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!