Yspahan Review

Yspahan game in play

Since camels and board games apparently go together like computer programmers and soda, I bring to you the latest review of camel themed board gaming (it even has camel shaped wooden pieces) - Yspahan.

In Yspahan, you take on the role of a merchant, and you try to score the most points by trading goods.  To start each round, the first player takes all of the dice (and optionally buys extra dice that only he can use) and rolls them.  After this, he groups them by number and puts them on the "tower board" from bottom to top.  These dice determine which actions are available that round, and how effective those actions are.  Next, each player selects a group of dice and performs one of three actions (we got this wrong the first time I played) - you may perform the dice action, move the supervisor equal to the number of pips on the dice (this allows you to send goods to his caravan), or draw a card.  The dice action will depend on where the dice are on the tower board - but they consist of collecting camels, money, or placing goods on various parts of the board.  Each turn you also have the option of buying a building.  Play continues like this for seven turns (a "week"), and then players score points based on goods they have placed on the board and goods they have shipped to the caravan.  Then, the board clears and you keep playing.  After three weeks, whoever has the most points wins!

Yspahan dice tower
The tower board is awesome!
The first thing that I love about Yspahan is the tower board.  I really enjoy how the tower board works, and the player who most efficiently takes advantage of the opportunities on it will probably win the game.  It really provides a nice, random element to the game, but it does so without giving the feeling of luck to the game.  The first player rolls the dice, and then everyone selects from those choices.  Yes, there is some luck involved - for example, if the first player really needs camels and happens to roll a lot of 1's (the lowest number goes on the camel spot), then this will work to their advantage.  But, overall, it provides more of a feel of variance than luck.  I think that it is a really wonderful use of dice, and I haven't seen any other games that use dice in quite this way. 

The second pro that I have for Yspahan is that the player to win will probably be the player that most effectively balances their strategy.  I am familiar with the phrase "multiple paths to victory" in games, and I enjoy when players can take completely different strategies and still have a chance of winning.  Yspahan, in my opinion, isn't quite like that.  Instead, in Yspahan, there are different ways of scoring points.  However, if you specialize in only one area, I think that you will lose to a player that does very well at scoring in every area of the game.  There are divergent strategic options - such as when to focus on the different areas, but ultimately, you will need to score in every area to achieve the highest possible score.  And, I like that the game forces you to pay attention to everything, instead of being able to completely neglect certain elements. 

My third pro for Yspahan is that it forces you to make tough choices.  You can't do everything that you want to do each turn, and in order to win you will have to skip an opportunity to make a "good" move, in order to make a "better" one.  (As an aside - the first time we tried this game, we missed the rule that you get to do one of the three actions each turn, and so we were doing all three.  Every turn.  The game is really horrible, long, and broken if you do this.  Just so you know.)  For example, drawing a card is really useful - it might allow you to purchase a building, among other things.  But, you could also move the supervisor - gaining extra points from the caravan.  Ultimately, the right choice might be to place a few cubes on the board to complete an extra neighborhood.  Yspahan just has a brilliant balance between different strategic choices and simplicity of gameplay.

camel track in Yspahan
The caravan - it can be worth a lot of points!
My only real con for Yspahan has to do with the cards.  Whereas I feel like the dice add an element of randomness without feeling like they add luck, I feel the opposite about card drawing.  Getting a "lucky" draw can really help you in Yspahan.  Whereas, drawing poorly won't directly cost you the game, it can feel like a wasted turn.  Drawing a card early that allows you to build a building without paying half of it's cost is wonderful.  Drawing a second copy of a scoring card that allows you to trade your coins or camels in for victory points is fairly useless, especially early.  To be fair, a card is never "worthless" because you can choose to discard a card when you collect dice to add an additional die to the number you draw.  Either way, there is a definite luck element in which cards you draw and when you draw them.

Overall, I give Yspahan a 9.0/10.  I think that it is a brilliant gaming experience that flows smoothly and only takes about an hour.  All around, a great experience, and I'd recommend that most everybody try it if you have the opportunity.

If Yspahan sounds like your kind of game, you might also be interested in Caylus, Stone Age, and Princes of Florence.

Monopoly Deal Review

playing Monopoly Deal


A light little filler game that I tried recently was Monopoly Deal.

Don't let the name fool you - Monopoly Deal is about as much like normal Monopoly as having a tooth extracted (without even having anesthetic) is "major surgery". Here's how it works - each player starts the game with some cards. Each turn, you draw two cards, play up to three cards, and then discard to seven cards in your hand (rarely an issue). The object of the game is to get three complete property sets. Cards come in three main varieties: Money (ranging from $1 Million to $10 Million), Actions (that kick your friends in the teeth and steal from them while they're down), and Properties (that you then have stolen from you while you're on the ground after being kicked). The properties will be the old staples that you're used to, but there are also Wild properties that help you to more easily complete sets. Money is simply money - it's used to pay for things (and serves as a buffer before you have to pay in property). Actions range from forcing players to give you $2 Million as a birthday gift to stealing a complete property set, charging rent to drawing extra cards. Oh, and every action card has a monetary value and can be played as "Money" instead of as an action.  Once someone gets their three complete property sets, they are the winner.

The first thing that I like about Monopoly Deal is that it is a fast paced game. Now, don't get me wrong - I actually enjoy the original game of Monopoly. However, it's not for everyone, and I understand that. Monopoly Deal can be played in a fraction of the time of normal Monopoly. Theoretically, the entire game can be over in two rounds! (If you are able to complete the three 2-property color sets (Mediterranean/Baltic, Boardwalk/Park Place, Electric Company/Water Works.) However, fortunately it's not normally that fast. Either way, turns go very quickly, so there does not feel like very much down time in the game.

Monopoly Deal Boardwalk
Not quite as drooled over as before.

The next thing that I like about the game is that you're never completely out of contention. Yes, if you have no property in front of you, the game can be much more challenging, but there are combinations of cards that can immediately get you right back into contention. If, for example, you had no properties and one of your opponent's had Boardwalk & Park Place, you could use "Deal Breaker" to steal their set, and then play "Double the Rent" with a Dark Blue "Rent" card to go from having nothing to having all of your opponents pay you $16 Million dollars, all on one turn! (Assuming that your opponent that you steal the property set from does not have a "Just Say No" card.) Think about normal Monopoly - when you're losing heavily, what are the chances of you winning? Approximately 0.0003%? That's not true with Monopoly Deal.

Third, I like that Monopoly Deal is a friendly back-stabby game. What I mean is that, yes, you are constantly stabbing the other players in the back. However, they probably won't grow too irritated because they are about to do the same thing. And, the backstabbing happens early enough and often enough in the game that it doesn't feel like you've worked towards something all game and then someone swooped in at the last second to mess up your whole plan. You get stabbed the whole time you try to execute your plan, and if your planning doesn't involve stealing things from your opponents, then it's destined for failure. Let me put it this way - you'll spend as much time looking at what your opponent's have in play (your "options") as you will what's in your hand.

Finally, Monopoly Deal is able to open doors with people who don't normally play many games. Ever had this conversation, "I like board games." "Oh, you mean like Monopoly and Scrabble?" (Mine normally is "I write about board games." "Oh, you mean like Monopoly and Scrabble?" Sometimes they mix in Risk.) You can now answer, "Sure. You should try Monopoly Deal with us. You might like it." Monopoly Deal is fun - they probably will enjoy it. And then, *BAM*, spring Dominion on them the next day!! Or something like that...

Forced Deal card in Monopoly Deal /></a></td></tr>
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Let's make a deal...
Anyway, it's not all roses for Monopoly Deal. One thing that I'm not a huge fan of is how much luck is involved in the game. This luck is almost exclusively in what cards you draw. I've played at least one game of it where I never drew an action card! Not one!! What does this mean? It means that my cards are constantly being stolen by other players and my only response will be to glare at them - no chance to take anything back. Also, not all properties are equal - you have the same odds of drawing Boardwalk as you do Mediterranean. Or worse, Oriental (I like Oriental in normal Monopoly, but in Monopoly Deal, it requires two other cards to complete the set, and still doesn't get much rent). Also, you may draw $1 Million "Money" cards to play, or you might draw $5 or $10 Million. Obviously, the person who draws better cards will have a major advantage.

The second thing that I think I will list as a con is that I'm not a huge fan of how Rent works. Especially with houses and hotels. To play a house or hotel, you have to have a complete property set - and then it simply increases the rent that can be charged. But, to charge rent, you have to draw the appropriate "Rent" card (each basic Rent card allows you to pick between two color sets and charge all other players Rent. There is also one or two "wild" Rent cards that allow you to charge one player Rent in any color.) Rent seems to require too much setup for too little payoff - especially with the crummier color sets. If I play "It's My Birthday!" then every other player owes me $2 Million. However, if I play Oriental Avenue and then charge Rent on it, I believe each other player owes me $1 Million - for a two card setup! It makes you wonder what's the point in them even including the Rent cards for some of these colors.  Rent just feels a bit too castrated in this game.

The final thing that I will mention is that the instructions are not especially clear. Yes, the game is pretty simple, but when the instructions say something like "just start playing, and it'll make sense" (paraphrased), that's not really a good sign. I still don't know what happens in certain situations in the game - like if I have a house on a property set, and I have to break the set - what happens to the house? Or, if I have a wild property that is worth "no monetary value" and someone charges me more than I can pay, do I have to give them that card? That's like me being so broke that I pay someone all that I own and then give them the lint from my pocket or used candy wrappers and pretend that it increases the value.

Overall, I give Monopoly Deal a 8.0/10. It's a fun, light-weight filler game. And, you can probably pick it up for around $6 at most any big-box store. I would recommend you check it out.

If Monopoly Deal sounds fun, you might also check out Bang!, Hecho, and Jab: Real Time Boxing.

Mice and Mystics Review

Mice and Mystics game in play

One of the hottest games lately has been Mice and Mystics.

In Mice and Mystics, you are a group of mice (that used to be humans) attempting to save your kingdom from an evil overlord that is seducing your father, the King.  Also, the evil overlord controls lots of rats, which is horribly inconvenient.  The game is scenario driven, and in each scenario, the players are working together to accomplish a certain goal - whether that is escaping the castle, defeating the house cat, sending a message via a crow, or something else entirely.  To do this, the players alternate taking turns with their mice.  On each turn, you are allowed to move and take an action.  The different actions include attacking, searching, exploring, and recovering.  As free actions, you are also allowed to level up, equip your mouse, or share equipment with other mice on the same space.  Most of the actions are fairly straightforward.  When attacking, you roll dice and compare the number of hits against the number of blocks - and if there are more hits than blocks, then damage is assigned (and if cheese is rolled, then the side that rolled it gets to collect cheese tokens).  Searching lets you find new items, exploring lets you move to the next tile (or flip the current tile), and recovering allows you to attempt to remove status affects.  Among the mice's turns, the minions that are on the board will also get to take turns; their turns work similarly to the mice turns, but they will almost always attack.  If the mice are able to successfully accomplish their goal before time runs out, then they succeed!  If all of the mice are captured at the same time, or time runs out, then they were stopped without being able to accomplish their mission - thus dooming the kingdom!  (There are various things that "advance the timer," like having mice captured and having the minions collect too much cheese.)

At its core, Mice and Mystics is a very lightweight role playing game.  It includes leveling up, an ongoing campaign, characters that you should embrace, and an overarching story.  In fact, the game comes with both a rulebook and a quest book.  And, that quest book contains 11 different quests.  So, honestly, my first pro for Mice and Mystics is that it is a wonderful choice if you are looking for a way to have a laid back role playing experience that can easily include non-gamers and younger kids (probably as young as 8-12).  I think that the campaign is put together well, and I truly appreciate two specific elements.  First, I like that each scenario doesn't have the same victory condition, and second that there are decisions (side quests) that you have to make during the campaign that will affect what happens later.  And, I especially appreciate that, if you play like I do, then you must make these decisions from an uninformed perspective - which does a good job of representing the vantage point of your characters.  Should I go try to get the cook's attention?  Well, I don't know - do I actually need her attention?  What advantage is there in that?  Well, it seems like a good idea - let's do it!

Mice and Mystics player setup
Equip your characters and help them to level up!
The next pro for Mice and Mystics is the world and the story that you find yourself thrown into.  Suddenly, your father has taken ill, and this evil woman has far too much control over your kingdom.  So, what do you do?  You have the castle mystic turn you all into mice, obviously.  Now, as mice, everything is gargantuan!  In fact, even the rats are larger than you.  Both the setting and the enemies in the game do a good job of helping you invest in this theme.  I also like that, as you experience different things, you get to learn more about the story of what is happening around you.  In fact, there are story segments both before and after each adventure, along with an opening prologue and final epilogue for the quest book itself.  And, for the most part the story is interesting - though there are occasionally lines that make me cringe.  (My least favorite line in the book is, "and to make sure Collin didn't dawdle, Nez said, 'Now don't ya dawdle, boy!'"  I really wish they had someone read through that and realize that the word dawdle sounds awkward when used twice in the same sentence.  A thesaurus would have truly helped this line.)  There are also some minor logic problems, in my opinion, but if I go into detail, I'm concerned that I might spoil part of the story for you.  And, as I said before, the story is one of the best parts of the game!

Yet, though I thought that the campaign was well done, there were some definite cons that I had for Mice and Mystics.  The most immediate con that I had for Mice and Mystics was that I felt like I was constantly running into rule ambiguities.  Now, I will confess - I learned this game from a tutorial video.  However, this video was on Plaid Hat Games' site, and was referenced on the front of the rules ("If you want us to teach you how to play, you can visit...") so I was hoping that watching it would be all I needed in order to start playing the game.  Unfortunately, after watching it, I still didn't feel like I understood the game very well, and even after reading the rulebook and referencing it during the game, we often found ourselves guessing at how certain things worked.  One example is with the "Fishhook and Thread" object.  This object is found in the water on the first scenario.  When moving out of water, the rulebook specifies that you must roll a die, and if you roll a "star", then you successfully move out of the water.  The Fishhook and Thread allows you to connect two spaces on the tile and move between the spaces "as if they were normal adjacent spaces."  Now, does "normal" mean non-water, or does it mean that you are able to move between them as if the spaces in between didn't exist?  Do you roll a die, or not?  This is just one example of a multitude of times that I found myself scratching my head trying to decide what exactly the game intended for me to do.  I'm hoping that in the future the FAQ for the game starts addressing more of these issues, but when I referenced it, it still felt like it was in its infancy stage.

beautiful minis from Mice and Mystics
Epic battles on miniature scales
The next con that I had was that I felt like the actions were too prescribed.  Now, if you recall, there were several different things that a mouse could do on his turn.  That sounds exciting, right?  Unfortunately, in order to actually explore (move to the next tile), your current tile had to be cleared of minions.  Why the mice decide they need to fight every household pest is beyond me (ok, ok, they are "heroic" mice - sure), but I really didn't understand why they weren't willing to ever run away.  Regardless, the net effect of this rule is that most turns amount to charging at opponents and attacking.  You will occasionally search, and you will occasionally explore (well, at least if you hope to advance the game), but when you should do each thing is pretty obvious, and so there's not a lot of strategy behind when to fight and when to do other things.

My final con for Mice and Mystics was that I felt the dice played too much of a factor in determining the outcome of the game.  Now, random elements in games are good - they help each play experience to be different.  This is a great thing!  However, in Mice and Mystics, you roll the dice so often that it feels like the entire game depends on how those rolls land.  Did the minions attack you and get some of your cheese?  Did they also roll a lot of cheese when they were attacking and defending?  Then there's a good chance that you aren't going to have a chance to complete your quest, since time will run out well before you are able to actually advance in the game - after all, you hear a roach scurrying around the corner, and you can't resist engaging in an epic battle of one inch warriors! 

Overall, I give Mice and Mystics a 7.0/10.  I think that the campaign nature of the game is well done, but I found the actual gameplay grew stale for me too quickly, so I will probably move away from the game without bothering to complete the campaign.  However, the story was interesting enough for me to cheat and read it, without taking the time to play the chapters.

If Mice and Mystics sounds interesting, you might also check out Runebound, Talisman, and Flash Point: Fire Rescue.

Elk Fest Review


One of the more unique dexterity games that I've played recently is Elk Fest.

In Elk Fest, each player is trying to help his moose get across the river (the table - and yes, it is called "Elk Fest", and you are using moose; there are certain things in life that you just have to live with, and this is one of them).  In order to move your moose, you must position the "stones" (discs) so that your moose is able to advance across the river without falling in.  Both players do this by taking turns flicking the stones and moving their moose if they can (and want to).  If you knock a moose into the river, or knock a stone out of the river, then your opponent will get to take extra turns.  The first player to successfully move his moose to the opposite platform is the winner!

The first thing that I like about Elk Fest is that it is a precision flicking game.  I love PitchCar and Crokinole, but in both of them, you can generally just flick your disc as hard as you can (obviously not when you're trying to score in the middle in Crokinole).  As long as you aim well in those games, you are generally rewarded for shooting harder.  However, with Elk Fest, you must be incredibly precise.  Since your moose is only about 1-2 inches wide, you do not have much leeway with getting the stones close together.  And, if you get them too close, then your moose isn't advancing very far.  So, again - it's all about precision.

This easily fits in my pocket.
The next pro for Elk Fest is that this is the only dexterity game that I can think of that can very easily be setup and transported.  If you decide not to carry the box (which really isn't even all that big - just a lot bigger than the components), then you're carrying around a game with 10 pieces in a bag.  This fits easily into my pockets.  And, once you arrive at your destination, all you need is a table - place your eight pieces and poof! you're ready to play.

Since this really isn't a complex game and there's not much more to say (I could try to write an entire paragraph out of "it's fun" if you'd like), I'll go ahead and give you the answer to why "Elk Fest" uses moose before I move onto my con.  (The instructions give me this reason, I did not come up with it all on my own.)  It's because games are made in Europe.  And, in Europe, many people speak a different language than I do - specifically, many of them (that play and design board games) speak German.  And, thus, the original name of the game is Elchfest - which, you know, sounds like "Elk Fest."  However, in German, it means "Moose Fest."  So, when playing, if it makes you feel better, you can pretend that you know German, and that you are pronouncing it Elchfest, which logically is a game about moose.

Playing on a Crokinole board is an option
There is only one real con that I can think of for Elk Fest.  Since you play it on any given table, your disks slide differently based on what table you play on - how smooth it's surface is, how much friction there is, and obviously how clean it is.  This is the downside to the ease of setup and transportation - since you don't provide the playing surface, your game may play quite differently based on what playing surface you use.  I'm also not 100% convinced that all of the discs slide exactly the same, either, but that part might just be in my head.  However, if you're like me and have things like a Crokinole board lying around, then you could always just play Elk Fest on that so that you know the surface you're playing on is smooth and even (though there is a hole in the middle to avoid).

Overall, I give Elk Fest an 8.5/10.  I really enjoy this little dexterity game, and I intend to continue playing it - especially when I don't want to carry around a more cumbersome game.

If you like dexterity games, you might also check out Caveman Curling and the games I mentioned previously - PitchCar and Crokinole.

Trollhalla Review


 Haven't you always wanted to be a Troll that gets to "Halla"?  Wait, that's not what this game is about? Trollhalla is about looting and pillaging? But... isn't that when trolls holla?

In Trollhalla, you take on the role of a family of trolls that is attempting to loot the tastiest islands.  You can pillage (eat) cows, billy goats, princesses, monks, and other screaming victims.  On each turn, you will place two of your trolls (but they can't be next to each other since they don't get along).  These trolls can either be in a boat or used as scouts to help the boat decide where to go.  When playing scouts, you get weather cards that give you extra powers.  After placing your trolls, you can use a weather power (if you want to) by discarding two matching weather cards.  Finally, you roll the die to see which boat tries to move.  If the boat is full, and a clear path has been scouted, then it goes and pillages an island.  If not, a captain troll is placed to help the boat move next time.  Play continues in roughly this manner until all of the possible pillaging places have been plundered (the bag runs out of tiles).  At that point, you get points based on the tiles you have pillaged, and any bonuses you may have scored (for things like pillaging the most princesses).

The first thing that I really like about Trollhalla is the billy goats.  The billy goats have a special rule - they don't get along with any of the other loot that is on your boat.  And so, when you collect a billy goat, they kick one of the other tiles off of your boat (except for another billy goat).  And, billy goats are only worth one point each at the end of the game.  However, there are a couple of reasons that you might want billy goats.  First of all, there is a bonus for being the first (or second) person to collect one of each type of plunder.  Second, there is a bonus for each plunder type - you have to have at least three tiles of that type, and then you get the bonus unless another player exceeds the number you have.  The bonus for billy goats is 25 points - which is significantly higher than any other single scoring in the game.  Of course, you might have a fairly empty ship if you have enough billy goats to score that bonus.

Most victims are screaming
The next thing that I like about Trollhalla is that it flows well and doesn't have much down time.  Even against people that traditionally spend a lot of time thinking about their turns.  For most games, the time on the box is often very contingent on the people that you play against - an hour long game can easily take two or three hours if everyone playing is really a thinker.  However, I think that Trollhalla really can be played in about an hour regardless of who is playing - assuming that they know how to play the game (which is pretty easy to teach) and pay attention.  One of the reasons for this is that you really can think about your next move on the previous players turns.  Some things will change, but enough will stay consistent to help you make decisions more quickly.  (And, there's just not that many options in the first place!)

Finally, I liked how the captain trolls worked.  Whenever you roll a die at the end of your turn, you attempt to move the corresponding boat.  If it is not full, then you place a captain in the boat.  If it is full, but there are two or more islands that are equally scouted, then you place a captain as a scout (to break the tie).  If a captain is on a boat that pillages, the captain gets loot.  However, every time that a boat moves, the scouts are sent to a special track, and they will share in the captain's loot.  Once that track is filled, the person with the most trolls on the track will get to take one tile from the captain's loot, and then remove all of their trolls.  Then the player with the second most trolls and so on.  This is a nice little way to get another tile, and can help reward the players for scouting.  Plus, the placement of the captain prevents the game from stalling.

Now that it's full, decide where to go
The main con that I had for Trollhalla was that I felt like the strategy was a bit too prescribed.  (This may be the real reason that it plays fast.)  At least nine times out of ten, if there is an empty spot on a boat, that is where you want to place your troll instead of using him to scout.  This is not always the case (hence I said nine times out of ten), but it is typically better to get to pillage anything than it is to try to decide what you will get to pillage (placing a single scout won't guarantee where the boat goes).  The only reason I can think of to not place on a boat is to avoid a billy goat.  You might also want to try to ensure that you get a certain tile to complete a bonus or two, but even if you do that, you will only want to place one of your two trolls in scouting (since you can't place them in the same place), and so you would still want to place the other one on a boat.  I'm sure that there are people that disagree with me on this and feel like there are more strategies and such, and I welcome them to share them in the comments, because I simply didn't see them.

My other con for Trollhalla is that you lose points at the end of the game for unused weather cards.  I am guessing that this rule is in place to encourage the players to actually bother playing the weather cards (without them, the game could be a bit "dry" - hehe, that was a weather pun; one of the weather cards is a storm... you know, where it's raining and such), because I can't really think of any other reason for this mechanic.  And, it seems odd to me that you would force a player to use bonuses.  (Since I haven't mentioned them before, the weather cards can let you do one of three things: clear all of the scouts from one location, allow the active player to place an extra (third) troll, or flip a boat around so that it is pointing the opposite direction - thus reversing who gets what tiles when pillaging.)  If a player chooses not to use bonuses, shouldn't they be disadvantaged enough without costing them points? 

Overall, I give Trollhalla a 7.5/10.  I can see why people like the game - it is fast, the theme is enjoyable, and there is strategy involved.  However, for me, I felt like the strategy was a bit too prescribed, so I probably won't keep coming back to this title.

If you like quirky themes, then you might also like Road Kill Rally, Micro Mutants Evolution, and Loch Ness.

Saboteur Review


A game that I recently picked up because it supports 3-10 players is Saboteur.  This is a game that I felt like writing about, but I only have a little bit to say - I really need to figure out when I call a review a "Mini" review and when I don't.  Maybe I should call this a "Semi-Mini" review?

Choose your identity
Saboteur is a hidden identity game (like Bang! and The Resistance).  In it, some players take on the roles of Dwarven miners - their goal is to dig a tunnel to reach the gold.  The other players are Saboteurs - they are attempting to prevent their fellow Dwarves from reaching their goal.  To setup the game, there are three potential goal cards - one with gold, two with coal.  These are placed face down with a card's width between them, and a start card is lined up with the middle goal - but with seven card's height between them.  On each turn, you can either play a path card, an action card (a misfortune, an anti-misfortune, a map, or a cave in), or you can simply discard a card.  After you do one of these things, you draw a new card.  Play continues going around until either the miners have created a path to the gold (at which point they all get victory point cards with the person completing the path getting the most - and telling his buddies that it was like that when he found it!), or the Saboteurs have prevented them from being able to do so (at which point they get victory points).  Shuffle, re-deal, repeat.  You play the game over a series of rounds (I believe three rounds is standard), and whoever has the most points at the end wins. 

The first, and most obvious, pro for Saboteur is the reason I bought the game - it can support 3-10 players.  And, though I haven't played it with all of the different numbers, I think that it would play fairly similarly with any number of these players.  Yes, you will have less control and more downtime with more players, but since you are also attempting to figure out who the Saboteurs are (and convince the other players that you aren't one!) I think that you will still be equally engaged throughout even the bigger games.

My biggest con for Saboteur is that your "secret" identity really isn't very secret - at least not for long.    Either you are actively helping the other team, or there is a good chance that they will figure you out.  There are some exceptions for this - like if you actually don't have any good cards you can play, so you start discarding.  Overall, though, it seems like if will be figured out pretty quickly.  This might not be the case as much in a really large game (one person might be able to evade your notice until late in the game), but in order to do that, they would probably be doing something helpful - which hinders their team's goal.

Action cards
The next con that I have is that it seems to be too easy for the miners to win.  This might be me being incredible naive because I haven't played enough, but from the games that I have seen, the dwarves normally win.  And, these games were played with seven players.  Yet, if you play with eight or nine, you still have the same number of Saboteur cards, but you increase the number of miners!  This dilutes the number of Saboteurs, thus making it easier for the miners.  Another factor in this would obviously be the paranoia level of the players - if everyone starts off by assuming that all of the other players are evil, thus throwing misfortune cards on good players, then the "team effort" is doomed for failure.  However, if the (good) players starts off the game assuming that most everyone will either be helpful or at least pretend to be for a few rounds, then you can quickly build a path to the goals (and make the Saboteurs desperate, thus forcing them to reveal themselves). 

Overall, I give Saboteur a 6.5/10.  Everything about it (except for maybe the secrecy of your "secret" identity) works, but nothing about it really pulls me in and makes me want to play again.  If I want to deceive my fellow players, I'd rather play Battlestar Galactica, The Resistance, or Shadows Over Camelot.

Zong Shi Review


An interesting "little" game that I've had the opportunity to play recently is Zong Shi.

In Zong Shi, you are attempting to impress townspeople with how amazing you are.  Generally, you do this by building amazing works, but you can also do it by sucking up to the elders, and running a sweet pawn shop.  Each round consists of players alternating placing their two workers - the Master and the Apprentice.  Basically, the Apprentice can do anything that the Master does aside from working on a project - but he gets less of a reward for doing each action.  The different actions include starting a project, going to the temple to draw "scrolls" (cards), going to the pawn shop to get "Exchange tiles", visiting the marketplace to collect resources, and visiting the town elders to get victory points.  However, if your Master is working on a project, then he will not be able to perform any other actions (so he will pass on his turn).  The game continues with players selecting these actions until one player has completed six projects.  Then, everyone gets one last turn, and the player with the most victory points wins.

The first pro that I have for Zong Shi is that I like the Master/Apprentice mechanic.  There may be other games which give you workers of different skill levels, but I do not remember any that I have played.  I think that it adds an interesting layer of strategy to figure out which of your workers you are going to place each round to try to maximize your Master.  The Apprentice can be useful when you only need to do something small - collect a single resource, visit a single elder, get a single exchange tile.  However, you are always better off sending your Master - or, more specifically, you would be better off if you could place two Masters instead of using an Apprentice.  But, your Master can only be in one place at a time; and that place will often be in your workshop working on one of his projects.  And thus, the player who is able to best utilize both his Master and his Apprentice will probably claim the victory.

Some of the Masters have been playing in paint
The next interesting thing about Zong Shi are the Exchange tiles.  Each work (and elder) requires a certain combination of resources.  For example, the Merchant Statue requires two Gold, one Jade, and one Ivory.  Exchange tiles allow you to substitute materials.  For example, if I had a Gold/Jade Exchange tile, and I wanted to build the Merchant Statue, I could substitute any of the Gold for Jade and vice versa.  So, if I wanted to, I could build the Merchant Statue for three Jade and one Ivory.  This element of the game is neat, and is also useful strategically, as having a lot of Exchange tiles will allow you to focus on getting materials, without having to worry as much about which materials you are collecting.  I'm not really sure how thematically it fits in.  (You get these at the "pawn shop" - is there a dealer that has an infinite supply of each of these, and you bribe him to let you trade?  If he has an infinite supply, why does he care about your bribe?)  But, either way, I like this element of the game.

The final pro that I will mention for Zong Shi is that there are multiple paths to victory.  In the last game that I played, I successfully completed six projects before anyone else had built four, and so I was the one that triggered the end of the game.  However, none of my projects were especially valuable.  Another player had visited all of the town elders, and most of the other players had more Exchange Tiles than I did.  At the end, the player who had visited the town elders and completed a Masterwork project (a big, expensive project) was the winner, even though he had only completed two projects.  So, "multiple paths to victory" may not be the best way of describing Zong Shi, but the player that best capitalizes on his opportunities should be the winner - and how those opportunities present themselves will not always look the same.  (One thing that I will note strategically - as someone who generally loses at this game, I highly recommend building Masterwork projects.  That is the only area of the game where you can repeatedly score eight victory points.)

The first player Buddha looks nice
However, though I enjoyed Zong Shi, there are a couple of cons that I should mention.  First, the Exchange tiles can wind up causing you to spend quite a bit of time calculating, especially if you only have a few of them.  They give you flexibility, but the flexibility causes some processing to occur in your brain.  So, you will spend a decent amount of time looking at what resources you have, what you can turn them into, and trying to match that up with the project you are wanting to begin.  You'll have to do this processing both when starting the project itself, and when planning to try to get the resources or Exchange tiles that you need.  This doesn't necessarily take a long time, but it can occasionally slow the game down.

The other con that I will mention is that some of the cards are simply better than others; and some strategies also seem especially strong.  For example, there is a card that allows your Apprentice to start on a project (instead of your Master).  That is amazing, as it frees your Master up to do all of the other actions for a few rounds (its like having two Masters).  Another card allows you to start on two projects at the same time!  That is also wonderful, because it is like giving your Master several extra turns - and can also help you end the game more quickly, if you are trying to do that.  These cards are drastically better than a random resource from the bag (which is what one of the other cards gives you).  Now, I'm not saying that any of the scrolls are useless - at the right time, any of them can be useful.  But some of them are (in my opinion) far better than others.  And, similarly, allowing one player to complete multiple "Blacksmith Tools" projects (this allows them to complete their projects one turn faster) also seems like it could allow an experienced player to have a significant advantage.  (Though, it does not guarantee victory, as I completed two of these and still lost, due to not using them to build Masterwork projects.)

Overall, I give Zong Shi an 8.5/10.  I enjoyed the game, and I think that it added some nice new elements to the "worker placement" genre.

If Zong Shi sounds interesting, then you might also check out Kingdom of Solomon, Le Havre, and Caylus.

I would like to thank Gryphon Games for providing me with a review copy of Zong Shi.

Star Wars: The Card Game Review

Star Wars Card Game by Fantasy Flight

A game that I've been literally wanting to try for over a year is Star Wars: The (Living) Card Game.

In Star Wars: The Card Game, one player takes on a Rebel faction (there are pre-constructed decks for Jedi and Rebel Alliance) and attempts to thwart the objectives of their opposing Imperial faction (decks for the Imperial Navy and Sith).  Each turn starts with the "Balance" phase - on the Imperial turn, the Death Star track will go up by one or two points, depending on which side is controlling the Force, and on the Rebel turn, they can damage an Imperial objective if they control the Force.  (The game is played on a countdown, with the Rebels attempting to destroy three Imperial objectives before the Death Star track reaches 12.) After this, the active player refreshes their cards by removing one focus icon from each card.  Then, they draw back up to their hand limit (after optionally discarding a card).  Next, forces are brought into play.  Finally, we get to fight!  The active player can choose any number of their "ready" characters (any that don't have a focus token on them), and attack their opponent's objective.  The defending player can choose to defend the objective with their own ready characters, and if so, an "edge battle" occurs.  In the edge battle, players play cards back and forth face down until both pass - and then whoever has played the most "Force icons" wins the battle.  The player who wins the edge battle gets to use extra icons (some icons on characters are only valid if you win the edge battle), and players alternate taking turns assigning damage, starting with the player that won the edge battle.  Finally, after all of the conflict is resolved, the active player has the option of assigning characters to the Force.  After assigning (or choosing not to assign) characters to the Force, whoever has the most Force icons assigned to the Force flips the Force icon to their side.  Play continues like this until either the Death Star dial has reached 12 or the Rebels have destroyed three Imperial objectives.

Star Wars Luke and Yoda cards
They also created custom artwork instead of movie images
So, the crux of the game is definitely the conflict - after all, this is Star Wars.  And, my first pro is that I really like the conflict system.  Specifically, I like the amount of strategy that goes into any given battle.  Instead of the game simply being "I have bigger and stronger guys, so I'm going to obliterate you" (though this happens sometimes), attackers and defenders generally start off at least relatively evenly matched.  However, once you start the battle, there are important decisions to be made.  First, you fight an edge battle.  When doing this, how much force do you want to commit?  Do you want to use one of the incredibly strong characters (like Obi-Wan) from your hand to help win the battle?  There are also "Fate" cards that can be played in the battle that provide effects when they are revealed.  One of these cards cancels the edge battle, discarding all the played cards, and starts a new one - so you must be careful not to over-commit.  But, once the edge battle is resolved, there are still relevant decisions - like who attacks first, and who do they attack.  Often characters are going to die in the fight - so, do you commit them first to ensure that they are going to get to strike, or do you swing first with your better characters to try to kill off some of your opponents before they can attack?  Do you attack their strong characters or the characters you know you can kill?  These decisions will drastically alter the outcome of the game.

The next thing that I like about Star Wars is how some of the resource generation works.  Some cards allow you to generate several resources, but you must put a focus icon on the card per resource.  However, each card only has a single focus token removed in the refresh step of your turn.  So, if you choose to generate a lot of resources from a single objective, then it will take you a few turns before you can use resources from that objective again.  Basically, there is a "cool down" period.  (This cool down period applies to characters as well.)  I like this concept, and I think that it causes there to be more important decisions.

Star Wars battle of cards
A Force struggle - the Jedis are winning!
Another thing that I find interesting about Star Wars: The Card Game is how deck building works.  Now, admittedly, I haven't done a lot of deck building (the Core set doesn't provide you with a lot of versatility in this area).  However, the deck building is driven by objectives.  Instead of creating a deck card by card, you create a deck based on objective sets.  In order to use any given card in a deck, you must include the entire objective set - which consists of an objective and it's corresponding five cards.  And so, instead of deciding on 50 different individual cards to put in your deck (or more), you have to choose 10 objectives to use.  I think that this will help in keeping the game balanced as more sets come out (though we will see), because as powerful cards get introduced, they may or may not have other strong cards in their objective set.  So, if you want to add an extra copy of Darth Vader, you may be adding several weaker cards along with it.

The last pro (that I will mention) for Star Wars is that I like that your units can serve different purposes.  We have already discussed how edge battles work - and so, one use for a unit is to discard them in an edge battle.  Some of your characters, like Mon Mothma and Grand Moff Tarkin, can also be used to generate resources.  Obviously, you can also use your characters in battle.  Finally, you can commit your characters to the Force, which is a critical element of the game.  (By the way, I also like how committing characters to the Force works, and adds another element to the game that players must balance.)  So, with each individual card, you must decide which way to use it - and, if you are able to use your cards to counter what your opponent is planning, you will probably win the game!

R2-D2 card from Star Wars card game
Obligatory picture of R2-D2
With all that I love about this game, there are a couple of things that I'm a bit hesitant about.  First, the resources can sometimes get frustrating.  There are some cards in each deck that allow you to generate extra resources, but there is no way to carry them over from one turn to the next.  Granted, many card games of this nature don't allow you to carry resources over, but Star Wars seems to have struck an odd balance where I either didn't have nearly enough resources (you have a minimum of four that you can generate) or I had far too many - all dependent on whether I drew the cards that help with resource generation.  Hopefully, spending some time in deck construction will help with balance out some of this.

The next con that I have for Star Wars is really pretty trivial, and is common to many games of this nature - some cards seem a bit too powerful.  Now, as I've already mentioned, there is at least some balancing of this by the objective sets - having powerful cards in your deck also means that you're going to put some weaker cards in your deck.  But, if you draw the powerful cards, you have a major advantage.  And some cards, like Force Lightning, seem ridiculous.  Force Lightning lets you kill an exhausted character.  Just, *poof*, they're gone.  Doesn't matter if its Yoda, Obi-Wan, or some grunt.  There are a couple of cards that I've seen that allow you to cancel an opponent's event, but if you don't have one, then you just die.  Similarly, if the Rebel player draws Luke and Obi-Wan early, and his opponent doesn't draw anything that is able to easily deal with them, then the Light side might run away with the game.  I know that most card games have some luck of the draw elements to them, but for whatever reason, I noticed it more in Star Wars.

Overall, I give Star Wars: The Card Game a 9.0/10.  I really enjoyed this game a lot, and I'm looking forward to giving it more plays to see how well it stands up over time.

If Star Wars: The Card Game sounds interesting, then you might also check out the Star Wars Customizable Card Game, Lord of the Rings: The Card Game, and Game of Thrones: The Card Game.

Priests of Ra Mini-Review



Now it's time for a quick rundown of Priests of Ra.

Let me start off by telling you that Priests of Ra is a remake of Ra.  I have already reviewed Ra, so I'm going to assume that you're familiar with that game.  (If not, go check it out - Ra is an awesome game!)  This review will mainly highlight the differences.

Building the pyramid is a different scoring mechanic
Priests of Ra is an auction game like Ra, and all of the bidding, sun tiles, and Ra tiles work in exactly the same way.  The difference is what pieces you are bidding on.  In Priests of Ra, you are bidding on buildings, workers, pyramids, priests, and plagues.  Each of the buildings and workers are double sided, with different images (and colors) on each side.  When a player pulls a tile out of the bag, he gets to select which side is showing.  However, when a player buys a priest, he has the option of flipping over one of his pieces - whether one that he just bought, or one that he already owned.  For scoring, workers score at the end of each epoch, and you get points for having the most workers of a certain color, and another bonus for having at least three types of workers (this bonus is an "ankh" and scores after the third epoch); then they are discarded.  With buildings, you score points for every "complete" building (a pair of buildings of the same color), with a bonus if you have three or more types of "complete" buildings; you keep buildings from one epoch to the next.  Priests are worth two points each, and are then discarded.  Pyramid pieces only score at the end of the third epoch, and are worth points based on how tall your step pyramid is.  Plagues are scored after each epoch, and you lose points based on how many you have, with the penalty per plague growing as your number of plagues grows.  At the end of the third epoch, whoever has the most points wins.

So, yes, Priests of Ra is basically the same game as Ra, but slightly different.  One of the most impactful differences (that I actually like) is that, in Priests of Ra, plagues stay from one epoch to the next.  In Ra, you can get plagues that don't hurt you (if you don't have the tile that is being plagued), but in Priests of Ra, plagues always hurt you, and if you collect too many of them, can hurt you really, really badly.  Yet, they aren't so bad that a single plague is really all that damaging - after all, if you can buy a large collection of tiles inexpensively because there is a plague, that might be worth doing.  However, just because one plague doesn't hurt you doesn't mean that you should not be careful.  If you get enough plagues, you can lose 20 points - after each epoch!

It even has the same Ra piece
The next thing to mention about Priests of Ra is the tile flipping.  Instead of the "god" tiles in Ra (that let you steal a tile from the currently available tiles, Priests of Ra has priests.  Priests aren't as strong as gods, since you can't take what you need from the center, but they are still quite helpful since they can both flip tiles and get rid of plagues (if you have three priests during an epoch scoring, you can discard a plague tile - this is the only way to get rid of plagues).  Like gods, priests can be useful or useless based on when they come up, and what tiles come with them.  In Ra, a god tile is worthless (ok, it's action is worthless, the tile is worth 2 points) if you purchase it with your last sun - you are out of the round, so you can't steal any tiles.  However, in Priests of Ra, priests that are purchased with your first sun tile are also fairly useless, since you really won't care which side most of your tiles are facing at that point.  They can at least still be used to cancel a plague later.  Again, not really better or worse than Ra - just different.

That's really about all I have to say about Priests of Ra - if you feel like my review should be longer, go read the Ra review again, and pretend that everything I'm saying there is about this game.  Then you should feel better!

Overall, I give Priests of Ra a 9.0/10.  It's a good game, and I actually enjoy it quite a bit - however, I'm dropping it a bit from Ra, simply because it's not innovative.  It's a remake.  And, whereas that is not a bad thing, I don't feel the need to own both games, so I will probably be parting with this one.