SCARABYA REVIEW

SCARABYA REVIEW

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.

Duhr: The Lesser Houses

Duhr: The Lesser Houses

Board Game Review.

Publisher: Devious Weasel Games. Designer: Jim Felli. Year Published: 2018.
Artists: Reza Afshar and Jonathan Guzi
Players: 4-6. Time: 30min. Age: 14+. WEIGHT: 2/5.

POST BY DAVID. I’ve always enjoyed social deduction games. Avalon was (and still is) a favorite of mine when I was getting back into board games. I loved the idea of having a secret agenda, bluffing my way out of a situation, holding back maniacal laughter as the good guys got accused. We’d play it almost every week at my game night. Some of those people have moved, but when they come back for a visit it’s the first game that goes in my bag. So when I saw there was a new game of bluffing and take that coming to Gen Con 2018, it quickly went onto my most anticipated list.

I don’t hear much chatter about this game. I didn’t hear much about Bemused either (which it draws its origins from). Perhaps it’s the euro looking cover, or the dry title which gives no impression of the horrible backstabbing that will soon come into play. Whatever the reason, DUHR deserves to be noticed. It deserves to become one of your favorite end of the night games. It deserves to be played. A lot. By many people.

DUHR: THE LESSER HOUSES (pronounced D “oo” r, like doom) is a game that focuses on being an awful person to your friends, making alliances and then double crossing them at the last moment. Unlike Sidereal Confluence, there is absolutely no penalty for betraying someone. You’re encouraged to. And that’s where this game stands out from the rest. You can make any sort of deal you want. Trade whatever you like. Be horrible. Be awful. Be cruel. Reap the benefits.

At first glance DUHR seems like a simple card game. But it’s deeply thematic, and relatively heavy for the category. You’ll be given a house with a special ability, two secret objectives, and a “conspiracy” which gives you a second ability to use later in the game. Your goal is simple. Play suspicion and scandal cards on your opponents houses and avoid having them played on yours. If someone gets five cards, their house is disfavored.

If more than three of the cards on your house are scandals, your house is vilified and you must flip over your house card, discard all cards from your hand and have a limited set of actions — albeit very powerful ones. And with each house having a unique ability you’ll be making alliances any chance you get to keep those cards from landing in front of you. The game ends when only one house (or none) is favored. Then points will be added up based on your house standing or villainy — and be aware, the most evil of players can potentially win it all.

Events will happen at random to turn the tide. Players will throw down master strokes which give power actions or act like the nope cards from exploding kittens. And then you can get your nope noped or someone will nope the noped nope. It’s insane. And it’s brilliant.

Duhr is not a quiet game. It’s filled with trash talk, bringing up old games for black mail, king making (when you’re really just bribing an ability for one turn), and doing whatever it takes to win. Every turn makes you cringe, makes you gnaw your lip and bite your knuckles. Even better, it feels fast. Really fast. But make no mistake, this is not what I’d consider a filler game. It takes a bit too long to explain to qualify as one and you’ll immediately want to play it again.

Of course, this like many social games is only as good as what you bring to it. It requires 4 – 6 players which is usually a deal breaker for me. It won’t work to it’s full potential with a group who likes to stay quiet and nice. It’s desperate to have people stand up and yell at those who betrayed them, or happily back stab their best friend, or promise to do a thing …and then do another thing that wins them the game.

On the down sides, while the art is decent, it’s not amazing. It’s not bad or distracting but it isn’t eye catching either but it’s no better or worse than Avalon or any other social deduction games. Still, it’s very legible (which I always appreciate), gives that dark sense of intrigue, and the massive player aids are great to remind yourself or new players what they can do on their turns — because this game does have a bit of a learning curve.

Does this game have the magical evergreen powers of Avalon or One Night? Probably not. It’s got that learning curve. You can’t explain it in five seconds. It’s a bit longer, a bit heavier, and not as quick and simple as the mass market typically demands in this category. It’s not as “fun”. It’s mean. It’s ruthless. It’s petty. But this is also what I love about it. It’s unforgiving horribleness. So with that said, if you’re wanting that “betray your friends” party game feel, plus a heck of a lot more, wanting to be something other than Merlin or a Werewolf — then this is the game for you. 

Chartered

Chartered

Board Game Review

Publisher: Jolly Dutch. Designer: Alexander Kneepkens. Year Published: 2019.
Players: 2 – 6. Time: 60 – 90 min. Age: 10+. Weight: 1/5.

POST BY DAVID. I remember the first time I saw the beautiful mechs that came with Scythe. Instantly I thought back to my Battletech days, firing particle projection canons or dashing about in my Locust. I had no idea it was going to be a thematic euro that focused on efficiency. It took me a moment to get past that, but now that I have, it’s one of my favorite games.

Expectations are important. If your game is going to be different than what people expect, it needs to be better than those expectations. And while this was definitely the case with Scythe, it wasn’t with Chartered.

I looked at the beautiful cover and thought, “This is going to be a heavy euro with difficult decisions!” Narrator: It wasn’t. “I hope it’s fabulously dry with little randomness.” Narrator: He would be disappointed. After Cathy read the rules, she cringed as she looked across the table at me. My smile quickly faded. That’s never a good look. Rolled eyes means it’s going to be awful. But a cringe. A cringe means it’ll just be “okay”.

She explained that this was a stock market game. My interest was piqued because Mombasa is one of my favorite games of all time. I’d love to have a light version of that game. So I held out hope. We’d each take turns snatching up deeds, building industries by stacking fantastically designed little buildings in an equally charming town. As we built up the buildings and expanded them, this would affect the stock market. Our stock purchases would depend a lot on the deeds we had in our hand, what we thought we could manipulate. Events would happen from time to time to swing the stock around, but not too much to be game breaking. So this wasn’t a heavy euro. It was a lightweight stock market game. 

And it was fun at first. We had a good time. But on our second play through we started seeing the kinks. The most important of these was the entire theme of the game. This was a stock market game that didn’t work like a stock market. Buying and selling of stocks has no effect. Apart from those event cards, stocks you purchase will never go down. There is zero risk. Nothing hurts. You can’t trick everyone to buying something and then destroy it on your way out, leaving your opponents cursing your name and coming up with their own schemes. Worse, those events cards that could have created risk, don’t create enough for me to care. Typically they’d lower or raise everything, or lower the highest or raise the lowest. It felt like I was playing a game with training wheels. I could ride the bike, and it might wobble a little, but there was no need for a helmet.

To make matters worse, there wasn’t a variety of avenues for success. The best strategy was to look at my hand of deeds, look for a group of numbers that were close together and start an industry at the matching location on the board. Then I’d simply buy every stock of that industry and invest everything building it up. Because there was no risk in buying everything of one stock, I never had to worry about someone tanking it or reducing the value, it just keeps getting more and more valuable. A new person to this game would get destroyed.

Then there’s the problem of the deeds and acquiring buildings. The board is too big with too many deeds to be engaging (70 in total). It’s like playing battleship with only one ship each. And as we found too often, you will get stuck with a hand of deed cards for locations you can’t build on because unless they add on to an existing industry, or are far enough away to start a new one, they’re useless. And the market to get new deeds is extremely small (5 cards in a two player, 3 cards in a 4+ player). This forces you to buy those useless cards (or blind purchase from the deck) to reveal new ones with no option to refresh. Level cards (which you can use to increase stocks significantly) also come out at random from the same deck and are of course snatched up by the next player. It feels like a bad dice roll.

But. We had fun. Most of the time, we enjoyed ourselves — even if it felt like we got a decent meal that needed salt. We could see people really having fun so long as they didn’t take it too seriously. This wasn’t the mean stock trading heavy euro we were hoping for with lots of difficult decisions. It’s light, casual, has little risk, and has a fair bit of randomness thrown in.

The artwork is very solid. It’s legible. It’s nice to look at. I genuinely smiled each time I opened it and often found myself looking closer. The buildings (though ours are prototypes) were very fun to build and awesome to look at. With so many games I’ve seen in recently memory that feel marginally adequate, it’s refreshing to see such love and attention put into a game. Henkjan Hoogendoorn worked hard on the visuals for this game and it shows, especially for a first time board game artist. I’m excited to see what he does next.

In the end, it really came down to those expectations. When I hear stock trading and I see a cover for a game like that, I go into it expecting something very different than what I got from Chartered. And while it was fun at times, it wasn’t compelling and it didn’t hurt enough for my taste. Regardless, my expectations have been set for Jolly Dutch and I absolutely look forward to seeing what they come out with next. 

Pocket Mars

Pocket Mars

Board Game Review

Publisher: Grey Fox Games. Designer: Michał Jagodziński.
Artist: Jarosław Wajs. Year Published: 2017.
Players: 1-4. Time: 15-30min. Age: 10+. WEIGHT: 2/5.

POST BY CATHY. Small-box games have a tough current to swim in. They don’t get a lot of love. You rarely see them on the BGG hotness. Very few make it to the hallowed halls of the top 100. And they’re seldom seen on the tables of my weekly game night.

Small-box games seem to be reserved only for those little in-between moments: sitting at the airport, waiting at the DMV, or needing to kill a few minutes while another group finishes a bigger, longer, and let’s face it, better, board game.

They say it’s not about the size, but who are we kidding here. When it comes to board games, it most definitely is a little bit about the size.

To succeed in the flood of small-box games that come out each year and to compete with the quick-play bigger games (like Santorini, Tsuro, and Magic Maze), small games absolutely need to stand out. The gameplay has to be quick, the art and design has to be clean and thematic, the decisions have to be compelling, and, above all, it has to be unique. Pocket Mars accomplishes…some of this.

Pocket Mars puts everything it aspires to be right there on the cover. It’s a Mars-themed game that [possibly] could fit in a [fairly large] pocket. The main components are simple: a deck of sciencey-looking numbered cards, the five building cards of the Mars colony, and a single illustrated Earth card. Each player also receives a spaceship card and seven tiny helmet meeples in their player color.

The goal in Pocket Mars is to transport all of your tiny helmet meeples (sorry…colonists) from Earth to Mars faster and better than your opponent(s). It seems so simple, right? So easy? Well, sorry to be the bearer of good news, but it’s not easy. Behind the small box, simple components, and quick gameplay of Pocket Mars, there’s actually a fair bit of depth to the decision-making.

The source of this depth is the cards, because the cards in this game are dual-use. I could pause for a moment and wax poetic about the beauty of multi-use cards and the deliciously painful decision-making they induce, but I’ll spare you. I’ll just say that the dual-use cards in Pocket Mars are no exception. They are the core of what is interesting about this game.

At the beginning of each turn, you’ll have four cards: two in your hand and two face down in front of you in your prep module. Each card has a color, a number value, and two actions. If you play a card from your hand, you get to activate its top action before discarding. But if you play a card from your prep module, you trigger three effects. Instead of being discarded, the card is played beneath the building matching its color. If the card’s value is greater than the card under it, you get to move a colonist from your spaceship to the Mars building. Then, you’ll activate the bottom action of the card, as well as the building’s action.

The truly difficult part here comes at the end of your turn when you draw back up to four and have to choose which cards to delegate to the prep module and which to leave in your hand. The cards in your hand should have top actions that will set up more effective future turns. This forces you to plan ahead and figure out ways to make the cards work together. Pre-planning is a must in this game, and that is what makes Pocket Mars a satisfying and, considering the short time it takes to play, pretty crunchy game.

The best small-box games are ones that I’m excited to have a reason to pull out, ones that I would consider playing multiple times in a row on a game night in place of a larger game. But I’m afraid that Pocket Mars just isn’t that. While I’m playing Pocket Mars, I am fully invested and engaged and it’s great. But when I pack it away, piling it precariously atop the stack of small-box games on my shelf, I forget about it until the next time I’m facing one of those in-between moments. And even when those times come around, it’s just not Pocket Mars I find myself reaching for.

Yes, Pocket Mars provides some interesting decision-making, but that just isn’t enough when there are other little games that do the same thing and do it better. The cover art of Pocket Mars promises an exciting Mars romp waiting inside, but then it doesn’t deliver. The theme is thin and the card art is bland. I spend much of the game pretending I’m transporting my tiny helmets to the shelves of a tiny helmet specialty store instead of a bustling Mars colony.

So if you’re looking for a new small-box game, Pocket Mars is definitely a great one to try. But if you’re looking for a staple in your collection, you might look elsewhere. Pocket Mars is interesting to explore for a few games, but it doesn’t have the staying power it needs for a small-box game to succeed in a big-box world.

Space Park

Space Park

Board Game Review

Publisher: Keymaster Games. Designer: Henry Audubon. Year Published: 2018.
1 – 4 Players / 20 min / 14+ / Weight: 1/5

POST BY DAVID BOCK. Almost four years ago, I learned a game called Splendor. It was one of my first gateway games into the hobby. It was such a shift from the other board games I’d played. When I was a kid, I was obsessed with a card game called Manipulation (a form of Rummy). You’d play a card and then rearrange cards to create sets. So for me, a game about set collection was very close to my heart. It was simple to get, but the process of getting to the end was always different.

Most recently, Century Spice Road became an overnight success (though I’m still a fan of the Golem Edition). It was a game I loved just as much as splendor and I can personally attest to having seen it become a gateway game for folks at my game night. So can Cathy. Even still, these are still, at their hearts, full length card games.

Space Park wants to be something different. It wants to blast off into unchartered territory while still staying tethered to its roots. Unlike most set collection games, this one actually pulls off being called a board game. And even more surprising — it’s a filler game. I’d argue that this small little game could be your next gateway drug of choice to give to your unsuspecting friends and family.

In SPACE PARK, you’re adventurers, blasting off in your rocket ships and flying throughout the galaxy to visit the futuristic version of national parks, and doing your best to collect more explorer badges than Russel in Disney’s “Up.” Various locations give you different items. Some planets give you gems, others give you tickets to travel faster, you might even get a friendly robot that’ll give you some aid. And as you collect cards and trade in gems to fulfill them, you’ll also be building a little engine that will help you be more efficient at your job.

In most games you’d expect to have your own rocket and go where you want. But here’s where the game takes a sharp left turn. These rockets are usable by everyone. You’ll have to choose a location (action) where a rocket has already “landed” and then it’ll automatically move after your turn to the next available space. This limits your choices and makes the game intensely satisfying.

Like most KEYMASTER GAMES, you can explain it in less than five minutes. And because your choices are limited by what other players do, it’s a very equalizing game. As well this makes it unintentionally mean at times, but no less fun. More importantly, it can take as little as twenty minutes or as long as forty — depending on the level of intensity and focus you want to give it. But at its heart, this is a solid filler game.

With SPACE PARK you’ll also yourself spacing out (pun completely intended) as you look as the incredible art. It’s everything I come to expect from KEYMASTER GAMES. So much love was put into every single detail that you can’t help but love it as well. The gems are gorgeous, color matched beautifully to the beautiful vistas. The typography is easy to read and still as immersive. Take note here, designers, because I’m going to say that again. A game can be absolutely beautiful and still have extremely legible typography choices. For examples, please see every single game that KEYMASTER has produced.

Is it mind-blowing? No. It isn’t. But it’s fun. It’s well edited. It’s affordable. It’s a game you can enjoy with non-gamer folks. And it’s very very pretty.

Don’t get me wrong. I absolutely love games that stay on the hotness for months, that cost hundreds of dollars and are addictive cardboard drugs. But sometimes I just want something short, fun, and simple that my wife and I can play at a restaurant, or between rounds of Lisboa to give our brains a break, or take to a family gathering, or bring when we have new folks coming to our game nights. THIS is where that game shines.

See for me, part of what I love about games, is how it makes other people feel when they play it. I love watching a fresh gamer immediately snag a rocket ship as I set things up, watch them inspect the gem stones and smile at the little robot. I see myself in them. I see myself playing Splendor for the first time with this big grin on my face at how heavy those clay chips were. And then, when we get to the end of that first game, they’ll look up, nod, and say what I always love to hear.

“Can we play again?”

Heart of Crown

Heart of Crown

Board Game Review

Publisher: Japanime Games. Designer: gingko. Year Published: 2011.
2 – 4 Players / 30 min / 12+ / Weight: 2/5

POST BY CATHY BOCK. Many of us still remember that first game of Dominion, sitting across from that over-excited friend–the one obsessed with board games of all things–who seemed sure they were about to change your life with something revolutionary. And maybe they were right. Because you played it, this dull-looking card game, and you actually liked it.

At first it seemed so simple–play some cards, buy some cards, play some cards, buy some cards, shuffle and repeat. But then the game suddenly ended just as you were getting going. Just as it was getting good. You’d discovered these combinations of cards that gave you more cards and then more money to buy more cards and you were feeling so so smart about it all. But then it was over. While you were busy being smart, your friend, now sitting there with that smug grin, had whittled away that pile of Provinces, leaving you with a worthless brick of cards in front of you. There had been a subtle shift in the game that you had missed. And it was clever. Different. Even fun.

It would be impossible for me to talk about Heart of Crown without talking about Dominion. Dominion spawned a whole genre of deck-builders and was a gateway game for many of us. But it was mostly devoid of theme, and what little theme it had was not appealing. Enter Heart of Crown. Heart of Crown is Dominion in lace. Dominion with blue-haired anime princesses, maids in aprons, and magical girl witches. And while the anime theme is not really my thing, it gives the game a heart and a feeling that I’m doing something for a purpose, something I never felt with Dominion.

Also, *whispers* it’s just a better game.

In Heart of Crown, your emperor has died unexpectedly, leaving an open throne and seven daughters. You must decide which princess to give your support and then earn enough succession points to ensure her place on the throne. The setup is what you’d expect–action cards, territory (treasure) cards, and succession (point) cards are available to purchase. You start off only able to afford the cheap stuff, building your way up until you are finally able to back a princess.

Now here’s where Heart of Crown starts to diverge from its Dominion parentage in an important way. There are six princess cards (one is a set of twins), each with its own unique ability, to choose from. You must back a princess at some point in the game in order to begin playing (scoring) your succession cards, but the timing here is crucial.

When you choose to back a princess, in addition to paying six gold, three territory (treasure) cards will be removed from your hand and placed in your domain in front of you. But if one of these territories is a starting card–a lowly Farming Village–that’s negative two points. And if it’s a Large City card that normally gets you 6 gold when played, you’re losing a lot of bank by not having that in your deck.

But–and here’s the interesting part–each territory in your domain allows you to save an action card (of equal or lesser value) on it for a future turn. This means that instead of using a card now, when you don’t really need it, you can save it for when that big combo comes around. This is huge. Enormous. This eliminates the one thing I dislike most about deck-builders–the luck of the draw. You can save your Wishing Well until you have a dud hand and need a new draw. You can save your Bank card until you need a big payday. You can plan just the right moment to play a card, making it so much more satisfying because no one can say that it was luck that won you the game. Careful planning, unlike in most deck-builders, is a real thing in this game.

In Heart of Crown, as soon as someone takes that first princess, the race is on and you better grab yours soon before someone scores a fistful of Duke cards and leaves you in the dust. And unlike in Dominion, those points don’t clog up your deck. While it takes up a turn to play them to your domain, they don’t stay there constantly churning up like a nasty piece of gristle in your chicken soup.

This just adds to the feeling that in Heart of Crown, you–not your deck–are in control. And that player control is what makes this game one of my new favorite deck-builders. So now I’m the one. I’m the over-excited friend pushing games on people like a back-alley puppy dealer. But now when I’m in the mood for a deck-builder as bait, it’s Heart of Crown, not Dominion, on my table luring in the unexpecting and getting them hooked and wanting more.