There are so many games being released these days, it’s getting easier to miss some real gems. The quality of a game’s design isn’t enough to sell it anymore—even in Essen, where Indie game designers have been bringing their wares for decades. Now people employ aggressive marketing tactics in order to get their games noticed, and the cards seem to be stacked against the more soft-spoken game crafters.
The only time I ever write reviews for games is when I find good ones that no one else seems to be talking about. Being a game designer and having founded a game designer’s meet-up 13 years ago also means that I play more prototypes than finished games. And two of my favorite prototypes from the past several years are finally getting published, which means I finally get to talk about them.
Yes, there is a disclaimer, for those of you who care about such things. Pact designer Bernd Eisenstein and I have been friends for over a decade and have had a blast designing several games together. Evidence designer Ore is a newer arrival in Berlin from Greece, but has also quickly become a friend. And Michael Schmitt, founder of publisher Edition Spielwiese, is the owner of the café where our group meets, and he’s been a friend almost as long as Bernd. Other than that, I don’t benefit financially from this review or from any games sold. And I’ll be honest: not every game these designers make has made me this excited. But I have always known that these two games deserved to be published, and I’d like more people to know about them.
Designer: Bernd Eisenstein
Time: 30-45 minutes
Pact is on the lighter side of the Irongames spectrum (more like Pax than Peloponnes) , but it is still a bit deeper than the typical card games put out by the bigger German publishers. In fact, the early prototypes could have easily been published by Amigo, but Bernd’s target group has always been gamers, and he worked an extra couple of years on the design in order to give it enough depth and balance for that audience.
The backstory to Pact is a thematic tie-in to last year’s Irongames release, Pandoria (which I co-designed with Bernd). In Pandoria, 5 mythical realms were forced to flee the Hiddenlands in the face of a Goblin invasion and build new civilizations elsewhere. In Pact, players take on the role of those goblin clans who are now in control of the Hiddenlands, as they compete for power and build a chaotic anti-civilization.
The goblin cards are separated into suites: there are builders, chieftains, warriors, merchants, scientists and shamans. The artwork on the box cover and the cards is both beautiful and evocative of the theme. One can imagine a horde of Gremlins being unleashed on Middle Earth. Nevertheless, this is a Eurogame through and through, and the gameplay is in the mechanics, not in role playing. It is a highly interactive Eurogame, however, so there may be times you will want to growl or groan like a goblin.
On the surface, Pact doesn’t seem that novel: draft 2 goblin cards from a face-up row or the deck, and then send those goblins to complete one of the face-up “tasks” for victory points. On a turn, you can either draw cards or play cards. So there is a rhythm to the game familiar with anyone who has played Ticket to Ride, Splendor, etc..
That’s it? Not quite.
In order to complete a task, you must first play goblins face-up in front of you (up to 3). Having your goblins visible to the other players is key for two reasons. First, it can reveal to your opponents which face-up task cards you may be trying to complete. But more importantly, any player can complete a task with their left or right hand neighbor, making a “pact” with them and using their goblin cards! These tasks are placed between the players. Both players in a pact get one victory point from that shared task, but you can use as many cards from one of your neighbors as you wish, and they cannot refuse the deal. This means that you have to be careful with the cards you play in front of you.
On one hand, you want to complete tasks alone, if possible, so that you can have all the points to yourself (2 points per task, as opposed to 1 point for each shared task). But you don’t want to give your neighbor the chance to fulfill a task through a “pact” that uses up more of your goblins than theirs. And you might want to pre-empt them by making your own pact, as you get a bonus goblin card every time you initiate one.
None of this requires complex rules, but it forces the players to constantly be looking at each other’s face-up cards (especially those of their neighbors) as well as the changing task cards. And you are constantly faced with the dilemma of completing a task through a pact or trying to save up to do it alone.
There are also “specialists” in the game: cards that give you a one-time special ability, such as being able to draw an extra card, play an extra card, draw and play in the same turn, etc. Once you use one of these, you pass it to your right-hand neighbor, so they rotate from player to player, depending on how often they are used. You may only use 1 specialist per turn, but when one is used at the right time, it can be very rewarding.
Those are the basic rules. The game ends at the end of the round when the task row of 4 cards can no longer be refilled. Each player then counts up 2 VP for every task they completed alone, and 1 VP for every task in a pact with their two neighbors. Every player also counts up how much dynamite are on all the cards they scored (alone or shared) and the player with the most takes one of the task cards that had not yet been completed, if there was one (what is essentially 2 VP more in the base game).
In the “expert game,” the dynamite has a more important role. Each player gets a dynamite card and a wooden disc to move it along the dynamite track on the card. Now, if you have 5 or 6 different types of goblins in your display at the end of your turn, you get to move your disc 1 or 2 spaces and get more dynamite! Some of those spaces award bonus VP at the end of the game, but you can also use dynamite to “blow up” one goblin needed to complete a task, if you don’t have everything you need.
Each player also gets a “master goblin” card with 3 goblin figures in their color. In addition to either drawing cards or playing cards, you now have a third option: placing one of your master goblin figures on a shared task. This costs 3, 4 or 5 goblins of the color matching the task, but each figure gives you an additional VP, as well as a permanent goblin which you can use to fulfill every future task that requires that type.
Finally, each player is dealt 2 secret command cards which award more bonus VP for things like advancing on your dynamite card or fulfilling tasks in specific colors. You keep at least one of these, but if you keep 2, you have to fulfill it to some level to avoid a penalty.
Pact offers a lot to think about in its short 30-45 minute playing time, but the rules are easy to grasp and turns are quick. Even as a prototype, we would usually follow up one game with another, and there were plenty of laughs and groans around the table as pacts were made with players who were trying to complete tasks by themselves. At other times, players begged their neighbors to make a pact with them for a particular task card.
It’s far from a “take that” game, but in a market stuffed with quiet, multi-player solitaire games, I enjoy this lively, interactive gem, and I’m glad I will finally have a copy to play outside our game designer’s group.
Pact is available at the Irongames booth in Essen, 2-A128. Artist Inkgolem will sign copies of the game (and possibly a sketch as well) on Saturday, October 26, at 12:00. Bernd Eisenstein will be at the booth every day.
Designer: Orestis Leontaritis
Illustrations: Marek Blaha
Publisher: Edition Spielwiese
Time: 20 minutes
Evidence is another card game, but quite different than Pact. This one has deduction, bluffing and betting. Thematically, players are journalists investigating 6 of “the world’s greatest mysteries,” such as the Loch Ness Monster, Big Foot, etc. We’re all actually sure that these creatures do, in fact, exist, and we need to find enough evidence to convince our editor-in-chief to place our stories in the most prominent places in the newspaper (i.e. award us the most points).
Each of the 6 mysteries (suites) have 6 “rumor” cards with values from -1 to 4. Each mystery has a different distribution of these values, so there are also 6 overview cards that show which values are present in each suite. For example, the blue suite has values of -1, 1, 1, 2, 3, and 3, while the brown suite has values 0, 0, 0, 2, 3, and 4.
Each suite of rumor cards are shuffled separately, then 1 card of each suite will be placed face-down, not to be revealed until the end of the game. These cards are more than rumors: they represent how much evidence there actually is for that particular mystery. The remaining rumor cards are dealt to the players (with less than 5 players, some rumor cards are placed face-up).
There are also 6 time-out cards that are placed next to their matching mysteries.
And finally, each mystery also has a number of search cards, with the more valuable “hot leads” on top of each deck, which rewards the journalist who takes the first search card from each mystery.
When it is your turn, you do 1-3 things. First, you play one of the rumour cards from your hand face-up next to its matching mystery. In this way, all players will gain information about each mystery as the game progresses.
Next, you may take one or more search cards. You can only have as many of these as the number of rounds you have played, so it is only possible to take more than 1 search card if you have forfeited this action one or more times.
Finally, you may use one of the time-out cards to swap all your search cards from the mystery matching the time-out card with the same number of search cards from any other mysteries. There is only one of these for each mystery for the entire game. Each player is also limited to one time-out per game.
After the 6th round, all the evidence has been played by the players, and everyone flips over their search cards to reveal their newspaper articles. Each article is worth as many points as its matching mystery, so if the blue mystery had a value of 2 and I had two newspaper articles for blue, I score 4 points for that mystery. Each hot lead is worth an additional point, regardless of the value of its matching mystery.
A “tools” variant is provided, in that the 6 time-out cards are replaced with 6 special actions or end-game bonuses, and these no longer correspond to any one particular mystery (although one of the cards retains the “time out” action of exchanging search cards). As with the time-out cards, each player may only take one during the game.
Although I have yet to play the published game, I played a prototype multiple times over the past year, and the only thing I have not yet had experience with is the tools.
This is certainly on the lighter side of deduction games, suitable for playing with children, but it also does avoid the problem that many games in the genre have—when a mistake by one player throws the game for everyone else.
There are two points of tension in Evidence that I enjoy very much. The first is the difficult choice of which rumor card to play from my hand every turn. You want to hold back information on the mysteries you are investigation, but at the same time, you don’t want to make it easier for players who are busy with other mysteries, either. It’s good to keep track of what other players are playing and taking, and to try to play rumors that don’t rule out the lowest or highest scores for a mystery.
The second point of tension that I find novel in this type of game is the ability to pass on your “bids” in order to save them up for later, so that you can take more than one search card when you know more information. This is easier said than done, however, because the search cards can go fast, like a run on a hot commodity on the stock market floor. More than once, I waited too long to make my move. If you simply take one search card every turn, however, you might give away what you have in your hand by focusing on particular mysteries. Sure, you can bluff a bit, but the game is too short to do this for more than a couple of turns.
I find Evidence to be a fun, light deduction game for casual players, children, and as a fun filler among gamers.
Evidence is available at the Edition Spielwiese booth 2-D114 in Essen, and Ore will be teaching and signing games there on Friday from 12:00-14:00 and at the Pegasus booth on Thursday from 13:00-14:00