Reef

Reef

There are games which involve underwater life, where you escape big fish with big teeth or spawn salmon or escape from an island which is about to become underwater life, but rarely do you get to be… the plants. And not even the soft green plants, but the rocky crap we step on and it hurts.

Although pretty soon there won’t be any of that either.

Reef is something of a puzzle game. Everyone gets a 4×4 board and four pieces of coral, one of each color, set in the center four squares however you wish. This isn’t done blindly; everything revolves around cards, and you get to see a display of three to choose from right away, as well as having two in your hand, and you can use these to determine good starting positions for your coral.

The cards are key, so here’s how they work: each card has a top and bottom. The top has two pieces of coral, often (but not always) of the same color. When you play a card, you take those two pieces out of the stockpile and place them on your board. You can put them anywhere you want—different spaces, stacked in the same space, stacked on top of other pieces already there, etc. The only rule is that stacks cannot go above four high. Once a stack is four high, it can no longer be changed.

The bottom has a scoring mechanism. This is some pattern the coral must follow to score the points on the card. Only the top-most color on each stack matters for these patterns. Some of them are easy—for example, score one point for each top piece that’s green. Some are more complicated, requiring two different colors diagonal to each other on stacks at least two high. The more complex the pattern, the more point each matching set is worth, but the simpler the pattern, the more times you may be able to score it when you play the card. Therefore, depending on how your board looks, any card may end up being able to score a good chunk of points.

One tricky aspect is that the colors a card lets you play don’t match the colors the card lets you score (apart from a handful that let you score any color). A winning strategy involves playing as many cards as possible that let you score points while also playing corals that will let you score points on a future card. You don’t need to score every card; if you can combo well enough, taking a zero on one card to score ten on another is better than two three-pointers. But comboing off big time isn’t as important as scoring consistently while looking for a big combo. Putting too many resources into setting up a big score will usually leave you behind people who consistently grab points, because if you’re thinking a few cards ahead (no one can take cards out of your hand, so you know what you have), you can always set up good combos.

Basically, it’s not a question of small scores versus one big score. It’s a matter of who can land bigger small scores or more big scores. The game runs for a reasonably high number of rounds, so if you can’t pull anything that nets points right away, you still have time to set up something nice for yourself if you keep an eye out for the right cards. Variance can mess things up, of course, especially in a four-player game, but usually the cards come for you to create some nice scores.

And… that’s pretty much it. It’s a perfectly good game. Like so many games, it will find a niche crowd that adores it, a handful that really don’t like it, and a large majority that find it an acceptable way to spend some gaming time. In theme, it’s fairly unique; in form, it’s reasonably different from most other offerings; yet it doesn’t feel hugely different from a lot of perfectly good games that have crossed the gaming landscape in recent years. It’s a game with a very pretty box designed to draw you into a game that you’ll probably tell your friends is fun. So, if it sounds like a cool concept, by all means pick up a copy. If you’re looking for a game that will blow your hair back with its unique greatness, this isn’t quite it.

3.9 out of 5 stars (3.9 / 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)

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 out of 5 stars (4.2 / 5)

Illusion

Illusion

Look at the pretty colors… look at them… looooook…

 

How much color did you see WRONG WRONG WRONG

 

Illusion is a party game for a small party, which is to say it’s for a relatively small number (two to five), but also for people who don’t have to know anything about games to understand it and better if they’re all drinking.

 

The game is played with a deck of cards, each of which has a unique colored pattern on it. One card is placed face up and set on the table, along with a card from a smaller deck that just has a collection of colored arrows. The first player places one of the patterned cards face up and decides if it has more or less of the color on the arrow than the first card. So, for example, if blue is the color, the player decides if his card has more or less blue than the card on the table. If he thinks it has less, he places it closer to the arrow. If he thinks it has more, he puts it on the far side from the arrow. Simple.

 

The next player decides if the first player made the right choice. If not, she can challenge (more on that shortly). If she’s fine with it, she flips the next card and decides if it has more than both cards on the table, less than both, or should go in the middle. Then the following player decides to challenge or play the next card, and so on.

 

Once it comes around to a player who thinks the order is incorrect, they can challenge. The card is flipped over; on the back is the percentage of the card that is blue, red, green, or yellow. If any of the cards are out of order, the challenger gets the arrow card, which counts for a point. If all the cards are in the correct order, from lowest percentage to highest, the person whose turn just passed gets the arrow card. In essence, the challenge is to the previous player, saying they made an incorrect judgment either on the card they placed or in not challenging when they had the opportunity. Then whoever wins the challenge starts the next round. Play until one person collects three arrow cards, or just play through the arrow card deck (there are only twelve) and whoever has the most at the end wins.

 

If it wasn’t apparent, this is a game whose simplicity is its strength and weakness. Anybody can understand it and there’s no great strategy to it—you can try to figure out the math on when it’s good to challenge even if you’re not sure there’s anything wrong, but there isn’t much of an advantage to be gained. Everyone will get what’s going on almost instantly, so it’s a fun warmup, especially on a game night with some very casual players around. You’re not going to play it a ton, though; even if you’re extraordinarily fascinated by the game, eventually you’ll play so much you start to memorize the patterns and percentages on some of the cards, and that would be a huge advantage, possibly to the point of breaking the game for you.

 

Basically, if your collection could use a cheap casual game that acts as a good starter to game night when not everyone’s shown up yet, this is good. If you already have games like that which you’re still playing, you can hold off on buying this.

 

3.8 out of 5 stars (3.8 / 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 out of 5 stars (4.1 / 5)

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