In my last column, I talked about the newly published games I played at the recently completed Gathering of Friends. This time, I’ll comment on the new-to-me games released in the past couple of years. Not all of these games have gotten wide exposure, so this may help some of you decide if you want to pursue them. Once again, I’ll list the games in order of most to least preference and the number in parentheses following the title is how many times I played it during the week.
Madeira (1) – This is an older title (2013), but I wanted to mention it to thank someone. I had played Madeira soon after its release, but we struggled with the rules and the whole thing seemed hopelessly complicated. Consequently, I had given up on it. However, one day I bumped into an attendee named Wolfgang Dostmann, who asked if I wanted to play it. His rules explanation was much clearer and I wound up enjoying it a lot. So that chance meeting led to the resurrection of a good game. Thanks, Wolfgang!
Habitats (2) – Corné van Moorsel has been publishing games through his company Cwali for almost 20 years and I’ve been a fan of his for much of that time. They’re usually clever and almost always have a different feel. Habitats is no different. The players are constructing wildlife parks in their personal displays. Each animal in the park needs to be surrounded by specific types of terrain in order for them to be happy (and to score you points). The tiles you acquire show an animal, along with a kind of terrain, which can be used to satisfy the requirements of other animals. Tiles are drafted by moving through a common display and your opponents frequently get in the way. It’s a nice puzzle, with a reasonable amount of player interaction, which doesn’t overstay its welcome. Another solid effort from Corné.
Yokohama (1) – Most of the games coming out of Japan tend to be light, minimalistic designs, but I prefer the smaller number of heavier titles that emerge from Nippon. Yokohama seemed like a good prospect for me, particularly since it comes from one of my favorite Japanese designers, Hisashi Hayashi. The game, with its central display being made up of a bewildering number of boards, looks ridiculously complicated, and it does take a while to teach. But the gameplay itself is pretty straightforward, with a bit of a Louis XIV or Istanbul vibe. On your turn, you place three assistants on three different boards (or two on the same one) and then move your main piece through boards that contain your breadcrumbs (oops, assistants) to the board you want to activate. The more assistants and buildings you have on that board, the greater the benefit. The assistants on that board are then returned to your supply. That’s pretty much it. There are lots of things to do and a goodly number of ways of scoring points, just as you’d expect, but at its heart, it’s not a complicated game.
I enjoyed it, even though I don’t think I played very well. In most of my turns, I gave in to instant gratification by placing 2 assistants on the spot I activated, rather than taking the long view and building up my holdings with 3 separate assistants. This led to a mediocre score, although if the game had lasted one turn more, my score would have been pretty competitive. But this is a quality design I want to explore some more. Thankfully, someone from my games group just got the Tasty Minstrel reprint of the game, so I should be able to do just that in the weeks to come.
No Siesta (2) – This is billed as the dice game version of La Granja, one of my favorites from 2014. It’s not a particularly apt description: the theme and art are the same, but little else remains. Even the dice mechanic is altered in a critical way, since the dice are rerolled after each round of drafting. Happily, this change works, as does much of the rest of the game. The whole thing is drafting dice and then using them to mark your sheet in different ways, but the scoresheet is fairly complex for a dice game, so there’s lots of choices and strategic paths to pursue. I’ve seen different approaches work, so this is a nice, reasonably meaty design for fans of dice games that don’t mind applying a little thought to things.
Too Many Cinderellas (2) – I’ve heard about this Japanese minimalistic design for quite a while and finally got the chance to play it. It was fun! There are 18 potential Cinderellas, each with some information narrowing down the pool of candidates (e.g., “Cinderella isn’t blond” or “Cinderella doesn’t wear glasses”) and each player is dealt four of them. You’ll wind up playing two of your cards for their declarations and will keep two of them as prospective Cinderellas. You can also choose to veto one piece of evidence. The player who has the candidate which meets all the conditions with the lowest number wins. Very much a filler, but with some strategy involved and plenty of laughs. It’s one of the better minimalistic games I’ve played and I’d be happy to play it again.
Roll Player (2) – Another dice placement game, but this one has particular appeal to old fans of D&D (like me). You’re all rolling up a character by assigning each one 3 standard dice for each of their six attributes, one die at a time. There’s quite a few ways to score points and lots of potential for manipulating your dice. Best of all, for experienced roleplayers, everything falls into the old D&D mold: the attributes, character classes, alignments, weapons, and gear. It’s a well designed game (which might last a little longer than it should), but the blast of nostalgia is what really makes it fun.
Team Play (1) – This was a big hit at the 2016 Gathering, but I didn’t get the chance to try it. I was able to correct that oversight this time around. You and your partner are trying to achieve specified patterns with your hands of cards, and you can help them out by passing them cards on your turn (but you can’t communicate directly to them). It’s fairly light, but it plays quickly and is a nice little ride.
Familiar’s Trouble (1) – I’m not a fan of cooperative games, but my buddy Joe Huber convinced me to play by saying this was a 3-player cooperative trick-taking game! How could I refuse? Amazingly, it all works. The players are trying to meet specific goals (such as reaching certain combined values of cards of certain colors on a single trick), but can only do so by following the standard rules of a trick-taking game. We did pretty well, but I think I could do a lot better in future games by paying more attention. But it’s a nice thinky and (best of all) totally unique game. As far as I know, it’s only available in Japan, so it might be hard to get hold of a copy.
Bohnanza: Das Duell (1) – Does the world really need a 2-player version of this iconic trading game? Guess so! Actually, my goddaughter Amy has always wanted to try out Bohnanza, but since most of her playing is just with me, it’s never happened. So I thought I’d check this out to see if it might work for the two of us. There’s actually quite a few differences between this and the parent game: mandatory “gifts”, planting multiple beans in the same field, “Bo(h)nus” cards which give you points for meeting certain patterns in your fields, and so on. It’s a little weird, but it hangs together well and is something I’ll pick up for Amy and I to play. Hopefully, she’ll enjoy her first exposure to The Bean Game.
Tiny Epic Galaxies (1) – The only one of Scott Almes’ “Tiny Epic” games I’d played before was T.E. Defenders, and I felt that was just okay. But Galaxies is the highest ranked of these games by a considerable margin, so I was hoping I would fare better in outer space. And I did enjoy it. Things got a bit repetitive towards the end, but making the best of your die rolls was a nice challenge, even if it wasn’t—dare I say it?—rocket science. I’d be happy to play this again, although I’d probably try to limit it to 3 players, rather than the 4 we played with.
Wind the Film! (1) – More from Japan! This has the feel of Bohnanza and that classic from the 50’s, Rack-O. There are some nice design touches and the theme is great, but luck seemed to play a larger role than I wanted to see. I need to play it again to see if that’s an accurate assessment or if skillful play can overcome some bad breaks. I’m still hopeful about it, as this is a well regarded title.
Really Bad Art (1) – This is a totally insane party game. Each player has to draw an item or phrase on the card they drew and then everyone guesses which drawing matches which card. Pretty standard stuff. But you only have 6 seconds to draw! Believe it or not, some players were able to come up with some pretty good drawings in that amount of time. Pure silliness, but not a bad filler.
Noch Mal! (1) – A dice game from the Brands that I’d heard some good things about. Everyone selects dice from the pool each turn, so there’s little downtime, and there’s some interesting scoring. But overall, the game didn’t inspire me. There are so many more appealing dice games these days that I’d probably be fine in avoiding this one in the future. Not a bad game, but you need more than that to succeed in what’s become a crowded field.
Ulm (1) – Based on some early reviews, this Günter Burkhardt design was reputed to have a very nice action selection system, but the actions themselves weren’t all that interesting. I partially agree; the actions were kind of run of the mill, but we also had some issues with the action selection system. On several turns, the display was quite clogged, leaving the players with very few choices. Our game was decent, but it didn’t excite me at all. On the other hand, I spoke with several gamers whose opinion I value who had this in their top five games of last year, so maybe there’s something I’m missing. But I kind of doubt I’ll give myself the chance to find out if that’s so or not.
The Flow of History (1) – Jesse Li is best known for his unique economic game, Ponzi Scheme. I’ve also played his 2015 design Guns & Steel, which does a very good job of distilling a Civ game down to an hour long card game. Unfortunately, the military strategy in that title seems unbeatable. (The Renaissance expansion supposedly fixes that flaw, but I haven’t played it yet.) The Flow of History is another Civ-based card game from Li, which looked interesting, but seems to have the opposite problem: here, money, rather than might, is king. There’s a two-step procedure for acquiring cards which can be interrupted by an opponent via the sniping action. It’s expensive for the opponent and gives cash to you, but it gives the game a very strange feel, as a reactive strategy can be more effective than simply buying things. It didn’t really work for me. I should probably give it another try, but I’m more inclined to check out Guns & Steel: Renaissance first. I really like the concepts in Li’s Civ games; hopefully, I can find one that is totally successful for me.
So those were the recent new-to-me games I got to try out at the Gathering. Nothing that blew my socks off, but still a pretty successful and enjoyable group of designs. My final column in the series will be about the prototypes I got to play—at least, the ones I can talk about. As usual, some of them were the highlights of my week and I look forward to spreading the word about these most anticipated titles.
Re: familiar’s trouble, available here: