card decks. Buying multiples of a set lets you get up to 4 of any card or unit in your army. With 4 sets out so far, that’s 4 sets x $30 x (at least) 2 duplicates for a whopping $240. That’s a lot of investment. I’m satisfied just mixing and matching some of the sets I have, and I suppose there will be an aftermarket around for gamers to buy individual pieces if they want. I think gamers who can also use the minis in their role playing games will be able to get the best value for the game. I think the game itself is fairly fun, but not worth the large price tag. Played casually perhaps with the costs split between friends, I could see it a worthwhile purchase.