Thursday, December 18, 2008

221B Baker Street

It's difficult to design a true mystery game. Classics like Clue may involve a mystery but they're more about process of elimination than solving a case. Players who want to puzzle over clues and be the first to solve the crime may want to take a look at 221B Baker Street.

221B was written more than thirty years ago. When the game begins you're read an introduction to a mystery case of some sort- it may be a missing person, a burglary, or a murder for example. You are given a list of suspects and relevant locations and facts. Then you set down your playing piece on a map of the city of London. Each turn you roll a die and move your token towards some location. For example, the burglary took place in the post office so you head in that direction. Another player may move towards the park. When you arrive at that location you receive a clue specific to that location. If other players want that clue they're going to need to move to that location as well. When you have enough clues to solve the case you move your token back to the starting square and announce your solution to the case. If you're right, you win.

The game has many features that set it apart from other mystery games. For one, the cases grow progressively more tricky. This is a game best suited for thoughtful teens and adults. If you and your teens enjoy a clever mystery then you'll be very happy with the ones offered in the game. Players will also feel a real sense of urgency and drama as the game goes on. One player gets to "the museum," reads the clue, and smiles. Panic ensues- is there an important clue there? Is the person bluffing? Should you send your token to the museum or send it elsewhere? Some clues are helpful and some aren't. No single clue will solve the case so you will never find a player visiting one spot and immediately winning.

So who would enjoy 221B Baker Street? I personally enjoy trying to solve mysteries and I found 221B to be lots of fun. The cases are just hard enough to make you think but not so hard and obscure that they'll be frustrating. There are also many additional cases available for purchase so the game has a long long playing lifespan. 221B does require the players to pay close attention and think about the clues. Keep that in mind in deciding if it's right for your players.

One other complication about 221B Baker Street is that it may be quite difficult to find. Happily it is available on EBay and seems to be priced very reasonably.

Pros: Exciting and well written mysteries
Lots of additional cases available

Cons: Requires reading and concentration
Out of print so you'll probably find it on EBay

Beyond the Basics: The game has good replay value but it's not something you're going to get better at with additional play. For mystery lovers, however, the 10th game will be just as fun as the first.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

The New Boardgame Basics

What is it that defines the new boardgames? Most of us are familiar with Clue, Monopoly, and the various other classic games. Let's talk about some of the qualities that the newer games bring to the picture.

I think the simplest thing that may strike a parent is that the games give you new things to do. Most of the classic games involve moving a playing piece around a rectangular board. Examples that come to mind include Payday, Life, even the Barbie Prom Queen game. The new games are different- you may lay down tiles to build a map. You may trade cards or build a city out of blocks. Players may be given a job or task. In Settlers of Catan you build a colony. When you play Pillars of the Earth you create a cathedral. And in Bang you play the role of a western sheriff. I think this variety can be pretty exciting and can allow you to find games that suit your family well.

Another element of the new games is that they're designed for an international market. For that reason there may be very little reading required to play. Games like Monopoly and Trivial Pursuit require the players to read cards and that may limit their appeal for younger family members. Parents may also find that the rules for the games may be shorter and that the playing pieces may have symbols on them to help players along.

Finally, the new games may have surprising strategic depth. These are games that you can get better at. Games that teens and adults may play seriously and try to win. This doesn't mean that the casual gamer won't enjoy Formula D for example. But repeated play will reveal all sorts of tricks and strategies that will keep the game fresh.

There are two potential drawbacks to the new games. The first is that they may be tricky to find. Hit and Run Games in Lexington has a good selection. Pandemonium Books in Central Square, Danger Planet in Waltham, and Hobby Bunker in Malden also carry a good supply. The other potential drawback is the expense. The components of these games are fabulous but that does come at a price. Many will cost between forty and sixty dollars. That is less than Gears of War 2 for the Xbox but nevertheless is not cheap. Ask for help at the store if you aren't sure what will suit your family best. Or look for tips on this blog!

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Apples to Apples

Let's talk about a terrific game that I recommend often and yet personally hate playing. Apples to Apples has had huge success and spawned a number of expansions and add-ons. It's a popular group game and a good choice for playing in the car or with larger groups of children.

The rules of Apples to Apples are simple. All the players get a hand of cards and upon the cards are nouns- "my teacher," or "a banana," for example. Then the players take turns dealing a card with an adjective on it. For example it might say "grumpy." Everyone then chooses a card from their hand which best matches the word "grumpy." Finally the group decides whose suggestion is best and that person wins points.

As one can imagine the game gets quite lively as people throw out funny suggestions and then argue as to which is best. Is "my sister" the grumpiest? Or is "a whale" the grumpiest? Players can make their best case that a whale is actually quite grumpy and if everyone agrees then that person scores the points. Therein lies this games strength and it's weakness. The play is very interactive and everyone gets involved. There's lots of laughs as people argue who or what is grumpy or tall or funny. In my opinion this is also a sort of weakness. Many games require some decision making and risk taking- do you buy Park Place? Do you think Professor Plum used a candlestick? And after the game a person might say "OK, don't buy railroads," or "next time I'll play differently and win!" In Apples to Apples there's little room for risks or for improving between games. The game is very replayable but in a fashion similar to Trivial Pursuit- each time you play your experience is going to be about the same. I think at heart that Apples to Apples is a great game for non-gamers.

Apples to Apples has been reprinted numerous times. There are versions for younger players, party vesions, Bible history versions and supplements for everything from Yiddish to British Isles. You can find a copy at Hit and Run Games in Lexington.

Pros: Fun and lively game
Good group game, good party game, good social game
Easy for kids to play

Cons: No game strategy per se
Not a game you can play to win

Beyond the Basics: Difficult to say- the game is replayable and expansions are available but you're not going to become "better" at Apples to Apples.

Ticket to Ride

Trains and train travel are pretty appealing to kids and adults. It’s fun to imagine settling down and crossing the prairie or taking a trip across Spain by rail. Days of Wonder Games took that fantasy and used it to create one of the world’s most popular games, Ticket to Ride.

The board in Ticket to Ride presents you with a map of the United States. The map shows the location of several dozen major cities and the rail lines that connect them. Each rail line has a length in spaces. For example New York is two spaces from Washington, DC while Miami is six spaces from New Orleans. Finally each rail line is one of eight colors. In each game turn the players draw and discard cards from a deck. When you have enough cards of one color you can “take control” of a particular rail line. For example it takes two orange cards to control the New York to DC line. A player could turn in two orange cards and place their playing tokens along that line. They now own that route and score points. You can try and save cards to control some longer route or play them quickly and take shorter routes faster. You win points in the game for each line you control, and the longer the line in spaces, the more points you get.

The rules add in a few refinements. You can get wild cards and extra points for specific routes but in general the game plays like rummy. Players score by amassing cards of a certain type but if they wait too long to play them another player may score first. This is probably one of the reasons for Ticket to Ride’s success- simple and familiar rules combined with a gorgeous board.

So who would enjoy Ticket to Ride? Anyone old enough to understand collecting cards of a certain color and trading them for points can play the game. One possible downside is that while trains are a theme and there are train illustrations on the board it’s otherwise a fairly abstract game. Classic games like Sorry and Tic Tac Toe are also abstract so this isn’t a strike against Ticket to Ride per se, but a younger child who’s told they’re going to be playing a “train game” may end up disappointed. I see this as being a terrific game for older children and adults, perhaps ages ten and up. You can finish a game is well less than an hour so attention is less of an issue. Finally, there are numerous expansions available so if you do enjoy the game you’ll have many opportunities to try different maps and variations. You can find this game at Hit and Run Games in Lexington or Pandemonium Books in Central Square.

Pros: Simple rules
No reading required
Relatively quick to play

Cons: Abstract game will disappoint people who want to push around models of trains

Beyond the Basics: The rummy system has good long term playability potential.
Plenty of expansions are available if you enjoy the game

The New Classics

Most people have played classic boardgames- Clue or Monopoly come to mind. Let's talk about two new classics- best selling games that have been big hits over the last few years. The first is Carcassonne. The title refers to a region of France famous for its pretty towns. Carcassonne is a simple and beautiful game. To play you draw a square tile out of a bag. On the tile is a picture of a field with a road, town, or castle on it. You take turns laying the tiles down on a table so that the roads connect from one tile to another, similar to how you play dominoes. As time goes by the players create a huge map of towns, castles, and roads. That by itself can be pretty fun for younger kids. The players then put tiny wooden people on the roads, fields or castles to “claim” them. The larger the field or longer the road, the more points you get. You have a limited number of playing pieces so you have to weigh out which roads and fields are best to claim.

Carcassonne requires no reading and very limited counting. In terms of rules if you can understand dominoes you’re ready to play. Very young children may just enjoy building the map from the tiles. Older (ages 8 and up) children will be able to play and keep score. Once you get beyond age 12 or so you begin to understand the strategy of where to place people and tiles. The entire game can be played in about thirty minutes so it’s well suited for family game night or even a gathering of adults once the kids are asleep.

Pros: Quick and simple game
No reading required and very limited counting

Cons: None really

Beyond the Basics: You can purchase a multitude of expansions and add-ons to the game.
The game becomes more challenging and fun for older players. Adults may choose to play when the kids are asleep.

The second new classic is Bohnanza, or “the bean game” as we used to call it. Children are familiar with beans. They know that they are good for the heart, although in the South they are known as the miracle fruit as well. In the game of Bohnanza you play a bean farmer. You get a hand of cards with pictures of different beans on them- green beans, cocoa beans, etc. Each turn you trade your cards with the other players. The more cards of a given type you end up with, the more points you score. Children of the Pokemon generation should be instantly ready to understand a trading and collecting game and they may outshine the adults at bargaining for a good exchange.

The fun in Bohnanza stems to a large extent from the trading that takes place each turn. Players mill around trying to get the beans that they want and rack up the points. Each turn can create a chaotic and fun trading scene. This is another game where you can play without reading skills, although it does help to recognize numbers. This is also a game where attentive adults can steer events so that younger children do well. You can choose to trade good cards to your youngest and pump up their score. In that sense Bohnanza may be less risky that games like Monopoly where a few bad die rolls can lead to one grumpy young player.

On a personal note I recommend Bohnanza as a fun game for adults. I think it's exciting, has some strategy, but plays fun and light.

Pros: Exciting and interactive game
Rewards and encourages lively trading
Ideal for kids who grow impatient waiting for others to finish a turn
A great example of a steerable game where parents can make sure everyone does well

Cons: As above, players who find trading dull will find the game dull.

Beyond the Basics: Adults like trading and cashing in, this game is very playable for teens and up.
Lots of expansions available to purchase and the game is played worldwide.

Both Bohnanza and Carcassonne are carried in specialty game stores. You can find copies locally at Hit and Run Games in Lexington.

Formula D

Let's talk about racing games. The gold standard for car racing board games has long been a game called Formula De. In this game the players drive formula cars around a track, avoiding collisions, slowing for the curves and then gunning the engines for the straightaways. Imagine a group of kids and adults standing around the table, rolling dice and cheering or moaning as the cars jockey for position. That’s a game of Formula De.

This year the game was re-released under the title Formula D. The new edition has a streamlined rules system that gets people playing quickly. You place tiny plastic cars down on a board with an illustration of a famous racetrack. The track is marked out in spaces and you roll dice to see how many spaces your car can move. In this sense it's pretty similar to Monopoly. Now imagine that when playing Monopoly you can choose to move faster or slower. Maybe you want to avoid Boardwalk, or maybe you want to land on it and buy it. So instead of rolling two dice you can choose to roll one and "slow down" near a property you want, or roll three to "speed up" and zip past Boardwalk. Formula D uses just this system to allow players to control their cars.

The excitement in Formula D comes from choosing when to speed up or slow down. Players want to speed ahead on the straight portions of the track but slow down when approaching a curve. The rules limit how quickly you can go from rolling high numbers to rolling low ones. If you move your car too quickly through a curved section of the track you run the risk of blowing out a tire or crashing.

So how does this play out in your living room? Your daughter's car is zooming down the track, she should slow down but she's feeling reckless. Everyone shouts "slow down crazygirl!" but she rolls the high numbers- will she crash or make it safely around the curve? Woosh- she gets lucky. Then it's your turn- the pressure to catch her is intense so you roll high as well. Screech- you roll too high and your car shreds tires. Any more rolls like that and you'll crash so you resolve to play more cautiously in the future. Meanwhile your son is rolling to get around the same curve, but your car is in the way. He has to slow down so he rolls low numbers but he promises you he'll speed up next round and take the lead.

Families can play Formula D as simple race around the track. Four players can finish a race in an hour or so (the tracks are big). The game includes optional rules for longer races, pit stops, customizing your car, and even tournaments and racing seasons. In addition you can buy additional boards with different race tracks on them.

Who would enjoy Formula D? Racing fans of course. The game certainly plays best with three or more players so it is well suited to groups of kids or adults. You do need to be able to count well and to understand moving spaces on a board. If a child can say “oh, don’t roll a six or you’ll land on Boardwalk,” then they’re ready. The manufacturers suggest ages eight and up. I personally think that Formula D is an exciting game, fast paced, with simple rules and a beautiful presentation. In the board game world it’s a justified classic. Locally the game is available at Hit and Run Games in Lexington and The Hobby Bunker in Malden.

Pros: Exciting and fast paced.
Simple rules.
Excellent for groups.

Cons: Can take at least an hour to play.
Requires some attention on the part of the players.

Beyond the Basics: This is a very subtle and strategic game. Adults and teens can replay tracks many times and still find the game exciting and rewarding.
Formula D (and De) has enormous online support and is played worldwide. There are dozens of additional tracks available and more on the way.