Star Realms: Are we the bad guys, Hans?

Pairs well with: pirated space-rum
Traitor-rating: 4/10 knives in the back. Direct rivalry but not too much player interference. 

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One of the expansions*

Star Realms works well as a game that you want to play again. In fact, it’s one of those games you’re keen to play again before you’ve even finished the current round. That’s either a point for or against it – you can decide.The game works this miracle by letting you see and plan enough different ways to victory, enough different cards that you want to pick and different strategies you want to use.

Star Realms is a two-player space card game.

There’s a communal pool of five different spaceships and your job is to hire them to do things for you like fight, trade or improve your authority. How do they improve your… authority? We didn’t go to the trouble of looking into it too much, but the little authority symbol on the cards looks fairly harmless, a bit imperial though. We assume the ships carry little flags and sing loyalty songs. That sounds right.

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Anyway. The number of ships you can hire depends on how much trade you have to spend that turn. How much trade can you spend that turn? Well, however much trade you’ve amassed from the ships you’ve already bought. And how many of those cards come out in the hand you play this turn.

Yep, it’s also a deck-building game. A lovely, addictive deck-building game.

There are four different kinds of ship – in the basic game, minus expansions, at least – which each come from a different alliance in the galaxy. It’s nice, because each of these card sets also has a different kind of feel to them in the way that they play, as well as just a different name and a different colour. Each kind of ship will play best with certain kinds of tactics, but not in such a strict way that there’s only one good strategy for each set.

Although the farmers of misery spend 90% of their board game lives nerding-it-up with the real-life versions, this is one game where we’re certainly qualified to give a review on the app version as well.

The star realms app is pretty good. It costs money to get anything but the basic version, which is a pretty successful tactic at luring in any unsuspecting gamers (worked on Lizzy!) and, even then, there are a whole bunch of expansions to try to milk even more from you. Luckily, though, there’s still a fair bit to keep you going, particularly for people who like to milk a lot from their games. Each campaign has a number of games for you to win, with some spiel that gets read out by a deep-voiced male who sounds like he’s describing an awful action movie. And each game itself has three achievements for you to keep busy with, and a harder difficulty if that still isn’t enough.

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And let’s be fair, nobody here at the blog is beneath giving the app extra credit for having puns in it. Puns that seem specifically designed to just-about avoid copyright trouble. Yeah, we’re looking at you, mission against the Machine Cult called “Rage Against the Cult” and another mission called “The Empire Strikes”.

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Doesn’t look like a ram to me

We gather that not all of the people who read about our humble adventures in farming misery are British. Not even the majority of you, in fact. So instead of just diving straight into a British comedy pop culture reference we’ll have to set it up a little first.

There’s this sketch show we have called The Mitchell and Webb look. In this one scene, Webb and Mitchell are both dressed in war uniforms and making plans on the battlefield. Mitchell’s character looks concerned, and says to his friend;

“Hans… Hans I’ve just noticed something. Have you looked at our caps recently?”
“Our caps?”
“The badges on our caps. Have you looked at them?”
“What? No. A bit.”
“They’ve got skulls on them. Have you noticed that our caps have actually got little pictures of skulls on them? Hans… are we the bad guys?”

Anyway, that’s pretty much what it’s like paying attention to the semblance of plot in the Star Realms app. There’s pretty much fuck all evidence that you’re the good guys. You’re battling for territory, you’re having space fights, you’re showing the enemy who’s boss. But there’s no reason to believe you’re the good guys. No good reason why the space territory is really yours in the first place. At least, none that would hold up in a fair human (and alien) rights court. Someone needs to start talking about the merits of diplomacy, that’s all I’m saying.

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“Kill some peeps.”

Overall, with the app it’s still difficult to resent the way that the app seems to give you a plentiful plethora of content and then slowly reveals the amount of extra bits you’ll need to buy in order to actually play it. Upon first download it looks like you have a wonderful six campaigns to play through, and a whole lifetime of fun ahead of you! Then, one by one, when you actually get round to the next campaign it’ll let you know that you have to buy the full version, the expansion, another expansion.

The app gameplay is good, and it offers a lot that the real life version doesn’t- particularly if you’re sat alone in your room with nobody else to play with. But the app ethics are a little pants.

The real winner is definitely not world peace, let alone space-peace. As usual, the real winner is board games. Over and out.

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We come in peace?

* Lizzy advises you to be wary of the Star Realms box. She and her ex tore it open when they first got it, to realise that was the only packaging. Whoops. Might be related to why you have a photo of an expansion instead.

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.

 

Forbidden Island: I sink we need to get out of here!

Pairs well with: An ice cream float.
Traitor rating: n/a (co-op game!)

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Having not played Forbidden Island in a while, the game was reintroduced to some of the Misery Farmers through a friend. He’d been looking for some board games to get his maybe-not-quite-double-digits-yet children into. More specifically, he’d been looking for some co-op games to get them.

“It’s great! I’ll trick them into family bonding. They’ll like me if I can turn us all into a team facing an enemy of some kind. Unity against a common enemy!” He said, maniacally.

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The previous key to Rich’s popularity

You see, a couple of months ago said friend had been a very popular guy. He’d reluctantly taken in a stray cat at the behest of his friends and children, and soon realised she was a little bit rounder in the belly than he’d remembered. Four kittens later and Rich was the most popular friend / dad in town.

“OH HEY! We’ve just popped by to see you and spend some time with you and play some games with you… where are the kittens?”

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Miaow?

Having eventually given the kittens away, (something something cat allergies, something something ice-cold heart) Rich needed a little something extra to win over the friends and daughters. Such beginneth the purchasing of board games.

One of the first purchases (which, of course, we insisted on testing *cough* before the kids tried it) was Forbidden Island. As described by our friend Dr-Photographer, and several others before him, “Oh, hey, you’re playing Pandemic, but easy!”

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There’s a sign there somewhere which says “DON’T GO HERE”

But don’t run away yet! If you’re like us, then you know that there’s little worse for a co-op game to be than easy. Co-ops need to balance their lack of competitive dickery with misery, misery and more misery. You need to have to strive for victory! And, dear readers, let us reassure you right now that Forbidden Island is not easy.

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These had better be some damned good treasures

What does give Forbidden Island its advantage (or disadvantage, depending on who you are) over Pandemic is not that it’s easier, but that it’s simpler. You play some cunning explorers, and your goal is to acquire four glorious pieces of treasure and then flee the Forbidden Island. But, presumably, the reason that the island was so forbidden in the first place is because it’s rapidly sinking into the sea, or at least it has a tendency to do so when explorers try to take its treasure. Damn.

IMG_0531_Fotor.jpgOne of the mechanics that you might be familiar with is the ‘Waters Rise!’ card. These are like the outbreak cards in Pandemic, but you have an outbreak of water instead of an outbreak of, you know, diseases. The cards are hidden among all of the treasure and bonus cards that you’ll be collecting at the end of each turn, which you’ll need a certain amount of to be able to find treasures. (Just like you’ll need a certain amount of cards to research a cure in… what’s that game again? Pandemic.)

Also at the end of each turn you’ll need to draw cards which list places on the island, and the corresponding places that you pick will either start to flood or completely go underwater and get removed from the game. You need to particularly hope not to lose Fool’s Landing (nobody’s arguing against the idea that the explorers are fools) where you ultimately need to escape via helicopter, since losing that means you’ll lose the game. There are also only two tiles on each island where you can find each particular treasure, so if both of those are lost before you’ve actually collected the treasure from it then that’s also a big fat LOSE.

One more way to lose the game is, as you’d expect, drowning. If you’re on an island tile that gets completely lost then you can hurriedly swim to a nearby tile, no problem. If all of the adjacent tiles have already gone? Then I’m afraid that this is the end of your adventure, traveller.

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The difference between an area and a flooded area is, as it turns out, just that everything turns blue.

It’s a little unclear in terms of the plot why everyone needs to survive for the team to win. Perhaps the adventurers have a very limited but strong sense of morality. The game is a beautiful tale of human greed, but not between the players. Should we travel to this forbidden island? Yeah, fuck the rules! Steal this treasure? Try and stop me! Let the sea swallow up this beautiful island? Why not. But leave one of your friends behind? NEVER!!

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Aptly named

The whole game has a great rushed, panicked feeling about it, as it should. The further into the game you are, the quicker everything seems to move, as getting through more ‘Waters Rise’ cards means that the island starts to flood quicker and quicker. And for every island tile that gets removed from the game, the corresponding card gets removed as well, so you’ll suddenly find yourself having a very small deck and a very small island, practically drawing the entire deck every turn by the end of the game.

To make things seem even more desperate, a player only gets two actions per turn.* Which, by the way, is phrased unhelpfully as “Up to 3”. Up to, but not including. The amount of times that we forgot this as we were planning in our first game is … a number high enough to be embarrassed by.

IMG_0526_FotorOne of the actions you can do is to try to stop the island from going completely under before you’ve high-tailed it off with the treasures. The action is to flip a slightly soggy land-tile so that it becomes dry land again, and the action is called ‘Shore Up’, but it’s a little bit thematically unclear what you’re actually doing. We think there might be a lot of mopping involved. But the amount of mopping you get to do versus the rate at which the island is going under is pretty heavily tipped in favour of the sea. As such, this part of the game tends to feel a little bit like one of those cartoons where a poor cabin boy is using a tiny bucket to chuck the water over the ship and back out to sea, even when water is crashing in around him faster than he could ever bail it out.

The game is fun, and it’s not yet one that we’ve mastered. We’ve only won once on ‘novice’ level so far, and we’re not convinced that we’d have done so well if the difficulty was raised at all higher.

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Er, we’re running out of island very fast, you guys!

Some of the roles that you get to pick seem to be a bit pants compared to some of the others. But perhaps that depends on how you play. Also, this might just be an excuse we’re all throwing out for why we’ve lost so often. (I’m sure if we’d been playing with [insert any other role here] then we’d have won that game… *cough*)

We’ve also been on a bit about how similar some of the mechanics are to certain other games, so does it have an advantage? Well, it doesn’t have a legacy version for you to drool over, and the simpler rules do mean that there’s a bit less of a feel for strategy than a lot of games can offer. But it’s not all bad! The theme is good and you can get into character just a little. And the simplicity is in some ways a good thing- not just so that the rules are a bit easier for kids to pick up but also because it means the game moves really quickly, and it can achieve the desperate panicked atmosphere that it’s aiming for.

The real winner is not the island, nor the treasure, and certainly not us. It’s board games.

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Bonus picture

Edit: *It has come to my attention, thanks to the ever-wise Mac in the comments, that there’s a discussion on BGG about the actions. Consensus on the small thread appears to be that they do mean three actions rather than two, but now we’re not sure what to believe. Have we just been extra-hardcore this entire time? The only thing that everyone can agree on is the confusing nature of the wording. 

You may take up to 3 actions each turn (could be 0, 1, or 2).

CAN WE TAKE THREE ACTIONS OR NOT??

*flips island*

Scoville: Feelin’ Hot Hot Hot

Pairs well with: Chilli pálinka. Or some fancy Mexican beers.

Traitor Rating: 6/10.
There are some definite mechanics for trying to get up in someone’s way, but it’s not all that easy, as was demonstrated in our game by a complete failure of Bob and Briony trying to gang up against Lizzy with her stupid smug face. 

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Lizzy gets her serious face on

The farmers first spotted the game Scoville during the first Gavcon in 2014 and also Essen Spiel 2015, but only as a distant adorable-looking game that they never got around to playing. All they knew were rumours of it being great fun, and the fact that there were itty-bitty little chillies that could fit into some itty-bitty little chilli-shaped holes in the soil. It looked good.

So diddy!
So diddy!

Fast forward to the present, and Bob has had Scoville in her collection for a good few weeks.
She had kept this pretty secret, because while she loves this game on a theoretical level, she is absolutely awful at it. Every now and then she forgets and digs it out, before losing horribly and refusing to play it until the sting of defeat has worn off again. She knows that it’s a beautiful, clever, medium-weight game and that her refusal to play it is entirely due to personal failure. She also knew from the get-go that Lizzy would absolutely stomp this game and was keen to avoid the inevitable dickening.

In Scoville you’re a chilli farmer. You plant chillies, you breed chillies, and you make delicious, spicy chilli sauces out of your produce. Our first set of hats-off go to whoever sat in the board-game-office (is that where you sit to invent board games? With a white board, a lot of pens and a pot of tea? We imagine it’s something less fancy than the office you have in GameDev Tycoon) had the job of coming up with the great puntastic chilli-names. Chili Chili Bang Bang. Born to be Mild. Flux Capsaicinator…

DSC_0817_FotorNot gonna lie, one of the first couple of things that we noticed about the game were the colourful chillies and the little slots in the board that they fit into when you plant them. All good games have something to lure you over to that end of the room, and this particular bait looks pretty satisfying. Lizzy immediately pounced on the big bag o’ chillies to create a beautiful chilli rainbow.

Scoville matches a nice amount of strategy with a level of not being able to plan too far ahead because of other people getting in your damned way. The balance works pretty well. A round consists of several parts. Each farmer will plant a chilli, walk around to pick some chillies, and then either sell these chillies or fulfil a limited number of potential chilli recipes for delicious,

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Disclaimer: not conventional chilli-placement

delicious victory points. There’s one randomised set of recipes for everyone to play towards all the way through the game, which are there straight from the beginning, and these big sauces will be your biggest sources of points at the end. That makes it a pretty decent game strategy-wise, since you know what you’re supposed to be working towards and you should be able to get an idea of how your game comes together.

In a neat twist, the chillies stay put after you’ve planted and harvested them. Finally, a game where the farmer thinks that maybe they can save themselves some future replanting by actually leaving some of the produce in the damned fields. Flashbacks straight away to Agricola, Catan, Farmville, and all those other games where the fields are regularly cleared and you’re left having to re-sow and re-harvest the same accursed vegetables over and over again.

DSC_0823_FotorThere are a few contingent factors that will keep you on your toes though. Your adorable farmer-meeple has to physically wander around to collect the delicious chillies, but your lovely friends, no matter how good their intentions are, may end up getting just a little bit in your way.* There’s also an auctioning for turn order mechanic, so you have to think a lot about whether you want to be the first one to have a little wander and farm, or be the first one to sell some goods.

Your humble Misery-turned-chilli-Farmers played the game together for the first time this week, and they were keen, excited and … thirsty. Beers all round.

Briony’s fate had been forecast by her attempt at making a stir-fry earlier in the day and mistaking a rather spicy chilli powder for paprika. Just as the spices failed her once, they would continue to fail her for the rest of the evening. She is also pretty terrible at growing living plants, chillies included. It would appear that fate was against her from the word ‘go’.

DSC_0821Another pretty exciting USP of the game is that, as we mentioned above, you don’t just plant chillies- you breed them! You start off with a simple primary-coloured chilli and then a freakin’ massive grid to let you know which chilli colours make which other chilli colours when mixed together. Because of the complexity of how to make them, and how much mixing you need to do to breed them, some of the fancier chillies (black, white, and MEGA SHINY GLITTER CHILLI) won’t appear until a few turns on, and tend to be the ones you need to get the mega-points at selling time.

Some of the colour-mixing is fairly logical, following the colour-mixing lessons learned by splashing about with poster paint in primary school, some of it less so. For example cross-breeding a red and a yellow chilli gets you an orange chilli, but why does mixing brown and white chillies make a black chilli?

Nonetheless it’s reasonably intuitive to, perhaps, most people. Maybe not Briony.

Briony: I still can’t do anything
Lizzy: You love not doing anything
Bob: We still love you Bri

You also get smaller amounts of points for being the first, or one of the first, to plant a fancy chilli of various colours.

Half an hour into the game
Briony: You know what? I’m going to plant this second brown chilli thing.
Bob: Yeah you do that. You get… oh wow a whole three points!
Briony: *sobs*
Bob: I’m so sorry I’m teasing you but you make it so easy. By being, like, really bad at this game.
Briony: I just don’t know why I’m so bad at it… I’m getting another beer.

Woohoo! Three points!
Woohoo! Three points!

Fortunately, Briony’s sadness made up for the disgusting smugness that was constantly radiating from Lizzy’s side of the table. Lizzy is exactly the kind of person who wins at this kind of game. She’ll sit there, organising the chilli pile into a rainbow, whistling innocently and pretending like she just wants to have a nice time and potter around in the farm. We would be interested in another lovely farming game to test Lizzy’s green fingers, as we strongly suspect they don’t exist outside of board games.

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Gettin’ real judgy there, Rudolph-jumper.

Bob: Stop pulling that innocent crap on us, we know you. WE KNOW THAT YOU’RE WINNING, STOP TRYING TO HIDE IT.

*a bit more beer and ten minutes later*

Bob: HOW DO YOU EVEN SIT SMUGLY
Briony: Do you want another drink?
Bob: YES.

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Briony: Hey look it’s a metaphor for me playing this game

The evening continued slowly but surely as beer was sipped and chillies continued to get farmed. Bob eventually took up her role as drunken photographer, perhaps slowing the process a tad.

Lizzy: Bob! Bob! It’s your turn! Sell some shit!
Bob: No! I’m doing art!

“Look! I’m zooming!” Bob says excitedly, as she just edges the camera closer to the board.

Despite their distraction, all three of the farmers were big fans of the game. Good theme, good pieces, good balance of strategy and getting in each other’s way.

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Fun game, intermittent sobbing notwithstanding.

Bob’s verdict: It’s so freaking cute but it makes me want to kill everyone
Briony’s verdict: It’s a shame that I suck at this game because it’s so good and the chillies are so dinks
Lizzy’s verdict: Well, let’s just say there was a really, really, smug look on her face.

The game is good. The score was 56, 59, 104. After all of Briony’s sadness, it would appear she wasn’t as horrifically terrible as previously thought. Or that Bob was just much, much worse than she hoped. Everyone should try this game, even if it’s just to get very excited over the adorable chillis, much in the same way people get overly excited about the pieces in Euphoria. Exciting pieces all round!

This week the winner is board games. But also, definitely, definitely Lizzy.

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*This is how Lizzy talks when she’s winning a game. It’s a tone of voice that combines ultimate innocence and sweetness with just the right sprinkle of smugness, and is perfectly designed to get Bob’s heartrate soaring towards apoplexies of rage.

Codenames: From Essen With Love

Pairs well with: Martinis. Shaken, not stirred. (Rumour has it they’re actually better stirred, but that’s just the kind of shit you’ve got to deal with as a spy.)

Traitor-rating: 2/10 for the ability to try to put off your opponents mid-game.

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We three kings* board game enthusiasts have had a lot to say about what some of the best games from Essen 2015 may have been. There have been a lot of candidates and a lot of enthusiasm. It’s almost as if we really, really love board games! Weird.

The excited froth of enthusiasm shall continue to spill forth as we move on to what really is one of the best, and surprisingly so, games of the year: Codenames. Don’t be put off by the box art which looks like it was designed in MS Word and features the thrilling byline of ‘TOP SECRET WORD GAME’,** this is some addictive shit. We hope you’ll forgive a bit of brief explanation, since the game is pretty simple to play and explain.

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Lizzy gets fancy photography confused with just holding the camera in a funny place

In Codenames you (usually) play as two different teams of spies. One person per team is the spymaster, the rest of you are regular vanilla-spies sitting in the field awaiting instruction.

The ‘board’ consists of a 5 x 5 grid of cards, each with a different word on it. The two rival spymasters, presumably sitting nice and comfortably somewhere in Spy HQ playing with some gadgets and looking at a dozen different CCTV monitors, have access to an extra card which they share, but which the rest of the players aren’t allowed to see. That card shows the ‘board’ as a 5 x 5 grid with each card marked as red, blue, grey or the single black.

This little card means that the spymasters can know which of the words on the table are the codenames of red-team spies, blue-team spies, regular confused passers-by and THE ASSASSIN!

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The Assassin

The actual game is a word association game, with the aim being to contact all of the spies on your own team before the other team does the same, and to not contact the assassin (for obvious, game-ending reasons). The spymasters will take turns giving exactly one word and one number, the word being one that they’re trying to associate with some on the table and the number indicating how many words they’re trying to link.

Simple!

One of the first things you come to notice as you play the game is that you really feel sorry for some of these spies. Agent Ghost? Cool. Agent Roulette? Pretty classy. Agent Ham? Umm, maybe not so much. Agent Ketchup? Are you sure you work here? Oh and I’ve got to say I’m a little embarrassed to be working with Agent Pants over here. There’s a reason we gave her that name.

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Confused passer-by

And sometimes you’ve really got to question just what the secret service were thinking about. Agent Spy? I mean really. AGENT SPY? What do you think the point of a secret codename is? Maybe to avoid revealing your identity as a spy to everyone? Tsh. Some people just weren’t cut out for this business.

The plus side of Spy HQ’s batshit, overboard spy-naming policy is that you’ll never be short on variety between different games, even when each one is only about 15-20 minutes long. The box is jam-packed with different words, two sides to each, and you can get through a hell of a lot of games (trust us, we’d know) before you need to come across the same words that you’ve already used. Even if that weren’t the case, the way that the board is always different means that it’s unlikely any of your games will ever resemble each other. And other factors, like the impossible and bizarre ways that you and your friends’ brains work.

Bonus points for the game come from its flexibility. In our short time of owning it we’ve played it on beds, on floors, in hotel lobbies… even on walls. While procrastinating our PhD research doing important board game research for this blog we even spotted someone on /r/boardgames who threw together a makeshift copy for a family gathering. Pretty impressive.

Codenames is more fun than we ever thought a word association game could be, and at least part of that is thanks to the mad things you’ll try to connect, the connections that seem startlingly obvious to some and mad to others.

Lizzy: Water; Two.
Bob: Right. Ok. So, I’ll go for… ‘Well’
*Well is correct*
Bob: Good. Ok, so next I’ll go for Bridge..
*Bridge is incorrect*
Bob: WHAT. WHAT DO YOU MEAN BRIDGE IS INCORRECT?
Lizzy: *silence*
Bob: Bridge! Water goes under the bridge!
Lizzy: *awkward silence*
Bob: Seriously? ARGH.

*later*

Bob: Wait, so what the flip was the other word for water?
Lizzy: Palm.
Bob: P… pardon?
Lizzy: You know, Palm. Palm trees… are… er… sometimes near water. And Palm Springs is a place that sounds like it’s named after some, you know, springs.
Bob: … I think we should be on different teams.

Other times you find that special friend who just seems to share your brain.

Spymaster: Bond; Four.
Secret agent: Right, well. There’s Octopus, because of Octopussy, (correct answer), Moon, because of Moonraker (correct answer), Spy because James Bond is a spy, (correct answer) and… well, James Bond holds a gun in the palm of his hand, so… Palm! (correct!!)

Another great feature of the game, although one that only really works with a group of 4+ playing, is the constant (but friendly) mockery of the other team’s guesses. Not to mention trying to put them off!

Lizzy: Right guys. Beef; Three.
Opposing Team (pretending to talk to each other, but loudly so the other team can hear): OH! Yeah. She’s probably referring to the great Beef Revolution of ’93. Or she means ‘Beef Dice’. Isn’t that the sequel to Sushi Dice?

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It’s really an unfair advantage that the blues get Pierce Brosnan on their team

LWH Codenames Tournament

As we briefly mentioned last week, one of our local conventions Little Wooden Houses ran a Codenames tournament at their latest shindig. Teams of 3 people competed for the coveted Tiny Trophy of Being Good at Games in an incredibly tense competition.  Team Misery decided that despite wearing her ‘Captain Hangover’ hat, Bob should be spymaster as it’s very easy to get inside her head.***

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Round One

The first match was against a team of raw recruits who’d never met. It’s easy to underestimate a team of nice (ha!) ladies but all early pleasantries were rapidly erased as Bob politely but firmly invited the opposing team to suck her dick when they took an early lead.**** Team Misery sucked it up and got their shit together to win convincingly and immediately take on the next challengers.

Round Two (or ‘Semi-final’… it was a pretty small tournament)

On round two, shit got serious. These were no fresh-faced n00bs, but experienced gamers and long-time friends. It would be easy for them to work together, and the stress was real. Ground rules were firmly laid (no speaking at all from the spymasters apart from clues (a rule which Bob finds supremely hard to follow), and taunting and smack-talk from team-members absolutely allowed). Adrenaline pumping and neurons firing, Bob flopped her enormous spymaster-schlong across the table with a steady ‘Culinary, six.’

Six correct card choices left the opposing team in the dust, and Team Misery advanced to the final round unbeaten.

The Final

The final match was played as best of three rounds, against a team which included a girlfriend-boyfriend pairing (Dr Boyfriend and Cthulhu-Joss) and Dr Charlie. Harsh.

A strong start in the first round got Team Misery off the ground, but they were nearly brought down by an incredible last-ditch hail-Mary clue from Charlie, whose team needed to get five correct answers in one turn to win.

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Play along at home!

‘Nazis, infinity.’

Um. What. Surely this could never work! But after the initial laughter, Joss and Al took to the board to give it their all.

‘Er. Did the Nazis ever go near some Czechs? Czech!’
*1/5 correct*
‘Well, they probably had ships. Ship?’
*2/5 correct*
‘They love to MARCH!’
*3/5 correct, panic from Team Misery*
‘Drill?’
*4/5 correct*

Team Misery watched in shock as all their dreams decayed in the face of insanity. If the opposing team got one more correct answer, they would win.

‘Aw nuts. Isn’t there a movie about Nazis where they’re all somewhere really cold? And they’re zombies? Dead Snow! Yeah. Maybe he means that! ICE!’
*INCORRECT*

Thank goodness for good guys. (That’s us, by the way.)

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A very tense Dr Charlie and ‘Hangover-hat’ Bob

Round two was almost as close, but went to team Charlie, making it even-Stevens going into the final round.

Bob meditated while Lizzy and Briony made a break for stress-wees and tea.

It was a tough board for the team. ‘Hollywood’, ‘France’, and ‘New York’ were all needed, but ‘England’ was the assassin and ‘Beijing’ belonged to the opposing team, so a simple clue like ‘places’ was out.

‘Cannes, three’ managed to tie Hollywood, France, and Premiere together, but that was just the start. An incredibly close, tense game ensued, until both teams were down to their last two words.

Bob made a desperate bid to tie ‘New York’ and ‘Forest’ together with ‘Jungle, two’ (urban jungle, right?) but was thwarted by Lizzy’s insistence that ‘Jungle Jam’ was a thing (she meant a jungle gym. Like the climbing frame. Bob actually broke the rules when that went down as she was incapable of stopping a stress-pressured ‘Mrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrp’ from escaping).

To be fair, the team’s eventual demise might also be put down to a glorious moment in which Bob forgot which colour she was, and gave a clue for the wrong team’s spies. Some swearing followed.

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A smooth final two from Team Charlie and it was all over. The tiny trophy of ‘Good at Games’ was wrested from the Misery Farm’s grasp, and Bob unclenched her butt-hole for the first time since the tournament started.

Codenames is a frickin’ excellent game. Good as both a light party game for the inexperienced, and as a brain-crusher for more experienced players. Incredibly stressful. Highly-recommended.

The real winner was the stupid other team. But also, board games.

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Hate is such a strong word, but…

* Too early for Christmas jokes? What? Christmas jokes are never appropriate? Psh.

** Codenames won Shut Up & Sit Down’s prestigious ‘Best Game, Worst Box’ award 2015.

*** It is mostly filled with air so there’s plenty of room.

**** Did we mention that we’re really, really competitive?

 

Liguria: Pimp my Cathedral

Pairs well with: Grog for your long sea voyage.
Traitor Rating: 2/10 daggers in the back.

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Board-gamers are a picky lot. Contrary to popular belief, when presented with a game which has a tonne of bright colours, a million pieces, and a theme along the lines of ‘the ultimate zombie werewolf death match apocalypse’, they do not get so excited they hyperventilate. What actually happens is that they take one look at the box and think ‘I’m not four’, ‘Please stop trying so hard’, or ‘for the love of God, pitching monsters against one another and using that many adjectives doesn’t make a game good, invest some of that energy into the actual game’.*

What a lot of people don’t understand is that board-gamers like dry, intricate and deeply boring themes. Euro-themes. Agriculture and shipping. Because that is what makes a really great game: enough theme to feel involved and immersed in a different environment, but enough structure and room for strategy to feel satisfying. An unfortunate by-product of this is that when we try and describe a very good game to someone else, it always winds up sounding like the most tedious thing in the universe.

‘Hey, have you played Paper Mills of Liechtenstein yet? No? You really should, it’s about working in a paper mill where you need to make sure the colour and consistency of the paper pulp is exactly right.’

Or,

‘Ermeghherdd I just played Sacrificial Canaries! I am totally the best at loading pieces of tin onto a cart and then getting a horse to pull it up the mine shaft. It only took three hours, it was amazing.’

Liguria falls into this category. It’s a game about paint samples and financial planning. You go travelling from port to port collecting different coloured paints, which you then bring back to your own port in order to paint your cathedral. But trust us guys, it’s a great game.

‘Have you realised that re-painting a cathedral in 16th century Italy would probably have the modern equivalent of Pimp my Cathedral… I would probably watch that.’

Each player represents a port, and has their own ship. During12268901_10156309277145085_1530353084_o_Fotor a turn tiles will be selected at random from a bag and placed in a line in the centre. The players then have the option of selecting how many of the tiles they want to pick. The fewer tiles you opt to pick up means the closer to the beginning of the turn order you will be when resolving actions, and so will be more likely to get a good pick.

The layout has a little port and boat in front of each player, and all of the players sitting in a little circle, connecting it up. This is actually a pretty damn nifty alternative to the usual method of, you know, just sharing a board. You get to sail your little boat around your little circle of friends and it means you can be pretty flexible with table-space. More importantly, it means you can have fun pretending to be a bit of a child and sailing your boat along the table and making noises.

“CHOO CHOO!”
“That’s not a boat noise, Lizzy.”
“You can’t tell me what to do!”

The boats also have that really pleasant double-cardboard kind of makeup, where you can fit little cubes neatly inside them. What’s not to love?

CHOO CHOO
CHOO CHOO

The tiles have a number of different icons: buildings, churches, daggers, paint contracts, scrolls, collection bags and helms. Most of the tiles you build in your town (your board) and provide you with a range of benefits: buildings provide victory points, helms provide an extra movement to your ship etc.

The idea is to build up a good range of tiles which help you to get the most paint. You will only receive victory points for paint if you have a tile asking for certain types. It’s all about the paint, man.

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‘I don’t understand it, there are only three types of paint colour in this game but I’ve still managed to collect only blues and can’t fulfil any of my paint contracts. What is this? Why am I so bad at paint?’

‘Our ports must have some serious artists living in them because I’m pretty sure even Michelangelo couldn’t paint a cathedral with only three primary colours and make it look like a 3 year old child hasn’t gotten carried away with some marker pens’

dsc_0418_FotorAfter the tile selection phase there is a card phase. Each turn, three cards are laid out which will have a number at the top, and an action below. In most cases the action will be something similar to ‘three boat movements’ or an anchor which allows the boat to stop and start. The number at the top of the card is important because you’ll be adding all of these at the end of the game. Some are negative, some are positive, and if at the end of the game you end up with a total that is negative you will immediately lose a whole bunch of victory points. It’s kinda brutal.

Sure does teach you how to manage your finances in real life better though.

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The final stage of a turn is where players may move their boats and pick up paint. There are several islands scattered between the ports and these offer temping treats such as extra paint and victory points. Once you dock at another player’s port you collect as much paint as your boat allows and then sail back to drop it off at your own. Unlike other shipping games like Puerto Rico and Le Havre your boat can stay out as long as it wants instead of having to return in the same turn. This gives the game more of an authentic feel sailing from place to place in a long sea voyage that eventually results in returning home with a butt-load of paint.

Conspiring to win
Conspiring to win

The turn begins again by drawing and laying the tiles. The game ends when the tiles run out. Simple. Go and paint your cathedral, kids.

Another thing worth mentioning is some different strategies – in this game it is not, in fact, actually all about the paint. This is fortunate because a lot of our friends are Warhammer 40K-obsessed nerds who could bring more paint to the table than you’d need to cover a fleet of cathedrals – we wouldn’t stand a chance.

Scrolls, for example, add an interesting diplomacy twist: when a player docks at another’s port they may place a scroll tile on any track of that player’s board. That means at the end of the game the player who owns the scrolls gets 2 victory points per tile in that track.

I'm here to steal all of your hard earned points. Thanks bye.
I’m here to steal all of your hard earned points. Thanks bye.

Briony has basically mastered this game, and instead of collecting paint she simply swans about collecting scrolls then sails from port to port being incredibly diplomatic and partaking in everyone else’s victory points at the end of the game.

Lizzy, on the other hand, wiped the cathedral floor with everyone in the first game just by getting highly into the building-points game. Ka-pow!

We haven’t met anyone who hasn’t liked this game. It was actually the first game we played at Essen, chosen only because as everyone streams into the hall for the first time there is a manic rush to sit at the nearest game and play it. We thought that Queen Games would provide us with some good reliable fun, and it did! Liguria was just suitably close to the door and we got to experience paint like never before. Excellent work all round.

Un-pimped cathedral
Un-pimped cathedral

The fact that the game is pretty relaxing and not stressful at all is another thing it has in its favour compared to other similar games.** Ship some paint, have a nice time. Shh, shh, just don’t think about having a load of cards with negative numbers, you’ve still got time to sort that out.

At the end of the day, or indeed your long sea voyage, you can take comfort in the fact that however badly your game has gone your cathedral will get painted and the citizens of your town will be all the happier for it.

*This is such a persistent problem that sometimes we’ll see a game and be so put off by the theme that we won’t give it a solid chance. The Possession is basically Evil Dead in game form and at first appears to rely heavily on gumpf like zombies and girls who look like they belong in The Ring, but is actually a solid, well-balanced game with some unique features and clever mechanics.

** Bob’s friendly robot boyfriend found it incredibly stressful, but then he is terrible at financial planning.

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.