Category Archives: Reviews

Kirsty, fill your house for free!

Just because it’s free, doesn’t mean it can’t be fabulous.

Kirstie’s Fill Your House For Free, Channel 4 (2014)

Recently, I have been playing games about taking stuff which is just lying around. Bin raking games, if you will. Unappealing as this sounds, this oh-so-specific sub-genre theme for games is a remarkable amount of fun!

First up, it’s Arctic Scavangers, which is a deck building game set in post-apocalyptic frozen wastes where tribes of survivors compete for scarce resources by lifting stuff that’s been left lying around, then taking it home and converting it into bookshelves. For the really valuable “scarce resources” like grenades or vintage curtain sets, I’m afraid it’s every man (or woman) for themselves – you’ll have to fight it out.

I’m afraid I’m not really cut out for this sort of game. Very unpleasant business, all this scrapping over material items. The whole game I didn’t win a single conflict and in the end I just stopped trying and, so, the fickle wandering population of the North went to live with my competitors – who promptly ate some of them.

The game is pretty good – in my opinion – and I’d be quite happy to play again. But not brilliant. Unlike the next game …

I picked this up for a song at The Works recently on a whim. And that has paid off big time! What a great little game. Comes in a lovely little, portable box; plays in 15 to 20 mins; simple to teach and learn; my wife and kids love it; and it’s stacked full of strategy.

The idea is simple, everyone is heading off down the local dump (or recycling centre, or somesuch) to pick up some junk to sell. You can keep the stuff you find for face value, or trade it in as sets to make a bigger profit.

Each turn, cards are turned over with sets which can be traded in, then everyone plays a card face down to indicate whether you are going to the dump on foot (1), bike (2), motorcyle with sidecar (3), car (4) or truck (5). The number in brackets is how many items you can carry back with you, but also the order in which you set out.

So, if you decide to go on foot, you will get first pick of the stuff there, but you can only carry 1 thing back with you. On the other hand if you load up the truck, you’ve got space to carry loads, but all the good rubbish might be gone by the time you get there.

Worse still, if two or more players opt to take the same means of transport only one of them gets to go and the other(s) has to stay home! This leads to a constant second guessing of the other players and frequent recriminations when your plans to head down the dump are scuppered when you learn that you friend has borrowed your car to go there and left you stranded. Of course, there’s always the option to stay home and steal the stuff the other players have taken from the dump while they’re off getting more!

Special note of praise for the cards which specify the orders available to trade in which state not only the value you get for trading them in but also (in smaller print, bottom right) how much more that is than simply keeping the goods for their face value. Very helpful in working out which are the best cards to aim for.

As I say, a great game – by Friedemann Friesse (of Power Grid fame) – which I’d highly recommend. Maybe you can pick up a copy for free if someone if throwing theirs out?

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War Games

I said, war, good god, now, what is it good for?
Absolutely, nothing
Say it again, war, what is it good for?
Absolutely, nothing, listen to me
War, it ain’t nothing but a heart breaker
War, friend only to the undertaker, war

–War, by Frankie Goes To Hollywood (1984)

I just bought my friend Risk Legacy, which got me thinking about war games. In a way, this was a selfish present, as I fully expect to be invited to join in the epic 15 game campaign which will shortly begin. It’s also incredibly selfless of me, because he is a huge Risk fan and I think it’s slightly tedious after the first few hours! Like that guy from Board With Life, my favourite is Lord of the Rings Risk, but I hear Legacy’s pretty good too. In essence, though, my gift was a commitment of time: a promise to spend time with my friend. This is, after all, the very essence of this hobby of ours- board games are about enjoying time together with friends or family.

Which is all very well, but I want to talk to you about conflict.

Specifically, board games which simulate conflict, war and aggression. I grew up playing Diplomacy. A lot of Diplomacy. Before the internet, people used to play this classic by post. One game could last years! But not us. We would gather together in a group of seven and put our friendships to the harshest of tests, simulating the pre-World War One conflicts between Europe’s 7 Great Powers of the early twentieth century.

russol

Diplomacy gets a lot of bad press, but it’s a classic for good reason. It famously features no dice or other random elements at all. Tactically, the game is about outguessing, outsmarting and outmanoeuvring your opponents. While strategically, the emphasis is on forging, managing and – inevitably – breaking alliances with other players. We fell for this heady cocktail in a big way, devoting hours at a time to playing and replaying the years 1901 to 1910 (or so) on cardboard using plastic pieces. We would even, on special occasions, play in evening wear- as if we were ambassadors of the Great Powers, deciding the fate of a continent after dessert and before the port and cigars arrived.

grahamrossiain

I was also peculiarly fond of an old GW game called Blood Royale. This was another game of European conquest, involving largely the same powers, but several centuries earlier. The game lasted a long time, but crammed a lot in: international trade, combat, royal families and lineage and a juicy selection of calamities and events. Indeed, you would usually spend more time attending to your family’s genealogy than in actual combat. I still have the game, but I fear that I might tire of it fairly quickly these days. The plastic coins for currency were a definite plus in comparison with the usual paper money, and regions on the map producing resource tokens which could be traded and sold seems years ahead of its time.

There was also a really interesting mechanic for recruiting armies. Each player had a finite stock of 20 cardboard tiles representing their armies. In addition to paying their wages, if an army was defeated, the tile went into a sort of “limbo” area meaning that you couldn’t replace your losses immediately, but wait a full turn before they became available again. So, you had to be careful about committing your full forces to any given conflict, as a heavy defeat would leave you effectively defenceless for the whole next turn.

The wargamers among you will be weeping with frustration at this point, so I’ll move quickly on to cover some more recent, card driven offerings. First up, A Few Acres of Snow, which Alastair reviewed recently. This is set in the British vs. Canadian/French conflict for control of Canadia back in the 1750’s – I have only played once, and I won convincingly but it left me a bit cold (if you’ll excuse the terrible pun).

I was new to the game, and to this style of game in general. Therefore, I reverted to type and I chased the end condition and victory points. I won by simply building a lot of settlements, after only a few scattered skirmishes. It felt a little bit like we were playing two different games, where the Canadians were itching for a fight, and the British were just quietly getting on with infrastructure and local government. In most games that would spell a bloody disaster for the planner/builder. Possibly, this is some deep “make civic administration, not war” moral which designer Martin Wallace is trying to install in players. But, I’ve only played this once, so I’m prepared to be proved wrong.

And then there’s Twilight Struggle (sadly, not Rocky IV the board game). Lots more cards simulating the cold war era intrigue between the great global superpowers of the Vampires and the Werewolves. I only played half a game, so that may not be 100% accurate, but you get the gist. It looks pretty good, and someday I’ll play the other half!

“War is sweet to them that know it not.”

Pindar (518-438BC)

Once Upon a Time

Once Upon A Time is a storytelling card game for 2 to 6 players of pretty much any age. If you can read and communicate, you can play this game. Ever fancied taking control of your own fairy tale? Ever postulated at a pathetic Prince in the pages of a parable, or dreamed of determining that the Dragon didn’t defeat the Duke? Then this game is most certainly for you.

Once Upon a Time Cards

There are those who would question whether this was really a “game” – is it not more of a shared narrative experience? While there are competitive elements, seeing players try to railroad the story away from the others’ ideas and towards their own randomly selected ending, there is much, much more fun to be had in sitting comfortably, joining in with the tale telling and seeing where it takes you. It’s a joyous, rewarding (and often humourous) way to spend 20 or 30 minutes which genuinely spans generations. It’s simple to learn, easy to engage non-gamers with and completely memorable: the first time your son decides that the best way to free the princess from the tower is with a magic, flaming wolf, will stay with you, trust me!

A Few Acres of Snow

2014-02-10 23.08.08A Few Acres of Snow is a deck-building war game for two players, designed by Martin Wallace (Discworld: Ankh-Morpork; London; Brass ). It is set in North America in the 1700s where the French are doing battle with the British for control. There are two ways to win: take your opponent’s capital by force, or amass more victory points through controlling key towns and villages.

Players start with a small deck, but can draft additional canoes for river transport, ships for naval battles, and trained soldiers from home.  Native Americans can also be recruited and sent to raid the enemies settlements. But as your deck gets bigger it gets more difficult to get the right cards at the right time, and your empire can seize up under the weight of trying to coordinate a diverse and spread out force. The mechanics are simple, but the choices vast, and the game captures the feeling of trying to manage what at first is a small and nimble colony, but can quickly become a bloated bureaucracy.

2014-02-10 21.37.41

I took charge of the British armies, but decided initially to take the more peaceful approach of building a strong economy and settling in the East.  Taking Detroit was my goal, but there was a long slog of canoeing down difficult-to-navigate rivers  and traversing lonely trails to get there. Meanwhile, the French raised funds by trading furs, strengthened their forces and also went west, across the a Great Lakes.

2014-02-10 21.36.50

My Rangers earned their keep with daring raids into French territory, bringing back trophies. However, the French consolidated their position on the coast, fortifying Halifax and threatening the British settlements round the coast. With support from home, I had nearly captured enough territory to declare a victory, when the French launched an assault on Pemaquid. With weak defenses and my resources committed inland, it was only a matter of time before the town fell, leaving Boston open to attack. An attempt to split the French forces by seiging Detroit only resulted in further British casualties. Despite the territory gained in the west, it wasn’t enough to avert a narrow French victory.

The combination of card-drafting and war game seems a little strange at first, but it works very well. There are lots of difficult decisions to be made, and tricky trade-offs between short-term gains and longer term strategy, making it great fun to play.  The British will be back!