Showing posts with label Game Reviews. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Game Reviews. Show all posts

Friday, August 5, 2011


I played Clue with the kids last night.  We didn't have this when I was a kid, so I never played it much growing up - only with friends.  Back then, I thought it was pretty simple, but fun.  Playing as an adult, I realized there's more to it than my 8-year-old self saw.  Where kids mostly just focus on getting the clues noted correctly and puzzled out efficiently, there's this meta-level where you analyze what others are doing with their suggestions, and then a kind of meta-meta level where you watch what other people are noting, especially in response to OTHER people's results, and then a meta-cheating level which I tried to avoid where you can sort of see what part of people's note paper they're marking and determine whether they're noting a weapon, room, or suspect.

There's still a lot of luck.  My daughter (age 14) played well and won, and was doing more fakery and strategy than I thought (is it good when you realize your kids are deceiving you?), but some of her success came from getting the room nailed down very early, which was a function of where she happened to start on the board and what cards she was dealt.  My son (age 12) also did well, and played Colonel Mustard in character as a bombastic blowhard the whole time. What a clown.

The rolling and moving mechanic has always seemed pretty stilted to me, too.  There's likely a better game trapped in there somewhere.  But it was a fun time - gotta love the classics.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Zeno Clash review

Ghat has some mommy/daddy issues
I bought a game on Steam over the weekend - Zeno Clash.  It was on sale for $3.75, so I figured I could hardly go wrong.  Heck, I spent that much in quarters on countless arcade games back in the day.  Including this one.  I'm not proud.

The game was built on the Halflife 2 engine, and there were some weird similarities of interface and graphical appearance there, but it was otherwise very, very different.  The game is very, very weird.  The stuff you do is weird (I just finished a level where I shot at rock-throwing eskimo dudes while being rowed along a fanged canal and discussing the nature of crime with a deep-voiced blue-faced ancient sage).  The art is chaotically bizarre, and the plot and dialogue are sort of dream-like - you're doing things that sort of makes sense in context, but you don't know what's going on, and you're just supposed to accept the weird stuff mostly unquestioningly.  There's some backstory where you were moved to kill your hermaphroditic parent organism with a skull bomb for reasons that only slowly become clear.

Usually, this kind of deliberate artsiness turns me off, but it sort of works here. I've been engaged with the story, and even though the art is strange, it's OK.  It's actually the game part that is not working well for me.  It's a first-person shooter, but you don't shoot much - the weapons are kind of powerful, but you lose them whenever you get hit.  Most of the combat is punching and blocking.

This is fun, kind of, especially when you land some good punches, but they keep putting you in battles with multiple opponents, and you only have the standard 120 degree field of view, so you don't know where the other enemies are.  You are trying to fight one guy, and then you get beat on or shot by a guy you can't see.  A radar or something would really help, or maybe less complicated battles.

Compounding this is a lack of save points.  You get to save after most major battles, but sometimes not, and when you get sent way back to re-fight a battle that you only barely won after 12 tries, it really kills the experience.  I am currently stuck in a fight where you have to beat down three to five guys who are brought back to life by a weird dancing drummer, then kill the drummer.  I've done that once, but then you have to (without life refill if you've eaten all the magic berries, which you need to do to survive the first fight) smash a big strong guy (who also has a sidekick) who can only be hurt with a club, which you lose whenever you're struck.

I've tried this series of fights probably 15 times and never even come close.  Some of the earlier fights were like this too.  I don't mind a challenge, but I'd like the option to manage it better - I don't see a way through this.  Maybe there's a difficulty setting - that might do it, but it's not obvious in the interface.

I've noticed that in several computer games I've designed - I get pretty good at them while playing, so I don't have a good sense of how hard other people will find it.

Anyway, even with the issues, it was definitely worth $3.75.  Hard to imagine how that kind of pricing works for the original authors, who must be getting only a tiny cut after Steam and all the other middlemen take their cut.

Friday, December 31, 2010


We got FITS for Christmas too.  I wasn't able to interest anybody last night, so I tried it solo.  Well, solo at first, and then my 5-year-old nephew came over to help me play, which was pretty fun.

The game is basically real-world Tetris - you have pieces composed of squares which you add to a board and slide down to fill a tall, narrow playfield.  Some of the pieces are more complex than Tetris (with five squares), and you can flip them over to change their handedness, unlike Tetris.  You also can't move them sideways as you drop them, so those vain attempts to fill gaps down low on your stack don't fly here.

The game is a little more complex than regular Tetris.  There are four rounds of play.  The first round, you're just trying to build complete rows with no gaps, like in real Tetris.  For the other rounds, you have slightly different goals, usually involving covering up or leaving exposed particular spaces, but it's mostly the same.  The random order of the pieces is interesting, and with multiple players, they each start with a different piece and then have the same sequence, so you're guaranteed to have different layouts but otherwise a similar experience.

The name apparently comes from an acronym for "Fill In The Spaces," which is semi-cheesy.  The German motto is "Das l├╝ckenlose Spielvergn├╝gen," which I think translates to something like "the gap-free game pleasure."  Some things don't translate well, I guess.  The game's physical design is great, though; the pieces and cards are easy to manipulate, and the stands and card inserts are cleverly designed and work well.  Things feel a little bit flimsy, but I'd guess it will all stand up to normal use.

It would be interesting to play with other people rather than on my own, but I'm not sure how different it would be.  This isn't a game, really, in the normal sense.  It's more of a competitive puzzle, and like other competitive puzzles, it works fine on its own, too.  There's really no interaction between players at all, other than table talk, and of course the scoring at the end.

So, interesting, fun, and a little odd, but a good game, I think, and different from others you'll see.  More experience would give me a better feel for it.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010


I gave my daughter Agricola for Christmas (a Homer gift if ever there was one, although she loves games too).  We've played two games now, both of them the "family" version without the occupations and minor improvements.  It was really fun, and I assume the added complexity of the occupations and minor improvements will make it even neater.

One quibble - the rules didn't seem too well laid out for somebody just learning.  The box is FULL of components, boards, etc., some of them important and always used, others from optional parts of the game, some just for convenience, and some different with no apparent reason (e.g. the backsides of the farm boards which have different art and appear to be for storage of the components).  They aren't well-described (some aren't described ever), so for somebody just opening the box, they're dauntingly complex, way more than I think they should be.  Also, it would be nice to have the family game described separately (and first) so that you could start with that and then move onto the more complex variations, rather than having to delete the more complex parts to get down to the family version.

The first time I looked through the box, I had the same sinking feeling I had with Magic Realm and Titan - that the game would be so complex it would take far to long to learn (and to explain) to get a game ever played.  But, it ends up to be clear and manageable, and it seems to offer a variety of different strategies, with the frustration that you can't quite follow them all in the time given.  The pace gets fast and furious at the end, too.  A good time.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Game Review: Race for the Galaxy

I got a chance to play Race for the Galaxy last week too. It was a lot of fun. It has a pretty steep learning curve, but I was getting it figured out after two games. One of the problems is that it uses a system of icons to describe various aspects of the planets and technologies you run into, and these can get pretty complex. A lot of the world these days seems to be expressed in incomprehensible hieroglyphics, so I guess it's par for the course, but it took me a while just to figure out what all the stuff meant. When you've got several kinds of worlds, four kinds of trade goods, a bunch of descriptors, arrows, hexagons, numbers, plusses and minuses, five turn phases - it gets pretty complex.

The good part is, under all the complexity (after you've developed your decoding skills), there's a pretty fun game, using a winning theme.  I'm a total sucker for developing space empires - I love doing that, from Master of Orion to Starweb to Spaceward Ho to Starship Catan to Lacuna Expanse.

The game is primarily a set of cards, with some accompanying tokens for bonuses and scoring. The cards have worlds to conquer or technology to acquire, and each costs different amounts to implement and gives different bonuses and score. The catch is that the cards are also the currency for paying for the new acquisitions, so you have to give up some opportunities to acquire others. These tradeoffs are very interesting, and given that each game gives you different starting worlds and different goals, you'll end up having a different experience (and needing a different strategy) each time through.

There's also an economy built into the game, with a bunch of different trade goods that you can acquire from different worlds, and then trade for other things (more cards, more points). The neat thing about the game is that you actually can't sustan all the different strategies at once. You'll need to focus on one or two - military power, trade, adding planets, achieving bonuses - and which ones you can focus on depends on the cards you get and the choices you make.

A key mechanic (and one I gather this game borrowed from others such as San Juan and Puerto Rico) is the phase selection. Each turn has five possible phases, but they won't always happen - you get to pick one phase that you guarantee will happen (and you usually get a bonus in that phase for picking it), but the other players pick their own phases, so you're not likely to get all of the possible phases happening. This ends up being an interesting part of the strategy - sometimes you really want two or three of the phases to happen, but you can only force one, and you have to guess what the other players will pick.

The player-vs-player aspect is pretty minimal - it's very difficult to mess with other players in any effective way, although you do have some impact on them when you chose what phase you want to have this turn (because they will also then have that phase).

I got pretty badly beaten both times I played, and I think it would take probably 6-10 more plays before I felt comfortable with all the different parts and strategies. Like I said, a pretty steep learning curve. But even getting thrashed, it was fun. Even though the cards you get and the actions of the other players bring in a fair amount of luck, you have a lot of decisions to make, and they have very strong effects, so it doesn't feel very luck-determined while you're playing. I like this one a lot - lots of meat to it, good balance and variety, and a fun theme.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Game Review: Dominion

I finally had a chance to play Dominion last week, so I have an understanding now what the fuss is all about. It's a clever design - enough strategy (and math) to be intriguingly complex, but implemented in an easy-to-understand, simple-to-play way. I enjoyed it, and played 4-5 games with 2 and 3 players over a couple of days. I also watched a group of hard-core devotees play for a bit, and they were certainly passionate about it and having a very good time.

Parts I like a lot:

  • Scoring points actually diminishes your effectiveness - this is a great mechanism which keeps the game close. It flows very naturally from how the game works, too.
  • Using only some of the special cards means that every game will have different pieces available - this is really great, and makes it very replayable.
  • The cards combine in interesting ways to make occasional super-combo plays, where you can string together a bunch of actions for a neat super power move.
  • The art is neat, and the cards easy to understand and interpret. There are very complex mechanics here, but they run very smoothly and are built on simple principles, which is great design.
Parts I don't like so much:

  • Because the cards delivered to you each time are random, it can be pretty variable what you get and when, so the big combos that you plan sometimes never materialize, while other times you get more than you need. The defense cards come up at random too, so sometimes your attacks work and sometimes they fail. The end result feels like there's a goodly amount of luck involved, especially when one player hits a few combinations in a row and gets a lot of resources as a result.
  • I didn't play enough to work this all out, but it seems like there are some combinations of cards that are automatically the most powerful you can get. This becomes a balance issue, since the person who gets more of these cards in any given game will win. To the extent that this is determined by knowledge of the cards and careful strategy, that's fine; to the extent that it's determined by luck (i.e., who gets a chance to buy them first), it's less satisfying.
  • Following on from the point above - the random allotment of which cards will be used in any given game, which is neat, also comes at a cost. It means that each game isn't likely to be balanced; some cards will be awesome or lead to good combinations; others will be near-useless. I think on balance this is a good trade off (variety for balance), but it's a little frustrating to have some cards never even worth considering.
  • Having the game end when the good land gets bought out seems limiting. In the games I played, people hardly ever bought any land other than the high-value land, and thus the game was nearly always decided by who'd bought the most of these, and as a result the game ended rather suddenly as people got more gold and bought them all - there wasn't really time for them to have much of a negative impact, since they weren't that common in people's hands. To me, this underlined the luck factor and the super-combo points I mentioned above, and it meant that the lower-value land was near useless. I don't know if a different end condition would be better, but this seemed imperfect to me.
  • There's a lot of shuffling :-).
Overall, I think it's really neat, and I can see why people are so excited about it. I'd be happy to play it any time, although I don't think I would be one of those folks I watched who play it over and over again exclusively (and semi-obsessively). I think some of its popularity comes from its similarity to the Magic: The Gathering CCG structure - although Dominion isn't a CCG, and that's a real positive for me, it still has the deck building and combo card aspects of Magic that people enjoy. Magic never has done it for me - the cards are interesting enough, but having to buy lots of them to build anything powerful was very annoying to me, and I didn't find the gameplay that compelling. But Dominion fixes a lot of these problems for me, especially the pay-to-play aspect, and I enjoyed it quite a bit.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Jump Gate review and the complexity of newfangled technology

Matt Worden is (at least superficially) like me - he's designed a number of computer games, is also into designing board games, and has published some of them through TheGameCrafter.

He recently had a pretty positive review from Tom Vasel via the Dice Tower podcast, which I'm sure is fun for Matt.  The game looks fun, and the review is thorough. As a guy who's publishing, at least initially, through TGC, It's interesting to me how Vasel critiques the components.  It's definitely true that the pawns and chips are generic at TGC, although Matt made use of the fact that TGC offers a bunch of different spaceship models, so his game happens to have a thematic link with the generic components.  But the cards from TGC are actually pretty great, and the little boards that Matt uses are thin but functional.  Also, the artwork for Matt's game is far, far above the average TGC game, definitely commercial quality.  The packaging (small white corrugated box, crumpled rules) that TGC offers are definitely not up to the standards of traditionally-published games, and that's tough - the game inside might be terrific, but the packaging isn't up to that level.  It shouldn't matter if the game is fun and the parts work, but with quality expectations high it's hard to compete when you're doing small print runs or print-on-demand.

It's also interesting to me that this whole process is so new-media - a guy designs a game, publishes it via a web-interface on a POD site, gets it reviewed by an avid and knowledgeable though non-professional critic, who posts it for free to be seen worldwide on a video sharing site.  This is not a process which would have even been imaginable in 1995, and now it just seems commonplace.

And here I am blogging about it.  We've come a long way in a short time, even if we don't realize it.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Review: Spy Alley

We played Spy Alley tonight, a simple boardgame which seems to be published by a small independent game company, Spy Alley Partners LLP.  They look like they've adopted the model I'm looking to implement - they have a small line of games, and they sell through distribution and through their website.  They're bigger than I'd be starting out; the game is lots of places (many online retailers, although I think we got ours at a regular store), and it's well-constructed and appealingly designed.  It looks from the BoardgameGeek entry like there have been earlier, cruder versions in production.  So, it looks like this group has made a go of independent publishing, and may be doing well.

The game?  Eh.  We've played it a number of times.  It's fun enough, and there's an interesting mechanic at the core.  You are trying to collect all your nation's spy gear while not letting on to the other players what nationality you are.  The spy theme isn't really integrated heavily into the game play; you could be collecting four of anything.   But,  the game wouldn't be much without some kind of theme to put it on, and the spy motif fits the hidden information well, so it works.  The ending is very luck-determined, though; you roll a die to move every turn, and your choices are pretty severely limited by what squares you end up landing on.  As the game progresses, you sometimes gain more control of your movement through move cards (a mechanic borrowed from the classic Careers).

You have the option of taking a very high-stakes gamble at any time - trying to guess an opponent's nationality.  If you succeed, the opponent is out of the game; if you fail, you're out.  You win either by eliminating all opponents (or letting them eliminate themselves) or by collecting all your gear and making it to your embassy (one hard-to-reach space on the board).

There's another major luck factor, though - there's one space on the board that lets you make free guesses to try to eliminate opponents.  In our games, that's usually how people are knocked out, and that's how I went tonight. There are six nationalities, and I got free-guessed three times, knocked out on the third.  Not very satisfying; nothing I did mattered much, and the end came suddenly.  That's fairly typical in our experience.  It's more fun the longer you last, though.

When you knock somebody out, you get all their stuff, which is imbalancing but makes the game go faster (and accelerate as it goes on).  There are some other clever design elements too, although a lot of it is just random.

But, the kids like it, and it's a relatively quick family game.  As an added bonus, we have fun trying to talk in the accents of the various nationalities, and the light-hearted deception mechanic is fun.

Photo above by Chris Hawks, borrowed from

Sunday, August 22, 2010


About a year ago, my brother turned me onto a great computer game called Slay (available here) by Sean O'Connor.  The game is basically a territory-capture game with different ranked units and an underlying economics system.  It's got a set of rules that are very much like boardgame rules, and it plays out on a hex map.  Although it has a boardgame feel, I think it works much better on a computer than it would on a board because of the underlying mathematics involved - the math isn't so hard that you couldn't figure it out, and you can actually do the calculations if you need to for a critical decision, but mostly it's more fun just to let the computer do the math and focus on the strategic parts.

And the strategy is fun - you've got ranked units that can capture territory or block others from capturing, and buildings that merely block capture. You do much better with bigger connected areas of territory, so the idea is to consolidate from small dispersed areas into a large area whose edges you can defend.  Each separate territory you control has its own economy, so small areas can't afford very powerful units, while with bigger areas, you can get some of the more powerful units that can defeat lesser units and take out the buildings.  Also, your guys can move to and attack from any space in a connected territory, so units fly around the board if you've got a big connected realm.  The catch is that you have to support the units (but not the buildings), so you need to have enough squares under your control to pay all your guys each turn.  If you don't they ALL die, not just the ones you can't afford, and your territory is up for grabs unless you've got buildings in place.  The unit costs go up exponentially for the higher ranked units, so they can be dangerous.  Any spare income you don't use is banked, so you can save up over the course of several turns, but your reserves are lost if your area capital is conquered.

Further complicating the game are plants that grow into spaces and cancel the income you receive from them.  There are two kinds, one of which is a pine tree, which grows slowly at apparently random intervals, while the other looks like palm trees (although when I'm playing I think of them more as weeds).  The palm trees spread each turn to an open space, so you can rapidly lose territory to a weed infestations.  You can clear a square with any unit, but that counts as the unit's attack for the turn.  When units die from lack of support, they often turn into weeds (conquered buildings sometimes go to pine trees), so a bad economic defeat can cripple a whole area and then bleed over into neighboring territories.

The strategy is interesting - you want to try to expand and connect your areas, but you also need to defend, particularly when you've got a narrow strip of territory that could be easily severed.  Often, late in the game, you can pull dramatic moves, sending a string of guys across a big area to divide it into two, which can cause somebody's whole army to die all at once.  But doing that can leave you unprotected, so somebody can do it to you right back.

You can play online with others, but the network interface is pretty old-school, so I've mostly just played against computer opponents, who are quite competent and fun.  The graphics hearken back to simpler 8-bit times, and it's clearly a one-man operation, which I'm quite familiar with through my experience writing and selling Snood. The game costs $20 for Windows and Mac, $4 for iPhone, and it's well worth the investment.

Image above borrowed from the Slay homepage.

Starcraft II

I've been playing some of this over the last couple of weeks.  It took a while, but I've really started enjoying the single-player campaign games.  They've got a difficulty tuning problem, I think - the "normal" setting is very easy, and the "hard" setting is often extremely difficult.  Except when it's not.  It's a little frustrating to play some levels and feel completely unchallenged, and then to bump up one difficulty level and feel like there's no way anyone could ever prevail. With the tech upgrades you can keep buying, the "hard" level is becoming easier, too, which is odd.

The games against actual humans seem not to have too much depth compared to other RTS games I've played, although I've heard that this gets better the better you get. For me, it mostly seems like whoever makes a bigger wad of guys earlier nearly always wins - it's a very rush-intensive game, and there aren't very many strong defensive buildings or siege weapons, although some races have more than others.  That means most of the fights are chaotic close-quarters kinds of things, and there's less of the strategic stuff going on - there are so many units, and they're sooo rock-paper-scissors, where one is terrific against some units and horrible against others, that it's hard to come up with a good strategy other than guessing what your opponent will do.

Again, I may find it to be more tuned the longer I play, but for now, multiplayer is not so much fun - lots of work for one fight about 10 minutes in that determines the whole game.  Makes me miss Age of Empires II, which was a favorite, and appreciate Company of Heroes, which allows the use of cover and defensive structures and positions in interesting ways.

Friday, August 6, 2010


We played our new copy of Pandemic earlier this week.  Four players, the easy version (with four epidemic cards).  It was a lot of fun; we caught on quickly, I thought, but then we got creamed, not by disease showing up everywhere, which we were on top of.  We had cures to all four diseases and were managing to get them eradicated, we didn't have too many outbreaks, our epidemic level was only up to three cards.  No, despite our valiantly beating back the tide of disease, we lost because we ran out of city cards to draw, which was kind of unsatisfying. We need to try again to see where we went wrong - it seemed like we were doing good things every turn, but I suppose there's a more optimal way to move around and avoid outbreaks than we were able to spot.  I wish there were some rules that covered that kind of ending (infection rate increases when you're out of cards or something) rather than just losing by default, but I guess that's kind of like cheating at solitaire.

The game actually felt to me like a creative computer puzzle game - the cooperative element was fun, but it would work just as well as a solo game with one player controlling everything.  It was an interesting and different way to play a boardgame - I could see why it was so lauded.  I'll try it some more to see how it goes.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Starship Catan

I played a couple games of Starship Catan today.  It was pretty fun, but it's very tippy - it seems like somebody who gets ahead early will stay ahead.  There are a number of mechanisms that reinforce this (nearly every way to get victory points also is moderately to very useful for other purposes).  The biggest is the construction of the super-modules for your spacecraft.  These are not terribly expensive, but they provide a pretty good bonus ability plus a victory point plus there is only one of each, so you block your opponent from both the victory point and the bonus ability.

The other thing that's interesting is that the two sides are fundamentally unequal - the Sun player starts building fuel cells, while the Moon player starts building carbon.  Carbon is used for weapons, fuel cells for engines, but that part of it isn't too bad - both engines and weapons are useful, and they're not entirely central to the game, so that's not a big deal.  What seems more unfair is that carbon is needed for the modules, which are very useful, especially early on, while the fuel cells are needed for trade ships and colony ships.  The trade and colony ships are nice, because they let you grab more planets, but they don't seem as useful both immediately and long-term as the modules.  This is compounded by how they're used - you need to find a planet to use a trade ship or colony ship on, while you can build a module whenever you can afford it.

In my second game, I was the sun player, and I was swimming in fuel cells but never had any carbon, so I got way behind with the modules, and then never was able to catch up or mount any kind of challenge.  The first game was more even, but as the Moon player, I had a tremendously powerful ship and most of the double-upgrade modules. 

I do applaud the effort to differentiate between the two sides, and the game is strategically rich and very complex in other ways.  I haven't played enough to know how it goes all the time, and there may be a counter strategy I haven't stumbled upon yet for the Sun player, but it does seem pretty slippery-slope, where the early leader will usually win.  There aren't any catch-up mechanisms built into the game - not one that I can see, anyway - so there's nothing holding back the snowballing effect.

I enjoyed it, though, and would recommend it to others.

Saturday, July 31, 2010

Another good Diggity review

Endymian (Ian Stedman), who's also a proud new father, reviewed Diggity over at The Gamer's University, cross-posted to  Quite a positive reivew; he seemed to like it all except the art, which I'm working on now.  I'm glad his group enjoyed it!

Sunday, May 30, 2010

Game Review: Hacienda

I'd like to take a moment to comment on a game I've been enjoying for several years now: Hacienda, designed by Wolfgang Kramer.  The theme of the game is ranching in Argentina, and it's essentially a tile-laying, board management game with money as an additional resource.

It's a very clever, very flexible game design.  Players have a variety of different types of land and animal tiles to play and also a supply of money.  The tiles each come in a variety of types (different terrain types for land, different animal species for animals).  There are lots of ways to score - six different ways, all nicely balanced - so the game gets complicated and strategic nearly instantly.  You need to connect to markets, develop good board position, keep enough money to buy the high-scoring haciendas and water units later, and thwart your opponents' plans.

The game is played in turns, with each player getting three moves per turn.  This is a great mechanic - you can accomplish small goals easily on one turn, but if you want to set up long-term plans, you have to try to get them accomplished in pieces, and you may not have the resources to do so.

I haven't played the game in its tabletop cardboard form, only online at SpielByWeb.Com, but I've played enough that I can imagine how it would be to play it in person with cardboard bits.  The online version does a ton of work for the players, from the mundane (organizing tiles, recording moves, keeping track of money) to the more daunting (calculating scoring).  I think this is an interesting example of a game developed as a real boardgame that actually plays better online.  Not only are the construction and mechanics of the game better handled online (since it contains lots of fiddly little bits), the quantitative and rules elements are too.  Because you can actually make multiple moves in a turn, the online version works well - you have enough to do that a turn takes a bit of planning, and you're making a number of decisions in a turn rather than just one.

I think there's a fundamental distinction there between game types.  Games with fast-paced action and short turns are going to be bogged down by online play (e.g. checkers, stratego).  Games with lots of parts and time spent organizing are going to work better online (e.g. Risk, Scrabble).  For me, Hacienda is great online, and I don't know if it would be as fun in person (although you'd get to see the reactions to your moves on your foes' faces, which would be fun).

The online version at SpielByWeb also allows for custom board layouts, which makes this game (which holds up very well to a wide variety of layouts, evidence of its clever and robust design) even more fun.

Images above from Hacienda Entry at
Image at left from implementation.

Friday, April 9, 2010

Game Review: Ricochet Robots

I played Ricochet Robots (from Rio Grande Games and other publishers, designed by Alex Randolf) with the Guilford College Yachting Club at the cafeteria last Friday. I'd played it before, a couple of times, but I'm getting used to it now. It's actually more of a competitive puzzle than a game. The basic idea is that there is a semi-random board layout full of walls and target spaces with colored symbols on them. You add to the board in random spots a set of robots of different colors (matching the symbols). Then, you draw little chits from a bag one at a time. The symbols on the chits match the symbols on the board, and the chit you draw indicates which robot needs to reach which target space.

Then, the players all sit there staring at the board (or, if you're playing with some of the group that I did, cussing a blue streak while staring at the board), trying to find a way to get the robot whose color matches the chit to the target space matching the symbol. The board is a big grid, and the robots have two restrictions: they can only move in straight lines along the grid, and they must move along those lines until they hit something (a wall, the edge of the board, or another robot). To get the selected robot to the target space, you may find a direct set of moves, or you may need to move other robots to places where the main robot can run into them and stop, lining it up to move onto the target space.

Once you find a way to achieve this, you shout out the number of moves it takes to solve the puzzle and flip a timer. The other players have a chance to find a shorter sequence of moves than yours before the timer runs out. If nobody does, you get a point; if another player beats you (or ties your number of moves but has a lower overall score than you do), they get to steal your point. There are a series of these puzzles dictated by the chits, and the winner is the one who collects the most points before the chits run out.

This, like Set, which is also a competitive puzzle, is a game where some people just seem innately better at it, and where having a few games under your belt makes you much better than people who haven't played before. The thing feels a bit like a puzzle from an early computer game from the 1980's, or from one of those puzzle magazines from my childhood. You could certainly play it solitaire and amuse yourself for a while. But it's more fun competitively. There's a bunch of pressure while you compete, and a bunch of mental stress too as you're working out complex pathways and trying to remember them as you go. Sometimes the chains of moves reach 15-20 or more, and it is very challenging even to count them, much less remember them while the timer runs out. If a move chain is too short, it's disallowed, and the chit goes back in the bag.

The concept is pretty simple, but there are some good design decisions that have gone into making it into a better game. The rule where people who are behind can claim points merely by tying the number of moves helps to keep the game closer, since the more experienced (or plain better) players would otherwise get ahead. The inclusion of place markers for the robots (so that you can move the robots around but then get them back where they started if a move chain turns out to be illegal) is very clever. The randomized boards (four sections with two sides each that can be assembled in any combination) and the pre-set positions of goal spaces are well-designed to make it frequently tricky to solve the puzzles. Trivial solutions (short move chains) seem to come up fairly regularly, but any given game will likely have at least a few puzzles that need 10 or more moves of multiple robots to solve, and that's where the game is the most fun.

The pieces are nice enough; the robots are cute, and the board is easy to read, although the walls printed on the board are sometimes hard to see. The set I've played on doesn't fit together quite right, and the boards have warped a little, but I don't know if that's typical - this one has seen a lot of use.

A fun game; like Set, it makes your brain sweat a bit, and a lot of the competition is people sitting silently next to each other staring intently and stressing out, but I'd recommend it.

Image by Chris Norwood, used under CC license. From

Friday, March 19, 2010

Mass Effect II

I'm currently enjoying Mass Effect II for XBox - I'm about 15 hours into it. It's kind of funny, though, that nearly every character you meet has some connection to your earlier life in Mass Effect I. It's like there are only about 100 people in the galaxy, and you met them all the first time, and they were just waiting for you to come back. Also, everybody in the galaxy treats you either as some kind of living god or with haughty disdain - no middle ground. Just once, I'd like to meet somebody who doesn't care much about me.

It's a fun game, though, and an engaging universe they've set it in. The world you walk around in is actually much more fun than the game part, which is mostly a simplified first-person shooter with a couple of dry minigames tacked on. The decision-making character interaction parts are also thoroughly enjoyable, although I'm too much of a namby-pamby to choose most of the renegade actions. They've done a good job of giving you a chance to explore your moral code as well. A fun experience - even better than the first one, I'd say so far, although the ending of the first one was pretty awesome.

Is this a "game" in the sense I've been discussing in earlier posts here? Not really at all - it's more of a puzzle, or actually just an interactive story. But we've conflated all of these cinematic computer experiences as "games," based on the initial arcade-game offerings (which were actually much closer to true games or sports) so I guess I'll stick with the vernacular.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Game Review: Dixit

I had a chance to play Dixit a couple weeks ago. It was clever, fun, and very pretty. The basic idea is that the players all have a set of pictures on cards kept hidden from the other players. One player (the storyteller) chooses one of his or her pictures and then comes up with a phrase (broadly defined to include a word, several words, a noise, or even an action) to describe that picture. Without revealing the picture, the storyteller shares the phrase with the other players. The other players then choose from among their pictures what they think is the best match for the phrase, and all the pictures (the initial one plus one from each other player) are mixed together still hidden, and then turned face up. Each player (other than the storyteller who came up with the phrase) votes for which picture is the best match to the phrase.

The storyteller scores points for anybody who picks the original picture that inspired the phrase. The other players can score points for picking the correct picture themselves or for having other players pick their pictures instead of the correct one. To keep the descriptions from being too literal, the storyteller actually loses points if everybody picks the correct picture - there has to be at least one player who chooses incorrectly for the storyteller to score points. A very clever mechanic without which the game wouldn't work at all.

So, the strategy when you're the storyteller is to come up with a phrase that's a good enough match to get people to pick your picture, but ambiguous enough that there will still be enough confusion that other pictures get picked. When you're not the storyteller, it's simpler - just pick the best match to the phrase.

The gameplay is quick and fun, and the scoring seems pretty balanced. There's a fair amount of luck involved, although it's not traditional luck (e.g. die rolls) - there's some of that with the cards you draw, but most of the luck comes from what happens to inspire the other players, and what connections you're able to get them to make. I didn't feel like I had much control over the game, but that was OK - it was a fun enough process that I didn't mind just going with the flow.

The pictures are really neat and a good fit to the game - very colorful surreal scenes that lend themselves to metaphor, emotion, and ambiguity. The cards are very big, too, which is nice - they're easy to see from across the table. Some of it seems desperately over-the-top artsy - the playing pieces are little bunny rabbits, for no particular reason - and stereotypically French. The bunnies don't stay in place well on the little board you move them around on - they're too big and too tippy. But that's a quibble - it's a cool concept that I think would play well with different numbers of people (I had a group of six). Playing the game felt a little like Apples to Apples, although it's not directly parallel - it's maybe more like the dictionary parlor game and other derivative ones (Balderdash, Wise and Otherwise). I'm not sure how it would stand up to repeated playings, once you had seen all the pictures, but I think it would be OK, since you'd come up with different phrases. Better than Apples to Apples, anyway, which gets a little stale even with the many, many words they have to match.

A fun one - recommended.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Game Review: Are You the Traitor?

I played an interesting game last week called Are You the Traitor? It was pretty fun as a party game, reminiscent of Werewolf (described here) which I'd played with friends a couple years ago. The premise is that everybody has a secret role (wizard, guard, key bearer, traitor), and the roles are split up into two sides, and each player is trying to figure out who's on the other side while deceiving everyone else about his or her own role and side. There's really no "game" to it in the traditional sense - sure, you score points via treasures that you collect, but that part seems only designed to give the game an ending point. The rest of the game is just guessing about the roles of the other players - basically, figuring out who's bluffing and who's telling the truth.

This has a long history in games, of course - any game with hidden information involves some degree of bluffing, and even pure strategy games with perfect information and no luck involved can involve bluffing (e.g. "if you move there, I'll definitely not attack this space."). But this game (and those from which it's likely derived) have bluffing as really the only part of it. There's no way to get enough information to decide well - you either believe or don't believe.

The story is moderately interesting - something about a key that wizards are vying for (see yesterday's post about game metaphors), but there's not really enough of a game there to develop it on. So, you're left with the only game mechanic being listening to your fellow players declare themselves innocent or guilty, and then either making a call yourself, or wimping out and waiting for another player to take a stand.

That can be pretty fun, especially if you play a couple rounds (or know the other players well enough) to get a sense if your fellow players are likely to lie or tell the truth. But it didn't seem like enough to sustain a game. I found myself occasionally, when everybody was just sitting there staring quizzically at each other, fairly bored, and willing to make a accusation just because nothing was happening.

So, what would I add or change? That's hard to say. I think there should be more to it. The natural-feeling thing to me would be to give the players some kind of resources, and then let them make bets about other people's roles. In this way, you could gradually reveal more information (as you do in poker) while still forcing people to stay in or out as you go. Maybe the cards get revealed in a particular order, from the least important to the most, and each round players place bets on who is the key-bearer or Chosen One or whatever. If they bet on the player who goes out, they're out too. And then you could change your choice between rounds. I don't know. But something like that would allow for some clever guessing and clues to follow without every round being an all-or-nothing bluff-off.

It was interesting to play, though, and very easy to learn. I just didn't feel like the fun-per-minute ratio was very high. Just my two cents - your mileage may vary.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Little Green Guys with Guns

For those of you looking for a boardgame-like experience online, I'd recommend Little Green Guys with Guns (at I'll admit to some potential bias here, because the game's author is my brother, but the game is really fun. It's a play-by-e-mail (PBEM) turn-based tactical combat game. You have a team of little green guys trying who are usually trying to kill the other teams run by other players (although there are some cooperative maps, solo maps, and alliance team maps). Each turn, you plan out moves and attacks for your team, and then they execute your orders. They do this literally - which means your moves and attacks can get messed up if somebody steps in front of you or destroys nearby terrain, often leading to comical and tragic results.

The game is quite mature, having been in development for over five years. There are six different kinds of units with different range, strength, armor, damage, and attack type. There's lots of variety in map design, unit selection and capabilities, and terrain types, and the maps are scriptable, so the user community frequently comes up with new innovations. There are over 130 different maps to play on, and more being created all the time. The player community is open and supportive, with a hotly contested player ranking list. Even better, the game is free to try (donations to support are currently optional, but there may be a small subscription involved in the future).