Tag: push your luck

Maquis Review

Maquis Review

In case you haven’t heard this verbalized in the past couple months, allow me to say what everyone’s thinking: we live in straaange times.

As of writing and publishing this, the world is in the grips of a pandemic and it’s forced us to stay home, away from family and friends for an indefinite amount of time. It really sucks but when the alternative is literally dying it makes the sacrifice a little more worth it.

In the process of these stay at home orders across the globe, people in board gaming are starting to realize the wonders of solo gaming. Yes, games that can be played by yourself. Once the punchline of many a joke, solo games are now becoming salvation in these trying times.

I have been a self-proclaimed solo gamer for the past year or so. While I obviously much prefer playing games with actual people, I do enjoy pulling out solo games a couple times a week to help satisfy my cardboard cravings.

To celebrate the wonders of solo gaming, especially in this dark period in history, I am in the process of writing a Top 10 Solo Games for this site. Sadly, it’s taking me waaay longer than anticipated, mainly because I have so much trouble choosing between just 10. As I’ve written it, games have entered and left the list like Defense Against the Dark Arts professors and it’s resulted in a patchwork writing style in which half the entries are written and the other half are still in flux as I play and replay various games to decide if they earn top billing.

Maquis is a game that was on the list, and I even wrote a decent sized chunk about it, BUT it unfortunately got booted off by another game at the buzzer. I didn’t feel right doing Maquis dirty like that, so I decided to flesh out what I wrote and turn it into its own full-fledged review because that’s what this game deserves, dammit.

Maquis is designed by Jake Staines and published by Side Room Games. Side Room Games is interesting because they’re a small indie publisher that seems to primarily focus on solo games. They’ve had a handful of successful Kickstarters, perhaps their most famous and popular being the solo hidden movement game (yes, you read that right) Black Sonata. Unfortunately, I missed the boat on Black Sonata but I made sure to not make the same mistake with Maquis.

Maquis is interesting in that it’s a solitaire only worker placement game. Despite the fact that worker placement games lend themselves well to solo modes, it’s tough to think of any worker placement games that are SOLELY designed for one player. Well, besides Maquis, of course.

In Maquis, you are a member of the French Resistance in World War II, pushing back against your Nazi oppressors in occupied France. I really love this game’s theme not because its World War II but because of it’s take on World War II. So many WWII games are about combat and battling it out with a boots on the ground approach. Which makes sense; it’s a war after all. But it’s refreshing to see a game focus on the more human element of it, about average people completing clandestine tasks to win back their homeland from horrific oppressors.

As an American, I have no shortage of “Americans punching Nazis” pop cultural materials to enjoy, so I love when another country or culture is spotlighted. Being able to immerse myself in the French Resistance chapter of WWII’s vast textbook of events is interesting and enlightening. The game’s stark art style also helps add to the theme, as well as just making the game fantastic to look at.

Okay, so the theme and art are great. How does the game actually play?

Every game you’re given two random objectives and in order to win you need to complete them both before time runs out. These objectives vary wildly, involving tasks like blowing up a train or assassinating some officers or being a mischievous backstreet hooligan by placing graffiti tags around the city.

Seeing as Maquis is a worker placement game, it’s no surprise that the way in which you complete these objectives is by placing workers. On your turn, you’ll place a worker in one of the many spots around the city, gathering resources that will allow you to satisfy the different objectives. As you place workers, however, the enemy A.I. deck is placing patrols at certain locations as well.

These guys are assholes for a couple reasons, besides the obvious ‘they work for the Nazis’ ones. One: they block a spot that you might have needed. Two: they can potentially remove your workers from the game if all their targeted destinations are already occupied. Three (and this is the big one): they block the route back to your safehouse, endangering your workers from ever getting back into your possession.

That last one is a doozie and is what forms the crux of Maquis’ puzzle. Unlike most worker placement games, solo or otherwise, Maquis doesn’t allow you to immediately take the action or resource from a spot till the end of the round. The only way that occurs is if you’re able to find a route back to the safehouse from where your worker currently is. If all possible routes back home are blocked by enemy patrols, that worker doesn’t make it back and is removed from the game. To add insult to capture, many of the spots on the board don’t allow you to take its associated action/resource if this happens. While frustrating to deal with, this makes thematic sense. How could that gun make it back to the safehouse if the worker is captured?

(Unless, maybe, they launched it into the air towards the safehouse like a Doug Flutie Hail Mary, which certainly gives me ideas for the expansion.)

This important rule not only adds heaps of tension but also a spicy pinch of route building and push your luck to Maquis’ otherwise standard worker placement recipe. The first game of Maquis I ever played, I was treating it like any other run of the mill worker placement game. I put my workers on spots that had the resources I needed, assuming I’d be safe in getting them back to the safehouse. It’s only World War II, it can’t be THAT hard, right?

I lost by round 3.

All of my workers were arrested and I quickly realized that I was going to have reprogram some of my old habits with worker placement games. Dotting your workers across the board like you’re sprinkling sugar on a Christmas cookie leaves them vulnerable. What Maquis trains you to do is to create chains of workers, like a line of ants snaking towards a picnic blanket. This makes it MUCH more likely that your workers will have a safe route home, safeguarding the resources you hope to acquire.

Maquis board
Nothing says “Vive la France!” like a conga line.

The problem, of course, is that linking your workers together is not always efficient. There are a couple of spots that don’t offer any action or maybe give a resource you have no need for. Placing workers there for the sake of building your chain can often seem like a waste, even if it is for the greater good. Time is short in Maquis, though, and there will be points where you must break a worker off on their own to get something you desperately need. Deciding when to take that calculated risk is when Maquis is at its most intense.

And intense is the word I’d choose to describe Maquis. From round 1 you can feel the threats of capture and running out of time breathing down your neck. I saw someone on Twitter mention that when they play Maquis, they find themselves flipping the cards faster, as if doing so buys their Resistance members more time to escape safely. I wholeheartedly agree with this and I have noticed myself doing the same thing.

This intensity is a double-edged sword, however, and one of the big reasons why Maquis ended up just missing out on a spot in my forthcoming top 10 solo games list. As I’ve played more and more solo games, I’ve realized that I gravitate towards games that are a little more relaxing and offer a difficulty that challenges me but is winnable more than half the time. I think it’s because if I’m solo gaming, I’m using it as a chance to settle down and relieve stress. Maquis does quite the opposite. A game of Maquis is 20 minutes of fist clenching, teeth gnashing intensity and it’s something I have to be in the mood for.

Of course, there’s nothing wrong with that and it’s purely a personal preference. And honestly, it’s good that this game is so tough and harrowing. If a game about trying to overthrow Nazis with nothing but grit and determination was easy and laid-back, that would be a huge thematic disconnect. This SHOULD be tough and it SHOULD tie my stomach into a Gordian Knot. It kind of reminds me of what I said in my last blog post when I briefly discussed the game Freedom: The Underground Railroad. That is also a game that handles a sensitive theme with grace and respect and involves a brutal difficulty that makes you appreciate just how difficult it was for good to eventually triumph over evil.

In the end, even if Maquis it is a little more nerve-wracking than my usual solo fare, I really do love this game. Its unique take on worker placement, by adding elements of route building and push your luck to the genre, combined with its cool theme and art, results in a game than any solo gamer should have in their collection.

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.

That’s Not Lemonade! Review

That’s Not Lemonade! Review

Loyal readers of my blog (hi Mom!) will probably know that I am a big fan of push your luck. In fact, I think I’m pretty comfortable saying it is my favorite mechanism in board games. No other game mechanism has created as many memorable moments as push your luck. Whether it’s the entire group cheering and standing up around the table when someone beats the odds or someone groaning and putting their heads in their hands when they realize they’ve gone too far, push your luck exemplifies the best of what board games can be as a shared, social experience. I fell in love with the genre when I first played Incan Gold, a game where you and your opponents try to snag the most treasure from a temple before they succumb to the dangers hidden within the game’s deck. Ever since then, I’ve kept an eye out for any popular or new games that heavily feature the mechanism, my ears perking up like a hunting dog when I hear of one. Which is why when I heard of That’s Not Lemonade! on Kickstarter, I knew I just had to back it.

That’s Not Lemonade! was on Kickstarter earlier in 2018 and I knew it was my type of game right away. Simple, elegant, pure push your luck, and it was a Kickstarter game that didn’t cost $150! This is probably because the game doesn’t include 50 sculpted minis and eight pounds worth of metal coins, but it’s still refreshing to see. I backed it almost instantly and I got my copy towards the end of last year. After playing it quite a few times over the past couple weeks, I’m happy to report that it is a heck of a lot of fun.

(Side note: From here on out, I am referring to the game as TNL because the exclamation point in That’s Not Lemonade! is causing Word to autocorrect and capitalize the next letter in the sentence and, hoo boy, its annoying.)

As mentioned before, TNL is a push your luck game in the same vein of Incan Gold, which was powered by a “stay or go” mechanism. However, while Incan Gold was about plundering a temple of untold riches, this game is about trying to not drink pee.

The genre has come such a long way.

In TNL, players are enterprising individuals trying to run an honest business of selling lemonade. Problem is there’s only one street corner, so what are we to do? Battle to the death? Nah, this isn’t an area control game. Build our lemonade empire from the ground up, hoping to create an economic engine that outpaces the rest of the players? What is this, a Vital Lacerda game? Nope, we’re going to drink our faces off and see who can drink the most. I’m talking about lemonade, of course. Well, unless it’s pee. Because I forgot to mention, there’s a rascal going around the neighborhood just peeing in EVERYTHING and now some of us might end up accidentally taking a big swig of it. Hey, as long as it doesn’t have aspartame, right?

Already this game has more backstory and theme than most Reiner Knizia games, so that’s nice. But how does it play? Very simply. There is a deck of cards that goes around the table and everybody has a decision on their turn: Draw from the deck or pass it to the next player?. If you pass, you simply forgo drawing a card and give the deck to the next person, leaving the decision up to them.

Draw from the deck and you’re hoping for either lemon cards, which determine who wins the round, or ice cards, which help break ties. If you get one of these cards, you place it face down in front of you, without showing the others, and pass the deck on.

What you DON’T want is the “That’s Not Lemonade!” card, which very subtly dances around the subject of pee by having a sickly green lemon pictured on it. If you draw one of these, you reveal it and you have busted out of the round.

TNL Lemon
This lemon definitely looks like it drank either urine or a La Croix.

At the end of the round, everyone who hasn’t busted reveals the cards they have in front of them. Whoever has the most lemons wins the round and gains a point, taking one of their lemon cards and keeping it in front of them. This not only helps keeps track of everyone’s score, but alters the game going forward. Now the risk of busting has gotten slightly higher, making every pull of the card a dramatic, tense endeavor. By round 5 or 6? There’s so few lemons and so much pee in the deck that you’d think you were watching a video handed over by the Russians starring Donald Trump.

TNL Trump
Hey, that explains why he’s in the game!

This all culminates in a devious little game that can be explained in two minutes and played over and over again for two hours, packing laughs, cheers and groans throughout. The design decision to keep lemon and ice cards facedown confused me at first. “How can we know the odds if we don’t know how many of the cards our opponents have are lemons or ice?” I thought stupidly, because I’m stupid. I thought of Blackjack, THE quintessential push your luck game, and in that game you can clearly see who has what and calculate the odds from there. In this game you simply see how many cards someone has face down in front of them and I wasn’t sure how satisfying that would be. This is, of course, why I don’t have any designed games published, because not revealing your hand helps making the simple decision of draw or pass devilishly tough.

You see someone with a whole pile of cards in front of them, but what if they’re mostly ice? There have been moments where I pushed too far because I felt threatened by the amount of cards my opponents have only to find out had I just passed, I would have won with the hand I had. Conversely, I’ve sat on a measly two lemons, hoping everyone else would bust or have a handful of ice and discovered I lost very badly. This element of mystery not only helps ratchet up the suspense but even adds a dash of bluffing to the proceedings. Stuck with three ice cubes? Start passing every turn and see the panic in the other players’ eyes, forcing them to take risks and hopefully bust. I’m not claiming there are Skull levels of deception in this game, but there is more strategy than meets the eye.

The only real criticism I can level at this game is less a criticism and more a concern. As you can tell this game is light. Like, Christian Bale in The Machinist light. Obviously, that’s not a flaw but it does create the concern of staying power. I don’t know how many plays this game will have before it starts to feel stale or same-y. I have plenty of light games that still get played on a regular basis, like the aforementioned Skull or Cockroach Poker or Stew (hey, I reviewed that game!). Will TNL hold up over the next year and enter the pantheon of those filler classics? Only time will tell.

In the meantime, I’m going to keep on enjoying TNL. I always love to have a quick filler in the rotation, especially for nights that involve ‘adult’ beverages. And no, not talking about pee this time.

Archaeology: The New Expedition Review

Archaeology: The New Expedition Review

Oh dear, I’m sorry. I’ve come into your room and I’ve brought sand everywhere. Sorry, sorry, this happens ALL the time after I get back from treasure hunting in Egypt. The good news is, I’ve sold all the treasure I found for a lot of gold and I can afford to buy you a Roomba! The bad news is, this is just a metaphor for me to introduce my review of Archaeology: The New Expedition and I actually don’t have any money to buy you a Roomba. The sand is still real, though, all too real.

Ignore the sand, let’s talk Archaeology: The New Expedition. Archaeology is a filler card game that just got reprinted by Z-Man Games, after a long absence off the market. Funnily enough, the original game was a reprint as well, as the game used to be simply called Archaeology: The Card Game. The New Expedition included new art and a couple of gameplay tweaks not seen in the original. This reprint is just a straight reprint of that one which can be confusing but I suppose The NEW New Expedition just doesn’t have a good ring to it.

The game is designed by Phil Walker-Harding who has been gaining a lot of popularity with recent hits like Barenpark, Gizmos, and Gingerbread House. My main experiences with him have been with the adorable drafting game Sushi Go and the tile laying game Cacao (a game that has flown under a lot of people’s radars despite being very, very good). So I was quite interested in trying Archaeology since I enjoy PWH’s work and because I’ve heard a lot of good things about it as a filler card game, a genre of game that I’ve really started to love lately. Does it live up to its praise? Let’s find out.

At its core, Archaeology is a set collection card game that incorporates some trading and push your luck. You and your opponents are digging at a dig site (what else would you do?), trying to find treasure and wrangle up enough of the same types so that you can sell them for maximum profit. Gameplay is simple: draw a card and then either trade cards from your hand with a central market and/or sell sets of like cards for points at the end of the game. This elegance is one of my favorite things about the game. I mentioned in my last review (for the wonderful Vegas Dice Game , check it out) that I really love gateway games because I find them to be great tools for getting others into the hobby. Plus, I enjoy games where I don’t have to shave freshly grown five o’clock shadow after I complete it (looking at you, Eldritch Horror). In this sense, Archaeology sings. I can teach this game in less than five minutes and its ease of play creates an incredibly breezy experience which flies by.

To be fair, though, just because something is simple and easy doesn’t mean it’s good. Goodnight Moon is one of the easiest books on the planet to read, but I didn’t see that win any Pulitzer Prizes. So Archaeology is simple, but is it good? Short answer: yes. Long answer: yyyyeeeeeeessss.

The core gameplay loop is quite fun in the game. As you draw cards, you start to get a feeling for what types of treasure you want to go for, especially when you look out and see what’s in the market, where everyone at the table is doing their trading. Maybe you wanna go for the parchments, which don’t net a ton of points but are so common that you often accidentally procure a whole set of them without even trying. Then there are the rarer treasures that provide bigger payouts, but are obviously tougher to get. Trading with the market to get the goods you want is simple on paper, but tough in practice: you just trade equal value for equal value (so you could trade three cards with a one gold value for one card with a three gold value, for example) but you never want to give up something that your opponents can snatch up on their next turn. Deciding when to actually sell your artifacts is another tough decision. The game incorporates a scale similar to Bohnanza‘s ‘beanometer’ (I’m assuming that genius name is trademarked, so hopefully I don’t get sued by Uwe Rosenberg’s lawyers for mentioning it) where you can speedily sell small sets to get quick bursts of points or wait till you have a full set to get a whole bucket of them. This is made even tougher by the most diabolical mechanism in Archaeology: the sandstorms.

No, not the song “Sandstorm” by Darude. I’m talking about actual sandstorms. One is an unstoppable force of nature that wreaks havoc wherever it goes, and the other is a mechanism in this game. In the deck of cards that you’re drawing from every turn, there’s a set number of sandstorms. When drawn, they force everyone at the table to discard HALF your hand. Oh, you thought you could safely hoard all those Pharaoh heads, broken cups and talismans like the world’s messiest museum curator? Heh, cute. Nope, you have to get rid of half of them and they allll go into the market. Luckily, you choose what you lose but occasionally the sandstorms come at a really bad time and you may lose something you really need. And the moment you lose something valuable, everyone’s eyes light up as you begrudgingly put it in the market. Suddenly, this easy, light card game becomes a tense race against time, where you’ll be gripping your cards so tight you’ll practically squeeze the linen finish out of them. You’ll dread every draw from the deck, pleading for just one more turn to trade for that last card in the set you need.

The game does offer a counter to the sandstorms in the form of a tent card. Everyone starts the game with one tent card. If a sandstorm appears and you just aren’t in the mood to deal with that crap, you can flip over said tent card and gain immunity from its negative effects. BUT it’s a one time use, creating yet ANOTHER difficult choice. Do you use your tent early, trying to preserve a hand but knowing your chances of hitting another sandstorm are still relatively high? Or do you save it for later, but risk losing so many cards in the process that by the time the last sandstorm hits you have nothing left to protect? I’ve hit both situations and cursed Past Kyle for his decisions which is always the sign of a good game. I certainly don’t have enough opportunities for self loathing in my life.

The last thing to mention are the monuments. In the game is a monument set to the side which can be explored using map cards. Rather than selling those map cards in for a small amount of points at the end, you can spend sets of them to activate the monument and gain extra cards through that avenue. There are even six monuments in the game, each one behaving differently and creating a uniquely different flavor for each game. Enjoy the plain but classic taste of vanilla? Try the Pyramid, which has three stacks of cards, each one getting bigger than the last. Trade in bigger sets of maps, and you get the bigger stacks which gives you a TON of cards to work with. Prefer your monument with a bit of spice in it, like a habanero based hot sauce? May I suggest the Mines, which lets you play a mini game of Blackjack, drawing cards one at a time and hoping you don’t go over a certain gold value which would result in a bust. These monuments don’t just add another decision to keep in mind, but help freshen each game of Archaeology. This is particularly useful since, at a brisk 15-20 minutes, this is a game that you’ll like play two or three times per session. It’s a small addition (one that actually wasn’t in the original Archaeology: The Card Game) and a welcome one.

Now’s the part of the review when I tell what isn’t great about Archaeology. Luckily, there’s not much to dislike there, but there are a few things worth mentioning. For an otherwise peaceful game of trading artifacts and selling them for gold, this game can be mean. The sandstorms can really wreck your day if the timing is bad for you, even with the immunity granted from a tent. Having a great set of treasure sliced in half because of a sandstorm will have you creating new curse words to say. People out there might smugly slide their glasses up their noses and proclaim, “Well, sell your treasures before the sandstorm and get gud lol”. To that I say, easier said than done. It’s impossible to tell when a sandstorm will hit till the deck starts to hit its second half and the odds start to become clearer, and up till then it’s a crap shoot as to when to sell and when to hold on for juuust a bit longer. I’ve played with a player who detested having their hand constantly under attack by random pulls of the deck and they didn’t have a fun time with the game.

And did you think the sandstorms were mean? Then allow me to finally introduce the thief card to you. In addition to sandstorms, there are sneaky thieves lying in wait, which, when drawn, allow you to take a card from another player’s hand and add it to your own. This is doubly frustrating because not only do you lose the card, but your opponent gains it. When you see that player immediately sell it as part of a large set on their following turn? The curse words you make up here will make the curse words you made up during the sandstorm look like they belong in a Berenstain Bear’s book.

The last possible hang up people might have is how swingy the game can be in terms of luck. You can get useless cards all day while your opponents are drawing all the high priced treasure and maps and there’s nothing you can do about it. You can adjust and try to go for selling tons of cheap treasure but I’ve yet to see that pan out.

Alrighty, let’s see what Lady Luck has in store for me this turn oh cool it’s a 9th parchment scrap.

Ultimately, if you get annoyed with luck deciding a game, this might not be for you. I personally don’t mind it since it’s just a short 20 minute filler that can be quickly played again, but I’ve heard some people grumble about how lucky the game can be.

Ultimately, if you don’t mind luck heavy gameplay that will occasionally bully you, then Archaeology: The New Expedition is a great filler to add to your collection. It combines tense push your luck with trade based set collection in a tidy little package that will keep you entertained even several plays later.

Vegas Dice Game Review

Vegas Dice Game Review

Ahh, Las Vegas. The city of sin, a modern day Sodom and Gomorrah. It’ the crown jewel of America’s southwest, where the dazzling neon lights fill the eyes and mind with wonder and anticipation and an animalistic hunger for thrills that can only be satiated by the dark soul beneath the city’s glitzy exterior.

What better backdrop for an abstract area control game!

Enter Vegas Dice Game. Originally published under the title Las Vegas, Vegas Dice Game is a dice rolling area control game for 2-5 players, designed by Rudiger Dorn. Mr. Dorn is probably best known for his game Istanbul, a game I have not had the pleasure of trying yet. My interest in trying Istanbul has definitely gone up since playing Vegas Dice Game, since, guess what, I really like this one.

In Vegas Dice Game, there are six casinos laid out on the table, each one representing a number of pips on a die, one through six. The casinos have a stack of money next to them, of varying total sum and denominations. On your turn, you take your eight dice, roll them, and decide what casino you want to place them at, making sure to match pips on your dice to the casino’s pips. The trick is, when you place at a casino you must place ALL dice rolled corresponding to that die number. So if you want to place dice on the ‘3’ casino, you must take every 3 you rolled and place it on there, whether it’s just one 3 or five 3s. This continues until everybody places all their dice out on the casinos and then the players take their payouts.

Payouts are luckily much simpler here than in the real Vegas, as you don’t need to have an armed escort when receiving the money. When determining who gets what, you look at who has the most dice at the casino and they receive the highest denomination of bill available. Whoever has the second most dice gets the second highest bill and so on. BUT it wouldn’t be a board game without some silly twist to keep things interesting and Mr. Dorn is happy to oblige us here. Because before you take a look at the casinos and determine majorities, you first look and see if there are any players who have equal amounts of dice at a casino and remove them. That means if you tie with anybody at a casino, those dice are about to be taken away by casino security, probably never to be seen again. It doesn’t matter if you have four whole dice placed on that casino and Karen has only one, if Jimmy comes along and places four dice of his own you both get eliminated and Karen smugly receives the top payout from that casino having spent just one measly die.

vegas tie

This tiny little rule transforms a fairly straightforward game of area majorities into a much thinkier affair with a bit of bite to it. Suddenly, you’re overthinking every placement of your dice, somehow believing that you’re wasting too many dice while not committing quite enough at the same time. You always want to be just one die ahead of the next person, desperate to avoid those devastating tie scenarios. But pay too much attention to one casino and suddenly everyone else is snapping up other ones uncontested. This balance is a delicate tight wire act, making you feel like an acrobat in a Cirque du Soleil show in the game’s titular city. Hey, maybe this game is thematic after all!

So the gameplay is great, but Vegas Dice Game holds a place in my heart for another reason; it is a very good gateway game. I do my best to be an evangelist for the hobby, so while I’m out there being a rulebook thumping preacher, I like to have a good selection of easy but fun and crunchy games to show to my victims I mean friends. Vegas Dice Game is one of those games. It’s super simple to teach, it’s got dice that act as a nice touchstone for non gamers and at a crisp 30-40 minutes, it doesn’t outstay its welcome for even the shortest of attention spans.

Let me put it this way: I taught this game to my parents, and they are the type that believe Clue is the cutting edge of board game complexity. They are generally the canaries in the coal mine for my gateway game testing and I’m happy to report that when we played this one, they did NOT choke on toxic gas. Not that that sort of thing happens often at my game nights.

While I don’t have many big complaints about this game, I do have a few caveats. My first is how the game scales. I wanna be clear that the game actually doesn’t scale that badly, but there is a definite jump in quality from the 2-3 player count to the 4-5 player count. Like most area control games, the more the better. If you do wanna play with 2 or 3, the game offers an optional variant that includes a neutral player that helps do some blocking and competing for casinos. Neutral players in area control games rarely work well, so before go clutching your crucifix and hissing at me, the problem with low player counts in this game actually ISN’T the neutral player. The problem with lower player counts is that with less competition for the casinos, it becomes clear that you should place as few dice out per turn as possible and try to milk your dice longer than the other players so that you can get the last few turns and swoop in on casinos without your opponents being able to respond. In higher player counts, this sort of thing is less of an issue because so many people are competiting across the different casinos that it’s tough to win more than two casinos. But I’ve seen plenty of 2 player games where one player has a clean sweep and the other player leaves with nothing because the other player simply didn’t have dice left over to defend this one person sniping everything for themselves.

The other issue that might cause people to bristle is there is a good amount of luck in the game. Though there is very much strategy to consider and enact, some of the rounds can be determined by who simply rolled better. That doesn’t bother me that much, but it may get under some people’s skin. But, I mean, the game does have ‘Vegas’ and ‘Dice’ in its title, so, uhh, dunno what you were expecting. Just be happy that if you get unlucky in this game, you won’t lose your loved ones because your crippling gambling addiction has reached an all new low and your life enters a downward spiral that is only numbed by alcohol and self loathing. At least, I haven’t seen that in any playthroughs yet. Maybe if there’s an expansion.

All in all, if you’re looking for a light, enjoyable game with dice chucking and a hefty dose of push your luck, then Vegas Dice Game fits the bill. It may not have the adventure and dangerous allure of an actual trip to Vegas, but at least there’s no Wayne Newton and you won’t come home with belly button piercings that you have no recollection of ever getting.

Stew Review

Stew Review

A couple of weeks ago, I did a review of Biblios, a game about trying to curate a monastery’s library in Medieval times. If you thought that theme was more soporific than a turkey breast injected with half a gallon of Nyquil, then get allow Stew liven things up. In Stew, you and up to 3 other players are pioneer farmers, trying to make the best winter stew.

Hmm, yanno, there may be a reason as to why board games haven’t gone quite mainstream yet.

Okay, maybe this bit of info will make it more exciting. In Stew, you and up to 3 other players are pioneer farmers, trying to make the best winter stew and ONLY ONE OF YOU CAN EAT IT. If this were a commercial, this would be the part where the explosions would happen, metal music would start blaring and you’d hear a Wilhelm scream somewhere in the chaos.

STILL not exciting enough? Damn, you must have ice water in them veins. Okay, if the theme doesn’t sell you, at least allow me to explain the game to you and tell you why this game, which is made up of just a mere 18 cards, is one of the most fun and addictive games I’ve played over the past couple months.

Before getting into the game, let me give you a little bit of info about this game because there’s a very good chance you haven’t heard of it, even if you are plugged into the hobby. Stew is a game published by an independent publisher called Button Shy Games. If you don’t know who they are, allow me to change that. They’re a game company that specializes in something called ‘wallet games’ which are exactly what they sound like. They’re games not just small enough to fit in a wallet, they’re literally IN a wallet. Button Shy handcrafts all their games in custom made wallets, meaning their games can quite literally fit in your pocket.

stew wallet
So small you can whip it out anywhere, especially in front of family and friends! Hmm, I dunno why Button Shy hasn’t adopted that as a tagline yet…

I have played a couple of other Button Shy Games and they have ranged from good (the meta heavy In Vino Morte, a party game where you’re poisoning your friends in a style that evokes that one scene from The Princess Bride) to very good (the two player tug of war Avignon: A Clash of Popes, a game where you and your opponent are pushing and pulling cards to get three of them on your side) to excellent (the cooperative city builder Sprawlopolis, a game that manages to pack a crunchy tile laying puzzle in just, again, 18 cards). After playing all these, I’m happy to report that Stew is my favorite of the bunch.

If Stew were an actual stew, the recipe would read like this: add one cup of push your luck, one ounce of deduction and a pinch of bluffing into a bowl and stir for 15 minutes. Serves 2-4 people.

If I had to compare it to a more well known game, the obvious choice would be Welcome to the Dungeon. In Welcome to the Dungeon, players are passing around a deck of cards that’s comprised of creatures. On their turn, they are either adding creatures to the dungeon or tossing them to the side and removing equipment that can help kill said creatures. This keeps going until one player is finally forced to enter the dungeon and take on the creatures everybody else put in there and hoping they don’t die but let’s face it, they probably are going to die and horribly.

The first time I played Welcome to the Dungeon, I reeeaally wanted to like it just fell short. One big issue was player elimination. Sure, it’s a fairly short game, but it’s just long enough that being eliminated early can be a huge problem (which happened to me). It also can be a little fiddly when you actually enter the dungeon and then have to cross examine every creature that pops up with the equipment you’re still holding while keeping track of your health in your head. This all led to an ultimately disappointing experience. Luckily, Stew takes the formula that I oh so wanted to love in Welcome to the Dungeon and makes an actual good game out of it!

Play is very simple. Every one is passing around a deck of ingredient cards and looking at the top card. These ingredient cards all have certain point values and represent the hallmarks of any great stew such as hearty potatoes, flavorful garlic and…a rock?

stew rock
Okay, who the hell invited Charlie Brown?

After looking at this top card, they then have a choice: put that ingredient face down in the stew or put it face down on a vermin card (more on the vermin later). Eventually, the stew will get bigger and bigger until some brave soul yells “STEW!”, which is the universal phrase anyone shouts when about to eat some stew. They take the cards in the stew and reveal them. If the sum of the points on the ingredient cards equals 12 or more, congratulations! You’ve eaten a damn fine stew and earn yourself two points. However, if the stew is 11 points or less then you have eaten a stew that can only be described as ‘not good’. With this, you receive no points, the rest of the players get one point and you are forced to write a negative review on Yelp. First to five points wins.

Calculating points is not as easy as just revealing what’s in the stew, however. Remember those vermin I vaguely mentioned earlier? Yeah, they’re a bunch of a-holes and they are gonna steal stuff from your stew if you didn’t feed them. If a vermin is unfed when the stew is taken off the stove, they steal specific ingredients as they pop up. For example, the rabbit steals the first carrot revealed from the stew, the fox steals the first chicken and the gopher steals the first leek (because everyone knows that gophers just effing LOVE leeks). This is bad because those are precious points leaving your stew and in this game, every point is precious. There is even a vagabond who just kinda chills outside and then pops in to see what’s in the stew. If there is a chicken in the stew, he mooches some of it off you and you lose 3 points. If there isn’t, you get a bonus 3 points as he passes it on by because he is apparently the pickiest drifter ever.

These vermin help provide much of the suspense in Stew, as you’re not quite sure what your opponents put in the stew and what they fed to the vermin. You CAN use the stone, which subtracts 3 points from your stew, against these vermin but most of the time you’ll get ingredients which makes every decision tense. Side note: using the stone on the vagabond paints of dark picture of these pioneers just straight up murdering this guy with a rock, making it feel like Stew takes place in a Coen Brothers film.

stew vagabond
No word yet on whether there will be an expansion where you hide him in a wood chipper.


Feeding these blasted vermin is important, but if you’re feeding them high scoring ingredients, then the stew won’t have enough points to put you over the 12 point threshold. Don’t feed enough of them though, and it won’t even matter what’s in the stew because it’s all just gonna be taken by these surprisingly stealthy and precise animals who know exactly what to take from your steaming bowl of stew. All this doesn’t even take into account that every player is side eyeing each other, twitching their fingers like gunslingers in a Wild West duel, wondering who will pull the trigger and yell ‘STEW!’ first.

And so begins the madness and double thought that you’ll be ensnared by for Stew‘s 15-20 minute run time.

This game will have you thinking and double thinking and triple thinking every decision that you and your friends make. The stream of consciousness that occupies your thoughts throughout this game would look like the ramblings of a psychopath if put on paper. ‘Ohh, Sally just put a card on the fox, which means she might know there’s a chicken in the stew and wants to keep it in there but wait maybe she fed the fox the chicken and she’s trying to lead us into believing there is going to be chicken but then again maybe she wants us to think that so that we don’t try to eat the stew and oh look Trevor just put something in the stew maybe it’s a potato those really rack up the points but the raccoon isn’t fed yet so that’s just gonna steal it anyway but maybe that’s what he wants and oh god it’s my turn I just turned over a garlic what do I doooooooo’. The transcripts of your brains thoughts at game’s end will read like a James Joyce novel, but much more enjoyable and less pretentious.

That sort of panicked battle of wits is one of the reasons why I love these types of games. It reminds me of Skull, one of my all time favorites,  with every move being scrutinized and lots of bravado and confidence being deflated with each flip and reveal of the card. Cheers will erupt and groans will echo throughout the game, such as when you angrily shake the Stone card in everyone’s faces, demanding who put it in the stew. It’s an incredibly social game for that reason and helps showcase what makes board games so damn fun.

And you know what? Like with Biblios, I poked fun at the theme earlier in this article, but I honestly love the concept behind the game. It’s so unique and fun, with rustic looking art that really helps add to the pioneer era feel they’re going for. Throw on some bluegrass music in the background, and you’ll be wearing a straw hat and slugging down moonshine in no time.

I honestly don’t have much bad to say about Stew. As I already mentioned, the game will only take around 15-20 minutes, meaning it not only doesn’t outstay its welcome but is perfect for playing back to back (to back). Sure, the strategic depth of the game lives and dies by the meta, but that’s par for the course for these type of games. And really, that’s the only negative thing I can say: if you don’t like these types of games, games with bluffing and misdirection and doublethink, then Stew won’t do anything to change your mind.

I’ll simply end by saying that if this kind of game does appeal to you, do not hesitate to pick this up. You can find it on Button Shy’s site, along with the rest of their wallet game catalog. Tell them Kyle from Boar & Arrow sent you. Actually, they’ll have no clue what any of that means, but I’ve always wanted to say that.