Wednesday 28 January 2015

Review - Cover-Up (aka Hepta)


Designed by Alex Randolph
Published by Ideal
For 1 or 2 players, aged 6 to adult

Cover-Up Game
My charity shop copy, complete with free stains.

Life is full of little embarrassments. At least, my life is.

And that's not a euphemism.

I manage to embarrass myself with such unnerving regularity, if I thought about it too much I would never leave the house.

And I'm not talking about major faux-pas here.

I mean the little stuff.

Like being a writer, but still having to double-check if the plural form of "faux pas" is actually "faux pas."

Like getting into a taxi and forgetting your house number at the exact moment the driver asks where you want to go.

Like finding an old picture of you when you looked slightly different. *

But recently I was subjected to one of the most humiliating things ever: getting beaten in a two-player abstract game by my four-year-old daughter.

And I don't mean I threw the match to make her feel good.

I mean I lost.

I lost in a "best of five" contest.

So, I actually lost three times.

Three times.

All joking aside, I am actually very proud of my daughter for genuinely beating her old man. It's nice to see her developing as a games player, and as a little person in general. And, you know, I'm getting used to embarrassment.

But seriously...


The game in question is Cover-Up, a curious little game that my wife found for me in a charity shop, and which I honestly expected to be a bit shit.

Turns out, I was actually wrong.

So, what does Cover-Up bring to the table, other than a name that sounds like something Mary Whitehouse would shout at a Page 3 girl?

Let me explain...

Also known as Hepta, this is a tight little two-player game that involves tile laying and spatial awareness. The board is moulded plastic, and features a pattern of raised dots in different colours that looks like something Damien Hirst might make. There are exactly seven dots of each colour, in what at first appears to be a random configuration.

Cover-Up Board
It's a work of art.

One player gets seven straight tiles, and the other player gets seven "L" shaped tiles. All of the tiles cover exactly three dots.

Now, here's the science bit:

One player picks a colour. For the duration of the game, neither player is allowed to place a tile so that it would cover up a dot of that colour. Players then take it in turns to place a tile. The first person who cannot legally place a tile (i.e., me) loses the game.

It is really that simple.

In fact, it is so simple, the "advanced rules" for the game are, "play the best of five games."

Not even kidding.

Cover-Up Rules
Rules in the box lid. That's old school.

But, in an age when games are increasingly complicated, it is refreshing to play something you can explain to a four-year-old in under a minute, but which still actually quite good fun, and even a little bit "thinky."

I taught the game to my daughter by letting her choose a tile shape, then letting her choose a colour. Then I told her we had to take turns placing tiles, without covering up her chosen colour. And that was all it took.

She now requests to play the game daily, and considering a single match lasts no more than five minutes, it is easy to play "best of five" no matter how busy your day is.

Cover-Up game in progress
I'm already losing.

As a little bonus, the game also has a solo variant. The aim is to select one colour, and then place every single tile on the board so that only the seven dots of that colour are showing.

No. I haven't managed to do it.

Yes. I suspect my daughter could.

Little show off.

So, what have we learned today?

We've learned that it is possible to find good stuff in charity shops sometimes; we've learned that I embarrass myself more than seems humanly feasible; and we've learned my daughter is cleverer than me.

Oh yeah, and we've learned that Cover-Up is an okay game. It is quick, simple, and suitable for all ages. Certainly worth a look, but not something that is ever going to be considered a real "gem" in a games collection. The only major downside is that it is a colour-based game, and that means people who are colour blind are going to have a hard time of it.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I have to go to arm wrestle my daughter.

* And like putting an asterisk next to jokes you have stolen from Reeves and Mortimer, just in case someone notices that you stole them.

Sunday 11 January 2015

Review - The Weather Game

The Weather Game

The Weather Game
Published by Waddingtons
"Devised" by Wincey Willis
For 2-4 players, aged 6 to adult

The Weather Game box
Check out Wincey on the cover. She looks pleased with herself.

Old people say some funny things.

And by funny, I don't mean "ha ha" funny. I mean "slowly back out of the room without breaking eye contact" funny.

Sometimes they say things that are blatantly obvious, such as, "I'm not as young as I used to be."

Sometimes they say things that suggests some kind of ownership over things that were clearly never theirs, such as, "In my day..."

And sometimes, they say positive things while implying a negative connotation, such as, "They don't make 'em like they used to."

"They don't make 'em like they used to," is clearly intended to suggest things were better in "the good old days" (a sepia-toned period in time so steeped in nostalgia that even the bone-aching winters, outside toilets, and lack of television are remembered as being joyous). Of course, not making things "like they used to" is actually a really good thing. After all, if they were, we'd all still be living in caves staring slack-jawed at a stick while wondering why it is so bloody cold.

Worse still, they might still be making board games like The Weather Game, devised by Wincey Willis.

Now, I'm not exactly old (although I'm not as young as I used to be), but I do vaguely remember Wincey. She rose to prominence in the 1980s as a weather presenter, cheerily lying to the Great British public by sticking little suns on a map of the UK and proclaiming this would lead to the now-mythical "dry spells."

What I never knew is that Wincey also dabbled in board game design, and is credited with "devising" The Weather Game, which my wife found in a charity shop for the princely sum of 99p.

As far as I know, this was Wincey's only foray into the hobby, and that's something we can all be thankful for, because if this game was a map of the UK, there would be a lot of black clouds stuck all over it.

Here, let me explain:

The board is divided into four sections, which are further divided into six spaces, and each player is allocated one section. Each player also gets a unique forecast card, showing six types of weather. The aim is for a player to fill all six spaces in his or her section with pairs of cards matching the icons on the forecast card.

The Weather Game board
It's a small world after all.

This Herculean task is achieved through the age-old mechanism of the memory game.

There is a set of blue-backed cards, and a set of pink-backed cards. On your turn, you flip one card of each type. If you get a match, and the match is also on your forecast card, you can take both cards and drop them onto your board space. If you fail to make a match, you turn the cards face down again, and play proceeds to the next player.

The Weather Game cards
You have to match one of these coloured cards...

The Weather Game cards
...with one of these black and white cards.

That's basically it. It's Memory. Only, it's an agonisingly long version of Memory that requires you not only find matching pairs, but also find the correct matching pairs that appear on your forecast card.

I don't have a problem with Memory, I play it with my daughter quite often; but it's a filler game. It's nice and quick, and you can play it a few times and then do something else before the players start to grind their teeth in boredom and frustration. But in The Weather Game, even finding pairs isn't good enough. It makes the game drag on longer than it has any right to.

This issue is compounded by "Windy" cards. Every player is allocated two "Windy" cards, and a player has to have used both before he or she is allowed to win the game.

Playing a "Windy" card involves spinning a spinner, and then removing any cards from the board section indicated on the spinner. These cards are returned to their respective card sets, and then all the cards are shuffled.

The Weather Game spinner
The spinner of doom. Fear it.

Think about that for a minute...

Go on, I'll wait...

Let's go through the issues with this game mechanism together:

You have to play the "Windy" cards in order to win. So, right there you are forcing players to use a mechanism to extend the length of the game. But it isn't like the cards are a catch-up mechanism. You have just as much chance of knocking out some of your own cards, and because you then shuffle all the face down cards, you are effectively resetting the game. There is nothing more frustrating than finally learning where a pair of cards is that you need, only for someone to then shuffle all the cards so you have to start again.

The chance of removing your own cards, and the annoyance of shuffling all the face down cards, means wise people will use their "Windy" cards in the first turn (there is nothing in the rules to stop you doing this). Playing the cards immediately prevents the risk of losing your own cards, and dramatically shortens the length of the game.

Even wiser people will simply not use the "Windy" cards at all.

The wisest people of all will simply not play.

I honestly don't have anything positive to say about this game. The graphics are ugly, the gameplay is bland and monotonous, it goes on too long, and the "Windy" cards mechanism is deeply flawed. Even the theme is a dud. Children aren't going to get excited about turning up pictures of clouds when they could be playing a themed version of Memory with Marvel superheroes, Disney princesses, or popular television characters.

The Weather Game forecast cards
The forecast looks bleak.

Maybe I am getting too old and grumpy. Or maybe I am not old enough to sink into the honey-dipped nostalgia this game exudes. Either way, t's true what they say: they don't make them like they used to.

That's something we can all be grateful for.

Monday 5 January 2015

Review - Dark Darker Darkest - Radioactive Expansion

Dark Darker Darkest Expansion

Dark Darker Darkest - Radioactive Expansion
Designed by David Ausloos
Published by Queen Games
For 2 - 5 players, aged 12 to adult

In a side street in Swindon town centre, there's a little Polish cake shop. It is, perhaps, one of the most incredible shops in the world, filled with the most amazing traditional Polish desserts, pastries, and pies.

It's a bit like Willy Wonka's chocolate factory.

Without the Oompa Loompas.

Or the singing.

Or the decapitated chicken.

The only problem is, visiting this cake shop makes me feel a little bit racist, and a lot ignorant. I can't even pronounce the name of the place, for goodness sake.

Whenever I go into the shop, I spend a little while staring, slightly slack-jawed, at the counter of desserts. Everything looks amazing. Everything looks like something you want to climb inside just so you can eat your way back out.

And nothing is labelled.

If it was labelled, I probably wouldn't know what the labels meant.

And I'm British, which means I am not only ignorant, I am also proud. The last thing I want is for someone to think I don't know what I'm doing. As a result, every cake selection I have ever made in the shop is based entirely on aesthetic quality.

Eventually, one of the lovely staff members asks what I want. I can't tell her, because I don't know what anything is. If I did know, I would probably horribly mangle the pronunciation, causing no end of embarrassment and insult.

But I'm British, and therefore as well as being a bit ignorant, and a bit proud, I do my best to be incredibly polite. I sort of smile and point and try my best to indicate what I want. The staff member does her best to understand, and I invariably end up with something which isn't exactly what I wanted.

But of course, I'm British. And I don't want to cause any offence by suggesting she picked up the wrong cake based on my ignorant mumbling and pointing. So I smile politely, and I leave the shop with my bright green jam-filled cake which is not really what I wanted because I'm not fond of jam and everyone knows red tastes better.

But why am I talking about cakes?

Because I'm hungry, of course.

But also because I wanted to explain that in my day-to-day life, I really don't like to upset anyone, or cause a fuss, or accidentally (let alone purposefully) upset people. This may come as a shock to anyone who has read some of my more vehement reviews (Destination London ended up in my toilet, after all), but it's true. I don't like bringing negativity into people's lives, especially people I like, or who generally do good work (like the people at the Polish cake store).

And that is why it is with heavy heart that I am writing a negative review of the Dark Darker Darkest Radioactive Expansion.

Dark Darker Darkest rules
The rules... Which may or may not be in your language.

If you read my review of the base game for Dark Darker Darkest, you will already know I am a huge fan. I love the game, and even assisted in working on a second edition of the rules to improve readability. I think David Ausloos has crafted one of the finest zombie games out there, and pushed the envelope with some of the design choices.

Not everything is perfect. It is a little clunky. The miniatures aren't great. The iconography is not as clear as I would like. The name is awful. But the stories...

I am a real sucker for a heavily thematic game that tells a good story. Playing Dark Darker Darkest is pulse-racing fun from start to end, and you are always left with something to talk about. Normally, that something is how the game ripped you up and chewed on your entrails.

Which is my issue with the Radioactive Expansion. It takes a game that is already so hard it made Chuck Norris cry, and it turns the dial up to 11. This is an expansion that pushes the game from hard to so close to impossible that impossible had to take a paternity test.

This is an expansion that you should only consider using if you think parachutes are for wimps.

Now before you start shouting at me to "man up," let me break it down for you, then you can decide for yourself if I'm being a whining chicken.

First of all, like the game itself, the expansion looks stunning. The artwork is incredible and deeply atmospheric, and really helps to create a kind of gritty, urban survival horror realism that is lacking from the more comical design of games like Zombicide.

The expansion is housed in a small box which is the same sickly green shade as my Polish cake, and comprises red hero figures, red zombie figures, red creature figures, and red nemeses figures. These are of the same quality as the pieces in the base game, and are used to indicate when characters in the game become irradiated. Of course, cardboard tokens to mark the original figures would have worked just as well, but I am not going to complain about getting more plastic.

Dark Darker Darkest red zombies
Red zombies.

The only other components are a deck of equipment cards containing items for combating radiation, a reactor room tile, and some tokens for tracking the spread of the radiation.

Dark Darker Darkest expansion tokens
Cardboard death.

While all the graphics are great, and the miniatures are serviceable, there are tell-tale signs of the rushed, half-arsed way Queen Games handled this game. For example, the French language rules suddenly transition into English on the last page.

However, for all that, the package is solid, if not overwhelming. What is far more exciting, is the potential this expansion brings: the opportunities to create even more cinematic adventures with your friends.

The premise is that you add a reactor room to the game, which leaks radiation. Over the course of the game, radiation spreads through the house, mutating zombies and creatures to make them stronger, while weakening the player characters. It is a really exciting idea, and works well with the theme of the game.

You have to admit, the thought of regular zombies suddenly mutating into stronger, faster monsters is pretty neat.

However, the problem is that there is nothing to offset the added difficulty. Zombies get tougher. Creatures get tougher. Players get radiation sickness and start to lose energy every turn. As the game progresses, the radiation spreads further, and any irradiated playing pieces can pass on the radiation to any other pieces they come in contact with, which means the radiation rapidly gets out of  control.

The expansion just piles on the hurt.

Dark Darker Darkest red creatures
Gorilla is auditioning for a coke commercial.

Now, I know what you're thinking: There must be some way to fight the radiation. Right?

Well, yeah. You can close the reactor down.

It's easy really. All you have to do is use action points to access a terminal, discard two of your hard-won code chips (each of which must have three codes on it), enter the reactor room (taking radiation checks as normal), then spend another three action points to shut down the reactor.

See the problem?

It is so bloody difficult to shut the reactor down, if you focus on trying to do it, you will almost certainly run out of time before you get a chance to actually win the game.

Besides, shutting down the reactor does not remove radiation that already exists in the house, and as creatures that are already irradiated spread the radiation anyway, shutting down the reactor is almost pointless, as you are still going to be facing a lot of mutated monsters, and still potentially losing health to radiation sickness.

Sure, the expansion includes some new equipment to help, such as radiation pills and hazmat suits; but this is just another disguised kick in the balls, because every new equipment card has a single black code lock icon. If you kit up with radiation suits and pills, you will not have any of the colour combinations you need to unlock any bloody doors.

Dark Darker Darkest radiation pills
Remember kids, never eat radiation warning signs.

So... No.

No. No. No.

It pains me to say it, but I cannot recommend this expansion at all.

Dark Darker Darkest is a finely crafted game that I highly recommend, but it is tough to beat. It is a fun challenge. It is frustrating, and you can get hosed by bad luck; but it can be beaten. Adding the radiation rules is a game changer, and not in a good way.

If you really, really have the urge to make your life as difficult as possible, this expansion is a safer alternative to skydiving without a parachute. But it's not for me.

I like my expansions to add new challenges, and new ways to overcome those challenges.

I like to have my cake and eat it too.

Even when it's green.