Board in the Stacks: Mountains of Madness

IELLO is diving into the realm of Cthulhu with Mountains of Madness; a quirky, cooperative party game from designer Rob Daviau. The game draws inspiration from the H.P. Lovecraft novel, At the Mountains of Madness, focusing on the events of an ill-fated Miskatonic University expedition to Antarctica as adventurers are driven slowly mad by exposure and their encounters with the unknown. If you are unfamiliar with Rob Daviau, he has a unique design pedigree. He is designer of Pandemic Legacy, Risk Legacy, Seafall, and the primary innovator of the “Legacy” mechanism where the game changes permanently over time based on the outcome of previous games; providing a unique gaming experience. IELLO Games has a consistent art aesthetic with cartoony and bright colors with games such as King of Tokyo and Kanagawa which appeal more to families and emerging gamers. A Lovecraft-inspired “party” game, certainly feels outside the usual realm of both designer and publisher and I was instantly curious. So how did they do?

A central theme to the work of H.P. Lovecraft, and every game based upon his mythos, is madness. The challenge is that the essence of crippling insanity doesn’t really port well into analog games. Madness tokens can be collected. Players can track how “mad” they’ve become in order to optimize their play. In these situations, madness becomes another resource to monitor and maintain. There is no practical way to design for players to represent their internal experiences in the game and give them an active voice. That is until Mountains of Madness where players, as they continue through the expedition, are driven “mad” by their experiences.  To do this they have to role-play specific quirks described on acquired madness cards. These quirks will hamper their ability to communicate and plan as the game gets progressively more difficult and the their madness intensifies.

This is arguably the central and most interesting mechanism in the game. Each madness card will provide a rule or action that the player must follow through on while communicating during the brief planning period with other players. Since a cooperative game normally hinges upon the successful communication of information between players, this presents a distracting and, at times, off-putting hurdle to victory, making this one of the more difficult cooperative games I’ve played.

This is where player buy-in for Mountains of Madness is pivotal. As characters grow increasingly “mad,” they will pull cards from one of three madness decks, each increasing in difficulty. Players actively role-play the described actions from the card when communicating to make it difficult for other players and themselves to meet their objectives. They are purposely choosing to engage in their “madness” in a way that will hamper play. If players are willing to play along with this, Mountains of Madness captures the feeling and reaction to insanity shockingly well. If they don’t buy into the roleplaying aspect of the game, there is very little else to the game.

This is not to say that the rest of the game is bad but the crux of the game is in the interaction between players, their madness, and the struggle to communicate successfully in quick sprints. Players who hold true to their madness will easily make mistakes, forget information, purposely confuse other players, etc. This provides a wonderful comparison to hidden traitor games where distrust is fostered as you attempt to suss out the betrayer in the group. But there is no traitor here, only people attempting to communicate and cooperate within increasingly difficult constraints. In essence, everyone is trying to slightly throw off the game. Everyone is a traitor…

And it is gloriously frustrating.

In Mountains of Madness, 3-5 players will attempt to explore a pyramid shaped set of tiles from coast to mountain, to hidden city, and then to the Edge of Madness and a daring escape to bring back enough evidence to secure their academic futures. Players have a hand of equipment cards representing different equipment (crates, tools, weapons, and books) ranging in value from 2-6. These will correspond to values and equipment to be utilized in order to pass increasingly difficult challenges.

Each round of play is split into a Movement and Encounter Phase. At the start of the round, one player is designated leader of the expedition. The leader ultimately decides the group’s movement and whether or not to discard Leadership tokens. Leadership tokens are a limited currency used to earn additional communication time, rerolling the penalty die, and resting. Resting allows the group to regain used Leadership tokens but forces you to permanently lose one so be careful. If the team runs out of Leadership tokens, the game is lost. So the game is geared towards the use and eventual loss of Leadership tokens.

During the Movement phase, the leader moves the group to an adjacent expedition tile. The leader can confer with everyone or make an arbitrary decision. And while it is certainly possible to shoot straight up the mountain, generally it is best to meander around to try to pick up some relics. A quick shot up the mountain and escape will not provide enough evidence to win. Since the role of leader rotates, the usual issue with one alpha gamer dominating the game is somewhat mitigated since every player gets the opportunity to be in charge.

Once the group moves the Encounter Phase begins and the tile is flipped, revealing the reward for successfully completing the tile. The team also flips over the timer and has 30 seconds to determine which cards should be played and by whom to complete the challenge. However, in the brief time to plan, the players will be hampered by their madness cards. The Leader is in charge of tracking the conversation and the contributions of each team member. Conversation ends as soon as the timer runs out, the Leader decides to use Leadership tokens, or when the Leader takes cards from a player and places them on the Sled board. At this point, everyone silently makes their final decisions and hands over the cards they wish to play.

Succeeding challenges provide advantages like taking away injuries, granting extra leader tokens, and most importantly, give relics, knowledge, ruins, and other cards needed to ultimately win the game. While success means gaining relics, the knowledge along with them means that the player gaining the relic may also gain a more debilitating madness or lose certain abilities. Failure means that you have to leave it to the fates and roll a damage die or choose to upgrade your madness card. While level 1 madness cards can be distracting, the level 2 and 3 cards can be downright disastrous to teamwork.

After the turn, the leadership of the group will rotate clockwise. As you climb higher up the mountain, you will notice that the iconography is not consistent with colors, shapes, or text changing. This is an amazingly delicate touch as you feel your sanity slipping further and further away. This is especially enjoyable if you plan on teaching and moderating this game with new players. That moment when the escape tokens are flipped and suddenly the colors are off is priceless. If the team ultimately succeeds and escapes the mountain, they will compare the difference between collected injury cards and collected relic cards. More injuries than relics equals an overall failure of the expedition.

My biggest gripe about Mountains of Madness is how overproduced it is for what is primarily a game centered around the madness cards. The 30 second burst of planning and conversation hampered by the madness cards takes almost all the focus away from the game board and components. The game could have been much more minimalist in presentation and still just as satisfying. Iello production and component quality is as high as always, it just seems that the game could have been just as effective and fun in a much smaller package with much less included. I would be the first person to jump on board with “Mountains of Madness: The Card Game.”

Mountains of Madness is a tricky game to review. The interactions are so unique that it is a challenge to gauge the game as either a party game or a cooperative game or strategy game. What is it? I don’t know. It’s a strange game but one that everyone seems to really enjoy. For me the madness cards are certainly the most intriguing part and requires perhaps an overabundance of player buy-in to really have the experience succeed. I would recommend this game to anyone who enjoys cooperative and hidden traitor or bluffing games in equal measures. It is challenging, exciting, and hilarious to play but requires more strategy than most party games and more extroversion than most strategy games which may make this game tough to find an audience for. But when you find them, it’s a hit.

Board in the Stacks: Magic Maze

Magic Maze is a real-time cooperative game similar to Escape: The Curse of the Temple or Space Cadets that playes 1-8 people in about 15 minutes. Unlike those though, players do not get assigned characters. Players can control any adventurer at any point of time according to their whim. Where it gets tricky is that players only have one action to complete, and aren’t allowed communicate with each other. There is, however, a large, red, passive-aggressive pawn that can be tapped impatiently or slammed in front of a player you suspect is missing something.

On top of that, there is a three minute timer to watch! If the timer runs out, it’s game over, man! The players lose. Lucky for them, there are tile locations that can allow players to flip the timer to briefly plan and power on. When a sand timer is flipped, players are allowed to communicate and quickly plan out their movements until someone takes an action, then it is back to silent partners.

So let’s sum up: Cooperative *check*, timed *check*, no assigned characters *check*, and players can’t verbally communicate with each other *check.*

Wonderful! This shouldn’t a be a problem at all…

To set-up players will choose which of 17 scenarios they will play. Each scenario has specific requirements on how to set up the tile deck and provides additional rules. Honestly, the first few scenarios (similar to Harry Potter: Hogwarts Battle or Mystery: Motive for Murder) serve to get the players familiar with the game while slowly adding additional elements. They can be skipped by more experienced players. Each of the four pawns get placed in the middle of the starting tile. The goal is to get the all four pawns onto their designated space to steal their particular piece of equipment, and then out to the exit space.

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To do this, each player will randomly get assigned 1 of the 9 Action Tiles. These are the actions that can be applied to the adventurers. They include directional movement, going up and down escalators, entering portals, or exploring and adding new tiles to the board. This is the only action a player can assign to an adventurer in the game. Once the timer is flipped, players begin to apply their specific action[s] to the adventures.

Review

While I love the stress and tension of real time games, I tend to only be able to stomach a couple of these games in my collection. Fully cooperative real time games like Escape! Curse of the Temple are a perennial favorite while the team based real time games like Space Cadets: Dice Duel or Captain Sonar provide too much competitiveness along with the tension and tend to not last too long in my collection. Magic Maze falls into the former category and strikes a balance between high tension and short game length.

While the artwork and presentation make Magic Maze seem appropriate to younger audiences, the hectic nature of the game play, the limited time, and the complexity of the later scenarios make it a challenge for younger players. Similar to Hanabi, this game rewards repeat play with a consistent set of players. You will develop a sense of player’s strategies and suss out any tells or hints they unconsciously provide.

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The interactions in Magic Maze are interesting. While most of the game is quiet since communication is forbidden, the small quick bursts of loud, harried talking when a timer is flipped add for a wonderful break of that silence. These occasional bursts are oddly exhilarating. It provides for a quick planning session while the timer is running and just enough to break the tension and get everyone relatively on the same page. Once you get two or three moves past it though, everything starts falling apart.

Scenarios not only increase in difficulty but also provide a scaffolding style of teaching the game through the first few scenarios. Each of the first few scenarios introduce new rules and slowly gives the players an opportunity to get acclimated to the game elements. Each of these learning scenarios can be played quickly and are a satisfying way of introducing the game to new players.

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For a library setting, Magic Maze is perfect! It is hectic, silly, and oddly quiet. It plays quickly in a relatively small space. The cooperative and real-time elements of the game make it appealing to spectate. The slow increasing of complexity tempers the chaotic nature of the game making it more accessible, and this is one of the few cooperative games that successful mitigates the Alpha Gamer problem. It is also provides an mildly competitive feel when players with opposing strategies attempt to move the same pawn. The pieces are limited to nondescript pawns, tiles and some tokens, making circulation simple.

Board in the Stacks: Spirit Island

In Spirit Island, 1-4 players take the role of Nature Spirits protecting their island home and its inhabitants, the Dahan, from invading colonists. Spirits needs to support each other, guide the indigenous Dahan, and hamper the rapidly expanding and exploitative colonists. In order to live peacefully, the island must be rid of most of the colonial presence before it is completely overrun.

Spirit Island is made up of an invader board, a modular island board, and individual spirit panels. The Invader Board will track Fear Tokens, the Fear Deck, and the Actions taken by the Invaders. To set up, first place 4 Fear Tokens per player into the Fear Pool. Then set up the Fear Deck.

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The Fear Deck will consist of a total of 9 cards and include the 2 Terror Level Dividers. Place 3 Fear Cards at the bottom to start the deck, then add the Terror Level 3 Divider, then 3 more Fear Cards, the Terror Level 2 Divider, and 3 more Fear cards on top. That’s your Fear Deck people!  

Spirits generate Fear throughout the game through Card Play, Innate Powers, and by destroying encroaching Towns and Cities. Each time Fear is generated, move one Fear Token from the Fear Pool into the Generated Fear Area. Once all Fear is moved, a Fear Card is flipped and moved from the Fear Deck to the Earned Fear Cards and resolved during the Invader Phase. Generating Fear and Terror makes the end win condition easier for the Spirits and is split into three Terror Levels.

The Win Condition for Level 1 is “No Invaders on the Island.” All Invaders, Towns, and Cities must be removed to win. Terror Level 2 is “No Towns or Cities.” It is assumed the Terror is enough to chase away even the most fearless Explorer. At Terror Level 3, “No Cities” is the win condition and it is assumed Towns will be abandoned. The more the Invaders fear the island and it’s protective spirits, the easier it is to win.

To set up the Invader Deck, remove one card from each of the three stages and then put stage three at the bottom, stage two in the middle, and stage one on top. If the invader deck ever runs out, the players lose and the island is overrun with invaders. This acts as a game timer.

Then choose a random Blight Card and place it on the Blight Space. If you are playing your first game, use the preprinted Blight Space and remove the all Blight Cards from the game. 

If you run out of Blight at anytime the island is considered beyond repair and the players follow the directions on the card or preprinted Blight Space which usually lead to a loss.

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To set up the island, choose one Island Board per player and arrange in the pattern shown in the rulebook for your player count. Each Island Board is divided into 8 lands with two of each landform (Jungle, Mountain, Sands, and Wetlands). Each board also has an Ocean landform which defines which lands are Coastal (as in adjacent to the Ocean) and Inland (not touching the Ocean). Starting Invader and Dahan pieces will be placed according to the icons on the Island boards. Then shuffle and place the Minor and Major Power Cards next to the board.

Each player chooses a Spirit Panel, it’s four unique starting power cards, and all Spirit Presence and Single-Turn Effect Markers of a single color. Follow the set-up directions on your Spirit Panel, place your Spirit’s influence into your Spirit’s Island section, and fill in all but the leftmost circles on the Presence Tracks.

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Reveal the top card of the Invader Deck and place an Explorer in that Land. Then move the revealed card to the Build Action Space.

Let’s begin!

Gameplay

Each round is divided into 5 phases: The Spirit Phase, The Fast Power Phase (Cards and Innate Powers with the red bird icon), The Invader Phase, The Slow Power Phase (Cards and Innate Powers with the blue turtle icon), and The Time Passes Phase.

During the Spirit Phase, players will choose one of three growth options. This will gain energy for later card play and actions, reclaim previously played cards, gain new Power Cards, and expand their presence on the island. Then players will gather energy according to the Energy Presence Track and play an amount of cards according to the Card Plays Presence Track.

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Spirit Presence is where Player Spirits inhabit the land and exert influence. If a Spirit’s Presence is destroyed, the Island is lost and the players lose. Presence on the Island provides increased Range for Power Card Effects. A Sacred Site denotes land where a Spirit has more than one presence. When certain Growth Options are taken, Presence Disks are removed from the Spirit Board and placed on the Island Board denoting Spirit Presence. If a Spirit’s presence is ever completely removed from the Island, the Spirit is considered destroyed and the players lose.

Players will examine their hands and determine which cards to play and pay the appropriate amount of energy.

During the game, Players will also have the opportunity to Gain a Power Card. To do so, they choose four cards from either the minor or major power decks, choose one, and then return the rest to the discard. If the player chose a minor power card, it goes directly into their hand. A MAJOR POWER CARD requires the player to FORGET (permanently lose) any POWER CARD already in their hand and remove it from the game. For your first few plays, I recommend using the Power Progression Chart Card where players instead take the next power card on the progression chart for their Spirit. This will provide you with a balanced and simpler hand for your first few plays.

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Cards with a Fast Power icon will be resolved next during the Fast Power Phase. Cards can be resolved in any order according to the preference of the spirits.

Most Power Cards played require an Energy Cost. Energy is earned through the Growth Options portion of the Spirit Phase or from Energy Reserves uncovered on the Energy Presence Track on the Spirit Board. Energy is only valid for the round it is earned and can’t be carried over to the next round.  

Playing Power Cards also allows Spirits to Gain Elements. Gained Elements can be used to activate Innate Spirit Abilities or Modify Power Card Effects. Elements are only valid for the current round.

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During the Invader Phase players will check the Blighted Island card (or Blighted Island Space if no card is being used) and determine any action to take. Every game begins with a healthy island. However, as more colonists arrive to explore, expand, and exploit, the island becomes damaged and falls to blight. Next, any fear cards that are earned, are now flipped over and resolved.

Next come the invader actions: Ravage, Build and Explore. They are resolved in reverse order, on the invader action track. If a space is empty, then the action is skipped.

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During the Ravage Action, if there are invaders in the lands shown on the card, they attack the land and then native inhabitants. Each Explorer causes 1 damage, each town causes 2 damage, and each city causes three damage. The invaders will attack the land first. If the land is dealt 2 or more damage, it is considered in blight and a blights token is added to that area. Invaders then attack any Dahan living in the area. Each Dahan population can take two damage before removed from the board. Remaining Dahan then fight back and can deal 2 damage per population to any invader in that land.  

When Blight is added to a land, any Spirit Presence in that land is destroyed. And if Blight is added to a Land that already has a Blight token, then it is also added to One Adjacent Land.

During the Build Action, any of the shown lands with Invaders present will develop Towns or Cities. If the land already has more Towns than Cities, then a City is added. Otherwise, a Town is added.

The card on the Explore Action is then flipped over. An explorer is added to every land of the shown type that contains a Town or City, or is Adjacent to Town, City or Ocean.

Invader Action Cards are then advanced. Ravage Action card is discarded, Build Action Card is moved to Ravage, and the Explore Action Card is moved to Build. Explore Action has the deck of cards on it and will be flipped the next round. Once that pile is exhausted, the Invaders, for all intent and purposes, have expanded past all return and the Island is lost.

Next during the Slow Power Phase, Spirits can take any action previously played with the Slow Power (Turtle) Icon.

During the Time Passes Phase, players discard all their cards, all damage is cleared and reset. All elements are cleared.

Review

First off, let’s examine the rulebook. When a rulebook has to explain how to read the rulebook then you have an issue. The rules are intensive and the authors made the decision to split it into two separate sections: Game Concepts and Sequence of Play. This causes you to constantly flip back and forth between the two in order to understand how to play or to reference the rules. This has led to confused and lost rules and no small amount of agitation in the learning and teaching of the game. A better option would have been to add a nice solid sidebar to explain the larger concepts while the bulk of the main text focusing on game play. Either way, I included a much larger rules explanation at the beginning of the review to help you out. To be honest, I don’t want you to be turned off by the rules and decide not to experience Spirit Island. Suffer through the rules, the game is worth it.

All cooperative games are hinged on good communication between players and for Spirit Island it is absolutely essential. Spirit Island is a game of communication and trust before it is a game of card play and area control. This is especially true with the delayed action mechanism on some of the cards. Cards can have immediate or later effects and this requires conversation and advance planning. If you only have a couple of games of Pandemic under your belt, you may want to try Ghost Stories, FlashPoint Fire Rescue, and Freedom: The Underground Railroad to get your skills up. The complexity of the Spirit Island leads to less of a cooperative puzzle solving game than you may experience in easier cooperative games.

Not only is the game difficult, it is also dense and there is much to explore. As recommended in the rules, you should start with basic spirits and use the progression of card powers to get a feel for how the game plays and how the cards work together. Just working through the innate powers plus the cards PLUS the innate powers and cards of the other spirits provides a wide decision space. Once you get that down, then play while picking your own power cards and all the additional variability that affords you. After that you should grab some of the more advanced spirits with more nuanced abilities. Then the variants. Then the scenarios. Then the adversaries. There is so much to play with in Spirit Island.

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The pacing of the game is spectacular. Each player will have a few early rounds with very little interaction with the other spirits. Chances are their presence on the island and their specific island tile will not expand quickly enough to interact. This means everyone has a couple of rounds to work with their hands and powers against the invaders before necessity leads to more interaction. The colonial invaders move QUICKLY and the game is ramps up quickly once spirits are interacting.

That said, there is also a huge alpha gamer problem. I’ve been converted to the school of thought that alpha gamers are not an issue of game design but of group dynamic. It is best to approach this game with a legacy mindset. Assume you are playing a series of games with the same people so everyone starts with the same level of understanding and can grow in experience together. If you mix the experience levels in Spirit Island, I guarantee you will have experienced players pushing around the new players. Success in Spirit Island hinges upon strong communication and an understanding of the game’s mechanics. Other cooperative games can have a new player and still succeed as you teach the game through the first few rounds of play. Someone can learn as they go in Pandemic but in Spirit Island you need to pull your own weight from the onset. Otherwise, go with a good solid teaching game and remain patient.

I’m on the fence with the decision to provide some thematic distance between the colonial invaders and the indigenous people of the island. That additional layer of play through the spirits may make it more palatable to the gaming community but lay lessen the thematic edge provided with a game that successfully flips the setter colonial narrative to provide gameplay that focuses on the indigenous side of the conflict. The “explorers” are seen as invaders. Blight always follows. The generalized Blight in the game could be supernatural, natural, or even cultural where an area explored, expanded, and exploited are left bereft of all indigenous cultural and social evidence. Personally, I would have preferred the conflict be addressed directly and have players assume the roles of indigenous tribes fighting off invaders. However, this has it’s own problematic baggage with players (likely, but not necessarily) white men assuming the roles of indigenous peoples.

That said, this review has gone on far too long and I think Spirit Island dives deep into new territory and is certainly worth your attention. I’ll follow this post up with a longer post on the Settler Colonialism narrative in board games so stay tuned!

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.

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: 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.

Board in the Stacks: The Mysterious Forest

The Mysterious Forest (BBG, Amazon) from Iello may be one of the few memory games I actually enjoy. The game is inspired by the digital graphic novel series, The Wormwood Saga, by Daniel Lieske. It plays 2-4 humans aged 6+ and plays in 10-30 minutes.

The players work together to help Jonas, our young protagonist, cross the Mysterious Forest and battle the evil Queen of the Draconia (this queen is certainly NOT kind or particularly nice or really human). You play the game in three phases. In the first phase you scout the path that Jonas will take through the forest. The forest will be made up of 8-10 cards depending upon the difficulty setting. Each card has amazing artwork from Mr. Lieske and the different items needed to continue past the card. The goal of this phase is to memorize the items one card at a time. It sounds like a lot but luckily we are all working together.

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The next phase is preparing for the journey. Jonas has a backpack with more than enough room to fit everything he needs but do you remember what those things are? Each player will take turns rolling four dice and choosing two of the items that are rolled to put into Jonas’ backpack. This continues until the entire backpack is filled with equipment. It is pretty much your standard camping fare — rope, magnifying glasses, compasses, maps, wooden swords, lighters, and Loki. Wait…what? When you roll your little animal friend Loki, you get to send him back to the camp for supplies. He is extremely helpful and can fetch you an item when you really need it!

The last phase is Jonah’s expedition through the forest. Are you ready? Did you prepare him with everything he needs? You flip over each card and resolve it once at at time, moving equipment from the backpack onto the card as needed. If you forgot something then it is a great time to send Loki back to grab it for you. Did you plan well enough?

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The game consists of three different types of cards that you use to set up your path through the forest: Forest Cards, a Wanderer Card, and a Final Battle Card. The Forest Cards I explained above but the Wanderer Card offers you a strange proposition: He will trade you his magical staff for a certain amount of equipment from your backpack. Think about this deal carefully. The staff has the ability to create two items whenever you need them but there is a fee. You can complete the trade with the wanderer and gain his staff and the two tokens that come with it or, if you are confident with your equipment and memory, you can continue on your way…no hurt feelings. The last card in the forest is the Final Battle Card. If you planned well, then this should be no problem but if you planned poorly you may find yourself lacking in something critical to win.

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Bottom Line: Iello has succeeded in making a memory game fun for families (and not just for kids). Normally a memory game involves a repetitive motion injury from flipping over tiles but this one adds enough dice rolling and art to keep it interesting. Not interesting enough to play without kids but interesting enough to actually enjoy the experience. Much of that enjoyment is due to the fact that the card art is absolutely gorgeous. Each forest card is different, showing a unique situation such as slipping down a cliff and requiring two gloves and a sturdy rope to successfully get back up and to the next card. In the end, you have a small story of what happened and how you resolved it. The storytelling aspect is not necessary but it is certainly fun. The box opens like a book (which is a nice touch) with a few short comic panels to get you into the story.

Generally, memory are fairly simple: Either you remember what you need to remember or … you don’t. However, with the added element of luck in the dice rolls plus the wanderer’s staff and the help of your best feline(ish) pal, Loki, you can certainly mitigate your forgetfulness. While the game-play itself is simple (basically try to remember everything and then roll dice to get it) there are some additional decisions that make this game a cooperative challenge for children too old for standard memory games but maybe too young yet for the standard cooperative entry point of Forbidden Island. As an added bonus, you are provided with a few different difficulty settings. You may start as a Budding Explorer but you will be a Hero of the Forest in no time.