Smash Up (AEG, 2012)


Dates played: March 28 and 29, 2020

Basic details: 2-4 players; 45 minutes

Gist of the game: Your goal is to be the first to accumulate 15 victory points, obtained by collecting bases. You win a base if the minions you place on it are worth more in total than your opponents’ minions. The first, second, and third-place totals all win victory points, albeit in diminishing quantities.

To do all this, you form a deck comprised of 2 factions. Each faction has 20 cards, made up of a mix of minions (with point values that you accrue on bases) and actions.

Start the game with a hand of 5 cards. Throughout the game, you can have no more than 10 cards in your hand at the end of your turn. On your turn, you may play a minion (on a base), an action (which lets you do a variety of things, including affecting the point values of minions, playing more minions, etc.), or one of each. After playing cards, check to see if any bases need to be scored. Each base has a breakpoint: the minimum value of all the minions on the base. The player with the highest value wins the 1st place victory points, the player with the second highest value wins the 2nd place victory points, and the player with the third highest value wins the 3rd place victory points. Some bases (mostly those involving martial arts) may actually award more victory points to the 2nd place winner than the 1st place winner, but that’s uncommon — usually 1st place wins the most points and 3rd place wins the fewest. To win any points, you must have at least one minion on the base. At the end of your turn, draw 2 cards and discard down to 10 total cards in hand if necessary.

Color commentary: We own all but one of the expansions for this game, meaning that we have a gajillion expansions minus 1. I’ll outline what factions we used and what bases we drew for each of our two games (with the expansions they come from in parentheses) and throw in some witty insight as appropriate.

Game 1:
Petra factions: Penguins (solo expansion pack) and sheep (solo expansion pack)
M factions: Bear Cavalry (Awesome Level 9000) and Vikings (Oops, You Did It Again)
Bases: Hideout (That 70s Expansion), The Greasy Spoon (That 70s Expansion), No-Moon (Cease and Desist), Ninja Dojo (Smash Up Core Set), The House of Nine Lives (Pretty Pretty Smash Up), Spikey Chair Room (Cease and Desist), Subterranean Lair (Smash Up: Munchkin), Tortuga (Smash Up Core Set), The Dohyo (World Tour: International Incident)
Outcome: M victory

Because the Munchkin version of Smash Up incorporates a lot of elements of the Munchkin card game, this expansion involves things like monsters that get played on bases, and treasures you can win by defeating monsters. However, monsters were confusing (does winning the base automatically involve defeating the monster?) and I don’t think we did it correctly. If monsters didn’t make sense, treasures made even less sense. And I tried reading the instructions surrounding these things, and I still didn’t understand. Maybe we’ll try again some time, maybe not, but for this game we pretty much ignored the monster imperative.

M’s choice of Vikings ended up being quite felicitous, as a number of his action cards involved getting to pillage my deck and take cards from me. This meant that I had to cycle through my deck faster (at least he didn’t get my most valuable minions), twice over the course of the game, while he never had to shuffle his discard pile back in. I think he ended up with about half a dozen of my cards.

Game 2:
Petra factions: Mounties (World Tour: International Incident) and Killer Plants (Awesome Level 9000)
M factions: Pirates (Smash Up Core Set) and Cyborg Apes (Science Fiction Double Feature)
Bases: Woodland Cottage (World Tour: Culture Shock), Grandma’s House (What Were We Thinking?), Shogun’s Palace (Oops, You Did It Again), Hotel of Holiness (Smash Up: Munchkin), Oracle at Delphi (It’s Your Fault), Truck Stop (That 70s Expansion)
Outcome: M victory

Note: Expansions we didn’t utilize at all in these two games include The Obligatory Cthulu Expansion and Monster Smash.

So what I’m learning is that while I might have the upper hand within the first 24 hours of playing, giving M roughly a year to unconsciously percolate over a game (we first played this at a board game convention in April 2019…the same one where we played Build a Cure, as it happens) is absolutely disastrous for me. The only reason I had a sporting chance is because after a temper tantrum, M pointed out a way for me to win a base. Am I proud of this temper tantrum? No. Did I clearly marry a good man? Yes, yes I did. Also, please note that this kindness was largely symbolic, as he had enough of a lead at that point that he was going to win with the next base, especially since he got to move 3 of his minions straight from this base to another after it was scored, giving him a big advantage on accruing minion points.

So I have a few thoughts about the game in general. The first is that I’m not sure if there’s really a limit on the number of players once you start using a bunch of expansions. The original game comes with 8 factions, which places the upper limit on 4 players since each player needs 2 factions. But each expansion pack has 4 more factions, which in theory allows for up to 2 more players per expansion. Do I think this would be unwieldy? Yes I do. Do I think it could still be interesting, especially as people would probably segment off into smaller groups to compete for bases rather than, say, 7 people trying to compete for the same one? Yes I do. If we actually had friends (I could blame the lack of ability to do this on physical distancing in the time of pandemic, but let’s be honest; there’s a deeper underlying problem here), this might be something I would want to investigate at some point.

The other thing is that this game has a ton of replay potential. If I did my math correctly, and there’s no guarantee that I did, an individual player has 2,415 possible combinations of factions given the cards we have now (70 factions). That means that for a 2-player game, involving 4 factions, there are 916,895 combinations. Seems like you could be kept busy with a diverse set of cards for quite a while. And when we get the last expansion with the last 4 factions, that’s going to increase even more.

Thoughts from M: Smash Up has some similar fun dynamics to King of Tokyo. It’s a little more complex, since there’s strategy on each turn, and sometimes across turns), but I still find it very relaxing. Especially when Petra isn’t throwing temper tantrums (Petra here: ok, this is actually me inserting this. M is very patient). I think probably a young child could play King of Tokyo without much assistance, but they’d probably be lost in Smash Up. Unless they were the kids from Village of the Damned, and the you have much bigger problems than this game. (Petra here: hooo, where to start. Village of the Damned was the movie on Svengoolie Saturday [March 28] night. We watch Svengoolie on MeTV every Saturday, and really, this is starting to reveal a lot about us as people, so I’ll cut this short and say if you’re interested, you can check out the movie’s IMDB page here).

In the early stages of the game, it may be better not to look at the number of points from winning a base and instead look at the point differential between places.

There’s room for a lot of short- and even medium-term strategy here, which puts it in contrast with Guillotine (Petra here: I promise one day we will actually post a blog about this game), where there’s nearly a 100% chance that outside of collecting Palace Guards, any strategy you have will be overturned almost immediately. In Smash Up, I feel like you can actually execute strategies, and that a good, solid strategy at turn t will probably be a good strategy at turn t+3, for example. Also, getting out to an early lead, and then maintaining it, in this game is very beneficial as you can then concentrate on boosting your totals as opposed to worrying about your opponent(s) increasing their total(s).

Build a Cure (Sky Developed Games, 2018)

Date played: March 21 and 22, 2020

Basic details: 1-6 players, 30-45 minutes

Gist of the game: After a failed nuclear test, the only shelter you and your fellow scientists can find is a disease storage facility whose vials were all broken in the blast. You’re responsible, and don’t want any diseases to escape the storage facility. To win in cooperative mode, you and your teammates must cure all active diseases. You lose by not curing all diseases before running out of resources, having 5 uncured diseases at the end of any player’s turn, or by having 4 uncured diseases when a Contagion card is drawn.

Diseases are assigned (along with their negative effect) to the player who drew them and cannot be transferred. To cure a disease, you and your teammates must work together to create the correct molecular compound using element cards and various types of bonds to create a single compound with all the required elements and the correct values of each.

Unbonded elements only remain in play for one rotation around the players, so bonding in a timely manner is of the essence and may require coordination with your teammates (e.g., player 1 plays 3 elements, and player 2 plays a complex covalent bond which bonds all three together with the other cards that have already been bonded into a partial compound). All elements and compounds must be applied to a specific disease, but compounds survive indefinitely. And although you eventually need a single compound to cure a disease, you may have several smaller compounds working toward a cure but awaiting further bonding.

There are three types of bond cards: simple covalent bonds (bind 2 element cards); polar covalent bonds (bond 2 elements, and element and a compound, or 2 compounds); and complex covalent bond (bond any number of anything).

The resource deck you draw from throughout the game includes all the various element and bond cards, as well as some cards that let you recycle resources or elements, plus a few other that seem like it’d be getting down into the deep, deep weeds to discuss in any detail here. A couple of note are the immunity card, which protects you from the next disease you draw, a quarantine card, which protects you from all diseases, and an ultimate sacrifice card, which you can play at the of the resource deck if you’re already in quarantine to save the rest of your teammates. When preparing the game, you divide the resource deck in half and shuffle 6 exposure cards into one of the half decks, which then becomes the top half of the full deck.

Drawing an exposure card requires you to draw from the disease deck, which contains both diseases, curable through clever chemistry, and symptom cards, which are a one-of inconvenience that you then discard.

To start the game, you draw a disease (going through the disease deck until a disease comes up). Hand size and the number of actions per turn vary based on the number of players.

There are also a solo variant and a competitive variant to the game.

Color commentary: All the exposure cards being in the top half of the deck makes the first half of the game super intense and stressful, but if you can survive it, means you’re much more likely to be able to cure everything than if there was the possibility of your last card drawn being an exposure card.

In terms of the variants, the solo options include both a competitive and a cooperative version, which I don’t really understand since you’re alone…Also, the competitive mode involves a separate deck of “sabotage” cards, which feels stressful.

We backed this through Kickstarter and actually got to playtest this game with the creator in April 2019, and it was comforting how familiar it felt once we got going even though we never played it in the intervening year. This gives me hope for all the games we’ve played once or twice and might not return to in the short-term.

In the first game (March 21), we drew 3 diseases total (including the mandatory disease to start the game) and the rest were symptom cards, so the game was mostly a matter of math and time, rather than worrying we were going to max out the number of diseases. In terms of math, for example, I had played a Nitrogen-1 card to help me get to a total of 2 Nitrogen. An N1 was already in the discard pile and M needed just 1 Nitrogen for a cure and had an N2 card in hand. So with some lucky draws he also drew a card that lets you remove cards from a compound and put them back in your hand. He shared that card, which I used on my turn to extract the N1 from my compound to give to him. On his next turn, he was then able to share the N2 card with me. Sometimes it’s a matter of waiting for bond cards to show up, but we never had to wait long.

In the second game, we drew a total of 4 diseases, which again took some of the stress off, but it was still exciting as we tried to calculate when we might be able to cure a disease and what our options were for accruing the appropriate combinations of elements based on what had already been played and/or discarded and what would still be in the deck (the game provides reference cards showing how many of each element card exist in the deck).

The diseases, even if manageable in number, can still create inconveniences by placing limits, either on your hand size, number of actions, etc. You’re also really only guaranteed one disease, the one you start the game with, which could create a kind of anticlimactic game if the only other disease cards you draw are symptoms.

Thoughts from M: The artwork is great, but the cards are too slippery (Petra here: truth. I think actually having card sleeves would make them easier to handle and pick up, which seems counter-intuitive).

The game seems a little too cooperative for nuclear apocalyptic end times. Oh sure, you do cooperate, but only with those in your tribe as you wage war for scant resources against other tribes. And if there are only two actors in this simulation, then we must be in different tribes, so why do I care if Petra gets nerve gas? Out of the goodness of my heart? In these troubled times, there is no goodness there. (Petra again: Clearly I’ll be sleeping with one eye open from now on). Also, I feel like the company is missing a real opportunity for a Covid-19 expansion card that doesn’t actually have a cure, and thus would doom you if drawn. 

The strategy of the game, counting card values, is pretty basic, but interesting nonetheless. It’s a lot of fun, which is why we played this one twice. That, and we’re really trying to lean in to embracing  the enforced togetherness right now.

It might be an interesting variation to have the option of drawing the two cards at the end of your turn rather than the beginning. You might do this because it would delay the negative consequences of exposure cards were you to draw a symptom that requires discarding, for example.

Pulp Detective (Alban Viard Studio Games, 2018)

Date played: March 20, 2020

Basic details: 1-2 players, 20-30 min, 2 expansions available

Gist of the game: In solo mode, you play as one of two detectives trying to solve one of three cases (In this playthrough, I was “Lucky” Dan Hamilton investigating The Case of the Death’s Door Damsel). To win the game, you need to find 4 clues and successfully confront the criminal. If you run out of time (the case card has a time track) or you run out of stamina (a separate card with up to 8 places [you start at 6 when playing with beginner difficulty]), you lose the game. The game has adjustable difficulty levels with varying time and stamina handicaps. You can gain stamina through successful investigations and items, but in all but one item circumstance, time only moves forward.

The game unfolds through a series of turns, which have 3 phases: storyline building, investigation, and time marches on.

In the storyline phase, you develop a main storyline as well as other storylines that form subplots. You can have any number of subplots, but any given subplot can have no more cards in it than the storyline above it. Storyline cards come in 3 varieties: cliffhangers, informants, and follow a lead. Cliffhangers are disproportionately endowed with stamina as rewards, informants with clues, and follow a lead with items. Not every card in each category has that given reward, but they’re definitely skewed. Edges of storyline cards also have symbols that can be matched top/bottom and left/right that might earn you re-rolls during the investigation stage. On each turn, you draw three cards, but don’t look at them. Using the information available on the back, which indicates the card’s category as well as what you’re most likely to earn from that category, you select one to add to your storyline, discard one face up, and insert the remaining card at random back into the draw pile. The blind nature of all of this is kind of interesting, because you’re selecting based on probabilities.

In the investigation phase, you set out the complete the appropriate task on the storyline card. Each card has three tasks, based on how much time is remaining. You choose the task that has the lowest number that is still equal to or greater than the amount of time remaining. Task rows specify which dice faces you need to complete the task. Your stamina determines how many yellow dice you’re allowed to roll. Each turn, you can also sacrifice an additional hour for more dice on that turn if your stamina is 2 (+1 die) or 1 (+2 die). There are also 1 red and 1 grey die that you may be able to roll depending on what items you hold or your detective’s special ability, which you can avail yourself of as often as you like. Each die has 4 icons, with two icons appearing twice (marked with a *). Each die is different, but you get to choose which dice to roll and in what order. You also get one re-roll for each set of edges the current storyline card matches with those next to and above/below it.

If you succeed at an investigative task, whether through dice or additional item markers (more in a moment), you gain something: an item, stamina, or a clue. If you gain an item, the item you gain is determined by the top card of the discard pile. If you don’t successfully complete an investigative task, you can choose a marker that matches one of the dice faces you rolled. You can keep 2 markers for free, or pay penalties to keep up to 4. So failing can still make it easier to succeed in the future, depending on whether the icon on your marker is important for your next storyline card, etc.

Finally, after building your storyline and investigating, you advance the time marker by one hour. Each case has a different length of time attached to it. The Case of the Death’s Door Damsel was recommended for the first play, and had 24 hours, the highest.

To confront the criminal after you’ve collected 4 clues, look at the totality of your storyline and determine which dice value (1-6) appears most often to determine the criminal you face.  Confronting a criminal works basically like investigating: you must roll the appropriate set of dice and/or use markers and/or items and/or special abilities to get the needed configuration. You can also use your remaining time in 2 hour increments to reroll one yellow die.

There are two 2-player variants, one competitive and one cooperative.

There are also 2 expansions, with a third forthcoming:
Expansion 1: Sidekicks, Double Cross, and Masterminds adds 4 new cases, 2 new detective cards, and several cards unique to the expansion: 8 double cross cards, 4 sidekick cards, a mastermind card, and a sidekick die.
Expansion 2: Henchmen, Gun Molls, and Traps adds 2 new cases, 1 new detective, 1 new police inspector (used for 2 player games), 3 new criminal cards, and several cards unique to the expansion: 18 henchmen, gun molls, and traps cards, 6 location cards, and a Girl Friday die.

Expansion cards can be used with any case and combined with each other (across expansions, I think) in the same game, so (I think) you could have a sidekick and Girl Friday in the same game using a criminal, detective, and case from the base game.

Color commentary: As was the case with Friday, working my way through the instructions took a super long time, followed by breezy gameplay that involved no real difficulties. I suppose you could argue that there were no difficulties because I took my time with the rules, but I felt confused most of the time I was reading the rules and fearful I wouldn’t be able to figure out what I was actually supposed to do.

Some things are basically without consequence. For instance, there’s nothing specific about the cases per se that show up through the rest of the game play. Each case has a different time allocation, but they’re pretty generic. Same with the criminals. Each criminal requires a different set of dice values, but they’re all perfectly interchangeable with any case, storyline, etc., but all the little elements of randomness, like items being determined by the top card of the discard pile, criminals determined by the modal die face in the storyline, etc. probably increase replayability.

Since clues put you on the path toward winning the game, I chose Informant cards whenever possible (which was every turn for at least the first half dozen turns), especially while I had the stamina to roll a larger number of dice. However, many informant cards didn’t have edge symbols, making them pretty useless for earning extra rerolls.

I was pretty blase about subplots, mostly just starting them when table space was running out. The entire first row was pretty much devoid of any edge symbols, so there wasn’t a lot to worry about matching in that row, and nothing to initially match in the subplot below.

I successfully found the fourth clue with 4 stamina and 8 hours remaining. My criminal (mode of 0 pips on storyline cards) was The Spyder, a weapons mastermind. Using the time sacrifice option and my detective’s special ability of sacrificing 1 stamina to roll the red die or grey die, I was able to defeat the criminal with 1 hour (basically no time, as moving below 1 means you lose) and 2 stamina remaining.

Thoughts I think M might have if he had played: The pulp noir art is super fun.

I really like how probability enters into potential strategies, both with the likely outcomes from successful investigations based on card type, and which dice to roll for an increased likelihood of particular icons.

There are also some interesting dynamics where you might choose Cliffhanger or Follow a Lead cards that are more likely to a) have edge symbols to match, b) earn you more stamina (which gives you more initial dice) and/or c) earn you items, which you may be able to exchange for stamina or additional dice/rolls.

Using hindsight of nearly 12 hours, edge symbols are probably where the strategic importance of subplots come in — starting a new subplot below to match top/bottom symbols, continuing a storyline to match side symbols, etc.

The less time remaining, the harder the tasks (more dice needed, more doubles of icons), so I can envision that at some point you just lose the last several investigations because you can’t get enough dice together to match the symbols even if the mathematical odds were in your favor. And losing investigations just compounds the pain by causing loss of stamina, loss of items, and even loss of additional time beyond the hour you must advance every turn anyway.

Friday (Rio Grande Games, 2012)

Date played: March 18, 2020

Basic details: 1 player, 25 minutes

Gist of the game: You are Robinson Crusoe’s companion Friday. After washing up on your island, Robinson is essentially hapless and incompetent. You presumably want the imperialist gone, and in order to facilitate this, you need to teach him survival skills that will enable him to defeat two pirates at the end of the game. Robinson’s capabilities are represented by a deck of cards. The only good news is that he’s pretty healthy (20 life points), so he may be able to absorb some failures early on if he’s not quite up to snuff yet.

Play occurs across three phases, signified by the colors green (easy), yellow (intermediate), and red (advanced). In each phase, you draw hazard cards two at a time, discarding one, until the pile is down to one card. At that point, you have the option of resolving the hazard or discarding it and starting the next phase.

Each hazard card specifies the number of free fighting cards you can draw. You can additionally sacrifice life points to draw additional fighting cards. So long as you have drawn at least one, you do not have to draw all the free cards allotted to you, which may be to your advantage depending what’s left in your deck. Once you cycle through all your fighting cards, you shuffle in an aging card, most of which will help you, but, as Robinson ages too much, can very much be to your detriment with large negative point values.

To defeat a hazard, the sum of fighting points must equal or exceed the hazard value (the same hazard will have varying hazard values depending on which phase you’re in). If you win a hazard, you discard the fighting cards and the hazard card (which also contains a skill that Robinson can fight with) into your fighting card discard pile.

If you lose to a hazard, you lose the number of life points that stood between you and victory (e.g., if you had 2 fighting points and a hazard value of 3, you lose 1 life point). For life points you lose against a hazard, though, you can destroy face up fighting cards and remove them from the game. One life point destroys a regular knowledge card and two life points destroys an aging card.

Once the hazard pile has been depleted three times, it’s time to fight the pirates. Two pirates are chosen at random from a small selection at the beginning of the game. Chose one pirate and resolve it like a (turbo) hazard. After beating the first pirate, discard all used fighting cards and immediately fight the second pirate. Unlike regular hazards, you cannot lose to the pirates and pay with life points. If there aren’t enough fighting points from the free cards, you must sacrifice life points to draw more cards. You lose if there are no more fighting cards when you need them or if you need to sacrifice a life point and have none left (so you can win the game with zero life points, but not if you would need to go to -1 life points).

Color commentary: Ok, so I took like 3.5 pages of notes on the rules of this game, and spent longer reading the rules and trying to make sense of them than I think I spent playing the game (although I did lose quickly). Once I started playing, game play was extremely straightforward, although it certainly did not seem like that was going to be the case from the rule book. And I think I remembered to do everything, including shuffling in aging cards when I depleted the Robinson/fighting/knowledge deck.

I used a very aggressive initial strategy to defeat hazards, because some of them would have been extremely difficult to defeat in later phases (although, as I think about this hours later, maybe they wouldn’t have been quite as difficult as they seem at first glance because you would have had multiple early rounds to accrue useful knowledge). By losing, I was able to get rid of many useless fighting cards, worth 0 or -1 points, but the life point sacrifice to get rid of those was painful, as I ended up with -3 fighting points on a five point hazard card. Also, depleting the deck quickly means you have to shuffle in aging cards. Most of them will help you, but some of them are painful, worth things like -3 and -5 points. Ultimately, I lost about halfway through the first phase.

Thoughts I think M might have if he had played: The artwork isn’t great. The hazard cards are definitely the best, as they have the most room for whimsy. Then again, Rio Grande in general doesn’t seem to prioritize art — even Power Grid’s design focuses mostly on function rather than form.

The rule book clearly says that being defeated by early hazards that don’t cost a lot of life points may be in your interest. While I appreciate Petra’s aggressive strategy (her loss, not mine, ha), I think a more conservative strategy of choosing easier hazards to lose against and accepting more close defeats that let you destroy unhelpful fighting cards might be better than ending up in eight fighting points down on a single hazard. The difficulty is somewhat customizeable, with the option of including one fewer “advanced” (Petra here: interpret this as “exceedingly negative”) aging card. I have written in my notes that the game can be played with difficulty levels ranging from 1-4, but I neglected to write down what that meant, and now the box is far away. But, it’s nice that even though it’s a one player game, the creators had their eye on replayability.

Pandemic (Z-Man Games, 2012)

Date played: March 17, 2020

Basic details: 2-4 players, 45 minutes

Gist of the game: In this cooperative game, players are part of a disease control team trying to prevent the spread of four diseases. The goal is to discover cures for all four diseases before a) 8 outbreaks occur; b) the diseases have spread too much (there are not enough disease cubes left when you need them); or c) you ran out of time (there are not enough player cards left when needed). Players assume one of seven possible roles. Each role comes with some kind of special ability that may be useful during the course of the game.

On each turn, players take four actions, draw two player cards, and draw/resolve x number of infection cards (where x=the number specified by the infection spread counter. 2<=x<=4). If an epidemic card is one of the player cards drawn, it must be resolved immediately, in three steps: move the infection marker forward by one, draw the bottom card of the infection deck and place up to three cubes on the target city (if you can’t place any cubes because the city is already teeming with infection, you have an outbreak on your hands, in which the disease spreads to all neighboring cities), and shuffle the discarded infection cards back onto the top of the deck (so you only play with a small subset of infection cards over the course of the game, with each city getting hit by wave after wave of pestilence).

There are eight possible actions that can be taken in the four slots each turn. Four options encompass movement of some kind, involving neighboring cities, cities for which you have cards, and cities with research stations. You can also build a research center by discarding a card matching the city you’re in, treat a disease by removing a disease cube from your current location, share knowledge by trading very specific cards with another player in the same location as you, and discover a cure by discarding five cards of the same color at a research station. The game also has varying levels of difficulty, as you can play with between four and six epidemic cards. As it was our inaugural game, we played with four.

Color commentary: Sure, we got this as a wedding gift four years ago and it took a literal pandemic to bring it to the top of our play list, but we’re here now, and that’s the important thing.

We lost by running out of player cards. However, by other metrics I think our performance looks a little better. We cured two diseases (although by the end of the game I think it would have been impossible for us to have cured yellow because that was a frequently discarded color as we focused on the hot spots of Asia and Europe), and, more impressively, we only had one outbreak, fairly late in the game, originating in Miami because M had been putting out disease fires in the Middle East and Europe and couldn’t make it back stateside fast enough.

Also, I understand why you only play with a small subset of all possible cities, but it was incredibly stressful. I was hopping around the Asia-Pacific, from Jakarta to Sydney to Seoul and Tokyo trying to tamp down the number of disease cubes, but as soon as we’d get one city out of the danger zone it would get drawn again. I guess what I’m saying is that I realize we’re playing a game about pandemics during a global pandemic, but I wish it were a little less anxiety-inducing.

Thoughts from M: I think this is my least favorite game we’ve played in a while, which was disappointing, because I know it’s really well regarded in gaming circles. It was a fine game, but I don’t think it met the expectations I had given the rave reviews I’ve read. Also, the artwork is only ok.

I think the game actually makes pandemics more difficult to fight than they are in real life. I mean, how likely is it that there are only two-four scientists working in all the world? In the US, sure, but the world? And they all have to go globetrotting? Who’s staying behind to do the lab work?! And how often do multiple pandemics all happen at once? It seems ridiculous. I mean, really. I don’t understand why this fictionalized game based only loosely on real life processes doesn’t have just a little bit more verisimilitude.

In terms of strategy, in future plays I’d like to try treating all disease cubes when you encounter them (Petra here: we mostly triaged, removing only one cube from many locations to avoid an outbreak if that city was drawn again). There’s also a lot of room for replay with the varying number of epidemic cards and the number of roles that far exceed the maximum number of players. I think there’s also a lot of room for potential improvement with repeated play, and my sister-in-law informs me that it’s easier to win with more people. This sounds like “I have friends” privilege, and not very responsible in these times of social distancing. Hmph.

Dinomals (Dinomals, 2017)

Date played: March 15, 2020

Basic details: 2-6 players; 5-20 minutes

Gist of the game: This is a pretty simple game. Your goal is to construct a “dinomal,” which is an animal-dinosaur mash-up. In order to win, you need the dinomal card, as well as the corresponding animal and dinosaur cards, plus a “smush” DNA card to make the whole thing work biologically. Each player begins the game with a 5-card hand. At the start of each turn, the player draws a card and then proceeds to play as many action cards as they wish. Hand size is unlimited.

Color commentary: This was one of the first Kickstarters I supported, primarily because of the artwork. It’s a game designed by a dad and his two kids, presumably for the kids’ enjoyment and entertainment. There’s essentially no strategy, except maybe to maximize your hand size, as it increases your chances of getting all the pieces of the dinomal you need, though there are cards that end your turn immediately or, more catastrophically, make you start your hand over. I drew such a card when I had two or three complete dinomal sets and was merely awaiting a smush card. Because there’s no real strategy, it’s a fluffy game that can be played even if it would be harder to muster the cognitive load to play a more complicated game. It also takes up little room. The pictures above were taken on our bed, as our table is currently covered in textbooks I’m perusing for next semester and a slew of games that can be played solo, as I will have more time at home during spring break and once my classes go online in a couple weeks. As I self-isolate (ish…M will have to come and go from his job), I will surround myself with games to keep myself entertained in between recording lectures.

M’s thoughts: There is virtually no strategy to this game and yet I love it, and not just for the fun artwork. The game can be played in small doses repeatedly and it has never failed to entertain me. (The one piece of strategy that does exist is to save worthless cards, such as one that calls for reshuffling the deck, to used when you get a card that allows to force a trade with another player. Petra only seems to catch on this intermittently.)

Horrified (Ravensburger, 2019)

Date played: March 7, 2020

Basic details: 1-5 players, 60 minutes

Gist of the game: In this cooperative game, you work together with your fellow players to defeat the Universal Classic Monsters. Depending on the difficulty level, games may involve 2-4 monsters of any combination you wish. For the first game you play, the instructions specify to play with Dracula and the Creature from the Black Lagoon. From there, “novice” games involve 2 monsters, “standard” games involve 3, and “challenging” games involve 4. There are 7 monsters total to choose from, so there are a lot of potential combinations, increasing the replay potential.

The board is comprised of several locations (the docks, the laboratory, the cave, the camp, the crypt, the abbey, etc.) relevant to the various monsters in the Universal universe. Characters/heroes are also roughly taken from the movies, but are more archetypes (the courier, the archaeologist, etc.).

Each player’s turn involves 2 phases: the Hero Phase, where you complete the number of actions specified on your character card (most characters allow for 4, with 3 and 5 also possible in rarer circumstances). You can move your own character, with or without accompanying villagers, move a villager by themselves, play your character’s special action, pick up items, advance on a monster, or defeat a monster. Villagers basically extend the game play and serve as monster fodder, allowing you to sacrifice them instead of items to save yourself or allowing yourself to be defeated. Then comes the monster phase, which lets to place additional items on the board, as well as allows monsters to advance toward and potentially attack the nearest players (monsters can only attack once they are in the same location as a character or villager).

There are 2 ways to lose: The terror token advances to its maximum (technically, 7, though it’s labelled as 0-6 and then a death face) through the defeat of villagers and/or heroes, or you run out of time, which occurs when you need to draw a monster card during the second phase of your turn but there are none left in the deck.

Color commentary: Upon further reviewing our gameplay, we lost, but we were negligent in moving the terror token as we played, so we’re retconning it and saying we won. Only 4 villagers were sacrificed. Our characters were defeated a few. Probably enough to get us to maximum terror, but not much beyond. But again. Using our original interpretation of our gameplay, we won, and that’s the story I’m sticking to.

Regardless of whether you want to interpret us as winning or losing, I think this game was a real success for our marriage. The first cooperative game we played was Hanabi, once, after which I was hankering for a divorce. Call me a bad person, but it’s a little stressful trying to get everyone on board with your brilliant ideas and then keep everyone on task. Actually, Hanabi involved way more incomplete information, which was the real problem. We were able to be pretty transparent during game play. M was the most frequent monster victim, so early on I set about smashing Dracula’s coffins to be able to defeat him later. M was under pretty continual attack near the end of the game, so while he had made progress getting to the Creature’s lair, I finished that task, which let us move on to the defeat stage, which M was able to handle easily because the Creature was basically stalking him at that point and it was thus easy to be in the same location together.

Gameplay was straightforward enough, though I think forgetting to advance things on tracks is a recurring theme with me — they’re just always out of the way enough that it’s really easy to forget about and/or completely disregard them. Points tracks are different, I suppose, but tracks to keep track of phases? I can’t even.

Also, while game play is straightforward, there are a lot of components: you have two decks of cards, 60 total items, 7 monster minifigs (all of which comes with their own set of accessories — coffins for Drac, a location cover for the Creature, amulets for the Mummy, etc.), 7 possible characters, which include both a reference card and a standee, 10 villager standees, mats for each monster, 3 dice, the terror token, and a token to denote which monster is frenzied. It seemed reasonably manageable during the game, but it was a lot to handle in the setup and familiarization processes.

M’s thoughts: This is the most fun I’ve had playing “one of these” games in a long time (Petra here: I’m not sure how to interpret this phase, but I’m not sure I like it). Even more than Corleone’s Empire, King of Tokyo, AND Planet of the Apes (Petra again: this is high praise, as these 3 games all contain cinematic things that M particularly enjoys: The Godfather, Godzilla, and Planet of the Apes). Perhaps this game was not as much fun as the Groo game (Petra yet again: see our blog entry from November 2019 to learn more…it was fun, and based on a comic book character I grew up loving).

I think Horrified is a relative of Guillotine-type games, as there are a lot of cards/actions (i.e., monster attacks) that can derail your efforts (like having to start from the hospital after being defeated by a monster), but it’s only a relative . Medium- and long-term strategies are probably the best way to play, but there may be a lot of hiccups and setbacks. Because of all the monster/character combinations, I think the game has a lot of replay potential. Plus, the Universal Classic Monsters. And minifigs of them!


The Godfather: Corleone’s Empire (Spaghetti Western Games, 2017)


Date played: March 1, 2020

Basic details: 2-5 players; 60-90 minutes

Gist of the game: Following 4 acts that vaguely correspond with the plot of the first Godfather movie (The Wedding, The Turk, Sonny’s Murder, and the Betrayal), characters compete for control over turfs in New York City in order to launder the most money by the end of the game. The game can be played with 2-5 players, though with fewer players some aspects of the game go unfulfilled (e.g., additional businesses in each turf, number of allies, number of public jobs). In order to successfully shake down “the front” and “the back” of businesses, each crime family dispatches family members and thugs across the city. In addition to sending these people out into the city, where they can secure money or illegal goods (guns, blood money, booze, or narcotics), you can also complete jobs (by spending illegal goods) and try to bribe officials (by outbidding other players). While the player with the most money at the end of the game wins, only money that has successfully been laundered (and socked away into an adorable metal hinge-top suitcase) counts toward your total — nothing left in your hand helps you at the end of the game.

Within each of the four acts, play occurs across five phases: opening new businesses (playing a randomized business in the next available turf), family business (playing the mini figurines — thugs for the back of a single business in a single turf, family members for the front of businesses in all adjacent turfs; completing jobs; playing allies that have been previously purchased), turf war (determining who controls each territory), bribery (a secret bid to buy an ally), tribute to the Don (reducing your hand size down to the specified size for that act), and entre’acte (removing all figures from board; advancing Don Corleone on the act track, receiving new figures transitioning into acts 2 and 4, replenishing public jobs and the upcoming act’s allies that will be available for purchase).

Color commentary: There was a lot to keep track of in this game. Each turf you control gets a marker in your family’s color, and technically when a member of an opposing family (family member, not thug) shakes down the front of those businesses, you are also supposed to reap those same benefits. For us, this time, that virtually never happened. It just got lost in the hustle and bustle of organized crime.

Since there are a whopping 18 photos accompanying this post, I think it goes without saying that we (cough cough, M) was especially enamored of the artwork. It being Godfather themed, and involving minifigures, were strong sales points when we purchased it last fall.

In a lot of ways, the premise of the game reminds me of Tammany Hall, in which you play a politician trying to shore up ethnic constituencies in New York City. As with Corleone’s Empire, with fewer than the maximum number of players, the way players interact with the board changes. Corleone’s Empire I think had more complications and moving pieces (literally, no minifigures in Tammany Hall), it can be played with only two players, as opposed to Tammany Hall, which has a 3 player minimum. Again, as a couple who are rarely able to muster a larger playing group, this has definite appeal (though Tammany Hall was my first real sophisticated board game when my sister gave it to me for Christmas a few years ago, so there is some sentimental attachment for me that Corleone’s Empire doesn’t have). Probably if we had a third player around, I would have tried to play them back to back to make direct comparisons instead of having to rely on my memory of playing Tammany like 4 years ago with friends in Lansing.

I would like to point out that I won, with $66, to M’s $57, though he did manage to launder way more than I thought he was going to based on what I was observing and tracking in his minifigure placement.

M’s thoughts: The randomization of businesses will allow for different dynamics over the course of multiple plays.

There are lots of strategies you could use if you played with more than two players. A big one here is the bidding process for allies, and having to calculate how much you should bid to win without massively overbidding. I overbid for one ally, not noticing that Petra only had two cards in hand, worth at most $10 (money comes in $1, $2, $3, and $5 denominations).

The dominant long-term strategy is to suitcase the highest denominations of money you have at every opportunity (and in Act 3, some allies let you suitcase more than one money card at a time, which helped  me a tremendous amount toward the end of Act 4). In the short- and medium-term, if you have to discard cards to get your hand size down during the tribute to the Don phase, don’t keep illegal good cards unless you have a definite, current job to use them for (I had several that ended up being dead weight for me). As there are end-of-game bonuses for being the player who completed the most jobs of each color, another long-term strategy would be to do jobs whenever you can, as they help reduce your hand size and don’t interfere with your being able to launder money.

Also, you do not actually get to be Tom Hagen in the game, so that lifelong dream of mine remains unfulfilled.