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 / 5)



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 / 5)
Lost Cities

Lost Cities

I don’t know why I always assume games with the ‘South American explorer’ vibe revolve around Mayans. The Incas were pretty legit.

Screw the Aztecs, though. Stupid Eagle Warriors.

Wait, which game are we playing?

Lost Cities is a Reiner Knizia game, which is good! Reiner makes good games! So Lost Cities is… it must be…

Ok, look. This is a 2008 reprint of a 1999 game. Less was expected of the industry back then. It’s useful to go back and look at games like this so we see where our hobby came from while also looking towards where it’s going.


In Lost Cities, you have five explorers and five tracks for them to go down. Each track has a randomized set of bonuses on certain spaces, and are worth a certain number of points at the end of the round depending on how far your explorer moves. There’s also a huge deck of cards, with cards numbered zero through ten and corresponding to the color of one of the tracks. If you want to put an explorer on a track, you play a card of that color. Easy.

However, if you want to move the explorer further along, you have to play a card of the same value or higher. Therefore, in order to move the explorer a decent distance (hopefully all the way to the end), you need to start with low value cards and work your way up as slowly as you can. You can discard a card and draw a new one rather than play a trash card; however, you can’t take too long, because as soon as a certain number of total explorers reach the break line on their tracks, the round ends, and explorers who haven’t moved very far are actually worth negative points.

The points get kind of stratospheric, which is neat—many games don’t go above fifty, and most don’t go above one hundred. If you’re not getting triple digits in a single Lost Cities round, that wasn’t a very good round.

But there’s not much strategy here. As the round draws nearer to a close, you may need to decide whether it’s worth the risk to start an explorer down a new trail when they could be worth negative points. It can be a consequential choice, but it’s about the only intellectual decision you’ll need to make. If you can go down a track and you have a low card, you play the card and go down the track. If you can hit bonuses that give you extra moves, you link them together as best you can. Maybe you play a 2 on one track rather than a 0 on another because you like the bonuses on that first track more, but you still have the 0 and you’ll still play it pretty soon.

I imagine that people looking for games that weren’t Twilight Imperium-sized but more friendly than Monopoly and less mindless than Chutes & Ladders were probably happy with this in 1999. Today, it’s quite possibly a good tool for teaching game basics to kids. Beyond that, it’s just a casual game that can kill an hour. Don’t avoid it like the plague, but it’s not much more than a thrift store purchase.

(3 / 5)

Lords of Xidit

Lords of Xidit

The fantasy land of Xidit cries out for a champion, a leader that will save it from the terrible monsters which traverse the realm! Someone noble, someone grand of vision, someone who will conscript farmers to the cause before actual trained warriors!


In Lords of Xidit, you play the role of an army commander who is identical to all other commanders except for how sweet they look (hell yeah, ninja lady). It’s a programming game in the vein of Robo Rally; you select six actions, your commander does each of them in turn, and if someone ninjas in to take whatever you wanted to get, well, too bad. At least you can’t drop into a bottomless pit.


The possible actions are few, but they’re enough. Each location has three roads leading away from it: blue, red, and black. If you choose one of those roads as your action, you travel that road from whatever location you’re in, whether you want to anymore or not. You can conscript the lowest-level unit type available in the location, assuming it’s a city; once all the possible conscripts are gone, this action does nothing. You can also do battle with a monster in a location. Or pass the move, if you think a delay will get you what you want.


Each monster requires a specific set of unit types to defeat it. You cannot use higher-level unit types in place of whatever’s necessary. Beating monsters earns you two of three possible rewards: lyre points, towers, or gold. There’s a different balance of these rewards on each monster, such that most of them have a pretty obvious ‘two best’ rewards, but in some cases you can’t choose those (most likely because someone has a tower built in that location, forcing you to take the other two rewards). One curious mechanic is that tiles have a monster on one side and a city in the other, which means when a city runs out of conscripts, it flips into the monster pile, to be drawn when you run low on monsters, and so on forever. (There are titans you can fight in any location, with any set of troops, if no monsters are available to be drawn.)


That’s all of the mechanics. Your goal is to score the most points in… well… it changes. And it’s not exactly the most points.


The win condition is intriguing but takes a bit of getting used to. There are three ways of scoring, based on the aforementioned monster-smash rewards: lyre points (gained from having the most lyre tokens in a territory), the most levels of towers (height is irrelevant; nine one-story towers is better than two four-stories), and straight cash. These scoring methods are chosen randomly at the start of the game into the first, second, and third scoring slots.


Scoring for each of these is straightforward—count the appropriate item. How they apply to winning, however, is pretty different from most games. For the first scoring metric, being first does not matter; you only need to be in the top three. (In a three player game, an NPC gains points in each metric slowly as the game progresses so there’s someone to eliminate in the first round.) For the second metric, you need to be in the top two. Having the highest score only matters with regards to the final metric, and you only need to beat the other person who has made it that far.


Since gold is hidden, and lyre points in the center are as well (they go into a strongbox), each game plays different in part around how readily available information is on the first two metrics. A game that counts towers first, where all info is open, plays differently than one where gold is first and everyone’s just taking their best guess.


So, there are two main aspects to the game outside of the theme that will determine if you like it: the programming gameplay and the shifting win conditions. Programming requires some forethought, but if everyone is experienced, the “I know what you know, but you know that I know what you know” shenanigans can run deep. If you’re into that, it’s great. Likewise, some people are more comfortable going into a game knowing what their goal will be, and even those who are fine with a shifting win condition may struggle with some setups (ie. gold -> lyres -> towers) while excelling with others (towers -> gold -> lyres). It’s a real challenge to be good at the game no matter the set of win conditions.


Short version: Lords of Xidit a game that’s hard to broadly recommend, as there are a lot of speed bumps any given player may not like, but it’s very good for the people who would enjoy the game that it is.


(4 / 5)

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