The game: Copenhagen by Asger Harding Granerud and Daniel Skjold Pedersen, published by Queen Games in 2019.
I loaned a review copy from Lautapelit.fi, the publisher of the Scandinavian edition of the game.
Elevator pitch: Tetris-like tile laying powered with rummy-style card play and clever use of special powers.
What’s in the box? A big box has lots of cardboard polyomino tiles, player boards and cards. Everything looks quite pretty; the colors are a bit pale, but the artwork still looks nice and friendly. All the components are functional and do their job well. Bonus points for scoring meeples shaped like the Little Mermaid statue.
What do you do in the game? The goal of the game is to either reach 12 points for instant win or to have the most points when the card triggering the end of the game emerges from the deck. You score points by completing rows and columns on your player board by placing polyomino tiles.
On your turn, you either draw two cards from the table or play cards from your hand to place a polyomino tile. The colour and the number of the cards you play determine which tile you can place: play three blue cards, and you can place a three-square blue polyomino.
The tiles are placed in your building facade from the bottom up. Each new tile must be on the bottom of the facade or on top of another tile. When you complete a row, you score one point and a complete column is two points, and if the row or column has only window squares, that’s double points.
There are also coat of arms symbols in the grid and next to certain rows and columns. If you cover a symbol or fill a row or column next to the symbol, you get a bonus action. For a bonus action, you either take a new bonus power tile or place a one-square window tile to your grid – that’s the only way to get one-square tiles.
Bonus actions let you break the rules: draw more cards, draw and place on a same turn, or to place tiles cheaper. The powers are one use only, but as a bonus action, you can flip all your power tiles face up so you can reuse them. Efficient use of these power tiles is key to success in this game, which reminds me of Oregon.
Lucky or skillful? Luck is involved, as is usual when cards are involved in the game, but thanks to the power tiles and other skill elements involved, the more skilled player will win more often.
Abstract or thematic? There’s nothing in the game that really ties it to this specific theme; the game play is very abstract, and the theme is just decoration. It would be really easy to switch the theme to something else or to remove it completely, and the game would still make sense and be easy to play. On the other hand, I could see this sold in tourist shops in Copenhagen.
Solitaire or interactive? There’s little direct interaction. The worst things your opponent can do is to take the cards you would’ve wanted to take and to win the game before you have a chance. Even when you lose, you can get a sense of accomplishment for building a nice facade, so all in all, Copenhagen is a peaceful game.
Players: 2–4. All player counts are good.
Who can play? The publisher age recommendation is 8+. I think this is a good, fairly short family game, well suitable for families.
What’s to like: The game looks calm and peaceful, and plays well: the game play is easy, fluid and offers enough chances to be clever, thanks to the power tiles. Choosing which ones to take and how to best use them is an interesting challenge.
What’s not to like: The game’s a bit bland and abstract, and if you like interaction, you won’t find it here. The box is a bit big and the setup takes a while especially with two players, considering the length of the actual game. A filler in a big box, essentially.
My verdict: I was happy to loan the game from Lautapelit.fi, but I don’t mind having to return it. I think it is a solid game, but on the other hand it does not excite me in a way I expect from games in my own collection. I’m happy to play it if someone else wants to, but unlikely to suggest it myself. That’s the definition of “Indifferent” verdict for me.
However, I would recommend this game to anyone looking for friendly, easy-going family game that plays in under an hour. If you don’t require a strong theme, want something that’s kind of clever but not very taxing and that’s easy to teach to someone who’s not heavily into games, Copenhagen is well worth a look.
On the scale of Enthusiastic, Suggest, Indifferent or Avoid, Copenhagen gets Indifferent from me.
The game: Texas Showdown by Mark Major. This was originally self-published as Strife in 2015, then published by Amigo in 2018.
I bought this myself.
Elevator pitch: A Western-themed trick avoidance game for 4–6 players with couple of very clever twists.
What’s in the box? A standard Amigo card game box contains a 60-card deck and a slip of rules. The cards are illustrated by Franz Vohwinkel.
The deck has eight suites. At the bottom, there’s 11 black cards with numbers 0–10. Then comes 10 red cards, numbers 11–20, then 9 blue cards with numbers 21–29 and so on, until finally we have 4 gray cards with numbers 71–74.
What do you do in the game? Texas Showdown is a trick-taking game where the goal is to avoid tricks. The first twist is this: you have to follow suit, but if you can’t do that, you can play any card – and now the players after can follow either the original suit or the one you played.
The second twist is the winner of the trick: the trick goes to the player who played the highest card in the suit that was played most in the trick. If there’s a tie in the number of cards, as often there is, the highest card in the tied suites wins the trick.
This all means that reneging, which is usually something you want to do in trick-avoidance games, becomes very dangerous. You can’t just discard high cards that way, as that’s a sure-fire way to win some tricks.
It’s all very clever. The game is played until someone has 10–15 points, which takes at most four rounds. The player with the least points wins.
Lucky or skillful? There’s luck, as is usual in card games. Sometimes you’re dealt a better hand, sometimes you’ll take plenty of tricks. With larger players counts, the game also becomes chaotic. That’s fine: it’s still meaningful and interesting.
Abstract or thematic? The Western theme is just decoration, this is an abstract trick-taking game.
Solitaire or interactive? Plenty of interaction, as is usual for trick-taking games. There are plenty of good opportunities to pass tricks to someone else, and often you’ll be given a choice where to pass the trick – if there’s a 2–2 tie and you’re last and can play both tied colors, you can choose who gets the trick.
Players: 3–6. I just wouldn’t bother at all with three; there are plenty of good trick-taking games for three players. Four is fine, five gets more interesting and I don’t see why six wouldn’t be very good, too. The game shines with five or six, since those are more unusual numbers for trick-taking games.
Who can play? The publisher age recommendation is 10+. It’s fine. The rules are very light, especially for someone who has a basic understanding of trick-taking games, but the nuances of playing well may be too much for children.
What’s to like: This is a fresh take on trick-avoidance and will surprise people. The surprise quickly turned into murmurs of approval as we played, and after the first hand was over, our game group was well into the game. The supported player count is unusual, which is always good.
What’s not to like: It’s just another trick-taking game. If you don’t like trick-taking, Texas Showdown won’t change your mind.
My verdict: It took me couple of visits to the game store and a bit of buzz before I caved in and bought a copy of Texas Showdown. I thought it might work, as our group generally likes trick-taking games and there are often five or six of us around, which is too much for our favourite game, Slovenian Tarokk.
I was quickly proven right, as the group really enjoyed this clever little trick-taker. It strikes a good balance: it’s fresh enough, while being really simple and easy to teach. All in all, I think Texas Showdown succeeds in creating something new and fresh and if you’re looking for a trick-taking game for five or six players, I very much recommend giving it a go.
On the scale of Enthusiastic, Suggest, Indifferent or Avoid, Texas Showdown gets Suggest from me.
The game: On Tour by Chad DeShon. The game was published by BoardGameTables.com in 2019 after a successful Kickstarter campaign.
I received a review copy of the game from BoardGameTables.com.
Elevator pitch: A lavishly produced roll and write game where you plan a tour of United States for your band.
What’s in the box? A big box contains gorgeous components. BoardGameTables.com makes board game tables, essentially a luxury item, and the same luxury is obvious here. The dice in this game are huge, the player boards big and beautiful, the cards large and well-illustrated.
The box is way too big for the game, but starts to make sense when you realize the game has no upper limit for player count. You can fit up to eight extra player boards (sold separately) in the box, turning this from a 1–4 player game to a 1–12 player game. At that point, the box size is easier to accept.
What do you do in the game? Every turn the dice are rolled to generate two numbers: a die roll of 1 and 4 generates 14 and 41, for example. Those numbers are written on the player boards, which depict a map of United States with 41 states on them (some smaller states have been combined).
Cards dictate where you can write the numbers. Each round three cards are drawn and you choose two of those cards, one for each number. Cards have one state and an area (North, South, Western, Central, Eastern). When you choose a card, you can choose a state from that area freely – but if you choose the state in the card, you get to circle it, which makes it worth two points instead of just one.
If doubles are rolled or all three cards show the same area, that means players can put a star in a state.
This is repeated until the boards are filled up with numbers. Then the boards are scored: player’s score is the length of the longest continuous route where each state has the same or a bigger number than the previous state. Starred states are wild. Your final score is the number of states in your longest route plus the number of circled states on that route.
Lucky or skillful? The numbers and cards are random, so of course there’s a plenty of random elements involved in the game. However, everybody gets the same numbers and cards, so it’s up to you how you use them. There’s skill involved: I managed to more than double my score between my first two games, just by understanding the game better on the second go.
You still have to make decisions based on information you don’t have, so there’s no way to know how good those decisions are beforehand.
Abstract or thematic? All the components ooze theme, so I’d say it’s pretty solid for a game that’s essentially an abstract number-manipulation game.
Solitaire or interactive? No interaction whatsoever. This is pure multiplayer solitaire, there’s no interaction between players and no theoretical limits on the number of players.
Players: 1–4, but with more boards (or printed maps) you can add as many players as you wish.
Who can play? The publisher age recommendation is 10+ and I feel that is pretty good. The rules are really simple, that’s not a problem, but doing well requires a bit of advanced forward planning, otherwise the game will just feel really random and opaque.
What’s to like: For roll and writes, getting that “I want to try again” feeling is crucial. On Tour succeeds there: doing well is hard enough that the best way to play is not obvious and you can keep on improving your score. The game looks very attractive and is guaranteed to draw attention.
What’s not to like: The box is very big for a light filler like this. If you’re not a fan of roll and write games, this game won’t likely change your mind.
My verdict: I’m not a big fan of the genre, but the production values attracted me to give On Tour a go. The game certainly looks very impressive. I found the game a solid representative of the roll and write genre: not my favourite, but certainly good enough.
Thus, while On Tour won’t find a permanent place in my collection, I would recommend fans of the genre to check it out. As far as I can tell, the only place to get the game right now is the publisher store. I would recommend getting at least some extra player boards with the game, because I think the bigger games are an environment where this game will shine.
On the scale of Enthusiastic, Suggest, Indifferent or Avoid, On Tour gets Indifferent from me.
The second US tour of the Jazz Police was a bigger success than the first one.
The game: WordPress: The Card Game by Rustan Håkansson. The game was published by Angry Creative in 2018 after a successful Kickstarter campaign. I was a sponsor-level backer in the campaign in order to get my WordPress plugin Relevanssi featured in the game.
Elevator pitch: A simple card game about running a WordPress agency. Create web sites for clients for money and contribute to open source projects for points.
What’s in the box? A deck of cards of medium quality and bunch of small cardboard tokens. Nothing spectacular, but everything works well enough. I’m not a huge fan of the art. The box shows that the publisher is not a board game company: it’s lacking basic details like player count, the length of the game and the name of the designer.
What do you do in the game? On your turn you use one of your cards. You start with an agency card and can use it to win contracts for web site projects and to recruit employees. Employees have skills in business, coding and design.
These skills are used to complete the web site contracts: each contract has couple of skill symbols. Employees are used to cover the symbols and once all are covered, the project is ready and the player earns money.
There’s one open source project available and everybody can contribute to it, again using the skills of their employees. Every time you contribute, you score one point. The player who completes the project by covering the last symbol on the card gets some kind of bonus, then a new project is drawn from the deck.
When employees are used, you have to turn them sideways. They can’t be used again. When you want to activate them again, you have to do a payday, paying everybody their salaries. Better have enough money: if you don’t have, you must pay points and if you can’t, you have to fire people.
The first player to reach ten points wins. Contributing to open source projects is thus the only way to win, but you can’t just do that, because that way you’ll run out of money soon.
Lucky or skillful? There are random elements from the cards, but they are moderate. The biggest random element is the open source project draw: having a project come up that matches your employee skill set well is helpful.
Abstract or thematic? This is a very light business game. It models running an agency, but on a very abstract level. Not a heavy business simulation, by no means, but the game feels enough like running a business. The WordPress theme is nice if you work in a WordPress agency and having the game filled with Scandinavian WordPress personalities is cool if you’re involved in the scene.
Solitaire or interactive? There’s no direct interaction between players, just a race to ten points with some taking cards that other people would like. Also, when contributing to open source projects, it helps to pay attention to what skills other players have available.
Players: 2–4, the game is better with more players.
Who can play? There’s no age recommendation from the publisher, but I’d say the game works with smart kids, maybe 10+ or even younger. It’s not a complicated game, as it’s mostly aimed at non-gamer audience.
What’s to like: The topic is unusual and if you work in a WordPress agency, it’s a pretty cool theme you’ll enjoy. It’s fun to see familiar faces and projects in the game, and the gameplay is simple enough.
What’s not to like: The game could use some editing; while Rustan Håkansson is a professional designer, Angry Creative is not experienced in board games and it shows. The game could definitely use some polishing.
My verdict: I backed WordPress: The Card Game for the promotional value, getting the name of my product in front of WordPress professionals can’t be bad, right? Too bad the publisher misspelled the name of my product…
I didn’t have great expectations for the game play value, and well, I wasn’t disappointed or positively surprised. I got a fairly harmless game: it’s fairly simple, decent fun, nothing spectacular. Without the theme, I’d have no interest in the game, and even with the theme, I’m keeping this more as a curiosity than as a game.
On the scale of Enthusiastic, Suggest, Indifferent or Avoid, WordPress: The Card Game gets Indifferent from me.
The game: Astro Drive by Max Wikström and Mikko Punakallio. The game was published by Lautapelit.fi in 2018, sixth game in their small box series. My copy is on loan from the local library.
Elevator pitch: A sci-fi racing game based on old arcade games.
What’s in the box? The race track is made of oversize cards which have a 5 by 7 grid: the track is five spaces wide and at least six cards long. There are simple wooden tokens for space ships and smaller movement cards. The components are simple and functional.
What do you do in the game? The goal is to get across the goal line first. Each turn, players choose one of their three cards. Cards are chosen simultaneously, revealed and resolved in initiative order (number in the card).
Each card has forward speed, which governs your movement forward and is mandatory to use. There are also control points, which allow sideways movement. Using these is optional.
The track is of course filled with obstacles. Hit a planet and you’re gone, immediately eliminated from the game. Asteroids are fatal, unless you burn an energy cube. Space radiation makes you faster, space fog slows you down. When you enter a row with a black hole, you move one step towards the hole. If you hit the hole, you’re gone. Wormholes let you teleport a bit.
Other players are also obstacles: you can pass through an opponent, but can’t move sideways to the same space, which can sometimes be rather unpleasant.
There are three race track cards visible in the beginning. Once somebody hits the fifth row of the last card, new card is drawn and placed so that the track continues. The deck is eight cards and the goal line is within the last three cards.
Lucky or skillful? The game is deterministic: there’s no output randomness involved. There’s random draw of cards, but you get three to choose from, and of course the moves of the other players can mess up your plans occasionally. The game isn’t as random as one could expect.
Abstract or thematic? The arcade scifi racing theme is thin, but convincing enough. The arcade games are abstract to begin with. The artwork supports the theme fairly well.
Solitaire or interactive? A race with no direct interaction, but the players can occasionally get in each other’s way.
Players: 2–4, more action with more players.
Who can play? The publisher age recommendation is 8+, which seems accurate. The game is easy enough for school-age kids to play without adult supervision, if the kids are familiar with the game.
What’s to like: The game is simple, easy to play and the random tracks mean the game isn’t the same every time.
What’s not to like: If you don’t get into the excitement of the racing, the game feels indifferent. Just choose a card, play a card, which isn’t all that exciting.
My verdict: Astro Drive is a simple game, but failed to grasp me. I do realize the some of the things I find lacking in this game some other people find lacking in Flamme Rouge – but I love that game, and find Astro Drive a bit meaningless.
Your mileage may vary, especially if you like short, simple fillers. I don’t expect Astro Drive to be anyone’s favourite game, but as a harmless 15-minute filler, it’s not bad – just harmless.
On the scale of Enthusiastic, Suggest, Indifferent or Avoid, Astro Drive gets Indifferent from me.
2018 was the year of the two-player card game. Look at my top three played games: Magic: the Gathering, KeyForge and Shards of Infinity, all with more than fifty plays.
When I look at my lists, it feels like I mostly played new games this year. I managed to do that in moderation, though: we’re far from 2016 record of 133 new games. Less than 10% of my plays were first plays of a new game.
My moderation in game acquisitions was something of a success. Sure, I spent about 1500 € for buying about 50 games, but I also sold almost hundred games from my collection, making over 1800 € – so my game purchase budget ended on black this year. That’s a huge step from being 1000 € on red in 2016.
My latest board game book, Löydä lautapelit (Discover Board Games), was published this year. It’s a look at modern board gaming, tracing a history from the 1950s to 2010s, looking at games from the perspective of their game mechanisms.
We awarded the Pelaajien valinta game award to Azul in the family game category, to 1918: Brother Against Brother in the gamer’s game category and the good deed award went to Helsinki Metropolitan Area Libraries for their excellent board game collections.
A post shared by Mikko Saari (@mikkosaari) on Jan 5, 2018 at 10:28pm PST
Good new games (2017–2018)
KeyForge gets the Game of the Year from me. I had great expectations and the game lived up to them. KeyForge hits it home by being fast, explosive, exciting and different enough from other similar games.
The goal of the game is one example: everything else is a race to beat up your opponent, but in KeyForge, the goal is to collect æmber and forge keys, which shifts things. The sheer power of the common cards is another fine thing about the game.
I also really like the distribution model. It gets rid of deck-building (which is a fine thing to do, but for that, I already have Magic) and it gets rid of owning hundreds of cards you don’t actually use. Every card is part of a deck. Buying new decks is an exciting event. Sure, the decks can be duds, but even bad decks can be interesting to play.
Shards of Infinity was a hit earlier in the year. It was a no-brainer: I’ve liked Star Realms and my son was a big fan of Hero Realms, so giving Shards of Infinity a go was obvious. I really liked it, too, I think it does good things to the basic deck-builder format. The Mastery is an interesting element and the way the cards in general do less than in Hero Realms makes the game better. The Relics of the Future expansion is a must-have.
Azul reached me early in 2018 and yeah, like pretty much everybody else, I liked it. The challenge it provides is interesting and the game looks and feels good. I still like to play it and it still has a place in my collection. Azul: Stained Glass of Sintra changes the game in an interesting way, but I didn’t think it was worth buying. But I’d play that with pleasure, sure.
Agra is by Michael Keller, author of La Granja and Solarius Mission. That got me interested. The big box contains lavish components, with perhaps some usability issues, but the game is good. It’s kind of worker placement, but doesn’t really feel all that much like your usual worker placement games, because you can always displace other workers. Like in Keller’s other games, there’s plenty of room to be clever in this game.
Caverna: Cave vs Cave was something I wanted to try, because I like the other small two-player versions Uwe Rosenberg has done and this was recommended as a good family game. It sure is. I first tried this with Iain in London and then bought my own copy, and I’ve since played this both with my son and my wife. I’m looking forward to the Iron Age expansion, which seems interesting.
The Mind was a major splash in the scene in Finland as well, dividing opinions like few small card games have done. I’m strictly in the “love it” camp, I think it’s fabulous and always fun to play. The biggest enthusiasm has waned a bit, though, but it’s still a keeper.
Spirit Island was recommended to me when I did my top 100 list in 2017 and at that point I said “ok, I’ll give it a go if I come across it”, because at the time it really wasn’t available. Well, someone sold a copy on the Facebook marketplace, I got alerted and bought it.
Turned out my son really liked it and I found it very interesting as well – especially for a co-op. So, in the summer most of our longer game moments were spent blocking invaders. I also bought the Branch & Claw expansion and have backed the next expansion as well.
The Quacks of Quedlinburg won the Kennerspiel des Jahres. I got my copy when it was listed as a candidate. I had some Philibert credit to be used up and this seemed like a good idea. I haven’t really played this with gamers, but everyone in the family gaming circles has really liked this. No wonder, because this push-your-luck and bag-building game is a delight.
Root is one the major highlights in 2018. I backed it, got it and played it several times in quick succession in September – but I haven’t been able to make it hit the table since then. It’s not a good two-player game and I haven’t managed to get this played in my game group. Root is something I’m not sure of – I think it’s a fine design, but I’m still not sure if it’s a my kind of game. I need to play more to find out.
Just One is a simple party game, where everybody’s on the same team. One player tries to guess a word everyone else sees. The other players all write a one-word clue, but before the clues are shown to the guesser, the other players look at the clues and eliminate all duplicates. If you’re trying to give a clue for “wall”, would you use “China”, “Berlin”, or “Trump”? What will your teammates choose? It’s an interesting challenge.
Blue Lagoon is a Knizia game from Blue Orange. It’s a really simple and fast game: just plonk your tiles on the board and collect stuff and build connections. It’s over sooner than you notice and then it’s just a question of totaling up the scores. This is a real tropical point salad, with points raining in everywhere, and I just love this. It’s like Through the Desert on steroids. This is the best Knizia game in years.
Tokyo Highway is a really new release in Finnish, I got the Nordic edition from Asmodee just before Christmas. It was all very efficient: I got the game on Wednesday before Christmas, and on Thursday I had already played it with all different player counts. This is a lovely combination of a minimalist design, dexterity and spatial elements and abstract strategy. This game looks great on the table, is guaranteed to draw attention and is well worth a go.
Lowlands is as much an Uwe Rosenberg game you can get without Uwe as the designer. In essence this is souped up Agricola: All Creatures Big and Small, but you only raise sheep and there’s a dike that protects your sheep from the flooding and you either have to work to fix the dike or face the consequences. This is an interesting game I’d like to enjoy, but the two-player game is slightly flat and I haven’t really had a chance to play this enough with more than two players.
1918: Brother Against Brother is an entry-level card-driven war game on the Finnish Civil War. It’s a fine design, well worth a look if you’re interested in the topic and looking for a simple war game. There’s very little that’s really innovative about this game, but the topic is rarely seen and the game play is really solid. The designer is now working on a similar style game on Winter War.
A post shared by Mikko Saari (@mikkosaari) on Jan 6, 2018 at 5:02am PST
Good older games I haven’t played before
Raiders of the North Sea visited our collection for couple of weeks. I had heard good things about it and those turned out to be true: it’s a rather fine worker placement game (with a twist). However, after I had to return it, I haven’t played it again and don’t have a burning desire to own it – but I wouldn’t say no to it.
Klunker is by far the deal of the year. I hadn’t played this Uwe Rosenberg game before, so when a friend was selling his copy for three euros, I picked it up. Klunker turned out to be excellent. My son also really loved this.
I thought the game looked pretty ugly, but I just found out that Lookout released a new edition in 2005 and I’ll just take back everything I said about the original being ugly; the new edition is absolutely hideous. I might create a homemade version using the new edition rules and something pretty for the art.
Orléans was available in Ropecon and I managed to play it twice during the weekend. It’s pretty solid, I like deck-building and board games that contain a deck-building element, and Orléans is a fine example. It has left me with a feeling I should probably give Altiplano a go as well; I’ve heard complaints about it, but I think it might be fine as a two-player game.
Mottainai was bought from friends, who didn’t find it fun. I had passed the game before, but now thought I’d give it a go. I’m glad I did, because it’s fun! It’s quite the brainburner, but as a two-player game it’s easy enough to play and an interesting challenge. I do prefer this to Glory to Rome, but Innovation is still number one.
A post shared by Mikko Saari (@mikkosaari) on Mar 24, 2018 at 10:54pm PDT
Here’s a list of games that we played at least five times. It’s interesting to see how the games change year after year.
Magic: The Gathering landed with a boom. I’ve played it back in the day, but I stopped playing in 1998 or so. My brother returned to the game and with force: he plays tournaments and has travelled abroad to play in a Grand Prix tournament. I decided we could give this a go with my son, because we’ve played lots of games inspired by Magic, so why not try the old warhorse itself?
I bought couple of preconstructed decks, we gave it a go and enjoyed it. Next step was getting bunch of junk cards from my brother, next I bought couple of boxes of junk commons (you can get a kilo of random commons for 5-7 €). I haven’t taken further steps into buying Magic yet; I was considering buying couple of preconstructed Commander decks to get us started with that format, but I haven’t done that yet, because…
KeyForge happened. My son is my main KeyForge opponent and we both prefer KeyForge to Magic.
Shards of Infinity was our top game before Magic.
The Mind has been a success with the kids. It’s clearly not a new Love Letter and hasn’t quite had the same staying power, but time will tell on that.
Fashion Show is still one of my daughter’s favourite games. Fortunately it plays really fast.
Fast Forward: Fear was one quick session where we rushed through the deck with two players, just to see what this was all about. And it was fine – nothing special, especially not with two players, but I can see how some people might really like something like this.
Spirit Island was something I pretty much only played with my son.
Love Letter still works. Just a dozen plays this year, though.
The Quacks of Quadlinburg was very much a family hit, both my kids liked it.
Da Vinci Code made a surprise appearance right before the end of the year. We were visiting my mother and she had this old game, I picked it up so we could play it as a filler – and we ended up playing it a lot, since both the kids loved it.
Speedy Words is a speed game, so this one’s for my daughter who loves speed games. In this one, you have to come up with a word in a category defined by one card and starting with a letter defined by another card. It’s fun, but gets pretty repetitive as the same answers always come up.
Hero Realms got ten plays this year, but then it was crushed by other games in the same genre. We gave it a go recently and it didn’t feel nearly as good as it did before. Shards of Infinity is just much better.
Dragon Castle visited our collection earlier in the year. It’s fine, but the tiles didn’t feel correct to me – they’re not mahjong tiles – and the game play wasn’t all that interesting. My son liked it, but not enough.
Dawn of Peacemakers arrived couple of months late and we were able to get on with our campaign. It has been a string of losses recently, but we’re soldiering on. I think we still have five scenarios left. Looking forward to seeing what Sami has cooked up for those, but once the campaign is done, I think we’re done with the game. But it has been a good ride.
Villa Paletti is still a solid classic in the stacking game genre.
Klunker is one of my son’s favourites.
Discover: Lands Unknown was another campaign game with my son; I’ll get back to this later.
Azul worked well as a family game, my daughter has actually requested this.
Who Did It? or The Poop Game is a silly game where you have to pass the blame for a turd on the floor to someone else’s pet. It’s a mixture of memory and speed: you have to be fast, but you also have to remember which cards have already been played. Sometimes slower players win, if faster players can’t keep track of the cards.
The Mysteries of Peking is another steady classic. It’s certain we visit the grandparents at least five times a year so that this gets played.
Jishaku is a magnetic filler where you have to place magnetic stones on a foam board so that they don’t touch. It’s a quick filler and when we visited some friends who have it, we played the required games so it made it to this list.
The Colonists got exactly two plays during the year, but those were very good plays. In January we played our first three-era game and in June our first full four-era game. The four-era game is where The Colonists shines and since it took us less than three hours, it’s going to be four eras in the future as well. The Colonists is a game I probably won’t play more than couple of times per year, but it’s always good.
Dawn of Peacemakers made a bit of a splash last year with the preview copy. This year brought the actual production copies and we restarted the campaign and have played slightly over half of it. Looking forward to finishing the campaign in 2019.
Nusfjord has reached ten plays and for a good reason: it’s fast (less than 30 minutes with two players), interesting and variable, thanks to the buildings. I think Nusfjord makes it easily to Uwe Rosenberg’s top five. I’m very much looking forward to the Plaice Deck expansion, that’s one of my few guaranteed purchases in 2019.
A Feast for Odin is getting closer to ten plays, I’ve enjoyed this one too. I’ve mostly played two-player games, but I wouldn’t mind playing more multi-player games as well. This is another game where the expansion is heavily on my to-buy list.
Escape rooms featured big this year. We’ve played a bunch of Deckscapes, Exits, Unlocks, the second Escape the Room and the first Escape Room: The Game scenario. Currently I’d order these different escape room games in this order, from best to worst: Exit, Unlock, Escape Room, Escape the Room, Deckscape. All are worth playing.
We also visited several real-life escape rooms, with good success. Couple of rooms were close, but we escaped every one in the end. The best was Päiväkerho by Hämmennys in Kuopio: it was a really well-done room with a cool childish theme, and we escaped the room in such a good time that the room operator was just amazed. As far as I can tell, our time is still the record.
The game: KeyForge: Call of the Archons by Richard Garfield. The game was published by Fantasy Flight Games in 2018. I received my first three decks as a review copy from Asmodee Nordics, but have bought rest of it myself.
Elevator pitch: A dueling card game from the designer of Magic: The Gathering, using procedurally generated unique decks.
What’s in the box? The distribution model is twofold. The most important part is the unique decks: that’s a simple cardboard box, which holds a 36-card deck that is procedurally generated. It will contain three randomly selected houses of the seven possible and 12 cards from each house. There are some rules to govern the process, but mostly, it’s just random.
Then there’s the base box, which contains two unique decks, two basic decks which are the same in every box and some tokens and cards. The basic decks are not tournament legal, but are valid decks. They’re good for learning the game, but also meaningful for experienced players.
What the base box does not contain is the full rules of the game. There’s a quickstart guide, which is not very good. The full rules are available as a PDF, and have already been updated once after the release. I’m hoping there are more updates soon, as the rules do need updating, so I do understand why the full rulebook is not included in the box.
Some people think the base box is a waste of money and prefer to come up with their own tokens and buy just unique decks. I found the base deck a good purchase: I like the cardboard tokens (but not the Stun and Power cards), and the decks were fine.
In any case, if you know someone who plays, trying the game is cheap: just buy one deck. Start from scratch? Buy the base game, or buy two decks and scrounge up some basic tokens (three or four colors of poker chips will get you far). Trying this game is easy and cheap.
What do you do in the game? KeyForge is a dueling game, just like Magic or the dueling deckbuilders. It’s a two-player game and you’re trying to beat your opponent. This is not a hit point race, though: instead you’re trying to collect æmber, which is then forged into keys. The base cost of keys is six æmber, you get to forge one if you have enough æmber at the beginning of your turn, and whoever forges their third key first wins the game.
Each round you can play as many cards as you wish, but they have to be from one house only. Cards include one-time actions, artifacts and creatures that are played on the table and can be used every round and upgrades that boost creatures.
Creatures can be used to fight other creatures, to reap æmber (gain 1 æmber) and they also have a plethora of abilities which can trigger when the creature is played, used or destroyed.
The catch here is that using the creatures requires appropriate house activation as well. If I have a board full of Mars creatures, I need to keep on choosing Mars as my house if I want to use them every round, and that means I can’t play the non-Mars cards in my hand – not even discard them.
This game requires a new mindset. Creatures can seem quite strong, but then again, since the goal is not to hurt your opponent, big creatures aren’t quite as necessary as in Magic. There are also plenty of thorough board wipes that just kill lots of creatures – or all of them at once.
What’s fun in KeyForge is that all the power cards are common. I have couple of cases where the rares are actually the weakest cards in the deck. Rares in KeyForge tend to be more situational. This ensures that all decks have lots of potential, as they’re likely to have powerful common cards.
Lucky or skillful? Richard Garfield says he wants the game balanced on three accounts: the skill of the player, the quality of the deck and the luck of the draw. KeyForge does a fine job with this.
Some decks are clearly better than others, but it’s not all that clear: there’s a bit of rock-paper-scissors in the deck quality. There’s lot of luck and unpredictability involved, as the game doesn’t shy from powerful card effects (Richard Garfield is a well known fan of chaotic games), but in the end, there’s lots of room for skillful play as well, and getting to know your deck from repeated play is also important.
Abstract or thematic? The theme is all over the place. The background story is all about worlds colliding, and yeah, the seven different houses are all quite different, ranging from viking giants to imperialistic martians and weird demons. Don’t expect a coherent theme here.
Solitaire or interactive? Very interactive, it’s all about messing up with your opponent, controlling their æmber and creatures.
Who can play? The publisher age recommendation is 14+, but clever kids will have no problems with this game.
What’s to like: The goal of the game is unlike most other duel games. The distribution format is interesting and leads to no wasted cards. The game is fast and full of interesting surprises. There’s a handicap mechanism that can be used to balance games between unequal decks.
What’s not to like: The rules are a bit of a mess; it isn’t a huge problem in casual play, but it sure is annoying. Some decks have fairly heavy antisynergies in them, cards that do not play well with other cards in the deck. Some decks are just overall weaker, so every purchase will not be great.
My verdict: KeyForge is a brilliant game. I played my first fifty games in just over a month, which is a record time for me. That tells something of my enthusiasm. Playing online at The Crucible Online helped to reach the goal.
This has been the year of dueling card games for me: first Shards of Infinity hit 50 plays, then I returned to Magic: The Gathering and now comes KeyForge. Of these three, KeyForge is right now my favourite by far.
It doesn’t have the depth and variety of Magic (but that would be a ridiculous comparison in any case), but on the other hand, it avoids all the boring stuff Magic has with lands and mana, I don’t have to worry about storing hundreds of Magic cards I’m unlikely to ever use and it’s easier to find opponents, since the barrier of entry is much lower.
On the scale of Enthusiastic, Suggest, Indifferent or Avoid, KeyForge gets Enthusiastic from me. It’s my favourite dueling card game at the moment.
The game: 1918: Brother Against Brother by Antti Lehmusjärvi. The game was published by Antti’s Linden Lake Games in 2018 after a successful Kickstarter campaign. My copy was on loan from the publisher.
As a disclaimer, I know Antti, have used his services as a lawyer and have designed the website for Linden Lake Games.
Elevator pitch: A well-produced card-driven entry level war game set in the Finnish Civil War of 1918.
What’s in the box? The big box contains pretty mounted board, simple cardboard tokens, cards in English and Finnish and rulebooks. Everything is well-produced, in war game standards the game is quite pretty and easy to approach. The cards are illustrated with archive photos and the layout is generally well done, the text is just a wee bit small.
What do you do in the game? The 1918 war was between white government of Finland with support from Germans, and red rebellion with Russian support. In history, reds lost, but the costs were heavy on both sides.
In the game, the game is about controlling strategic cities. In the beginning, the reds control four of them: Tampere, Helsinki, Viipuri and Oulu. Whites only have one, Vaasa. The reds win immediately if they conquer Vaasa (this is somewhat unlikely). The game starts in January and if the whites control four strategic cities by April, they win. In May, whites need to control all five to win, otherwise the reds will win. Thus, the reds need to perform better than they did in actual history in order to win the game.
The game is a card-driven war game, which means that both sides have a deck of cards used to control the action. Each card can be used as an action or as points. If the card is used as an action, it does what it says and then the card is either discarded or removed from the game if it’s an one-off event.
Points are used to activate troops: one point activates all troops in one city. They can move freely as far as their movement points allow, and then may fight. Cards used for points are discarded.
Each month is a hand of eight cards (except January, which is only three cards), all of which are played. After the month is done, supply is checked, players get reinforcements and the cards from the next month and the discarded cards are shuffled into the deck, so new historical events are introduced as the game goes on. Some events are scripted: reds always get armored trains in February and the whites always get the German landing in April.
Combat is simple. Each player totals the combat values of all units involved, attacker may combine units from multiple cities to attack at once. Both roll one six-sided die and check the combat results table to see how many hits are inflicted. Defender takes hits first. Units are first flipped to half strength, then removed. The combat prefers defender, but there’s a three-unit stack limit which the attacker can circumvent by attacking from multiple cities at once.
All in all the game is fairly straightforward to play, but offers many interesting possibilities. There aren’t many different units: reds have basic soldiers and armored trains, whites have basic soldiers, better Jaegers and the utmost elite, German armies. There are also fortifications, but those have a really minor role. The biggest factor is geography and the transportation: attacking and moving along railroads is so much easier than along roads that it’ll determine the way the war is fought.
Lucky or skillful? The better general will win most of the time, no doubt about that, but the battles are fought using a single d6 roll. That means there are huge differences in the outcome, depending on whether you roll 1 or 6.
You’ll know the battle odds beforehand, there are no surprise factors involved, but the results can be really swingy and if you roll lots of ones, it’ll seriously impede your chances of winning.
Abstract or thematic? Strongly thematic. The cards are full of historical flavour and individual commanders. The game guides you to follow historical structures, but allows you freedom to fight the war the way you want to.
Solitaire or interactive? This is a war game where all gains are taken from your opponent.
Players: 2. This is a pure two-player game; playing this solo requires some selective amnesia, but is not impossible.
Who can play? The publisher age recommendation is 12+. I’ve played this with my 12-year-old son, who is an experienced gamer, and he managed to beat me.
This game has fairly straightforward rules. If you know them well it’s not difficult teach the game to inexperienced gamers.
What’s to like: The Finnish Civil War is an interesting war that hasn’t been covered very much yet. Especially if you’re Finnish, this is a very good entry-level war game: the topic is interesting, the production values are good and the game is easy to understand, especially since it’s in Finnish.
What’s not to like: The replay value is the biggest question here. The map is small and quite strongly limited by the railroad networks. The grand strategies will always be similar, you can’t do very radical moves in this game. Will it start to feel repetitive after a while?
My verdict: The centennary of the Finnish Civil War produced a bunch of games about the war. This is a great example, a good entry-level war game about an interesting conflict. I’ve also played another game about the war that was published back in 1918, and this is much better than that!
Is 1918: Brother Against Brother a keeper for me? No. I enjoyed exploring it and wouldn’t mind playing it couple of more times, but I’d say ten games, and I’d be done with it. Would I recommend it to others? Yes! If you are Finnish and looking for an entry-level war game, I don’t think you can choose much better game than this. For people outside Finland looking for a game on this conflict, this is a fine choice, but some might prefer the COIN-style All Bridges Burning.
On the scale of Enthusiastic, Suggest, Indifferent or Avoid, 1918: Brother Against Brother gets Suggest from me, because even if it’s not really my cup of tea, it really is a splendid entry-level war game, especially if you are Finnish.
The situation in March. The reds have fortified the Tampere area with armored trains, blocking the white army advances.
The game: Carcassonne: Safari by Klaus-Jürgen Wrede. The game was published by Hans im Glück in 2018. My copy is on loan from the Finnish publisher Lautapelit.fi.
I’m going to assume the reader is familiar with the basic Carcassonne.
Elevator pitch: A Carcassonne game set in the African savannah, where the scoring is not based on counting the tiles as usual, but on the number of different animals on the paths and bushes.
What’s in the box? Standard Carcassonne box holds typical components: a pile of tiles, some meeples and then some animal tiles, which are small circle quadrants.
The tiles are yellow, as fits the African savannah theme. The tiles are slightly busy with animal icons and other detail, so the meeples are slightly smaller than usual. The animal tiles are a bit smaller than I’d like, but they’re as big as they can be in order to fit on the tiles.
The game looks nice, and the components are practical enough.
What do you do in the game? Paths and bushes replace the roads and cities of standard Carcassonne. There are no farmers, and the cloisters are replaced by baobab trees. So far everything is as expected.
The scoring is different, though. When a path or a bush is finished, you don’t count the number of tiles, but instead the number of different animals on that element. First animal scores 1 point, the second 2 points and so on, so you get the standard 1, 3, 6, 10, 15 scoring scheme. Bushes also have birds, which always count as one extra point each, making the bushes more valuable than the paths.
Baobab trees do not score any points. Instead when you place a meeple to rest under a tree, you get two animal tiles. Then when the tree is surrounded by tiles, the meeple returns and you get two animal tiles more.
Animal tiles can be used to boost the scoring. Every time you complete something, you’re allowed to discard one animal tile and if it’s a new animal, it increases your score.
There are also park rangers, two car meeples, which are placed somewhere on the perimeter of the tiles. If you place a tile on the ranger, you score three points and get to place the car somewhere else.
If you don’t place a meeple on your turn, you have two bonus options. The first is to move one of the cars. The second is to start or extend a watering hole.
Remember how I said the animal tiles are circle quadrants? A watering hole is formed of four animal tiles placed in corners of four tiles, so that a full circle is formed. The player who starts it, owns the watering hole, but everybody can add to it, no matter where it is, and each new animal scores more points. The fourth animal completes the watering hole and the owner gets the meeple back with some bonus points.
In the end of the game, unfinished paths and bushes score one point per animal, no matter which animal it is, and each animal tile is worth one point.
Lucky or skillful? As usual with Carcassonne, the game may seem lucky, with the random draws of tiles and all, but a skilled player will win most of the games. You can rely on luck, or you can know the tile distribution by heart (or from the reference sheet) and know your chances. There’s an added random element of drawing the animal tiles, but that’s not a big deal.
Abstract or thematic? This is no simulation, but at least the savannah theme looks nice and makes some sense – after all, if you go on a safari, you do want to see as many different animals as possible.
Solitaire or interactive? Like other Carcassonne games, this can be soft and cuddly or very mean and cutthroat.
Players: 2–5. With fewer players, there’s less luck and more control, with more players there’s more chaos and more sharing of points and co-operative building.
Who can play? The publisher age recommendation is 7+, which is a good baseline. Carcassonne: Safari isn’t a complicated game, but if you’re coming in cold without previous Carcassonne experience, there’s some learning to do. Once you get the hang of how the meeples are placed and scored, the rest is easy. The farmers are generally the hardest part of Carcassonne to understand, and they are missing here.
What’s to like: Nice variant of Carcassonne, some new twists in the scoring help keep the game fresh. Trying to keep a good inventory of animal tiles and balancing building watering holes and boosting scorings is an interesting challenge.
What’s not to like: This is just another Carcassonne, so if you’re not interested in Carcassonne, this game isn’t really doing anything that will change your mind.
My verdict: If you are a big fan of Carcassonne, you’re just going to get Safari, no matter what I say.
If you’re not at all familiar with Carcassonne, I would suggest starting with the original game unless the African theme is really significant for you for some reason; the original is the classic one, and for a good reason.
If you have the original, maybe expansion or two, and are thinking about expanding to these independent Carcassonne games, I’d say Safari is pretty much as good a choice as any other. The twists in the scoring are interesting and the game looks nice. However if you play only two-player games, then your first pick should be Carcassonne: The Castle.
On the scale of Enthusiastic, Suggest, Indifferent or Avoid, Carcassonne: Safari gets Suggest from me.
The game: Dale of Merchants Collection by Sami Laakso. The game is currently in Kickstarter and will be published by Snowdale Design in 2019. I got a preview copy on loan from Sami for a moment. I have backed the game with my own money.
Elevator pitch: A big box to house your Dale of Merchants collection, with lots of new gameplay material as well.
What’s in the box? First part is the box itself. It’ll be a bigger box (the standard 30 × 30 cm square box), with a custom-made insert that can store all the cards from the three Dale of Merchants boxes (two of which are already published and one that is coming later) and the Collection, sleeved or not, in a neat, organised fashion. That’s a fan request, and based on the 3D renderings I’ve seen, is well done – but we’ll see how it actually turns out.
In addition to that, there are eight new animalfolk sets, 55 character cards, a set of trap cards for four players and the necessary support material. This set can be played independently of the previous games, but also combines with them.
The new animalfolk sets have a wide variety of new features and game mechanics, as is usual, and they’ll provide a ton of new replay value and possibilities for more combinations of sets, with different characteristics.
The character cards are a really interesting addition: they give each player a unique player power, ranging from simple to really game-changing. These are also going to increase the replay value of the game a ton.
The trap cards are a new feature that can be added. Each player gets some trap cards and if they appear in someone else’s hand, for whatever reason, that player gets hurt or the trap-layer gets a bonus.
What do you do in the game?Dale of Merchants is a deck-building game, but deviates quite a bit from the standard Dominion template. The goal of the game is to create a market stall with eight stacks, each more difficult to build than the previous one, and the player to first complete their stacks wins the game.
The game has the basic trappings of a deck-builder. Each card is at the same time money, a useful card and a potential stall material. On your turn, you either buy a card from the market, add a card to your stall or play a card from your hand. It’s one action per turn, but some cards have a plus sign that means they give you an extra action.
What’s interesting and different from many deck-builders, the cards you buy don’t go to your discard pile. They are added directly to your hand, and your hand isn’t reset like it usually is in the deck-builders: you just draw up to five cards.
Lucky or skillful?Dale of Merchants offers a wide variety of animalfolks, which have different features. Since you only use only a limited number of animalfolk sets in each game (one more than the number of players), you can tune the feel of the game by choosing the sets you want. Some are a lot more random than the others – and even with the random cards, you can choose whether you use the random effects or not.
Thus skill is required, some luck is always involved, but you can adjust the level to suit your taste.
Abstract or thematic? The different animalfolk have different qualities and there are funny thematic links there. The black-headed gulls, for example, are very good at spreading junk around. The superb card art really makes the animal theme shine.
Solitaire or interactive? Like the level of randomness, the level of interaction can be adjusted a lot. Choose only highly interactive animalfolk, and the game will be very different from a game where only non-interactive animalfolk are involved.
Animalfolk are also graded on nastiness. High interaction and low nastiness will be a different feel from high interaction and high nastiness. The more sets you own, the more possibilities you have in tuning the game.
Players: 2–4. The game works well with all player counts. There’s an interesting team variant for four players.
Who can play? The age recommendation is 10+. That’s accurate. There’s a lot of text in the cards, and unlike in many deck-builders where all cards are played every turn, it’s more difficult to help a player here, because you can’t just play with open cards.
What’s to like: The theme and the art are great. The game does wonderful things with the basic deck-building template. The Collection is packed with game play material and the KS campaign offers great value. This is a must-have for fans.
What’s not to like: Some don’t like the race aspect of the victory condition. The Collection isn’t the best place to begin with Dale of Merchants: many of the animalfolk included have more complicated features, the game is easiest to learn from the first box.
My verdict: I was a day one backer, as I’ve been for both Dale of Merchants games before. I think this Collection is a must-buy if you’re a fan, there’s just no reason not to get it. There’s so much value in the box. The new animalfolk are really interesting, the character cards offer so much to explore (it takes over fifty plays to try every one of them!) and the storage solution seems neat (and if you prefer the small boxes, you can still use them to carry your favourite set of animalfolk).
If you’ve played Dale of Merchants before and didn’t enjoy it, this won’t make you a fan, unless the character cards with their unique player powers are something that attracts you. Other than that it’s basically more of the same.
If you are new to the series, starting from one of the smaller boxes is going to be less intimidating – but those small boxes offer a very small slice of the Dale of Merchants universe, so eventually you’re going to want more if you like the game.
On the scale of Enthusiastic, Suggest, Indifferent or Avoid, Dale of Merchants Collection gets Enthusiastic from me.