September 30, 2011

Card Game Review: Lifeboat

Lifeboat (Gorilla Games/Jeff Siadek, 2010[3rd Ed.])
4-6 players / 12+ / 45-60 minutes

The First Mate was getting a bit smug for his own good.  Throwing his weight around, literally, he began to rule the roost, forcing us to change seats with him and taking all of our stuff.  The biggest of the survivors, with biceps like tires and a chest like a barrel, he bullied his way from one end of the small, floundering boat to the other.  "I'll be taking that parasol, there, Sir Stephen," he smiled wryly.

"Oh, not this time," the normally timid aristocrat answered.

"Look, here, you little pipsqueak, hand it over before I pound you and throw you in for fish food!"

"How 'bout THIS instead?" And whipping out a flare gun from inside his coat and thrusting into the Mate's face, Sir Stephen fired off a spectacular burst of light and fire that sizzled and cracked through the air.

Grasping in pain, the Mate yelled out, "Aaaah, my eeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeyes!"

What You Get:

A total of 96 cards, 3 small wooden birds, and about 20 plastic wound chips (appropriately translucent red).  The cards are not linen-textured, but they are of a very durable stock.  My kids have not yet managed to scuff or crease them even in the slightest, despite our numerous plays.  Believe me, that alone is a testimony in itself!  They are humorously illustrated and fit perfectly with the zany theme.  The wooden birds are a superfluous, but very fine touch.  The tokens make keeping track of wounds quick and easy, though we've had many a particularly nasty games in which we could have used more than those provided.  And in a stroke of cost-saving genius (that this budget-bearing consumer appreciates) the rules are printed on a sheet of paper.
The components.
Quick Rundown:

The premise of Lifeboat is that you represent one of 4-6 survivors of a sunken, Titanic-like ocean liner.  Goal #1 is to just survive until land is sited.  That simple matter, however, will be complicated by everyone's ulterior motives.  Goal #2 is to acquire as many provisions as you can to earn extra points.  Goal #3 is to help your secret love survive with  you.  Goal #4 is to make sure your hated rival doesn't.  Everyone begins the game with a random character in assigned seating, a random secret love, and a random secret enemy.  On your turn, you may either row the boat, use a provision card, attempt to mug some one else for one of their provisions, attempt to switch places with some one in the boat, or pass.  Your place in the boat is important.  If first in order, then you get the first selection of provisions passed around at the beginning of each turn.  If last, you get to pick the navigation card played at the end of each turn.  Provisions give you good things like water, med kits, points, and weapons.  The navigation cards usually spell doom for one or more of the characters.  If you attempt to mug or switch seats with some one and they don't play along nicely, a fight ensues.  While each character has a set strength value, others are allowed to join in the fisticuffs on one side or the other.  Plus you can play weapons to add to your strength.  But so can your target, and so can your allies, and so can your target's allies.  As you can imagine, it's not uncommon for a boat-wide brawl to ensue somewhat on the scale of mini-Waterloo.

E for Everyone:

The bow of the boat with nav cards.
Now, as usual, keep in mind this 'E for Everyone' bit does not mean I think every gamer will enjoy this little gem.  It means that I think kids will easily grasp the concept and mechanics of it while adults can genuinely enjoy playing it with them, as well as in their own adult gaming groups.  This is by far the most spiteful game in our collection and, indeed, one of the most spiteful games I've ever read of.  More on that in a minute.  First, why do I give such a confrontational game the 'E' rating?  Oh, let me count the ways.

The basic rules are straight-forward.  Once you understand the five simple actions you may choose from each turn, the rest of play flows smoothly.  Any other rules-breaking mechanic is clearly explained by card text.  The end-of-round navigation phase is also quick and easy.  The last player in turn order will look at the few available navigation cards and choose one.  It gives information on how much closer you're getting to land, who gets washed overboard into the sea, and who gets thirsty.  Proximity to land is represented by the bird tokens (you need four of them to end the game).  Wounds are represented by the plastic chips if you lose a fight, are thrown overboard, or get thirsty (some provisions prevent wounds from thirst or getting tossed over).

Downtime is minimal, also because of the nature of the action phase.  Rowing, passing, or playing a provision card is fast.  Fights can take a tad longer because of the diplomatic meta game in deciding who will fight for who.  It's obviously natural to want to help your secret love and hurt your secret enemy, but if you're too obvious, you could create more problems for yourself in the long run.  Or it's possible you really couldn't lend much aid in a given fracas, whether you wanted to or not, so you just kind of quietly sit tight.  Engaged or not, you will still be very interested in the scuffle's outcome, so downtime is almost irrelevant.  Besides that, they're hilarious.  You certainly don't want to miss some one catching a grappling hook in the eye.  I mean, I don't care who you are, that's funny.

Its been a brutal voyage!
The aforementioned diplomatic meta game works very well with what I call the reverse secret identity mechanic.  With loves and enemies hidden, the psychological game of figuring out each others' ulterior motives is balanced with the goals in regards to your own love and enemy.  This is a process that my kids can grasp, because it gives them a framework with which to think through.  In a twisted sort of way, the game would be even more chaotic without it.  It also takes the personal bite out of the spite since, by and large, your alliances are motivated by what the game deals you.  However, we also often have shifting allegiances by going mercenary to the highest bidder.  Indeed if you're one of the weaker characters and happen to love yourself (thus no one watching your back), that's one of the few options you have.  You may survive by avoiding every fight and you'll get double points for doing so, but you'll be danged lucky if you arrive at shore with anything more than the shirt on your back.

Now just because children can grasp the game, doesn't necessarily mean they'll be able to handle the spite - which also holds true for adults, I'd imagine.  Since gameplay is smooth, the theme is humorous, and the secret love/enemy mechanic dampens the spite, we generally have amicable games.  Whenever we have an issue it is generally a result of how the role cards are randomly assigned.  If you are your own secret love, then it can be rough going.  If you love and hate yourself, then you're a psychopath and only get bonus points for everyone dying - which is difficult to achieve.  And if you love or hate the same person, you're not always sure how to proceed - though you get more points for them living than dying.

So concept-wise, this game will not be to everyone's liking.  Not only is there direct confrontation, but it is brutal and often back-stabbing.  There is player elimination.  There is luck in drawing the provision and navigation cards that will be helpful to you at the right times (though trading of provisions is allowed).  It can go a little long if there isn't much fighting and you're not drawing the navigation cards that get you closer to land.  And some may object to the overt violence.  That is one thing I consider before buying a game for me and my kids - but here it is so over-the-top that it's almost Python-esque.  I grew up on them and am no worse for the wear...or so I think.

Okay, I'll Shut Up Now:

In the end, I give Lifeboat an 8 on the Geek scale (Very good game.  I like to play.  Probably I'll suggest it and will never turn down a game.).  For a chaotic game, it generally plays smoothly and in under an hour.  If your kids can play Citadels, then they will be able to grasp Lifeboat's mechanics and gameplay.  The 12+ age recommendation is probably in anticipation of the hurt feelings that the spite factor could create.  But my kids often request this unique title and the laughing always outnumbers the finger-pointing.

September 29, 2011

Gaming with Kids: Replayability

Have you ever played "Horsey" with a toddler?  You know, where you put the kid on your knees and the baby horse goes nimble-nimble, the mommy horse goes trot-trot, and the daddy horse goes gallopy-gallopy?  Oddly enough, it's a lot of fun!  I guess because we adults find joy and take pride in the ability to make a little kid smile, giggle, and out-right belly laugh.  We can momentarily forget the responsibilities of grown-up life in the warmth of an innocent child.  Of course the kid likes it, too.  So she says, "Again, again!"  We comply.  Laughs ensue.  She beams, "Again, again!"  Another nimble, trot, gallop.  Whee!  Then she giddily pleas, "Again, again!"  And so on it goes.  Until after about a dozen rides around the track, you're ready to be taken out to pasture and shot for glue.

Suffice it to say, kids like continuity.  Which is the antithesis to a major consideration in game design: replayability.  Yes, it is not even a real word.  But it is a central concept that influences designers in their board game creations, as well as consumers in their board game purchases.  For hobby gamers, replayability is the idea that a game offers something new and fresh in each play.  It possesses some mechanic or component that changes things up, even if only slightly, each session.  Games may achieve this in a few ways.  It could have a modular board like Settlers of Catan where the set-up is different each time.  It could provide the infamous "multiple paths to victory" like Caylus where you can explore different strategies to win.  It might include asymmetry based on varying powers like Cosmic Encounter where each race has different abilities or bonuses.  On top of any of those, it can even come out with an expansion that adds new elements, components, rules, and/or scenarios such as Kingsburg: To Forge a Realm (some titles get a little excessive in this department).

For hobby gamers who spend good money on their games, it is not unreasonable that they expect to be able to get many plays from that purchase.  A game that only offers one set of choices, or one path to victory, or limits your options in other ways can quickly grow stale and will have limited appeal.  That can be compounded by the game's length.  Shorter board games and many card games may often overcome the stigma of limited breadth because of their brevity.  However, most serious strategy gamers are looking for replayability.  Generally speaking, we like options, change, and to try new things.  We don't like the game playing us.

This is just the reverse in gaming with kids.  Certainly as they grow older and delve more into the hobby, that can, and often does, change.  But for a good deal of a child's gaming life, they'll feel more comfortable with the familiar.  They learn by repetition and prosper in continuity.  The more options you throw at them, the more insecure they'll feel in the confusion.  As I mentioned in my blog entry on kids and strategy, children will generally operate under a "one thing at a time" mentality, becoming frustrated when the unforeseen spoils their plans.  Now this is not to claim you will cause irreparable emotional damage by thrusting certain titles in front of their faces.  But again, the point here is to acclimate kids to the hobby - and games with repetition can serve an important role in that process.

One question my wife and I are constantly asked is how we manage to care for up to eight kids at a time and see so many come in and out of the house.  Well, first, by the sheer grace of God!  And then, while not claiming it is easy or stress-free, we manage with a routine.  This is even exponentially more important with foster children who invariably have never had anything remotely close to routine in their lives.  Schedules, structure, and rules that apply to everyone maintain a little least in managing the chaos.  This concept influences our gaming, too.  We have a set order in selecting games - each child gets his/her turn.  We have a routine for determining who goes first (when the game does not specify).  A routine for picking colors/sides.  The kids even like to sit in the same order around the floor or table.  And we usually have set times in which to play games, determined by - you guessed it - our schedule!

Likewise, my kids generally approach gaming from the opposite spectrum of replayability.  This isn't to say they'll never try new things, but overall they stick with what they know.  Even in games that offer variability, they'll continue to play certain ways.  They like to pick the same action cards in Dominion even though there are two dozen to choose from.  Many times they'll select the same character in Citadels over and over whether it benefits them in a particular round or not.  They often employ the same strategies in a war game because, well, I'm not sure why sometimes!  And in any case, whenever possible, there is always continuity in that they like to gang up on dad!

So keep that in mind when sharing the joys of hobby gaming with your kids.  Take it in stride and humor them.  You may be in for some repetition, but there's usually a reason they're sticking with what they know.  And as they present themselves, find opportunities to suggest new things or propose other options on old favorites.  In the end, it'll be worth all the nimbling, trotting, and galloping.

September 26, 2011

Gaming Report: Lifeboat, Cribbage, and Rummy

Once again it was a packed and busy weekend with family visiting from out-of-town because of my youngest daughter's 4th birthday.  The kids and I got in a couple games of Lifeboat, including one in which we introduced the game to my 12-year old nephew - a new hobby gamer, maybe?!  I think my next review will be on this cutthroat, little gem and I'll have the kids weigh in on it, too, next time we play.  This game can cause some "issues" because it involves things like shooting the person next to you in the face with a flare gun.  Some feelings will get hurt, but it's manageable.  I won the first game as the Captain with Sir Stephen as my ally (he loved me - which may sound disturbing if you're not familiar with the game - but its legit - trust me).  I had to avoid fights with the First Mate.  The second game I was Sir Stephen but unfortunately I loved myself (now, come on, admit it, you're intrigued) and so had no ally.  My kids like to gang up on me when possible, and I was knocked unconscious and thrown overboard - end of game for me!

While I game with my kids the most, I do get to play with adults, sometimes!  And that is generally when hanging out with family.  I've been playing cribbage since my grandparents taught me in high school.  My mom and I play when we're visiting one place or the other, so we got a few games of that it.  It's a really enjoyable game and I recommend it for those interested in different types of card games beside ones like poker, rummy, hearts, and spades.  Those are all good, too, though, and I played some rummy, as well.  In fact, that is one of the few games my teen daughter likes to play, so I enjoy it for that reason alone, really.  But there's only so much to the game - basic set collecting and hope you draw the right cards.  But replayability isn't the goal/focus in standard card games.  In fact, I think I need to write on replayability.

September 21, 2011

Board Game Review: Mission: Red Planet

Mission: Red Planet (Asmodee/Bruno Cathala & Bruno Faidutti, 2005)
3-5 players / 10+ / 60 minutes

Inside, I was smiling proudly.  Just the previous turn, I had successfully put three astronauts on a rocket, which left only one space that didn't do the others much good.  Now I was ready to place a fourth and gloriously claim a region of Mars, the color Green!  That is, if they made it there alive!  Brendon is always the one who likes to blow things up, but he already played his Saboteur.  I waited thoughtfully as roles were called out in order.  Surely none of the others would dare?  Why, they are always so peaceful.  Brendon is my only pyro.  Then, nervously, I called out for role #5, the Saboteur.  All quiet.  Would I succeed?  And then...a grin...from Hope.  Hope!  Oh, how ironic a girl with such a name would ruin mine!  She flips it over and gestures to my rocket.  You little twerp!

What You Get:

The components are not particularly impressive, but they are certainly functional.  The two boards are small (not a criticism) and refuse to lay flat (a criticism).  The "astronauts" are tiny wooden discs, smaller than a smartie, and difficult for my fat nubs to handle.  The rockets, destination markers, and scoring tokens are all on a sturdy enough cardboard - but be careful punching them out as they are not perforated well.  The cards are slick and of basic stock.  While I could take some flak for commenting on a vac tray, the one here is about worthless and was not designed for this game.  I just tossed mine and, as a result, all the (bagged) pieces just kind of shift around inside.  The artwork, however, is the exception to the average components.  Produced in a steampunk style, the role cards and rocket ships are fantastically imaginative and evocative of an H. G. Wells world.

The Quick Rundown:

Mars! With astronauts.
Mission: Red Planet is an area majority game combined with a secret role selection mechanic. Each round, you'll compete to fill up space on a rocket ship that, once filled, will launch to a particular region of Mars.  Each rocket generally specifies which region it will land in and how many astronauts it can carry.  When one launches, it is replaced by a new rocket on the launch pad.  After three specified rounds in the game, you will score each region by awarding points based on majorities.  Now, describing the game like this makes it sound like an orderly and controlled affair, worthy of a Euro game label.  But I might as well say that Richard Simmons is a calm and quiet man.  Each turn you'll select a role that gives you a certain ability for that round.  Like the Soldier who lets you kill off other astronauts.  Or a Pilot who allows to you change rocket destinations.  Or the Saboteur who gives you license to blow up a rocket - with astronauts on it!  You can even go all Lucy Liu on some one with the Femme Fatale and switch astronauts anywhere on the boards.  Then Bonus and Discovery cards give you "secret missions" to complete by the end of the game to score extra points or just plain turn a region's end-of-game scoring on its Martian head.  This all creates so much chaos that even Nietzche couldn't see order coming out of it.

Rated E for Everyone:

The launch pad.
That chaos element will turn off a lot of gamers, but Mission: Red Planet is a hit at our house.  I currently rate this game an 'E' with the caveat, "Know your family!"  If they are the type to take things personally or get upset over the "take that" slap upside the head, then you may wish to play a different title.  The interaction can be very much "in your face" and abrupt.  However, from our experience, I think that spite factor is mitigated nicely by a few things.

First of all, gameplay is smooth and easy.  It is not heavy on rules.  At the beginning of each round, you'll secretly select which character you want and take your turn as each is revealed in order.  Each person has the same set of role cards, so it's possible you'll select the same role as another player in any given round.  Regardless, the character cards clearly define what actions you make take, how to perform them, and where.  The two in-game scoring rounds are a also very simple matter.  The only bit of confusion comes in scoring at the end of the game, since the Discovery and Bonus cards can change up how points are awarded.

Gameplay is also fast!  The game consists of exactly 10 rounds, with scores tabulated after rounds 5, 8, and 10.  This limit keeps the game consistently at 60 minutes or less.  It also adds a good deal of excitement and tension since you never seem to have quite enough time to do everything you want.  Individual turns are also brief.  Essentially you place astronauts on a ship and then perform your character's special ability.  Then it's the next person's turn.  This keeps downtime to a wonderful minimum.

The theme is fun and on the lighter side.  The characters generally work and their abilities make sense.  Not that I'm asking for realism in a game about steam power launching rockets to Mars in the Victorian Era.  Still, I'm not sure how the Femme Fatale makes sense in the scheme, nor what the ability to switch astronauts has to do with the archetype.  She could have been a ninja, robber baron, or voodoo witch doctor, for all that.  In any event, the unique and creative theme makes for an enjoyable hour of gameplay and helps sooth the burns of conflict.

The spite aspect I think will really make this title a "take it or leave it" extreme.  You'll either take it in stride with the understanding that its a central mechanic of this game's design.  Or you'll leave it because it'll cause too many fights and heartaches.  However, the spite is mitigated somewhat through the limitations of role selection.  Once you play a character, you cannot play that role again in future turns until you spend one turn playing the Recruiter.  He allows you to collect all previously used characters so that they are available again in subsequent rounds.  Therefore, you're not able to kill off opposing astronauts turn after turn after turn, ad nauseum.  Also, the non-spiteful roles provide other abilities that are too beneficial to ignore.  You simply can not spend the entire game going after the other players.  In a two-player game you might win with that strategy, but I imagine that is the main reason this is a game for 3-5 players.
The cast of characters.

Now while the interaction isn't necessarily incessant, I don't mean to minimize it's impact.  When you are attacked, it can really be rough and derail your plans.  Since you have so few turns to implement any strategy, one well-timed attack can really cause irreparable damage.  Also, Discovery cards can be played secretly in certain regions which change the way they are scored at the end of the game.  So even if you have the majority in the region, it may not matter.  The Scientist role does let you sneak a peek at a card so you can avoid or prepare for any surprises; but if a lot of them are put into play, the percentages start mounting against you.  And then there are Bonus cards.  Some assign you a secret mission to accomplish by the end of the game for extra points.  There is some strategy in completing these missions, as long as another player doesn't derail them!  Then others just randomly give you extra points without any effort exerted on your part.  The balance here is that these factors affect all players equally.  But that may provide little consolation to heavy strategy gamers who like to have most of the control and information at all times.

Okay, I'll Shut Up Now:

In the end, I give Mission: Red Planet an 8 on the Geek scale (Very good game.  I like to play.  Probably I'll suggest it and will never turn down a game.).  Despite the abruptness of the interaction, I would recommend this title as a sort of "gateway" game to introduce your kids to conflict and spite.  There are many hobby games, even typically peaceful Euros, that utilize some sort of "take that" mechanic in which you can attack your opponents, or otherwise mess with their plans.  The sooner they learn to deal with it as a good sport, the better.  This smooth, brisk, and creatively themed title provides a quick gameplay experience that just might serve well in easing them into that transition.

September 19, 2011

Gaming with Kids: The Train Set Syndrome

I'll be honest.  Nostalgia was definitely the catalyst in introducing my kids to hobby gaming.  Hence the reason we began with Axis & Allies, probably a bit too soon for my boys' age.  In junior high and high school I spent an inordinate number of late nights board gaming with friends.  As this was before the influx of German hobby games to the United States, we played war games.  Mostly it was Risk and the Gamemasters Games (A&A, Shogun, Conquest of the Empire, and Fortress America).  We also enjoyed some select titles of the old Avalon Hill style, hex and counter, strategy simulations.  We even dabbled in painted miniatures war gaming.  Oh, how the plastic and cardboard and tempers would fly!

After a much greater deal of success in switching to Risk with my boys, I decided to hop on the Internet (also not around back in the day) to see if there happened to be anything new in strategy gaming in the last 18 years. Oh, boy!  Suffice it to say, I now have a wishlist five Excel pages long and unhealthy dreams of great shelving and a fatter wallet.

Which brings me around to thoughts of the stereotypical train set.  (Any other kid's gift may fit here, like, oh, I don't know...board games?)  You know what I mean, right?  Dad buys son a train set for Christmas.  Dad builds train set.  Dad plays with train set.  Dad buys more track, cars, and scenery to expand train set.  Dad spends small fortune to build replica of the Shenandoah Valley that takes up most of the basement.  Dad now has new hobby subscribing to train set magazines and going to train set conventions.  Mom decides on future Christmas presents for son.

So again, being honest, there is no doubt I really enjoy "buying games for my kids" simply because I enjoy the hobby.  However, I want to be careful not to go overboard.  And that's hard to do when reading about cool games and conventions.  Practically speaking, I am not able to go too terribly overboard.  I have a budget that restricts my purchasing power and a wife that would axe half of a 100 game collection for want of storage space.

But at the same time, it's about more than just those tangible excesses.  I don't want to overload my kids with board gaming at the expense of alienating or frustrating them.  I don't want to turn it into something for them that it's not - which right now is simply a way to spend fun, quality time with dad.  In essence, this really all boils down to an analysis on why I play board games with my kids.  That is a similar question for any hobby gamer:  why exactly are you a gamer?  I've already established the fact I enjoy board gaming as a hobby, in and of itself.  I also enjoy quality time with my kids.  They always enjoyed board games like Clue, Sorry, and Life.  So the jump to hobby gaming seemed a perfectly reasonable and natural fit.  But there are many other hobbies and past-times I could have chosen to engage in with them.  So why gaming?

Economic Value.  Okay, so any enthusiast can drain his bank account in this hobby, as in any other, so this is always relative.  Moderation is still the key here.  But generally speaking, board gaming is a good investment.  If you take care of the game, it will provide you with innumerable enjoyment over the years without requiring any maintenance, making the plays-per-cost ratio very reasonable as compared with many other hobbies or leisure time entertainment.  Even if you add an expansion or two to a favorite title, that economic value is still very good.  If your collection grows like a hungry gremlin, well then that factor becomes problematic as you don't have time to play all those games.  But in our experience, gaming beats a night out at the movies (which gives you one bang for your buck) or model rockets (constantly buying new engines, wadding, etc.).  For a family budget, this is one of the more significant attractions to gaming.

Accessibility.  I like to get the kids out of the house.  I'm of the old school thinking that the outdoors won't kill them.  So we ride bikes, play sports, and jump on the trampoline (did you know that if your timing is just right jumping at the same time, you can really launch your kid into the air?!).  And we kick them out to play with the neighborhood kids.  That said, conditions aren't always optimal to be outside, in which case board gaming is a very appealing option.  It usually requires little preparation time and is easy to put away.  You can squeeze a play in between other daily commitments since many games only need an hour or two.  A game's space requirement can be an issue, but usually you can carve out the room at home.  And while certainly not the case with every game, there are still many that are easy to transport on vacations, trips to the grandparents', or other outings.  The trampoline is still a bit difficult to get in even our 12-passenger van.

Mental Exercise.  Even with heavily random, luck-based titles, hobby gaming gives the brain a work-out.  While not solving advanced algebraic equations or debating physics with Stephen Hawking, you are still working the old gray matter.  Board gaming forces you to think critically, plan ahead, and adjust to changing situations.  I appreciate that this will not guarantee my kids a scholarship to Harvard or Yale, but it is certainly better than video games of the first-person action genre that is so popular today.  And while lengthy strategy games can offer some of the same benefits, advances in computer technology will not make board games obsolete!

To be sure there other reasons I choose board gaming for quality time, many of which are for things I am not.  I am not musically talented.  I am not artistically inclined.  I am not socially connected.  You get the idea.  But I am conscience of the need to keep this hobby realistic with my kids.  I want it to be "theirs" as much as it is "mine."  Otherwise, it's not really quality time.  Besides that, it makes it easier to convince my wife that the kids need another Boards & Bits gift certificate for Christmas!

September 17, 2011

Gaming Report: Mission: Red Plant

Today we played Mission: Red Planet, Cory's favorite game. I like this game because it is really fun and easy to play. I like how the Discovery cards can change the ending score so you never know who is going to win until the very end. This time it was not as crazy because there weren't as many Discovery cards played. But there were a lot of rockets blown up and we were killing off each others' astronauts. It was really funny when dad's rocket got blown up with 3 astronauts on board! In the end, dad won with 48 points, I had 38, Hope had 34, and Cory had 31. It was a close game! :)

September 14, 2011

Card Game Review: Mag Blast

Mag Blast (Fantasy Flight/Christian and Anders Petersen, 2006 [3rd Ed.])
2-8 Players / 10+ / 20 minutes

The situation was bleak.  My scattered fleet vainly tried to regroup, but I sighted enemy targets in all sectors.  I had no ships in the Blue or Green quadrants.  My crippled command ship's alarms blared incessantly, warning of impending doom.

"All power to shields," I barked.

"Admiral," meekly replied one of the few surviving crewman, "we don't have shields."

In disbelief, I growled, "What?! Just what kind of spaceship is this? I want to speak to Gene Roddenberry."

"Well, sir, that might be arranged here in just one second."


A starting fleet.

What You Get:

Surprise!...Cards!  There are 10 races with varying abilities (represented as command ship cards), 54 fleet ship cards (of various classes and configurations), and 101 action cards.  Fantasy Flight's usual reputation for quality holds true to form here.  They're sturdier than the average poker cards and linen-textured.  John Kovalic's cartoonish art is appropriate for the light-hearted, chaotic theme and will delight sci-fi fans with its satirical homage to the genre.

The Quick Rundown:

Your goal in Mag Blast is to blow your opponents out of the stars!  There are no victory points in this frantic free-for-all.  If your command ship is destroyed, you're eliminated from the game.  It's as simple as it is brutal.  However, you have a fleet of ships divided among four sectors around your command ship for protection.  Before you can target an enemy command ship, you must empty at least one of his sectors of any fleet ships and then you can start pounding it with one of your own ships through that corresponding sector.  You begin the game with only one random fleet ship in each quadrant and do the best you can with the action cards at hand.  Each fleet ship is rated for strength (hit points), maneuverability (movement points), and weaponry (type of gun[s] it can fire) - plus a couple types have a special ability.  A turn consists of first discarding any action cards you don't want, then drawing until you have 5 cards in hand, then discarding certain cards for an extra fleet ship (if possible), then maneuvering your starships between sectors, and finally playing any action cards you wish.  Action cards allow you to blast the enemy (once per turn, per ship) and also provide various other combat results such as direct hits that can catastrophically destroy an enemy vessel or capture it, etc.  There are also fighter and bomber squadrons you can launch to inflict more damage if you have a carrier.  You can even play action cards defensively to avoid damage.

Hence the game's name.
E for Everyone:

This game puts "confrontational" on the map.  I mean when the goal of a game is to destroy your opponent ruthlessly and as fast as possible, we are dealing with a special category of interaction.  So does that make Mag Blast suitable to play with kids, who by nature are more prone to react emotionally to this particular gaming characteristic?  From our family's experience, I would argue not only is it suitable, but it can provide some great times.  I say that for several reasons.

First, it is simple to learn and play.  While opponents may be bashing in your bulkheads, the rules at least are not bashing you over your own head.  The only part of gameplay that may take a few rounds to keep clear is between the three types of guns and the four different sectors.  Fleet ships can only fire blasts into their corresponding sectors and may only fire the type of blast(s) that their rating allows - laser, beam, or mag (dealing 1, 3, and 5 points damage respectively).  The four sectors are color coded blue, green, yellow, and red while the three blasts are similarly color coded yellow, green, and orange.  My kids were confusing the limitations of color sectors vs. color blasts and mixing them up.  After a full game, it should not be an issue.  The rest of gameplay is well structured and the special action cards have clear instructions regarding their abilities.
Carriers can launch fighters and bombers.

Second, it is light-hearted.  Sure, the sci-fi satire pretty much sails right over my kids' heads (except for a bit of Star Wars, perhaps), but the cartoony and humorous art keeps any tension that the game generates from being stressful.  For a game of cutthroat battle, it just doesn't seem vicious.  And the oft-maligned rule of having to make a "sound effect" as you play a blast card (or miss) proves that this tongue-in-cheek game doesn't take itself too seriously.  "Dude, did you just say 'pa-choo, pa-choo,' when you shot my cruiser?"  I mean come on, it's hard to really take that personal.

Third, it's almost always quick.  It is not unheard of for a player to be sucked into the cold vacuum of space before they even get a turn!  We have a gentleman's agreement in our house to give everyone at least one turn.  While early elimination can be a major drawback with other games, it's not as critical to us in Mag Blast because we usually play a few games at a sitting.  Now, if you're unfortunately vaporized that quickly in all of those games in one sitting, well then, I would contend the issue is with your gaming group and not the game!

Finally, the variety of cards and randomness provide for unique games every time you play.  While I don't necessarily recommend playing this ten times in a row, it will not grow stale for periodic plays.  In some games, all I can do is fire away at the enemy with conventional blast cards.  Other times, I'm able to draw good combinations of direct hit cards to really deal damage or change up the situation.  Sometimes you get plenty of reinforcements to replace losses and other times you're scrambling to shore up holes in your defenses.
Playing a direct hit and an effect with a blast card rocks!
Now, to be honest, this will not be a "go-to" title for serious gamers nor one that will motivate a gathering together.  Hardcore strategists will keep their distance like Klingons avoid Tribbles.  I also don't see it as a casual party game since the sci-fi geek theme will be lost on mainstream society.  It is what it is.  There is next to no strategy; luck will drive your battles; and the chaos factor is off the chain (especially the more players you have).  I could say there is a balancing act with the maneuver action in moving ships around to maximize firepower or protection by sector.  And there could be an interesting, diplomatic meta game with numerous players creating shifting, advantageous alliances.  But I'd be over-stretching its strategic reach. 

Okay I'll Shut Up Now:

In the end, I give Mag Blast an 8 on the Geek scale (Very good game.  I like to play.  Probably I'll suggest it and will never turn down a game.).  Even though you'll delight in knocking out your child's ships like bulls-eyeing womp rats in your T-16 back home, she'll relish in returning the cruel favor.  This quick, light, and simple romp creates quite the many surprising narratives for its breadth and price.  Whether you need to fill some time or want a break from the deep strategy slugfests, Mag Blast is a good choice as a thematic and chaotic yarn...I just wish it had deflector shields!

September 13, 2011

Gaming with Kids: Luck

Baby needs a new pair of shoes!  Now as it happens in a house with seven kids, that statement is often true at any given moment.  Okay, so we don't gamble for the funds to purchase said footwear.  But I've never minded a bit of gambling in board games.  Luck is a fascinating gaming characteristic that I never tire of reading about on forums, blogs, and other venues.  To many hardcore gamers, it is a 4-letter word to be avoided like a 24-hour TVLand Brady Bunch marathon.  Of course, there are many people who like the Brady Bunch (*raises hand*), and so to other gamers, luck is not only accepted as a natural element to games of all kind, but indeed preferred over those all-information-available think-fests.

Many others have covered this topic in a far more thoughtful manner than I could.  I'll give just a couple thoughts on the overall concept of randomness.  Otherwise, I'll just opine on this characteristic in how it relates to playing games with kids.  To cut to the chase, randomness in some form is an extremely beneficial mechanic in playing hobby games with your kids.  To what degree may be a matter of opinion and situation.  It depends first on the child's age and then also on his/her experience with board gaming.  Beyond that, it depends on your child's natural ability to grasp this particular hobby.  Realistically, people of all ages have various inclinations to hobbies, sports, activities, likes, etc.  We're all wired differently.  You know your own kid better than anyone.

However, even if you have a board gaming prodigy on your hands, it's extremely difficult to trump experience and mental maturity.  And so in that sense, without being patronizing or condescending, luck becomes an essential equalizer.  Especially if you're of the philosophy that taking it easy on your children in gaming does more harm than good, you will want high elements of luck in the games you play to give your kids more of a chance.  Even if you play fast and loose with game rules and mechanics, it is still helpful to have a measure of random elements.  Yes, kids can learn a lot in defeat, as we all do, but being on the receiving end of beatdowns time and time again will seriously erode their future interest in this hobby.  And that is counter-productive to the whole point of getting them involved early on in their lives.

Many gamers bemoan luck because it will mess up their best laid plans.  It can be frustrating to formulate a good strategy and build towards implementing it only to be thwarted because you can't draw the right card or roll the right number.  Then on the other end of the spectrum, a good number of gamers mock the randomness factor because players can stumble into a win, including themselves.  If on the losing end, this can be a point of resentment forever souring a view of the game.  But even if the lucky one, gamers can feel cheated by the "cheap" victory.  Either way, it is viewed as unearned, tainted, or likened to the asterisk that needs placed by some baseball records in the wake of steroid usage.

Most kids do not generally think in the same terms.  A win is a win and, to them, they will have earned it to some degree.  This is because the vast majority of hobby games are not entirely luck-driven, like say Candyland or Sorry.  They are still exerting some control over the game.  Sure, my kids recognize when "bad luck" strikes.  But they would never know that "dice hate me," except that I've yelled it numerous times!  They realize that randomness serves as a leveling device.  Especially in the absence of a game where they can gang up on me, they appreciate the fact that the unknown keeps them in the mix.  I also appreciate that as it allows me a balanced opportunity of teaching strategy while not completely easing up on them, yet still keeping them competitive.

We have some enjoyable games all along the randomness spectrum that have worked well for us.  Mag Blast is probably the most chaotic luckfest we own, but still fun.  Area control war games like Axis & Allies provide a strong emphasis on strategy which is heavily influenced by the die rolls.  Then we have games like Small World on the other end which are much more strategic in mechanics, but with some minor doses of randomness to keep you on your toes.
In the end, I would contend that random elements are essential to kids learning strategy games.  It keeps them competitive while they develop their critical thinking skills and hone their analytical abilities.  Plus, it teaches them to adapt to changing game situations - a useful lesson.  After all, life is what happens around us when we're making other plans, right?  The next surprise is always just around the corner.  Plans rarely go...well, as planned.  Some of the greatest battles in history turned on pure, unadulterated, blind (or rotten) luck.  Mega pop stars are accidentally discovered.  Major sporting events are won by freak ball bounces.  Lives are changed by natural disasters, world economies, the lottery, and other things we have no control over.

I argue that a game that does not include random elements is unrealistic.  Pure strategy games may be good learning tools.  Analyzing puzzle games where all information is accessible strengthens the gray matter.  But games that teach you how to manage chaos, adapt to change, confront the unknown, and deal with the monkey wrenches thrown into the machinery teach kids more practical things - because that's life.  Preparing for that randomness then becomes a strategy in and of itself.  Because its not really about gambling for baby's new pair of shoes; but instead preparing for when the need comes up...whenever that might be.

September 12, 2011

Gaming Report: Red November, Mag Blast

A packed weekend in which the kids had plenty going on, but we still made a little time for a couple board games.  I rolled out Red November for the first time with the kids.  I'm pretty sure I corrected the rules we missed when the brother-in-law and I broke the shrink on it last weekend.  It was indeed a frantic affair with one of the kids even about to abandon ship, but his path was blocked and we were able to avert the immediate disaster that was motivating his cowardice!  In the end we survived by the skin of our gnomish noses: one gnome remaining with 8 minutes left, trapped in a room with all hatches blocked, one tick away from both the oxygen pumps and the reactor completely failing, and three event cards to draw.  FUN TIMES!  The kids struggled a bit with the mechanics and the confusion, but that was expected for their first play.  Still, they had a good time.  As our first cooperative game, it was cool to see them think out the chaos management.  It was encouraging to watch as they analyzed which gnome had the best opportunity to fix various problems based on their location and items in hand.  It was also disconcerting and humbling to see them ready to abandon their loved ones without hesitation!  Ah, board gaming.

Then on to something decidedly not cooperative: Mag Blast.  We really enjoy this game.  Some decry it as an aimless filler, or overly light, or frustratingly random.  We like it because of all of those points.  It's humorous and quick.  And while by design it is super spiteful (you're blasting opposing vessels out of the stars!), it's usually quick enough to negate the drawbacks of player elimination.  The kids (okay, me too) really get a kick out of making the blast noises.  And they generally gang up on me.  Ah, board gaming.

September 08, 2011

Board Game Review: Magnifico

Magnifico (Dust Games/Spartaco Albertarelli and Angelo Zucca, 2008)
3-5 Players / 14+  / 120 minutes

1499 A.D.  The foreboding Castle of Milano ominously stood sentry over the north Italian countryside.  Many thought it impregnable as its monstrous walls rose to the sky, reinforced by massive towers at every corner.  Its lord boasted it would never fall - even against 100,000 men.  But in a rare moment that I would be foolish not to seize, the enemy emptied the castle garrison off all but eight infantry units.  So I would put that declaration to the test!  Gathering my armies from the surrounding lands, I march my legions of pikemen upon the fortress and begin the assault with my...


What You Get:
    Lots of plastic! The components are snazzy and well detailed, but a bit too small for a "dudes on a map" game, which will be fiddly by definition.  Da Vinci's tanks all look like flying saucers and his planes look like hang gliders - but theming alternate history is not an exact science.  The infantry are all halberd-bearing Swiss mercenary types of the Pope's Guard variety.  No doubt after being mowed down by Renaissance tanks, they found employment in Papal service far safer.  The mounted board is both practical and gorgeous.  The cards are sturdy, linen-textured, and with appropriately baroque artwork for the time period's theme. I do wish Dust Games had provided a reference sheet describing the cards and their iconography, though.  It is especially confusing for kids. It is now published by Fantasy Flight.

    Legions of plastic bits!
     The Quick Rundown:

    Magnifico is Ameritrash at is core with some Euro game elements.  You start with one territory, two dudes, a castle, and a pile of coins.  What makes this "dudes on a map" game unique is that your money is used to bid for certain project cards (all based on Leonardo da Vinci's inventions) which determine turn order, provide a variety of combat advantages, and give victory points.  The usual elements of any war game are here with some unique twists.  It costs money to invade other territories and wage war, plus you are limited to the number of times you can attack in one round.  Grunts are free.  You can only buy tanks and planes if you have one of the appropriate project cards.  Attacker gets to roll first and remove casualties before the defender can fight back.  However, you can also kill your own men while rolling (which I guess could simulate defensive return fire or perhaps friendly fire?).  Tanks are especially fearsome as each one rolls a handful of dice and can wipe out half a dozen infantry each time - but if you roll really poorly, a major malfunction will destroy your entire army!  Additionally, only infantry can be taken as casualties (with a few exceptions) and when all your infantry are dead, the enemy captures any remaining tanks and planes.  The other major Euro element are victory points.  You earn these by owning the most castles, conquering the most territories, building the most projects, and displaying Renaissance-era, pin-up models in your gym locker at the country club.  After expanding and fighting and waxing and waning, eventually some one will earn enough points to be declared Magnifico, which comes with a funny hat and your own personal Swiss guard sans Popemobile.

    T for Teens:

    Generally, I pay little attention to the age range on the box.  My kids get into a number of games even though they may be younger than that suggested.  However, with Magnifico I think that 14+ is accurate.  If this were the first war game introduced to my kids, I don't think they would have had as many issues.  However, there are enough twists in here on old, familiar mechanics that they stumble through play and constantly ask about rule clarifications.  The game is probably better suited for older children, even probably teenagers.  With that said, I think some of the mechanics that threw off my children will probably also turn off some regular strategy gamers

    An assault begins.
    First off, tanks are powerful.  Really powerful.  My kids think they're over-powered.  There are enough tank project cards in play for everyone to have one tank card.  You can only own one and you need it to build them (same with planes).  Which specific card you have will determine how many dice each of your tanks roll in combat and how many hits you score with a successful roll.  When a tank rolls all of its dice and does not roll any explosion symbols, that is considered a complete success and you score all the hits indicated on your card, generally 4-6 (plus additional hits for any tank upgrade cards you can bid for and purchase separately).  That's a lot of damage inflicted on the defender with just one tank, especially when you remember those defenders never get to even fire back!  However, this advantage is tempered by several things.  First, if you roll just 1 explosion, you only score half the kills allowed per your tank card and any upgrades.  If you roll 2 explosions, you score 0 hits.  And if you should be unlucky enough to roll 3 explosions (of which I often am), you're entire army is wiped out in a major malfunction - the "Mother of all Backfires," I suppose!  You can only build one tank per turn.  And if you leave yourself vulnerable to counter-attack, it is possible your tanks will be captured by the enemy and then turned against you!

    Beware the explosions...
    The other major issue my kids have with the game is that it is very difficult to catch-up if you fall behind.  Money and victory points are awarded based on owning territories, castles, and projects.  It is difficult to acquire those if you don't have money; and it is difficult to get money if you don't acquire those.  Fall too far behind and you don't have money to bid for projects which will generally better your combat abilities.  You can turtle and build up your castle defenses making it extremely difficult to lose a territory or two, but where's the fun in that?  You can't count on your infantry; they may be free, but you only get one per territory and they're weak beyond about round three.  You really need tanks to be effective both on offense and even in defending strong castles.  Otherwise, you're sitting and waiting for an opportunity to take advantage of two stronger neighbors weakening one or each other.  By then, it can be too late to catch-up in victory points.  The three attacks per turn rule is generally not enough to slow down the leader.

    The castle defenses can also pose grumbling among my kids.  The only real plausible defense against tanks is a castle, which then can swing the advantage to the other extreme.  A castle with four towers reduces all infantry and individual tank hits by five, making assaults upon these fortresses a dicey affair.  Many will think this too great a defensive advantage and encourages turtling.  But turtling earns you no points.  There are ways to increase your odds against these beastly cities.  Planes ignore castle defenses - but there is a risk they will be destroyed in the attack.  You can get the paratrooper project card which gives you're entire army a chance to ignore castle defenses - but you have to win one in an auction, pay to play it, and then roll successfully to even employ it in battle.  So mostly it comes down again to the backbone of the game: tanks.  The best way we've found to assault even the strongest castles is to build as many tank upgrades as possible in order to increase the number of hits each tank can score.  And then bring lots of them.

    I personally like Magnifico.  The game gives a fresh twist to almost all the tried and true mechanics you see with "dudes on a map" games - but you may need to get used to them.  Components are better than average.  The theme is original and well implemented.  Combat is unique.  You must save money to wage war.  The project bidding ensures that games vary from play to play.  Planning out how best to use your menacing tanks is challenging.  The tight economy, attack limitations, and unforgivingly quick combat mechanics keep turns relatively short.  The victory point system prevents needless all-day slugfests.

    Okay, I'll Shut Up Now:

    In the end, I give Magnifico an 8 on the Geek scale (Very good game.  I like to play.  Probably I'll suggest it and will never turn down a game.).  It is not the best choice for younger kids, though.  My kids are willing to play it and it will probably grow on them over time.  But the brutal and sometimes bizarre combat results, along with the "weak get weaker tendency," leaves them preferring other titles.  For teens and adults, you may enjoy this one for what it is:  an original and lighter war game with unique twists on the genre.  If you prefer more old-school, traditional strategy games, this one may not be for you.

    The artwork is fantastic.

    September 07, 2011

    Gaming with Kids: Strategy

    I'm pretty sure all hobby gamers have a little bit of Napoleon in them - and not as in a 'Napoleon Complex' (though that could explain many an attraction to board gaming!).  No, rather there is something about studying a board, examining options, formulating a course of action, and then executing it just as planned - while ruthlessly devouring your enemy - that is oddly satisfying.  In fact, from the gaming forums, blogs, and review sites that I follow, many gamers so love this aspect of gaming that they truly disdain any mechanic that employs even the rudiments of luck that could sabotage their best laid plans!  That’s another topic to examine later.

    Of all hobby gaming's characteristics I've found this one the most problematic in gaming with my own kids.  First off, to be clear, my kids really dig strategy.  In the more complex games, they will noticeably (and agonizingly) take longer turns in order to process all the options.  When we have to stop and leave a game set-up until returning the next day, I will invariably find them sitting at the table later by themselves studying the situation.  And quite possibly their favorite thing in all of gaming is engineering the most efficient means of ganging up on their old man - the sneaky little twerps!  In this regard, I would argue that children can be different than the non-gaming crowd.  If introducing a Euro game to non-gamers in my extended family, I would pick the simplest and most straight-forward game in terms of rules, mechanics, and strategy.  With my kids, I'm not as concerned with being quite so discerning, even busting out the war games.

    I say problematic because, although they enjoy strategy, they often fail to look ahead enough turns in order to completely analyze all choices.  This also may be natural for adults (specifically non-gamers), but it’s not necessarily as simple as that with kids.  Children are good at examining the avenues before them, choosing one based on the situation at hand, and then properly planning what needs implemented to accomplish that one goal.  That's the basis of strategy.  However, sometimes they will choose one path out of many options under the assumption that it will operate within a vacuum, rather than understanding entirely how their decision impacts the cause and effect relationship among all of the paths together.  They fail to see the forest because of their tree.

    In our first plays of Dominion, for example, they realized early on that concentrating on Estate cards too soon would mean clogged and worthless hands.  Good thinking!  Knowing that they had to string card combos together, they would concentrate on going after the +card(s) and +action(s).  That’s on the right track!  But of course after drawing a good amount of Treasure cards with their +card/+action combos, they would have no +buys with which to take advantage of the extra money in hand.  Or on another front, perhaps the attack cards were so attractive they'd get an imbalance of Moats with which to improve the odds of protecting themselves against the attacks of others.  With my kids, it is less about formulating a good plan and more about the need to understand how other nuances affect their strategic choices.

    My kids love war games.  They delight in pushing little plastic cannon fodder around ancient maps and chucking truck loads of dice.  Sound effects are mandatory.  And war games are rich in strategy.  It is not uncommon for them to fully explore one strategic option while neglecting another.  It can be as straight-forward as building up to attack in one area while ignoring defense in another.  Or maybe more involved like failing to see the nuances of how other avenues can aid their offensive plans - the use of combined arms over masses of cheap infantry; shoring up a front with temporary diplomacy; attacking an area that better utilizes interior lines; or the use of small-scale economic warfare to erode their opponent's ability to fight.  While they certainly realize some of this, I think they often operate under a "one thing at a time" mentality without realizing that all of the nuances work together simultaneously - especially the long-term effects.

    So should you play deeper strategy games with your children?  By all means, yes!  Just keep in mind you'll need to teach them as you play - and plan accordingly.  As you realize what strategy they've adopted, look ahead for them and point out possible consequences.  Even hint at what you'll be doing so that they can learn to anticipate their opponents.  One of the fun things about gaming with my kids is that I'm not worried about winning, but simply engaging with them while they develop skills in logic, critical reasoning, and deduction.  On the other hand, don't play the game for them and give them every move.  That essentially leaves you playing against yourself which is not only sad, but renders moot any strategic planning in the fist place.  It also does very little, if anything, in allowing your kids to think for themselves.  They will even come to resent playing you if you don't give them a good dose of independence.  ‘Trial and error’ is just as good a teacher as your own experience - maybe better!

    Also, ease them into the heavier strategy games.  In that regard, the situation would be comparable to non-gamers, although many non-gamers would prefer not to move beyond even those introductory strategy games!  Just don't do what I did and start off with Axis & Allies!  The usual suspects of "gateway games" apply here.  One overlooked option that has done well in our house is Kingsburg.  This dice-based, worker placement/resource management game really requires a balance in developing your realm versus ensuring that you have enough soldiers to protect what you've built at the end of each year.  However, there are different ways to use your dice to achieve that balance as well as different game components you can use to manipulate those dice further.  The rules and mechanics are simple while still providing enough variety of strategic options without overwhelming you.

    With gradual experience and instruction, children can develop into keen strategists more so than the average adult non-gamer only interested in gaming for the social aspect, not the mental.  In no time at all, your child will be sweeping through your lands and smashing your little plastic bits to smithereens like the cunning, little Napoleon she is...

    September 05, 2011

    Gaming Report: Dominion, Red November

    Spent the weekend in Green Bay, WI, at my brother-in-law's and family.  He's a huge Pokemon player.  He and my nephew (10) play in a club, of sorts, up there every week at an awesome FLGS called Gnome Games.  They also play, and do very well, in tournaments up there.  Gnome Games supports pretty much all of the major gaming hobbies with open play, sponsored and official tournaments, and more, including Magic, L5R, board gaming, and miniatures.

    Anyway, last time they were down here in Illinois, I introduced him to Dominion thinking it'd be right up his alley - as a Pokemon veteran.  Success!  So I brought it with me this weekend, even though it was going to be a busy one.  We did get one play in - which he won.  And since my kids also like to play Pokemon (though we're much more casual), we joined them at their weekly gathering at Gnome Games.  I, of course, couldn't get out of there without a purchase, so we now have Red November in the collection.  That night, instead of a rematch of Dominion, my brother-in-law asked to try out the new game.  Rock on!  I'm sure he won't abandon Pokemon for the hobby gaming ship, but it looks like he'll be more than keen to jump into any genre of game when he's here, or we're there.  And that's a win.

    September 01, 2011

    Card Game Review: Citadels

    Fanning out the four remaining role cards, I sneak a glance at my tableau.  Seven districts.  One to go.  Then I observe that two of my opponents are in a similar situation, albeit with less gold.  Between my cash in hand and the two I will earn for my action that round, I have enough to lay down the Fortress - a nice card, but I'm more concerned with getting that 4 point bonus awarded to the first with eight districts.  Back to the character cards: the Magician, the King, the Bishop, and the Warlord.  Of course, the Assassin and the Thief are both gone already.  Perhaps one of them is that face down card in the center of the table?  Or did my rotten and conniving kids choose them, after my life and treasure again?  So, the Magician it is.  He plays third, hopefully getting me that 4 point bonus.  Plus I rarely pick him, so surely my scheming and scoundrel children will think I chose another?  The remaining roles go round the table.  The King calls out for the Assassin.  It's Brendon.  Of course.  He looks astutely around the group, everyone still and quiet (which, by the way is very rare at our house).  After pondering intently, he takes his action, builds his sixth district and, with evil glee, calls out, "I assassinate the Magician!"  Are you serious?!  ARRRGGGHHHH!!!

    The Vitals:
    • Publisher - Fantasy Flight (2006), with Dark City Expansion
    • Designer - Bruno Faidutti
    • Players - 2 to 7
    • Play Time - 20 to 60 minutes, per the box
    • Ages - 10 years and up
    What You Get:
    Out of the box.
    • 66 District Cards
    • 8 Character Cards
    • 8 Reference Cards
    • 30 Plastic Gold Coins
    • A Nifty "King-Shaped" Wooden Pawn
    • 10 Bonus Character Cards (Dark City Expansion)
    • 14 Bonus District Cards (Dark City Expansion)
    The components are very nice.  The cards are a heavy, linen-textured stock.  The district cards should hold up very well over time.  However, the role cards will see heavy wear as they are routinely shuffled and handled a lot in this game.  You will either need to sleeve them or be very gentle, especially as any distinguishing marks or scuffs may jeopardize the identity of a particular card, thus diminishing the point of the secret role selection mechanic.  I've told my kids that if they bend or crease one, there will be no ice cream in the house for two months - the money instead going toward a new copy of the game!  The artwork is expressive and eye-catching.  The butterscotch buttons are fun to handle as gold.  And the wooden crown marker is a polished, if unnecessary, touch.

    The Quick Rundown:

    The goal in Citadels is to have the most points when you or some one else builds eight districts, triggering the last round of the game.  You start with a hand of four district cards and two gold.  Each turn, you take an action of either a) taking two gold or b) drawing two district cards, adding one of them to your hand.  To build a district, you must pay the cost indicated on the card, which is also how many points that district is worth at the end of the game.  You can score bonus points by being the first to build eight districts, completing eight districts in the last round of the game, building at least one of the five different kinds of districts (military, royal, religious, economic, and special), and finally with certain special district cards.

    A starting hand.
     The brilliance of this game, however, is in the character cards.  Each round, via a drafting mechanic, the players secretly select a role which will give them a special ability that turn.  The Assassin can kill another character, depriving them of their turn.  The Thief can steal a character's gold.  The Magician can trade cards with the draw pile or another player.  The King gets extra gold for each royal district you own, plus first choice of roles on the next round.  The Bishop gets extra gold for any religious districts you own, and cannot be attacked by the Warlord.  The Merchant gets an extra gold, plus more gold for any economic districts you own.  The Architect draws and keeps two extra cards and can build up to three districts if you have the money. And the Warlord receives extra gold for each military district you own, plus may destroy another player's district for the cost of one less gold indicated on that card.  The bonus characters replace certain roles from the core game and have similar abilities along the lines of their counterparts.

    A completed city worth 34 points.

    E for Everyone:

    Is a character-selection game in which half the roles can mess with you in some fashion good for kids?  I'm going to go out on a limb and say, "Yes," although it could be borderline for some.  And I actually add that caveat not because of the spite factor, but rather because of the subtlety of the psychology involved.  The beauty of this game is in balancing your role selections.  Do you simply choose the role needed for an immediate task?  Do you grab one that you think another player is after, in order to deny it to them?  Do you pick one of the "attacking" roles just to be ruthless and cruel or set someone down a notch?  Do you nab one because you think another player that's after you won't think you would select that character, hoping they will choose the wrong character to kill or steal from?  This mental head-game makes Citadels tick with intrigue and tension.  Most of the time, my kids seems to understand the psychology of this role selection and play it well - you can almost see the gears turning inside their brains.  Every now and then, they miss a subtlety that an adult would not, especially after seventh districts are built.  At that point, as the game could end in any round, there is a slightly different dynamic to the nuances of role selection.

    The direct interaction could always pose some tears among children.  After all, I've read reviews from adults that don't play this game because they're put off by that mechanic.  However, I would argue it should not be a problem for the majority of kids for two reasons.  One, it isn't too personal.  The Assassin and the Thief must pick a character to kill and steal from, not a specific player.  While the Magician can "steal" your hand, it's not as common and can even help you sometimes.  The Warlord can be a pain because he can destroy one of your districts, but you take some solace in the fact that it costs him gold (incidentally that means it's usually of lower point value so he does not have to pay as much to burn it).  All in all, this minimizes the ability to "gang up" on some one.  And two, the jabs are not constant.  This is no war game, so generally the spite is not coming relentlessly like a UFC beatdown.  You will have just as much opportunity to use the "attacking" roles as any other.  And revenge is sweet indeed!

    Beware these shady looking characters.
     The game should appeal to most kids.  The older the better.  However, 3 of my 4 kids are under the suggested age printed on the box and do just fine, by and large.  Citadels is probably our most played game.  The rules are easy to learn and play, while the psychological aspect tacks on a fun, tense, and challenging metagame.  At the same time, it is just light enough to ease the pain of the "take that" moments.  The production quality is good.  You'll be laughing as you snatch a pile of gold from underneath another's nose one turn, or as you're keeling over in your soup and bread from a dagger in your back the next.  Unless you're the type that loathes having your life and money taken from you.  Plus, it's not a strategy game, if that's what you'd rather play.  If you don't draw good district cards, it's going to limit what points you'll earn.  If you're solely into theme, you'll probably want to concentrate elsewhere.  While the character abilities make sense, the theme of nobles building a medieval city is just sort of "there," and doesn't shape any narrative.  And some of the bonuses provided by special district cards have little to do with the name of that particular district.  It does not scale as well as some would like, ideally suited more for 5-7 players (personally I still enjoy 2-3 player games).  A final, minor point is that game times do vary widely from play to play, depending on number of players and the success rate of trying to "slow down" the leader with attack cards.

    Okay, I'll Shut Up Now:

    On the Board Game Geek rating scale, I give this game a 10 (Outstanding. Always want to play and expect this will never change).  So far, the only 10 of our, as now, small collection.  Because of the nasty side and the mind games, it may not be the first game you'll use to introduce this hobby to kids and non-gamers, but it could easily be a second.