Review: Gridstones is a great way to align the stars

“Look, up in the sky! It’s the Great Bear!” 

“Ha! But if I take away one star, then it’s the Hydra!”

“Oh yeah? Well, if I include one over here, then it’s Aquarius!”

“That’s what you think! I’ll just block out that star, and now it’s Pisces!”

Gridstones

Published: 2008, 2018 (Currently on Kickstarter, through Thursday, October 5; $15 U.S. for base game, $20 U.S. for base game plus neoprene playmat upgrade, $28 U.S. for two copies of base game, shipping extra for all levels, local pickup available in Toronto.)

Designer: Tim W.K. Brown

Artist: Jamie R. Jones

Publisher: Fabio Del Rio/CSE Games

2-6 players

Ages 7+

20-30 minutes

Thanks to CSE Games for providing a review copy! Art and components pictured are not final.

Good abstract games are often praised for the amount of strategy they can create from a simple ruleset, and Gridstones excels on that front. The rule booklet’s only four small pages, including a page and a half of variants. All you really need to know is that you’ll use a different part of the board and a different number of constellation cards depending on player count, and that on your turn, you’ll either add one star stone to the board or remove one from it in an effort to create patterns on the board that match the hidden constellation cards you’re holding.

Once you make a match, you place the matching card face-up on the table. When you’ve matched all of your constellation cards, you win. That’s it! But that simple ruleset produces a fun, deep, and intriguing game, and a rare abstract that works well with up to six people. There’s a reason this game has stuck around for 10 years, and this anniversary edition should help more people experience it.

What really makes Gridstones work is that the card patterns show stars and empty spaces on a 3X3 grid, but the actual playing area is significantly bigger; 4X4 for two players, 5X5 for three to four players, 6X6 for five or six players. You also have the ability to turn your cards to any orientation you want, and to make matches before or after you place or remove a star (or both; there’s no limit on how many matches you can make on one turn). So there’s lots of flexibility here to make matches, and you rarely feel locked out.

You have multiple possible matches you’re working towards (you start with five cards in a two-player game, four in a three- or four-player game, and three in a five- or six-player game). And you don’t know what matches your opponent or opponents are trying to set up. So, unlike many abstracts, there isn’t necessarily a lot of direct confrontation, especially as you don’t know your opponent’s goals.

Multiple matches.

It’s much more about setting up multiple possibilities for yourself (especially early in the game while you still have all your cards), and about taking advantage of what other people play. And the hidden goals mean that you can’t easily prevent what your opponents are trying to do; sure, you can remove a stone they’ve played (except in the two-player game, where you can’t undo exactly what they just did to avoid stalemates), but that’s not necessarily all that helpful, especially compared to trying to build your own constellations.

This also enables the game to have a relatively similar feeling at different player counts. The larger board with more players means that while you’re getting less frequent turns, there are more areas to expand into and more possible combinations. The board state is going to change more between your turns at higher player counts, but there’s also more room to expand into areas where others may not be focusing. And it’s still very much about building for yourself. But this isn’t a multiplayer-solitaire game at any count; building constellations all on your own would take way too long, so the key is taking what your opponent’s doing and building off it in a way that you can accomplish your own goals. There’s probably more long-term strategy and less reactionary tactics with two than with five or six, but both are involved at any count.

There’s a lot to like about Gridstones, even if you’re not typically a fan of abstracts. It’s an easy-to-teach, easy-to-learn game. And from this corner, it would seem to be easier for new players to pick up and win at than many abstracts, as the hidden and random goals mean you’re not necessarily going to have a huge advantage just from playing this (or other abstracts) more frequently than your opponent.

Now, there is some luck involved, especially with the goal cards. If your constellations are closer to each other than your opponents’ are, or if your constellations are close to what they’re trying to accomplish, that probably gives you a better win percentage. And that may turn off some who only like no-randomness, perfect information abstracts. But the spatial considerations, emergent complexity from simple rulesets, and opportunities for clever moves that often characterize those titles are present here as well, so this may work as a change of pace for abstract lovers too. It seems particularly good as an introductory abstract, though, and especially as one that can accommodate a higher player count. And while the theme isn’t overwhelming, it definitely fits; it does feel like you’re trying to see constellations. Plus, the short playtime means it could be an excellent opener, closer or filler for a game night.

Another advantage this game has is its portability. It’s a small deck of cards, a small board, and a bag of stones, and that makes it easy to transport and play on small surfaces.  It’s fun to play outside under the stars, and the weight of the stones means any wind isn’t going to alter the board, a concern with some games. The patterns on the cards also don’t require a ton of light to see. This is a good camping game, but it’s one that could also work in a bar or restaurant.

There are a few variants here that can offer different options, too. You can play an extended point game (drawing new cards as you play old ones and racing to complete 10 cards), or a series of elimination games (with the last player to complete their cards eliminated each time and the others moving on to start a new game). And you can work in Shooting Star cards, new for this 10th anniversary edition. If you use those, each player gets one during setup, and they give a powerful one-time ability that can be used on any turn, from rotating a 2X2 space of stars to swapping a constellation card with one from the deck, to placing, removing or moving stars. They’re not going to dramatically alter the game experience, especially as you only get one per game, but they can be a fun twist.

Overall, Gridstones is a solid abstract game, and one I’ve definitely enjoyed. It plays quickly and is easy to teach, and it plays well at any player count from two to six. The spatial planning will make you think, but the flexibility in having different goals to accomplish, having a large board to work on, and being able to rotate cards means you generally feel like you’re making some progress. There are also lots of opportunities for clever plays. This one’s worth checking out.

The Gridstones Kickstarter runs through Oct. 5.

 

 

 

Advertisements

Where should the copying/innovating line be drawn in board games?

One of the more interesting ongoing debates in board games is about originality and copying. It’s most recently in the news thanks to two developments: Oink Games’ Twitter complaints about Ted Alspach, Bezier Games and Werewords (and Alspach’s response in an Opinionated Gamers post, and Oink’s response to that response), and an article from Erik Twice calling GwentCondottiere under a different name.”

This seems unlikely to lead to legal issues in either case, especially considering the federal court decision in last year’s Bang! vs. Legend of the Three Kingdoms lawsuit that LOTK (which was very much just a reskinned Bang! with a different setting) “did not infringe any of the protectable elements of Bang!”, which reinforced that mechanics and rules cannot receive copyright protection (and that even the elements of the characters in that case were not copyrightable). And Oink in particular has already said “we all know that the rules of a game are not protected by any copyright.”

So it’s not really a question of if designers and publishers can copy, as it seems they can copy most things from someone else’s board game (apart from, say, art) without legal consequences. But there’s a worthwhile discussion to be had on questions like “Should designers and publishers copy others’ mechanics? If so, how?” and “How should gamers view the resulting games?” There are going to be a wide range of answers to that, but mine is “it depends.” Read more

The Board and Game Top 10 Games of the Year for 2016

With 2016 wrapping up, it’s a good time to look back at the year in gaming. It was an incredible year for board and card games, with a ton of impressive releases. Here are my picks for the top 10 games released this year.

(Note: this is using the Essen Spiel 2015 (Oct 8-11) to pre-Essen 2016 (Oct 13-16) calendar many gaming sites and podcasts go with. I think it’s a good timeframe, as games that come out at or after Essen don’t have much time to get played before the end of the calendar year. Also note that I haven’t played everything out there, so this list may change over time!)

Honourable mention 1: Kansas Pacific (David V.H. Peters/Winsome Games/Queen Games). This is another great entry in the line of Winsome Games rail games re-released by Queen Games with nicer components (others include Chicago Express, German Railways, Paris Connection (also by the same designer) and Locomotive Werks), and it has some unique elements. There’s an excellent mix of pressure to rush across the board (only three of the six companies can reach the end, and it’s rare to see three actually do it, plus many cities offer more rewards if you’re there first) and penalties for haste (track’s much more expensive if you build a lot of it, and sticking close to your starting point can pay off too). Granted, this was actually a 2009 release from Winsome, but the deluxe Queen version came out this past year after Essen 2015. If you’re into train games, this is highly recommended.

Honourable mention 2: Tiny Epic Galaxies (Scott Almes/Gamelyn Games). This is my favourite of the Tiny Epic series so far, offering some really cool decisions. It’s a die-roller, but there are tons of ways to use and/or mitigate particular roles, and there are plenty of paths towards victory. Do you use planets for short-term actions or try to colonize them? Will your opponent get there first? How much effort do you put into upgrading your empire? The solo game in this is excellent, and I like it with two or three players too. However, it does feel like it bogs down with four or five; this may be player-dependent (those prone to analysis paralysis are really going to slow this one down, as there are so many possible options), but it’s a game I’d rather play with a small group, and a group that plays quickly. Overall, this is another excellent game from Almes (who I’ve been a big fan of since his very-underrated Kings of Air and Steam.) I Kickstarted the Beyond The Black expansion, and am looking forward to seeing what it adds.

Honourable mention 3: Potion Explosion (Stefano Castelli, Andrea Crespi and Lorenzo Silva/Horrible Games/Cool Mini or Not): This came out in 2015 in Italy, but CMON brought it to North America in 2016. It’s a very cool game that brings a Bejeweled-like Match Three feel to the tabletop, with some neat twists (especially when it comes to using potion powers). My non-gamer wife says it’s her favourite game, and we’ve had a great time playing it together. Highly recommended as a gateway game for anyone who likes that sort of Match Three gameplay.

img_20161111_201330

Honourable mention 4: 504 (Friedemann Friese/2F-Spiele/Stronghold Games): 504 might be the most unique game I’ve ever played, as it’s 504 different games in one box. It’s a fascinating game design experiment, and it works generally well, as long as you’re able to figure out the different modules’ interactions. It also gets better as you play it (even using different modules each times, you get more used to some of the central concepts on subsequent plays). It’s an excellent game to explore, but one challenge is getting it to the table; it’s not always an easy sell to people, and it’s not terribly easy to explain any particular setup. Still, this can be a lot of fun, and I look forward to exploring it more.

img_20161106_202128

Now, the actual list…

10. Hands In The Sea (Daniel Berger/Knight Works): I love Martin Wallace’s A Few Acres of Snow (despite the complaints about a dominant strategy), and this game from Berger and new publisher Knight Works feels like an even better version of it. The Rome-Carthage First Punic War setting is perfect for this, and the deck-building system feels perfect for a clash of those empires; the bigger your empire gets, the more difficult it can be to manage. There are some excellent twists in this one, too, including naval combat/interdiction/support, events and strategies, a neutral city (Syracuse), and more. I’ve played this one a couple of times so far and have quite enjoyed it; I’m looking forward to exploring it even more. Check out Dan Thurot’s excellent review if you’re interested in learning more on this game. Read more

Review: Rocky Road à la Mode is a cool (get it?) union of engine-building, time tracks and multi-use cards

Dawn Wednesday saw Josh out in his ice cream truck, trying to figure out his plan for the day. The heat was already at 80 degrees, and the forecast was for a scorcher, one he could take advantage of. But how to do that? Should he fill his truck with blue raspberry bars and head for the beach, grab orange popsicles and travel to the community pool, focus on the raspberry soft serve popular at the park, or stockpile a mix of everything for the diverse crowd at the baseball field? Should he keep stocking up, or try to quickly attract customers? And what about the competing trucks in this cutthroat corner of the ice cream world? Would he be able to beat them to the rocket pop supply and the key locations? Despite the truck’s air conditioning, sweat was already building on his face…

Rocky Road à la Mode

Published: 2016 (Currently on Kickstarter, through Wednesday, July 20: $19 for base game, $25 for base game and separate Dice Cream game)

Designer: Joshua J. Mills

Artist: Adam P. McIver

Publisher: Jason Kotarski/Green Couch Games

2-4 players

Ages 10+

30 minutes

Thanks to Green Couch Games for providing a review copy! Art and components pictured are not final.

Rocky Road à la Mode feels like a fully-loaded banana split, loaded with all kinds of ice cream scoops and toppings that shouldn’t necessarily go well together, but yet somehow do. To borrow from Stefon, this game has everything: time tracks! Multiple actions in a row! Multi-use cards! Permanent bonuses! Races for certain conditions! Based on everything going on here, you’d expect this to be a big, complex and long game, but it’s not at all; it’s easy to teach, easy to learn, plays in 30 minutes or less and fits perfectly with Green Couch Games’ excellent line of small-box games, delivering depth, strategy and replayability at a low price point with a small number of components. Read more

Review: Hand-Off: The Card Football Board Game balances approachability and simulation

IMG_20160327_105015_edit

The national championship all came down to this. Inside the final 30 seconds, Les’ team was down by a touchdown, but his careful playcalls had put them into position to go for the end zone all in one shot. Would the opposing coach be able to figure out their plan and come up with a defence that could stop it, though? No battle plan survives first contact with the enemy. With Les’ timeout coming to an end, he gulped and called the play…

Hand-Off: The Card Football Board Game

Published: 2010

Designers: Fabio Del Rio and Paolo Del Rio

Publisher: CSE Games

1-4 players

45 minutes

Thanks to CSE Games for providing a review copy!

A big part of the challenge in making a sports board or card game is that there are two somewhat-separate markets out there for it; sports fans who don’t normally play hobby games, and hardcore gamers who have an interest in sports. Thus, companies looking to appeal to both need to find a way to make it approachable enough for new gamers drawn in by the sports theme while still deep and strategic enough to entertain veterans. There’s also the line to walk between providing a quick and simple game or one that accurately simulates the sport in question. It’s a tough balance to find, but CSE Games has done it quite well with their Hand-Off series. They’ve come up with a game that’s easy to get into and play, but one that still has strategic depth and works well as a football simulation. Most importantly, they’ve come up with a game that’s fun. Read more

Review: Fleet provides an often-replayable quick engine-building game for low cost and space

Eric poured through the reports on his desk, looking out the window at the ships filling up the icy waters of Nunavut’s Ridback Bay. Things were working well for his fleet, with the shrimp and lobster boats both bringing in significant hauls, but now he faced tough decisions about what to do with the profits. Should he invest further in shrimp and lo to try bsterand control those markets? Opt to diversify, branching out into cod, tuna, or king crab? Build a processing fleet to control the next step of production? Or even just buy the dock’s pub to make money off the thirsty returning fishermen? All of those possibilities seemed to provide ample room for profit, but there were his rivals to consider, too. What would they do, and what opportunities would that leave for Eric?

Fleet:

Published: 2012

Designers: Ben Pinchback and Matt Riddle

Publisher: Eagle-Gryphon Games

2-4 players

30-45 minutes

(Note: this is a review just of the base game. I plan to write a review of the Arctic Bounty expansion in the future.)

I picked up Fleet a few years ago on a whim, mostly thanks to its theme. Fishing an unexplored bay in Nunavut sounded like a lot of fun, and was certainly different than anything else I had in my collection. Imagine my surprise to find out years later from the excellent designer diary that this didn’t start with a fishing theme at all, but rather as a game called Imperials, based around continents and cities. In the end, that game would be just fine as well, as there’s a rock-solid engine here that would provide plenty of fun regardless of what the game’s about, but I think the fishing theme actually translates pretty well, and it definitely helps the game stand out. It’s certainly not a theme-first game, or an overly-detailed fishing simulation, but it’s a unique engine-building game that gives you the sense of building a fishing fleet, either cornering one kind of the market or diversifying amongst different fish, and it’s one that provides a high level of replayability and interesting decisions for a low cost, a short play time and minimal table space. From this corner, this is a sure keeper, not one to throw back.

The inside of the Fleet box.
The inside of the Fleet box.

What’s Fleet all about? In a word, multi-use cards, which is a key reason it’s able to deliver such a solid experience without a huge number of components and for a low price. Setup is pretty quick, only requiring giving each player one of each boat card, modifying the numbers of available licenses and fish crates depending on the number of players, and setting the premium licenses further down in the deck. The boat cards you get can be used as boats, captains, or money to pay for licenses and launching boats. The goal’s to get the most victory points, and there are multiple ways to do that. Each launched boat is worth a certain number of victory points (depending on the boat type), and each crate of fish on a boat at the end of the game is worth one victory point. Each basic license you buy is worth a certain number of victory points (depending on type), and premium licenses are worth more (to be discussed a little later). Read more

Review: Fantasy Fantasy Baseball is a new spin on a growing genre

Azarius The Great had faced many formidable obstacles in his years of wizardry, from obnoxious students who couldn’t control their fireball spells to portals from the Dungeon Dimensions to the backstabbing politics of the university itself, but now he was facing his greatest test; winning a fantasy baseball league. It was the final matchup, and he’d sent Chipper Azog of the Brave Orcs to the plate, swinging his axe. It was a tough test, though, as the opposing team had Zombies’ pitcher Petitite Zandy, who mowing down batters like he was eager to dine on their brains.

Zandy started off with a down-the-middle fastball Azog took for strike one, then missed the corner with a curve. He then tossed a changeup, and Azog swung and missed. Azarius wasn’t worried about the 1-1 count, though; he had Hammer Orcson on the bench, and could summon him to boost Azog’s RBI potential. His team really needed to win that stat in order to take home ultimate victory. But, disaster! Before the attempted summoning, treacherous opposing manager Zariel The Learned activated the Hibernate ability of fierce second basebear Ryno Berg, causing Orcson to take a nap. With Azarius unable to further affect the outcome, it was all up to Azog, and as the pitch came in, he swung…

Fantasy Fantasy Baseball

Published: 2016

Designers: Daryl Andrews and J.R Honeycutt

Publisher: CSE Games

2-5 players

20-50 minutes

Thanks to CSE Games for providing a review copy! 

IMG_20151204_100406.jpg
The box art for Fantasy Fantasy Baseball.

Board and card games with a fantasy theme are pretty common, and we’re seeing more and more games with a baseball theme recently (Baseball Highlights: 2045 and Bottom of the Ninth are a couple of good examples), but about a fantasy sports game? With fantasy creatures? That’s a much more unusual mash-up, and if it sounds appealing to you, you should check out Fantasy Fantasy Baseball. The game’s currently on Kickstarter (through Dec. 23, 2015) and has already shot past its $7,500 U.S. goal. You can find the project info and its video on the Kickstarter page here. Read more

The Play’s The Thing: Monsters, economics, and time travel, oh my!

Here’s another installment of The Play’s The Thing, with quick mini-reviews of what I’ve been playing this week.

One Night Ultimate Vampire

Published: 2015

Designers: Ted Alspach, Akihisa Okui

Publisher: Bezier Games

3-10 players

10 minutes

We played a few rounds of this deduction game with six players at game night Tuesday. I quite like One Night Ultimate Werewolf, the predecessor to this, and ONUV has a very similar feel with a few twists. You’re still assigned a secret role, perform your role’s actions when called by the moderator (either from the game’s app or a non-playing person), and try to identify the vampire in a discussion and vote at the end, but there are some substantially different roles, and there are other differences as well. The main one is the ability for certain roles to hand out hidden marks, which can alter other characters’ teams, ability to take actions and more. The marks can be quite interesting in certain cases, adding some complexity and variation to the game, but they don’t always work out perfectly depending on which roles wind up in the middle. Overall, I think I’d take Werewolf over Vampire, and both are mainly an occasional filler for me, but this may be a good new twist on the game for those who play ONUW a lot and are looking to shake it up.

Transylvania: Curses and Traitors

Published: 2015

Designers: Loren Cunningham and Jamie Cunningham

Publisher: WIBAI Games

3-6 players

45 minutes

Exploring the board in Transylvania: Curses and Traitors.
Exploring the board in Transylvania: Curses and Traitors.

We also played this Tuesday, and it felt a little underwhelming for me. Part of that may have been playing it with six, which substantially lengthened the time (it wound up taking closer to two hours than 45 minutes), and some of that may have been analysis paralysis on the part of one group member (who wound up winning despite that), so it may work better in smaller groups or with people more willing to take quick turns (it is quite possible with this). Even beyond this, though, this didn’t really work for me; there’s a feel of games like Arkham Horror or A Touch Of Evil, as you’re moving around and dealing with challenges to try and gain sets of cards in order to win, but there seems to be less strategy in this one. You don’t know what the challenges are until you flip them, so you can’t target ones that work with your character’s abilities, and none of the different locations really seem to offer much. There’s also a dramatic variance in the rewards from the cards. Some people never pulled any of the knowledge cards needed to win or anything that substantially boosted their abilities, while others got exactly what they needed. It also doesn’t really feel like there’s a chance for everyone to keep working towards a way to win. The twist of death possibly turning you into a monster and changing the win conditions is interesting, but this wasn’t a game I loved, and it’s not one I’d seek to play again.

Aeroplanes: Aviation Ascendant

Published: 2012

Designer: Martin Wallace

Publisher: Mayfair Games, Phalanx

3-5 players

120 minutes

Managing route networks in Aeroplanes.
Managing route networks in Aeroplanes.

I got to play my copy of this for the first time in over a year with some friends Thursday, and it was just as much fun as I remembered. Wallace is one of my favourite designers, and this is a very good design of his, translating the feel of building early airline networks very well with danger rolls for difficult routes, passengers needing to go all over the globe, and different planes with different capacities. There’s a money-balancing aspect, an area-majority aspect, three different eras of scoring, plenty of different strategies to target and much more. It all adds up to a pretty fun game for those who enjoy reasonably-tight economic Eurogames. I was edged out in the area-majority and profit scoring in the last round, but mounted a comeback thanks to some high-scoring passenger tiles (hurrah for Australia!).

Tinner’s Trail

Published: 2008

Designer: Martin Wallace

Publisher: Treefrog, IELLO, JKLM, more

3-4 players

60-90 minutes

Mining for copper and tin in Wales in Tinner's Trail.
Mining for copper and tin in Wales in Tinner’s Trail.

This was my first time playing this game, but it’s another very solid Wallace design. It’s about mining copper and tin in Cornwall, with a few neat twists; each area has water that makes mining more expensive, and there are various ways to try and drain the water (pumps, ports, trains and more) and increase your mines’ production, but all of those take substantial amounts of time. There are tensions about which actions to take and when, there’s tension in the price market (which fluctuates every round, and you always have to sell all the metals you’ve mined each round regardless of what the price is), there’s tension in whether to target known parcels of land in the auction or gamble on the ones where the minerals are yet to be revealed, and there’s tension in how much to invest and when (earlier investments bring more victory points, but may take money you need later). I wound up on top thanks to a great third round. I had a blast with this, and would happily play again.

Betrayal at House on the Hill

Published: 2004

Designers: Rob Daviau, Bruce Glassco, Bill McQuillan, Mike Selinker, Teeuwynn Woodruff

Publishers: Avalon Hill, Wizards of the Coast

3-6 players

60 minutes

Exploring the mansion in Betrayal at House on the Hill.
Exploring the mansion in Betrayal at House on the Hill.

This was a great way to cap off game night Thursday; it’s another game whose theme works around Halloween, but for my money, this is one far more interesting than Transylvania. It has some of the same problems in that you don’t know what events will come up in certain areas, and there’s a lot of randomness, but it just feels much more fun. It’s scenario-based, and the first half of each game starts with you all just exploring the house before the haunt kicks in, but each haunt has very specific rules and ways to win, and the ones I’ve played through felt like they were well-balanced with good chances for both sides to win. The whole game feels very thematic, and it goes quickly; 60 minutes or less is an appropriate length for it. Moreover, there’s a ton of replay value, as many of the scenarios are quite unique; the one we played Thursday had one explorer having nightmares which were escaping the house, and the rest of us trying to wake him up before too many get out into the world. It led to a lot of tension, and us finally waking him up just before the final nightmare escaped. This was another solid play of this, and one that was a lot of fun.

Chrononauts

Published: 2000

Designer: Andrew Looney

Publisher: Looney Labs

1-6 players

30 minutes

Chrononauts after some timeline-flipping.
Chrononauts after some timeline-flipping.

I covered this game a bit last week, but played it again with my wife Sunday and then played a couple of solo games Sunday afternoon. This is still holding up very well for me. The multiplayer game, which has three ways to win (align the timeline so you can get home, collect the artifacts to complete your mission, or just assemble power by gathering a hand of 10 cards), is a fun and often chaotic jaunt, with you each interfering with each other’s plans frequently. It’s much more strategic than Fluxx and its variants (also from Looney Labs), but it has some of that feel. The solo game, on the other hand, is much more controlled, but just as difficult; you have to get eight different time-travellers home in a single pass through the deck, which leads to tough decisions on when to flip which event. This carries the time-travel theme very well, and I’m not only happy to keep playing it, but will probably be looking to pick up some of the expansions down the road.

Thanks for reading! Have any thoughts on these games, or anything else you’d like to see on Board and Game? Leave them in the comments, or discuss them with us on Twitter or Facebook.

Review: NHL Fastrack is a fun, light, and addictive dexterity game

You had a simple mission: get all 10 pucks to the other side. It sounded so easy, but that was before you and your opponent started frantically firing pucks at each other. Now, for every puck you get to the other side, there seems to be another coming back. Can you keep up with their pace? Will you have the accuracy needed to squeeze pucks through the hole? Or will all the pucks be in your side at the end?

NHL Fastrack 6
A look at the board.

NHL Fastrack

Published: 2008

Designer: Jean-Marie Albert

Publisher: CSE Games, BlueOrange Games

2 players

5-10 minutes

Thanks to CSE Games for providing a review copy! 

What the NHL Fastrack box looks like.
What the NHL Fastrack box looks like.

NHL Fastrack is one of the more interesting dexterity games I’ve come across, and one that might be well-suited for a wider crowd, not just traditional hardcore gamers. The concept’s incredibly simple, but can lead to a lot of fun. You have a rectangular board painted like a hockey arena, complete with faceoff circles, NHL team logos along the side boards, a launching elastic on each side, and a middle wall with only a small opening. Each player receives five hockey pucks and then, once you start, has to simultaneously use their elastic to launch pucks through the opening to the other player’s side. The game ends when all 10 pucks are on one side, and that’s all there is to it.

The back side of the NHL Fastrack box.
The back side of the NHL Fastrack box.

This leads to an entertaining frenzy, though. You want to fire pucks as quickly as you can, but that can diminish accuracy, so you have to strike a balance between lining up your shots and just blasting away. Also, pucks will frequently arrive at the slot at the same time or get stuck in the central slot, causing ricochets and adding to the chaos.

All the rules you need!
All the rules you need!

Pucks will occasionally flip up and over the central divider and into the opponent’s zone, which is legal, but if they sail outside of the arena entirely, they’re “in the penalty box” and out of play for the rest of the round (so then you only need nine on your opponent’s side to win). A single round can range anywhere from two to 10 minutes, depending on how evenly matched the players are and how much luck each gets, but both quick, frantic duels and longer battles of attrition can be quite fun.

A close-up of the board.
A close-up of the board.

The fun is where this one shines, and it’s what makes it suitable for a wide crowd. There isn’t a ton of strategy here, but there also aren’t a ton of rules or a long playtime, making this quick to explain and easy to get people into. Also, simply launching pucks with the elastics is a blast. This game proved to be a hit at a friend’s bachelor party this year, with all sorts of people getting into this and even a mini-tournament being formed. It’s a game that can be played in a beer pong setting or a more serious one, and it works fine for a whole tournament or just a few rounds with two people.

NHL Fastrack in action!
NHL Fastrack in action!

There are a few downsides to this. If you want more strategy in your dexterity games, this isn’t the one for you; games like Flick ‘Em Up and the upcoming Cosmic Kaboom might fill that niche better. If you want a firm hockey experience, too, this isn’t really the game for you; using pucks and having the NHL license is cool, but this is much closer to air hockey than actual hockey. (Games like NHL Ice Breaker may work better there.) Also, this is limited to just two people at a time, so in a larger setting, you’ll need to take turns or set up a tournament. That works fine, as rounds are short and this is fun to watch as well, but this may not be the pick if you want to get a large group all involved at once.

Another action shot.
Another action shot.

With that said, though, NHL Fastrack does a great job of providing a fun, light game. It’s highly addictive and replayable; you’ll probably have at least a couple rounds every time you’ll pull it out. It’s something that will interest a lot of people, and even if it’s not a hit with someone, the short round time means you haven’t locked them into something long-term.

It’s well-made, too; the elastics on my copy are still holding up perfectly after at least 50 rounds have been played on it, and the official NHL logos on the pucks haven’t faded much at all. The pucks do tend to get some scratches, which doesn’t bug me much. They also do tend to leave some black marks on the white ice of the board after repeated plays, but those can be easily cleaned off with a sponge or a magic eraser; my copy still looks good even after this many plays. This is a game I’m happy to have, and one I’ll likely pull out at times for years to come.

What the board looks like after over 50 plays (after a little quick-and-easy cleanup with a magic eraser). You can see specks where the coating on the pucks is starting to come off, but the logos are holding up well.
What the board looks like after over 50 plays (after a little quick-and-easy cleanup with a magic eraser). You can see specks where the coating on the pucks is starting to come off, but the logos are holding up well.

The Play’s The Thing: Clockwork customers, cosmos conquest, Cuban cigars, caught between cities and chronological campaigns

Welcome to another installment of The Play’s The Thing, a regular piece with thoughts on the board and card games I’ve been playing. Here’s what I’ve played over the past week. 

Steam Park

Published: 2013

Designers: Aureliano Buonfino, Lorenzo Silva, Lorenzo Tucci Sorrentino

Publisher: IELLO, Heidelberger Spieleverlag, others

2-4 players

90 minutes

The Steam Park box.
The Steam Park box.

My wife and I played this one this weekend, and we both had mixed feelings on it. There’s a cool theme of building a steam-powered amusement park for robots, and it incorporates real-time elements, die-rolling, resource management, bag-building and spatial placement into a design that’s still relatively light and fast. You’re trying to build a park that will leave you with the most money after six rounds, and you’re doing so with dice. Each face of the custom dice lets you do different things, and all players roll all their dice, locking in ones they want to keep after each round. You can reroll as many times as you want, but there are rewards for stopping and grabbing turn order tiles; once there’s only one tile left, that player takes a dirt penalty (dirt is bad, and can cost you the game entirely if you get too much or cost you money otherwise) and has just three remaining rolls to try and get what they want. Dice let you build rides or stands, play bonus cards for money, seed the bag and then try to pull visitors from it that match the colours of your rides, or clean up dirt. Rides let you attract visitors (who give you money each round), while stands give you special powers to manipulate your dice, your visitor draws, your dirt cleanup and more.

A closer look at my Steam Park.
A closer look at my Steam Park.

All of this works quite well, but one big challenge is the spatial placement; the game rules only allow you to place rides or stands of the same colour adjacent to each other (and even then, they can only touch at one spot), while everything else can’t touch orthogonally or diagonally. You also can’t buy two rides of the same size in one round. Given how small the starting grounds are, this leads to a significant slowdown when trying to figure out how to optimally place rides, and also plenty of dice being spent on extra grounds to expand your park (but these don’t even expand it by that much, creating placement tension again). The idea of rewarding you for specializing in one colour (something that also works with the bag-seeding idea) isn’t bad, but this seems to be an awfully-finicky process for what’s generally a light game, and it feels very restrictive. (That could be easily modified with house rules if it bugs you, though, and the tension of placement may appeal to some.) A more minor knock is that the theme’s present, but could maybe be worked in more; each ride looks different (there are roller coasters, slides, etc), but they all behave the same way, so this isn’t necessarily a full theme park simulator. It doesn’t provide the same feeling for me as something like the great computer game Roller Coaster Tycoon. With that said, though, this is still an interesting game, and one that can be quite fun. You should just be aware of what it is and isn’t before buying and/or playing it.

An overall look at Steam Park.
An overall look at Steam Park.

Tiny Epic Galaxies

Published: 2015

Designer: Scott Almes

Publisher: Gamelyn Games

1-5 players

30 minutes

A look at Tiny Epic Galaxies.
A look at Tiny Epic Galaxies.

Scott Almes is one of my favourite designers out there, producing the tremendous Kings of Air and Steam (one of my most-loved games), the brain-burning Harbour, the Tiny Epic series and a whole bunch of upcoming ones, including Best Treehouse Ever, Loop Inc., The Great Dinosaur Rush and more. I think he’s found another hit with this one; I’ve played it both solo and with a five-player group, and it shines in both settings. This is one of the fastest-playing 4X space empire building games you can find (Eminent Domain: Microcosm‘s even quicker, but that’s about it), and it has some neat mechanics; you advance in two resources (energy and culture, which let you reroll or follow others’ actions respectively), you can land on planets and immediately use their actions or go for the longer process of adding them to your empire through diplomacy or economics, and you can upgrade your empire to roll more dice and bring in more ships. The multiplayer game is great, and the solo game stands up to it, finding a way to provide a terrific experience (with variable difficulty levels) that keeps most of the feeling of the multiplayer game without too much fiddling. I played this one solo this weekend, and had a blast with it, as usual.

Another look at Tiny Epic Galaxies.
Another look at Tiny Epic Galaxies.

Mafia de Cuba:

Published: 2015

Designers: Philippe des Pallières, Loïc Lamy 

Publishers: Lui-même, Asmodee

6-12 players

10-20 minutes

My friends opted to open up game night with a seven-player game of this Tuesday, and it’s pretty interesting. It’s a social deduction game along the lines of One Night Ultimate Werewolf or The Resistance, but the difference is that each player gets to pick their role. A cigar box full of diamonds and role tokens is passed around, and everyone can either steal diamonds or grab a role. Each role has different win conditions, as you’d expect. The godfather then starts interrogating people to try and figure out who’s stolen his diamonds; loyal henchmen want to help, thieves don’t want to be accused, FBI agents want to be accused, and the driver wants whoever’s on his right to win. This was quite interesting for the first few rounds, but overstayed its welcome a bit for me; we opted to play a full seven rounds so everyone could be godfather (as where you are in the selection order does alter things quite a bit), and that felt like too much for me.

Between Two Cities

Published: 2015

Designers: Matthew O’Malley, Ben Rosset, Morten Monrad Pedersen

Publisher: Stonemaier Games

1-7 players

20 minutes

We then went into a seven-player game of this, and I loved it. It’s 7 Wonders-style card drafting, but you’re building cities like in Suburbia, and the twist is that you have to build two cities simultaneously, one with each neighbour. Your score at the end will be the score of your lowest city (à la Tigris and Euphrates, plus lots of other games), so you have strong incentives to try and advance both and to work with both your partners (and what they’re doing with their other partners). It plays very quickly, even with seven, and there’s lots of strategy involved both in what cards you place and where you place them. I wound up winning this one in the end. It’s not surprising that I had so much fun with this, considering that it’s from designers I quite like (Rosset did the great Brewcrafters, while O’Malley has done The Princess Bride: A Battle of WitsDiner, Knot Dice and more, and Pedersen is a Stonemaier developer who particularly specializes in creating solo variants) and a publisher with a great track record (I’ve enjoyed lots of Stonemaier Games’ different offerings, including Viticulture, and Jamey Stegmaier’s blog is terrific), but this was still a terrific experience.

One of my cities from Between Two Cities, mid-construction.
One of my cities from Between Two Cities, mid-construction.

Chrononauts

Published: 2000

Designer: Andrew Looney

Publisher: Looney Labs

1-6 players

30 minutes

We split off into two groups to finish off the night Tuesday, and I played this one (I’ve been wanting this for a while, but just got it as a present from my wife) with two others. It’s such a fun time-travel game, with clever ways to alter and rewrite history and a great ripple mechanic. The multiplayer game has multiple ways to win, including acquiring the three artifacts needed for your mission, changing three moments of the timeline so you can get home, or accumulating enough power (10 cards) to dominate in the timeline you’re in, and it also has some excellent interaction between players as you each try to alter the timeline to what you need (and even that can change over time; our game saw President Kennedy flip-flop from dead to alive about five times, with the same player changing his status multiple times to take advantage of certain cards). It’s not a complicated game, and there is luck involved, but there’s plenty of strategy as well, and history buffs like myself will likely love it; there are very funny moments in this too, both from the cards and from player interactions. The solo game is also terrific, but very different, providing the challenge of manipulating the timeline to get all eight of your travellers home.

A look at the timeline of Chrononauts, set up for a solo game.
A look at the timeline of Chrononauts, set up for a solo game.

Thanks for reading! Have any thoughts on these games, or anything else you’d like to see on Board and Game? Leave them in the comments, or discuss them with us on Twitter or Facebook.