Board in the Stacks: London Second Edition

Osprey Games (Samurai Gardener, The Ravens of Thris Sahashri, Escape from the Aliens from Outer Space, The Lost Expedition) has published a second edition of Martin Wallace’s seminal tableau builder, London, and it is absolutely gorgeous. Just to start off on a high note this game is elegant in presentation from the book box (it opens from the spine just like a book) to the card’s delightful and surprisingly bright color palette. In London, players take the role of architects attempting to rebuild London in the decades following the devastating Great Fire of 1666. Each player will develop and run their city, purchase land, and manage poverty efficiently while earning prestige to win.

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To stumble into the vernacular, London is a card-driven city building game with an appeal and look but not the persistence of an engine builder. If you enjoy the card-play in games like San Juan or Imperial Settlers but desire just a bit more depth, London will satisfy. Players will spend most of their time playing cards into a personal tableau in order to generate money, mitigate poverty, and generate prestige for the architects of London. It’s a simple game to explain with a quick teach and a moderate amount of depth to explore.

Players are dealt 6 city cards at the start of the game — each with a variety of costs, abilities, and benefits. City cards come in three colors (blue, pink, or brown) and represent different businesses, improvements, buildings, and artisans that will make your city run smoothly. Brown cards represent economic activity. Blue cards represent science and culture. Pink cards relate to politics. However, in order to play a card into your tableau, you will have to discard a card of the same color into the development board. Since cards can be drawn from the deck or the development board, this will provide the card to other players during future turns. Pauper cards are also floating around which can only be discarded through other card actions or when forced to discard down to the hand limit.

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On a player’s turn, they draw one card from the development board or the city card deck and then do one of the following:

1) Develop their city, 2) Buy land, 3) Run their city, or 4) Draw three cards.

When a player develops their city they are playing cards in front of them. In order to do so, they need to discard a card of the same color and potentially pay any additional costs. In the picture below, the Hospital card could be played when another blue card was discarded and 2 pounds payed to the supply. Players can play as many cards as they are able on their turn but can’t stack cards on top of each other on the same turn. They will need to wait until another turn to do that. 

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Buying land is simple. Players have a market of three borough cards on display each with a monetary cost and a list of benefits for purchasing the land (extra cards, prestige points, and removing poverty cubes). Some borough cards also provide an additional ongoing ability for players. Each borough card has icons representing the location of the borough (North or South) and whether it is adjacent to the Thames River.

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If you already have a borough purchased, the newly purchased borough card will cover any abilities of the previous borough, leaving only the name and the location uncovered. Thus, only the ability of the most recently purchased borough can be activated while still keeping track of the locations.

When a player decides to run their city, they can activate any (or all) the cards in their tableau. Some cards require an additional activation cost (discarding a card or paying a fee) while others have no cost. If you don’t have enough money at any point in the game, are unable to pay a penalty or just wish to push ahead, you can get a loan token and 10 pounds. At start of any future turn you have the ability to pay off the loan and return the token for 15 pounds. Most cards can only be activated once and then flipped over. After the desired cards are activated and benefits are collected, the player gains one poverty for each stack of cards in his tableau, one for each card remaining in his hand, and one poverty for each loan token in front of him. 

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Running a City: Player earned 15 pounds, 2 prestige points, and used the Hospital card to keep the Covent Garden active for another run. They additionally generated 4 poverty for the 4 stacks of cards in their city and 2 poverty for the 2 cards still in their hand.

Play continues until all the cards in the city deck are drawn. Players then count all the prestige points in their tableau (it doesn’t matter if the cards are flipped over or not), points for left over money, and take penalties for any outstanding loans and poverty.

Review:

Osprey did a wonderful job of updating and reprinting this 7 year old classic. Yes, I know … “classic” doesn’t really apply here but in hobby board game years are like dog years. Every human year equals 5 board game years so this game is *actually* 35 years old. While the core mechanisms are the same, there are some significant differences from the first edition that greatly affect gameplay if you are familiar with the first edition.

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Most apparent, the first edition map is removed and replaced with the market of borough cards. Additionally, some card actions that related to the map were modified and included on the borough cards. Boroughs no longer persistently reduce the poverty except for the initial purchase. Any unpaid loans will also further generate poverty after you run your city. 

Poverty has a much more significant factor in the second edition of the game. This is not particularly surprising in a Martin Wallace game. His games can be punishing and seems to take great joy in dashing my hopes and dreams against the jagged edge of a black cube, outstanding loans, or plague rats. Poverty can generates quickly after running a city, and can only really be significantly reduced by purchasing borough cards and some C Deck cards that come late in the game. Poverty is a wonderful balancing act that provides a nice amount of tension between the desire to keep your city neat and tidy or wide and sprawling. In reality, poverty seems more punishing than it actually is. Players are completely fine accumulating poverty as long as all the players are closely grouped together. If one player can actively reduce poverty dramatically, that dynamic will change abruptly though so keep some cards at the ready just in case.

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The new artwork is gorgeous. The packaging is beautiful. Osprey really made this game look elegant enough for an actual bookshelf. Iconography and graphic design are intuitive and simple and a ready reference on back cover of the rules book helps out new players.

This game is accessible, tense, not overly punishing, and cards don’t really combo to devastating effects — it is less of an engine builder and more a tactical tableau builder. You can certainly optimize but that feature of really being able to bury an opponent just doesn’t exist. This is a game of balance rather than offense. You can grow your city to a sprawling size if you think you can handle the poverty or you can keep it neat and tidy and hope it is just enough to beat some of your more daring opponents.

London has a firm footing in my cadre of games to use when I plan on introducing new players to more strategic games at the library. It has a nice ratio of decision space to complexity. It is easy to teach the basics but will take at least 3-4 games to get an optimal strategy. It plays a bit longer than most gateway games but doesn’t overstay its welcome. It isn’t forgiving to new players and experience certainly will prevail. However, the gameplay isn’t too combative and there is a certain satisfaction in developing a good city and keeping poverty at a minimum.  

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As a circulating “deeper” strategy game, London is a great fit. It is mostly cards with some small, easily replaced bits and tokens so checking in and out is simple enough. The theme is easily understood and accessible. The teach is simple enough to provide a quick overview at the circulation desk but the depth of strategy is wider than most gateway games. It plays well for the entire player count (2-4). I’ve enjoyed watching this game played by emerging gamers. By the first running of the a city, they will have the basics of the game well under control and by the second play will have a handle on the strategy. If there is such as thing as a gateway Wallace, this is is. London is a must have for any library. Buy it.

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.

 

 

What Games Should I Get? July Edition

Unlock! – These are “escape room” themed cooperative card games which require a free app and play up to six people. Each game provides an immersive and tense escape experience with very few components. Each deck consists of only 60 cards which, along with the downloaded app, will detail as set of puzzles, rooms and objects the players interact with during the game. The rules are minimal with the companion app providing a timer, prompts, and hints throughout the game.  You progress through the game by locating numbered cards from the deck whenever you enter a room. Each room will have numbers sporadically located within it. As you search through the room, you find the correct cards and combine them in order to unlock other cards and more puzzles. It is very much feels like a streamlined and simplified version of T.I.M.E Stories. There are currently three available which I listed in order of preference. Which alternatively, is also listed from hardest to easiest.

  1. Unlock! The Island of Doctor Goorse This actually splits the group into two different teams and my favorite.
  2. Unlock! The Formula Simpler than The Island of Doctor Goorse.
  3. Unlock! Squeek & Sausage Weird.
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Image credit: https://boardgamegeek.com/image/3301603

The Lost Expedition: A brutal and unforgiving cooperative game in the vein of The Grizzled but with more of an adventure/exploration element. Based on the book, The Lost City of Z, The Lost Expedition delivers an immersive and exciting experience for a variety of gamer types. You can play solo. You can play cooperatively with a team or competitively in a head to head two person race to the end. The goal is to get at least one member of your team of three adventurers through the dangers of the jungle and to the ruins of El Dorado alive.

Players need to strategically determine their path through card play and discussion, and then make decisions on how to best manage their resources (food, ammunition, and health) while keeping at least one party member alive to reach the goal. Players guide the entire team through the jungle rather than choosing an adventurer to play so player elimination is not an issue nor does the death of an adventurer end the game. The card art is beautifully done by illustrator Garen Ewing. The gameplay is satisfying barrage of hard choices, tough mitigation, and a challenging puzzle that can be played repeatedly.  What was pleasantly surprising and certainly an indication of Garen Ewing’s ability and Osprey Games’ artistic direction was the diverse and inclusive representation of the native cultures of the region and within the team of explorers.

Century Spice Road: Players are leading competing caravans to the Mediterranean sea. You will be trading spices and contending with each other over trade routes in order to gain the most wealth and win. If this sounds similar to Splendor, you are correct. It is but with a bit more added complexity. The amazing card art is from up and coming board game artist Fernanda Suárez who is better known for her work on Dead of Winter and Ashes: Rise of the Phoenixborn, both from Plaid Hat Games, and her illustration in the Pathfinder RPG from Piazo Publishing.

The gameplay is simple. There are two rows of cards: Market Cards and Victory Point Cards. On your turn you can purchase a market card and put it in your hand, trade or sell spices by playing a market card from your hand, gain a point card by meeting their requirements, or rest and take all previously played cards back into your hand. Basically, you are using cards to add, upgrade, or trade the spices in your caravan in order to purchase cards for points. If your copy of Splendor is constantly getting play and never on the shelf, consider Century Spice Road.

Cottage Garden: This is from Uwe Rosenburg, the designer of Agricola and Patchwork.  Similar to Patchwork, Cottage Garden, is a tile placement game where you need to place tetris-style shapes to score points. I learned recently that this style of game is called  Polyominoes where “geometric figure formed by joining one or more equal squares edge to edge.” <gif> Unlike Patchwork, which only plays two players, Cottage Garden will play up to 4 and is a much simpler game. You will be placing shapes (flowers) on your personal grid (flower bed). Players each have two flower beds. The goal is to fill them as efficiently as possible, with pieces pulled from a central nursery board. Flower tiles of different shapes will be present on a grid. Flower pots (small squares) can also be pulled to fill in any gaps that my start to pop up in your garden. Cats can be earned later in the game which serve the same purpose as flower pots, albeit furrier. This game has cozy, calming, veneer which hides a tense puzzle that may cause your brow to sweat. Cottage Garden, like the adorable cats within, can soften the most hardened gamer and still purr when an emerging gamer tentatively approaches.

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Image credit: https://www.flickr.com/photos/mikkosaari/31232668856

CLANK!: The current hotness when it comes to deck-builders. Players are thieves breaking into a castle and then sneaking through a dungeon to snag artifacts, treasures, and secrets. However, there is a dragon down there and if you make too much noise, it’ll wake up grumpy. The more treasure you take, the more noise you make! Each player starts with a deck of basic thieving abilities (burgle, scramble, sidestep, and stumble) which will be improved as you play by purchasing new cards and then shuffling them into your deck. Cards have boots, skill numbers, and swords which allow you to use devises, fight monsters, and move through the dungeon. However, some cards also cause you to gain CLANK! And Clank! will attract the ire of the dragon. If your library has Dominion and would like a deck-builder with more pizzazz, go for Clank!

Near and Far: This is a storytelling adventure game where you are exploring across several maps. It can be played as a campaign, as a character adventure, or as an arcade (without the storytelling). So much variety in this game. If you wanted one game for the more strategic player, go for this one. My first looks are here.

Kingdomino: In this Spiel des Jahres nominee, players compete build the best kingdom. Each kingdom is basically a 5×5 grid of dominoes. At the start of the game, each player starts with a single square and will build outward with dominoes. If they play well, they will end up with a combination of 12 dominoes on their grid. Real quick, let me explain that each “domino” is divided into two different landscapes on one side an numbered 1-48 on the other. At the beginning of a round, dominoes are drawn and placed on the table in numeric order going from lowest to highest and then flipped to their landscape side. Each player gets to pick a domino and places their worker on it. Another column is drawn again and placed in a similar way from lowest to highest and then flipped to their landscape side. Players then collect their tile, place it in their kingdom, and move their worker to a new domino. This continues until all dominoes are exhausted.pic3301603_lg.png

The choices are simple, the game is inexpensive, and it can be taught and demoed easily from a service desk. If you like Carcassonne, but would like something that played a bit faster and doesn’t have that obnoxious, farmer rule, this one is an easy purchase. It should win the Spiel des Jahres this year so it’s a great family game. I’d get one for each branch in my system.

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: They Who Were 8

In They Who Were 8 (BGG, Amazon), players are competing bards recounting the glorious (or inglorious) tales of their gods. However, they are playing favorites and want to bring glory to their gods and infamy to all the others. They also don’t want to be too obvious about it. Bards, amiright? You can never trust them.

Before we dive too deep into the gameplay let us gather and discuss the two different variants: The team variant and the competitive variant. To start with, let’s just put it out there that you can skip the four player team variant (Pantheon) where your team is going right at the glory and singing the praises of their chosen gods and besmirching the memory of the rest. While I do bemoan the lack of good team games out there, it is far too simple for experienced gamers (you will get bored quickly. If you have new or emerging gamers, it may be fun for a couple of plays. But the meat of the game lies elsewhere.

Set up for three players.

In the competitive, non-team variant (Titanomachy), each player has two gods they want to praise, one between them and each of their neighbors, leaving two gods between each player. To win, you want one of your shared pair of gods to get the most glory but, humbly, you want your god to have the least amount between the two. This creates an interesting push and pull between your “partner” and yourself. You want to get all that delicious glory but you also want to keep the story interesting by perhaps dropping a bit of infamy to your deity.

This sort of adjacency play is so intriguing to me. It shines in games like Between Two Cities by Stonemaier Games and Isle of Monsters where your actions directly affect your neighbors and indirectly affect everyone else. It makes your relationship between other players vary dependant upon their placement at the table. You need to play a much more subtle game with your neighbors while it is a straight-on battle with everyone else.

Four of the god tiles.

So, for the best experience of They Who Were 8, go for the Titanomachy variant first and save the Pantheon variant for team play with new gamers. Now, on to the rules.

Each player starts with three cards and on your turn you will play one. The card played will add, remove, or swap glory or infamy tokens from the gods on the table. Cards are quite specific about which players’ gods are affected. Depending on the card, the effect will target the active player, the non-active players, or all players. The card actions will add, remove, or switch tokens (glory or infamy) on the player’s gods. Additionally, for the cost of one infamy, each god tile has a special ability that can be activated once per game.

Once each player plays a card, hands are passed to the player on their left. The discards are shuffled back into the draw pile and player draws back up to three cards. This continues until one of the piles of tokens (infamy and glory) are emptied.

In the end, you are trying to knock up the scores of certain gods while lowering the scores of others by adding/removing glory and infamy. Specifically, in the non-team variant, you want to be the lower scoring god in the highest scoring god-pair. The tricky part is ensuring that your deity comes in second in the highest scoring pair. You are basically going for second place and that is something delightfully novel.

Three of the action cards. The first only effects the active player, the second can effect any of the other players, and the last can effect anyone.

One area that is frustrating about They Who Were 8 is from the premise of the game (competing bards) it seems you are going to play a storytelling game but, in the end, it is an abstract strategy card game. Much like …and then we held hands it is a game that hides its abstract roots behind evocative art and graphic design. The minimalist design and ease of play allow for a wide range of players with even the less interesting team variant playing a role in decreasing the difficulty for new players. Unfortunately, there is very little connection between the bardic theme and the enjoyable game play. The designer missed an opportunity in including a slight storytelling element. The mechanics of moving tokens from one tile to tile through card play is simple enough that an extra layer of storytelling would make it more thematic and engaging without increasing the complexity. So, while the strengths of the game is similar to …and then we held hands, it also possesses the same letdown. I wanted something emotionally satisfying and instead had an abstract game.

The Endgame:

They Who Were 8 provides an interesting setting with simple game-play. It is interesting enough for me to forget the lack of storytelling and allow it to sit alongside Hanabi as a go-to card game for emerging gamers, and filler for a couples game night. A small game with no story but plenty of soul.

Board in the Stacks: Pocket Madness

Pocket Madness (BGG, Amazon) is a funky little filler card game from Passport Games for 2 – 4 players which plays in 30 minutes. It is inspired by the Cthulhu Mythos cycle of books and stories by H.P. Lovecraft. In the game, each player is delving into the adorably dark mysteries of the void and beyond by researching, opening portals, and publishing what you’ve seen and learned of the beings who reside there. There is a danger to all this research into the unknown as players will slowly grow mad as they learn more and more. It is, quite literally, publish or perish at Miskatonic U.  

There are two types of cards — Portal Cards and Location Cards. There are 7 portal cards numbered from 6-12 and they are placed face up in the middle of the table. The Location cards are numbered 6-12, and they are 6 sixes, 7 sevens, 8 eights and so on. This is known as a pyramid deck…and I love a good pyramid deck. The location cards are shuffled and each player gets dealt 2, and 17 cards are removed and placed face-down. The remainder are flipped face-up. Then the two decks (one face up and and the other face down) are shuffled together and fanned out on the table. The result is an array of cards some exposed and others hidden.

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The Portal Cards are up top and the splash of cards below (17 face-down and the rest face-up)

I know this may sound complex but this isn’t much harder than setting up for a game of “Fish.” Don’t sweat it, you’ll do just fine.

On their turn players can take one of three actions.

  1. They can “research” by drawing the first 1-3 cards from the deck.
  2. They can “publish their research” by playing a complete run of cards from 6-12.  When you play a run every other player needs to take a madness token. For every subsequent run played during that round an additional madness token is collected. So, for the first run each opponent gets one madness token. The 2nd run gives 2 madness tokens to each opponent and the 3rd gives 3 madness tokens to each opponent.
  3. They can play sets of three or more of the same card and collect the corresponding portal card of the set played. Portal cards provide the owning player with a special power they can do once a round.

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Play will continue until one person plays all their cards or the draw pile is exhausted. If a player runs out of cards first then that person wins the round and can discard half their madness tokens and all the other players gain one. If the round ends because the draw pile is exhausted, everyone takes one last turn to play cards and then players get one madness token for each different location still in their hand.

Another round then begins and keeps on going until one player had 10 madness at the end of a round. At that point the game is over and the person with the fewest madness tokens (so the most sane person) wins.

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Here we have an example of some Portal Cards and the abilities they provide.

Pocket Madness is essentially a rummy game where the object is to draw up cards into your hand in order to make sets and/or runs and then meld them to score points. In Pocket Madness, rather than scoring points, you are punishing other players with madness by making them read your hideous thesis or by playing runs and sets, and gaining extra abilities.

This is an enjoyable enough filler game. Nothing particularly exciting. The theme is thin. The art is cute and colorful. The gameplay is engaging and provides enough interaction to mess with other players. Those new to the space may not be attracted to the theme and be turned off by the tongue-twisting names. However, the rules are simple and familiar enough that as long as you don’t try to sound out “Nyarlathotep” or “Shub-Niggurath,” you will likely find a fun and accessible card game here.  

Buy it if you have need for Cthulhu themed filler and if Cthulhu games are popular at your library. Otherwise pass on it.

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A set of 12’s and THE GUG

Board in the Stacks: Escape from the Aliens in Outer Space

Escape from the Aliens in Outer Space is a minimalist game of bluffing and secrecy set on the damaged research ship — the SELVA. All systems are down and the entire ship is dark. Captain and crew are trying to make their way to escape pods and an unknown, alien virus is transforming the crew into blood-thirsty monsters. Continue reading “Board in the Stacks: Escape from the Aliens in Outer Space”

Board in the Stacks: Celestia

In Celestia (Amazon, BGG), you and your crew of adventures are aboard an aircraft traveling through the cloud cities of Celestia. Your goal is to collect the treasures from each city which grow in grandeur the further you travel. The group is a discordant bunch and you were unable to choose just one person to be in charge so you will each take turns being captain. It won’t be an easy journey. You will be hampered by fog, lightning, birds, pirates, and, probably, each other. But if you play your cards right and push your luck just far enough, you will fly away as the richest of your crew.

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The game begins with all the players placing their pawns in the three dimensional cardboard airship. Each of the nine cities are set up from lowest to highest with the airship placed at the lowest city. Treasure cards are placed next to their corresponding city. Each player gets six-eight cards and the first captain is chosen. The captain rolls two to four dice (depending upon the next city up from where the airship is docked) to determine what difficulties the crew will face. Then the rest of the crew determine (clockwise from the captain) whether they wish to get off at their current city (I will leave) or to stay in the ship to travel to the next city (I will stay) and more precious cargo. Any crew who decide to disembark will remove their pawn from the ship and take a treasure card from the city’s deck. The worth of the treasure card varies at each location and increases the further you travel (although some special items can only be had at the earliest cities). After the crew is done at the current location, the captain plays the cards needed to overcome the obstacles. If the captain is successful, the remaining crew in the ship move forward and the player to the left becomes the new captain. This continues until a captain is unable to overcome the obstacles in their way, the ship crashes, everyone starts at the beginning, and draws up one equipment card.

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This is a retheme of Cloud 9 (1999) and maintains the light, interactive push-your-luck mechanic of the original with much upgraded art and components. The decisions and card play are simple so this is a great filler or ender. Basically, if you are the captain, only you know if you can overcome the difficulties so you need to bluff the other players to either stay on board or get off as quickly as possible. If you are the crew you need to read these bluffs and disembark at the right time or play the right cards to influence the result. Some cards can do more than just avoid hazards, these cards have additional powers such as a Turbo Card which acts as a wild card to overcome any hazard, a Jetpack which lets someone jump off right before the ship crashes, some allow for rerolls, others force players off the ship.

Celestia’s strength lies within it’s simplicity and its beauty — it is cute and colorful but not glaring. It is quick to set-up, simple to learn, and provides just enough interaction and take-that to make it interesting without getting too mean. The artwork and production quality are both wonderful — it has a nice, gentle, “around the world in 80 days,” whimsical, steam-punk vibe to it that isn’t too over-the-top or off putting. It plays best at higher player counts and still comes in at 30 minutes with 6 people playing. This game encourages surprises, bluffing, and explosive moments of laughter (when certain cards are played).

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While most press-your-luck games tend towards the abstract (King of Tokyo notwithstanding), Celestia does a great job with theming such a simple game. Player interaction isn’t intense and even being booted off the ship still allows you to pick up a treasure. There is also a surprising amount of table talk. The crew will berate the captain and the captain will bluster or sweat to bluff out the crew. It allows for plenty of supplemental interaction which doesn’t necessarily pertain to the game but certainly adds to the experience.

Board games for two humans

Board games are picking up steam in libraries and “the golden age of board gaming” is going strong. Two years of having a circulating board game collection at the Bucks County Library System has affirmed this and a few things for me — you don’t need a large group to play board games, the games don’t need take up much space, can be easy to learn, and can easily demo at a circulation desk. One of the most frequent gamer’s advisory questions I get is “What would be a good game to play with my partner?” To answer this I’m going to examine some of my favorite board games for two and only two people. There are a few basic criteria I’ll follow when selecting games. First, only games that play with two people exclusively will be examined. While games with a higher player count like Pandemic and Stone Age won’t make the list, they are certainly wonderful games for two people. Games also have to have a simple set-up and can be played quickly excluding larger, bulky war-games and strategy games are out. These are games that play while dinner is cooking (<ahem> being delivered) or after the small human has been put to nocturnal rest. There isn’t time for games with elaborate set-up and reams of rules to learn or lots of investment to play. So many of the popular “living” or collectible cards games are also excluded. The games below you can learn and play in 30-45 minutes and will provide just enough decision space to encourage repeat play. Continue reading “Board games for two humans”

Board in the Stacks: The Ravens of Thri Sahashri

The Ravens of Thri Sahashri is a tarot-sized, 2 player, cooperative card game with some legacy elements thrown in for added spice. In the game you alternate between playing the psychic Feth and the terminally unconscious Ren. Feth will build a tableau of cards for Ren to choose from and, communicating only through card play, will help guide each other through hidden and relived memories.

Continue reading “Board in the Stacks: The Ravens of Thri Sahashri”