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)


Mansions of Madness

Mansions of Madness

Holy hell, how have I not reviewed this yet? Have I reviewed this? I feel like I must have, but I can’t find it anywhere on the blog.

Screw it, let’s go!

Mansions of Madness is a Fantasy Flight Cthulhu game, which means it’s going to take your character’s insides and throw them all over the floor. (Also, “Cthulhu” doesn’t trigger the blog spell-checker. Awesome.) This one does it a little differently than your Horrors, Arkham and Eldritch alike. Mansions of Madness puts you in a very specific location, for a very specific reason, and you need to figure out what’s going on and what to do about it before whatever’s lurking drags you into a shadow or attic or under the sea.

The concept isn’t substantially different from the original Mansions of Madness. The difference now is that there’s an app you can put on a tablet or laptop (or phone, but the screen’s too small) that guides you through the game. You’re responsible for tracking where the characters go and making sure you follow the core rules, but when something goes bump or you want to investigate that creaky dresser in the corner, the app tells you what comes next. It takes one of the worst parts of all these games—the administration—and puts most of it on the computer. All you’re responsible for, really, is not cheating.

And good lords, you will probably be tempted to cheat, because it sure seems like the game is. Even the first mission, at a mere two-Elder Sign difficulty, doesn’t offer much room for error. I’ve played it multiple times, taking a backseat in later games so the new players can make the choices, and it’s hard to see how a group can win without knowing what’s coming. Other players have made similar statements. It’s not that we’re against hard games—I mean, right now I’m playing Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice, and I haven’t quit even though I can’t go any farther until I beat one of four bosses blocking various paths—but we have difficulty envisioning a winning strategy for a mission nobody knows that doesn’t involve stumbling across the right clue or item.

Which sounds like a crap game, right? Except… gods, it’s fun. It’s really fun. You get your butts kicked and it’s usually fun. Your friend gets turned into an acolyte of the Black Goat and stabs you to death to win while everyone else loses, it’s ludicrous and fun. You win, you go out and buy a lottery ticket. And it’s fun. The app’s music and sound effects are simple but set the atmosphere well, waiting for the app to throw another challenge at you makes it feel like the bad guys are truly out of your control, and for as hard as they are, the scenarios are well-designed. You might say, at some point, “How the hell was I supposed to know that?” But the connections generally make sense once you know what they all are. It’s just tough when you’re desperately trying to survive and you’re missing the plus sign that makes two and two equal four.

The basic FF Cthulhu stuff is all here—the same characters, oodles of tokens, and cards beyond the counting capacity of most small children and some adolescents. You only have eight characters to choose from; it’s enough to play the game, but for those of us who have been able to pick just the right character rather than one of the two who are strong or smart or whatever, it feels a little light. If you have the first edition of the game, though, you can bring those characters over to this one. (Yeah, we choose characters. Screw random drawing, this game’s hard enough as it is.)

More unfortunate is that the base game only comes with four missions, and teases you with fifteen more available if you pick up various expansions. For a $100 game, that’s kind of garbage. I don’t begrudge the company their expansions, but at least start the players out with enough to make it feel like a full experience. Seven or eight would have been more reasonable—say, the ones that use the base game’s tile set but are sold on Steam for $4.99 a pop.

As for the difficulty, people house rule various things to make the game more playable. My suggestion is this, as a minimum variant: Allow anyone who takes a move action to move two spaces, even if they take another action in the middle. Only moving one space because the thing you need is next to you, even though you want to keep going (or move right back), is too common. You don’t know what you’re going to see when you enter a room, and without that flexibility, your action economy often tanks, leaving you needing more turns than you have to get the job done.

It’s weird to be able to spell out this many flaws this clearly and still deeply enjoy a game, but that’s the deal here. It’s so good. Between the price, the need for expansions, and the difficulty, it may not be for everyone, but this is pretty much what FF Cthulhu is, and they did a great job.

4.4 out of 5 stars (4.4 / 5)
The Quacks of Quedlinburg

The Quacks of Quedlinburg

Quacks, historically, are pseudo-scientists often pretending to be medical professionals (some so thoroughly they even fool themselves). They sell snake oil treatments, false cures to any and every ailment in existence. This game fits that theme.

But I still wanted the “doctors” to be ducks.

Every good quack has a cauldron to brew their mixtures in, and this game is no different. You start with a pouch of ingredients and pick them out, one at a time, and throw them in. What could go wrong? Well, in Quedlinburg, there are so many of you friggin lunatics that it’s not enough to brew a potion and make a claim unrelated to its efficacy. It has to have bubbles, which means cherry bombs go in the mix as well. Too many cherry bombs, though, and your mixture explodes.

Each round, you pick ingredients one at a time and put pieces down farther up the points path in the cauldron equivalent to how many of the ingredient are on the token (ie. if you pick a 2 cherry bomb, it’s placed two spaces ahead of the last piece). If you get more than seven cherry bombs in the pot, it explodes, and you have to choose between the ability to buy more ingredients or take victory points. The highest number of cherry bombs on a token is three, so you’re safe until you have at least five cherry bombs in the cauldron. From there out, it’s a question of risk management—how much farther do you need to go to stay up with your opponents? How many more turns will you take, risking that you’ll pull the piece that ends your round early?

And thus, the problem.

If you get a bad set of ingredients in a round and quickly build up your cherry bombs, you’re generally incentivized to keep going. After all, most of the bombs are out of your bag, and you have a better chance of pulling normal ingredients. But if your luck stays poor, and you bomb out early, now your opponents are immediately pulling ahead. They’ll have the ability to buy more regular ingredients, which improves their odds of a successful run next round, meaning you’ll have to take a bigger risk to keep up. And if that doesn’t pan out, you fall further behind, and so on.

Basically, this is a game about risk management which is nonetheless substantially based on luck. If you fall behind, you have to play carefully and get lucky or hope your opponents screw up in order to catch them. You don’t really have a way to actively make up ground. The catch-up mechanic—moving you farther ahead in the cauldron if you’re far enough behind the leader—only makes it so you stay within range if your opponents screw up. And if you fall behind, it’s just not fun.

That’s the real killer. A game can be difficult, it can be a little unbalanced, it can be somewhat frustrating, and none of that is good, but it can remain entertaining as an experience. This does not. If you fall behind, none of your options are good, and all you can do is wish ill on your opponents (most likely your friends). The game’s fine when you’re winning, but it feels quite bad if you’re losing, and that means in most games someone is not having a good time.

Combined with the wonky theme—are these people really so stupid that they risk blowing up their concoctions for bubbles?—and even though it’s pretty popular on Board Game Geek, I can’t get on board.

3 out of 5 stars (3 / 5)
Scroll Up