Wings of War (Dawn of War) Review

For today's review, I will be talking about Wings of War. The version I played was Dawn of War, but I believe that the review should be appropriate for the whole system. As a note before getting started I should mention a couple things about the picture 1) Wings of War did not make an exciting picture and 2) I never claimed to be a good photographer... sorry about that. (Of course, I never claimed to be a good writer, either...)

In Wings of War, each player controls several airplanes and attempts to maneuver them in order to be able to shoot down the other player's planes in a dogfight (or potentially trying to bomb things depending on the scenario). In order to move the planes, the players select both a maneuver card to execute and a speed at which to execute it; the interesting thing is that the players must decide on the next move that will be executed before the previous move actually occurs (essentially, you're always thinking two steps ahead). After this, the front movement card is played and the movements occur. From here, each player determines if his planes are in range and have a clear shot at any of the opposing planes - if so, the opposing planes take damage related to the distance between the two planes and the type of plane that is firing. Turns continue like this until one player has successfully shot down all of the opposing aircraft.

The first pro of Wings of War is how the movement system works. Each of your movement cards has a line and one (or two) different colored arrows on it. When moving, you align the movement card with the front of your plane and then you lift your plane and align the arrow on the plane with the correct arrow on the movement card (based on how fast you were going). This is a really neat system and works pretty well in execution. The only down-side that I found to it was that, since the game was new and the cards were slick, the planes would slide and thus wouldn't be in the exact position that they were supposed to be.

The next pro is the historical nature of the games. Each of the games in the series is based on actual fighters from World War I and World War II (depending on which game you have). I'm definitely not an expert in history, but I enjoyed getting to look at the different planes from these eras and I also enjoyed that, depending on which plane was used, the planes had different movement cards (in order to more historically depict the actual movement of those planes).

To go along with the historical nature of the game, the last pro was the number of scenarios that were available. Between bombing runs and different kinds of dogfights, I think that the people who enjoy this game will be able to have a large amount of replayability because of the scenarios that are included.

However, there was one serious con to me about Wings of War. This con was that we wound up circling each others' planes much more than actually shooting at each other. There are several reasons for this; obviously one reason is that we weren't good at the game - I'm sure if we played it more we would get better at maneuvering our aircraft. The next problem is related to the historical realism in the game; airplanes (unfortunately) can't make turn at a right angle. This means that you have two options to turn around: play a sharp turn for about 5 turns in a row, or play an Immelmann turn (where you flip your plane around 180 degrees). Either way, if you miss your shot at your opponent, you will probably spend the next several turns getting yourself back into position. Whereas some people may find this enjoyable, I was not one of them.

The more I think about the cons of this game, the more focused I become on the one above (the only others I can think of are that 1) the cards get bumped as mentioned above and 2) sometimes it is hard to remember which movement cards go with which plane). There were no real significant flaws to the game other than this. If you enjoy strategically positioning yourself and attempting to outwit your opponents maneuvers, and are willing to have large amounts of time where you are flying past each other, than this con should even be ignored. However, whereas I really enjoyed the game when we started, by the end of the fight I was fairly bored since we spent a significantly larger portion of our time trying to reposition ourselves so that our planes were near each other than we did actually get shots fired. (And most of our shots were directly facing each other as neither of us was very successful at getting a shot in from the side or behind the other person's plane.)

Overall, I give Wings of War a 6.5/10. I feel somewhat bad about giving it such a low score when I can really only name one con, but the con was essentially the crux of the game.  As a final note, I would like to re-point out that this is what I thought of the game; with the giant bias that the primary concept of the game (positioning your plane to get a good shot off) didn't hold my interest.

Dixit Review

Dixit game in play

A game that I recently played strictly based on the online reviews I had read was Dixit (honestly, when I looked at the game at the store, I thought it looked stupid; but I bought it anyway). In full disclosure, party games are not really my favorite genre. They can be fun occasionally, or in the right setting, but for the most part, I'd rather play a strategy game. However, when I went to visit some friends, Dixit seemed much more appropriate than a 2-3 hour mental workout game.

In Dixit, players each have 6 cards with weird pictures in their hand. They take turns being the "storyteller", who selects one of his cards and makes up a sentence about it - it can be a one word sentence, can be sung, or whatever else you can think of. Often we would have sentences like "All dressed up with nowhere to go", or "I'm thinking of fish for dinner", or "Lucky devil". After the storyteller states his sentence, everyone else picks one of their cards that they think matches the same sentence and throw it in the middle. The cards are shuffled up and flipped over and then everyone (but the storyteller) uses their numbered pieces to secretly vote on which picture belonged to the storyteller. From here, points are awarded based on who voted for what, and the storyteller gets points if some (but not all) of the other players got the picture correct. The game goes on like this until the entire pile of cards has been used, at which time the player with the most points wins.

Dixit card over the rainbow
Over the rainbow?
Here's what sets apart Dixit from any other party game that I can remember playing: the storyteller's goal is to get some of the people to guess correctly. If he is so ambiguous that nobody can figure out his card, he gets no points and all the other players do; if he is so direct that everybody is able to get it correct, then, again, he gets nothing but all the other players score. Therefore, it is very fun and interesting to try to think of something just ambiguous enough to trick some people (and then hope that other players throw down other good cards that go well with the story that was used). This mechanic works really well, and is really the heart of Dixit.

The next pro to Dixit is the ambiguity of the images themselves. The images are really just random fantasy pictures about nothing in particular. There are images of toys, cats, paintings, feasts, etc, but none of them are really about anything. On just about any of them you could say to yourself, "I have no idea what is going on there", and that's really the point. The art was very wonderfully created about... nothing. I can just imagine the designer of this game talking to the artist and saying, "Hey, I need you to create about 80 pictures of nothing in particular. Do you have a 5 year old kid around that we can use as a consultant? Maybe you can talk to him about what's going on in his mind and then draw it. Oh, he thinks that the sky is green and that it'd be neat to have raindrops that were filled with animals? Even better!"

Card from Dixit game
I make music?
My final pro for Dixit is really that you don't have to know how people think in the game. Whereas in a game like Apples to Apples, how different people decide which card to pick is really important, in Dixit, you never know because the pictures are all so random. This prevents people from having a big advantage because they have known each other longer, or because they know that someone thinks certain things are funny - instead, it's all about how accurately you can adapt pictures about nothing to a story with no plot.

My only real concern about Dixit is that you go through all of the cards every time that you play the game. Because of this, you are going to be reusing the pictures with each play.  This means that it's up to you as the player to come up with creative new uses for the cards each time. Whereas this is something that will work wonderfully for artistic people, I think this might push the limits for my engineering friends' imaginations. Either way, this is really a neutral point more than a negative, because I think that part of the fun of the game may be in the challenge of seeing the same image over and over and making up new stories for it each time.

Overall, I give Dixit a 9.5/10. This game has jumped to the top of my party game list, as it is something that is creative and fun, but is also something that could be engaging to both extroverts and introverts (no standing up and singing, or acting, or anything like that.... unless you want to).  If you even mildly enjoy party games, I would definitely recommend trying Dixit out.

If you like Dixit, you might also enjoy Say Anything, Fictionaire, and Rory's Story Cubes, or the Board Game Family's Dixit: Odyssey Review.

Spooks Review

Now for a simple review for a simple game: Spooks.

Spooks is a card game in which each player is attempting to get rid of their entire hand. This consists of being able to play something on top of whatever card was played last. If the last card played was a red card, then you had to play a card of the same number or suit. If the card was a blue card, then you played a card that was numerically one number higher. If the card was a green "goblin" card, there are special rules, etc.

The biggest pro of Spooks is that it is appropriate for all ages. If you are looking for a game that you can play with your kids and not have to worry about whether it is too complex, this would be a valid candidate. Also, though Spooks is about "monsters", the art is cartoonish enough that it would not be scary for children.

The next pro for Spooks is that it is a very quick game that is easy to carry. (Yes, you can read this as "Spooks is a filler game.") It shouldn't take more than about 10 minutes to play, and so it can easily be played while sitting around at an airport, coffee shop, or waiting on friends to arrive at a local board game store.

There are, however, two major cons for Spooks. First, the instructions (though very short) seemed to be poorly laid out and confusing. It was difficult upon first looking at them to figure out what was actually part of the basic game and what was related to a game variant.

The next con for Spooks is it has the depth level of the card game War. (The people I played with disagreed with me on this - they claimed that it was closer to Old Maid or something in that vein.) Either way, this is not on my top list of games to play, as I'm not sure that it would entertain me more at an airport than staring out the window would.

Overall, I give Spooks a 5.0/10. It is the epitome of that grade for me - the game is fully functional, but I am not really interested in playing it again because I did not think it was fun.

Through the Ages Review

A game that I made a point to play because of all of the great things I had heard was Through the Ages.

In Through the Ages, each player represents a civilization that is attempting to gain the most culture (victory) points. Since you each represent a civilization, you each have a government; which then determines how many civil and military actions you have each round. Each turn starts with the oldest cards from the "card row" (available developments, essentially) being cleared off, the cards being shifted down, and then the card row being refilled. From here, the active player has the option of playing a Political Action (attack an opponent, setup a global event for later, etc), and then they are able to take their normal actions. The actions available can include taking card(s) from the card row, building or upgrading buildings, training military units, discovering new technology (assuming you have enough science), and working on a wonder (among other things). Once the active player has completed all of their actions (that they choose to perform), he cleans up his turn - generate victory points, science, and food, consume food, generate resources, see if you're corrupt, draw military cards. The game continues like this until one of the Ages is over (which one depends on if you're playing the basic, advanced, or full game) - at which time a few extra things score points. Finally, whoever has the most points wins.

My first pro about Through the Ages is how well the game "flows." Once you understand the basics, the game mechanics are not very complicated. Each turn, you follow the same steps (though with many options because of the cards) - the question boils down to who is able to most efficiently use their actions. While most civilization based games can be very intimidating - between how the mechanics work, the setup time, and how the actual components are designed - Through the Ages is pretty easy to follow.

The next pro that I have for Through the Ages is that it is a "light" civilization game yet still has depth. I often hear Through the Ages described as a "civ-lite" game. To an extent, that is true - you can play Through the Ages in closer to 2 hours (even in the full game) than 2 days. However, Through the Ages definitely still has the depth to it that people who enjoy empire building games crave - your civilization can go to war, make raids, have leaders, build wonders, and discover technologies. Whoever is able to best capitalize on all of these elements will be victorious.

The third thing that I like about Through the Ages is how the "card row" works. This is really the mechanic that the entire game hinges on. Each turn, there are several cards that are available to the active player (I think it is 13, but I'm not sure). The cards that have been available the longest cost the least number of actions to put in your hand, whereas the new ones cost the most. At the start of each player's turn, a certain number of cards are removed from the front of the row; therefore you can wait to purchase a card so that it will become cheaper. But, if you wait, you risk one of your opponents taking the card. And if you wait too long, the card will go away of its own volition! This really does a good job of depicting the concepts of seizing opportunities, missed chances, and opportunity cost. Also, because the cards from the front of the line are discarded each turn, it really keeps up the pace of the game.

The final thing (that I will mention) that I liked about Through the Ages was how you kept track of everything. There are several different elements to the game - victory points earned each round, military strength, current amount of science, science earned each round, happiness, etc. The components for Through the Ages were brilliantly designed to allow you to easily see all of this at a (few) glance(s). This is another area that helps keep the pace of the game up without getting you as bogged down in the details. Specifically, you have a track not only to keep track of VP and science, but also to keep track of how much VP and science you gain each round - this way you don't have to re-add them up each turn. Whereas, this is by no means a game mechanic, it is definitely a wonderful aspect to the game that any other developers of empire building games need to shamelessly steal (quick, Eagle Games, go get it patented somehow)!

Ok, so I lied.  Here are a few more pros (with little to no explanation).  I liked:
  • Multiple paths to victory
  • How the Current/Future Events worked
  • How the Aggression/Military worked - important but not too overpowering
  • How building a Wonder worked
Unfortunately, there is still a con for Through the Ages that I have to mention. And that is, this game is "fiddly." Though the maintenance of this game works much better than most empire building games, there are still lots of things to adjust throughout the game (and on each turn) - and if you fail to adjust them, you might not notice for several turns. Not noticing that you should have been gaining one extra science per round can cost you a lot of valuable points. Again, this works better than in most empire builders, but it still is a nuisance to keep track of all of your civilization's different statistics, spent actions, and available resources.

Overall, I give Through the Ages a 9.5/10 (I only really debated between 9.0-9.5). It is by far my favorite empire building game. Unfortunately, since it still can take approximately 2 hours to play and is very intimidating looking to new players, it probably won't get as much playtime as it rightly deserves.

Through the Ages on Noble Knight Games (about $49.50)
Through the Ages on Funagain Games (about $49)
Through the Ages on Amazon (about $47)

51st State Review

51st State during play

One of the newest titles to come out that looked fascinating was 51st State. When my Friendly Local Game Store had an open copy for me try, I jumped at the opportunity.

In 51st State, each player takes on a certain faction trying to survive in a post-apocalyptic world. Every turn, the players will start by adding new cards to their hand (this is done by drafting the first 2 cards, and drawing the 3rd from the deck). Next, they will take turns placing cards and/or performing actions; when placing cards, they can either play them as red cards (one time use), blue cards (occur every turn), or as white cards (worth a victory point and a bonus, but might be usable by other players). At the end of the round, players each total their current number of victory points - and once a player has 30 points, the game is over with the player having the most points winning.

The first really neat aspect to the game (which is also the most innovative and truly the heart of the game itself) is the different ways that a card can be played. This is especially awesome because the different factions have different strengths and weaknesses. Specifically, each faction will start the game being able to play cards one way more easily than the others. Therefore, which faction you have affects how you play the game (another plus,but I won't get into that one). As stated in the intro, each card can be played 3 different ways. If a card is played as "red", then this means at the start of any turn you have the option of discarding that card and gaining the benefit that it shows. If it is played as "blue", it will be much less powerful, but it will give it's owner a benefit at the start of every turn. Finally, a card can be played as "white", which both scores a victory point, and also serves a variety of functions; it can give the player more resources, it may or may not be usable by opponents, it may generate victory points automatically, it may score victory points when it is triggered, or it may do something else. Overall, the different aspects of the card gives each player a lot of choices during the game.  As I said to start, this is the heart of the game, and it's heart is golden.

The next pro is the draft mechanic of the game. I like the fact that players have the ability to influence what cards they acquire (as well as what cards their opponents do or do not gain). The draft is not a huge aspect of the game, but it is especially important because of the difference in factions. For example, one of the factions is best at playing white cards to start off, but they can only play smaller white cards - the draft allows that player to gain cards that he can play instead of cards that he won't be able to play until later.

The final pro that I will mention about the game is that you are able to build on your previous actions/turns. Now, I realize that a normal concern with this type of mechanic is when the player in the lead is able to run away with the game. In 51st State, the game is short enough that this isn't really a major concern (normally around 6-8 turns). With that said, I really enjoy the fact that what I chose to play in an earlier turn greatly affects what I can play in later turns. For example, several of the cards, when played as "blue", generate victory points every turn. This is very nice, because it helps you win the game. However, if all I have played are victory point "blue" cards, I will have significantly less options than if I played resource "blue" cards. This really allows players to develop strategies throughout the game and decide how they want their upcoming turns to play out.

Though I really enjoyed 51st State, I would be remiss if I didn't mention some cons. First, 51st State definitely lends itself to "Analysis Paralysis" (thinking through so many decisions that you never bother to play). Since each card has three different ways that it can be played, and you can play off of many cards owned by both you and your opponent, there will be a large number of options during each action phase. This number of options can cause players who are normally fast to have noticeable pauses when determining the next action; I would hate to play this game with the people from my gaming group that are over-thinkers to start with.

The next con for 51st State is that I would absolutely hate to teach it to new players (which is unfortunate, since I am often the one teaching new games). Not only are there the different ways of playing cards, but there are also a ton of symbols on every card and many rules that just have to be remembered (a victory point building can only generate points three times; to replace a leader you must play a new leader and a gun resource; a leader can only have five victory points on him, etc). Essentially, the first game of 51st State, even more than most games, must be viewed as a "learning game". Actually, your first several games may be like this (I don't think we got everything right until my 4th game, and I'm still not certain).  This is a game that would really frustrate gamers that insist on understanding all of the rules going into the first game - that's just not going to happen.

Overall, I give 51st State an 8.5/10. I really enjoyed the game, considering it on par with Race for the Galaxy when it comes to gameplay (and thus I almost gave it a 9.0). Unfortunately, the difficulty in teaching 51st State keeps it (barely) out of my upper echelon of games. If you're willing to persevere through learning it, the game will be well worth your time - I look forward to playing it more!

If you like sci-fi games, you might also want to read about Glory to Rome, Cosmic Encounter, Battlestar Galactica, and Stargate SG-1 (so you know why you should never play it).

Wits and Wagers Review

Another game that I found interesting enough to finagle (ahem, "acquire") a copy of was Wits And Wagers.

Wits and Wagers is a "trivia" game. More specifically, it is a party game that happens to use trivia as it's subject matter.  Each game consists of seven questions (there are 700 included in the game). In each question (which all have numerical answers), one person reads the question and then all of the players write down their best guess as to the correct answer (such as how many feet across is the Golden Gate bridge, or how many times could you fit the area of Rhode Island inside of Alaska). All the answers are revealed, and then the players place their wagers on the answer(s) that they think are closest without going over (the players get to wager twice per round at no risk, but can also risk any chips they had previously earned to increase their potential winnings). Whoever bet correctly gets the appropriate payout (anywhere from 2:1 to 6:1), and the person who provided that answer gets a bonus of 3 chips. At the end of the seventh question, whoever has the most chips is the winner.

The first pro to Wits and Wagers is that they have found questions that (most likely) nobody will actually know the answer to. If you, like me, have grown horribly sick of trivia games because you have played Trivial Pursuit far too often with people that can recall anything that they have ever read, then you can really appreciate this pro. This is a game that I can play with my brother (the person I was referring to in the previous sentence), and actually stand a fighting chance. After all, it turns out that he has no idea how old the oldest cat ever was.  He doesn't even know what percent of the United States' land mass is contained in Alaska.  And neither do I.

The second pro is the "wagers" part of wits and wagers (because I just covered the "wits" part, of course). The wagering in the game is first of all very fun. Secondly, I really appreciated that you can't get eliminated in the game. If, like me, you have tons of casinos near you, then you realize that in gambling you are eliminated pretty quickly. Fortunately, in Wits and Wagers, there are two cardboard chips representing your color - you can wager these every round without risking any potential loss, even if you have lost all of your other chips. This keeps everyone engaged in the game, because nobody is going to be sitting out for fear of getting something wrong. If you simply bid your cardboard chips, then worst case scenario is you are wrong and lose nothing.

Now that I've covered the "wits" and the "wagers", it's time to cover the cons. My first con in the game is that it feels a bit too short. Seven questions doesn't really seem like enough to me. However, extending the game would normally just result in the players who were winning gaining even more bonus chips since the game really stacks success on success (unless you bet it all on a wrong answer). However, whenever I have played the game, we have fixed this problem by playing about 3-5 games of it in a row.

The next con that I have for the game is that it seems to really be geared for 4-6 players. Yes, the box claims that you can play with up to 20 players, but with more than a certain number you have to start playing with teams - and I don't think that teams really enhance the experience here. Because of this, I can see Wits and Wagers being played at smaller parties, or parties where people really enjoy trivia, but I think that party games that focus on teams would work better with 10 or more people (such as Cranium and Taboo).

Overall, I give Wits and Wagers an 8.5/10. I will probably not get together to play this with people (hence the not quite 9.0 score), but I do anticipate that I will continue playing it and enjoying it. It is in my top 5 party games right now, and is probably my favorite trivia game of all time (which doesn't say much). If you're burned out on trivia games, but your friends really enjoy them, you definitely need to invest in a copy of Wits and Wagers! (Or for that matter, if you like party games but your party is in the 4-6 range, you should also check this one out.)

I would like to thank North Star Games for providing me with a demo copy of Wits & Wagers to review.

Cookie Fu Review

Today's game I first heard about when Dice Hate Me interviewed it's creator Brian Kowalski. After this, one of my friends mentioned that she had seen it at GenCon, and so I investigated it further. Ladies and gentlemen.... Cookie Fu!!!!

In Cookie Fu, each player creates their young fighter and can mold them by selecting different special moves for them to perform and different dice to use throughout the duel. After the setup, players roll their dice each round to determine initiative (there is a special die for this). After initiative has been determined, players roll all of their remaining die (and I can tell you from experience, the more dice you use the more fun the game is). The result of the die rolls determine what each player can do each turn. They now alternate attacking (and defending) each turn with basic puches, kicks, and super-amazing ridiculously-powerful cookie-shattering Chi moves (this is my favorite part and the main reason the game is better with more dice). The game continues in this way until one of the players is knocked out - at which time the winner should gloat and laugh at the poor crushed victim who apparently needs to practice his Cookie Fu more (though I would encourage the trash talking to occur throughout the game and not just at the end).

So, Cookie Fu is a fun little pointless game... wait... I just called a game "fun" and "pointless" in the same sentence. I guess I should re-evaluate what I play games for; I think it actually is for fun! Therefore, Cookie Fu's first pro is that it is really fun. And, like I said earlier, the more dice you have, the more fun it can be. With 5-6 dice per person (we were splitting a single player pack), the game isn't really much fun. With 12-13 dice per person, where you are able to get enough Chi to do crazy over the top moves, the game is a huge blast!

The next pro for Cookie Fu is theme. Now, I personally don't really care anything about theme in games; if a game has a theme, great, but if it does not I'm fine with that, too (I'm just as happy playing Battlestar Galacticaas I am playing Yinsh). But, if the theme is awesomely implemented, it can be wonderful! The theme for Cookie Fu is "bad Chinese take-out spoof" (I at least hope that's the theme - otherwise, I suppose me writing that could be fairly offensive). The game comes in a Chinese takeout box, the special moves come in fortune cookies (yes, they are edible), and all of the special moves are essentially jokes about Chinese food stereotypes. There have been a lot of collectible-style fighting-ish dice games to come out, but what really sets Cookie Fu apart is the hilarity of it's theme.

Now for a quick discourse between pros and cons. How do we really determine how good a game is? Is it based on number of plays, hours of play, strategic depth, or something else entirely? I would say that one of my preferred ways of measuring this is in number of plays. Now, I realize that this will greatly favor short games, as it is much easier to find table time for them, but I accept that limitation. With that said, I can see Cookie Fu getting continued table time for several years to come since it is a very light, fast, and more importantly, fun game. I'm still not going to rank it in my top 5 games of all time or anything like that, but I can see it occasionally being in the top 5 games that I play in any given 3-month period.
Now for the cons of Cookie Fu. First, I'm not really a fan of "collectible" games. Fortunately, Cookie Fu isn't collectible in the "I need to own them all or my life is incomplete" sense (like Magic). However it is collectible in the sense that different dice are made differently and so you can customize your characters before fighting and such - but to do this, you must have enough different dice that you have these options (read "buy more dice"). Instead of customizing our characters, what we honestly found to be the most fun was to simply use all of our dice each game; maybe once we have played it more (and/or bought more dice) we will pull some of them out and focus more on the customizing aspect. The saving part of the collectible aspect of this particular game is that you can get enough to play a solid game with the 2-player with a "Battle Royal Pack". From there, if you buy a few booster packs, you should have enough dice to play a really fun game of "the 'Fu".

The other "con" (nah, we'll call this a neutral point of note) is that the game is not very deep (you know, in case you missed that earlier). Fortunately, there is at least some strategy in determining when to attack, and moreover in how to use your multi-use dice; should grabs be used on offense, or on defense? Should you use Chi dice separately or save them up for a cool move (or even use them to heal)? But if you don't have enough dice in the game, then the cool Chi moves won't be much of an option and so it can feel like just alternating punches back and forth.

Finally, this game isn't for everyone. I think that there will be tons of people that can find great joy in playing Cookie Fu. And I would enjoy playing with them as well. However, if I brought this out to try to play with some of my more strategy-focused gaming friends, they will give me the "what's wrong with you" blank stare. Oh well - to each his own.

Overall, I give Cookie Fu an 8.5/10. This is on the extreme high side of what I debated in my mind (and possibly influenced by the fact that I think I give out too many 8.0's), but ultimately, I think that Cookie Fu completely fulfilled everything that it was trying to do. It was not made to challenge Puerto Rico as one of the most strategic games of all time - it was closer to trying to challenge Fluxx as one of the most fun, quick, and lightweight games. And I think that it did an exceptional job.

Final point of note: have you not checked out Dice Hate Me yet? You really should - Chris does lots of really cool interviews; and now he even has his own podcast!

Point of note after the final point of note: Have you subscribed to my site yet?  You really should - I'm on Facebook, Twitter, and even offer a full-text RSS feed for your favorite Reader.

I would like to thank Blue Kabuto for providing me with a copy of Cookie Fu to review.

Through the Desert Review

Through the Desert mid play

The latest camel-based spatial reasoning game that I had the chance to play was Through the Desert.

In Through the Desert, each player leads several caravans in an effort to get their camels to oases, watering holes, and to claim sections of the desert for themselves. The game is played on a hex-based board, and starts by the players taking turns placing their caravan leaders - one in each of the five camel colors. After this, on each player's turn he is able to place two new camels. If he joins his caravan to an oasis he gains 5 points, if he builds on a watering hole he gains 1-3 points, and if he encloses an area he gains all of the previously unclaimed watering holes and oases in that region (plus a point per hex at the end of the game). Once one color of camels has run out, the game is over. At this point whoever has the largest caravan of each color gets an additional 10 points and whoever has the most points wins.

Now to try to write pros and cons for another spatial reasoning game without making it sound exactly like all of the other ones that I've played... The first thing that I like about Through the Desert is the enclosing of hexes. This is definitely the part of the game where players can make the most points, and so it forces the other players to be careful and not concede too large of an area. This mechanic seems to work very well and without it the game would not be worth playing (as it would just be a race to see who could get to certain points the fastest).

The next thing that I like about Through the Desert is that the starting placement of your leaders is not prescribed. If your caravans started from the same place every game, the gameplay would wind up being very similar from one game to the next. However, one of the key strategies of the game is related to where you place your initial leaders - should you place them where you can easily connect to an oasis and perhaps some watering holes, or should you place them where they are more likely to enclose hexes but have a higher risk of not scoring.  Also, should you place your leader where you can block another player, or should you place your leader farther away from everyone else to try to claim a section of the board for yourself.

As an aside before getting to the cons - the camels all look like candy to me. I think it might be the size of them and the fact that they are pastel. This doesn't really add to or detract from the game, but I thought it was worth noting, because every time I play, I have to quickly remind myself not to eat the pieces (ok, maybe its not quite that bad, but still - worth mentioning).

Now for another aspect that I haven't decided whether I think it is a pro or con. The game plays drastically differently depending on the number of players. I have played it with both 2 and 4 players, and the game's official range is 2-5. With two players, it is pretty easy to claim large sections of the board as each of you will be paying attention to your own areas. With four players the board is pretty crowded, and so it is very challenging to get very many points from enclosed hexes, and I would imagine that five player would be even more crowded. I like when games have a different feel and different valid strategies based on number of players (I feel like Puerto Rico does that very well), but I'm not sure with Through the Desert. As I said, I don't think this game would really work very well without the enclosure rules, so I think that the game probably functions best with 3-4 players.

The main con that I have with this game is in the confusion of colors. There are five different colors of camels, and there are (up to) five different colors of riders on top of them. It is very difficult in the game to see what is going on at a glance; you often have to trace a caravan back to the leader to see if it belongs to you or another player. I also found myself often looking around trying to determine where my riders were. This really caused the game to not feel intuitive to me when we were playing it, even though the rules are very simple.

The next con that is worth mentioning (and is based on the previous con) is that this game is atrocious for color blind players. One of the gamers in my gaming group is red-green color blind, and that has been inconvenient in a lot of games that we play, since things are often color coded. Some games, such as Tigris and Euphrates help this by providing symbols wherever possible. I have never seen a game that has caused him as many problems as this one - between all of the camels being similar pastel colors and the riders sitting on top of them not helping either, he often had difficulties telling the camels apart.

Overall, I give Through the Desert an 8.0/10. It is a solid spatial reasoning game that I will keep on my shelf and play from time to time, but it hasn't left me with the feeling that I can't wait to come back and play it more.

If you enjoy spatial reasoning games like Through the Desert, you might also want to check out Gipf, Zertz, Pentago.

Runebound (Second Edition) Review

Runebound Second Edition game being setup to play

Now I have the privilege of reviewing a classic role playing board game: Runebound (Second Edition).

In Runebound, each of the players takes on the role of a sissy little hero. Unfortunately, there are giant evil dragons (or other things depending on if you use expansions) threatening the entire known world. Therefore, you, Mr. Pansy, must bulk up, equip yourself and find friends in order to take these wretched monsters down. To do this, obviously, you will want to practice on wimpy monsters. Fortunately, you know where these guys are hiding, because the map has nice green gems to mark their locations. Ok, ok. Here's how it works: each turn you will get 5 movement dice (4 if someone is fatigued or injured). You roll these dice, and they determine where you are able to move based on what symbols are on the face of each die. Once you have moved, if there is a colored gem at the place where you stopped your movement, then you have an encounter (fight a monster... or have other stuff happen and then fight a monster. There's always monster fighting, though). Once you see this monster, you can either try to flee as fast as you can (I forget the rules of this because I never bother), or you can fight it. When fighting it, each round you choose one trait to attack with: melee, range, or magic, and you must defend in the other two. You continue fighting in this manner until someone is knocked out - if you, then you lose lots of stuff and return to a city; if the monster, then you gain money (for buying more stuff) and experience points. Once you have enough experience points, you can level your hero, thus giving him a stat boost in some area. If you were not wanting to fight a monster on your turn, the other option is going to a city. If you go to a city (end on a city space instead of a space with a gem on it), you can go to that city's market. In the market you can heal your character (and allies), and you can also buy sweet new stuff (like allies and giant weapons and such). Anyway, the game continues like this until someone has bulked themselves up enough that their hero (who is hopefully not a sissy anymore) takes on the High Dragon. And defeats it (if you lose to it, then the game hasn't ended, but you have embarrassed yourself a little bit).

Now that I have completed my length intro, its time for pros and cons. Here's the first pro: replayability. I cannot express how much I appreciate the fact that Runebound has a lot of heroes (12 to be exact). It also has enough item cards that you won't see them all in a single game. This is what sets Runebound apart from a lot of other role playing games like World of Warcraft: The Adventure Game. Whereas in the WoW Adventure Game you only have enough heroes for the number of players (4), in Runebound you have a ton. I realize why WoW is set up this way - to sell the expansions, but Runebound has even more expansions and yet gives you more in the base game.  I like being able to play through a game and still feel like there is more for me to discover; that my next adventure will be different.

Now for the next thing that I like about Runebound: allies. I like the fact that your hero is only able to attack in one trait each given round. This adds to the importance of your allies because each ally can also attack in a trait each round. This means that if you have two allies, then you are able to attack the monster in every trait each round. Without this, you are only able to damage him in one out of every three rolls of the dice, but with allies you can hurt him every time.  Obviously this means that a player that is able to hire two allies will have a distinct advantage over a player that is unable to hire any, but I still like the fact that you can essentially "build your party."

A third positive for Runebound is how the movement works. Whereas I'm yet to play Talisman (its on my "to do" list), I have played some other role playing games like Prophecy and the aforementioned World of Warcraft, and when comparing them, I significantly prefer the movement system of Runebound. I feel like it is fairly intuitive to use, but gives you the freedom to explore the map. A lot of the benefit here comes from the map itself. Whereas so many other games use a simple Monopoly-esque map where you roll a die and can move that many, Runebound is a hex based map where each hex is a different type of terrain. You still have the possibility of not being able to move very fast in Runebound, but most turns you will be able to go at least 2 or 3 hexes based on the dice you rolled - no more getting frustrated about rolling repeated one's on the dice.  Instead Runebound actually represents the difficulty in moving through things like mountains by having the mountain symbol be on less faces of the die than, say, roads.

Another aspect that I liked about Runebound is the leveling system. I have played RPG's where I felt like I was spinning my wheels the whole game, and I've played ones where I felt like I was actually making progress.  Fortunately, Runebound falls into the second category. Since you actually improve your stats each time you level up, you do not feel like you are a wimpy character after a while. In addition, after you level up your hitpoints, you are no longer able to pick on the lowest level of monsters - this helps prevent the stronger heroes from preventing the weaker heroes from getting any kills. The fact that Runebound has a different amount of experience based on the level of each hero is also a nice feature of the game.

With all that said (in case you can't tell yet, I really like this game), there is at least one con in the game: it can get somewhat lengthy. This is especially true if you play with a larger number of players, and so I normally try to keep my games around 1-3 (2 being my ideal). Really, this trait more than any other has kept Runebound from hitting my gaming table more often, though I realize that this won't be something that bothers many gamers.

One final point of note before the score: Runebound has rules for player versus player combat. I did not mention them previously because I have never actually used them. All of the games that I've played have worked out quite nicely without them. I have heard that they can add more length to the game, and I have also heard rumors of it degrading into the person in the lead picking on the other players, which would obviously detract from the game. My solution for that is to simply not play with that person, but that may just be me.

Overall, I give Runebound a 9.0/10. This is the best role playing game that I have played to date, and I enjoy busting it out. I have recently come to own several of the "big box" expansions, too, so I am looking forward to playing them (and more reviews are to come on this system).  If you are looking for a role playing game to add to your collection, I would definitely recommend this one.

If Runebound sounds interesting, you might also want to check out Legend of Drizzt, Star Wars: The Card Game, and Heroscape.

Summoner Wars Review

Summoner Wars game during play

After hearing lots of hype about Summoner Wars (which has two base sets: Elves v. Orcs and Dwarves v. Goblins), I finally had the opportunity to play the game (special thanks to Danny in Tulsa for teaching me this game).

In Summoner Wars, each player takes on the role of a race that is led by a Summoner (hence the name), and the object of the game is to kill your opponent's Summoner. On any given turn, you will draw cards, summon new cards, play events, move, attack (killing your opponents gains you extra magic), and (optionally) discard cards to turn them into magic. This continues back and forth until one player kills his opponent's Summoner. And then the person who has a Summoner left gets to do a happy dance... or whatever version of celebration he deems appropriate for winning a card game.

The first thing that I really enjoy about Summoner Wars is how the magic works. Whereas in almost every game I have ever played, you normally gain whatever currency you needed to play characters every round, in Summoner Wars you do not gain magic just because a new round has started. Instead, you are able to gain magic in one of two ways: first, you can kill your opponents, thus putting their dead unit into your magic pile (which I think is awesome); second, you can discard cards from your hand at the end of your turn to put them into your magic pile. Therefore, each round you must decide if the cards in your hand are important enough to keep, or whether they would serve you better as magic (you will never get them back - you only go through the deck once). In case you missed it earlier in the paragraph, you gain magic for killing your opponents. And that is awesome.

The next thing that I like about Summoner Wars (and every other game that does this well) is that each race has its own unique, well formed identity. Something that often annoys me about a game is when each player uses a different "race" (or "character" or whatever) and the only difference is that the pictures are different. I realize that it takes a lot more effort to balance a game where different factions work in completely unique ways, but Summoner Wars has done this. I haven't had the opportunity to play all of the races as much as I would like, but from what I have seen they all play out quite differently with varying strengths, weaknesses, and strategies. I really compliment the designer for doing a great job in bringing life to the playable races.

The third thing that I like about Summoner Wars is the speed and pace of the game. The game seems to take between 20-40 minutes, but there aren't really slow times in the game. Whereas many games (such as Magic, Race for the Galaxy, etc) have times where the game is fast paced and other times in players are building up to get ready for the action, Summoner Wars is constant action. You start the game with several units on the board, and you will have very few (if any) turns in which you don't fight each other. Units will die - often. But that's why you have more of them.

One thing to mention that is neither a pro nor a con about Summoner Wars is the expandability of the game. Either base set provides a player with all that they need to play the game. However, like with Heroscape, Warhammer: Invasion, and many other games recently, it appears that the marketing strategy for Summoner Wars is that they will provide you with everything you need to play the game in the hopes that you will continue buying more of their products and expanding your gaming experience. Honestly, I am of the mindset where I really like to buy the whole game in a box and then I have everything I need for that game. That I will ever need for that game. Realistically, most game companies seem to have gone away from this model due to the cost and risk of developing a new brand, and so I much prefer this marketing to the CCG random pack opening.

Another thing to note (this one I haven't decided if I like it or not) is the small deck size - approximately 30-35 cards.  This keeps the game going very quickly since you are unable to gain new units once you run out of cards.  However, it seems like the game may be a bit too short and may have been better with more turns.  At the same time, having more cards means you would probably just spend more time going back and forth killing trivial minions instead of focusing on your opponent's Summoner.  I don't really know my thoughts on this - like I said, I don't know how I feel about this part of the game, but I did think it was worth noting.  I'm sure a lot of playtesting went into this, and I would guess that they considered making the deck bigger, and they must have decided for whatever reason that the smaller deck worked better... so I'll go with it.

Overall, I give Summoner Wars a 9.0/10. I was quite pleased with my time with the game, and I truly look forward to playing the game quite a bit more and seeing what options are available among all the different races, expansions, etc.  I would highly recommend this game to most any gamer.

If you want to check out some more opinions on Summoner Wars, I'd recommend reading this Summoner Wars Review from Play Board Games, or another Summoner Wars Review by Games With Two. Or, if you want to check out more of my reviews, you should consider The Summoner Wars Master Set (obviously), but you might also try The Resistance, Yomi, and BattleCON.