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: Decrypto

IMG_0422Introduction

Decrypto is quick word game where teams attempt to relay information out loud to each other using coded clues without allowing the opposing team to “intercept” or figure out their message.

Setup and Gameplay

Each team has an upright dashboard with four red-screened windows numbered 1-4. In each window they tuck a card so that it reveals a word. Everyone on the team can see the four words displayed on the dashboard each corresponding to a numbered window. One player is designated the clue giver and they take a card showing a three digit code (for example, 3-2-1) using numbers 1-4. These will refer to the words in each of the numbered windows. Then they give a coded message of clues to relay the correct sequence to their teammates.  

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Dashboard Screens

Clues can be nearly anything: words, phrases, lyrics, etc. But they must relate specifically to the meaning of the word revealed in the window. For example, if a revealed word is “beach” you could use “sand,” “summer,” “ball,” or “ocean” as clues. Clues can’t be too obvious and, at the same time, clues too obscure will make it difficult for the guessing team. You need to be sly and moderately obfuscating, just like in professional life.

During the first round, both teams take turns giving and listening to the clues. If the clue giving team is unable to successfully guess the code, they get a black mark denoting their failure. Starting with the next round and all subsequent rounds, each team makes attempts to guess (intercept) the opposing team’s code. If the intercepting team can guess the code correctly, they earn a white mark of success. At the conclusion of a round, a team wins if they have two white tokens or loses if they have two black tokens. As the rounds progress, each team will be tallying notes and gaining a firmer resolution of the opposing team’s keywords.

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Code Cards for each team plus the success and failure tokens

Review

First of all let me be perfectly clear: Decrypto is not a Codenames “killer.” Decrypto adds an element of deduction and obfuscation into the formula creating an experience as tense as Codenames but without the simplicity and elegance. Part of what makes Decrypto feels more like a race. Eventually, someone’s code will be broken but how long will it take?

While Decrypto won’t replace Codenames, I have found to be a good replacement for social deduction games at the library. Social deduction games like Werewolf or Coup are easy to learn and play well in large groups. However, they do require a significant amount of social investment for new players. And nothing scares away new players like additional social investment. You are expected to perform within the constraints of the game and this performance can lead to anxiety. Just do the math: New Player plus Large Group plus Mandated Performance equals Anxiety. A LOT OF IT. Decrypto provides the deduction and bluffing but with known teams and simple roles so you still get those discovery moments without the social anxiety of outing another player or messing up your roll.

Game rounds move quickly and it works well as a large group warm-up game. There is a dearth of quick, easy-to-learn, team games and Decrypto fits that niche nicely. More people means more collaboration and discussion which means trickier clues. While some word games can be quiet (such as Codenames), the discussions in Decrypto tend to be louder and more animated. If Codenames is a bunch of spies skulking about, Decrypto is a group of opposing hackers screaming at their computer screens.

 

Board in the Stacks: Raiders of the North Sea

Introduction

In Raiders of the North Sea from designer Shem Phillips and published by Garphill Games (Renegade Games in North America), players are independent warriors of a Viking Clan striving to garner prestige and influence with their Chieftain. To do that they need to bring in plunder. And where is the best plunder? Held snugly within the unsuspecting Christian settlements to the north of your village. First you will need to assemble a crew, gather provisions, armor up, and head north to raid. Things will not be without blood. Once you pick off the easier harbor settlements, you will go up against better fortified opponents. Grab your oar, don your armor because death and glory will surely follow in your wake!

Setup and Gameplay

Raiders of the North Sea is part of a the North Sea Saga. It starts with Shipwrights of the North Sea (800 AD) where players compete to gather resources and build their fleet. This is followed by Raiders of the North Sea (900 AD) where players are gathering provisions and crews to raid settlements nearby settlements. And lastly, Explorers of the North Sea (1000 AD) where players are seeking out new lands to settle and control. The basic progression follows the Viking Age (800-1066) starting with the development of a massive fleet, raiding local settlements and then exploring the vast world and developing new outposts. Plus, if you use the North Sea Runesaga expansion each game can be played in progression with an overall victor at the end.

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During set up, three of the village buildings (gatehouse, town hall, and treasury) will get a black worker placed on it. Three Offering Tiles are placed in the appropriate spots next to the long house with the remaining tokens stacked and placed next to the board. Each of the raiding spots north of the village will have 2-4 randomly placed plunder (livestock, ore, gold, or Valkyrie) plus one grey or white worker each. Each raiding place will have a number for the amount of plunder and an icon for which type of worker placed there. Each player receives 2 Silver, 1 Black Worker, 1 Ship Card, 3 tokens in their color, and five crew cards. Players will choose 3 of the cards and discard the rest to make up their starting hand.

In Raiders of the North Sea players will be balancing between working in the village and raiding settlements. Players work in the village by placing a worker onto one of 8 different buildings to take the associated action. Then they remove a worker from one of buildings and take that associated action. Workers are three colors (white, grey, and black) which can effect which buildings can be utilized and the resulting action. This is a worker placement mechanism unique to Raiders. Every player starts with one worker which they place for an action and then pull a worker off the board for a second action. Players will always start and end a turn with one worker in their possession.

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After a player has built up a large enough crew and provisions, they can take a raiding action. The board is set up with several “tiers” of raiding spots. The harbor is the easiest area but scores only one point, followed by outposts, monasteries and fortresses. At the beginning of the game plunder is randomly placed in each raiding spot. This will be a mix of livestock, ore, gold, and black skulls (Valkyries). Valkyries represent death and glory in battle and when gathered after a raid will result in the death of a crew-person (booo) and also an increase on the Valkyrie track for points at the end of the game (yay).

While you can choose to raid any settlement on the board you need to be sure you have a large enough crew, ample provisions and/or gold, plus a worker of the proper color. In order to raid fortresses, white colored workers need to be first released. When players raid a harbor, for example, they place a worker (grey or black) on an available raiding spot. Then after the raid is resolved and plunder acquired, they pick up a new worker from their raiding spot. In this case, a grey worker.

Review

Raiders of the North Sea is a delight! It has shifted Lords of Waterdeep out of my collection and if my partner didn’t love beating me at Stone Age so much, that one would be right out too! As it stands, Viticulture and Raiders are my worker-placement games of choice.

The artwork in Raiders is bright, vibrant, and consistent across the entire trilogy. Terrforming Mars can’t even keep it consistent within one hand of cards. From my perspective, there is a loss of narrative cohesion when a variety of artists, sources, and styles are used instead of one overarching aesthetic. There is also a recent tendency for games to go deeply grim-dark and bloody, and I appreciate the change of pace with Raider’s colorful, stylized, and distinctive art style. Granted, the content is dark (raiding, plundering, etc.) but the cartoony art-style softens the impact. This makes the game much more accessible. On top of that, when you include the Fields of Fame expansion, the representation of women is surprisingly adequate … but apparently not realistic so let’s get to that 50/50 mark with the next expansion! However, it is leaps and bounds better than any other Viking themed game out on the market. Good job, well done, and I appreciate the realistic armor and body diversity.

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The mechanisms are balanced, pleasantly coherent, and smooth. Although the end game can feel a bit clunky as you track three different end game conditions (no Valkyries left, one Fortress left, or the Offering Tiles stack depleted). While worker placement is the primary mechanism to procure resources and crew for raiding forays, hand management in hiring crew (with a dash of luck in the dice roll) determines the profitability of the raids. Raids are guaranteed to succeed as long as the requirements are met. This will provide you a reward of plunder but the sheer magnitude of your victory will garner you points (and Fame if using the Fields of Fame expansion). Players are challenged to be selective in their crew and align them with their overall strategy. Do you go for large points by building up a mighty crew with attacking prowess (this will take longer but have a higher payout from more fortified settlements), or do you get the basic requirements quickly and raid fast and often (less payout but more plunder and options to make more offerings to the village chieftain)? And how are you going to keep this up while meanwhile keeping an eye on the Armor and Valkyries track for end game bonuses?

Initially, I was concerned about this being too convoluted for players. However, they got the idea quickly. However, I still would not put this in the “gateway” category. For me, a gateway game will allow a new player a decent chance of victory or placing well against a seasoned player. Experience pays off in Raiders and a new player will do poorly against experienced one. Tracking the crew card benefits and the complexity of the different workers can also be fiddly for new players. Most worker placement games provide players with their own cadre of workers to use but in Raiders you are basically sharing three different types of workers. Everyone starts with a black worker, and with certain areas only accessible by white or grey workers, players have to be cognizant of what type of worker they are placing, picking up, or locking down in a raid. Once those white and grey workers start being introduced into the mix, there is more competition for the type of worker players pick up. For these reasons, I think it is best for new players to stick to Stone Age to learn and then introduce Raiders.

Player interaction is present but not overwhelming. You need to be aware of what plunder players are collecting, the strength of their crew, and where their potential raiding/working spots will be. For the most part, you are on your own and adapting to the changing board state. Each raiding spot has three bundles of plunder so even if someone gets there quicker, your turn isn’t going to be completely wasted. The only real elements of interaction are some townsfolk cards that can hamper play by stealing provisions or silver. Nothing particularly catastrophic but you can slow down opponents with a well played card.

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Speaking of player interaction and inducing my rage, another fantastic element in the design of Raiders is a lack of blocking. Once more for the people in the back: Along with hate-drafting, blocking is the worst! The ability to block, unless it is central to the theme, feels very meta and petty to me. In Stone Age, a player can squat on a tile or card because they know someone wants it and not because it helps them. Then they move off of it at the end of the round. Blocking removes me from the flow of the game and I am pleased with how Raiders handles blocking — you can’t do it. Raiding is only accessible when players have the required crew, provisions, and type of worker. And with the place one/pick up one mechanism in the village, it is impossible to block since placing your worker *actually* provides the opportunity for another player to take that action! Thank you, Shem! Vikings know blocking is a strategy for the weak.

Raiders of the North Sea is an original take on worker-placement games. The snappy turns, variable pacing, solid eurogame roots, and delightful artwork, provides a very satisfying experience for a wide array of players. While not the best gateway game, new and seasoned players alike will love it.

Board in the Stacks: Photosynthesis

In Photosynthesis, you are a species of tree engaged in an ages-long struggle for precious sunlight. Sap has not been shed in generations and you hope to see your wind-blown progeny emerge innocent from seed and grow to haggard adulthood. Until, that is, they are harvested for points on the whim of an uncaring and vengeful Smiling God. It’s a dendrological battle for supremacy over this forested realm…prepare yourselves!

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Setup

To start, each player takes their personal board and all the associated seeds/trees. They fill in the empty spots on their board where they are stored and then set the light point tracker to zero. Some seeds and small trees will be left over. These will constitute items immediately available for the player to use. The main board in Photosynthesis consists of circles radiating out from a central circle where seeds and trees will be placed. This is contained within a large hex which contours serve as the path the sun takes as each round progresses. Moving from the outer rim to the inner, the soil gets progressively richer, the colors darker, the points potential higher, and the competition more menacing.

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The sun is placed on the sun icon to start. Each concentric row’s circles has 1-4 leaves: A single leaf on the outer row, two leaves on the next inner row, three in the next, and the center circle has four. Each player places two of their small trees on the outermost row denoted by a single leaf. Scoring tokens corresponding to the number of leaves and color of the circles are stacked next to the board with the highest value on top.

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The game rounds tokens are also stacked: Either three or four rounds depending on the difficulty preferred. Each round includes six stops for the sun as it revolves around the board.

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Gameplay

There are two phases at each stop of the sun – 1) Photosynthesis, where light points are earned and 2) Life Cycle, where players use their accumulated light points to place seeds, grow and/or harvest trees, and purchase new trees/seeds from their player board.

During the Photosynthesis phase, the sun is moved clockwise and light points are collected from it’s new position and tracked on player’s boards. Small trees gain one light point, medium trees gain two, and large trees gain three. However, where you have light, you also have shadows. If a tree is in the shadow of another tree of equal or larger size, then it can’t gain light points. Small trees cast a shadow of one circle, medium trees cast a shadow of two circles, and the large trees cast a shadow of three circles.

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During the Life Cycle phase, players, in turn order, use light points to perform actions. Players can buy trees/seeds from their player board starting with the bottom most (least expensive) and working up. Purchased trees/seeds get moved to the side of the player’s board until willing to pay the cost for placement on the main board.

Players can also spend light points to plant seeds and grow trees. After initial setup, all trees on the board have to start from seeds. Seeds cost one light point to plant and must be distributed from an established tree. Similar to the collecting light and casting a shadow formula of 1/2/3; small trees can distribute a seed one space away, medium trees distribute seeds two spaces away, and large trees distribute seeds three spaces away. Each tree can only plant one seed a round.

Growing trees also stays true to the 1/2/3 formula; costing 1 light point to grow from seed to small tree, 2 light points to go from a small to medium tree, and 3 to go from a medium to large tree. When you replace a tree, the smaller size goes back onto the upper-most (most expensive) area on the player’s board. If no room exists, that item gets lost and goes back into the box. With the exception of trees placed at set-up, all items placed on the board are purchased first from the player board.

A central concept of Photosynthesis is that each space (and the seed/tree on it) can only be used once per round. If you grew a tree from small to medium, that same tree could not spread a seed. Just remember that if somethings happens on a space, that space is now inactive until the next round. Chill out friend, you’ll get there.

You can harvest large trees for 4 light points. The tree is removed from the main board, placed back on the player board, and the top scoring token matching the number of leaves (1-4) is taken.

Once everyone has spent the light points they wish, the start player token is passed to the left, the sun is moved clockwise to the next position on the hex and the next round’s Photosynthesis phase begins. For every complete revolution of the sun, one round token is removed. Once all the round tokens are removed, the game ends and points are tallied. Tears are shed. The circle of life continues.

Review

Blue Orange is a goddamned modern miracle. First New York: 1901, then Kingdomino, and now this. Photosynthesis is a gorgeous abstract game of spatial reasoning, impotent rage, and careful planning with a surprisingly entrenched theme. Especially for an abstract game! This leads me into a philosophical quandary — Can this be an abstract game when the theme feels so entwined with the mechanisms? Trees grow, spread their seeds, working towards the richer soils of the middle board. All the while nudging other trees out of the way to gain the most sunlight.

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Everything is so calm. So peaceful. So serene.

On top of that, the visual elements of the game are beautiful. The colors and shapes of the trees are distinctive creating a game that a joy to play and look at. Hell, I don’t even care about winning when the board ends up looking so amazing. The rules and mechanisms are surprisingly simple. They achieve this by sticking to a strict 1/2/3 formula. Small trees will cost 1 light point to grow, gain 1 light point during the photosynthesis stage, and casts 1 space of shadow. The medium trees do the same but with a cost of 2, and the large trees with a cost of 3.

Despite the seemingly innocuous and calming theme (see above picture of me chill af), the feel of the game is extremely tense. Just mindbogglingly tense. Like Wasabi tense. Placement of your trees and working towards that lucrative center spot while maintaining access to the sun as it moves requires a tight combination of tactical, strategic planning, and pure ruthlessness. Additionally, with 3-4 players, the board gets crowded and becomes the proverbial knife fight in a phone-booth. Seemingly minor placement errors early on can lead to large potential losses later in the game as your strategy adapts, leaving you to ponder what to do with these worthless saplings. The initial setup is important and being blocked early in the game when sunlight is precious can lead to major difficulty later on. It feels like optimum opening moves will potential reveal themselves after repeated play.

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Stop blocking me, Brenda!

The movement of the sun and varied ability to gain access as it moves is pivotal. It means that 1) players need to place in a manner that will provide the most sunlight as the sun moves and 2) stay psychically aware of the potential movements of other players. This is simple enough in a two player game (where it is a smooth, evenly paced experience) but with 3-4 players the potential movements adds a healthy amount of variety and randomness. Do you grow a few trees as tall as possible? Or do you spread your seed far and wide, basically blocking players from expanding. All while ensuring you have a decent light gathering engine to keep your plan moving.

It may be my lack of experience in abstract and spatial reasoning games, but I usually have a couple of rounds where I am unable to gain any light. Just a complete dry spell followed by a complete windfall. So it seems profitable to have at least a couple of trees out of the fray and growing on the periphery to gain sunlight from multiple positions while sneaking a tendril into the center of the board. Others tear into the center as quickly as possible.

Another interesting element of the game is that players have more seeds and trees than they have room for on their player board. If you ever have to remove one of those items from the main board and have no place for them on your board, they get removed completely from the game. With careful planning and allocation of resources you can keep more trees in play than your opponents allowing for a less expensive items, more placement opportunities, and more sun. Since that sunlight can turn on you in some rounds this allows for a better chance at controlling the richer areas of the board. But growing an adult tree and then harvesting for points basically frees up that rich spot for another tree. So there is an interesting ebb and flow as you struggle to grab onto the rich center spot but you are never able to hold onto it for long.

The most difficult decision for me comes with the largest trees. These things can be a veritable goldmine of light points so it behooves you to keep them around but, at the same time, harvesting them is the only way to earn points. So you need to be sure your engine is firing fast enough that you can harvest for points and then be able to grab up that spot again in a future round.

While the trees are beautiful and increases the table presence of Photosynthesis. They are too clunky, in my opinion, to circulate without being damaged or lost. However, it is the perfect bait game — the rules are simple and the gameplay can be picked up quickly by watching it being played. My suggestions is to purchase other abstract games to circulate but keep Photosynthesis for any in-house gaming events your library hosts.

 

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: 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: 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!

First Looks: Bunny Kingdom from Iello

In Bunny Kingdom, designed by Richard Garfield and published by Iello Games, players draft hands of cards in order to control territories, construct buildings, and gain end game conditions to earn points (ahem…golden carrots) for their Bunny Kingdoms. It is basically a PG-rated Watership Down meets Small World with card drafting and no violence.

The board is a 10×10 grid with a large score track. Letters A-J form the rows and numbers 1-10 form the columns. Forests, fields, seas, mountains, plains, and a couple of starting cities are available for players to control. Some territories will produce resources (forests produce wood, fields produce carrots, and seas produce fish) while others produce nothing. A deck of 180 cards is placed next to the board. Cards include 100 Territory Cards corresponding to every space on the board, Building Cards that can be constructed after the drafting phase and Parchment Cards that provide additional opportunities to score points at the end of the game.

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Bunny Kingdoms is played in four rounds each split into three phases: drafting, construction, and scoring. At the start of the round, players are dealt 10 (or 12) cards. They choose two cards simultaneously and place them face-down. Then pass the remainder to the player on their left or right depending upon the round. The chosen cards are revealed and resolved. Territory Cards and Building Cards are resolved immediately. Parchment (scoring) Cards remain face down and secret until the end of the game.

To resolve a Territory Card, a bunny is taken from the player’s supply and placed on the corresponding coordinate space on the board. Think the coordinate system in Battleship with rows A-J and columns 1-10 (F6, G1, A5, and so on). To resolve a Building Card, take the corresponding building token from the supply and place it on the card in front of them. There are a variety of buildings. They can produce resources, upgrade or build a city, connect two disparate fiefs, and set up a camp to (temporarily) claim an unoccupied area. Buildings can be constructed during the building phase of the current or any subsequent rounds so they do not need to be constructed immediately. Each territory can only support one building and, other than the camp card, players need to control the territory first before building on it.

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Once players drafted all their cards, the construction phase begins. Buildings played during the drafting phase can now be constructed. Most buildings are constructed by moving a token to a controlled territory. However, when someone states they are building a camp, you must check first to see if another player has a camp to build. Each camp has a numerical value and the player with the camp of the lowest value gets the option to place theirs first. There are also Sky Towers which allow you to build towers in two remote fiefs in order to join them. These are amazingly beneficial.

After players construct which buildings they wish, everyone scores their fiefs. A fief is a single set of connected territories controlled by one player. Basic end-of-round scoring is completed by multiplying the wealth of a fief by the strength. The wealth of a fief is the number of different resources produced and the strength is the total number of city towers. So if a fief had a wealth of 2 (say, they produce carrots and fish) and a strength of 3 (they have one 3 level city) then they score 6 points for the fief.

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Four rounds of drafting, building, and scoring take place and then players will do a final scoring where Parchment Cards are revealed and the results are tallied. There is a large diversity of end game scoring possibilities to explore so prepare for a slog and the end of the game.

Bunny Kingdom is a well designed and developed game. This is not surprising coming from the team up of veteran designer Richard Garfield and the artistic powerhouse that is Iello. The mechanisms are streamlined and simple so the teach is fairly easy — Draft two cards and then resolve, build, score and repeat four times. It does, however, lead to a very messy tableau of discarded Territory Cards, pending Building Cards, face-down Parchment Cards, and passed hands. I’m disappointed that no effort was made to create a player’s aid to help organize all these cards. Every game has had some confusion where cards were muddled up requiring time to work out what happened.

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The decision space is comfortable with plenty of opportunities to build or modify your strategy. It provides a pleasurable tension without too much of a strain due to too many options being available. Everything looks good in your hand! There are so many possibilities. I need that but they need that other one and I could do this because I have that but maybeeeee. It is, however, just as random as you can imagine when drafting 120/180 cards. You may not get what you need to complete the strategy so you have to adapt and sometimes you just can’t. If the thought of that doesn’t appeal to you then this is definitely not your game.

The pacing of the game is erratic. To be fair though, this is an issue with most drafting games. Some players will quickly play and pass and others will agonize over choices. However, experienced players will likely be able to burn through the drafting portion of the game quickly after a game or two. The real choke point is the scoring. End of round scoring is a trial and end of game scoring is a travesty. It wrecks the game for me. The setup is easy. The teach is easy. The gameplay is simple. The scoring grinds everything to a halt.

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Iello developed a beautiful game though. They took a solid set of mechanisms with a potentially bland theme (the original theme of the game was Dwarven Roads) and completely turned it around to make something exciting and buzz-worthy.  Interestingly the most interesting element of the game seems to have gone relatively unnoticed — the area control in Bunny Kingdom works entirely without any player interaction. The only possible exception is when two or more players have camps to build. And this is a redeeming design element of the game. It is, for the most part, a very friendly area control game which seems counter intuitive to the mechanism but it does work.

The artwork and the idea of bunnies proliferating over the board is also whimsical and wonderful and I love it. I loved it the moment I heard about it. My only wish is that they could proliferate faster and make less of a mess around the board.

Bottom Line: Bunny Kingdom is a beautiful, albeit messy, “second-step” drafting game. Fans of Sushi Go! can move into a larger decision space. Fans of 7 Wonders can find enjoyment in a similar level of complexity but with an added element of area control. The art is delightful but the small board size and lack of player aids makes for a very clustered and unnecessarily chaotic experience. The drafting is spot on and the area control is the friendliest in the land. There are just enough tempting decisions to make it difficult to decide whether to continue on one strategic trajectory or start a new one.

 

Board in the Stacks: The Legend of the Wendigo

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

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

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

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

Night Phase:

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

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

Once this is done we move to the Day Phase.

Day Phase:

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

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

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Review:

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

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

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

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

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