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)


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 out of 5 stars (3.8 / 5)

Orbis

Orbis

YOU ARE A GOD. The god of a pyramid-shaped universe. Make it a properly blasted hellscape.

 

Orbis is a game about managing two types of resources: your territory and your worshipers. Your goal, as is the goal of every reasonable god, is to accrue the most victory points (little known fact: the concept of victory points was first alluded to in the Book of Moses). By the end of the game, you’ll have chosen fourteen land tiles and one tile which solidifies your deific identity; this will create a pyramid, with yourself at the top, that is the finest universe in the cosmos, unless you lose.

 

Every round, you pick one tile from a 3×3 grid to add to your universe. Each of these hexagonal tiles has a color. You put a worshiper cube of the appropriate color on each of the adjacent tiles, then place the tile in your universe. And from this simple baseline, things get interesting (in the legitimate way, not the “I don’t have any other word to describe this” way) very quickly.

 

When you take a tile, you take under your wing all the worshiper cubes on that tile. These cubes are used for various purposes—at first, you might use them to pay for effects on the tiles you take, but relatively quickly you’ll need to start discarding certain sets of worshipers to take tiles off the grid. Tiles are placed according to a few particular rules. First, after you place one tile, all others must touch at least one tile already in your universe. Second, to place a tile on a level above the bottom row, there must be two tiles below it (so it makes the pyramid). Third, if a tile is placed above the bottom level, it must match the color of one of the tiles below it.

 

Once your on to your third or fourth tile, you already have some major decisions to make. Do I take the tile with more worshipers or that’s worth more points? You can only have a max of ten worshipers, but you can trade three of one color to get one of another, so you rarely have to discard any. Do I take the tile that’s more useful but which puts yet another worshiper on a different tile that I know one of my opponents is likely to take? Just how do I build my universe? (Something that doesn’t become obvious until you’re well into your first game is how the pyramid structure limits the types of lands you’re able to make maximum use of, since you have to string colors up the chain rather than place them wherever you want.)

 

On one turn during the game, you have to pick the god you want to be. Each of them potentially offers bonus points of you meet certain requirements. This choice is less impactful than it seems like it should be, as you will frequently be the only person able to make good use of a certain god. In many cases, you’ll wait until the end or take it on a turn when there are no tiles you want. However, in some cases—especially ones where a god is out that offers a bonus for having the most of a certain tile type, and you and an opponent are both going hard after that type—this does become a serious matter.

 

Now, what happens if you can’t pay the worshipers for a tile? Then you turn it into wilderness, which fits into a slot and is worth -1 at the end of the game. That sucks… except the wilderness counts as all colors. This means that it’s not just a penalty for poor planning—you can, and often should, strategically place wilderness in your universe so you can take a tile that doesn’t match the rows that come before. It’s another angle for building your realm that takes a bit of cleverness to use well.

 

All in all, Orbis is fairly light and easy to understand, but it’s a game that is going to leave people mulling over most of their moves. Planning is paramount, and for this reason an experienced player is going to have a major advantage over new ones, more so than is the case in most light games. But that just means you need to play it again. There are worse fates than a second go at Orbis.

 

4.1 out of 5 stars (4.1 / 5)

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