Loveletter: Before the Rise of Online Dating

Pairs well with: Wine – the romance drink.

Traitor rating: 4/10. You can certainly ruin someone’s turn, but a turn isn’t too much work in the first place. And it’s not so much a game that encourages dickery as it is a game where you don’t get a choice.

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Lizzy was explaining the rules of Loveletter to someone recently, and found herself stumbling a bit. Usually one to set the scene and really get into the plot of a game, she wasn’t entirely sure what to say.

“Right! So the aim of the game is to win over the Princess. And you have to do this by… er… playing some cards. Hrm. There’s a love letter involved somehow, probably, and… er… some… cards. Hm.”

To be honest, we had no damned clue how the mechanics of the game actually relate to anything that looked like a story or plot, even though we’ve played it as a staple short-game, pub-game, picnic-game or between-games-game for a very long time. It certainly isn’t obvious from the rules alone.

Instead of just explaining the rules and getting on with things, Lizzy did the right thing and spent five to ten minutes promptly ignoring her guests and poring through the rulebook to find out what the hell the plot actually is*.

Remarkably, it turned out to actually have one! The day was saved.

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Insert reference to Omar from The Wire here**

Our scene opens in fair Verona, where we lay our tale. Actually that part’s not clear. We just assume it’s somewhere historic and fancy, where medieval aristocracy hang out. You want to win over the Princess, and you’ve written her a love letter. Hard part over already? Not quite! The game, it turns out, is about just getting that love letter delivered to her. Everyone, it turns out, wants a bit of The Princess. The Queen, her mother, has actually been arrested recently and the poor thing needs a distraction. You would love to be that distraction. And in order to stand a chance, you need to navigate a bunch of nosy guards and sneaky opponents trying to get in your way. It’s great to see a game with a backstory, and Loveletter’s is worth a quick read. Points for amusement.

DSCN0459.JPGNow if any readers are at all like us, their spidey senses feminist senses might be tingling a little. A princess as a prize? Isn’t that a bit of an overdone objectification trope? But actually Loveletter manages to not be a dick about it, and we like that. Plus the guard characters are all sensibly-dressed ladies, and that is cause for celebration these days. Bam. Good work everyone.

Loveletter has become a pretty popular game to have in a collection, because it does a really good job of playing the small-game role. In a stunning display of non-arseholery, the makers realised that the whole game could fit in a convenient and small bag, and… they actually sold it in the tiny and convenient bag, shelf-space be damned! It’s fancy and everything; all red and velvety.  Shame about the rather weak drawstring though, as without some deft knotting you are likely to end up with a backpack full of scattered cards.

Loveletter wins a place in our hearts not just a short game, but as a pub with your family game, a picnic with friends game. It’s good to carry in your pocket and try to lure people into playing it at irregular times. Particularly handy for those of us who believe that any time not playing games is wasted time.

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Game test. Can you play it on a dog? If so, it’s versatile!

What’s that? You expect a board games review blog to actually mention how well the game plays? Geez, you people.

The bag comes with a bunch of red cubes (red for wuv, obviously), some character cards (guards, priests, The Princess etc) and … yep, that’s pretty much it. Everyone has a card in their hand and they draw an extra card on their turn. They then discard a card from their hand of two and perform its action. Sometimes the action is something which aims to get another player out of the round, sometimes the action is something like “you lose”. You probably don’t want to play the latter card.

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Who’s a good table?

The object of the game is to either get all of your opponents out (such as by catching them with your guard-card) or by getting to the end of the round (when the pile of spare cards is exhausted) while having the highest-numbered card in your hand. The higher the card number, the closer the card is to The Princess (the highest number being The Princess herself). Whosever card you end up with is the person who currently has your love letter, so the one closest to The Princess is going to be best able to deliver it for you.

The rounds are far too quick to make up a whole game, so instead for winning a round you get one of the aforementioned little red cubes. Four cubes is enough to woo The Princess to victory!

We did once trick someone into thinking the game was about building a tower out of the red cubes, but the actual game is far more fun.

Of course, it’s a very small and quick game and it’s partially based on luck. As such, it’s got some limits on how much love we have to give to it. It’s also not so great for two players, even though officially it’s for 2-4. There’s definitely a lot more shuffling and a lot less actual playing the game with two, and if you’re anything like us then you’re kind of in it for the latter. Getting a single person out of the round can (and regularly does) take no more than one turn. As soon as someone plays a baron card the round is over whatever happens, for example.

Besides, playing with four people is a great way to change up your tactics, or to look your rival suitors in the eye as you collect your cuboid love. You can even pretend that this is what dating programmes actually looked like in medieval times even though you are a sensible and rational human being.

Aside from the difficulty of two-player games its neat little bag and ease of play still make it a worthwhile investment. It was a staple of the evenings we spent in the pub during Essen Spiel 2015 after our poor, feeble minds had melted after playing long and complex games all day***. And our poor, feeble feet and backs couldn’t handle dragging around a rucksack of large games to the pub as well.

Really, the real winner is always going to be The Princess. And games.

*A favourite activity for the DM’s of the world.

** He’s The King.

*** It turns out that a continuous flow of German wheat beer (automatically filled up by waiting staff) and Loveletter really is a great way to have some fun passing the time. Another classic is ‘A Fake Artist Goes to New York’, a small simple game based on producing a collective drawing.

Easter Special: Travelling Games for Travelling People

Here at the Misery Farm we are big fans of Big Games. Euro-games that take a bajillion hours and a Masters in applied Logic to wrap your head around. Twilight Imperium, Caylus and Agricola are what we’re about. The only party game we allow is Codenames – casual fripperies like Obama Llama and CAH get cast aside like last week’s empty wine bottles.

Nonetheless we admit that sometimes games that take less than an hour are not only desirable, but necessary. Imagine being in a wine bar with your best friends during those awkward minutes in between sitting down and the first arrival of a round of rich Malbecs to your table. Nothing to soften the acute agony of interaction and no lead-in to broach the latest gossip. Horror. For times like this we have casual games. Stick them in your handbag and never be bored on a train again. Give them a permanent home in your backpack and no flight delay need hold fear again. Wherever you are, you bring the party.

Note: Some fiddly bits included. The Misery Farm cannot be held responsible for lost pieces on rickety train journeys.

Hive

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Hive is a two-player tile placement game much in the same style as chess. Each player controls a range of either black or white tiles with different bugs printed onto them. Each bug has a special movement ability, again much like chess. Because of this similarity it makes Hive a good game to play with kids and adults of all ages. The aim of the game is to surround your opponent’s queen bee with tiles*. The game has many varying tactics such as blocking your opponent’s bugs with your own tiles, using their tiles to surround their own bee, or simply pinning tiles down using a beetle. Once placed you can still move any of your tiles around so long as they are freely able to move, and in moving them they do not break the hive mind, i.e. the tile doesn’t connect other tiles to the hive. Similarly to chess games of hive will keep your brain engaged and constantly testing new strategies on your opponent**. The more you play the better you will become until your ragtag army of unyielding and undying insects can take over the world friends willing to play you.

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Dobble

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Dobble is a very fast-paced card placement game which has more than 7 ways of playing. The deck is made up of circular cards with a selection images printed onto them. On every single card features one image that will match with any other card in the deck. All of the games are centred on the idea that you need to find the one matching image between one card and another which can become infuriating and impossible under pressure***. There is no player limit for the game which instantly makes it a party classic especially when combined with shouting, laughing and intense time pressure. The sheer simplicity of the cards is enough to enthral any scientists among you into working out algorithms and new games, and for everyone else to simply become better at identifying objects under pressure. There should probably be a noise warning on the tin however, as you will definitely find your whole party sometimes shouting incoherent nonsense. This makes it a great game to play with kids, as not only is it simple but children spend a lot of their time shouting incoherent nonsense anyway.

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Exhibit 1. All fun, all of the time.

Bananagrams

banana1Bananagrams is probably a game a lot of people have seen while Christmas shopping as it’s sold in a lot of stores that don’t even specialise in games. Usually when we see a game like this we instantly assume it’s terrible – Monopoly and Trivial Pursuit notoriously belong to this same category and have hurt us in the past. Rather amazingly Bananagrams is actually fun. It’s a game very similar to Scrabble where players are given a set number of tiles (usually 21 but depending on number of players) and must make connecting words with them. Unlike Scrabble there is no point scoring system, and instead to win the game you must get rid of all of the tiles in the central pool first. You do this by using all of your hand tiles and then shouting ‘PEEL!’**** Each player will then take an extra tile from the pool and continue trying to form words. For the player who shouted this means that you now have only one letter to get rid of, and fortunately the game allows breaking up and reforming words. The game pitches your intellectual Scrabble ability against that of time pressure and the abilities of the other players. This can be a bit distressing when you think you’re doing really well but it turns out you’ve only been laying two and three letter words, whereas your friend opposite has practically written a novel*****.

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Losing all ability to form words has never been more fun!

 

*In the animal kingdom this would probably mean ripping the bee limb from limb and taking over the colony in cold blood, but we’ll leave that part to the nature documentaries.

**Incidentally there is an online version of the game available through Steam. In this you can play against varying levels of difficulty against the computer, play online, and also pass and play. It also has excellent music.

***At the Misery Farm we found that certain people***** were ‘blind’ to particular items regardless of how many times they came up. The game sizes the items differently on each card to throw you off even more, but still, item blindness continued.

***We strongly encourage you to try this in a number of different voices and accents. Bonus points for knowing ‘peel’ in another language.

****The joke is on them though – ‘Fuck your five syllable words, it’s all about peeling the most. I can peel better than all of you! FEEL THE PEEL!’

***** It was Bob. Bob still can’t tell colours and shapes apart. Five year olds would have a great time playing against her.

Star Wars the Card Game: Luke, use the phase!

Pairs well with: Blue Milk and Rhuvian Fizz, according to Wookiepedia.

Traitor rating: 10/10. This game is straight up you and your opponent ruining each other’s lives and dreams through the medium of small printed cards.

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Briony has recently been involved in a pub quiz. It wasn’t any old pub quiz though, it was the University of Southampton’s Rock and Metal society pub quiz. Having been a member for the full five years of her University life she knew exactly why most people would be caught off guard and end up with a score of -27. Rocksoc pub quizzes have very sporadic rounds which can be worth different values of points, either for getting the right answer or for getting it monumentally wrong. The questions follow no logical sequence and often feature dubious rounds, for instance the ‘decipher the name of the metal band from the logo’ or ‘recognise the fewest pop artists’, which confuse a lot of folk. It is a proud traditional that has certainly gotten out of hand over the years, making regular pub quizzes look like a basic pre-school maths test.

This year however, there was a welcome edition of Star Wars trivia. Despite having a team who were 75% blind drunk and regularly absent during and between rounds, Briony’s team managed a cool 9/10* in this segment. This was in fact the best score they got for the entire quiz and later prompted the old** Star Wars card game to be played over the following weekend.

DSC_0561.JPGStar Wars: The Card Game is a two-player deck building game. It is set loosely during the height of the Empire’s control in a way that allows the different card affiliations to have beef with one and all of the others at the same time. Although not plot-specific, the decks will feature characters, places and events that occur during the novels, films and general Star Wars universe.

It’s almost like we’re in control of our own Star Wars adventure, guys! … Guys?

 

The game comes with four pre-made decks: the Sith, Imperial Navy, Rebel Alliance, and the Jedi. Each deck will feature cards with affiliations from their respective force sides. There are affiliations in total (but some cards may be neutral or without an affiliation). These are: the Sith, Imperial Navy, Rebel Alliance, the Jedi, Scum and Villainy, and Smugglers and Spies.

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Obviously there are now several million expansions and other decks to pad out these beginning few, but the game works excellently just with these basic four. Mmmm, tasty vanilla decks. One player will play the light side of the force which may use either the Rebel Alliance or Jedi decks, which are formed of cards from the Rebel Alliance, Jedi and Smugglers and Spies affiliations. The other will play the dark side using either the Imperial Navy or Sith decks, which are composed of cards from the Imperial Navy, Sith, and Scum and Villainy affiliations.

Now, because this is a card game there is going to be a lot more cards. Like, a lot. Unit, enhancement, event and fates cards will be included in your deck and enable you to do some other stuff other than playing Chewie to entertain the moral of your troops. But why would we want to do anything other than that, you ask?

DSC_0558Units cards, like Chewie, are used for attacking and defending in engagements and may also contribute to balancing the force (don’t worry, we’ll come back this like Han Solo comes back to bars). Enhancement cards do what they say on the tin – play the card to do or get a better thing, or to improve existing cards. Event cards are sudden effects which are played directly from the hand instead of having to be placed in the play area first. They usually cost resources or cancel effects of other cards. Finally, fate cards are similar to event cards but usually have more powerful effects. You can only play these during a certain phase, and when used correctly can be a game-changer***.

During the setup of the game you will firstly, and rather obviously, be excited by seeing your favourite characters being played****. Secondly, usually later on in the game after staring at your cards for so friggin’ long in a vain attempt to make some sort of plan, you’ll be excited by how awesome the artwork is.

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Look at that rulebook art. LOOK AT IT.

 

DSC_0557During setup you’ll also pick and layout three objectives. These are what the game is really all about: each player will be trying destroy their opponent’s objective cards. A light side victory requires the destruction of three objective cards (even though more may be played throughout the game). A dark side victory occurs if the death star dial advances to 12. This is a dinky little clock which will advance once per turn, and twice if at the beginning of the turn the dark side of the force is more powerful.

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My job is to annihilate, but while looking cute.

A player’s turn has many phases. In the rule book this is listed as 8 or so phases, with very specific things you can do within them. Sometimes you can only even take part in a phase if it is your turn, for example. When in doubt it’s safe to assume that you’ve just progressed to a phase you have utterly forgotten about. At the beginning of turns there is a re-fresh phase (removing old tokens), draw phase (drawing cards into the hand), and deployment phase (play cards from the hand into the play area for the cost of the card). After these there is a conflict phase.

Pew! Pew, pew!

The attacking player (the player’s whose turn it is) can choose to use cards in their play area to attack. Their opponent can choose to defend with cards in their own play area, or not to commit at all. Defending results in deadly exploding space battles with lots of fire and casualties and screaming and an epic soundtrack*****.

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If you manage to kill, damage, or immobilise all of the defenders you can take a stab at the objective cards. More powerful objective cards can only take a few damage tokens before they are destroyed, whereas weaker ones may be able to take more. Deal some damage to the cards, and then your little rag-tag army will fly all the way back home to your own play area.

DSC_0559The force struggle phase happens at the end of each turn, in which players commit cards to the force. Whoever has the most committed points to the force means that for that round, the force will be changed to their side. Committing cards to this however means being unable to use them in the later stages of the round.

 

AND THEN IT ALL HAPPENS AGAIN. Until one of you wins, or you get so wound up at all of your cool cards being killed off that you give up and set up a nice game of Tobago instead. This regularly happens to Bob who finds the stress of the game too much to bear, which always ends with her throwing the remnants of her deck in Robot Boyfriend’s face.

If there is one thing that Briony has learnt from this game it’s that she is not qualified to single-handedly bring peace to the universe through military might. This makes her a little bit sad as someone who plays a lot of turn-based strategy games, but also a little bit glad that she won’t ever have to apply for the job ‘resource manager of the Empire’, because boy does that look like a stressful job utterly void of job security.

DSC_0571.JPGIn conclusion the game is very well thought out and balanced. The art, and range of characters and cards are excellent. It is a constant struggle from beginning to end, but once you get better at it it feels like you have the might of the Empire emanating from your very being. Unfortunately, like similar deck-building games such as Magic the Gathering, it’s going to take a while for you to get really good, kid, and until then you’ll need to be prepared to loose a lot. But it’s ok, even the best Jedi loose sometimes.

 

 

*They still argue that the last question was in fact correct, and they should have gotten full marks. Scruffy looking nerf herders… *mutter, mutter*

** It’s actually a fairly recent release of much older games. Everyone loves having a whole range of games from the same universe, right? Fortunately it is much better than the original.

***A phrase that gives most board-gamers an apprehensive feeling. You can just feel the traitor scale edging up already.

**** Shouting ‘Yoda! I call upon you to defend my honour!’, or ‘Jabba the Hut – I CHOOSE YOU!’ never gets old.

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*****It definitely only ends with you counting up some numbers and maybe giving them a couple of damage tokens. Actually killing a card is pretty exciting. And by killing I mean taking a small piece of coloured card off of the board and back into the discard pile.

 

 

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.

Hanabi: A guide to successfully marketing pyromania

Pair well with: a warm (green?) tea to watch your splendid firework display on a cold night.
Traitor rating: n/a (co-op game)

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Hanabi is a test.

It’s also a co-operative game, and a pretty neat one. You have a hand of cards but, excitingly, you hold them facing backwards so that only your companions can see what you have. You, for your part, can see theirs but not your own.

The game itself is a test of memory and testing the bounds of limited information. Your goal is to use these skills to create the best fireworks display that humankind has ever seen! Failure can come in the forms of either a really shit victory (what, you wanted more than two small fizzley fireworks?) or a complete loss which comes in the form of all of the fireworks exploding. This presumably results in death, destruction and – even more significantly – shame.

You want to have a victory, obviously, but it’s really about a good victory. A spectacular victory! There’s a scoring system based on just how well you managed to firework, and you want to do well at it.

lots 311_Fotor.jpgThe cards are a range of colours numbered 1-5. Effectively, what you want to do is put down sets of the same colour, starting with 1 and ending at 5. Simple. Except, you know, that bit where you don’t know what cards you have. Your turns are a battle between putting down your own cards if you think you’ve figured out what they are (or even sometimes if you haven’t! You maverick!) and giving very limited bits of information to one of your team-mates.

What was that we were saying earlier about how Hanabi was a test?

It’s a test in being able to follow the damned rules and not accidentally give away all of the information. Similar to Codenames, in a way. In Codenames the spymaster needs to constantly fight the urge to stare obviously at the correct clues, look shocked when the spies talk about something really obviously wrong (cough cough JUNGLE JAM) and to say “that’s right!” when someone gets their clue.

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Typically you introduce someone to the game with the phrase “don’t look at your cards” and they immediately look at their cards. This gives you permission to make fun of them for the rest of the game.

In Hanabi the urge to cheat is somehow even harder to control, because you’re all working on the same team. Perhaps today we’re giving you both a review of a cardgame, and a review of our own skills as not-cheaters. (the conclusion of the latter review is going to be something like “points for effort”*).

One thing you need to try pretty hard to resist is to fish for information you’ve already been given. Because, you know, it’s kind of a memory game, amongst other things. That means you should probably be using your memory!

“Oh damn… did I already know that these two were green?”
“We can’t say!”
“Ok, but if I put in a request via the Freedom of Information Act?”
“Yes, those were green.”
“Scandal!!”

There are sneaky tricks to organising your cards. You can, for example, optimistically try to rearrange your cards without looking at them, perhaps by putting all of the 1s on the left. Which is fine, until you completely forget whether you’ve done that, and where you put the new card you drew, and what bloody number you were even trying to remember in the first place.

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What? The cards just naturally fell that way

Is it maybe bending the rules a little to completely turn your 5 cards to a 90-degree angle? We’ll let your own consciences be the judge of that. Our friend Rich’s conscience certainly had nothing to say on the matter.

 

Picture the scene of a tense game of Hanabi (whether or not you’ve played before): Each player with five firework cards in their hand, all facing away. Each trying really, really hard to psychically send messages to their teammates about which card is super-important to play to get the next firework completed. If you’re not passing on information this turn then you can choose to either discard a card or play one into your firework collection. Of course if you play it and it won’t fit, perhaps if you’re trying to play a white 1 but you’ve already got a white 1 and 2 down in front of you, then a mysterious bomb somewhere gets a little bit closer to exploding.

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Maybe finish the fireworks display BEFORE they explode

But if you discard a card, there’s a chance that it might’ve been really important. There are only two of most of the cards in the game, and only one each of the 5s, so if you accidentally discard two green 3s over the course of a game, for example, then you know you’ll never be able to complete the green part of the fireworks display.

This can lead to some very sharp intakes of breath as you see someone’s hand hover over a card to discard that you all really need. Again, bad work with the ‘accidental’ cheating, team.

Still, we’d love to be able to say that was close to the worst example of cheating in some of our games (we could, but it would be lying. Which is just another form of cheating).

“Right, it’s my turn. So, JUST AS A RULES CLARIFICATION, you guys… we can now feel free to discard any of the 1s we have for the colours we’ve already got 1s for, right? We don’t need any of those any more? For the colours WE’VE COMPLETED?”
“Um… yep?”
“Ok. COMPLETELY UNRELATEDLY, I’m going to spend my turn giving information. Lizzy, these cards are all 1s.”

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Your  card-holding’strategy’ is getting a bit complicated there, Rich

This kind of thing sends Lizzy, who despite all her anti-establishment tendencies is a stringent rule-follower, into twitching apoplexy.**

The game is a great challenge because of the really limited information that you have at your disposal. If you use your turn to give someone information, then you can only tell them one single thing about their cards: either you can point at all of the cards which have a certain number, or all of the cards which have a certain colour. But you have to tell them ALL of the cards of that type. So if you really want to give someone some information about, say, a useful yellow firework card that they have (perhaps that Yellow 2 that you so desperately need) then you can’t sneakily just tell them that that particular card is yellow, you also have to tell them any other yellow cards they might have which may well be useless as heck to you right now.

This can occasionally lead to a person accidentally trying to inform someone of a super useful card before realising that they have a second one of that type.

“This is a … oh shit, no, nevermind.”

Definitely not cheating.

lots 307_Fotor.jpgTo make matters worse, the amount of times you’re allowed to give out information is limited by a bunch of clock-faced tokens. When you run out of those tokens then you have to either gamble and play a card, or discard a card to regain a token. As if the pressure of running out of cards and ending the game isn’t bearing down upon you enough already.

It’s a good game, and it can get surprisingly interesting in terms of strategy. And it’s really… fun. Not just in the way that working out a complex strategy can be really fun (let’s face it, we all know we’re in this hobby because we’re nerdy about that kind of thing) but also in a more general fun way. There’s laughter, there’s miscommunication, there’s failing miserably. All great qualities for a game to have. It’s a game for both dedicated games nights and for casual games down the pub, since it has the highly sought-after quality of using up not very much table space.

And there is just SO MUCH trying not to cheat.

“What? I wasn’t trying to give extra information, I was just making a general comment about how some of these games tend to pan out, that’s all…”
“Really, Rich…”

The real winner this week is board games. But also, a slightly guilty-looking team with some questionable cheating ethics.

* Except for Bob. Bob doesn’t even get points for effort. She’s even dodgy with Carcassonne.

** Her Codenames competitors sometimes refer to her as ‘The Fun Police’

Carcassonne Hunters and Gatherers: Get your… carcasses… on?

Pairs well with: Rudimentary fermented fruit? Whatever, we just had some wine we found in the back of Briony’s cupboard. It worked out alright. We hunted and gathered it.

Traitor rating: a firm 6/10 for tile-dickery

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This box contains one more hunter-gatherer than normal

Do our long-time readers remember Dr Photographer? Such fancy pictures. Anyway one time he kindly lent Lizzy his copy of Carcassonne Hunters and Gatherers to see her through a Christmas with her family. This was several years ago so, naturally, Lizzy still has the copy* and it’s her go-to Carcassonne edition to this very day.

By the way, did you know there was a world championship Carcassonne tournament at Essen Spiel every year? We were pretty surprised. Yeah, it’s a popular game with a few bajillion expansions, but is it really the kind of thing you can have a world tournament of? Well, we suppose it must be. In hindsight we realised that we had made up and attended our own tournament for Codenames which is a much lesser known game, so really, who are we to judge?

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Bob poses with some meeples. Like a kind of pre-game prep.

Hunters and Gatherers is pretty similar to regular Carcassonne in a lot of ways, but all stone-age and stuff. Instead of a road you have a river, instead of castles you have forests, instead of farms for farming you have meadows for hunting, but the basic principles tend to still be there. In addition to this, at the end of the game you cannot score points for any forests or rivers you failed to complete which we feel is a just end to that one slacker friend who deploys his remaining meeple in a last ditch attempt to get some half-assed points. It makes the end game much more excited, and makes you that little bit more keen to just get that damn forest-ending tile that you’ve been looking for for like five turns now NOT ANOTHER CURVY RIVER ARRGH!

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Box insert mammoths

This does mean that when Lizzy plays real Carcassonne with the big kids then she always gets confused playing with the river expansion – an expansion where the first few tiles are just to place out a river for the rest of the cities and roads to go around. “Lizzy, why are you trying to put your meeples on the river, are you drowning them?” “That’s where they go!” “Is… is she new to games?” It’s embarrassing for everyone around.

One of the main parts of playing Carcassonne is just taking a tile out of a bag. The “taking a tile out of the bag” phase, if you will.** Since your entire turn relies heavily on which bit you take out, it’s easy to see how much of an effect that old toad Luck can have on your game. Particularly with your first few plays-through, or if you don’t play that often.

Nobody ever wants a river tile, for one thing. Or a road tile, if you’re playing vanilla Carky. Long river, curved river, ending river. NOBODY CARES, RIVER. GO HOME.

Just as in regular Carky lots of the points can farmed in the cities, in Hunters and Gatherers the points are in the forests. Two points per forest tile compared to only one point per river? Psh. Easy choice!

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Bag of delights

But there comes a stage in your Carcassonne life where it’s become your go-to game with a certain friend or two for a while. Or maybe you’re stuck on holiday somewhere or the internet hasn’t been working properly and Carcassonne is one of the games you have around. Whoever loses is really determined to play again, and the winner is determined to prove that it was definitely mad skillz and not just luck which earned them that victory. You start playing a lot of Carcassonne. Like, a lot.

Before you know it, randomly placing tiles wherever will add to your current river and your current forest turns into actually developing some kind of advanced, coherent and complex strategy.  Briony likes to think that placing a tile with a tasty animal on it anywhere on the board may in fact bring her more points. ‘Are you not going to farm that…?’ ‘I don’t need to, I brought a badass MAMMOTH to the party. I get cool points.’

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This section was later renamed Bobtopia

Brionys of the world aside, you start thinking not just in terms of how to increase the length of your rivers and size of your forests, but how many extra points each extra tile is worth. You start spreading your bets and stop relying on that one exact freaking tile you need with some forest on one side and a bit of river on the other side but only while facing a particular direction.

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Briony’s happy fish hut

Fucking hell, you start to think, river tiles do have a use – to join up your meadows. You become resentful of players who seem to understand the concept of scoring points better than you – “Briony… are you playing the points game? The game where you try to get points and then win?”
“Yeah… not on purpose, but I seem to be doing well at it”

Basically, you just start thinking about all of the things you should have been thinking about from the beginning. Huts, for instance. Never underestimate a well-placed fishing hut.

Ok, you say to yourself after the third game in one evening. That’s why there’s a world tournament for Carcassonne!

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Satan eyeing up her wine

Of course this seeds some serious resentment when you (Lizzy) play with somewhat less-practiced players (Briony and Bob). Bob will start with very careful placement of each tile, considering every position and muttering encouragements to herself (‘Come on, Bob, we need this, buddy’ – Bob). Her response to then having her carefully-farmed meadow hijacked is to accuse Lizzy of LITERALLY BEING SATAN and start her own settlement miles away from anyone else’s.***

Meanwhile Briony, despite having a pretty good score early on, fosters an incredible inability to perform the most basic function of Carcassonne – fitting the pretty picture tiles together so that the edges match.  The situation has reached a point where if any of us mis-place a tile it is now referred to as ‘doing a Briony.’

“Briony, buddy, it’s Bob’s turn. Also that tile doesn’t fit there.”

Soon the tides turned, and everything was once again right with the board-gaming world. That is, Lizzy was trouncing everyone.

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Super exciting bonus mountain nugget thing!

Another feature that makes Hunties & Gazzers different from regular Carcle is that you get a selection of shiny gold nuggets in your forests. Ok, so there aren’t even forests in regular Carcle, but the nuggets actually have their own little neat mechanic. When you complete a forest with at least one gold nugget in it, no matter who’s the greedy point-grabbing owner of the forest, you the completer will get to draw an extra, exciting non-bag tile. Not to be underestimated as a tactic! More tiles, more points. And the bonus tiles tend to be a little extra nifty, too. More fish than you could have dreamed! Golden mushrooms (for an extra point), a magical fire that scares away tigers!

Oh, that’s right, there are tigers. As well as delicious huntable animals like deer and mammoth, there are also tigers. These do naff all except eat deer at the end, and lower your score if you’ve got a little gatherer lying down there trying to catch them. Arseholes.

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Meeple dance party

Meanwhile
Briony: Can I put the tile-
Others: No.
Briony: Can I put it-
Others: STILL NO.
Briony: Ok I’m putting it-
Others: STILL NOOOO

So overall, Lizzy actually managed to convert her two sidekicks (cough) to Hunters and Gatherers as a superior game of Carcassonne. Maybe it was the wine speaking, but it also could plausibly have been the neater scoring mechanics and the more charming scenery.

There was only some mild and mostly-accidental cheating.

(the team spots a river tile going into a meadow tile… where it most certainly doesn’t fit)
“Wait. Look at this tile here. Who let this slide?”
“Have we had too much wine?”
“It was Briony! I remember!”
“Oh shit it was. Should I take two points back?”
“Nah we’re just going to make fun of you about it for a while.”

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Does this tile go here?

Briony, we want you to know it’s OK and we understand. Except we don’t, because we can think laterally.

The real winner here was wine. And probably Lizzy. And this cat who had a snooze in the box while we played.

* In Lizzy’s defence, Dr Photographer-friend has about a thousand different Carcassonne games and expansions, he probably hasn’t noticed it’s missing. Probably. Or maybe there are “missing” posters and a reward out somewhere… don’t tell!

** Or you could employ a sly-Bob tactic which involves slowly taking a tile, pulling a face, and slowly putting it back in the bag when she thinks Briony and Lizzy aren’t lookin. That’s right, we’re onto you Bob. This part is called the ‘drunk cheating’ phase.

*** Blackjack and hookers optional. Mammoths mandatory.

 

Takara Island – More like Take-all-ya-treasure Island

Pairs well with: a nice pint of cider, preferably un-spilled.
Traitor rating: 2/10 no real way to ruin each others’ day unless you get particularly creative, like muscling in on someone’s treasure or taking the sword they need.

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You would think that by now your Misery Farming friends would be running low on games purchased at Essen. You’d be wrong! We save up all year for that madness. Having said that, this week’s game was not bought by us at Essen but rather was given as a gift.

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Specialist tiles – or – some of the trades that Bob is Jack of.

Bob, as you might not know, is a bit of an academic Jack of All Trades,* though she prefers the term ‘renaissance woman’. Bit of coding? Yeah it’s lurking in there somewhere. Film studies? Yep. Performance art reinterpretation of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring? Yeah sure why not. Among these many awe-inspiring skills is some spectacularly mediocre German, which gets drafted into service every year for Essen Spiel (with progressively less impressive fluency as time goes on). In 2015 it was pushed to the limit by an all-you-can-eat sushi restaurant that was unable to deliver any you can eat sushi. After waiting for food for two hours the whole table watched in awe as Bob drew herself up to her full height of 5’4 and did something that went against every British instinct: she made a complaint.

The stern Japanese proprietress was unimpressed, and only after a long, long exchange of bad German on both sides interspersed with stony silences was Bob able to procure a mighty 20% discount.

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DON’T SPILL THE CIDER, BOB. NO!

Nonetheless her bravery inspired her comrades and on the last evening they surprised her with a copy of Takara Island as a reward, which she had been eyeing all weekend thanks to its beautiful illustrations (another masterpiece from Naiiade), but had never quite gotten around to buying. It was actually quite sneaky: they staged a conversation so spectacularly boring that Bob zoned out and didn’t notice people slipping off to the Ferti Games stand. It was about the comparative size in millimetres of Warhammer model settings. No normal human can withstand that.

Bob’s given it a few plays since then but she finally gathered up Briony and Lizzy for a play-through in late January at Southampton’s favourite inner-city gastropub the Rockstone. Their ridiculously alluring veganuary specials might have had something to do with it. After munching down burrito bowls and veggie burgers with blue cheese sauce* we set up the board and got down to some rules-explaining.

P1030042… Which of course was interrupted when someone knocked over a glass of cider, prompting a chorus of ‘noooooooo’s and scrabbling to save the cardboard bits. This summoned the very lovely barmaid who said that we sounded like a chorus of angels. Aw shucks. Loveliest thing anyone has ever said to us.

Excitement over, we could get started.

‘First things first,’ declared Bob, ‘this is a game about treasure hunting. No complications, no mixed motivations or influence or hidden goals or nothing. Just delicious treasure. You’ve packed up all your shit because you’ve heard there’s loot under the sea and you want to hunt it!’

Briony, looking closely at her character board, commented that it didn’t look like she’d packed anything, really. Except a bear.

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Briony… well prepared for adventure? 

Bears are very good at treasure hunting, Briony. Duh.

It really is a supremely straightforward worker-placement game elevated by adorable graphics and the gentle thrill of minor combat and diving for treasure.  You begin the game with two workers and no money. There are various actions available to you, from gathering small amounts of money to converting your money into treasure (only treasure is worth points at the end of the game). These actions are represented by drawings of buildings on one side of the board.

P1030051On the other side of the board is the sea, on which are placed six stacks of nine tiles. You must ‘dig’ through these tiles in the search for the fabled Stones of Legend, clearing rockfalls and battling monsters along the way. As you go deeper into the stacks the monsters get tougher but the rewards become greater. Sure you might find a creepy sea-bat-dragon, but you might also find a very valuable glowing-eyed Tiki icon. If you come across a monster while digging it will beat you up and send you to the hospital, causing one of your workers to be out of action for the next turn. Luckily you can also ‘survey’ as an action, which means looking at the top three cards in a stack to figure out if that mess is worth your time.

Some of what you find will be worth money instead of treasure points. Money is still useful as it allows you to rent the sword (the only way to fight monsters), as well as hire more workers. A one-off payment of 5 gold will buy you another permanent worker. All three of which look suspiciously similar.

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Weird triplets

“Are they nice triplets?” asked Lizzy, eyeing the stack of extra workers.

“Yes Lizzy they’re nice triplets.”

“I don’t know, they clearly have mixed loyalties. How come they will only work for different teams?”

“OK, they’re not nice triplets, just regular triplets.”

“Oh. Shame.”

You can also hire experts who will perform special actions for one turn only. For example the mistress of foresight can look at three cards anywhere in a stack. Briony likes her in particular because of her fabulous hat. It is a giant eye.

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Giant eye of foresight

The miner can dig through several tiles at a time rather than the usual one.  You can always tell the miner because Bob forgets which one is him every single time she plays. Luckily Briony was on hand with keen observations.

“Hey Bob are you sure this one is the miner?”

“Uh… sure. Yes.”

“Because this one has a pickaxe and a little light on his head.”

“So he does.”

“So do you think he could be the miner?”

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Giant sword of… fighting

“…”

“On account of how he looks more like a miner?”

“You guys think you’re really fucking clever don’t you.”

Scoring is done at the end of the game, and is a bit odd. The game ends when both Stones of Legend have been found or too many stacks have been completely cleared without finding the stones. If that happens then everyone loses. If both stones are found, but by different players, points are scored according to overall treasure accumulation. If both stones are found by the same player they win forever and everyone else loses no matter how much cool other junk they’ve found.

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Briony’s “I’ve already surveyed these haven’t I?” face

The tiles come in three stages of difficulty, and the tiles for each stage are randomised. If you follow the rules properly then this randomisation is more or less perfect while still ensuring that both Stones of Legend do not occur in each stack. While this makes the whole thing more balanced, there ain’t nobody got time for that. The ol’ ‘shuffle and get on with it’ method is a lot more straightforward, and the possibility of both stones appearing in the same stack gives the whole game a higher risk/reward ratio.

It’s a fun, light-hearted game. It would be good for introducing new friends to Euro-style or worker-placement games, as it’s actually quite superficial. Strategy is minimal, though there are ways to optimise your play (Bob favours a ‘dig blindly while still in the easy early stages, then hire the mistress of foresight for fancy surveying when you’ve got some cash’ playstyle, while Briony prefers to fight monsters (with mixed results)). It would get new players used to the mechanics of ‘proper’ games, without the harrowing punishments usually doled out by said games.***

Maybe also pretty handy for kids, or parents, or those friends who just can’t pick up the rules that quickly and aren’t that deeply into board games as much as they’re into just having a pleasant evening (weirdos).

There are definitely a lot of worker placement games around. But although it doesn’t stand out greatly, it has some pretty beautiful graphics and is still good to play.

The real winner this week was board games. And treasure. And cider.

It’s a tie.

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* And Master of none one! Geddit!? Cuz she has a Masters…? Hahaha?

** They were out of fancy ramen with mock duck gyoza. So sad.

*** If playing Agricola doesn’t make your soul hurt so much that you feel the need to name a board game blog after the pain it causes, you’re not playing it right.