Sail to India Review

Sail to India is a new release in the US from AEG's Big in Japan line. The designer, Hisashi Hayashi, is no stranger to having his games imported to the US from Japan. His game Trains was a big hit at Essen in 2012, and was brought here by AEG in 2013 to critical and commercial success. Sail to India was released overseas last year and caused a lot of excitement.

Pretty much everything you get in the box.

Unlike Trains, Sail to India takes a minimalist approach to its design. Upon opening the small box, players will only find 28 cards, 52 cubes, and a 20 page rulebook. Does Sail to India rise above this meager component list to become more than the sum of its parts?

As you might expect, game play in Sail to India is fairly simple. As you might not expect, there are some novel ideas in the box that take a few turns to fully understand. The cubes in Sail to India are used to represent several different things. If they are placed beneath the location cards the cubes are ships, if placed on the cards they are either buildings or goods, if placed on a player's historian card they represent a player's victory points.

Those cubes sure are multitaskers!

On a turn, a player has two actions. The possible actions are:
  • Employ a marker - pay $1 to move a cube from out of play onto the Lisboa card (into play and available to perform other actions)
  • Move ships - move each ship cube up to your movement value, reveal any facedown location cards adjacent to any of your ships, and (optionally) convert ships to trade goods by moving those cubes onto an adjacent location card on the good pictured
  • Sell trade goods - sell as many goods as you wish and gain money and VPs based on the number of different goods sold
  • Build a building - pay $2 to place a ship cube onto a building space on an adjacent card - immediately gain that building's benefits
  • Acquire technology - pay the indicated amount to move a scientist cube from your Domain card onto an unoccupied technology
  • Increase ship speed - pay the indicated amount to increase your ship speed
One of the most interesting aspects of the game is that because cubes have many uses, but each player's supply is limited (especially in the beginning of the game), players need to balance what they are using their resources on. If a player would ever gain more than $5 on her wealth track, she would have to place an additional cube from Lisboa onto the wealth track to mark the money she has over the first cube's $5. But if she does not have a cube available in Lisboa, she will have to take it from elsewhere - maybe a ship, a building, or a trade good - but she cannot use any of her cubes that have not been employed yet and are still out of play. 

This simple constriction is the source of almost all of the interesting decisions in the game. Players need to manage the growth of their companies. Since the game puts limits on how broadly each company can effectively be, players have to decide things like, "Will having $6 in wealth be worth it, or could that cube which is only tracking $1 be better used elsewhere? Should I sacrifice that $1 to build a building I need, or should I discover a new location card and make that $1 cube a VP cube?"

While these types of decisions were very interesting to me, the game still fell a little flat. One thing I didn't care for in the game is that since everything is public, the game felt a little calculable. And with only two actions per turn, doing anything competent opponents don't see coming a few rounds away is almost impossible. While this is likely part of the design rather than an oversight, it is a part that I didn't particularly care for. 

Sail to India is certainly an easy game to recommend for board game enthusiasts who are interested in design and like seeing where the current trend of minimalism in design is going. It does a lot of interesting things with very few components or rules. The game will also appeal to those euro gamers who enjoy being able to "math-out" the very best strategy and know what the best move is for them each turn - and want to do so in a smaller, easier to digest package.

I have used the word "interesting" several times in this review, but I haven't used the word "fun" once. For me, that's where this game falls short. I think there is a lot to explore here, but for me, doing so was not especially enjoyable. Maybe I'm a victim of the hype or maybe I'm just done with micro-games - either way, I would give Sail to India a 6.5/10 - an innovative game that impressed me with its mechanisms, but left me feeling cold.

Yardmaster Kickstarter Preview

Today's post is not a review, but a preview for a game currently funding on Kickstarter.

If you haven't already heard, Yardmaster is the latest game publisher Crash Games is putting out through Kickstarter. It is coming to the end of a very successful Kickstarter campaign, having raised almost 200% of the original funding goal. Should you rush out and pledge your support before the campaign ends?

Yardmaster is a simple card game of hand management and set collection. Players will be competing to assemble a train of loaded rail cards that equal a predetermined point total (16 in a 4 player game) before the other players can. There are two basic types of cards in the game, cargo cards and rail cards. Players' hands will be made up of cargo cards - these are the currency of the game. Railcar cards are the points in the game, and will be laid out in front of players.

On a turn, players get to perform 2 actions from among 3 choices:
  • Draw a cargo card from the top of the discard pile, or from the top of the deck
  • Buy a railcar by discarding 1-4 cargo cards that are the same color as the card
  • Swap your exchange token with another player's or with one in the middle
This player could purchase and add either the green 4 card or the blue 1 card, but not the yellow 2.

The cost of each railcar card is indicated on the card - and that number is also the number of points the railcar is worth if connected to a player's train. In order to join a railcar to a train, the card must match either the color or the number of the card preceding it.

This player can purchase the red 2 card, by using her blue exchange rate token to use her two blue cards as a second red card.

Each player starts with an exchange rate token, she can discard two matching cargo cards that correspond to her token to represent any of the other three types of cargo.

Yardmaster is one of those games that can fill many spots in a game collection. If you find yourself with a bunch of people who aren't as into board games as you are, you can pull out Yardmaster to show them something easy to set up, teach, and play. This group might have some trouble with the idea of "actions" and "exchange rates" but those are probably the two biggest hurdles for these players to get over.

You could also pull out Yardmaster with a more seasoned group of players as a pretty interesting 15-20 minute "filler" game to play when a longer game just won't work. Instruction with this group will likely take about 60 seconds, and while the it's simple, gameplay is still quite interesting.

If you think Yardmaster would fit nicely into your collection, hurry up and pledge your support now!! Today is the FINAL day to pledge for this Kickstarter campaign!!

Jim would like to thank Rhiannon of Spooning Meeples for being generous enough to forward her review copy of the game to him. Go check out her excellent YouTube channel!!

Bruxelles 1893 Review

Bruxelles 1893 is the first published game from Etienne Espreman - but after playing it, most people wouldn't be able to guess this. In fact, I've heard a few other reviewers mention that someone playing this game without knowing who designed it, might guess that it was designed by seasoned vet Stefan Feld. And I can't say I would disagree with that idea.

The Bruxelles board

In Bruxelles 1893, players are vying with the each other to become the most successful and famous architect in the Art Nouveau style. The main mechanism in Bruxelles is worker placement, though area control, auctioning, and card drafting mixed into the game in very interesting ways.

There are two boards in the game - the Art Nouveau board is modular and has the 5 basic actions on it, and there is also the Bruxelles board, which has the card drafting area, the art workshop, and several tracks (including the score track).

To begin a round the first player will flip over the top Stock Market card. This card will indicate which two (usually - sometimes 3 or 4) areas of the Art Nouveau board she can choose to be available for the round. All of the spaces outside of the chosen range are not available.

On a turn, a player will either pass for the round, or place one of her assistant pawns onto one of the boards. The spaces on the Bruxelles board are never completely blocked off, but whichever player has the most assistants on these spaces at the end of a round will lose one assistant indefinitely. These spaces allow players to either take 3 joker building materials, take money according to the stock market card, execute any Art Nouveau board action, or activate a number of her Public Figures.

This Stock Market card indicates the first player should put the frame on the Art Nouveau board at either intersection 3, 4 or 4, 3.

Players can also place onto the Art Nouveau board. There are 5 actions available on this board, and they are:

  • Take any two building resources (not jokers)
  • Construct a building
  • Create an artwork
  • Display (sell) an artwork
  • Recruit a Public Figure

The bottom of the Art Nouveau board and available bonus cards.

When a player places an assistant on the Art Nouveau board, she also needs to place some money along with the pawn. At the end of each round, each column on the Art Nouveau board will be evaluated, and the player who bid the most money in each column will receive a bonus card. These cards can be discarded for a one-time effect, or kept to multiply one of the end game scoring categories (and ignoring the discard effect).

This player would get 15 points for building 3 buildings (and an architect level of 5), 3 points for assistants, 6 points for leftover artworks (3 works x a multiplier of 2), 3 points for Public Figures, and 0 points for leftover money (what was he thinking?!?)

After all players pass, the round ends. Bonus cards are awarded, as well as bonus points for having a majority of assistants around a completely surrounded intersection on the Art Nouveau board. First player is determined, and she flips the next stock market card to begin the next round. After five rounds, bonus points are awarded for buildings constructed, assistants not in court, Public Figures remaining, artworks remaining, and money remaining. The player with the most points wins!

Bruxelles is a complex game with a lot of interlocking pieces (many of which I didn't even mention) and a lot going on. There are many things to consider with each placement. Do I want to risk going to the Bruxelles board? Can I afford to lose an assistant next turn? How much money should I place with my assistant on the Art Nouveau board? Do I really want to win that bonus card - or should I at least make it hard for the players who I think want it?

Despite all of these considerations, Bruxelles is such a well put together game, that after the first few rounds, the game starts to flow very beautifully. The mechanisms get out of the way, and the players are free to play with the different strategies that Mr. Espreman has so elegantly laid out for us to explore.

One of the best things about Bruxelles is how many paths to victory there are. Being confronted with the decision to either take an immediate benefit, or to choose to multiply something (a choice between 4 things) for end game scoring and giving a direction for the remainder of the game is a great one.

Bruxelles is a beautiful game. It takes a bit to teach and to learn, but the payoff is more than worth the effort. I would rate Bruxelles very highly - a 9.0 in my book. I very much look forward to see what Etienne Espreman has in store for us next, and I highly recommend it to fans of more complex strategy games - it is surely one not to be missed.

Cheaty Mages Review

Cheaty Mages is a recent card game release from AEG and that Seiji Kanai guy. You might recognize that name from another recent Japanese import of his that had a modicum of success, Love Letter. 

Cheaty Mages is a fairly simple almost area control type card game with some wagering, hand management, and "take that" thrown in. The premise of the game is that the players are all mages, watching an arena battle and betting on the outcome. And, as referenced by the title of the game, the players are not just spectators, but use their magic to take an active role in the battle. 

During each round of the game, 5 fighter cards are dealt to the table to participate in the current battle. The top judge card is also drawn - this is the judge who will impose rules on the current round.

The first thing a player does, is choose 1, 2, or 3 bet cards from her hand to play face down in front her. If a player bets on 1 fighter, and it wins, the player will receive double the prize money printed on the fighter card. If a player bets on 2 fighters, she gets the printed amount, and betting on 3 fighters will net the player half the printed value on the fighter. After 3 rounds, whoever has the most money is the Cheatiest Mage!

Enchant Cards                      Direct Cards                   Support Cards

During a turn, players cast spells on the fighters. There are 3 types of cards - Enchant (face down spells), Direct (face up spells), and Support (event cards that will usually affect the other mages instead of the fighters). 

In turn order, players will either play one card, discard a card to look at all the face down cards that are affecting a fighter, or pass. Once a player has passed, she is out for the remainder of the round, which will end once all players have passed. 

At the end of the round, all cards are flipped face up, the winner of the battle is determined, and any successful bets are paid out to those mages. To begin the second and third rounds, players are dealt (in a 3-4 player game) 4 new cards from the deck, but not more than the hand limit of 8.

That's basically the game! The judge for a round can affect a lot, as each spell card comes with a mana value, and if a judge's mana limit is exceeded on any one fighter, the judge will usually either disqualify that fighter or discard all spells played on him. The judge for a round may also not allow certain card types to be played at all during a round.

Cheaty Mages is loads of fun. If you've ever played Reiner Knizia's Colossal Arena, the gameplay should sound pretty familiar to you - and it is very reminiscent of the good doctor's now 15 year old game. But Cheaty Mages adds a lot to that game.

First, a few things that I didn't love about the game. I like the idea of the judges, but I don't like when they disallow certain card types. If a player has a hand full of Direct cards, and the judge that gets flipped for the round doesn't allow any Direct cards to be played, how is that fun? I also wish there were more fighters in the deck. There are 10, and only 5 are needed for each round, but I think it would be more fun to have a bigger variety. 

One of my favorite things about Cheaty Mages is the hand management aspect. Knowing you are going to get 4 cards to start the next round, give a huge incentive to only play 4, so that you can have your hand completely replenished for rounds 2 and 3. But when it comes down to your turn, and you have 4 cards left, and no one else has passed yet, what do you do? This goes to another point I like about the game - Cheaty Mages is chaotic, but there is definitely some strategic play to be found here. A good deal of it comes from seeing the odds, and the fighters, and how certain card combinations will play out, but most of the strategy in the game comes from playing the other players. Working out temporary alliances with the other players - that may be based on either lies or incorrect assumptions about shared bets - is where a lot of the fun comes from in this game. 

I also love the hidden betting mechanism. I like hidden roles in general, but I really like that in this game, players not only have hidden agendas, but they also get to choose those agendas, AND have to decide how much risk they are willing to take, in terms of betting on 1, 2, or 3 fighters.

Something I generally despise in games is "take that." But another thing I like about Cheaty Mages' hidden roles is that the "take that" aspect of the game is somewhat blunted in the game, because any attacks are not against any player in particular, but against a fighter...that your opponents are hopefully supporting.

I would rate Cheaty Mages 8.5/10. It is a short, simple game, with a lot of subtlety and delicious backstabbery. During my first game of Cheaty Mages with a group of close friends, and after playing a 10 mana card on a fighter (thus disqualifying him from the round), my best friend stood up from the table and shouted, "I friggin hate you!" That moment was so laugh-out-loud funny, and the whole game was just so much fun, I knew immediately that this was my kind of game. 

Jim would like to thank AEG for providing him a review copy of Cheaty Mages.

Evolution Kickstarter Preview

[This post is not a review, but a preview for a game currently funding on Kickstarter. There may be differences in art, components, or gameplay between the version I played and the version that eventually gets released.]

If you are reading this it is very likely that you have heard of publisher North Star Games. They have put out some of the best party style games on the market, including Wits and Wagers and Say Anything. As of this posting, North Star is...evolving itself by venturing forth into the realm of strategy games.

Evolution is a light-medium card game that puts players in charge of raising and evolving several different species or animals with unique traits that will hopefully help them to survive and thrive. 

Gameplay is pretty straightforward. In the first phase of a round, after being dealt 3 trait cards (plus one for each species she has), each player must discard a card for its food value. These cards will be revealed later during the feeding phase and will determine how much Plant Food will be available for the round.

Next each player (in turn order) can play as many trait cards from her hand as she wishes. At this point, these cards have 3 possible uses.

 - Play the trait card as a new trait that will modify a species a player already has
 - Discard the trait card in order to start a new species
 - Discard the trait card in order to increase by 1 a species' Population or Body Size.

After each player has played as many cards as they wish (players can hold cards from round to round), play moves to the Feeding Phase.

The trait cards that were set aside in the beginning of the round are revealed, and a number of food tokens are put into the "Watering Hole" according to the total of all the revealed cards' Plant Food numbers.

In turn order, players will feed one of their hungry species. The omnivores can take Plant Food from the Watering Hole, and carnivores can attack other species to get their food. After each species can't eat anymore (because there is nothing left in the Watering Hole or because the species has eaten a number of food equal to its population),  some upkeep occurs.

This species was unable to eat 3 food to match its 3 population, so its population must be reduced to 2.

Species that were unable to eat food equal to their population have their population decreased to match the amount of food it was able to eat. Any leftover food in the Watering Hole is left for the next round and any eaten food gets put into each player's food bag (which is the main source of points at the end of the game). Any species that didn't eat any good goes extinct. 

There are some neat combos to be found in the trait cards.

Play continues in this way until the deck of trait cards needs to be reshuffled. Once this happens, one more round is played, and plays tally their scores. Players receive one point for each of the following:
  • each food token in her food bag
  • each trait card on surviving species 
  • each point of population on each surviving species

Evolution is a game that really surprised me. After reading the rules and glancing at some of the cards, I was really not expecting much before my first play. It seemed very simple and I honestly did not think I was going to enjoy my time with it. I was wrong. I would put Evolution in one of my favorite categories of games - super simple to learn and play, and loads of fun to experience and enjoy. 

One thing that I did not enjoy about Evolution (regular readers of mine can probably guess what's next...) - is that because it is a card game, the luck of the draw can give some players a negative experience. For example, there are certain trait cards that protect against attacks from carnivores. In order for a carnivore to counter some of these cards, they themselves have a have a specific trait. On the flip-side, omnivores can be sitting ducks without those defensive traits. Not drawing the trait you need can be pretty frustrating. The good thing about Evolution is that there are plenty of options for players to put unwanted cards to productive use. 

Something along the same lines that I really like about carnivores attacking in Evolution is that as long as the defending species' population is healthy, being the victim is not all that detrimental. Sure, you lose a little bit, but honestly the biggest thing I was worried about when being attacked by carnivores was that by being unable to defend the attack, I was unable to keep the attacking species from eating (and thus, going extinct - bad for opponents = good for me).

My absolute favorite thing about Evolution is just how thematic is feels to me for such a simple card game. Throughout most of my plays of the game, carnivores didn't show up until the mid-game. This was really fun to see. In the beginning of the game, there is usually plenty of food, and not many species yet, and as the players were feeling each other out, everyone was playing nice and remaining peaceful vegetarians. As the game goes on, however, the food at the Watering Hole becomes more and more scarce, as the game becomes more and more populated by hungry vegetarians. Species that can eat other animals appear as a natural consequence of both the food shortage and also by the presence of fat, tasty leaf-eaters. 

North Star Games has made a name for itself by putting out some of the best party games available. After playing the prototype of Evolution, I can confirm that their first foray into the realm of strategy games has not been a misstep. I absolutely recommend checking out the Kickstarter page and backing North Star Game's campaign in order to get a copy of the game. I have had a lot of fun with the game even in its prototype stage - I can't wait to see what the final version looks like on my table. Just like Wits and Wagers, I can see this title being played for years to come. 

Dungeon Heroes Review

Dungeon Heroes, from Gamelyn Games and designer Michael Coe,  is a 1-2 player tile-laying and bluffing game that sets a team of heroes (a Mage, Warrior, Rogue, and Cleric) against a wily dungeon keeper and the monsters that lay in wait.

Gameplay is pretty simple. The Dungeon Lord gets to draw 4 tiles, and places them face down on the board. These tiles are things like monsters, traps, shifting floors, portals, and loot for the heroes.

After the Dungeon Lord has taken her turn, the Hero player gets four actions to move and act with his heroes. Each hero also has a special ability. The Wizard can move one space either orthogonally or diagonally, and can also spend an action to reveal a tile.

The Warrior can only move orthogonally, but is very good at fighting - any monster tile he lands on is instantly eliminated.

The Rogue can move both orthogonally and diagonally and can disarm traps on the dungeon floor.

The Cleric can move orthogonally and can spend an action to heal an adjacent ally.

Once all of the dungeon tiles have been placed on the board, the Dungeon Lord's turns become a bit more active. At this point, the Dungeon Lord can do the following for one action each:

  • Reveal a dungeon tile (if the tile was a monster, replace the tile with a monster figure)
  • Move a monster figure 
  • Attack a hero with a monster figure

After all the tiles are revealed and there are no more monster figures on the board, the winner is determined.

"hmm...this tile is surrounded by traps...could it be loot??"

If the Hero player has a clear path to reach the remaining treasure tiles needed to win (3 out of 4) with at least 1 hero surviving, the Hero player wins. Otherwise, the Dungeon Lord wins.

"ack! Poison gas!! Well, it's been nice knowing you heroes!!"

Dungeon Heroes is a light, fairly abstract game - though with some nice art and character abilities to give a sense of theme, with just the right amount of bluffing and luck. Set up is a breeze, as is teaching and learning the game. I personally found the Dungeon Lord's side to be a little more fun to play. I really like the bluffing and planning of the dungeon much more than the (sometimes) guesswork the Hero player has to deal with. As the Hero player, the challenge of trying to outguess the Dungeon Lord's feints was very fun as well, but as the Dungeon Lord, I had to deal with the randomness of the tile draw, as well as the interesting decisions that came up when I had drawn not monster or traps, but loot that would benefit the Heroes. Do I keep it far away from them, or bluff and put it right in front of one of them, hoping they'll avoid it just because I put it right in front of them?

I would give Dungeon Heroes a solid 7.0/10. It doesn't reach for the stars or reinvent the dungeon crawl, but what it aims for it does very, very well. It is a fun, two player battle of wits with a light fantasy theme. If you think you'd enjoy a short, relatively simple 2 player bluffing game, I'd strongly recommend checking out Dungeon Heroes from Gamelyn Games.