Tag: tile laying

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.

Naga Raja Review

Naga Raja Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Naga Raja Temple
Mistakes were made.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sprawlopolis Review

Sprawlopolis Review

A month or two ago, I reviewed a game called Stew. Stew is a brilliant little game that combines bluffing, deduction and press your luck and is brought to us by the wonderful publisher Button Shy. Button Shy is a game company that specializes in making hand crafted games that are small enough to fit in literal wallets. I own five of their games from their vast library and while Stew is my favorite of those, there is a very close second. And that game is Sprawlopolis.

Sprawlopolis is a cooperative tile/card laying game where you and your teammates are building a city together. The game, like almost every Button Shy game, is comprised of just 18 cards. Those cards are double sided, with one side containing scoring objectives and the other side being the actual city cards. Those city cards contain each of the four districts in the game (residential, commercial, industrial and parks) as well as a combination of streets snaking through in various directions. The game begins by setting aside three of those 18 cards and putting them scoring objective up. The prompt has a rule for scoring (such as 2 points for every Residential district adjacent to two Industrial districts, to pick an easy example) and a number. You add the numbers of the three cards together and that makes the final score you need to beat for that game. Then, after shuffling the rest of the cards, you and your other budding civic engineers try to make a city that doesn’t completely suck.

(Psst…chances are, it will suck. This game is hard.)

The game plays like many tile laying games, where you simply place cards adjacent to other cards to form a continually growing landscape. But! There is a twist. In this game, you can actually cover parts of already placed cards, even the entire damn thing. This opens things up considerably as you can try to overlap parts that are disadvantageous to your scoring while improving other parts of the city to improve said score. It’s like this game’s version of gentrification, only with much less of the sociological and moral ramifications that usually come with that.

It also leads to some very interestingly shaped cities. The first game I ever won of this, our city ended up looking like a duck.

sprawlopolis duck
I thought this was Sprawlopolis, not Quacks of Quedlinberg! Hahahaha oh god someone help me

The amazing thing about Sprawlopolis is that despite it being a mere 18 cards, the game gives you a lot to think about. You’re not just trying to score based on what the objectives have given you, but you also score based on how big certain blocks in your city are. The biggest continuous area of each district type gets gets one point per block in it. For example, if the biggest area of parks in your city is five blocks big, you get five points for your parks district. This extra scoring mechanism means that even as you’re focusing on the scoring objectives dealt at the beginning, you also have to keep in mind that you want to build up at least one big area of each of the district types. Focusing strictly on the objectives and ignoring the district scoring will rarely result in a win, but the rub is that often times the objectives don’t jive with making large masses of single districts. This creates a great decision space where you’ll be agonizing over how to maximize your overall score. It’s a balancing act akin to walking a tightrope while juggling Molotov cocktails. Also, there are puppies below you as you do so. Do you want to burn a bunch of puppies, you psychopath? Didn’t think so.

There is one more bit of scoring in the game, making it the thick syrup on this stack of scoring pancakes. The streets department of Sprawlopolis must be very lazy and cranky, because for each road in your city you lose one point. Joining together roads to make them longer and therefore less present in your city is the best way to minimize this damage. The worst thing you can do is to have lots of tiny little roads twisting and turning around your city, leading to nowhere like it’s an MC Escher fever dream. But again, trying to build long, continuous roads doesn’t always work with the city you’re trying to build for the objectives. Maybe there’s a great play you can make that will score you some extra points from the objectives but you notice that it will open up two new roads or even break apart a long connected road you had worked so hard on keeping together. As I said, it’s a balancing act and it packs so many great hair pulling moments in what is just a 10-15 minute card game.

When you deal with a microgame like this, one of the biggest concerns is its shelf life. As in, how many times can you actually play this thing before you realize it’s a much more shallow, and repetitive experience than you first thought? No disrespect to microgames, I love them, but it’s definitely a prevalent problem in a genre that is built around incredibly simple rulesets and low numbers of cards/components.

(I’m looking at you Coup and Love Letter.)

I’m happy to report that, maybe more than any other microgame I’ve played, this is not an issue with Sprawlopolis. One of the big reasons why is the different scoring objectives. Not only do the scoring objectives all feel different and varied, but you’re using a different, random combination each time. This, along with the fact that the city cards are all shuffled and come out randomly as well, means that every game of Sprawlopolis is going to feel unique and fresh. Sure, you may run into a couple games where two of the three scoring objectives have been paired together before, but it’s rare enough that it rarely feels stale. I mean, just do the math. With 18 scoring objectives, and a combination of 3 every time you play that’s like…uhh…umm…a LOT of combinations. Yeah, let’s go with that, ‘a lot’.

This also translates into wildly different looking cities every time you play. One of my favorite things about Carcassonne, perhaps the most popular tile laying game in the hobby, is that no matter how many times I’ve played it, the landscape me and my opponents had created always looked different game to game. That is very much the case with Sprawlopolis. I mean, I already showed you that damn duck. Depending on how the scoring objectives shape out, you can end up with smaller more compact cities, larger more sprawling (hey, that sounds familiar) cities or just some downright weird looking ones.

sprawlopolis city example
Well, it’s layout and design still makes more sense than Boston’s.

The last thing I’ll rave about is this game’s solo mode. I have been getting into solo gaming a lot over the past year (probably has to do with that whole ‘no social life’ thing I’ve got gotten on) and Sprawlopolis is easily one of the three best solo experiences I’ve ever played. The gameplay is completely unaffected. The only difference is you just simply keep a hand of three cards at all times since there are no other players to pass cards to. Which is completely fine, as it removes the one fiddly thing about the game anyway (in the multiplayer game you play, pass, then draw one card for a future turn, which for whatever reason has always felt clunky to me). This means the solo experience is just as enjoyable as playing the multiplayer game, something a solitaire game should ALWAYS strive for. In fact, in some ways it’s better, because playing solo means you don’t have to deal with your friends passive aggressively sighing at your placement of a card because you missed something obvious. It’s lack of a long time commitment makes Sprawlopolis the perfect bite sized solo game as well, meaning it’s super easy for me to pull out and kill 15 minutes with. All in all, if you are an avid solo gamer, Sprawlopolis is as good as it gets.

I really don’t have much in the way to criticize with Sprawlopolis. It’s variety game to game, elegant and simple ruleset, addictive solo play and its portability make it a game that anyone should have in their collection. It doesn’t quite beat the tile laying greats such as Carcassonne, Lanterns and Isle of Skye, but it’s damn close to their level. And that’s some high praise if you ask me.