Tamsk Review

Tamsk board game in play
The last game from the original Gipf project that I've been able to try is Tamsk. (The link is to Board Game Geek, since Tamsk is out of print and not on Amazon. Plus, Tamsk was originally part of the Gipf project, but was later replaced by Tzaar; hence it being out of print.)

In Tamsk, your goal is to get rid of as many rings as possible.  Players take turns moving timers along a hexagonal shaped board, and after each move, they drop a ring around their new location.  Timers can only move to locations that still have room for another ring on them, and depending on where the location lives on the board, each location can hold anywhere from one to four rings.  Players alternate turns until no more legal moves exist, at which point the player with the least number of rings is the winner.  To add more challenge to the game, you may also play where each turn you must flip the timer that is being moved - and if a timer ever runs out of sand, then it is no longer legally allowed to move.  Finally, if you want to add even more challenge, a 15-second timer is included which you can flip over on your opponent's turn.  If they do not complete their move before that timer expires, then they lose their turn, and you are allowed to place an extra ring.

Tamsk board game from the Gipf project
Jockying for position
Though I have now reviewed many different abstract strategy games, I still haven't developed a good vocabulary for describing what I like and dislike about the games.  I often feel like my review consists of "I thought it was a good game," or "it was fun."  Basically, this is like reviewer caveman talk - "Josh like that round piece moves!"  Regardless, I will try to describe my thoughts about Tamsk.  The crux of the game is in positioning your timers to leave a maximum number of options, while limiting your opponent.  One of the interesting elements that Tamsk adds to the formula, however, is that the closer you move to the middle, the more times that a specific location can be used (the center spot can hold four rings, but the outer edge can only hold one).  This element forces players to decide whether they want to move towards the center of the board, where they will be able to move around, but will have a lot of moves blocked by other timers, or whether they should stay along the exterior of the board where each move might eliminate a location, but where there will be less conflict over each location.

The next pro that I found for Tamsk is that there are interesting choices that you have to make about when to un-block an opponent's timer.  Generally, you want to block your opponent's timers.  This prevents them from moving, and thus it allows you to take extra turns - thus playing more of your rings.  However, because the locations can be used more than once, if you are blocking an opponent with one of your timers, they will quite likely be allowed to take your vacated space as soon as you leave it.  Therefore, you have the upper hand since you have temporarily blocked your opponent, but if you don't take advantage of this by positioning your other timers while they are blocked, then this advantage might only be temporary.

Tamsk game board close up
Showing off a red timer that has died
However, though these elements are interesting, I had some definitely cons with Tamsk.  First, I hated playing it while actually flipping the timers.  Instead of trying to optimize your movements, this changes the game so that you are simply making a game of when you flip each timer.  The rules specify that as a "gentleman's agreement" you should move quickly.  However, if you start moving quickly (as you're "supposed" to), and don't alternate turns between your different timers, then you might wind up flipping  a timer that you have just flipped - causing it's time to be almost completely expired.  So, you aren't even necessarily always waiting on your opponent's timer to expire - you might be waiting on your own timer to run down so that it will have more sand in it on your opponent's turn.  Ultimately, I felt like this element of the game encouraged sitting around and waiting for timers to be close to expiring more than it encouraged playing the strategic part of the game. 

The second con that I had for Tamsk was that it simply felt too simplistic.  There didn't seem to be all that many strategic elements to it.  Like I said before, I don't have a good vocabulary for how to explain this better.  Essentially, it felt like in Tamsk, there are just not many choices - do I move towards the center, or along the edge?  Do I unblock my opponent yet?  That really seemed like about it.  Without the timer element (which I hated), you are left with a fairly basic and generic abstract game.

Overall, I give Tamsk a 6.5/10.  Part of my disappointment in the game may be that it took me a long time to track down a copy to play, but the game wasn't phenomenal, like I was hoping.  However, since I truly dislike the timer element to the game, I will probably move my copy along to someone new.

If you enjoy abstract strategy games, then you might want to check out the other games (that I've reviewed) from the Gipf project - Gipf, Dvonn, Punct, Yinsh, and Zertz.

Power Grid: First Sparks Review

Power Grid: The First Sparks board game in play

A game that I heard very good things about (as well as being named after a game that I love) is Power Grid: First Sparks.

First Sparks is the Stone Age themed prequel to Power Grid, and was printed for the 10 year anniversary of the original game.  In First Sparks, each round consists of four phases: buying new technologies & tools, going hunting and feeding the clan, spreading the clan, and upkeep (changing turn order, refill resources, etc).  (If you are familiar with the original Power Grid, then much of this may sound familiar to you.)  At the end of a round in which one player has at least thirteen members of his clan, the game will end, and the player with the largest overall clan will be the winner!

Ok - if all you're interested in is what is different between this game and Power Grid, then this paragraph is for you.  First off, First Sparks is shorter.  The main reason for that is that purchases are no longer based on auctioning.  Instead, each card has a fixed price.  Whoever is the first player will select a card that he would like to purchase.  However, before he gets the opportunity, all other players (in reverse order) get the opportunity to purchase the card first (with each player only getting to buy one card per turn).  The next change is that your cards generate a variable amount of food (which is like power and money all rolled into one).  Instead of each tool (power plant) generating a set amount of power, each card collects a certain amount of food based on how much is available on the board.  So, better cards collect additional food even when the board does not have much stockpiled, whereas cheaper cards do not collect extra food unless there is a major surplus on the board.  Third, in First Sparks, meeples are essentially cities.  They are the end of game trigger, and also how you win.  Instead of powering them, you have to "feed" them, by spending one food per meeple every turn.  Also, you need to place your meeples adjacent to any type of food that you intend to collect.  The final thing that comes to mind is that there are only two "phases" of the market, and you can place meeples adjacent to other players' meeples at any point during the game.  So, overall, it is very similar but is a bit simplified/streamlined.

Power Grid: First Sparks meeples on the board
Spreading the clan!
Now that I've appeased people that were wondering whether this game is actually like the original Power Grid, we can move on to the pros and cons.  My first pro for Power Grid: First Sparks is that I like the decisions that you are forced to make about when to keep tools versus when to upgrade them.  Each player can only have three tools, and so at some point during the game you will want to upgrade them so that you can collect additional food.  However, it is not an obvious choice of whether you should upgrade every round, or if you should wait and hope for better tools.  Sometimes a tool will give you only a minor upgrade, and you have to decide if it is worth gaining a minor long term benefit at the cost of having additional food right now.  Additionally, a third of your food rots at the end of the first phase of the round, so sometimes it will be beneficial to go ahead and upgrade a tool that only gives you a minor improvement in order to not waste any of your hard-earned food.

The second pro that I have for Power Grid: First Sparks is that I like that the game has both tools and technology cards.  I also like that you are limited on your tools, but you are not limited on your technology.  This is important because you would never purchase technologies if you had an overall limit of three cards at a time.  Yet, since technology does not count against your limit, it makes for interesting decisions about whether it is more valuable to upgrade your tools or if it is better to purchase a technology (which will give you long term benefits, but probably much smaller immediate returns).

First Sparks game technology cards
Different technologies to choose from
The final pro that I will mention for Power Grid: First Sparks is that I like that the value of your tools changes based on what tools are owned by other players.  Specifically, your tools collect a certain number of resources based on how many of those resources are available.  (For example, one of the fishing rods collects one fish (worth three food) if there are 1-5 fish available on the board, but collects two fish if there are at least six fish on the board.)  So, even though a certain tool may the the "best" tool currently available, it might not actually be the best right now - if everyone is hunting mammoths, then you might be better off taking from the plenitude of fish rather than hunting the scarce mammoth population.  But, if everyone changes over to fishing, then the mammoths might become a better choice again!

Now that I've covered some of the most significant pros for Power Grid: First Sparks, let's cover the cons.  First, I found that, though the game is a streamlined version of Power Grid, there can still be a tendency for the game to stall due to player decision making.  (Yes, I am fully aware that this is highly dependent on what players participate in your games.)  The specific thing I have noticed in First Sparks is that the decision of whether a tool is "worth it" is less straightforward in First Sparks.  In Power Grid, it was really easy to compare power plants - how much does each one generate, and roughly how much will it cost to power.  However, in First Sparks, since each tool collects additional resources at different times, it takes longer to "see" what will happen.  For example, if I am trying to determine whether a tool that collects two mammoths when there are four or more on the table is worth purchasing to replace a tool that only collects a second mammoth when there are at least eight on the table, I need to see how many mammoths will be on the board when it is my turn to collect.  And, to do this you must essentially play out everyone else's turn in your head - one collects an extra if there are six mammoths, another if there are seven, etc - and so you have to calculate the entire collection process to see which of those bonuses will collect extra and which will not, thus allowing you to know how many mammoths will be on the board when you finally get to hunt.

Meeple from Power Grid First Sparks
Do you see a baboon here, too?
My second con for the game is that it is not very obvious how much "money" you have.  Each food resource you have is worth a certain amount of food - wheat is worth one or three (depending on the color), berries are worth two, fish and bears are worth three, and mammoths are worth four.  As you play the game more, you will remember these numbers easily enough (except for maybe the wheat).  However, that still doesn't mean that you can immediately glance at your pile of three berries, two fish, and two mammoths and know how much food you have (20), and if, after feeding your clan, if it will be enough to spread to all of the different locations that you want.

My final con for First Sparks is that there are several instances of minor nuisances in the game and rules.  For example, there is a card called "Speach" (which my spell check is actively trying to get me to change).  Another example is that one of the captions talks about a hunting area with "beeries."  Additionally, some of the phases of the game aren't terribly clear the first time that you read through them in the rulebook.  Even with familiarity of the original game of Power Grid, there were a few sections of the rules that I had to read multiple times before understanding.

Overall, I give Power Grid: First Sparks a 7.5/10.  Overall, it is a good game, but I prefer the original game of Power Grid, and I'm not sure when I would choose to play this version instead.

If Power Grid: First Sparks sounds interesting, you might also check out Kingdom of Solomon, Yspahan, and Zong Shi.

Tooth & Nail: Factions Review

Tooth and Nail Factions by Smallbox Games

The first game that I've managed to play from the company Smallbox Games is Tooth & Nail: Factions (which Amazon actually doesn't sell).

In Tooth and Nail, each player takes on a faction, and they are fighting for superiority - which is attained by reducing their opponent's deck to zero cards.  In the game, there are two important areas: your command zone, and your war zone.  Each turn, you start by drawing one card, gaining an action card, "readying" (un-tapping) all of the cards in your command zone, and readying a single card in your war zone.  Then, for each card in your command zone (there is a maximum of three cards in that zone, and six in your war zone), you get to either draw a card or gain another action card.  Then, you can spend your actions.  Actions can allow you to play new cards from your hand into either zone, or attack.  There are two types of attacks - attacking with a single card, and attacking with a specific group ("formation") of cards (as defined on your Faction card).  If you attack with a formation of cards, you also get a bonus.  Finally, without spending any actions, you can use cards in your command zone to do two things - either you can use the ability printed on the card, or you can "drain" (tap) two of them in order to use your Faction's special ability.  If you use the ability printed on the card, then you have to discard them from play unless you have a matching card in your hand that you can discard instead.  Play alternates back and forth in this manner until one player's deck has been exhausted.

Tooth and Nail: Factions is an interesting little game.  The first thing that I like about the game is some of the interesting decisions that it presents.  For example, each time that you play a troop, you have to decide if you want them in your war zone or your command zone.  If you play them in your war zone, then you can directly attack your opponent (the object of the game), whereas in your command zone, they give you future actions (and you can use their abilities).  Another interesting element of the game is that only one of the troops in your war zone un-taps each round; so, you won't be able to do your formation attack each round unless you find a way to un-tap more troops, or you play more from your hand.

Tooth and Nail Factions war zone example
Fighting it out in the war zone
Some more interesting decisions that you have to make in this game relate to the command zone.  At the start of each turn, you get to either draw a card or gain an action for each card that you have in your command zone.  Throughout the game, you are constantly in need of both of these things - and so, having to pick which one you want (or how you're going to split your picks) can alter your turn quite a bit.  Additionally, deciding when to use the abilities of the troops in your command zone is important.  Sometimes, you have to decide if you want to go ahead and use their ability when you don't have a corresponding copy of the card in your hand, thus forcing you to discard them afterwards.  Other times, you have to decide if you want to go ahead and let them get discarded so that you can get a different unit into your command zone.  All in all, the game has a lot of interesting decisions.

The last pro that I will mention for Tooth and Nail: Factions is that I liked that each faction has a very different feel.  Part of this is that the artwork in the game, which is fun, unique, and really helps tie each faction together.  One of the factions focuses on attacking you with sheer numbers, another thrives on getting cards back from the discard pile.  A third faction constantly puts cards out of play and gets them back, whereas another deck steals cards from your opponent's deck and puts them into your own.  Each faction definitely has strengths, and a good player will focus on these strengths during the game.

Tooth and Nail factions game cards
The command zone provides extra actions
Though I like quite a bit about Tooth and Nail, there are some cons that I noticed.  The main one is that the game seems to play itself a bit too much.  Or, this could also be worded that too much of the damage to your deck is the simple attrition of playing the game.  In the standard game, you get 30 cards in your deck.  You start the game by drawing five of these.  Then, each turn you draw a card.  Many of your other abilities and such also let you draw a card.  And any time you use an ability of a troop in your command zone, you lose a card - whether from your hand or from the table.  On a good turn, you may be able to draw and play several cards down on the table, and then attack your opponent.  Formation attacks (the strongest attacks) will generally deal 2-6 damage.  But, in order to deal that damage, you may have played three cards from your hand!  So, whereas there is definitely strategy in the game, the attrition of simply playing the game deals about as much damage to your deck as your opponent will do, which can be a bit frustrating.

The next con that I will mention about Tooth and Nail is that the factions do not seem to be balanced.  Specifically, I feel like the Marauders are ridiculous.  (Granted, I have not extensively played this game, so I will admit that there is a chance that I just "missed" some bit of strategy that helps keep them from running away with the game.)  The Marauders strength is controlling the game.  They are able to gain extra actions, force their opponent to discard cards from their hand (at random), and also force their opponent to take cards from the table and put them back into their hand.  That last ability - the ability to force their opponent to pick up cards (in their command zone) is insane.  Why?  Because having cards in your command zone to start your turn is how you gain extra cards and actions.  And, the strength (damage that can be dealt) of troops in each faction are equal (from what I can tell).  So, this faction is able to deal just as much damage as any other faction, but is able to cripple their opponent's next turn while doing so, preventing them from attacking back with any kind of success.

Overall, I give Tooth & Nail: Factions a 7.5/10.  I enjoyed my time playing the game, but I don't see this as something that I will come back to often.  With that said, if someone else suggested that we play the game, I would be interested - assuming that we didn't use the Marauders.

If Tooth & Nail sounds interesting, you might also check out Summoner Wars, Star Wars: Customizable Card Game, and Gloom.

Keyflower Review

Keyflower board game during play

Sometimes a game's box doesn't immediately attract your attention, but something else causes you to try it out.  For me, Keyflower was a perfect example of this.

In Keyflower, you play a series of four rounds ("seasons").  Each round is a combination of auctioning and worker placement.  Going around the table, each player has the option of placing workers.  These workers can be used to bid (or increase a bid) on a tile, or they can be played on top of a tile to activate its effect.  At the end of each round, players take any tiles that they have won, and they connect them to their village (previously purchased tiles).  That is the crux of the game.  However, one action that can be performed is worth noting - tiles can be upgraded.  By acquiring goods (and moving them (another action) to the correct locations), players can upgrade their existing tiles to make them better - either they will have a stronger effect, they will be worth more points, or both.  At the end of the four rounds, whoever has the most points wins.

So, to be fair, there are a lot more rules than the very trim overview that I just gave.  And one specific rule leads to my first pro.  Each tile can be bid on (and/or activated) by only one color of meeples ("miniature peoples").  What does this mean?  There are three basic colors of meeples - red, blue, and yellow (there are also green meeples, which are harder to get).  Each player will have a varied number of these meeples, and they will use them to bid on tiles.  So, when I bid on a tile, I might bid one yellow meeple.  If someone else wants to overbid me later, they have to bid more yellow meeples than I bid - they can't use green, red, or blue.  This causes a really interesting dynamic in the game.  Sometimes you want to have an even distribution of colors - that would let you bid on anything, and you won't have to worry about what other players bid.  Other times it might be in your best interest to have a whole lot of one color.  This would let you be much more likely to win a tile that you really want - assuming that you're able to set the color on it.

bidding example in Keyflower board game
Bidding in yellow meeples
The next pro is that owning a tile isn't always better than not owning it.  Why?  Because anyone can activate your tiles - not just you.  And, when activating a tile, whoever activates it first selects what color is used for activating it.  So, if I have a lot of red meeples, and you have a tile that I really want to activate several times, then I might choose to activate it with red meeples (each additional activation costs an extra meeple; and each tile can only be activated up to three times per round).  And, since I placed red meeples on your tile, I may have prevented you from being able to use your own tile!  (That is, assuming you don't have any red meeples.)  Now, at the end of the round, you get to keep any meeples that were played on your tiles, which can be wonderful.  But that isn't always better than getting to activate your own tile, specifically on the last round of the game.  So, whereas it is very good to own tiles (you can at the very least control things like when it is upgraded), it is sometimes much better to go first!  (And, of course, you get to go first if you win the auction that determines who goes first.)

My third pro for Keyflower is that the game has a very tense feeling.  What I mean is that often during the game I will want to perform about five actions on each turn.  And, I'm actively waiting on my opponents, hoping that they won't do "that one thing" that I need to do.  Which, inevitably, they will do.  One of the marks of a good game is that you are forced to decide the "better" move between two good moves.  And, in my opinion, Keyflower nails that characteristic.

The final pro that I will mention is how the fourth round ("winter") works.  At the beginning of the game, each player is given a few different winter tiles.  Before the start of winter, each player has to select which of their tiles (at least one) will be available for auction that round.  So, you have some control over what will be worth victory points.  Or, probably more truthfully, you have some control over what will not be worth victory points - by burying the tiles that would be most beneficial to your opponents.  Granted, just because you select a tile doesn't mean that you will actually keep it - you still have to win the auction.  But, I like that the final scoring tiles are determined by player selection instead of random chance.

Another example of Keyflower game in play
Meeples waiting to be collected
Though there are not very many cons that come to mind for Keyflower, I will mention this one: the game can be negatively affected by the random tiles that are used in a given game - especially with a smaller number of players.  Each game you use a different random selection of tiles.  Great - replayability!  However, depending on which tiles appear, certain elements of the game can be neglected.  For example, if no tiles are drawn that allow you to create green meeples, then this very important aspect of the game will be completely missed.  (Granted, this is not a common situation; I did, however, play a game where only one of these tiles was drawn - and that one was drawn in the last possible season.)  Additionally, if the tiles that allow you to collect certain types of resources are not drawn, then you will have a hard time upgrading many of your tiles.  These situations are not common, but with less players (the less players in the game, the less tiles you use), they can definitely happen.

My other (very minor) con for Keyflower is that it is difficult to quickly see what is happening.  Since everyone is bidding with the same thing (colored meeples), and colors are not associated with players, it takes a second to register where you are bidding, what you are winning, and where you might want to play.  (If you're wondering, you bid by placing your meeples on the side of the hexagonal tile that faces you.)  This is a small price to pay for the incredibly well executed auction mechanic, but it is a nuisance nonetheless.

Overall, I give Keyflower a 9.0/10.  It is one of the most pleasant surprises that I've found recently in gaming, and I think it will stay in my collection for quite some time.  (And, hopefully I will get at least decent at it - I never win!)

If Keyflower sounds interesting, you might also check out Kingdom of Solomon, Legacy: Gears of Time, and Power Grid.

I would like to thank Game Salute for providing me with a review copy of Keyflower.

King of Tokyo: Power Up! Mini Review

King of Tokyo Power Up Board game expansion

So, a little while ago I reviewed a great little filler game called King of Tokyo.  But... now there's an expansion - so, of course that means it's time to review King of Tokyo: Power Up!

So, first off, let me tell you that I'm going to assume that you're familiar with the basic game of King of Tokyo. If not, that was a link to my review - I'd encourage you to read it before continuing on down this page.

King of Tokyo Power Up! game cards
Some evolutions for the King
Now, that I've said that, here's what the expansion adds: the monsters are actually different!!  This, coincidentally, is also the first (only?) pro for the expansion.  Each monster has a deck of "evolutions" that they can use.  Specifically, whenever you end your turn with three hearts, then in addition to healing, you also get to draw a card and get a cool new bonus.  (You can do this even if you're in Tokyo.)  These bonuses are fairly similar to the cards that you would purchase in the base game, but you can actually keep them secret until you plan to use them.  And, as I said before, the cards are different for each monster.  There are actually a few different variations of how to play with the evolution cards - you can simply draw the top card when you evolve, you can draw the top two cards and select one, or, before the game starts, you can draft which evolutions you want (to make a customized deck) and then draw the top card from that deck.  Whichever way you choose to play it (I generally just let you draw the top two and keep one), it's a nice little variation to the game.
King of Tokyo Power Up Monsterpocalypse figure
See how this doesn't look at all like a panda?

What else was added?  Well, there's a giant panda now.  (I personally find this a little sad, because I had swagged out my copy of King of Tokyo using Monsterpocalypse figures, and I have nothing that even remotely looks like a panda, but that's not really the game designer's fault.)

(This is the part of the review where I scratch my head and think of other things to say about an expansion that really only adds one element to a game, only to come up with nothing...)

That is really all that's different in King of Tokyo: Power Up!  So, if you enjoy the basic game of King of Tokyo, but you wish that the monsters had different abilities (and I'm guessing that if you do like the base game, then you probably have that wish), then this expansion will probably be worth picking up.  Whereas it doesn't add a lot to the game, what it does add is useful.  Or, put another way, now that I have the expansion, I don't ever intend to play the base game without it.

Overall, I give King of Tokyo: Power Up! an 8.0/10.  If you don't like the base game, then this expansion definitely won't change your opinion on the matter.  However, if King of Tokyo is a game that you enjoy, then you probably won't be disappointed by the expansion.

(And, while I'm talking about expansions, you might also check out the Empires: Builder Expansion, Lord of the Rings: LCG Shadows of Mirkwood Expansions, and Nightfall: Martial Law Expansion.)

I would like to thank Iello Games for providing me with a review copy of King of Tokyo: Power Up!