Villainous

Villainous

Oh god. Disney IP at work. This can’t possibly be good.

Right?

Villainous is a game where up to six players take on the roles of some of Disney’s most nefarious villains: Maleficent, Jafar, Captain Hook, The Queen of Hearts, Ursula, or Prince John (animal version). Each player has a board with four sections full of actions they can take on their turns, a deck of cards, and a second deck of Fate cards to throw them off track, but that’s largely where the similarities between the characters end.

In keeping with the small but growing trend towards asymmetrical gaming, Villainous offers a different win condition for each character, a different deck of cards with different items and abilities, different Fate cards (which reflect that character’s nemeses—Captain Hook has all the children from Peter Pan, for example)—and different sets of actions on each of their four board sections. In fact, not all characters have access to all four sections on their boards at the start of the game, or at any point—Ursula constantly has one end of the board or the other locked off.

Each turn, the player takes their very well-made pawn and moves it to a board section other than the one they were just on (think Scythe). They then perform all the actions on that section. This can be partially thwarted by their enemies; one action is to play a Fate card off someone else’s deck, which can be used to cover the top two actions on one section of that player’s board. These heroes can’t be defeated unless the player puts minions on, or moves them to, the same space with power equal to or greater than the hero’s. Items can be attached to minions to make them stronger, but the same goes for the heroes. It’s a take-that mechanic without the rage inducement; rarely does a player not have any board options without all of the actions on it available unless they’re winning handily and everyone is coming after them, in which case, hey, be a better villain.

For a deck-based game, the balance between when people reach their win conditions is pretty remarkable. This isn’t to say that everyone gets there at about the same time, but rather that everyone has a win condition other players can see coming. Whoever’s closest to winning can get slowed down, but not to a degree that effectively stops them from being able to win unless they get dogpiled hard (which is itself just a strategy that hands the game to someone else). It could have been successful with any theme; the game is strong.

But beyond that, Villainous has more flavor than atomic wings. All the minions, heroes, items, abilities, and everything else associated with each villain is spot on. The game even allows for some seriously messed up situations; for example, Jafar can hypnotize Aladdin and make him kill Jasmine. If you don’t think that’s great—not the domestic violence aspect, but the sheer evil in the act of making it happen and the fact you can get so dark—this game might not appeal to you as much as others.

It’s a really good game, though. Play it. You want to be bad. You do. You doooooo.

(4.2 / 5)
Tea Dragon Society

Tea Dragon Society

For some time, Renegade Games has been held up as an example of a company that consistently puts out quality products. I’m starting to wonder if it’s more a matter of them very consistently putting out products, and some of them are quality.

 

The art on the box is exactly like the art in the game: flipping adorable. If you want a game you can hug because it’s so KAWAII, this is definitely your thing.

 

For everyone else, it’s Fisher-Price: My First Deckbuilder. Everyone gets a character and a starter deck (differences are aesthetic only). You don’t have a hand of cards; all cards are face up in your ‘hold’. However, you draw cards and add them to your hold, which is functionally the same as adding them to your hand in a more normal card game. It’s like the entire point is to keep the information open so you can teach kids how to play, as if you couldn’t figure out playing with hands on the table if the kid’s problem was struggling with what to do without advice.

 

Cards can have up to four parts to them. Growth is effectively mana, the resource you use to buy cards. You can find growth in the upper left (that’s what she said…?). The cost of a card is in the upper right. If there’s an effect, that’s in the lower middle. Points are at the bottom/middle. And some icons are also in the bottom middle, while others are on the pictures, which is confusing but not a huge deal.

 

Your entire turn is drawing a card and, if you want to, buying a card. This at least has the effect of keeping the game moving. Your hand is sitting in front of you (that’s probably what she said), and you don’t throw it out every turn, so you already know how much growth you’re working with (she definitely said that) minus the card you draw next. The market and memory cards are all sitting there for you to peruse, so you’re considering your next play on other people’s turns, which don’t take long, and the game stays fairly active.

 

Market cards get added to your deck by using sufficient growth (do you think she said that? I do) and putting it in your discard pile. Memory cards also get added to your deck, but tend to be worth more points, have different effects, and are related to specific seasons—the game is played in four rounds, representing the seasons, and once one memory card is left you move on to the next season. When one memory card remains in winter, the game’s over. Count up your points.

 

It’s… fine. There’s not much here for adults to enjoy in terms of rich strategy. Anyone who comprehends deck builders will talk more about how cute the artwork is than the game. Bump it up in priority if you have kids in the mid-single digits to whom you’d like to teach very basic game ideas. Other than that, this isn’t going to entertain most people for too many playthroughs.

 

(3.1 / 5)

Dixit

Dixit

The game that spawned Mysterium. Or the idea for Mysterium. Basically, Mysterium exists because of this game.

To the point!

Dixit is a family-friendly game that is ostensibly for up to six people. In reality, if you come up with more pieces for scoring and voting, and you have enough cards (there are numerous expansions), you can expand it as much as you want. So, in theory, it can be a real party game. It’s definitely better when you’re drunk.

The game’s premise is simple: everyone has a hand of six cards. The active player chooses a card and creates a clue around it. Then every other player chooses the card they think will best match that clue, and all the cards go in a pile. They’re shuffled, laid out, and everyone secretly votes on which card belonged to the active player.

Unlike a game like Codenames, the clue you give isn’t particularly restricted; you can use one or more words, sounds that aren’t words, references to familiar things, etc. Pretty much anything goes. The reason is that you don’t actually want everyone to guess your card. However, you want somebody to guess your card—you only score if some, but not all, of the opponents figure out which card is yours.

So how the bloody hell does that work? Pretty easily, once you’ve gone through a few rounds.

One of three things can happen: Everyone guesses correctly, some people guess correctly, or no one guesses correctly.

  • Everyone’s right: Everyone except the active player gets two points. The active player gets zero.

  • Nobody’s right: Everyone except the active player gets two points. The active player gets zero. In addition, each player gets a bonus point for each person who guessed their card.

  • Some people are right: Everyone who guessed right gets three points. The active player gets three points. Everyone also earns a point for each person who guessed their card.

It’s not a complex scoring system, but it’s awkward relative to how most game scoring works (do thing -> get points), so mistakes can happen. Reading the directions again for purposes of this review, I realize we may have never done the scoring exactly right. Professionalism!

In terms of fun, I must reiterate a previous point: Bring alcohol.

Wait, are you twenty-one? If you’re not twenty-one, disregard that last paragraph.

If you are twenty-one, bring alcohol. Drunk people make the best clues. BUTTERFLIIIIIIIES

Is this a good game? It is.. a… simple game. It’s very easy to play (keep one person semi-sober for scoring). That’s good for some people! It’s quite good for people who don’t play many board games, the ones who would see the cards, pieces, and scoring track come out and wonder what kind of over-complicated insanity they’ve gotten themselves into, so you can show them it’s really simple and fun.

But just for a normal sober game night? Eh. It’s strange in that the game is totally in control of the players—everyone picks their cards, the active player makes the clue, there is almost no randomness involved, and skill will win out most often—and yet it frequently feels as though you’re not really in control of your outcome. You have a game where every time it’s your turn, nobody can play anything even close and everyone guesses your card, so you’re getting zeroes while everyone else is getting threes, and you just can’t win enough guesses for your cards on other people’s turns to catch up. Or all the guesses seem to work your way points-wise, even though you don’t feel like you’ve done a great job and maybe even think someone else had really done a better job playing.

Really, just drink. (The Dork Den cannot suggest partaking of illegal substances for the purpose of enjoying a board game. That’s on you.)

Stuffed Fables

Stuffed Fables

Stuffed Fables is called an ‘AdventureBook Game’. This is the first of its type from Plaid Hat Games. When you open the box and see a big spiral book full of stories taking up more space than anything else, it might immediately bring to mind Above & Below or Near & Far. The box cover alone, however, makes it clear we’re dealing with kid-style stories, and likewise the game follows a simpler (read: more linear) path than either of those two.

The directions are easy: Read the book. Passages in italics are story for the current bookkeeper to read to the group. Regular text involves gameplay. Don’t move forward from the section you’re on until something in the game tells you to do so. As long as you know a few core rules, that’s all you need to run the whole thing.

Let’s split this between the gameplay and the storytelling.

—Gameplay. Every character has its own set of abilities, although each starts with the same amount of stuffing (health) and hearts to power their abilities. Characters usually have at least one ability that nudge them towards using certain types of items, though they can use anything they want.

You start a turn by drawing five dice from a bag. White dice potentially give you extra stuffing. Black dice are threat dice, which can trigger enemy minion turns or other negative effects. Other dice can be used for actions specific to that die’s color, or for a few general abilities not connected to a color (mainly movement or storing dice for a later turn). Non-boss enemies have one hit point; beat their defense with a roll and you KO them, earning a button that can serve various purposes later. Bosses have hit points equal to the number of players in the game, but you hit them the same way, by rolling higher than their defense. Other icons on the board can give you other stuffed animals to talk to, merchants to deal with, or push the story forward.

The gameplay is about as good as it needs to be for a game like this. The best mechanic is the ability to choose how many dice you roll to attempt specific tasks. In most cases you’ll want to roll as many dice as you can, or (if for some reason you have a pile of dice you can use) at least enough to just about guarantee success, but having the option not to do that and instead take multiple shots at a task with worse odds is good and I’m glad they offered it. Needing specific colors of dice for certain tasks, but having to pull dice from a bag each turn, is a recipe for annoyance, but the ability to save dice for later, or give friends dice to use on their turn, does a fair bit to alleviate issues created by randomness. Skill tests and group tasks can be failed, but you should usually have a much better than 50/50 chance to succeed.

Perhaps the highest praise for the gameplay is that it’s good enough while also not overshadowing the story that is the selling point. Speaking of which…

—The story. When we opened the book, the first thing that came up was, do we actually have to read this kiddie garbage to each other? Once the gameplay aspects came in, though, we got over that, and everyone read without feeling weird about it by the end. It’s also a little darker than someone might expect—not original Grimm Brothers level, but not shiny happy Disney stuff either, no matter how the first page of the story book might read. The first story revolves around the animals retrieving the blanket of ‘their’ child from little spider monsters with doll heads. If you look at the little spider monsters with doll heads and don’t buy into the creepiness that exists here, you’re probably not going to buy into the whole theme. And those are the lowest-level threats.

More generally, if you can buy into stuffed animals coming to life and running around (which is a relatively common idea), you can perceive the threats to their well-being. Yet stuffed animals don’t die; they can give stuffing to each other, including if one of them hits zero. Having all the animals flatten out (literally) is a loss; we didn’t get anywhere near that point, but the idea of it feels pretty sad.

It can feel odd to be an adult, reading these stories to other adults, but they’ve written and paced it all in a way that lets you get into it. It helps that the art and miniatures are really nice, so you know exactly what characters are running around the maps.

—The overall. Pretty good gameplay, solid story. Sounds like winner!

Eh….

Playing through a story is enjoyable. You go through the process, have a good time, and think, man, this is fun, I’d like to do this more. Then you get to the end and… nothing. There are different endings available depending on how the story plays out, one better than the other, but once you hit the ending, that’s it. There are eight stories available; like a legacy game, there’s not much point to playing them multiple times unless you’re trying to introduce someone new to it, but there’s no legacy aspect. Nothing moves from game to game. I mean, you could house rule it so your characters keep their items, but they’d become incredibly broken.

It feels a little odd to criticize the game for only having eight stories to play when Time Stories starts out with only the one, and that’s quite popular. The difference I would draw between them is that Time Stories is a mystery to be solved, so once that happens you naturally wouldn’t have a reason to play it again. Stuffed Fables is a game that makes you want to keep seeing new stories, just like you would want more work from an author you like, with sufficient gameplay but not enough to make you want to re-run anything. Some people may get through all eight and decide they got their money’s worth; others will think there should have been more. I have no good advice for how to decide which side of that line you’ll fall on. It helps if you enjoy crisp art and excellent miniatures. That’s all I’ve got.

Score: Six crawly doll heads out of eight.

Codenames Pictures

Codenames Pictures

Codenames: Pictures is an offshoot of the original Codenames. In fact, it serves as the basis for as many Codenames spin-offs as the original (the Disney and Marvel versions).

But is it as good?

Well.

Maybe.

You can find my review of the original here; the core gameplay is unchanged. There’s still two teams, each with a codemaster who associates as many things of their color as possible with a clue and hopes their team makes the same connection. The main difference, as the title should give away, is that now it’s done with pictures rather than words.

Before playing, there may be a trap of thinking that this is a dumbed-down version of the game. After all, picture books are considered to be at a lower level than purely text books (though numerous comic series put the lie to that idea, but that’s a story for another time). Figuring out what associations your team will make, however, is the name of the game, and the pictures here do not make that easy. Each tile has multiple elements that could be drawn on for clues. Thus, the codemaster has to work around misunderstandings that could lead their team to the wrong tiles, and also ones that could lead them to disregard the correct tiles because they’re focused on the wrong parts of those tiles.

In short, the pictures work out very well as association devices. The game is about equally challenging for both codemasters and players, but in a different way that refreshes the experience.

If there’s a problem with the game, it’s the way the board is set up. Instead of a 5×5 grid like the original, Pictures uses a 4×5. This does not come with a commensurate reduction in spies per team; instead, there are far fewer neutral tiles. The result is a slightly quicker, but swingier game. If you get something wrong, you’re much more likely to hand your opponents a freebie. Combined with the slightly fewer spies per team needed to win, and any error is now far more likely to push your opponents ahead. Codemasters are thus incentivized to be a little more conservative with how many clues they tell their team, which… it’s not bad, per se, but the threat of losing your turn (and potentially hitting the assassin) already leads teams to not go crazy with the number of clues they go for on a given turn.

Given the quality of Codenames in general, I’m assuming they started with a 5×5 grid and determined 4×5 made more sense for some reason. Maybe their playtesters liked the potential swings. Maybe players disliked neutrals in general—they’d rather the game move towards a conclusion with each guess more often. I don’t know. The change probably won’t matter to most people. This is a purely personal gripe with the game, but this is my space, so I’m going to make it

Even with that, though, it’s still good. Go play it.

Score: 8/10 (wouldn’t make sense to have an extra gripe and score it higher, would it?)

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