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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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


Now, the actual list…

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


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

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

Rocky Road à la Mode

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

Designer: Joshua J. Mills

Artist: Adam P. McIver

Publisher: Jason Kotarski/Green Couch Games

2-4 players

Ages 10+

30 minutes

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

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


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


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

Hand-Off: The Card Football Board Game

Published: 2010

Designers: Fabio Del Rio and Paolo Del Rio

Publisher: CSE Games

1-4 players

45 minutes

Thanks to CSE Games for providing a review copy!

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


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

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


Published: 2012

Designers: Ben Pinchback and Matt Riddle

Publisher: Eagle-Gryphon Games

2-4 players

30-45 minutes

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

Fantasy Fantasy Baseball

Published: 2016

Designers: Daryl Andrews and J.R Honeycutt

Publisher: CSE Games

2-5 players

20-50 minutes

Thanks to CSE Games for providing a review copy! 

The box art for Fantasy Fantasy Baseball.

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


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

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

One Night Ultimate Vampire

Published: 2015

Designers: Ted Alspach, Akihisa Okui

Publisher: Bezier Games

3-10 players

10 minutes

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

Transylvania: Curses and Traitors

Published: 2015

Designers: Loren Cunningham and Jamie Cunningham

Publisher: WIBAI Games

3-6 players

45 minutes

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

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

Aeroplanes: Aviation Ascendant

Published: 2012

Designer: Martin Wallace

Publisher: Mayfair Games, Phalanx

3-5 players

120 minutes

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

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

Tinner’s Trail

Published: 2008

Designer: Martin Wallace

Publisher: Treefrog, IELLO, JKLM, more

3-4 players

60-90 minutes

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

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

Betrayal at House on the Hill

Published: 2004

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

Publishers: Avalon Hill, Wizards of the Coast

3-6 players

60 minutes

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

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


Published: 2000

Designer: Andrew Looney

Publisher: Looney Labs

1-6 players

30 minutes

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

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

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