Gamers have been preparing and training all their lives for the rise of the covid omega variant and the start of the zombie apocalypse; the time they finally take their rightful place as the saviours of the universe. Cue the music. Flash! (boom, boom, boom, boom) Ahh, ahh!! (boom, boom, boom, boom, boom, boom, boom, boom) He’ll save every one of us!!!
We’ve been in lockdown (aka zombie apocalypse training) for a few months now. Foreigners often think of Australia as a mini-States or a mini-UK because of the many commonalities. Here’s one cultural point of difference. At time of writing, the UK is averaging 37,000 cases and 100+ deaths per day and has lifted all lockdown restrictions. Similarly, the States are seeing 200,000 cases and 1500+ deaths per day. Australia is seeing 850 cases per day and 3 deaths per day and we’re in one of the harshest lockdowns in the world, with curfews in the hardest hit areas and police patrolling to ensure compliance.
The majority are happy with this approach – they see what’s happening beyond our shores and consider the personal restrictions as a reasonable and considered approach for the greater good. The problem is the non-compliant minority. Pre-delta we eliminated covid because it wasn’t contagious enough to get a hold in the minority and spread. With delta, not so lucky, and there seems to be no putting the genie back in the bottle. It’s now a race to get everyone vaccinated quickly enough to make covid manageable ongoing, and that gives us the light at the end of the tunnel to (well, mostly) accept lockdowns until then.
Anyway, it’s accepted there’ll be no face to face gaming hereabouts for the rest of the year. My zombie apocalypse semester’s training has been how to heal victims, per Dice Hospital below. Here’s the latest instalment of new-to-me games I’ve played recently.
DWELLINGS OF ELDERVALE (2020): Rank 276, Rating 8.4
I’d probably bag a copy of this if the price wasn’t insane. It’s high on the unnecessary overchrome (and it was important to stress that tautologically). You place a meeple on the board to acquire that space’s resources (or action) and then the questions begin. Do I spend that resource tile for immediate resources, do I save it and place on a card for ongoing resources, do I spend the resources on cards that will advance me ongoing, or on more meeples (of various types with various powers) so I can have longer better rounds? When do I start turning my meeples into the eponymous dwellings that will provide big points but which will limit my future resource gathering? Interesting decisions and that’s the game. There’s a whole ‘who-gets-to-stay-on-the-board’ sub-mechanic, essentially a dice-off, which one needs to be mindful of and prepare for. It plays quicker than expected, and can be rushed to the end. It feels more Euro-y however despite the Ameritrash dice-battle overtones. I enjoyed it with 3 players but could imagine the rating dropping with each additional player with the consequent downtime. It’s a fine game, but there are just as good games at half the price, and we’re well past the years where every good game was a must-have. We reviewed this last year, similar feelings then.
CARDICEO (2016): Rank n/a, Rating 3.6
Really mindless, but being 5-10 minutes long helps. Roll a d4, d8, and a d12. Get rid of as many cards from your hand that match a die value and/or a sum of the dice. First one to get rid of all their cards wins. The strategy is to draw lots of low cards (as you have three shots at getting rid of them each turn) and then to roll the dice well. From this you can gather there’s little point playing if you’re looking for a game with decision making and depth. Then again, that’s not what it’s aiming for either.
DICE HOSPITAL (2018): Rank 816, Rating 7.2
In each of the 8 rounds you get three inbound dice, in different colours. Your goal is to use your meeples and your action spaces to increase their values to 7 (to discharge them) and to not let them drop down to 0 (where they die). Each round you get to add either a new meeple (with a special power) or add a new action space to your tableau, which is invariably a tricky decision. The game wants to tempt you to take low valued dice so you get first choice of these improvements but there’s actually not much difference between them – they all pretty much heal 3 pips a turn in various ways. That’s the first issue – not enough reward for going low. The other issue is that the scoring system wants you to heal all your patients in the same round (rather than the more thematic healing of each one asap to clear out the hospital beds asap) which encourages you to have patients hang around for a few rounds until you can discharge a swathe all at the same time. With each round your puzzle (how can I maximise the number of healing pips with these meeples powers and these action spaces) gets more and more complicated to solve, leading to potentially serious AP. Despite all this, I enjoyed working out the best improvements to take for my collection of dice, and working out which dice to take given my actions/meeples, and the resultant puzzle each round of how to get them all to a position so that they’ll all heal at the same time. It won’t be for everyone though.
ECOSYSTEM (2019): Rank 3496, Rating 7.4
This is one of those fillers that are have no barrier to entry, being immediately recognisable and playable by their blending of now-common mechanics. Start with a hand of 10 cards, play 1 to your personal tableau (a 4 x 5 grid), pass your hand left. Play 2 rounds. The cards come in 11 flavours and each card will score differently per its own rule based on its proximity (or not) to the other cards in your tableau, all scoring at end of game once all 20 are placed. It’s up to you what you want to concentrate in but nowhere near all cards come into play so the cards you want may not come. It’s on you to have a plan but to shift as needed. I don’t mind that in a 15 minute filler and this was easy, enjoyable and will see replay.
EMINENT DOMAIN: MICROCOSM (2014): Rank 2792, Rating 6.4
There aren’t that many cards in this 15 minute 2 player rendition, but each one packs a punch. Each turn you’ll add a hand to your card from the supply for its effect, its scoring rule, and its symbols. The hope of course is to collect cards where all three will synergise with your collection so far but it’s rarely that easy, and that’s the game. The other interesting decision is when to forego a turn to pick up all your cards played so far, allowing you to play them again with even more power. Engaging with plenty to think about in a nice timeframe without being overwhelming. Good stuff.
GAIA (2014): Rank 3336, Rating 6.2
Each turn you draw or play two cards and the aim is to be the first to get your 5 meeples out. This can be done in 3 ways – playing landscape cards to allow you to place matching tiles such that you’re the first to meet one of the common contracts that specify a combination of colours played, or play a city card on a tile (where surrounding tiles meet at least two of the card’s requirements), or expand a city (adding stuff around a city that meets more of its requirements). The first is a non-interesting race aspect. Placing and expanding cities is ok but you’re beholden to the cards you draw and the tiles others place, and whether they then pus your cities by placing other cities on your surrounding spaces (which is a setback that’s hard to come back from). Interesting in concept, didn’t care for the execution, nor for the unimaginative re-use of a cliched title.
KLAVERJASSEN (1890): Rank 7035, Rating 7.1
Trick-taking with a 32 card deck with abnormal ranks that differ between trump suit and non-trump suits – which does my head in because it’s a barrier to entry that serves little other purpose. There’s only a few bidding options – win 8 tricks with partner, win 9 by yourself, misere, etc, so you either have it and bid, or you don’t and pass, which doesn’t make bidding interesting. The tricks then play out normally. There are too many other more enjoyable trick-taking games to warrant spending more time on this.
SOBEK: 2 PLAYERS (2021): Rank 5526, Rating 7.2
Think of it more as having a Sobek theme rather than being a re-implementation. It’s a tile pickup game on a 6×6 grid and works in much the same way as Butterfly / Marrakesh et al with a common dude being moved around. You can pick up any tile in a direct line from the dude (by moving the dude to that space) but every tile you pass over goes into your corruption pile (smallest of which wins points at the end). You’re aiming to collect sets of same-coloured tiles (and deny your opponents easy access to the tiles they’re collecting) while minimising the number of tiles in your corruption pile. The set tiles are just fodder but there are special effects you can pick up that are powerful and can mess with things (but at the cost of two turns – one to pick up, one to play) and there are benefits for scoring early small sets rather than conserving turns to put down larger sets later using just one turn rather than two. These offerings help elevate the game out of the mundane, along with the nice decisions required on when to take corruption to lock in needed tiles.
TANG GARDEN (2020): Rank 726, Rating 7.6
Think of it as Carcassonne with bad downtime and convoluted scoring. A turn is to either lay out one of the available common tiles or boost an already laid tile with a decoration. Everything you do scores, and turns are creepingly incremental. Strategically you try and score in line with your current character’s special power and towards your end-game point powers, but the multitude of ways to score is spread over many tiles and cards, which makes it hard to stumble into those that help your specific scoring avenues. The longer I played the more fed up I became with the luck of the search, together with the over-analysis of turns which all scored about the same. Thankfully there’s a way to speed up the end by doing only tile placement turns – the game seems to imply that to win (ie balancing your tile and decoration plays) you’re required to make it take twice as long as if you just played tiles. Not a fan. It’s been dressed up in tarty clothes (the pavilion piece overchrome) to con you into thinking it’s more than an overlong mediocre Euro with issues featuring horribly small and similar looking iconography that’s hard to discern, even when it’s right in front of you let alone across the table in draft piles. This preference for form over function makes you care even less.
SPOTLIGHT ON 500 (1904): Rank 3661, Rating 6.9
We’ve been trying a lot of different card games on BGA, for which its “fast-play design” is well suited (ahem), so I thought I’d give a shout out to one of our all-time favourites (though it’s not yet on BGA). It’s been alleged that 500 is Australia’s favourite cardgame and rare elsewhere. I can’t speak to the latter, but the former could well have been true back in the day as I played a ton of it growing up. As did my gaming buddies, and if the call is ever to play a 4p traditional card game, this is the go-to. Kids don’t play cards these days so its status is no doubt fading, but for us it’s always been one of the great partnership card trick-taking games, providing enough luck to be social and enough skill to reward the better players. As my Father always said, you can always rely on there being an Ace and a Bower in the kitty – bid up! We’ve found it’s more fun with house rules, such as allowing bidders back in after previously passing, and no misere call allowed until there’s a 7 call. Introduce some basic bidding conventions, with the 6 calls indicating Aces say, and a 6 No Trumps call indicating you’ve got the joker (maybe!?) and you get a consistently entertaining and high hand-scoring game.
Thoughts of other Opinionated Gamers:
Mark Jackson: Count me as another positive vote for Eminent Domain: Microcosm. Of all the “let’s see how few cards I can use and make a game” games, it’s my favorite. (It doesn’t hurt that I like the parent game, Eminent Domain, a lot.)
Fraser: My grandmother taught me 500, we used to play two humans and a dummy hand. When playing later with four, our house rule for misere was not until an 8 bid.