Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Dominion: Intrigue - Quick to Learn and Fun

I purchased a copy of bestselling Dominion:Intrigue (D:I) a while ago and had a chance to play it this weekend. While sales doesn't always guarantee quality my group found this to be a fun game with basically three rules. It's going to the top of my list of recommended games although to read about it doesn't do the play justice.

D:I is a sequel to the bestselling game Dominion. You don't need a copy of Dominion to play it but having one gives you more play options. Confusingly there is another sequel called Dominion:Seaside which does require a copy of Dominion to play. All the games have a similar structure. Players get ten cards and draw five randomly into their hand. Some cards may give the player money to spend, some may be "played" and cause some effect to occur. In a player's turn they may play one card in front of them and buy one card from an assortment in the center of the table. After playing and buying the player takes all cards (played, purchased, and any left in the hand) and places them in a discard pile. When you run through your original pile of ten cards you take all the cards from the discard pile, shuffle them, and start over by drawing five.

Given the relatively simple sequence of draw, play, buy, and discard what makes this game shine? The key to the Dominion series is in the cards which you purchase. In any game you have ten different types of cards to buy. these are called Kingdom Cards. Each Kingdom Card has some special power. One might give you more money to spend, one might allow you to buy another thing. Or one might let you play another card. In addition a player may buy more money cards. Once purchased these cards go into your discard pile and have to wait until the discard pile is reshuffled and dealt out. Imagine you buy Kingdom Card that gives you one extra gold coin. When that ends up in your hand later on you can play it and have more money to spend. Now imagine you use that money to buy a card that lets you buy two things instead of one. If you play that card later you could buy twice. Finally, imagine some cards allow you to play additional cards in the same turn. Suddenly you lay down a sequence from you hand which allows you to buy more stuff, play extra cards, and even draw more cards from your deck and play them as well. Discovering and playing out these sequences of cards is surprisingly fun and satisfying.

How fun and satisfying is it, really? We played with two people who were infrequent gamers. In the first few turns we purchased things fairly randomly just to see how the game would play. Ten minutes in and the turns were going fast and smooth and each of us was having a great time stringing together Kingdom Cards to create wilder and wilder combinations. With the possible exception of Bang! I don't think I've ever seen a game that people caught on to as quickly and had so much fun at.

Just to tie things up, the goal of the game is to purchase cards with victory point values. Victory point cards cost money and the cards with more points cost more to buy. In the end the players tally up their victory points cards and the person with the most points wins.

D:I is a simple game with the potential for complex strategy. Players must decide which cards to buy with the understanding that they can't choose when the card will pop up in their hand. Further, players must decide whether to spend on money cards, cards with victory points, or Kingdom Cards. You need more money to afford better Kingdom Cards. You can't win unless you buy victory point cards. There are lots of fun choices to make and strategies to try.

Another nice quality about D:I is that it's fast. Experienced players could probably finish a game in less than an hour. Of course if you finish quickly you'll want to play again. And again...

I highly recommend D:I for families with older children or teens. The rules are simple, the various cards are colorful, and the game is fast. There are a good number of Kingdom Cards in the basic set and you only use about half in any given game. This means that each game may play out differently as you combine different cards in new ways. Finally, the game has a collectible card game feel to it which may make it easier for kids who play Pokemon and Magic to grasp.

I got my copy of Dominion:Intrigue at Your Move Games in Davis Square. I've seen copies at Hobby Bunker, Pandemonium, and Hit and Miss in Lexington. This is really a classic-to-be and a great starter game.

Pros: simple, deep strategy, huge replay value

Cons: looks really confusing and dull until you play it

Beyond the Basics: awesome replay value in the single box, plus supplements!

Thursday, November 5, 2009

The Adventurers - Light Exploration Game

We have a very mixed opinion of buried treasure. In one hand it seems to exist purely for the purposes of being heroically unearthed and spirited away. On the other hand we expect that anyone who is even slightly too greedy in treasure hunting is going to get their due at the hands of some trap or hidden creature. The characters who finish the story basking on a beach in Aruba seem to know exactly how many rubies are appropriate to snatch from the Tomb of Mysteries. The publishers of The Adventurers work with this dynamic to create an adventure game in which players struggle to balance greed and caution. The winner of this game is the person who knows when to stop pilfering and start running.

The board for The Adventurers depicts a Mayan tomb replete with treasure chambers, winding corridors, rickety bridges and rushing rivers. The players compete to grab treasure from various parts of the tomb and then escape in one piece. Each player begins the game by choosing an adventuring identity and token. The tokens are nicely sculpted miniatures just begging for paint. Each adventurer will have some special ability that may prove helpful in the tomb- swimming for example. The players put their adventurer figures at the entrance of the temple and then take turns moving and grabbing treasure.

The play mechanics of The Adventurers are pretty simple. Each turns players roll five dice and try and roll high. For each high roll they get one "action." The definition of "high" depends on the amount of treasure you are carrying. The more treasure, the higher the roll required. Players use actions to move, decode traps, pick locks, and grab more loot. The key ability listed there is probably "move." In each turn a boulder moves along the main corridor and will eventually seal off the tomb entrance. In addition a room full of treasure also features walls which slowly close together. Through the game players will use their actions to seek out and grab treasure from various locations in the tomb. As the players merrily run amuck they must keep an eye on which exits remain viable or they run the risk getting trapped. Then they must escape over the rope bridge or through the underground stream. As before, these tasks are harder when carrying lots of goodies.

The Adventurers strikes me as a pleasing but ultimately light game. The players have the choice of different characters to play and each gives a different ability. There is some randomness to the traps and obstacles. Still, repeated plays of the game aren't likely to reveal some subtle depths of strategy. At the same time you could say the same about games like Sleeping Queens and Mousetrap. The Adventurers may be a board game which delivers the fun in terms of simply experiencing it, rather than through thought and strategy.

In that context The Adventurers has a lot to offer as a fun but light diversion. It's fun to gather treasure, it's fun to try and decide whether to risk carrying off just one more bag of gold, it's fun to see friends and family succeed or fall off rickety bridges. In games of course, not real life! One slight drawback to the game as a family event is that the illustrations are pretty sexist. The male adventurers are all sorts of humorous caricatures, the females all have skimpy outfits and gigantic, barely restrained breasts. Did we just travel back to 1975? I imagine playing this with my daughter and just grimace- which floozy would you like to play? Well, creative parents who care can come up with some creative solution.

Aside from the freakish retro sexism The Adventurers is a simple and light adventure game. Not a classic for the ages but pretty entertaining and a decent way to wile away a cold winter's day.

Pros: simple, easily grasped game dynamic

Cons: fire that illustrator!

Beyond the Basics: if they like it a lot then go buy Labyrinth Lord, Advanced Dungeons and Dragons (not 4th edition thank you) or Castles and Crusades.