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?”

sie1nes
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*

Battlestar Galactica: or ‘how to legitimately take out all of those secret grudges you had on your friends with bullying and wild accusations’

Pairs well with: Space whiskey for the humans, some kind of oil-based fuel for the toasters

1

In a fit of hostility we’ve decided that it would be a great idea to take on a traitor game two weeks in a row. Who can say why? Perhaps because once you’ve started stirring the resentment-pot then you might as well keep going until you have a delicious broken-friendship-soup. Or perhaps it’s because games with a traitor mechanic are bloody brilliant.

2As far as traitor games go, Battlestar Galactica is one of the greats. A familiarity with the television series isn’t necessary, but is a good idea regardless of your position on board games since it’s pretty damn good. (What’s that? Strong female characters? More than one?! Don’t mind if we do!) As such, we’ve always found it a good game to whip out with a group of friends no matter their gaming experience or level of nerdiness. We have all kinds of gateway drugs board games here.

3A willingness to play along when it comes to shouting at each other always helps, though. Like with a lot of traitor games, a lot of the real fun comes from player interaction, rather than clever mechanics and strategies. But that’s good, and there’ll always be space for those sorts of games too in our board game collections. Be wary about playing it with a room full of very quiet people though: we’ve all had mishaps where we have been the only person in the room accusing, thinking ‘maybe if I get this going, everyone will join in…’, when ultimately the room silently and awkwardly judges you. We have instead worked out through trial and error that you will require at minimum of two louder people (three if possible), who are poised and ready to create a shouting, energy-fuelled, accusatory positive feedback loop between themselves. As they get louder, and the claims get wilder, the other players in the room are drawn in like the event horizon of a black hole.

Pick a loyalty card, any loyalty card!
Pick a loyalty card, any loyalty card!

It doesn’t even matter if their accusations are true – say literally anything to gain the room’s unyielding attention. ‘I put it to you could have stolen that cargo before you baked the innocent unicorn into the birthday cake!’

Continuing, the theme is a really well-done sample of the well-trodden trope of “human-makes-artificial-intelligence. Artificial-intelligence-thinks “fuck-this-I’m-a-mother-fucking-bad-ass-robot-I’m-having-you-all-for-breakfast-except-I-don’t-even-eat-meat-because-I’m-a-robot-so-I’ll-just-kill-humanity-and-mount-your-squishy-heads-on-my-wall-as-a-trophy””. Humans are the “good guys” (say The Humans) and Cylons (or “robots” or “toasters”) are the baddies. There tends to be one or two toasty traitors per game, depending on numbers, and traitors will discover their role secretly with hidden cards that are given out at the beginning and in the middle of the game.*

Dr Photographer is a good guy. This time!
Dr Photographer is a good guy. Not in real life, maybe, but in this game.

No matter how much you sit your friends down and tell them to please, carefully read the page in the instructions about what to do if you’re a Cylon, and please all make sure that you understand it all and ask any questions before the loyalty cards are handed out and the game begins, there’ll always be one person who picks their loyalty card, looks at it, looks uncomfortable for five minutes and then has to meekly ask to see the rulebook and shiftily hide which bit they’re reading. This is not a subtle Cylon strategy and we recommend avoiding it if possible.

The sympathiser
The sympathiser

One downside that this game has, (at least, nobody we’ve ever played with has seen it as an upside, that’s for sure) is the way that it deals with certain numbers of players. Camelot, for example, makes the brave move of always having only zero or one traitor per game, no matter the number of players. (It also leaves you with this nifty ability to introduce and lose players mid-game if people suddenly want to join in- genius!) Battlestar has this determination to balance things out, which maybe goes a little bit too far. The Resistance does this to a lesser degree, but still it’s super fucking difficult when everyone is shouting ‘BAD GUY’, and half of the room actually is…

More players (5+) means more Cylons. Fair enough! That can be kind of fun. There are still more good guys than bad guys and there’s an extra level of fun you can have with two Cylons working together to defeat the pesky noble humans.

Playing Battlestar with 5 players is excellent! Two Cylon traitor cards and a lot of fun. Playing Battlestar with 3 players is pretty good too, one Cylon traitor and still enough people for a bit of the ol’ shouting and accusing. With four or six players the game starts worrying that maybe it needs to add more bad guys but also there aren’t enough players for more bad guys, so it says “Shit! We’ll introduce this sympathiser to add instead!”

Let me out of the brig!
Let me out of the brig!

Nobody wants to be the sympathiser. The sympathiser is a poor player who gets dicked over at the ‘halfway’ point of the game. If the human team are close to death then the sympathiser is a Cylon who sympathises with them, and gets put in the brig but is still on the human team. If the human team aren’t quite teetering on destruction yet then the sympathiser is a dastardly human who sides with the Cylons but can’t do the full range of Cylon moves. So in attempting to balance out the human vs Cylon ratio the game just selects a player and shits on them a little. Boo, sir.

A team that’s getting along fairly well might find themselves trying, on purpose, to lower a resource to a required level so that the sympathiser that’s about to be chosen will side with them. How does that translate into plot? It doesn’t, it definitely doesn’t.

“Why are you chucking all of that food out of the airlock, Sir?”
“Oh, I was hoping that if we get a food shortage then the Cylons will start to take pity on us.”

I don't mean to worry you all, but this card says
I don’t mean to worry you all, but this card says “Ambush”…

Is there also something a little shitty about being a regular Cylon who only gets their traitor card halfway through the game? After you’ve been trying so hard to stay alive this whole time? Maybe, but that does kind of work as a mechanic. You realise your programming, you realise you’ve just been trying to blend in with the fleshbags and earn their trust, and now it’s up to you to make them pay.

Shit's going down
Shit’s going down

The plight of the humans is pretty damn difficult anyway, as it should be in any co-op game. You don’t want victory to come easy, you want all of your games to be a painful and horrible slog, clawing hopelessly at all your resource dials and trying to stay just about afloat in time to reach the end of the game. Our photographer bought this game over one evening when we’d requested a “small-to-medium sized game”, and he insisted against Lizzy’s protests that it would totally be fine. Several hours later he confessed that, actually, it was just so rare that he’d survived long enough during a game that he barely knew the full length of it.

The card appropriately titled
The card appropriately titled “Loss of a Friend”

Perhaps Lily the dog had the correct tactic when she just waltzed in and knocked everything over. Good girl, Lily.

The gameplay itself has two important rules that aren’t mentioned explicitly in the actual official rules set. Firstly, whenever someone does anything it’s important to determine why, assume that makes them suspicious, and to yell at them for probably being the traitor. This is particularly the case when it’s something that you know they had no choice over.

“OH! You just happened to draw THAT random card, huh? Just what the Cylon would do.”
“OH!! You’re going to the bathroom NOW, huh? Seems like you’re all too keen to convince us of your human functions, huh? cough cough CYLON”
“I saw you touch the toaster this morning, to get toast huh? Lies. You don’t like toast. More like communicating via instantaneous up-link the invasion plans back to the general!”

THEY'RE EVERYWHERE
THEY’RE EVERYWHERE

Secondly, it’s important that you make the appropriate noises when you’re trying to blow things up. Every time one of us forgot to make the appropriate “pew pew” noises as we rolled a die to destroy a raider, we failed. COINCIDENCE?**

Appropriately for a team of misery farmers and their friends we ended up losing from too much misery. Losing any one of your four main ‘resources’ will end the game. It’s pretty clear how this works in terms of running out of population (“Guys? Where is everyone?”), food (humans need that to survive, apparently) and fuel (“Ok, ok, we’ll just float around in space… let’s see…”) but it’s not as clear what’s happening when you run out of morale. Mass apathy? Everyone just goes to their room and has a little sulk? Riots, perhaps?

Too much misery
Too much misery

Whatever it was, it got us good. It was an apt representation of our real life selves, as Sophie was just starting to fall asleep in the corner.

It’s a great game for several players and several hours, as long as you have a good team of people keen to accuse each other. Good luck, brave humans. Get your accusatory pointed finger at the ready.

*of course saying that traitor cards are handed out in ‘the middle’ of the game is a generous but loosely-used description. It’s the middle of the game in theory, if the mighty humans are heading for a full game and a victory. It is, unfortunately, also possible for the game to not even reach the point of handing out the second round of cards before humanity gets blasted into oblivion. It maybe wouldn’t be too shocking if this happened when there aren’t even any traitors on board yet.

** Yes.

Credit to Adam “Not the cylon for once” Photographer-friend for the photos. (Usually about 50% game and 50% hamster these days)

Shadows Over Camelot: Knights of the Round Board Game Table*


Pairs well with: Mead (straight from the Holy Grail)

You know the hamster's in the way, right? Sigh. Of course you do.
You know the hamster’s in the way, right? Sigh. Of course you do.

There’s a lot to be said for a game with a traitor mechanic. And that’s not just because we’re a group of ruthless, soulless, naturally traitorous types who like nothing better than to yell accusations at each other across a table, floor or other flat surface. I mean sure, we are that, and such qualities do lend themselves to particularly enjoying traitor based board games, but still. There are also objective reasons to love a traitor game!

For example, co-operative board games, which the team love (see Letters From Whitechapel), can sometimes suffer from a bit of the ol’ problem where one person knows the game slightly better, or perhaps has a slightly better mind for tactics, and so effectively ends up controlling everything all of the other players do.

2 “Hmm, what should I do for this move…”
“Probably go throw a sword in that lake.”
“Well, I could, but also-”
“Yeah but seriously, the lake.”
“K.”

And nobody wants that.

There are several solutions to this kind of problem in co-operative games, but one trusty solution is the traitor mechanic. If there’s a chance that the person offering you advice is secretly a duplicitous scum bag trying to con you then you’re maybe not going to be so ready to take that advice after all.

One of the players has three feet, but that's probably not too much of an advantage in this game.
One of the players has three feet, but that’s probably not too much of an advantage in this game.

This review was written during a particular game of Camelot with Dr Photographer, three other friends not yet quite fully immersed into the board gaming world and a hamster. And Lizzy ‘usually the traitor’ Blogger, there for journalism and science. The Misery Farmers: Having Fun So You Don’t Have To since… earlier in 2015.

In Shadows Over Camelot the team all play a group of plucky Knights of Round-Table fame. There are several to choose from: these range from the old favourites like King Arthur and Sir Galahad to various lesser-known characters to the farmers such as Sir Tristan ‘the purple one’ or Sir Bedevere ‘the blue one’. (‘Bluedevere?)

TRAITOR GAME?
TRAITOR GAME?

With your character you get a die, a little knight to move around, and a character card with some sorts of special abilities and spiel. Our particular band of plucky adventurers for the evening contained a couple of friends who were still, as mentioned above, fairly new to and slightly wary of all of these board gaming shenanigans, but we had thankfully managed to rile them up get them into the spirit of things with a few rounds of The Resistance first. As such, everyone was ready and willing to start yelling at each other straight from the get-go. Characters were still being dished out when our dear friend Sophie started screaming:

“I’ve seen his card! IT SAYS TRAITOR ON THE BACK!”

Of course, each of the character cards have a ‘traitor’ side on the back with an alternative set of tips and instructions, for if the traitor ends up being revealed. A quick cup of tea and some reassurances later, we persuaded her to stop screaming accusations until the traitor cards had actually been dished out.

“You can be the traitor even if you’re King Arthur?
“Nobody ever suspects King Arthur.”
*Lizzy looks guilty from a previous game*

5

Shadows Over Camelot is an excellent example of a traitor-based game. It has all of the best elements: mystery being one. The traitor card is shuffled into a deck with a bunch of ‘regular old good-guy’ cards and there are always more cards than there are people who receive them. That means that you have no idea whether there’s actually a traitor in the game after all! All of these wild accusations you’re throwing round might all be for nothing. Maybe everything’s fine! Right guys?

It also has the important traitor-game element of hidden cards. The actions available to any brave knight at any given time will be difficult to predict because, quite rightly, players are forbidden to say exactly what cards they have available to them, in terms of specific values and such. For example, one common card is a sword card, which can have a number from 1-5 on it, and the different numbered swords can each be used for very slightly different things. Players aren’t allowed to say specifically which kind of sword they have. (Although they will keep trying to forget this rule and someone (Lizzy) has to play the spoilsport and keep reminding them to shut the hell up)

Tremble before my medium-sized-swords, Saxons!
Tremble before my medium-sized-swords, Saxons!

This does, of course, lead to questionable gesturing and hinting at points which definitely seems to border on maybe not quite following the rules properly.

“Right, I’m making an effort to get rid of these bloody Scots again. I’ve got some… little swords, kind of more like a variety of knives, really. Can someone come and help me out next turn with … uh… some medium sized swords? You know, swords that aren’t that big and aren’t that small… nudge… nudge nudge…”

The beauty of having the full range of options for any one knight hidden from the rest of the table means that it’s always a little bit unclear whether any given person is having a run of bad luck, a traitorous scumbag or are just being plain incompetent.

Almost certainly the traitor
Almost certainly the traitor

On her first couple of turns, Sir Sophie of new-to-board-gaming fame had trotted off to an area where she could only be of use if she had a 1-Sword card, and promptly in the next turn complained of having no such card and being unable to help. Instead, after only the mildest of chastising, her fellow brave-knaves directed her to the opposite side of the board where some “medium-sized-swords” could be useful instead.

Another round of loyal knightery, holy-grail finding and throwing things into a weird lake later (and other Camelot-themed activities that make the game up) and Sir Sophie’s turn came again. This time, she protested, she was very sad to say that she was unable to help with the current quest at all, the only swords she had on her were 1-Swords!

The keenest of detectives among you will notice that there seemed to be something suspicious afoot.

“Nope, definitely can’t help out over here.”

“Oh, golly gosh, did I say that I didn’t have any of those last round? Oh! Oh my, my bad. I’m just not very used to this game yet. I think the card must have been hidden behind my other cards, sorry chaps!”

It’s a real testament to the team’s faith in Sophie that they all still carried on for several turns believing that she might actually just be playing the game incompetently rather than be the traitor.

Sir Dr Photographer-friend even went so far as to formally accuse Sir Lizzy of being the traitor for what seemed to be ‘the-hell-of-it’ rather than to doubt Sir Sophie. EVEN THOUGH Sir Lizzy had been the only knight to have actually won the good guys any points that far in the game. (definitely not bitter!)

All of the elements of mystery in Camelot not only make for great yelling at your friends but also for great gameplay. The game can be won or lost depending on how many black or white swords fill up the round table at the end of the game, and good swords can be converted into bad ones if you falsely accuse someone of traitorhood or if a traitor remains hidden and undetected right until the end.

This week the brave knights suffered a crushing defeat at the hands of Sir Sophie of Traitorville. Like any good co-op game there’s plenty of suffering and plenty of horrible ways for the good guys to die. We lost by drowning in enemy siege engines, and we lost shamefully early with no hope in sight.

The crushing defeat.
The crushing defeat.

Luckily, this isn’t necessarily reflective of the game as a whole. We’ve had a fair few victories and a fair few terrifyingly close losses as well.

The real winner is the traitorous scum.

*Sorry to mislead you all so early in the review. We actually played this on the floor.

Credit for the photos, of course, goes to Sir Photographer-friend.

Super-Mega Interstellar Misery Farm on-the-Road Review: It’s Watch the Skies!

Brutus Rating: 7 out of 10 back-stabbings to the back.
Pairs Well With: Alien-enhanced protein shakes.

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We here at the Misery Farm have once been told off by you our loyal readers for doing ‘play through’ style game reviews when it’s only the first time one of us have played a game. This is probably fair, since trying to gain an overall impression of a game while learning the rules and often losing horribly is not particularly easy. So you’ll be pleased to know that we, here, at the Misery Farm, are offering a super-experienced review of Watch the Skies! We have played it twice.

'We can't eat those cows. Thanks though' -India
‘We can’t eat those cows. Thanks though’ -India

For those who don’t know, WtS is a ‘megagame’ designed to be played by around 50 people. If you think setting up Eldritch Horror or Twilight Imperium is a ball-ache, you ain’t seen nothing yet. Firstly, you need a great big space, preferably with some kind of upper-story balcony and some smaller adjoining rooms. Then you need big maps, and tables, and lots of bits and pieces of game. And lots and lots of tea.

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You also need a dedicated team of rules-explainers and –enforcers, who will basically herd the rest of the players to do the right thing at the right time (the Controllers). Usually these are also the organisers, and their state of being during the entire game appears to be one of high anxiety and stress. The first game we played in Southampton was organised by experienced controllers, and even they seemed close to breakdown at all stages. Our poor mates Charlie and Mac who organised the event this weekend didn’t stand a chance.

Your role as Controller: nervous blur
Your role as Controller: nervous blur

Teams represent countries, and are usually made up of four players; a Head of State to organise the others and divvy up resources, a scientist to develop exciting tech, a Foreign Secretary to sit on the UN council and hopefully avoid international disaster, and a military guy to explode stuff. Bonus points for dressing appropriately for your nation and role.

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Oniony stereotype, 1967 Brigitte Bardot, Enthusiastic Suit, Les Mis with medals.

Up in the gallery sit the primary antagonists, the Grey Menace/aliens. Sightings have been rumoured for a while, but the public doesn’t know for sure that they exist. These guys might be good, they might be evil, they might be somewhere in between. All you know is that they’re showing up on Earth with alarming frequency, and they have some kind of mission. One final team is the Global News Network (GNN). They basically document what’s going on in the style of an international newsgroup, publishing a ‘newsletter’ as often as possible.

Bustling in early
Bustling in early

Bright and (very) early on Saturday morning, friends and acquaintances from all over the south of England gathered in a tiny village somewhere in the Oxford countryside for a good old-fashioned game of XCOM meets Model UN. Like the enthusiastic group of nerds that we are, everyone showed up early and eagerly, to the mild annoyance of the organisers who had barely had a chance to lay the flag-decked tables out. The aliens settled down in their balcony hideout, ready to watch the actions of the pathetic humans below them. While the humans obviously hoped for a peaceful outcome, they were not particularly comforted by the aliens’ Sith-Lord-meets-Borg-Queen aesthetic.

'Greetings earthlings, we come in peace'
‘Greetings earthlings, we come in peace’
Super Handsome Reporters
Super Handsome Reporters

Lizzy and Bob were there representing the Misery Farm and, appropriately, playing as the global news team along with their beautiful and masterful ex-Cthulhu-GM Emma. Early optimism and merriment was only slightly marred by the presence of China one table over, who had brought along Durian sweets and were now stinking the place out with their gassy, eggy odour.*

 By late-morning the game was in full swing. France was already mildly inebriated from their grape drinks ** while Britain’s main bribery tactic appeared to be biscuit-based.

'Would you like a biscuit?' -Britain
‘Would you like a biscuit?’ -Britain

In the newsroom stress was high. It turns out that pumping out fancy-looking and moderately-highbrow front pages every 45 minutes is not easy. Finding the ‘big stories’ every turn is a particular challenge when heads of state constantly vie for your attention in the hope of increasing their public relations, while neglecting to mention juicier but less marketable stories. Everyone is still denying the existence of aliens, and no amount of coaxing will get the truth out of them.

'The penguin has been the official bird of America since 2017' -US chief of science
‘The penguin has been the official bird of America since 2017’ -US chief of science

The USA was particularly guilty of trying to distract us from the real stories (as it is in real life, so it is in Watch the Skies), as in the same turn that they invaded Angola, attacked Madagascar, and publically announced the existence of aliens, they begged for a front-page picture announcing a new Holly-Bollywood film release (Hot Runnings is to be released in 2022, and will feature rising starlet Hannah Hendrix as a functionally-dressed heroine who dreams of Olympic success).

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The team were getting pretty excited with our shiny printing press. Bob, ever the organised-one when it comes to avoiding her PhD work, had brought her laptop, a printer and made an excellent (if awkward to fiddle with) template for news stories. Over the course of the day we trotted out eight different editions of the GNN Times, printing out ten copies of each issue and distributing them around the room. By the second issue we even had the genius realisation of how far technology has come when we realised we could actually take photos of things going on in the room and feature them on our papers!

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By the afternoon it was more or less chaos around the room world. This is no jibe at the

“LABOTAGE”

organisers – it’s pretty much an inevitable result of gathering 50 people in one place and givingthem alien technology. China was selling their babies to aliens, Brazil was trading cows for better, beefier cows, and France sabotaged the British laboratory to stop them getting ahead. Trying to keep up with it all was nearly impossible, and our newsletters reflected this by getting sillier and sillier.

After USA officially and publically declared the existence of alien life even the weather report at the top of our paper went from “Global rain” and “Cloud cover” to “Who even cares anymore?”

LizardQueen
Filler headline of the day: ‘Is the Queen a lizard alien? No.’

Our news-reporting tactics varied from actually occasionally being told about what the hell was happening from a few kind people to sneaking around and trying to eavesdrop for some excellent quotes.

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BREAKING NEWS: “France is going bat-shit crazy” –President of France

Occasionally we would saunter up to a head of state to ask them what the haps were, and they’d casually reply “Oh yeah, nothing much. Someone just destroyed an alien base in Angola, though.” Which would leave us running back to the desk excitedly to knock Emma off the table and quickly type it all up.

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Eventually we were awarded a Pulitzer Prize for … something. We actually don’t know, and norIMG_0716 do the organisers, but it apparently felt like time that we got one. We even managed to snag an interview with the aliens, who convinced Senior Correspondent Emma of their peaceful aims a few minutes before launching a psy-ops mission which made half of Europe believe that entire cities (buildings and all) had been abducted. Probably not the best way to convince us of their sincerity. Brazil, the ‘nice guys’ of the day, were the only team to continue to believe that the aliens were actually peaceful. ‘“Everything probably fine!” –Brazilian President’, shouted the smaller headlines.

As the afternoon was coming to an end, China and the USA got bored and frustrated with the IMG_0723whole affair and not knowing what to do, so decided to nuke Brasilia. The whole room stopped and mouths were agape as the two defence ministers went rogue, and as even their heads of state froze and looked flabbergasted. Their reasons are still unclear, but Brazil was pretty upset considering they’d just built a theme park featuring alien-enhanced beef called ‘Brazil-Land’. When questioned, the USA claimed that it was because the aliens were communists, while China told us to go away as they’d created their own free and independent news media, which had already won 286 Pulitzer-equivalent prizes.

'Go away' - China
‘Go away’ – China

The game works on many levels. It’s role playing, it’s strategy, and it’s highly competitive. Alliances are made and broken as countries try to fulfil their secret objectives, and rumour, hearsay, and espionage tactics threaten to bring the whole thing down at any moment. Your ally from turn one might suddenly turn around and steal your research, or Russia might initiate a bioweapon attack on the aliens under the guise of returning the corpses shot down in air combat. Both of which happened, of course.

Japan's foreign secretary got so upset at how useless the UN were that he defected to GNN. As in real life, so it is in WtS!
Japan’s foreign secretary got so upset at how useless the UN were that he defected to GNN. As in real life, so it is in WtS!

All the same, it’s a lot like hard work. The stress is very real and exhausting. Toiling and planning for turn after turn only to fail an important dice roll at a crucial moment is incredibly frustrating. Worst of all, an effective costume pretty much demands high heels, which hurt like Hades after five hours of rushing around looking stern at heads of state.

'JUST FUCKING SHOOT THEM DOWN' - Britain
‘JUST FUCKING SHOOT THEM DOWN’ – Britain

At the end of the final round small summaries were given, and praise was given out to people in certain positions who had done particularly well. Dr Hates-Dice, Emma’s husband, was lauded as the best president the planet had seen, despite regular gaffes in what he’d said to the press (“We’re all tired and one of us is drunk” being particularly memorable). He had his face in the papers shaking hands with other heads of state twice and had been an excellent negotiator of pacts and treaties.

We earned out Pulitzer
We earned our Pulitzer

Meanwhile the overall best country turned out to be… Brazil! Despite having their capital nuked, they’d remained peaceful, resilient and friendly. Particularly to the aliens who, as it turned out, were actually quite nice apart from their anti-human prejudice.

IMG_0715Everyone applauded and collapsed and the wonderful beautiful organisers presented us with some beer which we gratefully crawled to after a hard day’s sky-watching. The beauty of the game continued to unravel for hours afterwards, as people discussed goings-on in different parts of the room across the day. So much happened over so many hours that it was impossible to have any idea of the full extent of what was happening at any one point. You might set something in motion at one point and have no idea of the consequences until hours later.

The first time we’d played Watch The Skies was amazing, this time was even better. Hard work, but amazing. Stay vigilant, humans. The next time it could be you.

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*Apparently they tasted like cheese. Good work China.

** Fizzy grape juice in wine glasses.


We apologise for the quality of the photographs in this edition of Misery Farming. Bob’s point-and-click camera had an unfortunate case of early death and so we were forced to rely on an iPhone camera and prayer.  We blame Dr Photographer-Friend for forgetting to sign up.

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