Tag: Bruno Cathala

Naga Raja Review

Naga Raja Review

As far as overused board game themes go, archaeology is not quite “doing something in Medieval Europe” or “colonizing other countries”, but it’s certainly getting up there. So when I first heard about Naga Raja, a game about rival archaeologists trying to best plunder a temple before the other player, it wasn’t the theme that attracted me. Nope, it was the fact that it was co-designed by my main man, Bruno Cathala.

I’ve brought up Bruno Cathala’s name on this blog more times than Cathala himself would probably be comfortable with. I have reviewed his excellent 2 player game Mr. Jack , one of the first games I truly fell in love with when getting into the hobby, as well as his criminally underrated Hand of the King , a Game of Thrones themed abstract strategy game. He is, as mentioned in those other reviews that you should definitely read if you haven’t, my favorite board game designer, and it’s not even close.

So as I was saying, when I first heard that Naga Raja was being co-designed by Cathala, my interest level went from “meh” to “oh hell yes”. That interest evolved into a need to buy the game upon release, a rarity for me with board games, when I heard the rave reviews it was getting from various media outlets and personalities. And so, when it was finally released about a month ago, I did indeed buy it and I have since got to play it a good number of times. Does this game live up to the hype, like Raiders of the Lost Ark, or is it more Kingdom of the Crystal Skull? Well, grab your fedora and your bullwhip and some other Indiana Jones reference and let’s find out!

Naga Raja, designed by the aforementioned Bruno Cathala as well as Theo Riviere, is a two player only game about two explorers entering their own separate temples (at exactly the same time, for some reason) in a race to uncover relics faster than the other. You explore the temple by adding and laying tiles on the 3 by 3 grid in front of you, creating a network of paths that lead to the outer edges, where relics patiently wait to be overturned like clumsy, capsized beetles. The relics all have point values assigned to them and the first player to reveal 25 points worth of relics wins the game. BUT there are three cursed relics, lying in wait. These jerks give you 6 points each, more than any other relic in the game, but if you reveal all 3 at once, you automatically lose.  Insert “The Price is Right” horn sound here.

This adventure plays out through tile laying, hand management, and dice chucking, three things I love. The game is played over a series of rounds, with each round beginning with a new tile being revealed. These tiles are all made up of pathways that, when placed into your temple, you’re trying to connect to your various relics. The round is spent trying to win that tile. You win the tile by rolling rectangular dice called fate sticks, with the tile going to whoever rolled the most pips. Don’t worry, there’s more to it than that.

Players will be jostling for this tile by using a hand of cards. And these aren’t just any cards….these are multi-use cards! Fancy, I know! Each card in the game has a top half and a bottom half and which half you’re activating depends on which phase of the round you are playing the card.

The top half features pictures of dice or, as they’re known in this game, ‘fate sticks’. These fate sticks are basically rectangular dice and they come in three flavors: brown, white and green. Brown fate sticks have lots of pips on them, which are good for winning tiles. White fate sticks have a moderate amount of pips, and a chance of getting naga (what the hell is naga, you ask? I’ll get to that!). The green dice are adorably stubby and are mostly naga (again, I’ll get to that, don’t worry!) with very few pips.

The top half of the card is what you’re looking at during the first phase of the round, which is referred to as “The Call of Fate” in the rulebook. Perhaps a little overdramatic, but I won’t fault them for trying to add a bit of panache to what is basically ‘play some cards and grab some dice’. In “The Call of Fate” (I hope you read that in a booming, god-like voice as I just did), a tile is revealed and players will decide what kind of fate sticks they want to roll to try and grab the tile. Players commit cards face down and then reveal. This is where the top half comes in: whatever fate sticks are showing on the top half of the cards are the fate sticks that player will be rolling in an attempt to gain the tile for their temple. So if I play two cards that collectively show three brown sticks and two white sticks, I take those sticks and roll them. After the sticks have been rolled, we enter the “Confrontation” phase. A little less dramatic than “The Call of Fate”, but I suppose “Duel of the Fates” is already taken. I’m hoping I don’t have to pay royalties to Disney for just merely mentioning it.

In the Confrontation phase, players can now use cards leftover in their hands, this time for their bottom half. You see, at the bottom of each card is a special ability that can be activated. In order to do that, you need to pay a naga. See? Told you I’d get back to what the hell a naga is! A naga is a little swiggly line on the sides of some of the fate sticks and if you rolled naga, you can spend them during this phase to cash in those powerful, helpful abilities. If you didn’t roll naga? Tough luck, maybe next round.

There are a wide range of abilities from these cards, such as simply being able to draw new cards, add pips to your current roll, or look at facedown relics to get a better understanding of the layout of your temple. There are some that even let you rearrange tiles on your temple, so that if you made a windy series of roundabouts and dead ends like a drunken civic engineer, you can erase some of those ‘whoopsies’.

Naga Raja Temple
Mistakes were made.

There are also some meaner, more aggressive actions, such as the ability to force your opponent to discard some of their rolled fate sticks, a power that lets you rotate tiles in THEIR temple, and the dreaded trap tile. The trap tile is a dead tile that you can stick in your opponent’s temple. It is a dead end that blocks any sort of progress and can really set your player’s temple back a few turns, which also helps you in beginning to play out the hypothetical, “What if my opponent wasn’t my friend anymore?”

Aside from potentially killing friendships, these special actions and abilities are absolute game changers and mean you can never rest easy. If your opponent rolls a lot of naga and has a decently sized hand of cards, they can swiftly sway the game in their favor with a few crafty decisions. This leads to a very tense, tactical feel that helps keep the game interesting down to the last tile.

After the ‘Confrontation’ phase is over, the tile is rewarded to whoever has the most pips on their fate sticks (including any that were added through use of cards) and they place it in their temple. If it connects any relics to one of their temple entrances, those relics are revealed. By that point, if none of the win or loss states have been achieved, then preparation for the next round begins.

As mentioned earlier, Naga Raja contains three things I adore: hand management, tile laying and dice chucking. What’s even better is that it seamlessly integrates all three in a cohesive package that packs lots of tough decisions and cool ‘gotcha!’ moments in just a mere 30 minutes. The multi-use nature of the cards forces you to really make some hard choices.  Do you save this card to use its special action when you can really blindside your opponent OR do you spend it for the fate sticks at the top to greatly improve your odds of winning a tile? There are so many times when I want to use a card for the fate sticks but catch myself, knowing that if I’m patient, I can really use the card’s power to great effect. But then there are times where I’m so desperate to get a tile in my temple, I know that I just need to load up on fate sticks, special abilities be damned. Like lots of great Bruno Cathala games, it’s a balancing act, one that requires constant shifting of tactics and trying to read your opponent.

The cards are a treat to look at as well. The art is by none other than Vincent DuTrait, who is one of the most prolific and celebrated artists in the industry right now. I reviewed a game called Rising 5 which featured some of his brilliant art, and Naga Raja is another wonderful showcase for his talents. It’s got a rustic, weathered feel that perfectly matches the theme of archaeology and ancient secrets. Some of the more aggressive cards also have some pretty unsavory masked characters who I would almost certainly not enjoy running into while spelunking a temple.

Naga Raja masked man
OH JEEZ. Uh…hi there…that sacrificial dagger is purely ornamental, right…?

But enough about the cards! That’s only half the game! There is of course the tile laying itself, which plays a huge part considering it controls whether you win or lose. It might seem pretty straightforward. Just speedily connect all the paths along the sides, uncovering your relics and rushing to 25 points first, right? Well, sure, but keep in mind that is a very quick way to accidentally uncover the three cursed relics and to lose automatically. Take it from me, that’s how I lost my very first game. As you play the game more and more, you start to uncover the subtle strategy behind the tile laying portion of the game. You want to win and place tiles that give you versatility in exploring your temple. As I mentioned earlier, it’s possible to create a winding nightmare of a temple, one that is hard to link together without getting some very specific tiles later in the game. Careful planning and cautious exploration of your temple is essential, which feels quite thematic.

You can even set yourself up for turns where one well placed tile can uncover a whole ton of relics. In one game, I found myself down fairly early. My opponent won a ton of tiles so I had to be creative with the few tiles I had won. I managed to use an ability that let me slide an already present tile in my temple to a new space, setting me up for a powerful move if I managed to win just one other tile. I did just that and uncovered three relics at once to push me up to 25 and steal the game at the last second.

No, that little story isn’t me working out my first post for r/iamverysmart. I’m not using that example to illustrate my cleverness, but rather the game’s. The fact that I was able to sneak out a win with limited tiles and a few well played special actions speaks volumes for this game. By that point I had already played the game five times, so to discover a new way to play and win was very rewarding.

The last thing I’ll rave about are the fate sticks. The decision to make the dice rectangular sticks deserves a Nobel Prize in Board Games. They are so incredibly tactile and fun to use and taking a whole handful of them and tossing them onto the table has yet to get old. Sure, the name ‘fate sticks’ is a bit goofy and sounds like something you’d find at a holistic health fair, but these rectangular dice really bring the game together.

I personally don’t have much to complain about with Naga Raja, but there are a few warnings I’d like to put out there. For one, there is certainly a healthy amount of luck in this game. I think the game offers plenty of tools to mitigate said luck, but there will be times when you desperately need naga and get none or you REALLY want to win a tile and get nothing but a bunch of squigglies staring back at you, like the world’s snarkiest plate of spaghetti. If the thought of this happening and having it determine the game frustrates you, Naga Raja may not be for you.

Another factor I want to make known is that this can be a mean game. I touched on it earlier, but there are a lot of aggressive, “take that” style cards in the game, and many of them are pretty nasty. I already mentioned the trap tile that can potentially ruin friendships, but there’s cards that remove dice, force the rerolls of dice, cards that force your opponent to discard cards, cards that allow you to switch relics around (possibly triggering them to get their three cursed relics uncovered in the process!), etc. I am very picky about my “take that” in games and I don’t mind it in this one because it’s so baked into the design. I go in knowing that my temple and plans are going to get tampered with and that I can retaliate with my own ruthlessness, so it’s okay for me. But I know there are many players out there who detest any sort of conflict or negative player interaction and I highly doubt Naga Raja is for them.

If you don’t mind potential moments of luck deciding the game or large doses of “take that”, I think you’ll find Naga Raja a rich, satisfying game of tactics and exploration that will entertain after many plays. It expertly combines different mechanics into a brisk 20-30 minute package. I am quite happy to have Naga Raja in my collection and suspect it will be one of my most frequently played two player games.

Hand of the King Review

Hand of the King Review

It’s a momentous time in pop culture history. No there isn’t a new Hot Tub Time Machine on the horizon…yet. Nope, as of writing and posting this blog post, this is the week leading up to the last EVER Game of Thrones episode. The series finale will premiere this Sunday and a gaping, dragon sized hole will be left in our lives after it’s gone. If you are reading this 200 years in the future and you have no clue what a Game of Thrones is, it was an absurdly popular show about rich, white people who constantly argued and wanted to kill each other. This sounds like something you’d see on C-SPAN, but it was actually a show on HBO. Also, there were LOTS of naked people.

I am a huge fan of the show and consider it second only to Breaking Bad on my list of favorite shows that I’ve ever seen. So naturally I’m very excited, but also a bit bummed. To honor this finale and the end to one of the biggest (if not THE biggest) shows to ever grace the television screen, I am doing a review of a fantastic Game of Thrones themed board game. This game is Hand of the King, designed by none other than my favorite designer Bruno Cathala. Seeing as how this is a Game of Thrones game, one should assume it’s an epic, grueling 3+ hour game of political intrigue, military cunning and unforgettable betrayals, right?

Actually, it’s just an abstract strategy game that can be finished in under 20 minutes. But that’s okay! The thematic disconnect might seem worrying, but it’s totally fine. Hand of the King is an excellent filler game that packs plenty of thinky moments and exciting swings of momentum. Even if there are far less beheadings and moments of incest (which can only be viewed as a very good thing).

Hand of the King is essentially a set collection card game. The cards in the game represent members of the various houses in Game of Thrones lore, with all the characters illustrated in a somewhat cartoony, hand drawn style that makes me hope that one day we get a Game of Thrones: The Animated Series. These wonderfully illustrated cards are all placed out in a six by six grid that’s referred to as ‘King’s Landing’. The object is to collect a majority of as many families as you can, gaining their banners when you do so. The player with the most banners wins.

How do you collect the cards? By using everyone’s favorite eunuch spymaster: Varys. Varys is essentially the pawn that everyone controls on their turn. He has a card that’s somewhere in King’s Landing. On your turn, you pick one of the four cardinal directions and move Varys in that direction, declaring a House name as you do. When you do, you move Varys to the farthest member of the specified House, picking up any other members of that House along the way. So if you move Varys to the right and say, “Stark”, you’ll move to the right to the farthest Stark and pick up all the Starks along the way. This makes Varys like some sort of Westerosi UFO, abducting the members of all these noble families as he traverses King’s Landing. Considering how brutal the events of the show and books are, being abducted by aliens would probably be sweet relief for some of these characters.


When somebody gets a majority in a certain family between other players at the table, they take the corresponding banner, often times taking it from another player. The interesting thing is it just doesn’t have to be a majority, however. If you even match the tally of someone who is currently holding the banner of that family, you still get the banner. If you take a two Greyjoys and the person with the Greyjoy banner only has two Greyjoys in front of them, you gain control of the banner.

Not needing a clear majority to steal a banner makes things super tense and creates an interesting game of chicken. Taking the banner early on makes you a prime target for other players and unless you collect a wide swath of that family, it’s often not too hard for someone to match you and steal the banner for their own. You’ll always feel vulnerable, no matter the amount of banners you have. This tension makes every decision feel important and you’ll agonize over how best to navigate the grid of King’s Landing on your turn.

Further adding to the torture you feel on each turn is the companion cards. Companion cards are cards featuring other GoT characters who sit off to the side, patiently waiting for you to activate their special power. In order to procure these cards, you need to take the last member of a family off the board. When you do so, you immediately choose one of the companions and activate their power, hopefully helping you swing the tide of the game. These powers are often pretty damn good, making the companions a hot commodity. This creates a new decision to consider: do you focus on bolstering your majorities in Houses you already have a stake in or do you take the last member of a House you have no chance of winning BUT which allows you to snag a companion card?

What makes the companion cards even better are that they have powers that are surprisingly thematic for an abstract strategy game. Take Jon Snow and he counts as TWO members towards any family in your player area. Take Khal Drogo and he not only kills Viserys Targaryen, but also attracts Daenerys Targaryen to your play area, regardless of where she is. Jaquen H’ghar allows you to eliminate three characters off the board, something any show watcher or book reader will be tickled by.

A Player understands this reference.

This extra injection of theme helps bring what would otherwise be a fairly abstract game with a healthy dose of personality that fans of the show and books will really dig. The companion cards are also randomized every game, making every play feel different.

The end result of all this is a tense, puzzle-y game that constantly has you and your opponents going back and forth. Banners are lost as easily as they’re won and you’re always worrying about furthering your own interests while avoiding setting up the next player with a nice, juicy move. Sure, you may get what you want by moving to the left and grabbing three Starks but did you just realize that that moves leaves two Greyjoys in sight for the person who currently holds the Greyjoy banner? Playing defensive is just as important as being on the offensive in this game, a classic hallmark of Cathala designs.

Another noteworthy thing about this game is it scales pretty well. The back and forth, tactical nature of the game makes it seem like it would only work at two players, but I’ve played it at three and four and am happy to report that’s untrue. The game is certainly best at two, but three players works just fine and four players introduces a team variant to spice things up. In this team variant, you and a partner square off against the other two players, with both players sharing their banners to form a cumulative score at the end. The best rule, however, is this: table talk is not allowed. The only way you can discuss strategy with your partner is to spend your one and only raven token, which enables you and your partner to leave the room for a brief, minute long discussion on strategy. Not only is this hilarious and prevent one player from running the show for the team, but it’s incredibly thematic and on brand for a GoT game. Using a raven for communication is of course classic GoT and I felt like I was truly a member of a Westeros politics when I spent a raven token, said, “A word, please” to my teammate and then scurried off to the next room to speak in hushed whispers about a big move I saw on the board. I feel like this variant was almost added as an afterthought, and yet the four player games I’ve played of this have been some of my most fun memories with the game.

If you aren’t a fan of abstract strategy games, fillers and/or Game of Thrones, I’m not entirely sure this game will be up your alley. But if you like any one of those things, Hand of the King is a surprisingly satisfying game of tactical tug of war with a modular nature that demands replay after replay. This one has snuck under the radar for a lot of people, probably because it’s a game based on an IP (which is a little ironic, since GoT is one of the biggest IPs ever). But now that do you know about it, do yourself a favor and check it out.

What I Played Last Weekend (3/15/19-3/17/19)

This past weekend was St. Paddy’s Day weekend! That means while everybody else was out and about getting drunk and making terrible decisions, I was also doing that exact same thing. Ahem. BUT. I also played some games this weekend! Five to be exact, and they were all varying degrees of fun. To celebrate this, I’m trying a new type of post where I briefly discuss these games and what my initial impressions of them were. This was the first time I played any of these games, so these are strictly off one play. Therefore, don’t expect my usual scholarly amounts of critique and detailed, well thought out pfft hahaha, even I can’t type that with a straight face! Also, I don’t own four of these five games, so I won’t be doing pictures for this post. My suggestion to fix this is that you read the rest of this post aloud in your best NPR voice and imagine you’re listening to this content through a picture free podcast. What other blog includes such fun levels of audience participation?? Anyway, let’s get on with it.

Game the First: Yamatai

My very first review on this blog was of Mr. Jack, a game designed by my favorite designer Bruno Cathala. I looove his games and he is easily the designer I’ve played the most. You could put his name on a box of used diapers and I’d be interested in playing it. Yamatai was the last of his ‘big’ games that I had yet to play and I wanted to make sure I gave it a shot before its owner (one of my best friends and main board game partner) moved to Japan, damning this game to a life of eternal storage. I went in with tempered expectations, as this is a game that is described with a resounding shrug from most of the board game community. It doesn’t seem like a lot of people disliked it, but you rarely hear people exalting it either. It is what many would call ‘fine’. Do I agree?

Hmmm, that’s a tough question. In terms of gameplay and mechanisms, there’s actually a lot I love about Yamatai. For one, I love it’s unique take on route building. In the game, you and the players are building chains of boats that circle around islands and the colors of the boats dictate your ability to build buildings on said islands. This effectively means the routes and networks double as a sort of currency in the game. This creates a very puzzley game where you’re trying to build a route of boats that you can reap benefits from while not leaving things open for your opponents.

This balancing act of helping yourself while playing defense against the others is a trademark of Cathala design, something seen in games like the aforementioned Mr. Jack, Hand of the King (a lesser known and grossly underrated work of his, built around the Game of Thrones IP), Five Tribes, 7 Wonders Duel and, maybe my favorite game of his, Raptor. It’s alive and well in Yamatai and that lends itself to some satisfying but exhausting brain burn. I chortled when I watched the Dice Tower and they said this game was heavier than Five Tribes, perhaps Cathala’s heaviest game, but they weren’t kidding. I legitimately had a bit of a headache from this game when we were finished because the decisions have so much weight.

So if this game offers such a hefty but satisfying puzzle to chew on, why am I conflicted on it? My biggest gripe was the downtime and length of the game. I played this with just two players and it still took us about two hours to finish. Two hours of this kind of puzzling is draining and led to me being somewhat burned out by the end. Again, it literally gave me a headache. But the bigger sin was the downtime. With two players, you take two turns per round versus one turn in the other player counts. That sounds like it’d be great and would actually reduce downtime but I think it might have made it worse. My reasoning is because trying to puzzle out not one but TWO turns can reeaaally bog you down in AP. It’s made worse towards the end of the game when every move is precious and players are popping off endless amounts of special abilities they’ve racked up throughout the game, lengthening turns that much more. I wish I could see if downtime is less of an issue in a 3 player game, where players only get one turn.

As it stands, Yamatai is a game that I would say is not in the same echelon as Cathala’s greatest games, but it definitely isn’t bad. I’m glad I played it, but it’s not necessarily a game I need in my collection, especially with Cathala’s other games on my shelves. So, yeah, uh, *shrug*

Game the Second: Sunset Over Water

This is the one game on the list I DO own and therefore a game that I might review some day. With pictures, even! So I’ll keep this one short.

This is a set collection game where you and your opponents are rival painters trying to find the best landscapes and just paint the crap out them. These landscape pictures are placed in a grid that players need to navigate by selecting action cards from a hand of three. The cards have a wake up time, a movement allotment and an amount of paintings that you can remove from the grid on your turn. Earliest wake up time goes first, and that player moves according to their restrictions and picks up paintings along the way.

You’re essentially trying to grab paintings that have certain symbols on them to satisfy commission requirements which are the main source of points in the game. I played this at two players and found it to be both a leisurely walk through the forest, enjoying the beautiful sights while collecting sets, and a cutthroat race to the finish, where I could practically see the artists sharpening the ends of their brush handles into makeshift shivs as they undercut their opponents at every turn. It’s nice to have a game that manages to be both laidback and tense at the same time and I really enjoyed it. I’m a big fan of fillers of this type, so it was nice to not be disappointed.

As I said, there’s a good chance I do a full review for this game so I’ll save all my hilarious observations for that post. Onward!

Game the Third: Clacks

When I first saw this game in a game store, I saw the tower on the cover that looked like an oil derrick and assumed this was some sort of Euro about running an oil business and trying to be the best damn oil tycoon this side of the Mississippi. Turns out, it’s an abstract puzzle game set in the Discworld universe that’s about lighting towers to send transmissions. Close enough, right?

One notable thing about this game is its both a competitive and cooperative game. The game includes rule sets for both modes and both have their own unique spin on the core mechanism in the game. That’s always a worrying sign for me because I assume (perhaps unfairly) that if the game includes multiple modes that the designer spread themselves too thin and lost focus, thus resulting in a half baked pie that has both pumpkin filling and raspberries crudely smashed into the crust with a hammer.

I can’t speak for the competitive mode because me and my friend only played cooperatively, but I’m happy to report that the cooperative mode was actually pretty fun. Fun enough to the point that I scratched my head throughout, wondering how they even made a competitive version of the game. It seemed as if it was made from the ground up as a cooperative game and that’s about all you can ask from a game sporting more than one way to play.

The gameplay in Clacks is basically just a big puzzle. It’s made up of grid of tiles with tokens on them which have a lit and unlit side on them. You and your teammates have a message you need to transmit and those messages are made up of letters which have a specific pattern of lights that need to be made in the grid. If you match the pattern of lights with a letter, you mark it as transmitted and move onto the next letter.

This is done by playing tiles which have MORE patterns on them, which show a specific shape in the grid that you can affect. When you play the tile, you choose an area of the grid matching the shape and flip over all tiles in that area. What’s lit is now unlit and vice versa. These tiles all have symbols on them indicating ‘stress’ which in the cooperative mode stands for the amount of spaces a figure called the Post Master moves on the board. The object is to transmit the message before the Post Master makes it to their destination.

And that’s literally the game. You manipulate the grid, trying to get the lights in the shape of the patterns needed to transmit a letter, perhaps even hoping to get more than one letter in one turn. This is waaay easier said than done, though, as you’ll find you’ll be constantly undoing the work you’ve done on previous turns. It’s like a puzzle in a Jonathon Blow video game, only without all the pretentious poetry. But you know what? It’s actually pretty fun. While I wished there was a little more to the game than just literally cooperatively solving a puzzle, I had a good time trying to work out with my friend how the hell to send the message in time (turns out the answer was: we wouldn’t!).

This is the board game equivalent of sitting next to a friend and completing a sudoku together, so if that doesn’t sound appealing to you, you may wanna find a more thematic cooperative game than Clacks. But for someone who loves a good puzzle, it’s worth checking out (though this may be horribly out of print? Not entirely sure).

Certainly better than the raw pumpkin and raspberry pie Frankenstein’s monster I expected it to be.

Game the Fourth: Tybor the Builder

Ahh, now HERE’S a game! Without a doubt my favorite of the weekend, this is a game designed by Alex Pfister, my second favorite designer (and hey, look, he just happened to design the game I reviewed last week, Port Royal, please read, I need to eat). In this game, players are drafting in a “Play and Pass” style seen in popular games like Sushi Go and 7 Wonders. For those who don’t know how it works, players have a hand of cards, everyone simultaneously picks one, plays it, then passes the hand to the next person.

The cards players are drafting in this game are people in your village and they can be used in one of three ways. You can put them above your little player board to make them a citizen, where they provide symbols for end game scoring and (usually, but not always) a discount on purchasing buildings in the future (more on that in a bit). You could also play them as a worker, where you place them to the right side of your board. They sit there patiently, with their strength number proudly displayed until you send them off to work when you do the third action. And that third action is you can build a building, which requires you to discard the card you just played and then to spend workers in your work force with a strength equal to the cost of the building you’re trying to buy. If you are building something that needs 8 strength, you need to spend workers worth at least 8 combined strength.

It’s incredible that a game that essentially has only three decisions with each card can be so satisfying and fun. When you’re looking through your hand, you’re thinking about every possibility of those three actions with all the cards. This card gives you a symbol you could really use for the endgame, but they also have a ton of strength. Do you use them as a citizen or worker? Similarly, you’re looking at what buildings you want to build and what cards can provide discounts as citizens. Citizens with a specific card color on their side provide a discount of one strength for that color building for the rest of the game, creating a simple, Splendor-esque bit of engine building in the game. And then there’s the buildings themselves, which all provide a various amount of points, end game bonuses and even the occasional special action to immediately use.

Like I said, I can’t believe that a game this simple has latched its hooks into my brains so thoroughly. The blend of long-term strategy and cunning tactics in a package that you can finish in a breezy 20-30 minutes makes this such an addictive little filler. I’m already depressed that I don’t have any way to play this game since the only copy was my friend’s who, again, is literally going to the other side of the planet. I will definitely look into importing a copy of this game, as it doesn’t look like there is a North American release in the cards (hahahah).


Game the Fifth: Korrigans

I end the list with maybe the weirdest but most appropriate game on here. It’s weird, because it’s basically a kids game about leprechauns which is not generally the type of game I seek out. But it was very appropriate for this past weekend because, again, St. Paddy’s Day. What better time to play a game of leprechauns/korrigans riding woodland critters around verdant and colorful fields, seeking out a pot of gold? The only thing missing is drinking a keg of Guinness and way too many unanswered 3 a.m. texts to friends you haven’t seen in years quoting Boondock Saints.

In the game, everyone has two figures representing their leprechaun-esque creature. On your turn you simply move to an area on the board that you’re legally allowed to based on the companion tokens you have. If you have a rabbit token, you can move to an adjacent area with a rabbit symbol. If you have a mole symbol, you can move to any area on the board with a mole provided you’re already on a molehill. There are some other critters with equally simple rules which you can use for the rest of the game once you find a token of theirs. Which is pretty much the core of the game: when you enter an area, you take a look at the pile of tokens in the area, secretly pick one and put the rest back. Most of these tokens are gold, but some are critters to provide you more movement versatility.

Eventually the pot of gold appears and everyone gets one last turn to spend their critters (permanently, this time) to get to the pot. Get there with one and you get a bonus 10 points. Get there with BOTH and it increases to 15. So the basic conceit of the game is do you take gold tokens for guaranteed points or critter tokens to solidify your chances of making it to the gold? Not exactly Vital Lacerda style choices here, but like I said, it’s essentially a few notches above kid games.

There is some fun decision making to be had as you’re trying to map out the best and most efficient route to get to areas with a sizable pile of tokens to sift through while also keeping close to where the pot of gold can potentially appear, but if you’re looking for something to offer more than just goofy way to kill thirty to forty minutes, you’ll likely be disappointed. I will say that when you combine the facts that it was St. Paddy’s weekend, that I was drinking Guinness, and that we had some traditional Irish folk music playing in the background, I actually enjoyed my time with Korrigans. I wouldn’t say no to it being in my collection strictly for the purpose of playing it during St. Paddy’s Day. I know it’s not exactly a sterling recommendation to say, “I would definitely play this exactly once a year” but hey, that’s more than I play Captain Sonar!


And that’s my recap of the games I played for the first time this past weekend. I kinda wish I started doing this type of post earlier, because the friend I keep referring to in this post was one of the main source of new games to play and with him moving to Japan, the influx of new gaming experiences is going to dry up. I don’t know if I’ll get a chance to do another one like this any time soon, but hopefully I can because this was pretty fun. Hope you liked it too, because my pathetically fragile ego depends on it. Cheers!

Mr. Jack Review


When I first got into the board game hobby, I visited a FLGS (or ‘friendly local game store’, to those of you still with lives) in hopes of discovering a cool new game that I had never heard of. Though honestly, at that point, I was spending nearly every waking moment watching board game videos on YouTube and/or lurking on the board games subreddit, so I figured there wouldn’t be too many surprises or games I didn’t know.

I was wrong.

Oh, ohhh sooo wrong.

VERY wrong.

There were just so many games. And so many I didn’t know.

I was overwhelmed when I stepped into the store to find shelves upon shelves upon shelves of foreign names and strange looking boxes. ‘What the hell is an Agricola’ I said as my head spun. ‘Why are there so many trains” I wondered as I stumbled through in a haze. ‘Dear God have I really spent two hours in here, where is my friend’ I worried after checking the time on my phone.

Finally, after cluelessly wandering around for an absurd chunk of time, I decided to sift through games that had interesting looking titles and cover art and cross examine them with their rating on the massive board game site Board Game Geek. If a game didn’t have at least a 7 out of a 10, I kept going. Life is too short to spend your time looking at a mere 6.9 out of 10.

After a while, a game did indeed finally catch my eye. It was called Mr. Jack and the reason it garnered my attention was because it was set in Victorian London (a time period I oh so adore) and the back of the box mentioned deduction. Seeing as how I was still new to the hobby, I had to use touchstones from my years of playing (shiver) mass market games to try and pick games I might like. As a kid, I was obsessed with Clue and since that had deduction, I figured Mr. Jack might be a good fit for me if it too had deduction. It passed the BGG smell test with a 7.1, so I made my first every impulse buy at a FLGS on a game I barely knew anything about.

If you excuse me, I’m going to stick my hand through this time rift I just opened and pat 2015 Kyle on the back because Mr. Jack, to this day, is one of my favorite games I’ve ever played. Hold on, here I go, just gonna put my hand in here and do some patting and AHHHH, WRONG TIME PERIOD, CLOSE THE RIFT, CLOSE THE RIFT.

Phew, okay, if you’re still with me, which means I didn’t create a time paradox so let me get started by actually talking about the game! You know, the whole reason you’re here!

In Mr. Jack, two players take on the role of either Mr. Jack (a.k.a. Jack the Ripper) or the investigator trying to catch him. There’s no mention of the horrendous crimes the real Jack the Ripper committed here, which is probably for the best since murder and dismemberment would be a real downer for this game. Jack’s job is to either keep his identity hidden for the duration of the game’s eight rounds OR escape from the shadows and leave town through one of Whitechapel’s four exits. I’m not sure if the real Whitechapel district in London only has four distinct exits, symmetrically located at its four corners, but I don’t see any reason why the game wouldn’t try to be as historically accurate as possible.

mr. jack board
See? Just like the real Victorian London, but with less lung burning smog and child labor.

Meanwhile, the investigator is trying to determine who Jack is by eliminating suspects one by one until only remains, at which point they need to get another character to hop onto Jack’s head and accuse him like the world’s most eager bunny detective.

The game is played out on a board with lots of hexes, where eight character discs are strewn throughout, patiently waiting for their turn to move. Jack secretly determines which of those eight characters are his secret identity and play begins. Each round, Jack and the investigator move these characters around, and at the end of said rounds, Jack gets asked a very simple question: are you visible or invisible?

While in real life, this would be a weird question for a an actual investigator to be shouting out into the London streets, waiting for a reply like in a childhood game of Marco Polo, it is used here as mechanism in this game to power the game’s deduction system. Jack is visible if his character’s disc is either adjacent to another character disc and/or is adjacent to a lamppost. If he is neither, he is considered invisible. So if Jack takes a look and sees he is currently invisible, he announces as such which prompts the investigator to flip over all discs that are visible to their grayed out side. That means they are eliminated from the possibility of being Jack and the ever shrinking list of suspects gets that much smaller.

Obviously, the deduction in this game is quite simple. It’s literally a 50/50 shot of who gets eliminated and who doesn’t. There certainly won’t be any players standing in front of a bulletin board of multi colored threads webbing out from picture to picture like they’re in a David Fincher film. Even Clue demanded more deductive reasoning than this, but that’s okay. What makes Mr. Jack great isn’t its deduction, but its puzzley gameplay and unique character selection system.

Let’s talk about the character selection first. Every round, four of the game’s eight characters are randomly selected and available to draft. Players draft two of them one by one, in a snake draft fashion. Meaning, the first player in that round takes a character, uses him or her, then the 2nd player gets to take and use TWO characters followed by the first player taking the last remaining. Snake drafts are used in plenty of games (Sagrada and The Grand Austria Hotel come to mind) and I love that drafting system, but the REAL reason why I fell in love with this game is because I’ve never seen another game implement character selection like this. Oh sure, there is role selection in lots of board games, like in the fantastic area control game Mission: Red Planet or the card draft driven Citadels, but in those games you’re simply playing a card and resolving its affects. In Mr. Jack, you aren’t just trying to pick characters based on their triggered ability but also based on where they are on the board.

None of the characters’ activated abilities involve smiling, however.

For example, let’s say you’re Jack and you want to draft Sherlock Holmes to prevent the investigator from taking him and using his ability. Holmes’ ability allows him to look at the top character card from the suspect deck, the same deck Jack drew his initial character from. Seeing which characters are left in this deck allows you to whittle down even further who isn’t Jack. Obviously, this isn’t great for Jack so it’s often a shrewd defensive move to draft Sherlock. Ahh, but maybe Sherlock has already been flipped to his gray side, showing he’s not Jack while the other characters available have unresolved statuses. It seems risky to allow one of those unrevealed characters in the hands of the investigator to move them and ultimately determine their visibility status. But what if they don’t have useful powers for the situation, or their board position doesn’t make for any powerful, swingy moves to your advantage. Deciding a character to draft is often an agonizing choice, because there are so many ripple effects that can occur. And that brings me to the next thing that makes Mr. Jack one of my favorite games: the delightful puzzle that this game presents.

When I introduce Mr. Jack to new players, one of the statements I often start with is “this is basically Clue meets Chess.” No, before you start chortling, this game is not as deep as Chess and that’s not what I mean. What I mean is, it takes the deduction of Clue and puts into a Chess-like puzzle, where certain pieces do certain things and managing them on the board is the key to victory. The above scenario I described is just one of many of these types of decisions. Do you take the character who can move lampposts, using his ability to light a whole group of characters to visibility status? Or do you use the agile Miss Stealthy and use her long range of movement to your advantage? There is a character who is a cop who blows a whistle that allows you to move up to three characters closer to him (because apparently people in Victorian London were part dog).

If you choose him, who are you whistling closer? Every movement is important, and as the investigator you never want to leave anyone too close on the outer edges of the board since that allows Jack to slink into the shadows and escape off the board in a following round. But then that means you’re clumping people together in the center of the board which is a field day for Jack since that means it’s easier to keep as many people visible as possible, meaning you may go an entire round without eliminating any suspects. It’s this hair pulling, teeth clenching tactical Rubics Cube that makes Mr. Jack such a satisfying nut to crack. And despite all these tough decisions and torturous choices, games rarely last more than a half hour, meaning it’s the perfect, “Whaddya say, wanna go again?” game that 2 player games should often strive to be.

Ultimately, if this sort of puzzley game of cat and mouse sounds at all interesting to you, then I can’t recommend Mr. Jack enough. It’s not too complex and while it has a couple of fiddly rules here and there, it’s not enough to dissuade me from even recommending this to gateway gamers. It’s also co-designed by Bruno Cathala, who has since turned out to be my favorite game designer. He has many games that feature tactical and puzzley gameplay loops, so Mr. Jack is a great entry point if you have any interest in joining the Church of Cathala with me. It’s not super expensive to join, and the blood pact we demand requires barely even a quart of blood, so there’s really no excuse to not at least look into it.

Anyway, that about does it for my first review for this blog! I figured Mr. Jack would be a perfect first post since, as I mentioned, it was my first impulse buy when I got into the hobby and it holds a huge nostalgic place in my heart for that reason. If you liked this review, like and subscribe and hit that bell icon and dammit there I go again pretending this is a YouTube channel, ignore me, I’m a moron. If you DO like this though, consider following me on social media (@ElHanlo on Twitter) and staying tuned to future posts and reviews. My plan is to try and post something every Wednesday, so hope to see you there!