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)
Between Two Castles of Mad King Ludwig

Between Two Castles of Mad King Ludwig

How many fking castles does this guy need?

 

Between Two Castles is, as the name does not make any effort to hide, a mash-up of Between Two Cities and the Mad King Ludwig franchise. The core gameplay comes from Between Two Cities—there are two rounds, and at the start of each round, each player takes a stack of tiles. Draft two tiles, pass to the left, draft two tiles, pass to the left, until only one tile remains, which is discarded. You’re building a castle with each of the people adjacent to you, and your score is the lowest of the two castles you help build, which means you can’t let one of them suck.

 

The Mad King aspect is how all the tiles go together. There’s no spatial aspect like the original Castles of Mad King Ludwig; instead, you have several types of square tiles which can be placed around the core of your castle, the throne room. Like Castles, each tile has a type, and most tiles have a way to score points that relates to other tiles in the game. The most common adjacency rules are to score for tiles in the eight spaces around a given tile, or for all tiles above a tile, below it, or both. These can relate to the room type itself (utility room, outdoors area, etc), or the second icon on these tiles (swords, a mirror, and so on).

 

Another similarity to Castles is that you have much more freedom to build your castle however you want. Most rooms have to be built at the ground floor (the level of the throne room) or above, but there are downstairs rooms that can go below. Tiles have to be placed adjacent to other ones. The castle can go as high as you want, but all rooms must be supported by actual room tiles beneath them (you can’t place a tile above an outdoor area). Alternately, you can go as wide as you want—whatever works for your grand architectural plan.

 

Also like Castles, you get bonuses for fulfilling certain basic requirements. In this case, if you place three of a tile type, you get an associated bonus, and if you place five of one type, you get a specialty room tile that can add substantially to your final score. It takes some getting used to the bonuses; none of them are hard to understand individually, but understanding them well enough to grab them quickly in the flow of the game can be hard.

 

And if there’s a flaw in this game, the bonuses are it. Between Two Cities is a fantastic game. Castles of Mad King Ludwig is a game I don’t like playing, but which I can’t deny is well-designed—I’m just crap at spatial awareness. Putting together a castle in the Ludwig vein, according to BTC rules, is quite fun on a basic level. But the draft mechanic works best when everybody sorts through the available tiles, picks two, then everyone plays their tiles together and moves on to the next decision. When people get bonuses, new players will often overlook them because they want to move on to building more castle pieces; once everyone’s used to grabbing their bonuses, then the game either slows a bit while decisions are made (some of the bonuses require players choose from tiles or bonus cards), or some people move on with their next decision and are left to wait while the bonus earners catch up.

 

I didn’t have a chance to play this with a group who was experienced enough to blow through the bonus-grabbing process, so it’s theoretically possible the game plays very well once everyone is on point. Thing is, BTC is a fairly casual game, and it’s unlikely this game (especially with a bigger group) is only going to have experienced players in it. The rhythm of Between Two Cities that this idea relies on gets thrown off by the Mad King Ludwig aspects. Thus, while the idea is sound and the baseline game is pretty good, it winds up being about 90% as good as what you’d hope to get when putting two games of this quality together.

 

Still, when you’re working at this level, 90% is solid. If you liked both of the component games, you’ll probably like this. If you liked one and didn’t play the other, it’s worth trying. If… look, just play the game if you get the chance.

 

(4.1 / 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 / 5)

Fireworks

Fireworks

Remember, fireworks are scary for pets! Keep your doors and windows well shut and locked so they don’t run away.

Fireworks is a game about—wait for it—building the most aesthetically pleasing set of fireworks. It’s Japanese, which should explain why it’s called Fireworks and not “Glowy Sky Booms” or “Sparkly Wonder Stars” or “Boom Goes the Glittery Dynamite”. You take tiles with multiple partial fireworks on them and play them to set up certain artistic combinations (big fireworks, kaleidoscopes, saturns, and small flowers), along with special extra-artsy tiles, to score points and win the game. It’s about as simple a concept as you can find.

But the game gets complicated by a few aspects. One is the types of fireworks. You start with the core of two big fireworks. The game suggests these start with at least two spaces between them, and it’s a good idea; if they’re any closer, you won’t have space to pop off all the extra fireworks you need around them to finish them. Because the board has twenty-five spaces on it, and the big fireworks will fill seven when completed, it does an effective job of making you think about where you’re going to put everything.

Furthermore, although the kaleidoscopes and saturns are each made from putting two firework halves together, you have to pay attention; some have tails and some don’t, which are used for kaleidoscopes and saturns, respectively. The two also score differently—kaleidoscopes are better if you have different colors on each side, while saturns are better if they match. (Given the number of colors, this generally makes kaleidoscopes easier to finish.)

However, balancing out the difficulty in putting good fireworks together is the fact you can rearrange your board every time you place new tiles. You’re not just mashing in each piece the best you can, having to plan for any number of possibilities (which would be impossible). If you can find a way to use your tiles more effectively, you can move them to take advantage of that. But it’s harder than it sounds. Envisioning the best way to move twenty-plus tiles around at the end of the game is very hard, at least at first.

So, they give you a basic concept, complicate how you work with that concept to make it harder, introduce another aspect to make it easier, but then add a challenge to that aspect. On top of that, you don’t just roll a die to decide how many tiles you take; you dump that die out of a fireworks tube from a couple feet over the board, only choosing from the tiles that are face up, which is awesome. And if you don’t flip any, you roll again with an action card, which usually makes you do some contortions with a friend to get the die out of the tube (and the friend gets to take tiles as well). It’s a mix of small party game, visual acuity tester, and strategic thinking.

Sounds great! And it is good. The problem is… that I can’t tell you what the problem is. It doesn’t feel like they’re trying to do too many things, because each aspect of the game is pretty cool. It may be that the mix of things don’t necessarily create something more than the sum of its parts. But for whatever reason, we finish playing, shrug, and say, “Yeah, that was pretty good.” And we’re not dying to play again.

The issues with Fireworks are small, and what you like or dislike may easily not be what I like or dislike. It just doesn’t quite get over that hump of being a game that entrances you.

(3.8 / 5)
When in Rome

When in Rome

If there’s a potential issue with any trivia game, it’s the possibility of seeing a question twice. The Internet is full of trivia. So running a trivia game through Amazon’s Alexa service has to be perfect, right?

Quoth the Internet: LOL

When In Rome is, if nothing else, a clever little idea. Once computer/phone apps started becoming integrated with board games, it was only a matter of time until online services were used to expand the possibility even further. When In Rome lays a map of the world in front of you; you pick a city in which to start, then answer a trivia question about that city to make a friend. If you make a friend, the other player can’t (two players or teams max), because apparently there are only twenty people in Alexa’s world. You can normally only travel to a city connected to the one you’re in, but having friends lets you chain moves together, because the world is a mosh pit and we’re all just crowd surfing on it.

In every city, you have a choice between an easier, three-point question of a random category, or a harder, five-point question in a different category. All questions are about the city you’re in. Between the points for answering questions correctly and for picking up special souvenirs that pop up from time to time for bonuses, you play through either nine rounds or when three souvenirs total are collected (the latter is much more likely). Highest score wins.

I’m not going to say you can’t have fun playing When In Rome. It’s possible. But that sentence alone should tell you where this review is going.

The tricky thing about a review is that I’m not sure if it’s trying to do too much or not enough. That shouldn’t generally be a point of confusion about anything. But this is a game where they hired twenty different voice actors to play the friends in each city and ask the questions related to that city. Considering this is the first real Alexa-based board game, nobody would have expected them to go so far in their efforts, so it was really an above-and-beyond decision. However, using voice actors dramatically limits the number of different questions that can be asked. This thing is connected to the Internet, but in the first two games I played, I got the same question both times I ended up in San Francisco. That’s beyond unacceptable for a trivia game, and the way the voice acting is used isn’t even that good (between the actors and Alexa, there’s often too much of a gap between questions).

Worse yet—and that first problem is pretty bad—they put all this time into the aesthetics but couldn’t even figure out a good way to make the souvenir system work. First, when a souvenir pops up, it’s in a randomly generated location. Fine. These locations seem to always be relatively equidistant between the two players. That’s reasonable; it would be pretty jacked up if one player could move one space to the souvenir city while the other had to move five, giving the first one several chances before their opponent had one. But the souvenir can pop IN THE MIDDLE OF THE ROUND.

Here’s how a round works: a challenge for both players is put forth. Sometimes they need to come the closest to a percentage-based statistic (ie. guess what percentage out of 100, closest wins); sometimes the players alternate answering different questions until one of them gets one right. The winner of the challenge makes the first move that round. If there’s no souvenir and no reason to go any particular direction, then going first doesn’t matter.

The only real advantage to going first is if it gets you to a city with a souvenir sooner. Therefore, giving a potential disadvantage to someone for winning the right to go first (you don’t get a choice) is completely bonkers. The fact they didn’t realize this tells me we’re talking about a bunch of programmers who never made a game and thought they could do something cool with Alexa. They apparently nailed it with a game called Beasts of Balance a couple years ago; the ball got dropped in every conceivable way here.

It shows. Play this game if someone else has it or you find it in a thrift shop for a buck, just so you can see the problems and dream about what could have been if they hired anybody who knew what the hell they were doing with this, or even just some competent game testers. They’re in London, they should have asked Shut Up and Sit Down to do it.

(1.5 / 5)

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