Monday, 23 September 2013

Shut Up & Sit Down

Shut Up & Sit Down!

No, I'm not being rude. I wouldn't do that.

Actually, I would.

But I'm not. Not this time, anyway.

But I do mean it...

Shut Up & Sit Down!

We (being me) interrupt your scheduled broadcast to bring you this public service announcement: Shut Up & Sit Down needs YOU.

If you don't know who the Shut Up & Sit Down team are, then you really need to make it your mission to find out. I'll drop a link at the bottom of this post so you can head over to their website and check it out. I would put the link HERE, but if I did that, you'd click it. And then you'd never come back.

And I'd be lonely.

Because, you see, Shut Up & Sit Down basically do something similar to what I do. Only with more current board games. And videos. And, you know... jokes.

If you are fed up with boring, mundane reviews about board games; if you want to see reviews that don't just regurgitate the rules but actually tell you what it feels like to experience a game; if you want to laugh, cry, and stare into the dark abyss of the human soul... Well, you need help. But you also need Shut Up & Sit Down.

I have only recently discovered the site, and frankly I don't know how I survived without it. I don't know any of the people responsible for running it, but I already feel like they're my friends. They just come across as genuinely decent people who are a lot of fun, and love the same hobby we all love. They are the sort of people I would want to sit down to play a game with. They would probably make me wear a cocktail dress, but it would almost certainly be worth it.

Almost.

But Shut Up & Sit Down is hungry. The team need to eat. And that's where you come in.

No, they don't want to eat you.

But once you have visited the site, and you have finished absorbing all the boardgaming goodness there like some horrifying, vampiric sponge, click on the little "Donate" option at the top of the page. Drop the guys a few quid. It will enable them to keep doing what they're doing. And that's a good thing, because I wouldn't want them doing anything else (and I'm pretty sure the authorities wouldn't either). And hey, if you donate enough money, they'll even send you some goodies. Sounds like a good deal to me.

This is the end of the public service announcement. Next up, more shitty out of production board games...

Oh yeah, and here's that link I promised.

Please don't forget me once you've seen how a professional outfit does this sort of thing.

Tuesday, 17 September 2013

Love Letter

Love Letter Card Game


Love Letter
Published by AEG
Designed by Seiji Kanai
For 2 to 4 players, aged 10 to adult


Before I start reviewing Love Letter, I have to give a bit of a shout out to Games Lore, which is the company I bought my copy from. When I put my order in, I went for the Kanai Limited Edition version which has incredible artwork. My order arrived within two days, but unfortunately contained the Tempest edition. I contacted Games Lore, and they immediately arranged to send out the correct version, and they let me keep the Tempest version too. Superb customer service from a great company. If you are in the UK and you want some games, head over to their site and check it out.

Of course, the great thing about having both copies of the game is I can now compare them, and decide which one I like the most.

But the big question is, why did I want the game at all? I'm not a huge fan of card games, and I love games with a lot of theme; so Love Letter  really doesn't look like a good fit for me. However, so many people were raving about the game being good that I just had to try it. Plus, the game comprises just 16 cards and some cubes, making it incredibly portable, and perfect for taking away on holidays. I am also in the process of widening my boardgaming tastes, playing a lot more card games and Eurogames (for want of a better term). And you know what? The game is actually a lot more thematic than you might think.

Oh, it's super cheap too.

Regardless of the version of the game you are playing, the basic concept is the same. The game is played with just 16 cards, each of which depicts a certain character. You start the game with one card. On your turn, you draw another card, and then you must play one of the cards you are holding, applying any special rules on that card. These rules are nicely thematic, and represent abilities that the characters depicted on the cards can do. And that's basically it. People will get knocked out of the round, people will laugh, people will swear.

People will have fun.

If more than one player is still in the round after the turn the last card is drawn, then the player with the highest ranking card wins. Otherwise, the only person who survives the round wins by default.

The winner takes a little red victory cube, and then you play another round.

Incredibly quick, incredibly light, incredibly fun.

Incredible.

First, I played the Tempest edition. This version ships in a cute little bag, and has a tiny little rulebook. The cards have pretty nice illustrations, and are of decent (if not exceptional) quality. I loved the game, but there were two minor issues.


Love Letter - rules
The cute little rulebook.


The first issue was the mocking laughter I was subjected to when I suggested to my all-male game group that we play a game called Love Letter. They thought I had gone mad. But I told them to trust me. I don't normally steer them wrong (I won't mention the 8-player Arkham Horror game I tried to organise once).

So, anyway. I explained it was a quick game, and that they shouldn't be put off by the less-than-manly presentation. They gave it a shot, and the game was loved by everyone. It turned out to be one of the most fun gaming sessions we have had for a really long time.

My other major problem with the game is that bag. It's a cute idea, and it makes the game a bit more portable, but... There's a deck of cards and some wooden cubes in that bag. If you aren't careful, those cards are going to get crushed, creased, folded, and dented. Not a good idea.


Love Letter - Tempest
Tempest edition artwork.


The Kanai Limited Edition version of the game is instantly more appealing to me. It ships in a box for a start (a rather beautiful black and white one). The card art is taken from the original Japanese version, and is a hundred times better (although that's down to taste, I guess), and the cards appear to be better quality. This version also features a different set of characters. For example, the Guard in the Tempest edition is called the Knight in this version.


Love Letter - Kanai edition
Kanai Limited Edition.


Unfortunately, I think this special edition isn't quite as special as it could be. For a start, the rules are presented on a folded sheet of paper, which just isn't as nice as the little rules book in the Tempest edition. And also, the tokens of affection (little wooden cubes) are still just little wooden cubes. It might have been nice to make something a bit more interesting for this release, like love hearts or flowers. Still, even with these minor grumbles, this is the edition to get if you want a beautiful product to play with.


Love Letter - Kanai Edition rules
Folded rules sheet - BOO!


There is also a change to how the game plays in the limited edition. In the Tempest edition there is a Countess card. If you have the Countess plus the Princess, King, or Prince in your hand, you must discard the Countess. This can reveal vital clues about your hand that other players can use to their advantage. But in the limited edition, the Countess card is replaced with a Minister. And the Minister is brutal.

If you ever have the Minister plus either the Wizard, General, or Princess, you instantly lose. That's it. Game over for you.

That rule is a hard sell for some people. It is possible to lose on your first card draw, and there is nothing you can do about it. There are actually many ways to get knocked out of a round in this game, and quite often there won't be anything you can do about it; but with the Minister card, that element of instant elimination is much more prominent, and will potentially put people off if it happens to them straight away.


Love Letter - Kanai Edition artwork
Kanai Limited Edition artwork.


I actually think this single rule change makes both versions of the game worthwhile additions to your game collection.

The Tempest edition is going to be better when you have less players. This is because having less "instant death" card combinations will mean games with fewer players are slightly more tactical, and will last a bit longer. Meanwhile, the limited edition seems to be the better option when playing with four players. The Minister adds tension and excitement, but the high number of players means there is less risk of getting that "instant death" combination, allowing you to ride your luck a bit more, and play the odds.

If I had to recommend only one edition, I would say the limited edition. It is just as portable as the Tempest edition, but has the added protection of being in a box, the artwork really pops, and the Minister seems to make the four-player game more fun (and really, this game is best when you play with four anyway).

It is also worth noting that the limited edition contains two promo cards. These don't add any new rules, but they do give you alternatives for the standard Princess card. There is even a Prince you can send your love letters to, if you want. I am currently thinking there might be some variant to play here, where you have to get your letter to either the Prince or Princess depending on your sexual orientation in real life. Hmm... I'll have to think about that.


Love Letter - promo cards
The artwork really "pops" in the limited edition.


Anyway, the promos are nice, but I think this is another missed opportunity. It would have been really nice if there had been an extra card that had the abilities of the Countess from the Tempest edition. This would have made the limited edition perfect, as you could swap out the Minister if you wanted a slightly less brutal, slightly more tactical game.

All said and done, I strongly recommend any version of this game. I put off playing it for such a long time because I really didn't think it would be for me. Now, I realise; it's a game for everyone.

Vampire Hunter

Vampire Hunter


Vampire Hunter
Published by Milton Bradley (Hasbro)
Designed by someone with really good eyesight
For 2-4 players, aged 9 to adult

If you know me at all (and let's be honest, you probably don't) you will know that I like games with a bit of theme. I enjoy abstract games, and I can enjoy cube-pushing games that have a pasted on theme for colour; but what I really want is a game that oozes theme (not in a gross kind of way). I want a game that makes me feel completely involved in what is happening, and totally invested in the success of my character.

Creating theme in a game is more than just suitable artwork and playing pieces (although, of course, that is a major element). It also takes game mechanisms that make sense. If what you are doing makes sense (without having to perform mental backflips to link everything together), then the battle is already won. And if you have a game with a novelty element or gimmick that reinforces the theme in some way... Well... Sign me up.

On first blush, Vampire Hunter is a perfect fit. It has suitably moody artwork, plastic miniatures for playing pieces, and a cool 3D tower in the middle of the board. But it is the novelty element of this game that really sells the theme.


Vampire Hunter Tower
The tower.


You see, in that cool 3D tower is a light. Switch it on, and the light glows blue. Press the top of the tower, and the light changes to red. Why? Simple really. Everything in this game is printed twice. Every card, every token, every dice, and even the board, has been printed once in red, and once in blue. When the light is blue, certain elements on the game components are washed out to reveal particular images; but when the light changes to red, different elements are washed out, and the images change.

This is more than just a gimmick: It is the central conceit of the game's mechanisms, and the beating heart of the game's theme. Without the tower, the theme is virtually non-existent; and without the theme, the game is virtually non-existent.

When the red light is on, it is the daytime. The movement dice show higher numbers, graveyard tokens show harmless tombstones, and in the village you will bump into amiable farmers. But when the light goes blue, night has fallen over the land: the movement dice shows lower numbers (because it is harder to travel at night), zombies claw out of the ground beneath the tombstones, and those farmers transform into slavering wolves.

It is incredibly clever, and a beautiful example of how to integrate theme with game mechanisms. The two are literally inseparable.

Unfortunately, beyond this wonderful piece of ingenuity the game is rather sub-standard. Your glasses would need to be as rose-tinted as the board during daylight turns in order to see the game as anything more than a minor distraction.

You may already have noticed I mentioned a movement dice. That should have been the first warning sign: The game is roll and move. The game is also rather boring.


Vampire Hunter
The rules.


Two to four adventurers are racing to the vampire's tower in order to kill him before he can escape in his ship. To do this they need to move through a graveyard, a marsh, the castle dining hall, and finally the vampire's crypt. On the way, they will flip tokens, which may contain bad things, but may also contain good things. The heroes need to collect garlic, a stake, and a sword, and then defeat the vampire in combat three times (once with each weapon). If they do this before the vampire's ship arrives, they win. If the ship arrives, the vampire escapes, and everyone loses.

You may think this sounds like a co-operative game, but it isn't. Realistically, the vampire will never escape; and really it is just a race between all the hunters to see who can land the killing blow. And yes, it is possible for someone to defeat the vampire twice, and then for a third hunter to turn up and win the third battle, thus claiming total victory for doing only a third of the actual work.


Vampire Hunter Weapons
The weapons.


One of the biggest problems is that it is all incredibly pedestrian. Yes, the changing light mechanism is clever and inventive; but it has been used to disguise a boring game system that is older than Dracula himself. You roll to move, flip a token, take the token if it is good or fight a monster if it is bad, and then... Then you wait until your next turn. Oh, and if you lose a fight? You get pushed back to the entrance space. Like in Mario. Because that's really fun. And thematic.

This is just a bog-standard race game in which you charge around the map gathering up the tools you need to fight the vampire. And of course, whether or not you gather those items is entirely down to luck of the dice (rolling high enough to reach tokens), and luck of the draw (randomly flipping a useful token rather than a harmful one). It may be a children's game, but that's no excuse for this kind of lazy design.

But the biggest problem is also the biggest draw: that tower.

The tower just isn't bright enough. You are supposed to play the game in a darkened room, using only the light of the tower to see what you are doing. But the light is so dim, it is incredibly difficult to see what you are doing. And after 15 minutes, you will have a headache.


Vampire Hunter playing pieces
Is it just me, or do these guys not look like vampire hunters?


I have had this game for a few years now, and I have made a habit of rolling it out at Halloween. But this is a bad habit, and one I don't intend to continue.

Besides, I have Fury of Dracula in my game collection, which happens to be the most thematic vampire game ever made. And it manages that without a silly light-up tower.

Wednesday, 11 September 2013

Advanced Heroquest



Advanced Heroquest


Advanced Heroquest
Published by Games Workshop
Designed by Jervis Johnson
For 1 to 5 players, aged 10 to adult


Advanced Heroquest door
Your doorway to adventure...


Rules...

As boardgamers, we love rules. Rules tell us what we can do, and they set the parameters within which we must formulate our strategies. Rules constrain our actions, and in so doing, set us free to master new challenges. Rules allow us to outwit our opponents, manipulate allies, and develop our skills. They tell us how we can win, while sowing the seeds of our defeat.

Without rules, we're all just playing make believe with our toys.

But I have a rule that is resulting in me doing something unusual. The rule is simple: I don't keep board games in my collection that I don't play.

I don't care what the game is. If it doesn't get played, it doesn't get shelf space.

And that's why I'm getting rid of Advanced Heroquest.

[Pause for dramatic effect...]


Advanced Heroquest
Advanced Heroquest in play (heroes already dead...)


I originally got Advanced Heroquest when it first came out. I had previously played (and loved) Heroquest, and I was expecting Advanced Heroquest to be very similar, but with new monsters and rules for modular boards. Of course, we all know that what I actually got was a completely different game.

I think I was probably a bit too young to fully appreciate and enjoy the game. There were lots of rules and fiddly charts. There wasn't a book of nice scenarios like there was in Heroquest. Even creating characters was a bit laborious and convoluted. And then there was the sheer difficulty of surviving an adventure.

In the end, I only played a few times, and I'm pretty sure every game ended with a total party kill. The game was, quite simply, brutal.

So it got relegated to the cupboard. Years later, I went to university and sold all my games so I could buy beer instead. Later still, I realised how stupid I was to have sold all my games, and I didn't even have any beer to show for it. I started my collection from scratch, and began buying old games for ridiculously large amounts of money. In the process, I acquired a copy of Advanced Heroquest. It was complete except for some miniatures, but a friend gifted me a copy of Mighty Warriors (which uses the same miniatures), and so I was good to go.


Advanced Heroquest skaven
The Advanced Heroquest miniatures are excellent.


I flicked through the rulebook.

Memories began to surface.

Oh God. The memories.

When I first played Advanced Heroquest, I was playing a lot of Warhammer. I think that was part of the reason the game seemed so strange to me. In Warhammer, skaven die in hordes. They are weak, cowardly critters that require massive numbers to win a fight. But in Advanced Heroquest, they are lethal. My poor heroes never stood a chance.

And nothing has changed.

Advanced Heroquest is an example of a game that just wants to beat you up and leave you in a ditch. When your heroes start out, they can hardly handle a single skaven, and the equipment you have at your disposal is pathetic, rusty junk.

Your wizard can only cast spells if he has the ingredients to do so, and casting the spell uses those ingredients up. You can't toast skaven every turn with fireballs, you just haven't got the ingredients to do so (and you sure as hell haven't got the money to buy new ingredients). And once your ingredients are gone, your wizard is just a useless bag of human skin you have to lug around in the dark.

And your elf? Yeah. Your elf has a bow. He also has a limited number of arrows. Use all your arrows, and that's it. And don't even think about stocking up on arrows before you start. You haven't got enough money. Ever.

If you survive a whole dungeon, you come out the other side as battered, half-dead warriors with maybe just enough money to restock on all the ingredients and weapons you used. And then you can repeat the whole torturous process.

Sounds awful right?

Well, actually... No...


Advanced Heroquest
It's a good-looking game.


While the difficulty of the game is a major problem, it is also one of the biggest selling points. There is no other game that creates the sense of dread that must surely come from delving into dark caves to fight monstrous beasts. When you play Advanced Heroquest, you are genuinely afraid. You move cautiously, you pick your battles carefully, you pay henchmen to come with you because it's a bit frightening down in that dungeon on your own, and when you find a monster you know things are going to get ugly because there are no easy kills. It all feels very real. The threat is tangible. Totally immersing.

Games Workshop have put a lot of effort into the Warhammer world, and most of the background information talks about how tough life is for everyone. The world is brutal, cruel, and full of villains. Advanced Heroquest is really the only game to accurately portray that background fluff. For the first time, you really get a sense that there are no easy choices, and every decision you make could be your last.

Just look at the artwork in the rulebook (which is uniformly excellent). Most of the pictures capture the agonising final moments of adventurers who made a bad choice.


Advanced Heroquest Rules
Even the goblins in the rules look terrifying.


The game is thematically strong, and really makes you care about your people. You care because you know you are about three dice rolls from death the whole time. You care because you are down to your last arrow, but you know the next room could be teeming with monsters. You care because you have the same rusty old sword you had three adventures ago, but if you open just one more chest you might get lucky and find a sword that is a tiny, tiny bit better. You care because this is serious business. This is not throwaway fantasy where you can stride through the tunnels like some kind of demigod. This is gritty and real.

Unfortunately, this also makes the game a bit of a chore to play. I never really enjoyed the game when I was young, and I still don't now. I appreciate the design. I look at the rules and I think they do a really good job of turning a roleplaying game into a board game. There are good character creation rules, good ways to progress in skill, good items to acquire, things to do between missions... Oh, that's right. I never told you about between missions, did I?

You see, if you manage to drag yourself back to town, you get to do all the mundane things that people do when they aren't cleaving the heads off orcs. Like paying rent, or securely storing your loot to protect it from thieves.

It all adds up to create a world that feels real (dangerous, but real). Your actions are important, your decisions matter, and you will develop a character you care about.

And that is why it is such a punch in the gut when your beloved character dies in the first room of a dungeon in a fight against skaven.

This game is a triumph in so many ways. It is the only dungeon crawler I have played that adequately gives you that sense of panic, of being trapped under the ground and surrounded by enemies. It also provided rules for solo play, which was pretty unusual for the time. But the game fails for the reasons it succeeds.

It's too real.


Advanced Heroquest player hand-outs
Mission items for the only scenario included in the box.


When I play Warhammer Quest, I can laugh when I get a cave in that kills the whole team in the first room. It's funny. But when I see my heroes getting drubbed in Advanced Heroquest it's like losing good friends. It doesn't feel fun.

And that, pretty much, sums it up. I don't have fun playing Advanced Heroquest. If I want to play a dungeon crawler that is a bit of silly fun I will play Legend of Zagor, Dungeons and Dragons the Adventure Board Game, or Dragon Strike (all of which I really enjoy). If I want to play a dungeon crawler in the Warhammer setting, I will play Warhammer Quest.

There is simply no space for Advanced Heroquest.

And I don't keep games I don't play. No matter how good they are.

Saturday, 7 September 2013

The Purge

Well, it had to happen sooner or later...

I've had a clear out.

I know, I know. What am I thinking?

Well, I'm thinking I have too many games. Not including expansions, individual decks of cards, or multiples of existing games, I have (had!) about 150 games spread across three book shelves, and a large part of my study floor.

I decided enough was enough (when actually enough is never really enough, if I'm being honest).

I have a lot of games I don't enjoy, and a lot of games I am never going to play again. I even have some games I have never, ever played and probably never will. And at some point, you have to draw a line in the sand.

So I got rid of some.

I got rid of quite a few actually.

First out of the door was Platoon. I purchased this game on eBay in 2012, and I was pretty excited about it. I made the purchase at a time when I was trying to expand my collection to include some different styles of games. The only other chit-based war game I have is the rather lovely Valley of the Four Winds (which I haven't reviewed yet), so I thought this was a niche I needed to fill. What better way to fill it than with a game based on a film I love?


Platoon
Platoon.


Platoon was released in 1986, and allows you to recreate four of the fire fights in the film. It looks great, it really does. You get a lovely mounted board (in two pieces), and lots of chits to represent your characters, many of which are those from the movie. While in many war games a chit will represent a large number of troops, in Platoon a chit is just a single person, and that lends the game a nice, claustrophobic, skirmish feel, which is perfectly suited to the theme of sweaty, brutal, jungle fighting.


Platoon unit chit
Look out behind you!


What I liked even more about the chits is that they are designed to stand up on little plastic stands, which means (a) they are easier to move around, and (b) your opponent can't see what each chit represents because they can't see what's on the side facing you. This allows for an exciting "fog of war" element, enabling you to use "fake soldiers" to lure out troops and create ambushes.

It all looks fabulous.

But, there's a reason I don't have war games in my collection. I don't really like war games. I don't really ever feel the urge to play them. Furthermore, I normally game with at least two other people, so two-player games just don't get as much of a look in these days. If I am going to play a two-player game, I will usually be playing against my wife, who has about as much desire to play a game about Vietnam as she has desire to listen to one of my renditions of Lady in Red while pushing a trolley around Tesco.

Of course, there is a very real risk that I have just got rid of a really good game; but as I would probably never get to play it, I might as well sell it to someone who will get more enjoyment out of it.

Close on the heels of Platoon was Incursion. I reviewed Incursion only a few days ago, and frankly, I wasn't impressed. I felt that it took the muscular, beating heart of Space Hulk, and then added a load of extra mechanisms that just didn't work: Card play that lacked any strategy, command point manipulation that created ridiculous situations, and overwatch rules that were horrifically overpowered in every way you care to imagine. I might have been tempted to keep the game if I didn't have Space Hulk, but I do, so I didn't. So there.


Incursion
Incursion - a beautiful turd of a game.


Another game that I recently reviewed before winging out the window was Conquest. This is actually an exceptionally good game. I mean a really good game.

I mean a really clever, elegant, well thought out, beautifully simple, deeply strategic game.

By which, I mean, a game that just wasn't fun.

If you could dedicate the time to getting good at the game, then I think you could have a lot of fun with it. But in my limited experience, I found it too difficult to get my head around.

Another good two-player abstract game that I got rid of was Quantum. This might be surprising to anyone who read my review, because I was very positive about the game. However, I eventually realised the game just wasn't getting played. And it was so incredibly beige it was making my other games look drab.


Quantum
Quantum - remake it in better colours and I'll probably buy it again.


Still, I wonder if getting rid of Quantum is something I will eventually come to regret, because... Well... It is a damned clever game.

For very different reasons, I also got rid of Reiner Knizia's Head-to-Head Poker. This isn't a very good or interesting game at all. Furthermore, you can play it with just a deck of cards, so why have a big box taking up space on my games shelf?


Head-to-head poker
Head-to-Head Poker.


Speaking of games that aren't very good or interesting, I also got rid of Summonaria, Chaotic, and Huntik. I reviewed all three games in recent weeks, and I really have nothing more to say about them. Three bad games that were eating up space that an equal number of good games could be filling.


Chaotic
Chaotic decks.


Finally, I got rid of Trivial Pursuit, simply because I have no bloody clue why I had the game in my collection in the first place. I hate trivia games.

So there we have it. My games collection has been thinned out (a bit). And it's going to get thinner still. I have at least three or four more games that I intend to get rid of (once I have reviewed them).

The question is, what am I going to do with all this new space?

Where did I put my credit card...?

Wednesday, 4 September 2013

Conquest (aka Duell)

Conquest (Duell)


Conquest
Published by Denys Fisher
Designed by Geoffrey Hayes
For 2 players with brains the size of planets


Ahh, Conquest.

What an absolute !*@£ of a game. What a horrible, hair-pulling, teeth-gnashing, eye-rolling, brain-burning swine bag of a game.

What a...

Oh? What? You want to know why?

I'll tell you why...

Here's the thing. Conquest isn't a bad game. It's actually a very good game. It's probably the best game that I intend to speedily remove (probably via the window) from my collection of "vintage" games.

I picked up my copy in a charity shop, and I have to admit, I was pretty pleased with myself. Scoring an old, two-player strategy game for a couple of quid always puts me in a good mood. Scoring an old, two-player strategy game that comes with 18 MASSIVE dice... Well, that's icing on the cake. A cake that tastes of bitter disappointment, but a cake, none-the-less.


Conquest dice
I like big dice and I cannot lie...


You see, Conquest is basically the work of a mad genius who decided Chess wasn't challenging enough.

The game is deceptive in its simplicity. You have a 9 x 8 chess-style grid board, and each player has nine oversized dice. And I don't just mean a bit oversized. I mean you could load them into a trebuchet and shatter the wall's of Helm's Deep with them. Each player gets eight regular dice, and one special dice that has a star symbol on every face.

At the start of the game you line up your dice, following a diagram in the rules; and then you start playing...

And then you stop playing...

And think...

And think...

And refer to diagrams in the rules...


Conquest Rules
Looks fun, right?


And then make a sub-optimal move because your head started to hurt too much.

This is because, on your turn you can move one of your dice. The dice can only move orthogonally, and must move exactly the number of spaces shown on its uppermost face. You can change direction, but you can never move more spaces than the number shown at the start of the movement. The real kicker is that dice move by "tumbling." Basically, rolling.

For example, a dice has the number two showing. It moves forward two spaces. The two is now on the bottom face of the dice, and the number five is on the top face. Of course, this means that on your next turn that dice would have to move five spaces.

This is just a completely brain-bursting concept, especially when you consider you can change direction during your move.

Here's a test...

I have a dice with the six showing. I move forward two spaces, then left once, then forward once, then left twice. Which face is now showing on the top?

You have exactly the amount of time it takes for another person to get bored to answer.

See what I mean?

It's just soooooooooo difficult to plan ahead, especially when you consider the order in which you make moves will change which dice face is showing at the end of a move. For example, moving left twice and up once will get you to exactly the same space as if you moved up once and then left twice, but the face of the dice that ends up on the top will be different.

It takes too much effort to figure out which face will be showing at the end of your move. You feel like you are not playing against your opponent, you are playing against the dice - against the mechanism of the game.

I mean, the purpose of the game is to win by taking your opponent's specially marked star dice (by landing on it by exact count), or by moving one of your dice onto the space your opponent's star dice started on. This sounds simple enough, but it is so bloody difficult to plan your attacks in advance so that you can hit the spaces on the board that you need to.


Conquest board
The board - note the specially marked spaces you hit to win.


What you have here, is a game that is fiendishly simple. It's elegant. It's got hardly any rules. And it is far too clever for its own good.

I have to get rid of it, simply because I don't have any fun with it. But if you have the kind of brain that can work out which face on the dice will be showing after every move. If you see the world like Neo sees the Matrix... Maybe, just maybe, this is one of the finest two-player strategy games you can get.

Sunday, 1 September 2013

Head-to-Head Poker

Head-to-Head Poker
Published by Parker Brothers
Designed by Reiner Knizia
For 2 players


Head-to-Head Poker
Looks exciting, right?


Knizia is a bit of a genius when it comes to game design. I really like a lot of what he does, and a "flagship" Knizia title from a big publisher is usually something you will want to keep an eye on. However, the good doctor also (in my opinion, at least), tends to phone in some designs for a quick pay cheque. This means that his name is by no means a guarantee of quality. If you get him on a good day, you end up with Lost Cities; but get him on a bad day, and you end up with Battleship Express,  or Head-to-Head Poker.

Actually, that's being a little unfair to this game; because it's not like this game is bad. It's just... not really much of anything.

Now, I should say up front that this game isn't really designed for people like me: I don't play a lot of poker, I prefer board games to card games, and I like a bit of theme (even if it is pasted on). But, bearing that in mind, here's the review...

The game ships in a decent box (it's the same size as Castle Panic and Red Dragon Inn) and comprises a completely pointless board, a deck of flimsy, undersized playing cards, a dice, and several bags of chunky (and rather nice) poker chips.


Head-to-Head Poker cards
Rubbish cards.


The game board is nothing more than a grid of spaces (five rows of nine spaces), and its only purpose is to show where you should lay a card. I suspect this is why the deck of cards is undersized: It keeps the board a reasonable size. Of course, a better idea would have been to sell the game without a board, with proper sized cards, and in an even smaller box. But hey, I'm not a publisher. What do I know?

The fifth (central) column on the board contains "common" spaces, and cards placed on these spaces can be used by both players. The four columns on either side of the common spaces are for the players (each player controls one half of the board).


Head-to-Head Poker board
The pointless board (note the shaded common spaces).


To begin the game (which lasts three rounds), you place three randomly drawn cards on the first three common spaces, and put some poker chips on each one.

The aim of the game is simple: Play cards (one at a time) to your half of the board to create winning poker hands. When a row on the board is full, you look at the four cards you played on that row, and compare it to what your opponent played for that row (remembering that the common card is added to each player's "hand"). The person with the best hand wins that row, and takes the poker chips that were placed on the common card. It's that simple.

Almost.

You see, at the start of each round, you have to decide what kind of game you are playing. To do this, you roll a dice.

If you roll a one, you are playing "Draw One." In this game, on your turn you draw one card and then play it onto one of the spaces on your half of the board.

If you roll a two, you are playing "Split Two." In this game, you draw two cards, play one, and give the other one to your opponent to play. Then your opponent does the same.

If you roll a three, you are playing "Hold Three." In this game, each player is dealt three cards. On your turn, play one card, and then draw back up to three.

If you roll a four, you are playing "Play Four." In this game, you are dealt four cards, and you play one each turn until you have used them all. Then you are dealt four new cards.

If you roll a five, you are playing "Share Five." In this game, reveal five cards from the deck. On your turn, you pick one of the revealed cards to play. Once all the cards are gone, draw five new cards.

If you roll a six, you are playing "Crazy." This means you roll the dice again to get a different game, and then play a version of that game in which you can place cards on either side of the board.

Okay. I nearly dozed off writing that rules summary. I apologise for quite how dull it was, and I promise I'll never do it again.

Probably.

Oh...

Almost forgot, there's some stuff about gambling in the rules as well. Optional stuff.

Stuff that isn't in this review.

Anyway, after you have played the first round, you play the second round (seems obvious); but in the second round you use four rows on the board instead of three. In the third round, all five rows of the board are used.

Then, you add up all your poker chips to find out who won.


Head-to-Head Poker chips
Did I win?


As you can see, it isn't a particularly complicated game. It doesn't seem to be particularly clever or original either. In fact, it seems like a rush job. It feels a little bit like Knizia was playing around with a deck of cards and a dice while he was on the phone to someone from Parker Brothers, and thought up the game on the spot.

It certainly isn't a bad game. It's just exceptionally ordinary. In fact, it's a game that can be played with any deck of cards and a dice (and believe me, any deck of cards you have in your home is likely to be better quality than the cards this game ships with). You don't need the board, and poker chips could be swapped for pennies (or just left out, as the gambling rules are optional).


Head-to-Head Poker rules
The rules - probably the only thing worth keeping.


I am intending to photocopy the rule sheet, and then get rid of the game. That way I get the best of both worlds: I reclaim some space on my game shelf, but I still have the rules. It means I can play the game using a poker set I own that has proper, full-sized poker cards.

Although, having said that, if I went to the effort to get out my Poker set, I would probably just end up playing poker...