Hollywood Blockbuster (Dream Factory) Review

Hollywood Blockbuster board game in play

Recently I've gotten several opportunities to play a game called Hollywood Blockbuster.  You should know - there are several different versions of this game, and I think that the current one is called "Dream Factory."  However, I'm not entirely sure what (if anything) has changed, so I will go ahead and review based off of my version of the game.

In Hollywood Blockbuster, each player takes on the role of a movie studio trying to have the most successful year.  Success is based on the number of stars on a movie as well as the number of awards the movie earns.  Play is divided over four rounds ("quarters"), and at the end of the year, best movie awards are handed out.  Each quarter consists of a number of auctions and parties.  In each auction, the players are bidding contracts (the currency of Hollywood), on various pieces for their movie - it could be for special effects, sound work, actors, guest stars, directors, or agents (which are wild).  All of the auction tiles are face up from the beginning, so that you know what else is available.  Whenever a player successfully wins and auction, he must immediately place or discard all of the new tiles that he has purchased (generally you win 2-3 tiles).  In addition, once the winning bidder pays for his new tiles, all of the other players get to divide the contracts spent among themselves.    Parties work a little differently.  Once you arrive at a party space, all of the tiles are flipped face up.  Then, starting with the player that has the most actors and guest stars ("star power"), each player gets to select a tile (for free) to add to his board.  As soon as a player completes one of his (up to three) in progress movies, he calculates the score and collects the corresponding scoring tile; then he receives another potential movie from the stack.  If he has completed the first movie of a given genre, then he wins a smaller award.  Plus, at the end of each of the first three quarters, whoever has the overall best movie gets a small award.  At the end of the game, all of the final awards are handed out, and the player with the best total score between awards, completed movies, and leftover contracts wins the game.

Hollywood Blockbuster unstarted movies
Each movie has different needs
So.  I've realized recently that I love auction mechanics.  As I perused my collection for games to take to game night the other day, in addition to Hollywood Blockbuster, I was tempted to bring For Sale, Modern Art, Vegas Showdown, Money, and a bunch of other auction games.  (Eventually I decided I should diversify a bit.)  But, with all of these auction games available, what is different or unique about Hollywood Blockbuster?  There are really two auction mechanics in this game that I think fit well together that I want to discuss - and I'll go ahead and list them as separate pros.  First, I like that whatever you pay is immediately divided among all of the different players.  One of the beautiful things about auction games is that players truly set the value of everything in the game - in one game, things may even go for half as much as in the next.  However, in my experience, this has never been more true than in Hollywood Blockbuster.  Since the contracts are constantly flowing back and forth, your group can really set the value for tiles as high or as low as you want.  I've played games where everything went fairly inexpensively, and I've seen games where almost every time someone bought something, they had to spend all of their contracts.

The second auction element that I think works well is the fact that tiles are grouped together.  There is only one auction per round in which a player buys a single tile - the first auction (which is for a 4-star director).  After that, the auctions will always be for at least two tiles.  I like this because it will cause more bidding wars than if the players were bidding on single tiles.  Sometimes this war will be because one player wants the sound board, and another wants the special effects.  Sometimes it will be because both players are just desperate to fill several empty places on their movie.  Sometimes the only special effects available for the round are paired with the best actor.  But, overall, auctioning several things at a time allows much more tension and excitement to be in the game.

My third pro for Hollywood Blockbuster is about the only other way of gaining tiles - parties.  I like the intrigue that parties present, where you don't know how good they will be.  Because you don't know what will be available, you always hope for the best.  What this indirectly does is increase the value of actors.  In addition to helping you with your movie, if you are able to purchase a lot of actor tiles, then you will get to pick first at the party, thus potentially giving you a nice 3-star tile for free.  And, of course, the downside of not having actors is that your opponents might get to pick a nice 3-star tile for free!  Of course, you might show up to the party, and there is nothing that you want.  I feel like the parties are a perfect element of controlled randomness in the game.

Various awards from Hollywood Blockbuster (Dream Factory)
You don't have to win awards - but you should
The final pro that I will mention for Hollywood Blockbuster is the awards.  First of all, what kind of game about movies would be complete without awards?  So they definitely make sense thematically (well, except for the one that is for "Worst Movie").  However, the awards add an extra layer of strategic decisions.  Suddenly, you're faced with the following questions: Should I complete this now and get best of the quarter?  Should I complete a bad movie in order to be the first one to complete a comedy?  Do I really want to complete this movie now, when a drama will be the next movie, or should I wait, since someone else has already completed an amazing drama?  Should I make this movie awful and try for the Worst Movie award?  And, the awards also allow players to have a second path to victory - instead of simply getting the most stars on movies, getting the most stars on the right movies can also lead to victory.

The last thing that I will mention about Hollywood Blockbuster is more of a "point of note."  My copy of the game doesn't have licenses to any movies or actor names, so they are all spoofs.  You will see things like "Star Battles" instead of Star Wars, "The Prince Groom" instead of The Princess Bride, "Jim Scarry" instead of Jim Carrey, and "Dental Washington" instead of Denzel Washington.  Some people will like this, and will enjoy trying to figure out what all of the spoof names are referring to, whereas other people will probably be annoyed by it.  I know that at least one German version of the game is able to use actual actors and actresses (I'm not sure about movies), but it uses historically famous people - like Marilyn Monroe and Frank Sinatra.  I am unsure of how Dream Factory addresses this issue.  Anyway, if this is something that is important to you, I'd recommend you looking at the different versions to decide which one will fit your tastes.

Overall, I give Hollywood Blockbuster a 9.0/10.  I really enjoy the game, and I intend to keep it in my ever-growing collection of auction games.

If Hollywood Blockbuster sounds interesting, then you might also check out Mice and Mystics, Notre Dame, and Legacy: Gears of Time.

Cave Troll Review

Cave Troll board game by Fantasy Flight Games mid play

Now it is about time for us to check out the little game of Cave Troll.

Cave Troll, at its core, is an area control game - but with the areas represented by rooms in a dungeon.  On each turn, the active player gets to take a total of four actions.  And, for those actions, they can choose any of the following (repeating them if they so choose): draw and play a card, move a hero or monster, play an artifact card, and use a hero or monster ability.  Certain cards have a picture of a sand timer on them.  When you play these cards, they remain in play as a count down to a scoring round.  When there are more than four sand timers visible, then each room scores a number of points equal to the amount of gold pieces showing on it to whoever has the most heroes in it (with bonus points if a treasure chest or dwarf is in the room).  Once a player's deck runs out of cards, there is a final scoring round, and whoever has the most points wins the game!

My first pro for Cave Troll are the Cave Troll cards.  Shouldn't this be obvious?  The game is named after them!  Basically, the Cave Trolls are nuclear bombs that you can drop on a location.  When you play them, each player can move one of his units out of the space where the Cave Troll is played, but after that, it's like the space no longer exists - treasure chests are destroyed, nobody scores points for it, and you can't even move through it.  Additionally, the Cave Troll also cannot move.  In the games that I've played, the Cave Troll generally doesn't wind up doing much damage.  But, because of the threat of someone playing him, it forces players to diversify their actions.  This helps there be less spaces on the board where players collect all of their units trying to pile up all of their different bonuses.

Cave Troll card and figure from Fantasy Flight Game
Cave Troll the destroyer
Well, honestly, the Cave Troll isn't the only special unit that I like in the game.  I guess, ultimately, I would list all of the special figures as a pro - they really add some spice to the game.  Without them, it would simply be a dry mechanical puzzle more than an enjoyable game.  There is a thief that can immediately move to anywhere on the board, a dwarf that doubles the gold value of a room, and a knight that prevents opponents from moving through his space.  Oh, and you also get monsters!  (Monsters could be considered a third pro.)  The monsters don't even count towards you controlling a space.  You use them only to harass your opponents!  For example, there is an Orc that can kill heroes, and a Wraith that can push them around.  (And, of course, there is also the Cave Troll, which is classified as a monster.)  It's also nice that they provide an alternative sets of cards for the figures - this lets you play one game with a "Knight", and the next game with a "Paladin", each with its own abilities.

However, even with the extra set of cards, my main con for Cave Troll is that I don't really view it as very replayable.  I think this is because the strategies are fairly straightforward.  Ultimately, you're simply trying to spread out and get as many rooms as you can for as minimal a cost in units as possible.  And, you want to get one high value room with your dwarf in it, and make sure that you can keep it.  That's about it.  Now go make that happen, and you'll win.

My next con for Cave Troll is that there probably need to be more special units.  I realize that grunts are important, as they represent standard pieces in area control.  And, if everything were special, then nothing would truly be special.  However, the problem lies in the fact that the deck is randomly shuffled, and you draw the top card.  Which is probably a grunt ("adventurer").  And then probably another grunt.  And another one.  And, though the Orcs and Knights and Barbarians are cool, there is a good chance that you will not draw them until the end of the game, whereas your opponents may get them immediately (or vice versa).  This can highly skew the game - especially if one of the first things drawn is a dwarf, which can enhance actual scoring.  Essentially, because of this aspect of the game, you really need to view Cave Troll as a fun little game to play instead of as a strategic challenge.

figures from Cave Troll board game
Don't stack too many special figures together
The last con that I will mention for Cave Troll is that there is quite a bit of a "pile on the leader" element, at least if you play with more than two players.  Since you score a few times in the game, it is very obvious who is winning.  And, in order to catch them, you must stop them from scoring additional points while also improving your own score.  Which makes sense and is the valid way to play most games.  However, when you have three players that are all attempting to take points away from the same player, it can be a frustrating experience for that player - especially if they wing up losing not because they played poorly, but because all of their opponents targeted them.  (Though, you could argue that they played poorly by making themselves a target.  But we won't go into that.)

Overall, I give Cave Troll a 7.5/10.  I was pleasantly surprised with the game.  Whereas I will probably wind up trading my copy, I did enjoy my time with the game and would probably be willing to play it in the future if someone else brought a copy.

If Cave Troll sounds interesting, you might also check out Babel, Defenders of the Realm, and Smash Up.

Bang! The Dice Game Review

 Bang The Dice Game box

As a dedicated fan of the Bang! series of games (I think I have played every variant and expansion), when I heard about Bang! The Dice Game, I was very excited to try it out.

Bang! The Dice Game take the basic formula from Bang!, and provides a simplified and faster play experience.  To start the game, players will be dealt a character and a role.  Depending on your role, you will have a different victory condition - kill the Sheriff, kill the Outlaws and Renegade, or be the last man standing; and depending on your character, you will have a different special ability to help you accomplish your goal.  On each turn, you get five dice, and three rolls.  In between each role, you have the option to re-roll (almost) any of your dice, but whatever you have rolled at the end of the third roll must be kept.  The different faces on the dice represent a Gatling gun, which hits all other players if you have rolled three of them, a one and two distance attack which attack other players, beer which heals a player, dynamite which cannot be rerolled and will end your turn while inflicting one point of damage if you roll three of them, and arrows which immediately upon rolling them forces you to take an arrow from the middle (you take wounds equal to your number of arrow once the arrow pile is exhausted).  Players take turns rolling dice and shooting at each other until one of the victory conditions is achieved!

The first pro that I have for Bang! The Dice Game is that there are die faces that matter while rolling the dice.  The basic Yahtzee formula for die rolling has been left essentially unchanged for a few decades now.  You can see examples of it in many, many games, and it is always the same.  Roll three times, and keep the final result.  However, Bang! changes this - arrows do things immediately.  And, dynamite locks your die.  These die faces actually make for some interesting decisions about when to keep re-rolling, and when to accept what you have.  For example, one time that I played, I was trying to finish off one of my opponents.  However, the arrow pile was very low, and I knew that if I re-rolled and got too many arrows, I could inadvertently kill myself instead of my opponent.  I risked it.... and it did not work out in my favor.

Bang the dice game picture of dice
Arrows and Dynamite have immediate effects
The next pro that I have for Bang! TDG (I'm sick of typing "The Dice Game") is that it is much faster than the original game of Bang!  Now, let's go ahead and throw this out there - I enjoy Bang!  I think that it is a fun game, and I am generally up for playing it.  However, since I often am teaching it to new players, the game can really drag along sometimes.  That is not the case with the dice game.  Between the decisions being streamlined and the extra death that arrows can inflict (along with not being limited to playing only one "Bang!" card per turn), the game generally lasts around 20 minutes.  Which I think is the optimal length of time for Bang!  This change has caused several people that I've played with to actually prefer Bang! TDG over the original.

The third pro that I will mention for Bang! TDG is that it does a slightly better job of allowing your secret identity to actually be secret.  Because of the dice being random, and because you are forced to use the dice, you can sometimes get away with shooting the sheriff and calling it an accident.  This is easiest in a four player game where the sheriff is sitting across the table from you ("whoops, I didn't mean to roll a "2" hit - sorry..."), but can also happen with Gatling guns and by causing arrows to damage him.  Plus, Gatling guns clear out the arrows in front of you in addition to hitting all of your opponents, so they help add some confusion into the mix of "why did he just shoot me?"

However, there are still a couple of cons that I have for Bang! TDG.  First, the Renegade role is still terrible.  Yes, the Renegade can occasionally win - I realize this.  However, generally the Renegade will not win.  It is very, very hard to be the last man standing.  Actually, it might have become even more difficult in this version, because the sheriff no longer gets penalized for finishing off his deputy, so if he sees a weak opponent, he is more likely to pounce.  (Don't get me wrong, I'm glad that the Renegade is included in the game series, as trying to figure out who is the Renegade and who is the Deputy is the best part of the hidden identity element of the game.  Plus, it helps balance things out so that the Sheriff doesn't get obliterated by the Outlaws from the beginning.  However, that doesn't mean that I even want to be the Renegade.)

Bang TDG during game picture
Dueling it out with friends
The other con that I have for Bang! TDG is that some of the characters just feel better than others.  Specifically, one character never takes more than one wound from Indians/arrows, one character can take all of his damage as arrows (which is amazing when there are not many players left), and one player can re-roll dynamite.  Most likely, each person will have their favorite characters that they think are the best, but these are the ones that I think may be a bit too strong.  With that said, I haven't really seen anyone be able to runaway with a game simply because they had one of these characters.  The team aspect of the game does a nice job of keeping a slightly overpowered character in check.

Overall, I give Bang! The Dice Game an 8.5/10.  I haven't completely decided if I like it more than the original game of Bang!, but I definitely like the tempo of the game more than the original - especially when teaching new players.

If Bang! TDG sounds interesting, you might also check out Catan: The Dice Game, King of Tokyo, and The Resistance.

I would like to thank dV Giochi for providing me with a review copy of Bang! The Dice Game.

Money Review

Reiner Knizia's Money card game in play

So, the game that causes the most awkward conversations has to be Reiner Knizia's Money.  (Conversations like, "Hey, can I borrow Money?" or "I'd really like you to include Money in the trade.")

Anyway; other than being an awkward conversation starter, Money is also an interesting little auction game.  To start the game, each player starts with a handful of cards that represent money in both different currencies and denominations.  Every turn there are two piles of money, each with four different "bills" (cards).  Players now take cards from their hand and perform a silent auction.  Revealing at the same time, players get to select a pile of money and exchange their bid for if (starting with whoever bid the most).  Interestingly, instead of only purchasing the piles of money in the middle of the table, you can also buy other player's bids (still by exchanging your bid with theirs).  At this point, you might be wondering what the point is in this futile exercise.  Well, the reason that this isn't an exercise in futility is the scoring.  At the end of the game (when the deck runs out), each player scores points based on what they have collected (not necessarily how much).  Each set of all three 20's or 30's of the same currency are worth 100 points.  Additionally, each currency type in which a player has between 100 and 200 "dollars" is worth the total value minus 100.  Next, any currency in which a player has at least 200 "dollars" is worth its full face value.  Finally, there are Chinese 10's - these are always worth 10 points.  Whoever has the most points wins the game!

Example pile in Money card game
A typical pile of cash!
So, my first pro for Money is that I think that there are a few different ways that you can try to maximize your points.  Either you can try to make as much money as you want, and assume that some of it will match (or just make as much as possible early and then make things match), or you can immediately go for matching values.  So, if your goal is to make as much money as possible, then in the early auctions you may bid very low - hoping that everyone else will bid high, and you will profit.  (Since you have last pick, you will probably be collecting another player's bid.)  However, if too many people do this, then you might wind up only "earning" $10, while other players that bid slightly higher are the ones to actually make a decent profit.  So, not only are there different overarching strategies, but you are really forced to adapt your strategy to how your opponents are playing.

The next pro that I have for Money is that "it takes money to make money."  Which means that in any given round you have to bid something.  Which also means that you are probably not going to (immediately) recover whatever you are bidding.  That's often not a problem; but, if you have done a really good job of collecting only cards that are relevant to the currencies that you're collecting, then it might be a huge problem.  If might force you to go ahead and abandon one of the currencies that you were just starting to collect - at least for a time.  (Which, in turn, might make another player very happy, if they had been wondering where the rest of that currency was!)

My final pro for Money is that I really like that you don't simply win by making the most money.  If that were the case, then I think that the game would be fun to play once or twice, but would have its novelty disappear quickly.  Instead, you really must specialize (and adapt your bids to what you are specializing in).  Early in the game, it might be beneficial to simply collect whatever pile has the highest face value.  However, at the end of the game, a single bill might be worth 230 points!  (This could happen if you have $190 in a currency, and you have two of the three 30's in that currency.  The final 30 would be worth 100 points for completing your set of 30's, an additional 100 points for putting you above $200 in that currency, and also worth its face value!)  So, the biggest bills in the game aren't necessarily the "best" ones.

A hand of bills in Reiner Knizia's Money
A typical hand in Money - including a "bluff" card
The main con that I have for Money is that it is very math intensive.  You are constantly calculating and re-calculating things in the game - your score, your bid, which pile is "better" for you, how much an opponent might make off of certain things, etc.  None of these calculations are difficult.  They are all basic addition.  However, when you start making a lot of these calculations, some people will get turned off to the game pretty quickly (and others might start taking a long time to make decisions).

The second con that I have for Money is that the tie-breaker in the silent auctions can be frustrating.  When two players bid the exact same amount of money, the tie breaker goes to the player that bid using the lowest serial number on a "bill".  This generally corresponds to whoever bid using the lower bills (20's have lower serial numbers than 60's), but can wind up just arbitrarily picking someone.  Whereas I realize that there has to be something to break these ties, it can be very frustrating if you lose out on a choice pile of cash simply because your bill's serial number wasn't low enough.

Overall, I give Money a 9.0/10.  Honestly, I only tried the game because they were briefly giving away the iPhone version.  However, I'm quite glad that I did!  I think that Money is a fabulous little auction game that fits nicely into most any collection.

If Money sounds like a game that you would enjoy, you should definitely check out For Sale and Modern Art - as well as Ra.

In the Shadow of the Emperor Review

In the Shadow of the Emperor game in play

A neat little game that I got in a trade is In the Shadow of the Emperor.

In the Shadow of the Emperor is an interesting political game in which the different players attempt to gain the most victory points by moving their house forward in different areas.  Each turn, the players start by collecting money based on what they control.  Next, all of the aristocrats (pieces) on the board "age," and if any of them die as a result, then they are removed from the board.  Third, all of the players check to see what kind of descendant they have produced - this is based on what action cards you selected in the previous turn.  Finally, the bulk of the game begins - the action phase.  Players alternate turns selecting from a limited number of action cards.  In order to take an action, you must first pay the amount of money listed, and then take the card.  These actions can help you get more people on the board, move people, place knights, build cities, marry foreign princesses, and attempt to become the new emperor.  After everyone has completed their actions, each of the different areas of the board is scored to determine if there is a new elector (thus giving the new player both the elector spot which provides an extra power, a vote in the emperor phase, and two victory points).  Once all the electors have been decided, then the players get to vote on a new emperor.  The winner of this election becomes the emperor (if he wasn't already), and he gets to take the emperor actions (which generally consist of collecting victory points, but may also give him another bonus).  At the end of five rounds, whoever has managed to score the most points through careful advancement of his aristocrats wins the game!

Aging pieces for the game In the Shadow of the Emperor
Different ages for aristocrats
The first thing that I like about In the Shadow of the Emperor is the aging mechanic.  Each aristocrat has the numbers 15, 25, 35, and 45.  When they come onto the board (aside from initial placement), they come in at age 15.  At the start of each subsequent turn, they will advance to the next highest number, and if they age beyond 45, then they will die.  However, there is also an action in the game (the "doctor") that allows you to either make a piece older or younger by one turn.  This can be very important as you can kill off some of your opponent's older pieces that are challenging you in various places (or protect some of your crucial pieces); and, since the number of actions is limited, you may even be able to take this action and prevent him from being able to retaliate.

The next series of pros that I have all center around the actions, and the different strategic elements that go into choosing which action you want to take.  First, I like that the actions are very limited.  Some of the actions only have one card, some have two, and some have more.  So, when performing an action, you must decide which one you want to take, and when doing so, you realize that there is a good chance that many of the other options will no longer be available by your next turn.  Additionally, actions cost money.  This gives you a bit more knowledge on what may be available on your next turn.  If you have significantly more money than your opponents, then you can expect that the higher cost actions may still be around on your next turn - so, you might be better off selecting a lower cost action that will run out instead of the higher cost action that is more critical (but will still be available).  Balancing these decisions is a wonderful aspect of this game.

But, there is another element that factors into making these decisions - the actions that you take determine what kind of descendant you will produce.  The actions are color coded either blue or pink.  If you select more blue actions than pink actions, then you produce a son, and you can place a new aristocrat on the board at the start of the next turn.  If you select more pink actions, then you produce a daughter, which you can attempt to marry off to one of the other player's aristocrats (helping them because a married couple is worth two influence instead of one, and helping you by scoring victory points), but if you are unsuccessful, then you get a few coins (as she becomes a nun).  Whereas I won't really judge how this works thematically, strategically it is brilliant.  It really encourages you to take actions that you might not otherwise consider.  In addition to their listed bonus, the different actions might also give you the bonus of a new aristocrat on the next turn.

Different actions in In the Shadow of the Emperor
Blue/Pink Actions
The last pro that I will mention for In the Shadow of the Emperor is that I like that you score two victory points when you become the new elector for a region.  Holding on to an elector position is still good - it gives you a vote for the emperor, and you can use the elector's ability (which can be very powerful).  But, because you gain victory points for taking an elector space, it really encourages you to move your aristocrats around and repeatedly take different positions (even at the cost of losing ones you already controlled).  Balancing taking the new positions, losing your old ones, and maximizing the benefits of whichever power you have at any given time are the keys to winning.

However, though I really like In the Shadow of the Emperor, there are a few cons that I will mention.  First, the rules are awful.  I will admit that I didn't learn this game from the rulebook - but I have consulted them throughout my games.  However, the person that I was learning the game from had several important rules highlighted in his rulebook so that he could actually find them later, as certain rules aren't where you would expect them.  Plus, the copy that I have came from a trade - and it included "How the game works: An explanation in plain English," as the previous owners of it had apparently also struggled with the rulebook.  The game is worth playing, though, so I'd encourage you to persevere through this issue.

My second con is that I think that there is quite a first player advantage in this game.  Or, more specifically, I think that there is a last player disadvantage.  To start the game, a first player is selected.  That player becomes the emperor.  Then, in turn order, every other player gets to select an electorate to control.  After this, the game begins, starting with the first player.  So, the last player gets both the worst elector power and has the last choice on actions.  Whereas this disadvantage isn't large enough to cost them the game, it is still a bit more hefty than I would like.

Finally, I'm not sure how well this game plays with less than four players.  Why?  Because my group has played with less than that and refuses to do it again.  So, I take that to mean that it doesn't play especially well with less than four.  (And, looking at the game and how the tension plays out in a four player game, I can see how that would be true.)  But, again - my games were all four player; if you've played with less, feel free to relate your experience in the comments.

Overall, I give In the Shadow of the Emperor an 8.5/10.  I enjoyed the game quite a bit, but one of it's main drawbacks is that it is hard to get to the table.  However, each time that I have managed to play it, I've enjoyed it quite a bit.

If you're interested in other games with a political nature, you might also check out Twilight Struggle, Quo Vadis, and 1960: The Making of the President.