They Say It’s Your Birthday! – A Plethora of Gaming Impressions

Well… between a great sale at Miniature Market in mid-June, Father’s Day, my birthday, and a Kickstarter finally delivering, my already overly-large game collection became – ahem – larger. 

More importantly, my birthday “party” was to road trip to West Virginia with my older son, Braeden, and spend a long weekend with my good friend (and fellow OG writer) Ted Cheatham playing board games and eating Jane Cheatham’s delicious cooking. 

What follows is my quickie recap of the games we played… some old, some brand new – but all enjoyable due to the company! In addition, I’ll add some notes about additional plays of other games played in the week or so since the trek to Charleston.

And, because I understand some of you just won’t every word I’ve written, I’ll add the box cover picture of my favorite new-to-me game from each day.

Wednesday (not actually at Ted’s)

Marvel Champions: The Card Game

My sons and I fought bravely (but badly) against Drang & the Brotherhood of Badoon… it was fun to bring out Rocket Raccoon, Groot, and Gamora as characters. However, their pre-set decks need some fine-tuning. (Good thing I’m aware of Marvel CDB… a great database of decklists!)

Undaunted: Normandy

Just the first scenario… but both Braeden and I were impressed with how clean the game design is and how much fun it was to play. It reminds me a bit of War Chest, but with more random elements and greater flexibility. A second play with my younger son, Collin, reinforced my excellent first impression. I’m very much looking forward to the Reinforcements expansion box coming later this summer that will add solo and four player elements to the game system. (Note: I feel this way despite losing both games to my evidently much more battle-savvy sons.)

Thursday (at Ted’s after 6 hours of driving)

Great Western Trail

My first play of this was really enjoyable (it doesn’t hurt that I won) – though it may be a little long for me to regularly get it on the table, it’s going on my wishlist with the new edition coming out later this year. (We played with the Rails to the North expansion – which added some complications I’m not sure are entirely necessary.) Now that I’m OK with this ‘bigger’ Pfister design, I may have to break down and try Maracaibo. 


Very clever nominee for the Kennerspiel this summer, this prehistoric co-op went well. It is a crowd-dependent game – the inability to cooperate and sacrifice in a group would doom the experience – but we managed to fight off the hordes of wolves, build a stone circle, and save our people from extinction. Braeden liked it enough that he bought himself a copy to take back to college!

It’s a Wonderful World

I’m closing in on 30 plays in 2021 of this card-drafting civ builder – thanks in good part to my younger son (Collin) and I playing through both expansion campaigns. (I wrote a review here on the OG of the Wonderful World expansions that you’re welcome to read.) This was a “back to basics” game (as Ted hadn’t played before) in which Braeden edged me out for the win by two points. (I’m not bitter, I promise.)

Monster Expedition

Another Pfister game, set in the Carnival of Monsters “world”… but with much less mental overhead than Great Western Trail. I’ve described this dice game as Pickomino/Heckmeck im Brautweck with a slightly friendlier “bad roll” policy and, well, monsters. It’s a very good (if short) solo game… but works well with 2-3 players. I think it’s a tad long with 4, but my gamer friends here in Nashville thoroughly enjoyed it over the July 4th weekend at that player count.

Heist: One Team, One Mission

A battery-operated real-time puzzle for a team of players, trading resources back and forth and punching the button on their side of the cube when ordered. Winning releases a shower of gold (aka plastic) bars. One play was enough for me. 

Slide Quest

Remember those old wooden Labyrinth puzzles that challenged you to get the metal marble past all the openings? (Or, if you’re a Survivor fan like me, the similar puzzles used in immunity challenges?) Now, imagine adding some theme, what looks like a shrunken Little People figure with a ball bearing underneath him, and multiple players controlling the pitch and yaw of the “table”… and you have Slide Quest. We managed to complete 5 missions before we ran out of lives. If the boys were younger, I’d probably make sure we had a copy of this one in the collection.

Friday (at Ted’s house)


Somehow, I had never played this “classic” Kosmos two-player, so while Braeden slept on Friday morning, Ted & remedied that lapse in gaming knowledge on my part. Honestly, I’m not sure I see what all the praise was about – there’s a LOT of take-that action cards to juice up a pretty straightforward “collect stuff to buy victory points” game. 

Of course, playing this reminded me of playing Waka Waka (another game in Rudiger Dorn’s Jambo setting) at midnight at the Gathering of Friends… with a badly rendered Google translation and the mellifluous vocal tones of Warren Madden reading the rules to an increasingly confused Larry Levy (another OG writer) and I. The game – eh. The experience – priceless.

1911: Amundsen vs Scott

Ted & I only played the basic version of this historically based racing game… which means we only had to get to the South Pole. (The advanced version requires you to actually return to safety.) I like the asymmetric nature of the pathways and use of cards, but it’s not something I need to play again.


Braeden was still slowly getting up, so the two-player games continued. Dragonheart was another game I’d missed – though I’d heard a number of gamer friends talking about how much they’d enjoyed it. I was not sure what to expect… but it’s an excellent two-player filler game. It plays quickly (10-15 minutes max) and has some painful decisions (which good thing do I leave for my opponent while I try to hang onto these better cards?). I’d be happy to find a copy as it is right in my younger son’s “let’s play something short” wheelhouse.

Cosmic Cows

Maureen Hiron’s take on Yahtzee… yet another game I knew about but had never played. It runs a little long, but I found it charming and much more fun than playing straight Yahtzee. (The cow bits are very cute.) My thought on further reflection – I’d love for a travel version of this where the sliders are locked into the board – it would be a great “play anywhere” game.

Core Worlds: Empires

I’ve been a playtester as well as a huge fan of Andrew Park’s newest journey into the Core Worlds universe… so it was a real treat to introduce Ted to this sprawling worker placement game. (If you’re interested in more details, I wrote an extensive review earlier this year.) Ted and I tied – with the tiebreaker falling to him. 

This is the opposite of Dragonheart, though – it’s not a short filler but a long (slightly over 3 hours for 3 players) game with a good bit of reacting to the vagaries of the event cards and keeping yourself in position to take advantage of them. The game should be available late this year – and I’d recommend it highly to fans of the Core Worlds universe and folks who like think-y worker placement designs.


An older (2015?) cooperative tower defense game from Hobby World… the encircling card mechanic is a neat idea. Overall, though, it didn’t generate a lot of difficult decisions – the majority of best moves were relatively easy to see. (We won, but it was close.)


Braeden took a break, so it was back to 2 player games… and this very pretty abstract tile-laying game was an enjoyable 20 minutes. The sliding component of the game reminded me a bit of Tally Ho!… but combining it with normal placement makes for a very different kind of game. I would say that it could be difficult for some players to mentally deal with grouping by color (one player’s objective) versus grouping by species (the other player’s objective). I edged Ted out for the win… but it easily could have gone the other way.

Carnival of Monsters

I had really wanted to play this Richard Garfield design back in 2019 when it was released around Essen, but the only copy we had at the Post-Essen Weekend I attended was in German (and without English rules available online). That made the chance to play it with Braeden and Ted even more exciting… and I wasn’t disappointed, even with Braeden running away with the win.

This is one of the four drafting games we played over the weekend… and I really like all of them. In Carnival, the drafting of lands in order to capture monsters is an interesting twist. This one has gone on my wishlist… and not just because it partners nicely with Monster Expedition (see above). 

Last Aurora

On paper, this is a game I should like – a race across a post-apocalyptic Snowpiercer-like environment with card drafting and some clever resource/worker management issues. In practice, it felt processional and unbalanced. (A problem inherent with race games – once you get behind, the old joke applies – the view never changes. I’m looking at you, Rallyman GT.) 

My poor finish didn’t help my attitude about the game – I’m wondering if I’d feel different with more or less players and/or a better understanding of what trucks might become available. Still, I’m unlikely to try it again.


Still in the post-apocalyptic vein, we took on our third Pfister design, this year’s CloudAge. I really enjoy this game (you can see the review I did with Tery Noseworthy here on the OG) but hadn’t yet been able to play it with more than 2 players. So, I set up scenario 3 and we worked to make the world safe for plants again.

Although I won, the scores were close – each of us was pursuing our own objectives and doing so in pretty successful ways. I still think the choices available in the game are interesting – and once you head down a particular scoring/development pathway, require you to make sure you are doing everything you can to keep the engine fed. I was struck by how I felt better resourced in the 3 player game versus 2 players (or solo!) – which makes me really curious about 4 player games!

Back to the Future: Back in Time

Ted and I ended the night by re-enacting the first of the Back to the Future films with the cooperative game Back in Time. If you’re familiar with the storyline, the game design does a splendid job of pulling all of those elements together – and the game itself is not a particularly easy co-op to win. I think the theme will appeal to non-gamers, but there’s some definite gamer-y sequencing elements (which dice? what order do I roll them in?) that could make it tough sledding for newbies.

Saturday (at Ted’s house)


I was completely unfamiliar with this lovely-looking game of collecting resources from around the airship… but it’s a really great design. The unusual components (a dual-sided staggered board that loops like Up the River/Marrakesh, the cards with holes in the middle so you can see the resources) lend an exotic air to the straightforward gameplay. Ted managed to beat me – but I’d happily play again. 

Reavers of Midgard

In early May, our local games cafe (the wonderful Game Point in Nashville, TN) hosted a board game flea market… and one of the items I picked up was a Kickstarter copy of Reavers of Midgard (which included extra cards and, more importantly, nifty wooden resource pieces). I’ve enjoyed each game I’ve played of this Puerto Rico-ish game of Viking lore… though I am wondering if the “focus on sea journeys” strategy isn’t weaker than some of the other pathways. I managed a win over Braeden (barely!) with Ted lagging a bit – but Braeden & I had both played before. Note: I also really like Champions of Midgard, which I think does many of the same things as Lords of Waterdeep without the difficult-to-read cards across the table.


We didn’t actually play Draftosaurus live – this simply marked the end of the fourth or fifth game I’d played on Board Game Arena. My impression now after multiple plays – meh. I like the idea of a simple drafting game, but the limiting factor of the die roll means large chunks of your control are illusory.

Imperium: Classics

I had just received this game for my birthday… and had fought my way through the well-written but jargon-heavy rulebook before we left. So, with the warning that this would be a learning game for all of us, we jumped in.

I’ll cut to the chase for this post – both Braeden and I were bowled over by how much we liked the design and play of this game. And that’s in spite of Ted winning! I’m currently working on a review of the game system – both multiplayer and solo – that I’ll be publishing next week here on the OG.

Fast & Furious: Highway Heist

Let’s be clear – I’m not a fan of the Fast & Furious film franchise. The stunts/special effects are awesome, but my impressions of the parts of the films I’ve watched are “lots of substandard acting to set up stunning action sequences.”

So the designers of Fast & Furious: Highway Heist distilled their game down to the “stunning action sequences” – and it works beautifully. We played the first scenario (stop the tank with your sports cars) and won with only a turn or two to spare. The ability to do cool stunts is baked into the system, as is the ability to have a fistfight on top of a car with a bad guy. (There are two other scenarios in the game – one involving a tractor-trailer heist and another with a helicopter!)

We all noted that it was essentially “Thunder Road: The Cooperative Game” – so you can only imagine my delirious joy when Restoration Games announced one of their new projects was Thunder Road: Vendetta. (Yes, I Face-Timed Braeden at college and showed him the logo almost as soon as the press call with Restoration was done. That’s the kind of dad I am.)


Still going with cooperative games, Ted brought out Menara – which is the Villa Paletti-looking image you see at the top of this post. I will say that while this isn’t really my kind of game any longer, it works really well and it isn’t easy to win. And we didn’t.

Little Town

Recommendations from folks here on the OG and my long-time gaming friends in the L.A. area caused me to get Little Town… and I understand why now. Each game takes on its own personality (how mean are folks going to play? are we mixing buildings or essentially building our own very small villages?)… and each game is chock full of interesting decisions. My win here is likely due to my experience with the game.


After dinner, one more drafting game – this time, Hadara. First things first – the new cover is ugly and doesn’t do the game any favors. With that taken care of, the game itself is an interesting take on the pass & draft system of 7 Wonders and I liked that multiple paths to victory seemed workable. I’d love to play it again… but someone should blow up the current cover.

Saint Malo

I told Ted I’d never played Saint Malo… but when I put the game into my board game tracking app (BG Stats), I discovered I’d played it 8 years ago at the Gathering and wasn’t terribly impressed. (I guess this is what it’s like to get old.) Sadly, I’m still not impressed – it’s a perfectly playable roll’n’write, but it just doesn’t have much zing.

Wonder Woman: Challenge of the Amazons

The third of the Target-available cooperative games we played this weekend – and while it has a very interesting mechanic to foil the alpha player problem (players are dealt two cards face up – and with that information discuss their plans… then receive three more cards that only they see and program their 3 moves without discussion), the game itself is pretty generic. In order to include multiple villains and scenarios, everything is done with cubes that change identities based on a single large villain scenario card – leading to the same issue I have with Lords of Waterdeep – I don’t ask for a rogue, I ask for a “purple”. That low level of thematic engagement is, for me, off-putting.

Sunday (at Ted’s house… and then home)

The River

Another morning, another day for Braeden to sleep in. Meanwhile, Ted and I continued pulling games out that I hadn’t played. The River has lovely production, but Ted’s description of it as “Worker Placement 101” is spot on. It would be a good gateway to those style of games to non-gamers… but there’s not enough there for folks with more experience in the hobby. Note: I won this game, so this isn’t sour grapes.

Cupcake Empire

I loved the dice mechanic at the heart of this game – and the graphic design was pretty sweet (pun intended), including the multi-colored meeples. But the progress of the game was pretty processional. I do wonder if more players would balance out some of that feeling… we played with just two players… and Ted, no surprise, was king of the cupcakes.

Fleet: The Dice Game

Fleet: The Dice Game reminded me of Hadrian’s Wall… and that’s a good thing. (As some of you might remember, I wrote a very positive solo review of Hadrian’s Wall earlier this year.) What it does better than Hadrian’s Wall is player interaction… the dice draft offers interesting but not-overwhelming choices that don’t bog down the game. I’d be happy to find a copy of it and add it to my collection. (My fishing boat-heavy loss to Ted was by only two points!)

Dragonsgate College

I’d considered buying this totally not-Harry Potter themed game a couple of different times – and while I enjoyed our play of it, it’s got a little too much fiddly to make it really enjoyable. Which is too bad, as the theme (really, Dragonsgate does not = Hogwarts… at all) is well-done and there are interesting ideas in the design. This was Ted’s morning, as he bested both Braeden & I, but the scores were very close.

And with that, we hugged Ted & Jane goodbye and headed back to Nashville.

Later (at home)

Just a couple of quick thoughts on games that arrived that same week!

Era: Medieval Age

My first play of Era was a bust (back in 2019)… but a great sale on the game & expansion along with birthday money burning a hole in my pocket convinced me to give it another go. I’m now convinced that the base game is solid but that the expansion is a must-buy/add due to the greater variety of buildings and the cards. We’ve been having a lot of fun with it two-player and solo.

Terraforming Mars: Ares Expedition

My Kickstarter copy arrived almost as soon as we got home – and I’ve managed to play 3 games solo and one game with two players. I think, over time, you’ll be able to quickly check the resource board of other players and make decisions on the best actions to choose (a la Puerto Rico and/or Race for the Galaxy). The early going is pretty much multiplayer solitaire, though. I’m impressed with the way they melded the action system with the familiar Terraforming Mars elements… so it’s going to make an excellent travel game to scratch that TM itch. Given the time and the choice, however, I’m more likely to bring my TM Big Box to the table.

Final note: if you’ve gotten this far, thank you. More importantly, thank you once again to Ted & Jane Cheatham for their amazing hospitality – and to my sons, Braeden & Collin, without whom their dad would have played a lot less games in the last 15+ years.

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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5 Responses to They Say It’s Your Birthday! – A Plethora of Gaming Impressions

  1. paschott says:

    Sounds like a fun couple of days. Glad you got a chance to enjoy them.

  2. Terry Bailey Sr. says:

    I really miss playing games with both you and Ted.

  3. Larry Levy says:

    Great article, Mark! But I can’t believe you’d never played Jambo before! And I’m sorry your first game didn’t impress you, because it’s a *fantastic* game that truly lives up to it’s classic status. Just a few points:

    * The “take that!” aspect really isn’t that big a part of the game. If you really don’t like being picked on, hang on to a Guard or two.
    * What IS a big part are the Utility cards, and figuring out how to best use the ones that come your way is a lot of fun.
    * To me, every turn of the game is a little mini-puzzle in which you have to figure out how to best spend your five actions. That’s what makes the game so engaging.
    * I find the theme very attractive and the Michael Menzel artwork on the cards is just stunning.

    Jambo is probably my favorite 2-player game of all time. It really is that good. I hope you’ll give it another chance some day. If we’re ever able to get together again, I am *definitely* going to suggest we play it!

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