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.

Big Dig

Big Dig

Board Game Review

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.

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.

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.