Tuesday 22 January 2013

Review - Frog Rush

Frog Rush

Frog Rush
Published by Lego
Designed by Nicolas Assenbrunner
For 2-4 players, aged 7 to adult

I've mentioned it before, but I'll mention it again: I love Lego. I'm a big fan of it, but I can't really justify buying it. Lego board games are a great way for me to buy some Lego while passing it off as part of my board game hobby. Unfortunately, Lego board games don't tend to be very good.

I saw Frog Rush in a large supermarket, with a sale sticker that put it at £4. That's a good deal for any board game, but for a board game made out of Lego the purchase was a no-brainer.

As with all Lego games, Frog Rush requires construction, and comes with a little instruction book to tell you how to put everything together. Building the set is often more fun than the actual game, and I am sure there must be some people who would be interested in Frog Rush just to get the extra Lego pieces for custom builds. For example, this game ships with 20 frog pieces in four different colours. Recently I have seen these pieces turning up as hood ornaments for cars in the Lego Monster Hunter series, and they have even been used upside down as gargoyle heads on the new Arkham Asylum Lego set. Getting 20 frogs (plus another 60 Lego pieces, including a decent-sized green base plate) would surely be a big incentive for a Lego fan to drop £4 on this game.

Lego Frog Rush
Lego frogs - worth the price of admission alone.

Even the dice is buildable, and you can use the faces from dice in other Lego games to create your own custom dice for your own custom games. This is one of the ideas Lego really pushes - the ability to combine game sets, and other Lego blocks you might have, to create new games, or new ways to play existing games. The thing is, I'm not really interested in that; I just want to play the games as they come out of the box.

Lego Frog Rush - buildable dice
The buildable dice, showing the "hopping" icon.

So, what is this game like, out of the box?

To be honest, I was pleasantly surprised. This game isn't particularly original, or particularly clever; but it is a nice little filler. It is also quite a good game for younger players, as there is some strategic play, but this is largely offset by the randomness of dice-rolling which makes it a little more chaotic and less of a brain-burning exercise than a purely strategic game would be.

The aim of the game is simple: Score points by getting your family of frogs from one side of the pond to the other side. You do this by rolling a dice, and then performing actions based on your roll.

Three sides on the dice show pips (as on a normal dice), and this result allows you to move one frog up to that number of spaces.

Two sides on the dice show a "hopping" icon, which allows you to hop one of your frogs over an adjacent frog into an empty space beyond. If such a move is not possible, then you can move any frog a single space instead.

Finally, one side on the dice is orange. When you roll this, you can move the stork piece to any space occupied by a frog. The frog is eaten, and the stork blocks passage through that space until it moves again. The only frogs safe from the stork are ones that have already crossed the pond and made it "home."

As you can see from this description, there is a certain amount of strategic play based on how you move your frogs, but there is also a ridiculous dollop of luck on the top. It is infuriating when you need to move a frog two spaces to get it to safety but only roll a one, and even worse when all your frogs are surrounded but you can't roll a "hopping" icon for love nor money. However, most annoying of all is that stork. If your opponent keeps getting control of the stork, you can see your army of frogs being whittled down rapidly; and there is absolutely nothing you can do about it. It is even possible for your frogs to be wiped out completely. If there was some way you could prevent the stork from attacking your frogs this might be acceptable, but when your fate is entirely determined by the luck of what your opponent rolls, then this is a real problem.

Lego Frog Rush - the stork
That damned stork... I hate that guy.

As I said before, Lego encourage you to mix up the rules and play the game your own way, and they even provide a page of variant rules to get you started. Luckily, one of the variant rules is a "stork escape" that allows you to give up your turn to bring a frog back to life. You absolutely must play with this rule, or you will find the stork ruining every single game.

It is also worth mentioning that the game really plays best as a two- or four-player game, because of the way the board is laid out; but Lego have thought of this too, and provide instructions for changing the configuration of the board for three players. This is a great little touch, and shows how Lego and board games really can work together sometimes to produce good results.

Lego Frog Rush
Standard board layout (my apologies for the poor lighting on this photo).

So overall, no, this isn't the best game ever; and no, I wouldn't have even considered buying this game if it wasn't made of Lego; but never-the-less, I think I have had my share of fun with it considering I only spent £4. My eleven-year-old brother-in-law always asks to play this game, and considering his short attention span, this is a glowing recommendation.

Wednesday 16 January 2013

Review - Archaeology: The Card Game

Yes, this is another post that is really just recycled material that I originally published on www.boardgamegeek.com  I know, I know. Don't look at me like that. New stuff is on the way, I promise...

Archaeology: The Card Game

Archaeology: The Card Game (Man, there is really nothing interesting about that title, is there?)
Published by Z-Man Games
Designed by Phil Walker-Harding
For 2-4 players, aged 8 to adult

Archaeology is a game that, when I first heard about it, didn't really interest me. It's a card game about excavating treasure in Egypt. It just didn't sound like my sort of thing: The theme didn't appeal to me much, and I am not a huge fan of card games. However, when it came to looking for some light games to play with non-gamers (and gamers), which could also be played two-player, I started thinking about this game and eventually took a risk with it. I'm glad I did.

The game consists of a deck of 72 treasure cards, depicting various items you can find. You also get a set of "special" cards consisting of sandstorms, thieves, maps, and a pyramid. The cards are decent quality, if a little thin, with a nice linen finish. Unfortunately, the artwork on the cards is awful; and this was another reason why I was dubious about the game - it just didn't look that professional. BUT, when a game is this much fun, who gives a flying fig what the artwork is like?

Here's (briefly) how it works:

You set up the game by setting aside all the special cards and shuffling the pack, then you deal four cards to each player (maximum four players). You then deal five cards face up to the middle of the table to be the marketplace. Finally, you add cards face down beside the pyramid card (one stack of three cards, one stack of five, and one stack of seven). You then shuffle the thieves, maps, and sandstorms into the deck. Note that the number of sandstorms used is adjusted based on the number of players (more on this later).

During your turn, you draw one card from the deck. If it is treasure or a map you add it to your hand, if it is a sandstorm or thief you play it immediately. A thief allows you to randomly steal a card from another player, and a sandstorm forces every player to place half of their cards in the marketplace (the player who drew the sandstorm then draws another card from the deck and continues the turn).

After drawing a card, a player can do as many actions as they want or are able to. Each treasure card has a trade value, and a museum price. You can trade cards at the marketplace using the trade value (for example, you could play a card with a trade value of 3 to the marketplace in order to take a card valued 1 and a card valued 2 from the marketplace). You can do this as many times as you want, and the aim is to get complete sets of cards which are worth more when you sell them to the museum.

Archaeology: The Card Game - talisman cards
A complete set of talismans - no, not the talismans from that other game.

You sell to the museum by playing the cards face up in front of you from your hand. The more cards of the same kind you play, the more you will get. For example, a shard of a cup is worth 2 points, but if you sell two cup shards at the same time (thereby piecing together one complete cup) the price soars to 15 points. Some sets are easy to complete and worth only a few points, and some sets are harder and worth more. You can sell incomplete sets if you want (for less points) but you cannot subsequently add to that set later. This means it pays to hold on to cards until you have enough for a decent amount of points, although then you run the risk of having cards stolen or blown away to the market by a sandstorm. Once sets are played to the museum they are "safe" and will count towards your final score.

The maps add another element to the game. They are worth 3 in a trade, or they can be sold to the museum for 3 points. However, they can also be discarded from the game to take cards from the pyramid. If you discard one map you can take the stack of three treasure cards, if you discard two maps you can take the stack of five treasure cards, and if you discard three maps you can take the stack of seven cards. There are only six maps in the game, so saving up enough to get the big stack of pyramid cards isn't easy, but it can dramatically change the course of a game if you can do it.

And that's it really: Build sets, play them to the museum, person with the highest score wins. It plays much better than it sounds, trust me!

Of course, like so many card games, you are basically just moving cards from the deck to your hand, then to the marketplace and back again, in order to complete sets; but this is so much fun thanks to the way the deck is constructed. For example, a coin is worth 2 points; but if you get a set of 5 it is worth 30 points. However, there are only 14 coin cards in the deck, making it impossible to get three complete sets, so if three people are all collecting coins, one person is going to be disappointed. Keeping an eye on what has been played, and what you think other players have in their hands, is vitally important. Also, knowing when to cut your loses and play an incomplete set is key to victory. The maps can cause a lot of issues. You will want to keep the maps to visit the pyramid, but if three maps have already been discarded and you have one map and think someone else has the other two, it is a huge amount of fun to sell your map to the museum, just to annoy them.

It's a very simple and elegant game with a lot more decision-making than you might first think. Sometimes, in order to complete a set, you will need to trade cards to the marketplace knowing that another player at the table is collecting those cards. Is it worth letting someone complete a set of coins (worth 30 points), just so I can pick up a parchment that will allow me to complete a set (worth 10 points)? Sometimes you will be sitting on several incomplete sets, reluctant to do any trading because you suspect that by doing so you will allow someone else to complete more powerful sets (sets that you can't complete yourself because they have the cards in their hand!). You never feel like you have a good hand, you never feel like you are winning, and yet you are having a great time.

Having said that, I have to admit that the first time I played this game with my wife, she hated it. Sandstorms were cropping up all the time and every time she was about to complete a set, a sandstorm would destroy her hand, or I would draw a thief and take the card she had just spent ages waiting for. In a two player game you are supposed to use six sandstorms, and this was just too much for her. She complained the game was chaotic and random and just silly. She said their shouldn't be any sandstorm cards.

Archaeology: The Card Game - special cards
Some of the "beautifully" illustrated cards from the game.

I explained to my wife that the sandstorms were an important element, as without them it would be much easier to complete sets, and certain cards would never appear in the marketplace. She agreed the game would probably be a bit stale without a certain amount of chaos. Our solution was simply to reduce the number of sandstorms used from six to three. The change was amazing. My wife started to love the game - she was now relying on her skill and judgement to create sets rather than blind luck. When a sandstorm appeared it was a rare and freak occurrence that hurt us both, but didn't completely destroy the hard work we had put into forming our hands. For anyone who thinks this game is too chaotic, try reducing the number of sandstorms. It's a matter of personal taste, but for me it saved the game. Now my wife wants to play this game all the time, whereas it originally looked like it would just end up sitting on the bookshelf gathering dust.

Overall, I strongly recommend this game to anyone who likes light card games, especially if you are in a situation where you have some non-gamers around, as everyone can quickly understand how this game works. Yes, it's a light filler; yes, the fickle hand of fate can deal you a bad hand or a string of sandstorms, or a thief can steal your best card; but this game is pure fun. And it actually plays really well with two, three, or four players.

A truly fugly game (that's fun but ugly, to you). Recommended.

Thursday 10 January 2013

Lego, NinjaGO and Things Like That...

Last year, I posted a review of NinjaGO, a so-called "game" from Lego, which was a little bit too light on the game aspect for my tastes. Now, I'll admit, I am not exactly the target audience; but even so, I thought it was a pretty poor show.

However, a little while ago my wife's eleven-year-old brother was around our place. He isn't great at listening to the rules of a game (or adhering to those rules once they have been explained), so we ended up playing NinjaGO. We didn't play with the cards, or any of the "official" rules; we just kitted out our little men with different weapons and winged them at each other. My brother-in-law absolutely loved it, and I have to admit that even I found myself having a bit of fun. We ended up trying to make the most outlandish weapon combinations possible, and sticking multiple Lego figures on each spinner. It's still not a game, but I have to admit it was pretty fun for a little while.

In a completely unrelated event, just before Christmas I invited a group of friends over for a "Christmas Party" (really, my excuse to get my friends over to play some board games). As there were a few "non-gamers" coming, I knew we would end up playing things like Logo or Cluedo, so I thought it would be funny to buy each of my guests one of the Lego blind bags. The intention was, each guest would open his blind bag, assemble the minifig, and then that minifig would be his avatar for the evening and would replace the usual playing piece in whatever games were played.

I intended to add whichever Lego figure I got for myself to my pot of NinjaGO stuff to increase my options the next time I challenged my brother-in-law. That being the case, you can imagine my disappointment when I opened my blind bag to find this:

Lego alien queen

As far as Lego minifigs go, this one is absolutely great; but as a character for NinjaGO there is a problem - NO LEGS! The alien queen is wearing a floor-length dress that sticks out at the back, so she doesn't fit in the spinner. Of course, even if she did, that ray gun she's carrying isn't going to be a lot of use.

Never mind, my wife had bought me an extra blind bag, so maybe there would be something more useful in that one...

Lego cowgirl

Now this is more like it. The Lego cowgirl has real legs, so she fits in the spinners. She also comes with an awesome lasso, which is quite large and creates quite a large surface area for whacking opponent ninjas with. Unfortunately, the lasso is made out of a rubbery material instead of hard plastic. Still, a marked improvement over the alien queen.

As well as the blind bags, I also managed to find a couple of old vikings from a dragon set my wife bought me years ago:

Lego viking

The vikings look suitably mean, but their helmets make them a bit top heavy (the horns on the helmet also tend to fly off during particularly violent spins). This viking's axe is massive, and is particularly good for smashing up wimpy ninjas.

Finally, only today, a good friend of mine gave me a Lego minifig from series nine as a gift. He did this because the minifig in question is a cyclops, and there is a cyclops character in The Legend Riders (my series of fantasy books for children and young adults). Now, this cyclops... Well... I'll show you the picture:

Lego cyclops

Awesome, right? Possibly the finest Lego minifig ever made. Beautiful detailing on the head and belt, and a nice big club which is perfect for NinjaGO battles. You can even reverse the piece inside his head to give him a different facial expression:

Lego cyclops

Man, I love Lego... And if you want to get yourself one of these awesome cyclops guys, you can do so right here.

So there we have it: the next time I play NinjaGo, I can use ninjas, crazy snake people, a cow girl, vikings, a cyclops, and even an alien queen (if she's prepared to swap her skirt for someone else's legs for a while).

Wednesday 9 January 2013

Review - Musketeers

Recently, I haven't been updating this blog nearly as much as I should do. I would like to say this is because I have been working hard and promoting my books; but the truth is I've spent an unhealthy amount of time playing Batman: Arkham City on the Playstation.

In an attempt to prevent a serious case of RSI, I have torn myself from the games console to upload and old review that I originally posted on www.boardgamegeek.com back in March 2010. I've even taken the time to tidy it up a bit. Enjoy.

Published by Gryphon Games
Designed by Franz Josef Lamminger
For 2-4 players, aged 8 to adult

Musketeers card game
"En garde!" (Oops, wrong game.)

As Christmas 2009 loomed, I discovered that my wife would be working on Christmas day. This meant I would be spending Christmas day with my elderly parents. As such, I started looking around for a few easy-to-play games that they would be able to pick up easily. One such game was Musketeers, which I didn't have high hopes for; but as I thought it had to be better than watching the Queen's speech I took the plunge.

Musketeers is a card game (an incredibly simple card game). It is presented in a rather nice tin that has two compartments, allowing you to separate out the main deck and all of the special cards into two piles for easy set-up. The cards are of good quality and the artwork is very cool in a slightly cartoonish sort of way. Generally speaking, for the price, it is a very nicely presented game. The instructions come on a single folded sheet of paper and can be picked up in about three minutes.

The cards you get are:

55 musketeer cards. These are the cards that players will be using to win special cards throughout the game. They show the musketeers in various poses and are numbered 0 - 10. They also have symbols showing a number of swords which are used in tie-break situations (for example, a 3 with one sword is not as good as a 3 with two swords).

15 guard cards. These represent the enemies you will be fighting. You draw one of these in each round and then everybody pitches in to "fight" it.

Three prison cards and three gem cards. These represent a prize for winning a fight, or a penalty for losing a fight.

The rules are very straight forward, and I would be surprised if anybody needed the rule sheet after the first hand had been played.

To start with everybody is dealt 12 musketeer cards. Of these 12 you pick three and play them face down in front of you - these three cards will equate to points at the end of the game. A nice touch with the artwork on the cards is that the higher the number, the better armed (and the more numerous) the musketeers in the picture are.

Musketeers card game
The valiant Muskahounds... I mean Musketeers.

You then draw one guard card and play it face up. The guard card has a number on it which all the players collectively are trying to beat (although in some cases you will be playing a card that will result in a loss, just to screw over someone else). As with the musketeer cards, guard cards with a low value have an illustration of fewer enemies, while guard cards with high values show a whole army to be vanquished.

Each player picks one of his or her remaining musketeer cards (not one selected for points) and plays it face down. Everyone then reveals their selected card together.

If collectively, the musketeer cards add up to equal to or greater than the guard card, then the musketeers win the fight and the player who played the HIGHEST card gets a gem card. That player places the gem card on top of one of the three cards set aside for points. A gem will double the value of the associated card at the end of the game.

If the musketeer cards add up to less than the guard card, the musketeers lose and the player who played the LOWEST card gets a prison card. (Note: in the case of a tie for the lowest card, the lowest card with the LEAST amount of sword icons is considered the loser.)

A prison card is placed on top of one of the points cards and if it is still there at the end of the game then that points card will score 0 regardless of its face value.

You then discard the guard card and draw a fresh one, and repeat the whole process (a total of nine times, until everyone has used all of their remaining musketeer cards).

If at any point you need to take a gem card or a prison card but there are none left in the supply, you can pick the relevant card from any other player. If you win a fight but you don't have any bare points cards (for example, you have two gems and one prison) then you can discard a prison card. If you lose a fight but don't have bare points cards then you discard a gem card.

That's it. That simple.

At the end of nine rounds, everyone reveals their three points cards. Cards with a prison on them score 0, cards with a gem on them are worth double the face value, and bare cards are worth face value. Highest total wins.

Musketeers card game
A gem, and a room with a view.

As you can probably tell from this description, the theme is entirely lacking from this game (it's a card game, after all). At no point will you feel like a team of musketeers fighting off villainous enemies, breaking out of prison, or anything like that. I love games with a good theme (and a dragon or two), but I don't really expect a thematic experience from a card game like this. At least the tacked on theme means you get some nice illustrations - much better than plain old numbers or icons.

The game is also (obviously) not very deep. There is little in the way of strategy, and most of your decisions are based on bluffing. Not all of the cards are used in every game (only a maximum of 48 of the 55 available musketeer cards and nine of the available guard cards), so you can't do a lot of card counting because you will not know how many of each card is in play during the game.

Not using all the cards can also mean you get royally screwed in your initial hand. The 12 cards you are dealt are your points and also your way of winning points. If you get dealt a hand with four or five 0 cards, then you are not likely to do well in the game and at best you are playing damage limitation. Similarly, if you get a hand with lots of 9s and 10s, then you will get a runaway victory in most cases. Really, it should have been the case that everyone gets the same starting hand, but then I don't think this game is supposed to be the kind of game you play for deep strategy - it is a stupid, quick game you play between games of something else (or between Christmas dinner and the Queen's speech).

There are a few decisions to make in the game. The most important is selecting your three points cards, which is a big deal if you have a mixed hand rather than a generally good or generally bad hand. You can put down three low value cards to ensure you have high points cards to play with, but in this case, even if you win the most rounds you are likely to have less points than another player at the end of the game. If you put down lots of high value cards, you run the risk of not having enough good cards in your hand to win any gems, and will therefore be beaten by another player. Getting the balance just right can be quite tricky, especially as the cards in your hand will not give you complete knowledge of the cards your opponents have.

Once the game is underway, it all comes down to bluffing and card management. If a low value guard card comes out, everybody will expect everybody else to put down low value musketeer cards hoping they will add up to just enough to win the card; so if you throw down a 0 value card you can really upset the group and lose an "easy" guard card. If a high value guard card hits the table people might try to play high cards to beat it, but you might want to save your last high value musketeer for a situation where you are sure you can win. Trying to figure out when to ditch your 0 cards, and when to play your 10 cards is a lot of fun in a shallow "I don't want to play this for more than 10 minutes" kind of way.

Guards! Guards!

The tin says this game plays in 20-40 minutes. This takes into account playing several games (until someone scores 100 points). I assume the reason for playing multiple games is to mitigate the problems that can arise from being dealt 12 terrible cards at the start: Over the course of several games, you should get a mix of decent cards heading your way. However, I have never played more than three games in a row, because there just isn't enough going on here to keep me interested that long. Compare this to other card games like Archaeology or Lost Cities which I can play for hours, and it just doesn't stand up.

I like the game enough to break it out for 10-15 minutes every now and again, and it is worth playing at least two games because of the chance of getting bad cards.

It absolutely succeeded in its original purpose: My parents played it and enjoyed it, and it helped to pad out Christmas day. It also wasn't too expensive, so overall I am happy to have bought it.

One last thing to note: It only plays 2-4 people. It feels like the kind of game that could have been played with more people, or which could have had a team variant in the rules, but this isn't present. Don't purchase it expecting to be able to break it out at larger game groups or social events.

Overall, a solid but light-weight bluffing game that will get a few laughs but will infuriate people looking for something more strategic or tactical.