So, here we are in uncertain times. Gatherings (outside immediate family) in my part of the world have been limited to yourself and one other person for the foreseeable future. All face-to-face gaming has come to a crushing halt; as is completely appropriate.
I’ve been working from home for some weeks. I’m better suited to it than most being a solid “I” on the Myer-Briggs scale. While I don’t enjoy the unstructured social of dinners and parties, I definitely miss the structured social that work and gaming provides. While online zoom work meetings and online gaming with Skype / Discord chatter helps, it’s not the same. That’s the new normal though.
For the purposes of this semi-regular column, it’s tricky to learn new games. I’ve played nearly all the games that are available online, and frankly, I have lots of great games to play with my family throughout the interregnum without needing to import more. As such, it may turn out this is the last such column for the year – most of this list was compiled before lock-downs, and I only managed to complete it with a solo game yesterday.
Speaking of solo games (which may be particularly on the mind at the moment), while I’m not the biggest fan to begin with there are a few types that do particularly get my goat:
a) Those where it works only because time pressure is implemented (ie without time pressure it’s easily solvable): I don’t understand why I would want to waste time mastering that unneeded skill
b) Those where you effectively play two players: I’ve been lied to, it’s not solo, I can play any co-op game simulating with two players if that’s what I wanted to do, but I was after a solo challenge, not a two player challenge
c) Those where insufficient randomness makes the game plannable and solvable
I’m sure there are other types of questionable solo games, but I note these in particular because the game I finished this list with today (Martians: A Story Of Civilization) ran into trouble with aspects b) and c) and they were front of mind. Before we get to that in more detail though, here are some other thoughts …
BARRAGE (2019): Rank 254, Rating 8.0
A fine heavy game with mechanic twists of interest. It’s reminiscent of the long-abandoned Dos Rios, building dams to capture water and have it flow through pipes into your power stations to fulfil contracts for points and resources. Each player has a spoked wheel that they load with an action tile to build something and the resources to do so, and then rotate it. You can only build that type of infrastructure again after the wheel gets turned sufficiently and the action tile and resources return. It forces everyone to build in a balanced fashion. It also defines the worker placement feel, creating placement logjams where everyone wants to do the same action at the same time – in round 1, get more resources; in round 2, do extra spins on your wheel once it’s loaded up to get the actions back quicker; in round 5, all pile on to the produce energy asap. It makes for high tension, but it also makes being last in turn order more damaging than I’d prefer. What you’re trying to achieve game-wise is interesting, working out how the water will flow down the board based on where (and how high) people have built their dams and power stations, and working out the means to capture as much of that flow as possible. It’s a harsh game when someone builds a dam above yours and siphons off your water though because there aren’t that many builds in the game to allow you to come back. And if you lose access to water, you get no income with which to fight back. The issues of turn order and player interaction harshness feel too much for a game of this length, but it creates an itch to play again and do better. A game I enjoyed more in hindsight than in the playing perhaps. An older review of this here…
FLUTTERING SOULS (2019): Rank 10295, Rating 7.3
It takes the 7 Wonders: Duel game (taking cards from a pyramid) and dumbs down all the cards into four types with different scoring mechanics: pairs, triplets, more for each you have, and points vs wild. This makes for a very straight-forward game and it’s never going to get great replay because you play the same 3min game up to 5 times (first to 3 wins). And yet the game is pleasant to play, providing simple rules that can easily be taught to family, and provides just the right amount of look-ahead to keep them engaged without scaring them off. There’s a different pyramid each round, there are a mix of face-up and face-down cards to provide some tension, and the player going second has the opportunity to play a blocking card at some point to balance things. Simple, but nicely done.
FORBIDDEN SKY (2018): Rank 1862, Rating 6.7
Not quite as engaging as its predecessors, but maybe that’s more to do with over-familiarity with the system. The big change is that you spend actions to collect tiles and then place tiles in such a way as to build a loop of the required number of completed mini-circles (formed by connecting the right tiles, like building cities in Carcassonne). As long as you’re careful where you end your turns to minimise the amount of end-turn damage, it doesn’t seem overly hard at the normal level, and as usual with these things, if you play harder levels it’ll come down to the luck of the cards and tile draws so there’s not a lot to draw you back. It’s been over-produced to compensate for its relative simplicity (your honour, may I submit as evidence the spaceship that flashes and whirrs when you win and has no other game function), but it was pleasant enough to play. It loses a rating point for the dull theming – building an electronic circuit.
THE LEGEND OF THE CHERRY TREE THAT BLOSSOMS EVERY TEN YEARS (2018): Rank 5080, Rating 6.5
Push your luck game that I only want to play once every 10 years so it’s themed beautifully. You get 3 shots at pulling tiles out of the bag, after which you can put one collected colour behind your screen. These hidden but trackable tiles are in competition for most-of points. The tiles in front of your screen increase in value with each one you get on a Lost Cities: Keltis type scale. You get a bonus action if you pull out tiles matching one of three defined patterns which helps drive your decision on whether to pull again or not. You crash if you pull 5 different colours or 3 of the same colour – you at least get to keep two tiles, but even that’s enough to knock you out of contention if it happens more than the other players, as will playing conservatively. The winner will be the luckiest of those who straddle the line of common sense. A similar, but longer, review.
LUXOR (2018): Rank 948, Rating 7.2
This takes the old Knizia Tutankhamen concept of moving along a track and picking up tiles off the track (shortening the track for trailing pieces), and adds complications to turn it into a longer weightier (but still light) modern Euro. I like the hand mgt innovation (place the drawn card into the middle, play from either end only), and I liked the mgt required to land (the now needed) multiple meeples on the bigger scoring tiles. But adding more meeples to move and adding lots of special effect tiles to provide options doesn’t hide the fact that this became a too-long luck-fest that outstayed its welcome. Yes it’s for family, yes it probably has its place, but I suspect Knizia had the right idea in the first place – this mechanism can really only carry a much shorter timeframe. Luxor review by ted C from May 2018
MARTIANS: THE STORY OF CIVILISATION (2019): Rank 6674, Rating 6.6
While trying to satisfy everyone is noble (offering modes for competitive, co-op, semi co-op and solo play), the design decisions required to make each mode work usually result in each mode tending to average play. My opinion is coloured by only playing solo so far (in these lock-down days) and that mode providing an underwhelming experience. The game is worker placement with actions to buy tech, gather resources and convert them into stuff you need to a) satisfy the end-round requirements (food et al), and b) progress the scenario requirements. With only a handful of events providing wibbles (which are manageable), you can plan the payoff returns of all actions and plan everything out, with the major decisions being which tech to invest in and when. Interesting enough once, but now solved with no need to do again. That’s the co-op aspect done then as it feels like it won’t matter what the player count is. That leaves competitive mode as its potential saviour. My concern is that everyone will want the same worker placement spots because the end-round resource demands require most of the round’s actions to fulfil, leaving the question of whether this will provide tension or just be irritating (and too player order dependent). At least I want to find out.
OCEANS (2020): Rank 1452, Rating 7.8
I guess this felt better than Evolution Climate which felt better than Evolution, but still not enough to want me to play it much. It’s probably the least brutal but it still feels too much a guessing game re what traits and body size to shoot for. The best choice is going to be determined by what the other players put out, and that is going to be led by card draw. So you play what seems best and hope it turns out alright, but get used to being at the mercy of other players stealing your population left, right and centre. I can see where repeat play and card knowledge would improve your ‘guess’-work and provide advantage (and potentially induce a ratings rise) but for me there’s not enough satisfaction in that process to draw me back.
PASS THE PANDAS (2014): Rank 9457, Rating 6.1
A dice game of no real decisions that would normally rate lower except that it’s strangely fun because it can be played at real pace and get a quick winner while you’re filling in time. First one to get rid of their dice wins. Keep blanks, throw out raindrops, keep bamboos which you may be able to pass on, and give your pandas to the (wait for it, here’s the decision) player who in your opinion is in the best position to win (aka they have the least dice). It falls into the niche of something you’d play to see who’s buying the next round.
UNDAUNTED: NORMANDY (2019): Rank 545, Rating 8.0
This was always going to be a hit in our house. Memoir ’44’s been a long-time favourite, and this has the same simple setup and play feel. Instead of playing card by card, there’s a simul-discard to determine initiative, and then each player plays out their remaining hand of 3. Cards have up to 4 things to do which differs depending on whether they’re a scout, leader, riflemen, sniper, etc. It’s very much a game of using your leader cards to manipulate your deck and draw cards into your hand (Dominion style), and using your squad cards to move your squads around the board and aim to get lucky at the right times with attack dice. There are plenty of scenarios to try out, and while it’s not as rich as Memoir ’44, it’s also not as weighed down with terrain rules either. There are big moments when momentum turns on initiative and dice rolls, and we’ve had fun going with the flow.
TABAIJANA (1990): Rank n/a, Rating 5.9
PIRATEN-ABENTEUER aka CORSARO (1991): Rank 10534, Rating 6.2
These two co-op games by Kramer came out a decade before co-op games were made a thing by Knizia’s Lord of the Rings. They were rather ahead of their time. They’re short and aimed at families, containing child and adult variants, but the latter is all we’ve ever played. While not overly taxing, they’re fun enough to come out each year and have kept their place on my shelves for 20 years now. The two games are thematically linked, if slenderly.
In Tabaijana, you’re on a volcanically exploding island, aiming to load your boat with supplies and escape. The game starts with a huge pile of stacked crates , all in different colours, at the start of the track and with each roll you need to move a strata of crates, either containing a crate of your colour or such that you leave a crate of your colour exposed on those left behind, aiming to split up all the crates and then reassemble them into a group in each colour and get them on the boat, which can also be moved. The die each turn dictates how far your selection of crates moves. Crates can only move forward and if any drop off the end of the track, you lose. The game is all about managing the luck of the rolls and making smart decisions with what you get to give good options ongoing. It can be challenging depending on how fast the dice make you go (ie how few turns you get). It only comes out occasionally because the theming of moving coloured crates around into their correct order is by definition rather abstract and not exactly laced with thematic fun, but it does provide good decisions for its 15 min duration and can be engaging with people of like mind.
In Corsaro, you’re trying to get 4 boats from the island around a circular track and to the safe port. But there are 3 pirate ships also circling the track, and each turn you roll 2 dice, one of which must move your boat and one must move a pirate boat. If a pirate boat catches you or you move into a pirate boat, your boat is caught and there’s only so many ‘get out of jail’ cards to be used. You need to create gaps between the pirate boats to move safely in, whilst ensuring the following players have good options to move without being caught as well. Tricky without being overly taxing, it’s a nice 15 min co-op to pull out for the occasional play.
We always play the games back-to-back which provides a nicely thematic lightweight, easy-to-teach, easy-to-play co-op experience.
Thoughts of other Opinionated Gamers:
Larry: I’ve spoken of my love for Barrage many times on these pages. Half a dozen games later, that love remains as strong as ever. Patrick accurately speaks of the game’s harshness, but when an opponent does you dirt, you can almost always blame your own lack of planning or insight. The same is true with regard to the turn order–it’s all in the players’ control and you can usually plan where you will go on the next turn by how aggressively you earn points this turn. The game is wonderfully interactive, wonderfully clever, and wonderfully challenging. My only concern with it is that I’m still learning to be even competent with it and the current lack of play due to our universal isolation obviously isn’t helping that. Hopefully, my opponents will be as anxious to return to the game’s delights when we all get back together again as I am.
Tery: I expected to hate Forbidden Sky after the rules explanation, but it turned out to be a much more engaging game than I expected it to be, and I really enjoyed it. Sure, there’s some luck in play, but you can mitigate that and work with the other players to get to where you need to be. I didn’t know the rocket would light up at the end of the first game, so that was a nice surprise.
Mark Jackson: I had the same kind of “eh” reaction to Forbidden Sky as Patrick… but I still enjoy the first two games in the series (Desert & Island).
It’s nice to see some love for Corsaro and Tabaijana… both of which remain in my collection even after the Great Purge of 2013. Corsaro is my favorite – so much so I had some influence in getting a version of it included in the Klutz book The 15 Greatest Board Games in the World. (One of my claims to fame in the gaming hobby was consulting on the 2008 version of Klutz’s board game book… it’s sadly OOP but you can read more about it on my personal blog at http://akapastorguy.blogspot.com/2008/04/klutz-konsulting.html.)