Ice Cool Review

Ice Cool board game

Every now and again, a new game comes along that looks a bit different and draws me back in to say a few words about it.  Most recently, that game was Ice Cool.

In Ice Cool, players take charge of a penguin in a game of tag.  Each round, one player plays the role of "catcher" and the other players are "runners."  The catcher's goal is to hit each of the other players' penguins.  The runners, meanwhile, are trying to successfully collect 3 fish by going through 3 doorframes on the board (and they collect a fish card every time they successfully go through a doorframe with one of their fish on it).  Once the catcher has hit all of his opponents' penguins, or a runner has caught all 3 of their own fish, the round is over.  At this point, the catcher takes a fish card for every runner that he successfully ran in to, plus one for being the catcher.  Then, a new round is started with another player taking the role of catcher.  Whoever has the most points worth of fish cards (each card ranges from one to three) at the end of the game wins.

closeup of Ice Cool game
The penguins are weighted on the bottom
Clearly, the best part of Ice Cool is the wonky penguins.  The penguins aren't weighted like a "normal" flicking thing.  I've played PitchCar, Catacombs, Crokinole, Bisikle, and basically every other flicking game that I can get my hands on, and this is the biggest difference between Ice Cool and those games - the penguins are not symmetrical.  What this means is that you can (try to) intentionally make the penguin do odd things - like jump over a part of the board, or make an arced shot to go around obstacles.  Now, I am not very good at this, but I have done it often enough to envision someone getting very good with these trick shots.

The next pro that I have for Ice Cool (aside from it being a dexterity game, and thus great fun by default) is that the one-point fish cards aren't complete disappointments.  In most games where you get a random score card for doing well, the lowest card sucks, and you just stare at it in irritation when you collect it.  In Ice Cool, there's a minor bonus prize for collecting ones - at the end of your turn, you can flip over two cards of value one to get another flick.  (You don't lose the points, either.)  I'd still rather collect three point cards, but the extra flick can definitely be very valuable.  (Though, it's still annoying when you collect them as the catcher at the end of the final round.)

Box in a Box picture
I would have to say that my biggest complaint with Ice Cool is something that only ever existed in my mind.  When I heard about the game, and saw pictures of it, one of the pictures I saw was the "Box in a Box" picture.  Now, what this picture is trying to communicate is that inside the box, there are several sub-pieces that fit together.  (In fact, you take these out and form the playing area, with walls and such.)  However, in my mind, I saw the picture and thought, "oh my gosh - how awesome is that!  A flicking game where the playing surface isn't completely flat, but has different angles and stuff!"  That's not a thing - the playing surface is flat.  So, whereas I was horribly disappointed with this, it's not likely something that will bother anyone else!

Does my personally being very bad at making jump shots land where I want count as a con?  No?  Oh.

Overall, I give Ice Cool a 8.0/10.  It's not going to replace PitchCar for me, but it does have enough of a difference to it that I can see myself coming back to it (not to mention that it's much lighter and faster to set up).

I would like to thank Brain Games for providing me with a review copy of Ice Cool.

Imperial Settlers Solo Campaign Review

Imperial Settlers with expansions and campaign mode

I've started playing solo games a bit more regularly lately.  So, when I first heard people talking about Imperial Settlers, I heard that it had a solo mode - but also a solo campaign mode (note that the link is to Portal Games' dropbox where they uploaded the rules for the campaign).  I was intrigued, so I went to check it out.  This review will focus on that mode of play, and is going to completely ignore the multiplayer (normal) mode.

(If you've never played Imperial Settlers, read this paragraph, otherwise, you can skip to the next one.)  In Imperial Settlers, you play over a series of rounds in order to get the most victory points.  You gain these in a few different ways - but typically by building buildings.  You start the game with a few cards - some specific to your faction, and some common.  Each round, you gain more cards in the Lookout phase, you collect resources in the Production phase, you "do stuff" in the Action phase, and then you discard any excess resources and reset your buildings in the Cleanup Phase.  Most of the "doing stuff" consists of playing or activating cards.  With most cards, you can play them in a few different ways - as buildings, as "Deals," or you can "Raze" them.  There are good and bad aspects, strategically, of each way to play a card, and you balance this as you play the game.  That's really where the strategy lies.  After a few rounds, if you have enough victory points, you win the game!

Imperial Settlers solo campaign tracking
Tracking the solo campaign
So, the solo game of Imperial Settlers adds a "Virtual Player Attack" after the Cleanup Phase.  This is done by flipping cards from a special deck, and matching the Raze icons on your buildings - if a building matches, then it is destroyed.  At the end of the set number of rounds, if you have built more buildings than the Virtual Player (who gets everything they Raze, along with some in the Lookout Phase), then you win.  The campaign strings together several of these games (and makes them shorter - you play 4 rounds in the campaign instead of 5).  To start each game (after the first), you have an Event occur.  The Events typically shift some of the rules of the game - emphasizing Production buildings, making Food more scarce, punishing you for using Raze tokens, etc.  If you win a game, you add a Province to your kingdom.  This Province typically gives you a bonus, but also requires you to pay for it in goods during the game, as well as with victory points after the game.  Finally, the solo campaign mode adds Achievements - these allow you to get permanent bonuses to help offset the Events and the cost of your Provinces.  There is no "end goal" for the campaign - you simply build your empire and see how well you can do.

The first thing that I like about the solo campaign is that it makes your victory points matter.  In most solo games that I play, typically once I beat it, there's no real reason to play again.  And, for that matter, if I just played the basic solo rules for Imperial Settlers, it would fall into this same category (well, you might play solo with each faction, but that's about it).  However, with the campaign, it suddenly is different if I win with 10 VPs instead of winning with 95.  With 95 VPs, I can buy some nice Achievements - whereas with 10 VPs, I might not even be able to pay the Control Cost of my Provinces.  This has changed the game for me - instead of "phoning it in" late in the game, since I know I've already won, I am trying to maximize my VP output until the very last play.

The next pro that I have for the solo campaign can probably be said for Imperial Settlers as a whole - the factions play very differently.  As an example, the first campaign I started was with the Barbarians.  They are very straightforward - they get VPs primarily by building tons of buildings, but they can also activate some buildings to trade goods for points.  The next campaign I played was with the Atlanteans.  The Atlanteans don't get VPs from their faction specific buildings (other factions get 2 VP per faction specific building), but they get a lot of "technology" tokens, which improve common buildings.  This meant that I had to build a ton of common buildings (they also only win if they have more common buildings than the virtual player - instead of buildings of any type).  Building all of these buildings meant that I got buildings Razed by the virtual player almost every turn - but the technology tokens caused me to generate huge piles of resources to help offset those losses (and to feed into buildings to generate VPs).

Imperial Settlers Japanese faction in play
A growing Japanese empire
Though I've really been enjoying the solo campaign, there are a few points that I have been annoyed with while playing it.  First, I feel like the "hard games" I've played have been due to the (poor) luck of the draw.  With some of the Provinces, you have to pay an upkeep cost every round.  So, for instance, if you've won 5 games, you may have to pay 1 Worker, 2 Stone, and 2 Wood at the end of each round to pay for your Provinces.  However, if you start a game by not drawing any Production buildings, then there's a good chance that you won't be able to pay this cost - and there's nothing that you could do about it.  (This is worse with the Atlanteans, as many of their faction cards provide technology tokens instead of normal goods, so it reduces the chance that you will be able to get the goods a Province needs by making a Deal.)  Granted, the Achievements should help you offset the costs of your Provinces, but regardless of what Achievements you have, there will be some times that a bad draw can derail your empire.

The next con that I had for the solo campaign is that there is a lot of upkeep in different places, and so it is very easy to "cheat" without realizing it.  It's one thing to inadvertently cheat in a multiplayer game - when you realize it, you point it out to your opponents, and you collectively decide how to handle it.  But, when you inadvertently cheat in a solo game, it's much more frustrating (in my opinion), because you don't know if you "really" would have won the game.  I know that there have been several games where I cheated by forgetting to pay the upkeep, not remembering what the upkeep cost was, or forgetting the event.  At the same time, I've also forgotten things that would help me like abilities that a Province provided.  When you have built a large empire in Imperial Settlers (like 10+ Production buildings, along with Features and Actions), it's hard enough to track what all you produce, without having to also reference other sheets.  As you play, you get better at tracking all of this, but it's still quite a bit.  (I know of some efforts within the player community to try to convert the various aspects of the campaign mode into cards that can be printed off - well designed cards should help with this, but as far as I know, there is nothing official yet in this regard.)

Before the wrap up, you may have noticed in the pictures that I played this with both expansions.  Here's a quick rundown of what the expansions add to the solo campaign, so that you can decide if you want them.

Virtual Player expansion cards
New Virtual Player cards (shown with their faction decks)
Why Can't We Be Friends:
This expansion focuses mostly on the multiplayer game (though you could shuffle in the new buildings if you'd like).  However, for the solo mode, it adds 2 cards that represent the Virtual Player, and this causes your Virtual Player to play a bit differently.  One Virtual Player attacks 3 times instead of 2, and the other gets more locations - so both make the game harder.  These are nice, but I don't consider them critical.

The Atlanteans expansion adds... well... the Atlanteans.  They are another playable faction that can be included in solo or multiplayer.  It also adds a corresponding Virtual Player card that you can use for them in games where you're not playing as them.  They play quite differently from the other factions, so if you enjoy going through the campaign with all of the different factions, then you might want to pick this one up so that you can play through with a 5th faction.  However, you are probably safe holding off on this one until you've played the campaign a couple of times to make sure that you enjoy it first.

Overall, I give the solo campaign mode for Imperial Settlers an 8.5.  I really enjoy it, and I think that I'll play through it more in the future.  It hasn't dethroned my favorite solo game, but it is definitely in the upper echelon for me.

I would like to thank Portal Games for providing me with a review copy of Imperial Settlers along with its expansions.

Between Two Cities Review

Between Two Cities board game

So, as you may have noticed, I haven't really written many reviews recently.  Yet, after trying Between Two Cities, I decided that I wanted to explore the game some more - including fleshing out my thoughts in writing.  (So, here we are!)

In Between Two Cities, you create two (4x4) cities - one with the player on your left, and another with the player on your right.  The game is played in three rounds - the first and third round are drafting, and the middle round is simply picking a (larger) tile.  Each time that you select a tile, you select two tiles, and everyone reveals their tiles at the same time.  Once revealed, you can place either of your tiles in either one of your cities (but one tile must go in each city).  Each type of tile has certain ways of maximizing its score, and at the end of the game, your total score is the point value of your lower scoring city.  So, the challenge of the game is to balance your two cities so that they both do well - even if it means preventing one of your cities from becoming amazing, in order to allow them both to be great.

The first thing that I like about Between Two Cities is the partnership element of the game.  It really has a very unique feel in that you are working with other players all game.  (You don't have your own city.)  However, this is a double-edged sword.  Because, though you're working with two people, each of those players is also working with someone else, and there will be times when they will make a decision that hurts your city, because they feel like it is more important to help their other city.  This causes a very strange balance in the game - especially since you are drafting tiles and passing the remaining tiles to one of your partners.  Since you know what they are receiving, you can select and place accordingly.  But, just because they take the tile that you want them to draft does not mean that they'll actually place it in the city that you both share!

Between Two Cities second round of the game
Placement in the second round is a bit more constrained
The next pro that I've found for Between Two Cities is that the simultaneous play keeps the game very engaging.  Many games scale linearly in time with the number of players - which often translates into sitting around waiting while other players take their turns.  However, in Between Two Cities, you are selecting and placing your tiles at the same time.  Yes, there will be times when one player takes longer than the others, but ultimately, there is very little down time in the game.  You truly feel like you're participating the entire time.

The third thing that I really enjoyed about Between Two Cities was eluded to earlier - I like that when drafting, you are passing your unselected tiles to one of your partners.  This knowledge (and foreknowledge) of what tiles are available and can be selected really makes the decision of what to select a bit more intriguing.  Obviously, this is still only limited knowledge, in that you don't know what you will draw in future rounds, or what tiles will be passed to you.  Yet, this small bit of additional knowledge makes the game feel more strategic.

One thing that I will point out about Between Two Cities that's a bit different from other drafting games is that there isn't really any "hate drafting."  What I mean is that there aren't really opportunities to select tiles simply to prevent other people from getting them.  There are a couple reasons for this.  First, everything that you draft has to go in your city; so if you draft something that's not useful, you're hurting yourself more than your opponent.  Secondly, you only select three times in each of the drafting rounds, so the tiles simply don't go that far around the table.  It is drafting, but is a much more abbreviated draft than in a game like 7 Wonders.

Completed city in Between Two Cities
Factories make you want more factories!
The main "con" that I have for Between Two Cities I go back and forth with my feelings on.  What's the con?  It's really annoying when I can't draw what I want!  As an example, one tile type, factories, is worth a lot of points if you have the most of them - and worth far less if you don't have the most.  So, if you're drafting factories, you want to draft a lot of factories.  If you draft a bunch of factories in round one and then don't draw any factories in round three, it can be quite annoying, and make the game feel a bit luck oriented.  Yet, I've never seen a "perfect" city be built (I calculated up that I think 69 is the top possible score).  What instead tends to happen is that each city has one specific type of tile that it scores most of its points with.  And so, what you are able to do with your backup tiles tends to be the difference between winning and losing in the game.  So, with all that said, it is still frustrating to not draw what you want - and there is admittedly an element of luck in the tiles drawn; yet there is still strategy involved in how to handle these situations (as with all drafting games).

Overall, I give Between Two Cities a 9.0/10.  I have enjoyed the games of it that I've played so far, and I expect that I'll be playing it many more times.  With the speed of setup, explanation, and play - along with the nice 3-7 player count - I see it being easy to get to the table.

I would like to thank Stonemaier Games for providing me with a review copy of Between Two Cities.

AquaSphere Review

AquaSphere game board
AquaSphere - mid play

Thanks to my friend Kurt for this guest review of AquaSphere.  If you like Kurt's opinions, check out his new video series on solo games.

First off, let me come clean with this -- I’m not a fan of Stefan Feld games in general. Even if I like a game of his, they don’t leave me thinking about them afterwards in terms of what I learned and want to do next time. But I played AquaSphere at the same convention where I tried a bunch of other new games and was surprised to find myself … thinking about it afterwards. In fact, I ended up getting a copy because my gut told me there were several plays here, and I’m glad I did. I mention this context as emphasis that this review is an endorsement of a Feld game from someone who’s usually not a Feld fan, so take that for what it’s worth.

AquaSphere is mechanically well designed and thematically disconnected, but that’s pretty much par for the course with Feld, isn’t it? The multiple ways to get points but limited actions gives it some heft without being too much of a brain burner. It’s really quite simple once you get past your first learning game as there’s an illusion of abundance of choice due to the two interrelated boards and all the actions, but you can really only program three (or so) actions a turn, so for some people the first play may be a “head wrapper” but the light should go on pretty quickly especially with an adept teacher. And I don’t mind the lame thematic connection to my actions. I know when I’m playing a Feld game it’s about the mechanisms, and I find them engaging enough here to not care why octopods are invading and why I should want to “clean” them.

I’m clearly entertained by games where you chain actions together in ways that pay off relative to what other players are doing. This one reminds me of two other action chaining games I quite like, Kanban and Tzolkin: the Mayan Calendar, for how you coordinate your actions against the pull of not just “what’s good” but “when’s good.” You're working on your own priorities in a shared space with others to beat them to bonus thingies and also time your actions in such a way that you bump their pieces out and end up with your pieces in the right spots at the end of the round. It’s a quintessential action puzzle game.

The thrust of the play is programming versus acting. You have two separate boards (that appear garish to the neophyte) that work interrelatedly. On the Headquarters board, you will move your scientist pawn to program your bots with certain actions from the seven available. Then you move your scientist dude on the Lab board using “time” to get around and poop, er, drop a bot to then instantly take the action it was programmed for. So, 1) program bot, 2) move scientist (or not), 2a) take action with programmed bot. Repeat until you have to pass. It’s actually pretty simple.

AquaSphere headquarters board
Headquarters board
Of course, since this is a Feld game, this aforementioned process is put in a blender. The seven actions available in the game are randomly aligned each turn on the Headquarters board in such a way that you can only move to (and thus program) any three of them, and they’re on sort of a track such that some are on one side or the other and you have to commit to one side at some point meaning you can’t necessarily do what you want in order. You might want to do A-B-C (in that order) but can only get to C-A-D/E (in that order) or some such other suboptimal configuration. What’s the best puzzle you can configure for this turn?

You essentially have a load-then-fire process which provides a surprising amount of player interaction via the signaling of everyone’s motives in the form of their programmed actions. If I can see you have a bot ready to do something that I want to do, I will have to consider my turn carefully. What’s the point of programming something that you’re about to do on your turn anyway? More player interaction happens in the placing of bots on the board in a Highlander, “There can be only one!”, way. When you drop a bot, you displace any previous ones there, which is a way of scoring VPs for yourself and taking them away from others. (Ooh, maybe this should’ve been themed as such with the bots being the heads of other immortals?) Less direct interaction happens in the race to get particular bonus power cards or lab extensions.

And what are these actions that you’re going to all this trouble to program? Without going into a full blown rules explanation, you’re either acquiring bonus power cards or lab extensions that help your ability to do stuff in the game or you’re actually doing that stuff. Bonus power cards are pretty self-evident. Lab extensions serve to increase your capacity for stuff but also may have letters A-F on them.

Collecting lab extensions with letters is worth points in the standard triangular scoring sequence that applies to all collected stuff in the game. Furthermore, the game squeezes you by requiring your scientist pawn to use time markers to get around the undersea lab. You may have the bot programmed the way you want and the opportunity staring you in the face, but not have enough time to get to that side of the board and take the action. So some of your actions are simply spent acquiring more time which always feels suboptimal to me considering you can only program three actions per turn. Part of the challenge then is finding other ways of getting time such as via bonus power cards.

Now, let’s take a look at the depth of strategy in the game. I would say the game is heavily tilted towards tactics but is not without strategy. Your strategy may be to go for the A-F lab extension bonus or the placing submarines bonus or something else in concert with a bonus power card. Between the “action blender” and the interference of other players, you will focus each turn more on what you can do versus what you would like to do, but there is some player agency towards an overall strategy, and the bonus power cards and lab extensions you collect will contribute towards that focus (or you’re not playing well).

AquaSphere player pod
Personal pod after multiple improvements
The more I play the game, the more I find myself able to look above the fog created by the game and more carefully consider my opponents’ actions relative to mine. As I said above, you only get to program three bots a turn and you’d like to place them after other people to knock them out and not vice-versa, but if you’re early in turn order that’s a bit more difficult. Plus, more bots on the game board means more points for you in the end of round scoring, so you look for bonus power cards that give extra programming actions. Being able to place the last bot of the round is a very powerful move, and you can make that happen with some crafty planning. Moreover, once a round you may spend three time markers to program a bot. It sounds expensive, and it is, but after a handful of plays I learned how to make this happen a couple of times in a game and found it to be a very powerful workaround that opens the game up considerably.

And therein lies the fun of the game: cutting off Mr. Feld’s restraints each turn (action blender, time markers) to execute actions that fit into the framework of your strategy while outmaneuvering your opponents to move before (to get stuff before they do) or after (to knock their bot out and place yours).  It’s all a series of mini action puzzles that you’re trying to put together for yourself each turn while cutting off the heads of other immortals as they try to configure theirs. So what’s not to like?

No game is perfect, and what I don’t like about this one is the fiddliness involved, especially setting up and resetting between turns. I probably have felt this more prominently due to the fact I have taught new players in all my plays so far so I’m the one setting up the game and directing how to reset the board between turns. You have to reset the game before you play and then essentially set it up all over again between turns. It grows a little tiresome though it’s certainly manageable.

Also, we seem to forget in every game to give points for placing submarines and taking bonus power cards. Most probably because it’s counter-intuitive to get points for doing things that are already helping you (I take a bonus power card AND I get VPs? Huh?). But it’s Feld after all, and he’s not ashamed to give points willy nilly. He doesn’t care, and to prove it, he gives three points to people who walk by and watch the game for five seconds or more. Don’t believe me? It’s in the rule book. Probably.

All in all, I enjoy this one the more I play it. At first it felt like you could only focus on fighting the action blender but I’ve come to appreciate how you wrangle the game and combat other players at the same time. The variable setups ensure each game plays out differently, and a review of the game forums reveals that more experienced players find the scoring avenues are equal. I find myself thinking about those avenues and how I could’ve managed my bonus power cards in better concert with my actions. I look forward to more time under the sea answering those questions.

Board Game Reviews by Josh would like to thank Tasty Minstrel Games for providing a review copy of AquaSphere.