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.

Five Tribes: Migration the media can get behind

Pairs well with: Any old cocktail so long as it has an umbrella in it. You’ll be needing that shade.
Brutus rating: 2/10 for picking the meeple the other person wanted GODDAMNYOU

Aren’t you guys lucky – this week we have a super exciting time-lapse of our game of Five Tribes thanks to our lovely friend Pete! Enjoy and keep on reading.

Have you ever wanted to own your own camel herd? A golden palace? How about controlling all-powerful djinn for your mischievous bidding?

It may sound like it’s taken straight out of a Disney film, but trust us, Five Tribes has all of the hallmarks of a great fantasy board game.

Five Tribes first grabbed our attention back in Essen Spiel, 2015. Brightly coloured and beautifully charismatic it was no surprise that Days of Wonder were pushing it to as many people as possible. Fortunately for Days of Wonder, the Misery Farmers were in fact drawn to the camels.

‘Holy shit it has camels. Like, a lot of camels. At least four camels. Guys, stop, we’re playing this. We need to see if it can compare to Camel Cup…’

The game is set in the mythical land of N’quala, where the design and artwork of the game leave little to the imagination. The aim of  is to use the five different tribes – the varying coloured meeple who are randomly allocated across the board – to control the kingdom. In short you’ll need to collect the most money (which double up as victory points), where you may dictate, sat atop your pile of cash.

Confusingly, that means that Five Tribes is NOT for five people. Five meeple, not five people. Cast away that spare friend and get them to be in charge of snacks.

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Now, let’s get back to those tribes. A round kicks off with some jostling about turn order which relies on a bidding mechanic. After this, each player selects one square of randomly coloured meeple, each of which have a different profession, and therefore have a different action associated with them. Blues are builders, they gather you money based on the surrounding tiles. Reds are assassins, they allow you to kill lone and undefended meeple. Whites are elders, they summon djinn who may grant you extra actions. Etc, etc.

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Wait! So the five different tribes are each a different colour? And any meeple of the same colour has the same profession?

Yep. N’quala is definitely not a place of very cleverly distributed jobs. No idea what you do if you want to build something and you’re not the builder tribe, for example. Pff. And what, when your hair starts to go grey do you go and leave your family to join the elders tribe? I mean I know a few badass old people but as a rule they must suck pretty hard at most things, like manual labour.

DSC_0782.JPGHowever it normally works, they’re all gathered together and mixed up at the moment. Probably for the best.

The key to this game is looking very, very intently at which squares to begin and end your turn with. Choose which action you want to achieve carefully before moving anything.

‘Right, that’s my turn… hmm… no… I’ve done this wrong, can I try again? Does anyone remember which order of different colour meeple I put where? Did I pick up 4 or 5 to begin with? Oh God, which tile did I start with, they all look so similar…’

^^Literally, fuck you. Don’t be that asshole.

To be fair, it’s a little unintuitive before you get used to it. You pick up all of the meeples from one tile and then spread them around one at a time on each tile as you move in any non-diagonal direction you like. You have to end on a tile with at least one meeple of the colour you’re about to put on it, and then you pick both of those up to keep or put away. That’s probably how the game has been described by our friends both as “reverse-worker-placement” and “the tidying-away game”.

The number of meeple you pick up on your last tile dictates just how much of that action you can do. For example, picking up three reds allows you to kill a piece up to three squares away. Not entirely sure how that one works, perhaps their morale allows them to travel faster if they’re egging each other on.

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As well as taking actions through meeple, each board square has a symbol on the bottom left hand corner that provides you with an additional action, should you choose to use it. This allows some great combo-moves (obviously depending on your foresight and ability to count small wooden folk).

DSC_0777.JPGAnd so, each player picks up and redistributes meeple throughout the game, using their skills to generate victory points. Briony is particularly good at a strategy relying on market traders: it’s always satisfying to generate enough points in a single track to beat everyone else and their diversity tactics. She annoyingly does this with the science track in 7 Wonders and is rarely, if ever, beaten.

What about the camels, I hear you cry! You’ve been shouting it at us from the moment we stopped mentioning them. Well! If you pick up the very last meeple of ANY colour in a square, thus leaving empty, you are allowed to park a camel of your colour on it (which is worth a certain amount of victory points at the end of the game)*.

Yup. You know when we said that you’re not the tribes? Turns out you’re the camels. The better you make use of the human tribes to your own advantage and the better spots, goods, djinns, and many other things you end up for yourself, the closer it’ll bring you to victory.

Particular tiles have a palace or palm tree symbol also. This means that if any action occurs on this tile a palace/palm will be added. Whoever controls the tile with their camel** at the end of the game scores 3 points for each palm tree, 5 points for each palace.

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Scoring at the end is a complicated affair, since there are a lot of different and interesting criteria to judge who the best bunch of camels are. But the game comes with an adorable picture sheet to help you tally up with. It’s all good.

As all truly great, repayable board games Five Tribes can be played with many strategies. A full game takes around 45 minutes to play, which means that you can try new ideas, refine old ones, and base your tactics off of the other players. It has that element to it where you’re desperate to try a new tactic before you’ve even finished the game you’re playing. You can even play it many times in one night if you like camels that much***.

The real winner, as ever, is board games. And camels. Camels and board games.

*’What do you mean that’s all the camels do in this game? Where is the excitement, the drama?’

‘I don’t know, maybe they’re the retired camels from Camel Cup?’

‘Hmm. Fair enough. That’ll do camel, that’ll do.’

**Strategic camel placing is a great strategy for this game. It is now commonly referred to as the ‘parking your camel’s butts’ method.

***Definitely not us, nope. No. No camels here…

Above and Below: Buy your cave now to get on the hermit property ladder!

Pairs well with: Local, organic, micro-brewed cider. By the barrel!
Brutus rating: 2/10. Not many knives in the back, except maybe the overly enthusiastic claiming of barrels and buildings

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If we were to sum up Above and Below with one word it would be ‘pleasant’. It’s fairly gentle (one to play with older kids), has minimal conflict, and is just rather nice all round. It combines many of the neat bits of town-building worker-placement games with the bonus of extra roleplay scenarios (we totally love a bit of extra roleplay!). Instead of a humiliating scrabble to feed your family (such as in Agricola) there’s a considerably less desperate scrabble to make sure everyone gets a bed for the evening, or they won’t be nice and rested for the next day to carry on work. And the game even scales down well for two players!

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The camera’s focus on cider is definitely not entirely based on ourselves.

The setting is gentle fantasy – after being unceremoniously ousted from your home, your family settles in a new land and proceeds to build a nice village. Each player has a separate family, making the game a little too insular for some (you’d have a hard time ruining someone else’s play time), though there are some shared and limited resources like buildings which drive the competition. Hire workers, build houses, harvest resources. All pretty straightforward.

Beds, oddly, are the main resource you need to keep an eye on, as they only come with certain buildings. Pretty sensible, really. In your village there’s none of this bullshit you see in documentaries about rural settings with poor working conditions and sleeping on hay on the floor. In Above and Below, the workers get their very own double-bed with proper sheets and an excellent mattress. Cushty stuff. Don’t say I don’t treat you well, workers.

No cushty bed? No work the next day. Pretty amazing employment rights. This even goes for

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Bob, spending ages trying to find the round token before realising it mean the round token. 

people who don’t get a bed two days in a row. You’d think they’d have just spent the day lazing around in other people’s beds, while everyone else is adventuring, building, working. But if they do then they keep pretty quiet about it, and continue to remain too tired to work until they finally get a shot in a proper bed.

The one exception to the rule? Cider. If you get your workers a barrel of cider, a couple of them are going to share a bed. We’ll leave it to your filthy imagination as to why that is the case, but it also raises important questions. What if only one person in the double bed has cider? Is Gary always going to be sick of Devin turning up drunk and ruining his night’s sleep? Would the game be improved by a mechanic that generates new villagers after a ‘cider night’ occurs? … probably not.

Aside from the excitement of the bed-mechanics, you have many of your decent but run-of-the-mill worker placement activities. Build things for more resources, do things for resources, acquire more workers to do more things and build more things for more resources.

One of these activities stands out, however. Exploring! As you might work out from the title, you can build your village in two different ways: above, and… below! Before you can build below, you need to explore some of the exciting caverns that twist around underneath your village. With the help of a plucky band of explorers and a giant roleplaying book! Huzzah!

This is where the game bridges the gap between regular Agricola-type worker placing and some more roleplay-heavy story-based game. For each adventure, a story is randomly selected and one of your adventuring comrades will read you out some exciting spiel about your journey underground. Maybe you’ll bump into wizards, rescue some captives or discover your spirit animal!

For all that questing is an essential part of the game, it does feel very disparate from the ‘main’ task of village-building. It’s plenty of fun though so it’s hard to feel too sad about that.

And, like any good game with a roleplaying twist, the game allows you to add as much flavour

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The cider is important both in the game and in playing the game.

as you like to the adventures you read out. The written down adventure will tell you the choices that the explorers face – usually involving various difficulties of dice-rolling dependent on the party you’ve chosen to take on the journey – and the rewards are listed in the book, but how the adventurers acquire those rewards is up to you.

Your friends can add any extra layer of plot that they like, on a scale of Briony to Bob. Where a Briony might end an adventure with “Great! You conjure up a mushroom, now you have a mushroom”, a Bob will give you an elaborate plot with sympathetic characters, motives and backstory. Briony only plays adventures, she doesn’t make them.

Unfortunately for Briony, her lack of roleplaying skills also somehow extends to sucking at playing them. If there is a demon to accidentally be let loose on an unsuspecting village, Briony is the one who will open that cage. If there is a pig to be rounded up, Briony will fail in every method of capture from luring with treats to singing a special magical pig song. When she finally resorted to lassoing the poor creature by the neck the farmer was singularly unimpressed.

“WHAT! What do you mean, ‘minus one reputation’? I helped the farmer! Just because I didn’t have enough points on me to know a damned pig song!
“Yeah, we’ve all been there, bro.”

Briony’s reputation, in fact, got so low that her reputation marker couldn’t go down any further. People had zero good to say about Brionytown. Those clowns just go around hurting people, releasing demons, cursing everyone. Stay clear away, folks! Unless you want to trade or have a nice house. Maybe she was just building up a fancy gated community after all…

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So fancy!

Lizzy “Always The Cylon” on the other hand earned an excellent reputation among adventurers of the world. Everything she explored turned into reputation gold! Not points, mind you, but at least she had some serious respect amongst the fictional communities.

Above and Below, as well as doing a pretty good job of crossing over two different board game genres, ticks several other boxes as well. The art is clean and gorgeous, the characters aren’t bland meeples but are cards varied in race, gender AND species.* And there are just about enough ways to earn points to keep it pretty interesting. You get points for buildings, there’s an interesting points scale for different kinds of resource, and there are points for reputation. It’s just right to get the players having to think carefully about what they’re doing.

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There is even, as ever, a Briony-a-like character.

And, most importantly for the Misery Farmers, it has enough story-telling flair to distract from just being a point-machine game. There are some games that are fun, but that everyone knows Lizzy is going to win. Scoville, Euphoria, Liguria, for example. Above and Below is, praise the cardboard gods, not one of those games! QUICK, DISTRACT LIZZY WITH ROLEPLAYING! SHE’LL FORGET SHE HAS TACTICS!

We had a great time. Briony turned out to be the winner after setting up an effective income-based infrastructure which resulted in fancy buildings and piles of resources, while Bob and Lizzy wasted their time having pointless and stupid fun adventures. And so finally Lizzy lost a game, Briony eventually earned back a little of her reputation and Bob learned that her spirit animal is a fish. The real winner, as always, is board games.

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We got so excited about Lizzy not winning that we forgot how to fist-bump!

*In some scenarios you can gather extra party members. These include a robot, a lady made of tar, and a cat. The cat is particularly fun because if given any task it has a 1 in 3 chance of just… not doing it. That is exactly how cats do.

Opening event: Board in the City

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All pictures featured in this post are copyright to Board in the City

Our review this week is a little different from our regular posts. Instead of being a game, event or tournament review we instead wanted to share some hype (and probably information? I guess we should include some information) for the new board game café/pub that has opened up in our very own city of Southampton.

Here is some hype. Enjoy the hype. Hype.

There had been rumours for a long while that someone, anyone, would eventually start up a board game café in the city. Among the board gaming community, it had become something of a prophecy: when the time was right someone with the time, and the funds, and a love of games would rise up and provide us all with comfy seats, snacks, and rows upon rows of games. And low fun times were had*.

Fortunately, the time is now and the place is Board in the City. You can find them on the map here.

Unlike the other board game café’s we knew about in other cities, for example the Thirsty Meeple in Oxford, Board in the City offers some extra pub facilities**. It also offers a range of hot and cold food to go alongside that, perfect for those like Briony, who continually felt the need to be eating a head-sized giant cheese covered pretzel while playing games at Essen Spiel 2015. Only better, because you wouldn’t have to walk through several packed halls to locate and retrieve one.

20321_657697387698363_9165735674812569710_nAs we understand it Board in the City has a large collection of games that will gradually be increasing during the first couple of months of its opening. Their page has been publishing some pictures of this as it unfolds. Mmmm, more games, said every board gamer ever. Effectively, the lure to go and play will heighten over time, so basically there is no excuse not to go and check it out.

Although we only managed to catch a glimpse of the décor on the opening night we can safely say that there is some great promise. We really enjoyed the feature wall: this is where several well known games were selected, with similar games branching out in a tree diagram suggesting ideas of what to play next. The idea is to help folks look for games based on similar themes and increasing difficulty or length.

Despite finding it awesome it sparked a long and intense debate about how it could be improved, and what games should be included and the criteria for selecting them to go on the wall. After all, there are a butt-load of games out there, guys. But, as the venue will have to deal with gamers much like ourselves, we figured we’d at least give them one night before leaping into the ‘I think you should change X to Y because I have an opinion and I think it is right’ discussion.

12795435_756616284473139_6169465504884956120_nExcitingly the venue will be running some special events of their own. But how can they possibly make board gaming with your friends, in comfort, while supporting the community more fun you ask? Well, firstly by running a huge murder mystery game during the opening evening, involving the entire audience which was followed up with some delightful live music by our very own Grant Sharkey.

The events will keep on coming too, having recently held a Steam Punk party on the premises.

Ultimately, if you’re in and around Southampton go and check it out. If you live further afield then you should make sure that if you’re ever passing through the city it’s worth stopping off for an hour to sit and have a pint, and play a lovely relaxing game of Twilight Imperium before resuming your journey.

 

Here at the Misery Farm we are looking forward to showing you some more of what they have to offer, and to begin writing some of our reviews from within their walls based on some games we’ve never gotten our hands on before***.

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* For a few months before selling her soul to do a PhD Briony had even considered opening and running one with her angry punk boyfriend as a backup career. The lesser of two evils? Who knows, you PhD students can debate that.

**What with being based in a renovated pub…

***Ideally this is going to be the first of such reviews. Briony caught sight of it on the opening night and thought to herself ‘you know what would be funny? Three drunken, angry feminists playing this game. Better convince Bob and Lizzy!’

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Loveletter: Before the Rise of Online Dating

Pairs well with: Wine – the romance drink.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Insert reference to Omar from The Wire here**

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Who’s a good table?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

** He’s The King.

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

Easter Special: Travelling Games for Travelling People

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

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

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

Hive

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

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Dobble

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

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Exhibit 1. All fun, all of the time.

Bananagrams

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘So… a lizard?’

‘No.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*With apologies to Mitch Hedberg

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