San Marcos Board Gamers More fun than you can shake a meeple at

16Nov/160

Is Evolution: Climate a Game Changer?

Posted by Chris Aylott

Evolution: Climate

Evolution has become a local staple. I've taught it to all kinds of players who love the mix of simplicity and strategy. But can Evolution: Climate create a more strategic "gamer's" experience without losing accessibility?

27Jul/160

Too Many Cinderellas Review

Posted by Chris Aylott

Our last library meetup was mostly spent with Mare Nostrum, but another game also made a short visit to the table. Can there be such a thing as Too Many Cinderellas

24Jul/150

Compounded Proves Chemistry Can Be Kid’s Stuff

Posted by Chris Aylott

My four-year-old sets off lab fires. Fortunately, it's only in the context of Compounded, a clever little chemistry game from Dice Hate Me Games.

22Jun/150

Molecular Review

Posted by Chris Aylott

Our game group had a fun opportunity at yesterday's meetup. We got to play Molecular, a new chemistry-themed game that will be launching on Kickstarter on June 28. So... did we form a strong chemical bond with it, or is it a little too free radical?

21Aug/140

Why Acquire is Like James Bond

Posted by Chris Aylott

I enjoy new games, but it takes years to properly appreciate a classic. I recently had a chance to renew my love affair with Acquire, and it reminded me that when you get a game design right, it's timeless. It can also be like a British superspy, but we'll get to that.

Sid Sackson's masterpiece is over fifty years old, and the 3M edition I chased down in Half Price Books a few years ago is easily identified as a product of the sixties. It's got the bookcase box, a rich white businessman on the cover -- you can tell he's smart, because he's got glasses, and that he's determined because he took them off so he can Beat You At This Game -- and the background has those light pastel building outlines that just screamed exotic destinations back then. The pieces are equally striking, with simple line drawings and typography that fit right into the Mad Men era.

Even the Mastermind guy would think twice about crossing the Acquire guy.

Even the Mastermind guy would think twice about crossing the Acquire guy.

(Acquire has had several other looks over the years, and some of them are quite nice. The much-loved big hotel pieces of the 1999 edition are certainly fun to play with, but nothing comes close to the simple, iconic look of the original.)

The look is distinctive, but not dated. Like James Bond's Savile Row suits, it's stylish and easy on the eyes even after half a century. That's not the only way Acquire is like a British superspy, either. Like Bond, Acquire is smooth, smart, and utterly ruthless.

Acquire maintains a cover as a hotel management game, but it's really an abstract game of stock manipulation. The earliest edition of the game had players placing tiles on a world map, but this was quickly abandoned in favor of a simple grid. (Someone must have wondered why they were placing tiles in the middle of the ocean.) Each group of tiles represents a growing hotel chain, but the connection between business expansion and occupying an irregular area on a grid is tenuous at best.

It's also deceptive. New players usually found a hotel chain, identify themselves with it, and try to make it grow. This is the first reason new players usually lose to old players. Like Bond, experienced players only care about their mission, and will kill off any company on the board in search of profit. They know what the new players don't: the most basic formula for success is to build up a controlling interest in the second biggest company, then sell it off for big bucks.

Experienced players also know that they have only so many bullets in their financial Walther PPKs, and they have to make every shot count. You have to buy stock to improve your position, but the game only gives you more money to when a company gets bought, and you have limited control over how and when that happens. It's painfully easy to run yourself out of cash and lose ground to your opponents while you wait for a merger. I still struggle with this, and when I master Bond's icy self-control I will be the better for it in both Acquire and real life.

Of course, James Bond would never be seen playing Acquire. He's a man of action, and if the game doesn't involve gambling or electrical shocks, he's not into it. He would have looked great at the table, though, and I would have enjoyed seeing Auric Goldfinger tell him, "No, Mr. Bond, I want you to buy!"

(A tip of the cap and thanks to megacquisitions.com, which has some great bits of history on the early versions of Acquire.)

20Aug/140

Splendor Review

Posted by Chris Aylott

Splendor is one of the hot games of the year, with lots of buzz on various podcasts and videos, plus a prestigious Spiel de Jahres nomination. So when I ran into a game being set up at Board Game Bash 2014, I jumped at it. But was Splendor worth the wait?

The set-up is deceptively simple. You get three decks of cards depicting gem mines, transportation, and shops. You also have a set of tiles showing serious-minded nobles, and a bunch of big heavy "gem" poker chips. The poker chips were especially nice in the edition I played, with plenty of heft and a satisfying clack as you dropped them on the table.

The Splendor of the gem business

The Splendor of the gem business

The cards and tiles are dealt out into a four-by-four grid, with each card deck or tile set getting its own row. The extra cards and tiles are set next to the grid, since players can buy from the grid or from the tops of the decks, and the gem chips are put where the players can idly run their hands over them. This all takes about thirty seconds, and then the players are ready for a richly themed adventure into the world of gem mining!

I kid. If you're looking for theme, you're out of luck with Splendor. The cards, tiles, and chips are pretty and pleasant to interact with, but this is an abstract mathematical game that could have used any number of "Get X to Buy Y" themes. (I'm partial to space rutabagas, myself.)

It's the gameplay that shines here. You claim different colors of gem chips (which are worth no points) and spend them to start buying the lowest tier of cards (which are almost never worth points). The cards count as gems and are never spent, making it easier to buy more valuable cards and the high-point nobles, which you can't spend gem chips for. The first player to 15 points wins, which should take experienced players about 20 minutes.

It's a simple system that lends itself to a lot of (quick) puzzling over which colors to select and which upgrade path to follow to the best cards. You can also do a fair bit to mess with other players by controlling the gem supply and snatching up cards they need. And while the theme may be light, there's a lot of appeal in embarrassing your daughter by snatching up gems and shouting "I'm rich! I'm rich! Booyah!" at the other gamers in the convention. Designer Marc Andre has a winner in this light strategy game, and I'm looking forward to it becoming easier to find so I can play it some more.

14Aug/140

Navegador Review

Posted by Chris Aylott

One of the best things about a convention like Board Game Bash is that you get a chance to play games you're not sure about yet. That was the case on Sunday morning, when I got a chance to review Navegador by stumbling in just as a group was setting up to play it.

I had played this Mac Gerdts game a couple of years ago at BGG Con, and had liked it enough that I was on the lookout for it the next year. Last year's convention was a short trip, though, and Navegador was one of a couple of games I never got a chance to play. (The other casualty was my habitual play of Power Grid, alas!) Since then, I had drooled over the game in sales listings but wasn't quite ready to pick it up based on just one play.

Exploring the world of Navegador.

Exploring the world of Navegador
.

There's a lot to like about Navegador, though. It's an economic game with exploration and colonization, which is the kind of game I love. You play a 15th century explorer building fleets and sending them out around the Horn of Africa to India and Japan. As the game progresses, you explore the world, manipulate the goods markets, hire workers, then build ships, colonies, factories and churches. Everything leads to points one way or another, and the player with the most points at the end wins.

All that's well and good, but the excellent Sail to India does many of the same things in a lot less time? What's special about Navegador?

Round and Round the Navegador Goes

As is often the case in a Mac Gerdts game, it's the rondel. Gerdts is a little obsessed with this system, and has made it work for him in a variety of games.

In a rondel game, you have a circular track that lists several possible actions. When you choose an action on the track, your next action will usually be two or three spaces down the track. If you choose to hire Workers, for instance, then your next action will be going to Market, founding a Colony, or claiming a Privilege, because those are the next actions on the track. (You can go further down the track to take a different action, but that costs precious resources.)

Rondels are great because they create a natural rhythm for the game. New players can focus on choosing between the two or three actions in front of them, while more experienced players can use the track to plan several moves ahead. You can also anticipate and counter opponents' moves by reading their positions on the board. In a game where you can do seven different things in a turn, being able to winnow those choices down to two or three good choices makes the decision of what to do much easier.

As a result, Navegador feels lighter than it is. The game moves along, even with inexperienced players. You get a lot of strategy in a relatively short time, and your brain doesn't hurt at the end. That's a potent combination, and now that I've a had a chance to confirm that yes, I REALLY like this game, I suspect it'll be on my own shelves soon.

11May/140

Hanabi Review

Posted by Chris Aylott

For the last two or three years, I've been fascinated by cooperative games like Hanabi. I'm not absolutely sure why this is, but there are some good reasons. My elder daughter is old enough to play complex games, but would rather play with Daddy than against them. My day job involves a lot of work on aggressively competitive games, so cooperative games are a nice change of place. And the simple fact is that games like Hanabi are a lot of fun.

Hanabi is a card game with a paper-thin theme. In theory, you're spending an evening planning the perfect set of fireworks. In practice, you're assembling numbers in a sequence and trying not to make too many mistakes. The theme is pleasant, and the cards are pretty, but the theme has nothing to do with the gimmick that makes the game interesting.

Hanabi: pretty cards, evil game.

Hanabi: pretty cards, evil game.

In most card games, you know what cards you have and make the best plays you can against your opponents' unknown hands. Hanabi turns this idea around -- literally. You hold your cards so that your fellow players can see them, but you can't. To make the best plays, you have to depend on the clues that your fellow players give you.

The clues are tightly controlled, and you can only tell another player one of two things:

  1. How many cards the player has of a number, or
  2. How many cards the player has of a color.

Based on this information, each player must make deductions about which cards to play and which to discard. Play cards in the right sequence, and your score improves. Play the wrong card and you use up one of your three fuses that mark the end of the game. DIscard the right card and you gain more opportunities to share clues with your fellow players; discard the wrong card and you can block yourself from ever finishing a sequence of cards.

The game is full of tension as you try to deduce what's in your hand and figure out what information your fellow players need from you. Hanabi is a brain-burner, and some players are not going to like this kind of puzzle. If you're looking for a fast-playing mental challenge, though, you'll like this game.

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23Dec/130

Love Letter Review

Posted by Chris Aylott

My elder daughter is developing a sinister chuckle, and she's getting a lot of use out of it playing Love LetterSimply put, the nine-year-old is cleaning my clock.

A princess to discard cards for.

A princess to
discard cards for.

That's a surprise, because I wasn't sure she would take to it at all. Yes, there's a Princess in charge, and for my daughter that's definitely a point in Love Letter's favor. But this is a somewhat abstract game that relies on bluffing and deduction, and I wasn't sure that combination would fly with her.

However, it turns out that Love Letter works with just about everyone. It's a near-perfect combination of short playing time, easy rules, and interesting decisions, and it does all this with just 13 wooden cubes and 16 cards.

You are a suitor for the Princess Annette's hand, and you have to get a love letter to her to gain her favor. (This is a similar premise to Mirror, Mirroranother favorite of my daughter's, but that game is chess with bluffing, not cards.) To accomplish this goal, you have to hand the letter to one of her inner-circle and make sure that none of your rivals get their letter to a more-favored member of the Court.

In game terms, this means you have to have the highest-ranked card at the end of the round. The most efficient way to do this is to make sure that none of your opponents finish the round. This happens a lot in Love Letter. If you can figure out what your opponent is holding, then you can usually play a card that will knock them out. It's great fun to do so, especially when you make an inspired guess and your opponent demands to know how you knew he was holding the Prince card.

Which happens all too often when I play my daughter. She always seems to know what I've got and she always seems to have the perfect counter for it. If she's this sneaky when she starts dating for real, then I'm going to be in a lot of trouble in a few years.

Love Letter is published in the United States by Alderac Entertainment Group, and it's a steal at about $10. If you see it, play it!