Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Rebels with a Cause

Dantooine is too remote to make an effective demonstration -
but don't worry; we will deal with your rebel friends soon enough. 
Just being honest: if I had access to a Death Star, I don't know if I could act with the same cold restraint with which Grand Moff Tarkin acted. And now, for the first time ever, thanks to the creative geniuses at Fantasy Flight Games, I can have a Death Star! I can indiscriminately blow planets to pieces! I too can give Obi Wan Kenobi a headache from all the millions of voices suddenly crying out in terror and suddenly being silenced. For now, I have a copy of an "investment" game that I've long had my eyes on: Star Wars Rebellion!


Here's how it started: well, wait. I actually started by reading some gushing reviews along the lines of "OMG play this game immediately." Truth be told, I should just point to that review at that link and just drop the mic. But I have a blog and an ego, so...  After that review, I saw that game time and again at my favorite game store in town. There it sat, staring at me. Beckoning. Requiring. But...the price tag. But...who'd play with me? But...

And then along came a bucket-list trip for me. I've long wanted to get to  GenCon. And finally, early in August, I got the chance to hang out with my most favoritest nerds during the "best 4 days in gaming" and lose myself like a kid in games and game demos and game playing and meal-missing and caffeine-chugging.  I was surrounded by My People in an environment where we can let our nerd flags fly proudly.

GenCon demo with my favorite dorks
Fantasy Flight - one of my favorite publishers of some of the best games I own - have come up with a series of games that allow gamers to interact with the Star Wars universe at any level they wish. Star Wars Imperial Assault is troop-based ground combat. Star Wars X-Wing is fighter-based combat using beautifully-painted minis of your favorite Star Wars fighters (X- and Y- Wings, B-Wings, TIE of every flavor, etc). Star Wars Armada is capital-ship combat between the behemoth starships like Star Destroyers and Mon Calamari Star Cruisers (little fighters are now itty-bitty squadron-sized minis), highly-detailed and beautifully rendered. And finally, there's what you see here: Star Wars Rebellion. This is the whole war, the whole time period around the first-3-movies-that-are-the-second-3. Ships and planets and troops and Death Stars and all your favorite generals and admirals and heroes and villains.

And so all those questions and second-guesses from seeing that lovely box at my game store were washed away in the environment and hype and joy of a gaming convention, and home I came with a 10-pound game in a bag on your arm.


This is a game for 2, 3, or 4 players. I loved the competitive/cooperative feel for the game. 2 players is simple: Empire versus Rebellion. As you add more players, each new player picks a side and it becomes a 2-on-1 or a 2-on-2 battle, complete with cooperation between partners.

Game-play is not that complicated. Each player gets mission cards, and assigns a well-known Hero like Darth Vader or Han Solo to do it. Then: you do it. Sometimes it's automatic, sometimes, the other player tries to oppose it, each of you rolling a number of "successes" on the supplied dice. Each player, one after the other, can also put famous characters in systems in order to activate that system to move troops and ships into it. If there are badguys there, fight. If not, enjoy the view.
Look at all those chances
for millions of voices to cry out

What's the point?

If I'm the Rebel player, I'm doing missions that sully the reputation of the Empire (like shooting all their Storm Troopers off a planet or blowing up a Star Destroyer), and waiting for a moment in the game where you have essentially waited-out the Empire. The game has a time tracker. Time tracker runs out, game over for the Empire.

If I'm the Empire, I'm in a mad dash to find the Rebel base and shoot all the Rebels I see. If I find the base and land on it and beat the Rebels, I win. If I find the base and stick a Death Star next to it and blow it up, I win. But again, if the Rebels wait me out, keep the base a secret, and essentially embarrass the Empire enough (Geez, these little upstarts keep blowing up fearsome ships and punching Imperials in the face...the Empire must suck...), the Rebels win.

There's more fun to it: there's probe droids, capturing and interrogating leaders, turning people to the Light or Dark, blowing up planets with Death Stars, blowing up Death Stars, blowing up.... It's a fun way to participate directly in, and even maybe change the "history" of, one of the most famous and beloved stories of all time.

My only complaint: the combat system is a tad clunky. We had to refer to the rulebook a lot during battles, and then had to refer to a separate (but included) document on rules clarifications a few times. Once we got the hang of it, we got it. But it took several combats before we really felt it. It's a slightly more cumbersome take on Risk's system of successes-versus-successes. That alone isn't so bad, but when you add-in multiple colors of dice, and some ships or troops can only be damaged by certain colors of dice...you get a little clunky.

But that complaint is far, far outweighed by being able to  get so deeply involved in Star Wars.

As for age-appropriateness of game-play: my 11-year-old and I played a game recently.

I believe this picture sums-up how that went...

He's grounded now
A light and fun family game this is not. This is a gamer's game, made for gamers, by gamers. It's an investment in both money and time, and is a few steps complicated enough that it helps to have some solid "I've played a zillion different games" experience under your belt to really grasp the play. If you've played Axis and Allies, you'll get this game. That said, a mild gamer could learn this game very quickly from an experienced gamer and realize some fun and success (just refer to that picture...).

All in all, I recommend this game as among the most interesting, detailed, and fun I've played. The cooperative/competitive multi-player approach is really wonderful. You'll not play this game at a warm, couple-y game night; this is 4 friends, beers, and a Saturday. Or your 11 year old Star Wars fan whose deft planning foils the mighty Empire and secures a better, less blown-up future for the galaxy!

Monday, August 22, 2016

A Better Take on an Old Classic

Kids across America were, at one point in our lives, around the time where Sorry stopped being fun and Yatzee was still confusing and mildly dumb, introduced to a classic board game; a game that ended friendships. A game that strained familial relations. One of the first games (outside of Chess) with minis and a currency. A game introduced by a parent or a grandparent with a sly grin on a rainy evening. That game:


And then one day, after you beat your younger sibling for the ten-thousandth time, after your uncle or dad beat you for the 100th time, and after you got introduced to games like this and this, you realized that Monopoly got one thing right: it put the MONO in monotony.

I really used to love Monopoly, and we own several copies of several different variations (from regular to Junior to Bugs Bunny to Empire). But as I have said before, we live in a golden era of table-top and board games. Never before has there been such a massive variety of games of various complexities, each one relaying less and less on randomness (though that random roll is still of high importance) and more and more on strategic or cooperative thinking.

Monopoly relies so heavily on the randomized die-roll that there is a point in a game at which victory is unequivocally certain for one player and defeat unavoidable by the rest. The holes in the gameplay become apparent, and the strategy, unlike chess, is fairly straightforward. Though it is possible to win without the vaunted Boardwalk-Park Place bank-breaker, those properties are key, and those properties go to the person who rolls the right rolls, largely.

For those of you who tire of Monotony's monotonousness, but you really want a game wherein property, property value, and a race to build income-rich monopolies are exciting, allow me to direct you to:

Machi Koro!

Cards and "coins," that's all the game is. No meeples or minis or game boards. The cards are arranged in numeric order (numbers on the top of the cards), and each small stack of cards is either a resource or business. Thus, every player gets a chance to have access to resources, but the resources are finite and a player could easily corner the market, so to speak.

Every turn, each player  - up to 4 players - rolls one or, later, up to two dice. The die roll "activates" a resource for whomever controls it...sort of like landing on a property in Monopoly. Some resources pay everyone, some pay the person who rolled it, some make the person who rolled it pay.

What do you do with this money?

Either buy more resources or business in your burgeoning little town in order to make more money, or save your money to buy 1 of 4 landmarks (a train station, a shopping mall, an amusement park, and a radio tower....why those 4 things somehow signify an advanced city, I'll never know, but it matters little). Every player starts with all 4 landmarks "under construction." The first player to buy all 4 landmarks wins!

As you can see, there are several similarities to Monopoly, including the accumulation of properties and wealth, making money off of other players who roll your property, and even buying-up the scarce resources (from wheat fields to bakeries to restaurants and cafes). There still exists even the ever-essential-in-gaming randomized die roll. But beyond that, the similarities end. There is complex strategy in which resources you buy and when to build - or not - your landmarks. Do I buy all the 3 &4, 7 & 8 die roll resources, or a gob of 1 and 2, 11/12 resources? can I win simply by making people pay me, or is there a balance?

Our growing little towns...the race is on between Dom and I!
Here's the key: this is very family-friendly. My 8-year-old twins understand the rules, and understand the basics of the strategy well enough that Dominic was within 1 coin of getting the 4th landmark before I did. All 3 of us had 3 of 4 landmarks within just a few turns of one another. It was a close game, but nobody got blown-out. There are winners and losers, but the losing players are bankrupted and beaten into submission; it's a race, and it's a close one, even if your resource and business cards are scant. Its replayability is very high; we played 2 games in a little under an hour.

There are 2 expansions out for the game as well: Harbor, an Millionaire's Row. More variation, more cards, more landmarks, more game, same easy theme with fun illustrations.

This isn't your father's Monopoly, and that's just fine. Family-friendly, kid-friendly, and quick and easy enough that if you have people over for a game night, they'll be playing in no time and even have a shot as a novice at winning.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Vacation on the East Sea Road

10 Days in Africa (and its sister "10 Days" games ranging from Europe to Asia to the Americas to the US) makes a game about a vacation fun and extremely challenging; it's competitive, but in the game, nothing dies or is otherwise defeated or conquered, which in and of itself is a vast separation from normal conduct in the Smith household.

But then along comes this beautiful game in which players are not only, like 10 Days, playing a game about taking a vacation; in this game, the point isn't even to be the first one done with the vacation or race or beat the other players. Instead, the point of this game is to have the most interesting vacation, however long it takes!

The game: Tokaido, a game about a trip along the famous East Sea Road in Japan, an historic road that connects Japan's cultural center of Kyoto with its socio-political center Edo (modern-day Tokyo). Tangentially: season 3 of Wil Wheaton's Table Top premiered the past October, and the first game he went with this season was Tokaido. I was intrigued watching his show, and took a chance and splurged on getting it.  I'm thrilled I did.

The first thing I noticed was the artwork. Beautiful, coordinated colors with characters and scenery done in a peaceful, rounded, cartoony style is done in a way that still achieves a sense of minimalism and simplicity. The colors are bright and pastel and even the gameboard itself is elegant and calm. Nothing about the artwork suggests stark competitiveness or implied violence; instead, the game pieces and elements are a pleasure to look at, art in and of themselves.

Next is the gameplay. The rules are simple: move as many spaces as you want, with one restriction: you must stop at each of the 4 Inns on the way to Edo. The order of turns is simple: which ever player is last, or, furthest from Edo is the first player to move, moving in order as to whomever is last. Thus, the order of play could change every turn, which is an interesting twist. Sometimes is pays to be slow; other times, such as making it to an Inn, it pays to be first.

Assuming the role of one of 8 "characters," each with a different nuance or focus, what does a player do during their turn? Buy souvenirs from villages. Meet interesting people along the road. Paint. Visit a temple. Soak in some of Japan's famous hot springs (maybe even sometimes with Snow Monkeys!). Eat really good gourmet food.

Yup. That's it. Have an interesting vacation.

This is a wonderful family game. I was worried, given the normal nature of competitive (or even combative!) games we tend to play at our house, that the boys would be bored by this game. Once we cracked it open and started it up, though, the boys were captivated and participated with a surprising level of sophistication and forethought.

Moreover, each of the boys grasped the nuances that their "character" brought to the game and used that strength ably. Jacob's character excelled at art, and finishing the paintings propelled his character all the way to 2nd place. Dominic's character reveled in soaking in hot springs and being accomplished. Isaac's, a diplomat, was adept at meeting interesting people along the way who could help him have a great journey. For my part, a priest (heh...), being appropriately worshipful at the temples helped me win the day.

But here it is again: winning isn't a race in this game, and isn't done on the backs of the other players. The is a game about accumulating the best and most wonderful memories. At the end of the game, as your road-weary legs carry you for your final steps in to the Inn at Edo, though you may be penniless, you can still win the game because you had and shared the greatest memories and experiences and have a deep tale to tell. What a great theme for a game! Though it's far from being cooperative, every aspect of the game focuses on a zen calm and in reveling in the surprises and accomplishments of your fellow travelers along the way.

The coolest part is that the journey - the vacation - becomes tangible in a way. I remember my journey from Kyoto to Edo last Friday evening as something fond and fun, and something that still sticks with me. Jacob still talks about how "beautiful" his paintings were, and Dominic declared from the bathtub the other night that he was soaking in a hot spring "like on my trip in Japan." That is what this game is able to invoke, why we will certainly play it again, why I can't wait to teach my friends how to play, and why this game is among my highest recommendations.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

African Vacation

Thanks to my good friend Greg and my other good friend Jay, my kids and I were introduced to the fantastic family game called 10 Days in Africa. This game - and all of its other iterations, including 10 Days in Europe, 10 Days in Asia, 10 Days in the Americas, 10 Days in the USA - is a fantastic geography lesson on top of a strategy game deep enough for adults to enjoy but functionally simple enough for even my 6-year-olds to not only grasp, but beat me at!

Each player has 10 days in which to fulfill a trip across Africa by foot, by car, and by plane. Seems easy enough. But the complexity is this: you first fill each of your 10 slots with a random draw of countries and vehicles for travel. Then, in turns, you try to make sense of your jumble, organize the travel correctly, and draw new cards as-needed to make your trip work, all in-secret with your tiles facing away from your opponent. The first one to complete 10 days is the winner.

Players travel by foot to contiguous countries. A car tile allows the player to skip 1 country in between, and a plane tile allows a player to travel from one color of country to the same-colored country using that color of plane (a blue plane allows a player to travel from one blue country to another one anywhere on the continent, red for red, yellow for yellow). 

In Which Isaac and Dominic Conspire
The concept is so simple, but it really makes players think tactically, given your introductory jumble of tiles, about how to quickly put things in order. How does one know if one should start with one of or even any of the tiles they currently have, given what one could draw? 

Endlessly complex and engaging, this game also has given my kids a sense of geography. Each tile includes not only the name and shape (and color for game purposes) of each country in the massive continent, but population and capital as well! 

Tangentially: I tend to listen to NPR in the mornings as I prepare breakfast for the boys before school. With all of the news around ebola, we have played this game, and my kids were able to identify the countries threatened by the disease. They also got a sense of just how vast a continent Africa is, and just how far away other countries are from the threat. 

This is one of those games you can play as a family or even as a date-night couples game (2-4 players). 

One of these days, we'd love to get the other games and find a way to link each of them into one uber-game: 10 days around the world!

Monday, November 17, 2014

TableTop Season 3!

Many of the games I have purchased lately have come from one of my favorite YouTube shows, Wil Wheaton's TableTop (find information here and here). It is actually a ton of fun to watch Wheaton and his friends play board games, and it gives you a sense of what's fun and not, or your type of game or not.

Last Thursday marked the launch of TableTop Season 3! And the first game is one that intrigues me on a number of levels: Tokaido. The essence of this game is that you are all travelers on the famous East Sea Road leading from Kyoto to Edo (modern day Tokyo). The point of the game, however, is not simply to arrive at Edo first, like a race. Rather, the game is about which player has the most interesting journey along the way. From painting to shopping for valuables to swapping stories with samurai to praying at temples and on and on, players acquire points for doing interesting things and become a whole, balanced person. How Zen!

I'll get out of the way; do yourself a favor and watch the episode. I'm putting this on my Christmas list.

Also, do yourself another favor and tune-in every Thursday for a new episode of TableTop.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

The Game of the Path

Wil Wheaton's TableTop, soon to start its 3rd season on YouTube, is one of my sources of awesome games (and one of my sources of lazy Sunday morning entertainment). Manhy of the games I've played with my family and friends have come from either that channel or my good friend Greg (one of our contributors on Gamer Dad).

It was TableTop in which I discovered this morning's game: Tsuro: the Game of the Path.

Tsuro is an impressively elegant game that is easy enough for my 6-year-olds to learn and even be competitive. The premise is simple: each player controls a little dragon. Starting from the edges of the board, each player in turn simply places tiles and moves their dragon along the path the tile creates. The more tiles that are placed as the game goes along, the longer each meandering path takes. The goal is simple: through strategic placement of tiles, force your opponents' dragons off the edge of the board and be the last dragon standing.

Beware! The longer the paths get, the more and more likely it is for you to have no other choice but to move your own piece off the board! Being too clever by half is certainly a pitfall for players.

This is a wonderful family game. One game takes maybe 20 minutes to play, and the twins stayed engaged because they could participate directly (rather than "help mom and dad") and enjoyed the challenge of making winding paths and moving their pieces along (and ours if we were unlucky enough to be on a tile that their new tile touched). In one sitting, all 5 of us played twice and 3 of us played a third time, all in less than an hour.

The game is built for 2-8 players, which is perfect for our family of 5. Though the box says it is rated for ages 8+, again, the twins (at 6) were not only heavily engaged, but Jacob won the first game!

As an aside, I love the artwork for this game. The simple, elegant lines of the cards and even the script suggest the swooping, graceful paths of flight of birds of prey, and the drawings and colors are rich and vivid. The game is as much a pleasure to look at as it is to play.

Simple, fast enough for short attention spans, and strategic enough to be puzzling and interesting, I highly recommend Tsuro.

Sunday, July 6, 2014

Playing with Acid

Not so much a game today, as playing with science!

Thanks and hat-tip to the Geek Dad Book for Aspiring Mad Scientists, as today we took one of the projects therein: stripping copper from pennies and plating it onto paper clips!

The process is simple, and rather than outline it all here, how about this: buy the book, and watch this vid.