Above and Below: Buy your cave now to get on the hermit property ladder!

Pairs well with: Local, organic, micro-brewed cider. By the barrel!
Brutus rating: 2/10. Not many knives in the back, except maybe the overly enthusiastic claiming of barrels and buildings

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If we were to sum up Above and Below with one word it would be ‘pleasant’. It’s fairly gentle (one to play with older kids), has minimal conflict, and is just rather nice all round. It combines many of the neat bits of town-building worker-placement games with the bonus of extra roleplay scenarios (we totally love a bit of extra roleplay!). Instead of a humiliating scrabble to feed your family (such as in Agricola) there’s a considerably less desperate scrabble to make sure everyone gets a bed for the evening, or they won’t be nice and rested for the next day to carry on work. And the game even scales down well for two players!

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The camera’s focus on cider is definitely not entirely based on ourselves.

The setting is gentle fantasy – after being unceremoniously ousted from your home, your family settles in a new land and proceeds to build a nice village. Each player has a separate family, making the game a little too insular for some (you’d have a hard time ruining someone else’s play time), though there are some shared and limited resources like buildings which drive the competition. Hire workers, build houses, harvest resources. All pretty straightforward.

Beds, oddly, are the main resource you need to keep an eye on, as they only come with certain buildings. Pretty sensible, really. In your village there’s none of this bullshit you see in documentaries about rural settings with poor working conditions and sleeping on hay on the floor. In Above and Below, the workers get their very own double-bed with proper sheets and an excellent mattress. Cushty stuff. Don’t say I don’t treat you well, workers.

No cushty bed? No work the next day. Pretty amazing employment rights. This even goes for

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Bob, spending ages trying to find the round token before realising it mean the round token. 

people who don’t get a bed two days in a row. You’d think they’d have just spent the day lazing around in other people’s beds, while everyone else is adventuring, building, working. But if they do then they keep pretty quiet about it, and continue to remain too tired to work until they finally get a shot in a proper bed.

The one exception to the rule? Cider. If you get your workers a barrel of cider, a couple of them are going to share a bed. We’ll leave it to your filthy imagination as to why that is the case, but it also raises important questions. What if only one person in the double bed has cider? Is Gary always going to be sick of Devin turning up drunk and ruining his night’s sleep? Would the game be improved by a mechanic that generates new villagers after a ‘cider night’ occurs? … probably not.

Aside from the excitement of the bed-mechanics, you have many of your decent but run-of-the-mill worker placement activities. Build things for more resources, do things for resources, acquire more workers to do more things and build more things for more resources.

One of these activities stands out, however. Exploring! As you might work out from the title, you can build your village in two different ways: above, and… below! Before you can build below, you need to explore some of the exciting caverns that twist around underneath your village. With the help of a plucky band of explorers and a giant roleplaying book! Huzzah!

This is where the game bridges the gap between regular Agricola-type worker placing and some more roleplay-heavy story-based game. For each adventure, a story is randomly selected and one of your adventuring comrades will read you out some exciting spiel about your journey underground. Maybe you’ll bump into wizards, rescue some captives or discover your spirit animal!

For all that questing is an essential part of the game, it does feel very disparate from the ‘main’ task of village-building. It’s plenty of fun though so it’s hard to feel too sad about that.

And, like any good game with a roleplaying twist, the game allows you to add as much flavour

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The cider is important both in the game and in playing the game.

as you like to the adventures you read out. The written down adventure will tell you the choices that the explorers face – usually involving various difficulties of dice-rolling dependent on the party you’ve chosen to take on the journey – and the rewards are listed in the book, but how the adventurers acquire those rewards is up to you.

Your friends can add any extra layer of plot that they like, on a scale of Briony to Bob. Where a Briony might end an adventure with “Great! You conjure up a mushroom, now you have a mushroom”, a Bob will give you an elaborate plot with sympathetic characters, motives and backstory. Briony only plays adventures, she doesn’t make them.

Unfortunately for Briony, her lack of roleplaying skills also somehow extends to sucking at playing them. If there is a demon to accidentally be let loose on an unsuspecting village, Briony is the one who will open that cage. If there is a pig to be rounded up, Briony will fail in every method of capture from luring with treats to singing a special magical pig song. When she finally resorted to lassoing the poor creature by the neck the farmer was singularly unimpressed.

“WHAT! What do you mean, ‘minus one reputation’? I helped the farmer! Just because I didn’t have enough points on me to know a damned pig song!
“Yeah, we’ve all been there, bro.”

Briony’s reputation, in fact, got so low that her reputation marker couldn’t go down any further. People had zero good to say about Brionytown. Those clowns just go around hurting people, releasing demons, cursing everyone. Stay clear away, folks! Unless you want to trade or have a nice house. Maybe she was just building up a fancy gated community after all…

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So fancy!

Lizzy “Always The Cylon” on the other hand earned an excellent reputation among adventurers of the world. Everything she explored turned into reputation gold! Not points, mind you, but at least she had some serious respect amongst the fictional communities.

Above and Below, as well as doing a pretty good job of crossing over two different board game genres, ticks several other boxes as well. The art is clean and gorgeous, the characters aren’t bland meeples but are cards varied in race, gender AND species.* And there are just about enough ways to earn points to keep it pretty interesting. You get points for buildings, there’s an interesting points scale for different kinds of resource, and there are points for reputation. It’s just right to get the players having to think carefully about what they’re doing.

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There is even, as ever, a Briony-a-like character.

And, most importantly for the Misery Farmers, it has enough story-telling flair to distract from just being a point-machine game. There are some games that are fun, but that everyone knows Lizzy is going to win. Scoville, Euphoria, Liguria, for example. Above and Below is, praise the cardboard gods, not one of those games! QUICK, DISTRACT LIZZY WITH ROLEPLAYING! SHE’LL FORGET SHE HAS TACTICS!

We had a great time. Briony turned out to be the winner after setting up an effective income-based infrastructure which resulted in fancy buildings and piles of resources, while Bob and Lizzy wasted their time having pointless and stupid fun adventures. And so finally Lizzy lost a game, Briony eventually earned back a little of her reputation and Bob learned that her spirit animal is a fish. The real winner, as always, is board games.

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We got so excited about Lizzy not winning that we forgot how to fist-bump!

*In some scenarios you can gather extra party members. These include a robot, a lady made of tar, and a cat. The cat is particularly fun because if given any task it has a 1 in 3 chance of just… not doing it. That is exactly how cats do.

Tobago: Welcome to Pie Island

Pairs well with: A Bahama Mama, Tequila Sunrise, or other fruity long drink served in a coconut and festooned with flowers and paper umbrellas.
Traitor rating: 2/10. Not that it’s all friendly island-fun, but the game limits how able
you are to ruin someone’s fun.
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Recently Bob has been extremely annoyed about science. Not only does she have to do it all the time for her job, but being quite good at it means she has to put up with noticing everyone else being really bad at it.*

Take Indiana Jones for example. He is terrible at science (yes, archaeology is a science). That is absolutely not how you go about retrieving artefacts for a museum, Dr Jones. For one thing your fieldwork methodology is disastrous, and for another your insistence on removing artefacts from their research site and country of origin in order to put them in American museums is deeply problematic! How many ethics forms did you have to fill out for this shit? You’re almost as bad as Brendan Fraser in The Mummy stomping through delicate dynastic tombs or Richard Attenborough breeding dinosaurs for funsies in Jurassic Park. Disgusting.

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Unfortunately, this kind of unscientific madness does make for better games and adventures. (Not that we haven’t tried to make the scientific method fun, too!). Enter Tobago, where we find ourselves ransacking an island for its treasures once more. At least this time the island won’t get completely destroyed, but we may still piss off some island spirits enough to get cursed.

Tobago takes place on a beautiful, sunny island. As a treasure hunter noble archaeologist you have presumably scraped together the funding to conduct research there in lieu of going on an actual holiday to somewhere you can relax. But that’s ok! There are sandy beaches, roaring waterfalls, and picturesque mountain ranges. The native peoples follow a rural lifestyle, living in huts and maintaining enormous stone idols (which Facebook amusingly recognises as faces if you photograph them) and surprisingly huge palm trees. None of which you will have a chance to explore as you dash madly around the island trying to find treasure.

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Soothing!

Bob’s friendly robot boyfriend introduced this game to her as “a backwards deduction game”. The idea was that she kind of sucks at deduction games, so maybe this will finally be her chance to shine (spoiler: it wasn’t).

P1030070There are four treasures up for finding at any one time: brown, grey, white, and black. There will be more hidden around the island, ultimately, but presumably you only have enough room for four maps at once, the rest of your pockets being filled with snacks and maybe a board game to pass the time. To find one of these four you will gradually hone in on their location by playing cards which eliminate possible locations until only one remains. The treasure is then dug up and shared out among not only those who dug it up, but also those who contributed to discovering its location (because, of course, researchers share academic credit).

A turn mainly consists of either tootling around in your Jeep** or contributing some kind of map card from your hand to one of the treasures, narrowing down the possibilities of where that treasure could be.

As long as you eliminate at least one feasible location from a treasure’s dig site each time, you can contribute as many times as you like. Sometimes it can make you seem a bit less Indiana Jones and more like the lab intern who could be easily replaced by a monkey wearing a robot suit, but who has managed to involve themselves in so many projects that no one can get rid of them.

Suppose we have the brown treasure pile, and we know so far that this treasure is within two hexagons of the largest island forest. Here, someone might yell:
Chris: Right! I’m contributing to finding this treasure. It’s… not in a lake!
Everyone else: But… there was only one small chance of it being in the lake anyway.
Chris: SHUT UP, I HELPED.

We were forced to refer to Chris as Captain Unhelpful for the rest of the game, as he continued to make that kind of contribution.

P1030073The game doesn’t encourage you to be unhelpful to your expeditions. In fact, it does quite the opposite. Every time you help narrow down the location of a treasure you’ll get a bit more of a share of that treasure. Or, as we call it, “put another finger in the pie”. You’ll want to have your fingers in a variety of pies, particularly earlier in the game, to get yourself a lot of treasures, and the quicker those treasures are found then the quicker you can stick some new fingers into some new pies, you see. Pie treasure for everyone.

But beware! Instead of delicious golden pie and chips you might instead dig up a portion of double wank and shit chips.***

P1030063In a startling return to scientific inaccuracy, there’s a chance that the treasure you discover could contain some horrible curses, which can only be protected against with magical amulets or appeased by giving up your greatest treasure (in-game treasure though, obviously. You needn’t be prepared to offer up your firstborn just to play). As soon as a curse comes up then there’s no more of that treasure for anyone, no matter how many of the fingers you had in that pie. That’s why it’s best to not keep all your eggs in one basket fingers in a single pie!

There are only two curse cards in the treasure deck, and the game ends when the deck runs out. This meant that the game we were playing as we wrote this review managed to get pretty tense as curse card after curse card failed to appear.

We ended up with a pretty unusual Tobago game, in which suddenly nobody really wanted to collect any treasure, because of the near certainty of suddenly turning into a stinking, curse-ridden turd pie from which it would be impossible to extricate our fingers.

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Pictured: Bob’s green tokens attempting to find a treasure all her own.

This might ruin the otherwise pleasingly dry play experience, but it does add some excellent tension, of the type that would make Lizzy shout ‘Jeepers Creepers!’****

P1030066There’s something really satisfying about a game of Tobago. Not just working out locations of treasures, but also the gameplay more generally is rather nice. Those mysterious, giant stone heads that we mentioned at the beginning of the game will spurt out delicious amulets now and again, which make it worth pootling about in your Jeep a little more to collect them. They can enable you to double up some moves and work out some pretty tasty combos, as well as just saving you from the worst effects of the curse cards.

You can also employ some sneaky tactics in which you don’t just narrow down the location of a treasure and go and collect it, but actually cunningly narrow down the treasure so that you’re already standing on it. This impressive move was pulled more than once in today’s Tobago adventure (-“I love it when things are under my butt!” (Bob, 2016) ).

Lizzy was actually pretty impressed to find that Chris had Tobago in his board game collection, even though the collection itself is rather vast. There was a period when Tobago was out of print and you couldn’t get hold of it other than by paying some pretty extortionate prices. Luckily it’s been reprinted, but the price to pay for that is a few awfully printed pieces. Still worth it, but we’ll always be envious of those with a more original copy.

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You are some weird little cubes, guys

In a dramatic ending, the final curse of the day was luckily avoided, as each dishing out of treasure requires one more treasure card than there are people to collect it. Having convincingly earned the biggest pile of coins, Lizzy has learned to hide under the table and shout ‘if you can’t see me, you can’t say I look smug!’ It’s nice that she’s learning. Bob usually throws things at her otherwise.

The winner this week is science. But also, as usual, Lizzy.

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Credit where it’s due: The box layout is excellent.

* She sometimes blogs about this kind of thing instead of board games. Madness.

** We think it looks more like a bus but bear with us, there’s a pun about Jeeps waiting up ahead that we need to get to.

*** With apologies to The Thick of It

**** It absolutely didn’t. She thought up that pun really early on but wanted it put in at an opportune time. This was the best we could do. Sorry.

Roll for the Galaxy: I’ll show you my dice if you show me yours

Pairs well with: The tears of your alien enemies.
Traitor Rating: 3/10. You’d need a very long dick to stick it in someone’s ear from all the way across the galaxy.

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Bob’s friendly robot boyfriend is on a quest. It’s not a noble, or spiritual, or self-sacrificing quest, but it is a quest nonetheless. His aim? To boldly seek out and possess ALL the board games. All of them.* From ancient, dusty copies of DnD and Buck Rogers: Battle for the 25th Century to limited-release Kickstarter editions of next year’s big hits, Chris**has amassed some serious plastic and cardboard. As long as it’s not Monopoly, it’s worth a try.

A game increases highly in his estimation if it can be comfortably adapted for two players. Whether this is due to a keen desire to share a hobby with Bob, or simply to play board games without all the bother of inviting friends and changing out of pyjamas, is unclear. The result is the same. More games!

Unfortunately, he is also better at most games than Bob, and she does not like losing. This results in an unfortunate paradox of Bob liking a game and wanting to play it but also hating it and Chris and you and everything else.

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If Lizzy were here, these dice would be ordered by rainbow.

Latest in the series of paradox-games is Roll for the Galaxy. Released in 2015 it has received some well-deserved love on SU&SD and Reddit. It scales extremely well, which means that when Bob has gotten sick of losing at it to Chris she can lose at it to any number of additional people. It’s a worker-placing, dice-rolling, tile-laying space quest. If you, like Briony, have dice-anxiety, look away now. This is not the game for you.

R4tG looks pretty inauspicious. Apart from an intriguing Cloth Bag Full of Stuff and a rainbow cascade of dice, it looks a bit… dry. It’s a well-known fact that early Bob-game engagement correlates strongly with the level of illustration or model adorableness. This game carries a worryingly low rate of adorableness. There are several shades of grey in the artwork. The pictograms have the scent of the GCSE maths textbook about them. The cheat sheets are dauntingly dense, and the game phases/actions are reliant on each other in a way which makes for solid play but a hideously confusing rules explanation. There’s always one person who gets confused about how production and shipping work, which is reasonable because they work in an annoying way. Once you get past that though, it’s worth it. Trust us.

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Roll for the Galaxy: More fun than it looks.

You start by rolling a nice fat cup of dice.

Your dice are your workers, and depending on their results you can try to put them to work doing different things. They can explore, which will either yield new worlds and developments for you to conquer, or earn you a few straight-up dollars; contribute to developments, which will earn you victory points at the end of the game as well as having in-game benefits; contribute to settling new worlds, which work in much the same way as developments but they’re planets; produce goods on settled planets;  and finally ship goods from settled planets back home to your grateful citizenry yielding either money or victory points. Exhausted workers (spent dice) return to the citizenry (dice pool) but can be re-hired with cold hard cash. Bafflingly, these workers are happy to be employed at a rate of a dollar each. We don’t know the exchange rate of space-dollars to pounds sterling but that still seems a bit cheap.

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Today we are exploring.

Developments and worlds take the form of tiles, drawn blind from the big cloth bag when taking the ‘explore’ action. The game creators definitely subscribe to the ‘you can make anything sci-fi by giving it a space-y adjective’ school of thought. Thus your empire will very quickly become populated with a Galactic Market, Tourist World, Space Theme Park, etc. Once you have earned your tiles, you place them in your galactic empire. Some worlds and developments synergise particularly well, some earn stacks of victory points or dollar, and some add new and brightly-coloured alien species dice to your hireable citizenry. Because clearly different alien species are better at different jobs, the ratio of results will vary on different colours of dice. You wouldn’t hire space pirates to farm plant genes would you? That would be ridiculous. Space pirates are obviously better at invading settling new planets, so they have corresponding dice faces.

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‘Hello and welcome to Space Town’

The game ends when the pool of victory point tokens runs out, or when a player places their twelfth tile. This means that playing becomes a balancing act of conquering planets as quickly and efficiently as possible without compromising on valuable end-game victory points. Even a perfect strategy, however, can be undone by an unlucky dice roll or a succession of poor exploration-draws. This is fairly unlikely as R4tG has several clever balancing mechanics built in (exploring, for example, becomes more efficient the more tiles you have previously drawn) but might make the whole thing a little too luck-based for some.

If this all sounds a little bit too straightforward and insular for you, dear reader, it’s P1030023
because we’ve left out an important bit. There is more here than just ‘get tiles, place tiles, put workers on tiles to gain tile effects.’ See, each time you roll out your dice and try to figure out how best to make them work, you can only instigate one of the five actions. This is inefficient and sad. Luckily you may also place further workers in reserve for the other actions. All of this is done behind a handy screen. When dice are revealed (simultaneously) you will be able to not only perform the action that you have chosen, but the actions that your opponents have chosen will also apply to your relevant reserve dice.

Got that?

No?

See this is why we don’t normally go too deeply into the rules of a game. Some mechanics which are reasonably straightforward in play are a nightmare to explain. It’s much more fun to make sarcastic quips about speciesism in intergalactic politics.

P1030029Simply, your hidden worker-placement decisions affect what your opponents are able to do and vice versa. The upshot is that you make some choices by predicting your opponents’ strategy. The galaxies laid out in front of your frenemies are absolutely not hidden information, so a good peeping should at least give a hint as to their intentions, if not the results of their dice-rolls.

Ultimately like so many good games it’s all about efficiency. And good worker management. And dice.

 


 

*Well, the good ones at least.

**Whose own, sadly on-hiatus board game blog you can find at 4vp.tumblr.com

Pandemic Legacy: Plague Simulator 2016

Pairs well with: a surprise drink from your friend’s liquor cabinet. Not only does it thematically link with surprises and possible poisons for which you might need a cure, but also it helps get rid of those mystery drinks nobody’s touched in years and helps to build a sense of teamwork.

Traitor Rating: 0/10. If you’re betraying your friends in this game you’ve seriously misunderstood the aims.

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Publicity image by Z-Man Games.

 

Important information: Pandemic Legacy is a campaign game with a number of unique elements which will cause drastic variation in each game. All kinds of crazy shit happens, but we don’t want to give that stuff away. The only information we’ll give about it here is stuff that’s in the rulebook and which could cheerfully occur in the base game. It’s impossible to avoid mentioning absolutely everything that sets Legacy apart from the base game (even setting up the game begins the narrative) but we’ve hopefully avoided giving away too much. If you would prefer a more in-depth, if a bit spoiler-y,* review, then Shut Up and Sit Down have the video for you.

P1020999Pandemic is a classic of golden-age gaming. You play as a co-operative crack team of medical experts attempting to save the world from four virulent and rapidly-spreading diseases. You each have a different unique character with a specific role. The dispatcher, for example, can helicopter team-mates to where they’re needed most, while the medic (aka the mop) is very good at getting rid of diseases in certain areas. Lizzy and Dr Photographer have long been suspicious that the medic is actually carrying a gun rather than a highly-effective mobile hospital. You know, for efficiency.

The game is easy to learn, difficult to play well, and brings both misery and joy in equal measure. It also has approximately 478 versions, including one in which you play as the viruses.** Today we’re focusing on the most recent: Legacy.

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It’s death for you, I’m afraid.

Much like a virus, this game evolves as you play based on choices your team makes and the resulting wins and losses. Unlike a virus, you really should share it with your friends, because it’s great. For definitely this reason and not because Bob has moved in with her robot boyfriend, she and Lizzy are currently involved in two completely separate campaigns. It’s not going very well for either of them – most of Asia has been thoroughly sneezed on for both of them.

Pandemic: Legacy adds to the pantheon of games which hang out somewhere on the dividing line between board game and role-playing game.*** The game aims are controlled by objectives (which can, naturally, change depending on what you get up to). There is an in-game timeline. Your decisions affect your environment. The board is broken up into regions, and characters can take both mental and physical damage. If they die, they die forever in both the real and game-worlds. No really it tells you that you should DESTROY their stats sheet character card if this happens.

There are, however, a lot more rules than in a role-playing game, and the randomisation is achieved with card-shuffling instead of dice, and no-one’s in charge, and oh god oh god everyone’s going to die.

P1030013With that in mind, Bob sat down to her first round of Legacy misery this afternoon.**** The first chance for customisation was immediately sprung upon as hey, why use the approved character tokens when you have an arsenal of Lego minifigs at your disposal? Because they’re too big for the city spaces and have a habit of toppling over, it turns out, which is bloody annoying. Lego Admiral Ackbar and Unikitty were swiftly relegated to the sidelines.

Naming was rather more successful, although choosing the perfect names and team composition took half an hour and three cups of tea. Eventually joining Bob in her role of the renowned scientist Dr Asenath West: Reanimator were Dr Basin Rudebacher in research, Dr Antony Edward Body (hacker alias Ant3b0dy) as the dispatcher, and Cpt. Benjamin Franklin ‘Hawkeye’ Pierce as the martini’d up medic.

P1020997Once they finally got to work, the game progressed swiftly and in the style of all Pandemic games, in that everything seems to be under control and working as part of a greater strategy, until it’s very suddenly it’s not and everything has exploded. In this instance, turn three had already brought about the complete eradication of a virus (largely because, admittedly, it had not shown up yet). All was going swimmingly, with a second cure lined up when… the game evolved. This was both exciting, as the team got to open the Top Secret dossier, and upsetting, as the game suddenly went from Pandemic (not an easy game in the first place) to not-Pandemic (in hard mode).

P1030004Bob had not played a lot of Pandemic previously. In fact her full experience was playing the base game (once) on sunny spring afternoon in a beer garden, but even she could see that things had gotten out of hand. Someone (and no-one’s naming any names, but someone) had definitely forgotten to wash their hands when travelling through Hong Kong. The team was, in short order, pretty fucked. In the end they were but one (ONE!) turn away from victory. Not even a full turn, just like, the next person in the sequence could have found the final cure (though no word on how long the clinical trials leading to implementation among the general public would take).

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Artist’s impression of the Pandemic world.

 

For the more seasoned biologists, the new version of the game adds a lot of excitement to an old favourite. There doesn’t yet seem to be much of a way around the classic co-op quarterbacking problem (where some co-op games tend to have one more experienced or strategic player dominating the board and coming up with all the plans), but if that doesn’t bother you too much, the new features definitely make it worth a go. Lizzy, for one, still raves about the adrenaline rush when she had to tear up her first actual card in the game. It’s so counterintuitive! Tearing up someone’s copy of an actual genuine board game! Oh, the rush! The thrill!

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Look at this insanity.

It’s really after this first game that things start to get interesting. A game, after all, only lasts a month of in-game time, and Legacy is set over a period of a year. The outcomes of each game affect all subsequent games, presumably until the world is a utopia free of all disease from cholera to acne, or begins to resemble medieval Europe in both smell and plague death-toll. That’s all to come though. In the meantime all we’ll say is that this is an excellent choice for experienced co-op game groups, and well worth the investment of time and cash. Plus you get to choose whether you want it in red or blue and if that’s not magical we don’t know what is.

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*They say it’s not but it is, a bit.

** It’s not a fantastic variation, but it does come with little petri dishes for storing your microbes which is pretty rad.
*** See also TIME Stories and Sherlock Holmes: Consulting Detective

**** Yep, literally this Sunday afternoon. Let it never be said that we here at the Misery Farm are not well-organised professionals.

2015: A Year in Misery

A New Year round-up and big thank you from all of us here on the farm.

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For those board-gamers who follow the Gregorian calendar (as opposed to, say, the Mayan calendar… hint hint) then you’ll have noticed that the year 2015 is steadily running out of steam. With the trudging inevitability of indigestible ham, sour champagne, and your uncle’s ‘humorously’ cynical Bah Humbug black Santa hat, Christmas is pushing us kicking and screaming into 2016. It’s just what Jesus would have wanted.

2015 has been a big year. Briony and Lizzy achieved academic accolades, and Bob reached rank 14 in Hearthstone. Truly a rollercoaster of events.

This year also brought Bob, Briony and Lizzy’s crazed dream to fruition. No, not the one with Jason Momoa riding a unicorn; the one where we spontaneously decided that it would be a great idea to start a board gaming blog. It was either that or, you know, do some work for our sodding PhDs, so the choice was clear.

To celebrate our first year of being real-life bloggers we’re bringing you – arranged via meticulous colour-coding, secret voting and over-the-top spreadsheet-based organising – a thrilling Top 5 of the board games we’ve reviewed this year. Complete with a few bonus extras.

‘Bonus extras such as what?’ We hear you ask, glugging mulled wine and hiding in your childhood bedrooms from enthusiastic family celebrations

Well, how about the weirdest search term to lead intrepid Web Explorers to our blog in 2015? These wondrous search terms have provided literal minutes of entertainment for us, and we fully intend to release a ‘Top 10 WTF search terms’ in next year’s annual summary. Exciting stuff.

This inauspicious award goes to “can kids hide drugs inside of dice?”

…shit. Can they? I mean, it probably depends on the dice. And the kids. And the drugs. We all know how edgy and craze-balls young board-gamers are. It all starts with a light dabble in Dobble and Sushi Dice and then BAM! Before you know it your kids are hopped up on DnD and Twilight Imperium, attending all-day Magic the Gathering events and saving their pennies for Essen. Anyway, we sure hope the hand-wringing parents or ingenious teenagers found their drug-related answer somewhere.

And now for the interesting bit! Let’s roll some drums! Here are the top five, in descending order:


 

5: TZOL’KIN: Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of Plastic Cogs

Official MF drinks pairing: Sacrificial human blood and/or a Bloody Mary

Tzol’kin secured a top spot in the team’s favourite games by being Briony’s favourite game overall,* out of everything we reviewed in 2015. She just loves some hard-core corn.

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Briony: I loved this game. Such cogs, such corn. Butt-loads of worker placement (but with a twist!). My only regret is clearly not making enough time for Lizzy to come and play it with me. For now I’m happy with my record of never losing.

Bob: I have definitely played this game and can definitely remember playing it. There were giant dials, that was cool. It was one of those initially-overwhelming games that eventually gains an internal sense and logic, which you realise just a couple of rounds too late to actually be able to plan anything effectively. Or maybe that’s just me. Maybe next time it’ll be onward to Aztec victory over the Spanish invaders!**

Lizzy: I’ve not actually played this game, so I’m not really sure what I’m Tzol’kin about. Hey! That’s a point. If this is supposedly Briony’s favourite game, how come she never invites me round to play it?

* And obviously because of this she knows that it’s spelled Tzol’kin, not T’zolkin, then. *cough* (thank you to the person who pointed that out!)

** That is absolutely not what this game is about, Bob.

[drumroll, etc]


4:LETTERS FROM WHITECHAPEL: The Case of the Illogically-Numbered Board

Official MF drinks pairing: Gin from your local 1880’s London gin distillery

Our next favourite game is more or less just hide-and-seek with Jack the Ripper. Also, the person you’re hunting happens to murder a few people as you’re playing. Still, as an excellent reflection of the discrimination of the time, as the murders don’t really play that much into your motivation as the fuzz/bobbies/peelers Police. You can still win the game after everyone’s been murdered, it’s just finding Jack that counts.

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Briony: Although a very good game, it can be totally ruined if the person who is playing Jack the Ripper runs out for a toilet break, leaving notes of where they’re hiding unguarded. Remember, it’s not polite to use toilet time to corner the Ripper.

Bob: How did this game make it into our top 5? The subject matter is grim and bizarre as you follow a trail of viscera all over the stinking slum that is Victorian Whitechapel. Despite this point in its favour it’s like playing Minesweeper, but where Lizzy is the mines so you have no titting chance. Fantastic moustaches can only go some way towards making up for that.*

Lizzy: This one is my absolute favourite game at the moment, and it has been for nearly a year. It works particularly well with a good group of people, since it’s got a surprising amount of roleplaying potential to it. Some of us particularly love to flourish all of our clue-hunting by weaving some great stories into the game.

*I know what you’re all thinking. ‘Hey, why don’t you be the murderer for a change, Bob? Then you can cause some misery yourself and stop complaining!’ Well, gentle reader, you are wrong. If I played as Jack two things would happen. Firstly, I’d fuck it up and be accused of cheating. Secondly, Lizzy would find and arrest me and then my humiliation would be complete.  Then there would be more complaining.


3: POTION EXPLOSION: Ignoring Lab Safety 101

Official MF drinks pairing: Clumsily mixed cocktails

A big hit at this year’s Essen Spiel, this game brings together the classic elements of marbles, fairy dust, and Alchemy-school exams. Think of it as the entrance-exam to Achemists’ post-graduate research centre.

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Briony: At Essen I was confused why this game was so damn popular. Then after queuing for what felt like an age I finally got to play it, and totally understood in a zen-like moment. Two of my four companions then promptly bought it before even finishing playing it.

Bob: I have introduced a ton of people to this game by now, and no-one has disliked it. There’s no other game quite like it, except maybe those addictive online Flash games like Bejewelled and Bubble Cannon. It’s fun and tactile but not completely un-cerebral. It’s a little too lightweight and one-dimensional to earn a higher spot on our list (once you’ve nailed the play tactics there’s very little to do apart from mock your opponents), but it’s a definite recommended buy for play with all members of friends and family.


2: ELDRITCH HORROR: Misery, Doom, Tentacles (a normal Friday night in!)

Official MF drinks pairing: Very strong whisky. Strong enough to forget the horrors.

Across the world terror and madness loom. Unrest in the streets, nervous whispers from the darkest corners of society, and bizarre, otherworldly creatures appearing in cities with alarming regularity. You and an intrepid band of investigators must discover the truth, and suppress the rising horror before it’s too late! Sadly, it’s already probably much too late. You’re all screwed, and the world gets eaten. Happy gaming!

 

Briony: As someone who enjoys Cthulhu roleplay this game was already right up my street. Add some worker placement, and random monsters into the mix and boom. Good board game. It’s a shame it’s so hard to win… (Warning: do NOT play with more than 4 players).

Bob: Definitely one of my all-time favourite games. It’s a chaotic collaborative mind-fuck of a game which deserves all the love in the world. It took the gameplay of Arkham Horror and streamlined it into something magnificent. Lots of bits, lots of variability in play, lots of horror. Not recommended for noobie players, and if you do choose to play with more than 4 players, make sure everyone is ready to spend 6 hours on it and role-play their moderately racially-stereotyped characters.

Finally, in the number 1 spot it’s our favourite game of 2015……


1: CODENAMES: From Essen, With Love

Official MF drinks pairing: Vodka Martini. Shaken, not stirred.

A deceptively clever spy-themed party game. Form teams and use word-association clues to contact your code-named agents in the field. Get it wrong and you risk contacting the assassin, or just accosting some bewildered passers-by and accusing them of being part of an intelligence group. Special commiserations to agents Ham, Toe, and Spy, who were clearly at the very back of the queue when pseudonyms were being handed out.

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Briony: Over the short few months since we first played this game it has proved to be an exceptional source of both fun, and anxiety for whoever may be the spy leader. No two games are the same, and you’ll remember all the word combinations for a long time to come.

Bob: This game is very stressful. It’s the most thinky, stressful party game I’ve ever come across. It’s excellent.


Our final honourable mentions go to the games with the Most Misery and Most Farming. Congratulations to all our winners, and thank you to everyone who read our blog, commented, or even just gave it some love on Facebook. You’re all rad and we hope you have a wonderful new year!

Most misery: CAYLUS

For being less of a game and more session of calculating a perfect game strategy which will inevitably fall apart due to your own idiocy or the sabotage of the opposing players. It’s like a maths exam in game form, but with castles made of pigs.

Most farming: AGRICOLA

Because well…. obviously.

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Happy New Year!

 

T.I.M.E. Stories: Sherlock Holmes meets Groundhog Day

Pairs well with: A nice cup of tea to help you think.
Traitor Rating: 1/10. It’s a co-op game, but accidents do happen…

What with it being Halloween and all, you might think that we at the Misery Farm would have prepared something special for you. After all, we are three alternative-type ladies and Halloween is basically Christmas for goths.

Well, we don’t. At least, not something especially spooky/Halloween-y. Sure the scenario we’ll be reviewing is set in an insane asylum and there are a few cases of [deleted] as well as terrifying [deleted] to be dealt with but it’s not, as such, a horror game. What this game is, is excellent. Bob cannot remember the last time she enjoyed a game so much on so many levels. The problem is trying to review it without giving away any spoilers, but we’ve done our best. This review is of the base game and introductory scenario, and all specific references and photos should be of game parts already explicitly mentioned or shown in the rulebook. If you spot a rogue plot point then let us know asap and we’ll shut it down.

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We can’t tell you what this girl’s painting, or why that guy is wearing a plague mask but… yeah.

With all that said, on with the review!

TIME Stories is a co-operative exploration-slash-puzzle solving game. If you’ve played games like Sherlock Holmes: Consulting Detective (which, by the way, is possibly one of the greatest puzzle games of all time), Tragedy Looper, or even an old school ‘GO TO LOCATION’-type MUD game then you’ll be acquainted with the format. TIME Stories perfects the genre in board game form. It’s a tabletop RPG with combat elements, it’s a strategy game, it’s an item-collecting, clue-solving meta-gaming puzzler. Most importantly, it does all these things well. Now, before we get going you should know that this is a scenario-based game. Essentially you buy the base game (which comes with an introductory scenario) and all subsequent scenarios must be bought as expansions. This has led some people* to declare it a waste of money and clearly a scam. They are wrong. It is a beautiful game and well worth the cash. Just don’t play it with two people. You want it to be a team experience.

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You play as a time detective. It’s probably got a fancier name than that but that’s basically what you are. You live in the future where time travel has totally been invented but people keep fucking around with it, creating time anomalies that threaten to break the space-time continuum and kill the whole wide universe! Luckily you’re part of a noble special-ops firm dedicated to going back in time and fixing the problems before they happen. Each game scenario is one of these time adventures.

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‘Sounds familiar!’

The problem is that while you can go back in time to a location, you do not necessarily know what the problem is going to be or how to solve it. You have to follow clues, question suspects, and basically behave like the nosiest PI ever hired.

P1020965There are a few other minor *cough* challenges.  Firstly, your body does not go back in time with you. Instead, your consciousness inhabits a local ‘receptacle’ (unfortunate human) which you control like a hideous meat puppet. In the first scenario, Asylum, you are sent to investigate an old-timey mental asylum. Unfortunately the only bodies available to you are those of patients, and patients are not usually given free run of the sanatoriums where they have so thoughtfully been placed. Your consciousness also suffers from whatever debilitating mental condition has had them incarcerated in the first place, such as crippling [deleted] and hideous bouts of [deleted]. Sometimes you can turn these to your advantage, however, with careful use of [deleted] and doses of [deleted]. Choosing your receptacle wisely in a way that helps the team is part of the game for sure.

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Some nice people.

The second problem is that it takes a vast amount of energy to both send you back in time and keep you there. As such you only have a limited amount of time to complete your mission, otherwise you get transported back to the future (hey-oh!). Exploring, moving, taking actions, etc. all use up valuable time, and if you don’t solve the problem in your allotted time then you get in trouble with your superiors. Luckily they are quite willing to send you back again to have another crack at it. The aim of the game is to try and fix the temporal anomaly in the lowest-possible number of runs. The faster you do it, the more points you get and thus earn some [deleted].
P1020961Of course, if you finish the game quickly and efficiently you miss a lot of what it has to offer. This game has loads of branching paths. Not so many that it becomes heavy and messy but enough that to explore every aspect would definitely be a challenge within the time frame. Bob was sceptical at first, expecting that the format of ‘do and then re-do’ would simply turn into a game of ‘follow the leads as efficiently as possible, rinse, repeat’. This would suck, and probably result in a quarterbacking** problem. Luckily, TIME stories is actually very good and neatly side-steps this issue. Each run was completely different both in storyline and format.

The first run was a game of exploration. Talking to people, making mistakes, and collecting P1020962whatever clues we could. Two red herrings and a violent [deleted] later, we found ourselves back in the future, being reprimanded by our commander (confusingly also named Bob).  The second run revealed a whole new, previously unsuspected line of clues. There are layers to this game, man. This time we went deeper, coming so close to the end and then… promptly causing a temporal anomaly. Whoops.

By this time nearly 4 real-time hours had passed, and we needed to stop. This was when TIME Stories traversed from ‘fun’ to ‘incredibly well thought-out and borderline-genius’ in Bob’s eyes. The creators know that you might not have time to play a 6-hour game in one sitting, but that you also won’t want to lose your place in your scenario. As a solution, the box comes with what is essentially a manual ‘save game’ set-up. You can carefully place your receptacles, clues, and various tokens and whatever in special little holsters in the box, ready for another go at a later date. The board even clips in so that everything is kept in stasis. Absolutely shitting brilliant.

LOOK AT IT
LOOK AT IT

Our final run had to be efficient, business-like, yet not forgetting to visit any necessary locations to gather important clues and items. We completed the game with not a single death on the team and in good time, which earned us a decent rank and… you’ll have to find out what else for yourself. But you should know that it’s so cool Bob almost died.

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We highly recommend you keep notes!

We are very excited to play further scenarios. Unfortunately, currently only The Marcy Case (a period drama set in 1992) is available, but future instalments should be out soon. Additionally, there is something to be said for playing the same scenario twice with different friends, just to see if they uncover more of the game than you did, as well as all the myriad ways they might fuck it up.

So many ways to fuck up and die.
So many items, so many ways to fuck up and die.

* Including Misery Friends who shall remain unnamed but who are pictured in our previous post.

**For those not down the lingo, this is when someone (usually a more experienced player) basically takes charge in a co-op game and tells everyone else what to do. It’s pretty irritating.


Pictures this week are by Bob. Which is why they’re terrible.

 

Potion Explosion: Ignoring Lab Safety 101

Pairs well with: Clumsily-mixed cocktails.
Brutus Rating: 3 daggers in the back out of ten

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There is one big problem with regular and varied board gaming. It is not, as you might imagine, a growing addiction to the adrenaline rush and euphoric thrill of playing out a perfect winning strategy. It is, in fact, rules. Reading rules is boring, learning them from other people is even worse, and explaining them to new players is almost as bad. The only person in the world who actually likes sitting down with a nice fat rulebook is Bob’s boyfriend Chris, and he is, as previously mentioned, a robot. Beep boop.

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Yay! Rules!

Luckily, when we settle down for a gentle Monday night game of Potion Explosion, there is only one noob among us. Additionally, it’s not particularly complicated and Briony’s angry punk boyfriend Pat can do a decent job of explaining a game when he puts his mind to it. Plus Briony and Bob have enough fine red wine to see them through this difficult time (Waitrose, son. We don’t fuck around with our red wine).

A bottle of Malbec and a Chinese takeaway (not a recommended pairing) later, and we’re ready to go.

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Pictured: What happens when you combine wine and note-taking.

Potion Explosion (or ‘Poshe Exploshe’ as the kids call it) is a fun, intuitive game for two to four players. You play as a potions student sitting their final exam. You have before you a little Bunsen burner thing with space for two flasks, and a communal chest of potion ingredients. Every time you take an ingredient you cause the two ingredients on either side to collide with each other. If those ingredients are of the same type then they explode and you must take them, too. In this way you fill your flasks, making potions with different effects when drunk. You may ask for help from your professor, deducting points from your final score, as well as drink the potions you have made (depleted potions still count towards your final score).

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Mmm, delicious potion.

The ingredients are represented by pretty marbles of different colours set in a fancy little cardboard chest/dispenser. The chest is extremely fiddly to construct, but worth it for its mechanical ingenuity. When you take a marble from a row, the tilted tray forces the marbles on either side to collide, making it easy to see when you’ve formed an exploding chain. The marbles go into your flask on spaces designated by colour, into your ‘extra ingredients’ pool, or are discarded into the top of the chest. The chest-top is also slanted so the marbles roll down into new rows at random. It’s very clever.

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Ladies and gentlemen. Introducing: marble porn.

It’s basically like manual Bejewelled Blitz, and it’s adorable. It was the first game played by Bob and Chris at Essen and they were immediately charmed. Through the weekend it was played by all the Misery Farmers and farm-friends to the delight of every single person. It even put a smile on Pat’s face. It’s intuitive and requires a decent amount of luck, so even a first-time player has a chance at winning. The only slightly tricky part is remembering what each potion does, and using their powers appropriately. The powers are handily indicated on the neck of each flask, and are enjoyably thematic. For example the Love Potion allows you to steal the extra ingredients in another player’s pool, while the Draft of Prismatic Joy will let you use the wrong ingredients to fill your flask.

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Pictured: Pat smiling.

Sidenote: the stoppers are adorable. One is a little brain, one is a little tentacle skull. There’s a happy green blob-guy. It’s great.

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Fuckin’ cute as fuck, yo.

Importantly, cascading is possible and even encouraged, in which one explosion triggers a chain reaction. By careful potion-drinking and occasionally asking for help you can set up a turn which will rake in the marbles. There is no punishment for taking too many apart from you must discard any you can’t use or find room for in your ‘extra ingredients’ pool

DSC_0517Pat demonstrates this to great effect in our Monday-night game as he set up a perfect cascade in his second turn, netting himself approximately a million marbles and filling two flasks. This puts him unusually in the lead, and keen to maintain his advantage he takes an e-turn-ity (lol) planning each subsequent move. It’s Briony’s bad luck to be next to him, as she is left with the meagre scraps and useless ingredients he leaves behind. This is the big difference between playing this game as a pair and as a four. Unlike many board games this actually scales really well for two players, but the gameplay is very different. In a two-player game it’s much easier to predict what your opponent will do, and plan around it. In a four-player game the marbles move much more quickly so planning ahead becomes difficult.

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‘Gaze upon my perfect turn! And also my crotch!’ – Pat

Bob amuses herself during Pat’s eternal pondering by opening another bottle of wine and trying to play with Briony’s camera. It does not go well.*

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Morose Briony.

Points-scoring in Potion Explosion is based on several factors. Firstly, the value of each individual potion; more complicated potions score higher. Secondly, variety; taking a set of five different potions will score you a rosette, worth four extra points. Finally, similarity; making a set of three of the same potions will again score you a rosette. The game ends when four rosettes are gone.

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Marble. Porn.

Pat convincingly wins this match, but Bob and Briony will rise again. Briony was in fact mainly grumpy because since Essen she has only lost the game once out of roughly 12 times. Despite that the real winner is DSC_0522
definitely board games, as this would be an asset to any collection. Easy to teach and fun to play, and allowing for both light and heavy levels of engagement and strategy. It’s also so original we had to make a new category just for it.** Plus Lizzy is unexpectedly terrible at it, which gives it a level of unanticipated glee for every person who’s ever played anything else against her.


*There is a reason why Bob is not an officially-sanctioned Misery Farm photographer.
** Horrible Games are good at this. Good work Horrible Games.

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