Board in the Stacks: Sakura

IMG_0558You are the paparazzi of medieval Japan — painters. Hiding behind bushing, sneaking around tree, jostling for position to get a quick sketch maybe even a watercolor study of someone famous. As you lay in wait behind the garden gates you hear the clink of an easel. The soft scrape of a gentle brushstroke. The deep husky breathing of an artist. You aren’t alone. Other painters have been tipped off as well. It’s Spring and the emperor is taking a walk. It’s time to get physical. In Sakura, players are painters hoping to get the best viewpoint of the emperor while he strolls through his garden admiring the cherry blossoms. Move too fast and you may accidentally bump into the Emperor and be sent packing in disgrace. Move too conservatively and you’ll be left in the dust when he strikes a stunning pose.

Gameplay

The goal of Sakura is to get as close as possible to the Emperor when he stops to admire one of three sakura trees on the board. At these spots, the closest player will score three points, the next player will score two points, the third scores one point. In 5 or 6 player games the fourth in line scores one point as well. After scoring, players queue up in a straight line behind the leader and start again. At the last tree, the person with the most points win. It would be simple except for one thing. If you land on the same space as the Emperor or dare pass him, you lose a point and get sent back three spaces.

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Players have a hand of five cards. Each player secretly chooses one card and places it face down in front of them. Cards are then revealed and resolved by initiative order. Each card is numbered with the lowest going first. The cards have two actions to resolve: the top number (Garden Action) moves the Emperor or other players forward or backwards on the path. The bottom number (Painter Action) will move the player’s pawn forward or backwards on the path. Painters are territorial and never share a space. So when moving, you only count empty spaces towards your movement – and not those spaces occupied by other painters. So player position can change drastically over a turn.

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Review

Sakura is a silly push your luck game that manages to maintain its dignity. It is simple and easy to teach. The decisions are limited and with players restarting after every scoring space, no-one gets left behind. You need to  and succeeds with its simplicity. I was concerned after playing Osprey Games’ Star Cartel. Star Cartel was also simple but wasn’t much of a game. It felt instead like a solid mechanism in desperate need of a game to use it. But Sakura provides an experience with all it’s simplicity. You will spend 20 minutes jostling around, making hilarious mistakes that are completely unavoidable, and then line it up to go again. Luck can change quickly but you will have enough fun that you won’t care too much about the outcome.

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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.

 

 

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.

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: 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 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”