Review: Gridstones is a great way to align the stars

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

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

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

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

Gridstones

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

Designer: Tim W.K. Brown

Artist: Jamie R. Jones

Publisher: Fabio Del Rio/CSE Games

2-6 players

Ages 7+

20-30 minutes

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

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

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

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

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

Multiple matches.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Gridstones Kickstarter runs through Oct. 5.

 

 

 

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

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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: 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! 

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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.