Rolling America

Rolling America

At Major Fun, we love games that can accommodate everyone. Big groups, tiny families, and everything in between. Games that can be played solo as well. Rolling America fits that bill, and when we find a game that we love and it can be enjoyed by any number of players, that’s something special.

To be clear, Rolling America probably can’t accommodate the entire set of positive whole numbers (citation needed). It’s mainly a problem of seating arrangements when you get above 8 or 10. Definitely when you get into numbers that are best expressed in powers of 10.

What it CAN do is keep your brain buzzing along at a healthy clip while place numbers on an abstract rendition of the United States.

To play the game you will need the 7 dice (in a bag) and the maps provided by the good people at Gamewright. The map of the United States is divided into blocky representations of the 50 states. These are then colored by region, roughly: northeast (purple), Atlantic (red), south (yellow), north (blue), southwest (green), and west (orange). Each player gets a map and the dice are shared.

Rotating around the table, players draw two dice from the bag and roll them. They must write the number on one of the states that match the color of the dice. For example, if you roll a red 2 and a blue 5 then everyone must write the number 2 in one of the red states and the number 5 in one of the blue states. Which state, is up to each player as long as they follow the game’s basic rules, the most important being that neighboring states must have consecutive numbers. So if Ohio is number 3, Pennsylvania can be 2 or 4 but not anything else.

After the first two dice are rolled and recorded, two more are drawn from the bag. When six of the seven dice have been rolled, all the dice go back in the bag and the players record that one round is over. At the end of 8 rounds you will tally up your score.

“But wait!!” you cry before I can reveal how you win. “You said there are 6 colored regions but there are 7 dice!! What’s up with that?”

Major Fun AwardI’m glad you asked. The seventh dice is clear and is a wild die, meaning you can put that number in any color you want. I should also say that as you fill in the map you are going to run in to problems: chiefly that it is impossible to follow the consecutive rule all the time. In order to deal with this, the game has included a clever “cheating” mechanic—a way to break the rules (for a limited number of times). You get three Color Changes which let you make a colored dice wild. You get three Guards which let you put a number down illegally (not consecutive). Finally you get three Dupes that allow you to use a number on one of the dice twice. On the map are boxes that you use to mark off these special occasions.

If you are ever stuck with a number that you cannot legally place, you have to cross out one of the states in that color. The winner is the player at the end of 8 rounds who has the fewest number of Xs on the map.

And getting stuck is a big part of the game. Early in the game, when the map is wide open, it seems like you will breeze right through, but in only a few rounds you notice that your regions are filling up and you have blank Indiana but it is sandwiched between an Illinois 2 and an Ohio 6.

We loved the building tension and complexity. We also loved how everyone took their turn together. It was fascinating to see what other people came up with using the same numbers that I had. It’s strategically deep and very challenging. And Major Fun.

1+ players. Ages 8+

Rolling America was designed by Hisashi Hiyashi and is © 2015 by Gamewright Games.

Codenames

Game by Game 2015-09 (Codenames) (1)There are spies in our midst! Clever, tricky, and oh so subversive, they burrow in like parasites and eat away at the very fabric of our society. Your job is to uncover these cowardly, degenerate traitors and eliminate them with extreme prejudice.

But not OUR spies. Those patriots are totally cool.

And watch out for the Assassin. If you tap on the Assassin’s shoulder you’re going to pull back a stump. And then get shot in the eye. Whatever you do, don’t uncover the Assassin!

Codenames is a wickedly clever clue game in which each team is trying to find the opposing spies without uncovering their own. Or the Assassin. You lose if you find the Assassin.

The game starts with a 5 by 5 grid of nouns on the table. These are the codenames of various people in your target area. Players are divided into two teams with (Red and Blue) each with one Spymaster and any number of Field Operatives (I suppose you can have more than one Spymaster but that is a harder role to coordinate). The Spymasters from each team sit together on one side of the grid. The Field Operatives are on the opposite side.

The Spymasters then draw one Key card that they both look at. The Key card tells them which color starts and which codenames in the grid are Blue spies and which are Red spies. It also tells them where the Assassin is. There is always one Assassin and 17 spies (the color that starts has one more spy than the other color). The remaining 7 codenames are for Innocent Bystanders.

On your turn, The Spymaster is allowed to say one word (and only one word) and a number. The one word is a clue that can be used to identify any of the codenames on the grid. The number is how many codenames will match that clue. For example, if the Spymaster says “Sports 2” that means there are 2 words in the grid that are closely related to sports and are the color they want the Field Operatives to find. The Field Operatives must guess at least once. With each guess, the Spymaster reveals of they found a Read spy, a Blue spy, an Innocent Bystander, or the Assassin. Field Operatives can keep guessing until they get one wrong or they reach one more than the number provided by the Spymaster.

party-wordCodenames is not a fast game. There is a lot of thinking, especially for the Spymasters who are trying to link as many words as they can with only a single-word clue. Analysis paralysis is a common malady. The game comes with a timer if you feel that you just need that much more tension in your life, but we found that no one minded the slower pace.

We also appreciated the thought that went into the three-person and two-person variations. The two-person version can be adapted for a cooperative game where everyone works together with the Spymaster to get one color as the other color is revealed one at a time.

The age range for Codenames is on the high end (14+) which reflects the kind of vocabulary you need to excel at the game. It’s not so much the size of your vocabulary as your ability to understand the clue words in many contexts.

No matter how large your intelligence agency, Codenames is a Major Fun way to practice your spycraft and wordcraft.

2-8+ players. Ages 14+

Codenames was designed by Vlaada Chvatil and is © 2015 by CGE Games.

Mad City

Mad City - Mayfair

Mad City is one of those rare tiling games where you can’t take your sweet time about placing your tiles. The game assigns you the role of a city planner who must arrange a 3×3 grid of tiles in order to make the most money—but you have less than a minute to do so. Needless to say, things can get messy.

Before I go on I need to recognize that there are A LOT of pieces in this game. When you open it up you have a lot of die-cut tokens to punch out. These will make quite a pile on your game table. Keep in mind that there are several ways to play the game. The first time you play you should play the Base Game (which is what we did) in which case you won’t need most of the tiles. You will only need your score board, the bag, the timer, and the 54 city tiles. And the park tree.

Everyone starts by drawing 9 city tiles from the bag and placing them in a face-down pile. When everyone has a pile of nine city tiles, they pass them to the player on the left. Someone says go and flips the timer. Players now have ONE MINUTE to arrange their city tiles into a 3×3 grid that will earn them maximum points.

The city tiles can have a variety of colored zones: residential (yellow), industrial (red), urban (blue), lakes (teal), and parks (green). Yellow, red, and blue zones will usually have buildings in them. There are also roads that can divide up tiles. In your one minute of frantic planning, you are trying to arrange your tiles to match up (as best you can) the roads and colored zones. Scoring is based on how many buildings of the same color you can bunch up or how many road segments you can connect.

At the end of the minute, everyone stops work. If a player has not created a 3×3 grid, that player shuffles any tiles not in the grid and fills in the grid at random. Then everyone looks at their city and scores each colored zone based on a chart provided on each score board. I won’t go into each colored zone in detail, but suffice it to say that the more buildings you have connected in a colored district the higher will be your score. There are points for the longest road.

There are also points for parks and lakes but those only go to one player. During the minute of play, anyone can grab the Park Tree. That player gets to score any parks and lakes BUT once that person grabs the tree he or she cannot do any more work on their city. Once you grab the tree, you can’t touch your city tiles until it’s time to score. In general, you want to make a decent city and then grab the tree. Think of parks and lakes as bonus points.

There is a lot going on in that one minute. It is hard to focus when everyone is busy trying to fit their pieces into a grid, and everyone would like to grab the tree but not too soon! The first person to 150 points wins.

Major Fun AwardOnce you get some play time in with the base game, you can check out the Standard Game. This introduces a much different way to score and it uses most of the tokens that you punched out when you first unwrapped the game. There are also more things to grab (like the Park Tree). In this game, the first to 100 points wins. You also have to pay much closer attention to the colors you are arranging.

Mad City can also be played as a solitaire activity. The game comes with three ways to play solo.

All said, Mad City is a fast-paced but strategically engaging game. Each player essentially plays alone except for the times when you are rushing to grab the Park Tree (or one of the other tokens from the more advanced game). Major Fun but definitely not for the weak of heart.

1 – 6 players. Ages 8+

Mad City was designed by Kane Klenko and is © 2014 by Mayfair Games.

Cash ‘n Guns

cash n guns
A party game with foam guns? Intimidation? Steely eyed-resolve?

[must… not… maniacally giggle…]

A Godfather?

[bite… knuckle… suppress… glee…]

Theft? Treachery?

ME! ME! PICK ME! MEMEMEMEMEMEMEMEME!!

Major Fun has a particular weakness for party games, and if a party game comes along that encourages players to turn on each other like a pack of laughing hyenas—so much the better. It’s not that we condone violence, it’s that we love games that generate surprise without using random elements like dice. We love conflict (in the literary sense) that arises out of the choices the players make. And we especially love it when the mechanics of a game clearly fit a story.

As it goes, when you play Cash’n Guns, you are a gang of thieves who carry out 8 heists. The actual robberies go off without a hitch, but when you return to your lair in order to divvy up the loot, that’s when the fun begins.

To start, each player has a character (with a stand), a foam gun, 5 CLICK cards, and 3 BANG cards. In the center of the table there are 8 LOOT cards and the Godfather’s Desk. These are the things that the players will fight and scheme to get.

One player starts as the Godfather. The Godfather is responsible for going through the steps of each heist and making any judgment calls. The Godfather also has a special privilege that I will talk about in a bit. Here are the steps for each heist:

Each player secretly chooses a CLICK or a BANG card and puts it face down in front of them. You don’t get these cards back so you must choose carefully!

When all “bullets” are loaded, the Godfather counts down from 3 and everyone IMMEDIATELY points their gun at another player. If someone is too slow or if they try to change their target, they can be kicked out of the round (no loot for you!) by the Godfather. The Godfather may tell one player to change targets—it doesn’t matter if that player is pointing at the Godfather or not.

The Godfather then counts down from 3 again. This time, players either knock their own characters down and drop their guns OR they yell “Banzai!!” and keep their guns up. Anyone who drops out cannot be shot, but that person also cannot get any loot. If you stay in and are pointing your gun at someone else who stays in, you then reveal your bullet card. A CLICK means your target stays standing and can share in the loot. A BANG means your target is wounded and knocked down. If your character gets three wounds during the game, you are out. ALL bullet cards (whether you used them or not) are discarded.

Starting with the Godfather, the standing characters choose loot cards. Each player takes one, moving clockwise, until there are no more. The Godfather’s desk is also available for someone to take instead of a loot card. Players can also take the Godfather’s desk instead of a loot card. If no one takes the desk, the Godfather stays the same.

The goal of the game is be alive and to have the most money at the end of 8 rounds. There are lots of ways to earn money (I won’t go into the details of final scoring) so there are interesting strategies that occur depending on what loot is revealed for the next heist.

As with all the best Major Fun games, once you get the mechanics down, they are incredibly intuitive. The game comes with special powers for each of the characters but these are entirely optional make things a bit more unpredictable. Cash’n Guns does a great job of capturing those moments in crime films when the carefully crafted plans of the brilliant thieves unravel in the face of their greed and duplicity.

4-8 players. Ages 10+

Cash’n Guns was designed by Ludovic Maublanc with art by John Kovalic and is © 2014 by Sombreros Productions.

Pictomania

Pictomania

At first glance, Pictomania can be intimidating. For a drawing party game, there are a lot of pieces. There are drawing boards, markers, and erasers. There are two sets of scoring tokens. There are 4 kinds of cards and 2 card racks. There are stickers that have to be applied to the cards racks.

You will want a big game table.

You will also want to take your first game nice and slow. Once you get to know what the pieces do, most of them will fade into the background and you will be able to appreciate just how clever and funny a drawing game can be.

In a nutshell: Pictomania is a drawing game where you try to get the other players to correctly guess what you have drawn WHILE ALSO trying to be the first to accurately guess what each player is drawing. The game does a fantastic job of keeping everyone involved, even when some people are faster at drawing than others.

There are four levels of clue cards that range from easy (common objects and animals) to very difficult (abstract concepts). I found that the very difficult level was actually the one that removed the kind of “artistic advantage” that you always find in these games—those people who are talented illustrators. People with drawing skill will do much better at the easy level; however, those skills don’t translate as well to the most difficult level. It’s one thing to be able to get people to guess “dragon” but it’s something else entirely to get them to guess “always.”

There are six clue cards that are revealed and placed on the card holders. Each clue card has seven clues. By dealing special cards, each player will be required to draw one item on one of the clue cards. No player will draw from the same clue card. This is another of the really clever aspects of the game. All the answers are out there, you aren’t blindly guessing.

This brings up another clever bit about the game: the seven items on each clue card are generally very closely related so even an easy card will have beach ball, tennis ball, soccer ball, and cannon ball as possible clues. It’s not like you can just draw a circle and expect folks to guess “ball.” They have to choose between very similar items.

Once you finish drawing your clue, you look at all the others and place a guess card by each drawing. You must do this for all your opponents. You get one guess for each. The guess cards are placed in a pile so that when everyone is finished, the pile is flipped over and you can see who got their guess down first. Points are awarded to whoever guessed correctly, but more points are awarded to the person who correctly guessed first.   You lose points when someone incorrectly guesses what you drew.

party-creativeThe process of drawing and guessing and scoring is a little more complicated than what I just described, and it is worth playing through once just to see how all the cards work together, but once you see it in action the whole process clicks into sharp focus. In the end the game involves getting your clue, drawing your picture, guessing everyone else, and scoring. Where things get crazy (and I mean that in a Major Fun good way) is that part in the middle where there is drawing and guessing going on at the same time. Especially in a large game there is a mad flurry of drawing and looking and shuffling and slapping cards down on the table.

Scoring is where everyone settles down but also where a lot of the laughs are to be had. At this point the players reveal what they were drawing and we get to see what everyone guessed. The easiest level is fun but the biggest laughs are reserved for the most difficult level. Not only is it funny to see how someone illustrates “bribery” it is equally hilarious to listen to why other people thought it was “extortion” or “money laundering” (both of which are on the same clue card).

Pictomania is not as simple as many other party games you will already know, but it is rich and challenging, and very very fun.

3-6 players. Ages 9+

Pictomania was designed by Vlaada Chvatil and is © 2014 Pegasus Spiel, produced and distributed by Stronghold Games.

Pairs

Pairs

Pairs is a tiny “pub game” from our friends at Cheapass Games. The game consists of 55 cards numbered 1 to 10 and a very slim rule sheet. The value of the cards also tells you how many of the cards are in the deck, so 10 is the most common card and there is only a single card valued at 1.

Before I go any further, I should point out that although Pairs is remarkably well suited as a drinking game, it can be played to wonderfully fun effect with absolute teetotalers. We find that most games can be made more fun with the addition of alcohol, but Major Fun Award games do not require such inebriants. Pairs is entirely family appropriate.

The goal of the game is to not lose. You lose by accumulating points. Once one player hits a target score, that player loses and you start another game. To start, one card is dealt face up to each player and five cards are “burned” (dealt face down) to start a discard pile (this keeps players guessing what card values are in play). On your turn you have two choices: hit or fold. The player with the lowest card always starts.

When you hit, you draw a card from the deck. You turn the card face up in front of you so everyone can see. If the card is different from one you already have face-up, you are safe and play moves to the next player. If the card matches any face-up card you already have, you place that pair off to the side. You have just earned those points. For example, if already have a 6 a 7 and a 9 and you draw a 7, you earn seven points.

If you fold, you take the lowest valued face-up card on the table and earn those points. In the above example, if you have a 6, 7, and 9 and decide to fold, you would look at all the cards in front of all the players and take the lowest one.

When you take cards for points they are kept to the side until the end of the game (they are point counters and will not get shuffled into the deck until the game ends). As soon as a person earns points, either when they hit or fold, all players discard their face-up cards and then are dealt ONE new card. The game ends when someone hits a target number: 60 divided by players plus 1 (for a 2 player game it is 31, and for 6+ players it is 11).

The nature of pub games is to make the loser do something as “punishment” for losing. There can be small punishments for when someone earns points and a more significant punishment for losing a game. We found that pointing a laughing at the loser was sufficient but you can choose what is most appropriate for your group.

Party GameThe game-play is fast and instinctive. The press-your luck mechanic is clever and really lends itself to goading. It feels really good to tease someone into taking a hit that results in a pair. I know that is childish and petty but nobody said Major Fun has to be high-brow and honorable. And seriously, if you are scared of taking a hit because you are looking at a 10 and an 8, then you really aren’t fit to sit at the big-kids table.

2-8 players. Ages 8+

Pairs was designed by James Ernest and Paul Peterson and is © 2014 James Earnest and Hip Pocket Games.

Falling

falling

As I’ve said before, I’m a huge fan of Cheapass Games and Falling was one of those games that really opened my eyes to the possibilities of “real-time” games. I’d grown up playing speed games like Dutch Blitz, but Falling added a dimension that had never occurred to me before.

The premise of Falling is one of my favorites: you are all plummeting to your deaths. The last one to hit the ground wins.

That’s it. You are going to hit the ground. The question is not IF but WHEN.

As Vonnegut’s optimist says as he falls from the top floor of a building, “So far so good!”

Falling has to be played with four or more players. One player will be the dealer and there need to be at least three others or the mechanics don’t really work. And the more the merrier. There is little or no down time and the ground comes surprisingly fast. In many ways, it is a relief to be the dealer.

The dealer sets the pace of the game. Moving clockwise, the dealer places one card in a stack in front of each player. The players must decide if they want to grab that card or wait for a new one. Once you grab a card, you can only get rid of it by playing it. You play a card by placing it in front of yourself or one of the other players before the dealer returns to that person. There are 4 kinds of cards: rider cards, action cards, and the ground. The ground cards are on the bottom of the deck. When you get a ground card you are done. The last player to get a ground card wins.

Riders tell the dealer what to do. There are three: hit, split, and skip. Hit cards tell the dealer to give a player one extra card. Instead of one card, the dealer would give a player 2. Split cards give a player an extra stack. Once you have an extra stack it stays with you until the end of the game. Splits are nasty because once you have an extra stack it means you will always get more cards. Finally, skip cards tell the dealer to skip placing a card on one stack (not the player). Riders are placed in front of a stack (only one per stack). When the dealer gets to the rider, the dealer follows the instructions and then discards the rider.

falling-1

Action cards effect riders. There are 2 actions: move and stop. A move allows you to move one rider card from one stack to another. For instance, if an opponent has a skip in front of his or her stack, you can use a move card to steal it. Stop actions erase a rider. In the previous example, you could play a stop on your opponent’s skip and they will now get a card as normal. Stops also cancel a ground. One ground.

Once the deal starts, it is amazing just how chaotic the game becomes. The first few time you play you will want to take the deal slowly, but even then it will feel as if the room has gone mad and time is accelerating. Timing is key. You want your opponents to get lots of cards while skip or stop bad things from happening to you. Unfortunately, holding on to skips and stops until the end might not be enough, and sometimes you will get stuck with a move in your hand and then all you can do is wait for the inevitable sudden stop at the end.

partyThe game is really very simple, but the mechanics are so different from what we are used to that you will want to play through a few times so everyone gets a feel for it. Especially practice being the dealer. Although the dealer isn’t playing in the same way as the others, it is a ton of fun and is almost as nerve-wracking as being one of the fallers.

As are many of the best Major Fun games, Falling has a gleeful mean streak to it. Stealing away a skip at just the right moment or blocking the ground so that it moves to the next player is immensely satisfying. And in this case, everyone can just pick themselves up, reset their fractured egos, and jump out of that plane again.

4-8 players. Ages 8+

Falling was designed by James Ernest and Paul Peterson and is © 1998 & 2014 James Earnest and Cheapass Games.

Tara

tara

When I was in college I became enamored with Celtic calligraphy, especially the intricate knot-work designs that decorated weapons, headstones, and illuminated texts dating back over a thousand years. Over the years I’ve toyed around with game ideas that would incorporate these designs into the game mechanics, not knowing that in the year I graduated from Wabash College, Murray Heasman had developed an ingenious and versatile mechanic that would spawn several award-winning games.

Up front, I need to be clear that I have not played all of the variations that come with Tailten’s collection of Tara games. For the purposes of this review, I am going to focus on the first game that is listed in the rules, called “The Sacred Hill.” By doing so I hope you’ll understand the basic mechanics that inform all the games that are possible with this collection. It is one of Tara’s great strength that it lends itself to many varieties of strategic play.

Game Board and Pieces:

The board is essentially a seven by seven grid minus the four corner cells to create a cross shape. Each cell of the grid contains a diamond shaped hole. The holes are designed to hold the primary game pieces so that they stay aligned with the grid.

There are two game pieces that are used in all games: the ringfort and the bridge. The ringfort is a roughly square piece that fits into the holes on the game board. Each is inscribed with a colored ring (red or blue). Bridges are thin strips of red or blue that are used to connect two ringforts of the same color to each other. There’s only so much fidelity that my words can manage in describing these pieces; suffice it to say that the ringforts are designed so that you can move them without disrupting the entire board and the bridges fit on top of the ringforts to create intricate and almost seamless patterns.

Game Play: The Sacred Hill

Most of the Tara inspired games revolve around piece placement and territory control. Sacred Hill is a great example of this. The goal is to finish the game with the fewest number of “kingdoms” which are made of connected ringforts.

The game plays out in two phases: maneuvers and battle. The maneuvers phase involves opponents taking turns placing their ringforts. The first ringfort can be placed anywhere. After that, your ringforts must be placed a knight’s move (in chess the knight moves two spaces in one direction and then one space to the left or right) from any of your existing ringforts but cannot be closer than a knight’s move. Once players have exhausted all possible placements for their ringforts, the battle phase can begin. There will be lots of blank spaces on the board.

In battle phase, players take turns placing ringforts next to their existing ringforts and linking them with the bridges. If you can surround an opponent’s single ringfort with your color, you can remove that ringfort and replace it with one of your own. The battle phase is an interesting combination of consolidating your own kingdom and splitting your opponent’s. It is not so important to have the most connected pieces so long as all of your ringforts are connected into one kingdom. Your opponent could control all but one small corner of the board and still lose if your one small kingdom is the thing that is keeping them separate.

Variation:

There are many games that can be played with just the ringforts and bridges. The game also comes with a king piece which fits inside the ringforts and is used in an engrossing variation called “High King of Tara.” With these three pieces, there are an astonishing number of permutations that are possible, especially if you are willing to adapt different placement rules for the ringforts. All in all, the game comes packaged with the rules for 5 games, some with their own variations.

Thinking GamesTara is beautifully constructed and designed, which is appropriate given the Celtic artwork on which it is based. Although the rules for piece placement take some time to learn, the instruction booklet is well written and clearly illustrated. Once you do learn the basics, the rest of the games are easy to pick up and largely intuitive.

If you can only pack a single game for a get-away, this one would be a great choice.

2 players. Ages 8+

Tara was designed by Murray Heasman and is © 1993 by M.W. Heasman and Tailten Games.

Longhorn

longhorn
In the wild west of gunslingers and prairie justice, where murder could make you a beloved hero and brigands could become legends, there was one crime that went beyond the pale.

Cattle rustlin’

Highly profitable and utterly despised. It took a sort of ruthlessness and recklessness that more often than not got you strung up by your neck without the mercy of a quick drop.

Blue Orange’s 2-player game Longhorn drops you into that world as a pair of competing cattle thieves, and although getting rich is one way to win, the main way to win is by making sure your opponent loses.

The game board constantly changes. It consists of 9 tiles that are shuffled and placed in a random 3×3 grid. Each tile starts with a certain number of cows. The cows are of three colors (black, orange, white) and the colors should be randomly distributed between the tiles. For example, the tile called “Dagger Flats” calls for 4 cows but the color of these cows should be decided randomly. The starting tiles also have a space for a special effect token. These tokens are chosen randomly and can be beneficial to the player or harmful.

On your turn, you steal cows and then move your opponent a number of spaces equal to the number of cows you stole. In this way you try to maneuver your opponent into the worst possible situation as you try to make the best of the conditions in which you find yourself.

There are three ways to win:

  1. If you force your opponent to take the Sheriff token, you WIN (opponent automatically LOSES).
  2. If you collect 9 cows of the same color you automatically WIN unless you also get the Sheriff in which case you LOSE and your opponent WINS!
  3. If you are forced to land on an empty tile, the game ends and both players earn money for the cows they have stolen plus any money they collected during the game (from the tokens). Richest rustler WINS.

I’m not going to go into all of the tokens and the final calculations for scoring. Suffice it to say that the different victory conditions open up several winning strategies. You and your opponent have to factor in a lot of variables, not the least of which is that you can’t control your own piece. Sometimes it is better to steal fewer cows in order to move your opponent one step closer to swinging the Gallow’s Dance.

Major Fun awardGames are fast and cut-throat. They are never the same twice and I can’t over-emphasize how much fun it is to have a game that revolves around forcing your opponent to step on a rattlesnake or take a bunch of sick cows.

There are a lot of pieces, and the first time you set up the game it will take some time to figure out what goes where, but once you see it, the following games are completely intuitive.

Although I’m sure that this could never be said about cattle rustling in the days of Wyatt Earp and Billy the Kid, but rustling cattle on the Blue Orange range is Major Fun.

2 players. Ages 8+

Longhorn was designed by Bruno Cathala and is © 2013 by Blue Orange Games.

Love Letter to AEG:

Dearest Alderac Entertainment Group,

How my heart races as I pen this missive. It has been mere hours since you swept me away in the embrace of your elegantly crafted Love Letter and now I fear I might only keep a Lost Legacy of those moments together. Why must your love be such a Cypher? Will it always be thus that I will only be able to express my affection to you through the fickle fortunes of these cards?

Oh most cruel and implacable master of my fate! Until your next gift, I shall remain forever yours.

Major Fun

[Fanning self]

Mercy. Sometimes Major Fun can be overwhelmed by the sheer animal fun that a publisher can exude, and Alderac Entertainment Group (AEG to their paramours) recently poured on the charm and a heavy dose of fun-pheromones through three closely related games: Love Letter, Lost Legacy, and Cypher.

LL_spread

Love Letter and Munchkin Loot Letter:

Love Letter is certainly the place to start. The game mechanics of Love Letter are deeply imbedded in the other games and form a strong foundation for all three. Love Letter is a strategic deduction and elimination card game in which players are trying to either eliminate all the other players or be the one to hold the highest points when the cards run out. AEG publishes many variations of Love Letter but they all consist of 16 cards ranging in value from 1 to 8. Some cards are much more common than others (for example, there are five 1s but only one 8).

We played the version of Love Letter that is based on the world of Steve Jackson’s wildly popular Munchkin games. This version is called Loot Letter and it imagines that the players are fantasy adventurers who are trying to escape a dungeon with the most loot.

The game play is very simple. Every player is dealt one card. One card is removed from the remaining deck and kept hidden. The rest of the cards form a draw deck. On your turn you draw one card and play one card. Whatever instructions are on the card you play have to be followed. For example, if you play the Maul Rat (value 2), you get to look at the cards in another player’s hand. Some cards like the Duck of Doom and the Potted Plant can eliminate players from the game. If all other players are eliminated, you win!

If the draw pile runs out and more than one player is still in the game, the winner is the one with the highest value card in his or her hand.

Although luck plays a role in the game, there is a lot of strategy that goes into deciding which card you should play and which one you should keep. You don’t have many choices but each choice is crucial, and that is one of the great strengths of these Love Letter games. And although this is an elimination game, no one stays out for very long. Each round is resolved in a matter of minutes, and then you start it all over.

Lost Legacy:

LL1_cover-artDesigned by the same person responsible for Love Letter, Lost Legacy: The Starship tweaks the mechanics of Love Letter a bit for a new flavor to a favorite dish. The players are looking for a powerful starship. To do so, the players use the same draw and play mechanic as in Love Letter. Unlike Love Letter, when you get to the point that there are no cards left in the deck, each player gets to guess where the Starship is. If it is in your hand, then the guess is easy, BUT the player who gets to guess first is determined by the card you keep in your hand (lower is faster). The Starship is worth 5 points, so if you hold the Starship but someone else has a lower card, that person could guess that you are holding it, and thus they would win the round.

It is also possible that no one wins the round. Players who were not eliminated get, at most, one guess, and even that is not guaranteed. I found it interesting to use this as a way to stay in the game even when I knew I could not win the round. If I could make it that no one got a point, I could stay in the game for a better outcome next round.

Cypher:

Cypher_card-spread-1024x463If Lost Legacy is a sibling to Love Letter, David Short’s Cypher is a first cousin. You can see the family resemblance but there’s a healthy dose of new DNA. First, there is no elimination (and although I really like Love Letter this is a big factor for Major Fun). Secondly, instead of starting with one card, each player starts their turn with three cards—but ENDS the turn with one.

WHHHHAAAAATTT?

Yup. When you start your turn you have three cards. You play one in front of you and do whatever it says (like Love Letter). THEN you draw a card. To end your turn, you pass one card to the person on your right and one card to the person on your left. In this way, players always start with three cards but end with one.

The goal is to end the game with the most points played to the table in front of you. You can only keep three cards in front of you, and there are lots of ways to mess with what your opponents have on the table. The round ends when the draw deck is reduced to zero cards OR someone plays one of the cards called “Cypher Anomaly.” All players have one more action and then points are tallied.

Cypher is a longer game than the other Love Letter games but not by much. All of the deduction elements are present, and there is a great strategic element to setting up your last card. You have lots of opportunities to mess with your opponents before the final actions are triggered, and this is incredibly satisfying.

All three games are small, quick to learn, and can be played over and over and over. The art and card design is top notch. AEG is releasing them in handy draw-string bags that contain everything you need. I actually keep all three in one bag. The instructions are short and clear, and playing any of them will allow you to intuitively pick up any of the others in short order.

It’s a lot of love, and Major Fun, in a very small package.

All reviewed games are 2 – 4 players. Ages 10+

Love Letter and Munchkin Loot Letter were designed by Seiji Kanai and is © 2012 by AEG. Lost Legacy was designed by Seiji Kanai and is © 2014 by AEG. Cypher was designed by David Short and is © 2014 by AEG.

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