Here we have another game by the ultra-prolific designer Reiner Knizia: Kingdoms. As with most of Knizia’s games, the rules are short, it’s quick to play, and it’s pretty abstract in style; and as with quite a few of them it is more than a bit mathematical.
The game involves playing tiles onto a grid, and those tiles have pretty pictures along with, in most cases, a number, either positive or negative. You also place cute, coloured plastic castles onto the board, those castles having between one and four towers on them. Then, at the end of the round, you total up the number of points on the tiles in each row or column, multiply by the number of castle towers in your colour in that row or column, adjust for the effects of a few special tiles, and that’s the amount of gold you win (or sometimes lose).
To a lot of people that is going to sound like about as much fun as having your ears straightened, but it’s the sort of thing that I love, and with Miss B’s current obsession with doing maths (we have to do sums on the walk into school in the morning), I figured this could be a good one to try out. The fact that the current edition of the game is beautifully presented (as is usual for Fantasy Flight Games) doesn’t hurt either.
Miss B absorbed the rules almost instantly and within a few turns she was talking about her options and which would be her best move. I needed to point out some of the less obvious options to her, like when a tile placement would harm her score but do a lot worse to me, but very little hand-holding was required here. Even at the points when I put a castle somewhere she wanted to go or placed a hazard (negative points) tile to affect her castles, there was a quick “Grr!” from her and she went right on to do something mean back to me. This is all good.
So I think we have found another winner here. We both like the game (and actually, I think we may be able to persuade S to try this one!) and Miss B seems to be up for playing it some more. I think this may become a valuable addition to the roster.
The verdict from Miss B (aged 7): “I think it is better than it sounded. I didn’t really like the sound of it at first but when I played it, it was pretty good. I give it 9 out of 10 and if I play it more I might like it more and it might go up to 10 if we do.”
The game: Kingdoms (Fantasy Flight Games), 2 to 4 players aged 14+ (just one of those product testing dodges — there is no way you need to be 14 to play this!).
Niagara is a game with a gimmick. The board sits atop the game’s box and depicts a river running towards a waterfall, which tumbles over the end of the box. The course of the river is recessed into the board and movement spaces are provided by clear plastic discs that are, after each round, pushed along the watercourse towards (and over) the falls.
This is all rather cute, but combined with the fact that you are trying to manoeuvre boats in the river to collect valuable gems from the banks by playing movement tiles, this means that you are playing a game of brinkmanship with how close to the falls you dare go, and there can be real tension as you wait to see how this will all work out.
The game is really for three or more players, but Miss B and I play together by using two teams of coloured boats each. We further speed things up by allowing victory to be gained by the combined scores of our colours and making it a little easier to pick up gems.
So, this gimmick… Well, it’s a really good one. Occasionally the discs get stuck at the fork above the falls, but you just nudge the stuck disc in the opposite direction to the last one to fall and it’s all fine. We love watching the dynamics of the board and how sometimes you get two discs in a row taking the same path at the fork, causing panic or cheering, depending on how it went for you. We have only played two-player games so far, but are looking forward to getting into a bigger game some time soon. Good, silly stuff.
The verdict from Miss B (aged 6½): “Niagara is a 10 out of 10 because of the waterfall. It’s one of my favourite games.”
The game: Niagara (Rio Grande), 3 to 5 players aged 13+.
I only heard about Sheepland a couple of weeks or so ago. It looked cute, so I checked out some reviews and had a look at the rulebook. Simple rules, what looked like the need for a bit of thinking, plus (and this was the clincher) sheeples! (Sheep meeples, right?) So I had an opportunity to pick up a copy at TringCon over the weekend and did so.
Basically the game starts with a bunch of sheep distributed evenly around a map and you move shepherds around to build fences and manoeuvre sheep into fields of a terrain type that you favour, until you score points by counting up the terrain tiles that you have collected during play (and the one you had to start with) and the sheep in the different terrains to get your final score. Oh, and one of the sheep, the wilful black sheep, wanders randomly around the board.
We set up the game and off we went. Miss B had a little difficulty with the rule that in a two-player game you have two shepherds each but you are only allowed to use one of them on each turn. Maybe we shouldn’t have bothered with that restriction, but lately we have been almost always been playing with “proper” rules unless they massively complicate things. We got about two thirds of the way through when Miss B announced that she was fed up and didn’t want to carry on.
So we called off the game and had a chat about this. What Miss B told me was essentially that she had problems with the theme: if you were a shepherd, surely you would go into the fields to round up the sheep and not just walk up and down on the roads. She has a point here, though in other games we have played similar thematic issues have not proven to be a problem. I suspect this may have been her trying to express a general dissatisfaction with the game and reaching for the first explanation that made sense to her. Either way, though, this is the most surprising failure we have had yet.
For what it’s worth, though, I quite like Sheepland. I’m planning to take it into work as it could be a good little lunchtime game.
The verdict from Miss B (aged 6¼): “I don’t like it because it didn’t make sense as much as other games that I’ve played because the shepherds can’t go into the fields and the sheep can’t go onto the roads and usually the shepherds go into the fields as well as the sheep.”
The game: Sheepland (Cranio Creations), 2 to 4 players, aged 8+.
Years ago I had quite a lot of time playing games with a lovely family who kept on letting me into their house despite the fact that I spent a lot of the time eating their food and playing their board games. Several of the games we played regularly came from the “Empire Builder” range of train games, including Euro Rails, Nippon Rails, and Iron Dragon. They all shared the mechanic of drawing a rail network onto the board with crayons and then driving trains around delivering goods to fulfil demands specified by cards. This was all good stuff, though the games could go on for quite a long time.
Recently I found out about a newer member of the range, Empire Express, which stripped out some of the more complicated elements of the system (which nonetheless weren’t actually complicated), made the map smaller, provided a core railway to get you started, and sped the game up quite a lot. Sold!
I’m quite impressed with the optimisation of this game. The fact that you can start with a load of track already built and some demand cards that fit that track means that you are off to a flying start without having to have a few turns of trying to figure out a plan and initial network from whatever dross you are dealt. To be honest I missed the train upgrades, which aren’t available in Empire Express but are in the sister games. But the easier start and speed of play make up for the simplifications. Miss B and I took about 90 minutes to play this from a standing start, which is far quicker than I expected.
Miss B took to the crayon aspect like a duck to water. She didn’t need much help with route planning or drawing; we quickly got into a routine where when she drew a new demand card I would explain her options from it, she would make a decision as to how it would fit into her plan, and then she was off again pretty much on her own until a new card came out.
I’m definitely very happy to have got hold of Empire Express as it allows us to play a style of game I enjoy and haven’t had much chance to do for a very long time indeed. But as usual I will leave the last word to Miss B herself…
The verdict from Miss B (aged 6¼): “I like it when I get long routes because then I get more money but I have to make sure I don’t spend too much to make the tracks otherwise I might lose the game. ”
The game: Empire Express (Mayfair Games), 2 to 6 players aged 10+.
I got hold of Valley of the Four Winds when I was at school and I think it was probably my first hex-and-counter wargame. It’s a pretty solid game and has quite a nice, epic fantasy feel, with the forces of good battling against seemingly insurmountable odds, trying to hold out long enough to recruit key allies and collect plot coupons enabling them to strike back.
But how would Miss B fare? Our previous exploits in games even slightly wargamey didn’t go particularly well, but her competitive spirit and tactical abilities have been coming on quite impressively of late. She’s been eyeing up a few wargames on the shelf lately and finally managed to persuade me to get one out. It was either this or Gulf Strike.
Miss B ended up playing the evil side, which means control of hordes of undead, swamp lord warriors and forest orcs, and the least said about her dice rolling in this game the better. The game isn’t as long as many wargames, but in this case it took a little over an hour before the King of Farrondil ended up taking his own life rather than witness the undead hordes rolling through his beloved city.
I guess I now have no excuse. We’ll just have to crack out the rest of those wargames that have been gathering dust. Mind you, I’m up for a game of Wooden Ships and Iron Men; that’ll tell if her planning skills are up to scratch…
The verdict from Miss B (aged 6¼): “I liked it when you lost, Daddy. I bet no-one will believe that I played this.”
The game: Valley of the Four Winds (Games Workshop), 2 players aged 10+.
This latest weekend was a good one for many reasons, but one of them was that I got to play a real classic of a game for the first time in years and remembered how much I enjoy playing it. Scotland Yard has been around for thirty years (though I was introduced to it in the early nineties) and is still pretty easily available, which is great. Basically, all but one player gets to work as a team of detectives hunting down the mysterious and evasive Mister X, played by the other member of the group. While the box says three to six players, I think this really needs five or six to really motor, and luckily there were five of us.
Back in the days of yore, we could never play this once as everyone wanted to be Mister X. Being part of the team is great, but the challenge of evading capture is so much fun that there could be big arguments over it. Luckily this time there was no fighting and everyone rolled their eyes, sighed and agreed to my somewhat enthusiastic request to be the villain.
In the game, movement takes place using tickets for various forms of public transport (the police being without cars or bicycles for some reason) and Mister X uses hidden movement, but his location is revealed at various stages of the game. Miss B quickly got the hang of this and was soon chipping in to the team discussions as the detectives planned how to close the net on the villain. I noticed something similar when we played Flash Point in a large group a few weeks ago: Miss B gets quite involved in the planning and acts like she is really enjoying being part of the team.
Given our recent discussion on cooperative games, I think Scotland Yard might be in a bit of a sweet spot, being a cooperative game but having a “real” adversary. It’s probably not worth over-thinking this, because we all had fun and, happily for me, Mister X escaped, albeit by the narrowest of margins.
The verdict from Miss B (aged nearly 6¼): “Daddy was the bad guy and he won but I still liked it because it was kind of a guessing game and I’m quite good at guessing. I’m not too keen on teamwork games but we went to the right side of the board but just the wrong numbers. That was the best teamwork game I’ve played so far.”
The game: Scotland Yard (Ravensburger), 3 to 6 players aged 10+.
Hmm, if you’d asked me a few years ago I would have told you that I was unlikely to ever play Talisman again. It’s a massively random game with relatively few meaningful choices to be made and it’s entirely possible you will bump into a dragon or demon in your first turns, plus the ending… well, the least said the better. I quite enjoyed playing it when I first encountered it in the mid-eighties, but since then I got into different types of game since then. I think part of the problem is that games of Talisman often went on for two or three hours and, for an essentially simple game, that was just too darn long.
Talisman’s not an awful game, just one I didn’t enjoy playing. The last time I played it was about a decade ago and involved a later edition of the game with all the available expansions, which I felt just made the game bigger and more chaotic without adding anything that appealed to me. But I’m not the target audience, not by a long shot.
And yet, for many years I have had a copy of the second edition of the game languishing in the back of the cupboard. I don’t know what made me keep it. Maybe there was something in the back of my mind that dreamed of those teenage years when it was actually fun. Either that or I’m just a magpie who hates to get rid of things.
Some time after I started writing this blog I found the old box sitting there and I thought, maybe Miss B would like to give it a go. After all, she likes Dungeon!, so another adventuring game may go down well. I mentioned it to her a couple of months ago, and this afternoon she decided to give it a go.
We agreed to not attack each other, plus I invoked Wil Wheaton’s Rule 17b and gave Miss B three re-roll counters (she used one after she’d misunderstood her options at the City). She wanted to play the one “good” female character in our set, the Prophetess, which worked out fortuitous as one of her special abilities mitigates well against bad luck in drawing adventure cards. I proposed that the winning conditions should be just to get to the Crown of Command in the centre, or to stop if we ran out of time or energy.
So we played for a little over an hour until S came back from work and we packed up so I could prepare dinner. That hour of play zipped past, with Miss B being thoroughly engrossed in the game. She finished the session off by building herself a raft and crossing the river to the middle region, which seemed a reasonable point to finish. She ended up full of excitement about some of her exploits and very keen to play again to a conclusion.
All in all this was a great success. I expect that when we do try to play for a conclusion we will schedule a snack break after an hour in order to keep the energy up. This is generally a good policy for us during longer games.
So there we have it: a game that I don’t like very much has really justified its place in the collection, providing entertainment, excitement and smiles. We’ll certainly be playing this again and, to my surprise, I’m OK with that. Actually, more than that, I’m looking forward to it.
The verdict from Miss B (aged 6): “Really, really, really, really good!”
The game: Talisman (Games Workshop), 2 to 6 players aged 9+.