River Dragons

Filed Under (Family Games, Thinking Games) by Will Bain on 06-06-2013

River DragonsRiver Dragons fully embraces the homily that “It’s not the destination but the journey.” The destination is simple: your playing piece is at Point A and you want to get to Point B. Between you and your destination is the mighty Mekong River. And those annoying other players. Whoever crosses the river first wins.

The game board depicts the river with six villages spread equidistantly around the perimeter. Small stone islands are spread between the villages. These islands mark where bridges can be built. Players are provided with a character piece, six wooden planks (numbered 1-6), and 13 Action Cards. A common bank of round stones is available to all players.

The Action Cards determine what you are able to do in a turn. The cards allow you to build bridges by placing stones and placing planks. They move your pawn by walking, running, or jumping. They interfere with your opponents by removing planks and stones or sending a river dragon to skip an opponent’s turn.

At the beginning of a turn, players choose 5 action cards. They also decide the order that the cards will be played in the turn. Once everyone has picked their cards and the order the cards will be played, the players go around the board and reveal their first cards and take those actions if they are able.

The “if they are able” part is what makes the journey so interesting. Some actions like “Place 2 Stones” can always be accomplished. But if you played a “Move 2 Spaces” card and some ne’er-do-well removed all the planks around you, your pawn falls into the river and must go back to the start village. When you play a card you must do the action if it is possible. If it is impossible then penalties ensue. There is also the River Dragon card. If I am the green pawn and someone plays the green River Dragon card, my action is cancelled. In this way plans are disrupted and future actions might prove to be impossible.

Major Fun AwardThis game lends itself to analysis paralysis. Choosing your actions and the order of those actions is nerve wracking as you consider bluffs, counter-bluffs, and alternate routes. You can spend all your time interfering with other players but then your own pawn will never advance. There were several times when my opponents had to start humming the theme song to Jeopardy before I’d commit to a course of action. And playing out those actions is very tense as the board changes in unexpected ways. Old paths disappear and new opportunities arrive with a whole new set of decisions.

River Dragons offers a great balance between advancing your own interests while messing with the plans of your opponents. As fun as it is to progress a few spaces, it is even more fun to hear the anguished groans of the thwarted in the knowledge that you are the name of their pain.

We played the Third Edition of this game, as produced by Matagot and provided to Major Fun by Asmodee. The art is fantastic—silly and colorful but also wonderfully helpful. The rules, complete with clear illustrations, fit on the front and back of a single sheet of paper. You can have the instructions read in a few minutes, and in a few more, you’ll be shoving your family and friends into the river.

For 2-6 players, ages 8+

River Dragons was designed by Roberto Fraga and © 2012 by Matagot. Brought to us at Major Fun by the hard-working and hard-playing people at Asmodee.

Takenoko

Filed Under (Family Games, Thinking Games) by Bernie DeKoven on 09-05-2013

TakenokoA giant panda. The Japanese royal gardens.  Fickle weather. A frantic gardener.

These are the elements of Asmodee’s Takenoko. Any of these elements can earn you the points you need to win, but your opponents have their own objectives and those are quite likely to be at odds with your objectives.

As the story goes, the emperor of Japan has been gifted a rare panda by the emperor of China. The creature is ravenous, and its favorite food is bamboo. The gardener’s job is to keep the bamboo growing so that the giant panda will remain happy. Fortunately the bamboo grows fast. Unfortunately the panda is very hungry.

Takenoko is a strategic board game in which the board is created over the course of the game. In order to grow bamboo, players need to place garden plots. These plots must be properly irrigated in order to grow the bamboo. There are also other improvements that can be made to the plots.

There are a lot of pieces to this game. There are objective cards, garden plots, irrigation trenches, improvement tiles, bamboo sections (in three different colors), action chips, and a die for determining the weather. To their credit the game designers took their time to introduce you to the pieces with a very colorful and very helpful book of instructions. Takenoko does take a bit more time to learn and set up than many other Major Fun games, but I know you will find the game worth it.

On your turn you must roll the weather die and take 2 actions. I’ll come back to the die in a moment but the weather gives you something special you can do on your turn. For your 2 actions, you have 5 choices. You must take 2 different actions. Your choices are: place a garden tile (a place you can grow bamboo), take an irrigation ditch to be used when you need it, send the gardener to grow some bamboo on an irrigated garden plot, send the panda to eat a piece of bamboo, AND FINALLY, draw an objective card. The objective cards are how you earn points. If you can get the garden to meet the requirements of your objective, you earn those points. In a four-person match, when someone finishes their seventh objective, there is one more round and then everyone tallies their points.

The weather die gives the player a unique bonus. There are five bonuses and a wild (player’s choice): take a third action, grow one section of bamboo anywhere, move the panda anywhere, take the same action twice (usually you must take 2 different actions), or take an improvement token.

Major Fun AwardWhat you choose depends entirely on what your objectives are. The more difficult the objective, the more points it is worth. And many objectives work against each other. There is a lot going on in the game but the design of the instructions and the materials is so meticulous that once you start playing, you won’t need the rules. Each player has a mat on which he or she keeps track of the action. The mat serves as a miniature set of instructions so each player knows what to do next.

I really appreciated the weather die. This is one of the few random elements of the game, but there are no harmful results. You might WANT a third action but any result on the weather die is to your benefit. You aren’t worrying about good luck or bad luck, rather you have to decide how best to use your good fortune.

The game is beautiful. The pieces are colorful and wonderfully detailed. The gardener and the panda are represented by cute figurines while the garden tiles effectively create the illusion of a manicured garden on your table top. Enjoy the short comic strip on the front of the rule book and then appreciate the care taken in describing and illustrating the rules.

Then dive into the strategy of maintaining an emperor’s garden in the presence of a voracious panda.

For 2 – 4 players, ages 13+

Takenoko was designed by Antoine Bauza and © 2011 by Bombyx and Matagot. Provided for our enjoyment by the good folks at Asmodee.

Formula D

Filed Under (Family Games, Thinking Games) by Will Bain on 09-04-2013

At first glance, Formula D will seem intimidating to novice gamers. The art is very cool but aggressive: Formula One cars, tricked out stock cars, letters engulfed in flames. The box declares that the game will take about an hour. And although 10 people can play, the box recommends those players be aged 14 years or more. Based solely on time and age range, Formula D would have found itself ineligible for a Major Fun Award.

But PLEASE, listen to that part of you that says, “That game looks cool!” We did, and we lived to report that this game is absolutely Major Fun.

Formula D is a racing game. The tracks are beautifully rendered on each side of the huge game board. There are approximately a bajillion cars to choose from so each player should be able to find some ride that fits his or her tastes. Each player also receives a clever gear box that indicates how fast the car can go and how much damage it can take. For the purpose of this review I am going to focus only on the Rules for Beginners, but for those who want a higher degree of complexity to the game, it comes with advanced rules, an advanced gear box, and special characters who bring more strategic choices to the game.

But don’t skip the beginner rules. Those early races have plenty of strategic thrills to keep you occupied for a long time.

In a nutshell: players roll dice to move their cars around the track. There are 6 dice that move the car and a 7th one for special occasions. The movement dice correspond to the gears on the car. The higher the gear, the more spaces the car can move. First gear can move 1-2 spaces, second moves 2-4 spaces, third moves 4-8 spaces, fourth moves 7-12 spaces, fifth moves 11-20 spaces, and sixth moves a whopping 21-30 spaces.

Major Fun AwardSo why not just shift up to high gear and stay there? The track makes sharp turns and the drivers have to slow down or they will damage their cars. Each turn has a red zone. If a car does not end its move inside a red zone, the car takes damage. Too much damage and the car is pulled out of the race. Some especially sharp turns require drivers to make two or even three moves inside a red zone. Failure to go slow enough will result in damage or complete destruction. Rolling the dice always involves some luck but players have to decide every time it is their turn whether to shift up or down. Sometimes it also pays to take a little damage so that you can be in position to charge at high gear through a straight. As long as you cross the finish line first, you win.

For a multi-lap race, there is a pit area where all damage can be repaired.

The first time you set up the game will take a while, but that’s mainly because there are a lot of pieces to punch out. It will also take 10 – 15 minutes to go through the rules, but once you do, you will realize just how intuitive everything is. The rules are beautifully illustrated and once you play the first time, you will probably never need the basic beginner rules again.

So gather up your friends. The more the merrier. Cutting people off and crashing become intense moments in multi-player games. Once you are done arguing over who gets what car, get them on the track and start slamming your way up through the gears. There’s a checkered flag and Major Fun to be had.

For 2 – 10 players, ages 14+ (my 10 year old did just fine…)

Formula D was designed by Eric Randall and Laurent Lavaur and originally published in 2008 by Asmodee.

Kalimambo

Filed Under (Family Games, Thinking Games) by Will Bain on 28-03-2013

Kalimambo contains several profound truths for those of you who might consider going on safari. First: avoid the charging rhino. Second: don’t trust strange little monkeys. Third: watch where you step.

Zoch’s beautifully illustrated game introduces the players to two characters: the mischief making Kali (a primate of questionable provenance) and the implacable Mambo (a large, myopic rhinoceros). In the course of their safari, the players get on the wrong end of Mambo’s horn and have to run through a savannah littered with elephant droppings. Talk about being hip deep in the—watch your step!

The game’s core mechanic comes down to the first principle of running away: you don’t have to be faster than the rhino, you just have to be faster than the slowest member of your group. Each player has a hand of cards which are numbered 0 – 11. There are 12 turns in the game. On each turn players choose one card and then reveal their cards at the same time. Highest card moves to the front of the line. In case of a tie number, only the farthest back player with that number moves. Playing a zero means the player does not move.

Once all the players have hop-scotched their way forward, Mambo charges. Whoever is at the back of the line gets hit and gains a number of points equal to the number of spaces Mambo moved. In this game, points are bad. Whoever has the fewest points at the end of the game wins. And getting hit by Mambo is only one way to get points.

Major Fun Award

Stepping in a pile of elephant poop: 3 points. There are 6 piles that players scatter around the board at the start of the game. We played with 7 explorers which meant we went around the board a couple of times. You might not be able to step in the same river twice but you can step twice in the same pile of elephant—watch out for the money!

The strange monkey-like Kali acts like another player. It has a play piece and a deck of 12 cards. These are chosen randomly each round and Kali moves by the same rules as the players BUT if points befall Kali, those points are “gifted” to the player or players who revealed the lowest card in that round. So if Kali gets hit by Mambo, those points go to some hapless player—usually one who thought he or she was safe at the front of the line.

Much of the fun, the Major Fun as it turns out, is generated as the players move their pieces. There is a great deal of anticipation followed by a surge of relief (or grief) when Mambo finally moves. There is a lot of luck involved but enough strategic choice to help you shape your luck. Lots of laughs to be had along the way.

For 3-7 players, ages 8+

Kalimambo was designed by Antonio Scritorre and published © 2011 by Zoch Verlag. It is available in the US from Lionrampantimports.

Get Bit

Filed Under (Family Games, Party Games, Thinking Games) by Bernie DeKoven on 19-02-2013

Get BitAppearances to the contrary, Get Bit is a game of cunning strategery, requiring poker-like deadpanning, anticipatory face-reading and much stalwart limb-losing.

Each of the 4-6 players has a hand of cards, numbered 1-7 and a color-matching, limb-detachable, plastic robot-like doll. In addition, there’s a Get Bit shark card, and a plastic shark with articulated jaw silently shrieking menace.

The shark is placed on its shark card, the temporarily fully-limbed robots are positioned, randomly, in a line in front of the shark; players collectively contemplate their cards, and, simultaneously, take their chosen card, placing it face-down with pokerish stoicism. At the agreed-upon moment, everyone turns their card over. The player who played the lowest number card moves her robot to the front of the line, furthest away from the shark. In case of a tie, neither player moves (a highly undesirable consequence if one takes into account the strategic significance of shark-proximity). And so on and so on until all cards are revealed, all robots moved or not. The robot closest to the shark loses a robotic limb.

The next round ensues in like manner, except that each player has one card less from which to choose. Played cards are left face-up, so that all players can, with slightly increasing certainty, can predict the likelihood of their success. The game ends as soon as one robot achieves limblessness. Until that time, should a player find herself with only one card, she gets to pick up all her cards and continue the next round with a full hand.

And on and on until there are only two robots. The robot closest to the shark is considered conceptually consumed.

Major Fun AwardThe toy-like robots and shark set the stage for a light-hearted, playful experience. Because the game does require moments of deep reasoning, light-headedness is not encouraged, though, depending on the nature of available refreshments, the game is fun enough to keep people playing even though their robots have become as conceptually incapacitated as they.

The instructions include a two- and three-player version which we found insufficiently bloodthirsty. We definitely recommend the game for at least 4 players. Depending on your competitive needs, you can also play as teams, so when a player has join the ranks of the conceptually consumed he can put his new-found wisdom into practice with the still living.

Get Bit is best with 4-6 players. It was designed by Dave Chalker, illustrated by Gavin Schmitt, with robots by Ken Lilly, and is available from Mayday Games

 

Bypass

Filed Under (Family Games, Thinking Games) by Will Bain on 26-11-2012

Getting from Point A to Point B is an inescapable human quality. Maybe it’s a characteristic of ALL life. Be that as it may, getting from Point A to Point B by car is profoundly American, especially if getting between said points involves building a super-highway.

Bypass by SimplyFun takes the American pastime of building byzantine highway systems and makes it into something you would actually like to do.

The game takes place on a grid. Players take turns placing road tiles in order to connect one start point to an end point. Each tile is designed to connect to all other tiles; however, some will create dead ends or will force players to turn in directions they would rather not go (like any interstate highway, players may not make 90 degree turns unless there is an appropriate off-ramp).

The game ends when one player connects their start location with their end location. This seems easy enough at first when there are lots of open spaces on the board; however, as the game progresses, players realize that their paths will overlap and a tile that might help your path might help your opponent even more. You can play tiles to interfere with your opponents but it is often hard to predict just how helpful or harmful a tile will turn out to be. To make things even more complicated, tiles can be played on top of existing tiles IF the existing tile is surrounded on 4 sides.

Each player also has three cones which they can play in order to protect a tile. Once a cone is played, it cannot be moved and the tile cannot be changed. In this way you can prevent someone from changing a key link in your highway or you can permanently scar your opponent’s path.

[evil chuckle…]

Play tiles, draw tiles, win when your road is complete. Major Fun likes things simple. Not easy. Two player games are just as cut-throat and chaotic as four player games. Strategies might change a bit as you add players, but you never want to take your eyes from the board.

SimplyFun does a great job of presenting the rules with clear and colorful illustrations. You can set up your first game in a few minutes and then never need the rules again. Play is intuitive, strategic, sometimes mean, and definitely Major Fun.

For 2-4 players, ages 8+

Bypass designed by Till Meyer. © 2012 by SimplyFun LLC.

Balanx

Filed Under (Thinking Games) by Bernie DeKoven on 26-11-2012

Balanx is a two-player strategy game – a distant, and perhaps even estranged cousin of chinese checkers (which, as the wikipedist astutely points out is neither Chinese nor checkers), designed by the exceptionally creative game inventor Kris Burm.

Each player gets 10 large marbles (black or white solid, comfortingly hefty glass marbles). The marbles are set up in opposite corners of the board, in a triangular configuration more than vaguely reminiscent of the aforementioned game that is neither checkers nor Chinese.

The other less-than-vague similarities to chinese checkers: 1) one way you move is to jump over marbles (reminiscent, but, then again, not at all like that n0t-checker game, because you don’t jump, you leap over columns of marbles of both or either color), and 2) you win if you’re the first player to occupy the opposite corner of the board (and, like that game that has nothing to do with China, the other player can’t win if you don’t vacate your corner first, but with totally different significance, because if it turns out that if, at any time during the time, it becomes apparent that you haven’t allowed a space for the other player to move, you lose).

Upon careful inspection of the board you’ll notice at least two deeply intriguing properties: 1) the board doesn’t lie flat on the table, but rather is raised off the table by two small legs in the center of the board, causing the board to tilt either fro or to, and: 2) some of the spaces on the board are simple holes, accommodating a single marble; whilst others are lozenges which can accomodate two marbles, making it highly likely that upon tilting the board some of the marbles will shift position. The intrigue? When it is your turn, you first tilt the board towards you, and the resulting shifts in marble-position gives you a board which is often unanticipatedly different from that your opponent will experience on her turn when she tilts the board towards her. So striking is the impact of this shifting balance that one would be sorely tempted to give the game a name that sounds almost like “Balance.” Speaking of which, those metal balls on each side of the board have no strategic implications, but there to assist in keeping a tilt tilted.

Balanx is a different kind of strategy game, different enough to make you lust after it egregiously. It is relatively easy to learn – though you’ll need to play it a few times before you have a deep enough appreciation of the strategic implications of it all. The way the array of pieces shifts on each turn is endlessly fascinating, and learning to anticipate what that shift will be, and to plan your move accordingly, challenges your perceptual skills as deeply as it engages your strategic perplexity. Available from Mayfair Games, for contemplative, but playful thinkers.

Zombiepox

Filed Under (Cooperation, Thinking Games, Tops for 2012) by Will Bain on 25-11-2012

Like most great diseases, the game Zombiepox has had a period of incubation and mutation. The genetic material for the game germinated in Pox: Save the People. According to Tilfactor’s website, Pox was designed as an educational game in coordination with the Mascoma Valley Health Initiative in order to counter misinformation about vaccines. I had the opportunity to play Pox and was impressed by the mechanics, especially for a game that was designed for educational purposes.

What the game lacked were the design elements that would appeal to the wider commercial audience that would be looking for a game off the shelf. It wasn’t infectious enough.

Thank goodness for the current zombie culture war. Pox: Save the People gets a new protein sheathe and a fresh entry into the population. Zombiepox!!

For a cooperative game, the setup and play of Zombiepox is remarkably simple. The game consists of a game board (a grid of 81 people), chips to mark the people (vaccinated, infected, zombified), and a deck of cards that tells you how the infection spreads. The rules fit on a single, folded sheet of paper.

The game starts with 2 zombies in the middle of the board. Each player’s turn starts by drawing a card and following the instructions. Cards tell the player how to spread the zombie infection and how many may be vaccinated or cured. If a person on the board is ever surrounded on all sides by the infected, that person becomes a zombie. Six of the 81 people on the board are babies who are especially susceptible to the disease. They become zombies on contact with the disease.

Players set a goal at the beginning of the game and play until the disease can no longer spread (WIN!) or the players’ goal has been exceeded (LOSE!) The hardest challenge is to limit the epidemic to the two original zombies. Six zombies is the maximum.

Vaccinating and curing people is the strategic aspect that keeps the game rewarding and frustrating. The vulnerable babies cannot be immunized and it costs more to cure infected than it does to vaccinate the healthy citizens. These decisions and complications become more difficult to juggle as the infection spreads.

Zombiepox is Major Fun for its simple rules, surprising strategy, and replayability. It also works as a good introduction into cooperative games. Those who have played cooperative games like Forbidden Island will recognize the basic elements of those games in Zombiepox. If you have been weaned on those games then you’ll see Zombiepox as a good vector for getting your friends into those other, more complicated games.

Who knows, a few more iterations and a mutated strain of Zombiepox might just threaten the position of Pandemic as the alpha cooperative disease game. Maybe.

1-4 players, ages 12+

Zombiepox designed by Zara Downs, Mary Flanagan, Max Seidman. © 2012 Mary Flanagan, LLC.

Nowhere to Go

Filed Under (Kids Games, Thinking Games) by Bernie DeKoven on 12-11-2012

2-player strategy gameI found Nowhere to Go in a store for teachers. I suppose that was a logical place to find the game, given that it comes from a company called Educational Insights. So I naturally assumed it was an “educational” game, which I almost immediately (and somewhat shamefully) assumed would be more educational than, well, fun.

But fun it is. Major fun, that is.

It’s an abstract strategy game for two players. It’s played on a hexagonal board. There are 19 platforms, each connected to the adjacent platforms by bridges.

When the game begins, each player first places her “spy piece” (a shady looking character) on one of the two platforms with slightly raised centers. Next, players place five “blockers” (little, notched, grey pieces that like to inhabit the bridges between the platforms) on the five bridges of their choice. Where they place their bridges is fraught with strategic implications, but it may take a while for them to perceive the fraughtness of it all.  And, no, silly, you can’t put your blockers on the three bridges connecting to your opponent’s home, because that would make the game no fun at all.

From then on, players take turns, first moving their spy to any connected platform (as long as the path isn’t blocked), and then adding a blocker. The idea is to block every path that is available to your opponent’s spy, until you are the only player who can still move.

The instructions are wonderfully brief. The game takes only a few minutes to play. The rounds are quick. And death is often surprisingly sudden. All in all making this a perfect invitation to strategic thinking. Easy enough to entice your eight-year-old strategist, deep enough to make your adult self want to play with her.

Designed by Hank Atkins, Nowhere to Go is Major Fun.

Colorio

Filed Under (Family Games, Kids Games, Thinking Games) by Bernie DeKoven on 29-10-2012

You know the kids’ card game concentration? Well, Colorio isn’t that game. It’s something else. Something much deeper, involving strategery and cunning and, ok, concentration, and, yes, memory. But it’s not that card game, believe me you.

There’s a board – a 5×5 matrix. Inside the board there are 5 slots (well, ten slots if you consider both sides of the board) to accommodate 5 strips. Each strip has five spots of a different color. There are five different colors, but  all five just might not be present on any given strip, on any given side of that strip  – adding an essential uncertainty to the conceptual contemplation. The different colors are also illustrated, each with a different expression, providing a touch of humor and a large tad of assistance for the color-blind.

Key to the strategic part of the game, there are 25 “caps” that are used to cover all the holes in the board. Players take turns removing up to three caps at a time. While you’re so engaged, you can remove all three caps and take them off the board entirely, or, as long as you remove one cap completely, you can move one or both of the remaining two to other open spaces on the board. This assures that more and more spaces are revealed each turn.

Every time you remove a cap, you reveal what lies beneath. Every time you cover an open space, you have one more thing you probably want to remember.

The game continues in this manner until someone (not you, of course) accidentally reveals the fifth of any one color.

As the game progresses, and more and more spaces are revealed, the tension increases. How tense depends on how well players understand the impact of using the caps to cover colors back up. Once four of any one color are already revealed, the tension becomes palpable.

Colorio is very well made. The board, caps and color strips, and even the box are all designed to provide many years of play. The  game itself gets more interesting as players become more familiar with all the strategic implications, but even without all that thinking, the game is well enough designed to invite hours of repeated play.

Coloriois yet another Major Fun award-winning game available from Mindtwister. It was designed by Jacky Bonnet for 2-5 players. It’s best for families and kids 6 years old and up. It takes about 10 minutes to play and maybe even less to learn.