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.

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

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

The Game

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Endgame

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

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

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

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

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

Board in the Stacks: Deception: Murder in Hong Kong

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Board in the Stacks: They Who Were 8

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

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

Set up for three players.

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

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

Four of the god tiles.

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Endgame:

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

Board in the Stacks: Islebound

Islebound has a simple premise. You are a ship’s captain striving to gain renown through the exploration and manipulation of a series of islands near your home port. Your story will be punctuated by pirates, sea monsters, and a diverse crew skilled in the ways of the sea. This is not the only story being told. There are other sea captains who will compete harshly for fame. Each turn players will sail to one of 12 islands and either pay the fee for resources/items the harbor, use muscle or diplomatic acumen to gain a foothold in that port, or hunt for treasure.

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Set up with Metropolis Expansion (not shown: player ship boards)

The board is modular with four sea port boards and four sea boards. Each sea port board is a starting (home) point for a player and each sea board will contain three regions, each containing an island with a port. At these ports, players may choose to pay a fee in order to complete the island’s action. The sea boards have an easy and difficult side. It is recommended that players start on the easy side for their first game but, honestly, the only difference are slightly altered island town actions and strengths. Off the bat, let’s just say that Islebound will fill up a table. Ship boards, modular sea boards, a shared renown board, and a building track will take up plenty of space.

On a player’s turn they first have to move their ship. This is a mandatory movement. Each space has an island to visit and depending on their crew they can move 2, 3, or 4 spaces to find the perfect port with the perfect resources. After movement and consequently landing on an island, a player can take an action. They can take the easy way out and pay the harbor fee to gain the island’s benefit. For example, you could visit The Grotto and pay one coin for a bunch of fish plus some extra fish for any of your crew with the “Work” icon. Money paid to a free (translation: not held by another player) island gets placed on the Treasure Map on the Renown Board. If someone holds the port they get paid.

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Home port of yellow player and adjoining island regions.

If the player is not feeling generous and has some muscle to flex they can just take the resources through warfare or diplomacy. Every island has a red and/or blue flag indicating the strength of the island town. Red flags indicate an island can be attacked and Blue flags indicate that diplomacy is an option. Islands can have one or both the flags providing the attacking player with the full range of exploitation. For example, let’s look at The Grotto. It has one red flag with a strength of 10 (apparently all the mercury in their fish has made them impermeable to diplomacy). By spending pirate/seas serpent cards for attacking or spending cubes on the diplomacy track to negotiate, players can earn the resources, take coins equal to the strength of the town, take ownership of the port, and place one of their markers on the port.

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Ship board with three starting crew and supplies.

The combat system used is practically pulled verbatim from Above and Below. Each pirate and sea serpent card has dice values. When rolled, the results are matched to the values on the card in tally the strength of the attack, if it is more than the strength of the town, they succeed. Additionally, players can exhaust (and injure) crew members to increase their attack. Diplomacy is even simpler: Remove enough cubes to equal the diplomatic strength of the harbor. And, of course, the crew may possess abilities which can mitigate these results.

Once a player claims an island, they reap the benefits of the island for free when they visit, and get paid the cost when another player wants to use the island. Careful choice of which islands to control can be a boon to a player if the island’s benefits are important to opponent’s strategies. However, other players can take the island away from you. The strength of an occupied island is two more than the number on the Red/Blue banners so it is a tad more difficult but still tenable if you begin to get too large for your fancy sailor britches.

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Renown board with pirate and sea serpent cards to the side.

If you move and don’t have the ability to pay for the island’s services and don’t have the diplomatic chops to ally with the island *and* don’t have the strength to attack (or you can but just don’t feel like doing it) the Hunt for Treasure action is an option. This is an easy one, you take all the money accrued on the treasure map. You now have enough money to do something next turn…

You can now complete any number of free actions. If you visited an island corresponding to one of the two active quests on the renown board you can pay the fee to complete that quest. By completing a quest you are spending resources and/or utilizing crew members to gain diplomacy (thematically, you are providing aid to the island and gaining a reputation as a pirate with a heart of gold). You can also buy a building. Buildings will provide special abilities and bonuses throughout the game. More importantly, they provide renown points and trigger the end game. So, if all else fails, buy a building. Always buy a building. The game revolves around the building cards. Your goal is to generate renown and your primary method of doing that is to build up your home harbor with the addition of buildings. It is easy for new players to get wrapped up in the sailing and attacking but it is all about the buildings. Building is a free action and you need to do it. Everything you do should enable you to end your turn with a new building. Build a building. Once someone builds seven (or eight with 2 or 3 players), the game ends.

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Building rows (expansion on top).

Ryan Lauket and Red Raven Games produce games with an emotive, thematic feel and a polished use of a consistent set of mechanics. Ryan Lauket does everything from design to development to graphic design and art. This potentially leads to one of the few drawbacks of a one-person creative show; the output, albeit well-designed, can become predictable.

Islebound removes the experimental storytelling elements of Above and Below and focuses on the mechanical. Gone is a breezy narrative style, and added are a few new mechanisms; area control and a modular board. Everything else is recycled. The building rows, the crew (the ready, spent, and exhausted states), and the combat systems come from Above and Below. That said, they work well with the modular board and provide an economy of choices on your turn: Not too many nor too little. The finished result is nicely polished game that flows well but, unfortunately, rarely surprises. And after an hour, you feel as if the game has given you everything it has and you are waiting for it to end. Turns move quickly but begin to get repetitive.  I found myself waiting for a turn in the game where I went from one strategy to another. Where the tempo of the game changes. Instead, it remains steady from beginning to end without a pivot point. While not as strategically enthralling as City of Iron or as narratively rich as Above and Below, Islebound does provide a satisfying sense of flow and comfortable gameplay. There is never a loss of what to do and you never feel particularly limited. It is this ease of flow during that game that makes this title a perfect recommendation for players new to the Red Raven (and by default, Ryan Lauket’s) catalog of games. While Above and Below gets most of the praise and all of the glory, the mechanisms and the narrative tend to clash providing a jarring and confusing experience for new players. Islebound provides a tight foundation for those mechanisms without having to grind the narrative gears when going below.

End of the day, Islebound is a solid and beautiful game that may last too long on the table but still provides a satisfying experience. The turns move fast, the strategies are singular and the decisions simple enough for new gamers but may leave experienced ones pining for the expanding decision space of City of Iron or the narrative adventure of Above and Below.

Quick note on the Metropolis expansion — This deck of cards provides an additional building row with two caveats: For each Metropolis building owned, one standard building must first be owned. Only three Metropolis buildings are provided at a time so players need books to purchase them. It does add a few more decisions to the game without adding any additional playtime. Which, for a game that may already go a bit long, makes it a recommended expansion.

Board in the Stacks: Pocket Madness

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

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

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

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

On their turn players can take one of three actions.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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A set of 12’s and THE GUG

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

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

Board in the Stacks: Celestia

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

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

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

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

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

Board games for two humans

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

Board in the Stacks: The Ravens of Thri Sahashri

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

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