Azul

Azul

Let’s make a quilt! Or a rug. Or… whatever. Tile wall! That’s it.

Azul is a classic game, re-released two years ago, and it’s still selling well. That’s because it’s good. Spoilers.

So, let’s talk about how and why it works. You have a board with a five-by-five pattern you’re trying to fill in the most cohesive possible way. There are five colors, represented once each per row and column (they show up as a diagonal pattern, it’s quite nice). Each round, seven little platters are loaded with four tiles randomly chosen from the bag, each in one of the five colors. Players choose one platter, take all the tiles of one color from it, and put the rest in the center. A player may also take all the tiles of one color that have been placed in the center instead; the first one to do this takes the first player tile, which counts as a penalty tile at the end of the round.

Those tiles go on one of the horizontal lines to the left of the wall pattern. Those lines have one, two, three, four, or five empty spaces, going down. All tiles on a line must be of the same color. Take too many to fit the line where you want them to go? Extras go on the penalty row. Forced to take a color you can’t place? Those tiles go on the penalty row. The first couple of penalties aren’t major, but they escalate quickly, and you want to avoid them in any case.

When you fill one of those lines, at the end of the round one tile moves over to the matching spot on that row of the wall. If you’ve filled a spot, that color can’t be readied for that row anymore. So, as the game progresses, your goal is to keep targeting colors you need, but only as many tiles as are required to fill a pattern line and get the color into that row.

However! You also want to get tiles on the wall next to each other. The first one you place scores you a point. Every one you place after that scores a point, plus one more for each adjacent tile on the wall (orthogonal only). This means you’re gauging who needs what color, how many you need of each color, what colors will score you the most, how many tiles you need to put that color in the right place, and sometimes when you need to absorb a penalty to max out the scoring power of your wall.

It’s one of those games with basic actions that are easy to understand, but which lead into a game that runs fairly deep on strategic level. It’s also an example of good, professional game design. Quite a number of games give you a basic set of mechanics that lead to engaging play. Sometimes the mechanics are deceptively simple; Onitama gives you five pieces and a bunch of cards, and while the designers would have needed to spend plenty of time with the cards to make sure the game was balanced, overall it doesn’t take much to create an excellent, quick strategy game.

Azul, on the other hand, is a game that is either the product of a tremendous amount of iteration, or amazing luck (and still an awful lot of iteration). Filling the five-by-five wall is simple enough, but why are the pattern lines designed in a one through five fashion? They could have all been the same length, for example, and within that idea they could have reasonably been anywhere from three to five lines long. Why are the penalties structured as they are? How come there are seven platters of tiles, rather than six or eight. or a number based on the players in the game? Why do players get to take tiles from the center of the table, rather than only from the platters? Why is scoring exactly one per tile, including adjacent ones? Why are the adjacency bonuses orthogonal only, not diagonal?

Designers who don’t take enough time to playtest their games and figure out just the right balance points make mistakes on questions like these. Sometimes this happens because they need the game on the shelves and selling; sometimes, if they work for a larger company, they have bosses pressing them for a product; sometimes they just don’t see the fault lines in their creations. Azul sidesteps the potential errors, and we wind up with something on the short list of players everywhere for “that game you should totally get”. Maybe you already knew how good it was, but let’s take a moment to respect how much time it takes to put a game on that level.

4.5 out of 5 stars (4.5 / 5)


Welcome To Your Perfect Home

Welcome To Your Perfect Home

If there’s a nightmare scenario in life, it’s living in a community where every house is exactly the same, all of you have to follow rules about keeping your home “clean” and your lawn “tidy”, and you swear that every one of your neighbors have a not-insignificant amount of Stepford blood in them.

Selling those houses, though… that’s a win.

Welcome to Your Perfect Home puts you in the role of a real estate developer with three long blocks of houses to fill—one of ten houses, one of eleven, and one of twelve. A fat stack of cards is split into three piles, each with an action on one side and a number on the other (with a small icon of the action on the flip side of the card in one corner). Each round, one card is flipped action side up, so each pile has a number and an action visible. Players choose one of these combos, put the number on one of the houses, and choose whether or not to use the action.

The goal is to fill all the blocks with numbers going in ascending order, while also pulling in enough points through putting pools in yards, investing in neighborhoods of certain sizes, and meeting other various goals to outscore everyone else. The game ends when somebody has a number on every house, or when someone marks off three stop signs (three instances of not being able to develop a house on a turn with any of the available numbers). It’s a roll-and-write game, although with cards rather than dice. Apart from fences, which you use to create smaller neighborhoods within each block, you mark off a spot for each action you take, which (potentially) earns you more points by the end of the game.

The first time I played this, I put together a flawless game. I mathed out how many numbers I would have available to fill in the number of spaces that would be left if I put number X on house Y, and did not waste a single turn. The game ended when all my houses were full, and all three of my opponents had one empty. Given that real estate bonuses for the blocks you have completed only count if all the houses on the block are full, that’s a nice edge to have.

I lost. Not by a couple of points, but by twelve (112-100). And that’s why I think this is a pretty good game.

Here’s the reason: when I saw I played a flawless game, it means I did not make any errors in figuring out what numbers to place where, and when. I strategized towards making sure all my houses were tagged, which is the end goal, and it worked perfectly. Yet I obviously did not play a perfect game, because I got noticeably beaten.

The nature of the card draw means you’re always playing the odds. There are enough cards in each deck that you can’t really card count effectively (if you can, you will be godly at this and you don’t need any strategy tips). But you have to take into account how many points you’re likely to score with each move. If you put a palm tree up in six houses across all three blocks, you’ll get twelve points. But if you fill them up on one block, the same number of palm trees will earn you more in sum because of the finishing bonus. You’ll probably have reason to take real estate bonuses before you’ve started forming your blocks, so do you choose a number and let that guide how you build? Will you build towards bonuses? Can you see what bonuses your opponents are going for, and can you beat them to the punch?

There’s probably some perfect strategy to the game that’s most likely to win as long as you get the cards you need. That last part is the key, though. Unless that strategy is the best under any circumstances, and you’ll only lose if you’re desperately unlucky—and, while unlikely, this is possible—you’ll need to know how to adjust. That’s where you get gameplay rather than rote memorization, and that’s what makes a game good.

4.2 out of 5 stars (4.2 / 5)


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)


Ganz Schon Clever

Ganz Schon Clever


Did you know the word for “clever” in German is klug? Google Translate told me, so it must be true. Would we be looking at this game if it was called “Ganz Schon Klug”?

…probably. It has an English translation right underneath. Hell, we’d probably have fun shouting it at each other, with both arms firmly at our sides.

Ganz Schon Clever is the version of Yahtzee you would make if you were twelve, bored, and not challenged enough in school. It’s a game of efficiency in the name of randomness, of synergy and cascading points with a pool of resources unknown until they’re rolled, that is likely to let you feel very smart and die a little inside when you don’t get that last roll you need in the same game.

Each turn has one person as the active player. That person rolls the dice and picks one to fill a square of the matching slot on their scoresheet. (White has no spot; it’s wild and can be used as any color.) Any dice lower in number than the chosen die goes on the Silver Platter (a picture of a dish inside the box they included because organization is EVERYTHING) and can’t be used by the active player again that turn. All remaining dice are rerolled, a second die is picked, then the dice left over after that are rolled again so a third can be picked. After that, the remaining dice (usually three of them) are open for the other, passive players to choose from and put on their own scoresheets. All passive players choose at the same time, and can pick the same die. A round consists of each person getting a turn as the active player, and the game length is in number of rounds, determined by player count.

The first round is generally straightforward. You’re just getting started filling in the sections, and each section requires at least a few entries before they start offering bonuses. This goes on for part of the second round, but soon enough you fill in a box that lets you fill in a different box. Later, you fill in a box that lets you fill in a box that lets you get an extra reroll that you use later to make sure you get just the right die to fill in another box that lets you fill in yet another box. In addition, some of the bonuses let you use an extra die at the end of someone’s turn, which lets you fill in a box which can let you fill in a box that lets you fill in a box which lets you fill in yet another box.

It gets a little bonkers.

For as much as we might look at the title and say, “Yeah, good job Hans, call yourself clever, you arrogant prick,” it… really is clever. Here’s why: the game is based around understanding the odds of various outcomes, but none of it is complicated. If you realize it’s harder to get high numbers than low ones (because of the dice choosing rules), and that for the blue section (which adds two dice) it’s harder to get 2, 3, 11, and 12 than the ones in the middle, you can form a basic strategy for choosing dice and picking which boxes to fill in with your bonuses. From there, everything depends on how efficiently you can get from bonus to bonus, and how much you can limit your reliance on very specific die rolls in order to make your strategy pan out. You can easily play without wasting dice or feeling like you’ve horribly screwed up, but you will also never fill out the whole sheet, so it always seems as though you might be capable of just a little… bit… more.

I think I have a German chip in my brain, because I adore these types of efficiency-based games. Even taking that bias into account as best I can, I think this is really well done. Basic gameplay that keeps people from getting too frustrated, and the sense that there’s always a better way to proceed, both matter in the replayability of a game like this. Just like with 13 Clues, I can see the scorepad running out of paper at some point (albeit probably with a different group of players).

The only question mark is, why is there room on the back of the scoresheet to score all four players? It’s probably to make overall scoring easier, keep it on one sheet, etc., and it doesn’t affect gameplay, but everyone who’s played looks at it funny. The fact you have to flip it from vertical for play to horizontal for scoring is awkward. But as problems go, that’s a small one. Get this game.

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)
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