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.

Dixit: Insert dick joke here

Brutus Scale: 0/10 knives in the back. For friendship! Huzzah!
Pairs well with: A cocktail with a rude name. Something like “sex on the beach”, “screwdriver”, “I like vaginas”, “sweaty underboob” etc.*

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As offensive as it is to compare an amazing game to an awful one (one which actually aims to be ‘offensive’ with all the wit and subtlety of a fourteen year old ragelord spewing epiphets on Call of Duty,) Dixit is like a far better Cards Against Humanity.

Sure, CAH has selling points. Obviously, because it sells. It’s got this adorable anti-establishment thing going on, and the company seem to be an unusual combination of dickish and altruistic with a side of gentle ribbing. But the game’s humour is questionable at best, player input seems more noticeably limited the more you play it and after a few games it becomes unforgivably… boring. Jokes about Gary Glitter and Madeleine McCann just don’t have that much longevity, and once punchlines start being repeated it’s all over. The death-knell of comedy is repetition, and explaining bukkake to your grandma is only funny once.

Dixit, on the other hand, is a brilliant game. Like they went forward in time, got the good bits about CAH, and improved it.

In Dixit each player has a hand of cards showing images. Not just plain pictures of a teapot or a cat, but something a little more surreal and, importantly, ambiguous. You’ll find no literal paint-by-numbers jobs here, but beautiful if faintly malevolent dreamscapes.

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The gameplay is where the similarities come in: the starting player secretly selects a card and tells the group a word or phrase. The rest of the players then also select cards that they think best matches the same phrase. All of the chosen cards are all shuffled and the non-starting-players have to all simultaneously guess which card belonged to the starting player. Which card best fits the phrase that the starting player chose, and which cards look more like a desperate attempt to fit in.

Points are then assigned in such a way that all of the non-starters are rewarded for guessing correctly, but the starting player is only rewarded if some but not all of the players guess correctly. If everyone guesses correctly then you’ve made it too easy, but if no one guesses then you’ve been too obscure and pretentious. Get it together, yo!

13140896_10153572506966161_450317919_n_FotorPoints are tallied on the kind of number circuit we’re all used to seeing, only this time the counters are adorable, brightly-coloured, wooden bunnies.

Wait, adorable brightly-coloured, wooden bunnies?

Why? Because it’s adorable, that’s why. Stop asking silly questions.

Making the phrase you choose too literal is easy and boring. More importantly, it’s bad tactics. If your card shows a creepy hourglass with people falling through it, you don’t say something like “a creepy hourglass with people falling through it”. Instead, the way that the points are allocated makes it really interesting. A good choice allows personal interpretation while still creating a theme. It’s all about coming up with some slightly mysterious and elusive phrase which captures something just right about the essence and metaphor of the card. The more romantically-minded player may choose a line from a poem as their descriptor, while those battling some inner demons may focus more on the faintly sinister air of some of the depictions. When playing with children (highly recommended, as it sparks their imaginations in play without being too dull for adults), their clue might be seemingly obvious, such as colours or objects, but still offer room for flexibility in interpretation.

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Ok now, which of these represents “Lizzy’s night out last night”?

One of the ways in which the game way outperforms CAH is this very ambiguity and flexibility. It moulds itself to the humour of everyone you’re playing with. For example, there’s that guy whose phrases are always something like “The Labour Party’s performance in the last election” or “The downfall of capitalism”. There’s in-jokes like “Bob’s thesis” and, finally, in the right crowd there’s always the one person who goes “Vagina.” It works, because you can control the humour in a freeing, independent way rather than choosing from a roster of punchlines. If you’re playing with your gran you can still have something just racy enough for that situation, but perhaps not about semi-legal sex acts or gassing Jews. In the unlikely event that you start being able to predict cards based on clues, there are also many, many expansion packs, each as melancholy and lovely as the other.

Scrub CAH from your minds, because Dixit is where it’s at.

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*Lizzy doesn’t know the name of many real cocktails. She just sits back and lets Bob bring over the drinks.

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.

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’

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*

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.