AuZtralia

AuZtralia

Australia with a ‘Z’. Boy, that couldn’t mean zombies or anything, could it?

Actually…

AuZtralia is a game with everything it shows on the front: blimps, old-timey gun trucks, soldiers, and the dusty hell that is the Outback. Does it look old-school? It should, because it takes place in late-19th century Australia. The ‘Z’ is, indeed, a reference to zombies, but they only play a bit role in this game, because it’s really about Cthulhu!

Are you wondering what the hell is going on yet? Don’t worry, everyone who opens this game not knowing what it is beforehand goes through the same thing. What you get here is a semi-cooperative strategy game between players working together to stop the hordes of Cthulhu from swarming through this overblown penal colony, and working to do it better than everyone else because when it comes to saving the world, you’ve gotta keep score.

Everyone starts by setting up a port along the coast. From there you spread into the Outback, mostly via railroads you build, ferrying troops to clear out nests of zombies, cultists, and otherworldly monsters, collecting resources to keep creating railroads and troops, and building farms to feed the citizens of this… fine land. Farms are important; there are three types, and there’s a benefit to having at least one of each type, but each one requires different land to be built. Some of that land runs a little close to the nasty things, and eventually the nasty things wake up and start walking around.

What makes AuZtralia work is the time mechanic. Although you can be limited by a lack of resources, it’s usually possible to collect what you need; the question is how much time it takes. Each action takes a set amount of time, and turn order is determined by who’s furthest back on the time track (ie. who’s used the least time so far in acting). Furthermore, time ties (which are common—nothing takes more than three time to do) are broken by whoever’s token is on top of the stack, and you go on top of the stack if you get there last. So, spending three time to build that railroad you so desperately means another player might get three turns before your next one. Is that worth it? Quite possibly! But you need to make a decision about using a resource that everyone has in exactly equal quantities.

Cthulhu’s forces are locked into the time mechanic as well. Whenever it’s Cthulhu’s turn, his token goes forward one time space, and on every other time space from the moment he starts (about halfway along) until the end of the game, he acts according to a pre-determined list of rules. At the start of the game, his forces start face down; his actions affect those which are face up, and those most frequently turn up because players investigate the spaces. If you don’t remove any threat which is present, now Cthulhu’s going to start running over you harder. You always have some semblance of control over what you do before he acts, but you can only do so much, even amongst all of you.

Then he eats your food! And your cattle. And your farmers.

If you stay on top of things and keep winning your battles—dice are involved, so this is never quite a given—the game can almost seem like a walkover. But it has the capacity to snowball out of control fast if you get the wrong event with the wrong monsters walking around at the wrong time. If there’s something that might seem unsatisfying, it’s if you end up playing a game and it feels too easy or too hard. There’s some chance involved, but you have a lot of control over the outcome. For a game that used Z for Zombie messaging to get attention, then barely even followed through with the zombies, it’s surprisingly good.

3.8 out of 5 stars (3.8 / 5)

Azul

Azul

Let’s make a quilt! Or a rug. Or… whatever. Tile wall! That’s it.

Azul is a classic game, re-released two years ago, and it’s still selling well. That’s because it’s good. Spoilers.

So, let’s talk about how and why it works. You have a board with a five-by-five pattern you’re trying to fill in the most cohesive possible way. There are five colors, represented once each per row and column (they show up as a diagonal pattern, it’s quite nice). Each round, seven little platters are loaded with four tiles randomly chosen from the bag, each in one of the five colors. Players choose one platter, take all the tiles of one color from it, and put the rest in the center. A player may also take all the tiles of one color that have been placed in the center instead; the first one to do this takes the first player tile, which counts as a penalty tile at the end of the round.

Those tiles go on one of the horizontal lines to the left of the wall pattern. Those lines have one, two, three, four, or five empty spaces, going down. All tiles on a line must be of the same color. Take too many to fit the line where you want them to go? Extras go on the penalty row. Forced to take a color you can’t place? Those tiles go on the penalty row. The first couple of penalties aren’t major, but they escalate quickly, and you want to avoid them in any case.

When you fill one of those lines, at the end of the round one tile moves over to the matching spot on that row of the wall. If you’ve filled a spot, that color can’t be readied for that row anymore. So, as the game progresses, your goal is to keep targeting colors you need, but only as many tiles as are required to fill a pattern line and get the color into that row.

However! You also want to get tiles on the wall next to each other. The first one you place scores you a point. Every one you place after that scores a point, plus one more for each adjacent tile on the wall (orthogonal only). This means you’re gauging who needs what color, how many you need of each color, what colors will score you the most, how many tiles you need to put that color in the right place, and sometimes when you need to absorb a penalty to max out the scoring power of your wall.

It’s one of those games with basic actions that are easy to understand, but which lead into a game that runs fairly deep on strategic level. It’s also an example of good, professional game design. Quite a number of games give you a basic set of mechanics that lead to engaging play. Sometimes the mechanics are deceptively simple; Onitama gives you five pieces and a bunch of cards, and while the designers would have needed to spend plenty of time with the cards to make sure the game was balanced, overall it doesn’t take much to create an excellent, quick strategy game.

Azul, on the other hand, is a game that is either the product of a tremendous amount of iteration, or amazing luck (and still an awful lot of iteration). Filling the five-by-five wall is simple enough, but why are the pattern lines designed in a one through five fashion? They could have all been the same length, for example, and within that idea they could have reasonably been anywhere from three to five lines long. Why are the penalties structured as they are? How come there are seven platters of tiles, rather than six or eight. or a number based on the players in the game? Why do players get to take tiles from the center of the table, rather than only from the platters? Why is scoring exactly one per tile, including adjacent ones? Why are the adjacency bonuses orthogonal only, not diagonal?

Designers who don’t take enough time to playtest their games and figure out just the right balance points make mistakes on questions like these. Sometimes this happens because they need the game on the shelves and selling; sometimes, if they work for a larger company, they have bosses pressing them for a product; sometimes they just don’t see the fault lines in their creations. Azul sidesteps the potential errors, and we wind up with something on the short list of players everywhere for “that game you should totally get”. Maybe you already knew how good it was, but let’s take a moment to respect how much time it takes to put a game on that level.

4.5 out of 5 stars (4.5 / 5)


Welcome To Your Perfect Home

Welcome To Your Perfect Home

If there’s a nightmare scenario in life, it’s living in a community where every house is exactly the same, all of you have to follow rules about keeping your home “clean” and your lawn “tidy”, and you swear that every one of your neighbors have a not-insignificant amount of Stepford blood in them.

Selling those houses, though… that’s a win.

Welcome to Your Perfect Home puts you in the role of a real estate developer with three long blocks of houses to fill—one of ten houses, one of eleven, and one of twelve. A fat stack of cards is split into three piles, each with an action on one side and a number on the other (with a small icon of the action on the flip side of the card in one corner). Each round, one card is flipped action side up, so each pile has a number and an action visible. Players choose one of these combos, put the number on one of the houses, and choose whether or not to use the action.

The goal is to fill all the blocks with numbers going in ascending order, while also pulling in enough points through putting pools in yards, investing in neighborhoods of certain sizes, and meeting other various goals to outscore everyone else. The game ends when somebody has a number on every house, or when someone marks off three stop signs (three instances of not being able to develop a house on a turn with any of the available numbers). It’s a roll-and-write game, although with cards rather than dice. Apart from fences, which you use to create smaller neighborhoods within each block, you mark off a spot for each action you take, which (potentially) earns you more points by the end of the game.

The first time I played this, I put together a flawless game. I mathed out how many numbers I would have available to fill in the number of spaces that would be left if I put number X on house Y, and did not waste a single turn. The game ended when all my houses were full, and all three of my opponents had one empty. Given that real estate bonuses for the blocks you have completed only count if all the houses on the block are full, that’s a nice edge to have.

I lost. Not by a couple of points, but by twelve (112-100). And that’s why I think this is a pretty good game.

Here’s the reason: when I saw I played a flawless game, it means I did not make any errors in figuring out what numbers to place where, and when. I strategized towards making sure all my houses were tagged, which is the end goal, and it worked perfectly. Yet I obviously did not play a perfect game, because I got noticeably beaten.

The nature of the card draw means you’re always playing the odds. There are enough cards in each deck that you can’t really card count effectively (if you can, you will be godly at this and you don’t need any strategy tips). But you have to take into account how many points you’re likely to score with each move. If you put a palm tree up in six houses across all three blocks, you’ll get twelve points. But if you fill them up on one block, the same number of palm trees will earn you more in sum because of the finishing bonus. You’ll probably have reason to take real estate bonuses before you’ve started forming your blocks, so do you choose a number and let that guide how you build? Will you build towards bonuses? Can you see what bonuses your opponents are going for, and can you beat them to the punch?

There’s probably some perfect strategy to the game that’s most likely to win as long as you get the cards you need. That last part is the key, though. Unless that strategy is the best under any circumstances, and you’ll only lose if you’re desperately unlucky—and, while unlikely, this is possible—you’ll need to know how to adjust. That’s where you get gameplay rather than rote memorization, and that’s what makes a game good.

4.2 out of 5 stars (4.2 / 5)


Unlock!

Unlock!

Unlock! is back with a new trio of pseudo-puzzle rooms for you and your friends to solve. Why does this review only handle the first two of them? Two reasons.

1. The first two were readily available for play and review, whereas the third was not.

2. If the first two are any indication of the third’s quality, I want no part of it.

Spoilers, btw.

If you’re familiar with the Unlock! games, the basic gameplay needs no introduction. (If you’re not, there are numerous explanations online; all you need to know for now is that some of them are quite good, and this review is not indicative of the series as a whole.) The storylines of these two are pretty much what the box art suggests.

  • Night of the Boogeymen puts you in a position to help a young boy defeat the boogeymen around his room and finally get some sleep.
  • Scheherazade’s Last Tale shows the famed Scheherazade in need of one more tale, just when she’s run out. She needs you to find her artist friend and bring back the one story she needs to be free.

They start out fine. You have basic puzzles, hidden numbers, all the normal design elements of an Unlock! game. As has become common with these games, Boogeymen has another piece: a flat sheet of paper with some colored dots that look like gems, and teeth. (Scheherazade sticks with the old formula of cards with numbers and letters, and nothing else.) Most puzzles are pretty doable, some are tricky, a few are aggravating, but that’s not the problem; one person’s incomprehensible mess is another person’s easily-sorted problem, which is why you play with friends.

However, both of these suffer from a flaw so massive it signals either a change in designer, a severe drop-off in playtesting, or both: the ability to reach a point where you need a certain item or set of clues to proceed, and you simply… don’t.

Again: spoilers. As minimal as possible, but on some level spoilers.

In Boogeymen, the end-game scenario takes you away from the normal app and on to a new screen. It’s kind of cool; that part isn’t the problem. The problem is that in order to make sense of the final puzzle, you need another set of clues, and you can skip those clues by deciding to use the pieces that lead you to the final puzzle first. Once you’re on that last screen, you can’t go back to the app, so you can’t even look for hints on other cards you might have left. By all appearances, you have to go after the final puzzle with what you have, and you can very easily not have what you need.

Scheherazade, to my disappointment (because I like the tale), is worse. There’s a puzzle where you can go in a few different directions (ie. take a few different cards). The way the puzzle is set up, you have one correct answer; if you’ve ever played an Unlock! game before, you know that wrong answers are penalties. If you solve the puzzle, you have no reason to pursue the other answers.

However, you come across an obstacle for which you need a certain item. If you know anything about these stories, there’s an excellent chance you’ll figure out what type of item you need. However, you have to get that item from one of the “wrong” answers to that previous puzzle. It could be clever, if done well; setting forth a section where there appears to be only one thing you need, then hiding something else inside it, is nicely tricky and not a bad idea at all.

Scheherazade, though, asks the players to do a couple of things that don’t make sense. First, it makes them go “backwards” in the game timeline. You do the puzzle well before you come across the obstacle that requires this hidden item. The way the story progresses, it does not at all appear like you should be able to run away from the obstacle, get the item, then come back. Furthermore, people are risk-averse; giving them a situation that looks for all the world like a penalty, then making them figure out it isn’t, is a hard pull. There’s an excellent chance that if people figure it out, it’s only through hints, having literally no other options, or both.

On the other hand (speaking broadly, not about this puzzle specifically), if you put an obstacle down that the players can’t pass, then give them the puzzle with the item they need hidden within, there’s a much better chance they’ll make the connection. Maybe they felt that made the game too easy; it’s a 2 out of 3 in difficulty rating. But making people jump around incoherently through the storyline you’ve built doesn’t make for good puzzles. It’s just confusing.

Boogeymen isn’t bad, especially when you play with the paper. Scheherazade is a mess. Get someone else to buy both of them, if you can.
2.8 out of 5 stars (2.8 / 5)


Drunk, Stoned, or Stupid

Drunk, Stoned, or Stupid

PARTY GAME! PARTY GAME! PARTY GAME! PARTY GAME! WOOOOOOOO!!

Drunk, Stoned, or Stupid is a re-title of Who’s More Likely To? and still a rip-off of Cards Against Humanity. One player draws a card and reads the trait, things such as “Gets Convinced Strangers Are Celebrities” and “Would Survive In The Woods With A Hatchet”. The judge decides which of the other players best matches the description, “aided” by other players convincing them of who it should be. If you get seven cards, you lose.

Which… what? This is designed to be a party game, nothing serious, certainly not serious enough for judges to throw the game by giving people cards when they don’t have many. But that’s still a trash design. Weirder still, they suggest that if you have new people in the game, play so that seven cards is a win, and that seems like a much better game. Everyone has to argue for themselves as the person who does the ridiculous stuff on these cards. I suppose it depends on the group, really.

Either way, the judge can make choices based on who’s winning and not on any real game skill, which can be a fun experience but is by design a bad game.

2.5 out of 5 stars (2.5 / 5)
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