San Diego Historical Games Convention announces Red Flag Over Paris as 2022 Summit Award Winner

The Summit Award logo.

As previously noted, I’ve been working on some projects for SDHistCon, including the inaugural Summit Award. A press release on the 2022 Summit Award winner I helped draft is below. Please contact me with any questions or comments!

The San Diego Historical Games Convention (SDHistCon) is proud to announce the winner of the first annual Summit Award. The Summit Award aims to recognize a historical board game published in the preceding year that most broadened the hobby through the ease of teaching and/or play, uniqueness of topic, or novel approach. The winner of the 2022 Summit Award (for games published in 2021) is Red Flag Over Paris.

Red Flag Over Paris is designed by Fred Serval, with art from Donal Hegarty, development from Luke Billingsley, Jason Carr, and Joe Dewhurst, and solitaire mode design by Jason Carr. It is published by GMT Games. It is a 20-40 minute card-driven game for one to two players, depicting the two months of intense confrontation between the Communards and the government in Versailles during the 1871 Paris Commune. Players take control of one of those factions and battle not just for physical control of the city, but also for the hearts and minds of the population. Solitaire variants are included for both factions.

The winner of the Summit Award was determined by members of the SDHistCon Board and SDHistCon Advisory Board. The judges praised Red Flag Over Paris for its ease of teaching and play, novelty of topic, and effectiveness as a historical game. 

Red Flag Over Paris was one of four Summit Award finalists announced in October following a three-month public call for nominations (sent out in Conflicts of Interest #1) that produced more than 48 submissions. Red Flag Over Paris received the highest public nominations of any candidate. The other three finalists, selected by members of the SDHistCon Board and SDHistCon Advisory Board in October, were (in alphabetical order) Atlantic Chase (designed by Jeremy White, published by GMT Games), Nicaea (designed by Amabel Holland, published by Hollandspiele Games), and No Motherland Without: North Korea In Crisis and Cold War (designed by Dan Bullock, published by Compass Games).

Each of those four finalist games was taught and demonstrated at the Nov. 11-13 San Diego Historical Games Convention. Following that, members of the SDHistCon Board and SDHistCon Advisory Board met for a final selection of the 2022 Summit Award winner, choosing Red Flag Over Paris.

The Summit Award will return in 2023, with games published in 2022 under consideration for that award. A call for public submissions will go out in the summer of 2023. More information can be found on the Summit Award page on the SDHistCon website.

About The Summit Award: The Summit Award is an opportunity for the SDHistCon team to recognize the positive impact of a game that broadens the historical gaming hobby by drawing in more players or by introducing a new and unique subject or perspective. Our ultimate hope is that the Summit Award helps foster a discussion amongst players, designers and publishers about new ways to broaden the hobby through teaching, play, topic, and approach. Games are judged on five criteria: Ease of Teaching, Ease of Play, Novelty/Uniqueness of Topic, Novelty of Approach, Effectiveness as a historical game. More details on the award and eligibility guidelines can be found here.

About SDHistCon: The mission of SDHistCon is to create a diverse and supportive gaming community dedicated to playing, discussing, designing, and promoting historically-based board games. Through this commitment, SDHistCon seeks to serve both the existing historical board gaming community as well as grow it through the addition of new voices and perspectives. This is done through physical conventions (including the 2022 San Diego Historical Games Convention from Nov. 11-13), online conventions, the Conflicts of Interest magazine, the Summit Award, and more. SDHistCon is run by a volunteer board, and also has an advisory board composed of prominent members of the gaming community.

Please contact Andrew with any questions on the Summit Award.


San Diego Historical Games Convention Announces 2022 Summit Award Finalists

The Summit Award logo.

I’ve been working on some projects for SDHistCon, including the inaugural Summit Award. A press release on the 2022 Summit Award Finalists I helped draft is below. Please contact me with any questions or comments!

San Diego Historical Games Convention Announces 2022 Summit Award Finalists

The San Diego Historical Games Convention (SDHistCon) is proud to announce the four finalists for the first annual Summit Award. The Summit Award aims to recognize a historical board game published in the preceding year that most broadened the hobby through the ease of teaching and/or play, uniqueness of topic, or novel approach. The four finalists for the 2022 Summit Award (for games published in 2021) are (in alphabetical order):

Atlantic Chase. Designed by Jeremy White, published by GMT Games

Nicaea. Designed by Amabel Holland, published by Hollandspiele Games

No Motherland Without. Designed by Dan Bullock, published by Compass Games

Red Flag over Paris. Designed by Fred Serval, published by GMT Games

Each of these four games will be demoed at the November 11-13 2022 San Diego Historical Games Convention. Following that event, board members, advisors and other invited judges will vote on which game will win the 2022 Summit Award. The winner will be announced to the public by the end of 2022. Here are short descriptions of these games, based on their Board Game Geek pages: 

Atlantic Chase is a 30-120 minute game of naval movement and combat for one to two players, depicting North Atlantic surface naval campaigns between the British Royal Navy and the German Kriegsmarine between 1939 and 1942. It uses a trajectory system to model the fog of war these adversaries faced. It can be played as individual scenarios or a campaign, and includes nine operational scenarios and 12 mini-scenarios for two players. It also includes 15 solitaire scenarios, eight where the player takes the role of the Kriegsmarine and seven where they take the role of the Royal Navy.

Nicaea is a 60-90 minute game of tableau-building and alliances for four to six players, depicting the 325 AD Council of Nicaea and the struggles over what would become orthodoxy or heresy. Players commit to sides in theological disputes, scoring points when issues go their way. The player with the most points wins, unless the player with the least points has the most political influence and can splinter the church in a schism to steal the win.

No Motherland Without is a 60-to-120 minute card-driven game for one to two players, depicting the struggles of North Korea’s Kim Regime against the West from 1953 until the present day. One player takes the role of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, seeking nuclear deterrence, improving living standards, and purging elites to prevent a coup. The other player takes the role of The West, aiding defectors, stymieing the missile program, implementing economic sanctions, and pressuring the regime through international isolation. A solitaire variant is included where the player takes the role of the DPRK.

Red Flag Over Paris is a 20-40 minute card-driven game for one to two players, depicting the two months of intense confrontation between the Communards and the government in Versailles during the 1871 Paris Commune. Players take control of one of those factions and battle not just for physical control of the city, but also for the hearts and minds of the population. Solitaire variants are included for both factions.

The creation of the Summit Award was announced in Issue 1 of SDHistCon’s free Conflicts of Interest web magazine in June, with a call for nominations from members of the historical gaming community at that time. More than 48 nominations were received over the next three months. Red Flag Over Paris was selected as a finalist for the 2022 Summit Award based on public nominations. The SDHistCon Board and Advisory Board met to determine the other three finalists, with public nominations also considered there.

About The Summit Award: The Summit Award is an opportunity for the SDHistCon team to recognize the positive impact of a game that broadens the historical gaming hobby by drawing in more players or by introducing a new and unique subject or perspective. Our ultimate hope is that the Summit Award helps foster a discussion amongst players, designers and publishers about new ways to broaden the hobby through teaching, play, topic, and approach. Games are judged on five criteria: Ease of Teaching, Ease of Play, Novelty/Uniqueness of Topic, Novelty of Approach, Effectiveness as a historical game. More details on the award and eligibility guidelines can be found here.

About SD HistCon: The mission of SDHistCon is to create a diverse and supportive gaming community dedicated to playing, discussing, designing, and promoting historically-based board games. Through this commitment, SDHC seeks to serve both the existing historical board gaming community as well as grow it through the addition of new voices and perspectives. This is done through physical conventions (including the 2022 San Diego Historical Games Convention from Nov. 11-13), online conventions, the Conflicts of Interest magazine, the Summit Award, and more. SD HistCon is run by a volunteer board, and also has an advisory board comprised of prominent members of the gaming industry.

For more info on the Summit Award, please contact Andrew here.

Reexamining the First Barbary War through a solo play of The Shores of Tripoli

American interception.

One of my favorite things with historical games is when they get you to really think about what did happen, and why, and what might have happened instead. Back in 2020, I looked at the Battle of Chancellorsville through its Battle Cry scenario. Now, in a similar vein, here’s a look at one particular solo session of The Shores of Tripoli, which I played Sunday morning.

First, a little background. The Shores of Tripoli was first published in 2020, by designer Kevin Bertram through his own Fort Circle Games. It’s a one- to two-player game that takes about 45-60 minutes, as per its BGG page, and that timeframe seems accurate based on my plays. It focuses on the First Barbary War, largely a conflict between the United States and Tripolitania (with some additional involvement from Sweden, Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia) that historically ran from 1801 to 1805 (although the game can run through 1806).

This is an asymmetric card-driven game, with both sides having unique decks. It takes place over up to six years from 1801-1806, and each year has four turns for each player, divided by seasons. On each turn, the active player will play a card, either for the listed event or as a discard for a basic always-possible action. The U.S. player always goes first. The Americans win either by successfully playing “Treaty of Peace and Amity,” which requires three separate conditions, or by successfully invading Tripoli itself. The Tripolitanians win by gaining 12 gold through pirate raids and card play, sinking four U.S. frigates, or eliminating a U.S. land army.  If neither side hits its conditions by the end of 1806, the game is a draw.

I quite like The Shores of Tripoli, especially for the different stories it tells with each play. The event cards, and when you happen to draw them or how their use goes, do a nice job of illustrating the various possible permutations of this conflict, as I discussed in my segment on this game (and other plays from the January 2021 Armchair Dragoons Digital Convention) on Whatcha Been Playing Wednesday #3).  The components are beautiful, evocative, and functional, and the game has lots of strategy without lots of rules overhead or a long playtime. It also uses “buckets of dice” to good effect in smoothing out probability curves (something discussed by Kevin in a recent Connections Online panel, and discussed by fellow panelist Amabel Holland in a follow-up Twitter thread), which makes reasonable outcomes probable but not certain.

The Shores of Tripoli is available for free online play at Rally The Troops!, and there’s currently a tournament ongoing there. In fact, preparing for my next tournament games (go Team Shadow Dawn, where I’m paired with excellent game designers Sobhi Youssef, Joe Schmidt, and David McDonough) motivated me to dig out my physical copy and take on the T-bot to see if I could improve my U.S. strategies. (The standard two-player game sees one player controlling the Americans and one controlling Tripolitania, but the solo version sees a human U.S. player facing a bot-controlled Tripolitania.) Here’s a look at how that went through photos (an approach inspired by Hiew’s Boardgame Blog):

Shores of Tripoli setup.

In the two-player game, the board starts with four Tripolitanian troops in each of Tripoli, Benghazi, and Derne (the three red circles left to right above), four Tripolitanian corsairs in the harbor of Tripoli, two Tripolitanian corsairs in the harbour of Gibraltar, and three American frigates in the harbour of Gibraltar. The solo setup changes this slightly: the bot gets an extra corsair in Tripoli and two extra infantry in Benghazi and Derne.

The 12 cards at the top left are the bot’s event card line and battle card line; the three at the bottom right are the American core cards. The bottom left has the Tripoli deck, with the U.S. hand face down next to it; the U.S. deck and discard pile are at the top right. This photo comes after the first U.S. turn, which saw me play “Naval Movement” to send two frigates to the Tripoli patrol zone and one to the Gibraltar patrol zone. (Normally, the U.S. options are to play a card for its effect, discard a card to move two frigates, or discard a card to build a gunboat in Malta. “Naval Movement” is a better version of discard to move two frigates, as it lets you move up to four frigates.)

Swedish interception.

One of the key early decisions the U.S. has to make is whether to play the core card of “Swedish Frigates Arrive” or not. This brings the two Swedish frigates (yellow) into the Tripoli patrol zone, where they’ll take part in interceptions of pirate raids, but not battles.

The upside is that this helps provide some early interception before the U.S. gets more frigates out there (the U.S. starts with only three, with one more set to arrive in each of 1802, 1803, and 1804, and two others available from the “Congress Authorizes Action” card). The downside is that this allows Tripoli to play “Sweden Pays Tribute” in 1803 or later, removing the two Swedish frigates and gaining two gold.

It’s not always worth it for the U.S. player to bring in the Swedes, with that decision often depending on your starting hand. In this case, it seemed worth it to me, and it certainly was in this Winter 1801 interception pictured above.

This took place on Tripoli’s turn, with the bot launching a corsair raid. A raid (one of the basic possible actions for both human Tripolitanian players and the bot) sees all corsairs from Tripoli move to the naval patrol zone. All frigates (U.S. and Swedish) then roll two interception dice each, hitting only on a six. Any sixes sink one corsair each, so my above roll (I had four U.S. frigates there thanks to grabbing my 1802 frigate via “Early Deployment” and moving the Gibraltar frigate to Tripoli with a discard after the corsairs there broke out) gave me four hits on 12 dice. That meant only three corsairs survived to raid.

American interception.

The game progressed from there, with the U.S. building up forces (including the three gunboats in Malta, which are useful in later bombardments and invasions) and Tripoli doing its own buildup and raids. The next critical moment came in the above photo, a Tripolitanian raid in Winter 1803. Here, the U.S. frigates rolled extremely well, sinking the entire Tripolitanian fleet.

Battle for Derne.

The interception success meant that I didn’t have to worry too much about Tripolitania reaching 12 gold, especially as they hadn’t had a ton of success before that. So the next key thing for me was focusing on my own victory conditions. The U.S. has two potential paths to victory, either successfully playing “Treaty of Peace and Amity” or successfully assaulting Tripoli, and it’s helpful to pick which one of those you’re going to focus on relatively early.

In this case, I targeted the treaty, so I needed to assault Derne. To do so, I moved a frigate to Alexandria in Spring 1804 (it’s ideal to do this late in 1803, but I couldn’t pull that off) so I could play “Hamet’s Army Created” in Summer 1804, then attacked Derne in Fall 1804 with the “General Eaton Attacks Derne” card (which I’d been saving since drawing it at the start of the game). Aided by frigate and gunboat bombardment, I took the city, but at significant losses (the two extra infantry in Derne the T-bot starts with relative to a human player adds challenge). And that further confirmed my plan of focusing on a treaty win, as I didn’t have enough troops left to slog through Benghazi and then Tripoli. (You can attack Tripoli without taking Benghazi by playing “Send In The Marines,” but it’s tough.)

Tunisia declares war.

After taking Derne, there are two big issues for the U.S. to focus on in order to get a treaty win: taking Tripolitanian allies out of the fight and destroying the Tripolitanian frigate they get from “Constantinople Sends Aid.” This photo shows the Spring 1805 situation, with Tripoli playing “Tunis Declares War” right before that. I cancelled this with “A Show Of Force,” moving three frigates to Tunis and taking their allied corsairs out. This left not much blocking raids from Tripoli, but the bot didn’t have enough gold or corsairs for that to be a real problem. So that left the frigate.

Burn The Philadelphia.

There are a few potential ways to get rid of a Tripolitanian frigate without the full Assault On Tripoli. One is simply moving frigates into Tripoli’s harbour for a one-round naval battle. But this carries problems from play of “The Guns Of Tripoli” (and/or the Fortress Tripoli variant, which is being used in the tournament and which I’m now using in my regular plays (multiplayer and solo) as well), and also is a challenge if Tripoli has enough corsairs left to soak damage there.

The other path is from an event card. Both “Launch The Intrepid” (destroys one Tripolitanian frigate on a 5-6) and “Burn The Philadelphia” (damages one Tripolitanian frigate to the next year on a 3-4, destroys it on a 5-6) are options here, with “Burn The Philadelphia” being slightly better for these purposes (“Launch The Intrepid” makes up for that with its potential use against corsairs as well). “The Daring Stephen Decatur” enhances either of these by letting you roll two dice and choose one. I used “Burn The Philadelphia” with “The Daring Stephen Decatur” in Summer 1805 and rolled a 6, destroying the frigate.

Final situation.

This would have cleared me to play “Treaty of Peace and Amity” in Fall 1805, the first possible option. However, the bot pulled one of the only cards that could stop me in Summer 1805, “Morocco Declares War.” Fortunately, though, I still had “Tribute Paid” in hand, and the bot wasn’t close to its 12-gold win. So I played that in the fall, and then the bot got a card that didn’t screw things up on its turn, paving the way for my treaty (seen on the board west of Tripoli) in Winter 1805.

As mentioned off the top, one of the things I quite like about The Shores of Tripoli is the way each play tells its own story. That’s been noticeable throughout my tournament games, many of which have followed dramatically different arcs depending on card draw, player actions, and particular die rolls. Of course, it’s not quite as wide-open as some grand strategic scale whole-day games, but there are still six different outcomes here (the three Tripolitanian win conditions, the two U.S. ones, and a draw), and even many games hitting the same outcome have significant differences in how they got there. (Also, this game is appreciated for its full “Historical Supplement and Designer’s Notes” booklet in addition to the rules: this is well worth a read, and both the historical essay from Dr. Abby Mullen and the designer’s notes from Bertram add a lot to the game.)

And, impressively, this is true with solo plays against the T-bot as well. The bot has some predictability compared to a human player (which is offset by the extra resources it gets and its constant availability of its main events and battle cards), but it still has some uncertainty based off its card deck and based off how rolls go. It’s a worthy opponent, and one with impressively low overhead to operate. And it’s a fun way to play this game when you don’t have a human opponent around.

The Board and Game Top 10 Games of the Year for 2020

A few of the top games of 2020.

In the spirit of past top-10 lists here, here’s a look at the 2020 games I loved most from what I’ve played. (As with previous lists here, this uses the The Geek All Stars Essen-to-Essen calendar for releases, so I’m considering games released from Oct 24-27, 2019 through the period ahead of Oct. 22-25, 2020.)  The link for each title is to the game’s Board Game Geek page, and the information in each bracket is designer(s), publisher(s). Some, but not all, of them are pictured at the top, with a few more in the photo below.

A few of the top games of 2020.
A few of the top games of 2020.

Honourable mention 1: The Kringle Caper (Jonathan Chaffer, Grand Gamers Guild): This game delivered one of the best escape-room-in-a-box experiences I’ve had. It does a whole lot with only 18 cards and a $12 price point, presenting a great variety of puzzles. The accompanying website to check answers and get hints is very well done, and the tiered hint system is excellent; if you’re having trouble figuring out what a puzzle is asking for, the first hint just lets you know to look for, which can be a great point in the right direction without spoiling too much. The Christmas theming here is excellent, and this was a fun ride. Also, no components need to be destroyed in this (providing that you keep notes on a separate sheet of paper), so it’s possible to pass it on to someone else afterwards, which is always a plus for me.

Honourable mention 2: Loot of Lima (Larry Levy, 

This is a retheming/reimplementation of 2003’s Deduce Or Die, but I haven’t played that one, so this is new to me. It’s an excellent deduction game where a lot of the skill comes down to what question you ask when. The aid included for solo/two-person play (and the corresponding online tool made by Kyle Gillingham) is a great inclusion as well. (More on the game and how it works solo can be found in this BGG review from Spencer Jackson.) I enjoy Larry’s writing at The Opinionated Gamers, and he’s created a great game here as well. 

Honourable mention 3: Fort (Grant Rodiek, Leder Games):

This is another retheming/reimplementation of a previous game I haven’t played (2018’s SPQF), with some additional development from Nick Brachmann and others at Leder Games. (Dan Thurot has some good insight on the differences in his Fort review.) The lead-boost-follow aspects of this remind me of other games I like, from Glory To Rome through Import/Export, and there are some good twists on it here, especially with the deck-building ideas and with the ability to take other people’s unused cards. I haven’t been able to play this a ton yet, so it might wind up higher in a later evaluation, but I’m enjoying exploring it so far.

10. Blue Skies (Joseph Huber, Rio Grande Games): I sought this one out mostly because of the designer (in addition to writing for The Opinionated Gamers, Huber has designed a number of cool games, including Starship Merchants with Tom Lehmann, and he’s an 1846 legend), and I wound up liking it quite a lot. It’s an economic-focused area control game with a neat theme (airline expansion after deregulation). There aren’t a ton of rules, which is nice from a teaching perspective, but there are good decisions to make;  there’s some luck involved, but not an overwhelming amount. And it plays well on BoardGameArena, which is a huge plus in these times.

9. Big Easy Busking (Joshua J. Mills, Weird Giraffe Games): I picked this one up thanks to the combination of designer (I’ve enjoyed Mills’ Rocky Road A La Mode and his appearances on The Geek All-Stars), publisher (I own and like Weird Giraffes’ Stellar Leap), and theme (I love New Orleans). It’s a fun and easy area control game with a good solo mode and excellent art.

8. Rajas of the Ganges: The Dice Charmers (Inka and Markus Brand, HUCH! and R&R Games): A very solid heavier roll-and-write. I’ve only played this one online so far (with Dan, BJ and Don at Yucata), but we’ve had a number of really enjoyable games of it. The map puzzle is excellent, and this has a ton of cool combo abilities. The personality dice are particularly interesting, and they let you have some big turns towards the end of the game.

7. 1882: Assiniboia (Marc Voyer, All-Aboard Games): 1882 has neat twists on a lot of the usual 18xx conventions. It’s a full-capitalization game (companies receive all the money for all their shares of stock when they float), which usually aren’t as compelling to me as the incremental-capitalization ones (companies retain control of shares not held by players, get revenue from those, and can possibly sell them at a later time); it can be tougher to get money into a company in a full-cap game, and that’s not always a puzzle I enjoy. And 1882 also has another trait I don’t often like; it’s a brutal game where player bankruptcy happens quite a bit, especially at higher player counts. But the mix here of compelling private companies, multiple interesting areas of the board with accompanying track puzzles, and lots of possible public companies works really well, and creates a fast, tough 18xx game with a good look at some Canadian railway history. I don’t know that this is an 18xx title I’d always reach for, but with the right group and the right mindset, it shines.

6. Stellar (Matt Riddle and Ben Pinchback, Renegade Games): Stellar is quite a cool two-player puzzle from Matt and Ben, who have long been two of my favorite designers. It has some good tension on what cards you’re putting where, and lots of factors to consider with scoring. And the art and production of this is gorgeous, and it looks great on the table.

5. Gulf, Mobile & Ohio (John Bohrer, Rio Grande Games): This is an excellent cube rails game, first printed in 2008 by Bohrer’s Winsome Games but brought to the wider market in 2020 by Rio Grande. I really appreciate seeing publishers like Rio Grande, Capstone and Queen picking up some of these cube rails classics and giving them a slightly-nicer look; while the old versions were fine and functional, the newer ones are much easier to talk other people into. What’s neat about GM&O in particular is the massive number of companies (23), with only eight available at the start of each game. More and more open up as gameplay goes along, which provides more possibilities without being overwhelming. (This will come up again with a different title later in this list.) There are only four actions, one of which is passing, and the rules are pretty well explained by just a few paragraphs on the BGG entry (linked above), but there’s a lot of strategic depth from those simple rules, which always is a highlight of the best cube rails games for me.

4. Beyond The Sun (Dennis K. Chan, Rio Grande Games): Beyond The Sun is quite an interesting take on tech trees, long my favorite part of civilization or space games. The tech tree is thoroughly the center of the game, but the board play still matters, and interacts with the tech side well. I also really like that the tech tree isn’t predictable from the start. Instead, advances let you discover something based on the type of technology you previously researched, but exactly what you get is uncertain. That feels much more like actual scientific discovery than the usual “I need to research this and this so I can get this!”

3. Empyreal (Trey Chambers, Level 99 Games): Empyreal is the strangest take on a train game I’ve seen yet (and I’ve played and love The Soo Line, so that’s saying something!), but it’s a very cool one. This has elements of Terra Mystica, elements of goods-delivery train games like Age of Steam, and elements of the crazy combos you can build in games like Argent: The Consortium (also designed by Chambers). But it winds up feeling like its own thing, and a highly-enjoyable game to play, especially with all the different options available each game from different specialists and companies (and even more with the As Above, So Below expansion). And it’s a train game that’s much easier to get many people who aren’t already into that genre to play, thanks to gorgeous production and some mechanical crossovers to more typical “Euro”-style games. The terrific solo mode here is also appreciated, even more so than normal this year.

2. High Rise (Gil Hova, Formal Ferret Games): I’ve long appreciated Gil’s designs (especially The Networks) and his commentary on the Ludology podcast, so High Rise was an easy back for me when it showed up on Kickstarter. And the game wound up being so much better than I had hoped for. I’m a big fan of time-track games (including Glen More, Rocky Road A La Mode, Francis Drake and more), but this one is even better than most with the bonuses for jumping up (a nice counterpoint to the often-available “take the lowest thing available each time” strategy) and with the various building powers, area bonuses, corruption track and more. It’s an excellent game, and it also includes a good solo mode and a nice Tabletopia module.

1. 1862: Railway Mania in the Eastern Counties (Mike Hutton/GMT Games): 1862 is one of the best, craziest, and most remarkable 18xx games I’ve ever played. Between three train types and the combination of full-capitalization and incremental-capitalization companies, this breaks so many of the moulds many people are expecting, but it does so in a useful and interesting way. This originally came out in 2013, but GMT delivered a beautiful mass-market printing of it late in 2019 (which makes it eligible for this Essen-Essen cutoff), and that was my first chance to play it. 

The variable setup here between which companies get which permits and which are available to open in sets A, B, and C makes each game a different puzzle, and a good one. The board play is also quite interesting, as the different trains want different types of track (freight versus local in particular), and the ports and offboards are notable. And it’s cool to see how the routes shape up later in the game when companies are running multiple types of trains. It’s possible to run for massive amounts late in the game and make quad jumps on the market, too. There’s a lot to love about this, and it also has the best solo puzzle I’ve seen in an 18xx title, one that’s absolutely worth checking out. Add that all up, and this is an easy pick as the Board and Game Game of the Year.


Exploring Chancellorsville through Battle Cry

The Battle Cry box.

The two most crucial days of the Battle of Chancellorsville took place on May 2 and 3, 1863, so this weekend marked an excellent opportunity to recreate it. This battle’s long fascinated me, especially with the divide-and-conquer flanking march through The Wilderness Jackson pulled off on May 2. And given that I don’t have a battle-specific game for this one at the moment, the Chancellorsville scenario in Battle Cry (the 1999 Richard Borg design that kicked off the Commands and Colors system, since seen in the likes of Memoir ’44, Commands and Colors: AncientsBattlelore and more) seemed like a good way to recreate it. Here’s a look at how the battle played out this time, with me playing both sides. For background info on Chancellorsville, the American Battlefields Trust page and the Wikipedia page are quite good; there was also a very funny thread from Matt Palmquist (@CivilWarHumor) this weekend, starting with a good map overview.

And for those unfamiliar with Battle Cry, it’s a low-complexity wargame where each side takes a turn playing one command card. Those cards usually activate one or more units in one of the three regions of the map. All moves are done before battles, and battles can be resolved in any order the activating player chooses. Infantry and cavalry can move and battle, artillery can move or battle, and generals can only move (but they can attach to other formations to give them an extra die). Battle involves just the attacking player rolling a number of dice; that number starts at five for artillery attacking an adjacent hex, four for infantry attacking an adjacent hex, and drops by one for each further hex away. Some terrain also reduces the number of dice the attacker gets; notably for this map, forests and hills drop the attacker’s dice by one, fieldworks drop it by two. All units always attack at their full strength even if they’ve suffered losses.

The Battle Cry box.

The six-sided dice have two infantry results, with the other sides being cavalry, artillery, sword and flag results. To record a hit, you need to roll the type of unit you’re attacking. Swords are wild (hits on anything), and flags force retreats. A hit removes one figure; infantry have three basic figures and a flagbearer, cavalry have two and one, artillery have one and one, and generals only have a flagbearer (but can only be killed if they’re attacked when they’re not attached to a unit and if a swords result is rolled). The goal is to eliminate six enemy units’ flags, and the flagbearer is always removed last.

And now, on to the game report in photos (a technique I particularly like thanks to Hiew’s excellent blog).

Chancellorsville scenario setup
The Chancellorsville scenario setup. Jackson’s forces are to the left (west), Lee’s to the right (east). Hooker’s troops are in the middle around the town.

First attack
The Confederates go first here, as you’d expect. The hand I randomly drew for their side started with an assault (activate all troops) card for Jackson’s wing, which was a nice note to history. The first assault wiped out the infantry closest to Jackson’s lines (probably part of Howard’s corps) and pushed the other forces near the south of the map back towards town.

Further success
The Union was unable to do much with their first couple of turns (seems historically accurate!), with one turn even being a discard and draw thanks to only holding cards that couldn’t activate anything. Some further Confederate assaults led to this situation. The CSA has already knocked out two Union flags and weakened some other units without losing much themselves.

The Union army has had some rough card draws so far (and they’re hurt by only having three cards to the CSA’s five in this scenario), so they haven’t been able to do much attacking. But they did draw a fieldworks card, allowing the construction of two fieldworks around Chancellorsville. That gives those two units more defense (reducing the dice rolled against them by two). Unlike Hooker’s historical order for Sickles to abandon the earthworks in Hazel Grove, these units won’t be leaving these fieldworks any time soon.

All-Out Offensive
The All-Out Offensive card is the most powerful in the game, letting you activate all your units. The CSA drew it and used it to solid advantage, attacking with both Lee and Jackson’s forces in a move that feels like what historically happened in the morning of May 3. (Granted, at that point, Stuart was in command of Jackson’s troops after Jackson was hit by friendly fire the previous night.) You can see the mounting Union casualties at the top of the image, including four of the six flags necessary for victory; meanwhile, the CSA has only lost three figures and no flags. But this offensive did leave their troops more exposed outside of the woods.

Finally, some luck for the Union. They drew a Counterattack card, which copies the opponent’s last order. And All-Out Offensive is the best possible thing to copy, especially with several CSA troops now out of the woods and into the open. This turn sees the Union eliminate seven CSA figures, including one flag.

A couple of turns later, the Confederates have kept up their attacks, and they’re now one flag away from victory. They’ve also pushed the Union off both of the key hills in the middle, and forced the artillery to retreat to the buildings in Chancellorsville (and you can’t fire from a building, so that’s a useful result; it actually happened twice during this battle, with the artillery being pushed back there, moving back to the hill, and then being pushed back again). But the CSA has taken some heavy losses along the way, and the Union has done well to bring its northernmost artillery and infantry (likely Reynolds’ troops) into the fight. The flag score is now CSA 5, Union 3.

The Union has run out of useful attack cards, so they try to recreate the historical result of picking off Jackson (although that was by friendly fire rather than sharpshooters and happened earlier in the battle). But they fail their die roll, and he survives.

The Confederates press for the victory with some much-reduced troops from Jackson’s command, and they get it, recording their sixth flag. But they did take heavy losses. Final score, CSA 6, Union 3.

Overall, Battle Cry is far from the most comprehensive simulation, especially when it comes to what units you can activate being limited by your cards and to wounded units still attacking at full strength. And as an overall war title rather than one specifically focused on this battle, it obviously doesn’t have as much particular chrome or orders of battle as you might find in a more narrowly-focused title. But I love this game for what it’s able to do with a rules-light, easy-to-teach-and-play approach, and the scenarios are very well-designed, making strong use of terrain and of differing hand sizes to give you some similarities to what actually happened in a wide variety of different battles. Playing out the Chancellorsville scenario this way was a lot of fun, and a great way to re-explore that part of history.

Review: Hansa Teutonica, an outstanding game of passive aggression, non-destructive interaction, and multiple routes to victory

The base board of Hansa Teutonica.

“What news from our traders, Andreas?”
Well, Klaus, we have reports of good success on the Göttingen-Warburg route.”
“Excellent! That will give us more opportunities to spread our influence!”
“Indeed, but our competitors have established offices there, so we are helping them as well. But we’re also getting strong reports from the Hamburg-Lübeck route.”
“How nice! That will allow us to send our traders and merchants back out more quickly!”
“Absolutely. And our office in Hamburg is boosting our prestige from trading on that route, and it’s also helping us with the competitors trying to increase their offices’ privilege level next door in Stadt.”
“Good, good. And the Stendal-Arnhem route is coming together?”
“Indeed, as we’ve established offices in Brunswick and Munster. We just need Minden to connect them. But there is a problem…a rival firm has taken the first office, so we’ll need to increase our own privilege.”
“Well, let’s go from Stadt to Hamburg then!”
“A rival is already trying to do that, but we could get in their way, get more traders, and then teleport back.”
“Teleport? Teleport! You fool, this is the 14th century!”

Hansa Teutonica

Published: 2009

Designer: Andreas Steding

Artist: Dennis Lohausen

Publisher: Argentum Verlag, Z-Man Games, more

2-5 players (2 with variants)

Ages 12+

45-90 minutes (listed; it can take longer if people are new to the game, if there’s some analysis paralysis, and/or if everyone is going for ability improvements instead offices. But it can also definitely finish in 45 minutes under the right circumstances; length is very player-controlled.)

Hansa Teutonica is one of my favorite games, and it’s interesting that it is, because it involves a bunch of elements I don’t always enjoy. I often like strongly-themed games, and while the theme (trading firms in the medieval European Hanseatic League of cities) here makes some sense with what you’re doing, there are points where it falls down (especially with the “teleport” discussed above) and this has a strong reputation as “Just Another Soulless Euro.” (It was one of the top selections in the Geek All-Stars’ “Dry Soulless Euro Draft,” and for good reason.) It’s literally a cube-pusher, and that doesn’t always work for me or others.  And perhaps most notably, it often feels highly interactive (especially at higher player counts), with your plans often being affected by what others do, and many of the games I like are much lower on that scale. (I find “multiplayer solitaire” is often overused for games it doesn’t really fit, and is often used pejoratively, but there are plenty of actual multiplayer solitaire games I enjoy, and there are plenty of highly interactive games I dislike.)  But the nature of that interaction in this game feels particularly distinctive, leading to the title’s comments about passive aggression. This often feels like a game of battles without any actual battles, and where your opponents removing your forces is regularly a positive.

So, how does that happen? Well, it starts with the player boards (which are outstanding, by the way, indicating both how powerful each of your skills currently is and also the five possible actions you can do on your turn). You have an active and passive supply (referred to as “supply” and “stock” respectively in the rules; I prefer using “active” and “passive,” as it’s created less confusion with the people I play with) of traders (cubes) and merchants (discs), and while there isn’t a way to distinguish them outlined specifically in the rules, I find putting passive cubes below your player board and active above it works well. (You can also use small cups or bowls to hold the passive ones, or leave them in setup bags until you get them).

A close-up look at the blue player board.
A close-up look at the blue player board.

On your turn, you can take a number of actions equal to your action skill, which starts at two but can be improved all the way to five. Those actions can be converting passive pieces to active (three, five, seven or all, depending on your skill there), placing one trader or merchant in any house on a trade route anywhere on the board (the most common action, especially early on), knocking someone else out of a house on a route, moving (teleporting) your pieces (from two to five, depending on your skill) around the board, and completing a route (once you occupy all the houses on it), removing the pieces on the houses to either place a trader or merchant in a city office on one end or increase one of your skills (if the route is connected to the city associated with that skill.

It’s the way the actions intersect that’s particularly interesting, and that makes this such an interactive and passive-aggressive game (in my mind). There was a great recent episode of Ludology where Geoff Engelstein and Gil Hova discussed “tightly coupled” games, games where the individual mechanisms all affect each other significantly, and I would put Hansa Teutonica down as an example. Consider the “place” action: putting one trader or merchant on the board is a step in its own right, but when you take the last spot on a route someone else is trying to finish, that’s where it particularly connects in to everything else.

A closer look at the yellow player board.

The player in question now has to bump you, which requires them to sacrifice an additional piece (or two in the case of bumping a merchant) from their active to their passive supply. It also lets you place the bumped piece and an additional one (or two in the case of a bumped merchant) from your own passive supply on an adjacent route. If they have actions remaining after bumping you, that lets them take a complete a route action, but at a higher cost in pieces than if they’d been able to just place in an empty house. And while the new spot your pieces are in isn’t necessarily where you want to be, you’ve received free pieces for getting bumped, and the move/teleport action can let you quickly move those to a spot that’s convenient for you. And that sometimes can even be the route you were on, as it’s been cleared by your bumper taking a complete a route action. (Presuming someone else hasn’t jumped in there first.)

A vertical look at some of the base board.

This is the part of the game that’s perhaps the most unique and the most fascinating to me, as it provides a highly-interactive experience without any destruction. In fact, it often feels really good to get bumped, as you’re getting free pieces out of that, and it’s quite possible to win this game solely by focusing on getting in others’ way at every conceivable opportunity (especially if you’ve improved your teleportation skill). And that feels strongly passive-aggressive to me, as you’re not actually attacking the person, but just getting in their way and seeing if they do anything about it. In a life context, that probably isn’t a recommended approach, but in a game context, it can be pretty great (and it feels less direct and less mean than, say, the outright attack options you find in some games).

But even as someone inconvenienced by players moving into your way, it doesn’t feel that bad. It’s an extra cost, but not a crippling one, and an extra reward for your opponent, but not necessarily an overwhelming one. And there are ways to avoid it, from simply shifting your focus elsewhere to actually starting routes far away from your true goal, having opponents move into block and then teleporting your pieces to where you want to be. So this can get into mind games and into trying to read opponents’ intentions, adding another layer to the interaction.

The many different ways to score also create a lot of interesting coupling and interaction. If you control a city (by having the most offices there, or in a tie, the right-most office), you score an in-game point whenever anyone (including yourself) completes an attached route. And this can make controlling the cities attached to increasing skills important, as people are often trying to finish those routes to bump up their skills. But to do that, you have to complete that route and choose to place an office instead of increasing your own skill, and it’s quite possible for that office not to wind up being too valuable for you if someone else comes along afterwards and fill a further-right office, or if others wind up ignoring that city (maybe partly thanks to your office). But it’s also possible to “ping” a route where you control one or both ends regularly, boosting both your skill and your points. But that’s at the opportunity cost of establishing offices elsewhere, improving other skills, or getting in others’ way…

And the in-game points also serve as one of the game timers. If anyone crosses 20 in-game points, the game instantly ends. That’s mostly done through scoring for offices when an adjacent route is closed, but there are also offices that reward you an immediate point for establishing them, and you can receive bonus in-game points (7/4/2 for first/second-third) for having at least one office in a chain from Stendal to Arnheim (at the opposite ends of the board). So it’s quite possible to speed up the game by establishing offices in highly-trafficked areas or repeatedly pinging routes where you control offices. But opponents have some control there too (they can avoid those cities, or put their own better offices in them), and this isn’t the only timer; the game can also end from 10 cities being completed (all offices filled) or from needing to draw a replacement bonus marker when they’re aren’t any.

Another player board shot.

A word on the bonus markers, which also add a notable dimension here. These give you a variety of use-any-time one-shot effects, from extra actions to boosting a skill to placing an extra office to the left of a city to switching the relative position of offices in a city to removing three pieces from the board to their owners’ active supplies. And they also count for set-collection end-game (not in-game) points, ranging from one point for one marker to 21 for 10-plus. But what’s interesting with them is that they start in specified locations (the three taverns on the board), but when you pick up one, you must place a new one at the end of your turn, and it can go almost anywhere, but has to be on a route that doesn’t already have bonus markers and is adjacent to a city with at least one office. So you can set it up so that others that want the marker have to give you points by closing a route adjacent to your cities, and they then have to weigh the value of that versus other options.

And there’s further end-game scoring for fully developed abilities (four points each, except for the town key skill), for the Coellen table (a special Coellen-Warburg route gives you the option of putting a merchant down for 7 to 11 end-game points, but this takes away one of your merchants), for controlled cities (two points per), and for your longest chain of cities with an office (which is multiplied by the value of your key skill). So there’s a lot going on in the scoring, and it’s not always the person who triggers game end who’s going to win. That, combined with how sudden the game end is (instantly when one of the three conditions is met) adds a lot to the interaction and to the attempted mind-reading; in the late game, you have to guess if you’re going to get one or two more turns to carry out your full plan, or if you should just do the best you can with a single move.

The Coellen table.

What also appeals to me are the variable paths to victory and the many different ways this game can play out. One reviewer (NowOrNever88 on Board Game Geek) called it “sandbox-style,” and that’s definitely somewhat apt depending on what you think of as a sandbox game; you can focus in on a whole ton of different areas in this game, from any of the five skills to the Stendal-Arnheim route to the Coellen table to collecting bonus markers to grabbing offices near other people, and many different strategies appear relatively viable. But everything is so connected to what other people are doing, particularly at higher player counts, and that makes each game play out pretty differently.

Some areas (especially Gottingen and its ability to improve your action skill) are typically heavily contested, but not always, and the value of others changes from game to game. Plus, a slow-developing strategy can be great in some games, but can hurt if someone else rushes the game end. And while this does have a bit of a point salad feel in that almost everything gets you points in some way, it’s not really a fit for the “your actions don’t matter” criticism of some games along those lines; what you focus on, how well you do that, and how well you read what others are doing makes a huge difference to your success here. So it’s a sandbox in the sense of a wide space of elements to explore, but not in the sense of having your own little corner independent of others.

A word on player counts; I’ve mostly played this with four and five, and it’s really good at those counts. This is a rare Euro that works superbly at five without a ton of downtime, as the actions on your turn are all relatively simple (and especially as players get the hang of the game, turns go buy quickly). You’re also engaged on others’ turns, as where they go will affect you (directly in terms of bumping or establishing an office that affects yours, or indirectly in terms of taking a space you want, establishing an office on a route you were eying, or setting a bonus token somewhere different). And while the board state does change significantly ahead of your turns, it’s not utter chaos that prevents planning (especially if you’re able to contemplate multiple plans), and once you get more powerful skills and bonus action markers, you can do a lot on your turn before people can mess up your plans. Four and five players also means that the getting in someone’s way feels less mean, as you’ll rarely be clashing with the same person for too long.

But I think this does scale reasonably well down to three, especially as the base board has a two- to three-player side with some notable changes (such as closing off extra routes to some skill cities, forcing more competition over the remaining route). There is the possible kingmaker problem common in three-player games, if two players spend all their time fighting and a third can execute their strategy unopposed, but it’s easy enough to figure out that that’s not optimal play in this game, and the rewards for getting in someone’s way whereever they are make it still worthwhile to block someone who isn’t in direct competition with you. And while I haven’t tried the two-player game, the changes (just three paragraphs of rules and a few extra components) that force you to place, displace and complete routes only in provinces where the figure is or is adjacent to seem like a low-overhead way to produce some more interaction there, and one I’d certainly be interested in trying.

One last word on the available expansions: there are two I own with full boards, the East Expansion and Brittania, and both bring some interesting twists to the game. The East expansion includes one city (Waren) that’s the upgrade spot for both grabbing passive pieces and taking more actions, making it a central focus of gameplay, but it and two other cities (Dresden and Belgard) are green cities that can only take offices under special circumstances. Beyond that, there are also ocean trade routes that require merchants, but have permanent bonus abilities.  This map’s a pretty good twist on the base game, pushing you even more to explore some different strategies, and that expansion also contains nine cards that can be used with the base game to give players hidden goals for placing offices in and controlling certain cities, which can be nice in shaking that game up a bit.

The East board.

And then there’s the Britannia expansion, which carries on the ocean trade route/permanent bonus marker idea and adds interesting twists in terms of Scotland and Wales, which have routes you can only place on if you control Cardiff (for Wales), Carlisle (for Scotland), or London (for either), and you can only place one to two traders or merchants there each round. It also adds majority scoring for cities in Scotland and Wales to reflect the difficulty of establishing offices there. This is probably my favorite map to play regularly, but it is the most complicated and does seem to take a little longer, so it’s probably best not to start new players with it. (This expansion also offers variant “neutral player” rules that can be used as an alternative with two players, and can be used on any board.)

The Britannia board.

I think these expansions are great, and they add yet more variety to the game and encourage you to try even more approaches. (There’s also an Emperor’s Favour player powers expansion from the 2016 Brettspiel Adventskalender: I don’t have that, but it sounds interesting.) And if you really like Hansa Teutonica, they’re well worth checking out, and can be acquired for about $10 U.S. each from online retailers. But there’s tons of replayability in the base game itself, so the extra expansions certainly aren’t a must-buy from the start.

Overall, Hansa Teutonica stands the test of time for me, mixing multiple paths to victory with enjoyable, non-destructive player interaction, and providing an experience that changes a lot from play to play. It’s a rare Euro that’s very good with five, and it’s a fun and thinky experience that doesn’t take overly long. And it presents you with an interesting puzzle to solve, one that’s constantly changing thanks to others’ actions but one where you still have some control and can still accomplish plans. It’s a game I’m hoping to play for years to come.

App review: The Race for the Galaxy app shows why the game is still great, a decade-plus after the physical version first came out

Thanks to Temple Gates Games for providing a review copy of the Race for the Galaxy app and all current expansions.

Tom Lehmann’s Race for the Galaxy has made an incredible impact on the board game world since its 2007 release by Rio Grande Games, spawning five current expansions (with a sixth, Xeno Counter Strike, on the way) and inspiring long-term play in a way few other games of its age have. There’s a fascinating history to the game, especially in its production at the same time as San Juan and in the crossover between them (Shannon Appelcine details that here), and it made some important strides other games have since built off (simultaneous role selection, cards as currency),  but its enduring impact has been because the game is so good.

This has led to the recent iOS/Android/Steam Race for the Galaxy app by Theresa Duringer and Temple Gates Games. The app was launched last year and currently offers the first three expansions (The Gathering Storm, Rebel Vs. Imperium, The Brink of War) as in-app purchases ($3.99 each; the base game is $6.99). It also includes the New Worlds promo pack. The game is not just a faithful interpretation of what makes the physical game great, it’s one that even improves on it on some levels. This is an app that’s jumped right to the top of my current favorites, and it’s one highly recommended both for those who already love Race and for those looking to see what all the fuss is about.

Some personal context here; Race is quite likely the physical game I’ve played the most, hundreds of times at this point, and its previous digital implementation (a computer version by Keldon Jones, who will be mentioned more below) is definitely the digital board game I’ve played the most (probably close to 500 games at this point). I love physical Race for how it produces fascinating decisions in a short time frame, how it shines in a wide variety of multiple player counts, how it plays out so differently each time, and how it rewards both exploration and experience. The computer version kept all of that with some improvements, and now the app version (which I’ve played about 100 times over the last couple of months) has improved things even further. I’m a big fan of board game apps in general (I have about 40 installed across my devices), and this is one of the best I have.

How does this game work? Well, the app includes an excellent tutorial, which is one of its big steps forward and something that’s very important for a game like Race that’s often seen as tough to teach. The tutorial takes you through several training missions, introducing you to the various concepts of the game and to its iconography. And something that’s very useful is that you can always tap to expand particular elements, which will usually help clear things up. Plus, there are in-app rules explanations (accessible both in-game and outside of a particular game), which are particularly helpful for detailing the changes in any specific expansion.

screenshot 2

For those who are new to Race, the base idea is that each round has five possible phases that each player can do if they’re selected. Each player will select one phase per round, or two if playing with the advanced two-player variant (which is an option in the app). The phases are explore (draw some cards, then discard some), develop (play cards with diamond symbols into your tableau, settle (play cards with circle symbols into your tableau), consume (turn in goods for cards or victory points) and produce (put goods on your production world). There’s also a bonus trade action that can happen before consume and involves turning in goods for cards, but only happens for the player or players that select it.

A clever idea in Race is that each card can represent one of three things. Each card in your hand is a possible development or settlement for your tableau, but you’ll have to use other cards to pay its costs. And goods, when you get them (either by settling a windfall world, which comes with a good already on it but doesn’t naturally produce, or by settling a production world and then later producing on it), are also the same cards, but flipped face down, placed on the world in question, and never usable as anything else. Cards as goods doesn’t really matter in the app, but it’s a nice way to avoid adding another component in the physical game.

But the base idea that everything is either what it says on the card (development or settlement) or fuel to place other developments or settlements is a crucial one, and it brings in a lot of the game’s tough decisions. Many of the most powerful cards (especially the six-cost developments, which usually reward you with differing numbers of victory points based on what else you’ve built) aren’t easy to play, so you’ll have to sacrifice lots of other cards to get them out. Choosing what to hang on to and what to discard to build other things is a vital element here, and not an easy decision to make, especially as you don’t know what cards you’ll be getting next and what synergies they’ll have what you’ve already played.

The game is largely an engine-builder, with everything you play helping you in some way by giving you more cards or making it easier to play other things. At the start, you can’t do all that much, but as the game progresses, you’ll be drawing more cards, producing more goods, and playing higher-cost worlds and settlements. There are two main paths to take, military (which requires a bunch of specific developments and worlds to get going, but then lets you settle military worlds without discarding cards) and civilian (which often involves a lot of producing and consuming goods), and you start each game with at least the theoretical option of either; you’re dealt a military starting world and a civilian starting world, plus six other cards, then have to choose one of the worlds and four of the cards to keep. This opening decision provides a useful look at what path might make sense to explore, but it’s possible to shift course later on if you draw other cards, or even to do a little of both paths.

The game then moves through its cycle of rounds. Each round involves phase selections at the beginning and discarding down to 10 cards in hand at the end. This continues until one player hits at least 12 cards in their tableau (there’s one particular card that lets you go to 14 before triggering the end of the game, but only one), or until the victory chip supply is depleted (the pool size is 12 times the number of players). Scores are then tallied based on the victory point value of each card in each player’s tableaus, the number of victory point chips each player has, plus potential bonuses for goals or prestige if playing with expansions.


Something that’s awesome about the app is the sheer speed of play. The physical game doesn’t take too long (the box lists 30-60 minutes, and games with new players can be on the upper end of that range, but games with experienced players can take place in as little as 15 or 20 minutes, especially with the advanced 2-player variant), but the app improves on that. I just played a match in four minutes (base game only, vs. one AI, 2 player advanced variant), and an average match against the AI  probably takes me between five and 10 minutes. Moreover, any slowdown is probably more about how long it takes you to think rather than any delay from the app; the AI makes its decisions very quickly, and the animation speed is quite fast. And games with other players (online play is available) are also quite fast, and the app even lets you play multiple games at once (online and/or against the AI) and jump quickly to whichever one it’s your turn in.

A big part of that time improvement over the physical game comes from the automation of setup and of dealing out cards in each phase. This game comes with a hefty deck, especially when you incorporate the expansions, and it can take a little time to get it all ready. The app speeds that up significantly, and it makes sure the rules are all followed and everyone gets what they need in each phase. But there are improvements even beyond that; it’s much easier to inspect your opponent’s tableau digitally (and thus figure out what phases they may select, a big part of the game), you can also see what level of points they currently have, and the app presents how many victory points each six-cost variable VP development will earn you based on the present state of your tableau (which is a huge step up from the computer version), eliminating mental math that can slow the game down. This is also key when it comes to final scoring, which can take a little while with the physical version, but is incredibly fast in the app.

Where the app is also very useful is in expansion sorting. Each of the three expansions available as in-app purchases have their own cool features that tweak the game, in addition to a new array of cards, and after you buy them, you can select to play with any or all of them. On the tabletop, that would be an incredibly cumbersome process; yes, the cards are marked based on what expansion they come from, so you could theoretically pull expansions out after you add them in, but that would take quite a while. It generally makes more sense just to play with all the expansions you have (at least, expansions #1-3, which work together and are the ones available in the app; expansions #4 and #5 are supposed to be played with just the base game) than to try and sort them out. But in the app, after you’ve played the most complex version with all the expansion elements, it’s easy as anything to go back to just the base game for a change of pace. And that adds further replayability here; base Race is quite different than the Race at the end of the first expansion cycle, and both are fun experiences.

Also, a huge selling point of this app is the AI. Race has a long history of solo play, with the first expansion in 2008 including official solo rules, and that led to Keldon Jones creating the first version of an AI for it in 2009 as part of a research project into neural networks. He’s improved and refined that AI over the years, and it’s included in this app, now with various difficulty settings (which is good for those who don’t like how brutally challenging the hardest-level AI can be). There’s a good description of just how this AI works and what makes it distinctive in this Venture Beat piece on the app from December:

Race for the Galaxy has been one of the top-selling digital card games this year partly because of the neural network that powers its AI. Race for the Galaxy uses a temporal difference neural network This knowledge-free system does not require human input to generate training data, which makes it extremely efficient for a small team with limited resources.

Instead, it learns by playing randomly, making predictions at the turn level on which player is winning, and updating the weights in its multilayer perceptron architecture such that the change between predictions from one turn to the next is diminished. Through this method, over 30,000 training games, it has learned the black box function that best represents the relationship between input (the state of the game) and output (prediction of who’s winning) for the neural network that drives our AI. This makes the game replayable over time.

Duringer tapped an artificial intelligence engine developed by AI pioneer Keldon Jones. Jones created the AI for Race for the Galaxy as a research project on neural networks. He released it as open source code, and Duringer used the A.I. as part of her game in a partnership with Jones and Lehmann. Jones’ method was based on one created by Gerald Tesauro, who created TD Gammon, which is based on backgammon.

The AI here really is great, making smart decisions incredibly quickly, and the easy/medium/hard settings for it are excellent. Even the lower levels can provide a challenge, but they’re not insurmountable even for beginners, while the hard level remains quite the opponent even for seasoned veterans. And that speed should be praised again, and it’s a big part of what keeps me coming back to this app, especially for solo play. Online play can be interesting, with options for real time (30 minute max) and longer games (1 or 4 week maxes), and there are usually a fair amount of people there, but the solo game really shines for me; it’s an opponent that’s always around, that’s quite customizable, that you’re never waiting on, and that can finish a game in 10 minutes or less. That’s tough to top. Oh, and you can play against multiple AIs at once, allowing you to experience the differences in a larger-player-count game without actually having to find more players.

So why keep coming back to Race after all these plays? For me, it’s the card combos. Each game has its differences based on what cards you draw when, and there are tons of interesting combinations to explore. And that’s especially true when you add in expansions, which bring in goals (The Gathering Storm), takeovers (Rebel Vs. Imperium) and prestige (The Brink of War) in addition to hordes of new cards. But the base game alone has a ton in it, and even drawing the same cards you’ve held in previous games often doesn’t feel identical, as the order you draw them in matters, the decisions you make with them matter, and what your opponent does matters. The physical game’s held my interest for over a decade now, and the app’s provided me with another great way to experience it, one I intend to keep exploring for years to come. And hey, if anyone’s looking to play…let me know.

The Race for the Galaxy app is available on iOS and Android for $6.99, with expansions available as further in-app purchases for $4.99 each. Screenshots seen here are from the game page on the Apple and Google app stores.

The Board and Game Top 10 Games of the Year for 2017

There were a lot of strong board games that came out in 2017, and the limited crossover between the many solid best of lists out there illustrates that. What perhaps stands out the most from looking back over my list of my favourites is how different they all are, and how unique many of them are compared to what we’ve seen in previous years. Every game in this top 10 feels very distinct to me in terms of both theme and mechanics. Here’s a look at the new games I loved most this year from what I’ve played. (As with last year’s list, this uses the Essen to Essen calendar (also used by The Geek All Stars and others) for releases, so I’m considering games released from Oct 13-16, 2016 through the period ahead of Oct. 26-29, 2017.) The information in each bracket is designer(s), publisher(s).

Honourable mention 1: Unfair (Joel Finch, Good Games/CMON): As a huge fan of the Roller Coaster Tycoon video game series, I’ve always been on the lookout for a board game with that sort of amusement park-building feel, and this is the first one I’ve tried that really hits on it. Unfair is very thematic, with all sorts of cool rides, attractions and stands to be built, and there are a lot of interesting game decisions and different strategies here. It’s quite card-comboy, and there are a whole lot of fun combos. This is a game where some of your rides and buildings may be destroyed or closed by other players and the game, so if that bothers you or isn’t a fit for your group, this may not be what you want. But it’s not overwhelming, and there are ways to mitigate it, plus a scenario that takes out negative interactions from other players if that’s more your speed. Overall, it’s a fun game that lives up to its potential.



Honourable mention 2: Lazer Ryderz (Anthony Amato/Nicole Kline, Greater Than Games/Fabled Nexus): Speaking of thematic games based on something in other media, Lazer Ryderz is very much Tron: The Board Game (at least the lightcycle race part) without that license. The game sees everyone laying down X-Wing-style movement templates in turn, capturing prisms by passing through them, and crashing if they don’t make a curve roll or run into others’ laser trails. Something that’s interesting here compared to X-Wing is that it’s not a simultaneous reveal; on your turn, you have the option to increase or decrease speed, then can choose to lay down a straight or curved piece based on the board state in front of you. So while there’s still an element of trying to anticipate your opponent, it’s less intense and easier to adjust on the fly.

Lazer Ryderz

You’re also never out of the game even after a crash, and there’s significantly less rules overhead than in something like X-Wing. That’s fitting, considering that this is a light, fun casual game rather than something suited for tournament play. The mild dexterity elements/rules that you can’t pre-measure/die rolls/general zaniness may mean this isn’t a fit for strategy gamers who insist on always being super serious, but it’s an enjoyable filler for those who like Tron, enjoy zooming around the table and are more interested in having fun than destroying their opponents. And the VHS box-style production (complete with gorgeous 80s-inspired art) is perfect.

Honourable mention 3: Ahead in the Clouds (Daniel Newman, Button Shy Games): This is a lovely two-player network-building game that fits well into Button Shy’s collection of minimalist wallet games. It’s simple to explain and plays quickly, but has some interesting decisions in what building to place where when, when to cloudburst and shake up the building connections, and which contracts to target. Recommended as a great two-player filler. It also has a solid solo mode (Stormfront, included in the Kickstarter copies), which is much appreciated, and now it has a sequel titled Feat On The Ground, which I appreciate not just for the pun, but for how it always puts Duran Duran in my head. I’ll have to check that one out.

Ahead in the Clouds

Honourable mention 4: Sola Fide: The Reformation: (Christian Leonhard/Jason Matthews, Spielworxx/Stronghold Games): Matthews is best known for being half of the team that created head-to-head card-driven historical-themed area-control classic Twilight Struggle, and many of his other games (1989: Dawn of Freedom, 1960: The Making of the PresidentCampaign Manager 2008) have carried on most of those elements. Leonhard worked with Matthews on 1960, Campaign Manager and Founding Fathers, so there’s a lot of experience going into this one. But Sola Fide stands alone (heh, a bit of a Latin joke there) and succeeds on its own merits.

Sola Fide

The head-to-head competition over Imperial Circles does recall Twilight Struggle a bit, but much of the game is quite different, from the pre-game deck construction to the foreign bonus cards. And the way each circle has both a nobles and commoners track is brilliant, making it less appealing to simply cancel what the other player’s doing and more possible to set up big swings. Plus, the game plays in 45 minutes or less. There’s a solid level of historical theme here, especially with the context for each card in the provided booklet, and it’s impressive to see how wide the designers went in their coverage of the Reformation and associated battles, movements and so on, covering people and events from across Europe. It’s a game I highly recommend if you have any interest in the period, and perhaps even if you don’t and just want a quick-playing two-player tug-of-war with some cool deck construction.

Sola Fide is for two players and plays in about 45 minutes. You can read more on it in Sean Johnson’s Too Many Games! review here.

Now, on to the actual list…

10. Spires (T.C. Petty III, Nevermore Games): I love small card games (as we’ll see later on with this list), and Spires is a particularly interesting one. It’s somewhat trick-taking, with interesting decisions for that, from picking which market you compete in to actually competing for cards (especially if you include the Undercutting variant in the rules), but it’s really about making sure you never win more than three cards of any given suit. So, by at least the midpoint, it often turns into more of a trick-avoidance game. But there’s a lot of interesting set collection, too, especially when it comes to majorities in the different symbols (crowns, swords and quills). It’s not like anything else I’ve ever played, which is impressive in the well-trodden trick-taking realm, and it’s a lot of fun. Props here for also including a solid solo variant.


Spires works for 1-4 players and plays in 20-30 minutes. You can read more on it in Eric Buscemi’s Cardboard Hoard review here.

9. The Fox In The Forest (Joshua Buergel, Foxtrot Games/Renegade Game Studios):  Speaking of two-player games, that’s a count at which most trick-taking games either don’t work at all or only work with a ton of adjustments. So why not a trick-taking game specifically designed for two? And this one is very well done; the story it’s based on (The Queen’s Butterflies, by Alana Joli Abbott, which you can read on Foxtrot’s site here) is a perfect fit for the central idea of either trying to avoid tricks or trying to win, but not by too much. It’s a head-to-head trick-taking game where each round of 13 tricks sees you shooting for either sweet spot, 0-3 or 7-9 tricks won.

And the story also makes the odd-numbered cards’ special powers make sense; the low-ranking Swan (1) lets you lead the next trick regardless and also can be played against the Monarch (11) instead of the highest-ranking card it would normally draw out, the crafty Fox (3) lets you change the Decree (trump), the Woodcutter (5) lets you draw a card from the deck, then discard a card, the Treasure (7) is worth a point on its own to whoever wins it, and the Queen (9) counts as a trump if it’s the only 9 played that round.

The Fox In The Forest

With three suits and 33 cards, plus all the suits having identical cards, this isn’t an overly complicated game to teach, but there’s a lot of strategy here from trying to hit those sweet spots and manipulating those special powers to your advantage, especially when it comes to when you choose to change trump. This is an excellent head-to-head game, especially if you enjoy traditional trick-taking games.

The Fox In The Forest is for two players, and plays in about 30 minutes. You can read more about it in Sean’s Daily Worker Placement review here.

8. The Goonies: Adventure Card Game (Ben Pinchback/Matt Riddle, Albino Dragon): This game is an engaging puzzle of trying to make sure the different locations aren’t overwhelmed by obstacles, managing your hand to do everything from mapping paths to the pirate ship to removing troublesome Fratellis, and dealing with the traps that sometimes show up during your search for treasure. To me, it covers the themes of the movie well, especially when you consider each of the Goonies’ special powers and how they all need to work together to deal with the obstacles that show up. I like this a lot as a solo game, whether working with just one character under the solo rules included or controlling multiple characters. It’s also good with more players, as long as you have a co-op friendly group that isn’t super into alpha gaming.

The Goonies

The Goonies: Adventure Card Game is for 1-4 players, and plays in 30-45 minutes. You can read more on it in Chad Osborn’s The Dice Have It review here.

7. Trick of the Rails (Hisashi Hayashi, Japon Brand/OKAZU Brand/Terra Nova Games): I love trick-taking games and train games, so the description of this as “trick-taking meets 18xx in a 20-minute game” was too good to resist. Plus, I’ve long been a fan of Hayashi, from Trains through Sail To India to one coming later in this list, and Terra Nova Games did a superb job on the packaging of this reprint, from the gorgeous cover art by Ian O’Toole (love the choice of a Hudson locomotive) to the attractive and highly-functional card graphics from Todd Sanders to the excellent scoresheets and even an included pencil (which is a small thing, but is highly useful for taking this to game nights and not having to pause to see if anyone has a writing implement).

Trick of the Rails

And the game itself thoroughly surpassed my expectations; it’s a really clever card game, all about trying to boost one or two railways’ profits while maximizing your stock holdings in those railways, and often doing so by losing tricks instead of winning them. The locomotive selection and allocation concept is particularly interesting, as that can make a railway that looked incredibly valuable worth much less (or vice versa). And the different values of each card (when placed as stations) for each railway are also a good choice, making it that you don’t want to always just play the highest card. This is a game unlike just about anything else, and it may take a couple of plays to get your head around it (many of the groups I’ve taught it to have wanted to play a second one right away now that they get it), but for a 20-minute game, that’s not a bad thing at all. It’s not a full 18xx and it’s not a pure trick-taking game, but it’s a delightful hybrid of those genres.

Trick of the Rails is for 3-5 players and plays in 20 minutes. You can read more on it in reviews from James Nathan of The Opinonated Gamers and Jonathan Schindler of iSlaytheDragon.

6. Nemo’s War (Chris Taylor/Victory Point Games): While there is a cooperative variant included, Nemo’s War is a solo game at heart, and it’s an amazing one. It lets you explore the oceans as Captain Nemo with the Nautilus, battling ships, searching for treasure and natural wonders, striving for scientific discoveries, and fomenting rebellions against colonial overlords. A cool twist is that there are four different possible goals that shift the values of those various options, so what you’re trying to do game to game changes significantly. The encounter deck is also terrific, immersing you in the theme and leaving you with some difficult decisions on how much to risk.

Nemo's War

This 2017 second edition comes with gorgeous art from O’Toole, which makes you feel even more like you’re in the world of 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea. Now, Nemo’s War won’t be for everyone; it’s heavily based on die rolls and chit pulls, so there’s a element of luck involved (there are mitigation options, but your rolls will still have a lot to do with your success), it carries a significant amount of setup, it’s much closer to a wargame than a standard Eurogame, and it really does seem best as a solo game. But if that sounds up your alley, this is a voyage worth signing up for.

Nemo’s War is for 1-4 players and plays in 60-120 minutes. You can read more on it in Dan Thurot’s Space-Biff! review.

5. Ladder 29 (Ben Pinchback/Matt Riddle, Green Couch Games):  This is a delightful climbing game for those who enjoy them (some examples include TichuBig 2Scum/President/AssholeHaggis and many more), where play goes around and around, you have to beat whatever’s been previously played (which, in this game, can be singles, pairs, triples, a four of a kind or a run of three or more cards, with four of a kinds also serving as a “flashover” that can beat anything) and be the first to go out. It comes with a deck of four suits ranging from 1-15 (with excellent firefighter art by Andy Jewett), and then five unique cards, the chief (21), lieutenant (18), rookies (0 alone, but the best possible pair together) and dalmatian (0 alone, but wild in a pair).

Ladder 29

What makes this one stand out are the hotspots, though. Each round, players draft “hotspot” restrictions that limit what they can play, with the player currently in last getting first choice. Those limits can range from only leading singles to playing or avoiding certain suits in combinations to ending runs with even or odd cards to taking the start player card, which comes with no restrictions at all. But the harder your limit, the more points you get for going out, so there’s a great tension in trying to find something somewhat difficult that still won’t set you back too much. (And hoping someone else doesn’t draft it first.) This one’s been a great success for me both with my regular game group and with more casual gamers, and it’s very customizable; it plays very well from three to five players, works decently with two, and if you want a shorter game, you can just play three rounds rather than to 29 points. Highly recommended if you like traditional card games with a gamer spin.

Ladder 29

Ladder 29 is for 2-5 players and plays in 30-45 minutes, or less if you use the included three-round variant. You can read more on it in Dane Trimble’s preview here.

4. Rocky Road à la Mode (Joshua J. Mills/Green Couch Games): What happens if you take the engine-building of Splendor where many cards make it easier for you to buy other cards, the time track of games like Glen More and Patchwork where turn order isn’t fixed, but changes based on how powerful of an action you take, and the cards-as-both-playable-and-payment idea from games like San Juan and Race For The Galaxy? Put it all together, give it an ice cream theme, and throw gorgeous Adam McIver art in as the cherry on top, and you get Rocky Road A La Mode. While the individual mechanisms in this will be familiar to seasoned gamers, the way they interact is quite interesting, from trying to time your time track movement precisely to pick up bonus “rocket pop” tokens to debating about whether to play an individual card as an order to fulfill or as something to fulfill an order. And there are several possible strategies, from starting with no-point, engine-building only cards to going for bigger points right away, and from going all-in on one type of ice cream to try and claim that location to diversifying and getting a less-valuable location, but more flexibility.

Rocky Road A La Mode

However, this is also a quick game that’s easy to sell non-gamers on thanks to the art and the theme, and easy for them to grasp given the limited number of options on each particular turn. And it’s one I keep being able to get to the table, thanks to its versatility as a game-night filler or a game to play with a lighter crowd. I wrote a Kickstarter preview of this back in July 2016, liked it so much I backed for a full copy, got that copy this year and have played it a ton since. And I’m looking to play it much more in 2018.

Rocky Road à la Mode is for 2-4 players and plays in 20-30 minutes. You can read more on it in Stuart Dunn’s review here.

3. Ex Libris (Adam McIver/Renegade Game Studios): A game about building libraries in a fantasy setting sounds amazing in the first place, but it’s the execution of Ex Libris that really takes it to a new level. The worker-placement and set-collection/tableau-building mechanics are familiar and should be easy enough to explain to newer gamers, but there are so many interesting twists here that there’s a lot for gaming veterans to explore. In particular, the idea of having to have your shelved books in alphabetical order is great, especially when many of the locations allow you to shelve books you gain, raising questions of if you do that and risk locking yourself out of books you draw later, or wait to shelve but have to take extra actions to do it.

Ex Libris

The constantly-varying locations are another excellent twist, as they feel quite distinct, making it so you’re not just doing the same thing round after round. This also has the advantage of making the spot to take the first player marker more important than it is in many worker-placement games. (And it comes with a draw of cards based on how many assistants you’ve already placed, avoiding the null turn of “I’ll just go first next time” and introducing a bit of pressing your luck and reading your opponents on how long you can afford to waste.) The Tigris and Euphrates-style scoring element of scoring points multiplied by your lowest category is great, making you chase variety,  while the individual goals reward you for specialization. And the solo game is awesome as well, a variable-difficulty puzzle with you battling against the discard pile.

And that’s just on the mechanics side. The presentation of Ex Libris is incredible, from the hilarious individual names for every single book to the cleverness of the graphic design from McIver and Anita Osburn (which includes the great decision to put all the symbols you need at the top of a card, allowing you to read the title flavor text or not as you wish and allowing cards on a location to be easily stacked) to the bright and vibrant artwork from Jacqui Davis. The custom meeples for each special assistant, from the gelatinous cube to the sasquatch to the snowman, are a terrific touch, making each player feel different. (And those special assistant abilities are a great way to shake things up a little). Each game plays differently thanks to the mix of special assistants in play and when locations come out. And the decision to provide a dry-erase scoring pad and a marker’s an excellent one; that allows for a much bigger scoring pad than the small standard sheets, and it can double as a reference sheet in play (and the outlines of scoring on the town spaces are also extremely helpful for teaching the game), and be used over and over without worrying about running out of scoresheets. All in all, this is a superb package.

Ex Libris plays 1-4 players in 45 minutes. You can read more on it in Jennifer Derrick’s iSlaytheDragon review here.

2. Yokohama (Hisashi Hayashi, OKAZU Brand/Tasty Minstrel Games): Yokohama first came out in 2016 in Japan, but the 2017 Tasty Minstrel re-release is marvelous, especially the deluxe Kickstarter version. With realistic resource tokens, metal coins, and excellent artwork and graphic design from Ryo Nyamo and Adam McIver, this game looks beautiful on the table. And it plays superbly as well. The central mechanic of spreading your assistants out on the board and moving your president to collect them and take actions, with more powerful actions coming when you have more people and/or buildings in an area, is a lot of fun, but that’s only part of the game. You also need to figure out which technologies and contracts are the most helpful, both from a flag-matching set collection perspective and from what they actually do, plus compete for area majority on the church and customs boards.


There’s a lot of potential for brain-burning here, and a lot of indirect player interaction; you generally can’t take an action where someone else’s president is standing, and you have to pay them if you move through an area with their president, so everyone’s movements on the board matter, as does their selection of the technology cards and contracts you want. But there’s enough flexibility that you can almost always still accomplish something even if it’s not your first choice, and you can plan out enough options in advance that turns usually don’t take too long. And there are lots of different strategies to explore, and the modular setup of the board affects how each game plays out, as do what technologies and contracts come out when.


This is quite different at different player counts, too; I’ve played with three and four players, and the four-player game actually feels more open thanks to the extra locations involved, including two of almost everything. The three-player game can feel tighter with more restrictions based on what your opponents do, and that can be a good or bad thing based on your playing preferences. I haven’t tried it with two players yet, but that setup looks promising as well. This is a game I’m very glad I got this year, and one I look forward to continuing to play and explore for years to come.


Yokohama plays 2-4 players in 90 minutes. You can read more on it in Chris Hecox’s review here.

And, last but not least…

The Board And Game Game Of The Year: Wasteland Express Delivery Service (Jonathan Gilmour/Ben Pinchback/Matt Riddle, Pandasaurus Games): Some of my favourite games involve pick-up and deliver mechanics and fulfilling contracts, including Merchants and Marauders and Shadowstar CorsairsWasteland Express has some familiar elements from those, but is very much its own thing, offering a highly-thematic Mad Max-style experience. A lot of thought went into the backstory of the world, the different factions, the special locations and personalities, and the delivery company and its drivers, and the gorgeous terrain art, miniatures and card art really help immerse you in that world. A whole team worked to put this together, from Riccardo Burchielli’s illustrations to the graphic design from Jason D. Kingsley, Scott Hartman and Josh Cappel and the 3D renders from Justin Bintz. And the GameTrayz plastic inserts to hold everything are amazing; it takes time to sort everything into them the first time you open this box, but they make individual game setup, takedown and storage really easy, and dramatically speed up the game.

As for gameplay, this is a sandboxy game with plenty of different strategies and elements to explore, including zipping around the board quickly (the additional momentum from continuous moves without stops is a nice mechanic, as are the limits on which actions you can take each round), spending a lot of time on deliveries to upgrade your truck, focusing on the public contracts or drawing private contracts. The truck upgrades give you lots of different paths to pursue, from extra movement to extra hauling to boosted combat capabilities and more. And each individual action you do resolves relatively quickly, so there’s less sitting around and waiting for your turn than there is in many games like this.

Also unlike, say, Merchants and Marauders, the focus here is more on the deliveries and contract fulfillment and less on the combat;. There’s no actual player-to-player combat unless using a variant, and combat doesn’t have the harsh consequences it does in some other games. But that’s great for the purposes of this one; combat still matters, and can be an important part of completing objectives or gaining resources, but things never get all that disastrous even if you lose, as you only take some damage (and there are ways to repair it, and no way for your truck to be destroyed). And the market is often changing, and quite important, so there’s a bit of an economic side here as well. Overall, this is a more Euro-style take on a thematic pick-up-and-deliver game, and it works quite well. In fact, there are even some elements of train games (a not-so-secret love of mine) in this, particularly the contract-based crayon rails games like Empire Builder. And the mechanics here all fit together well and are fun, as to be expected from Riddle and Pinchback; there’s a reason this is the third game from those guys in this Top 10.

Wasteland Express Delivery Service

I really appreciate the decision to include an (optional) campaign with eight scenarios to work through in addition to the free play mode. Most of the scenarios don’t change things that much from a strict gameplay perspective, with some only altering the public contracts, but the flavour text for each is awesome, and the continuous story builds the immersion even more. And the ones that do change the rules up more do so in interesting ways. Beyond that, while the game doesn’t have an official solo variant in the box, it’s quite easy to set up and play solo in several different ways, racing against the clock to see how quickly you can fulfill contracts (easily tracked by the event deck, where you flip one card each round), moving raider trucks towards yourself on the roll of a die if you want some more opposition, or even testing out this Grand Lord Emperor Torque’s Revenge variant a BGG user came up with. (I haven’t tried that one yet, but it looks fun.)

Wasteland Express Delivery Service.

Overall, Wasteland Express Delivery Service is an excellent game, one that balances Ameritrash and Euro influences well to bring a ton of theme into a mechanically-solid pick-up and deliver game. It’s beautiful to look at and a whole lot of fun to play. And who doesn’t want to deliver packages in a post-apocalyptic wasteland? That’s why it’s my choice as the 2017 Game of the Year.

Wasteland Express Delivery Service is for 2-5 players in 60-120 minutes. You can read more on it in Alex Bardy’s review here.

Here’s a full look at all the games in this year’s Top 10 and honourable mentions. Thanks for reading!

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!”


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.




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