Tag: card drafting

Seasons of Rice Review

Seasons of Rice Review

Anybody who has read even a few reviews on this blog knows that I love Button Shy. I feel like at this point I should be walking the streets in a Button Shy jumpsuit, like a NASCAR driver with a major sponsor. But what can I say? They make great, unique games and I will gladly take the opportunity to evangelize them whenever I can.

If you don’t know what Button Shy is,it’s an independent publisher who specialize in micro games that are released in actual, literal wallets and they have been on fire the past year. They’ve seen some of their most popular and beloved games released in 2018 and 2019. Games like the excellent Circle the Wagons, a two player tile laying game in the Wild West, Sprawlopolis, a cooperative city builder, and Stew, an amazing mix of push your luck, deduction and bluffing, are all proof that Button Shy is in their publishing prime.

As if those titles weren’t enough, Button Shy is also hot off the heels of their most successful Kickstarter project ever: Tussie Mussie. Designed by Elizabeth Hargrave, she of Wingspan fame, Tussie Mussie is an ‘I Cut, You Choose’ card game based around the Victorian era fad of communicating through flowers. Over 4,000 backers were part of the Tussie Mussie campaign, and I had the fortune to review it here on this blog. Check out my review here and, SPOILERS, the game was awesome.

Naturally, the next game in their Kickstarter line up has some massive shoes to fill. Button Shy’s latest offering is Seasons of Rice, a two player tile laying game set in the world of Cambodian rice farming. Just like with Tussie Mussie, I was lucky enough to get a review copy of Seasons of Rice sent to me, courtesy of Button Shy. Is Seasons of Rice another gleaming jewel in the ever-growing crown of Button Shy’s recent hits or is it a disappointing step back? Thankfully, it’s the former.

As I briefly touched upon, Seasons of Rice, designed by Corry Damy is a two player tile laying game and it’s all about trying to create the best rice paddy farms in Cambodia. Like all Button Shy games, it’s just a deck of 18 cards. The cards are double sided: on one side is an Ancestor which provide bonus points or special abilities while the other side is a landscape illustration that you’ll be building your rice paddies with, featuring things like paths, farmers, houses and roaming buffalo.

The game is played over two seasons: the Wet Season and the Dry Season. The Wet Season incorporates a play and pass card drafting mechanic in the style of Sushi Go or 7 Wonders while the Dry Season has players drafting cards from a display left over from the Wet Season.

First, let’s start with the Wet Season. The two players start with a hand of seven cards and on each turn, players simultaneously choose two cards to play. One of those cards go into the player’s personal landscape, which is what you’re trying to build and expand over the course of the game, while the other goes into a row of cards that will be drafted from during the Dry Season. After this is done, players exchange hands and do the same thing. Rinse and repeat till your hands are empty and you move onto the Dry Season, where players simply alternate taking one card from the display formed during the Wet Season.

This drafting system is one of the things I really like about this game. The fact that you must pick two cards, giving one to yourself and giving the other to a communal row for a later round is really unique. It reminds me of games like Biblios and Herbaceous, which feature similar wrinkles on card drafting. You’ll obviously want to take cards that help yourself, but what about the card you’re punting to the Dry Season? Do you choose a card that might come in handy for your landscape later or do you choose something that appears useful to your opponent to block them from using it during the Wet Season? This makes for some real interesting decision making and helps set the tone for the second half of the game.

Of course, the drafting is just small part of the game compared to the actual tile laying. Considering the building of your landscape is what actually nets you the points in the game, you need to be crafty and smart with how you build things out. The rules of placement are pretty typical of the genre. You have to place adjacently and features in one card have to match a feature in the other card. The cool thing about Season of Rice though, is that you can place cards partially adjacent to each other, as long as you’re connecting like features. This is not something I’ve seen before in the genre and it leads to some cool looking landscapes. Being able to stagger the cards also opens things up strategically, allowing you to really get creative with how you form the paddies. This is a very good thing, since I was concerned landscapes would look too similar game to game as a result of the small deck size. Button Shy once again proves that it’s not the size of your deck, but how you use it.

As you build your landscape, you’re working to close paddies up on your farm. Closing paddies means you have a continuous, closed path cordoning off a set of squares in your landscape. You score based on the amount of squares and houses in the paddy as well getting bonuses from the number of farmers and buffaloes toiling away inside of it.

seasons of rice paddy
A paddy farm landscape in progress. An attempt at one, at least.

This means that it’s not simply about building the biggest paddy. A paddy with just two squares but a buffalo and a farmer in it can net you more points than a paddy with three empty squares. Not only that, but players score one point for every closed paddy they have in their landscape at the end of the game. So that means the player who small balls their way through the game, closing lots of small paddies and getting short bursts of points, will also find themselves with a bigger bonus at the end of the game than the person who patiently waited to complete just a few, large paddies. Of course, a well-built large paddy can net you double digit points and can help overcome the fact that you may end the game with just a mere three or four closed paddies. As like any great game, it’s a tight balancing act and the player who more shrewdly builds their farm with the cards available will end up winning.

The last thing I’ll praise about this game is the Ancestors. I very briefly mentioned them earlier as the opposite side of the landscape cards. At the beginning of the game, players have a choice of two Ancestors. Whichever one they choose will give them some sort of scoring condition or bonus ability to be exploited throughout the game. These Ancestors all provide a nice distinct feel to each game and help formulate the type of rice paddies you’ll want to construct. For example, there is Sovannarith, who gives you 4 points at the end of the game if you have more farmers in your landscape than your opponent, promoting a farmer heavy strategy. Then there is Vivadh, who allows you to increase the amount of points gained from buffaloes when they’re combined with farmers in the same paddy. With 18 possible Ancestors to be randomly selected from every game, chances are good you’ll end up with a different one, making Seasons of Rice very replayable for its diminutive size.

seasons of rice ancestors
They say you can’t choose family, but I guess THEY’VE never played this game.

Unfortunately, every review needs to point out some negatives and this is no exception. I think my biggest issue with the game is that it can be tough to parse and visualize how certain cards can fit in your landscape. The game has lots of angles and zig zags and it isn’t quite as easy to see how things will line up and set up for future turns as, say, the roads in Carcassonne or the different types of colored areas in Kingdomino. In pretty much every playthrough I had of this, there was a lot of taking cards and physically lining them up, apologizing to the other player for taking so long as you tried to figure out how exactly the cards can best be used. It’s entirely possible I’m just dumb, but I do feel like the spatial aspect is a bit trickier and not as intuitive as other tile laying games I’ve played.

If you don’t mind a bit of a learning curve with the spatial puzzle of the game, Seasons of Rice is an enjoyable tile laying game with a wonderful and unique drafting system. At just 10-15 minutes per play, you’ll definitely find yourself playing games of this back to back to back. The Kickstarter for Seasons of Rice launches July 9th and if you want to experience first hand why Button Shy is one of the hottest independent publishers in the industry, I highly suggest you 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!

Port Royal Review

Port Royal Review

Arrgh! Welcome to Port Royal, matey! It be here that you do trade with merchants, hire a crew and try to score 12 points before anybody else, just as the real pirates did, y’arrghhh.

(If I was Shut Up and Sit Down, I’d have said all that dressed in full pirate garb but seeing as how I can’t afford a pirate costume, have no talent and do written content instead of videos that traffic lots and lots of viewers, I’ll guess I’ll drop the pirate act and continue the review as normal.)

If you have spent a good amount of time in the hobby, then there is a good chance you know the name Alexander Pfister. He is one of the hottest designers in the industry at the moment, being the mastermind behind heavy Euros such as Mombasa, Great Western Trail and, most recently, Blackout: Hong Kong. Great Western Trail in particular launched his career to the stratosphere, a game that comfortably sits in the top 10 of BGG’s top 100 and is considered a must play if you’re into Euros and cows (I wonder what that Venn Diagram looks like).

For me though, Pfister’s best work is his lighter fare. I’m talking games like Broom Service, a pick up and deliver game of witches delivering potions that has a wonderful social dynamic, Oh My Goods!, one of the most satisfying engine builders I’ve ever played despite it being just a deck of cards, and Isle of Skye, a Carcassonne-esque tile laying game with an ‘I Cut, You Choose’ bidding twist. However, as good as those games are, my absolute favorite Pfister game is Port Royal, a push your luck tableau builder that is one of my favorite games of all time. Seriously. I know, because I once made a list of my top 100 games once because this is my life now.

Port Royal whisks you away to the titular port where you’ll play the role of the world’s nicest, non violent pirate and try to build a crew that can net you gold, complete missions and, most importantly, count as victory points to win you the game. It’s all played with just a single deck of cards, which is the first thing that I’ll rave about. I am beginning to really gain an appreciation for games that do a lot with very little in terms of components, and this is a prime example of that.

A player’s turn is split into two phases: the Discovery Phase and the Trade & Hire phase. In the Discovery phase, you draw cards from this deck one at a time. The cards are mostly gonna be one of two things: ships that can be traded with or crew members who can be hired to enter your tableau. You can stop at any time and enter the next phase of your turn, or you can keep drawing, adding cards to the ever growing display.

But be warned: this wouldn’t be a push your luck game without some sort of risk involved. Then it would be just a push your patience game or push your table space game. Nope, the ship cards I mentioned earlier all have one of five country’s flags on their card and if at any point there are two identical flags in the harbor, you bust. You completely forfeit your turn, everything you’ve drawn is discarded and the next player starts their turn. No one said a pirate’s life was going to be fair or easy. Haven’t you even seen Captain Phillips?

But let’s say you wisely end your turn before your head is taken off by a couple of cannonballs from British ships. You enter the Trade & Hire phase, which means you can now take a look at the display of cards you’ve made and take some for yourself. Here’s the twist: the amount of cards you can take is dictated by the amount of unique flags present on ships in the harbor/display. If you have 0-3 flags present, you can take one measly card. But if you have four of the five flags present? You can take two. If you managed to reveal all five of the countries’ flags without busting, you can take a whopping three cards, which can be a big game changer.

And herein lies the push your luck element that drives the draw phase. The moment a flag is present in the harbor, you’re sweating bullets. Losing a whole turn is rouuugh, and you’ll be double guessing every draw from the deck. Every time you bust you’ll be cursing yourself like Chris Farley in that SNL skit where he hosted the talk show, calling yourself an idiot and asking why you didn’t just stop drawing and go to the next phase. But when you manage to get four or five flags in the harbor, you feel like a pirate god, Blackbeard meets Jesus as he walks on water to do business with the myriad of merchants docking into port.

So let’s talk about the Trade & Hire phase, which replaces the push your luck found in the first phase with card drafting and tableau building. As mentioned, you take the cards you’re allotted, but what to choose? If you take a ship in the harbor, you gain the number of coins printed on the card. Alternatively, you can use coins gained from ships to hire crew members, who give victory points and a passive ability throughout the game. For example, there are sailors and pirates who give you swords which allow you to swat away low level ships in the Discovery phase like the annoying gnats they are, mitigating your risk of busting. There are Mademoiselles, who give you a coin discount on hiring any future crew members. There are Governors, who allow you to grab an extra card during the Trade and Hire phase. There are more I won’t bore you with, but suffice to say that there are enough characters and powers to allow a wide breadth of options and to cultivate a game flow where multiple players can follow their own strategies. What’s also cool is that these crew members’ abilities stack when combined with other cards of the same type. So if you manage to get four Mademoiselles in your crew? That is a four coin discount on all purchases, my friend.

Port Royal Mademoiselle
Though now you’re becoming less pirate and more pimp, which is a bit disturbing.

But guess what. When you’re done taking cards from your display, everybody else around the table has a chance to grab a card from the display too! If that makes your blood boil like a Republican complaining that welfare is just lazy people making money off your hard work, don’t worry. If the players opt to take a card on your turn, they pay you one coin for doing business on your turn. So you can pump the breaks and let go of the Reagan bobblehead you were gripping in rage, bud.

This brings me to one of the things I really like about Port Royal: positive player interaction. Positive player interaction is where the decisions of other players can positively interact with things you’re doing on your own and not enough games feature it. Most games that feature interaction with players do it in a more negative and conflict heavy manner, where you take things from other players and destroy things they’ve built. I have no problem with this, area control is full of that and it’s one of my favorite types of games. But positive interaction is perhaps even better because it leaves things people feeling…uh, positively.

It’s nice to have a game where somebody does something and you can say “Thanks! That actually kinda helps me out!” instead of “I hope, when you least expect it, you stub your toe on something really hard.”

There are even crew members that have powers built around the idea of other players doing things. Take for instance, the Jester (ah, that old pirate archetype) who gets a coin whenever anyone busts on their turn OR if there are no cards left in the display by the time it comes to their turn to draft.

Port Royal Jester
Some men just want to see the world burn.

Then there is the Admiral, who gets you two coins every time the display has five or more cards when it’s your turn to draft. Meaning when you see somebody drawing card after card, you’re greedily rubbing your hands in excitement like a goblin for the payout that your Admiral(s) will give you. Sure, it’s not all a happy go lucky montage of everyone high fiving and patting each other on the back. This isn’t a cooperative game after all. There are times when opponents will take a card you really needed, but it’s rarely back breaking and never feels like they’re out to get you. Ultimately, this constant positive player interaction, from the aforementioned crew members to the payouts you get from players drafting on your turn, make a pirate game less about plundering treasure and ship combat and more about fair trade in a peaceful port town.

(Hmmm…maybe the theme is kind of thin here. But who cares, anything pirates and nautical is awesome in my book.)

The next thing I want to rave about is how many avenues to victories there are in this game. I have played this game more times than I can count and I’ve seen almost every strategy employed and each one has worked at least once. I’ve seen somebody go heavy into Mademoiselles so that they could buy whatever they wanted in the last portion of the game since everything was so cheap. I’ve seen somebody go heavy on swords so that they were able to fend off any ship that they drew from the deck, allowing them to search for the exact card they needed. I’ve seen somebody load up on Admirals and get so much gold that they were like a pirate Jeff Bezos. Any strategy is effective, it all comes down to how smart you are when you’re pushing your luck and pulling the trigger at the right time for the cards that will help bolster your tableau and push you to victory. This certainly isn’t a super deep game but seeing this many paths to victory in a game that is just a deck of cards and plays in less than an hour is always heartening.

Seeing as how this is one of my top five favorite games ever, I don’t have much to complain about. My only issues with this game are from the publishing side of things. I have the Steve Jackson Games copy, which was the version that was published in North America. The first problem with how they handled publishing this game is the box art. The box art is a detailed painting of a frowning pirate locked in a rigid action figure pose, sword in one hand and flintlock in the other. Not only does this dour looking pirate ready for combat mislead the player into thinking this is a more traditional pirate game of swordfights and ship raids, the art doesn’t match the art in the game AT ALL. Klemens Franz, who is easily one of my favorite artists in board gaming, supplied the illustrations for the cards and his warm, cartoony style is literally the opposite from the art on the cover, which is dark and dim with muted colors. The box art also looks incredibly generic, like it should be the front page of a menu at a pirate themed restaurant in Ocean City, Maryland.

Port Royal cover
Definitely looks like the kind of place that has 2 and a half stars on Yelp.

The second sin that SJG committed with this game is even more egregious because it actually has ramifications on the game going forward. The European version of the game has expansions available, but they are completely incompatible with this version because: A) The cards are different sizes and B) the ships in the North American version have specific countries tied to their flags (as I mentioned a couple of times before) while the European version has flags that are simply colors. These two things mean that the European expansions can’t be played with the North American copy, making it feel like I have the inferior version. It wouldn’t be that big a deal, but according to comments on BoardGameGeek, SJG has no intention of publishing the expansions themselves. So yeah, that sucks.

Aside from these unfortunate publishing decisions for the North American version, there’s nothing I can criticize about this game. The push your luck is addicting, the tableau building allows for forging your own strategy and creating your own unique crew, and it’s all tied together by the wonderfully endearing Klemens Franz art. I’ll end the review with a quick story. I actually just played this game a few weeks ago, and there was a point where I looked over at my opponent who was just a few points away from the game winning twelve. I looked at the gold he had, looked at the gold I had and did the math to discover there was no way any of us could stop him from winning on his next turn. I was incredibly bummed. NOT because someone besides me was going to win. Nope, I was bummed because that meant the game was going to be over. I love this game so much I literally became depressed when it ended. If ‘this game is so good it’ll make you sad,’ isn’t a glowing recommendation, I don’t know what is.

Biblios Review


Board games, like any great medium, provide a form of escapism. The best board games can create an immersive experience on par with a great book or movie. Take for example, a game such as Captain Sonar, which casts you and up to seven friends as crew members on competing submarines. It’s 45 minutes of heart pounding excitement as you and the rival team fire torpedoes, lay mines and do lots and lots of shouting.

Or how about The Resistance, the ostensible grandfather of social deduction. You and your friends find yourself in the shoes of a resistance group in a dystopian future. BUT there are spies among your ranks, trying to undercut you at every corner, and you need to weed them out. The good guys need to complete a certain amount of missions while the spies want to make sure most of those missions fail. It creates agonizingly suspenseful moments as your friends ruthlessly accuse one another, desperately try to exonerate themselves, and do lots and lots of shouting.

Or how about Biblios, the featured game of this review where you and up to three players are rival monks, trying to complete…the best library? Like, just a library? With just scrolls and those big books that you see in movies where the main character slams them on a table and a bunch of dust flies up in the air? I mean, they’re monks, so surely the libraries have booze, right?

(checks the rules, components and double checks with the designer)

No? Huh.

Okay, maybe all board games aren’t exactly prime examples of escapism and palpable themes that create cinematic moments with your friends that you’ll never forget. I mean, this is a hobby where a quarter of the games are about buying stocks in trains and another quarter of the games are about farming. When Uwe Rosenberg comes out with a new game, it’s rarely a question of whether it will be about farming, but about what type of farming it will be (“Hey, did you hear about Uwe Rosenberg’s new game? It’s about pumpkin farming in Minnesota! Instant buy for me.”)

But you know what? That’s okay. Games don’t need themes that can also double as a Wikipedia synopsis for a Steven Segal movie. And Biblios is the poster child for this. Because even though its theme is as dry as the century old scrolls the game shows in its artwork, Biblios manages to be one of the most ass clenchingly tense twenty minutes you can find in the hobby. And I am aware clenchingly is not a word, but that’s how good Biblios is. It demands new words to describe it.

Designed by Steven Finn, who has a reputation for making great filler games, and published by Iello, Biblios is a card game that, as mentioned, has you taking the role of a Middle Ages monk trying to make their monastery’s library the talk of the town. During a time period when the most fun activities were ‘don’t die of the plague’ and ‘don’t die, kind of in general’, you can argue that Biblios is actually trying to capture the more lighthearted aspects of its source material.

The deck of cards that comprises Biblios has different types of scrolls and books, all of which are associated with a color. These essentially make up the five ‘suits’ in the game. In addition to these cards are five colored dice, one for each of those suits. These dice control the points awarded at the end of the game. At game’s end, however many pips are on the die are the amount of points given to the person who holds the majority in that die’s color. So if the blue die is showing four, whoever holds the highest combined value in blue cards gets four points.

So at its core, Biblios is basically just a set collection game. Try to get the most cards in the sets worth the most, right? This game’s easy.

Weeellllll, it’s actually not quite as simple as that.

What separates Biblios from your normal run of the mill set collection game is its two round structure. The first round is called the gifting round, where players take cards from the deck and evenly distribute them between themselves, their opponent(s) and a new deck called the auction deck. Which leads me to the next round, the auction round. In this round, players, unsurprisingly, arm wrestle to gain control of new cards as they’re revealed.

Just kidding, it’s an auction, duh. Though never rule out arm wrestling for an expansion, Dr. Steve Finn, if you’re reading this.

First, let’s begin with the gifting round. Thematically speaking, people from town are coming to your monastery to bestow you with gifts. Mechanically speaking, you’re basically drafting cards from the deck. On your turn, you draw a number of cards equal to the number of players plus one. So in a two player game, you draw three cards from the deck and you must do these three things: give one to yourself, give one to your opponent and put one face down in the auction pile to be auctioned (or arm wrestled, with the inevitable expansion variant) off in the next round. These cards include the aforementioned different suits/colors, but there are also cards with gold (which give you buying power in the auction round) and church cards, where (thematically) you get to gain favor of the head priest allowing you to manipulate the pips on the dice. Which the inclusion of this during this round makes me chuckle, as if the townsfolk are coming to your monastery and just dropping off priests, like they’re parents dropping off their kids at daycare.

“Hi, this is Timmy, he has a peanut allergy and don’t let him have more than three hours of screen time, okay, I’ll be back at four.”

But here’s the catch. Those cards are being drawn one at a time, and you must decide at that instant what to do with it. If it’s a good card, do you keep it for yourself and hope nothing better comes along? Or do you give it to the auction and gamble that you’ll draw something better? And then there is the eternally annoying fact that you have to give something to your opponent. This usually means that the moment you get a low valued card in an any suit, you immediately hand it over to them, making it seem like you are the world’s most passive aggressive monk, giving things because you’re expected to not because you want to. You’re the Middle Ages equivalent of that uncle on Christmas who gives you scratch off lottery tickets as a gift and snidely tells you to not ‘spend it all in one place’.

This drip feed card draft is one of my favorite things about Biblios. It takes the idea of card drafting and turns it into a harrowing game of press your luck. Press your luck is maybe my favorite mechanism in games, so any game that incorporates it is instantly elevated in my eyes. And here, the press your luck is exquisite, a game of chicken where your opponent stares across from you with an expectant grin, just waiting for you to mess up, leaving you no choice but to hand over a high value card into their hand. It creates huge moments of tension, akin to other card game classics such as Lost Cities and Schotten Totten. And after that first ten minutes, you wipe the sweat off your brow, and breathe a sigh of relief as you unclench your buttocks. Then a feeling of terror will envelop you as realize that there’s still a second round to play.

And I mean that in the best possible way. Because as scary as that first round is, the second round-the auction round- is perhaps even more horrifying. Your hand is crafted and you have an idea of what colors you should probably look for, but that doesn’t make what is about to happen any easier. In this round, you shuffle the auction deck that you and your opponents had made and then begin flipping them over, auctioning them off one at a time. The auction then proceeds in turn order, with each player either raising the bid or opting out of the auction. To pay for the cards, you’re bidding the gold you squirreled away in the first round. Umm, you did make sure to keep some gold? Right?

biblios gold
Uhh, I sure hope there is a dollar store in this Medieval village.

The auction creeps along and you are constantly over analyzing and regretting every purchase, meaning Biblios may as well have been called “Buyer’s Remorse: The Game”. By the time you buy two or three cards, you realize your gold is almost depleted and you’re wondering how you are going to stretch out what you have for the rest of the auction. Luckily, there are gold cards in the deck (well, providing you and your opponents were prudent enough to put them in there), which are bought by discarding your other cards, in a clever twist. So that means if you’re short on gold and a 3 value gold (the highest value) pops up in the auction, you can trash cards of colors that you’re fairly certain you’re not going to win. But even that is a risk, because you’re making assumptions on the sets your opponents have built. Educated assumptions, yes, but not perfect. There have been a few games where I trashed cards of a certain color, only to discover I would have won that color if I kept them.

While the gifting round is a white knuckle push your luck drafting system, the auction round is an impossibly tight game of money management. Pay too much for a card, and you lose all leverage for the rest of the round, allowing your opponents to get things for cheap. Don’t be aggressive, though, and you may find yourself waiting for the perfect price for a card that just won’t ever come, especially if you’re playing against savvy bidders that prey on your Scrooge-like skinflint tendencies. I have lost games falling into both traps, and I’ve won games against opponents who have done the same. It’s all about balancing your gold supply with getting the cards you really need. And don’t get me started on the church cards during this round. Those things become so valuable at this stage of the game you and your friends will be clawing each other apart for them like they’re the last Furby on the Toys ‘R Us shelf and not some old white dude in a funny hat.

Furby is still a thing, right? I dunno what Toys ‘R Us sells these days, I haven’t been outside in a while.

By game’s end, after the bidding bloodbath subsides and the dust clears over everyone’s monasteries, you reveal your hands and show who truly has the most of what color. Naturally, this creates lots of groans and cheers, as you see that your opponent managed to get just one more blue than you did even though you wasted all that gold on blue and oh look blue is worth six points and oh hey, they also managed to win red with a measly two cards which I would have beat if I hadn’t discarded them to grab that one gold that I didn’t even spend and ahhhh

Of course, there’s plenty of times where you’ll be the one wearing a smug grin as your opponents regret every decision they’ve ever made in their lives and it’s times like this that reveal just what a devilishly brilliant game Biblios is. Using two very distinct rounds and threading them together in a cohesive and nerve-wracking package, Biblios manages to pack more thoughtful decisions in its lean twenty minute length than some hour long games I’ve played. The fact that it’s done with just a deck of cards and colored dice makes it all the more impressive. Since I’ve entered the hobby a couple years ago, Biblios remains one of my all time favorite card games and almost definitely my favorite set collection game. If you’re looking for a filler with a pair of monk shaped fangs, Biblios is just the game for you.

(Also, I know I’ve been taking the piss (I’m not British, but I love that term, I’m sorry) out of the theme, but I actually like it a lot. For whatever reason, I’ve always liked the imagery of monks in monasteries and the atmosphere that evokes. Combine that with listening to Gregorian chant (yes, really) while my friends and I play this and it really is a theme that I love engrossing myself in).