Railroad Ink

Railroad Ink

Choo choo, goes the train. Vroom vroom, goes the car. Rattle rattle, go the dice. Squeak squeak, goes the dry-erase marker. Mailing in the opener, goes the review writer.

That box looks pretty big, but Railroad Ink is a tiny little thing from Horrible Games that is weirdly entertaining if your brain functions like mine. I don’t wish that on anyone, but still, there’s an audience for this.

Each player gets a 7×7 dry erase grid to draw on. The even numbered squares (2, 4, 6) along all four sides have either a highway or a railroad track on their edges. There are four dice rolled each round (seven rounds total) that have highway and/or railroad tracks on them; players all use the same rolls each round, and new roads and tracks being drawn either need to come in from a matching type on the edge or connect to something already on the grid. Each of the tracks coming in also counts as an exit point; your goal is to connect as many of the exit points together as possible, preferably with one set of tracks and roads, no matter how convoluted it may look at the end.

Game boards unfold into the dry erase surface and a small guard that protects some of your drawing surface (it doesn’t need to protect everything; the only useful information would be if opponents could see your whole map clearly) and shows both the possible dice rolls and special tiles you can use once per game. There are six specials in all, of which you can use three total. These are especially important because they’re the only reliable source of stations—black squares that serve as the only way to connect highways and railroad tracks.

There’s no interplay between players, unless you want to talk shit or draw on each other. All you’re trying to do is score the most points via connecting the most exists, having the longest contiguous set of highway and rail lines, and using as many center squares as possible, while having the fewest dangling roads and rails on your grid. It’s basically competitive solitaire, which allows it to function as a single player game, where your goal is to simply do better than you did last time. A common complaint with games is when players don’t get to affect what happens to each other, and if you’re a person who feels that way, this is not going to be for you.

But, if you’re fascinated by games where everyone gets the exact same resources, has to do the best job they can with them, and victory is decided by who plans the best (and gets a little lucky if they take a chance on certain dice rolls hitting), this is a great little game. Once again, the core theme of these reviews comes into play: whether you like it or not, Railroad Ink is doing exactly what it’s trying to do.

(4.5 / 5)

Reef

Reef

There are games which involve underwater life, where you escape big fish with big teeth or spawn salmon or escape from an island which is about to become underwater life, but rarely do you get to be… the plants. And not even the soft green plants, but the rocky crap we step on and it hurts.

Although pretty soon there won’t be any of that either.

Reef is something of a puzzle game. Everyone gets a 4×4 board and four pieces of coral, one of each color, set in the center four squares however you wish. This isn’t done blindly; everything revolves around cards, and you get to see a display of three to choose from right away, as well as having two in your hand, and you can use these to determine good starting positions for your coral.

The cards are key, so here’s how they work: each card has a top and bottom. The top has two pieces of coral, often (but not always) of the same color. When you play a card, you take those two pieces out of the stockpile and place them on your board. You can put them anywhere you want—different spaces, stacked in the same space, stacked on top of other pieces already there, etc. The only rule is that stacks cannot go above four high. Once a stack is four high, it can no longer be changed.

The bottom has a scoring mechanism. This is some pattern the coral must follow to score the points on the card. Only the top-most color on each stack matters for these patterns. Some of them are easy—for example, score one point for each top piece that’s green. Some are more complicated, requiring two different colors diagonal to each other on stacks at least two high. The more complex the pattern, the more point each matching set is worth, but the simpler the pattern, the more times you may be able to score it when you play the card. Therefore, depending on how your board looks, any card may end up being able to score a good chunk of points.

One tricky aspect is that the colors a card lets you play don’t match the colors the card lets you score (apart from a handful that let you score any color). A winning strategy involves playing as many cards as possible that let you score points while also playing corals that will let you score points on a future card. You don’t need to score every card; if you can combo well enough, taking a zero on one card to score ten on another is better than two three-pointers. But comboing off big time isn’t as important as scoring consistently while looking for a big combo. Putting too many resources into setting up a big score will usually leave you behind people who consistently grab points, because if you’re thinking a few cards ahead (no one can take cards out of your hand, so you know what you have), you can always set up good combos.

Basically, it’s not a question of small scores versus one big score. It’s a matter of who can land bigger small scores or more big scores. The game runs for a reasonably high number of rounds, so if you can’t pull anything that nets points right away, you still have time to set up something nice for yourself if you keep an eye out for the right cards. Variance can mess things up, of course, especially in a four-player game, but usually the cards come for you to create some nice scores.

And… that’s pretty much it. It’s a perfectly good game. Like so many games, it will find a niche crowd that adores it, a handful that really don’t like it, and a large majority that find it an acceptable way to spend some gaming time. In theme, it’s fairly unique; in form, it’s reasonably different from most other offerings; yet it doesn’t feel hugely different from a lot of perfectly good games that have crossed the gaming landscape in recent years. It’s a game with a very pretty box designed to draw you into a game that you’ll probably tell your friends is fun. So, if it sounds like a cool concept, by all means pick up a copy. If you’re looking for a game that will blow your hair back with its unique greatness, this isn’t quite it.

(3.9 / 5)

Arkham Horror

Arkham Horror

Arkham attempts to not get transformed into Tentacle Ground Zero for the third… seventh… twelfth… however many times across however many games. Because, in the end, barring the greatest luck, no matter if you’re playing Arkham Horror, Eldritch Horror, Elder Sign, or whatever other Cthulhu game is out there, Arkham, and the world, are destined to fall.

But cheer up! You usually find an interesting way to die. Just look at Old Man Henderson.

This is the third edition of Arkham Horror, and it marks a massive departure from the first two. Gone is the massive board displaying the glory of Arkham, the kind of board that (along with the many, many peripheral pieces) requires a legit gaming-friendly table to play. In this game, Arkham consists of five hexagonal tiles, each representing a neighborhood. Like the neighborhoods in the other versions, each one has three locations, with encounter cards for each neighborhood split into the three locations, so this edition manages to basically maintain the number of places you can go while containing it to a much smaller area.

However, the game’s functions are largely similar to previous Fantasy Flight Cthulhu games. You take two actions per turn, performing no action no more than once; movement is limited to two spaces, though there are ways to extend that; and monsters are a roadblock unless you manage to evade them. The game moves in phases, investigators first, and if your character dies, you pick up a new one and keep going.

The main changes (besides the style of the board) are with the characters and the storytelling. Every character still has a familiar set of stats, albeit familiar from Eldritch Horror, not the slider system of old Arkham Horror. However, improvements to stats are called focus, and boosting a stat through focus doesn’t require a special event or item; you just take the focus action and raise a stat. The limitation is that almost every character has a limit on how many focus tokens they can have, and almost every character can only have one focus boost in a given stat. Still, the ease of ramping up your character is nice. Furthermore, focus tokens can be discarded for rerolls, which adds to the strategy in their use.

The storytelling is… different. It’s better, mainly, since the old game didn’t really try to tell a story at all. In this version, there are story cards that see use depending on the scenario you’re playing. The scenario card tells you which cards to start with, but from there you have to dig into the deck to find whatever the initial cards say you need, which is generally dependent on game state. Did the investigators complete their goal? Take one card. Did too many doom tokens pile up before that? Take a different card. Some goals can both happen, and eventually you’ll get the cards from both sides of that equation. Each scenario has its own set story, so if you play one through, you’ll see the same one coming next time you run it. But it adds a nice flavor to the proceedings, especially on your first run through any given scenario.

Like all FF Cthulhu games, there are a TON of cards and tokens that you need to keep track of for potential use. If you didn’t mind it before, it’s no worse; if you hated it before, it’s no better. What does suck is that there is basically nothing to help you sort or organize all those pieces. There aren’t nearly enough baggies to keep you from dumping a bunch of stuff into the box loose, which makes finding everything the next time a huge pain in the ass. It’s a relatively small problem, at least in the sense that you can fix it with a handful of your own baggies, but it’s a dumb oversight.

The game itself is a definite improvement from the old Arkham Horrors. Mind you, that’s on the most objective level possible—the storyline aspect means it’s basically impossible to wind up in the six-hour slog that a big game of old Arkham Horror could become. The game runs like other Cthulhu games in style and pace; if you enjoyed those games on a basic level before, you’ll probably like how this one palys as well.

Minimizing the space taken up while not carving off any substantial part of the game is extremely impressive. I saw back of the box and immediately questioned what kind of nonsense they were pulling, but it works, and it definitely feels like Arkham Horror. That said, the smaller physical space taken does mean that a bigger (5-6 player) game can get cramped with stuff. The same concept with bigger hexes would have also taken up much less space, but with room to place everything you need in any size game, not just 2-4 players. It’s more a quality of life issue than anything with the game itself, but unlike the baggie problem, this isn’t anything you can change.

Basically, this is an updated Arkham Horror that makes some things better and nothing worse, unless you require an epic board to have fun. If that’s a need of yours, I can’t help you.

(4.3 / 5)
Dice Forge

Dice Forge

Sadly, the world’s cleverest board doesn’t come with the world’s cleverest board game.

Dice Forge is a game more literally about forging dice than you might think is possible. At its core, though, is a resource management game. Rolling dice and taking spots on the board earn you gold, sun shards (red), moon shards (blue), and of course the ever-important victory points. Spend some shards and you can get cards that help you towards victory. Collect some points and you get points. Spend some gold…

And this is where a game of resource management tries to do better than just making you collect different, more, or better cards/dice/cubes/insert abstract resource symbol here. Spending gold improves your dice. Not gets you better dice, but literally improves your dice. In much the same way that you improve your cards in Mystic Vale rather than add to your deck, you pull faces off your dice and replace them with better faces. It’s viscerally fun, there are strategic choices with what you need better odds of rolling, and the game stays relatively casual—all you can do in a dice-based game is maximize your odds of winning, not shut out your opponents completely.

Plus, the way they set the board up is fantastic. There are a bunch of fiddly bits that have to sit in the board, and setting them up initially is kind of a pain in the backside. But rather than make you dump them all out after the game and put the pieces in baggies, there’s a sleeve for all the board pieces to go in that keeps them locked down tightly, making sure the fiddly pieces stay in place. You only ever have to replace the parts you use in a given game. It’s brilliant, and it’s something other games should emulate if possible.

And… yeah. That’s Dice Forge.

Short review, right? Here’s the thing: Dice Forge is a good game. It has clever bits, it has functional bits. It has a more complex design than you’d expect from the cartoonish aesthetic, but board game veterans shouldn’t have a problem figuring it out. New players may get a little hung up on some of the rules, but by the end of their first game they should understand how it plays.

But these days, in what has been an extended golden era for board games, good is the expectation. Good is normal. Good is the average. Understandable game? Check. Nice art? Check. Unique selling point? Check. An experience that creates makes you anticipate the next time you’ll get to play? Not so much. Play, enjoy, play again, enjoy. This is a game that will win many fans but relatively few true admirers. It’s a shame, but it’s the truth.

(3.8 / 5)

Key Forge

Key Forge


Keyforge is hailed as a game where “every deck is as unique as the person who wields it”.

To that I say… have you met people?

Keyforge comes straight from the mind of Richard Garfield, creator of Magic, and Fantasy Flight Games, publishers of card games that aren’t really like Keyforge at all. The premise is simple: most competitive card games have an effective entry cost, where you can’t expect to do much at even small tournaments unless you spend a certain amount of money building your deck. Keyforge attempts to do away with that scheme, selling full-fledged decks for $10 a pop and—most importantly—making them unalterable. The deck you buy is the deck you play with. Every deck is procedurally generated by a system that’s supposed to make them relatively balanced against each other, maximizing player agency and minimizing cost in the competitive scene.

Let’s cut to the main question: Does it work? Did they succeed?

The answer: Yes…?

Better answer: It mostly seems like it, though we’re early in the game’s run and that could change for better or worse.

By and large, as far as I can tell, not many decks stomp hard or get stomped hard. Given the breadth of the card pool, it makes sense. The number of potential deck combinations is bonkers, and mathematically only a tiny percentage of decks will roll over everyone (except similarly powerful decks) without the player needing to be better than her opponent. Likewise, rare is the deck that’s hopelessly outmatched by almost everybody. There will be small advantages for some decks over others, but it seems that you’re as likely to find those advantages because one deck matches up well against another as you are because one is simply stronger.

More importantly, to the designers’ credit, they’re implementing methods of curtailing the power of those oddly mighty decks on the competitive scene. First is the deck-switch method. Players play each other, then switch decks and play again. If the match is tied, if they each would prefer to play the same deck for a tiebreaker, they bid chains for the right to use it. This is a very useful way of keeping competition balanced, but may suffer from game length (more on that later).

Another method uses the game’s chain system. Normally, the chain system is similar to the overload mechanic in Hearthstone—play a card that’s very strong, but suffer consequences on later turns, in the form of reduced card draw. Competitively, however, chains are also used to handicap decks that overwhelm all the others.

On a small-time level, if a deck wins a local competition (going 3-0, for example), that deck is tracked and given a chain for its next competition. If it wins again, it gets another chain, because it’s clearly too strong for the available competition. If it doesn’t, the chain goes away, because maybe it’s only slightly stronger.

At larger competitions—and this is through the grapevine, nothing solid is written and posted—decks that keep winning will have chains added during the tournament. At a glance, this may seem unfair, like success is being punished. However, if a serious, large-scale competition didn’t have this in play, one of two things one happen. First, the slim percentage of powerful decks would run everyone else over, making serious competition feel like it requires either a lucky draw or buying the deck from whoever has it, killing the entire goal of making Keyforge a minimally pay-to-win game. Alternately, if decks were tracked and chained going into the tournament, it would incentivize players to never take place in trackable events and instead test decks on their own, which would hurt community events and participation.

In the long run, Keyforge’s viability will depend on the competitive scene’s foundations, which makes these questions of paramount importance. Let’s set that aside, now, and briefly talk about the game itself.

The system of play, where you choose one of your three houses and are free to play or use any cards from that house on that turn—but you can only use cards of that house, barring some special effect—will offer a welcome sense of freedom for some and a weird sense of limitation for others. Players who are comfortable using and manipulating outside energy sources in CCGs (mana in Magic, mana crystals in Hearthstone, wind stones in Force of Will, etc.) may find it awkward figuring out how to play efficiently with this system. The simplicity will be a major draw to some, though, and given time most players who are used to maximizing efficiency will adapt to Keyforge’s mechanics.

The games tend to run longer than other games, though. Things speed up once you’re comfortable with the game, but the mechanics combined with the fact you’re less likely to be familiar with what your opponent is playing compared to a Magic tournament (where the same relatively small subset of cards keeps showing up) slows down the proceedings. A best-of-three finishing in fifty or sixty minutes is less likely than in other CCGs, which is unfortunate since the aforementioned best-of-three style has the best odds of creating a strong competitive format. The game is young, though, so game speed may increase more and more with time, rendering this issue moot.

Finally—and this isn’t about the function of the game itself, but man, did it irritate the hell out of me—Keyforge is advertised as a game that doesn’t require anything besides a $10 deck to play and compete. Technically, that’s true. However, where cards on the battlefield in Magic have two states—tapped or untapped—that’s not the case in Keyforge. Tokens are necessary for a number of things, including stuns on creatures (stuns can add up, so keeping it tapped isn’t enough), embers (I’m not calling them ‘aembers’, bite me Garfield), and keys. You need something to represent these things. Unless you buy the starter set, the game doesn’t provide any of them. You can use whatever you want, be it coins, dice, whatever, but that still requires having those things available. Someone new to the game isn’t going to know that and is unlikely to be appropriately prepared, making the whole “buy a deck and play” not exactly how it works.

All that being said, if the biggest complaint I have is about peripherals, the game can’t be that bad. The biggest concern about Keyforge as a gaming experience is if long games (30+ min.) are the norm or outliers. In addition to the previously mentioned issues, because Keyforge is a game where the deck cycles its discard pile, you see the same cards again and again, which can become tiresome when the game just won’t end. But if the game matures and game times shorten to twenty minutes or so, I think that problem will be largely alleviated. Then it’s just a matter of whether or not they can sort out the competitive scene.

Short version, Keyforge needs work in some spots, but it’s better than I expected.

(4.2 / 5)
Century: Eastern Wonders

Century: Eastern Wonders

The second in the Century series of games, Eastern Wonders blends with Spice Road to create a third game called From Sand to Sea. Maybe this is how they’re going to get to a hundred*.

*the author has no information suggesting they plan on getting to one hundred.

Where Century: Spice Road involved trading spice cubes with cards, Century: Eastern Wonders involves trading spice cubes with travel. The abstractness, then, decreases slightly—you’re on a boat! Rather than collect a hand of cards that lets you make trades, you place outposts on pieces of land that let you make trades (once the outpost is up, you don’t need to be on the tile to make that tile’s trade). The overall mechanics are similar, however—you place an outpost rather than take a card, make a trade where you have an outpost rather than with a card in your hand, or visiting a port with the cubes that will earn you the VP tile in that port rather than simply trade in the cubes for the VP card on the table. You also have the option to simply take two yellow cubes on a turn (harvest), in lieu of having a card that gives you that ability.

The difference in the core gameplay, if it’s not glaringly obvious, is the travel aspect. You move one space per turn, unless you earn upgrades that let you move more spaces per round. The faster you swing across the board, the faster you place outposts, especially since outposts are free if you’re the first one to place one in an area—once opponents have outposts up, it’s a little more costly, since your outpost costs one cube per outpost already on the tile. Thus, while sticking with one move per round is doable, two tiles of movement is very helpful; whether you want more depends on when you get your upgrades and, in many cases, how many players are in the game. You also can’t land on a tile with an opponent, so extra movement helps you avoid that scenario.

Upgrades are the main new feature in Eastern Wonders. You start with a board that has numerous outposts laid out in rows. Each row has a symbol replicated on some of the island tiles. If you place an outpost on a tile, you take the next outpost in line from the row matching the symbol on that tile. When you empty a column, you get an upgrade. You can choose from the aforementioned extra movement, extra cargo space, gain red cubes when you harvest, upgrade a cube when building an outpost, or take flat points for the end of the game. This, obviously, incentivizes spreading your outposts across certain spaces. However, the farther along a row you go, the more points each of those outposts are worth at the end of the game, so you’re doing fine as long as you throw down outposts wherever you can for free, and anywhere else that it’s worth the associated cost (keep some yellows handy).

Other than that, it’s still seventy percent recognizable as Spice Road. There’s not so much going on that you need to have played Spice Road to understand Eastern Wonders, but it definitely helps if you have that background knowledge so you only have to add the parts about the ships and the outposts. It’s probably better as a game in an objective sense; it’s just as solid, just as coherently designed, but there’s more going on, more options, and the lack of a hand of cards you need to reshuffle every so often smooths out the gameplay.

The option to sit in a space (like a port) and force an opponent to pay you a cube if they want to land there seems silly, but I got screwed over by it, so I’m definitely biased. Game’s still good.

(4.2 / 5)

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