Apotheca is one of those games I acquired from a small, indie game publisher via Kickstarter, which sat on the shelf for a couple of months before we got around to playing it. It is essentially a lightweight abstract game but, boy, is it beautifully produced or what?
So basically this is a game where you win points by getting three potions of the same colour into a row on a four-by-four grid. On your turn, you either add face-down potions to the board, turn potions face up and earn yourself gems, use gems to hire apothecaries (gain cards that grant special abilities), or use the apothecaries you have hired to move potions about — and they all have different movement options available. When you have managed to make three rows of three, you win, but the twist is that when you score a row of potions, it means you lose access to the ability of one of your apothecaries.
That’s about it.
Over the last couple of years, Miss B has been getting pretty keen on abstract games, and regularly beats me in games like Balanx or Mijnlieff, and also really likes games with great artwork, so this was one I was keen to try with her. Eventually the right moment came along, I suggested Apotheca, she took a look, and readily agreed. So far we have played a few games and she has won all but one of them, and she is keen to play it pretty much any time now, so I think this is a game that we might actually get past that sought-after ten play mark, and reasonably quickly too.
I’ve not yet played Apotheca with adults, but it does have a reasonable solo play mode, which is nice. It also has a variant for two teams of two, and an asymmetric version where one player is the “Master”, who is pitted against a team of up to three apprentices. We’ve not tried either of these modes, but they look fun and I’m hoping to give them a go some time. In general, I’m very pleased with this purchase, despite the fact that it could have been made so much smaller and cheaper; I’m kind of glad it wasn’t, as the game as it is is such a lovely object. But my opinion doesn’t matter in this blog. It’s all over to the boss…
The verdict from Miss B (aged 9½): “Apotheca is a brilliant game. I like that you are collecting potions for your apothecary. I would give it a 95% rating.”
The game: Apotheca (Knapsack Games), 1 to 4 players aged 13+.
I remember being given Cambio by some friends as a Christmas present many years ago. It was a really nice object to receive, being a load of large wooden cubes with designs printed on the faces, with a wooden board/frame on which to arrange them. We played the game a few times that Christmas, but unfortunately it has remained on the shelf for most of the time since. Until Miss B got onto her current interest in abstract strategy games, so it came out again…
So Cambio is one of those games that can be loosely described as turbo-charged tic-tac-toe. Play is on a five-by-five grid and you slide cubes with your personal symbol uppermost in on one side of the board, pushing another cube out of the other side, but with the restriction that the cube coming out may not show your opponent’s symbol. The first player to get a five-in-a-row is the winner.
That’s all there is to the standard two-player game (though there are alternative rules that allow more players), and the strategy basically involves taking control of corners as quickly as you can. It all works well and is a nice twist on an old standard. And those cubes are a pleasure to play with. This sort of game can be really made by good quality components, as we know from playing those jumbo games at UK Games Expo, or playing chess with large, weighted pieces.
Miss B found the game straightforward to learn and play, but occasionally forgot the rule about not pushing your opponent’s symbol off the board. Given that there are up to six different symbols cluttering up the board to start with, it is easy to overlook this and plan an illegal move. Still, that only happened a few times and we had fun playing. I’m not sure this will get played as often as some other games (and actually, right now, I think the big buzz is exploring the sheer range of options in this style), but it has been a modest success. As always, though, I’ll leave the last (ish) word to Miss B…
The verdict from Miss B (aged nearly 8½): “It’s not my favourite abstract strategy game and I’d give it about 97%. For my opinion I wouldn’t play it as much as the other games but I’m still happy to play it a few times.”
The game: Cambio (Lagoon Games), 2 to 5 players aged 9+.
Now we have a games room with most of the board game collection visible on shelves, Miss B has been asking me about various boxes that she hasn’t seen before. So I’ve been telling her about each of them, and usually showing here the boxes and contents, and some of them she has wanted to play. Interestingly, and against my expectations, the games Miss B has shown the most interest in have been what could be described as abstract strategy games. If you haven’t come across the term, an abstract strategy game is one where there is little or no theme, and the game is all about pitting your wits against an opponent (and it is most often one opponent), usually with little or no randomness in the game. So Chess, Go and Draughts would be firmly in this grouping, and there are thousands of other more modern titles alongside them, a few of which we have played and written about on this blog.
So one of the first of this new group of games is called Balanx, which is based on the classics Halma or Chinese Chequers, where you have to shift your pieces across the board to the place where your opponent starts. All very straightforward but for Balanx’s novel gimmick, which is that each player’s pieces are large marbles which rest in slots in the plastic board. That’s not the actual gimmick, which is that the board has a pair of feet under its centre line, meaning that the whole thing can be made to rock backwards and forwards. When it is your turn, you push down your side of the board, meaning that some of the balls roll in their slots towards you and change the configuration of the board from what your opponent was working with.
What this means is that this is a simple game that uses some clever design, combined with basic physics to add a nice mental agility requirement as you try to figure out what the board will look like on your opponent’s turn and whether you will be setting them up with a great move. Our first game was a little confused, but then Miss B really seemed to click with it, and now we have played three games I think that this is one that will be a real challenge for me to keep up with her. Plus she is itching to play more similar games, so I expect you’ll be seeing more write-ups of abstract games over the next month or two.
The verdict from Miss B (aged nearly 8½): “I think it’s clever how the moves you can make are different depending on which way up the board is. I give it a 9.1 out of 10 and I think it’s a pretty good game. I would recommend playing it for people who like abstract strategy games.”
The game: Balanx (Fun Connection), 2 players aged 8+.
Abstract games are not really for everyone but, then again, games with prominent themes can put off as many people as they attract. Quirkle seems to have found a place in the world, though, as an abstract game that finds its way into mainstream retailers as a “family strategy game” and is also enjoyed by many hobby gamers. Basically it just involves scoring points by making rows of colours and shapes by placing chunky tiles into a growing cluster on the table (or floor). If you want to see it played, Qwirkle recently featured on Wil Wheaton’s Tabletop show.
We’ve played a couple of games of Qwirkle so far, and I expect we’ll play it some more. Miss B enjoyed the games in retrospect, but during play things got a little… fraught. I think the problem is that Miss B has got to grips with the game enough to know that she is trying to find the best score she can for her plays, but hasn’t developed the instinct for actually seeing good moves. This is the sort of skill that gets learned with repeated plays, but for the moment her turns take a very long time, and often result in her needing some help to spot her best options. She is also having difficulty seeing how you can score “round corners” while only placing tiles in a straight line. This can all lead to frustration and a game that takes far longer than it should.
I’d say we are in a tricky situation at the moment. If Miss B thought about games less, she could probably just play tiles where they look nice and have a good time. If she knew the game better then she’d be able to make stronger plays without help (at the moment she is reluctant to accept help as she seems to feel that she should be able to “get it” herself). All we need here is practice. I think the game is good enough, though, that it is probably worth persevering.
It has occurred to me that if I remove half of the tiles of each type from the game we should have a much quicker game that could work well for training purposes, although we’ll have a lower chance of getting the bonus “qwirkle” plays where you get six tiles in a row.
One serious problem with the game, by the way, is the colours on the tiles. The whole thing looks and feels lovely but in less than perfect lighting conditions sometimes it is hard to tell some of the colours apart, even for people with normally no colour vision problems. Unfortunate. I’ve heard of some people writing on the tiles to help with colour differentiation.
The verdict from Miss B (aged 7): “It’s good, but it’s really, really tricky. My favourite bit when I played it was when I got 18 points doing a qwirkle.”
The game: Qwirkle (The Green Board Game Co): 2 to 4 players aged 6+.
Miss B was looking over the games collection to see if there was something she fancied playing, until she finally said, “Daddy, what’s Mage Stones?”. So we pulled it down off the shelf to give it a go.
So, Mage Stones is a strategy game supposedly played by the mages of the Dragonlance world. The theming goes about as far as the artwork on the box. It is actually a simple game where you try to place all your glass beads onto the board, with allowed moves constrained by dice rolls, and under certain circumstances you can remove opposing stones.
As abstract games go, this isn’t bad, but it doesn’t really do anything for me. The game went fairly well, but it ended up being decided almost entirely by whose dice rolls yielded the most additional turns. It was Miss B.
A win for herself often goes down well. After getting Miss B’s verdict I asked her if we should play it again. Yes, definitely, she thought. Should we play it again right away? Umm, no.
The verdict from Miss B (aged 6): “Rabbit hopping is really fun and so is this game.” No, don’t ask me, I have no idea what that is all about, but she seems happy.
The game: Mage Stones (TSR), 2 to 6 players.
I first came across Tsuro only recently, thanks to Wil Wheaton’s Tabletop show. This looked a lovely game, but unfortunately I couldn’t find it available in this country at anything like a reasonable price, so it just went onto the wish list. Then, whaddya know? Tsuro gets a reprint, I spot a copy in a game shop, and so we now have one. Yay!
Before talking about our experience of the game, I must comment about the presentation. This game is beautiful. The box art is lovely, and when we opened it up the first thing we saw was a sheet of tracing paper with oriental calligraphy on it (I don’t know if this is Chinese or Japanese: either way, it looks great). The board has a lovely illustration of a phoenix on it, and the player pieces and the tiles just have elegant beauty to them.
And as for the rules: well, they couldn’t be simpler. This may be the most intuitive game I have ever played. It just works. The only thing to worry about is what happens when you run out of tiles, and even that is straightforward. Miss B was happily making her first move before I had even finished explaining the rules (which doesn’t take long).
We’ve played a few games so far, including a couple with Mummy playing too. They have all gone quickly and been lots of fun, though the first game Miss B was a bit disappointed with being knocked out first. Still, she was very much up for playing again and she did far better from then on.
The game has quite a bit of luck in it, but also requires some thinking and planning. With just two or three players there is a lot of space on the board and it is several turns before you need to start thinking seriously about your choices, but when the paths start getting close to each other things can get crazy pretty quickly. This is a game I would really like to play with a heap more players: it can handle up to eight, which I imagine would be glorious carnage! Even without the extra players, this is now well on the way to becoming a firm family favourite. I’m delighted with this purchase.
The verdict from Miss B (aged 5¾): “It was really, really, really good. I like it because it’s a short game and if I want to play a game and there’s not much time I could ask for Tsuro. I like the dragons following the lines and there’s a board that you have to make a board on it because the board underneath doesn’t have lines on.”
The game: Tsuro (Calliope Games), 2 to 8 players, aged 8+.
I’ve been thinking about getting a copy of Hive for a while and this week finally got hold of the “Pocket” version of the game, which has smaller (though still lovely and chunky) tiles than the original, but includes the expansion tiles that you have to buy separately for the full sized version.
The game is pure strategy, a little like a version of chess where there is no board, but the play area is constrained by the tiles themselves (anyone ever play SJG’s Tile Chess?). As such I was a little concerned at how well Miss B would handle the game, but she specifically requested to play it, so why not…
As it turned out the weak link in the game was me. For our first play (I had never played the game before), Miss B fumbled around a bit trying to figure out the various ways of moving the bugs, but since I had forgotten the “you can’t place a piece adjacent to your opponent’s piece” rule, she ended up running rings around me and winning. Excellent for morale, that.
We played again, this time with the proper rules and had a close finish with me just squeezing the win. This is an intriguing game and could provide lots of head-scratching entertainment in the coming years as we explore what looks like a very deep game (I’m looking forward to introducing this to the gaming lads at work). But for now, as a don’t-plan-too-much-or-play-too-defensively quickie, it works well. I can’t praise enough the quality of the pieces which make it into a touchy-feely game par excellence, much like its sort-of predecessor Tantrix (which I have only ever played in puzzle mode — note to self: must check out the competitive rules). And comprising, as it does, a bunch of chunky tiles in a bag, this is a good one to add to the travelling games selection.
The verdict from Miss B (aged 5½): “It was good. I liked the queen bees because they make you lose when they are surrounded.”
The game: Hive (Gen 42), 2 players aged 8+.