Wingspan

Wingspan

It’s a bird party! And I am super late to it!

Wingspan is a game about birds, birds, and more birds. Birds in the forest, birds on the plains, and birds near the water. Birds that are smol, and birds that eat the birds that are smol. Feed your birds, play your birds, and watch your birds barely survive in the wild, because “take flight” is both too cliche and too positive for what nature does to things living in it.

It’s simple to play. You have a hand of bird cards and a pile of food. Feed the birds and play their cards. Except… do you have the right food? What kind of nests do the birds make? Can some of your birds help other birds with the same nests? Do your birds want to eat other birds? Can your birds find more food for your other birds to eat? Do your birds do something right now and then just sit there like lazy buggers, or do they keep working as long as you pay attention to their habitat? How many eggs can they take care of? Who wants to eat the eggs? Should you—

AAAAHHHHH

The pieces of the game make sense. They’re not hard to learn or use. Making them work together, though, takes some knowledge of what cards you might see, how much food you might need, and so on, and that makes it a trip for first-timers to learn. If everyone’s new, it works out fine. If some people are and some aren’t, the noobs better learn quickly. There is time to suss out a strategy, thankfully, so you aren’t stuck finishing out a game that you’ve started to understand but need a second play to make that understanding work for you. But the learning curve exists.

The actions don’t take much explaining. You can play a bird to any of the areas in which it can live, if you have the food. If you can’t or don’t want to play a bird, you can use an action in a given habitat. Taking an action in the forest gives you food. The plains give you eggs, and the water gives you cards. The more birds you have in the habitat, the more of each of those things you have access to with a single action. Playing towards your specific goal(s)—you start with one and can get more during the game—and the competitive goals for each round (ie. have eggs on the most different birds when the round ends) is important for winning, but if you can find a point combo that doesn’t require those things, it could still be enough. Understanding the game, and not the “meta” strategies or the few things that will actually work amongst knowledgeable players, is how you do well, which is excellent.

Really, it’s so good. It’s hard for a game to make someone (ie. me) go from grouchy and lost to realizing what’s possible to almost winning in a single playthrough, but this one did. It’s very smoothly designed, with a lot of detail about the birds that technically weren’t needed but make the game more engaging for their presence. I usually always want to play something new, but I won’t mind a second go at this one.

4.4 out of 5 stars (4.4 / 5)

Corinth

Corinth

Corinth is a roll-and-write game about ancient-world trading with people who look friendlier and much, much cleaner than their probable real-world counterparts. Yay washing!

Corinth’s twist on the roll-and-write style of game is this: Each turn, the active player rolls the dice and puts them on a board of goods. There’s a set method to this; the player does not choose where the dice go. Instead, all dice of the highest number rolled go into the gold section at the top, and all dice of the lowest number rolled go into goats, at the bottom. The rest of the dice are likewise sorted by number rolled and placed in ascending order in each of the four goods districts. Each player, starting with the active one, picks a set and marks off a number of goods equal to the number of dice in that section.

This has a couple of effects that go against gamer (or math) reflexes.

  1. Although goats get the lowest dice and gold the highest, goats are not inherently less valuable, because you can as easily have fewer goats available during the course of the game than gold. It’s just a matter of how many dice end up in those sections each turn.
  2. It takes substantially fewer items to collect all the sets of goods in the higher districts, but it’s easy to underestimate how few shots you’ll get at them. To have any dice available in the highest district, all six numbers must be rolled on the nine dice (though up to three extra dice can be unlocked, which increases the odds a bit). This means that not only will it be fairly unusual to hit the highest district, there will rarely be more than two dice available, and if it’s not your turn it’s quite likely someone else will grab them first.

It creates, not a whole new road of thought, but more of an off-ramp on to a highway that leans a little bit away from strategy as we tend to think of it. You roll dice for the whole game, decide what to do with those dice, and the value of the dice never matter. It’s not complicated—once you understand that aspect, the game becomes much clearer—but it requires something different from the player, and that’s pretty cool.

As for the game itself, it plays in a pretty straightforward fashion. You get your goods, or spend your gold and goats on buildings, or move your steward around to get you bonuses. Each section has its own way to score; you also get bonus points if you’re the first to fill all the goods slots in a district, and the game is otherwise balanced enough that someone who locks up multiple bonuses stands a very good chance of winning. In four-player games, it forces people to decide if they’re all going to race for the easier districts or take a shot at picking up the more difficult ones and hope they finish their bonuses by the end of the game.

It’s a clever little game with good artwork and a requirement to think, if not totally outside the box, then over the open flap. 

3.9 out of 5 stars (3.9 / 5)

Tiny Towns

Tiny Towns

I wanted to like this game. I did. I really, really did. It’s adorable city building on a small board with a bunch of cubes and a plethora of building choices with synergy bonuses all over the map. It should be something I would enjoy.

I think I tried to enjoy it with too many people. Which is a fine way to enjoy lots of things, just not this.

Tiny Towns has a simple premise: small critters have started a town, and they need to build it up as much as possible without wasting their resources. Like most small critters, they have no background in urban development, so they haven’t learned how to stockpile everything in one spot and move it from place to place as necessary. They just dump something in each location and stop when the town is full.

The basic mechanic is simple enough. The active player chooses one of the five types of resources. Everyone takes one and puts it on their board. Each type of building has a resource pattern associated with it; once you have that resource pattern laid out on your board, you may construct that building in any of the spaces where those resources were put. This forces you to be extremely careful where you place each cube, since you can’t take anything off the board once it’s placed.

Now imagine playing this with six people, where you only control the selected resource once every six turns. Yeah.

I have not played Tiny Towns with only two (or three) people. I imagine it’s quite a bit like Downforce, in that it has a set of mechanics which work considerably better with a small group. This makes the choice to sell it as a 1-6 player game extremely irritating. The game demands a high degree of intelligent choice in how you place your resources. It’s fine to make you look at your opponents and take their probable choices into account, but when there are too many of them it’s impossible to account for everything that’s going to happen between your current turn and your next one.

That, in turn, makes certain monuments (special structures unique to each person) extremely powerful in large games. Namely, anything that lets you get around the strict placement and building rules is wildly OP. There’s a variant for new players that lets you set two resources aside until you get used to the game; I recommend bigger games be played with that in effect no matter how experienced everyone is.

The rule holds, however: games are judged on how they are out of the box, not fixed by the players.

3.5 out of 5 stars (3.5 / 5)

Twice as Clever

Twice as Clever

Twice As Clever

Is the sequel to That’s So Clever, in fact, twice as clever?

No. I don’t even know how you would calculate it, but it’s not twice as clever. I don’t think it requires you to be twice as clever, either. But it does require you to be more clever. 1.3x, perhaps. I suppose marketing hyperbole wins again.

If you’re not familiar with Ganz Schon Clever, there’s a review here already, but the short version is colorful Yahtzee with way more complicated scoring and the occasional chance to screw over your friends. Twice As Clever sets up a new board, a new set of mechanics, and some colorful new dice—pink and silver—take over from purple and orange. Every color works differently, however.

There’s also a new return mechanic. When you use one, you take a die off the platter and include it in your next roll (you can only do this on your turn). Like rerolls and +1s, you gain them as the game progresses and use them when you want.

The quick rundown of the new color mechanics:

Silver: There are four rows of each non-silver color from one to six. When you pick silver, you fill in that number for any color, along with every die you have to put on the platter because you took silver. This makes silver a potential way to get a ton out of your turn even if you don’t give yourself three choices, since in theory you can use a high silver roll to use all six dice immediately. In addition, it gives you an obvious chance to use the new returns.

Yellow: There are ten numbers in yellow—one 1, one 6, and two each of the other numbers. When you use yellow, you circle one of them. Circle everything in a row or column, and you get the listed bonus. However, to score points you have to roll the number again and X over the circle. This creates a dilemma between going for more bonuses (and points elsewhere) or scoring higher in yellow itself. It’s tempting to go for a ton of yellow points because the bonuses skyrocket, but it takes a lot of rolls to make that happen.

Blue: Like before, it counts as the sum of blue and white. Start as high as you can; each number after that has to be equal to or less than the one that came before. This is like a reverse of the purple line from the original game, except there’s no way to reset the count. If you put a low number on blue, you’re not going much farther without bonuses filling in the spots.

Green: Everything in green happens in pairs. The first number you want to be high, the second low. Your score for the pair is the first minus the second. There are multipliers on each box, and you get potentially higher pairs the further down the line you go.

Pink: You can put any number in this line at any time, and your score is whatever the total is at the end. This makes it “free” to use; however, after the first two boxes, each box has a threshold you need to beat to get the associated bonus. If you’re at the six threshold, you may want to stick anything in there in order to get the fox that comes afterwards, but for the best score you want to meet the threshold each time. (Really you want to get a six each time, but the odds on that…)

Twice As Clever is the first game with a new set of mechanics. You’ll like it as much as you liked the first game. If you didn’t play the first one, this one is only 1.3x more complicated, so you’ll be fine picking it up.

4.2 out of 5 stars (4.2 / 5)

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)


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