Wednesday 31 December 2014

Review - Vineta


Published by Winning Moves
Designed by Fabiano Onca, Mauricio Gibrin, and Mauricio Miyaji
For 2-6 players, aged 10 to adult

Vineta Box
I really like the art style for this game.

My wife is really quite a special lady. She has to be, to put up with me. However, even special ladies can occasionally drift dangerously close to stereotypical behaviour.

For example, my wife is addicted to purchasing shoes and handbags. I would complain, but when you have almost 200 board games stuffed on your shelves, you don't have a huge amount of wiggle room (metaphorically or physically) for arguing about that sort of addiction.

In fact, my wife is addicted to purchasing clothes in general, and hardly a week goes by when she doesn't pack something else into her overflowing wardrobe.

As for me, I am far less special, and far more likely to fall into stereotypical male behaviour, particularly when it comes to clothes shopping. If I need to buy a new pair of jeans, I grab something with two legs and head for the closest counter to pay. The thought of spending more than five or ten minutes picking clothes fills me with the kind of dread people usually reserve for using the portable toilets at an outdoor festival.

Recently, my wife purchased a new top. I don't remember what it was like. She asked me if I liked it, and I said, "Yes, it really suits you," because I'm well trained and value my testicles, but I didn't actually look at it. I couldn't describe it to you.

It was probably sparkly.

I only remember this top because my wife really loved it, but then never wore it. The problem was, she could never find anything that went with it. On its own, in theory, the top was everything she could have wanted. However, no matter what shoes, handbags, trousers, skirts, or scarves she wore with it, the resulting ensemble was wrong.

That's very similar to my experience with Vineta, a game that looked great, sounded great, and was theoretically a good match for my gaming group; yet which was ultimately a game I had to get rid of because no matter how many people I played with, the result was always a bit of a damp squib.

Vineta rules
The rules... All seems clear enough.

The premise of Vineta is simple. In fact, it's almost elegant, which is a word reviewers like me use in an attempt to make our hobby sound more interesting when we are talking about very simple games.

And Vineta really is a very simple game.

I mean, we're talking similar complexity level to the plot line for an episode of Dora the Explorer.

But simplicity does not go hand in hand with dull, chaotic, strategy-light mechanisms.

Not always, anyway.

It's like my daddy never said, "Paddling pools seem shallow, but they usually have a few feet in them."

Vineta board
The board before the island pieces are added (or after they have sunk).

In Vineta, each player is a god who has decided to sink the titular island. You know how gods can get, sometimes. However, each god has taken pity on a particular group of islanders. So, over the course of the game, each player is trying to sink parts of the island to drown certain people, while at the same time trying to keep other areas of the island above water level.

The island itself is composed of nine jigsaw pieces, and at the start of the game, each player allocates houses of different colours to each region. Secretly, each player is allocated one region he or she wants to keep afloat, and one colour of houses to save.

Vineta the island
The island of Vineta... There's a storm coming.

Play then proceeds in rounds, with players playing cards from their hand to achieve different results.

Many of the cards are tidal waves. Players select an area to flood on the island, and then they start to add tidal wave cards. At the end of the round, the region that got hit by the most water is removed from play, along with any houses that were on it. These houses are divided out among the players who helped to sink the region, and translate into points at the end of the game.

However, there are lots of other cards that have different abilities. Some allow you to transfer houses from a flooding region to a safe region, some allow you to swap the locations of houses, some allow you to push houses into danger. If you love drowning people, or saving some people so they can watch while you drown other people, then you're in for a great time.

In theory, it all sounds okay.

The presentation is lovely: You have a beautifully illustrated island, full of cute wooden houses, and decks of cards that shuffle like Frank Sinatra sings.

Vineta houses
Look at all the cute houses you get to flood.

The theory behind the game is just as slick. Through careful hand management, bluffing, and a bit of negotiation with other players, you have to flood areas containing houses you don't want to save, while trying to prevent other players from sinking your bit of the island and all of your houses. Then, at the end of the game you get awarded points for every house you sank and every house you were trying to protect that is still standing, plus a bonus if the only piece of the island remaining is the piece you were secretly allocated at the start of the game.

But there is a problem.

Several problems, actually.

First of all, the game includes a crib sheet to explain the actions on the special cards, and it is totally wrong. That almost sank my first game due to the levels of confusion resulting from icons on cards that did not match up with the explanation of what those cards did.

Still, I got over that by printing off new sheets that I found on BoardGameGeek.

The second problem is the random allocation of island pieces that each player needs to save. During the game, you can only attempt to sink an island piece that is on the outside edge of the island, so for the first few rounds the inside pieces of the island are totally safe. If you get allocated an outside edge to protect, chances are you are not going to be able to save it, as it is a prime target for sinking, while if you get an inside piece, your chances of getting bonus points are much higher. Okay, inside pieces are worth less points, but some points are generally better than no points, and this is a random element of the game that can screw you over before you even get started.

But, like I said earlier, this game has an even bigger issue: It's no bloody fun no matter how many people you play with.

Vineta cards
The cards... You may as well play them randomly for all the good they do.

Play it with two people, and for most of the game there is very little interaction. Each player tries to sink different bits of the island with little interference from his or her opponent. If one player does attempt to prevent the other player from sinking a location, it is a massive giveaway that the location in question is one that the player needs to keep safe, which blows the bluffing element of the game right out of the water.

Play with three players, and mechanisms that could have been fun start to seem a bit fishy. The biggest issue is that if you attempt to prevent a location from sinking, the other two players immediately realise you want to save it and gang up on you. In this situation it is impossible to save the location. Pretending to save a location you don't actually need doesn't work either, because you end up wasting cards that you really want to use elsewhere. Basically, if one of the players randomly selects to attack the region you want to save, there really is very little you can do about it.

Now, if you play with even more players you will really start to get a sinking feeling. With four players, the game turns into complete chaos. You have no chance to save a location. If you move houses out of danger, someone else will probably move them right back. If you play a card, someone else will cancel it in some way. You cannot predict what will happen because there are so many cards getting thrown into the mix. You feel like you have no control over anything. Add a fifth or sixth player, and it really is just an exercise in flipping cards and hoping for the best.

Ultimately, I feel it doesn't really matter what you do.

It's a shame. All the pieces are there for what should be a really good game, but it just doesn't hinge together. It isn't deep enough to give you the options for clever bluffing and card play. It isn't shallow enough to be a light filler. It is a frustrating mix of random chance and "take that," which is about as much fun as it sounds.

I am sure some people will enjoy this, and some people will say I am wrong and that it is not as random as it seems; but there are better bluffing games, and better secret role games, and better... games. Just better games.

Loads of better games.

So, I had to wave goodbye to this one. And now it sleeps with the fishes.

Tuesday 23 December 2014

Review - Destination London

Destination London

Destination London
Designed by Rachel Lowe
Published by RTL Games
For 2-6 victims with nothing left to live for

For those of you who haven't picked it up from my quaint mannerisms, and my tendency to put the letter "u" in words that clearly don't need it, I am from the UK. To be exact, I am from a small town in Wiltshire, just a stone's throw away from the village of West Kington.

Actually, that's not strictly true. Mainly because, as my old P.E. teacher would tell you, I can't throw for toffee.

But if you had a trebuchet, and a relatively small stone, then West Kington is probably almost close to being about two stone throws away from where I live. Which doesn't sound as snappy, which is why I didn't say it in the first place.

But why all this chatter about West Kington?

Well, that little village, which is just a short distance from Chippenham (a place that deserves to have stones thrown at it), is where the Canadian new wave band Men Without Hats filmed the video for their classic hit The Safety Dance.

Some people think "The Safety Dance" is about safe sex, but the truth is, the song was written as a protest against bouncers in the 1980s who wanted to stop clubbers from pogoing. I guess they wanted to stop people hurting themselves.

And looking like tits.

Anyway, I am not really big on protests. I mean, I have a lot of respect for people who strongly disagree with something and decide to hold a march, or stand on a fountain, or shout into a loud hailer. Or whatever. It takes great courage to stand up for your convictions. But for me... I'm just a bit too lazy and laid back.

My idea of a protest is getting off the sofa to change the television channel by hand when I can't find the remote and Alan Carr Chatty Man comes on.

But if I was ever to hold a protest march, it would be against games like Destination London.

Destination London SMASH

Every year I host an evening of games to celebrate the festive season, an event I laughingly refer to as the alternative Christmas party. I put away all the "designer" titles, and roll out the silly shit I never play at any other time. Stuff like The Logo Game and Family Fortunes.

I thought Destination London would be a suitable fit: Something mindless and stupid that would give my guests the chance to roll dice, move pieces, and chat, without paying too much attention to strategy.

All I can do is apologise to those guests, and hope they come back next time; because Destination London is a game that makes people hate games. It is an amalgam of every bad thing that people ever say about games. It is a... non-game. It makes Monopoly look good.

Destination London STAB

In fact, if you were to chuck Monopoly, Snakes and Ladders, and Ludo into a cement mixer, leave it for 15 minutes, pour out the result, sift through it and stamp on anything that looks fun, remove anything that looks attractive or artistic, and then repackage it in a gaudy red box, you would have a game that is about twice as good as Destination London.

So, what is this game? Why is it so bad?

The premise is simple. You are a taxi driver. At the start of the game you have a certain amount of money, a certain amount of fuel, and several destinations you need to reach. You roll a dice to move to a destination. When you reach that destination, you hand in the matching destination card and a fuel card, and then you take the fare listed for that destination and a new destination card. This continues until every destination has been visited, someone flips the table, or someone starts waving a knife around in a wild-eyed frenzy.

There really isn't anything more going on.

It is a game that is clearly aiming at the Monopoly market. There are even traffic light spaces that allow you to draw special cards that may be nice (have some money) or may be nasty (miss a turn), which is very similar to Monopoly's Chance cards. However, this is Monopoly without the trading and haggling... Without the fun bit.

And the game is full of the most ridiculous design choices.

For a start, each destination card states the location you need to reach, but there is no graphic or miniature map to indicate where on the board that location is, so you end up spending a long time simply looking at every location trying to figure out where you need to go next. When you do find your location, it is invariably in the middle of a one-way system that forces you to take a mind-numbingly long detour to get there.

Movement is achieved by rolling one dice and then moving that number of spaces. However, everyone has the option to pay to supercharge their car so they roll two dice each turn. This seems a reasonable rule until you realise that everyone starts the game with more than enough money to instantly pay for the upgrade, which is exactly what everyone did the first (and only) time I played. Why not just have every player roll two dice from the start, and give them a lower amount of starting cash?

And the game mechanisms are really clunky. For example, every time you reach a destination, you have to hand in the card, then hand in a fuel card, then take your fare, then drew a new destination card. You spend more time swapping and exchanging money and cards than doing almost anything else.

But then that's probably because there isn't really anything to do.

Roll. Move. Shuffle money and cards around. Wait. Wait. Wait. Wait. Wait.

Weep quietly.

Pray for forgiveness.

Destination London BURN

Okay, I'm overegging the Christmas pudding here, but this is really just a nasty mix of everything that is wrong with mainstream games:

Roll and move mechanic. Check.

Random chance you cannot do anything about. Check.

Paper money. Check.

"Miss a go" moments. Check.

Ugly artwork and design. Check.

Agonisingly long game time. Check.

No actual choices. Check.

This is the kind of game that hurts the hobby. This is the kind of game that people see, and then think "God, board games are dull." This is the kind of game that stops people trying Lords of Waterdeep or Castle Panic.

But what really upsets me... What really sticks in my throat... This is an award-winning game. It says so right there on the box: "The award-winning souvenir game." It is bad enough that such a banal and pointless collection of cardboard and paper got any kind of award, but the fact it got that award based on its worthiness as a souvenir is almost criminal.

Destination London STOMP

It makes me shudder to think that foreign tourists have visited London, and then purchased this game as a fond memento. Is this really the best that we, as a country, have to offer our visitors? Is this all the thanks travellers deserve for choosing to visit our fair isle?

I once visited Scotland and got punched in the head, and returned home with severe concussion. I can only imagine coming home with a copy of Destination London is somewhat similar.

If you have spent any time on my blog, you know I don't tend to pull my punches. If I love a game, I wear that love on my sleeve. If I hate a game, you will know about it. However, I still try to see the good in every game, and I pride myself on being as balanced as possible when I review something. But here, with this game... Frankly, I don't want to waste my precious time trying to come up with any kind of positive comments.

Just like you don't want to waste any of your time playing something this bad.

Now, if you excuse me, I'm going to take Destination London into the back yard to try a little safety dance all over the box.*

Down with this sort of thing!

Destination London FLUSH

Oh, and Merry Christmas to all of my readers. You all deserve the very best the season has to offer, you bloody lovely people.

* Okay, I'll be honest. No games were harmed in the making of this review. No matter how much I dislike a game, I could not bring myself to destroy something someone else created. It is the ultimate insult, and not something I condone. However, I can't keep a game this bad, and I haven't got the heart to take someone's money for it; so, this one's going to the charity shop. I am sure someone will enjoy it. Maybe...

Friday 5 December 2014

Roots - A New Novel

Okay, so I have to hold my hands up... I have not been updating AlwaysBoardNeverBoring as much as I should. I have dozens of games to review, including the truly horrific Thunderbirds from Susan Prescott games, and the far less horrific Battue: Storm of the Horse Lords. However, I have a good excuse.


For the last month, I have been feverishly putting the finishing touches to my new novel for young adults, Roots.

Roots, by Kevin Outlaw

So, what's it all about?

Well, let's see what I put on the Amazon page...

A mysterious tree, an incurable disease, a troll, a zombie, an immortal, an assassin, a giant earthworm, a missing girl, and one dead cat.

Nobody said being a superhero was going to be easy...

Duncan has a list. It is a complete rundown of all the things he hates most in the world; and like many fifteen-year-old boys, he hates a lot. He hates that he can’t get the girl he wants. He hates that he isn’t good enough at football to be picked for the team. And he hates Carl, the school bully, who feels pretty much the same way about him.

But Duncan is about to make a discovery that will allow him to get whatever he wants. The problem is, he isn't the only one.

Roots is a horror fantasy science fiction psychological thriller mystery romantic comedy superhero origin story for young adults, from Kevin Outlaw, author of The Legend Riders trilogy.

If that sounds like something you might like to read, the book is available through Amazon Kindle in all countries (English language only), and it is totally free if you are enrolled in the Kindle Unlimited programme. A paperback edition will be available in the New Year.

Here are some handy-dandy links:

And that's all you need to know. I hope you will consider downloading the book, sharing it with your friends, and posting reviews. It all helps to make me a little bit happier. And isn't making me a little bit happier what we all want out of life?


Please forgive this shameless plug. I promise I will be returning to reviews very soon. Thank you all for your continued support

Saturday 15 November 2014

Review - Tash-Kalar: Everfrost

Tash-Kalar: Everfrost

Tash-Kalar: Everfrost
Designed by Vlaada Chvatil
Published by Czech Games Editions
For 2-4 players (in conjunction with the base game)

Tash-Kalar: Everfrost tokens
The new race tokens.

I'm not a big fan of expansions. Often they add a lot of unnecessary bloat, with new rules, and new options, that dilute the original game and detract from the core beauty that made me enjoy that game in the first place.

Plus, I have real trouble writing reviews for expansions. I have already used up all my "witty" jokes and "meaningful" insights in the review for the base game, which puts me in an awkward position.

I bet Vlaada Chvatil wouldn't have that problem if he wrote reviews.

Vlaada is one of the most inventive games designers in the industry. Even when he produces a game I have no interest in, I have to stop and admire his handiwork because it contains such a startling amount of originality. Every game he produces is significantly different from the last. Every game is inventive.

And his games are funny too, dammit.

I reckon if you were to jam a spigot in the back of his head, you'd get enough frothy brain goodness out to fill a bathtub.

(Don't try that, for God's sake.)

So, yeah. I think Vlaada would probably have something fun and creative to say in his review for the awesome Everfrost expansion.

But you're stuck with me. Deal with it...

The Everfrost expansion is actually the kind of expansion I really like. It doesn't overcomplicate the base game, or add lots of fiddly new rules. It just gives you a bit more of the stuff you already like. In this case, if gives you a new race deck to play with.

With an ethereal, wintery vibe that is just right for this time of year, Everfrost immediately stands out as one of the most attractive card decks available for the game. The artwork is from the talented David Cochard, and it evokes the magic and mystery of the ice-bound creatures perfectly. From the lithe winter fox to the gigantic glacial giant, every card is a joy.

Tash-Kalar: Everfrost cards
A fox in socks on icy blocks.

The Everfrost deck once again exhibits Vlaada's ability to blend rules with theme in a seamless way. For example, this deck contains creatures that are almost the embodiment of a glass (ice) cannon: They can destroy other pieces, sometimes even legends, but in doing so they shatter into pieces.

However, it is the way the cards work together that truly highlights the beauty of the design. Study the shapes you need to make to create each creature, and then consider the powers each creature has. To get your "creature engine" up and running, you need an "ice block" in a 3x3 grid, and then you can grow outwards like ice crystals by utilising the sliding abilities that many creatures possess. There are even powers that allow you to downgrade or upgrade creatures, perfectly encapsulating the freezing and thawing aspect of the winter wastelands.

It's freaking beautiful, and I am totally in love with it.

And I haven't even mentioned the one new rule this deck introduces: The frozen effects. These are abilities on creatures that you do not have to trigger immediately, Instead, you set them aside, and you can activate them whenever you want at a later date (this is known as "thawing" a frozen effect). This is a tricky and nuanced new mechanism. Just when you think you have grasped it, it slips through your fingers like a snowflake. But if you can get the hang of it, if you can resist the temptation to fire off the abilities as soon as you can rather than biding your time, this is a deck that really brings the pain.

Tash-Kalar: Everfrost rules
The new frozen effect rules.

It takes time. It takes patience. The deck moves like a glacier as you slowly build your position of power. But when it strikes, it strikes like an avalanche.

I have always been a huge fan of the Forest deck, but at the moment Everfrost is a close second for me.

Tash-Kalar: Everfrost score board
The wintery scoreboard for the expansion.

And of course, one of the best things about this expansion is that it negates one of my few complaints with the base game. Originally, although four people could play, two players had to play with identical Empire decks. Now, it is possible for four unique factions to battle it out in the arena, which is a far more exciting prospect.

But the very best thing of all?

I got a credit in the rules booklet for being one of the lucky folks who got be involved in playtesting the new deck before it went to print. (I am credited as RedMonkeyBoy, which is my username, rather than my real name; but as I was not expecting any credit at all, I'll gladly take it.)

Tash-Kalar: Everfrost credits
Hey, there I am!

It does give me a little warm glow inside to think that in some tiny way I may have helped to shape the final product.

It's almost enough to melt my heart.

Wednesday 12 November 2014

Review - Tash-Kalar Upgrade Kit

We interrupt your regularly scheduled broadcast to bring you this public service announcement...

I received my beautiful Tash-Kalar Upgrade Kit from the good people at It was thrown in for nowt along with my order of the Tash-Kalar: Everfrost expansion (more on that another day).

It is my understanding that not all online companies are offering the upgrade kit with the expansion, so if you want to make sure you get a copy, you know where to shop.

(Although, having said that, you might want to contact them first, just in case they have stopped the offer by the time you read this.)

Right, that's that out of the way. Let's talk Tash-Kalar...

Tash-Kalar Upgrade Kit

I read today that Internet folk have started to use the word "firstable" in place of "first of all." It's like a language upgrade or something: Rolling words together into a completely nonsensical sound to make it even quicker and easier to send messages over the big Worldwide Interweb Super Highway Thingy.

Soon the human race will be able to communicate with a simple series of grunts, and our devolution to Neanderthals will be complete.


I don't like it when things I love get changed.

Well... With certain exceptions, of course...

Here's the scoop: If you know me, you know I am a huge Tash-Kalar fan. You can catch my review here if you like, but you would actually be wasting valuable time you could be using to purchase and play the game.

However, the first edition of Tash-Kalar had some minor problems... A not so minor price tag, and production quality that was a little lacking.

That was a real shame, because it limited the reach of this really rather lovely game; a game I think everyone needs to play, even if it is only once, to experience the sheer brilliance of a theme so completely integrated into the rules that it is almost impossible to separate the two.

But all is not lost.

It has been an exciting time for Tash-Kalar, with a new expansion (which I will be reviewing shortly), and a second cheaper edition hitting stores. Best of all, for people like me who already own the game and don't want to buy it again, there is the Upgrade Kit: A set of stunning new tokens, cards, and boards to give this incredible game the glitzy finish it deserves.

That's the kind of change I can get on board with (excuse the pun).

Now, if you have played Tash-Kalar and you don't enjoy it (what is wrong with you?), the Upgrade Kit is not going to change your mind. But if you own and love the first edition, you are going to want these spangly new components in your life.

First up, you get a new board. It's the same size as the original, folded in the same way; but it has stunning new artwork that really pops. Best of all, it is made of thicker card, so it actually sits flat on the table.

Tash-Kalar Boards
It's like a tunnel for ants.

Who would have thought that the ability for a board to sit flat could bring so much joy?

If I have one problem with the new board, it is that the shadows are a bit heavy, which makes them slightly distracting at times.

Tash-Kalar Upgrade Kit Board

The new sets of tokens for all four races included in the base game are also on thicker card with better illustrations. Rather than a simple texture with a silhouette, the new tokens have some real depth, which makes for a much more impressive look. Of course, I would have paid through the nose to get these tokens in Bakelite, but now I'm just being picky.

Tash-Kalar Upgrade Kit Tokens
It's all too beautiful.

There are also new scoring tracks for the four races. Functionally, they are the same as before, but the imagery is more vibrant and detailed. Everything just pops a little more.

Tash-Kalar Upgrade Kit Score Boards
Score another one for the Upgrade Kit.

Finally, the upgrade kit contains an overhauled deck of Flare cards and Task cards. These have the same text as the original cards, and they are the same size, but they have a new graphic design that makes the originals look so boring you might mistake them for history teachers.

Tash-Kalar Upgrade Kit Flare Cards
Can you tell which ones are the new ones?

Tash-Kalar Upgrade Kit Task Cards
I didn't think the task cards needed upgrading until I saw this.

In fact, the only components that are not upgraded are the decks for the races, because they were already beautiful, and the rules, because they were already excellent.

So there you have it. Let's sum up...

Firstable, the Upgrade Kit brings nothing new to the table except a better quality of component material and graphic design.

Secondable, what the Upgrade Kit does bring is the kind of beauty that should have been there from the start, and which surely every fan requires.

Thirdable, by getting the Upgrade Kit, I now have enough components to play two games of Tash-Kalar simultaneously. You know, in case I want to.

Fourthable, for God's sake, stop saying "firstable," whoever you are.

Friday 31 October 2014

Review - Ghost Castle (a.k.a Which Witch?)

Ghost Castle

Ghost Castle
Published by MB Games
Designed by Marvin Glass
For 2-4 ghosts and goblins, aged 6-12 years

Ghost Castle box
Those kids on the box are having a great time.

Sometimes in life, you are presented with a very narrow window of opportunity.

Sometimes, that window is so narrow, you're really only going to be able to take advantage of it if you are Tooms from The X-Files.

Sometimes, that window is so incredibly narrow, you wonder if it is really a window at all, or just a crack in the plasterboard, or maybe one of those squiggly lines you sometimes get in the corner of your eye.

Take, for example, the game of Ghost Castle (or Which Witch? if you ain't from round these here parts), a roll-and-move horror-themed board game with an age range so focused it could burn a hole through the box: 6 to 12 years.

I'm not sure why MB Games felt the need to make the age range so specific. It really doesn't need to be. Sure, the game has a spooky theme and small parts (most noticeably a glow in the dark plastic skull), but my three year old daughter loves this game. And sure, it is effectively a skill-free game of luck with nothing to keep older children particularly interested, but I still enjoy watching the misfortunes that befall my character as I move around the haunted castle as long as my daughter is there to enjoy those misfortunes with me.

So, yeah... I'm taking a sledgehammer to this window and busting it right open to allow all the ghosts and goblins to spill out. This is a family game.

Age restrictions be damned.

Having said all that, what is Ghost Castle actually about, and is it any good?

Ghost Castle board game
The board in all its glorious gloriousness.

Well, I was first introduced to this game when I was a wee lad, and it immediately gripped my imagination like a skeletal hand and refused to let go. It charts the misadventures of a group of young children who foolishly seek refuge in a haunted castle. Over the course of the game, they move around the gloriously illustrated, three-dimensional board, seeking to close the coffin at the top of the tower to lay the malevolent spirit to rest.

It is a great idea for a game, made greater still, of course, by that three-dimensional board loaded with awesome traps.

On each turn, players roll the dice to move along a fixed path. They then spin the spinner. They may get frozen with fear (in which case they get a groovy fear mask that clips over the top of the playing piece and they cannot move again until spinning a foot result on the spinner), or they may get to drop the spooky skull into the coffin at the top of the castle, activating one of four traps.

Ghost Castle frightened child
You've got something on your face, Dude.

In the first part of the board, there is a suit of armour with a battleaxe, and if the skull lands here, the axe falls, squashing anyone who is about to enter the castle.

In the second part of the board, there is a wobbly floor. If the skull lands here, players get shaken off their feet.

In the third section, there is a magic mirror behind a hanging skeleton. If the skull lands here, anyone in front of the mirror teleports through to the other side. Anyone already on the other side gets booted up the bum by the skeleton.

In the fourth section, there is a long staircase. If the skull lands here, it bounces down the stairs knocking everyone over.

In each case, falling foul of a trap sends you back along the path to a designated checkpoint. Just like in an old-school platform video game.

It's all very silly, and great fun.

And frustrating.

Ghost Castle pawns
Mom! We found something in the garden!

You see, there is absolutely nothing you can do to avoid any of those tricks and traps. You roll and hope, spin and hope.

And you lose hope.

Games can be brutally quick, or agonisingly slow. There is no way to tell.

Honestly, as games go, it really isn't very good.

But it is so cool.

When I was a child, I spent hours playing this game, studying the fantastic artwork in each of the four zones.

At the start of the game, you are outside, in a haunted forest. There is a stream trickling into the distance beneath a baleful moon. The trees have faces. Wolves howl. Bats flutter.

Ghost Castle board
Have I ever told you trees creep me out?

So the children run, terrified, entering the haunted hallway beyond the portcullis, where ghosts swirl like mist, and the corridor seems to go on forever.

Ghost Castle board
That isn't Casper.

If they make it through there, they descend into the store room, where vampire bats swoop and chitter among the shelves of rotting books and poisons.

Ghost Castle board
I like big bats, and I can't deny.

Then finally, they reach the basement with the staircase leading to the roof. Here, giant rats gnaw on bones, and a phantasmal hand gropes in the dark.

Ghost Castle board
Dem bones.

The art is creative, inventive, spooky, and an absolute joy.

It is just a shame it is tagged on a basic roll-and-move game, because the theme, and those skull-activated traps, deserve better.

Ghost Castle spinner
It looks like a spiders web!

As it happens, Ghost Castle is not the only game to make use of the haunted, three-dimensional, trap-filled board. There are at least a couple of Scooby Doo games that work on the same principle, and Waddingtons made a nice Goosebumps game called Terror in the Graveyard; but they aren't quite the same.

Possibly because I never got to play them in that oh-so-narrow window of opportunity when I was an impressionable young child aged 6 to 12.

Possibly because I never got to play them when I sat in my darkening bedroom, rolled dice, and wished that the phantasmal hand reaching out of the crack in my plasterboard wall was nothing more than a squiggly line in the peripheral of my vision.

Wednesday 29 October 2014

Review - Felinia


Published by Matagot
Designed by Michael Schacht
For 2-4 players, aged 10 to adult

Felinia box
"There are no cats in Felinia..."

I don't like cats.

I am more of a dog person.

I actually share my home with a dog. Apparently he is quite a rare breed: A tri-colour merle border collie. The dog is an idiot, and if he is representative of the breed in general, it is no surprise they are so rare. Playing in traffic and wilfully throwing yourself off cliffs is going to thin the population out eventually.

But I love my dog. He doesn't creep me out.

Cats, on the other hand...

There is something wrong about cats. The way they move about, detaching and reattaching themselves to shadows. The way they look at you. The way they just turn up in places where they shouldn't be.

Like on the box art for Felinia.

Felinia is a game about trading in the Mediterranean. Except, it's not based in the Mediterranean, and the people doing the trading are cats.

Cats in hats.

If I had a pet goldfish he'd be quite upset.

Just take a good long look at that box art: Cats, standing upright, dressed as humans. That's pretty weird. But then look at their hands... Human hands!

You are now entering Lovecraft country, please drive carefully.

The strangest thing about the cat concept is that it has absolutely no bearing on the game. But I'll be honest, it doesn't really matter. This is one of those dry Euro games about trading, and theme is pretty much irrelevant anyway. I guess the designers thought they might as well slap some whacky cat folk on the art. At least it makes a change from stern chaps in hats.

Forgetting the odd not-quite-a-theme, this is one of those good old-fashioned games with tried and tested mechanisms that all gel together in a very slick way. It doesn't do anything exceptional, but it has a nice flow, and none of the rules are particularly tricksy. There is even a set of basic rules for people who don't feel up to the advanced rules straight away (although most gamers can safely skip the basic rules, because they are a bit... you know... basic).

The aim is simple. Players are traders trying to set up trading posts on a newly discovered island full of cat people. Of course, these cats are not interested in kitty litter and mice; they want rare books, fine wine, luxury clothing, glassware, and... precision watches?

I'm not making this up.

It's in the rules.

Precision watches.

Anyway, it doesn't matter. Forget it.

Felinia board
The big empty bit is where the boats go.

So, on your turn, you have three actions. You can use each action to acquire money, or to bid in one of several different marketplaces for a limited selection of items. That doesn't sound very exciting, but it is actually a little bit of distilled genius.

You see, players take it in turns going round the table using one action at a time. If you use your first action to gain money, you only get one coin, if you use your second action you get two coins, and if you use your third action, you get three coins. So, using early actions for money doesn't seem worth it at first, but it actually is, because you are postponing your bid in the marketplace. Postponing your bid gives you a better chance of winning the items you are interested in.


Because bids in a marketplace are resolved in reverse order, so the last person to place a bid marker in the marketplace gets first dibs, and can snatch away items that other people wanted. But here's the kicker... The price of items in the marketplace is determined by the number of bid tokens stacked at that marketplace. If you place your token on a stack of three other tokens, you get first choice, but you have to pay four coins to get the item you want. And, of course, if you postponed your bids with your early actions, you won't have four coins.

Felinia bidding
Things are getting expensive. I just don't know what the "things" are.

Do you see how cool that is?

Postpone your bids, and you get first choice, but you have less money and everything is more expensive. Bid early, using later actions to collect money, and you will be minted; but you may not be able to buy any of the products you want.

The game's central mechanism is like a precision watch.

Cats would love it.

After players have made a purchase, they have the chance to board one of several cute little three-dimensional cardboard boats. Each boat has a token on it defining requirements of goods to get on board, and if you have those goods, you can reserve your space.

Felinia boat piece
One of the boats, awaiting a new cargo token.

When the boat is full, it sets sail to the newly discovered kitty continent, where players move their meeples to a position to gather a few scoring tokens.

This second bit of the game is less interesting than the first bit. It is a combination of resource management (players can expel food items purchased at the market to move farther), exploration (drawing mysterious location cards that grant victory points, and claiming victory point tokens that score at the end of the game), and area control (grouping meeples together into a big colony scores more points).

It's all been seen before. It's all very clever. It just isn't as clever as the bidding bit.

The problem is, the bidding is tense, and every player is involved. There are genuine scuffles to get the right goods at the right prices, and being the player at the bottom of the bidding stack, watching as everyone else buys the goods you need, is agonising.

In the second part of the game, players take turns moving on the island, while the other players watch. There is a small amount of opportunity to screw with other players, by taking an area of the island they wanted, but it is much more a case of each person trying to maximise points rather than worrying what everyone else is doing.

Felinia meeples
They don't even look like cats!

The first half of the game is great, the second half is okay. And it all ends in a big points salad, as you would expect, with people counting up their tokens, working out their multipliers, and adding in points for leftover resources such as food.

I like it.

I'm not usually keen on this sort of game, but I like this one.

I can't keep it though.

In fact, I've already got rid of it.

You see, it's those five different types of resources that players are vying for throughout the game: They are colour-coded, and some idiot (possibly the same chap who decided cats would be cool), chose the colours green, rust, taupe, dark, and night time. Worse yet, the symbols on the boats reflecting which goods are required are coloured wooden crates without any kind of iconography on them.

And I'm a wee bit colour blind.

I literally cannot tell apart the resources.

Felinia tokens
I have no idea what colour these tokens are.

There is nothing more frustrating than having to stop the game each round to ask the other players on the table which goods are displayed on the boats. Not only does it grind the game to a halt, but quite often it draws attention to what goods you have, and what goods you still need, leading to a situation where everyone else does everything possible to stop you.

And that's a shame.

This is a game that does so much right. Everything, in fact, except the artwork.

Now, you'll have to excuse me. I need to scare off several cats that have gathered on the front lawn.

One of them is wearing a watch.

Wednesday 8 October 2014

Review - Take the Cake

Take the Cake

Take the Cake
Designed by Anja Wrede
Published by Gamewright
For 2-4 players, aged 4 to adult

Take the Cake game
To quote a friend, "Everyone's cake is favourite chocolate cake."

Recently, I was watching a children's television show called Bing with my daughter. Bing is a cute black bunny, and in the episode we were watching, Bing had found a balloon. He was playing with Balloon, and having lots of fun, when suddenly Balloon popped. Bing desperately asked for someone to "make Balloon big again," but he had to face the fact that Balloon was never coming back.

To ease Bing's sadness, his friend Flop suggested putting Balloon in the "bye bye" box, where it would always be safe. And it was around about this time that I figured out what this cartoon was really all about.

After Bing had put his balloon in the "bye bye" box, he drew a picture of Balloon on the top so he would always remember it and the happy times they shared. When Flop asked Bing what Balloon was doing, Bing said he was happy, and "floating up and up into the sky."

I do not think I have ever seen a television show that treated children with such respect. It took concepts of death, loss, burial, denial, and even certain religious beliefs, and condensed them into a ten minute show that made such big, impossible subjects something that children could relate to in their own way.

The creators of Bing have a talent: An ability to talk to children, not to talk down to them. It is an ability that I hugely admire, and which I often find lacking in the world of board games.

All too often, you see companies churning out horrible roll and move board games that show an incredible lack of respect for their young target market. They just stick a much-loved cartoon character or book hero on the cover, and pass it off as a "must have" family game. But children are not stupid, and they should not be underestimated. They want to be entertained just as much as adults, and they deserve games that have been created with the kind of love and dedication that we demand ourselves.

Which brings me to Take the Cake, a cute little filler game for children aged four and up.

My daughter's godfather, who is one of my best friends and part of my regular gaming group, purchased Take the Cake for my daughter for Christmas in 2013. She was only three at the time, but she had absolutely no problem with the rules, and we have played countless times since she excitedly unwrapped it.

It is a good game.

Not a good game for adults. But a good game for children.

It is a game that is colourful, tactile, engaging, fun, and educational. It combines everything you would hope to see in a children's game. And yet the game is about as simple as games get.

Players are aiming to decorate a series of cupcakes, each represented by a card. The cards show cupcakes with a variety of different coloured "sprinkle" shapes on the top. For example, a cake may have a single purple circle, or it may have a white cube, a green triangle, and a pink circle. There are 16 cupcakes in total, with four in play at any one time.

On his or her turn, a player rolls a dice. This results in a number between one and three, representing the number of times the player gets to shake a plastic cupcake filled with wooden shapes of different colours.

Take the Cake cupcake
The cute plastic cupcake and "sprinkles."

Shaking the cupcake causes some shapes to fall out, and the player then matches those shapes with shapes depicted on the cards. If a player manages to complete one or more cards, the player takes those cards, and replaces them with new cards from the deck.

Once all the cupcakes have been decorated, players add up how many cakes they have to determine the winner. In the case of a tie, players add up the "sprinkles" on their cakes to determine who is the winner.

Like I said, it is a very simple game.

But for young children, it is absolutely perfect. Shaking the shape dispenser is pleasantly tactile, and the children have to count the number of shakes to ensure fair play. Additionally, the pattern and colour recognition element is ideal for children much younger than the four and above age suggested on the box.

And then there are the choices.

Not many choices, admittedly. But choices.

For example, is it better to score two cakes with one shape on each, or one cake with three shapes on it? The higher value cakes are better for the tie breaker, but if you get enough low value cakes, then there won't be any need for a tie breaker.

There are also plenty of situations where children have to figure out how to place shapes to make it as difficult as possible for other players to finish the cakes, an element of the game that is even more enjoyable when you consider that certain shapes (cubes) are easier to get out of the plastic cupcake than more complex shapes (stars).

Take the Cake cards
The cupcake cards.

There is nothing incredibly deep here, but there is just enough of everything to make it a fun and engaging experience for young gamers. The designer has taken something as big and impossible as modern games, and created something that children can relate to.

And adults too, I guess.

Of course, adult gamers are never going to play this without children; but I have played Take the Cake for hours with my daughter. One day, she will be too grown up to play it anymore, and we will relegate it to the "bye bye" box.

But we will always have those  happy times to remember.

Sunday 5 October 2014

Review - Warhammer Quest

Warhammer Quest

Warhammer Quest
Designed by Andy Jones and Gavin Thorpe
Published by Games Workshop
For 1-5 players (or 2-4 if you believe the box), aged 12 to adult

Warhammer Quest box
Glorious gaming goodness, or an outdated dinosaur?

Some out of production games demand a reprint.

Some games deserve to be repackaged, updated, and made available to the masses so people do not have to pay obscene prices on eBay.

Some games are so timeless and superb that they should always be in print, and the world seems incomplete without them.

Guess what...?

Warhammer Quest isn't one of them.

Now, don't get me wrong; I would buy a new edition of Warhammer Quest in a heartbeat. But that purchase is grounded firmly in nostalgia, because I was there in 1995, when Games Workshop launched the game on an unsuspecting market. I was there when that barbarian first took up his lantern and strode bravely (foolishly) into the dark depths of the mountains in search of fame, wealth, and (most likely) a horrible death involving pointy things.

I was that barbarian.

For several years, I had some of the most fun that I have ever had playing board games thanks to Warhammer Quest. Every weekend, my group of friends would come over, and we would explore dank mines, unearth fabulous riches, and slay foul fiends, for no other reason than "they were there."

Warhammer Quest contents
The box is chock-full of stuff.

But eventually, something happened.

I went to university.

One of the last things I did before I went was to sell every board game in my possession, including classics such as Heroquest, Space Crusade, Warhammer Quest, and Necromunda.

If I think about that too much, the world goes a bit dark and I need to have a sit down.

I sold the games because I thought going to university meant growing up, and growing up meant I wasn't supposed to play board games about dragons and goblins anymore.

And I needed money for beer.

Like that barbarian and his dwarven ally, descending into the darkness of the dungeon, I was lost.

And a little bit tipsy.

But by the time I had finished university, I had started to realise that selling all my games was a mistake (as was drinking all that beer), and now I know what it truly means to grow up. I have a wife, a child, and a mortgage. I write about goblins and dragons for a living. I play with LEGO. I make my daughter laugh by doing monkey impressions.

I am definitely an adult, but I have no intentions of ever growing up.

So, since the "wilderness years" of my youth, I have spent a long time trying to reacquire the games I gave away, and Warhammer Quest was always top of the list. However, the copy I now own was not one that I paid through the nose for on eBay. It is not one that I managed to find incomplete at a car boot sale.

It is a copy I was given.

By someone I don't actually know.

"Out of the blue," a user on BoardGameGeek contacted me and offered to give me a copy of Warhammer Quest. He wouldn't accept any money for it (not even for postage). He simply wanted to do something for a fan of the game.

It is genuinely one of the nicest things that anyone has done for me.

So, bearing that in mind, I feel a bit bad when I say, Warhammer Quest isn't really very good.

I mean, the game has stunning miniatures, dozens of quests, stacks of replayability... and I love it. But I know it isn't very good.

I'm not blind.

The fact that nobody I introduce it to seems to like it makes it obvious that my love is rose-tinted with nostalgia. And I'm okay with that.

Whether you are is another matter.

Warhammer Quest rules
Rules and Adventure booklets.

Warhammer Quest arrived at a time when Games Workshop was going through a garish phase. The artwork was bright and cartoonish, and lacked the dark style that made Advanced Heroquest such a compelling proposition. Furthermore, Games Workshop was just hitting its stride for making everything over the top: The massive wings on the dwarf helmets, the barbarians wielding two-handed swords and battleaxes simultaneously... The skulls.

So many skulls.

A lot of the ominous, dark, despairing overtones that were prevalent in the Warhammer world were nowhere to be seen, and instead there was this slightly watered down cartoon style that was at odds with the gritty theme. A bit like that Saturday Morning Watchmen parody.

But while the style may not have been to everyone's tastes, one thing is certain: Warhammer Quest was pretty good fun. It created a vivid world, populated with bizarre creatures and equally bizarre heroes. It created adventure.

Warhammer Quest heroes
Our intrepid heroes. Also known as "meat."

It also helped to crystalize certain gaming concepts that now seem commonplace, but which at the time were far from the norm.

For a start, the game was fully co-operative. This was not a tagged on co-operative experience like the one seen in Advanced Heroquest. This was actually how Warhammer Quest was designed straight out of the gate.

Playing without a dungeon master was completely feasible.

Dying horribly due to the ridiculous amounts of randomness was also completely feasible.

Games Workshop had created a game that presented a series of random events without the need for a dungeon master. It most certainly had not created a game with artificial intelligence. A brave party of adventurers could enter the first room of the first game and get smashed to pieces by three rampaging minotaurs, or the same party could wander empty hallways until accidentally stumbling on their objective without getting so much as a scratch. A random encounter could create a cave-in that brought the game to a premature end, or it could unearth a magical weapon so powerful those three minotaurs were nothing more than walking hamburgers.

The game was as wild, ridiculous, and unpredictable as the world in which it was set.

For someone who enjoys a heavy dose of theme in any game, that is absolutely perfect.

And absolutely frustrating.

Warhammer Quest cards
Random treasure, random events, random dungeon... Random.

Another thing that made the game stand out was the modular board, with individual room and corridor tiles linked with plastic doors. Modular boards were not unique to Warhammer Quest (again, Advanced Heroquest had got there first), but determining which tiles and monsters to place based on random card draws made it all seem fresh and exciting, while the doorways and visually appealing tiles made everything pop.

But what really made the game stand out was its generosity. The kind of generosity you wouldn't see from any company these days, let alone Games Workshop.

It shipped with over 90 incredibly varied miniatures, the doorways were huge chunky bits of plastic that clipped the lavishly illustrated tiles in place, and there were five different objective rooms, each with six different missions. Combining those different missions with the random dungeon generation system, and the random monster allocation, meant you could play Warhammer Quest every day of the week without ever seeing the same game twice.

Warhammer Quest snotling
Snotlings and spiders were always my favourite.

Furthermore, you could play it solo, or you could play it with up to three other friends as a co-operative game. Get bored of that? Then introduce a dungeon master player, and flip open the included roleplaying book: An epic tome almost 200 pages long, with rules for linking games into a campaign, visiting towns, and levelling up your characters. It even had complete rules for including every damn creature that Games Workshop ever made a miniature for... except fimirs...

I miss fimirs.

Warhammer Quest roleplaying book
The roleplaying book: a game within a game.

Back in the day, most of our time in the Warhammer world was spent Warhammer Quest roleplaying. I was the dungeon master, and I took my friends through a series of elaborate stories that I spent hours creating. I have never played a "proper" roleplaying game, but Warhammer Quest was just the right dash of roleplaying in a board game setting, and I embraced it totally. And even now I think this is probably the best way to play the game, because the purely co-operative game out of the box is so random it can get to the point of farce.

Right from the start, randomness is ingrained in everything you do. You roll a dice to determine how many wounds your character has, and the wizard rolls to see how many power tokens he gets, so you could get hosed before you even set foot in the dungeon.

Once the game is underway, each turn you start by rolling for the "winds of magic," which could make your wizard a super-powered monster-killing badass, or could result in your wizard's wand going droopy while a horde of monsters ambush you (yes, just at the point you need the magic the most). Then you move (thankfully there is no rolling involved), and whack any monsters that are loitering (more dice rolling). Next, the monsters get to whack back (even more dice rolling). Finally, heroes adjacent to unexplored doorways have the option of drawing a card from the dungeon deck to generate a new bit of the maze.

Warhammer Quest spells
Just a few of the spells your wizard will fail to cast.

Exploring is fun. Rooms start empty, but when the heroes step inside you draw a random encounter card. This usually results in the arrival of some monsters; however, sometimes you get an event instead. It is all very slick and fast-paced. It is also dice heavy, and almost completely devoid of real choices.

That's not to say there are no choices at all. You pick the monster you want to hit in a fight. You pick where you want to move. You pick when to explore. If you have special items you pick when you use them. And yes, as the game goes on, and you get more special abilities and more items, the choices become more interesting. But let's face it, this isn't Chess, and it doesn't pretend to be. This is fast-food gaming at its best.

It is also very much a product of its time. There aren't even any female characters.

Ultimately, the game is nothing more than a string of random encounters and dice rolls. You draw a card to place a room, draw a card to populate the room, roll on charts, roll to attack, roll to determine if you are ambushed, roll to determine how much magic power your wizard has for the turn. You roll, and you roll, and you roll.

And nine times out of ten, you get rolled.

But if your heroes beat the odds and survive for a few adventures, they start to power up. They get some good weapons, and they boost their statistics. Suddenly the dungeons seem less dark, the monsters less fierce. At that stage, you aren't exploring dungeons anymore, you are pillaging them. You have to start feeling bad for the monsters.

Warhammer Quest monsters
One of many monster charts.

The game flip-flops from one extreme to the other. Balance, after all, was never Games Workshop's primary goal. The aim here is to create stories; to generate wild campfire tales to entertain your friends while you chug mead. This is a game where the journey is more important than the destination, and where the excitement of a dice roll is more important than any deep strategic thinking.

This is a game where your elf is down to his last hit point. He is bleeding, desperate, alone... The wizard is already dead (the wizard is always dead), his fresh blood staining the flagstones in the flickering light of the fallen barbarian's guttering lantern flame. And the dwarf is in a heap of broken chainmail, tangled in his own beard.

The enraged minotaur lunges. The elf dances out of range. He notches his arrow. He draws aim.

He fires...

You roll the dice...

Warhammer Quest minotaurs
There may be trouble ahead.

It doesn't matter what the outcome is. You may snatch victory from the jaws of a minotaur, or the minotaur may be chewing on more than the cud tonight.

But it really doesn't matter. Because winning doesn't really matter.

All that matters is having fun, creating stories, laughing with friends, and rolling dice.

This is not a game about winning. This is a game about adventure.

This is THE game about adventure.

Sometimes those adventures are brutal, always they are random and chaotic; but only very rarely are they boring.

But if you can't get into that mind set, if you sit at the table looking for the tactics and strategies that just aren't there, you are going to be disappointed.

And if I'm totally honest, if I was sitting down today to play for the first time, I would be disappointed too.

Warhammer Quest in action
A staged game in progress.

But I don't want people to get the wrong idea. I love Warhammer Quest, and I would love to see a new edition hit the streets. I would throw money at my computer so fast the screen cracks. This is the dungeon crawler to which all other dungeon crawlers are compared, and with good cause. This game was groundbreaking in some ways. It was exciting. It gave you exactly what you would expect from a game of high adventure in a world of magic.

Warhammer Quest orc
He has a lovely smile.

I have never found a dungeon crawling game that fills me with such a sense of childlike wonder.

But do I really need a new edition?

Do I absolutely, positively need it?


No, I don't.

Blood Bowl, on the other hand, is an entirely different matter...