Saturday 29 December 2012

Review - The Hobbit Card Game

The Hobbit Card Game

The Hobbit Card Game
Published by Sophisticated Games
Designed by Martin Wallace
For 2-5 players, aged 10 to adult

It seems like ages since I posted a review for a game I like, so I thought I would write something about this new little card game from Martin Wallace. Now, before I begin, I should mention that I don't often pick up card games: I'd rather be pushing lumps of plastic around maps of dungeons than trick-taking. However, I have recently found myself in the situation where I have more games than shelf in my study; and this Christmas I also imposed on my wife a spending cap for gifts, which would have been blown right out of the water by a single Fantasy Flight Games product. As a result, I ended up asking for The Hobbit Card Game and the new edition of Dungeon!, both of which come in small boxes, and are about as cheap as games get (while still looking amazing). My wife is a bit of a star, and purchased both games for me; and on Boxing Day I had the chance to play my first games while the parents were visiting.

Now, don't get me wrong, I do have quite a few light, "filler" card games in my collection; they just aren't my first choice unless I am in a situation where I am playing with a lot of "non-gamers" or I don't have a lot of spare time to play. So, even though The Hobbit Card Game might not have been my most anticipated release of 2012, I had already noted its arrival in stores and had checked out the rules online. The game is basically trick-taking, but it had a twist that interested me greatly. The fact the game is based on one of my favourite childhood stories, and features the artwork of Ted Nasmith (who is probably rivalled only by John Howe when it comes to illustrating the world of Tolkien), was the icing on the cake.

I normally start my reviews with a rundown of components, but in this case that won't take very long. For your money (which, in the UK, is less than £7 delivered to your door!) you get a sturdy little box with a beautiful cover illustration, inside which you will find a single piece of folded paper containing the instructions and a single deck of cards. There are 65 cards in total: five showing characters from the story, and 60 showing various images with a numerical value and a suit colour.

The Hobbit card game
The cards... The fronts are much more interesting.

The artwork on the cards is really nice (although not necessarily the best work I have seen from Nasmith), but the appearance is slightly harmed by the overall card layouts, which are rather bland and feature a sold grey background. Overall, the design is perfectly functional, and you can't really complain too much because the artwork is so good. Also, the cards are pretty sturdy and should survive quite a lot of shuffling (I hate sleeving cards, and normally don't bother).

The game is incredibly simple, but before I talk about that, I do just want to mention the theme, which I am sure is going to attract a lot of people. The cover of the box states, "based on the book by J R R Tolkien." This isn't really true. Sure, there are characters from the book on certain cards, but this is a trick-taking game that features some nice fantasy artwork. There is no story, no sense of progression through Bilbo's adventure to Smaug's lair. Don't expect high adventure in a world of magic. Expect trick-taking with pretty artwork.

Okay, enough already. How do you play the game? Well, that really depends on how many players you have, because the rules for a two-player game are slightly different. I haven't played any two-player games, so I will just talk about playing with three or more.

Each player gets allocated a character from the book. There are three good characters, and two evil characters. Good players work as a team, and will win as a team, and the same applies to the evil players.

In a three-player game, the good team comprises Thorin and Bilbo, and one player gets to be Smaug; in a four-player game, the good team adds Gandalf; and in a five-player game, Bolg the goblin king is added to the evil team.

Smaug from The Hobbit Card Game
Smaug... always in a bad mood.

The premise is simple: The first player plays a card, and then every other player has to play a card of the same colour. The owner of the card with the highest value wins the trick. If a player cannot play a card of the correct colour, then he can play any other card from his hand and will therefore be unable to win the trick - unless the card he played is purple, as purple is the trump colour.

Once everyone has played one card, the winner of the trick gets to assign cards. This is the clever twist I mentioned before. While some cards are blank, other cards also feature a symbol: There is an orc helmet, a star, and a pipe. Assigning orc helmets wounds a good player, but heals one wound on an evil player; assigning a star wounds an evil player, but heals one wound on a good player; assigning a pipe means that player will be dealt one extra card in the next round (he must then discard down to the correct number of cards, allowing him to tailor his deck to his play style).

Bard from The Hobbit card game
Bard is about to ruin Smaug's day.

What makes the assigning system even cleverer is that each character assigns cards in a different way. For example, Smaug can choose to assign up to one card to each player, while Thorin is reckless and has to randomly allocate a card to each player (meaning he can hurt his team-mates or help his opponents).

This really does lift the game and gives you something to think about above and beyond the rather simple choice of what card you are going to play. For example, the good team will usually be trying to get Gandalf to win, as he has the strongest power for assigning cards. It is great fun trying to remember what has already been played, and trying to determine what card to play to make sure Gandalf can beat or trump it without Thorin or Bilbo being forced to play a better card. Sometimes it might even be better for a team to "throw" the trick by purposefully playing to lose. Of course, if you know your team is going to lose a trick, then you need to carefully select cards to play that will not benefit your opponent when they get assigned (either cards that feature symbols that will help you, or cards that are blank).

Once all the cards have been played, any characters that have two wounds are eliminated. This may result in a win condition for one side or the other. If there is no victor, the survivors play a second round, after which the victor will be confirmed.

It's a very simple game, very quick to play, very quick to learn, and a lot of fun. The theme is almost entirely irrelevant, but that doesn't matter. This isn't the sort of game I want to play every day, but it is great for small family gatherings, and a good warm-up game before something a bit more substantial hits the table. I think it is probably best with five players, as then the evil players get to work as a team as well; but with four or three it is still an entertaining way to spend half an hour.

I was really impressed, and for the price, I think it is a bargain that anyone with an interest in card games should check out.

Friday 28 December 2012

Review - Tim Burton's The Nightmare Before Christmas

The Nightmare Before Christmas

Tim Burton's The Nightmare Before Christmas
Published by NECA
Designed by Santa's elves... or Satan's elves
For 2-6 players, aged 8 to adult

The box is oh so pretty...

I have to be honest, I intended to publish this review before Christmas (it would have made more sense), but better late than never... Right?


Good, that's settled then.

Tim Burton's The Nightmare Before Christmas is a typical NECA board game - rather beautiful, but not really much of a game. It's one of those games that is aimed squarely at the fans, who will buy a copy even if it's absolute crap. And yes, I am one of those fans.

NBX (which is what I understand all the cool kids are calling it) is one of my favourite movies, and as I also collect out of production board games, it is no surprise that I have a copy of this game in my collection. What is surprising, is I didn't even know the game existed until it was already out of production and rare as hen's teeth in the UK. I spent a long time hunting down a copy, and eventually picked one up (mint condition) from eBay for a lot more than I would have really liked to spend. Was it worth all the effort? Let's find out...

The Nightmare Before Christmas inside the box
The board has an NBX label on the bottom, which is a nice touch.

As already mentioned, NECA really went to town to make this game look nice so that it would appeal to fans who are not necessarily interested in board games, but who want this for their collection of movie merchandise. It ships in a sturdy box with a high gloss finish (hence the terrible photographs on this page with light glare all over the place), and plenty of great artwork to keep the fans happy. Inside the box is a thick board that features scenes from the movie, a spinner, two chunky dice, and six really nice pewter playing pieces.

The board (I would have preferred illustrations to movie stills).

Before I go on, I have to say, for a fan of NBX, these pewter pieces are going to be a big draw. They are miniature busts of Jack, Sally, Dr Finklestein, Lock, Shock, and Barrel. Very heavy, very nicely sculpted, and worth the price of admission alone. Mine end up on the shelf at Christmas time as extra little decorations, I like them that much.

In fact, everything in the box is of a very high standard except for the deck of playing cards, which are well-illustrated, but a little thin.

The Nightmare Before Christmas playing pieces
Pewter playing pieces.

However, while the components are excellent, the game is something of a disappointment. The aim of the game loosely follows the plot of the film. First you need to "kidnap" Santa Claus, then you need to collect 100 points (okay, that bit's not like the film), and then you need to "defeat" Oogie Boogie. Sounds great - but what does it mean?

(Here comes the science bit...)

The Nightmare Before Christmas rules
Instructions... A truly epic tome.

Each player is initially dealt four cards. These cards will either show a red picture of Santa Claus, or a white picture of a character from the story along with a numerical value. The character pictures on these cards, match pictures on certain spaces on the board (well, sort of - some of the artwork doesn't match exactly, which is a bit confusing). Your cards are kept secret.

The first player is the "biggest, scariest, most intimidating person" according to the rules, but as these things are not mutually inclusive, I just let the wife go first. On your turn, if you have a Santa Claus card in your hand, you just play it out in front of you for everyone to see. Once you have done this, you have "kidnapped" Santa and can begin accumulating points. It is not possible to accumulate points until you have played your Santa card.

If you don't have a Santa card, instead, take a random card from any other player and then roll the dice and move your playing piece the exact number shown (oh yes - roll and move. Did you expect anything else?)

If you land on a blank space, your turn ends. If you land on a location space, you can draw one card (if available) from that location's draw pile. If you land on another player, you steal one card from that player and then send him or her to Oogie Boogie's lair. If you land on a space that shows a picture of a character, and you already have a Santa card in play, you can play one card from your hand that matches the character you landed on. You then score the points on that card. Once you get to 100 points, you can go for the end game.

Players in Oogie Boogie's lair don't get a normal turn, instead they must spin the spinner and try to get an "escape" result. Any other result means they miss a turn and must try again next time. That's
about as much fun as it sounds.

NBX board game spinner
Spinner AND dice - you can never be too random, it seems.

Once you have 100 points, you have to land on Lock, Shock, and Barrel's tree house location (by exact dice roll, of course, because that's always fun), which immediately teleports you to Oogie Boogie's lair for the final showdown in which you... spin the spinner. In the ultimate insult to gamers everywhere, when you spin the spinner, if you get a "win" result you have won the game, but if you get the EQUALLY LIKELY "lose" result, you are dead and out of the game.

Yup, not even kidding. Dead. Gone. You kidnapped Santa, got 100 points, you were first to Oogie Boogie's lair, but you span the "lose" result and therefore lost completely. And yes, that does mean it is possible that at the end of the game, nobody has won.

As you read this brief overview of the game (which isn't much shorter than the actual rules as printed inside the box), you will have noticed that there's quite a lot of randomness, and this randomness will entirely determine the winner of the game.

It is possible to get lucky and to be dealt a Santa card as one of your four starting cards, giving you a massive head start on everyone else; but then again, you might not see Santa in the whole game and never even start to score points.

The Nightmare Before Christmas cards
Santa Claus was rubbish at blending into the crowd.

Once you start trying to score points, you have to land on certain spaces, and you can only do that by exact dice roll, so you could spend the whole game trying to land on spaces that match cards you own, but constantly missing.

If you get sent to Oogie Boogie's lair, on each turn you have a 50% chance of escaping, so you could spend an age in there trying to get out and back into the game.

And then if you do endure all that randomness and get 100 points, when you face Oogie Boogie in the showdown, you have a 25% chance of dying anyway and being eliminated from the game completely. What kind of reward structure is that?

The game is infuriating, and just not that much fun. So that means I'm getting rid of it, right? After all, I have that rule where I only keep games I'm going to play... Well, here's the thing. I do play this game. Only at Christmas, and never more than once a year; but I do play it. It helps me get into the Christmas spirit, and isn't the worst way to spend half an hour with friends while having a few festive drinks.

And beside, it's The Nightmare Before Christmas... Of course I'm not getting rid of it.

Tuesday 11 December 2012

Review - Switch 16

Switch 16
Published by Tomy
Designed by Anthony Vadasz
For 2-4 players, aged 7 to adult

Switch 16
Switch 16: the cunning dice-rolling card swapping family wrecking game

I don't have a very big gaming group, it's basically my wife and two of my best friends; however, on special occasions like Christmas, the family gathers around for "quality time" and I get to play some games with them as well. Now, once upon a time, those games would have been Scrabble, Trivial Pursuit, or Monopoly. I can't stand Scrabble, I loathe Trivial Pursuit, and Monopoly should not be played at Christmas (it is supposed to be the season of goodwill, after all). That being the case, I always try to roll out something different. I know I'm not going to be able to get my "non-gaming" family to play Arkham Horror or Marvel Heroes, and that's why my collection of board games also contains a bunch of "family-friendly" stuff that I normally wouldn't look twice at.

One such game is Switch 16, a game so completely and utterly random and chaotic that it makes me feel queasy to think about it for too long. This is a game that I would have been happy to wing out the window after the first game, but my parents really liked it, so I have kept it (it's still better than bloody Trivial Pursuit, after all).

Now, Switch 16 really isn't my sort of game. It has no theme for a start (where are all the dragons?), and as already mentioned, no real strategy or skill. Each player has a deck of 16 cards (numbered 1 through 16), and the aim of the game is to be the first person to discard the card numbered 16. This is achieved by rolling dice into the rather nifty dice tray.

Actually, before I go on, I should spend a moment to talk about the dice tray... The game doesn't have a board in the usual sense, it just has a plastic tray with four indents (one on each edge) for holding the decks of cards for each player, and a central well with a foam lining into which dice are rolled. Even though the game isn't great, this tray is quite cool; and if you can find this game really cheap in a charity shop you might want to get it just so you can use the tray elsewhere.

Switch 16 dice tray
The rather nifty dice tray - almost makes it worthwhile... almost

Enough about that, back to the game:

Each player puts a deck of 16 cards in the allotted space on the perimeter of the dice tray, with card one at the top and card 16 at the bottom. As well as a number, each card has a picture of some dice, and this indicates the number of dice you are allowed to roll, along with a special "switch" dice that has special instructions on it instead of numbers. For example, card one has a picture of three dice, meaning you roll three dice plus the "switch" dice.

Switch 16 cards
Switch 16 cards

Why are you rolling dice? Quite simply, to try to match the number on the card. If any single dice matches the number on the card, or you can combine two or more dice to equal the number on the card, then you are allowed to remove that card from the top of your deck and discard it. If you are then able to use the same dice results to remove the next card you may also do that, and you can continue through your deck until you reach a number you are unable to match.

That sounds a bit confusing, but it really isn't. Here's an example:

On my first turn of the game I roll three dice and get 1, 2, and 4. I can match card one, so I discard it. I can also match card two, so I discard it. I can match card three by combining 1 and 2, so I discard it. I can match card four with the dice that rolled 4, so I discard it. I can discard card five by combining 1 and 4, and so on... Sounds exciting, right?

Wait, it gets better!

Once you can't make any more combinations, you can pass, or you can take a risk. If you take the risk, you roll again; but if you can't match the card at the top of your deck after doing so, then a whole bunch of cards get returned to your deck (either taking you back to card one or card eight, depending on how far down the deck you have got).

Play continues round in this fashion until someone has discarded all of their cards, or someone drinks too much eggnog and suggests playing charades instead.

Matching dice rolls to cards isn't that bad, and it's pretty good for young children to help with maths; but what really annoys me about this game is the damned "switch" dice. You see, this special dice has a number of blank faces, and a number of faces with special instructions:

If you roll a green "switch" then you can swap decks with any other player (and will obviously swap with the person who has discarded the most cards). If you roll a red "switch" then you MUST swap with the person who has the most cards left to discard. Finally, if you roll "block" then you take a special "block" poker chip. This chip can be placed on any player's stack and will stop that player from discarding any more cards until he or she rolls a "block" (and therefore takes control of the "block" chip). Alternatively, the "block" chip can be used to stop another player switching decks with you.

And that's all there is, folks.

Switch 16 dice

Basically, it's a dice-rolling number matching game with heaps of added luck in the form of the "switch" dice. I can't describe quite how annoying it is to be on your last card, only to watch as an opponent (who hasn't discarded any cards yet), rolls a "switch" result, meaning you have to watch totally helplessly as your deck is swapped and you are basically set back to the beginning. It's one of those games where you honestly feel like it really doesn't matter what you do. If you discard loads of cards, it doesn't matter, because invariably someone will swap with you. Similarly, you shouldn't feel bad if you haven't got rid of any cards yet, because a single dice roll can put you in a winning position by allowing you to swap with the leader. Pointless!

The game rules suggest you can make "clever use" of the "block" chip; but as ownership of the chip is determined by random dice roll, there really isn't anything clever about it. There are no tactics to employ. You just roll the dice, and hope you match the numbers on your cards or get to swap with someone who is doing better than you.

There really isn't much to recommend Switch 16, beyond the fact that it isn't Trivial Pursuit. Nice dice tray, shame about the game...

Monday 10 December 2012

Review - Anima: Shadow of Omega

Here's the thing... Gradually, I am porting across all my reviews from Board Game Geek so they also appear here. Most of the time, this isn't a problem; but from time to time it means I will be publishing a review for a game I no longer have. Such is the case with Anima: Shadow of Omega, a game I really didn't enjoy and sold rather swiftly. Why is it a problem that I no longer have the game? Two words: no pictures.

So, here is a short review that I originally posted on back in August 2008, reproduced here for your reading pleasure with absolutely no pictures at all. Enjoy...

Anima: Shadow of Omega
Published by Edge Entertainment
Designed by... ah, no idea. Probably by committee
For 2-5 players, aged 10 to adult

I'm not going to lie, I bought this game because of the artwork, which is unquestionably beautiful. I've been known to do this in the past (Blue Moon, for example), but I have never been quite as disappointed with my purchase as I was with this game, which appears to be a muddled, confusing half-game with too many exceptions that break the rules.

Wow, that's quite negative... I'll start again...

This game has several aspects that make it appealing. First of all, it is not collectable. I hate collectable games. You spend a fortune trying to get enough cards/models in order to have a fair chance of winning a game, only to find your opponent has an "uber-rare-shiny-gold-win-the-game-in-the-first-turn-super-nasty"(tm) and you get completely smashed anyway. Worse still, the game goes out of production before you have a complete set.

Second, Shadow of Omega comes with everything you need to play. I hate opening a game only to find I have to borrow dice from another game, or use pennies to keep track of my health, or buy a special "extras" kit with all the other bits I need (Magic, Dungeoneer - I'm looking at you).

Third, the production value of this game is very good. The graphics are immaculate, and its all very pretty.

Unfortunately, the game is a bit of a mess.

So, what do you get for your money? You get 110 normal-sized cards which are fantastic, two dice (one white, one black), and five wooden counters. By the way, 110 cards is not nearly enough. It sounds a lot, but they all do different things: There are 20 hero cards, 10 mission cards, 3 final mission cards, 14 location cards, 29 event cards, and 34 advantage cards. This basically means you will control between one and four characters from a stock of just 20, on an "epic" adventure in one of 14 locations, trying to complete one of 13 missions (more than enough of these though). The 34 advantage cards, representing spells, skills, and weapons can be used to customise your team based on their class (warrior, spellcaster, etc), but this seems a lot of customisation when you consider there are only 29 unique hazards to be confronted, of which only 21 are actually monsters.

Okay, there are expansions available to increase the variation, and I know this is only a base set that has to cover a lot of ground, and yes, I know it is trying to do the best it can to create the feel of a customisable RPG in a card game format; but the variation just means that after one game you have pretty much seen and done everything there is to see and do.

I actually really enjoyed creating a team of hardened warriors: Gathering my recruits and equipping their skills was my favourite part of the game (but note, team members and skills are drawn randomly from the deck). Each character has a combat value and a speed value, which are used when fighting or performing missions; and they also have one or more classes that allow them to use certain skills. For example, the Dark Paladin can use Kia powers only (basically special combat techniques), but the well-read Freelancer can use Kia powers, magic cards, and trickery cards (cards that allow you to steal things or sneak into locations, etc). Interestingly, characters are also designated as male and female, and this characteristic has been incorporated into the gameplay: if you play a romance card on a male and female character, they fall in love and will fight together with a bonus until one of them dies (I don't see why this card should be limited to a male/female combination of characters, but that is a debate for another time!).

Overall, getting a good combination of characters that can perform all the different skills you have in your hand is very interesting, but having put together an ultimate fighting force, there isn't really that much to do with them. You travel to a location, maybe fight a monster, maybe draw a card, and then move on. It really is a rather bland game, and even though one of my big complaints is the lack of variety, I'm not even sure if more cards would help that much other than having more pretty artwork to look at.

As an aside, while talking about the pretty artwork, I should mention that some people have commented on "inappropriate" art. Basically, this is a high fantasy game, so there is certain archetypal imagery associated with it: There are a few pictures of female characters in very small clothes (one card features a woman waking up in bed in just her underwear), and there is a particularly violent image of an assassin stabbing someone in the back so that the point of his knife bursts out through his unfortunate victim's chest. I don't mind this sort of thing, it goes with the territory; but it is well worth noting if you intend to get this game for very young players. It should also be noted that all the heroes are human (no dwarfs, no elves), and there is an equal mix of male and female characters, so there is a refreshing mix which you don't always get in this sort of game.

Now, back to the game...

It doesn't help that the rules are badly written, and it can be very difficult to know how certain situations are resolved. It is quite common for a card game to have cards that create exceptions to the general rules of the game, but this game is crazy for it: Half the time I didn't know if I was allowed to play a card or not! In this review I haven't gone into the mechanics of the game in great detail, and I don't intend to, but I would advise anyone thinking of buying this game to read the rules beforehand to get a feel for the game. It plays about as dry as it reads, trust me.

By the way, this game has an awful endgame situation: Missions require for you to go to certain places on your turn, but which locations are currently in play is determined by all players, and in every turn, a location can be discarded from play and replaced with something else (and it is not easy to retrieve discarded places). You just try getting to a specific place when everyone else at the table is trying to stop you. You'll be lucky if you ever get there at all.

I really wanted to like this game. I like anything that attempts to create a RPG feel in a board game or card game, I love high fantasy, I enjoy building teams of adventurers and giving them customisable skills; but I just don't seem to be able to get into this game.

Overall: lovely graphics, nice box, interesting concept; but with complicated rules and certain situations that quickly sap the fun out of it.

Wednesday 5 December 2012

Review - Ramses Pyramid

It has been ages since I added anything new to my blog, mainly because I have been doing promotional work for my first book, The Wing Warrior, and rolling out my second book, The Unicorn Rider. But now that's all out of the way, it's time to get some reviews posted. I thought I'd start with something that isn't out of print: Ramses Pyramid.

Ramses Pyramid

Ramses Pyramid
Published by LEGO (yay!)
Designed by Cephas Howard & Reiner Knizia
For 2-4 players, aged 8 to adult

Of course, I really enjoy board games - if I didn't, I wouldn't have this blog and a spare room stacked with more board games than furniture - but I am also a fan of Lego. I don't allow myself to buy Lego, because I don't have enough room for another collection of toys; but Lego board games allow me to make an exception from time to time. You see, a Lego board game gets to be classed as part of my game collection while also giving me just enough of a Lego fix to prevent me from rushing off to the toy store and buying that pretty awesome The Lord of the Rings Mines of Moria Lego set.

Unfortunately, there is one problem: Lego is awesome, board games are awesome; but when they are combined, the results seem to be... well... not awesome. The sets tend to be rather uninteresting to build (as they need to be functional and often repetitive designs) and the games tend to be rather simplistic as they are designed for younger players and "non-gamer" families. Such is the case with Ramses Pyramid, a game that has Reiner Knizia's name on the box but little other evidence that he participated in the game's design.

Ramses Pyramid by Lego
The box - proudly displaying the Toy Innovation 2009 logo.

Before I go too far, I should say this game was a gift from a very good friend of mine, who believed the combination of Lego, board game and Knizia would result in an excellent purchase for me, so I am a bit bummed out I don't like this game more. I don't hate the game, I just don't like it as much as I want to. Anyway...

When I review a game, I usually start by talking about the quality of the pieces. That isn't really necessary here: We're talking about Lego, and that means the quality of the pieces is exceptional. You get enough Lego blocks to build a three-dimensional pyramid, a "buildable" dice which has cool rubbery edges so it bounces all over the place, and a bunch of microfigs (four player pieces, and a set of mummies, including the titular Mummy King, Ramses). And in case you don't know what microfigs are - they are basically little Lego characters about the size of a thumbnail.

Ramses Pyramid Lego microfigures
Microfigures - cute, aren't they?

(As an aside, I would love to see Lego games using minifigs instead of microfigs: How cool would it be to have a Lego dungeon crawler where you could swap out the weapons and armour your hero is carrying?)

Lego collectors will probably be interested to know that this box contains 217 pieces and 13 microfigs. I suppose that even if you don't like the game that much, the pieces (which include some nice "gold" statues, chalices, and different coloured crystals) could easily be used in other builds.

Ramses Pyramid board game
The game, built and ready to play.

Once you have built the pyramid (which is designed to fit in the box assembled so you only have to build it once!), you can start playing almost immediately. The game is very simple and the rules are only two pages long, including excellent diagrams. What you actually have here is a memory game with a big old dose of randomness and a bit of "screw you" thrown in, and while I was playing it I never really felt like I was playing something designed by Knizia.

Ramses Pyramid rules
Ramses Pyramid rules booklet.

On your turn, you roll the chunky dice, and then you move the number of spaces indicated. First you move around the base of the pyramid. On each space, there is a coloured crystal, and when you land on a space, you can take the crystal or you can secretly look in the adjacent secret temple and remember the colour of the crystal hidden inside. If you look in a secret temple, you then replace it on any empty space on the board.

Once you have made a single complete circuit of the pyramid base, you start going up the side of the pyramid one step at a time. On each step on each side of the pyramid there is a crystal, and you can only stand on a step if you have a matching crystal or can reveal a crystal of the correct colour in one of the secret temples. If you cannot do either of these things, you are not allowed to advance up the pyramid and instead can move to one of the other three sides of the pyramid on the same layer; however, you still need a matching crystal, so you may be stuck not being able to do anything at all on your turn.

As well as showing a number of pips, several of the faces on the dice also allow you to do other actions, such as rotating the pyramid or stealing crystals from other players. Two faces on the dice also allow you to move one mummy from the top of the pyramid down to the next layer, and then move all the other mummies that have already moved off the top. The mummies act as road blocks, as you are not allowed to stand on a step on the pyramid that contains one, forcing you to take a less direct route, or rotate the pyramid in order to complete your journey.

It's all really straight forward and very workmanlike, and it just feels a bit like Knizia phoned this one in. Your fate is largely decided by the roll of the dice, as there is nothing you can do to mitigate bad dice rolls, or to prevent other players stealing your hard-won crystals. Worst of all, when you get to the top of the pyramid you have to roll the dice and roll a mummy face in order to win. That's right, this is a Knizia game in which the winner is determined by dice roll, with each roll having a 33% chance of winning. Not great.

Ramses Pyramid Lego dice
The dice - showing the face required to win the game.

Overall, it's not a terrible game; I just felt a little disappointed that there wasn't a bit more to it. The Lego pieces are great, and the microfigs are cute; building the board was okay, and the game is solid enough for a quick play every now and again (particularly with younger players); but honestly, it should have been a bit better.

Ramses Pyramid mummy microfigures
Ramses on his pyramid... Nice hat!

The only other thing worth mentioning is that the game encourages you to make up your own rules, and there is a page in the rulebook that makes some suggestions. You could easily combine Ramses Pyramid with your Lego collection, or other Lego board games, to make something new. I'm just not interested in designing my own games - I want to play a well designed game, or play with some cool toys.

Now you'll have to excuse me, I'm just going to the toy shop to take a little look at that Mines of Moria set...

Wednesday 31 October 2012

Review - Atmosfear: The DVD Board Game

Atmosfear the DVD board game

Published by Vivid Games
Designed by The Gatekeeper as a means to torture his victims
For 3-6 players, aged 12 to adult

It's that time of year again... Halloween. The time of year when Poundland brings out its rubber bats and dead-eyed skeleton masks, every radio station seems to be playing Michael Jackson's Thriller, and tiny little demons threaten you with eggs in exchange for sweets and chocolates.

I'm not a huge fan of Halloween; I mean, I don't dislike it, I just don't go out of my way to celebrate it in any meaningful way. However, there are a few traditions I have:

(a) I always watch Tim Burton's The Nightmare Before Christmas;
(b) I always play a game of Atmosfear.

Atmosfear is, let's be honest, not a great game. It is basically a roll and move game in which you try to collect a set of keys that will "unlock" the "well of fears." On your turn, you roll a dice (or two dice - your choice) and then move the indicated number of spaces; and on most turns you don't even get to decide in which direction you move, giving you the same number of options you get in a luck-fest such as Snakes and Ladders. But there is something that lifts Atmosfear far above other roll and move games: Speed. No, I don't mean a hefty dose of illegal substances is required to make the game playable; I mean the game is played at speed. You have only 49 minutes to win the game, and the clock is always ticking. The pressure of passing the dice around, rolling, moving quickly while the next player scrabbles for the dice creates a frantic, fun way to spend an evening. Just don't expect any hidden depths or strategic choices.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. Time to back up...

Whenever I am out in town, I always hit the charity shops in the hope that I will find some old board games (I usually have my fingers crossed for something by Waddingtons or Milton Bradley). Almost every time, I will find at least one copy of Atmosfear - the old VHS version in the long coffin box. Honestly, I know people from other countries who think this game is rare; but I must see one every other week, almost as often as I see those Carol Vorderman's Sudoku games. Thing is, I don't have a video player, so I have always passed up the opportunity to acquire this old classic (I only have games in my collection that I intend to play). Of course, when I eventually found a mint condition copy of the DVD version of the game in a charity shop I had to have it, even though it was a little pricey.

The DVD version is a very nicely produced package, with plenty of plastic bits. The six player pawns stand out as being particularly good; they are like plastic Halloween-themed versions of Monopoly pieces. Some of them are pretty straight-forward (a bat representing the vampire), some are a little unusual (a hat representing a zombie), and one is just plain creepy (a stack of building blocks representing the ghost of a dead infant - thanks for that!). Of course, as my last name is Outlaw, I always play as the werewolf, who is represented by a wolf's head.

Atmosfear playing pieces
The Atmosfear playing pieces.

These pieces are moved around a board which is like a spoked wheel, with an outer circular path, and then several paths that lead to a much smaller inner circle. When a piece is on the outer circle it can only be moved clockwise, so on your turn you just roll the dice and move your piece. The board is divided into coloured sections, and several spaces on the outer ring have special symbols. If you land on one of these spaces, you do the related action (for example, if you land on the clock face, you can take a time card).

Atmosfear board detail
The "Well of Fears" at the centre of the board.

As already mentioned the aim of the game is to collect a complete set of six keys (one each in six different colours), and in the DVD version of the game, these are nicely moulded in plastic. You also get little plastic racks which hold the keys in such a way that your opponents can see how many keys you have, but not what colour those keys are (very important for when an opponent has the chance to steal one or more keys from you). A player can take one of the keys that matches the colour of the board section his piece is in every time he lands on a key space.

Atmosfear keys
The keys hanging in their special rack - that black key is a "bad" one.

If at any point a player has one key from each of the six coloured sections of the board, he can move to the inner ring and attempt to "face his fear" by randomly drawing a fear from the cool plastic pot that sits right in the middle of the board. These fears have been written on scraps of paper and put in the pot by the players at the start of the game, and if the fear drawn matches the fear the player added to the pot then that player wins.

It all sounds very pedestrian and dull, doesn't it? And it really is until you add the DVD element.

The DVD does several different things. The first thing it does is add the time limit. The DVD will run for 49 minutes, and after that time, if nobody has won, then the game wins. The time limit forces everyone to rush, and people will often find dice being snatched out of their hands as opponents try to hurry the game along.

The timer also indicates when special time cards can be used. These cards are picked up by landing on certain spaces on the board, and they are held to be played exactly at the time specified on the card. When the timer on the DVD matches the time on the card, you play the card (even if it is not your turn). These cards will ask you to scream at an opponent to make them jump, or steal keys, or swap places with other players, and lots of other screwy stuff. Of course, if you miss your chance to play the card, too bad! You snooze, you lose.

Atmosfear game cards
Atmosfear game cards.

The other thing the DVD does is provide your host for the evening: The Gatekeeper. This is a wonderful addition to the game. The Gatekeeper will pop up on your television screen from time to time and basically call you an asshole. Yes, this is a game that provides its own trash talk. The gatekeeper will insult you, and then he will probably do something horrible to you as well. He works as a randomiser in a similar way to the electronic memory in the dungeon-crawler game Legend of Zagor, picking a player and then asking them to perform a task or suffer the consequences. He even insists you respond to all his questions with "Yes, My Gatekeeper." Failure to say this also results in a penalty of some kind.

The intervention of The Gatekeeper can turn the whole game on its head, and a person with a full set of six keys can suddenly find themselves with no keys and no chance to win. This may sound awful, and like it would totally ruin the game; and it might, if it wasn't so much damn fun. Atmosfear really isn't a game you should be playing to win. You should just be playing to shout at the television, scream at your friends, and try to roll dice as quickly and frequently as you possibly can. If you are the kind of person who will get angry to have victory stolen away by a bit of bad luck in the last few seconds of the game, then you should probably look for some other way to spend 49 minutes of your life.

So basically, the game comprises a group of flustered people rushing about while an old guy shouts insults at them. It's a bit like a normal day at work, really.

There is no strategy, and no skill; you can have all your hard work undone in seconds just because of stupid luck. There are no real decisions to make (which player to steal a key from is probably the trickiest thing you will have to do), and there is no way to prepare for the intervention of The Gatekeeper. But it doesn't matter. This game is an absolute blast. Not for every night of the week; but for Halloween... Perfect.

Wednesday 24 October 2012

Review - NinjaGO

Lego NinjaGO

Published by LEGO
Designed by ninjas... probably

For 2 players, aged 8 to adult

The other day I said, being as Halloween is approaching, I would review some of my "spooky" games. I had lined up the games I was going to review, but while I was out today I spotted the NinjaGO starter sets on a shelf of toys. NinjaGO features ninjas fighting skeletons and my brain immediately started connecting the dots... Skeletons... Halloween... What was I supposed to do?

Of course, I bought a set, justifying the purchase by telling myself I was spending £9 on Lego tat so I could post a review of something relatively new that was vaguely related to Halloween. The fact I didn't buy a set with a skeleton in it, but instead picked up one of the new sets that has some odd-looking snake man in it instead, is entirely irrelevant... (Okay, I admit it - I'm a big kid and I like Lego.)

So, rather than the review of Ghost Castle I was going to post, you get a review of NinjaGO, one of the most bizarre game/Lego mash-ups I've seen so far.

The starter set ships in a blister pack (no box, tut tut), and consists of two spinners, two mini-figures, six "weapons," an arena to fight in, a few odd blocks, and 10 cards (two character cards, eight power cards).

Lego NinjaGO components
You don't get much Lego for your £9.

Everything is of a suitably high quality, as you would expect from Lego; but examining the spinners revealed something I hadn't expected: There is no mechanism to make them spin. I thought there would be some kind of ratchet to twist - but no - you sit your mini-figure on the top, and then you spin the spinner by hand. Colour me disappointed.

The mini-figures are, of course, awesome. Everybody loves ninjas (except for anybody out there who has angered the clan and is currently being hunted by them), and everybody loves Lego. However, I am a bit more dubious about the snake guy. There is some rather unfortunate artwork around his crotch area that makes it look like he is armed and dangerous before he even picks up his sword. Still, you know, it's Lego...

Lego NinjaGO mini-figures
Mr Ninja tried not to look at Snake Man's junk.

Okay, so apart from the fun of pushing together the mini-figures and building the arena (which is hardly Lego's finest hour - it is just 10 plastic bars held together with connectors), is there really a reason to fork out £9 for one of these starters?

Honestly? Not really.

Here's how the actual game works: You take one mini-figure, three weapons, four power cards, and a spinner. You put a weapon in your mini-figure's hand, and then put the mini-figure on the spinner. You and your opponent then spin the spinners into the arena. As the mini-figures hit each other, a unique device in the spinner will start to turn and push the mini-figure up until eventually he falls off the spinner completely.

If a mini-figure falls off his spinner he has lost that round and loses one of his weapons. Lose all three weapons, and it's game over.

There are really odd power cards that can be played during the fight. These allow you to perform challenges in an attempt to win back weapons, and some of them are even designed to be THROWN at your opponent's spinner. Yeah... You throw your cards around. Crazy. The power cards do add some variety and choices, but at the end of the day you are still just spinning a spinner and hoping for the best.

Lego NinjaGO character cards
The characters, with the shadow of the Grim Reaper looming over them it seems.

Lego have attempted to wedge a game in here, but what you really have is a toy. The main enjoyment won't be derived from finding great combinations of power cards to crush your enemy; the main enjoyment will come from delving into your box of mini-figures and finding firemen, knights, vikings, and whatever else you have around to fight to the death in your little plastic arena. A minor distraction. Nothing more.

Lego is expensive (some would argue quite rightly so, as it is one of the true quality products you can get for children), but I've just paid £9 for two mini-figures and two spinners, and that seems a bit steep to me.

Thursday 18 October 2012

Review - Tomb of Doom

As Halloween is fast approaching, I thought it was time to review a couple of the "spooky" games in my collection. First up is this piece of sh*t:

Tomb of Doom - nothing to do with Indiana Jones

Tomb of Doom
Published by Drummond Park
Designed by David Mair
For 2-4 players, ages 5 to adult

I picked up Tomb of Doom in a charity shop for £2 expecting it to be junk, and I am pleased to say I was not disappointed. Yes, I knew before I paid my £2 I was buying something that was going to be awful; but I couldn't pass up the opportunity to buy something that looks so utterly ridiculous. You see, Tomb of Doom isn't really a board game; it's actually just a Halloween decoration that someone then tried to turn into a fun family game. It certainly isn't a fun family game, but as a gimmick to put on the shelf during Halloween it does have some value. Let's find out more...

Before I start, I have to say the box art for this "game" is great. I love it. It's a bit retro, and massively over-the-top, with a male and a female adventurer being terrorised by a giant skull, snakes, gargoyles, and a giant eyeball. Top marks.

Toom of Doom box art
Awesome box art; sub-standard game.

Inside the box there is a large unit that consists of a base and a battery-powered 3D skull. There is no board, no dice... just that weird unit, and some random accessories such as plastic keys, plastic bones and that creepy eyeball from the box art.

Tomb of Doom skull
The "game" is as ridiculous as it looks.

The reason there is no board or dice, is because there isn't really much of a game. The basic premise is that there are lots of plastic keys. One of them opens the treasure chest that is situated on the base in front of the giant skull, while the other keys will cause the skull to laugh, chatter its teeth, and roll its eyes. You get a chance to select a key by winning a challenge on your turn, which will be determined by drawing the top card from a challenge deck. These challenges are only challenging because they are entirely luck based, and they are not even any fun.

One challenge involves selecting one of the three gargoyles on the front of the base and then rolling the eyeball down a ramp. If the eyeball rolls into the slot beneath the gargoyle you picked, then you get to pick a key (and of course, picking the correct key from those available is also entirely luck-based). The only interesting thing about the gargoyle challenge is that the gargoyles were made with the same mould used to make the monster from another board game: Gonna Get Yer! (from Chad Valley).

Tomb of Doom gargoyles
The gargoyles... Ooh, scary.

Another challenge involves picking a snake from a pot of snakes. If the snake is the one with a red tail, you get to pick a key.

Yet another challenge involves picking one of several face-down cubes. If you pick the one with a skull on it, you get to pick a key.

Yes. The games are that simple, that uninspired, that random, that boring...


Tomb of Doom pieces
Bone, eyeball, key, and skull cube.

But of course, this is a game for children, and the "challenges" are really only there to create a semblance of a game before you get to the cool bit where you pick a key. There is a reason most of the keys will cause the giant skull to wake up: That's the only reason to play with this thing! When the skull activates, it is incredibly noisy, and actually pretty funny. I can certainly see it causing young children to squeal (with excitement or fear, depending on the child), and while this is not going to be the sort of game that will keep anybody interested for long, it should provide a suitably noisy distraction for a brief Halloween treat.

I certainly have no intention of playing Tomb of Doom as designed, but I will be keeping hold of the game and using it as a Halloween decoration. Bringing it out once a year to scare my daughter and her little friends will make it worth keeping.

Sunday 30 September 2012

Review - Robin Hood and the Friends of Sherwood Forest

Robin Hood and the Friends of Sherwood Forest
Published by Brand Makers International
Designed by people who have (quite rightly) decided to remain anonymous

For 2-5 players, aged 7 to adult.

Today's instalment on Always Board, Never Boring will be a bit of a break from the norm. Usually, I will go out hunting for out-of-production board games at charity shops, and then I will photograph them, announce their arrival in a "News" feature here on my blog, play them, and then eventually write a review. For Robin Hood and the Friends of Sherwood Forest I have decided to skip the "News" feature and the bit where I play the game and go straight to a review. Yeah, that's right; I'm reviewing a game I haven't (and will not) play. I know that isn't really the done thing, but this game looks so bad in every possible way I just know that I will never be able to bring myself to set it up and subject some of my friends to playing it. Hell, I wouldn't subject any of my enemies to play it either.

So why, exactly, has this game caused me to have such a response? And why did I buy it in the first place?

I found this game in a charity shop marked up at £1.99. I am a sucker for old games at the best of times, but when the money is going to a good cause, and the price is reasonable, I'm always going to make the purchase. However, I think I would have purchased Robin Hood and the Friends of Sherwood Forest even if it had been much more expensive, simply because I was equally fascinated and repulsed by some of the worst box art I have ever seen.

Robin Hood and the Friends of Sherwood Forest - box art
The box art - reminds me of my old Spectrum.

The box art looks like one of those loading screens from an old ZX Spectrum game, and the massive hit of nostalgia I got off that alone was enough to pay the price tag. Imagine my joy when I got home and opened the box to find the artwork on the board is just as bad - and even looks like one of the levels in the old Spectrum game Q-Bert. It should also be noted that the game was unpunched and unplayed, which is never a good sign for a game that's 20 years old.

Robin Hood and the Friends of Sherwood Forest - board
Q-Bert will need to get hopping to change all those green squares.

Okay... So I bought a board game because it reminded me of an old Spectrum game. Probably not the best reason to buy something; and I guess the fact I now have this complete turkey of a game sitting on my game shelf is my own fault. But let's take a closer look, and we can all enjoy a masterclass in poor game design.

The basic premise of the game is that Robin Hood's friends have been captured by the Sheriff of Nottingham and taken to the dungeon, and Robin Hood has broken in to rescue them and steal some treasure on the way. This sounds pretty exciting, but it really isn't. It isn't exciting, because to rescue someone you just have to land on a green space on the board and then draw a card from the deck. If it is someone you haven't rescued yet, you keep the card, otherwise you return the card to the deck and try again next time. It is also not exciting because there are no guards in the dungeon, just the Sheriff of Nottingham who wanders around on his own (on a turn, you will first move the Sheriff and then you will move your own playing piece). If the Sheriff lands on your space, you have to discard one card; and then the game carries on.

And that's it: That really is all that happens. On your turn you move the Sheriff - obviously moving him as far away from you as possible and hopefully landing on an opponent - and then you move your own piece, hoping to land on a green space and then hoping to randomly draw one of the cards you need to complete your set. Horrible.

But the craptacular gameplay isn't the thing that bugs me the most. What really gets me is the use of the Robin Hood theme, which is pasted on in a way that would make Reiner Knizia blush. You see, EVERY player in the game is Robin Hood. That's right, Robin hopped in Ye Olde cloning device to make his job easier. Only, he didn't make his job easier, because Marion and all Robin's other mates used the damned thing as well, so now each of Robin's clones is trying to rescue a complete set of his clone friends.

Robin Hood and the Friends of Sherwood Forest - cards
With art this good, why wouldn't you use it as much as possible?

Luckily for Robin, the Sheriff didn't put all the clone friends in a dungeon together, and instead he just left them in different corridors, along with the occasional treasure chest. Even better, the Sheriff decided not to employ any guards, thinking it would be a better use of taxpayers' money to patrol the whole place on his own.


You know what? I can't even write about this game any more. It's just silly. It's a lazy game design (just roll and move and hope you get something good) and it's a lazy implementation of theme in which up to five Robin Hood's all try to screw each other over in an attempt to rescue multiple instances of the other major characters from the mythology. And it's all wrapped up in hideous artwork that would have been inexcusable at the time the game was released, let alone now.

There is nothing here to encourage me to play the game; and if you happen to find a copy somewhere I cannot stress strongly enough that you should not buy it.

Sunday 9 September 2012

Review - Mousie-Mousie (aka Pounce)

Mousie-Mousie aka Pounce

Mousie-Mousie (aka Pounce)
Published by Spear's Games
Designed by secret government agents
For 2-7 players, aged 6 to adult

My last few posts here at Always Board Never Boring have been about my new book The Wing Warrior. In my last shameless plug for that book (and yes, I know that referencing the book here is ANOTHER shameless plug), I promised that I would write a review today to make up for it, so here I am, writing a review...

I am going to write a review about Mousie-Mousie, a game that has instructions printed on the inside of the box lid. I have talked about this before: I quite like it when a game can fit the instructions on the box lid. It means you can basically start playing straight away without having to spend an hour figuring out what you are supposed to do. And having instructions that fit inside a box lid does not mean that a game is shallow; my first Chess set had the instructions printed in the box lid, and no-one can accuse Chess of being shallow.

However, sometimes a game will have instructions printed inside the box lid, and that game WILL be shallow. Possibly the most shallow of all such games is Mousie-Mousie; a game so ridiculously shallow there should be a "no diving" sign on the box.

Mousie-Mousie instructions
Instructions in a box lid - joy!

Mousie-Mousie (or Pounce, if you prefer), is a dexterity-type party game. One player gets to be the catcher and all the other players are mice. The catcher player gets a plastic bowl thing, and all the other players get nine tiddlywink style plastic counters and a plastic mouse with a very long tail. The only other components in the game are a custom dice (with colours on each side instead of numbers) and a small rubbery mat (which is usually missing from second-hand copies).

Mousie-Mousie game components
Catching bowl and custom dice.

The game starts with all the mice players putting their mice on the rubbery mat. The mice are positioned with noses touching, and each mouse player holds the tail of his allotted mouse. The catcher then starts rolling the dice. If he rolls any colour other than red or blue, nothing happens, and he should roll again; but if he rolls red or blue, he will quickly slam the bowl down and try to capture mice on the mat while all the mice players will try to move their mice out of the way.

Mousie-Mousie mice pieces
The mousie-mousies... er... mice.

Every time the dice is rolled, you need to check if anyone needs to pay a penalty. Mice players pay one counter to the catcher each time they are caught, or each time they "twitch" and move their mouse away when a colour other than red or blue turns up on the dice. The catcher pays one counter to each mouse player who gets his mouse away. He must also pay one counter to every player if he brings his catching bowl down after rolling a colour other than red or blue.

And that's it.

I'm not kidding. That's it. That's the game.

It's a very simple "twitch" game. The catcher is poised with the catching bowl, and the mice are poised holding the tails of the mice. The dice is rolled, and people have to quickly react to the result.

This is not my idea of fun.

The game claims to be "a riot of laughter and excitement." I disagree.

The game instructions say you should specify a time limit to play of ten or fifteen minutes. I think five minutes is a push.

This game is staying in my collection because... to be honest, it ISN'T in my collection. I bought this game for my wife, who loves it. So, I will indulge her from time to time by playing it when we have a group of friends over; but really, it's not for me.

But if anybody would like to buy this game and give it a whirl, you can buy a new "retro" copy from Amazon.

Saturday 8 September 2012

The Wing Warrior - Available Now!

I know, I know - two posts in a row that not only have nothing to do with boardgames, but which are also shameless plugs. I'm sorry.

I'll make you a deal... Read this post, and tomorrow I'll post a review of an old classic boardgame that I've been meaning to review for ages.




So, I'll cut to the chase - The Wing Warrior, first book in The Legend Riders series, is now available for Amazon Kindle.

In a world where magic has been banned, and the legendary creatures of old are nothing more than memories, an ancient and evil force has returned.

In the shadow of this terror, a young boy called Nimbus sets in motion a chain of events that arouses a leviathan from its slumber and awakens an even more sinister power within his eight-year-old sister.

But Nimbus’s problems don’t end there: his family is falling apart, his best friend has developed a nasty streak of jealousy, and he is about to discover just how difficult it is to become a hero when you’re dead.
You can find out more at

Sunday 2 September 2012

The Legend Riders

Okay, this isn't a post about board games; but this is my blog, and if I want to use it for a bit of shameless self-promotion then I will...

I would like to announce the imminent release of my new book, The Wing Warrior, which will be available from Amazon's Kindle store.

In a world where magic has been banned, and the legendary creatures of old are nothing more than memories, an ancient and evil force has returned. In the shadow of this terror, a young boy called Nimbus sets in motion a chain of events that arouses a leviathan from its slumber and awakens an even more sinister power within his eight-year-old sister.

But Nimbus has bigger problems to deal with. His family is falling apart, his best friend has developed a nasty streak of jealousy, and he is about to discover how difficult it is to be a hero when you're dead.

The Wing Warrior - Book One of The Legend Riders
The Wing Warrior - front cover art by James Lloyd.

The book has been written with the 9-12 age group in mind, but I think there are plenty of older readers and even some adults who will find something to enjoy.

They say that everybody has one good book in them; I am hoping I have at least three, because The Wing Warrior is the first book in a trilogy entitled The Legend Riders. The series has been structured so that in each book new legendary creatures are introduced (a leviathan and a dragon in book one, a unicorn in book two, and a pegasus in book three). The mythological elements of the stories should find an audience with children who have enjoyed The Spiderwick Chronicles, by Tony DiTerlizzi and Holly Black, and are now looking for a slightly more adult book dealing with some similar themes.

If you would like to know more, then visit or follow me on Twitter at @KevinWOutlaw