It’s mostly disappointment city in this collection of new stuff, but that’s ok, the fun is in the exploring. One player’s trash is another’s treasure after all.
In non-new gaming we’ve been on a Terraforming Mars kick the last few weeks. We play with all income starting on 0 and allow the prelude cards to kick-start income in a direction that hopefully meshes with your cards which gives a nice focus and direction to play with. I’ve upped the rating to a 9, the continual challenge being the valuation of cards vis a vis the standard projects at each stage of the game. I’m still not sure it needs any other expansions yet. Combine the price of the other three expansions and man, I could be buying a top-line exxy game like Everdell!
BLOKUS DUO (2005): Rank 876, Rating 6.9
The same as the original Blokus, but with a smaller board and you start closer to the centre. Its big win is its simplicity – keep playing pieces to the board until you can’t, the player who covers the most space wins. This version asks you to master the art of blocking. Your pieces can only touch diagonally, not orthogonally. It’s this rule that allows players to interweave their pieces on the board and provide much of its charm. To block, you need to wrap around your opponent’s blocks’ corners in such a way that the pieces they have left can’t get through. You can study it and play a slow game, or not care so much and just play for the fun of it. I’m in the latter camp, making it a fun 15 minute filler. But the lack of need to master it means the game’s abstractness and simplicity isn’t quite enough for lots of replay. I prefer the more social 4-player game where the feel is more about the race to escape into space rather than the weaving of intricate blocking patterns.
COMBO FIGHTER (2019): Rank 5202. Rating 7.6
Effectively you’re playing rock / papers / scissors, each player revealing a card from their hand simultaneously. If you win, chain as many other cards from your hand off your played card as you can to force your opponent to discard cards from their deck. Repeat. First player to deck their opponent wins. The chaining and a special power doesn’t make up for the fact that you’re playing rock / paper / scissors repeatedly. Not for me.
DEEP SPACE D-6 (2015): Rank 887, Rating 7.3
I’m generally not a fan of solo dice games because the lack of result variety can only generate so much interest. Once you get to medium-hard levels here though, it does create a sense of more-ishness with each failure. The game provides 4 modes (in each mode, the dice have different actions) providing variety. You get 1 or more threat cards each turn and your mission is to roll dice so as to inflict enough damage to kill them off before they smack you back at end of turn (dependent on another die roll). Other actions are to heal yourself, recover lost dice, and other various wibbles. It’s a LOT of dice rolling to get thru the 50+ cards in around 30 minutes. Which would be better if there were clever things to do, but there’s usually not. There are no re-rolls and there are frequent turns where your dice give you nothing useful and the threats simply pile up instead. And then there’s the stupid big boss rules (which are unforgivably on the inside box lid rather than in the rules!?) where they all come out at once and no matter if you’re in perfect health or not, if you don’t roll perfectly there’s every chance it’ll just kill you dead in one roll, if not the next. Too much end-game luck. There are variants, but that’s the designer’s intent I guess – space is big and loaded with misadventure. Despite these shortcomings, I’d still like to get lucky and beat it at hard levels. Then it’ll be cast aside.
DUNGEON ACADEMY (2019): Rank 7909, Rating 7.0
16 dice are revealed in a 4×4 grid (i.e. 16 rooms in the dungeon), and they variously provide energy or a monster to be killed using that energy (all in different colours). Within the time limit, each player simultaneously draws their own path through the grid (collecting energy and killing monsters for points). The time pressure is real – do you take longer and search for the perfect path, or take the first reasonable option you see – because the order in which you stop is the order in which you collect loot cards at the end. It’s pretty good if you like this kind of thing, but after 4 rounds I felt I’d played enough. Timed games aren’t a favourite and while this was decent fun in the playing, and it didn’t outlast its welcome, it also didn’t change my mind.
JAWS (2019): Rank 2079, Rating 7.7
You’re playing this for the fun of the theme, which it does really really well … because the mechanics don’t stack up to much. The first part of the game has a hidden movement mechanic with the hunters trying to guess the location of the shark. There are clues – it can only move three spaces and the beach where swimmers just disappeared gives a pretty fair indication – but it usually comes down to two or three spaces and guessing correctly. The more swimmers the shark eats, the more powerful (ie. more cards) they are in the second phase, when you flip the board and play a different game where the hunters try to guess which of three locations on the boat the shark will attack and then take turns roll, roll, rolling dice to inflict enough damage until the shark is dead or all the hunters are dead. This drags on for a while. The theme elevates the game, and there’s big cheer factor when the shark takes big hits. I found it a fun time, but it felt like a movie experience; as in, play it once and feast on the memory of a good time because you won’t do it again … you already know what happens. A similar but more long winded review here
KERALA: THE WAY OF THE ELEPHANT (2016): Rank 2255, Rating 6.9
Pull one tile for each player from a bag, and draft them in order, adding them to your tableau. The twist is that you must place next to one of your two elephants, and then that elephant moves onto the tile, meaning your two elephants are continually moving outwards. The scoring system however really wants you to have tiles in all colours and tiles of the same colour together. The angst comes when the colours in the draft don’t match the colours your elephants are next to. The game gives you options though – you can pass twice, or cover up tiles, and some tiles allow you to move tiles around, or elephants around. It moves along at a gentle Elephantine pace, easy to teach, easy to play. There are little highs and lows with good drafts and not-so-good, and some subsequent angsty decisions to make to keep a clean tableau. Nothing world-breaking, but enjoyable enough for 20-30 minutes. An older review here
RAPTOR (2015): Rank 317, Rating 7.4
The theming and asymmetry is reminiscent of Tally Ho, a long time favourite, where you have animals hunting humans and vice versa. There’s no discovery element though, and we’re playing Jurassic Park rather than your normal forest full of bears. The guts of it is outguessing what card your opponent will play and consistently earning enough action points to accrue the “wins” you need. After simultaneously revealing, the lower numbered cards gets its effects (the higher the card, the more powerful the effect), and then the higher number gets action points equal to the difference in numbers (but a smartly played effect may have made those actions points less useful). It’s quite clever and I liked it. If you’re under, you want to be just under, and if you’ve over, you want to be massively over. While outguessing is the name of the game, you still need to be careful with your positioning vis a vis the cards you have left in hand and who’s likely to earn action points in the coming rounds. My one concern is that the lightness of the cardplay suggests one audience but the need for careful tactical maneuvering suggests another, and it may be tricky finding players who enjoy both.
TRAPWORDS (2018): Rank 1837, Rating 7.1
You see the word the other team need to guess, and you write down a series of words (traps) that, if the clue-giver uses, they fail. So, do you put down obvious trapwords or, knowing the clue-giver will avoid those, imagine how the clue-giver will give a clue without using obvious words, and write trapwords at the next level of obscurity. It’s not a bad concept but in practice it was still pretty easy to get clues guessed in time, and the generation of trapwords generated downtime that sucked the pace and fun out of the process. The addition of curse cards that force players to do stupid distracting things during the process just added to the malais. I liked this better when it came out
TWICE AS CLEVER (2019): Rank 629, Rating 7.6
Different scoring subsystems to provide some variety, but it’s the same mechanic and the same 6’ish feel as the original. There are hard decisions on what to use after each of your three rolls, because using a high die burns all the lower dice, which you then can’t use for the remainder of your turn. Roll well and it’s not an issue, because then it’s just a decision on which scoring method to focus on so as to get to the “clever” reward levels (advancing enough in each colour leads to bonus advances in others). You get a minor decision on other player’s turns as well with one of their unused dice, but otherwise your opponents’ turns feel much too long, waiting for them to determine which dice won’t be used, and the downtime seems to make the game go on and on, much longer than I want a roll & write game to go. Dale likes it. really.
SPOTLIGHT ON: SQUATTER (1962): Rank 13500, Rating 5.7
Ahh, a classic Aussie evergreen that most every kid used to own, including yours truly, given that Australia is said to have been built on the sheep’s back. It might have stood the test of time for sales, but not in gameplay terms. Roll the dice. Move to the square. Get lucky, or not. Sale prices are generally double the purchase prices, so the strategy basically is (and your only decisions in the game are) everytime you land on a Stock Sale space sell everything you can (unless you’re about to pass the Wool Sale aka Go space which gives you money per sheep owned), and then buy it all back the next time. Repeat until you have enough money to improve all your land and get back up to 30 sheep. Every other space is just luck in different flavours – pay money or get money. As there’s only 1 strategy, you’ll find the luckiest person wins. Count on about 30 minutes per player, so you’ll want to play 2 or 3 player max. At least it has a great theme that might draw in the tweens.
Thoughts of other Opinionated Gamers:
Brandon K: /cracks knuckles Doppelt so Clever is still probably one of my Top 5 games of 2019, I absolutely loved its predecessor, and I absolutely love this one as well. It is very similar, the way you play is exactly the same, but those scoring tweaks make it a completely different way of thinking. It was good to see it grow and be maybe a bit more complex in scoring. Kerala is one of those games that I wished I played more often, but since I never bought it for myself, and only bought it as a present for a family member, I don’t get the chance to play it all that much. Really clever little tile placement game that didn’t deserve to be forgotten quite this quickly. Jaws, theme alone gets it a 6, but I can’t imagine the gameplay adding anything to that score. Played it twice and it ended up finishing almost exactly the same, both plays. We’ve rediscovered our love of Blokus this year, along with Qwirkle, which both stay intertwined in my mind for some reason. Blokus Duo was the first version I played and my daughter and I played the heck out of it when she was younger, that tighter board makes it a bit more aggressive, instead of maybe trying to hide away in the four player game.
Matt C: I open up Doppelt so Clever fairly often on my phone and play a round or two. It’s an enjoyable few minutes of play and I love the positive endorphins I get whenever I manage to get some nice combos. However, my struggle with the game remains the same as its predecessor. I simply get in ruts of strategies and just iterate again and again to see if I can get it one better. Only once in awhile do I strut out an entirely new strategy to see how it holds up. I have yet to feel that the dice dictate which strategy I should pursue. Instead, I typically see how well I can get the dice to line up with the strategy I’m already pursuing. So I guess I’m saying to the game it’s not you, it’s me?
Fraser: Don’t forget one of the best bits of Squatter, the little plastic sheeples (which were available in the early editions, then not for a while but are back again in newer editions). You are definitely correct that the way to win is to buy and sell sheep at advantageous prices. Interestingly, over the years I have played this with two different people who grew up on sheep stations and they both said that the rest of the game is actually a pretty accurate portrayal of sheep farming.