Rialto Review

Rialto board game in play

When I learned that Stefan Feld and Tasty Minstrel Games teamed up, I figured that I really should try whatever they came up with.  And thus, I got the privilege of trying out Rialto.

In Rialto, players vie for power in Italy - you know, by building bridges and placing councilmen and such.  (Just like I do in my daily life…)  The game is played over six rounds, and each round has three phases (and each phase has certain buildings that correspond to it).  The first phase consists of collecting a set of six face up cards and two random cards (of which you can only keep seven).  The second phase has the players play these cards at various times for different effects - gaining money and victory points, building bridges and gondolas, and placing councilmen.  The final phase simply consists of activating a certain type of building.  After the six rounds, players add up points based on how much control they have over each district (and how much those districts are worth) as well as which buildings they control.  Whoever has the most points is declared the dictator for life over Italy!  (Or the winner of the game - whichever title you think you are more likely to be able to retain.)

The first pro that I have for Rialto is that you must spend a coin to activate any of your buildings.  This rule, honestly, was something that seemed very trivial (even nuisance-y) as I was reading through the rules.  However, as I've played the game, I have grown in my appreciation for this.  And, to give you a better understanding, this is the only use for gold coins.  If you don't have buildings, then you don't ever have to worry about collecting gold!  And yet, buildings can be incredibly useful.  They can allow you to draw and keep more cards in the first phase.  They can also allow you to change what kind of cards you have in the second phase.  And they can give you direct victory points in the third phase!  So, I like the fact that you must spend a gold whenever you want to use a building, because it helps the game retain a bit more balance.  (And keeps it from being all about who can build the better buildings first.)

Rialto player board
Player board for the builder in your group
The next pro that I have for Rialto is that you are encouraged to perform all of the actions during the game, and yet you are rewarded for specializing in certain ones.  You are encouraged to perform all the actions, because they are all good - they move you up on the Doge track (turn order and tie breakers), give you gold (to activate buildings), build buildings, gain victory points, unlock councilmen, and place councilmen.  If you neglect any of those, then you might have some serious problems.  Some of them (such as placing councilmen and gaining victory points) need to be performed every turn to have the maximum effect.  And yet, whoever plays the most cards of each type gets a bonus - with the effect often being the same as playing an extra card.  So, if you're able to get two bonuses, then it is similar to getting to play nine cards instead of seven!  But, in order to get those bonuses, you will inevitably be neglecting other areas of the game.  This tension really gives players some interesting choices.

The final pro that I will mention for Rialto is that I enjoy the scoring mechanism.  Each district is worth a number of points based on what bridges and gondolas connect to it.  (Both bridges and gondolas are placed as a bonus for playing the most cards of certain types during the second phase, and thus their locations are determined by players.)  Whoever has the most councilmen in the region gets the full number of victory points.  Second place gets half as many (rounded down), third place gets half of what second earned, and so on.  This means that it can be as valuable to be second (or even third) place in a district as it is to be first place in another.  And so, players are encouraged to win districts, but also to be careful about which districts they win - and are also encouraged to win the bonus that allows them to place bridges, to add more value to the districts that they are already winning!

Rialto cards laid out
Initial card selections
Now, though there are a lot of great features in Rialto, there are a couple of cons that I'd like to mention.  First, I felt like there was too much emphasis on placing councilmen in the first (and to a lesser degree second) round.  The reason for this is that after these councilmen have been placed, at least one player has a district that they are winning.  (It is actually possible that it could be tied, and you also can lose control over a district that you are winning, but it is rare.  Another player would have to get the bonus allowing them to place a gondola, and then they are allowed to place a councilman adjacent to the newly placed gondola - such as in the district that you were controlling.)  And so, after the initial round or two, placing bridges is performed in one of two ways - if the person controls a region, then they will place the bridge on their own region; otherwise they will place it far away on a region that nobody controls yet (which isn't terribly strategic - it's just a stalling tactic).  Now, the counter argument for this is that controlling a region initially is the reward for going after councilmen early in the game instead of performing an action like building buildings, but I still find it a bit annoying.

The other cons that I have are very minor, and don't really warrant much elaboration.  First, there is a lot of re-shuffling the deck in the game - especially in larger games.  (The deck is 77 cards, and in a 5 player game, 36 cards are out to start the round, 10 more will be drawn, and buildings can cause another 45 more (though realistically probably closer to 21) to be drawn.  So, the discards will have to be collected and re-shuffled almost every round.)  Second, there is quite a bit of emphasis on card counting in the game, which I'd just as soon not have to bother with - yet to not count them leaves you at a strategic disadvantage.  (If you remember what your opponents selected then you can have a good idea of what they are going to play.  And knowing what they can play helps you determine whether you can win bonuses.)

Overall, I enjoyed Rialto, and would give it an 8.5/10.  It is a game that I could continue playing, and I appreciate that it is relatively quick to play while offering some fairly deep strategic elements.

If Rialto sounds interesting, you might also check out Notre Dame, Terra Mystica, and Belfort.

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

Hamsterrolle Review

I would like to thank Jim Flemming for providing the following guest review of Hamsterolle.  Great work, Jim!

Hamsterrolle is a dexterity game designed by Jacques Zeimet and published in 2000 by Zoch Verlag. Hamsterrolle has a very distinctive look, as the game is played on a large, yellow, wooden, wheel.

Hamsterrolle wheel in play
The inside of the wheel has several black ledges of different sizes that are attached.
Gameplay is simple. Each player gets an assortment of 7 differently sized (and weighted) wooden blocks. On a player’s turn, she will place one of her blocks onto the wheel in either the same compartment as the previous player, or one of the next two. “Next” in this game means in whatever direction of the wheel that the players establish at the beginning of the game so that the wheel will only be turning in one direction. The only other placement rules are that identical blocks can never be in the same compartment, and when placing into a compartment with blocks already present, a player must place her blocks so that its farthest edge is farther in the direction of the wheel than any other block’s farthest edge. That rule sounds much more confusing than it is - here’s a photo:

The photo on the left shows a correct placement for the green block, while the photo on the right shows an incorrect placement.  Note: These photos were taken from the official Hamsterolle rules, which can be found here.
A player can also elect to “pass” wherein she will choose any block from one of the bottom two compartments and place it farther along on the wheel - still following all other placement rules and taking any blocks that fall off the wheel into her stock. This is a good option when a player think she can not place any of her blocks onto the wheel safely, however, it also will probably make the following player’s turn a bit easier, as his choices for which compartment to place into will likely be lower on the wheel.

If any blocks fall off the wheel during a player’s turn, she has to take them into her stock, adding them to any other blocks she has either not yet placed or also knocked off. First player to get rid of all her blocks wins!!

As you can see, the gameplay is extremely simple, but I find this game to be outrageously fun. Like the more mainstream dexterity game, Jenga, Hamsterrolle is all about stacking blocks and not knocking anything over. I enjoy this game much, much more than Jenga. First, the tension in Hamsterrolle builds a lot faster than in Jenga.

In Jenga, players will often have very easy moves for the first 80% of the game. In my experience, once all of the obvious moves are gone, the blocks that are remaining are almost impossible to pull. In Hamsterrolle, the game will often become tense after the first two or three moves. The different shapes and - more importantly - weights of the blocks allow for some very clever and devious play. Placing a tall block vertically on a ledge that is almost parallel to the playing surface can make the next player’s turn very difficult.

The following image pretty much sums up everything I love about Hamsterrolle. The yellow, blue, and purple blocks that are wedged in at the top of the wheel are fantastic. Very few dexterity games will give you moments like that. Also, assuming the next player has to place her block to the right of the wheel, she is going to have a very tough turn. There is no room for her to place in the last compartment (the one with the blue block and the grey cylinder), and the next compartment’s ledge is slanted downward!

Giant Hamsterrolle wheel while playing the game

The other thing that I like about Hamsterrolle is that it can become quite strategic. Knowing how much certain blocks are likely to roll the wheel, and what block placements will make the next player’s turn difficult make up interesting pieces of a player’s turn. The game also requires little setup time and even less cleanup time.

A minor shortfall of the game is that it can be skill and experience based. If a beginning player’s turn is after a strong player’s turn, the beginning player will very often have a difficult time placing her blocks on the wheel. If the inverse is true, then a “Puerto Rico” effect can occur - a strong player who is following a weak player will have an even easier time ridding herself of her blocks. Of course, this game takes at most 20 minutes to play, and is not deeply strategic by any means - so these issues would probably only arise after the fourth or fifth game of it in a row (and you will play it that many times in a row), and can be easily addressed by simply switching seats or changing turn order.

As far as dexterity games go, I would give Hamsterrolle a 9/10. It is quick to play, easy to learn, and great fun with good tension points. The game’s few weaknesses are not much of an issue in light of the fact that the game plays so quickly.

If Hamsterrolle sounds interesting, you should also check out Bamboleo, Crokinole, and Click Clack Lumberjack.

Mars Needs Mechanics Review

Mars Needs Mechanics board game in play

Sometimes, instead of working on cars and motorcycles, you want to explore space.  Lucky for you, theirs a game for that - after all, it's even titled Mars Needs Mechanics!

In Mars Needs Mechanics, players purchase goods in the hopes of selling them for profit.   Play goes around the table with each player having the option to buy a good or pass.  Each time that a good is purchased, the corresponding marker moves to the front of the "recently purchased" track.  In addition to purchasing a good, the active player can also build or tear down a mechanism - something that gives you a bonus of some sort.  Play continues in this way until all of the goods have been purchased, or until all of the players pass consecutively.  Next, based on each good's position on the "recently purchased" track, the three most recently purchased goods each go up one in price, the least recent three go down one in price, and the good in the middle stays the same.  Now players have the opportunity to sell goods - but must sell at least three matching goods at a time (with "Scrap" cards counting as a wild that can be used to fill in a set; but the Scrap itself earns no money for being sold).  Play continues in this manner until the deck of resources runs out - at which time there is a final round (including selling goods), and the player with the most money wins the game!

In unique fashion, I'm going to start this review off with a story.  Do you know why US coins have ridges?  It is because a long time ago, each coin was made out of a precious metal (silver), and the coin's worth was tied to the amount of silver in it.  (This is obviously no longer the case.)  However, before coins had ridges, some people would file off the furthest edges of coins.  If they filed a small enough amount, then nobody would notice that it was missing - but they would have a slight amount of extra silver.  And, if you repeated this process enough times, then you could actually make some money.  Now, this is a post about board games - so, why am I telling this story?  Because this is how the central element of Mars Needs Mechanics strikes me.  It is a game about making small slivers of money repeatedly, and hoping that by the end of the game it adds up to a large total.  Put bluntly - your entire enjoyment of the game will depend on how much you like this concept. 

market board for Mars Needs Mechanics game
The ever changing market
Now, for my first pro.  I think that this key mechanic is neat.  I won't say that it's my favorite thing that I've ever seen in a game - but it works well, and is very interesting to me.  Because the relevant factor of purchasing goods is when you purchase them (even within a single round), you are forced to make some hard choices.  Do you want to go ahead and buy the good that matches your set at the beginning of the round?  This would ensure that you are able to buy it instead of anyone else.  But, that could also cause it to drop in value - thus costing you money!  Alternatively, you could use your first turn to buy a good that one of your opponents is wanting - trying to force a price drop on it (but using your own money to do so).  I enjoy the decisions that the timing of the game forces upon you.

The second pro that I have for Mars Needs Mechanics is that in the 2-player game there are even more elements of strategy.  Such as bluffing.  For example, if there are five types of resources on the market, you have to make a decision - do you want to buy a resource that you don't want, to make sure that the resource that you do want is sold later in the round?  Or, do you pass and hope that your opponent buys one of the resources that you don't want.  But, if you pass, then your opponent has the option of ending the round if they choose to pass as well.  However, they don't know what is in your hand.  So they don't know if you are hoping that the round will end (if the cards that you have are slated to increase in value you would want this), or if you are hoping that they buy goods.  And so there is a nice element of baiting your opponent that goes on in the head to head version.

The third pro that I will mention is that the mechanisms in the game help add replayability, while also keeping the game from being overly dry.  I stated earlier that I think that the key mechanic in the game is very neat.  That is true.  But, that doesn't mean that it wouldn't be dry if it were the only thing going on in the game.  Fortunately, the mechanisms add a bit more flavor (and interaction) to the game.  Instead of the only interaction being based on when you buy goods, some of the mechanisms can discourage your opponents from buying certain cards (or prevent them altogether).  Other mechanisms can adjust when and how you sell, and finally, the Automaton adds an entirely new way of scoring to the game (it requires all seven resource types to build, but earns you a lot of points).

cards from Mars Needs Mechanics board game
Different mechanisms - like the Automaton
Though there are a lot of very nice elements to Mars Needs Mechanics, there are a couple of cons that I will mention.  First, the game truly strikes me as a 2-player affair.  The further you get away from that, the more the quality seems to diminish.  Specifically, I am thinking of the 4-player game.  In a 4-player game, you simply don't have enough control over the market.  Which is very bad, when the whole point of the game is to control the market!  For example, when there are four (different) resource cards remaining, you have two options - buy the card you want or pass.  If you buy the card that you want, then there is a very good chance that it will not actually go up in value, since there are three players after you, and if they each buy a different resource, then your resource will be the one to stay at the same price.  You really need to have the ability to guarantee that your last purchase goes up in price, but a 4-player game doesn't allow this.  (Also of note - since you use the same total number of cards no matter how many players are in the game, a 2-player game will be much more high scoring than a 4-player game.  That's not really good or bad - just something to be aware of.)

My other con is really the converse of my final pro.  Though I think that the central element of Mars Needs Mechanics is neat, it is also a bit dry.  This is the reason that the mechanisms are a nice addition.  However, they are an extraneous element of the game - you could ultimately play the game without them.  And, though it would affect strategy somewhat, the game would still play very similarly.  Honestly, the game reminds me of many of Reiner Knizia's games (which the designer should probably take as a compliment).  There is truly one central gameplay element that the game is built around.  And as I said before - your enjoyment of the game will hinge entirely on how much you like that aspect.

Overall, I give Mars Needs Mechanics an 8.0/10.  It really is a bit of an enigma to me.  Sometimes, I feel that it is a bit drier than I would like.  And yet, something appeals to me about the game enough that I am considering trying to make an electronic version of it (so look for that in the future if I actually get around to that) - which is quite a time investment.  If you are looking for an interesting market based 2-player game, then you should check this out.

If Mars Needs Mechanics sounds interesting, you should also check out Jambo, Ra, and Biblios.

I would like to thank Nevermore Games for providing me with a review copy of Mars Needs Mechanics.

Escape: The Curse of the Temple Review

Escape The Curse of the Temple board game in play

One of my biggest surprises in gaming recently has been Escape: The Curse of the Temple.

In Escape (I will probably be too lazy to add "The Curse of the Temple" throughout this post), you are a treasure seeker that is in a doomed temple.  The temple is collapsing, or exploding, or something like that, and you have to take magic gems and roll fancy combinations of dice in order to place the magic gems onto various enhanced tiles.  Or something.  I don't always pay attention to theme.  (Does it show?)  So, what this means in gameplay terms is that you and your friends win if you escape the temple.  In order to escape the temple, you have to find the exit and then roll a number of "keys" on your dice greater than the number of remaining gems.  To start the game, you have five dice and lots of gems - oh, and the exit also isn't exposed.  So, you will need to find the exit and also get rid of gems.  How do you do this?  By rolling dice.  Escape is real time (there is a soundtrack that plays while you are playing the game), and so you frantically roll dice and use them for different things.  To go to another room, you need a combination of dice; to explore, you need a combination of dice.  Certain rooms allow you to get rid of gems if you roll a certain combination of dice.  (And any time that you use a die for one of these things, it must be re-rolled before it can be used again.)  During the course of the game, there will be two times that you will have to return to your start spot within 30 seconds (indicated by a gong and a slamming door), or you will lose one of your dice.  If you successfully find the exit and every player escapes before time runs out, then you all win the game!  If time runs out and anyone is still in the temple, then you all lose.  (Cue sad music.)

So.  That sounds easy, right?  After all, I can roll the dice as many times as I want - where's the challenge?  My first pro is that one of the die faces is evil.  I don't know the term for it - but it is definitely evil.  Because, if you roll it, then your die is "locked" and cannot be rerolled.  Fortunately, there is another face of the die that allows you to unlock two "locked" dice.  And, if you are in the same room as another explorer, then you can unlock two of their dice.  So, a lot of the challenge of this game is ensuring that you roll the correct combination without locking yourself out.  (There is also an option to add a gem to the pile in order to unlock everyone's dice - this prevents you from losing because everyone just happened to roll poorly.  You can only do this twice per game, though.)

Escape: The Curse of the Temple board game meeples
Unlocking magic gems and heading for the door!
Now you may be asking, "but Josh - you like strategy games!  Where is the strategy??"  Well, though Escape is definitely on the lighter side of strategy, there are some crucial decisions that you have to make that will affect your outcome.  You have to decide how you are going to explore - are you going to explore as many rooms as you can as quickly as you can?  This will help find the exit, but it will make it very difficult to get back to the start tile when the gong sounds.  Also, when you explore, are you going to stay with other players?  Splitting up helps you cover ground, but staying together increases the total number of dice you can use when you reach a room that can absorb a magic gem.  Also, when you roll a lot of unlock faces, should you keep any of them?  Keeping them provides a nice "safety net" where you know that you won't get too many dice locked - but it is at the cost of using one less die (which functionally is very similar to that die being locked).  Whereas none of these are hard decisions, having to make them instantaneously adds to the challenge.

Finally, for pros, I will say this about Escape - it is a lot of fun!  Between throwing the dice frantically, yelling at each other to get help unlocking dice (only to realize that you're not in the same room and they can't unlock your dice anyway), desperately trying to get back to the start tile before the door slams, and hunting down the die that inevitably rolls off the table, Escape is incredibly engaging.  (It's also exhausting.)  You may leave a game of Escape deciding that the game isn't for you, and that you don't ever need to play it again - but I'd be impressed if while playing you weren't completely engrossed in attempting to make your way out of the temple before meeting your doom.

Escape Curse of the Temple curse tiles
Beware the curses from the included expansion
For my last two "final" pros, I will just say this - I also like the fact that I can teach Escape to just about anybody, and I am glad that there is an expansion that comes with the game (thus adding more replayability (also known as "difficulty")).

Though I really enjoy Escape, there is one major con that I have found with the game - it is very hard for my undiscerning ears to hear the different audio cues in the soundtrack.  The soundtrack provides a lot of ambient noise in order for you to really feel like you're trying to escape from a temple.  (Well, at least as much as you can feel that way while you have dice in your hands.)  Unfortunately, all of this ambient noise blends too well with the actual cues that you're supposed to hear.  I've had at least one time where I've just taught the game and, midway through playing, someone asked, "is that the gong?"  To which I had to reply, "I have no idea - but I think we all just lost a die."  Fortunately, there is a "quiet" soundtrack that only has the audio cues that you need to listen for.  Unfortunately, it is not included in the game itself (though you can find it here - I believe it is Soundtrack 3).  I have been told that if you use the quiet soundtrack often enough, then you will learn to pick up the cues and can switch back to the original soundtracks.  I have not bothered to try the originals again yet, but I may do so at some point.

Overall, I give Escape: The Curse of the Temple a 9.0/10.  I think that it is a really enjoyable game.  I don't know that I will play it all the time, but I think that it is a great addition to my collection that I will be able to bring out and play with a wide variety of friends.

If Escape sounds interesting, you might also check out Space Alert, Jab: Real Time Boxing, and Liar's Dice.