Though Spyfall contains 240 cards (and 30 baggies), it is not a card game, at all, at all. It is a game of subtle questioning and even more subtle answering. And, once you get familiar with it, it’s O so totally Major Fun.

One player is the Spy. The rest of the players aren’t. They’re the ones who are trying to figure out which one is the Spy. The Spy, on the other hand, is trying to figure out where the players are.

Well, of course, they’re right around the table with everybody else. But that’s not the point. They’re also in one of thirty different imaginary locations, determined by the random selection of one of thirty different baggie-packed collections of cards. Each baggie contains (well, will contain, after you sort them out as instructed) 8 cards (beautifully rendered) showing one particular location, and one Spy card. The location cards also include the identity that the player who gets that card is supposed to have – but that’s only to make the game more appealing to the sophisticated Spyfall player you are so destined to become.

Say the location is a submarine (no, don’t say it, think it). You could be the commander, the navigator, the sonar operator, the radio operator, etc.

When it’s your turn, you get to ask anybody a question. Naturally, if you’re not the spy, you could wind up asking that question to the spy herself. By, you know, chance. And you really have to be careful not to be so specific in your question (e.g. “what do you see out of the periscope?”) to make it too obvious, but, on the other hand, you do want to ask a question that the spy might answer incorrectly (“what do you do for exercise?”).

Party GameSo what I’m saying here is that this game requires what they call “subtlety.” And it takes a while to master the art of subtlety to such a degree that you don’t out-subtle yourself. So it’s not one of your, well, obvious games. It’s easy to understand what you’re trying to do. But not so easy to figure out how to do it. That’s why we decided to call it a gamer’s game.

But it’s well worth the effort, because the fun is wide and deep, and you’ll want to play it again and again with everybody who either already knows how to play, or has a very good and patient sense of humor. It’s cooperative. It’s intelligent. It encourages cleverness. It’s a great way to get to know people, and yourself, too.

Spyfall takes about 5-15 minutes to play each round and is designed for 3-8 sneaky, but astute players (or teams). Depending on how many players, and how many rounds you decide to play, the game will take anywhere from 15 minutes to well over an hour. It is designed by Alexander Ushan, with art by Uildrim and Sergey Dulin, and is published by Cryptozoic Entertainment.

Spin Monkeys

spin monkeys

There are times, few and far between, when we discover a game that has such a funny premise (monkeys riding bumper cars in the jungle), such an elegantly designed game play, so challenging and yet so lightly competitive that, despite the length of the game (over 45 minutes) and the recommended age (13 and over) (though we decided many of the ten-year-olds we know would love this game), and the somewhat complex rules (though clearly written, well-illustrated, and intelligently organized), we can’t help but give it a Major Fun award. Because, frankly, that’s exactly the kind of fun we had playing it.

more monkeys
(image via After Play)
The game is played on a large board of interconnected circles. The Monkey token (one of a different color for each player) features a compass design marked off in 45-degree increments. The decks of movement cards (139 of them) tell you how to orient your bumpercar. How many movement cards you have tells you how far you can go. The field is strewn with bananas (5 pts), oranges (2) and apples (1).

There’s a lot more to the game – which is one of the reasons we were surprised that the game turned out to be as Major, funwise, as it did. For the first couple games, you’ll probably need to refer frequently to the rules, which is why it is especially fortunate that the rules are so clearly written and organized. party-familyAnd, oddly enough, all that looking up doesn’t make the game any more challenging to learn or any less fun to play. So, for instance, you find yourself turned the wrong way and you bump into one of the edges of the board, so you have to turn 45 degrees clockwise and give up a card which means you can’t go as far (fast) next time, and if you bump into the edge again after you turn, you have to give up another card and then turn again. Or after you manage to land on a banana you leave a banana peel in its place, and then there’s the thing that happens when you land on a banana peel, or when two bumper cars bump. Because the way the game works, it gives you that bumper car ride feeling anyway. You don’t really have to know all the rules until you absolutely have to. It’s not like there’s a complex strategy or anything. You can still play. You can still have fun. You kind of just monkey around, so to speak. And when you do need, if you’ll forgive the expression, “bump” into something new or unexpected, you just consult the rules and monkey forth.

And one more kudo: in the rules, when they refer to the player, they always say “she.” One small step for playkind, no?

Designed by Mark Sellmeyer, rules by Deanna Benjamin, illustrations and graphics by Mirko Suzuki, for 2-8 players (says the box – we recommend no more than 5), 13 and up (10 is probably OK too), available from Rio Grande Games.

Space Cadets: Dice Duel

space cadets boxGamers Games are Major Fun for the more experienced gamer. For one reason or another, these games are a bit more difficult or require a greater time investment than the games we generally award BUT we feel that they are well worth the effort.

A while back we gave an award to a cooperative and yet utterly chaotic app called Space Team. It is a fantastic example of how our phone and tablet technologies can be used to not only connect players, but have them physically act together. At the time I thought that this kind of game might be unique to technological devices. Phones and tablets after all are designed to record and respond to a wide range of motions.

Board games? Less tolerant of vigorous activity.

Well, I’m here to tell you that Stronghold has provided the world with a game that effectively splices the strategy of a board game with the frantic and physical activity of an obstacle course. That game, is Space Cadets: Dice Duel.

Space Cadets diceDice Duel is set in space. Two starships have found themselves locked in combat over a region of space that contains wormholes, asteroids, nebulae, and mysterious power crystals. Players divide into 2 teams with the unambiguous mission to destroy the other ship. Each ship comes with a Helm (for steering your majestic ship into glorious battle), Sensors (for locking on to the vile opponent and cloaking your presence), Weapons (for cleansing the galaxy of the alien filth), Shields (for deflecting the villainous armaments of your foe), Tractor Beams (for moving all manner of material and laying mines), and most importantly Engineering (from whence your ship distributes cleansing power to all your Stations).

This would be a lot to track for one person, but fortunately you have a crew. Each of the ship’s systems has its own Station and a set of dice that is color coded for that control panel. In order for any Station to operate, that Station first needs power from Engineering and then it needs the right combination of dice. One of the things that makes Dice Duel so intriguing is that it can engage up to 8 players at a time. It is actually better with more players.

Space Cadets weapon diceWhen the game starts, Engineering begins rolling its dice. It distributes these dice to the Stations (Weapons = 1, Sensors = 2, Helm = 5, etc…) so that those crew members can get their sub-systems up and running. A Station may roll one die for each Engineering die it receives. When a Station gets the result it wants it places the die on the control panel and returns the energy die (or dice) back to Engineering.

All of this rolling and equipping and moving happens at the same time. There are no turns. The team that rolls its dice and communicates its actions fastest has a distinct advantage.

Early in the game, the teams work to get their ships up and functioning. This is a relatively quiet process as the team members roll their dice to stock up. But as soon as one of the ships moves from its start point, the tension and chaos go supernova. There are lots of things that have to happen for a ship to successfully attack another ship and it is inevitable that in the heat of battle, things will go horribly horribly wrong. Your ship might face the wrong way. You might not have enough power in the sensors. You might not be close enough. You might not have the torpedoes facing the enemy. The enemy might move. Imagine trying to teach someone to drive a manual transmission by giving them instructions on the phone.

awardYour enjoyment of this game will hinge almost entirely on your ability to recover from disappointment. Well, and maybe your team’s ability to not turn on each other like a pack of rabid dogs.

The constant dice rolling provides a menacing sound-track to the proceedings and it is utterly gratifying to land a torpedo on your opponent. Gratifying and Major Fun.

The real-time mechanics are very clever and give the game its own frenetic glee. There is a fairly steep learning curve, but it’s not learning the rules that is hard but rather learning how to communicate with your team and time your attacks. The game comes with a lot of pieces, but once you have the control panels set up, the dice mechanics are really very simple. This game is a great example of rather simple rules complicated by human behavior and constantly evolving conditions. That the game is best played with a lot of people (4 on each team) makes it stand out in a field crowded by 3 – 4 player limits.

4 – 8 Players. Ages 12+

Space Cadets: Dice Duel was designed by Sydney and Geoffrey Engelstein and © 2013 by Stronghold Games.


Pandemic App

One of the first reviews I wrote for Major Fun was for Forbidden Island, a cooperative board game in which you are trying to save four treasures from a rapidly sinking island. This review also marked the beginning of the Gamers’ Game—a way we could praise really great games that were just a bit too complicated or too long for the Major Fun Award. Forbidden Island came out in 2010 but its designer, one Matt Leacock, already had another cooperative game that had been a board-gamer favorite since it came out in 2008.

That game is Pandemic, a game of intrepid scientists and specialists trying to cure four diseases before they annihilate the human population.

When we played Forbidden Island I had some experience with Pandemic. It has some mechanics that are very similar to Forbidden Island: characters with special abilities, card collecting, special cards, and a system of making the situation grow more desperate as the game progresses. But Pandemic is certainly more complicated than Forbidden Island which was already too complicated for a traditional Major Fun Award. Thus, Pandemic went by without mention.

So what has changed? Why am I talking about Pandemic now?

No, it’s not the recent epidemic of zombie-zeitgeist.

Two reasons. Z-Man is reprinting the board game. It looks fantastic. They have made a few small changes (basically adding a few special characters) and tweaked the layout of the rules, but the game itself is much the same as it was when I first played it a few years ago. This is a wonderfully conceived and beautifully executed game. But a fresh coat of paint is not enough to elevate a game to Major Fun. The rules still take longer to learn than we usually like and then there is the set-up. There are a lot of pieces and cards. There are special ways to shuffle the cards. There are steps to laying out the pieces. Major Fun likes games to start quickly, and Pandemic has something of a long incubation period. Especially when you are playing it for your first time.

Major Fun AwardZ-Man has also released the game as an app for your tablet devices. And this app is marvelous. iPads and similar tablets have turned out to be an excellent technology for many board games, and Z-Man has used the touch screen to the game’s full advantage. It helps that Pandemic is cooperative. There is no hiding of cards or secret moves. You can play the app by yourself or with others. Best of all, the app does all the messy set-up for you. This feature allows you to focus on the game play without the time consuming preparation that might turn off a novice.

New players are taken through a tutorial that covers all the game basics in surprisingly short order and as part of a real game. It speaks volumes for the game design that most of the available actions become very clear once they have been demonstrated. The players aren’t puzzling out what moves are available, rather they are puzzling out which moves are best. And because the game is cooperative, everyone is constantly involved. You will not beat this game by hiding your cards and going it alone. Especially not at its heroic difficulty level (I have actually NEVER beaten heroic difficulty. Maybe it is impossible, but I am happy to keep trying. “Why sure Mister Sisyphus, I’d be happy to push that rock for you.”)

Making the transition from the app to the analogue board game would be very easy. You will have seen how the game starts, and you will know all the basic moves so you can start trying to save the world as soon as you get the cards in their correct piles.

So consider this a technologically assisted Major Fun award. Jumping directly into the paper-and-pawns board game might be too complicated for Major Fun, but the app is a fast, thrilling, efficient vector for this game.

So put away your vitamin C infusions (they don’t work anyways) and go get infected.

For 2-4 players, ages 8+

Pandemic was designed by Matt Leacock and is © 2012 by Z-Man Games.

St Malo

St MaloGamers Games are Major Fun for the more experienced gamer. For one reason or another, these games are a bit more difficult or require a greater time investment than the games we generally award BUT we feel that they are well worth the effort.

St. Malo is not only an excellent entry point into the rich but daunting field of German-style resource management games, it is also an excellent example of a game that takes a moribund game warhorse and breathes some life into it.

Take 5 dice. Roll them up to three times. Try to collect patterns with the final result. Sound familiar?

St. Malo is a great entry point for gamers looking for more robust strategy games because the core mechanic is Yahtzee! Now don’t go running off quite yet. There is more to it, but the idea of rolling dice and keeping a certain set of results will not be foreign to anyone over the age of 8 or 9. St. Malo even keeps the idea of the individual score card. Everything you do is recorded on a nifty dry erase board that also has reminders of almost every rule you need to know. I’ll get back to the boards in a moment, but these similarities to Yahtzee! make the process of diving into resource management very smooth.

In short, players try to earn the most points by building various aspects of a walled city. There are homes and crates and churches and walls and all kinds of people that can inhabit your city. There is money to be earned and spent. All of these things are used to either earn points or fend off the pirates.

Oh yeah. Pirates.

Some points are earned immediately. Some points are earned when the game ends. The game ends when one player fills every space in his or her city.

To fill spaces in your city you roll 5 dice. Each die has 6 symbols: logs, crosses, people, walls, crates, and scimitars. As I mentioned before you get three rolls get results that you can use. I’m not going to go into what each of the symbols can get you. Most of them allow you to add things to your city and you will have to make some careful decisions about how you want to earn your points. The one symbol I will discuss a bit is the crossed scimitars—the pirates.

Whenever you stop rolling the dice you get to use one of the symbols to improve your city. IF there are any pirate dice showing, you record these on a central dry erase board. This acts as a count-down toward a pirate attack. In a two-player game the pirates attack when a total of 4 pirate dice have been rolled (this number goes up with more players). Their first attack is rather weak (1 point) but this increases each time. If a city has enough defenses (Walls or Soldiers) then the attack does nothing. If the city does not have enough then the Pirates damage the city which means the player loses points at the end of the game.

I enjoyed the hell out of the pirates. They really make this game pop. In general everyone will work to avoid the pirate dice, BUT if you have powerful defenses and your opponents do not, then throw open the ports and bring on the pirates!! It is one of the many balanced touches that I appreciated about the game. Defenses do not earn points but they prevent point LOSS and sometimes that is your best strategy.

The game itself is well designed. There are a fair amount of rules for the dice but is all laid out very clearly on just a few short pages. What I also love is that there are no pieces. Each player has a dry erase board and a marker. When you buy something, you draw a little symbol on your board. There are lots of symbols but they are really quite intuitive. Did you buy a house? Draw a little square with a roof. Did you spend some money? Cross off the coins you spent. Instead of having a table full of trinkets that will get lost the next time you drop the box, all you have to do is be able to make a few geometric shapes and letters.

It’s Major Fun for the experienced gamer and those looking to take their game up a notch. Clever, concise, and cut-throat.

For 2-5 players, ages 9+

St. Malo designed by Inka and Markus Brand. © 2013 Ravensburger Spieleverlag.


MatterGamers’ Games are Major Fun for the more experienced gamer. For one reason or another, these games are a bit more difficult or require a greater time investment than the games we generally award BUT we feel that they are well worth the effort.

Matter accomplishes what many believed to be impossible. Through some thaumaturgical process, the alchemists at Simply Fun have found a way to capture the soul of the seminal American band Earth Wind Air & Fire in a single abstract strategic tiling game that fuses the band’s rock, soul, jazz, and disco elements with the raw power of its 6 Grammy Awards…

I’m sorry to interrupt but I’ve just been notified that the band has tragically lost Air when he ventured too close to a television pundits convention and was sucked out of the room. Air’s friends Reason and Compassion are also missing, believed dead.

I’m also being told that Matter has nothing to do with the band Earth Wind & Fire.

Matter is indeed a strategic abstract tiling game. It is also based on the interactions between the four classical elements of Earth, Air, Water, and Fire. The conflict plays out on a hexagonal grid game board on which 2 -4 players try to control strategic locations by manipulating the very fabric of the universe. POWER!! Coursing through my vein!! MWAHAHAHA!!

Where was I. Strategic tiling. There are actually two devices that the players use in the tiling process. First are the Element Tiles: hexagonal tiles of Yellow (Earth), White (Air), Blue (Water), and Red (Fire). Second are the Elemental Gems, clear glass beads that are the same four colors as the elements and represent the Players. REMEMBER: Each player has one color of Gem. Anyone can play any color Tile. If we had one complaint with the rules it came down to the confusion between calling the tiles “Elements” and the gems “Elementals.” For the sake of clarity I will refer to them as tiles and gems.

A quick note before I go on. Learning this game is much easier with visual aids. The rules supplied by Simply Fun are clear and well-illustrated. The game does take some time to learn and master BUT learning it from learning it from text only is like learning to tie your shoes from written instructions.

The game board has 14 spots that are numbered (7, 9, or 10). These numbers represent point values and constitute the primary path toward victory (high score wins). Players use the tiles and gems to control the spaces around the numbered spots. In addition to the numbered spots, the board also features black, white, and grey spots. In setting up the game, the tiles are placed in a bag and shaken. Random tiles are drawn and placed on the grey and white spaces (the rules provide a more strategic variation in which you cover only the light grey spaces).

At the beginning of a four person game players start with 9 gems and draw 4 tiles from the bag (with fewer players each player gets more gems). Starting with the player who got up earliest, each alchemist must play one tile on to the board. That player has the option to place a gem on that tile. Placing a gem claims that tile and any adjacent tile of the same color. Players try to surround the point spaces with colors they control. Whoever controls the power of the tiles controls the points.

What complicates Matter in interesting ways is the fact that each Tile color cancels one of the other colors. Red cancels yellow, tallow cancels white, white cancels blue, and blue cancels red. So, if you have a red tile that touches two blue tiles, that red tile is worth -1 power, but the blue tiles are NOT affected by the red. Each player has a limited number of gems so knowing when and where to play them is essential. It is also important to keep track of neighboring tiles. You might have most of the tiles around a point space but a smart opponent will then surround you with tiles that cancel your power but which don’t change your opponent’s power.

With only a few pieces and some very basic rules, Simply Fun has created a robust, deeply strategic, and exciting game. In many ways it reminds me of the elegance of the Major Fun Award-winning game Dragon Face. It will take new players 15 – 20 minutes to work through the rules and then a game or two to catch on to the intricacies, but you will WANT to play those games.

Major Fun for the strategists out there.

For 2-4 players, ages 10+

Matter was designed by Touko Tahkokallio and is © 2010 by Onni Games Oy, produced by Simply Fun.


Gamers’ Games are Major Fun for the more experienced gamer. For one reason or another, these games are a bit more difficult or require a greater time investment than the games we generally award BUT we feel that they are well worth the effort.

Yomi is a card-based fighting game for two players. The game sets up a world in which ten characters fight in a tournament called Fantasy Strike. Each character has his or her or its own special abilities, but at heart, Yomi is a very colorful game of paper-rock-scissors. DON’T LEAVE YET!! I wouldn’t waste your time with that old chestnut. The learning curve for Yomi is actually quite steep BUT if you can keep in mind that the prime mechanic is a glorified exercise of paper-rock-scissors, then you will understand why I even considered reviewing this game for Major Fun.

Let me digress for a bit. The advent and subsequent popularity of collectible card games is a topic of fascination for me. I do not like CCGs in general. Not because of game play issues, but because of economic and equity issues. To my mind, the artificial rarity of games like Magic the Gathering and Pokemon creates a lot of waste and favors those who have more money. Constructing an effective deck is a wonderfully strategic and challenging endeavor, but it seems heavily weighted in favor of those who can either afford to buy lots of packs to sift for a few treasures OR those who can afford to buy a good card from someone who could afford to buy a lot of packs and sift for the treasures.

It is no surprise to me that card-based, deck-building games like Dominion and Yomi have emerged and are popular. These games use the engaging and strategic qualities of the CCGs, but all players start from the same pool of cards (or at least pre-established and balanced sets of cards). The only economic question is: can you afford the game? Once you have the game you and your opponents have everything you need. Winning and losing rests on your strategic choices (with a bit of luck).

Yomi contains 10 decks of cards and two playing mats where you place your cards and keep track of your character’s health. Each 56-card deck represents a character in the Fantasy Strike tournament. The cards are numbered and suited like standard playing cards (2-10, Jack, Queen, King, Ace of hearts, diamonds, clubs, and spades). Each deck has 2 Jokers. The suits and numbers are one of the complicating factors of the game but each card essentially allows the player to make one of three actions: Attack, Throw, or Block/Dodge. This is where the paper-rock-scissors mechanic enters. Attacks beat Throws. Throws beat Blocks/Dodges. Blocks/Dodges beat Attacks. Each player starts with seven cards in hand. The round begins when each player selects a card and places it face down on the mat. Both reveal their card at the same time and use the paper-rock-scissors mechanic to determine who wins. Attacks and Throws and Dodges cause damage. Blocks prevent damage. The object is to reduce your opposing character to zero health.

Simple enough BUT complications abound. Each character has special abilities. Cards can be played in combination. Some cards must be played with other cards. Some cards negate other cards. Results from one round can affect how cards are used the next round. Not only does each card have a wealth of information encoded in symbols and several small boxes, but many of the cards are double sided (turned one way the card is a Block but turned the opposite way it is a Throw).

Needless to say, reading lots of fine print is a must in this game and even then you probably won’t appreciate many of the strategies that will work for each character until you have had a chance to play several times. There is a big time investment up front, but once you become familiar with the cards and the order of play, you realize that each deck represents a difference in style and strategy, not substance. What is impressive is that each deck, each character, has a unique skill set and these are balanced so well. A lot of thought and effort went in to creating characters that are equally matched.

I certainly appreciated the online version of this game. You can play the game against other humans OR you can play against the computer. I have only played against the computer, but in doing so it helped me understand how many of the special abilities work and how some cards can be played in combination with others. This helped me teach the card game to new players and bring them up to speed.

There are fighting games that are certainly easier than Yomi (Slugfest’s wonderful Kung Fu Fighting comes to mind), but the balance, variation, and strategy of Yomi makes it a rich and highly re-playable game. Competitive, addictive, and fun.

Yomi was designed David Sirlin and is © 2011 by Sirlin Games.

Betrayal at House on the Hill

Gamers’ Games are Major Fun for the more experienced gamer. For one reason or another, these games are a bit more difficult or require a greater time investment than the games we generally award BUT we feel that they are well worth the effort.

Betrayal at House on the Hill by Avalon Hill / Wizards of the Coast is just such a game. The premise is very cool: you and the other players are exploring a creepy old mansion when you find yourselves part of the plot of a familiar horror movie. As you explore the sprawling edifice you will be attacked by mysterious forces and you will discover strange and powerful items. The tension mounts as you look through the rooms until the Haunt occurs, at which point everything changes and one of the players could become a traitor…

There are a lot of pieces to the game. This is one reason we felt that Betrayal is more suited for experienced gamers. There is a lot of reading so younger players might need more support. There are three rulebooks. Yup. THREE. This sounds more intimidating than it really is, and I’ll talk about the books a bit later. For all its pieces, the game breaks down to a few important items: 8 dice (the dice are numbered 0-2 instead of the traditional 1-6); character cards (information about your character); room tiles (add these to build the mansion); Event/Omen/Item cards (things that happen to the adventurers); and the Haunt Books (what to do when the Haunt occurs).

Much like one of our earlier Gamers’ Games, Forbidden Island, this is largely a cooperative game. Before the Haunt occurs, players simply wander through the house, collecting artifacts and items that may help them (and in some cases hurt them) later. Even after the Haunt begins, most of the players will work together to defeat the evil that they face.

The early phase of the adventure is all about exploring the house. The players start off on one long tile (the Entrance Hall, the Foyer, and the Grand Staircase). Doors lead off this tile but players don’t know what they will find on the other side of the doors. When someone goes through a door, he or she draws a room tile (there are 44 possible rooms) from a shuffled stack. The room is revealed and something can happen to the character. There are generally four possible outcomes to entering a room: an event occurs; an item is found; an omen occurs; or nothing (this is very rare). Events usually require the character to roll dice to see if they are hurt or helped by the event. Items are generally useful although some can also hurt the character (a statue that gives you more dice to roll but lowers your sanity). Omens provide useful items BUT they also herald the beginning of the Haunt. Each time an Omen is revealed, there is a chance that the Haunt will begin (determined by rolling dice). Each time an Omen is uncovered, the chance that the haunt will occur increases (50% chance with 6 Omens and 100% at 12).

The Omen device creates palpable tension, especially as the characters approach the fourth or fifth Omen. There is a lot of pressure to explore rooms to discover useful items as well as some of the dangers that exist in the house. The more you know about the house, the better prepared you will be for the Haunt BUT the more you explore means the more Omens you will find.

When the Haunt bursts onto the scene, the game makes a sudden shift. At this point, one of the players usually becomes the enemy, a Traitor, and tries to defeat the other characters. A chart tells the players what to do. Players look at the chart to find the last uncovered Omen AND the room in which it was found. The chart provides the name of the Haunt and the identity of the Traitor (there are a few Haunts in which there is no Traitor, but the mechanics are essentially the same as what I will describe here). The Traitor takes one of the rulebooks called the Traitor’s Tome and leaves the room. The rest of the players get the rulebook called Secrets of Survival. Both the Traitor and the Survivors turn to the page that describes their Haunt. This page provides a set of goals and instructions for winning the scenario. If the Traitor fulfills his or her goals, then the Traitor wins. If the Survivors fulfill their goals, they win.

There are 50 different Haunts!! Each one corresponds to storylines you have probably seen in various horror movies and novels. They have names like “I was a Teenage Lycanthrope” and “The Heir.” Perhaps the hardest thing about this game is refraining from reading through all the Haunts. The Traitors and Survivors are not supposed to know what each other is trying to do. In one game I played, the survivors had to escape the house but we were under attack by the Traitor and his minions. The process of escape was complicated so I thought that if I attacked the Traitor, he would have to defend himself and leave the others alone to make good the escape preparations. I was wrong. The Traitor’s character on the board was completely irrelevant to his victory conditions. My character went mad. His minions kept up the attack and the other Survivors met a gruesome death. Major Fun for all!!

The first game you play will probably take a while (over an hour) but successive games are much faster, sometimes over in 20 – 30 minutes. There is a lot of replay value, even with Haunts you know. The house constantly changes and there is room for many different strategies. Ultimately, Betrayal succeeds so well because it creates tension like any good piece of horror AND the Haunt scenarios engage players in familiar but challenging plots.

Betrayal at House on the Hill was designed by Bill Glassco and is © 2010 by Wizards of the Coast.

Forbidden Island

Cooperative board games such as Forbidden Island present a special problem for us at Major Fun.

In order for a co-op game to really engage the players, it has to present a challenge more than once. This means that the game has to change at least a little each time you play. The game must also present a real challenge. Maybe the game throws lots of obstacles at the players. Or the obstacles get more difficult as the game progresses. Or the goal of the game changes. Whatever the case, cooperative games generally thrive on the principle that the players have only a few actions but a wide variety of tasks. Much of the struggle is in how the group decides to spend their limited actions in the face of escalating difficulty.

In short, cooperative board games are generally complex, and one of the criteria we have for our prestigious Major Fun Award is that the game rules must be easy to learn from a cold start. Someone who has picked up the game with no previous experience should be able to read and remember the rules in just a few minutes.

So, after much discussion, I could not give Forbidden Island a Major Fun Award. BUT, I’m gonna take some virtual real-estate to praise it because it is fun and worth the extra time investment.

You and your teammates are on a strange, unstable island. In order to escape you must recover the island’s four treasures and make it back to the helicopter landing pad before the waters rise and the island sinks. The island is composed of 24 beautifully illustrated tiles with intriguing names like “The Crimson Forest” and “Phantom Rock” and “The Howling Gardens.” As the game progresses, the tiles begin to “flood” and many will be lost completely as they sink into the Abyss. When tiles are lost, it becomes increasingly difficult to navigate the island and recover the four artifacts. The players have only three actions on their turn and they must decide how to split those actions between moving, trading resources, recovering artifacts, and shoring-up flooded sections of the island.

Each player has a role with a special ability. The special abilities make things like movement and trading easier for that player, but there are still many sacrifices that have to be made. I was surprised the first few times I played how quickly a game can go from “It’s no big deal. We can save those tiles next round.” to “Oh my god! Get the treasure get the treasure get the treasure. Marines, we are LEAVING!!” One of the best things about this game is the analysis at the end. Every time I’ve played and lost (a fair number), there is a period where we just want to talk about what we should have done differently. Fortunately the game is quick and you can shuffle the island tiles and play another to see if your strategies work on the next round.

This is an excellent gateway to other cooperative board games. The rules are very simple (especially in comparison to most other co-op games) and it has a lot of replay value. The game is very compact and the artwork is beautiful. This is well worth the investment.

Forbidden Island was designed by Matt Leacock, with art by C.B. Canga. © 2010 Gamewright.

Will Bain, Games Taster


In another review (Up for Grabs) I could scarcely contain my glee at the opportunity to mess with my opponents. I should take a moment and convince you that this is not one of my defining characteristics, merely a small fraction of the games enthusiast that visits with you periodically. I should do that but I can’t because sabotage and schadenfreude must be hardwired into my small, cold, gamer’s heart.

Enter Manhattan, from Rio Grande Games: a strategic stacking game that challenges players to compete against each other by building (or stealing) skyscrapers in six different cities. Each player has 24 stackable building pieces of varying heights. They can play these segments of skyscraper in any of the six grids that represent six of the world’s biggest cities, but in each round there are two limits: each player has only a few segments (in a three person game each person has 4 segments per round) and each player has a hand of five cards that indicate the available spaces.

You get points for having the tallest skyscraper.

You get points for having the most skyscrapers in a city.

You get points for each skyscraper.

You get to steal skyscrapers from other players by stacking your color on top of theirs (pause to catch breath and allow maniacal laughter to dissipate).

While some of the rules for stacking take a little experience to master, the game is easy to learn and the strategy grows out of the choices players make as they consider the number and size of their segments. Is it better to go for the tallest high-rise? Is it better to have a lot of small buildings? Will you have to sleep on the couch if you take one of your wife’s buildings? These are some of the many legitimate strategic questions. The instructions are clearly written and organized and the examples deftly clarify the few complicated aspects of the game.

You might not make any friends by stealing the tallest skyscraper, but you know that everyone is gunning for your buildings as well. And it’s all in fun.

Manhattan is distributed by Rio Grande Games and is © 1994 by Hans im Glück Verlags-GmbH. Designed by Andreas Seyferth with art by Ramon Mascarenas and Zeilbeck & Natzeck Design Company.

Will Bain, Games Taster

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