This game is fairly new but has become one of our standard group games for reasons expounded on below. The concept is that each player is the owner of a tavern and has to hire staff and buy food, drink, and games to attract patrons and therefore make a profit.
The first half of each round is the “Day” phase, where players draw Tavern cards which can then be purchased to add to their tavern. It’s best to be careful, though–the coins that you use to buy and hire are also your points! At the same time, there’s no way to make a good tavern without investment. At minimum, you want at least one food item, one game, and most importantly one of each drink type–mead, ale, and wine. Of course, it’ll take a couple of rounds to build up those cards and the gold to buy them. You can also trade your Tavern cards with other players during this phase.
During the “Night” phase, players draw Patron cards. Patrons can only be played if you have their “Want.” Some patrons have abilities that can help you. At the end of the round, patrons will pay you, generally one gold per patron. Some patrons have “Likes” that are different from their “Wants,” and if you have one of their Likes, they will stay in your tavern; if you don’t have their Like, or the card doesn’t have one, it’s discarded. There’s also a hand cap of five cards between Tavern and Patron cards, so any beyond that have to be discarded.
The cycle of Day and Night phases continues until one player has 20 or more coins after the end-of-round payout. Generally this takes around five rounds, and as the rounds go quickly, this is one of the fastest games we own. In addition to being fast, all of the cards have humorous flavor text, most of which is silly puns, adding to the light-hearted atmosphere.
There are two major flaws with the game. One is that its high level of randomness can really cripple you. If you don’t get good opening drinks and patrons that go with them, leaving you with a slow opening, it’s almost impossible to catch up and overtake your opponents. In addition, despite the high randomness the game has very little strategic depth; there’s only one real strategy and few sub-strategies within it. However, the expansion, called Dirty Deeds, helps with that. Dirty Deeds enables players to sabotage each others’ boards, meaning that at least in games with more than two people, those who are behind can work on taking away the advantage of those that are ahead. Oddly enough, it ends up encouraging the trading aspect as well.
Takenoko is, as the title indicates, a completely adorable game. The game takes place in a bamboo garden, where an exasperated gardener is trying to grow bamboo while a cute panda is munching away at it.
There are three different colors of bamboo (green is more common than yellow is more common than pink) and three special kinds of tiles (one makes bamboo grow faster, one lets it grow bamboo no matter where it’s placed, and one keeps the panda from eating the bamboo there) in addition to colored tiles without special traits. Players typically roll a die to receive a special action and then perform two actions of their choice–building and improving the garden or guiding the panda and gardener to eat or grow the bamboo–and in any case turns are fairly quick.
Players score points from either garden cards (laying out tiles of a specific color in a specific shape), panda cards (having the panda eat a specific amount of a specific color of bamboo), or gardener cards (growing bamboo to a specific height of a specific color, often on a specific kind of tile; these are generally the hardest and worth the most points). The small number of options makes the game move quickly while still allowing a good deal of strategy, since you generally only get two actions per turn. There’s a few elements of randomness—garden tiles are drawn blindly, and the die that gives you a random effect each turn—but it’s mostly simple fun. There’s no “wrong” or “right” strategy to go with and the competition is almost never stressful despite the fact that you’re managing risk/reward which can often be fairly nerve wracking in other games.
It’s not too short, it’s not too long, the components are brilliant and of quite high quality (including the gardener and panda figures and the colorful, stackable bamboo) so it’s one that can be fairly well recommended in gameplay and aesthetics alike. Certainly, it’s a family favorite around here.
“First Impressions” is our take on games we played and aren’t likely to play again, but not necessarily because they’re bad games. Mr. Jack is an excellent example of this, as from the one game we played it seems like a very good game. It’s a two-player game where one player takes the role of Jack the Ripper and the other of an investigator trying to track down the killer. There are eight characters and both players share control of all eight. The game ends when the Investigator accuses a character of being Jack, Jack escapes, or at the end of eight rounds. It’s a deduction/bluffing game that is primarily strategic but with just enough randomness to keep it fresh and engaging — what characters you can move each round is (semi) random, so you won’t have the same outlay that lets you “solve” the game each time. At the end of each round each character is either visible or invisible, and Jack’s player must reveal which one applies to the character that is actually Jack this time, letting the Investigator eliminate any suspect in the opposite state.
Why, then, is it a First Impressions game and not one we want to replay? Simple: Steff finds it stressful. She has a tendency to overthink and double-think things when dealing with any game with a bluffing aspect, and a game that makes someone stressed isn’t fun. With that said, if you enjoy that kind of game, or even are just interested in it, we’d still recommend this game. We really just don’t have much of a market for two-player games that one of the two of us can’t really play.
As a side note, this seems like an interesting game to play with a child: Put the kid in the role of the Investigator (and of course try to play Jack to their level) to teach deduction and logical reasoning.
Smash-Up is a thematically silly game with surprisingly complex mechanics. The base game has eight factions–pirates, ninjas, dinosaurs, robots, aliens, wizards, tricksters, and zombies–which each have their own deck. Each player picks two factions and shuffles them into a single deck, which forms their deck for the game. Decks are made up of two types of cards, minions and actions; each player may play up to one of each on their turn.
The goal of the game is to get to fifteen points. Points are obtained by “breaking” bases, which is done by playing minions whose power accumulates to the number on a given base, its break point. The Break Point is met to exceeded by all minions at that base, regardless of controller, and when a base breaks and scores points are awarded to the first, second, and third most power at the base. Bases may also have abilities, some of which are always on or waiting for something to happen, while others fire off only at scoring.
For as simple as the game is, with its limited actions and low randomness (at least in some aspects), it ends up leading to a great deal of planning and coordination. The choice of base to prioritize depends on your hand, the state of the game board, and the strengths and weaknesses of the factions you’re playing. Almost every minion has some sort of ability that has to be taken into account, and the actions can slightly tilt or even majorly alter the course of the game.
Of course, one can’t ignore the theme, and it is definitely an entertaining theme. It’s basically… everything. The base set has Pirates, Ninjas, Zombies, Robots, Wizards, Tricksters (leprechauns and such faerie creatures, not to be confused with the fairy faction from one of the expansions), Aliens, and Dinosaurs. We have two of the many expansions at the moment, one of which adds four Cthulhu-themed factions and the other which introduces four faction around a “Pretty” theme (Ponies, Cats, Princesses, and Fairies). There are many others, and they’re still coming out. In that way the theme is essentially “Whatever you find cool”, from popular media to internet memes. It’s light-hearted fun, which is nice sometimes.
At first glance, this looks like it should be a simple game–only two types of cards, only one of each card per turn, a very straightforward scoring system–but when you actually sit down at the table, you find a great deal of hidden complexity. Gambling and bluffing becomes part of the game, due to trying to guess whether other players can finish bases and whether they want to do so. Almost all of the creatures have an effect when you play them and lining up the creature effects with the ones in your hand can end up a rewarding challenge.
Now, that isn’t to say that randomness doesn’t play a role; there’s luck of the draw, of course, but as with many games understanding how to engine build can mitigate it. This means that not all pairs of decks are created equal, as some will have different synergies and native strategies. The Wizards, for instance, provide a lot of extra draws and extra plays, particularly Action plays. The robots have the technology to allow you to play more minions, especially weak ones. Robot wizards, therefore, tend to chain a lot of cards together. By contrast, Ninjas harm their enemies and appear suddenly while pirates sail around from base to base, so Ninja Pirates won’t be playing as many cards, and will have to rely on tactical motion to pick up points as cheaply as possible, likely with the element of surprise. While many strategies are comparable as well as different, there are a few that are stronger or weaker than others. For instance, Cat Fairies and Zombie Robots have both proved to be devastatingly powerful. Not strictly unbeatable, but maybe not the combos you should let the more experienced players at the table have. That said, Smash Up is a brilliant sort of ‘filler’ game with more meat and strategic depth to it than there appears to be, and that in a distinct good way. We’re not done expanding it, because every new faction increases the potential combinations in an amazing way: With the base game, you could reasonably play every pair together in not too long. With double the decks, though, it takes way more than double the plays to see all the pairs in action, which allows no two games to be the same.
Seasons is a light-hearted game that manages the difficult balance of having comparatively straightforward gameplay while still maintaining a depth and complexity of strategy.
You win Seasons by accumulating the most crystals (technically Prestige points, but the Crystal resource converts to these at 1:1); it’s the kind of points scoring system where the winner will almost always have well over a hundred points. Crystals can be gained by rolling the dice (explained later), but the primary source is through “power cards” that make up the majority of the gameplay.
Power cards are, for the most part, played by paying a cost in energy tokens. Energy tokens come in the four classical elements: air, earth, fire, water. A power card will have listed its cost in energy tokens (and/or crystals—yes, you can have to sacrifice points to hope to gain more points later) which must be discarded to play that card, and you can only hold up to seven energy tokens. Energy tokens are gained through rolling the dice. Each season will have different access to the elements; for example, in Winter, the dice will commonly give Water and/or Air, uncommonly give Fire, and never give Earth. There are always two common elements (one of which was common last season and the other which was inaccessible last season), one uncommon, and one inaccessible. This different availability has a second function: transmuting. Transmuting an energy token means discarding it to gain crystals, and the value gained from transmuting changes based on the season. A common element for that season will give one crystal per token, an uncommon will give two, and an inaccessible will give three.
Each season has a different set of dice; each die has a different set of faces, and the rewards can be some combination of +1 to summoning gauge, one to two energy tokens, one to six crystals, the ability to transmute energy tokens that turn, and drawing an extra power card. A game uses dice of each color equal to players plus one, and the table will essentially run a secondary mini-draft every round; the first player rolls and picks one die, then the next rolls the remainder and chooses one. The last player will choose one of two and the last one will determine how many months forward the game will go; each face has a number of dots between one and three, and the dots on the face of the non-chosen die will be the number of months that pass. There are three months to a season, so the game can be as short as twelve rounds or as long as thirty-six (mathematically averaging around twenty-four).
The first part of Seasons, the shortest part that determines the flow of the rest of the game, is a draft. For those unfamiliar, drafting is a process where a player selects one card from a set and passes the rest on; the cards circle around, with each player taking one at a time, until they’re all claimed. In Seasons, each player starts with nine cards and therefore ends with nine cards, but the draft lets you shape an overall strategy. After the draft, you have an additional choice to make. The game is divided into three “years” of four “seasons” each. Three of your cards will make up your starting hand, three will be reserved for the start of the second year, and three won’t be accessible until the start of the third year. It’s important to look at both the effects of the cards and their cost when deciding what cards to set aside for which year; for example, fire is only really accessible in the second half of the year, so if you have more than three good early-game cards it might be best to push any fire-heavy ones into the year 2 stack. It’s also important to note that you will be penalized for any power cards you don’t play, so you have to plan your strategy around playing out everything in your hand. Ideally, with the draft mechanic, you should have something of a strategy going into the main game, but again because of the draft, not every card will contribute well.
Despite the complex-sounding setup, the gameplay is quite simple. In a round, each player rolls the dice as described above. Starting with the first player (which rotates every round), each player performs the actions on their die, plays cards if they can afford it and want to, possibly uses the activatable abilities of their cards if any have them (most don’t), and then ends their turn. There are few enough options that turns move quickly enough that it can be difficult to remember who’s first player, which means the players stay engaged and no one gets bored. At the same time, the necessity of playing for both the short and long game, combined with there still being multiple decisions to make each turn, means that
A word of caution deserves to be mentioned about the cards. The beginner’s deck (using about half the available cards) follows the overall pattern described above, but the limited number of cards means that it’s easy to anticipate being able to get specific ones and that strategies can become repetitive. However, adding in the rest of the cards for the ‘advanced’ deck creates its own problems. A couple of the cards in the beginner deck have negative effects for other players, but there are enough additional ones—and nastier ones—in the advanced deck that, with the wrong deal, the game can end up less about pushing forward and more about dragging your opponents back. Because of these cards, and the fact that all cards in the opening deal end up having to be played, it’s best to consider carefully whether you want to upgrade. Still, many of the ‘advanced’ cards have more interesting effects and the game can feel more engaging with the increased competitiveness.
Final Thoughts: This is a very good game. It’s one of our top choices to seek out an expansion for, though, because the more cards that are available the more the game becomes one of adaptation to the deal rather than card counting and math regarding the deck. The “advanced” cards go a long way to helping this but are unfortunately dense with effects that… well if this were Magic: the Gathering they’d be called “Stax” cards but here I guess you’d call them “Negative sum” cards in that they cause more damage to the progress of others than they help their owner. I think the most problematic example is the Arcano-Leech, which, should it arrive too early, can lock players out of laying down any power cards for turns. It’s not a bad card to have in the game, it’s just irritating when two of them are the first two cards played.
The card drafting followed by dice drafting is a very interesting system, in that there are still random elements (especially the dice rolling) but the player is given agency at every step along the way. Combined with many cards that help to reduce randomness without eliminating it, I feel like that this is a model (though not necessarily a mechanic) that more games could adopt.
For many, Settlers of Catan is the first modern-style board game that they play. As a gateway to the hobby, it’s done a world of good rehabilitating folks who think board games began and ended with the Milton Bradley and Parker Bros classics that most households and child-care facilities probably had a copy of somewhere but don’t hold up to anything resembling standards.
The basic gameplay of Settlers is centered around the five resources: wood, clay, sheep, wheat, and stone. Players trade in specific sets of these cards to build roads, build towns, upgrade towns to cities, and buy special cards that can earn them extra victory points. Towns are one point, cities two points, and victory is achieved at ten points.
The acquisition of the resources is the main problem with the game (from our point of view). Firstly, the layout of the board is random. There are a specific number of tiles of each resource, but their relation to each other is randomized and it matters a great deal what tiles are adjacent to each other; towns are placed at vertices (adjacent to three tiles, since Settlers uses hexagonal tiles) and give resources based on all tiles at that vertex. Second, each tile has a number from 2 to 12 assigned to it, and these numbers are assigned at random. Tiles only give resources when a player rolls that number (though it doesn’t matter who rolled the number, only that the number was rolled) so if a board has one stone tile with 2 and the other 11, it’s going to be very hard to acquire stone that game. Because of these three levels of randomness, it’s difficult to maintain any given strategy; it doesn’t matter how good your plan is if the dice never give you the resources you need. You can reduce some of the randomness in setup by using one of the “standard” deals from the rulebook, but doing that also removes a level of tactical decision-making, so it really ends up being a wash for the game.
Now, don’t get us wrong — randomness in games can be a good thing. Cards, dice, and other mechanisms for creating outcomes over which the player doesn’t have 100% control add spice to a lot of titles. However, there is an issue with too much random and the wrong kind of random. Good randomness is typically iterative and represents a forking decision point — you have three paths in front of you, but Monty Hall barricades one of them with the dice leaving you to pick between the remaining two. The randomness in Catan is more sequential, and rather than pushing what directions you can go all too often functions as a red light/green light for going anywhere at all.
Which brings us to the probably most polarizing aspect of Settlers of Catan: the negotiation. Settlers of Catan is a game in which you are largely free to trade your resources with other players, and will have to do so to succeed. Few indeed are the burgeoning empires with all the income they’ll require to hit 10 points. However, this runs into a massive roadblock with one fairly simple fact of life in Catan: in the end, there can only be one winner. This results in an endgame featuring a common problem we’ll call the Whack-a-Mole Effect. Essentially, the Whack-a-Mole effect occurs when the set of all other players seeks to harm, hamper, or refuse to cooperate with a “winning” player because, quite simply, said player winning would make them lose. It truly becomes Whack-a-Mole when multiple victory threats are established, and table politics break down into a sequence of attempting to spite whoever is up right now (like trying to hit whatever mole has reared its head in a game of Whack-a-Mole). The Whack-a-Mole effect can be seen in any competitive game with negotiation or direct player interaction, and so is often a component of good games, but certain games provoke it more and in more detrimental forms than others.
Now, because the worst things you can typically do to your fellow players in a game of Settlers of Catan are establishing trade embargos and placing the Robber, it’s not the worst example of the Whack-a-Mole effect in gaming. Games like Munchkin and Cosmic Encounter, where the active player’s position can actually be damaged by the behavior of non-active players, lay it on a little heavier. However, Catan, while not nearly as much the subject of our ire as either of those other games, shares one problematic trait with them: thanks to the Whack-a-Mole Effect, the “Endgame” takes far more real time and engenders more hostility than it probably should.
Part of it is that, in our experience, the whack-a-mole style vendettas start earlier in Catan. A few good rolls, or a setup that extends your road network quickly, and suddenly you are public enemy #1, at least until something goes well for the next mole in question. Threat reassessment can be a fairly arbitrary occurrence so if you happen to be the mole to be whacked due to an ephemeral roll of the dice, the loss of the ability to trade will often linger and outweigh the boon you received.
And really, with the setup of Settlers of Catan, there wasn’t all that much the designers could do to mitigate this. Games can avoid excessive Whack-a-Mole, even in an outright combat-positive game, by including mechanics that players behind can use to rubber band (lowering variance and making most players feel like they’re still ‘in it’ with their own strategy), by obfuscating proximity to victory or strength of board position at least somewhat (which Catan attempts with the VP-granting Development cards, though they’re rarely sufficient given, as mentioned, that Catan enters the “Whack-a-Mole” phase somewhat early), by providing players with a degree of self-sufficiency so a player who has pulled significantly far ahead can actually end the mostly ‘decided’ game barring a major upset (very hard to get in Catan, thanks to the randomness as well as the setup), by having a main or alternative endgame condition that is inevitable within reasonable game time (so you can’t just keep whacking moles forever), or by any number of other mechanisms or combinations of mechanisms.
Catan, however, wears proudly the consequences of its nature as a Negotiation-heavy game. It’s possible that for some groups, this could even be a positive feature, those less inclined to look solely for their path to victory and more interested in wheeling, dealing, and taking whatever route profitable trades opens to them could have a better time with it, but I feel like those same people would want to have more assurances of their investments paying off than Catan’s 2d6 resource generation permits. But for us? The negotiation aspect tends to fall flat because it’s too core to the game without actually being implemented in an interesting, core fashion.
Yet after all this, is Settlers of Catan a bad game? Well, no. Not really. As a gateway game, it serves its purpose. It’s easily understood and even potentially won by people who aren’t used to modern board games. It’s simple, without being problematically simple or simplistic, and it can provide a satisfying experience as you spread your towns and grow them up to cities across the board. It just has some faults we find with it that mean that while we will play Settlers of Catan if it’s requested, we won’t generally be eager to bring it to the table ourselves anymore.
This game has the frustrating distinction of being difficult to acquire. Apparently, while the first edition had a tiny print run, the second edition had a print run that had some sort of distribution deal fall through, meaning not a lot of copies ever made it into the hands of gamers. We don’t know the specifics of this, but what we do know is this:
It took until the 11th page of Google search results to find a copy of the 2nd edition of Yggdrasil for sale, in about two hours of checking dead links and online storefronts with the item listed but a stock of 0. In the end it came from a game store (or possibly board game cafe) in Canada liquidating extra stock. Maybe the web has organized this better since or my Google-fu was weak. As of this writing, BoardGameGeek doesn’t know of any copies up for sale in North America and only two in Europe with the price amped up to 150 euros. So if there’s a point where this review makes you want to go out and find this game… write in to Ludonaute asking about any plans for a reprint, because right now you’ll sooner find a NM/M Beta Black Lotus, an IBM 5100, the secret ingredient of the secret ingredient soup, or a fist full of hens’ teeth gathered under a blue moon than a copy of Yggdrasil.
With that said, it’s on our top favorite games, so if you do find a chance to play it somewhere (or should the stars align and you actually find a copy for sale), seriously consider it. Part of it is the sheer beauty of the visuals. The board, cards, and rulebook all have very high-quality art, and it’s just enjoyable to look at (which is good, because you’ll probably be there for a while). It’s a cooperative game, which raises it several ranks due to Steffanie favoring it, but it’s a much-remembered and much-enjoyed game even beyond the two of us.
In this game, you are playing as the Norse gods at Ragnarok, trying to hold back the evils threatening to overwhelm your world. The victory/loss of the game centers around the six “enemies”: Loki, Hel, Surt, Fenrir, Nidhogg, and Jormungandr. The game board has nine “worlds” (expanded on later) and the enemies are in Asgard. Asgard is divided into four zones, each with two spaces. If five enemies get into the second zone, three into the third, or one into the fourth, the players lose. Enemies move based on the enemy deck (which has a set number of each enemy’s card in it); the enemy cards will also cause the enemies to do something bad to the board or players, often worse if the enemy has progressed to a later zone. Spending one of your own actions in Asgard lets you commit tokens and roll the game’s custom die (with faces 0-0-1-1-2-3) to attempt to defeat one of the enemies. This is more difficult the more zones the enemy has advanced, and success will only push the enemy back a single space. Victory is a war of attrition; you win if you haven’t lost at the end of the turn when the enemy deck runs empty, no matter how progressed the enemies are, but simply staying alive that long can be easier said than done.
The other eight worlds (and the actions you take by playing on them) are Alfheim, or the World of the Elves (take one Elf token), Vanaheim, the World of the Vanir (move a token along a special track), Midgard (have the Valkyries search bags for Viking tokens), Svartalfheim, or the World of the Dwarves/Dwarven Forge (acquire or upgrade weapons to help fight the enemies), Jotunheim, or the World of Giants (kill Frost Giants), Muspelheim, or the World of Fire (clean the Midgard bags of Fire Giants), Niflheim (trade any number of tokens with another player), and Helheim, or the World of the Dead (put 5 Viking tokens into the Midgard bag of your choice). You get three actions a turn, which can be spent on any of the nine worlds, but you can only play on each world once in a turn.
Vikings are the mainstay of the game; a Viking can be spent to add +1 to a combat before you roll the die. The target numbers for defeating an enemy are 5/6/7/8 depending on which zone they’re in—which sounds easy until you look at the die and realize its faces aren’t standard; they’re 0/0/1/1/2/3, giving an average result of barely over 1. Elves are more powerful—they can be spent after a die roll instead of before—but they’re slower to acquire and the number in the game is only players+1.
The gameplay ends up being a delicate dance. Squandering resources to try to beat back the enemies at the beginning means losing the staying power for the endgame; hoarding them early can result in an enemy getting too far ahead to handle. Since the game goes until the enemy deck is depleted, it doesn’t change length much based on player count, and while it can get exhausting, it’s very satisfying to flip the last card and see that you’ve successfully held back the end of the world.
For those looking for advice on how to beat the game, here’s what we’ve learned from our personal experience.
Don’t gamble (when you can avoid it). The die is your enemy; it has a 1/3 chance of giving you nothing and only a 1/3 chance of giving better than a 1. We tend to treat the die as “the number of elves we save” and pay enough Vikings that Vikings+elves+bonuses gives us the needed number, no matter the die roll. Remember that actions are a resource as well, and that wasting Vikings not only wastes the time gathering them but wastes the turns restocking and cleaning out bags as well. On that note…
Don’t panic. The further an enemy is on the board, the fewer cards they have left in the deck. That isn’t to say you should ignore the enemies, but the first few turns it’s better to play long-term: build up to level 3 weapons, accumulate tokens, clean out the bags, and maybe throw a few die rolls at the third point…
Kill the giants. Don’t wait for them to get flipped up; burn through the giants’ deck as fast as possible, killing them off the top before they have a chance to be a problem. Not only does this make Loki useless, but the runes formed by killing a full set of giants are incredibly powerful. We’ve never had a game where we finished all four runes and still lost the game.