Board in the Stacks: Samurai Gardener

In Samurai Gardener — first published as Edo Yasiki in Japan — from Osprey Games and Hisashi Hayashi, 2-5 players quickly grab and then place cards to construct impressive gardens and score points and bonuses by having rows/columns of similar areas.

Each card consists of six sections with different types of features (pond, tatami mat, garden, and path). At the start of each round, the lead player chooses as many cards as there are players from the draw deck and places them in the middle of the table within easy reach of all players.

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The lead player then calls out “Ei! Ei!” and everyone yells “Oh!” and simultaneously slam their hand down on the card they want. You can also call out “One, Two, THREE” instead. Or you can just place cards and let people choose in turn order. In reality it doesn’t really matter how you do it. Whoever gets to their desired card first gets it. If two players find themselves with their hands on the same card, then the person with more of the card covered gets it.  I played this across a few different groups and some found this an exciting element of the game and others found it repetitive and off-putting. Adding a dexterity/speed element to a card/tile placement game doesn’t add that much to the game-play to make it central to the game.

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In order to construct the perfect garden, cards can be placed adjacent to or overlapping other cards in the player’s tableau but cannot be turned 90 degrees. The short side of cards in your garden should always be facing you. Additionally, you can’t cover an area of three or more of the same garden features are present in a row/column.

Once the cards are placed, rows/columns of three, four, or five of the same area type are awarded points, and there are bonuses for scoring two or more types at the same time. The first player to 25 or the player with the most points when all cards are depleted wins.

Samurai Gardener is a delightfully simple card game that has been a great starter at my library game nights especially for older players who are coming in with very little board game experience but quite a bit of experience with traditional card games. However, the dexterity/speed part of the game was not a big hit and I’ve preferred to have the active player deal and then choose in turn order. Everyone will generally get enough turns to get their first choice.

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What makes this game interesting is the scoring. Each player has four cards in front of them (pond, tatami mat, garden, and path) which are flipped over whenever the corresponding feature is scored (has a length of 3, 4, or 5). However, once flipped over that feature can’t be scored until the cards are refreshed and that doesn’t happen until all the cards are flipped face-down. So, you need to score each feature and then start again. It adds a pleasant amount of tension and decision around placement of the cards and optimizing which which features to score.

Bottom Line: Samurai Gardener is a simple card game with a unique scoring mechanism and an oddly unnecessary speed/dexterity element. Experienced gamers will likely drift towards Honshu as their go-to card/tile-laying game. I can see breaking this out at family holidays or during lunch with co-workers or emerging gamers. Osprey Games continues to present us with approachable, well-produced, and enjoyable games.

 

 

Board in the Stacks: Tokyo Highway

The Tokyo Metropolitan Expressway is a spidery network of highways, overpasses, and expressways that was constructed in 1962 to increase the efficiency of traffic flowing through Tokyo. It’s unique and mind-bogglingly complicated design of curves and grades is the inspiration for Tokyo Highway from Itten Games and designed by Naotaka Shimamoto and Yoshiaki Tomioka. This two player game plays in approximately 30 minutes and is appropriate for players 8 and up.    

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In Tokyo Highway you will be constructing columns and roads in order to place all of the cars in your supply. First person to place all their cars, wins! Players each start with 30 grey discs (pillars), 3 yellow disks (junctions), 15 roads (thin wooden popsicle sticks), 10 small cars and a set of tweezers to place them.

To set up the game each player places one pillar, one road and one car. The pillars are set within one road’s length of each other and a road is placed resembling an entrance ramp to your highway. Each player then takes turns completing three actions:

  1. Construct a pillar within on road length away from another pillar or junction. Pillars can’t be the same height or 2 more/less than the base point.
  2. Construct a road by placing a popsicle stick between two pillars. The edge of the road should not hang over the pillars. Roads should not pass directly over other pillars, and shouldn’t touch other roads.
  3. Place a car on the road just constructed if it is the first to cross over or under your opponent’s road. If multiple roads are crossed then multiple cars can be placed.

The yellow discs are junctions and provide some additional benefits when placed. The allow any number of grey pillars to be placed despite the placement rules. However, during the following turn the normal rules apply. It also allows for an additional road to be built from the junction.

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Tokyo Highway is a three dimensional, abstract, 2 player, dexterity race. The only way to place all your cars to win is to construct pillars and roads that cross over your opponents. This means space and mobility get restricted quickly (Hello, tweezers!). The components are delightfully minimalist as are the rules. This, like many dexterity games, requires an extremely steady hand and there are rules in play for clumsiness which can be a frustrating if you have mobility issues.

My largest complaint is that Tokyo Highway requires players to constantly check to determine the legality of a move. In particular, if a road is touching another road or if a road is crossing over a pillar. This slows down the flow of a game. My opinion is if you want to enjoy Tokyo Highway, just let the highway grow and don’t worry too much about it.

Overall, Tokyo Highway is a delightful dexterity race which, unlike many dexterity games, ends with a feeling of satisfaction as you gaze over the mess you both created. It is also practically begging to be supersized so if anyone wants to take that on, let me know!   

 

First Looks: Wasteland Express Delivery Service from Pandasaurus Games

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Designers:Jonathan Gilmour, Ben Pinchback, Matt Riddle
Publisher: Pandasaurus Games
Players: 2-5
Age: 12+ (reviewers recommendation)
Playing time: 120 minutes

In Wasteland Express Delivery Service, civilization has finally crashed and sank into a post-nuclear fashion oblivion — everything is all blood, sweat, tape, and spandex. You need to move water, food, and weapons in order to pick up enough scrap to keep your rig roadworthy and knee-deep in eyeliner. Upgrade weapons, storage space and other variable sundries in order to keep up with the competition. Attack and pillage raiders moving across the Wastelands or send them head first into another rig. The bulk of your time, however, will be moving materials for three different factions, picking up other contracts, and dealing with various catastrophic events. The player who first completes three objectives, wins…and then takes a bath.

Unless you are actually living in a post-apocalyptic fallout shelter (give it another year), you have heard of Wasteland Express Delivery Service. Draped in an aggressively busy post-apocalyptic setting and featuring an intensity of artwork that would make Tank Girl blush and Mad Max *finally* go home and change his pants, WEDS is a delightfully chunky mess of a game with a solid pick-up-and-deliver frame. The box is big, the inserts are sponge-worthy (reference), and the rules and set-up requires two advance degrees and a crow-bar to get through. However, once you get this game rolling along, it just keeps on trucking into blissful oblivion.

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So. Much. Tape.

I haven’t had much time to really dive into this game so take everything with a grain of salt. I did have some quick thoughts and wanted to comment whether it is a good fit for a library setting (it is if you are experienced). Despite all the chrome, miniatures, and all the extra bits, this, in essence, is a simple Pick Up and Delivery game with an obscene amount of customization added. The basic mechanisms of the game are already there for you: Move, Pick Up, Move, Deliver, Make Money, Pillage. To their credit, Gilmore, Pinchback, and Riddle (the law offices of…) have designed a wonderfully engaging and exciting game around that notoriously dull mechanism and Pandasaurus Games developed it into a gorgeous piece of sexy shelf candy.

Similar to Scythe (advance warning, I’m going to compare WEDS to Scythe often), the art direction does not correlate directly to the player experience. If you are expecting plenty of Road Road style action between players and factions, you will be disappointed. There is very little direct player interaction although quite a bit indirect interaction (moving Raiders around the board, messing with the commodities market, racing to fulfill a contract). However, unlike Scythe, where the beginning of the game is on rails and basically predetermined, WEDS provides a wide variety of actions and movement across the board. Specifically, the concept of movement momentum was novel where you can move up in gears during your turn (sacrificing other actions) to move further and faster during later turns and burn across the board. In Scythe you have a vast field to explore but will barely move past your starting hexes (just like the lonely peasant you are). In WEDS you get to move all over the board.

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The bulk of the gameplay is very Euro, BUT, it is Euro with tons of trashy chrome to liven it up. Ordinarily, I’m not a fan of chrome. The over-the-top components and miniatures don’t appeal to me. But WEDS offers a solid foundation with some mechanical chrome and it makes it sexy af. On top of the basic delivery framework you have a veritable chasm of customization to drive your rig into. It allows for a level of tinkering and strategy that flows nicely with the simple core. Meanwhile Scythe feels like a bunch of mechanisms bundled together with spit and twine that works but doesn’t necessarily move or hold together well. In WEDS, the mechanical chrome is slick and adds to the gameplay. Oddly enough, it ends up feeling like a tactical game but you’ll be planning out 4-5 moves in advance in order to fulfill a contract…if you are lucky that is.

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The economic system provides just enough interaction to keep the competition on their toes without blowing them up completely. As you complete deliveries you need to make important peripheral decisions on how you upgrade your truck. More space? More guns? Nukes? Turbos? Armor? The action selection (which provides the darling little momentum movement mechanism) is not overwhelming by focusing on “micro-actions” which provide a limited amount of smaller actions to take. It limits AP and keeps the game flowing at a quicker pace without allowing players horde one action and build an engine. The game makes you move and keeps you moving. It is practically a race to the end from the moment you begin. This emphasis on quick decisions, movement, and a focus on completing three contracts to win rather than some sort of totaling (money, points, etc.) makes the Euro feel so much more trashy and fast paced and I love it. The pacing is perfect. No engines to build. No dominant strategy to develop. Just you, your rig, and some assholes temporarily in your way.

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Quick aside: I love the terrain tiles. The modular game board with the intermixed terrain hex-tiles and the square location tiles come together nicely. I’m not sure why *this* is the one thing I find so oddly satisfying but I do. When prototypes and images began to leak out during the development of WEDS, it really stuck with me. Theme aside, I wanted to see how that terrain setup would work. The game trays are also one of the shinier bits in the game. WEDS has something like 600+ bits included and the trays are *mandatory*. In fact, they should now raise the bar for all large strategy games. If I’m dropping $80 on a bulky beast I want these trays included to ease set-up, teaching, and storage. Everything is game trays forever. Thanks, Pandasaurus!

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With so many objectives included in the game, plus the double-sided terrain hexes and the variable location set-up, *plus* the focus on customization and variable player bonuses, WEDS has the potential for lots of variability. Additionally, it includes a campaign narrative arc that is played over 10 sessions plus randomly generated single session scenarios which taps into the immersive narrative popular with storytelling games like Tales of the Arabian Nights; legacy games; and euro/storytelling hybrids such as Above and Below and Near and Far. I am not sure how successful WEDS is in the tricky world of immersive narrative play as I haven’t attempted any of these variants yet but I certainly appreciate their existence and would like to snuggle up with three other people and test them out.

Bottom Line:

“Wasteland Express Delivery Service is big, beautiful, daunting, and sexy af with a straightforward gameplay core and bursting at the seams with mechanical chrome. It is a game where players race to the end while throwing obstacles at each other to be the first to complete a variable set of contracts. The artwork and design is evocative of the theme and setting and the presentation courtesy of Pandasaurus is next to flawless (I’m practically salivating  for Dinosaur Island now). WEDS won’t make it into a circulating collection due to the size and amount of components but it will be the center piece of your game-night. Your rig may be cobbled together but Wasteland Express Delivery Service is smooth as silk. Witness me! 

 

 

Board in the Stacks: Hatsuden

In Hatsuden, the new two-player game from Japanese games publisher Itten, you are competing energy companies jockeying for control of five renewable resources: Solar, Geothermal, Wind, Hydro, and Biomass. While competing you maintain your cities’ optimum amount of power. Too much power and you may control a specific resource but won’t provide the optimal amount of power to your cities. Too little power you lose control of a resource and may under-power your cities .

At the end of the game, players earn one point for each renewable energy they control and one point for each of the cities they supply with 10 units of power (after subtracting one point for any city receiving 8 or less units of power). The player with the most points wins. 

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Competing on the deck for control over hydopower.

Each player starts their turn with a hand of five cards (each card is suited to one of the five resources, and numbered 1-4 with two of each card) and can do one of the following options:

  1. Construct a power plant by placing a card on any open space of the card’s corresponding renewable resource.  
  2. Upgrade a power plant by placing a corresponding power plant card over an already existing plant of a previous generation (lower number). When you upgrade a plant to a generation of 4, you get to draw a special technology card.
  3. Construct a pylon by placing a card face down on any empty space.
  4. Place nothing and trash one card face-up to the discard pile.

After a card is played, they choose a card either from the draw or discard pile and play moves to the opponent. This continues until one player is able to fill all ten of the spaces in their tableau.

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Hold those heavy cards until the end of the game. I see pylons happening here.

After one play of the game it will be obvious that Hatsuden has taken inspiration from a pair of very successful 2-player Knizia designs – Lost Cities and Battleline (cf. Schotten Toten). Hatsuden removes the instant win conditions from Battleline, replacing them with a traditional point system. Gaining control of the each of the power sources is based upon the sum of the cards placed in the column rather than poker hands. This simplifies the game game-play significantly. I mean, sure, sums are easier than poker hands but I mean it really makes a difference.

As a result, Hatsuden almost seems too straightforward: you play a card and draw a card. However, the snappy gameplay does not negate that there is an enjoyable depth of play for a 30 minute simple tableau building game. There is also an added complication of a two tiered scoring system that balances out the gameplay. It isn’t simply a matter of going higher than your opponent. You need to balance between a head to head battle to gain control over each renewable energy source with providing the optimum amount of power to your two cities. Battleline was always a bit to confrontational for me and Hatsuden rounds those edges just enough for me. Be gentle with me, I’m sensitive.

I also enjoyed the ability to place pylons (basically placeholders) which negates the ability to count cards and mitigates the analysis paralysis that is so often an issue in Battleline. I can stare at a hand of Battleline for whole *minutes* trying to do the mental calculus to gauge my best move while in Hatsuden 2-4 placed pylons pretty much knocks the math right out of my head. This leads to a more subtle game of finesse and bluffing where the stronger cards are held back and players slowly inch forward in gaining control. The Special Technology Cards are similar to the Tactics Cards in Battleline. They add some small amount of flexibility but are much simpler.

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The Special Technology Cards

Bottom Line: If you love Oink Games, Battleline, and prefer stark, minimalist iconography and artwork, then Hatsuden a great fit. The point system is layered providing some depth but is still extremely easy to teach. It is tiny and takes up very little space making it a perfect pub game.

Board in the Stacks: The Legend of the Wendigo

The Legend of the Wendigo is a werewolf-styled social deduction game for 2-6 children aged 6+ from Iello Games. In this “lighter” themed version, the Chipmunk Scouts are out telling stories around the campfire and, unbeknownst to anyone, the legendary Wendigo is lurking in the shadows. Each night the Wendigo returns to camp and steals away with another camper and then hides in their midst, camouflaged as an innocent camper.

To be fair, the theme isn’t really much lighter than Werewolf. But the artwork sets the mood and is not particularly frightening despite children being dragged into the night by a creature that then returns in their skins to carry away another. Think of it as Goosebumps level spooky. 

The components consist of 64 round tiles. 32 are camper tiles pictures of campers on both sides and 32 are Wendigo Tiles with an matching camper on one side and a (kinda adorable) Wendigo on the other. One player is chosen to be the Wendigo. The rest of the players are campers trying to suss the Wendigo out. I had some concerns about a “one against many” game for younger children. To keep the game even I recommend a total of four players — one Wendigo and three campers for the most balanced game. Too many campers and the Wendigo will be discovered quickly. Too few and the Wendigo will likely succeed easily. Rotate the Wendigo between players and you’ve got an even game for everyone.

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The game is split — werewolf style — into two phases: Night Phase and Day Phase.

Night Phase:

The Wendigo player shuffles their tiles and chooses one randomly. They then locate the matching Scout tile from the 32 on the table. Once the scout tile is located, Team Camper has to turn around and close their eyes (or leave the room, etc.) while the Wendigo replaces the scout tile with the Wendigo tile.

When the switch is complete, Team Camper can return to the room (or turn around or open their eyes) and a sand timer is flipped. They have about one minute to memorize as much as they can about the layout of the tiles. Once the timer runs out, Team Camper turns around and closes their eyes. The Wendigo then removes a Scout tile and places their Wendigo tile into the same space, leaving the space empty where the Wendigo used to be.

Once this is done we move to the Day Phase.

Day Phase:

During the Day Phase, Team Camper examines the table to determine what changed during the night. They discuss which tile they believe to be the Wendigo and when agreed on a single tile, they flip it over!

If the Wendigo is on the back of the tile, they successfully sniffed out the Wendigo and won. If not, the tile remains on the table and the players get ready for another round and they continue with another Night Phase. The game continues until the Wendigo snatches five tiles or is discovered.

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Review:

For a simplified hybrid of Werewolf and Scotland Yard, The Legend of the Wendigo has kept several groups of children engaged at my library. There is a small social deduction element with Team Camper trying to read the Wendigo player for any tells as they search for the correct tile. The game lacks hidden roles and bluffing. These elements are generally standard for this type of game but they can be challenging for younger children. The integrity of the experience was surprising coherent with such a simple ruleset. Pattern recognition and memory games can be grueling and dull at times but Iello has consistently pulled it off. Players will try to recognize and recall earlier patterns (each iteration of the children are similar with slight variations). This will sound similar if you played another of Iello’s games “Baba Yaga” where the tiles have subtle differences while seeming similar at first glance. Unfortunately, this need to make all the tiles similar with slight variations led to camp composed entirely of white kids. I think steps could have been taken to better provide minority representation without negatively affecting gameplay.

A concern is the amount of experience required to take on the Wendigo role. A consistent failing of one-against is the difficulty an inexperienced player will have in the “one” role. In Letters from Whitechapel or Scotland Yard, generally it is recommended that the most experienced player take the role of Mr. X or Jack. However, The Legend of the Wendigo does provide an experience where anyone can walk into the role of the Wendigo and generally succeed without undue stress. 

An issue playing social deduction games with children is that the game hinges upon bluffing and deception. This is a shame since elements of these games are large player counts, simple rules, and minimal components of social deduction games seem to make them the perfect game for children. Here is where The Legend of the Wendigo is spot on. It allows for deception aimed at the arrangement of the tiles rather than about a deceit over a hidden role. The Wendigo player is known to everyone from the start. 

One particular element of the game I enjoyed is decision making between the children on Team Camper. Eventually, the will figure out that the easiest way to find the Wendigo is if each player takes and area of the board to examine intently rather than having everyone try to memorize everything. This technique will make the game much harder for the Wendigo. However, I still love this with new groups of children at the library. The components are sturdy and set up is simple enough.

Bottom Line: If you are looking for a twist on the traditional memory game that hinges on pattern recognition then The Legend of the Wendigo is an easy grab. It provides a delightfully tense albeit light-hearted atmosphere and will certainly generate some cheers when the Wendigo is finally revealed. It plays quickly for repeated play but experienced campers will eventually be able to snag the Wendigo in a few rounds. Representation is an issue with all the campers portrayed as white. 

Board in the Stacks: The Lost Expedition

Osprey Games, designer Peer Sylvester and acclaimed illustrator Garen Ewing has taken The Lost City of Z as inspiration and re-imagined it into an engaging (albeit unforgiving) cooperative card game. Players need to guide a team of three adventurers to the ruins of El Dorado after the missing Captain Fawcett. The jungle is not kind and not all the adventures will survive. In order to win the game, the players must manage their resources well enough to ensure that at least one of the team survives the treck to the end.

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Here we have a team ready to go with a whole stack of adventure cards to dive into.

Each of the six adventures is based upon a historical figure and has a particular skill that will be needed to help the team through the hazards of the jungle…even if it kills them. Roy and Ynes have jungle lore, Isabelle and Candido are skilled navigators (as well as being dapper af), and Teddy Roosevelt and Bessie Coleman are experienced campers.

Each adventurer starts off healthy with 3-4 health tokens and the team well provisioned with ammunition and food. Players will work together to manage those resources  along with strategic use of any expertise picked up on the way in order to survive. The jungle is not forgiving though and acquired skills will likely be only met with more dangerous situations.

Set Up and Rules:

Depending upon preferred difficulty, 7-9 cards representing the movement across the jungle and into the ruins of El Dorado are set up on the table. 7 cards and four health for each of the adventures in the easy game is basically a learning game — even completely guileless and ignorant of the dangers ahead, players will make it to the end. A pawn representing the team will mark the progress made during the hikes. Hikes are split into Morning and Night phases.

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A Morning Phase with all the cards arranged numerically. It wasn’t a great morning.

Each of the phases are completed by resolving a set of cards placed by the players in turn order. Each card has a combination of mandatory events to resolve (those in yellow), choices where you have to pick one (red) and optional actions (in blue). Each of these elements will be contain a series of icons. When an icon is black it will be gained by the team to be used during future phases. When they are not filled in, it requires that icon to be spent or suffer a loss the consequences.

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An Evening Phase with the cards arranged in a way determined by the group.

During the Morning phase, players are dealt a hand of four cards. Starting with the first player, everyone plays an adventure card from their hand to the path until two cards are placed by each player. Cards are then arranged in numerical order and then resolved. After resolution of the cards, the team eats and spends a food token. The Night phase is similar except that cards played, stay in the order placed and are not rearranged. At the completion of the Night phase, the team spends a food token. The game is played in a series of hikes followed by feeding your team until one of the following happens:

  1. The pawn gets moved to the last card, ending in a win.
  2. If all three explorers are dead, the game ends in a loss.
  3. If the adventure deck runs out cards for a second time, the players lose.

Review:

The Lost Expedition is a rules-lite card game focusing on resource management and tight decision making. The core of the game the team being able and willing to discuss actions in order to determine their route. The game can stall here if players are unwilling or unable to collaborate (ie. players unknown to each other, social anxiety, general shyness). If you are playing with a group new to each other, they may find it very difficult to speak up about what the preferred placement of cards or which decisions to make. This can lead to an uncomfortable social tension. The best fix is to make sure players know each other and are familiar with cooperative games that require discussion as this game requires conversation and consensus for success. If you are teaching to a group of new players, I recommend moderating and encouraging discussion for a run through of the game on the easy mode.

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Sorry Teddy….

There is a surprising amount of flavor in the cards with hardly any text at all. This is a testimony to the artistry and art direction. You get a deep impression of the dangers the party is experiencing, the actions taken, and the results with only a couple of words and a few icons. Players get a tense experience with a surprising amount of storytelling embedded in the cards with very little actual language making this an amazing game for ESL or non-english speaking players (something that every library should be aware of when developing a collection). To be fair though, the story can get lost without someone willing to tease it out. Playing The Lost Expedition with no storytelling is like playing Gloom with only the card mechanisms. It’s fine but you miss out on so much. The art is reminiscent of Golden Age Adventure Comics, Tintin, and Johnny Quest. If you squint a bit you can almost see some Moebius. The imagery isn’t hyperbolic or exaggerated. The jaguar has teeth. The mosquito can kill you. A cut can get infected. The style is cartoony with a slightly darker feel and realistic edge and it works very well for the game.

Overall, I found it to be most engaging as a solo or two player game, adequate as a three player game, and drudgery at four or five players (sorry, it just didn’t keep it together for larger groups). Keep the player count low and you will get much more enjoyment out of the game. With larger groups the storytelling gets diluted and you start playing a game strictly of card play and it grew dull and overlong.

Representation:

Of particular merit to the design, I found the representation of the characters in the game to be diverse and inclusive. Out of the six characters, two are white males, half are women, and people of color are represented in a meaningful way. According to some people I have played The Lost Expedition with, the adventurers also read as Queer.

I has some concern with a game set in the Amazon. Especially as it pertained to the representation of indigenous cultures. Would it be problematic? Romanticized? Racist? From my perspective, however, the art and portrayal seemed respectful but still the game maintains a very Euro-centric view of post-colonial exploration (as, honestly, does the book). Several of the tribes portrayed in the game were unique. With over 400 tribes in the Amazon, each with its own language and culture, it was pleasant to see that tribes were represented in, what I found, a non-homogenized manner. Some tribes were depicted as peaceful, helpful, or antagonistic towards the team of adventures. Since the designer of the game specifically named The Lost City of Z as inspiration and Osprey Publishing is known for producing non fiction works, I hope I can trust them to put in the research required. That said, the Indigenous people in this game were not provided with any agency. And that is an issue although par for the course in the board game space. They were there to hinder or help the adventures and it would have been nice to see some representation *within* the team itself.

So where does that put Native/Indigenous representation in The Lost Expedition? Better then most but still plenty of room to improve.

First Looks: Near and Far from Red Raven Games

In Near and Far, 2-4 players are competing explorers roaming the land in search for the Last Ruins. To accomplish this, the players travel across several maps (and game sessions) hunting for treasure, discovering artifacts, setting up camps, and completing quests. There are two broad choices what to do on your turn: Stay in town to prepare or go out adventuring. You prepare by taking an action on the town spaces such as recruiting adventures (Saloon), collecting food/money (Farm/General Store), working the mine for precious metals (the Mine), getting a pack-kiwi (Stables), etc. Once you think you are properly outfitted for a journey, you head out into the wilds. The better you prepare, the further you can travel. Or maybe you want to just take a quick jaunt and return immediately into town. Will you focus on battling threats, courting the locals, discovering relics and treasure, completing trade routes, or quest-quest-questing until your little lizard heart’s content? Either way, Near and Far provides an experience that is worth delving into.

If you are familiar with Ryan Lauket’s earlier game, Above and Below, then you know that the spiciest part of this particular game will be the book of stories you read when questing. At the beginning of a game, several quest tokens are placed randomly on the map. When you arrive at one of these quest locations, a story is read from the book and you are given options on how you wish to proceed.

Through this choose your own adventure type mechanism, Near and Far does a far better job incorporating narrative into the game than in Above and Below. In Above and Below, the stories felt random and disconnected. While this gave some interesting diversions to an otherwise static eurogame, they didn’t provide much more than that. With the character and campaign modes in Near and Far plus a neat little keyword element, players can experience a much more cohesive narrative. It still isn’t the central point of the gameplay (you can play a game with very little storytelling) but it sure as hell feels like the keystone of the discovery experience.

I think the team at Red Raven went the distance in providing a game that will appease a wide range of player needs. Arcade mode for those that prefer the gameplay over the narrative elements. Campaign and Character mode for those that want a more engrossing, immersive, and overarching experience and/or character development. The only thing lacking are options for solo or cooperative play (where, honestly, I think this game can shine). I’ve found myself silently wishing we were all somehow playing together rather than against each other. Luckily, you can find both fan-created variants online.

Overall, Near and Far is a lot to digest and this review is far from comprehensive. After a few plays, I am anxious to play more but still prefer the city building aspects of Above and Below over the route building and exploration of Near and Far. However, I have not gone through the campaign mode yet and I fully expect that it will completely convert me. That said, the arcade mode removes the stories entirely and instead provides a small event deck for single map, non-campaign play which I think I will prefer in the long run.

Another small issue is while Above and Below plays well for the entire player count, Near and Far is best and probably only recommended at two players. Three or four drags the game out too tong for a competitive game with too much down time between turns. If three players are taking long journeys and you are getting food at the farm, you are left with very little to do even with occasional quests. With two players, the gameplay is quick and snappy. The narrative in Near and Far is engrossing, while Above and Below was disconnected and bordered on silly. I think the improvement in writing at team Red Raven is obvious.  Additionally, the character design is a diverse, representative, and respectfully depicted. Armor and garb is appropriate and non-sexualized and it is obvious Ryan took time and effort in ensuring this game is welcoming and accessible to a wide-array of players. 

Kickstarter Preview: Samhain

Samhain is a new worker placement game on Kickstarter. It is the First Century B.C. and Julius Caesar is knocking on your door with a couple of legions of his friends. It is the Night of Samhain, and deep in the forest, the Celtic tribes are preparing by pleading to their gods for aid.

In Samhain, each player is a leader of a clan and hopes to bring their clan into power and be placed in charge of the resistance against Rome . In order to appease the gods and prepare you need to place clan members strategically. Each god has specifics needs, requirements and gifts. And they can be fickle…

The village consists of 15 cards which belong to the influence of five temples. Each temple and the cards associated with the temple represent one deity. As you visit and take actions on the cards in each temple’s region, you gain influence in those temples. At the end of each round, points are scored for those players controlling the temples. Romans know how to breed distrust and have attempted to bribe each clan in the form of gold and resources in order to corrupt them or lead them into disarray.

Set up for Samhain is simple. Shuffle and deal out the five temple cards. Then shuffle and deal out the fifteen village action cards next to its corresponding temple card. The result is a 5×3 grid of action cards with Temple cards making an additional column. Temple cards are not visited by your workers. They are used to track the devotion to each deity. Each action card has two possible actions — one light and one dark. Each temple has two tracks —  one light and one dark. Both will be needed to win.

Each player gets a certain number of workers and during the set-up of the game will be placing them onto action cards. Players also receive two of each resource (gold, wood, and stone). These will represent the Roman attempts to bribe or corrupt your tribe. Resources are kept secret and need to be managed carefully. As at the end of the game, if you do not have at least the same number of resources as you started, you will be considered corrupted by the Roman bribe, lose the game, and never be invited to St. Patty’s day ever again.

When players set out the initial placement of their workers, the first clan member to be set on a card earns two devotion points on the corresponding temple. Each of the following will only earn one devotion points. The number of starting workers depends upon the number of players. In a four player game, each player starts with two workers to place. The player can determine whether they wish to  place their devotion points on the light or dark track and place a cube there accordingly. The next player will place their first worker on any action card and two devotion points on the appropriate temple card and track. This continues until all starting workers are placed.  

Samhain is played over 4-6 rounds depending upon the number of players. Each round alternates between daytime and nighttime. This determines whether you take light or dark actions on the action cards. Thematically, I assume that each deity has a light and dark aspect and depending upon your need you will pray to the one most helpful to you. On the daytime turns, players can take the card’s light action. On nighttime turns, players will take the dark action. Players can also take the “off” action for the cost of one MP (a resource, devotion point, or one victory point). So a light action can be taken at night with a cost or a dark action taken during the day.   

The game is played in two phases.

Action Phase: Players must select a worker to move (optional) and activate (mandatory), resolving an action and then exhausting the worker. Once all workers have taken their action (or penalty for not being able to take their action) they can add new workers to the board or pass. When taking an action, players can move to an adjacent card or stay put and then take the light or dark action. Once the cost of the action is paid and the effect resolved, any other players also on that tile resolve the same action. 

To expand your clan you spend MP equal to the amount of workers out on the board plus one. So, if you had three workers and the board and wanted to add a fourth, it would cost 4 MP. That could be any combination of four resources, victory points, and devotion points.

Throughout the activation phase of the game, players will collect will-o-wisp cubes due to penalties or the actions taken on the cards. Once all the cubes are collected, the will-o-wisp is activated and the player with the most has to sacrifice a worker and place them in the graveyard. Then all the cubes are returned to the supply with an additional MP for each cube.

Once the round is done and everyone has passed the end of round phase begins. Players score points according to their position on the devotion tracks. On daytime rounds, you score the light track and during nighttime rounds, you score the dark. The leader on each track earns 2 victory points. No points are earned for a tie. The round marker is advanced, the first player token is passed to the player to the left, and all workers and items refreshed for the next round.

The End Game

My first impressions of this game are mixed. It feels as if the entire game hinges upon the player’s initial placement of their clansmen on the board rather than . Players need to be able to examine the layout and then find the optimal spot to start, essentially having 2-3 moves planned already in succession. Outside of that, the entire game feels like an endless repetition of moving and then activating. The will-o-wisp mechanism was interesting and provided some press-your-luck entertainment which reminded me of the arrows in Bang: The Dice Game. Not enough to redeem the repetitive game-play though. The tighter resource management was also an novel mechanism. Each player is provided with a starting set of resources but they need to be sure they end with that amount or lose the game automatically. While the mechanism was neat, I didn’t like the instant lose for not managing your resources well. Similar to the initial set-up, Samhain is unforgiving to new players and you will likely find yourself elbows into a game and realize there is no way to get the resources needed to avoid end game elimination.

Like many Kickstarter games, Samhain shows potential but is underdeveloped and came off as uninspired. It feels like the designers tried to streamline a 90 minute game into half that time and somewhere along the way lost whatever made the game interesting. However, the price point is low enough to take a chance if you are enamored with the Celtic theme, then go for it. Otherwise, pass on this one and hit up Minerva from Pandasaurus Games instead. It is pricier but the resource management is more forgiving, the tile placement is satisfying, and you get to play the Romans.

 

Board in the Stacks: Herbaceous

Herbaceous is a simple set-collection card game where players are competing to pot herbs by strategic placement, and the swift collection, of sets of cards. Each player has exclusive access to their personal herb garden and shared access to a community garden. The only thing that could make this any more country is if Mary Berry came in, poked my herb biscuit, and then commented on my subtle (but well-formed) layers.

English baking aside, the turns are simple. They consists of two parts: First, a player can optionally pick up herbs from both their private and/or the community garden and place them in one of four containers for points. The only restriction is that every card picked up must be potted into the same container according to that container’s specified restrictions. Each container can be filled up only once so players need to be wily when they decide to pot on their turn. Remember kids, please pot responsibly.

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The normal herbs which are all gorgeously rendered by Beth Sobel.

After taking the option potting action (or not), the player must plant some herbs. They will draw a card and place it face-up in either the community garden or in their personal garden. Then they draw a second card and place it in the location not chosen. Basically, at the end of a turn, one card is in the communal garden and one is in the personal garden. In the team version of the game, three cards are drawn with cards placed in the community garden, your private garden and one card is placed in your partner’s private garden.  

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The community garden, my private garden and the draw deck.

The goal is to fill as much of your containers as possible. Each player has the same set of four containers: The Glass Jar can fit three herbs and is the only place to pot the Special Herbs which provide bonus points and ownership of the prestigious Herb Biscuit; the Small Pot can collect 1-6 different pairs of herbs; the Wooden Planter can accommodate 1-7 different herbs; and the Large Pot fits 1-7 herbs of the same type. The game ends when everyone fills their pots and/or are unable to pot anything. You score the amount of potted herbs for each container, any bonus points from the Herb Biscuit and special herbs, and one point for each unpotted herb in your personal garden. The Herb Biscuit is awarded to the first player to get the three special herbs (Chive, Mint, and Thyme) potted in their glass jar.

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The three special herbs that provide bonus points but can only be potted in the glass jar.

Since it will be mentioned at least once during a session of this game, none of the herbs in the game are hallucinogenic and the bonus Herb Biscuit is not *that* type of edible. But this would be a wonderful expansion to the game if each player could have a secret garden where they grew … other things.

The End Game 

Herbaceous is a delightful combination of gentle push your luck and set collection. It thrives in low light and casual environments. It doesn’t ask too much from you and you don’t really want too much from it. Set collection is a slightly overdone game mechanism and I am surprised that it works so well here. If it were too simple, it wouldn’t be engaging but just barely ramping it up with the different containers made it more compelling. It also paired nicely with the push your luck mechanism. Players will be aware of which pots the competition is going but someone snagging a couple of the cards you want will slow you down without completely wiping you out. It is never overwhelming an overwhelming experience with most games ending with a fairly tight spread of points.

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The much contended for Herb Biscuit. The bottom is not soggy and herbs are well-dispersed.

You are making very simple decisions. Do I want to pot right now? y/n. Then the decision is simply community garden or my garden. That is it → Pot? y/n and then My Garden? y/n. This entire game hinges on those two questions. Additionally, my version of the game came with three Flavor Cards (Peppercorn, Cinnamon, and Star Anise) which when added to the deck provide some additional actions when pulled. These were meant to ramp up the player interaction. However, the game didn’t need them and I prefer to play without them.

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The Flavor Expansion that didn’t really add much flavor.

End of the day, Herbaceous is a welcoming and simple game with amazing artwork that plays well for emerging gamers but will likely bore most experienced ones after a couple of games. The slim ruleset and easy mechanisms will attract new players and the quick gameplay requires minimal investment. While the gameplay is fine, it would shrivel up and blow away in the wind without Beth Sobel’s delightful artwork. Her work can be found in some of my favorite Stonemaier Games such as Viticulture and Between Two Cities. It matches the theme and fits the mood of the game perfectly. The warm colors and breezy hues give the game a relaxing appeal. The game would be unpalatable with any other artist.

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Four containers to fill with herbs and a well-stocked private garden.

Board in the Stacks: Shahrazad

Shahrazad is a solo/2-player cooperative game from Osprey Games where you are building a tableau of tiles representing an ongoing series of tales told over several nights. The theme of the game is loosely based on the story of Shahrazad whose quick wit and storytelling prowess kept her alive for 1,001 nights and won her the hand of a formerly homicidal king. Yay for happy endings. Despite the storytelling theme there are no actual storytelling mechanisms in this game. Each “story” is represented by placing a series of tiles of the same color together with the tile’s number increasing as you progress the plot from left to right. If the numbers do not increase, you lost the thread of the story and will lose points at the end of the round.

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At the beginning of a turn you choose from two tiles to place on the tableau. The deck of 22 numbered tiles is shuffled and each player has a hand of two tiles to place. Tiles can be placed in an empty area in the tableau or they can replace an previously placed tile. When replacing a tile, the older tile goes back into your hand. For placing a new tile there are a few simple placement rules. Each tile needs to be placed adjacent to a tile on the table. The tile should be placed either above/below or halfway down the side of an existing side. Each column can only support three tiles (four in the solo game) so your stories need to progress as you branch out to the sides, trying to keep tiles in ascending order from left to right.

When the deck is exhausted, your story is told and you get to score to see how well you did. To score you flip over any placed tile that doesn’t increase numerically from left to right (any tile with a lower tile to its right). Then you flip over any tiles that don’t make a continuous uninterrupted arc from left to right (color doesn’t matter just yet). Now you find the largest set of tiles in each of the four colors, add up the results and subtract one point for each flipped tile and any gaps between tiles. If the resulting score is positive you play another round with any flipped tiles removed from the game. A negative score means the king was displeased with your story and you were killed. If positive, you go for another round and your final score is tallied after three rounds.

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The Endgame

Osprey Games continues their run of quality two-player games. The asymmetrical card game The The Ravens of Thri Sahashri and the competitive abstract game Agamemnon came on strong in gameplay and were both lacking in the art. Agamemnon was too minimalist and Ravens used an anime art style that just wasn’t as engaging. In Shahrazad though, the tiles are gorgeous. The artwork is beautiful and including several international folk tales, inspired by a traditional tarot deck (it was originally published in 2015 as “Tarot Stories” in Japan) all set within a middle-eastern aesthetic. The whole thing is just gorgeous.

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There is some conversation on whether this game shines better solo or as a 2-player cooperative. For me, it is made to be played solo and the 2-player game feels more like a variant — albeit, a successful one. However, the communal elements of the two-player game are satisfying. Given the field is relatively wide, I do enjoy the shared puzzle of Shahzarad over say the cooperative journey into frustration that is …and then we held hands. The placement rules are simple enough to provide a comfortable decision space without evoking any real stress.

Bottom line, Shahrazad is a beautifully produced puzzle with simple mechanisms, gorgeous art, and an accessible theme. It plays and teaches quickly. Rounds move progressively quicker and don’t tend to stall. It’s a perfect date game as long as you ignore the whole homicidal king thing.