Wednesday 20 August 2014

Review - Trivial Pursuit DVD: The Lord of the Rings Trilogy Edition

Trivial Pursuit DVD: The Lord of the Rings Trilogy Edition

Trivial Pursuit DVD: The Lord of the Rings Trilogy Edition
Published by Parker Brothers
Designed by committee

For 2-4 victims, who are old enough to watch The Lord of the Rings movies

Trivial Pursuit DVD: The Lord of the Rings Trilogy Edition box
Look at Gandalf... He has just been asked a tough question, I reckon.

I love board games. You should know that by now.

But not all board games.

I am a huge fan of thematic games that draw you into a story: Those games that allow you to explore a world with a gradually evolving character, facing insurmountable odds, and triumphing in the face of evil. Give me a fantasy setting, a sword to swing, and a dragon to slay, and I am one happy camper.

My fondness for fantastic adventures probably stems from my love of The Lord of the Rings (the books and the movies, I don't discriminate), although I find it interesting that many games based on the works of Tolkien are a bit shit... But that's another story.

While thematic games, storytelling games, and deeply strategic games fill me with joy, other types of games fill me with dread. For example, I have a strong dislike for word games, which I find terminally dull.

However, what I really hate, are trivia games.

I find trivia games pointless. They introduce pawns, and dice, and boards, and a set of rules, and... Why? If you want to play a trivia game, ask people a bunch of questions. The winner is the person who answers the most questions correctly. You don't need all those other things. You don't need to roll dice and move around a board.

You don't need Trivial bloody Pursuit.

Ah yes, Trivial Pursuit. One of the worst trivia games ever made. Now, that is not a statement I make lightly. It is a statement backed up by countless Christmases gathering around with the family to waste hours of the most magical day of the year doing something mundane.

The game is just poorly designed.

First of all, you have to answer questions often, but only rarely is there any reason to.

You see (for those of you who live under a rock), the aim of Trivial Pursuit is to move around the board collecting "cheeses" or "pies" or whatever you want to call them. There are six different flavours of "cheese," each representing a different type of trivia, and you get the "cheeses" by landing on certain spaces on the board and correctly answering a question from the related category. However, there is only one space on the board for collecting each type of cheese. If you land on any other space on the board, you still get asked a question, but there is no chance of winning a "cheese."


Why make a game where most of the time you are answering questions for no reason?

Astute readers may also have noted a second major problem: Roll and move. To win those "cheeses" you have to land on the correct spaces, and you have to land by exact count. Most of the game is spent wandering backwards and forwards, desperately attempting to land on one of the spaces you need.

So yes, this makes the game go on forever, especially if, when someone finally lands on the correct space, they get the bloody question wrong.

Finally, Trivial Pursuit has the same major flaw that all trivia games have: The person who knows the most has a massive advantage, and is likely to steamroll the opposition. This is compounded in Trivial Pursuit, as correctly answering a question allows a player to roll and move again. Play against someone really good, and you could be waiting a long time between turns. (In fact, it is possible for a really good player to win the game in a single turn.)

It is safe to say, I hate Trivial Pursuit.

And this leads us to our interesting experiment for the day... What happens when you combine something I love (The Lord of the Rings) with something I hate (Trivial Pursuit).

The obvious answer is: Trivial Pursuit DVD: The Lord of the Rings Trilogy Edition.

Trivial Pursuit DVD: The Lord of the Rings Trilogy Edition board
It's Trivial Pursuit. What did you expect?

The even more obvious answer is: a bloody horrible mess.

This version of the "classic" family board game plays much the same as any other edition, except all of the questions are based on the characters and events from Tolkien's world (as seen in the movies by Peter Jackson), and the playing pieces are really rather lovely pawns depicting Gandalf, Frodo, Aragorn, and Galadriel.

Trivial Pursuit DVD: The Lord of the Rings Trilogy Edition pawns
The pieces are nicer than this photograph makes them look.

But does basing the game around The Lord of the Rings make it better?

Well, no...

And yes...

But, mainly no.

It is better for me. I know a lot about the subject matter, so I tend to get my questions right more often. Plus, there are two DVDs in the game that have clips from the movie, so occasionally you get to watch some of that.

But there's a problem. It is the problem all trivia games have, only for the first time ever I get to view that problem from the other side of the fence: The person who knows the most is going to win. In this case, that person is me.

Trivial Pursuit DVD: The Lord of the Rings Trilogy Edition cards
Over 2,400 questions! Kill me, already!

And the problem is compounded because the whole game is based on a single specialist subject. Sure, The Lord of the Rings is popular... but not in my gaming group.

My wife has watched the movies a few times, one of my friends has seen the movies once, and one of my friends has read the books. If I was to play against all three of them combined, I would still win, because there are no general knowledge questions to level the playing field.

And so, this game doesn't get played in my house.


To be honest, even if I did know enough people who were into the subject matter, it still wouldn't get played.

After all, it's still Trivial Pursuit.

Saturday 16 August 2014

Review - Cthulhu Gloom

Cthulhu Gloom

Cthulhu Gloom
Designed by Keith Baker
Published by Atlas Games

For 2-5 players, aged 13 to adult

Cthulhu Gloom box
Looks inviting...

Recently, I was in Swindon, which as we all know is a place that terraformers are expressly forbidden from recreating. I was in the lift (or the elevator, depending on where you come from) at the car park, with an elderly woman, and a couple of guys and a woman around my age. We were squashed uncomfortably into the lift with our bags, and that awkward silence descended. You know the kind of silence I mean. The kind that makes you want to break wind.

Anyway, we were all shuffling our feet, and trying not to make eye contact in case anyone thought we were weird. All very British.

Then the woman who was about my age chirped up with, "You ever get that awkward moment where you're in the lift and realise you can't remember what floor your car is on?"

One of the guys smiled, and said, "I was literally just thinking the same thing."

By the time the lift stopped on my floor, everyone was laughing and chatting. I left them to it, with a cheerful, "Good luck" as I headed for my car.

So, why am I telling you this?

Mainly because I don't have any interesting anecdotes to tell you. But also, it reminded me how much better life is when you reach out to the people around you; when you stop and speak to someone rather than casting your eyes down or pretending to check messages on your iPhone. In our lives, we spend so much time being insular, and shutting people out, and putting on a front, and pretending we know where our car is.

When you stop doing that, the world gets a little brighter.

And that is what I love about board games. I love getting people together to talk and interact; to laugh and have fun.

Recently, I found and fell in love with a game called Winter Tales. It is a storytelling game, and it creates the most wonderful setting for a group of friends to craft a fantastical adventure. However, it is a game where the story is more important than winning. That's great; but sometimes people want to laugh and have fun and WIN.

Cthulhu Gloom fits the bill perfectly.

Cthulhu Gloom rules
The rules could be nicer.

Cthulhu Gloom is the inevitable Lovecraftian retheme of the game Gloom. It is a simple card game with a fiendishly entertaining goal: Players have five family members under their control, and must make them as miserable as possible before killing them off. At the point any one family is wiped out, everyone adds up how miserable their dead family members are, and the person who generated the most misery wins.

It sounds macabre, and it is.

It sounds miserable, but it most certainly isn't.

The game is actually exceptionally simple. Players have a hand of events, modifiers, and untimely death cards, and on each turn players take two actions, which normally involves playing two of those cards. Modifiers are played directly over the top of family members, making them happier or sadder, and also giving them other characteristics called "story icons," which other cards key off. This unique method of applying modifiers to the characters is achieved through the use of transparent cards. As the cards are stacked, certain elements show through from the card below, while other elements are blocked out.

Cthulhu Gloom cards
The transparent cards are cool.

It sounds a bit gimmicky, and I suppose it is. But it also works beautifully.

Over the course of the game, characters may transform into monstrous apparitions, gain special abilities, become more miserable, die, come back from the dead...

It's just great.

But it is also, at the very heart of it, just a "screw you" card game with limited strategies. You usually play bad cards (er, good cards, I mean) on other players, and good cards (I mean, bad cards) on yourself. You try to mutate your characters so they have the correct combinations of "story icons" to trigger events, make them unhappy, and then kill them, while trying to ensure your opponents stay happy and very much alive.

What really lifts the game, giving it the boost it needs to become truly entertaining, is the optional storytelling rule. Every card has a title, and maybe a funny piece of flavour text and a picture, but ultimately, each one is a blank canvas. A blank canvas for the players to fill with their own brand of storytelling.

For example, one of the untimely death cards is titled, "Will never stop screaming." But why? What does it mean? What did the unfortunate victim see?

Was it Swindon?

The rules encourage players to create a backstory for every card they play, to flesh out these tales of woe. And that, for me, makes this game an absolute joy.

At its core, it is a simple card game with a very basic rules set, but like the layers you make with the transparent cards, it is possible to layer the basic game with a layer of storytelling that really brings the game to life... er...death. Whatever.

Cthulhu Gloom card in play
Old Whateley didn't enjoy crawling through catacombs.

Now, there are some down sides. Isn't there always?

First of all, the deck of cards is relatively small. In one game, you will probably see most of the modifiers and untimely deaths. Some variance is added by the random addition of two story cards for players to fight over, but there are only five of those. After a couple of games, you have seen everything the game has to offer, and that does hamper the storytelling aspect slightly. Basically, if players get this to the table often, then they are going to start regurgitating the same old stories as they see the same old cards time and time again.

It is also worth noting that storytelling games are not for everyone. Some people are too shy, and some people are not very good at making things up on the fly. If you have a gaming group like that, you can still play Cthulhu Gloom, but you are missing out on one of the best aspects, and you may find the game a little too light and repetitive to have staying power. I really wouldn't recommend the game to groups who do not intend to embrace the storytelling concept.

Finally, and it has to be mentioned... Cthulhu.

H P Lovecraft is one of my favourite authors, and his writing has had a huge influence on me; but even I begin to tire of all the Lovecraftian board games on the market. It is almost as tiresome as the number of zombie games. Furthermore, for people who do not know the works of Lovecraft, many of the jokes and characters in the game are going to go right over their heads. For those people, I would recommend good old regular Gloom instead, which has the same macabre vibe, but without the Cthulhu theme.

And that's it really. I don't have anything else negative to say about the game. The plastic, transparent cards shuffle well, and work perfectly; the art is excellent; the jokes are genuinely funny; and the game is solid without the storytelling, and truly joyous with the storytelling.

Cthulhu Gloom family members
The Whateley family are a fun bunch.

It may be a game about making people miserable, yet it has the potential to create such mirth. But it is important to do it with the right group of people. Which is a good rule of thumb for riding on the lifts in Swindon too.

Friday 1 August 2014

Review - Early Words

Early Words

Early Words
Designed by M. Twinn
Published by Child's Play
For 2-10 players, aged 6 to adult

I have a tendency to bang on a bit. You may have noticed.

Some people say I just like the sound of my own keyboard; but it's more than that.

I love to tell stories.

I love to express opinions, and open dialogues with other people with similar interests.

But I don't love word games.

Scrabble, Boggle, Get A Letter, Unspeakable Words, Upwords... The list of word games I have owned or played is depressingly long.

People assume that I like them because of what I do; but I like them about as much as I imagine a builder likes bricks.

Bricks aren't particularly interesting. What is interesting is seeing how those bricks are combined to create something beautiful, like a house.

So no, word games are not for me. And Early Words has done absolutely nothing to change my opinion.

Early Words box
Stop thief!

The game is incredibly simple. In turns, each player flips over the top card from a deck. Each card contains a letter, with some cards representing multiple letters (for example, the "q" doubles up as a "b"). When a player is able to make a word with the revealed cards, he or she takes the letters and lays them out on the table. The first player to make a certain number of words (based on the number of players) wins.

The wrinkle in the rules that makes things slightly more interesting is the ability to steal words from other players. If you realise you have letters that you can add to an existing word another player made, you can take that word for yourself, and add the extra letters to make the new word. The only rule here is that you must make a new word, rather than making a word that has the same root as the original (no pluralising of singulars allowed).

A "legal" steal might be adding "ten" to the end of "kit" to make "kitten;" or adding the letters "c," "e," and "t," and then rearranging all of the letters to spell "ticket."

The interesting thing about this is that it encourages players to make longer, more complex words. Players who quickly grab the first three-letter words they see tend to have those words stolen away, while players who create longer words usually still have control over those words at the end of the game.

Of course, every time a player steals a word it gets longer, making it harder for anyone else to steal it.

Early Words rules
Rules in the box lid.

The problems with the game should be obvious. As with most word games, the winner is going to be the person with the best vocabulary. There is no skill involved, and the only luck comes from turning over a card each turn, so it is not easy to level the playing field, and younger players are going to have a hard time against older players. This is made even worse because of the stealing mechanism. At least in other word games weaker players get to nab some points by using smaller, easier words. Here, trying to go for small words is actively discouraged as it is just gifting your opponent with the chance to steal from you.

Furthermore, turns often take a long time, particularly towards the end of the game when there are lots of words on the table and everyone is looking for ways to steal them. Word games are generally quite tedious, and Early Words really starts to drag in the final stages.

Early Words cards
I can't make a word with these blasted letters!

Okay, it has good educational value, as with any other word game; but that alone does not make it worth playing. And the bland cards, completely devoid of artwork, are hardly going to inspire the imagination.

And that's all I have to say about that.