Sunday, April 29, 2018

Dave Reviews: Sneaky Sneaky Wordplay


Bluffing games feel so good when you win. It doesn't even matter if they're good.

Not that Insider isn't good. Or that it is good. Or... well... hm.

Insider is a four to eight player bluffing game that strips away all the extra roles that started making their way into games like Werewolf, Coup, and The Resistance, leaving you with only one word master, one insider, and a bunch of scrubs. Like Werewords, it's based on the Twenty Questions idea—the master and insider know the word, and everyone gets to ask the master yes/no/I don't know questions to figure out what the word is. The insider is on a separate team from everyone else; if the word isn't solved, everyone loses, but once it is, everyone has to guess the insider. Then either the insider wins or the master and scrubs do.

Everyone gets a secret role; the master flips his up immediately, while everyone else keeps theirs face down. The word is determined by flipping a card with six words on it, then using the number on the back of the next card to decide which word on the list will be used. It feels like they chose six because of six-sided dice, which makes me wonder if some earlier variant used a die to determine the word, but it doesn't matter much. The system's fine as long as everyone's clear on how it works (we had a minor issue with that). Everyone closes their eyes, the master looks at the word, closes his eyes, the insider looks at the word, closes her eyes, and then everyone opens their eyes. No slapping the table required since nobody should need to move to see the cards, so that's a positive on the bluffing game part.

Flip the five minute hourglass, and you're off. Everyone asks questions to work their way toward the answer. Having a master who knows how to communicate is critical despite the fact they can't use anything other than yes, no, or I don't know for answers, because it's almost a given that at some point questions will be asked which give the master pause. Some questions are very open to interpretation, and it's up to the master to answer questions honestly while using the judgment call ones to guide the players towards the correct answer. For example, 'is it hard?' is easy if the object is a rock or a pillow, but what if it's an arm? Yes and no are both reasonable answers, but a good word master will give the response that he thinks will lead the arc of the questioning back towards the correct word. Likewise, the insider should nudge questioning back on to the right path without going so dramatically into left field that there would be no reason for her to ask a given question without being the insider.

At the end, assuming the word is guessed, sussing out the insider is all that's left. This is where the game got wonky for us, but it's not difficult once you know how it works; the instructions are translated from Japanese, and the flowchart they have which explains the process is not very good. All they needed was a short list.

  1. Everyone votes on whether or not whoever got the word right is the insider. 
  2. If a majority says yes, they win if they got it right and lose if they got it wrong.
  3. If a majority says no and the person was the insider, the insider wins.
  4. If a majority says no and the person was a scrub, then everyone votes for someone else. Whether or not whoever gets the most votes was the insider determines who wins.
When you know how it works, you can understand the flowchart, but when you haven't done it before, step-by-step instructions would be much more useful.

The actual process creates one intriguing twist: the priority the insider should place on getting someone else to guess the word. That guarantees the first vote is on a different person, which significantly improves the insider's chance of winning. This is especially important in a smaller game; with four players, only three can be the insider, and there are theoretically two chances to guess who it is. Those are pretty terrible odds, and you need whatever advantage you can get.

That said, the game still doesn't scale down particularly well. It can play with as few as four, but you really want six to eight. You could probably have fun with nine or ten; as long as nobody has to sit so far away they won't be able to see the cards as the insider, it's worth trying. More than that may make the insider too difficult to guess, but suffice to say this is a larger-scale party game. Just make sure somebody has the rules down cold before you start.

Score: Six scrubs out of eight players.

Saturday, April 28, 2018

Dave Reviews: Card City, Card Lake, Card Forest


How much dumb bullshit we could do away with if it was possible to just lay better shit over the top of it...

Honshu is an trick-taking card game about building... let's call it a community. There are buildings you want to put together to form a city, but you also need to pay attention to how much forest you have popping up, the size of your lakes, and how well your factory capacity matches the resources you gather during the game. Everything counts for points at the end except the deserts, because deserts are literal wastes. They're a tiebreaker because the more desert you manage to deal with in your community, the better you've apparently done.

Everyone starts with one map card. Each starting card has a different layout and is double-sided to increase the number of starting possibilities (starting map cards always have a resource space). Players are then dealt six regular map cards; these are numbered one through sixty. Players then put down a map card and may also place a resource on the card to increase its value by sixty, guaranteeing that anyone who uses a resource will wind up ahead of someone who doesn't. After that, a new player order is determined by the bids, and in that order players choose map cards from the ones offered for that turn. Having the first choice as often as possible is best, but as with any trick-taking game, knowing when to dump your garbage cards can be just as important.

Placing map cards must be done by connecting them to at least one of the cards already in front of you. This means placing it on top of current cards so that one or more of their spaces are covered, or sliding it beneath current cards so that one or more of the new card's spaces are covered. Players run their hands down to zero cards, then are dealt six more, with the process repeating so that the game ends after twelve rounds. (In a five player game, this means all cards will be used, and tracking what's left becomes a valuable skill.) At the end, points are added for contiguous city spaces, contiguous lake spaces, number of forests, and number of factories which you can supply with the appropriate resource. A substantial balance point in the game is deciding when resources are more valuable as a method to jump ahead in turn order and when you need to save them for the end of the game.

Once you see the mechanics in action, Honshu is a very easy game to learn, and very replayable as long as the basic gameplay appeals to you. Every community gets built differently, and every game requires learning how what you have available can offer advantages in whatever situation you find yourself facing. It's a clever little game about which I have very little clever to say—it's short, coherent, and simply good.

Score: Seven. Play it and decide what the seven is out of.

Sunday, April 22, 2018

Dave Reviews: Charlemagne Rolling In His Grave

The Castles of Burgundy

Burgundy is hexagonally-shaped district in northern France, laced with farms that grow six-sided dice and dye factories whose sole purpose is to add differentiation to the dice they buy from the farms. From there, those dice are packaged and shipped in large boxes to little boys and girls, who then give those boxes to their mothers and fathers because the games inside are way too fucking complicated for them to figure out, and they want to catch more Pokemon anyway.

The Castles of Burgundy is a game that can be viewed as an opposite to Rising Sun—one where the game clearly came first and, even if they had planned to use this medieval theme, they could have changed that theme if it didn't really fit the game. It's also a classic, despite being less than ten years old; sitting at the edge of BGG's top ten games of all time after this long means you've done something right. (Of course, doing something right means expanding on it ad nauseum; this review will only cover the base game, but there are nine expansions.)

Castles is representative of its time in board gaming's evolution: it does not have any reliance on pure dice rolling, a la Settlers of Catan, but neither does it eschew randomness altogether like many present-day strategic games. It's of that moment where risk management was popular, handing players dice but offering methods of manipulating those dice that could take almost all of the pure chance out of the game. \

Each of the game's five phases consists of five turns, so you have twenty-five turns to play with. Each turn, you roll two dice, with which you can do a handful of things: pick up a tile from the common board, play a tile to your estate, sell goods, or throw a die away in exchange for two workers. The first three all require your action to match the roll of the die; you can only take a tile from a space matching one of your dice, play to a space matching one of your dice, or sell the goods that match one of your dice. Likewise, workers allow you to nudge a die up or down by one, so if you have a die that's can't get you anything you need, you can use it to pick up the resources that let you manipulate dice later. It's not a great turn, but it ensures no die is ever completely wasted.

That's all you need to know to play, but playing well is an entirely different matter. There are a dozen different tiles that can hit the board, and that doesn't include the one-off rulebreaker (knowledge) tiles. All of them have a different effect; although their strengths are pretty well balanced, what gives you the most opportunity to score is tiles that let you trigger bonus actions you would normally need to use a die on.

For example, if you place a church on your board, you can take a mine, castle, or knowledge tile from the common board. That's one die saved, plus you can get it from any location without needing to roll the right number. Likewise, a city hall lets you add any tile you're holding to your estate without needing to roll the number for the space you're putting it in. Castles let you take any action for free, as though you had a third die with the result of your choice. Banks, meanwhile, give you two silverlings; buying tiles from the center area of the common board can only be done by paying two silverlings, and that's a bonus action on your turn, so banks effectively give you a free action as well.

Tiles that don't give you bonus actions tend to offer more points or other utility bonuses. Animals, for example, can be very lucrative if you get a good-sized pasture filled with as many of the same type as you can; watchtowers are a simple 4 VP per, but if you also get the knowledge tile that offers an extra four per at the end of the game, they're fantastic. Ships grab market goods, which are useful, but also move you ahead in the turn order; this sometimes has to be done carefully, though, as the person who reaches the same number of ships as you goes ahead of you in turn order. Boarding houses give you four workers, which don't spam actions but make sure you can do what you want on later turns. And knowledge tiles offer all sorts of effects; dice manipulation tiles are ones you want to grab early, point bonuses later when you know what will be most efficient (or what you most want to keep away from your opponents).

Of course, there are bonus points for being the first or second person to finish all of your tiles of a certain type, so that's a consideration above and beyond simply doing the most efficient thing every turn. Choices!

The reason this game is so classic is that it's so balanced. I've sat and annoyed the hell out of my opponents, who were very nice about it all the same, by going deep into the tank on some turns after somebody grabs the one thing I need and I don't have a backup plan. Advantageous moves are not obvious; they have to be built on top of what you've done previously. If your most advantageous move goes away, everything looks the same, because everything is the same. It can be paralyzing, but in the best way: the options are all things you want to do, rather than all things you want to avoid, leaving you to choose the least bad option.

There's definitely a learning curve; veteran gamers will probably feel comfortable partway through the game, since there are so many turns, but it's not something to introduce to casual or new board gamers unless you know they're ok with a game that has a lot of knowledge to sift through. Giving yourself the ability to take almost anything you need because your dice manipulation is strong creates an easier path forward, but unlike many games, there's a real opportunity cost involved—getting related tiles, or workers, takes turns you might otherwise have been able to spend on building your estate, and this is a game where you could always use another turn to get something done.

It's a classic for a reason. Play it.

Score: Nine castles, leaving the tenth to the filthy English.