Talia Rosen: Midsummer Mini-Reviews

I’ve played a lot of great games so far this summer, so it’s time for another mini-review roundup.  

My favorite of all the games over the past couple months has been Cartographers with the various “map pack” expansions.  Cartographers is not new to me, having played it 35 times over the past three years, but the map packs are a brilliant way to enjoy the game.  Recently, I’ve enjoyed the Plane of Knowledge, Frozen Expanse, and Kethra’s Steppe map packs.  Each of these brought something new to the game, while keeping it largely familiar.  If you don’t like the base game, then the map packs won’t turn it around for you, but if you enjoy fitting Tetris shapes into patterns to score points, then Cartographers seems like the pinnacle of that style game to me.  And each of the expansions adds an impressive new twist of the core concept. I particularly liked the rules of Kethra’s Steppe, which involved determining when to completely surround the new “beacon” spaces, which lit them up for a large number of bonus points, but with negative points for any spaces still empty in the vicinity.

Solo Fun

I’ve enjoyed two games solitaire so far this summer: Lost Ruins of Arnak (with the Search for Professor Kutil campaign) and Spirit Island (with the Horizons of Spirit Island characters).  The Lost Ruins of Arnak solitaire campaign is particularly fantastic!  I loved how the rules for the solitaire campaign mixed up the gameplay enough to make each of the four scenarios distinct, interesting, and challenging.  I’m just so impressed with how the designers turned a fundamentally interactive worker placement game into a solitaire experience that really works so well.  For anyone that enjoys Lost Ruins of Arnak, I heartily encourage you to try out the Professor Kutil solo campaign, even if you’re skeptical about solo gaming generally like me.  I also had the pleasure of playing a couple two-player games of Arnak with the Expedition Leaders expansion, which is such a phenomenal expansion.  The various leaders make the game asymmetric, which I tend to love, but in a way that still feels balanced and fair.  As someone who has long been skeptical of deck-building games (for over a decade), I’m so surprisingly enamored of all things Arnak.

Kids & Party Games

I’ve enjoyed a number of games with my eight-year-old so far this summer, including Khet, So Clover, Colorful, Doodle Dash, Anomia, Resistance, Crack the Code, and Gloobz.  The lasers in Khet make it a perfect game for playing a spatial abstract with an eight-year-old.  I’ve been experimenting with a variant to speed up the game that allows moving and rotating a piece in one turn, just so it goes fast enough to keep a child’s interest throughout.

Doodle Dash, which I wrote about last November, has remained a family favorite.  As I said back then, this Pictionary-like game is way more fun than it has any right to be.  The whole table regularly seems to enjoy how ridiculous people’s super quick drawings end up being.  Even if you don’t normally like drawing games, I think this one is worth checking out.

We only did the first two scenarios of Crack the Code, which were ultimately too basic to hold anyone’s interest, but hopefully we’ll get it back to the table to try the subsequent scenarios.  By contrast, my eight-year-old has been really surprisingly drawn to So Clover, Colorful, and Anomia — none of which I would have necessarily expected.  I feel like So Clover has the same issue for me as Codenames, which is that uncomfortable feeling of casting about for some word to use (in stark contrast to the overflowing possibilities of clues in Decrypto, which I personally much prefer).  But for some reason, everyone else seems to really enjoy So Clover!  I suppose it might have something to do with the great feeling when a clue comes to you or when the cards click into place during the cooperative solving part of the game.

Classic Euros

My favorite classic euro so far this summer has definitely been Peer Sylvester’s Brian Boru.  I enjoy area control games so much, and I like playing trick-taking games, so it’s no surprise that Brian Boru is right up my alley.  But blending those mechanisms was surely no easy or obvious task. It’s just such an interesting game with fascinating decision-making challenges throughout and lovely interactive gameplay.  I particularly love the possibilities that come with not having to follow suit, and the different rewards that a card gives you when you win or lose a trick with it. I really hope to get Brian Boru back to the table as much as possible in the year to come!

I’ve also enjoyed playing Minigolf Designer, Ark Nova, and Guild of Merchant Explorers, as well as getting old favorites back to the table, including Ra and Hansa.  Playing both Ra and Hansa recently again for the first time in a long time has reminded me how great those classic games still are.  Even if the production values and artwork are not what we’re used to these days, the elegant rules, tense moments, and tough decisions are as good as ever.  Minigolf Designer continues to be a newer favorite, although the second expansion is not necessarily my cup of tea.  The added cards and rules overhead doesn’t seem like a necessary or helpful addition to this lovely tile-laying game.  Ark Nova continues to be an enjoyable two-player game that scratches the same itch as Terraforming Mars for me (as long as there are no more than two players).

Card Games

Lastly, I’ve enjoyed a bunch of different card games so far this summer, including Hanamikoji, KeyForge, Radlands, Mandala, Money, and Scout.

Hanamikoji feels to me like the pinnacle of two-player 20-minute card games.  I love the challenge of trying to figure out how and in what order to offer up cards to my opponent in order to end up ahead.  The game reminds me of another fantastic Japanese game, Dazzle, which I reviewed way back in 2011.

Radlands is also phenomenal.  This two-player battle card game is so tense and so packed with fascinating and challenging decisions.  When I lose at Radlands, I still have a blast seeing how my opponent pulls it off.  When I take out one of their camps, there’s such a feeling of accomplishment.  And it all fits into a tidy, quick package.  Radlands gives me a similar feeling as games like Netrunner and Ashes: Rise of the Phoenixborn, but in such an easy pickup-and-play format.

I also adore Mandala, except how difficult it is to shuffle the cards.  The gameplay is classic, elegant, and timeless.  The beautiful simplicity of deciding whether to add a card to the mountain or to your fields is captivating.  The way that you add cards to your river and cup to determine their eventual values strikes me as perfect.  I really love everything about Mandala (except for the square cards).  I think that I learned about both Radlands and Mandala from Shut Up & Sit Down, so kudos to them for highlighting these true gems.

Knizia’s Money also stands the test of time as a remarkably clever multi-player card game to play when waiting for the last person to show up for a game day or as a quick way to close out an evening.  Money so perfectly captures the idea of spending money to make money, and the way that this game boils down set collecting to its most basic elements is remarkable.  For anyone that missed trying out this card game, I highly recommend this 1999 classic!

Lots of good games so far this summer!  Hopefully lots more to come in the coming months.  What have you been playing and enjoying this summer?

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