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.

Sherlock Holmes Consulting Detective: Jack the Ripper & West End Adventures

pic3238299_mdSherlock Holmes Consulting Detective: Jack the Ripper and the West End Adventures (Amazon) is a series of cases that continue the investigations of the original Sherlock Holmes Consulting Detective. Space Cowboys (of T.I.M.E. Stories and Splendor fame) are updating and redoing the original releases. In this game, the West End Adventures are updated versions of the 1995 expansion to the original game with four completely new adventures centered around Jack the Ripper. The original Sherlock Holmes Consulting Detective will be released as The Thames Murders and Other Cases later this year.

The Game

Similar to the original, 1-8 players work together as a team of “irregular” investigators working with, but also competing against, their boss Sherlock Holmes. Each case is contained in a booklet with an introduction, several locations with associated text, case questions to test how well you did, and the solution provided by Sherlock to measure yourself against. Each regular case utilizes a large fold-out map of London along with newspapers and a directory. The Unlike the original, Jack the Ripper cases are all linked together in a series and have a map of White-chapel included. 

An introduction is read aloud at the beginning of each case. The players are encouraged to explore the provided materials and come to a consensus on which location to search. The map has dozens of locations to visit in the course of your investigations. You will gather clues, visit locals who may provide information pertinent to your case or red herrings to lead you astray. Each location moves the team closer to solving the mystery new leads which in turn lead to new locations. Once the group has determined they explored and followed enough of the leads, they can move onto the questions for the case. There are a total of 200 points that can be earned from solving the primary case and any peripheral mysteries that may have been uncovered as well. Time is of the essence, so visiting too many sites and spending too much time can affect the final score.

Sherlock_Holmes_Consulting_Detective_02_2000x1333.jpgAfter the questions, the score is tallied and you compare your results to Holmes’ solution. However, the solutions provided by Sherlock require so many ridiculous logical leaps that it really only serves to prove to the players how intensely smart Sherlock is. You can ignore the score, and laugh at the result that Sherlock comes up with.  

Each case is a one-shot experience and with 10 cases supplied in the game. At 90 minutes a case, it more than provides enough value for the cost. At first glance there is very little option for replay-ability but having one person moderating the game (who knows the solution) can be fun to attract new players. It was also fun to allow new players to work through the game and provide an occasional hint.

Comparing this to T.I.M.E. Stories, I prefer the lack of game mechanics in Sherlock Holmes Consulting Detective. There is little set up, lots of reading, and plenty of discussion about what to do next. You can move from place to place, examine clues, develop leads, gather materials, and pour over the map and newspapers provided. Both games are certainly on rails but I find the streamlined experience of Sherlock Holmes much more enjoyable.

This is a gaming experience tailor made for bookworms! It reminds me of the experience of reading a Choose-Your-Own-Adventure book with the added benefit of being able to share the experience with more than one person. Honestly, I never got to a good ending of a Choose Your Own Adventure book without cheating and I have never get even close to Sherlock’s solution in Sherlock Holmes Consulting Detective. Nor should I! Most of the fun is the disbelief of how he actually solved the crime and your own floundering steps towards a solution. You don’t get better as you play but you do get more creative in your solutions as you try to make the same logical leaps Sherlock makes.  

The Endgame

Take your time. Have a drink. Forget about the score. Explore possibilities with your group. Laugh at the red herrings and gloat over someone’s totally lucky guess that ended up being correct. It is totally OK to cheat at this game. If you can’t answer a question, go back and retrofit an answer. See where you went amiss.

This is a great introduction to RPGs for people who never even thought about playing an RPG. Let me be clear, it *isn’t* an RPG but it has that feeling of group cohesion, discussion and discovery. It has the added bonus of being played without a moderator and if you really wanted to toss in some characters, it wouldn’t be too hard to find some mystery tropes to include. They would have zero effect on gameplay but could make the experience even more immersive.

Sherlock Holmes Consulting Detective is an overlooked gateway game that no-one ever mentions. And it should be right alongside with Splendor, Ticket to Ride, and Pandemic. It is a small jump into Fiasco if you want storytelling or into Letters from Whitechapel if you want to get a bit more mechanical. The theme is familiar and immersive to most. The mechanisms are simple to practically nonexistent. It plays with little setup or rules explanation. 

The only downside of this particular iteration is that the theme of the Jack the Ripper cases can be off-putting. I have this same issue when I introduce Letters from White-chapel to some gaming groups. It is just a whole different level of dark from the classic Holmes mystery.This sequence of linked cases is bloody, historically accurate, and can be tough to stomach. Something about the jump from a purely literary affair to the reconstruction of actual horrible events of real victims may be too much. As a simple test, if your group would be down with From Hell or the Ripper Street TV series then they may be ready for this. My recommendation is to play the West End cases first and move into the Jack the Ripper cases only if this level of darkness is appropriate to your group.

So this makes my recommendation mixed for libraries. Even most adult groups of emerging gamers have been concerned over particularly dark themes. If you are worried about the grisly nature of Jack the Ripper, get the original Sherlock Holmes Consulting Detective if you can find it. Or you can wait for the Space Cowboy’s re-release of the original as Sherlock Holmes Consulting Detective: The Thames Murders and Other Cases.

“Building a Better World” with City Building Games

I’m a bit over the Summer Slide so lets talk about what board games fit right in with this summer’s theme of “Building a Better World.” In the following three posts I will dive into three different topics: City Building, Environmental, and Farming, which meet the summer’s theme. Each topic is divided into Beginner games, Intermediate games, and Advanced games. These divisions are not meant to make a statement about player ability or experience but, instead, describe the games according to game length, amount of set-up, length of rules, and diversity of mechanisms that each game exhibits. Honestly, my sweet spot is right between the Beginners and Intermediate games.

City Building:

In a city-building game you are constructing a city or some other municipality (or even just a home) with some objective in mind. I’ve broadened this concept to building homes and even tree houses. The concept is all the same.

Beginner:

pic2337577_md.jpgCarcassonne (Amazon) is the iconic tile-placement, city building game which is lodged firmly in the gateway category. The rules are simple: You draw a tile and then you place the tile. In the original game you are building cities, roads, monasteries, and farms. The larger your land-form, the more points you score. The placement rules are simple (cities have to connect to cities, roads to roads, grasslands to grasslands). Once a tile is placed, you have an option of placing a meeple on it to show ownership over it. Once a land-form is completed, the owning player scores it.

Maybe you already have Carcassonne and looking for something new? Luckily, the Carcassonne family of games has a huge amount of variety: My First Carcassonne which features simplified rules for the younger crowd; Carcassonne: Amazonas has players exploring the Amazon and discovering animals and tribes; Carcassonne: South Seas you place meeples to gather and ship goods; In Hunters and Gathers, you are exploring untouched forests, rives, and meadows to hunt, gather, and fish! The Carcassonne family of games generally play 2-5 people, aged 8+, in 30-45 minutes.

pic2375542_md.pngIn Best Treehouse Ever (Amazon), players are drafting cards and building rooms to create the best treehouse ever! Cards are placed according to a few rules. New rooms must be supported by two branches, the must touch a room of the same color and they must not cause the tree to tip over. You have three weeks (rounds) to build your treehouse and each round you place five rooms  so we are talking one heck of a treehouse. At the end of the round, players can tweak with the scoring by placing game-changer cards which increase the points for certain types of rooms. The rooms are silly, and the gameplay is surprisingly strategic for such a quick game. It plays 2-4 humans, aged 8 and up, for 20 minutes.

pic3176771_md.jpgIn Dream Home (Amazon) you are scaling back a bit from Quadropolis and building your perfect house and competing with your neighbors to have the *best* house. Each player starts with a basic McMansion tableau with 12 empty rooms to fill; five on the second floor, five on the first and two in the basement. Players take turns choosing from a pair of cards from the market. Each pair will consist of one room and one resource (helpers, handy-persons, architects, tools, etc.) to use in building their home. The room gets placed according to some simple rules, and the resource can be used immediately or later to score more points. You can expand rooms for more points (a playroom is nice but a huge playroom is even better), and add decor to provide the perfect finishing touch. It plays 2-4 players, aged 7+, in 20-40 minutes. This was also one of my picks for best games of 2016.

Intermediate:

pic1992476_md.jpgIn Machi Koro (Amazon), you’ve been elected Mayor and your new constituents want it all! In order to build these you need to develop big working from the basics (you are starting with a wheat field and bakery). On your turn you first roll your dice and depending on the result different cards are activated. Blue cards can be activated on anyone’s turn. Green cards are activated only on the active player’s turn and Red cards are only activated on other players turns. After the roll and the cards are activated, the active player can choose to buy a new card from the market to place into their town. It is random. It is mean. It also has a few exapnsions and a Target Stores Only edition. It plays 2-4 (5 with the Harbor Expansion) players, aged 10+, in 30 minutes. I placed this in the intermediate category due to the amount of direct player interaction and capacity for vindictive city building. Basically, this game can be as mean as you want it to be and it certainly is never fair.

pic2840020_md.jpgThe same people who brought you Ticket to Ride are bringing you Quadropolis (Amazon) where you are the Mayor. In order to bring your city into the modern age and meet the specific needs of your constituents, you will need to determine a strategy for what direction your city will develop. At the same time you will compete against adjacent cities. You will need residential buildings, shops, public services, parks, harbors, and factories to provide the most efficient infrastructure and to elevate you to the mayor hall of fame (that doesn’t actually exist). Players will vie for the perfect building to construct and then allocate the right amount of people and energy to each to score the most points. It plays 2-4 players, aged 8 and up, in 30-60 minutes and is a great step up from my personal favorite game of all time, Alhambra.

Expert:

pic1418335_md.jpgIn Suburbia (Amazon), you are working to take a small town and develop it into a powerful metropolis. But this is no easy feat. Players buy tiles from a real estate market and then place in their borough. The building tiles add residential, commercial, civic, and industrial areas to your town as well as provide additional benefits. Unlike many of the games previously discussed, the placement of the tiles is exceedingly important as building tiles can effect each other and the tiles of other players. Experienced players can develop combinations of tiles that will be devastating to newer players. As you build your town’s reputation, the population will grow and income will increase. Your borough will grow but so will the cost to maintain it. The planning and interaction in Suburbia feels a lot like SimCity™ if it were a board game. It plays 1-4 players, aged 13+, and games last for 90 minutes. Expansions add additional building tiles and room for a fifth player.

A Few Hints on Organizing a Game Night

  1. Teach: Be prepared to teach at least one game and demo them all.
  2. Volunteers: Have at least one volunteer/staff per 4-5 players. If players are experienced, then one volunteer/staff per 8-10 players.
  3. Families: Encourage families to attend and play together. Make it an inter-generational event.
  4. Multiple Copies: Provide multiple copies of game you are teaching.
  5. Partner: Local Gaming Groups, a Friendly Local Game Store, other libraries.
  6. Scaffolding: If you plan on multiple events, teach a new game each event and have multiple copies of games previously taught available.
  7. Classics: Provide classic games. People love them. They are inexpensive. They have no zero barrier to entry.
  8. Open: Play in open areas in the library if possible. Encourage spectators. A crowd makes everything better!
Featured image is of the Yick Cheong Building, Quarry Bay, Hong Kong taken by Flickr user aotaro 

Board in the Stacks: Deception: Murder in Hong Kong

In Deception: Murder in Hong Kong, 4-12 players are attempting to solve a murder and just arrived at a crime scene loaded with clues and potential murder weapons. Players need to sort through the clues with the help of their forensic scientist. Everything seems simple enough except that the murder is standing in their midst and in uniform. Players will need to suss out what the forensic scientist is hinting at, find the murder, and protect their start witness before three rounds of play elapse.

Start the game with determining who will be the Forensic Scientist. The Forensic Scientist is presenting hints so they should be the most experienced player (or at very least the one who read the rules already). Similar to the ghost in Mysterium, you have an oddly mute forensic scientist (who in my head-canon has such a strong case of social anxiety) who is unable to speak to the investigators and instead just points to their notes.

Everyone else is randomly given a roles: Mostly Investigators plus one Murderer, and in larger player counts, a Witness and an Accomplice. Everyone except the Forensic Scientist is dealt a hand of four clue cards and four weapon cards which are displayed in front of them. Similar to Werewolf, the forensic scientist has everyone close their eyes and then asks for the Murder to open their eyes and point to one of their weapon cards and one of their clue cards. This is the information that the Forensic Scientist must relay to the investigators. The Witness gets to see who the murderer is but not their murder weapon or clue and wants to survive and remain hidden. The Accomplice gets to see who the murder is and wins if the murderer gets away.  

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Investigator, Murderer, Forensic Scientist roles and for higher player counts the Witness and Accomplice.

The game is played in three rounds. The forensic scientist has to place bullets on the six random tiles. Two tiles (“Cause of Death” and “Location of Crime”) are always used with four additional “Scene” tiles. Placement of the bullets will hint at the murder weapon and the clue and thus the identity of the murderer. It is best to place these slowly so players can discuss the clues and help guide the investigator to the next placement. Each player (including the murderer) then gets to make brief presentation about their opinions on the case and can once per game make and attempt to solve the murder by announcing “I plan to solve the murder” and then pointing to one murder weapon and one clue in front of one specific player. If you guess correctly, the investigators win! But if you guess incorrectly, you turn in your badge and are unable to make a guess again. However, you can still partake in the discussion on how others can make their guess. This continues for three rounds with the Forensic Scientist adding one new “Scene” tile to replace an older one of their choice.

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The Location of Crime (green), the Cause of Death (purple) and four Scene tiles.

If playing with the Witness, and the correct weapon and clue are guessed, then the Murderer gets the opportunity to guess who the witness is to win the game.  

Deception is to The Resistance what Mysterium is to Dixit. It takes an enjoyable activity and adds a subtle layer of mechanics on top to create a more salient game experience. All this while retaining a quick set-up and pleasant flow of play. The tension and distrust from other social deduction games such as The Resistance or Werewolf is present but not overwhelming. You have an experience where players are working together but always glancing slightly askance at each other rather than heavy bluffing and accusations.

Deception places the emphasis firmly on the deduction part over the social part of social deduction games. Discussion more often revolve around what the Forensic Scientist is trying to hint at over whether someone is lying or not. It just feels gentler and more about subtle misdirection over outright argumentation. The murder can slink into the background and let everything play out while gently nudging people in the right or wrong direction.

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A handful of clues and a smattering of Investigator badge tokens.

The Endgame: Deception: Murder in Hong Kong can play a large group easily and the set-up is minimal (especially when compared to Mysterium) and I prefer it over Werewolf or The Resistance since the game-play is less “social” and the discussion a bit more gentle while still tense.  

Board in the Stacks: Holmes: Sherlock and Mycroft

In Holmes: Sherlock & Mycroft (BGG, Amazon), the famously super-smart brothers Sherlock and Mycroft are investigating an explosion in Parliament. But like most siblings, they couldn’t possibly work together and are competing against each to be the first to crack the case. Time is limited and they have one week to search and find clues, talk to contacts and solve the mystery.

The board had eight spaces for cards plus the ever-present Doctor Watson, Mrs. Hudson and Inspector Lestrade. Eight character cards are placed face-down on the board and as the days of the weeks drift by on an opioid-induced haze new characters are drawn and placed onto the board. The clue cards are shuffled and placed next to the board with four clues face up to form a market. Clue cards consist of numbered clues, wild cards, and map fragments. The numbered clues are a pyramid deck (I adore a pyramid deck) where there are three cards ranked a three, four cards ranked a four on up to nine cards ranked a nine. Lastly, each player gets three meeples and five magnifying glass tokens. The tokens are used to purchase clues, and the meeples are placed onto the board to complete actions.

The game is played in seven rounds. At the beginning of the round a new character card (two are added on day one) is added to the board. If you are familiar with the round cards in Agricola, this will sound familiar. Take the top card from the deck and place it in the spot appointed for the current day. Any meeples placed on the board from the previous round are stood up. One day one, each player has all their meeples so this can be ignored.

During a player’s turn, they will select a character card, move and place their meeple *flat* on it, and then take the card’s action. They can move any upright meeple to any card which currently does not have one of their own on it. Once a meeple is moved it is laid down to show it have been moved this round and can’t be moved again until the next round. Play then moves to the opposing player and this continues until all meeples have been moved and placed and three actions taken.

At the end of the round, any character card with two meeples are flipped over and unavailable for the following round. Any cards flipped the previous round are flipped back over and available the next round. Think about how exhausted you would be if *both* Holmes siblings grilled you in one day. The only ones immune to this are Watson, Mrs. Hudson, and Lestrade who due to their constant interactions with the brothers have, no doubt, built up some amount of resistance.

I’ll spare you a description of all the cards. Dr Watson lets you spend one magnifying glass token to take one clue card from the market and place it in front of you. Mrs Hudson allows you to draw three magnifying glass tokens from the supply. And Inspector Lestrade lets you spend three magnifying glass tokens to pick any two clue cards from the market. When a clue card from the market it pulled, it is placed face-up for everyone to see. However, cards pulled face down from the deck remain secret and are placed face-down.

At the end of the game players can assign any wild cards (one wild card per clue type) and each of the number ranked clues are scored. The player with the most cards of a rank will get points equal to the rank of the card minus the number of cards the opposing player has. So if Sherlock had two of the three ranked cards and Mycroft had one, Sherlock would score two points for that rank. Bonuses are scored for having all of one type of clue. Map fragments are scored -1/1/3/6/10 points for 1/2/3/4/5 fragments.

Holmes: Sherlock & Mycroft is a very simple worker placement, set collection game. It feels like a step up from Lost Cities or Shotentoten. While most games like this will limit the amount of choices as the game progresses, the decision space increases as the game moves towards the end. The variability of the character cards makes it more difficult to form a consistently winning strategy and requires more tactical actions. The order of your actions is just as important as the actions you are taking especially with the flipping of character cards as they get exhausted.  

There are some additional cards that can be included in the game if you wish to increase the difficulty. Sherlock/Mycroft cards allow clues to be reserved from the market and the villain cards cause players to lose clue cards or magnifying glass tokens or decrease the number of actions that can be taken. Personally, I preferred the game without these additions. In fact, the way the game randomizes which characters will be added to the tableau and in which order provides enough variability. This prevents a stable strategy from emerging early in the game and forces players to be more fluid.

Endgame: There is always room in my collection for simple worker placement games and Holmes: Sherlock & Mycroft, for what it lacks in theme, makes it up in simple game-play and enjoyment. This is not the immersive experience that is present in Sherlock Holmes: Consulting Detective but more a head to head abstracted game of push and pull as you attempt to deduct what clues your competitor are collecting. New gamers will have an easy time getting into this game and it is a perfect introduction to worker-placement style games. For experienced gamers, there are slight but pleasant notes of Ticket to Ride and Agricola that fit into a much briefer time frame.

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: 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.