Wednesday, October 31, 2018

Dave Reviews: Sailing The Wide Accountant-cy

Century: Eastern Wonders
The second in the Century series of games, Eastern Wonders blends with Spice Road to create a third game called From Sand to Sea. Maybe this is how they're going to get to a hundred*.

*the author has no information suggesting they plan on getting to one hundred.


Where Century: Spice Road involved trading spice cubes with cards, Century: Eastern Wonders involves trading spice cubes with travel. The abstractness, then, decreases slightly—you're on a boat! Rather than collect a hand of cards that lets you make trades, you place outposts on pieces of land that let you make trades (once the outpost is up, you don't need to be on the tile to make that tile's trade). The overall mechanics are similar, however—you place an outpost rather than take a card, make a trade where you have an outpost rather than with a card in your hand, or visiting a port with the cubes that will earn you the VP tile in that port rather than simply trade in the cubes for the VP card on the table. You also have the option to simply take two yellow cubes on a turn (harvest), in lieu of having a card that gives you that ability.

The difference in the core gameplay, if it's not glaringly obvious, is the travel aspect. You move one space per turn, unless you earn upgrades that let you move more spaces per round. The faster you swing across the board, the faster you place outposts, especially since outposts are free if you're the first one to place one in an area—once opponents have outposts up, it's a little more costly, since your outpost costs one cube per outpost already on the tile. Thus, while sticking with one move per round is doable, two tiles of movement is very helpful; whether you want more depends on when you get your upgrades and, in many cases, how many players are in the game. You also can't land on a tile with an opponent, so extra movement helps you avoid that scenario.

Upgrades are the main new feature in Eastern Wonders. You start with a board that has numerous outposts laid out in rows. Each row has a symbol replicated on some of the island tiles. If you place an outpost on a tile, you take the next outpost in line from the row matching the symbol on that tile. When you empty a column, you get an upgrade. You can choose from the aforementioned extra movement, extra cargo space, gain red cubes when you harvest, upgrade a cube when building an outpost, or take flat points for the end of the game. This, obviously, incentivizes spreading your outposts across certain spaces. However, the farther along a row you go, the more points each of those outposts are worth at the end of the game, so you're doing fine as long as you throw down outposts wherever you can for free, and anywhere else that it's worth the associated cost (keep some yellows handy).

Other than that, it's still seventy percent recognizable as Spice Road. There's not so much going on that you need to have played Spice Road to understand Eastern Wonders, but it definitely helps if you have that background knowledge so you only have to add the parts about the ships and the outposts. It's probably better as a game in an objective sense; it's just as solid, just as coherently designed, but there's more going on, more options, and the lack of a hand of cards you need to reshuffle every so often smooths out the gameplay.

The option to sit in a space (like a port) and force an opponent to pay you a cube if they want to land there seems silly, but I got screwed over by it, so I'm definitely biased. Game's still good.

Score: Eleven filled cargo spaces out of thirteen.

Tuesday, October 30, 2018

Dave Reviews: Spooky Card Magic

Illusion
Look at the pretty colors... look at them... looooook...

How much color did you see WRONG WRONG WRONG


Illusion is a party game for a small party, which is to say it's for a relatively small number (two to five), but also for people who don't have to know anything about games to understand it and better if they're all drinking.

The game is played with a deck of cards, each of which has a unique colored pattern on it. One card is placed face up and set on the table, along with a card from a smaller deck that just has a collection of colored arrows. The first player places one of the patterned cards face up and decides if it has more or less of the color on the arrow than the first card. So, for example, if blue is the color, the player decides if his card has more or less blue than the card on the table. If he thinks it has less, he places it closer to the arrow. If he thinks it has more, he puts it on the far side from the arrow. Simple.

The next player decides if the first player made the right choice. If not, she can challenge (more on that shortly). If she's fine with it, she flips the next card and decides if it has more than both cards on the table, less than both, or should go in the middle. Then the following player decides to challenge or play the next card, and so on.

Once it comes around to a player who thinks the order is incorrect, they can challenge. The card is flipped over; on the back is the percentage of the card that is blue, red, green, or yellow. If any of the cards are out of order, the challenger gets the arrow card, which counts for a point. If all the cards are in the correct order, from lowest percentage to highest, the person whose turn just passed gets the arrow card. In essence, the challenge is to the previous player, saying they made an incorrect judgment either on the card they placed or in not challenging when they had the opportunity. Then whoever wins the challenge starts the next round. Play until one person collects three arrow cards, or just play through the arrow card deck (there are only twelve) and whoever has the most at the end wins.

If it wasn't apparent, this is a game whose simplicity is its strength and weakness. Anybody can understand it and there's no great strategy to it—you can try to figure out the math on when it's good to challenge even if you're not sure there's anything wrong, but there isn't much of an advantage to be gained. Everyone will get what's going on almost instantly, so it's a fun warmup, especially on a game night with some very casual players around. You're not going to play it a ton, though; even if you're extraordinarily fascinated by the game, eventually you'll play so much you start to memorize the patterns and percentages on some of the cards, and that would be a huge advantage, possibly to the point of breaking the game for you.

Basically, if your collection could use a cheap casual game that acts as a good starter to game night when not everyone's shown up yet, this is good. If you already have games like that which you're still playing, you can hold off on buying this.

Score: Three good colors out of four (fuck green).

Monday, October 29, 2018

Dave Reviews: Palace Alleys

Between Two Castles of Mad King Ludwig

How many fucking castles does this asshole need?


Between Two Castles is, as the name does not make any effort to hide, a mash-up of Between Two Cities and the Mad King Ludwig franchise. The core gameplay comes from Between Two Cities—there are two rounds, and at the start of each round, each player takes a stack of tiles. Draft two tiles, pass to the left, draft two tiles, pass to the left, until only one tile remains, which is discarded. You're building a castle with each of the people adjacent to you, and your score is the lowest of the two castles you help build, which means you can't let one of them suck.

The Mad King aspect is how all the tiles go together. There's no spatial aspect like the original Castles of Mad King Ludwig; instead, you have several types of square tiles which can be placed around the core of your castle, the throne room. Like Castles, each tile has a type, and most tiles have a way to score points that relates to other tiles in the game. The most common adjacency rules are to score for tiles in the eight spaces around a given tile, or for all tiles above a tile, below it, or both. These can relate to the room type itself (utility room, outdoors area, etc), or the second icon on these tiles (swords, a mirror, and so on).

Another similarity to Castles is that you have much more freedom to build your castle however you want. Most rooms have to be built at the ground floor (the level of the throne room) or above, but there are downstairs rooms that can go below. Tiles have to be placed adjacent to other ones. The castle can go as high as you want, but all rooms must be supported by actual room tiles beneath them (you can't place a tile above an outdoor area). Alternately, you can go as wide as you want—whatever works for your grand architectural plan.

Also like Castles, you get bonuses for fulfilling certain basic requirements. In this case, if you place three of a tile type, you get an associated bonus, and if you place five of one type, you get a specialty room tile that can add substantially to your final score. It takes some getting used to the bonuses; none of them are hard to understand individually, but understanding them well enough to grab them quickly in the flow of the game can be hard.

And if there's a flaw in this game, the bonuses are it. Between Two Cities is a fantastic game. Castles of Mad King Ludwig is a game I don't like playing, but which I can't deny is well-designed—I'm just crap at spatial awareness. Putting together a castle in the Ludwig vein, according to BTC rules, is quite fun on a basic level. But the draft mechanic works best when everybody sorts through the available tiles, picks two, then everyone plays their tiles together and moves on to the next decision. When people get bonuses, new players will often overlook them because they want to move on to building more castle pieces; once everyone's used to grabbing their bonuses, then the game either slows a bit while decisions are made (some of the bonuses require players choose from tiles or bonus cards), or some people move on with their next decision and are left to wait while the bonus earners catch up.

I didn't have a chance to play this with a group who was experienced enough to blow through the bonus-grabbing process, so it's theoretically possible the game plays very well once everyone is on point. Thing is, BTC is a fairly casual game, and it's unlikely this game (especially with a bigger group) is only going to have experienced players in it. The rhythm of Between Two Cities that this idea relies on gets thrown off by the Mad King Ludwig aspects. Thus, while the idea is sound and the baseline game is pretty good, it winds up being about 90% as good as what you'd hope to get when putting two games of this quality together.

Still, when you're working at this level, 90% is solid. If you liked both of the component games, you'll probably like this. If you liked one and didn't play the other, it's worth trying. If... look, just play the damn game if you get the chance.

Score: Thirteen well-built castle rooms out of sixteen (nobody knows how to build a dungeon anymore).

Sunday, October 28, 2018

Dave Reviews: Hexagonal Universes

Orbis

YOU ARE A GOD. The god of a pyramid-shaped universe. Make it a properly blasted hellscape.


Orbis is a game about managing two types of resources: your territory and your worshipers. Your goal, as is the goal of every reasonable god, is to accrue the most victory points (little known fact: the concept of victory points was first alluded to in the Book of Moses). By the end of the game, you'll have chosen fourteen land tiles and one tile which solidifies your deific identity; this will create a pyramid, with yourself at the top, that is the finest universe in the cosmos, unless you lose.

Every round, you pick one tile from a 3x3 grid to add to your universe. Each of these hexagonal tiles has a color. You put a worshiper cube of the appropriate color on each of the adjacent tiles, then place the tile in your universe. And from this simple baseline, things get interesting (in the legitimate way, not the "I don't have any other word to describe this" way) very quickly.

When you take a tile, you take under your wing all the worshiper cubes on that tile. These cubes are used for various purposes—at first, you might use them to pay for effects on the tiles you take, but relatively quickly you'll need to start discarding certain sets of worshipers to take tiles off the grid. Tiles are placed according to a few particular rules. First, after you place one tile, all others must touch at least one tile already in your universe. Second, to place a tile on a level above the bottom row, there must be two tiles below it (so it makes the pyramid). Third, if a tile is placed above the bottom level, it must match the color of one of the tiles below it.

Once your on to your third or fourth tile, you already have some major decisions to make. Do I take the tile with more worshipers or that's worth more points? You can only have a max of ten worshipers, but you can trade three of one color to get one of another, so you rarely have to discard any. Do I take the tile that's more useful but which puts yet another worshiper on a different tile that I know one of my opponents is likely to take? Just how do I build my universe? (Something that doesn't become obvious until you're well into your first game is how the pyramid structure limits the types of lands you're able to make maximum use of, since you have to string colors up the chain rather than place them wherever you want.)

On one turn during the game, you have to pick the god you want to be. Each of them potentially offers bonus points of you meet certain requirements. This choice is less impactful than it seems like it should be, as you will frequently be the only person able to make good use of a certain god. In many cases, you'll wait until the end or take it on a turn when there are no tiles you want. However, in some cases—especially ones where a god is out that offers a bonus for having the most of a certain tile type, and you and an opponent are both going hard after that type—this does become a serious matter.

Now, what happens if you can't pay the worshipers for a tile? Then you turn it into wilderness, which fits into a slot and is worth -1 at the end of the game. That sucks... except the wilderness counts as all colors. This means that it's not just a penalty for poor planning—you can, and often should, strategically place wilderness in your universe so you can take a tile that doesn't match the rows that come before. It's another angle for building your realm that takes a bit of cleverness to use well.

All in all, Orbis is fairly light and easy to understand, but it's a game that is going to leave people mulling over most of their moves. Planning is paramount, and for this reason an experienced player is going to have a major advantage over new ones, more so than is the case in most light games. But that just means you need to play it again. There are worse fates than a second go at Orbis.

Score: Nine pocket universes out of eleven universal dimensions.

Wednesday, October 3, 2018

Dave Reviews: Escape Boxes

Unlock!

$15 gets you an escape room in a box! It's a great deal, as long as you don't need the room part.


Unlock! is a type of one-shot game, serving up puzzles to the players in an approximation of the escape room experience. You're given a starting scenario and a handful of clues, which you need to inspect, use, and combine to access more areas and more clues, until you meet the ultimate goal (generally to escape from a place—they stick to the theme well). Everything is on cards, most of them with numbered backs; frequently your clues will require putting two cards together, which means adding them up and pulling the card with the sum of those two out of the deck. If you've solved the puzzle correctly, that card will move the experience forward. If not, usually it will be a penalty card that subtracts from the timer.

Oh yeah, this is timed, just like a regular escape room. (You can go beyond the timer if you want. There's no one to kick you out.) The game works through an app, which keeps track of time, lets you input codes, use machine cards, give clues, and so on. Unlike some games with apps, this one doesn't need much screen space; it's very effective on a phone. A tablet or laptop isn't necessary to really get the experience, a la Mansions of Madness.

As of this writing, there are twelve different varieties of Unlock! adventure, along with five demos. Only two of the demos appear to actually be available—one of which comes in the box after you buy it—but there's still one to download and print out if you want to see if this is your kind of thing. Beyond that, the twelve are grouped in four different "styles" of three adventures each, with a one, two, and three-lock difficulty box in each style.

Are they all good? No.

Are they all bad? No.

Is it easy to say which ones are good and bad, or is it a matter of taste? Now that is the question.

Some of this is definitely subjective. Sometimes, however, the design of a puzzle is objectively good (or bad) to a degree that it can be recommended (or not). The Wizard of Oz, although a max-difficulty puzzle and longer than most (ninety minutes versus the usual sixty), is very cleverly put together and designed with lots of pieces that work together very well. It's not for a group of players all new to Unlock! puzzles; it goes beyond the basic deck of cards, and requires a certain amount of creative thinking from experienced players that may simply not occur to those who haven't done these before. If you do have that group, though, it's fantastic. The only downside is that there are so many parts, it's easier in this one than most to flip an incorrect card but have it not be a penalty, which can either give you an undue advantage or just confuse the hell out of everything. That's not as big a deal as it may sound, though.

On the other hand, The Island of Dr. Goorse is supremely disappointing. It starts with a terrific concept—all players are split into two sides and have to solve their puzzles as smaller groups (or even individually, if you have fewer than four people) before they meet up and continue to the end as a whole. But, without spoilers, some of the puzzles en route are questionable in their design, and the final escape puzzle is intensely frustrating and poorly executed.

Of course, there will be people who disagree. Some people who pulled their hair out over the Wizard of Oz adventure will say I'm mad, as will those whose minds worked in just the right way as to solve the Island adventure without the hassles we encountered. Those people may even be right; I'm gauging these based on how I perceive their design, not how easy or difficult it was to solve the puzzles, but there could be aspects of these puzzles none of us saw that would make perfect sense if they were pointed out to us. Thus, although it's not especially gratifying, there aren't any specific adventures I can say you'll want to play or avoid and be almost completely sure you'll have a good time.

As a whole, though, the Unlock! series is well-designed, and the fact all the pieces survive (unlike Exit games, where there can be pieces which need to be torn up or otherwise destroyed to solve puzzles) means you can pass along or resell them when you're done. There's a lot of value here if you have a group of friends interested in this type of game; by all means, try the demo, but if you like escape rooms you'll probably have some fun here.

Score: Eight good escape adventures out of twelve (generically counted).

Saturday, September 29, 2018

Dave Reviews: Competitive Hanabi

Fireworks

Remember, fireworks are scary for pets! Keep your doors and windows well shut and locked so they don't run away.


Fireworks is a game about—wait for it—building the most aesthetically pleasing set of fireworks. It's Japanese, which should explain why it's called Fireworks and not "Glowy Sky Booms" or "Sparkly Wonder Stars" or "Boom Goes the Glittery Dynamite". You take tiles with multiple partial fireworks on them and play them to set up certain artistic combinations (big fireworks, kaleidoscopes, saturns, and small flowers), along with special extra-artsy tiles, to score points and win the game. It's about as simple a concept as you can find.

But the game gets complicated by a few aspects. One is the types of fireworks. You start with the core of two big fireworks. The game suggests these start with at least two spaces between them, and it's a good idea; if they're any closer, you won't have space to pop off all the extra fireworks you need around them to finish them. Because the board has twenty-five spaces on it, and the big fireworks will fill seven when completed, it does an effective job of making you think about where you're going to put everything.

Furthermore, although the kaleidoscopes and saturns are each made from putting two firework halves together, you have to pay attention; some have tails and some don't, which are used for kaleidoscopes and saturns, respectively. The two also score differently—kaleidoscopes are better if you have different colors on each side, while saturns are better if they match. (Given the number of colors, this generally makes kaleidoscopes easier to finish.)

However, balancing out the difficulty in putting good fireworks together is the fact you can rearrange your board every time you place new tiles. You're not just mashing in each piece the best you can, having to plan for any number of possibilities (which would be impossible). If you can find a way to use your tiles more effectively, you can move them to take advantage of that. But it's harder than it sounds. Envisioning the best way to move twenty-plus tiles around at the end of the game is very hard, at least at first.

So, they give you a basic concept, complicate how you work with that concept to make it harder, introduce another aspect to make it easier, but then add a challenge to that aspect. On top of that, you don't just roll a die to decide how many tiles you take; you dump that die out of a fireworks tube from a couple feet over the board, only choosing from the tiles that are face up, which is awesome. And if you don't flip any, you roll again with an action card, which usually makes you do some contortions with a friend to get the die out of the tube (and the friend gets to take tiles as well). It's a mix of small party game, visual acuity tester, and strategic thinking.

Sounds great! And it is good. The problem is... that I can't tell you what the problem is. It doesn't feel like they're trying to do too many things, because each aspect of the game is pretty cool. It may be that the mix of things don't necessarily create something more than the sum of its parts. But for whatever reason, we finish playing, shrug, and say, "Yeah, that was pretty good." And we're not dying to play again.

The issues with Fireworks are small, and what you like or dislike may easily not be what I like or dislike. It just doesn't quite get over that hump of being a game that entrances you.

Score: Nineteen useful fireworks tiles out of twenty-five.

Dave Reviews: Ball Science

Dr. Eureka

If all science were this easy, we'd have no reason to know who Neil DeGrasse Tyson is.


Dr. Eureka is a manual dexterity game designed to keep kids entertained, if the box art wasn't enough of a clue. The BGG community is wise in this case; the game is listed as being for ages eight and up, but the community vote is for age five and up, and they're probably right. If you like watching small children fumble objects all over the floor so you can feel more accomplished in life, they're definitely right.

You start with three test tubes, each holding three balls of a single color—red, purple, or green. A card is flipped over with a way of sorting the balls in the test tubes. There may be any number of balls in a given tube (up to the five they can hold); some cards have an empty tube on them. Your job is to figure out the most effective way to move the balls from tube to tube until they match the pattern on the card. The catch is that you have to tip one tube into another to move the balls. You can't move them with your hands. And if you drop a ball, you're out of the round. First person to complete the pattern wins the round, takes the card, and the first to five cards wins.

That's the whole game. Is it fun? Yeah. It's not going to amuse adults for more than a couple playthroughs against each other. Kids might get a kick out of it if they're at a level of coordination where this is a challenge, but a doable challenge. (Actually, by that standard, a lot of adults might like it too.) It's something you want to find for cheap and stick on a shelf if you know you have to deal with kids that like to constantly do things with their hands.

Score: Six Science Guys out of nine.