Tavern Masters: Another Round?

Tavern Masters: Another Round?

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.

Tavern Masters

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.

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Takenoko: Panda VS Bamboo Gardener, the Battle of Adorable

Takenoko: Panda VS Bamboo Gardener, the Battle of Adorable

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.

Takenoko

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.

Smash-Up: Zombie Robots VS Dinosaur Ninjas?!

Smash-Up: Zombie Robots VS Dinosaur Ninjas?!

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.

Smash Up; The Pirate Ninjas battle the Elder Thing Cultists and Cat Faeries
The Pirate Ninjas battle the Elder Thing Cultists and the Cat Faeries.

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.

Miskatonic School for Girls: Cackling Madly Is in the Rulebook

Miskatonic School for Girls: Cackling Madly Is in the Rulebook

Whoever came up with a game concept of having an all-girl boarding school run by the monsters and villains of H.P. Lovecraft? It sounds ridiculous, and it is, but that ridiculousness is part of the fun.

Miskatonic

Miskatonic is a deck-building game, where each player has their own deck that they buy cards for to improve–but unlike most deck-building games, you also buy negative cards for your opponents, and the weight of the negative cards starts to outweigh the benefit of the positive ones as the game goes on. It becomes a struggle to stay sane (20 starting sanity, 0 loses) while hoping your opponents’ decks fail them first.   Each turn you’ll draw five cards (starting with whatever is in your purchase pile), use them to buy a Student for yourself and a Teacher for the opponent on your left, and then put any teachers in your hand into your classroom, where you’ll flip up one card from the top of your deck for each, hopefully getting students strong enough to fend them off.

The game doesn’t take itself seriously–like the title says, the rulebook actually instructs you to cackle insanely when you lose certain amounts of sanity–and the artwork varies from silly to sinister while staying light-hearted. Despite being elimination, players are rarely sitting around for long; once someone goes down, the other players are usually in precarious positions and will only take a couple more rounds. The average player can enjoy it on its own merits, while fans of the Mythos can laugh at students like “Charlotte” Ward and Keziah Mason and teachers like Crossing Guard Dagon and Headmaster N.R. Lathotep.

In general, the play experience is one that has a good pace to it: In the early game, sanity loss will be minor since players can’t buy the best cards, resulting in a lot of minor advances, Substitutes (Filler, 0-cost teachers for your opponents that are rather trivial to defeat) or Transfers (The same, but for students).  As players build up their generation of Friendship and/or Nightmare points, each card potentially having production of both but only being usable for one or the other on a given turn, the better students and more potent teachers begin to enter circulation.  The key to Miskatonic’s flow, however, is the simple fact that your student is never going to be as good for you as the teacher the House right before you handed you was bad.  That is, your deck was never better for your survival then it was at the start of the game (When it contained no teachers) and the purchase of students serves, largely, to attempt to slow the rate at which you hemmorage sanity.  Often, decks reach a tipping point where they have too many teachers that are all too powerful, and the sanity loss starts coming by the bucket load.  As such, despite being a player elimination game, it’s usually over VERY shortly after the first House goes stark raving mad since everyone else will either be on small numbers or primed to end up that way.

Overall, I’d call Miskatonic School for Girls a light game.  It is far less fiddly than traditional deckbuilders, the core decision points being what to buy from column A and what to buy from column B.  Which is not to say that the game doesn’t have its complications: the plethora of special abilities on the cards, particularly “Pre-Class” abilities of students that you may use when you draw them.  Further, Locker Cards, Pet Teachers (Teachers you draw when trying to fight teachers; they don’t help but you get to send them to someone else’s discard pile), and events can bring actual strategic thinking into the mix.  Still, it’s a game we can play with the somewhat less game savvy on a fair level, which you can consider either in the game’s favor or against it depending on what you’re looking for.