Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Max- Cooperative Gaming for the Kids

Let's make another attempt to cover a game which is intended for younger players. Happily in the case of Max, we have found an example that's perfect for even fairly young children. As a bonus it's a cooperative game and has a nice elegant system of play.

In the game of Max the players try and move three little animals across the yard and into a tree before Max the cat can catch them. The players control all the animals and Max's actions run automatically. The players start out on a board with a pathway of spaces leading from the house to a tree. The animals (a cute bird, chipmunk, and mouse) start six spaces ahead of the cat. In each turn the players roll a pair of dice. The die rolls will decide whether the animals move, Max moves, or both the animals and Max move. The odds overall favor Max covering more distance and appearing to "catch up" to the bird and her friends.

The players do have some tricks to even the match. One trick is that they have four "cat treats." At four different moments they can offer Max a treat and he has to go back to the start. The animals also have shortcuts they can move across. Each animal has a shortcut specifically for them to use. If Max lands on a shortcut space he Must take it. This leads to the last wrinkle to the game. Max can only go forwards. He can actually hit a shortcut and end up in front of the little creatures. At that point the animals are temporarily safe as they trail behind Max.

I like a lot that Max has to offer. The board and components are small and simple but they get the job done. The game is cooperative so you avoid the winner/loser dichotomy. A thoughtful parent should be able to spin any outcome into something worth congratulating the players over. The concept is simple enough for very young children but there is enough decision making to satisfy older players as well. Possibly the only downside is that in some circumstances one or more cute small animals are going to be caught by the cat. I would just say "oh, the mouse ran away," rather than "Max ate your mouse."

I haven't seen Max in local stores, it may require a special order. I think it has a lot to offer younger players, however, so it's worth the extra effort.

Pros: Cooperative play, good for very young players

Cons: May be difficult to find

Beyond the Basics: It's a pretty simple game so long term replay value is low, at least until your kids get kids of their own...

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Small World - Fantasy Empire Building

In a fitting followup to my Zooloretto escapades I located another game with such a cute cute title that it was a shoe in for another review aimed at younger players. To my surprise Small World is not a game which celebrates the many things that children over the world have in common (see Mem Fox's Whoever You Are (1998) for a nice example of that). Small World is instead a game in which you build a vast kingdom and kick the other players Out of the small world you're living in. That would have been enough to make me look elsewhere but it seems like Small World is also very fun so let's talk about it.

Players in Small World take control of a race of creatures. You get a basic type of being: giants, amazons, and sorcerers being examples. Your race is then assigned a special ability, such as being able to fly or being very diplomatic. In the course of the game the players move tokens into empty spaces on a map of a fantasy land. The more space you possess, the higher you score. If someone else already owns the space you can kick them out by using more tokens to move in than they already have in the space. Say the Flying Skeletons own a space. The Commando Orcs can conquer it with two tokens plus one for each Skeleton unit already there. If the Skeletons had two tokens it would take four total to conquer it. Player's conquests slow down as they run out of a finite number of tokens. When they run too low they can start a totally new race with a new special ability. They continue to score points for anything left from the old group as well.

The strategy in Small World comes from several factors. Some areas on the board are more difficult to conquer because of mountains or fortresses. Some races may do better or worse in various areas based on their special ability. Some races also score special points for certain areas, dwarves for example scoring extra if they control mines. This results in a fun and simple conquest game with a fair amount of potential strategy.

I liked the simple rules of Small World. While the game is listed as ages eight and up I think it may be better suited slightly older children, but still it's a generally approachable game. In addition the random combination of powers and races means that each game will play slightly differently and that adds good replay value. I think Small World has a far more limited audience than, say, Gift Trap. I suspect a parent will know immediately if their child wants to play a game of conquering fantasy kingdoms with elves and dwarves. Small World players, you know who you are.

The components of the game are high quality which is typical for the publisher, Days of Wonder. I was struck by some of the character illustrations. The skeletons look pretty funny but the ghouls and ratmen are a little spooky. The dwarves appear to be drinking beer. And the amazons look, well, hot. Just be forewarned.

Small World is a very nice conquest and strategy game with simple rules and fair replay value. It has a limited audience but for what it is, it looks like a winner. It's recently published but is probably available soon through Pandemonium Books in Central Square or through Hit and Run Games in Lexington.

Pros: Great beginners strategy game, humerous theme and graphics

Cons: Like most strategy games has a fairly restrictive target audience

Beyond the Basics: Good replay value and supplements are planned.

Game Night in Somerville!

The Games People Play is hosting a game night every month at Johnny D's Uptown. I was going to see bands at Johnny D's twenty years ago and it's still a cool place for live music and dancing. Now it's also a cool place to go and sample some boardgames and meet some other players.

Every month Carol from Games People Plays drags up a crate of games and people sit down and get playing. You may see some chess or cribbage, but also expect Transamerica, Blokus and Carcassonne. This is an adults only evening but if you're looking for some inspiration then this is the place to be. The presence of food and a bar are little bonuses.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Tactical Game for Beginners on Massive Sale

AT-43 is a tactical game in which players move miniature plastic soldiers around a battlefield and fight in mock battles. In the business it's known as a "miniatures game," because it uses miniature army soldiers about two inches in height. Most miniatures games require you to paint the soldiers yourself. In this sense the hobby is as much about the craft as it is about the game. AT-43 is a different sort of product in that it sells the figures already painted.

In AT-43 you place your miniature soldiers on a playing surface and fight a battle with them. The rules describe how figures can move, how far they can fire their weapons, and what happens if they're hit. I found the rules to be simple and elegant. My impression is that they're written with beginners in mind and designed more to please game players then to simulate strictly a combat situation. At the same time I found the rules support some fairly sophisticated play so they have that rare quality of being exciting for both beginners and experienced gamers.

In order to play the game one needs to buy a number of miniature soldiers. There are a number of different science fiction armies to choose from ranging from humans to giant armour-wearing gorillas. Players purchase a guide to their army and then purchase the miniatures required to create a force. In this sense it's similar to the collectible card games in which players try and create a deck of game winning cards, only in this case it's an group of game winning miniature soldiers.

At present the majority of the AT-43 line is on massive sale at The War Store online. I don't know how long this sale is going to last. Further, it may be a sign that the game is going to be discontinued. At present, however, parents have a golden opportunity to introduce their kids to miniature gaming at rock bottom prices. An interested person might start by buying the Operation Damocles boxed set and the basic rule book. The boxed set includes a pared down version of the rules. I found this to be excessively simple so if you're interested enough to buy the boxed set then get the full rules as well. The boxed set gives you enough playing pieces to give the game a trial run. If it turns out to be fun then buy an army guide and start building your force. The AT-43 New England Yahoo group describes local resources for people interest in the game as well. The group is moderated by a store owner, however, so some of the material in the group may reflect this. Finally, feel free to write me here if you have questions about the game.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Arkham Horror - Teens and Up Please

Arkham Horror is an absolutely fabulous game but one with a very specific audience. In the 1920's and 30's an author named H. P. Lovecraft wrote dozens of short stories with thrilling and supernatural themes. While some people might label these as "horror" stories I think this is misleading. Lovecraft's stories might be better described as weird fiction or thrilling tales. His heroes are drawn to old graveyards, hidden caverns, and spooky locations of all sorts. They are offered many reasons why they should turn back but their curiosity drives them onwards. In the end they discover all sorts of frightening secrets and usually faint from horror. Lovecraft's heroes rarely actually fight anything, and the beings they encounter usually present a minimum of physical danger to anyone. Rather, the beings and creatures in Lovecraft's stories generally wish to be left alone and are fairly indifferent to humanity unless we bother them. The drama in the stories stems from humanity's insatiable curiosity and how it leads us to see and know things which were not meant to be seen or known.

I'm certainly a fan of H.P. Lovecraft. He typically could handily deliver the goods when it came time to describing things better off neither seen nor known. Eighty years after his death he remains a vital force in the genre of imaginative fiction. Lovecraft had a wide variety of personal issues including a level of racism and misogyny which even by the standards of his time was excessive. That being said his creative genius in my opinion far outshines his inner demons and flaws.

Which brings us to Arkham Horror. In this game the players act cooperatively and either win or lose as a group. In a nutshell Arkham Horror is about collecting tools through exploring and then using those tools to fight off menacing supernatural beings. The players move game tokens around a board which depicts the town of Arkham. They may visit the general store, or take a stroll in the woods for example. There is also the possibility of being transported to supernatural locations- the distant past, the land of dreams, or unknown planets. Menacing creatures from these other worlds will also appear in the town and their tokens are moved from location to location as well. The players can move their tokens to confront the creatures and send them back to the worlds they came from. The players may also try and close the portals that allow the creatures to enter our world. The game ends when the players block all the points of entry to our world and prevent any more creatures from entering. There may also be a grand battle at the end of the game between the players and a large, especially menacing creature.

Arkham Horror borrows some role playing elements. The players each have a different "character" with different strengths and weaknesses. Thus, one player's game token may represent a tough sailor who is particularly feisty. Another player may have a professor who can learn magical spells. Thus in the course of the game a zombie may appear. The players may say "OK Sarah, your character is tough so you go take care of the zombie while Joe's character visits the library to search for helpful spells." In this sense it's different from, say, Monopoly, in which the hat token is no different from the racecar token. Making that leap to quasi-role playing shouldn't be difficult and if the players enjoy the game style then of course you have a whole universe of fun role playing games to consider.

Arkham Horror has a lot to recommend it. While the game is expensive it is absolutely crammed full of game equipment. The components themselves are gorgeous to look at, colorful and sturdy. You certainly get your money's worth with this product.

Speaking of money's worth, the game mechanic is well designed. The players have a nice challenge on their hands as they work together to banish the creatures invading peaceful Arkham. The rules propel the action along at a brisk pace and cooperative games of this sort deliver real tension and excitement. Each game will have a different set of monsters to confront so you can expect plenty of replay value. Finally, Arkham Horror has several expansions and add-ons if you feel the need to expand the game.

Ironically the sumptuous game box does present one slight drawback. The abundance of game material and the length of the rules may appear daunting. The rules are actually fairly straightforward so just plow on in.

Clearly the chief drawback to Arkham Horror is that it is designed for a very specific audience. On the other hand, most people will know instantly whether their teens will like this game or not. If need be, ask them "do you want to play a game of investigating and fighting weird aliens and supernatural beings from outer space and the land of dreams?" If that question brightens up their face then this is the game for them

Pros: Great cooperative game, Simulates investigating and combating creatures from beyond time and space

Cons: Simulates investigating and combating creatures from beyond time and space

Beyond the Basics: Huge replay value and lots of expansions

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Gift Trap- a winner

Every now and then you come across a game that's really just a sure-fire hit. Gift Trap is one of those. This game will fly with lively nine year olds, it will fly with teens, adults, you name it. I think this is because it allows the player to do something particularly fun- giver and receive gifts.

In terms of game theory (and skip ahead if game theory is of no interest) we might see games as either simulations or activities. Monopoly is a simulation. It allows us to pretend to be buying and selling property. Tic Tac Toe is more of an activity. So are Clue and Trivial Pursuit. They allow us to do something and be scored on how we do it. It seems self evident that some games become huge hits simply because they allow us to do something fun in a fun way. Before the eyes begin to roll let's consider that for every Cranium there are a million failures out there. It may just be that identifying fun may be harder than it sounds. Further, whether you can do something fun with a minimum of simple but appropriate rules may be the key criterea for the success of an activity game.

Which brings us to Gift Trap, which has a concept both extremely simple and extremely fun, and is thus the new hot game of my elite game testing group. In Gift Trap the players are dealt a selection of cards upon the game board. Each card has a photo of a gift on it. In different rounds the gifts may be low key, like some new boots, or progressively more exotic, like a vacation. The players examine the gift selection and secretly assign a gift to each of the other people at the table. Then the players rate each gift based on how much they themselves would like to receive it. Finally the choices are revealed. If you chose to give someone something that they really wanted then you both score points. There are literally hundreds of possible gifts that can come into play so each game will be a little different.

Gift Trap works on several levels. Many of us enjoy catalog shopping and this is an organized way to do just that. Further it's a fun test of how well you know someone, or in another light, a fun way to get to know someone. Finally, I'm becoming partial to games that allow several players to score points as opposed to having a single winner. I think these games fly better with younger players. Gift Trap allows virtually any player to score points with only a slight effort and thus is fun for adults and children alike.

There are a few caveats. Ideally we would not be so materialistic and Gift Trap may be a bit of a reflection of the unhealthy consumeristic world we live in. OK. Also the game does include a few "adult" gifts which must be removed before play with the kids. The adult gifts are easy to identify but parents are advised to get them out before releasing the game to the care of the kids. Finally, this is a game which is scored fairly subjectively. Like Apples to Apples it's a party game and not intended as a fierce competition. I can't imagine a competitive gamer mistaking Gift Trap for a serious game but other reviewers have complained so it seems that it's possible.

Pros: Fun and easy to play, great for all ages

Cons: Reflects our decadent consumeristic lifestyle, comrade

Beyond the Basics: Great party game

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Zooloretto - Fun for Older Kids

I went shopping for a new game to review recently at Danger Planet in Waltham. I saw Zooloretto on the shelf and thought "huge panda face, zoo theme, thus this is a great game for younger players." I found that Zooloretto is indeed a pretty good game, but may be best for older kids and teens.

In Zooloretto you collect animals and place them in your zoo. The zoo has limited space so you try and collect only a few types of animals and avoid others. In this sense the theme is pretty approachable. Each player gets their own game board which represents their zoo. On the board are illustrations of pens with blank spaces for animals. Players place down tiles with pictures of pandas, lions, and other animals in the pens. Each pen can take only one animal type- once you place a tiger tile then you can only place more tiger tiles in that pen.

Zooloretto is played in turns. During each turn players draw tiles randomly from a bag. The tiles may represent an animal or may represent a coin. The players place the tiles on one of five wooden "trucks." Each truck has space for three tiles. A player may eventually take one of the trucks and drop the animals off in their zoo. Once all the players have claimed a truck a new turn begins.

The strategy of the game comes from deciding where to put the tiles you draw and which truck eventually to take. Imagine a truck with three tiger tiles on it and imagine your opponent has a pen with tigers in it and three empty spaces. That's a pretty desirable truck for them to take. Now imagine the truck has two tigers on it and you draw a panda. If your opponent doesn't need pandas you can put the panda on the tiger truck and your opponent has a tough choice. Take the two tigers and try to get rid of the panda, or maybe another truck has better animals on it? In this area Zooloretto becomes fairly interactive and strategic as you try and collect what you want and avoid what you don't, and in addition keep your opponent from getting what They want.

I generally like a strategy element in my games but I have mixed feelings about Zooloretto. For one it can be a bit slow moving at first. Further, there can be a lot of thinking and planning involved. None of that is bad per se. I think I just feel that the game is better for an older player who enjoys planning and thinking and if that's the case then why did I throw down all that money for a younger child's game when if this is going to be an "older children and teens" review I would have preferred to buy Agricola? Sigh.

Assuming you purchase Zooloretto for older children and teens who enjoy planning then I think you'll be very happy with the game. The components are beautiful and the game is quite subtle and clever. Further, there are any number of expansions and sequels available. I got my copy at Danger Planet in Waltham.

Pros: subtle and clever game

Cons: may be too slow for younger players

Beyond the Basics: this game has lots of replay potential and could be a long time favorite

Piratissimo - Kids, Pirates, and Treasure

Piratissimo is one of Rio Grande Games' line of products aimed squarely at younger players. It's colorful and well presented but raises some interesting questions regarding new games for younger players.

The object of Piratissimo is to sail your small wooden ship across a board and collect treasure. Each player is given a ship counter at the start of the game. You place your ship on the board and then players take turns rolling dice. Depending on your die roll you may move your ship across the board and stop at various islands. There are different types of islands on the game board and each one allows the players to load varying numbers of gold coins on their ships. For example, stopping at a green island with a number "3" on it means you can load up to three gold coins. On some islands the players may steal gold from other ships, or give their gold to another player. The catch in all this is that a given ship can only hold seven gold pieces. If a player ends up with more than seven gold coins their ship capsizes and they have to start again.

Piratissimo has some additional rules regarding a tornado that wanders about the board but it's basically a pretty simple game. That simplicity is certainly a selling point. In addition most children can grasp the idea of collecting so the theme is good for mixed ages. Finally, the game is visually stunning and the components very appealingly designed.

One downside to Piratissimo is that some players may do far better than others. I tend to like games for younger children in which almost everyone can appear at least to be doing well. Blokus and Sleeping Queens are two examples of this. Piratissimo may work best with one adult playing who can pump up each player for any and all gold they collect.

The second caveat to Piratissimo is that it retails at more than forty dollars. I think this draws attention to the question of whether "new games" really make sense for younger players. I think of games like Formula D and Battlelore as being worth every penny because of their potential for endless repeat play. Can you make the same claim for a game for seven year olds? Or are you better off buying a more affordable but less glamorous GameWright game, which is likely to be as fun or more so at half the price? Probably each of my readers know the answer that applies to their family already.

I think Piratissimo is a gorgeous product and a fun game. The price seems a bit high but you do get a stunning game for your money. I found a copy at Pandemonium Books in Central Square.

Pros: good for younger players, stunning production values

Cons: Expensive

Beyond the Basics: Good for a younger age range but not likely to be played much after age 10

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Spellcraft and Swordplay- Compact Fantasy RPG

I took a look at Spellcraft and Swordplay (S&S) recently to see if it had something to offer that the free old school games Labyrinth Lord and Swords and Wizardry did not. The latter two games are reproductions of early editions of Dungeons and Dragons and bring with them that game's benefits and problems. S&S is vaguely based on an even earlier game but has enough modifications to make it at least closer to being an actual original product.

I purchased the revised edition softcover through Lulu. The product itself is a nice 106 page text with some evocative woodcut illustrations and some terrible Larry Ellmore clipart. There's no point in ranting about the Ellmore art- if you don't mind then it's not an issue and if you do then I'm preaching to the choir. I do mention it mainly because if it were gone then this would be a much more fabulous book to leaf through.

Let's jump to the conclusion first. S&S is a terrific beginner's role playing game assuming at least one player has some prior experience in this genre. The book includes rules for spells, monster lists, treasure, and tips for designing your own magical creatures and opponents. Players have a fair variety of characters they can play and each character has some advantage which makes it appealing. Warriors, for example, are especially hardy and very effective in combat. Wizards can cast spells and create magical items. Several other character types are included, most of which are familiar to experienced D&D players.

Speaking of which, would an experienced D&D player ever want to play S&S? Non- D&D players can skip ahead here if they value their sanity. I think the author includes some interesting modifications to traditional D&D. Wizards can potentially cast spells repeatedly, with the odds of not forgetting a spell dropping as the spell's level increases. Warriors are the only class to get dexterity-based armor class adjustments. And rolls to hit are made on 2d6 and related to a target number based solely on the opponent's armor class. These are some of the changes which come to mind and each is going to please some people and offend others. For my purposes I play D&D with some component of loving nostalgia so I don't see myself switching my group to S&S. On the other hand, I could well imagine introducing new players to the genre with this game.

I think S&S is a very nice option for new players assuming they have one person to help decipher the rules and run the game. The author does have a tendency to write as if he knows for a fact that the reader has played D&D many times before. If this is not the case then the rules are going to generate some confusion from about page 8 onwards. On the other hand, for an experienced reader this game has a lot to offer. The combat system is simple and appealingly streamlined. The different character classes have very clear roles and strengths. The magic system allows beginner wizards to have more of a presence in the game. I think these qualities make S&S a very nice introductory system. If I had some 9 year olds I would probably start them out on this and see how things went.

Purists may find S&S irritating because "its roots are showing." They may say "that's not an accurate representation of Dungeons and Dragons!" Players of newer designs may complain that S&S lacks some game components now considered standard- extensive skill lists or feats. Both sides have valid points. From my perspective I see S&S as a very nicely designed game that gives props to the old school while providing an entryway for new school players. In some ways it may be best as an introduction game, which is what this blog is dedicated to discovering anyway.

You can purchase Spellcraft and Swordplay at Lulu.

Mr. Jack, Great Game, Terrible Subject

I've been wrestling with the Mr. Jack question for some time now. On the one hand it is one of the best two player games I've seen in a while. In addition it's a terrific deduction and logic game. On the other hand the subject is Jack the Ripper! Now, granted the game revolves around one player hunting the fugitive and the other player trying to escape, but parents may wish to consider how they're going to address questions regarding the overall subject of the game. For some families this may prove impossible and for others this may not be a deal breaker.

Mr Jack begins with a game board depicting London Streets from above. The board is divided into spaces, some of which have houses in them, some have streetlights, and some are empty to represent streets and alleys. The game also includes 8 tokens. Each represents a fictional character from the period - Sherlock Holmes, Watson, Inspector Lestrade and so on. Through the course of the game the players take turns moving the tokens around the board. One token is chosen randomly at the beginning of the game to be the criminal. The person playing "Mr. Jack" knows which token this is. His or her goal is to get the token off the board edge through one of the marked exits. The other player has to discover which token is the criminal before he or she escapes.

The specific rules for the game are fairly simple to learn. In the most basic sense at the end of each round the "criminal" player must say whether "Mr. Jack" is standing next to a streetlight or not. Now assume that somehow All the tokens but one are next to streetlights. The "criminal" player say "Mr. Jack is not next to a streetlight." The detective player would then say, "aha! The sole character not next to a light is the criminal!" What makes the game so fun is that the two players take turns moving whichever tokens they choose. As you could guess the "criminal" player tries to avoid just the situation mentioned above. The detective tries to move tokens so that suspects can be eliminated in a speedy fashion and also keep an eye open for any tokens which are edging towards an exit. The deduction element is similar to Clue, so if you child can grasp that game they can do fine at Mr. Jack.

One of the many things I like about Mr. Jack is that it's a lot easier to play than to explain. It's also a lot easier to play than the rules are to read. I would encourage parents with an interest in deduction games to take the plunge and then give the game a playtest. I'm confident that one play will demonstrate how well the game flows.

I was also very happy with how exciting Mr. Jack turns out to be in play. I find Clue to be fun but hardly thrill-packed. Further, the players have limited ability to mess with each other. Mr. Jack is lively and tense. The very essence of the game is player interaction. In addition, it's a nice fast paced and quick game. Finally, every game will play slightly differently and you can absolutely improve over time.

There's no denying that the subject matter of Mr. Jack will put it off the list for some families. If this does not seem like an issue for your family then I would highly recommend this inexpensive, well produced, and clever game. I've seen copies at Pandemonium Books and Games People Play.

Pros: Exciting, elegant, fun

Cons: Couldn't we have done Mr. Expired Vehicle Registration instead?

Beyond the Basics: Lots of room to learn and one expansion set available.