Hot Takes: Mark, Ted and John’s Weekend O’Games!

Ted & Braeden: Castle Dukes

For the last couple of years, I’ve had the privilege of traveling across a couple of states to join game designer Ted Cheatham (City Square Off, Captain Clueless) and John Palaygi in a 4 day gaming weekend. The last two years, I’ve had the privilege of bringing my oldest son, Braeden, who is just a few weeks away from heading for college (and, coincidentally, taking away my most prolific gaming partner).

The weekends are filled with laughter, great food, time with friends, and a whole lot of gaming. Two weekends ago was no exception.

What follows is a list of what we played (in order)… with my “hot takes”/reactions to the various games. There’s a number of new games, a few classics… and some just straight-out oddballs. 


And, for your reading enjoyment, the other two OG writers who were a part of the weekend (Ted & John Palaygi) chimed in as well!

Ted: Here and maybe in the wrong spot.  But since I was there, I will also give you a play by play.


Monster Lands 

We played 3 player with the Heavy Weapons expansion and the “slightly shorter” variant in the expansion rulebook – which, I’ll note, is likely my preferred way to play from now on. As I’ve written other places, it’s a big shaggy dog of a fantasy worker/dice placement game, but it has plenty of theme and opportunities to edge out other players… and I love to play it.

Note: although the expansion allows you to play Monster Lands with five players, I’d be concerned about the downtime. I think three is best, four is OK, and five is – in the words of Monty Python – “right out”.

Fifth play – rating: 7.5

Ted: I did enjoy this one and glad I tried it.  It is not a high enough rating for me to add it to my collection.

Star Trek: Conflick in the Neutral Zone

Sci-fi IP? Check. Flicking game? Check. Combat? Check.

Bad graphic design? Check. Completely inadequate rulebook? Check. Thematic weirdness (the Federation player can draft Klingon warships?)? Check. Fun missing from the box? Check.

And let’s not forget a really unfortunate cover font choice. Good grief.

First play – rating: 4

Ted: Yes, the rules presented some problems.  However, my biggest gripe is the fact that you can have ships with all three factions and as a lot of ships get on the board it is difficult to remember who owns what.  I looked through the ships to see if you could just draft Klingon vs. federation vs. neutral and the ships are not similar in powers enough to make me think things would be balanced that way.  For flicking, it is fine and we had fun. I am at a 5-6 right now. I need to try it again.

John: OG rating – Neutral.

Star Wars: Outer Rim

And now to the other 900 lb. gorilla sci-fi IP… and, thankfully, this game is more successful, though still with a few issues. Outer Rim is a pick-up & deliver game with adventures and acquiring crew and a new ship. The rules are pretty well laid out, the board is easy to read (for the most part) and the game generates some great Star Wars-y stories.

It runs a little long… especially on the first play. There is, as in most pickup & deliver games, a small “rich get richer” issue. But even with those concerns, I enjoyed my first play and would look forward to playing it again. My son loved it and put it on his “need to own” list, which means I’m likely to get a chance to play it again.

First play – rating: 7

Ted: Boy I really want to like this one.  I have played twice now and only to 8 points instead of the standard 10.  Cannot imagine playing to 12. The game is just too long for what it is. Next time I may play to 6 or 7 points.  There are some neat ideas in there. I am a 6 rating right now.

John: OG rating – I Like it.


We played with a number of expansions in – the Wizard’s Tower board, the Adventuring Party, the Unquiet Dead – and, as usual, Braeden (my son) sniped/interrupted his way to victory. (Seriously, the kid is a savant at this game.) I always enjoy the tactical decisions and the surprises/twists of fate – though I will note that those who don’t like to see their plans evaporate due to the actions of others should avoid playing. For me, the short playing time (45 minutes) makes the occasional randomness an acceptable part of the fun.

Eighth play – rating: 8

Ted: I was really looking forward to this one.  And, it is hard to believe it is Martin Wallace.  Great Bits and a fun romp of hand management. I felt choices were pretty straight forward based on your hand and board position.  I give it a 6

John: OG rating – Neutral.

Braeden: Carreau


Very pretty wooden dexterity game… essentially Bocce with. tiny wooden catapults and dice. It was enjoyed by all of us – enough so that I’m strongly considering trying to find a copy. I turned out to be a natural at this – I’m guessing it’s all my years playing Zoff im Huhnerhoff & Chip Chip Hurra.

What?! You say you’ve never heard of these games… fix this error immediately!

First play – rating: 8

Ted: Fun activity of flicking and laughing.  Rate 6

John: I Like it.

Impact: Battle of Elements

The game itself is stunningly simple – throw dice in the “arena”, hoping for matches. Be the last person with dice. Doesn’t sound like much, but it’s a great non-gamer game or late night filler.

A favorite at the Jackson house… though John was clear that the original version (Strike) has a better box/arena for maximum dice throwing and carnage. We have not yet tried the “Elements” additional rules, which feel like they might just get in the way of the stripped-down good time of the basic game.

Ninth play – rating: 7

Ted: Filler of dice tossing luck.  Fun for what it is….a 5

John: Strike – I Like it.  Impact – Neutral


While I enjoyed this new Knizia card game – it’s easy to teach and offers some interesting decisions as you try to ditch your hand or simply survive without taking too many points – I’m glad it didn’t win SdJ. It just doesn’t seem like it’s up to that level. I’d be happy to play again but in the “better than UNO/Phase 10” world, I’d rather be playing Team Play.

First play – rating: 6

Ted: Agree with Mark on this one.

John: Neutral (Team Play is I Love It).


Runebound: Unbreakable Bonds

Only our second win playing in cooperative mode – this time against the Uthuk warbands (Locusts). It was long (it took 3 hours 45 minutes), but it was a spectacular example of bad tactics giving way to good tactics and the power of storytelling. Important lesson: Braeden’s fighter should not be allowed to wander about Terrinoth on his own.

I’m a huge fan of the Runebound 3rd edition – I think the “POGS” combat system is really nifty and the scenarios they’ve developed are clever. I wouldn’t recommend it to everyone – but if you like fantasy exploration/combat games, this one is a doozy. 

Eighteenth play – rating: 8.5

Ted: This was my request as I had not played my unbreakable bonds expansion yet.  I really like the pog combat as well. And, the expansion did a great job with the AI.  This was way to long for the joy. I actually am thinking I may need to sell my copy. What makes it a hoot is the company.  Rate it a 6 for now.

John: I Like It.  I really liked the co-op version we played.

Space Base

I’ve heard a lot about Space Base from friends, calling it “gamer Machi Koro” and extolling its virtues. My experience this last weekend was just so-so… it has some problems with a slow start and then the nearly inevitable winner being obvious 10 minutes before the game is over. (It shares this problem with Machi Koro.)

First play – rating: 5

Ted: I think I would agree with Mark.  However, the spouse will play it which takes it to a 6.

John: Neutral

Call to Adventure 

I’m working on a different OG article that will focus in more detail on Call to Adventure – but for now, I’ll just say that each game of this has been a lot of fun. It does what it was designed to do – help you create a character/backstory for a fantasy character – and does so in ways that are scorable for determining a winner

Eighth play – rating: 7.5

Ted: I got the story idea initially.  About half way through, it was just trying to match up my symbols to get the most points.  6

John: Neutral

Escape Room in a Box: Flashback

I’m not really an escape room kind of guy – I enjoy solving the puzzles, but the experience as a whole doesn’t “sing” for me like a good game of Dungeonquest or The Pursuit of Happiness. The puzzles here were challenging but not difficult – this would make a good family escape room game.

First play – rating: 6

Ted: I am burned out on escape room games.  I have played too many recently. 6

John: I Like it – great as a family escape game.

51st State Master Set: Winter

Along with Fresco, 51st State is vying for the “Game I Most Wished Would Come to the Table But Doesn’t” at my house… so the chance to play it was wonderful. I like the optimization problem at the heart of the game, coupled with the need to time your moves to thwart other players without leaving them with the resources to slow you down.

Seventh play – rating: 8

Ted: I have been wanting to play imperial settlers which is a retheme of this one.  So, I was happy to give it a go. Was not a fan. The game worked, I just did not care for it.  5

John: I like it.

Mark: Palm Trees

Palm Trees

If you’re old enough to remember the old Twister-ish card game Funny Bones (I am), you’ll have some idea about how Palm Trees works. (Younger folks should reference HABA’s Dancing Eggs/Eiertanz.) In this case, you hold onto palm tree cards whilst wearing compression sleeves decorated like palm trees. The Instagram-able pictures are pretty much the best thing about this… “game”.

First play – rating: 3

Ted: I think Mark’s rating is too generous.

John: Not for me.  Not really sure who this is for.

Magical Athlete

I tried again… after hating it the first time I played nearly 8 years ago. Nothing has changed.

I don’t mind random… but I hate that one somewhat random decision (which guy to send) dooms me to 5-10 minutes of rolling dice and bad things happening. I know other folks enjoy it immensely… I am not one of them.

Second (and last) play – rating: 2

Ted: Boy golly, it is a filler, pretty quick, dice rolling and a little take that, what is not to like.  5 – 6 rating.

John: I Love It (with the right group).


Are you into finger contortions? Then this is your game. Otherwise, stay away.

First (and last) play – rating: 3

Ted: Ok, I will yield.  I agree with Mark.

John: not for me

Lord of the Rings: Journey to Mordor

The only game we played twice this weekend… it’s a decent little roll’n’write with a smattering of hosage and an “advanced” game that isn’t that advanced and adds a bit more theme to the proceedings. I’m actively looking for a copy as I think my wife would enjoy playing this with the boys.

First play – rating: 6.5

Ted: A favorite filler that fits the restaurant game.  7

John: I Love it  (and I’m well tired of roll and writes).


We ended the night with a final roll’n’write… with actual dice drafting and spatial placement. I liked the combination – and I think that experience would make you much more aware of what other people need and draft to stop them. (There’s a hint of Sagrada here – but I like Sagrada, so that’s not a bad thing.)

First play – rating: 6

Ted: Agree

John: I like it.


Catan Histories: Rise of the Inkas

This is the version of Catan for those people who are lukewarm about Catan because they don’t have enough to trade or it’s too easy to get blocked in. Trading is looser, player tribes go into decline (and so their settlements can be built over)… and there’s even a way to increase your hand size to avoid “taxation”.

My favorite way to play Catan is either the old historical boxes or the newer Explorers and Pirates… but this is very enjoyable. And I won for the first time in a long time.

Fourth play – rating: 7.5

Ted: A pretty good version of catan.  I like how the board goes into decay and opens back up.  I no longer own a catan….I know……Rate this a 6

John: I like it.

Agents of SMERSH

You would think that I’d be the natural target as an audience for this game – a game system based on Tales of the Arabian Nights (a game I adore), filled with spy movie clichés and in-jokes – but my first play 6+ years ago fell pretty flat, so this is the first time I’ve been willing to try it again.

Evidently, there is a second edition which smooths out some of the rough edges… but we were playing the first edition. Ted wisely (I think), had us mix the book story cards with the “regular” deck for a variety of adventures… but it still felt longer than necessary. As well, it didn’t feel like we made much progress towards the goal before we lost – there may be a little too much grinding and losing ground to the system (due to the villain deck) than is enjoyable.

Still, the four of us had a lot of fun as we hammed it up and enjoyed the story.

Second play – rating: 6

Ted: Ours ran long but it is a decent paragraph romp with a fun theme.  6

John: I Like it.  This (like Arabian Nights) is more an experience than a game but I’ve enjoyed my plays of it.

Mark: Castle Dukes

Castle Dukes

This is a weird hybrid of Euro game (the drafting of various rooms and castle fixtures) and dexterity game (you actually build your castle and take penalties when/if things collapse)… and, after a single play, I’m really of two minds about it. The castle-building is a lot of fun… and we ended up with some pretty neat looking buildings. On the other hand, I don’t think the underlying game design is strong enough to carry the weight, so to speak.

We played the “advanced” version (12 rounds)… which feels like an afterthought, as we ran out of columns to increase the height of our castles. I’m willing to play again, but at this point I don’t need my own copy.

First play – rating: 6 (barely)

Ted: This is about building stuff with a euro maximize sets pasted on.  I love the dragon taking out castles. 6 it is.

John: Neutral – During our game I basically ignored the game part and just had fun building the castle.

Trekking the National Parks

My son describes this as a cross between Expedition and Ticket to Ride… and I don’t entirely disagree. I like the multiple use of the cards (they can be used for movement or claiming various national parks) and the major park game mechanic varies up the special powers available in each game. I think I probably liked it the best at the table – but I’ve found it really easy to teach non-gamers and enjoy, so it’s not going anywhere.

Fifth play – rating: 7

Ted: 5

John: I like it.


We played the Boardgametables edition… and it’s a more open-ended take on the same basic “question” as Knizia’s High Society – how do you harvest points without being the person who spent the most money? Here, money is unlimited – you write down your bids and get partial information over the first couple of rounds that help you figure out (roughly) how much people are spending.

It’s a perfectly fine game – but all in all, I’d rather be playing High Society.

First play – rating: 6

Ted: This was a very open ended bidding game.  And fast. 6 for now.

John: I like it.

Res Arcana

This is Braeden’s favorite new game of my birthday haul – and possibly his favorite new game of 2019. I’m not sure I’d go that far… but this is a brilliant game design from one of my favorite designers (Tom Lehmann) that has kept me coming back.

The biggest issue I have with the game is how to teach it – it has enough moving parts and a wide variety of card types that I have used the provided “first game” hands – but I think the game actually works better when you know all the cards in your limited (8 card) personal deck. Braeden and I have decided to start using the drafting rules (now that we’ve seen most of the cards in play), but I’m afraid that will just confuse new players.

Fifth play – rating: 8

Ted: I put it at a 6 right now.  It could go up with another play.  Collect these to buy these style game.

John: I like it 

The Downfall of Pompeii

This was the first game I ever received from a BGG Secret Santa (thank you, Michelle)– and I still own & enjoy it. Yes, the placement rules about relatives can be a bit confusing, but the game itself is a lot of fun. (You can tell I like it by the number of times I’ve played it – see below.)

I managed to place a BUNCH of guys on the board… but their inevitable doom was hastened by the collective malevolence of my opponents.

Thirty-fifth play – rating: 7.5

Ted: Great closer. Agree with Mark.

John: I love it.

Luchador! Mexican Wrestling Dice

Honestly, I went into this one with some trepidation… but I walked out the other side a HUGE fan of this well-thought-out dicefest. Let’s be clear – this is not going to be a big hit with the Caylus & Concordia crowd, but those of us who relish over-the-top silliness, wild swings of fortune, and the ability to act out the tag team match with the provided cardboard standees are in hog heaven with this game. Slightly more decisions and chrome than King of Tokyo; slightly less seriousness than, say, Age of Steam.

It doesn’t hurt that John & I won our match. And that the board is a wrestling ring with ropes & everything.

First play – rating: 7

Ted: Got this on a whim years ago.  It still has a place in the collection.  You definitely need the right group to have a hoot.  6-7

John: I like it (again, somewhat group dependant).

Castles of Caladale

Pretty straightforward drafting/tile laying game that allows players to continually rearrange their tiles. As you can already guess, this can lead to a bit of AP in the final turns. Pleasant but not particularly interesting.

First play – rating: 5

Ted: I love tile games and this one fits my niche.  I like building the odd castle. 6-7

John: I like it.

Rise of Augustus

My only other plays of Augustus was at my last Gathering of Friends – which tells you how long it’s been since I’ve been to the Gathering of Friends. The moniker it received that week (“gamer bingo”) is on point… though I think that it’s really a great gateway game with some meaningful decisions. (Much like Catan, your early decisions carry a lot of weight and can doom your game from the get-go. Unlike Catan, it’s over in 30 minutes so that is not game-killing.)

Third play – rating: 6

Ted: Agree

John: I like it.


New Frontiers

Race for the Galaxy and Memoir ’44 are my #1 and #2 favorite games – and the actual numero uno changes based on whichever I’ve played last – so it’s not a surprise that I was predisposed to love New Frontiers.

With a number of plays under my belt, I’m fascinated how this blends elements of Puerto Rico and the Race for the Galaxy universe to create a game that is easier to teach. I like as well that there seem to be a variety of strategies that can work – focusing on production worlds/military speed takeover/concentrating on developments/etc.

Twelfth play – rating: 9

Ted: This needs another play.  Mark’s comments are on point with the game. I go with a 7.

John: after 1 play, I like it – could go to I love it.

Bugs on Rugs

A drafting game with some twists… that is hamstrung by the lack of clear iconography and/or player aid cards. One play was enough.

First play – rating: 4

Ted: Another filler and I did not think the icons were that bad.  This is a retheme of Sushi Go with some special deck powers. It was fine 5-6

John: Neutral

The Lord of the Rings: Journey to Mordor       

Our second play proved as enjoyable as our first… and hardened my resolve to find my own copy. And thus began our morning of LOTR-themed gaming.

Second play – rating: 6.5

Der Herr der Ringe: Die Gefahrten – Das Kartenspiel

This was my second play of “Samurai: The Card Game with Nice Fellowship of the Ring graphics”… and while I can appreciate that it’s a solid design, I don’t particularly enjoy the game. (Note: I sold my copy of Samurai a long time – though it hung on based on the really great graphics/bits longer than it might have otherwise.)

In other news, it had been 17 years since I played it the first time – I can wait another 17 years for another play.

Second play – rating: 5.5

Ted: I really loved this game when it came out.  It has waned a little but I still put it at a 7

John: I like it.

John: Die Zwei Turme

Der Herr der Ringe: Die Zwei Turme

This is also my second play of bit of orc-slaying silliness… a cooperative game in which players score based on the number of orcs they kill. I don’t think it’s a particularly good game (hence the rating below), but playing it with the right group is certainly fun.

Second play – rating: 5

Ted: Ditto.  I would have sold it except I get to play it once a year with these guys.

John: What Ted said.

Thoughts From the Opinionated Gamers

Patrick Brennan: That’s a lot of games! I clearly need to get to Wildlands and New Frontiers ASAP. LAMA, yep agree, too simple to even get a SdJ nomination in my book. I think its rating will be highly dependent on whether your gaming group are in a happy mood or not at time of playing. Space Base did get slightly better on a second play, but yep it’s still in that 5-6 range – turning a simple mechanic into a game that’s 4 times longer doesn’t always work. Magical Athlete: agree, burn it. Agents of SMERSH is a total luck-fest – I was lucky to play it with a ham-up group and we enjoyed the ride though. Q.E. is one I admire more than I want to play – a game of nothing but auctions doesn’t really get my juices flowing (but it does it very well). Res Arcana I liked, but I wonder if one’s game-play is too restrictively defined by the start draw, with not enough variety in the box. I still liked it though. Downfall of Pompeii remains in my collection as a thematically fun, occasional-type game. Rise of Augustus I didn’t mind, but then again it hasn’t been seen on a table since 2013 so that says something. It’s session reports like these that remind how many games are out there that I’ve never even heard of, let alone played, despite me averaging a new game a day most of the year!

Ted C.  It is funny looking at the differences in rating between me and Mark.  It is surprising because I just had so much fun regardless of my thoughts on the game over all.  Great weekend.

About Mark "Fluff Daddy" Jackson

follower of Jesus, husband, father, pastor, boardgamer, writer, Legomaniac, Disneyphile, voted most likely to have the same Christmas wish list at age 57 as he did at age 7
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1 Response to Hot Takes: Mark, Ted and John’s Weekend O’Games!

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