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.

Coconuts Review

coconuts board game

So, I heard that there was a game where you each have a monkey catapult and you shoot coconuts.  I was sold.  I thought about that being the extent of my review, but since I was given a copy from the publisher, I figured I should say a few more things about the game.

In Coconuts, each player is given two cards, a pile of rubber coconuts, and a plastic monkey catapult.  At the start of any player's turn, someone can play one of the cards from their hand (but once a card is played, it's out of the game).  When it is your turn, you take a coconut and attempt to shoot it into one of the cups on the table.  If you make it in a cup (that you hadn't already claimed), then you get to take that cup and place it in front of you.  If you claim a red cup, you get to take another shot.  Once a player has six cups in front of him, he is the winner.  Alternately, if the players run out of coconuts by shooting them all into cups (after you shoot your initial pile of coconuts, you can use any of the ones still in play), then the player who has the most coconuts in the cups that they control wins.

monkey catapult from Coconuts game
The awesome monkey catapult
So, if this isn't your first one of my reviews to read, you're probably aware that I'm in love with dexterity games.  But, what makes a good dexterity game is generally that it is ridiculous.  Coconuts knocks that criteria out of the park.  Not only do you have monkey catapults (yes, I've legitimately used that phrase twice in this review now), but you also have odd shaped rubber coconuts (that look very similar to peanut M&M's).  The coconuts themselves add a lot to the game, as they are not all the exact same size, and they're also not round.  They are shaped like coconuts, so one side goes to a bit of a point while the other side is round.  This causes them to fly strangely and to bounce oddly.  It also helps balance the playing field between a person who has played several games and a beginning player.  The person who has played a lot will probably be a little bit better, but the new player will still feel like they have a chance to win.

Another necessity for a good dexterity game is that the components are high quality and will last, as these games get a lot more wear than a standard board game would.  (After all, you're hurtling some of the components through the air.)  I can't speak to the longevity of the components, as I haven't stress tested them, but everything in Coconuts seems very well constructed.  The cups are a thick plastic, the coconuts are a high quality rubber (or plastic - but it feels rubbery), and the monkeys also seem sturdy.  The only piece that I can envision breaking is the spring in the monkey (that makes it a catapult).  But even with that, I haven't had any problems whatsoever with my copy of the game, and I think that it would last for quite a long time.

game of Coconuts in play
Those coconuts will be lost... it's just a matter of time.
There are a couple of (incredibly minor) things that I will list as cons for Coconuts.  First, the cards are basically useless.  At least half of the time that I play the game, I don't bother with them.  Since they are each one use, they can basically be used to increase the chances that a player will miss their shot.  But, in my experience, there's a really good chance they were going to miss that shot anyway.  And some of the cards, like the one that lets you blow on their coconut as their shot is in the air, are even more useless.  The cards don't detract from the game, but they seem to be an unnecessary addition just to make the game have "more" to it.

The second "con" is that you're going to lose coconuts.  Be ready to play backstop when you're playing this game, as you'll need to make sure that you catch all of the flying coconuts that your opponents shoot.  Also, they'll wind up rolling under tables, bookshelves, etc.  This is going to happen to you.  It might be better to play at your house if you want to ensure that your game stays complete.  (They did include some extra coconuts in the game, though - apparently at least some play testing went into this!  I think that you can also buy replacement coconuts, as when they sent me a review copy, they sent me a separate bag of extra coconuts right off the bat.)

Overall, I give Coconuts a 9.0/10.  It's a great dexterity game that draws people in to watch it and that everyone who sees it wants to play.  I envision it getting played for years to come.

If you want to read about more awesome dexterity games, check out PitchCarRiff Raff, and Toc Toc Woodman.

I would like to thank Mayday Games for providing a review copy of Coconuts.

Captains of Industry Review

Captains of Industry board game

After really enjoying a different TMG title designed by Michael Keller, I decided that I should check out his other TMG title - Captains of Industry.

In Captains of Industry, the players manipulate the supply, demand, and price of various goods in order to gain the most Market Share (Victory Points).  There are a few actions that you can perform: build a facility, expand a facility, run a facility, perform research, draw Captain cards, and build real estate.  Building, expanding, or running a facility all produce goods of a certain type, and allow you to adjust the price of your goods of that type.  Building real estate adds demand for a couple of types (you get to choose which) and increases your income.  Researching can help in a variety of ways, and any time that you research or buy a Captain card, you can adjust all of your prices in the markets.  At the end of a variable number of rounds, an Age will end, and then the game purchases enough resources to match it's demand (if they are available), and the rest of the resources go to waste.  At the end of the third Age, the person with the most Market Share (from selling goods) is the winner.

The first pro that I have for Captains of Industry is that I think it's very interesting that you are both making the demand and fulfilling it.  (Specifically, you have the option of making demand - you can also focus on manufacturing, and hope that you're able to make the right kind of goods.)  Any time that you build real estate, you get to place a demand card.  These demand cards, and their placement, determine the importance of each resource.  So, in order to play Captains of Industry well, you have to ensure that you are able to produce goods efficiently, but also you have to make sure that you build places to sell them.  After all, if you are able to produce 10 corn on a turn, but there is no demand for corn, then you have not only wasted your current turn, but you've also wasted all of the previous turns that you spent building up your corn factory (or "Farm" if you will).

image of Captains of Industry board in play
An ever changing consumables market

A couple of other pros that I have for the game are that I enjoyed how interactive the game was between the players, and also how different the game can play based on the group that you play with.  It seems like there can be quite a bit of "group think" in this game.  For example, one of the games I played viewed Research as critical.  Because of this, everyone produced a lot of Research, which caused the market to be flooded with very inexpensive Research.  Obviously, this meant that everyone had any of the technologies on the tech tree that they wanted.  In another game, most players didn't produce Research, and it made it so that Research was very scarce, and whenever a player did produce Research, it was purchased immediately at almost any price.  (Which was great for the player producing it, as you get a Market Share (VP) for each of your goods that is purchased by either another player or the bank.)  I enjoyed that the game gave me very different experiences, and I also liked the interactions that can be caused by players being interdependent - you most likely are depending on other players to produce some of the resources you need, so that you can do what you want on your turn.  (After all, even if you are able to produce everything you need, it will take several turns of production to produce everything you want, and other players may buy those goods from you in the meantime.)  As someone who can produce goods, you sometimes have to decide if you want to produce goods that you know will get bought, thus giving you money and victory points but helping another player, or if you want to do something else.

Something interesting that I found for the game, that I'm not sure about my feelings on, is how drastic pricing could be utilized in the game.  Specifically, if certain goods are regularly running out on the board, then you may have a hard time purchasing them.  In this situation, you are allowed to buy goods from the bank, but only if you start your turn with a good that could have been bought by another player.  This causes players to occasionally set their goods at the maximum possible price to dissuade others from buying them - thus ensuring (hopefully) that they can at least buy missing goods from the bank.  Alternately, when an Age is about to end, a player early in turn order may use his turn to adjust his prices to be all 0, to ensure that nobody can undercut his price, thus guaranteeing that at least some of his goods will get bought by the bank - for Market Share, if not for money.   (It can be debated whether this is the best move, but either way, it has been utilized to some extent in the games I've played.)

Captains of Industry components
Very nice components - though you may run out of markers
One thing that I want to point out about Captains of Industry that is neither good nor bad, but something to be aware of, is that the game encourages cut-throat play.  Specifically, if a player has not done the 0 move that I mentioned in the previous paragraph, then a player that goes later in the turn order can adjust prices on their turn to undercut their opponent, causing the game to buy all of their goods before they buy any of their opponent's goods.  And, if their supply is high enough, it will completely shut their opponents out.  This costs your opponents both Market Share and money.  I have seen this move cost a player 6 VP and $42 in one move.  I'm certain that as you play more, players will balance this some by pricing their goods lower to encourage their opponents to undercut someone else, but either way, the drastic nature of taking all of the demand from your opponent can be harsh.

Another thing that I haven't decided my feelings on is the variable Age end.  The game starts with a "Progress Deck" of 6 City cards and 4 Country cards.  At the end of each round, 1-4 of these cards are drawn, depending on how frequently real estate has been purchased.  Any City cards are set aside, and any Country cards are shuffled back in the deck.  Once all 6 City cards have been drawn, the Age ends.  (Yes, theoretically, the game can never end - but all of my games ended, so I can't speak much to that.)  What this can cause is an extra round in which none of the players have a very good move.  Specifically, if at the start of a round, there are 5 cards in the deck, and you're going to draw 4 of them, then there is an 80% chance that the Age will end.  So, you make your best "this is my last move this Age" action.  You don't set up for the next turn in the Age, because you're not going to get one (you assume).  So, if the deck does turn up all Country cards, thus giving you another round in that Age, then it's a round that nobody had really expected, and so it is basically just a duplicate of the previous one.

The only real con that I had for Captains of Industry was the Captain cards.  Specifically, I felt like they weren't balanced very well.  There are some Captain cards that can be worth 6 points - if you have a factory that is the biggest one in the game.  However, there are several of these cards, representing each of the different factory types.  And, if you get multiples of them, then most of them are junk, since you obviously can't have the largest factory in the game in two different types, and in fact, two different types can't be your biggest factory, either.  Yet, there are other Captain cards that might give you 10 points for something you were going to do anyway (like Research).  What's worse, you may draw a Captain card late in the game for something that you've already done (Research, not build Factories, build Real Estate) that can drastically swing the score - of course, you're much more likely to draw one that is completely useless to you.  I like that the Captain cards suggest a strategic path to take, and I like that you have to discard one at the end of each Age, thus sometimes making tough choices, but the overall execution of Captain cards left me disappointed.

Overall, I give Captains of Industry an 8.0/10.  It is a good game, and I enjoyed my plays of it (though they sometimes left me mentally exhausted afterwards).  However, I'm not sure how often I will play it going forward - especially as the cut-throat characteristics of the game will limit the number of people that I can play it with.

If Captains of Industry sounds interesting, you should also check out City HallFurstenfeld, and Power Grid.

I would like to thank Tasty Minstrel Games for providing me with a review copy of Captains of Industry.

Good Cop Bad Cop: Bombers and Traitors Preview

This post is not a review, but a preview for a game currently seeking funding on Kickstarter. Final art, components, and rules are all subject to change.

Good Cop Bad Cop is a social deduction game that pits straight officers against crooked cops in a battle of bluffing and wits.

To begin the game, each player is given 3 Integrity Cards. These cards will be one of 4 things:
  1. An Honest cop
  2. A Crooked cop
  3. The Agent
  4. The Kingpin

If you have a leader card (either the Agent or the Kingpin), you are automatically a member of that faction. If you don't have a leader, then you are a member of the faction that you have two or more of.

Once the Integrity cards have been distributed, the game can begin. One a player's turn, they have a few options.

They can Investigate, by peeking at any one face-down Integrity card.

They can Equip by drawing an Equipment card and also turning one of their own Integrity cards face-up.

They can Arm, by picking up one of the available Gun cards and also flipping one of their Integrity cards face-up.

The last option a player has on her turn is to fire a Gun card she is holding.

Then, after a player takes one of the preceding actions, she can aim her Gun card at another player if she has one.

If a player is shot and she is not the Agent or the Kingpin, they must flip up all of their Integrity cards and they are eliminated from the game. The first time an Agent or Kingpin is shot, they must take a wounded token and draw an equipment card. If an Agent or Kingpin has a Wounded token and are shot, the game ends and the opposing team wins.

Those are the rules for the base game. Good Cop Bad Cop is an eminently simple game, that is one of the best conduits for emergent game play and story telling I have ever seen. The framework is so simple, that it simultaneously stays out of the players' way while also facilitating a supremely fun game experience.

What the Traitors and Bombers expansion adds to the game are...Traitors and Bombers. In the corner of many of the cop cards are either knife icons, bomb icons, or both. If a player ever has a hand made up of all 3 bombs or all 3 knives, they are either a bomber or a traitor, respectively.
Bombers will win if they either get shot or shoot either the Agent or the Kingpin, while Traitors will win if they survive the death of either the Agent or Kingpin.

The Bombers and Traitors expansion definitely keeps with the base game's philosophy "less is more," and is a fantastic addition to the game.

I strongly recommend backing this campaign, as it is a great way to not only support a small publisher, but also to get your hands on a great game that has been harder to get a hold of!