February 28, 2012

Kids View: Cyclades

What is the Game About?

You have to build four metropolises to win and each metropolis needs four different types of buildings to be completed (temple, university, fortress, and port). To be able to build, you have to first bid for different gods who are kept track of on a separate board. You shuffle the four god tiles (Zeus, Athena, Ares, and Poseidon) and then lay them in random order on the board and players then bid to be able to use their powers for a turn. The first bidder each round is the player who went last the turn before that. You can always choose Apollo who is free, and always last, but he gives you money, so it's not too bad. The gods let you build different buildings that you need to make a metropolis and other things. Athena lets your build a university, Ares lets you move troops and Poseidon lets you move ships. There are also cool creatures you can buy. They come up randomly but have some cool abilities you can use.

What do I Like?

I like it because it is based off of the movie (ed. from Dad - she means Clash of the Titans, hehe). I like the way all the characters are and what they have to offer. The board set-up and all the pieces are awesome. I like how they let you choose Apollo so that you can rest or pass or earn a little money. The creature cards and figures look really, really cool.

What do I Dislike?

It can be really frustrating when you spend time building your own metropolis and then some one else has just been building up their army and just comes and takes yours. Some of the creatures don't give you a lot of help compared to others. I don't like when some one bids higher and then you have to bid on a different god and you don't get your first choice. The bidding can be hard and sometimes mean.

February 25, 2012

Kids View: Bang! The Bullet

What is the Game About?

You have a secret role - either the sheriff, a deputy, an outlaw, or the renegade. The renegade is supposed to kill the outlaws first and then the sheriff and be the last man alive. The sheriff is trying to kill the outlaws and the renegade. The outlaws only have to kill the sheriff. The deputy is trying to protect the sheriff by killing the outlaws and the renegade. To shoot other players, you have to play Bang! cards, but you can only use one each turn. You can play other cards that give you protection, or let you shoot farther, or heal you. You can also play a Missed! if someone shoots you. You also get special character that you play as the whole game and that person gives you different abilities.

What do I Like?

You can win the game no matter what role you are. Even though everyone knows who the sheriff is, the deputy will secretly help him and the renegade doesn't want to kill him first. I won the first 7 games of Bang! that we played! I was the renegade once, the sheriff twice, an outlaw 3 times, and even the deputy. I also was never killed!

What do I Dislike?

The green border cards are hard to keep because you have to lay them down before you can use them. The renegade is the hardest to play and I wish there was another teammate. If you are the sheriff and kill a deputy, there is a huge penalty - you lose all your cards in play and in your hand. I want to make a house rule that if you try to punch somebody, but they play an Iron Plate (which acts as a Missed!), then that means you hit that instead with your fist and broke your hand and have to lose your next turn! Dad says, "He'll think about it."

February 22, 2012

Board Game Review: Warlords of Europe

Warlords of Europe (Conquest Gaming/Kyle Battle, Ken Griffin and Russ Rupe, 2010)
2-4 players / 12 + / 2-4 hours

"Okay, dad, say good-bye to your castle in Germany!  My army is rolling in!"

"Ha, you don't frighten me Danish pig-dogs!"

"Yeah, right.  I play 'Greek Fire' first to kill off four of your guys."

"Go and boil your bottom, son of a silly person, you and all your silly knnnnnnnnnn-iguts!"

"Whatever. Then I play 'Heroic Leadership' to give me ten-sided dice."

"I blow my nose at you, empty-headed animal food-trough wiper!"

"Um, okay, yeah, then I play 'Seige' which reduces your rolls to the ten-sided, also."

"Ah, I don't want to talk to you no more!  Now go away or I shall taunt you a second time!"

"Too late, dad..."

Lots to play with.
What You Get:

What every kid wants:  toys!  Even (or maybe especially) "kids at heart" will drool over the components in this box, namely the 200+ detailed, plastic army and castle pieces.  I'm not afraid to admit it!  The castles are basic and stout, while the spearmen, swordsmen, archers, knights, and warlords are all finely rendered.  One minor issue is that the warlords are all grey instead of each player owning a few in their own color.  As they are captured, you really need to remember which belonged to whom since there are ways to get them back.  There are three decks of cards, under-sized and sturdy, that provide some big bonuses and great thematic flavor.  The cardboard coins and tokens are thick enough to handle and endure.  There is a baggie of mini-poker chips which can be stacked under some units to represent greater numbers.  The board is solid, stylistically antique-ish, and not too "busy."  There are some small issues in distinguishing a few borders, here and there, and you will experience a good deal of territory over-crowding - unfortunately an attribute endemic to most dudes-on-a-map games not produce by Eagle.  Then throwing caution to the wind, the designers toss out the commonplace six-sided die and instead include a gaggle of d8s, d10s, and d12s.  There's nothing particularly special about these dice in themselves, but just for the refreshing change in replacing the overused standards!

The Quick Rundown:

Warlords of Europe takes mechanics that all conquest wargamers are familiar with from other titles, and mixes in a few tweaks for a unique experience.  Its closest cousin is probably Ikusa (aka Samurai Swords of the 1980s MB GameMaster Series).  As a medieval lord, all players begin with a couple of fiefs, a castle, and a small army with the goal of expanding territory and capturing a majority of Europe's castles.  More lands and castles yield more money - with extra bonuses in consolidating all the fiefs within larger kingdoms.  That money is used mostly to build up your army or hire mercenaries (which are the same units, but you only get to keep them for one turn).  The units available include archers (who fire separately in combat as ranged units) and then spearmen, swordsmen, and formidable knights.  Warlords are also available in limited supply that, in addition to their combat value, act as generals who can move any number of units attached to them up to two territories.  Combat is determined by cross-referencing several tables based on combined arms, morale, initiative, terrain, weather, and leadership.  No, not really - you just throw some dice.  But the refreshing aspect here is the three types of dice.  Which ones you roll is not based upon the units involved, but rather the terrain.  Normally, both sides will resort to the d8.  However, if you are defending in the forest or in a partially built castle, you get d10s; if you're holed up in the mountains or in a completed castle, you can break out the intimidating d12s.  Better units require lower numbers to score hits.  There is yet another crucial component that really defines this game: cards.  Each card in the three different decks provides some pretty significant bonuses that can really make or break your strategy.  Conquest cards are earned once per round as long as you've conquered at least one fief.  All players receive a Papal card every turn as long as they're in good standing with the Pope (which is almost always).  Finally, merchant cards are available for purchase.  You will acquire a good number of these over the course of the game and their effective use cannot be stressed and appreciated enough.

T for Teens:

I may sound like a broken record before I finish up with our collection of this genre, but the same principle applies here: my kids (boys and girls) really have a deep interest in dudes-on-a-map, conquest games, yet struggle with strategic decision-making and also get quite restless while waiting on their next turn.  But it goes back to the toys.  The little figures seem to be a natural attraction for kids (my kiddo gamers are ages 9 and 10).  I can remember playing similar games back in junior and senior high for the sheer, unquantifiable awesomeness of it all.  And the publication and sales of such games proves there is a market among adults in the hobby.  Maybe it's because we start young?  I mean, even as we're playing, my 4-year old daughter will grab my extra army pieces and head off to the other end of the table to feed them, and dress them, and drop them off at daycare.  Or, um, should that be knightcare...?

More to see than just the d6!

My kids really get into the Middle Ages setting.  I suspect most other children will, too.  They delight in battling with swords, storming castles, and sending forth their knighted hero to rescue the princess...only in this case, it's a warlord, which actually is kind of awkward.  No matter.  I share their enthusiasm for the theme.  Playing the GameMaster series as teenagers, my friends and I dreamed that Milton Bradley would give us the opportunity to use our strategic wits, honed on the fields of ancient Rome and medieval Japan, in the fiefs of Western Christendom.  Sadly that was never the case.  But this oversight has now been gloriously corrected by Larry Davis' spiritual successors at Conquest Gaming, LLC.

Outside of wargamers, downtime and game length are probably the biggest turn-offs in this genre.  Warlords has two mechanics that seem to address both problems, yet do not alleviate them completely.  Though honestly, I'm not sure that's possible for a game of this nature without removing its heart and soul.  It would be unfair to ask for evangelical titles to convert the light hobby or Euro gamer to the wargaming faith.  So how does its mechanics connect with kids?

To alleviate downtime, a number of actions are executed simultaneously (or nearly so) during a Group Phase.  These brief actions are resolved in fairly quick succession and include a victory check, taking a Papal card, levying taxes, mustering and deploying units, building castles, assigning initiative, and purchasing Merchant cards.  These are settled in a particular order based on initiative, which changes each round, and anyone may play cards during these action phases when indicated on the card.  It is a helpful mechanic to break up all of the logistics, shorten the focus on individual campaigning, and keep players involved in a more frequent rotation.  Another added benefit to concurrent mustering and deployment is that all players have a chance to replaces losses before the next campaign season begins.  When the campaigning does start, you will be waiting while the other players announce their movement, resolve battles (which could involve you), and finally maneuver reserves.  There is downtime.

While still an afternoon affair for 3-4 player games, the victory condition mechanic and scenario options go a long way to help reduce overall game length.  Rather than conquering every last square inch of land or completely eliminating all enemies, your goal is to capture and hold a majority of castles (all of them in a 2-player game).  That is still no easy task - which accounts for the games 2-4 hour span.  Yet it provides a finite goal in what might otherwise turn into an exhaustive marathon of give and take.  This measurable victory condition will also guide players' strategy and is conducive to streamlined game play.  Castles are extremely important in this game, which makes sense given their political, military, economic, and social dominance of the times.  You must own one in any given kingdom in order to collect taxes from its fiefs.  If you control a majority, or all, of the fiefs in a kingdom, you are awarded bonuses in the form of extra taxes and free levees.  Losing your last castle means you no longer collect money, nor can you hire knights - and that's a tough slog.  On another note, suggested scenarios scale the playable map area to a smaller number of kingdoms, eliminating the slow and boring build-up and forcing players into early confrontation.

Six to seven fiefs comprise one kingdom (highlighted in yellow).
Own them all and reap the rewards.
If castles are the heart of the game, then its soul lies in the cards.  Each card either provides you with a sweet benefit, allows you to break a rule, or cripples an opposing player of your choice.  In addition to providing fun, historical flavor, the cards offer uncertainty, secrecy, hope, healing, and revenge!  This all adds up to excitement in our book, but I imagine the added randomness could be off-putting for others, especially when the dice can already bless or curse your plans.  Mechanically speaking, these cards serve as a minor leveling device where a run-away leader problem is otherwise an issue.  As one player edges ahead in fiefs and castles, it is quite easy to exploit her extra gold and quickly surge forward, even seeming unstoppable.  But then you draw that card, or more, allowing you to infect her with the plague, or steal some gold, or roll better dice for a critical assault on one of her strategic castles.  You're position is not always as secure, or hopeless, as it may appear.

An unfinished castle.

There is one quirky aspect that can significantly affect game play.  On your first turn, your only goal is to successfully consolidate the 6-7 fiefs of your starting kingdom.  From your 2 start territories, you'll invade the other lands and fight the peasants there: 1 in mountain fiefs, 2 in forest fiefs, and 3 in plains and farming fiefs.  Now most of the kingdoms are fairly balanced and the success rate for accomplishing this task is very high.  However, while it won't occur every game, it will eventually happen that a player will fail to consolidate his kingdom and, therefore, miss out on the early bonus gold and spearmen.  It may sound minor, but that person will then be disadvantaged right from the start and must be especially diligent to reach equal footing.

Okay I'll Shut-Up Now:

In the end, I personally give Warlords of Europe an 8 on the Board Game Geek scale (Very good game.  I like to play.  Probably I'll suggest it and will never turn down a game).  It would not be the first wargame I recommend introducing to your children, especially younger than junior high.  But kids, like adults, will be hard pressed to resist its sweeping historical narrative and epic theme.  While most mechanics will be familiar to even moderate wargamers, top-notch components and fresh tweaks create a fun medieval experience.  Simply stated, if enjoy conquest games you must have this title.

Card examples (from top): Conquest, Papal, Merchant

February 15, 2012

Gaming Report: Bang! The Bullet and Mag Blast

For his birthday, we bought our son Bang! The Bullet.  Okay, fine, yeah, I bought our son Bang! The Bullet. So, what's your point...?!  This card game was high on his wishlist and he has actually been asking for it since seeing a couple of video reviews on the Geek - like months ago!  I'll do a full review in time. We've played three 5-player sessions in the past week.  Cory must have some "birthday boy mojo" as he's been on the winning team all three times - in fact he's yet to be gunned down!  In our inaugural game, he pinned on the shiny, plastic star and cleaned out the town.  Then in the next two games, he was the last outlaw standing after ruthlessly sending the sheriff off to Boot Hill in a rough-hewn, pine box.  Well, actually, he played an Injun card to take care of the last lawman - and that's when he couldn't shoot her because she was holed up in a hideout and out of gun range!  Hope comes ever so close - she has the touch for drawing the really good cards, for some reason.  So far on the plus side: a unique and fun theme, fluid mechanics, good balance, replayability, and great value.  On the minus side: some rules ambiguity, too many Missed! cards, questionable length, and alcohol (I'll explain latter).

This is just such a cool pic! From the blog peaeater.com.

Yes, we have the silly art edition. And dig it!

This all, naturally, led to some rounds of Mag Blast.  I'm not sure I documented how many, but probably four or five games of between 3- to 4-players.  Which means that I stood not a chance in any of them.  My kids seem to think I'm more comfortable with my particles scattered across the cold, vastness of space - so they gang up on me.  In two player combat, I can hold my own and admit I'm very lucky with the card draws to do so (especially since I get the Recyclons a lot, who get to draw reinforcements every time a ship anywhere is destroyed).  In the massively chaotic, George Lucas inspired, multi-player space battles - not so much.  However, at least in one game this week I know, I was not the first player vaporized!  So perhaps something build on...

February 08, 2012

Card Game Review: Whist

Whist (unknown / 17th Century)
4 players / 8 + / 30-45 minutes

"Hey, kids, I'm going to teach you all a new card game. It's really simple. You deal out the whole deck and you work with a partner. Each round you play a card and the highest card wins that round, with one suit always beating the other three. The team that wins the most rounds earns points until one team wins a total of seven points for the game."

"Sounds easy, what's it called?"


"Whist? Why do they call it that?"

"Well, whist means 'quiet,' and a long time ago you couldn't talk during the game and it required a lot of silent strategy."

"Um, you can't talk at all? I don't think I can do that, dad."

*sigh*  "Yeah, tell me about it."

The Quick Rundown:

Whist is a classic and elegant trick-taking game played with a standard 52-card pack (13 cards ranked A-K-Q-J-10-9-8-7-6-5-4-3-2 in four suits of Hearts, Clubs, Diamonds, and Spades).  For the slightly more complex variation, Bid Whist, you can throw in one or both Jokers.  In Classic Whist, you sit across the table from your partner and everyone begins with 13 cards, so that the entire deck is dealt.  The last card, which belongs to the dealer, is turned up to determine trumps - that is, which suit will supersede the other three for that hand.  Then the player to the left of the dealer begins by leading any card.  Each successive player must play a card of the same suit that is led, if they have one, otherwise they may play a trump or any other card. The highest trump card or, if no trump was played, the highest card of the suit led, wins the trick - that is, the four cards played that round.  The winner of a trick leads to the next one.  After all 13 tricks have been played, the team with the most tricks scores 1 point for each trick that they own over 6.  So, for example, a team that won 8 tricks would score 2 points.  Traditionally the first team to earn a total of 5 or 9 points wins the game.  We play to 7 points, which seems to be the popular choice in the U.S.

Replica of 17th century English deck
when Whist was on the rise.

Bid Whist is played mechanically the same, but adds some sophisticated twists.  First, only 12 cards are dealt to each player.  This will leave some left over, called the kitty.  Depending on whether you play with a Joker or two, the kitty will have 4-6 cards.  Then, instead of establishing trump randomly with the last card of the deck, players will bid on trump by first declaring how many tricks they think they can capture in excess of 6.  Hardcore Whist players will insist on a minimum bid of 3, which means you need to take a total of 9 tricks.  But for casual play, any bid from 1-7 is fine; unless another player outbids you, of course!  At the time of your bid, you will also declare whether you will name a trump suit with high cards winning tricks as normal (called uptown), or name a trump suit with low cards winning tricks (called downtown), or even play without trumps.  In uptown or downtown bids, the two Jokers (one designated big, one small) and the Ace are still the top three cards.  Downtown bids out-rank uptown bids.  In the case of a no trump bid, the Jokers essentially become worthless and the Ace is high followed by the King on down, as traditional.  The winning bidder will then name the trump suit, if declaring uptown or downtown, and can exchange cards with the kitty, keeping the unwanted cards aside which actually count as the first trick.  Play proceeds as in Classic Whist, bearing in mind that downtown and no trump bids change how tricks are won.  If the bidder's team is successful in winning the number of tricks declared more more, then they score as normal.  If they do not make their bid, they lose that number of points.  While there are many variations on scoring, generally the winning team is the first to earn 7 points, or set their opponents back a total of negative 7 points.

E for Everyone:

Charles Cotton summed up this classic, trick-taking game's family friendliness in The Compleat Gamester (1674) : "Ruff and Honors (alias Slamm) and Whist, are Games so commonly known in England, in all parts thereof, that every Child of Eight Years old, hath a competent knowledge in that recreation."  While perhaps not as commonly known today in the United States, it would be no difficult task for a child of eight years old to develop a compentent knowledge of this recreation.

Whist began life as a crude game for common folk,
but eventually gained "respectability."
As in all styles of card games, a large number of Whist variations exist.  To explore these, I recommend visiting the Whist entry on the definitive Pagat.com site.  If you have some experience with any of them, I'd love to hear your thoughts.  The two versions explained above comprise the Whist group's core concepts which will give kids and new gamers the basics.  Classic Whist familiarizes kids with the notions of card rankings, suits, trump, and partnerships which are near universal characteristics in card gaming in one combination or another.  Rules are light and play is straight-forward.  While this simplicity may offer lighter strategic fare for the gaming connoisseur, it is ideal in teaching kids and new gamers the rudiments of partnership play: analyzing your long and short suits to proper effect, when to feed your partner, what to lead and when, and remembering what's already been played.  Simple mechanics and an analytical nature combine to offer a solid first plunge into trick-taking, without drowning a child in a pool of complexity.

Bid Whist retains the majority of that classicality while adding two new common attributes of card gaming: bidding and alternate trick-taking.  In bidding games, learning both to take advantage of those "lucky" hands and risking a bold move with a less fortuitous deal is a good part of card gaming's charm.  In a plain trick-taking game like Whist, the bidding process is more elemental.  In point trick-taking games, one has to be concerned with calculating on how to capture X number of cards/points.  The plainer task of winning a set number of rounds is more manageable for new players.  Additionally, Bid Whist is a good example of illustrating that not all tricks are as they seem across the card gaming universe.  With the option of downtown bidding, the card rankings reverse in order from the traditional understanding of Ace/King and on down to Deuce.  This simple flip is a bit easier to grasp when contrasted with some unique ranking switches as in Jack-high games (like Euchre), ones with off-trumps (like Pitch), and the Ace-Ten family (like Pinochle), as well as a variety of odd combinations in many European games.

Okay, I'll Shut-Up Now:

While historians doubt its originality and it is often difficult to trace concrete roots between games, Whist nonetheless is essentially the grandfather of innumerable modern, trick-tacking games.  As so, it is a smooth introduction for children to this particular world of card games.  Without over-complicating things, Bid Whist is an effective companion to then teach them a number of additional mechanics that will apply in a variety of games so that they may explore the genre further.