Friday, July 31, 2009

Ligretto - Fast Paced and Affordable

I think I need a break from sixty dollar games for a little while. Here's something a bit more affordable and what's more, it's good for the younger kids and pretty lively as well.

Playroom Entertainment is planning on publishing Ligretto in the next few months. This is a card game with a fairly long history, allegedly being invented by a German immigrant in Pennsylvania several centuries ago. The game is also known as "Dutch Blitz" and a variant is called Nertz. Ligretto has been available in Europe for some time so some readers may have encountered it in one or more of these incarnations.

Ligretto is a game in which you try and discard the cards in your hand before the other players can discard theirs. Players begin the game with a deck of cards. They lay some in a row before them, they make a short stack of cards to their left (the "Ligretto" pile), and the remainder stays in a pile in their hand. When the game begins any player with a "1" card visible (either in the row or on the top of the Ligretto pile) places the card in the center of the table.

At this point Ligretto becomes pretty frantic. There are no turns per se, players just act as quickly as they can. You can place a card on top of one of the stacks in the middle of the table if the number on it is one higher (in other words, you can place a "3" on top of a "2"). If you have no visible cards that can be placed in the center of the board you deal a new group onto the row before you from the pile in your hand or from the Ligretto pile. The general process is to send the cards from your hand onto the piles in the center of the table. The game ends when one player has exhausted all the cards from their Ligretto pile. At that point players get points for cards in the center of the table and lose points for any cards left in their Ligretto stacks.

Ligretto reminds me of Crazy 8's, which I used to love. It's fun to discard cards and feel like you're racking up the points each time you drop off another. Ligretto's turnless system has the potential to be either very fun or a big fist fight in the making. A gang of kids throwing down cards simultaneously can go either way and parents will just have to use their judgment as to whether that level of mayhem is exciting or likely to incite a riot.

I think Ligretto has a lot going for it. The basic concept of "put a four on top of a three card" is simple. The deck system adds lots of movement and action. I don't think there is likely to be any great strategic thinking going on in this game which also means that no one is going to feel too bad if they don't win- it's not like losing at checkers, which is devastating. Finally, the price is right and the game is inherently portable and good for vacations and visits to relatives.

Ligretto should be available after August 2009.

Pros: simple, cheap, exciting

Cons: Maybe too exciting

Beyond the Basics: not a lot, this is a pretty basic game

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Galaxy Trucker - Light Fun

Most modern board games have such ambitious or grandiose titles that it's hard to imagine Galaxy Trucker as anything other than a parody. To some extent this first impression is correct but Galaxy Trucker still has lots to offer, especially to players looking for a less than serious game.

The premise behind the game is that the players must build a space truck and use it to haul sewer construction materials across the galaxy. If they can successfully evade a variety of dangers then they collect cosmic credits and become rich ex-truckers. Play begins in a construction phase. This is the player's chance to build the space truck of their dreams. The game uses a tile system for truck building. You have access to a variety of cardboard tiles with cargo holds, batteries, engines, lasers, and other space truck gear printed upon them. You place the tiles on a grid and piece by piece "build" a ship. You may choose to have more crew spaces, more lasers, more engines, or who knows what. Other players will probably build different trucks based on what they think will work best.

The construction phase in this game is interesting. All tiles start out face down. When the phase begins players simply grab a tile, bring it to their truck and flip it over. If they want it then they keep it, otherwise it goes back in the pile face up. face up tiles may be grabbed quickly by people looking for that particular component. As one could image the truck building phase is pretty frantic with people grabbing tiles and then going back for more. There is a reward for finishing faster so while the phase isn't timed per se the players are motivated to make some quick decisions.

After all the players have built their ships the game moves on the the actual space journey. This phase of the game uses a pile of randomly drawn event cards. Events can be helpful or dangerous. You may encounter vast stretches of empty space to speed across. You may find an abandoned ship which can be sold for more cosmic credits. Or you may encounter pirates and have to defeat them with your lasers and shields. The space truck's design is likely to determine how it fares in the encounter phase. Lots of crew allow you to grab abandoned items. Lots of weapons and shields make you more effective in combat.

Once the encounters are complete the players tally up money made by successfully transporting their cargo, assuming it hasn't been destroyed by asteroids or taken by pirates. Then the space trucks are returned to the warehouse and construction begins again on a larger truck. Players will then have a chance to haul cargo and deal with more space encounters.

Galaxy Trucker has received both praise and criticism. The game writers go to some length to suggest that players should expect more disasters than successes. Trucks are likely to be blown up, taken by pirates, lost in space or somehow destroyed (the rules also state clearly that all crew members survive all these incidents). This sense of impending disaster will be frustrating to competitive players who simply want to win. At the same time it should be a laugh riot to casual players who like surprises and pratfalls. Remember that the premise is hauling sewer parts through space. Not to discount the vital role both sewers and trucks play in real life but this is intended as a game with some humor.

I like Galaxy Trucker for a number of reasons. I enjoy tile games and I like the idea of building a spaceship. Further, I'm not a fan of hard core competition and the random nature of some of the game's encounters lightens up the experience a bit. I could see how this game could be tough for a younger player however. The ship construction is done under some time pressure and some young people may not find that fun. Further, seeing your truck collide with an asteroid may be tough to swallow for a competitive preteen. I see this as being a game for older players with a light approach.

Pros: Light, fun, you build a space truck!

Cons: events may be fairly random, expect more disaster than success, kind of pricey for a light game

Beyond the Basics: this seems like a light game, there is an expansion planned however.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Tales of the Arabian Nights - Story time!

I've enjoyed the 1001 Nights tales since I was a child. I watched the Seventh Voyage of Sinbad on channel 11 whenever possible and thought the Thief of Baghdad was the best movie ever. Years later I re-watched these films. They're pretty hokey but the basic premises of travel, mystery and adventure still hold up. Later on in life I also read the unedited 1001 Nights. Now that's an immortal classic! Just a tip- that version is not for the kids! When I saw the Tales of the Arabian Nights game I was intrigued. Is this a winner or an expensive paperweight?

The Tales of the Arabian Nights is a game in which your character travels the world, has a multitude of strange adventures, and tries to return home safe, wealthy, and wiser for the trouble. Players start the game by giving their character a name and an assortment of "skills." The skills are chosen from a list, they might include "quick thinking," or "magic." After a little more bookkeeping you're ready to play.

Each player moves their character token around the map. Each time you move you have an Encounter. During the encounter your character may meet a prince, stumble upon a magical creature, or smash your ship upon hidden undersea rocks. The game has a system for resolving these encounters. Players are read a brief description of what's going on and they choose how to respond. Their choice and any skills they may possess decides what happens next. When the encounter is done you may have gained money or fame, received a curse, or learned a new skill. Then play moves to the next player. The players begin the game with a set of goals. Once these are complete they must return across the map board to Baghdad and declare victory.

This game is less of a contest and more of an activity. There is really no interaction between the players beyond enjoying their stories. Instead the players take turns having their own tales emerge. Your character may have all sorts of fantastic experiences, lose and gain enormous wealth, meet supernatural creatures and marry royalty. In this sense it really mirrors its source material. The tales from the 1001 Nights carry a common theme being that cleverness and virtue are important qualities but luck is a factor in life which can't be denied.

Older readers may note that Tales of the Arabian Nights sounds a lot like the old Choose Your Own Adventure books. They would be correct. I think Tales of the Arabian Nights is another game which falls into the "almost role playing" category. In this sense it's similar to Sleeping Queens and Arkham Horror. Much of the game is about how your character fares as he or she adventures across the world. Specifically it's about how their story develops. Players looking for a competitive game should steer well clear of this. On the other hand, players who like stories and especially like outrageous stories with dramatic changes in fortune, treasures, magic, djinn, and marrying royalty are going to eat this game up.

For the right group of players Tales of the Arabian Nights looks like a lot of fun. I'd especially recommend it for story lovers and players who are less competitive. Players who enjoy the game should certainly consider reading the stories that inspired it, making sure to pick a text that's age appropriate.

Pros: a great story telling game, good replay value

Cons: the outcome may be too random for some, not a lot of player interaction

Beyond the Basics: good game of its type and great gateway to some fabulous literature

Alhambra - colorful and subtle

This year at Historicon I found myself talking to a lot of dads about the games their kids were playing. As one can imagine a geeky parent may hope their kids share their interests and so I was interested to hear the success stories. One game that came up was Alhambra, which a fellow from New York said was his six year old daughter's favorite game.

The Alhambra is a site in the city of Granada, an unbelievably fabulous palace built by the Moors. In the game Alhambra the players compete to build their own version of the palace. Alhambra is what's known as a tile game. Players lay down tiles next to each other to form their complex. Each tile may have an illustration of a tower, a garden, arcades, or some other feature found in a palace. Players win points if they have the most of any given feature, the most towers for example.

Alhambra has several subtle features which serve to keep player's attention on the game. In your turn you may replenish your supply of "money cards" and then purchase new tiles from a random selection before you. Each tile has a price, if you pay the exact amount you may buy another tile. For example, if a tile costs 8 and you have money cards valued at 3 and 5 you have exact change. If you have money cards valued at 4 and 5 then you can buy the one tile but then your purchasing is over.

After you purchase your tile or tiles you may lay them down on your growing design. There are simple rules for arranging the tiles similar to the rules for playing dominoes. Some structures have walls or features that must match the features of the tiles next to them for example.

Finally, players are scored at several random times during the game. You receive points for having the most of a given tile- the most gardens for example. Some tiles are worth more than others. Towers are valuable, while pavilions earn far less in points.

Alhambra is a simple game. You win by having the most of a certain thing. Alhambra is also about making choices. Do you buy a tile with exact change so you can buy another in this round or do you overspend on a tile that wins high points like a tower? The tiles you can purchase at a given moment at randomly determined. If a tower isn't an option do you hope one will appear next round or start buying gardens? There is a lot of variability in tactics that can keep Alhambra fresh over many plays.

Alhambra is also a very attractive game. I like tile games because I like building things- cities, countryside, colonies. I think it's fun to construct your own palace filled with gardens and towers and some players may enjoy the game for that reason as well as trying to reach a high score.

I can see why the man I spoke to at Historicon liked Alhambra for his daughter. This is a game with some good potential for tactics and thought and yet it is appealing to younger players as well. Alhambra is available in game stores like Pandemonium Books and Games People Play.

Pros: simple, elegant, tactical

Cons: may not be suited for every 6 year old, I'm thinking ages 8 and up

Beyond the Basics: Many expansions and lots of replay value.