Bruges

Bruges

The thing about games set in places like fifteenth-century Belgium is that they glorify these beacons of the medieval era without acknowledging all the f’d up places that people had to poop.

Bruges is a decently heavy strategy game based on two of the most random pieces of game design—dice and cards. At a glance, it’s like, “Hey, game! Why you do this? This no good!” But it works out.

Let me explain.

The thing to understand about Bruges is that its strategy is not nearly as much of the plan-ahead variety as it is of the react-to-circumstances variety. You start each round with five cards, drawing (usually) four and having one left over from the previous round. You don’t know what the cards are, but you do know their color from the back. There are five colors and five dice (one of each color). Each card has a person on it, but the people are frequently irrelevant. Not only is this OK, it’s actually quite a good thing—since most of the cards you draw will only be used for their color, you can wait until you find people you really need to fill the houses you build, which dramatically lessons how luck of the draw affects you.

Furthermore, a big chunk of the strategy is dependent on having sufficient cash, which itself depends on the dice. Although some cards earn you money (and if you can get a good money-making engine going, it’s often worth the effort), quite frequently you’ll discard a card for some coins. The money you receive depends on the number on the die. There’s more luck involved here—dice are rolled after cards are drawn, so you don’t know what will be worth the most—but even so, there are enough action options that you can generally wait until cards are worth the most (five or six coins each) before using them for cash. Get some workers, build some canals with the cash you already have, build some houses for the new folk… if you have to take one or two coins with a card, it’s rare that bad luck truly left you with no other option. It’s much more common for it to happen to someone who takes a risk that doesn’t pan out.

Mostly the complexity of Bruges revolves around how to get the points you need to win. Spend your money on reputation? If there are some cheap hits early, it’s a good plan, but you might price yourself into getting the higher levels of rep when you need the money for other things. Hire high-VP people? That’s straight cash, homie. Build canals? That’s a lot of cash too. Build majorities? Not so hard early if you focus it, since you only need to have the majority in people, canal sections built, or reputation points once during the game. But if you have to catch up, or if you’re trying to stay ahead to deny one or more opponents a chance at those points, it can get pricey. Given how clear most of the point options are to your opponents, it’s often finding synergy among the point bonuses some people hand out that can be the difference, which means getting those synergistic hires and then finding more people who work with them. There are a lot of options, but that goes further still towards reducing the luck factor.

Bruges is out of print right now, but if you get a chance to play it—or better yet, find it cheap at a garage or estate sale—go for it. Very much worth the time for the hour-long strategy game fan.

4.3 out of 5 stars (4.3 / 5)


Gizmos

Gizmos

Whirlygigs? Don’t tell me…

I said don’t tell ffffFFFUUUUUUUUUUUU

Gizmos is a two to four player, engine building game about… building engines, really. You start with a board listing the types of cards and one starting card that lets you draw an energy sphere blindly out of the thingamajig they all go in. From there you can file away cards from the board (only one, unless upgrades improve this capacity) or build cards that give you more and better abilities if you take the action associated with them on your turn. Those abilities are File, Pick, Build, or Research.

File and Build are obvious; Pick is choosing one of the energy spheres in the thingamajig chute; and Research is drawing cards equal to your research level from one deck, choosing one, then either filing it or building it right away. What’s important about these, especially as the game goes on, is not so much the abilities but the chance to trigger all the gizmo cards underneath the ability you used that turn. The right engine with the right energy can take two black and build them into a card that takes four yellow to make, all on one turn.

The balancing point is that the game ends when someone has sixteen cards in their play area. Is it better to balance your cards in each category, so you get a decent benefit no matter what ability you use? Or should you pile them in one or two abilities and find a way to lean heavily on those all game? This depends on what’s available, especially at the start, and understanding how to build an efficient engine early. Whatever that engine can build, you run with to the greatest extent possible, and hopefully that’s enough to carry the game.

What all of that means, to the engine-building veterans out there, is that the game becomes substantially easier once you know what’s available or likely to be available for you to build. Watching a bunch of people try to figure out what they’re looking at and how it fits together on the fly is almost painful next to that one person who knows exactly what cards they’re looking for and how to best fit everything together. The game is fine when everyone knows what they’re doing or no one knows what they’re doing, but a mixed group is going to create a pretty imbalanced experience.

One thing I still haven’t figured out is the reason for building the thingamajig for the energy spheres. Did they see Potion Explosion and decide it was a fun concept to swipe? There isn’t much reason to limit the energy that can be taken with the Pick action. It’s not uncommon for it to be loaded up with two colors. Although it doesn’t happen often, someone’s engine can get throttled by not having access to the energy colors they need. Did it need this element of randomness to keep the game from playing the same way all the time? Gizmos is pretty good, it doesn’t seem like it should need that. It mostly seems like they felt the need to put something “cool” in the box.

Short version: If you like engine building games and you’re willing to play a couple of rounds to learn what’s available, you’ll have a good time with Gizmos. You might even like the thingamajig more than I do.

4.1 out of 5 stars (4.1 / 5)
Goodcritters

Goodcritters

You dirty rat! You actual dirty rat! Wash your fur, you’re disgusting!

Goodcritters is a pseudo-bluffing game very much in the spirit of Cash ‘N’ Guns, but without the nerf guns and with slightly fuzzier gangsters. Each round there’s a boss and a selection of loot set to be passed out among the criminals, and victory depends on your nerve, your ability to figure out what your opponents are doing, and how well you can maximize your take on every round. How the looting works is how the two games most differ.

One player starts as the boss. A number of loot cards are drawn equal to the number of players plus two, as opposed to the flat eight per round of Cash ‘N’ Guns. (There’s a larger deck of loot cards with a Fuzz card slipped into the bottom third, so the end of the game is harder to predict.) Rather than players trying to brave their way into the heist so they can split the loot, the boss hands out the loot herself. The players get a vote, though; if more people vote no than yes, the loot is put back in the center and the next person becomes boss, passing out the same loot however he sees fit.

Of course, nothing’s ever as simple as a vote.

After the loot is distributed, everyone gets an action. Voting yes or no are only two of the options. The others are to rob another player; guard against a robbery; or skim money off the top of the deck. Skimming only works if you’re the first person to do it, which makes it great for the boss and a more chancy proposition the farther down the line you are. Robbery can only be done if you put your threat token in front of somebody else, which means if you do try and rob someone everyone knows who it will be already. It also means that if no one is threatening you, there’s no need to guard yourself.

Therefore, if you’re the boss, passing out the loot isn’t a simple matter of making enough people happy with the split to keep you in charge. It’s also a question of not giving people a reason to vote against you. Since not everyone has to use their threat token, the game ends up leaning more towards the politics of getting people to do what you want rather than calling their bluffs when guns are pointed at you, and the money split is a major part of that.

There are optional rules that involve bribes and payoffs, and each loot card as a type of loot attached to it (jewelry, paintings, etc.) which are currently irrelevant but should be put to use in future expansions. However, none of this affects the main drawback of the game: no catch-up mechanism. Not every game needs one, but it’s pretty important in a game with a light tone that’s designed to be an enjoyable experience.

For example, in Cash ‘N’ Guns, it can be difficult to make up ground if you’re behind, but you do have an option—stand up and take part in every heist no matter how many guns are pointed at you. No, it may not work, but you can at least try. It’s possible that other players were constantly throwing bullets at you, so that you never had a chance, but in most circumstances falling behind happens because you sit out a heist when the people threatening you were bluffing. Even if your decisions made perfect sense, at least it was your decisions that created the situation.

In Goodcritters, unless you’re the boss, you have no control over the loot split. You can’t make anybody give you anything. You can rob people, but that only gets you one random card from their stash (if they don’t guard against it and rob from you instead). You can vote no, but even if it works, you don’t make up any ground, you just stop everyone else from getting their loot. The balancing factor is supposed to be that if you’re a good boss, you can keep the troops happy while also making more profit for yourself than you’re giving to them, and it’s better for the boss to give you money if you’re behind because you’ll vote for them while also being less of a threat. In theory, that should work, and with a group that knows how to play, it probably does. However, if everyone’s just chucking loot splits in a way that will get them votes, it may keep going to the same people. If you’re not among them, it leaves you pretty helpless, as you don’t have the tools to do much about it.

There’s also the question of what they plan to do with the loot types. In theory, there are ways to do set collection that function as a way to have fewer cards but more value, which may go a long way towards fixing the catch-up problem. But selling the game with aspects that don’t come into play right away—especially when they’re so prominently featured on the website—is some shenanigan behavior. When whatever expansion makes use of the loot types comes out, this game might be great. Not giving us that game is not OK.

3.3 out of 5 stars (3.3 / 5)

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 out of 5 stars (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 out of 5 stars (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 out of 5 stars (4.3 / 5)
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