Designed by: Elizabeth Hargrave Published by: Stonemaier Games
A few weeks ago, Wingspan was everywhere. It had permeated the board game social sphere. Facebook, Reddit, Instagram–you couldn’t scroll too far without hitting yet another Wingspan post. Everyone was playing it. And anyone who doesn’t have it right now it is trying to get it. Even at my weekly game night, it’s sometimes hitting two tables a night. The designer, Elizabeth Hargrave, was even featured in a New York Times article about the game.
I have no doubt that once 2019 is over, Wingspan will have been the biggest game of the year. But will it have been the best?
When I first saw that stunning box cover, I was ready to fall in love. And then setting it up–handling those soft, pastel eggs, constructing that beautiful birdhouse, and rolling those chunky dice–only sealed the deal. It was a GORGEOUS production with flawless art and components (well, nearly flawless–that flimsy goal board feels like a last-minute addition).
All of this–the quality production, the unique theme, plus the Stonemaier brand–set the bar high. Really high.
And then, I played it. And it was . . . fine.
There were birds. Birds are cool. There was engine-building. Engine-building is cool. I really couldn’t say anything bad about it. I had a good time playing it.
But…not a great time. And in this cult-of-the-new, collector’s era, when I have hundreds of other board games sitting behind me wanting to be played, good isn’t really good enough.
So after my first few plays (once with five players and once with two), I had decided: I was going to write a negative review. This game is a load of hype, a beautiful but ultimately empty shell, an okay game.
And then, I played it again. And then a few more times. And something happened then that I wasn’t expecting. I wanted to play it. I was craving it. Something about this game beyond the pretty set dressing was calling me back. There was some depth there that I hadn’t seen in the first few plays.
I had wanted it to be as deep as a game I had heard it compared to, Terraforming Mars, and it just wasn’t. And that’s okay. The depth that is in this game is turning out to be really fun to explore. In each game, I’m searching out those perfect cards to play together, spending the first three rounds fleshing out my engine, and then running it as much as possible in that last round. It’s addictive.
And when you can set up a combo–for instance, playing a bird that gains you a food token right next to one that allows you to discard that food token to tuck two cards (that’s two points)–it’s the best feeling. And since I’ve far from mastered this game (sheepishly, I’ll admit that I’ve only won once), I feel a drive to come back to it. And there are so many cards in the base game that each time I do, it’s going to feel different and my strategy is going to have to adapt to what’s available.
A huge perk is that this game is very easy to learn and to teach. The four possible actions are clearly printed on the player mats with easy-to-understand iconography. The game also comes with a separate appendix that explains how each card works (why can’t every game do this?). It flows pretty well with very little end-of-round cleanup, and at 45-70 minutes, it doesn’t outstay its welcome.
What I’ve discovered is that Wingspan sings at four players. With five it drags a little, especially if you’ve built a row of cards that you just plan on running over and over during the last round. It can get a little tiresome to wait for play to go all the way around the table just so that you can do the same thing you did the last three turns. And then with two players (as well as with solo), the card row doesn’t get taken from as much, leaving strategy limited. Four players seems to be the sweet spot. I haven’t played at three yet, but I suspect it works just as well.
It’s also worth noting that this game was created almost entirely by women: a female designer, three female illustrators, and a female graphic designer. Hopefully soon this will be something so common that it won’t be worthy of note, but for right now, this is a rare and beautiful thing to see.
Wingspan and I have had a complicated relationship. It was love-at-first-sight, followed by a couple of bad dates, some disappointment and resentment, followed by a growing respect and eventually, yes, true love. Will it last? Maybe not. But I’m living in the moment and loving it.
Designers: Shaun Graham and Scott Huntington Publisher: Tasty Minstrel Games
REVIEW BY CATHY. Roll-and-writes have been dominating the small box market as of late, and they’ve expanded far beyond their Yahtzee origins to include colorfully illustrated sheets, dry erase boards and some pretty innovative mechanisms. Big Dig is one of the newest installments in the roll-and-write craze. But does it stand out in the sea of dice and tiny pencils?
Like Welcome To…, the darling of last year’s roll-and-write offerings, Big Dig replaces dice with cards. Each round begins with a pool of five cards to draft from, each showing a polyomino (Tetris shape) to draw on your board if selected. You’ll use these polyominoes to dig tunnels (fill in squares) down from the surface (the top row of your board) in order to reach various items buried underground. Each game has three objectives that will require you to either excavate certain objects or dig a tunnel between two locations. The first player to complete all three objectives wins the game.
The very first time I played this, I loved it. It took only ten minutes to play, it was easy to set up and teach, and it had polyominoes, which, for some unknown reason, I really can’t get enough of. It was fun, light-hearted, and I really enjoyed the variability in the objectives (the game comes with ten).
But after a few games, we realized that something was wrong. This game is essentially a race, right? Whoever achieves all three objectives first wins. And there’s one important rule that all races should have in common: the racers get to begin the race at the same time. But Big Dig breaks this essential rule. One player gets to go first. And is it fair to have a racing game in which someone gets a head start? No, no, and no.
Indeed, in most of the games I played, the person who went first ended up winning. The game attempts to address this by having five cards in the pool so that in a 2- or 4-player game, the first player is also the last to choose a card before they are refreshed for the first time. But it just isn’t enough to overcome the advantage of getting to be the first to dig.
A possible work-around for this problem would be to have everyone draft cards from the pool and then write on their board simultaneously. But this would also require a rotating first player marker and for the cards to refresh every round instead of when they run out. It would also make a tie possible, with no obvious tie-breaker.
I started out really loving this game. The artwork is adorable and the components are solid. I especially loved having those thick double-sided dry-erase boards instead of wasteful sheets of paper that most other roll-and-writes employ. But that first player advantage ruined it for me. At its core Big Dig is a fun, light game with cute artwork and a nice twist on the roll-and-write genre, but, unfortunately, an unfair race just isn’t a race worth running.
Review of Crusaders: Thy Will Be Done Designer: Seth Jaffee Publisher: Tasty Minstrel Games Year: 2018
REVIEW BY CATHY BOCK. A game based on the Crusades and the Knights Templar? Heavy swords, knight’s armor, and cross-emblazoned shields? Where do I sign up?!
I only had to hear the name of this game and already I wanted to play it. Although the theme of crusading through the Holy Land is problematic, so much fiction and lore has surrounded this time period, that a game set in this era is enticing. It sounds like a game of tense battles and strategic manipulation of my enemies. I mean, it says it right there in the title, right? CRUSADERS: THY WILL BE DONE..bending my opponents to my will with only my sword, my shield, and my loyal steed. Right? RIGHT?!
So let’s get this out in the open. Crusaders: Thy Will Be Done does not deliver on its theme. Never once while playing it did I feel like a Crusader in the Middle Ages. It’s true that I traveled the land and spread my influence, but the closest thing to a battle in this game—taking the “crusade” action—merely involves comparing two numbers and then taking a token off of the board.
This game is a pure Euro. No randomness, no conflict, and very little player interaction. And the sooner you get to accepting that and throwing away any sort of thematic expectations, the sooner you can enjoy this game for what it is—a very solid and enjoyable Euro.
The main board—a hex-covered map of Europe—is the most visually dominant element, but the individual player boards are where this game is really played. On the left side of it: an action rondel populated with 12 tokens to distribute in a mancala fashion. On the right: four rows of buildings to construct out on the main board in order to uncover action upgrades. These two mechanisms—the action rondel and the buildings—are the heart of Crusaders: Thy Will Be Done.
Every good game has its thing—the thing that makes it unique. The hook that makes you want to come back for repeat plays because no other game does that thing.
That action rondel with the mancala movement is this game’s thing. It’s certainly not the first to do it (Trajan, Finca, etc.), but Crusaders gives it an important twist. Each wedge on the rondel can be upgraded (flipped) to provide two actions instead of just one. And in a game in which doing more means scoring more, two actions per turn can be essential.
My favorite part of the rondel, though, is the mind-bending planning required to get just the right number of tokens sitting on the right actions at the right time. If you don’t spend time planning ahead, you will waste turns performing actions you don’t need just to be able to move tokens onto the action you really wanted to do.
The buildings in this game, while not a unique mechanism by any means, work really well. The purpose of constructing a building isn’t to put it on the map (they become meaningless once built) but rather to uncover an upgrade that makes one of your actions permanently more powerful. Choosing the right buildings early on is crucial, because as the game goes on, actions become more expensive. And trust me—you are really, really going to regret not having those upgrades when you have to burn turns trying to collect enough tokens on your actions.
The enemy tokens out on the map, which you collect when crusading (and for which you’ll also gain points for majorities at the end), were the absolute least interesting part of this game for me. Perhaps it’s because of the thematic dissonance I mentioned earlier. This just doesn’t feel like crusading. It’s passive. You know the strength number of the enemy before crusading, so you just have to make sure the power of your crusade action meets that number. You are never at risk of being defeated. It’s boring accounting instead of conveying the tension and uncertainty of war.
The last thing I’m going to mention is that this game does provide a bit of asymmetry. Each player is assigned a knight order tile with a special ability or effect. Some of these are simple—granting you additional tokens on your rondel or allowing you to upgrade some of your actions before the game begins—and some of them are more advanced and difficult to play with. This gives the game some additional variability and also allows for some slight handicapping when playing with less experienced players.
This is a game I will absolutely play again because of that rondel. It’s interesting and thought-provoking but also simple. This is an easy one to teach and play. It isn’t overly complicated and doesn’t take too long. It’s also one of those games that I know I’ll be able to just pick up and start playing, even if I haven’t played for a year. The rules are streamlined and elegant, and the few flaws I found are not enough to keep me from this game. If you’re looking for a solid middleweight game, I highly recommend giving Crusaders: Thy Will Be Done a try.
Publisher: Stormcrest Games. Designer: Randy Van Gelder. Year Published: 2017. Players: 2 – 4. Time: 25 – 45 min. Age: 13+. Weight: 1/5.
REVIEW BY CATHY. Two-player card battle games aren’t everyone’s cup of tea. They tend to have familiar mechanics, a bit of luck (what’s going to come out next in your carefully crafted but shuffled deck), and dark fantasy, superhero, or cyberpunk themes. While Master of Wills doesn’t bring anything new to table theme-wise (although I don’t think I’ll ever tire of cyberpunk), mechanics-wise it feels different, fresh, and engaging.
In Master of Wills, the rectangular board is rotated lengthwise so that each player sits on one end. You have your side of the board and your opponent has theirs, with a neutral zone in the middle. Community Cards (members of various sectors of society that you want to bring into your faction) will enter play in the middle, and it’s your goal to get those cards (and the points on them) to move to your half of the board in order to have the most points at the end of eight rounds.
Choosing a Community member to activate from the neutral zone doesn’t just mean that you get to move that card to your side of the board. Convincing them to join your faction affects other Community members on the board, persuading or dissuading them of your cause. You may be required to push a Government member (red card) one space away from you and into your opponent’s territory. Or you might get to bring a Law Enforcer (blue card) two spaces closer to you. And getting those cards all the way to your endzone, the Allies section, means they can never be moved and are guaranteed points at the end of the game.
Master of Wills is tug-of-war without the rope burn. That 14-point Union member (green card) might be on your side this round, just one step away from your safe and hallowed Allies area, but then pulled back to the middle and then into your opponent’s side on the next round.
Just this back and forth play is fun and engaging. But what really makes Master of Wills shine is the faction decks. Each player has a deck of cards that they craft at the beginning of the game, selectively whittled down out of a pre-made deck assigned to your faction (or one of the upcoming expansion decks). These cards bring dramatic swings into the game and also allow for keen strategy and quite a bit of deviousness.
There’s a huge variety of cards, each providing a different effect, some immediately moving cards from your opponent’s side to yours, some killing cards from the board completely, and others placed in a row directly on the board, affecting cards of a certain color whenever they enter that row. This variety of cards really allows you to craft a unique and focused deck.
But…while I love the deck-crafting in this game (I go for the kill cards every time), I don’t ever feel like my grand plans ever come to fruition. I spend all that time building a deck, selecting just the right cards, but then it’s only an eight-round game. And not every Community Card even allows you to play a faction card. After getting excited about the strategy built into my deck, I never get to play enough of the cards to really feel satisfied, to really feel like the time spent making my deck was worth it. We house-ruled a couple of extra rounds to give us a little bit more of a meatier play and that definitely helped.
While all of my plays of Master of Wills were two-player, the game also has a 4-player team variant. David gave it a try and was pleasantly surprised at how well it worked. In his opinion it gains a cooperative aspect. You can freely talk with your partner about what cards you each have and discuss strategy. And even though you have half as many turns in a 4-player game than a 2-player game, you still feel like you played a full game because you are also so involved in your partner’s turn.
Despite my feelings on the faction cards, I absolutely love playing Master of Wills. It’s a card battle game that just feels different than the others. It was refreshing, fun, and quick. And most importantly, I think, it was easy to teach and easy to catch on. There’s not a ton of AP going on, so it really moves quickly. I would definitely recommend this to anyone looking for a fun and quick but super-competitive 2-player game.
Post by David. The Gallerist hasn’t always been a favorite of mine. The first time I played it, I wasn’t ready for the depth and complexity it offered. I was overwhelmed and confused. But then I played it again after becoming a more seasoned gamer and I immediately fell in love. What was wrong with me before, I’d wondered. How could I have possibly disliked this game?
It also quickly became Cathy’s favorite game of all time. Currently, I believe it might be tied with Terraforming Mars and Lisboa (my personal favorite and another of Lacerda’s incredibly titles). She adores the game and plays it every chance she gets. So when we got the opportunity to play a new expansion, we immediately jumped on the opportunity.
The scoring expansion is small. Just a card sized punch board and a small rules explanation. It’s simple. Typically when you play The Gallerist, there is a scoring round near the middle of the game. Then there’s a second final scoring at the very end. Normally, the scoring of these is the same for every game. This changes that. Instead, you now have the option to have a variety of different scoring tiles to change things up.
It’s a small change that makes a surprising difference.
The strategies suddenly shift. You find yourself playing the game in a significantly different way, going after goals you hadn’t before. It makes the game feel fresh (even if it didn’t need a tune up). It doesn’t change the game as much as say the objectives do in Dinosaur Island, but with a game like Gallerist, that’s a good thing. And it’s enough to feel like a legitimate expansion for as small of a package as it is.
I absolutely recommend snatching up this little expansion and adding it to your collection. I think you’ll love it. And if you love Gallerist as much as we do, I doubt I need to encourage you to purchase it.
And if you’ve never played Gallerist before — I highly recommend it. I’d probably play Vinhos first, if you’ve never played a Lacerda game before and know that you’re diving into a complex game with lots of long term decisions. But as with all things Lacerda, it’s worth it.
Publisher: Blue Orange Games. Designers: Bruno Cathala, Ludovic Maublanc. Artist: Sylvain Aublin. Year Published: 2018. Players: 1-4. Time: 20min. Age: 8+. WEIGHT: 1/5.
POST BY CATHY. Visual puzzle games are my nemesis. Trying to fit oddly-shaped pieces together while also planning places for future oddly shaped pieces to go…it’s IMPOSSIBLE! And when a game like that comes to the table, I just expect to lose and want to get it over as soon as possible. So when we pulled out Scarabya and I saw those piles of polyominoes, I groaned internally but put on my bravest fight face. And yes, as expected, I failed miserably. Worse than miserably.
But the surprising thing is…I actually had fun doing it. And every time I played I did better and better until I finally got the hang of it.
In Scarabya, each player has their own modular board of squares (10 x 10) littered with tiny scarabs and a pile of oddly-shaped polyominoes. A card is revealed from the deck and all players must place the pictured polyomino on their board, making sure it’s touching a previously placed piece.
The goal, however, isn’t to fit the pieces snugly together like you would expect. In Scarabya, you actually use your shapes to surround areas of four or fewer squares, creating “excavation sites”. Any of those little scarabs illustrated on your player board that get trapped in those excavation sites score you points based on the site’s size. So each scarab trapped in a three-square excavation site is worth three points.
Scarabya is just plain fun. It’s a perfect little filler game that’s quick to set up and quick to play. It’s easy to teach, easy to learn, and very addictive. I’ve never just played this game once and then put it back on the shelf. It always gets multiple plays in a row, because it gives you that feeling of “I need to try it just one more time.”
My favorite part of this game, though, is the art. Each player has their own landscape to work in–underwater, desert, forest, or tundra–and the polyominoes are covered in these tiny, beautiful illustrations. As you place them, you are filling out your landscape with little workers, vehicles, plants, and other tiny details. My only complaint would be the component quality. The cards are fine, and I LOVE the little plastic mountains that give your landscape a three-dimensional feel, but the cardboard polyominoes are already showing a little wear and tear.
Scarabya is a quick, fun game that I keep in my bag as a filler or end-of-the-night game. Will it stay in our collection? I’m not really sure yet. While the puzzle of this game was a huge challenge for me at first, it hasn’t stayed that way. I may not have completely mastered it yet, but the better I get, the less interesting it is to play.
If you are looking for a fifteen-minute game to add to your collection that’s easy to teach to gamers or non-gamers alike, I absolutely recommend giving this one a try. It may not have a lot of staying power if you’re planning on replaying it frequently, but it will give you a fun challenge at least for a little while.