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.

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.




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

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

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

NHL Fastrack 6
A look at the board.

NHL Fastrack

Published: 2008

Designer: Jean-Marie Albert

Publisher: CSE Games, BlueOrange Games

2 players

5-10 minutes

Thanks to CSE Games for providing a review copy! 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

NHL Fastrack in action!
NHL Fastrack in action!

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

Another action shot.
Another action shot.

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

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

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