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.

Spirits of the Rice Paddy: May the rains be ever in your favour

Pairs well with: Sake, or another spirit derived from rice.
Brutus scale: 4/10 for the dickery-to-other-players scale

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Sometimes rather than jostling for attention with a review of a big-name high-flying board game it’s nice to settle in with something which might have been criminally overlooked. Something clever, attractive, and strategic. Spirits of the Rice Paddy is such a game.

Briony bought it in anger during Essen Spiel 2015. She had queued up for an hour for the chance to buy one of the last three copies of a game of Burano, and had walked away empty handed. Instead of saving the large amount of money she would have splurged on Burano, she instead decided to angrily stomp around the convention halls looking for the prettiest box. Rounding a corner, she encountered Spirits of the Rice Paddy and fell in love with the art. She watched it being played for about 20 seconds before resolving ‘Fuck it, and fuck the board game gods. I’m taking a risk and buying whatever the hell it is’.

Fortunately, she does not regret that decision to this day.

Other people do, however. Pat, Briony’s angry punk boyfriend, finds this game particularly annoying and difficult. Everyone else isn’t really sure why this is the case, as rice isn’t the most challenging of crops to grow (it just needs a lot of water) and it really hits the spot when you’re hungry and want 1000 of something.*

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Spirits of the rice paddy is set in Bali, and you play the role of a rice farmer. You own a plot of land that may be sectioned off into paddies in order to grow your rice and earn some tasty, tasty victory points. Fear not though, brave rice farmer, for you will also have a hand of cards which represent certain Balinese gods which give you a little helping hand.

We assume these are real gods from the local culture, but we are too lazy to check and instead are more taken with imagining what powers we would have as Balinese gods –

‘I would totally be like this snake guy, but with legs. My power would be to give all of the snakes legs.’

‘So… a lizard?’

‘No.’

‘Well I would be better than your limbed serpent – I’d have the head of a dragon and the stomach of someone who really likes eating rice. That way I can judge which rice is the best and reward whoever grew it, while still maintaining my fearsome appearance.’

‘I’d still be myself, but, you know, I’d eat less carbs.’

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The game begins by dealing a hand of gods, selecting one, and passing them clockwise. You build up a hand of four cards, which you play in an order of your choosing once at the beginning of each round. Classic card-drafting stylee. The god’s power is in affect as soon as it is played, and the number in the top right hand corner then dictates the turn order. Gods with higher numbers go later, but have more powerful benefits. It turns out its very tricky to get the balance of numbers right as each number adds to the ones from each previous round, meaning that you can’t get away with playing one high card among three lower cards.

Each player has a board representing their own plot of land in which to grow rice. You can hire hard-working meeples to do jobs like plant and harvest rice, and to build walls to form paddies. You can buy livestock (oxen or ducks) to remove rocks and pests. Both of these guys are pretty important to build up functioning rice paddies.

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You begin the game with one small paddy – in order to be able to grow rice you will need land enclosed by walls, with an entrance gate, an exit gate, and the all-important water. Actions follow an order on the right of your board. At the beginning of this phase you allocate all of your meeples and livestock to the part of the chart you would like them to do. Then, when everyone is happy with allocation, all players go through each job step by step together.

The amount of water in a round is dictated by turning over a rain card. The water then collects behind the water gate of the player with the lowest-numbered gods. Only some actions may be completed without water in your paddies (for example, removing weeds). Then comes irrigation. The collected water flows through the first player’s paddy, and remaining water passes on to the next player.

At this point you begin to see why the number of your Gods is so important.

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Often the amount of water varies, and players can be left with half-filled paddies (which are useless), or even completely empty paddies (which are useless-er). Once you have managed to plant some rice in a watered paddy, there is no guarantee that pests or rocks can ruin that rice. Rain cards, more frequently in the later stages of the game, bring plagues or… just rocks. This means that if you have several paddies growing rice to be harvested next turn you’ll still have to drain the water, remove the pests, and then re-water before you can harvest well.

Over time we stumbled upon a good tip for rain card pests and rocks; the rain card sometimes allows you to allocate the pests and rocks yourselves. As long as you have a certain number somewhere in a paddy the rain gods are totes appeased. This means that if you leave a small paddy intentionally empty, you can allocate all of your nasty things there and it fucks with your strategy a little less.

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Once all of the jobs have been completed by all players the actions phase ends and the market phase commences. Amazingly, selling is uncompetitive (you stock your own market on the left of your board) which is fairly rare for these sorts of games. You can hire more labour and livestock for your majestic rice empire… *cough* which may currently more resemble a plague-ridden paddy of horrors and only produce only one bag of rice every two turns *cough*…

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During the beginning of turn five another deck of gods will appear. With divine intent. These gods are much more powerful than the starter pantheon, and can help you do much more – especially if you tailor your final stages strategy to their powers. There is one small twist however, as in the final stage of the game all rice you harvest and subsequently sell is worth practically DOUBLE however much it was previously worth (some of the best gods will allow you to add even more to that).

‘Move aside, lower carb-consumption god. I now have ‘wipe everyone out with my rice empire’ god. His name is Monsanto, and I have a lot of rice.’

Overall, the game is beautifully designed. The gods bring a nice setup to the beginning of each round, and boy do you learn fast that you either play low-ass numbers, or select gods which provide you with water themselves. The progression of the game is something we enjoyed as well, as it really gives the feel of time moving along in the mountains for the farmers (after years and years you learn to grow better, and gain more favour with the gods, and your children don’t starve). The only downside we found was that at the very beginning of the game, each player will be given a starting conditions card at random. Some of which seemed to be massively unbalanced – we had one person starting with 5 walls, and someone else starting with three walls, extra meeple, and a wad of rice. To combat this though we just took out the ridiculous cards and made it a little more even.**

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Aside from this, we are really looking forward to seeing what other games Philip duBarry produces, and strongly hope that there will be more cute pest pieces and pretty drawings.

*With apologies to Mitch Hedberg

**We assume that this is because the game is in rather early stages (there are still some grammar mistakes and inconsistencies in the rulebook).

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.

rgg492

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

Steampunk Rally: A Rally Good Game!

Pairs well with: Gin on rough terrain (the rocks)
Traitor rating: 4/10 “I could race… or I could screw over Lizzy…” – (everyone)

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Each member of the Misery Farm had several favourite games to come out of Essen 2015. When pressed, all you can get out of us tends to be a pretty diplomatic and squirmy answer, along the lines of “well I loved so many of the games, I couldn’t possibly choose!” or “can’t I just say that I love all of them?” or “I CAN’T FREAKING DECIDE, LEAVE ME ALONE ALREADY”. We’re told this is similar to how some human adults feel about their children.

But if we were pressed to decide on a top list of games then we could probably all agree that Steampunk Rally has a pretty damn high spot. It’s one of the games we all actively sought out after Bob enticed a group of us in with her description:

DSC_0617_Fotor“Guys! We need to play Steampunk Rally next. It’s like the hipster Wacky Races, but you get to play as Marie Curie! Only she’s a ROBOT!”

Sold! Literally.

Now we’ve brought (several copies of) the game back to our humble homes the excitement hasn’t worn off.

To start off with, have we mentioned the characters? There are sixteen to choose from, all based on some of the coolest inventors that history has to offer. If you want a team of badass lady-racers (which you know very well your team of badass lady-journalists do), then you actually have a whole range of options! That’s right, A RANGE of female characters!

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Science!

This evening we plummed for Bob as Ada Lovelace, Briony as Marie Curie and Lizzy as Hertha Ayrton. Briony had conveniently hosted a steampunk Hallowe’en party in her house a few days beforehand, and being the cool kids we are we grabbed a few spare steampunky goggles strewn around and got our race on!

Each player gets their little chosen inventor card plus an additional unique card which, together, make up the start of your brilliant machine, which you’ll add bits to as the race goes on via a little valve symbol that lets you know more bits of machine can go there. Being the snazzy and intelligent inventors that you are you can easily unscrew some bits here and there and rearrange your machine as you go along, so you don’t need to worry too much about the order of placement (take that Galaxy Trucker!).

DSC_0624_FotorThe aim of the game is to win the race. You win the race by crossing the finishing line first.* Sounds simple and familiar so far, right? Racing 101. Oh! Also, you’re racing in a giant machine that’s constantly rearranging, powering up, and occasionally exploding – more on that later.

Brimming with overconfidence, having not actually played since the trial rounds at Essen, we opted to play on the super-fancy FUTURISTIC HOVERDROME. More danger, but we could handle it. Robot power! Plus the map is a bit randomised at the beginning, which is always a bonus.

DSC_0613An actual turn consists of a few different phases, which each person does at once 7-wonders-style (or does slowly and in turn order if you haven’t figured out the rules yet, or if you just want to show off your rad moves). The first of these involves taking a card from a selection and passing the rest on. Here’s where you’ll use some of these cards to add bits on to your machine! Propellers, rocket boosters, a forcefield… should we chuck a time machine on there? Yeah, why not!

But the machine you’re building isn’t just about cool gadgets and aesthetics, it’s a beautiful, smoothly-running *cough* mechanism that uses water, electricity and fire power (dice of different colours) to bolster your machine’s defence or SPEEED madly along the track.

DSC_0630_FotorLater in the round is the racing phase! Here you roll the dice you’ve generated that turn and see how much power (how many little winged-wheel symbols) you’ve managed to generate. The misery farmers were off to a flying start! Each of us racing ahead with some efficiently running robot monstrosities, producing the dice and throwing them madly into the machines.

Oh, remember that bit earlier where we glossed over the bit where your machines can explode?

Yeah. Here that comes.

The final phase of a round is a ‘damage phase’, where you calculate all the damage you’ve taken from the terrain you’ve just hastily and cockily rattled across.

“Oh, oh shit. I think I raced a bit too far ahead.”
“Oh crud, me too. Ohhhh no.”

The exploding machinery is probably the most unique mechanic of Steampunk Rally. For each damage you take which you haven’t defended yourself against, a part of your machine (of your choice) will explode and fall off. This can be a useful tactic at some points- sometimes it might just be worth losing some outdated bits of your machine for the chance to speed a bit further ahead. Maybe the force of the explosion is propelling you ahead a bit? Who knows!

But uh, what happens if you take more damage than you even have bits of machine? Back into last place you go.

Every single one of us had, despite being nominally-competent adult human beings, miscalculated the damage we’d take and exploded our machines completely. On the very first round.

“Guys. Guys. Can we just… maybe…”
“Pretend none of this happened?”
“Yeah!”
“Start over?”
“Yep.”
“PRACTICE ROUND OVER, GUYS. NOTHING TO SEE HERE.”

We definitely owed it to the great inventors that we were representing to pretend that that was a practice round and start over. Nobody wants that kind of a disgrace on their shoulders.

THE RACE BEGINS AGAIN!

DSC_0626_FotorSlightly more careful this time, the team of badass lady-racers (or just ‘badass racers’, if you will) had a much more successful second attempt at a race.

The theme is excellently done, as you can tell from our enthusiasm over the characters. Marie Curie has a brilliant robot body because of the radiation poisoning done to her flesh one, but this just makes her even more hard-core than she was already. Which is tough, because Marie Curie is pretty hard-core even in puny human form. Lovelace is also a robot, having downloaded her consciousness into a robot casing.

The depth of the machine parts is also great. You can build some pretty bizarre and beautiful machines!

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Boom.

“I’m becoming a weird spider-tree with legs! FEAR ME!”

“Argh! I keep wanting to attach a penny-farthing to my machine but there’s never room!”

“KAPOW! Oh no, my galvanised brakes!”
“Oh no, you’ve lost your galvanic brakes!”
“Galvanic! That’s what I said.”

Impressively, it also plays with up to eight players. But it does this while still being strategic, rather than a game of luck. You can fit the same amount of players as Camel Cup, for example, but actually involves some skill and planning.

Briony’s playing a giant-machine tactic. Unfortunately, she seems to have got a little bit carried away with building something beautiful and forgotten that she’s actually taking part in a race. Lizzy, going for a “try to win” strategy, keeps losing her galvanised galvanic brakes, but the lack of stopping power definitely seems to be playing in her favour, and she’s speeding to victory.

That's a damn impressive machine, Briony, but it doesn't appear to be going anywhere...
That’s a damn impressive machine, Briony, but it doesn’t appear to be going anywhere…

The way that the phases work together is good for a larger number of players, so you’re not spending too much time waiting for other people to make their moves. But there’s definitely something lost when everyone races together, and it has a bit less of an exciting or sociable feel to it when you don’t get to watch everyone else’s smoothly running machines creating the perfect amount of water for their steam machines and then trudging along, or completely misjudging their power, going too far and falling in a hole. We prefer doing that part of the game one at a time, so we get to watch each other’s’ triumphs and disasters as they unfold.

Speeding to victory
Speeding to victory

The game is a winner both on theme and gameplay. It’s a great game to get your friends excited, and although there are certainly games that are more in depth, more strategic, and more ridiculous, it plays a pretty good role in our board game collections.

Of course, as always, the real winner is board games. And Lizzy.

*You can also cross the finishing line at the same time (on the same turn) as someone else, but then it’s about how far over the line you get. It’s not literally a case of who moves their character over the line first winning, because that would be madness of a different kind.

Twilight Imperium: Friendly Space Race

By Bob and Lizzy

Brutus rating: 9 zingy lightsabers in the back out of 10
Pairs Well With: Slurm! Romulan Ale! Anything pumped with sugar and caffeine

Look at this magnificent shit. You know you’re in for some intense game-time when the box art is this expensive and epic.

The story of the Misery Farm and Twilight Imperium begins with Bob and Christmas. Bob spends every Christmas with her family and a number of close family friends (as South Africans the lot of them are constitutionally incapable of negotiating ‘small, quiet’ events). There’s lots of food, wine, dogs, excited children and merriment.

It’s hell.

Initial plans were to go from family home to Reading for new year’s eve with the friendly robot boyfriend (FRB) before looping back round to the blessed isolation and wonderful silence of home in Southampton. Then the kids got an honest-to-god noisemaker as a Christmas present. The electronic kind, which plays loud, tinny jingles and farty sounds at the push of a button. Far from being a form of passive-aggressive punishment inflicted by child-free friends on their parents it turned out that their mum (!) had actually bought this thing (!!) herself (!!!) as a gift for her own kids (!!!!).

Naturally, Bob wanted to leave as soon as humanly possible. Unfortunately there wouldn’t be room for her at the FRB’s house until the late in December, and he had planned an all-day Twilight Imperium 3 game on that day. But there would be a constant supply of tea and biscuits if she was interested. Sold!

She had no idea what she had gotten herself into.

First port of call if you need a game overview is of course the blog Shut Up and Sit Down. If you are living under a rock and are somehow reading this without having heard of them, then know that they are nice young men who combine informative game reviews with a quirky and funny presentation style (so pretty much the opposite of us). Their review of the game as fun, complicated but not arduous, and epic in both scale and style was encouraging, and Bob proceeded to download the rules with a view to getting a rough idea of the components, win conditions, and what a turn generally looks like (the holy trinity of basic game understanding).

Here she hit a snag. Having only recently become the kind of special, habitual nerd who can visualise a game to any sort of degree just from reading the rules, these presented something of a challenge. It wasn’t the length of the rules which intimidated her, nor their complexity, poor structure, or incredible, gasping dryness. It was more that better things to do than reading them seemed to repeatedly crop up. Taking a nap, for example. Eating all the Christmas jelly beans. Re-watching Star Trek, Frozen, and the Muppets Christmas Carol (with all the scary bits fast-forwarded so the kids wouldn’t have to hide behind the sofa). If she weren’t under strict instructions from supervisors to Chill the Fuck Out and Take a Holiday then some work might even possibly have gotten done. Maybe.

This wasn’t entirely unfair, in hindsight. TwImp heralds from an era of Fantasy Flight games (i.e. their entire history) when writing down the rules was considered an unfortunately necessary afterthought to game creation. The amount of text in the FAQs on their website exceeds that of the written rules by a factor of about fifty, and even the super handy-dandy cheat sheet on board game geek (second port of call for the game explorer) is twelve pages of tightly-packed and colour-coded terror. Bob refused to be deterred though, forging bravely ahead. It was either this or another day of confiscating her mum’s 11am gin and being forced to watch a ten-year old play Pokemon Platinum* on their shiny new 3DS**. To some long-term gaming buddies this mission to Read the Damn Rules seemed one step away in terms of desperate foolishness from considering a career in crippling heroin addiction. Eventually even Bob had to admit defeat at page 14, and instead downloaded the TI3 app***.

Game day rolled round with an inauspicious start. Bob arrived late and without all the necessary supplies of crisps, cigarettes and sugary beverages that would make a ten-hour game bearable. Luckily the FRB has excellent friends. Ones complete with mandatory nerdy graphic Tshirts and an exquisite layout of appropriate snacks including Gagh (gummy worms), Slurm (Mountain Dew), and a handy supply of delicious codeine and Marlborough Reds to alleviate the crampy terror brought on by driving. FRB did his part by making Bob two whole cups of tea without complaining more than 6 times.

Delicious caffeinated sugar water.
Delicious caffeinated sugar-water.

And it only took an hour to set up the game and go over the rules. Briefly: a central planet IMG_0414(Mechatol Rex), the seat of political power in the galaxy now mired in civil war and petty bureaucratic struggles. It is surrounded by planet and space hexes, which generate resources if you invade take them under your wing. You play as a race fighting for dominance according to certain objectives. First to ten victory points wins. You can usually get a point per turn, and a turn takes an hour. No joke.

Okay, so this game. This game, guys. It’s insane. No one playing it for the first time can
possibly have any idea what the hell is going on. Going over every single rule would be exhausting, and remembering them all on the first try is impossible. It’s entirely plausible that everyone was cheating the entire way through but the fact that we were playing with two extra expansions (and therefore a whole bunch of new and expanded rules) meant that no one noticed or really knew what was going on themselves.

Luckily it’s definitely the kind of game that can be played without a fully-fleshed strategy as IMG_0419long as you have a rough overview of what you might want to do on a turn, and there’s someone around the table willing and able to walk you through the fine points. Some things, like spending resources, invading planets, and building technologies and spaceships are very knowledge-dependent, unfortunately, and messing them up can really ruin your turn. Mercifully the sheer size and duration of the game makes it weirdly forgiving until the very last few rounds.

Some parts are refreshingly simple, such as the straightforward dice-rolling ‘pew pew’ of combat. On the other hand some elements, like playing a political action card in order to pass a law in the galactic senate, are almost like bizarre meta/minigames in themselves, as you try to bribe each other for votes while assassinating other players’ delegates. Sometimes, if another player is particularly annoying you with their piractical trading methods or pointed demilitarisation of strategic planets, you can even assassinate them twice*****.

Romulan ale, for when your girlfriend has passed a motion to have you executed by the senate. Again.
Romulan ale, for when your girlfriend has passed a motion to have you executed by the senate. Again.

The potential for greatness is there (and beginners can do just as well as experienced players with a bit of strategic placement and luck), but it is absolutely exhausting on your first time round. After having your ass solidly kicked across the galaxy by the Winnarian traders you might even swear off it entirely.

But then find yourself thinking, at odd moments, how you could improve your strategy to finally conquer Mechatol Rex and really show those damn space-lions who’s boss.

As you play and get comfortable with the rules (which can take several long, long games) it all starts seriously picking up in terms of mad, bonkers, shooty fun. Despite its enormity the strategic elements are reasonably flexible. Alliances are made and broken based on objectives and the layout of the planet hexes (ah, that nebula of hugs sure looks protective. Wait, guys, why are you launching that dreadnought? Guys…?). You learn the particular skills and weaknesses of your race and start to posture with great big spiny hedgehog death stars war suns.

This. This is what posturing looks like.
This. This is what posturing looks like.
See that weird little fish-looking guy in the background? Flagship. 'Pointing the wrong way' apparently.
See that weird little fish-looking guy in the background? Flagship. ‘Pointing the wrong way’ apparently.

Bob’s first race comprised spooky space ghosts who love wormholes and for some reason have a super-90s-wildstyle-graffiti-looking symbol/crest thing. They have the unique ability to build an enormous flagship which then acts as a wormhole itself, allowing fleets of warships to pop up all over the map (entertaining but not recommended for beginners). Incidentally the flagship looks an awful lot like a fish with antennae bits all over it. Bob assumed this was to streamline it so that it might effectively fly through the massive friction and air resistance of outer space, but it turned out that she did in fact have the ship flying backwards. Other races include incredibly combative swarms of cockroaches led by a shadowy matriarchy (who for some reason no-one trusts. Damn speciesists), clouds of fungal spores, lion-people with civilisations built on the backs of elephants slowly traversing their desert home-planets, cyborg remnants of the once-ruling race spreading their mindnet low-cost broadband internet through the galaxy.

All that remains of the galaxy after a number of mad alien races have tussled over it.
All that remains of the galaxy after a number of mad alien races have tussled over it.

This game is fun, and mad, but very very long. Set aside a full day for it, and don’t play it without an experienced player to guide you through.


*Sidenote: Pokemon game names are really dumb and not-intuitively chronological. Dem crazy Japans amiright?

**Sidenote 2: This kid wouldn’t let Bob take a turn and had the bloody cheek to tell her that an Umbreon was a kind of Pokemon in a tone of voice usually saved for the hopelessly elderly and out-of-touch. Since being informed that we had in fact had Pokemon when we were kids it’s been non-stop Poketrivia quizzing of seemingly every Pokemon except the original 152. She calls them the Pokemon from ‘back in your day’.

*** More useful than the 12-page cheat sheet**** by a factor of about 300. It helps you keep track of what technology you’re building and are able to build, and keeps an eye on your various battle stats.

**** This is a ridiculous fucking thing anyway. It expects you to print out the pdf on legal paper and then fold and staple it into a booklet. What is this, 1963? It has the potential to be amazing but only if it were turned into a beautiful, easily-navigated hypertext doc. With a fucking contents page and some kind of fucking recognisable structure. One day. In the future.

*****Sorry Chris. That’s what you get for not letting me invade Mechatol Rex.


Photos courtesy of Nick Lanng and Chris MacLennan

 

Steam Park: Robots Just Wanna Have Fun

By Bob, Briony, and Lizzy. Go team!

Brutus Rating: 2 or 3 grubby knives in the back, depending on the number of players.
Pairs well with: Oil, petrol

6D-31- 360

Steampark is a beautifully steampunky game in which you can build your own little rollercoaster theme park with such mechanic-altering extras as casinos, tents and toilets. If there’s one thing Briony has learned from years of Rollercoaster Tycoon, it’s that you should never ever think “that’s enough toilets now”!

06_steam-toilet
Though in this game you can actually only build one toilet. What would your robot guests do with more toilets, anyhow?

Yet another Essen find; this one is light, frenetic, and sometimes blackly humorous, bordering on the dystopian. Bob obviously had to buy it as it was the gothest game at the convention.*

Team Awesome Blog came together with our generic white male friend (this one we call ‘Andy’ for short) for a game together as we wrote this review. For the sake of maintaining a strong sense of ethics in board-games journalism we should disclose that we forgot to invite Dr Photographer to play on this occasion and all of the photos are reconstructions.

As the many, many pieces of game are unpacked Briony looks more than a little apprehensive. 6D-31- 344She is, after all, the team’s dice-hater and the handfuls of dice coming out of the box do nothing to alleviate her fears. Contrary to popular belief, it’s entirely possible to develop post-traumatic stress disorder from playing Risk, Warhammer and Blood Bowl too many times. Dice! So many dice!

Plethora of dice aside, there are some friggin’ awesomely-designed rollercoasters and tents and such, easily making up for it. It’s a very enticing game.

Right, we should cover the rules. Each player is allocated a plot of land in the form of a grid of squares on a small board, on which they can construct their steampark. Rollercoasters, or any other buildings, cannot be built within one square of anything else, making board-space efficiency a good part of the game. Each player also receives a buttload of dice (that is now the official measurement of ‘too many’ dice. It’s approximately 6). Instead of numbers the dice have a different symbol on each face which corresponds to an action you can take during your turn.

6D-31- 353There are 4 pucks in the middle of the table which only become available once a player has finished rolling their dice, and which determine turn order. The sooner you finish rolling your dice, the better puck you pick. This phase is particularly stressful as all players roll at the same time, and can re-roll the dice as many times as they like in order to get what actions they need, until there’s only one player left to roll.

Seems nice, right? Light-hearted fun? Forgiving of bad rolls? No. Instead, it becomes a stressful dice race!

Suuure, Briony says. She could get the perfect set of dice she desires with enough time, but Bob 6D-31- 319has already finished rolling and can now grab the first player puck! Panic for everyone! This gives her park-building benefits, while getting the last puck actively punches you in the guts by filling your park with ‘dirt’. Ultimately the dice-rolling stage is more like the ‘throw your dice around the room, swearing violently, resenting anyone who looks remotely calm or close to finishing, madly panicking to find said dice, praising the ones who rolled correctly, and hoping that everyone else is having as much bad luck as you’ stage. Andy’s method has been to roll a perfect selection of dice and then knock half of them off of the table. We’re going to rename it ‘The Panic Stage’.

In addition you must place your rolled dice onto a flat cardboard mechanical piggybank otherwise they don’t count. Because that’s what all the other board-games are missing…

6D-31- 356
Wind-up piggybank dice mats. Officially the future of board gaming.

We’ve given this game an ambiguous Brutus rating because of the way that taking a puck can royally screw your competitors. In a larger game this won’t make too much difference: if one extra person finishes ahead of you then you’ll maybe have just a small amount more dirt in your park. If it’s a two-player game then the difference is much greater, lending a distinctly more cut-throat flavour to the game.

6D-31- 347Back to our team play-through. ‘The Panic Stage’ is over. Looking around the table we each have 6 dice which represent the actions we would like to take for that turn (or to the nearest approximation of that). Now each player can do stuff and things according to this, beginning with whoever has most effectively managed the Panic Stage to get the first-player puck. Unfortunately, Bob doesn’t actually know what to do with this mighty privilege, and a chorus of sighs ensues. Briony got the last place puck as she was writing (taking one for the Misery team), and as such this is all of the suck. To better deal with her frustration she decides to build a super-awesome octopus-coaster. It’s holding tiny teacups with its tentacles. Adorables.

In the interests of staying calm, let’s move onto some of the scoring components of the game. Lovely, rational scoring. Or not. Victory in this game is determined by cash moneys (what is the point in running a steampunk theme park if not the money?), which is made by having little robot meeples ride your theme park rides, forever.

6D-31- 318
Don’t worry about them, they don’t get bored or run out of money or anything, they’re robots.

You also have two cards that have a bonus feature for scoring, for example ‘For every purple rollercoaster you own, take 5 more money at the end of a round’. These are essentially your 6D-31- 347victory cards. Playing a victory card is one of the options given by the dice. The dice decide all, and it is supremely irritating when you’ve especially built a purple octocoaster to please your victory cards, then forgotten to make sure that at least one of your dice allows you to play a victory card. Once every player has finished the round ends and you collect your park revenue, which is the sum of all of the things you have built plus any bonuses from cards. And then there’s dirt. Dirt is bad (but calling other players ‘dirty’ is fun). Dirt is made by the meeples riding your rides, by building rides, by being too far back in the turn order, by making the eighth ‘Tim Burton’s theme park’ joke of the evening, etc. Dirt seems to build up more rapidly than you can clear it away by rolling the appropriate dice, and punishes you at the end of the game by taking away your revenue. Dirt is bad.

6D-31- 333There is another slight hitch in our fantastic upcoming parks. You know when you’ve built your first attraction in Rollercoaster Tycoon and it’s utterly underwhelming? Think, Ferris Wheel. This is the current state of your mechanical park. In order to get a really awesome park you need to invest both into getting more people to ride the rides, and in park maintenance. To get more people (or, in this case, fun-consuming robots) you should roll the ‘get visitor’ action with the dice, and then selecting randomly from coloured robots in a bag. Only robots of the same colour can ride on a correspondingly coloured ride so there is some mileage in a strategy that has attractions of many colours. There’s some chance involved with this but being persistent pays off.

How many rounds does a game of Steampark have you ask? 6? Does it ever really end? Those robots are going to be riding and having fun forever while you age and eventually die. But for us mere fun-lacking mortals we only get 6 rounds to make our parks the best.

And here’s the happy ending to our playthrough:  Briony stopped writing and turned her game 6D-31- 324around, winning the first player puck for most of the game. This is a viable strategy because you can almost always find a use for all of the dice mechanisms, even if they’re not ideal. Andy slowly but surely generated little more than a pile of dirt, and is probably still sat there quietly contemplating his little mound. Bob and Lizzy were solid throughout, but victory was ultimately Briony’s. The real winner, as ever, was board games.

In summary this game has some great design aspects and some cool mechanisms. To be honest there are slightly more mechanisms than necessary, but that doesn’t draw away from your goals. It’s simple to learn and has a relatively short play time with a distinct lack of hatred for your fellow players. I recommend trying it, and at the very least you should find someone who owns it and stare at the pretty little components in awe.

Why is there a one-robot Tunnel of Love? Why indeed.
Why is there a one-robot Tunnel of Love? Why indeed.

*In fact Chris (friendly robot boyfriend) very nearly simultaneously bought it for Bob as it was the gothest game at the convention. Being deeply predictable sometimes has its dangers.

Photos credit to Dr Photographer
The toilet art is directly from the Horrible Games website