Azul (Next Move, 2018)

Basic details: 2-4 players; 30-45 minutes; competitive

Date played: October 18, 2020

Gist of the game: You are a newly-hired tile-laying artist charged with recreating the style of Moorish wall decorations for the Portuguese king.

To create your masterpiece, you are given a game board with a pattern. A number of factory displays (varies based on the number of players: 5 for 2 players) with 4 randomly selected tiles each are placed for all the artists to reach (you might note that our factory displays above have 5 tiles each. Indeed they do, because I read the rules to prepare to teach the game like a week ago and forgot that they’re only supposed to have 4 tiles each. On the other hand, the only player this probably actually hurt was me, when I had to take two consecutive rounds with -14 points because of having to take tiles I couldn’t use). The object of the game is to earn the most points for your display by the time any player finishes a horizontal row of 5 tiles.

Play proceeds over a series of rounds, each of which has 3 phases: factory offer, wall tiling, and preparing for the next round.

During the factory offer phase, each player either takes all the tiles of the same color from one of the factory displays and places the remaining tiles in the center of the table or takes all the tiles of the same color from the center of the table. The first player to take tiles from the center of the table in a round puts the first player marker in the leftmost space of the “floor line” on their board, which will cost them points at the end of the round. Players must then add their tiles to the staging area on their board. The staging area has five rows with ascending spaces — the first row has one space, the fifth row has 5 spaces. Tiles are placed in the staging area from right to left, and all tiles placed in a row must be of the same color (but a row does not have to be filled in a single turn). Once all of the spaces of a row are filled, a tile from that row will be moved to the accompanying space in that row on the wall portion of the player board. If a player has a number of tiles in excess of what they need to fill a row of the staging area, they place these extra tiles in the floor line of the board.

In later rounds, players may not place tiles in a staging area row if the corresponding wall row already contains that color. The factory offer phase ends when all tiles have been removed from the factory displays and the center of the table.

In the wall tiling phase, players move tiles from their completed staging area rows to the wall area. The extra tiles from the staging area rows are then discarded. Players immediately earn points for the tiles they place in their walls. If there are no tiles orthogonal to the tile just placed, the tile earns one point. If there are tiles orthogonal to the tile that was just placed, the players earn one point for each vertically linked tile and one point for each horizontally linked tile (including the tile that was just placed). At the end of the wall tiling phase, players lose points based on the number of tiles in their floor row. These tiles are then discarded, and the first player marker is held out for continued use.

At the end of the wall tiling phase, if no player has completed a horizontal row, players prepare for the next round by refilling the factory displays (using tiles previously discarded if necessary). At the end of the game, when a player completes a horizontal row in the wall, players gain 2 points for each completed horizontal row in their wall, 7 points for each completed vertical column, and 10 points for each color that has all 5 tiles placed in the wall.

There is also a variant board on the reverse side of the player board in which players can create their own wall design, placing tiles from their completed staging rows anywhere on the board so long as no color appears more than once in a vertical column.

Color commentary: Before I write anything else, M insists that I disclose that we split this matchup, winning one game a piece. My victory in the second game was especially sweet for having lost 28 points across two rounds because of tiles in the floor row.

So…in addition to putting too many tiles on the factory displays, we also scored incorrectly. Oops. Perhaps I will review the rules a bit more carefully next time when there’s been a long gap between first becoming familiar with the rules and trying to teach the game. Heh.

I really enjoyed this game, and found it pretty calming. There were times when M took tiles I had my eyes on, but it felt silly to get worked up about something so soothing as pattern matching and tile counting. Across both games I tried to maximize my own points without worrying too much about trying to sabotage M, so I doubt I did anything particularly thwarting that would have thrown off his whole game. I’d be interested in trying the variant board some time, when the color limitations come in the columns instead of the rows.

There are also multiple expansions for Azul, which, having not yet looked them up, I’m finding curious, because I don’t really know how you would alter the game, save for possibly having different patterns you’re trying to create on the boards, but that wouldn’t impact the overall strategy because presumably the same basic rules would apply. I will have to do some research.

Playing Azul also marks a bit of research we’re doing, as we have a few sets of games in which all the games in the set seem fairly similar. We’re going to be playing all the games in the set, writing posts as necessary to discuss games we haven’t covered before, but then also discussing the games in more of a match-up/competition format, comparing strengths and weaknesses and impressions of all the games in the set, so stay tuned for those at some point in the long-term indefinite future.

Thoughts from M: This is a fun game with lots of room for strategy. I played mostly to maximize my own points without really noting what Petra was up to, but the real fun could begin once you start trying to maximize your moves in relation to your opponent’s efforts to do the same. And if Petra is going to start winning games here and there, I feel I will be forced to start improving my strategy. I fear Petra does not know where their actions will lead.

Surprisingly, not much commentary on the art for this game, which is simple and elegant but not especially catchy, except to say that the tiles had the appearance of extremely fancy Starburst candies.

Longhorn (Blue Orange, 2013)

Basic details: 2 players; 20 minutes; competitive

Dates played: October 4 and 10, 2020

Gist of the game: Two competing cattle rustlers try to outdo one another to be the cattle-stealing champion with the most money.

Nine location tiles are placed at random in a 3×3 grid. Each tile receives a specified number of cattle, placed at random (in terms of color) and an action token (also chosen at random, except the sheriff must be placed at Nugget Hill if that token is drawn). A flip of the oversized outlaw token determines which player goes first. The 2nd player chooses the 1st player’s starting position from among the locations with 4 cattle.

On each turn, the outlaw steals cattle and moves the outlaw token to a new location for their opponent to begin their turn.

To steal cattle, the player chooses a color and must steal all the cattle of that color at that location. If the location contains no more cattle at the end of their raid, they must apply the effect of the action token.

Action tokens may be gold nuggets with varying values to be applied at the end of the game; a branding iron, which prompts the player to take all the cattle of the same color on one of the orthogonally adjacent tiles; an epidemic, which removes all cows of a particular color from the board, making them valueless at the end of the game; the sheriff, which causes the player to immediately lose the game; snake oil, which gives the player a second immediate turn; an ambush, which allows the player to steal a random gold nugget or 2 cows of the same color from they other player; or a rattlesnake, which forces a player to take a cattle of each color in their possession and place them in any configuration on the orthogonally adjacent tiles.

To move the token, the player moves the token to a location a number of squares away from the current location equal to the number of cattle just stolen. If all the locations at that distance are empty, the game is over. If at least one location at this distance still has cattle, the player must move the token to this location.

The game ends when: 1) a player activates the sheriff token; 1) a player accumulates all 9 cattle of the same color; or 3) all locations at the necessary distance are empty. Cattle are scored with each cattle worth $100 for each cattle of the same color still on the board. So a cattle whose color still has 4 cattle on the board is worth $400.

Color commentary: This game was part of a recent round of Western-themed acquisitions, and may be just about the shortest period of time we’ve owned a game before playing, at just a couple weeks. If we return to themed months, there will probably be another Old West month on the horizon.

Either I’m unquestionably losing my edge or I’m becoming better at teaching board games to people and M and I are therefore starting on more equal footing, in which case I’m just not very good at games and my previous 24-hour advantage needs to be ascribed to inadequate instruction to M on how to play the game. I’ll probably stop actively thinking about this at some point, but for now it just seems like such a sharp contrast. Talking with M earlier today after reeling from yet another loss, I was reminded of repeated victories in reflex-based games like Loonacy and Frog Pig Pug. I’m not sure if I should feel good about winning games that are less-skill and more-speed, but I suppose if nothing else, I can rest assured that my anxiety makes me twitchy enough to do well at speed games.

In any case, despite my repeated losses, this was a fun game, and surprisingly thinky for a game that can be played so quickly. There’s definitely strategy involved, which is probably the actual cause of my poor performance, because despite studying politics for ages, I’m pretty lousy at being strategic. Is it any wonder game theory was such a challenging class?!

After playing with the sheriff for a couple rounds, we decided on a house rule to never use that token, at it takes some of the fun out of the game to force a loss that way rather than by truly outcompeting the other in terms of cattle stealing.

Thoughts from M: First of all, today’s modern cattle could really benefit from an image upgrade, investing in some Carhartt’s instead of relying on their Rustler jeans to see them through a hard day’s work.

This game is based in part on maximizing scenarios where there are three groupings: 1) denominations (Petra here to translate, at this stopped me in my tracks for several moments while typing this up: quantities of cows of each color) you have; 2) how much each denomination is worth; and 3) denominations the other person has (essentially negative denominations). This is then multiplied by 4 for each color cowple (heh: a cow meeple). When combined with considerations of maneuvering, I don’t think there is a one-size-fits-all answer.

The sheriff token acts as a kill switch and I can’t decide if that increases the fun or just makes it too easy to win if your opponent isn’t working to avoid it, as there is no end-of-game cattle counting if the sheriff token is activated. Also, the art is great, and reminds me of my youth spend with Rowdy Yates. (M here pre-empting Petra: Rowdy Yates was Clint Eastwood’s character in the classic Western TV show Rawhide. Petra felt it was necessary to clarify this, but I, on the other hand, do not underestimate the cultured nature of our readership and am confident everyone reading this already knew that, especially since the character was referenced in that big screen classic, The Blues Brothers).

Unmatched (Restoration Games, 2019)

Basic details: 2-4 players; 20-40 minutes; competitive

Date played: September 27, 2020

Sets/characters played with:
Cobble & Fog (2020) – Sherlock Holmes and Dracula (Petra)
Robin Hood vs. Bigfoot (2019) – Bigfoot (M)

Gist of the game: Choose a battlefield. Choose a character (mythical, literary, or monster. Or Bruce Lee) to fight against another character. The first person to to have their hero defeated (sidekicks don’t affect victory) loses.

Players start the game with a 5-card hand drawn from their character’s deck. On each turn, players must take 2 actions. They can maneuver, scheme, or attack. To maneuver, the player must draw a card, and then has the option of moving up to the number of spaces indicated on their character card. To scheme, players play a scheme card and resolve the action. To attack, players must play an appropriate attack card against an appropriate target (depending on the type of combat their fighter can engage in). The defender may play a defense card, but cards are not revealed until both fighter and defender have chosen their card. Combat is resolved using the specified actions on cards. In case of both players having conditions that need to be resolved at the same time, the defender resolves first. If the attacker deals damage in excess of the defense value, the defender loses that many health points from their targeted fighter. If the defense value exceeds the attack value, the defender takes no combat damage but may still receive damage from card effects. Play continues until all of a player’s fighters, or their hero, have been defeated.

Color commentary: The fact that the different sets are completely interchangeable makes the game delightfully variable, because you can always choose different opponents or a different battlefield. I could also be touchy about this, but I really like that a 2-player game is the default assumption, and that special provisions have to be specified for 3- or 4-player games. Take that, people with gaming groups! I sauntered to an easy victory in the first game between Sherlock Holmes and Bigfoot, but that seems to have been because I inadequately explained to M what cards could be used in defense. Oops. The next two games were closer, but M pulled out the victory in the second game against Sherlock and in the game against Dracula. I really like the Cobble & Fog characters (Sherlock Holmes, Invisible Man, Dracula, and Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde), probably most, but Jurassic Park and a couple of the original characters also seem intriguing. I know M was especially delighted by the Robin Hood vs. Bigfoot set, as those are two of his favorite legendary entities. I’m intrigued by the Bruce Lee set, which feels a little akin to the Kool-Aid Man character in the Funkoverse Strategy Game sets. This game also plays quite quickly with 2 (if not completely in clock time, also in terms of sense of time passing), so makes for a nice chance to play multiple rounds in a reasonable amount of time. If I hadn’t insisted we go for a walk to check on the fall foliage situation around here, we probably would have played several more rounds for a total play time of a couple hours. I do seem to be losing my 24-hour advantage over M, though, so either I’m getting better at explaining game instructions or I haven’t been suggesting the right games to maintain my edge.

Thoughts from M: The figurines that come with each character are excellent, and the Bigfoot figurine is especially delightful. However, choosing between Robin Hood and Bigfoot was one of the hardest choices I have ever made. Petra appeared to give no thought to choosing that notorious cocaine addict Sherlock Holmes. I shall be monitoring her behavior for any changes in the coming days, as it appeared all too easy of a choice for her. I appreciate shorter games that still involve strategy as you can play them several times in quick succession and work out ideas as to what strategies work. (Petra here: but the more times we play the same game, the fewer unplayed games we get to!) Also, beating Petra more than once the first few times we play is an added bonus. She seems to be losing her edge.

Draftosaurus (Ankama, 2019)

Basic details: 2-5 players; 15 minutes; competitive

Dates played: August 15 and September 26, 2020

Gist of the game: You are designing a dinosaur zoo of sorts, and want to place your dinos as advantageously as possible, taking advantage of pairs, one-of-a-kind attractions, and paddocks that have as many similar or dissimilar dinos as possible. The game occurs across 3 rounds (4 rounds in a 2-player game). Players draw a batch of 6 dinos from a blind bag. The current player rolls a die to determine the placement condition for the other players (e.g., on a particular section of the board, in an empty paddock, in a paddock without a T-Rex), and everyone places the dino of their choice on the board and then passes their remaining dinos to the next player (in a 2-player game, each player selects an additional dino to discard before passing them. In a 2-player game, each player plays from some variation of their starting hand twice – on the first and last turns of the round). At the end of the game, the player with the highest score wins.

Color commentary: This is a quick (filler, as the gaming parlance seems to be), fun game, and the differently-shaped dino meeples are a cute touch. (M here: filler games get a bad wrap. The point of a game is to be fun, not long.) Playing a 2-player game may open up more strategies for attempted thwarting than a mutliplayer game would because of the discard choices each player gets to make. I like the limitations placed by the die, but also that putting a dino in the stream on the board is an option so that you do get to place a dino on the board every turn even if you can’t meet any of the placement conditions and earn at least one point for that dino (usually a dinosaur can be strategically placed to earn significantly more than a single point). There is also an alternative board that we haven’t played with yet, but this opens up more potential variability beyond the vagaries of the dinos you end up with in hand each round. Because it’s such a short game, you can also play several rounds in a fairly short period of time and feel like you got your time’s worth — it doesn’t really slog at any point unless someone takes a long time to make a placement decision. This would be a good game if you don’t have a lot of time or if you need something fun but not especially deep or tactical to satisfy an itch to play.

Thoughts from M: This is a really fun game. As with so many we play, I think a good memory would be helpful so you could keep track of what dinos remain as options at any given time to help you plan a longer-term strategy for placement (counterthought from Petra: it is becoming increasingly clear we can never got to Vegas). Also, although having a pen of all the same dinosaur is more valuable than having a pen of only different dinosaurs, it’s always been the case for me that it’s easier to accrue more different dinosaurs than the same dinosaur (possibly because of Petra’s conniving thwarting can only discard so many dinosaurs, usually leaving me with more options than she limited). And the meeples are great!

Villainous (Ravensburger, 2018)

Basic details: 2-6 players (competitive); 40-120 minutes (depending on number of players)

Dates played: July 3, July 4, and July 5, 2020

Expansions played with: Evil Comes Prepared (2019); Wicked to the Core (2019)

Basic details: You are a Disney villain, trying to achieve an objective specific to your character, while possibly also trying to prevent other villains from achieving their objectives, or at least slowing them down.

On each turn, you move your villain to a new location on your 4-location player board and carry out as many of the depicted actions as you want. Actions include gaining power tokens, playing a card, discarded cards, moving a card from a location to an adjacent location, activating a card, vanquishing heroes, and invoking your opponents’ fate cards.

Each villain has 2 decks of cards: a fate deck and a villain deck. The fate deck contains heroes (that may or may not need to be vanquished to achieve your objective), item cards that can be attached to heroes, making them stronger, and effect cards that can otherwise throw wrenches into your plans. The villain deck contains allies, which are slightly less evil villains, items that can be attached to allies, making them stronger, and effects, which usually let you take some kind of additional action that may help you eventually achieve your objective.

When your opponent plays a fate card against you, they draw the top two cards of your fate deck and choose one to play on your board. With few exceptions (like Yzma), they choose where to place any hero they have drawn. When a hero is placed on your board, they block half the actions for that location, and usually can only be removed by being vanquished by allies of equal or greater strength. When a hero is vanquished, any allies involved in the vanquishing are discarded back to the villain deck, while the hero is discarded back to the fate deck.

We blew through 3 games this weekend: Yzma vs. Prince John; Hades vs. Dr. Facilier (The Princess and the Frog), and Scar vs. Jafar.

Color Commentary: This game is fantastic, if for no other reason than they include Yzma, from The Emperor’s New Groove, as one of the villains. TENG is probably my favorite Disney movie, and completely underrated and often forgotten. Plus, her objective is clever: defeat Cuzco using Kronk. But there’s a twist, because Kronk can turn from being an ally to being a hero, the only remedy to which is to use an effect card to place him back in your hand and start the Kronk process over.

I think each package (villain, villain board, fate deck, villain deck, objective, etc.) is pretty clever, and they also create interesting dynamics with how you interact with other players. For instance, in the second game, I played Hades and M played Dr. Facilier, but also took a fate-heavy strategy, which basically made it impossible for me to win. Hades needs to start his turn with 3 titans at Mt. Olympus (far right location). However, titans must be played in the Underworld (far left location), and playing heroes can lock them and make them unmovable without an unlocking card. Also, unlike regular cards, titans can only be moved with special cards, as opposed to with a regular move-a-card action. So by M playing a fate-heavy strategy (he also had 2 locations from which he could invoke fate, and those locations were also pretty useful in general, so he visited them frequently), he could lock and re-lock and sometimes move my titans faster than I could get them to Mt. Olympus, because he had heroes on all my locations and thus half my actions blocked, severely limiting my options each turn. I briefly had 1 titan in Mt. Olympus, at which point he played a hero that let him move a titan, which was then moved onto a location with a hero that automatically locked any titans that landed there. My other 4 titans never made it past Mt. Olympus, and even then, 2 of them were locked and unable to move until I could cycle through and reshuffle my villain deck. I invoked fate less often against Dr. Facilier, and though doing so more often might have slowed M down a bit more, it was just a matter of pace, not possibility.

Compare this with the 3rd game, though, where it would be impossible for M to win if I didn’t use invoke fate cards. Jafar needs the Genie under his control, and the Genie is found in the fate deck. Scar’s objective is also easier to accomplish if other players invoke fate, although Scar at least has cards that let him look through the fate deck himself.

Thoughts from M: In the first game, I was Prince John, who had the pretty simple objective of accruing 20 power tokens. This seemed too easy, though, so I fiddled around with other strategies for a bit, and Petra won. In the second game, I was more aggressive, and decided from the beginning to play a fate-heavy strategy, just to see what happened. In the 3rd game, I couldn’t really figure out a best strategy and fate wasn’t thwarting in the same way against Scar as it was against Hades, as Scar needs to vanquish heroes to achieve his objective.  (Also, this game is evil as it had me fighting again Robin Hood, but then again monarchs are made up of the better families amongst us and do deserve to rule.)

In general, I think mixed strategies probably won’t work in 1 on 1 games as well as they would against more opponents, so against a single other opponent, I think it’s best to decide on a strategy early on and sticking with it and invoking it consistently are key. That said, it does seem to be a flaw in the game that fate (either invoked or not invoked) can make it functionally or actually impossible for a villain to achieve their objectives, because then players could just lock another player out, which definitely diminishes the enjoyment that player would get out of the game.

 

Castellion (Z-Man Games, 2015)

Basic details: 1-2 players (cooperative); 30 minutes

Date played: June 29, 2020

Gist of the game: You are building a castle. To win the game, your castle must successfully overcome 3 ordeals, ensuring that you have the necessary defense fortifications and a sturdy foundation for each ordeal.

To set up the game, place 1 each of the 3 ordeal levels (Level 1, Level 2, and Level 3) face-up on the table. Each ordeal card specifies what defensive fortifications you need/what happens to your foundation and the number of traitors that will trigger the ordeal. Shuffle the two sets of dream tiles separately: 72 regular tiles, which contain 12 traitors and 12 “safe” tiles, which contain no traitors.

On each turn, draw a tile from one of the two sets. If it is a defender (i.e., non-traitor), you may place it or discard it. If the tile is a traitor, you must place it next to the ordeal card you are working toward. Once you accumulate the specified number of traitors, or you complete the 6×6 grid, you will trigger the ordeal.

To place a defender tile, you must follow 4 rules. After the 1st tile is placed, tiles must be orthogonally (not diagonally) adjacent to each other. With the exception of the bottom row, tiles must be placed above another tile (no dangling tiles), and tiles depicting the same shape (circle, square, triangle) cannot be placed next to each other. Finally, the castle may not exceed a 6×6 grid. To discard a defender tile, simply place it face-up in the discard pile.

There are 3 defensive formations: a 2×2 grid, a 4×1 line, and a 1×4 line.  Tiles of the same faction (they have names, but are 4 different colors)

You lose the 1st ordeal if you don’t have the required defensive formations specified on the ordeal card or if you do not have 6 tiles in your bottom row (the foundation). If you do have the defensive formations and a complete foundation, you proceed.

For the second ordeal, you destroy your current foundation so that the 2nd row is now the foundation. If this new foundation is not complete, you lose. If the new foundation has 6 tiles, you proceed.

The 3rd ordeal is similar to the 1st. You must have the required defensive formations and a complete foundation to win.

There are three levels of difficulty: introductory, base, and advanced. With the base and advanced levels, new defender features come into play, like letting you move tiles around within your castle and being able to violate some of the defender placement rules.

Color commentary: This is a quick and fun game, though I would like to renew my mild complaint about games that don’t have a single end point that you work toward and then determine victory. Nautilion was similar, where I would realize halfway through the tile path that I could no longer win. In Castellion, I never even survived the 1st ordeal, which makes the whole thing very anti-climatic. This meant that the projected 30 minute play time was really more like 5-10 minutes, depending on how quickly I drew traitors. It was still fun, but simultaneously slightly disappointing.

I lost on the 1st ordeal in the introductory level. I had a complete foundation and 2 of 3 defensive formations.

Because I understood the mechanics of the game, for the 2nd attempt I moved up to the base cards. I also lost on the 1st ordeal with 3/4 of each of the 3 defensive formations and 5/6 of my foundation complete. Using some of the defender abilities triggered by a discard might have helped, but I’m not convinced of that. Probably I should have started taking from the safe pile after I drew the next-to-last traitor card.

The game is fairly portable: you need room for up to a 6″x6″ grid, 3 cards and a row for traitor tiles next to each, two stacks of tiles, and a discard pile.

Thoughts M might have had if he had played: I think there’s definitely strategy here, like when to draw from the safe pile, and where to try to position your defensive formations, but so much of the game is also simply luck, based on what tiles you draw. Perhaps discarding also becomes strategically advantageous, to ensure that you’re not clogging up your castle with defenders that aren’t actually advancing either your foundation or your defensive formations. Also, since the 2nd ordeal always necessitates destroying your foundations, it seems like you should plan for formations to only start in the 2nd row, or a 1×4 formation that you need for the 1st ordeal but not the 3rd.

On further reflection, there certainly is an element of luck in this game, but there’s also plenty of room for strategy, especially in the base and advanced levels, when the defenders can do more, and sometimes do better, when they are discarded rather than placed.

BarBEARian Battlegrounds (Greenbrier Games, 2018)

Date played: June 27, 2020

Basic details: 2-4 players; 20 minutes

Gist of the game: You lead a team of bears -aka the most magnificent creatures to be found in the known universe- who want the most glory for their village. To gain glory, you need to earn resources (which can be traded for glory) and win fights (which allow you to steal another bear’s glory). The first bear to gain 7 glory tokens wins.

Players start the game with 2 glory tokens and 3 dice. Over the course of the game, players can buy up to 2 additional dice and 5 more glory tokens. Players also have village boards on which to allocate their dice and a screen so that their choices are made secretly. Players are given 2 trial cards, from which they select 1. Each player also has access to a set of upgrade cards that they can purchase. Resource and specialist tokens (which are purchased with resource tokens and help players gain more resources) are placed in a community pile, as are 5 additional neutral dice that can be hired out by players for a turn.

Rounds of play contain 4 phases. In the planning phase, players roll their dice simultaneously and announce their results for everyone. They then place their screen in front of their village board and play their dice on the board secretly. On their village board, they can select various locations for their dice: battleground (offensive fighting position), barracks (defensive fighting position), or on the honey-, faith-, or ore-production areas. The battlefield can use dice only, while the barracks and resource areas can also use specialist tokens. Once everyone has placed their dice, players remove the screens and resolve the actions.

In the brawl phase, battles occur. If 2 players attack each other (the village boards have a slot for attacking each other color), there is a clash. The player with the higher dice total wins the clash. The dice value of the loser is subtracted from the dice total of the winner to provide the winner’s strength when encountering any potential defense. If the attacker has a higher dice value than the defense, the attacker successfully raids the village and has the choice of either a glory token or 2 resource tokens of the loser’s choice. Ties go to the attacker.

After battles are resolved, the gather phase occurs, when players collect the resources produced by their dice and specialist tokens.

In the build phase, players can use their resources to buy specialist tokens, more dice, upgrade cards, and glory tokens. Resources can also be spent during the planning phase to change a die value or to obtain one more or additional dice for the turn. Players can also lock their glory tokens, so that they cannot be stolen after a lost battle.

Color commentary: Look out, Hanabi. You have a new competitor for the role of marriage-breaker. Listen. The game has bears, which basically dictated that we purchase it. Little did I realize that the game would descend into belligerence and aggression, wave of attack after wave of attack when all I wanted to do was collect resources. I could also probably be a more gracious loser, but when every turn you have a glory token ripped away from your little bear paws, it starts to hurt. When the opposing bear has more glory tokens of your color than of their own, it stings, because the only thing that enabled them to win was your tearing down turn after turn.

Ok, aside from the melodrama, I think this would maybe play better as a 3- or 4-player game, where battles may feel a little less like personal attacks and a sign of some kind of deeper aggression and resentment. When it’s just 1 on 1, it feels more brutal. I also had made the strategic decision to focus on gathering resources and buying my way to glory, and had successfully locked up several glory tokens, but had depleted my stock of them and was going to have to start buying “neutral” glory tokens from colors not in the game. But M bought a couple upgrade cards that greatly enhanced his fighting and looting prowess, and he was able to steal glory tokens before I could get them locked up. I think this was maybe the most frustrating. Because one of M’s upgrades allowed him to use additional dice in combat, and because you could never play 2 dice in a single area unless the dice shared the same value (barracks were slightly different because there were 2 slots), I was never going to be able to mount an adequate defense, and since combat is all-or-nothing, devoting nothing to defense and everything to resource production still seemed like the best strategy to me, even though it was a moderately-paced bleeding of resources and glory tokens.

Because of the dice, this game feels a little less portable than card games. If you roll carefully, or have a little dice tray, it could probably work. Personally, I have a lovely image of playing this game in a bar and bringing a dice tower with me. Aside from the dice issues, this game probably requires a 4-top to be able to accommodate the boards/screens and community piles of resources, even for just 2 people. But I think a 4-top would still work for 4 people.

Thoughts from M: I have a feeling that, in a 2-player game, if one player gets out to an early lead, the other player is best served by being aggressive with attacks. And given that this is actually pretty likely to happen, depending on how specialist tokens end up getting distributed, the game may very well become a zero-sum contest of attrition quite quickly. Nonetheless, even an aggressive strategy might not work every time, unless your opponent is a schmo…I mean, gentle soul (love you, Petra!) (P here: Uh-huh) who never attacks back and mounts only paltry defenses, but yet still used dice to mount defenses in a way that was so predictable, I was perpetually awaiting the arrival of proof of a mixed strategy. If both players are using nearly all their dice for combat, resource production is likely to slow down, and interestingly, players may be confronted with a difficult decision to make about dice allocation, since a 6 is excellent for the battlefield, but also the only way to lock a glory token (when placed in the faith production area).

Because I wasn’t on the receiving end of the brutality, I think I enjoyed the game more than Petra did, but it would also be interesting to see how the game plays either with an agreement to never attack or when both players are in full aggression mode.

Playing with more than 2 players would also be interesting, because as Petra alluded to above, I think it would change the dynamics of gameplay and increase the strategic decision-making about who to attack and what kind of defenses to mount.

Onirim (Z-Man Games, 2015)

Date played: June 24, 2020

Basic details: 1-2 players (cooperative); 15 minutes

Gist of the game: In this game, you are traveling through a dreamscape and need to find 8 doors before the dream ends. Obtain all 8 doors before the deck runs out and win. Have an empty deck when you need to draw and you lose.

To get a door, you must either play three cards of the same color in a row or, upon drawing a door from the deck, discard a key card of the same color from your hand.

You begin the game with a hand of 5 cards that includes neither doors nor dreams. On each turn, you play or discard a card, draw your hand back up to 5, and shuffle any cards you put in your limbo pile (such a door that you didn’t have a key for) back into your deck. If you discard a sun or moon card, play proceeds as normal. If you discard a key card, you trigger a prophecy. To carry out the prophecy, look at the top 5 cards of the deck, discard 1, and put the remaining 4 cards back on top of the deck in any order. If you draw a dream (nightmare in the base game) card, you must resolve it immediately. To resolve a nightmare, you must do one of the following: discard a key card; place a door card you’ve acquired in the limbo pile; reveal the top 5 cards of the deck and discard all except door and dream cards, which are placed in the limbo pile; discard your whole hand and draw a fresh hand the same way you did at the beginning of the game, with door and nightmare cards going into the limbo pile until you have a hand of 5 dream location cards.

If you play 3 cards of the same color in a row (but no two cards of the same symbol placed next to each other), you get to search the deck for a door of that color. There are 4 colors and 8 doors, 2 of each color.

In a 2-player game, each player must acquire 4 doors, 1 of each color.

There are also 7 expansions built in, each involving the addition of a new set of cards and new objectives beyond just collecting the 8 doors.

Color commentary: This is a fun game, and I’m really enjoying the aesthetics of the Oniverse with its Jean-Michel Basquiat-esque artwork. It’s a pretty light game, though it ultimately involves a tremendous amount of shuffling (every time you put your limbo pile in, after finding a door, etc.), possibly an excessive amount. Like, it felt like equal parts playing and shuffling, and still I would see runs of like 3 nightmares in a row every time I shuffled (and every time I saw them, I separated them, only to see them again the next time I shuffled).

This game is more portable for 1 player than 2, though depending on the public space it might still be a little large (wide) even with 1 player. There’d be no problem at a 4-top, but it might be a little cramped at a 2-top. Because the total width ends up divided between partners in a 2-player game, a 2-player version might work better at a 2-top than a 1-player would. That said, compared to something like Catan or even like Machi Koro, still very portable.

Every expansion appears to make it more difficult to win the game. One expansion, for instance, requires you to earn the doors in a specific order. I wish they added something besides additional difficulty, because they all look incredible, but I like winning, and they all seem like they would decrease the chances of doing so by moderate to extremely large amounts.

Thoughts M might have had if he had played: This may come as a surprise, since I never comment on the artwork of games, but I also enjoy the abstract boldness of the Oniverse games. A lot of the game is luck, in terms of having the right cards at the right time to make a run of 3, but there’s a definite strategy involved when choosing what action to perform when resolving a nightmare. If you only need 1 more door and your hand isn’t helpful, it’s probably a smart move to discard your hand. Unless it’s the very beginning of a game, you probably don’t want to put a door in limbo because of the dwindling number of cards in that color to earn it back. Discarding a key if you already have both doors, or even just one of a color, is a potentially good call, and keeping a key card on hand even after earning both doors of that color as a kind of nightmare insurance isn’t a bad idea. Discarding 5 cards from the deck is a real gamble because that grouping may have the cards you need, and also increases the nightmare-to-location ratio since nightmares don’t get discarded if they’re drawn as part of the 5. Nonetheless, if you have a hand that is going to work for you for at least one door and you don’t have a key you can discard, discarding from the top of the deck might be the best choice.

This Game Goes to Eleven (Gamewright, 2018)

Dates played: June 22-23 & June 25, 2020

Basic details: 2-6 players; 20 minutes

Gist of the game: Each player begins the game with a hand of 3 cards. The top card of the deck is placed face up in the center of the play area (if it’s a 0 or 11, another card is drawn to begin play). Players take turns placing a card (numbered 1-9, 0, and 11) on the pile, announcing the sum of the cards, and drawing a new card. If a player places a card to make the sum equal to 11, they give the stack to another player. If they play a card to exceed 11, they take the stack. At the end of the game, the player with the fewest cards wins.

There are 2 special cards: the 11 card and the 0 card. The 11 card automatically brings the pile to 11. This can be countered by a 0 card, which then requires the person who played the 11 card to take the stack. If the 0 card is played on a normal turn, the sum of the pile is set to 0.

Color commentary: This is a super light, really enjoyable game. The quick playtime means you can play multiple games without getting bogged down. With my penpal in mind (looking at you, JB!), who, in pre-pandemic times enjoyed playing games with friends at bars and in similar social settings, I should note that this game is extremely portable, in multiple ways. First, the box itself is not especially large (6×9?), and could be made smaller by putting the cards into a deck box, which means the game could easily fit in a pocket or even a small purse. Second, it doesn’t take up a lot of table space: you need room for a draw pile, play pile, and each player’s accumulated cards from having to take piles.

Thoughts from Micah: This is a fun game that’s light on strategy. The best move I can think of is to carefully use the 0 and 11 cards. If you’re a little more conniving, as I aspire to be, you could also count cards to know what’s still in play and what’s been exhausted. I think this game probably plays just as good at 2 players as more, which is refreshing, since sometimes the dynamics change considerably. More players would introduce an element of strategy concerning who gets piles dumped on them, unless you play with the guitar pick variation, which basically ensures that every player gets a roughly equal number of piles (first player starts with the pick, and they get the first over-11 pile. Pick then moves to second player, who gets second over-11 pile, etc.) and thereby removes that element of strategy. Playing with the pick probably makes the game even more similar in terms of 2 player vs. multi-player. This is easily one of my top 5 filler games, below Kingdomino but ahead of Guillotine.

Colt Express (Ludonaute, 2014)

Date played: May 25, 2020 (reasons it took us a month to post this remain unclear)

Basic details: 2-6 players; 40 minutes

Expansions played: Horses & Stagecoach (2015)

Gist of the game: A group of bandits tries to rob the Nice Valley Coal Company’s payroll, guarded by a marshal, in transit via the Union Pacific Express, but only 1 bandit will succeed in becoming the richest.

Each player chooses a character, which comes with a character card, 10 action cards, and 6 bullet cards, as well as a $250 sack of money. The value of this sack of money remains hidden from your opponent, because as you rob more and maybe have to forfeit riches, the total value of your holdings will change.

Each train car has prescribed loot, and the marshal and a strongbox are situated in the locomotive.

Four round cards (as in, period in which all players take a turn, not the shape) are drawn at random, as is 1 train station card, which is placed at the bottom of the stack, so that there are 5 rounds total. Each round card specifies the number of turns that will be taken that round and how cards should be played on each turn (face up, face down, simultaneously, etc.).

The first player begins the game with the round cards in front of them. Players are numbered according to their order. Odd players place their bandit meeple in caboose. Even players place their bandit in the next-to-last car.

Each turn in a round has 2 phases: schemin’ and stealin’. At the beginning of a round, players shuffle their deck and draw a hand of 6 cards. The first player draws the top round card and places it where everyone can see.

In the schemin’ phase, each player must either play an action card onto a common deck or draw 3 additional action cards from their deck into their hand. In the stealin’ phase, the first player takes the common deck of action cards and flips it over, revealing the cards one by one in the order they were played in order to perform the bandits’ actions. Actions include moving in between train cars, moving to the roof or floor of a train car, firing a gun, throwing a punch, picking up treasure, and moving the marshal.

To end the round, each player shuffles their 10 action cards and any bullet cards they’ve been hit with (either from another bandit or from being in the same car as the marshal) back into the deck. The next player becomes the first player and receives the remaining round cards.

The game ends after 5 rounds. Each player adds up the value of their loot. The player who shot the most bullets (has the fewest bullet cards left) is named Gunslinger and receives $1000 for the honor. The richest player wins.

In a 2-player game, the train is assembled with 4 cars (instead of 1 per player) and each player chooses 2 characters. One bandit is placed in each of the last 2 cars. Bandits retain their bullet cards and $250 loot token, but action cards are combined into a single deck of 11 cards (duplicate cards for each bandit are removed, as is one move-the-marshal card). Two-player games are also played using the expert variant. At the end of the schemin’ phase, players keep cards in their hand that they want for the next round, discarding all bullet cards and cards they’re not interested in playing the next round. During the stealin’ phase, the performed action is placed on the discard pile (instead of back into the deck) while bullet cards players receive are placed on the top of the draw deck. At the beginning of each round, players draw their hand up to 6 cards. Each time the draw deck is depleted, the discard pile is shuffled to form a new deck.

Bullet cards basically limit the options available to a player during the schemin’ phase by taking up space usually reserved for action cards.

In the Horses & Stagecoach expansion, the stagecoach is placed to the right of the locomotive during setup, with a strongbox and a meeple holding a shotgun placed on top of the stagecoach. A flask of whiskey is placed inside each non-locomotive train car. A number of hostage cards equal to the number of players minus 1 are drawn and placed face up to the left of the locomotive. New round cards are shuffled in with those from the base game (but have some different symbols, so they can be differentiated). The marshal gains an additional 3 bullet cards. Each player gets a ride action card and a horse meeple. Bandit meeples are placed after the “Horse Attack” is played out.

In the Horse Attack, bandits can choose which train car they start in, except for the locomotive or stagecoach. Each player hides in their fist either their bandit meeple (or meeples, if 2 players) or horse. The contents of everyone’s hands are revealed simultaneously. Players with their bandit in hand place their bandit(s) in the caboose. These players then place their horses outside the caboose. Those players who displayed their horse proceed to the next car and repeat the process until they place their bandit in the car of their choice and the horse next to the car. After this, the horses belong to no particular bandit.

The ride action card is played during the schemin’ phase like any other action card. If there is at least 1 horse alongside the bandit’s car, they ride the rose. They can jump on the horse from inside the car or the roof of the car. They can then move their bandit up to 3 cars, either forward or backward. At the car where the bandit stops, they jump inside the train car. Bandits can also jump into the stagecoach. When a bandit enters the stagecoach, they must take a hostage, which is placed next to the player’s character card. The hostage gives extra money at the end of the game, but may have stipulations that affect gameplay, like being able to draw fewer cards per turn. Bandits can only have 1 hostage each.

The stagecoach is considered adjacent to the train cars for punching and shooting purposes. A bandit on the stagecoach can shoot any bandit on a train car roof and vice versa.

To get the strongbox away from the shotgun meeple, a player must punch the shotgun. When punched, the shotgun abandons the stongbox and is moved to the roof of the traincar next to the stagecoach.

If a bandit ends their movement in the same place as the shotgun, they receive a neutral bullet (as opposed to player bullet) card and must move (but not to the stagecoach).  A bandit can move across the shotgun’s position, but still receives a bullet. The shotgun blocks line of sight on roof cars, affecting the ability of a player to shoot other bandits.

At the end of the round, the stagecoach is moved one car toward the caboose. If the shotgun has been moved to the train, he is also moved a car to remain even with the stagecoach.

Whiskey flasks are a new kind of loot that can be played up to 2 times and can be played instead of an action or drawing 3 cards. Regular whiskey flasks (there are 5) let a player draw 3 cards and then also play an action. The old whiskey flask (there is only 1) lets a player play two action cards in a single turn).

Color commentary: THERE ARE 3D LOCOMOTIVE AND TRAIN CARS YOU GET TO ASSEMBLE. AND IF YOU PLAY WITH THE HORSES & STAGECOACH EXPANSION, THERE’S A 3D STAGECOACH AS WELL. The meeples are also shaped like gunslingers with guns blazing. And in the Horses & Stagecoach expansion, the horse meeples really look like little horses! And a bandit meeple actually fits into the divet in the horse’s back! Honestly, getting to assemble the all the vehicles was really fun, and they add a great tactile dimension to the game.

Some rounds have actions that occur at the end of the round, which add new twists to the game and tweak the action somewhat. These aren’t the easiest to interpret, and we definitely had to consult the instruction manual every time.

I think M might have liked the game more than me (Western month was his choice, after all), but it was a lot of fun and is definitely worth replaying. It’s unlikely we’ll play it as anything other than a 2-player anytime soon, but it seems like multiple players would add a new dynamic as you might start each round over with a fresh deck instead of the game operating more like a traditional deck-building game in that regard. It would also be nice to have 2 of each action per bandit, instead of the single action you get in a 2-player game (e.g. being able to move Doc between 2 cards instead of just one).

Thoughts from M: The bandit meeples have guns! They’re adorable! In general, the game has excellent animation-influenced artwork.

Shooting is a neat feature because it really can make life a lot more difficult for your opponents. Having to place the bullet cards on top of the deck means that they’re likely to draw them at the start of a round, meaning that they just have worthless cards and would have to sacrifice an action to try to get better ones by drawing 3 more cards instead of doing something with a bandit. However, even drawing more cards is no guarantee, because you might end up drawing old bullet cards that have been shuffled in.

The base game is a lot of fun, and the Horses & Stagecoach expansion adds fun new dynamics. There’s also a Guillotine-esque element to the game, because the best strategy is to do the best you can at any given moment rather than trying to think ahead a few turns, because, for example, you could be planning to shoot a bandit in the next car, but if you’re playing actions facedown on a turn, the owner of the bandit may move the bandit before you can shoot it, effectively wasting your shot. Grabbing treasure whenever possible would be the dominant strategy, as would combining punches (which force a bandit to lose some treasure) and nabbing treasure.