Mid-Break Gaming Update

We’re sitting under a foot of snow out here in South Jersey, which of course means one thing: lots of game time! There was some new stuff under the tree, and we broke out some old favorites as well. Here are some quick takes on some new items. (Several of these will get more thorough coverage later on.)

This is a shape-making game from ThinkFun, in which everyone gets a pile of colored, interlocking triangular pieces. The goal is to places the pieces in order to make one of four scoring shapes. It’s a neat idea, but thus far I’ve only played it with two people, and it seems like a game that will work much better with 3 or 4.

Space Hulk: Death Angel
My son is the Games Workshop gamer in the house. I can take it or leave it, and based on the huge expense of the hobby, I usually choose to leave it. Death Angel is much cheaper, card-based version of Space Hulk, the famous squad-based bug hunt game played with miniatures. (Space Hulk was even made into a halfway decent PC game back in the 90s.) The card game is burdened by disorganized rules, which make a fairly simple exploration/combat mechanic read like a Chilton guide to disassembling a Ferrari Testarossa. Once you digest it all, however, it’s an interesting game with a pretty high body count. You control two men who are part of a co-op team fighting constantly-spawning aliens. Everyone picks one of three action types (basically: move, fight, or support) and then resolves them in order. Then the bugs get a chance to fight back. It’s a decent enough game, but it could have been explained much more clearly.

Black Sheep
I found this old Reiner Knizia game at our local Borders (which was going out of business), and gave it to my daughter for Christmas. Players basically bid on fields of animals using poker hands. The little plastic animals in the field act like the flop in a hand of Texas Holdem: everyone combines them with cards to make a “hand,” ranging from five of a kind, down through full house, pairs, and so on. The winner gets the little animals and scores their point values, but you have to watch out for the black sheep: they’re worth negative points. I was expecting this one to be a lot lighter than it was. It actually requires a bit of strategy and takes some time to play a full game. We liked it, however, and we’re looking forward to another round.

Small World

A game of Small World during our post-Christmas blizzard.

Since I picked up two Small World expansions–Cursed and Grand Dames–we had to give them a test drive. The White Ladies of Grand Dames are a bit hard to figure: so few units (only 2) with such a minimal racial bonus. The Kobolds are a good race for swarming, and the “white tower” ability of the Priestesses makes them pretty appealing. We were most surprised to discover that the “Peace-Loving” power (3 victory points for not attacking during a turn) is actually incredibly useful for a starting race, since it’s not unusual to go a few turns in the beginning without attacking someone. Overall, these are a decent pair of expansions, although not quite as impressive as Necromancer’s Isle and Be Not Afraid.


Chess Cafe’s Club Combo

I picked up a new tournament chess set from ChessCafe: vinyl mat, triple-weight club-style pieces, and a durable carrying case. It’s really quite nice, and only cost $20 after discounts. My daughter (the nine-year-old who regularly beats me at Cribbage) slapped me down on our second game. She takes these things seriously.

GoldenEye (Wii)
I haven’t touched the single-player portion, but the multiplayer is great. You can play as dozens of characters from the entire Bond series, some with special powers. Our favorite is Oddjob with his killer bowler hat, but there’s a lot to love here. I’m looking forward to digging in deeper.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part I (Xbox 360)
I’ve only logged half and hour so far, and it is not impressing me. Repetitive rail-shooting sequences, pointless stealth missions, and a cover shooter all smashed together. My kids assure me that it gets better, but I have my doubts.

Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood (Xbox 360)
It’s not new for Christmas, but I’m still logging a lot of time on it. I’ve upgraded all of Rome and I’m swimming in money, my assassins are all maxed out, and I’ve looted every piece of treasure I can find.

Christmas Blessings

I wanted to wish all of you the blessings of a most happy Christmas, and thank you for spending some of your time here over the past six months. May the day find you, your families, and loved ones happy, healthy, and joyous.

And from my family to yours, a happy ABCDEFGHIJKMNOPQRSTUVWXYZ.

And Joseph also went up from Galilee, from the city of Nazareth, to Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and lineage of David, to be enrolled with Mary, his betrothed, who was with child. And while they were there, the time came for her to be delivered. And she gave birth to her first-born son and wrapped him in swaddling cloths, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.

Botticelli’s Mystical Nativity

And in that region there were shepherds out in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night.

And an angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were filled with fear. And the angel said to them, “Be not afraid; for behold, I bring you good news of a great joy which will come to all the people; for to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. And this will be a sign for you: you will find a babe wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger.” And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among men with whom he is pleased!”

The Gospel of Luke

PS: I must have read and heard this passage hundreds of times, and I still expect it to be followed by “That’s what Christmas is all about Charlie Brown.”

Humble Indie Bundle: iOS Version

A group of iOS developers has banded together to offer the Indie iPhone Holiday Sale through the end of December. Six titles are now marked down to $1 each, with 1/3rd of the revenue going to the Child’s Play charity. The 6 titles are Osmos, Canabalt, Spider: Secret of Bryce Manor, Eliss, Drop7, and Solipskier.  I don’t ever remember seeing Canabalt on sale, so this is a good deal.

This isn’t a “bundle.” You still have to buy each separately.

And, yes, posting has been light of late. Christmas perpetrations + another cold = low blogging output. It will probably continue to be pretty light until after New Year’s Day, but I’m still planning to pop in now and then if something interesting comes across my radar.

App O’ The Mornin’: Scarlet and the Spark of Life Review

Grade: B
Price: $3

Games like Scarlet and the Spark of Life are a perfect fit for the mobile devices, but developers are still searching for the best way to make them work.

Scarlet plays out like a single mission from a larger adventure game. In fact, I feel like I played this exact same sequence in a King’s Quest game years ago. That’s not a knock: it’s been kind of refreshing to find good old fashioned adventure gaming making a bit of a comeback in recent years.

Scarlet has everything you remember from the old adventure games: long dialog sequences, a few locations that are traversed endlessly, objects to collect and use, puzzles to solve, and a bit of a story to tell. The dialog is the usual mixture of witty banter and lame jokes, but it’s fairly well done for the genre and doesn’t drag on too long. The puzzles are almost all object-based, and since you only have a few locations, you don’t ever have too many objects to try out. Even so, one puzzle takes a bit of time to figure out: not because it’s difficult, but because it’s illogical. (Hint: use the bird’s nest on the rocks.)

This is the only challenge that’s a problem, however, and the rest are a fairly pleasing collection of object use, dialog, and single-screen puzzles. None of it will slow down an experienced gamer for more than an hour, and this is is where Scarlet runs into some trouble. Since this is subtitled “Scarlet Adventures: Episode 1,” this first game is clearly intended as a sliver of a larger game. That’s wonderful: I love that kind format, and would like to see more people implementing episodic gaming, with new chapters ever month or even every week.

A $3 price tag, however, is not going to work for this kind of format. I rarely balk at prices, since $3 is still plenty cheap for a decent game. But Scarlet needs to either be a little less expensive or offer a bit more gameplay for this to work, particularly if Launching Pad Games intends to release these on a regular schedule.

There are some illogical bits in the design, such as boxes of wool that don’t quite work correctly and a bit too much back-and-forthing, but these are innocuous annoyances. Visually, the game is quite strong, with bright colors and whimsical designs.

Scarlet is a good 1 hour adventure game for fans of the genre, but it’s a probably a better bet for tweens and pre-tweens. It’s a good start to a series: it just needs to be longer or cheaper.

Estonia Buys 500 Copies of Agricola

Yes, really. And at full retail price, rather than from an internet site where they could have saved a few thousand Euros.

The idea was cooked up by the Estonian Ministry of Agriculture, probably after a wild night of beer pong and herring burgers, in order to “promote farming and countryside life among the youth.”

Agricola is a Eurogame in which players expand and improve their farms.

Says the Ministry’s PR rep: “One of our biggest tasks is to promote country life and farming, especially among youth. We plan to hand out the board games and organize tournaments. It’s a marketing tool.”

I’m sure this means I’m hopelessly provincial, but whenever I read “Estonia” I think “Elbonia,” and now I’m imagining people up to their elbows in mud while playing a Minor Improvement.

Cosmic Encounter: Cosmic Conflict

 And while we’re on the subject of Cosmic Encounter, there is a new expansion set due … sometime. I didn’t draw a Prophet power card, so I’m not sure when, but probably “some time in 2011.”

The set is called Cosmic Conflict, and here’s the official line:

In Cosmic Conflict, 20 new alien races explode onto the galaxy. Players will now shudder at the insidious kindness of the Empath, blink in confusion at the antics of the Lunatic, and howl in outrage as their planets are stolen away by the Claw.

Cosmic Conflict also makes the Cosmos even bigger, adding another player (and attractive black components) to the game. Cosmic Quakes will shake things up, ensuring that no player’s hand is truly safe. And as if that wasn’t enough, Cosmic Conflict introduces a new variant to the game – the hazard deck, which confronts the players with dangerous and amusing events that can crop up at any time.

Hazards are special game-altering conditions that bring exciting effects to your Cosmic Encounter experience. Special destiny cards, drawn during the destiny phase, display a “hazard warning” in the upper left corner; this indicates that a hazard card should be drawn.

Consisting of two types (temporary and permanent), these cards have a variety of wild effects. The Energy Fields hazard card, for example, lets each main player draw two free cards… but they must show them to the group first. And the optional “Extremely Hazardous Variant” will take you on a wild ride; it brings a new hazard card into play every turn!

VARIANTS: Powers Monopoly

Powers Monopoly is a variant that uses any basic Monopoly set and rules, but adds special rules to mimic the “powers” concepts of Cosmic Encounter.

The rules for Powers Monopoly were floating around the internet for a while, but seem to have disappeared. My copy of the rules credits Scott Weiss and Rick Rubenstein, but if that’s an error please correct me. I think the only other place hosting it is Game Central Station.

All of the rules are the same as in regular Monopoly with the following exceptions:

1. Each player is given two powers assigned at random from the list below. Write each on an index card, or simply print the list and cut them into individual slips of paper, one per power. Then and have each player draw two from the pile. The powers give players unique abilities that allow them to subvert the normal rules in some way. Some powers require a marker to denote when they can be used (for example, once per trip around the board.) Use whatever you have handy.

2. A player may not use his powers while in Jail.

3. When a player lands on Free Parking, he or she receives a Zap (use whatever markers are convenient; just make sure they’re different from power-specific markers.) The Zap may be played on any player attempting to use a power, thereby cancelling the power’s effect. The Zapped player may not attempt to reuse any of his or her powers until the next player’s turn.

As an optional rule, you can allow players to trade powers as part of a deal.

You can find the individual powers after the jump.

ABOUT FACE: You have the power of direction.
Once per trip around the board, after you roll, you may choose to move backward instead of forward. You cannot move back across GO.

AMOEBA: You have the power to ooze.
Just before the start of your turn, you may shift all the buildings you own, relocating them to any properties of any complete (buildable) monopolies you own. Unless you are a CENTRALIZER, your oozing must still follow the “build evenly” rule.

ANOMALY: You have the power of randomness.
Once per trip around the board, you may cancel any one random event – either the last roll of the dice, or the last draw from Chance or Community Chest. The affected player (who could be you) must redo the event (i.e., reroll or redraw.)

ARCHITECT: You have the power to develop.
You may build on a color group if you have only two properties in that monopoly with a limit of two houses per property. You must still build as evenly as possible. If you gain the third property, you may build up to hotels as normally, but you must first build up the new one to match the other two. (Note: The last two sentences do not apply to the CENTRALIZER.)

BULLY: You have the power to coerce.
Whenever you land on the same monopoly as another player, you may force that player to either give you one of his or her unbuilt properties or pay you $300 (his or her choice.) If more than one other player is on that monopoly, you may bully all of them.

BUTLER: You have the power to serve.
You perform all menial game-related tasks (Banker, revealing cards, placing or removing buildings, handing out Zap cards, etc.) As a reward, you may take up to $20 of any amount paid between the bank and any other player.

CENTRALIZER: You have the power to unbalance.
You need not build monopolies evenly.

CHANGELING: You have the power to shapeshift.
After paying rent, swap this power for one of the owning player’s powers of your choice.

CLONE: You have the power of homogeneity.
Except for the number of houses, all buildable properties you own look the same. Hence, if someone lands on a property you own, you may charge the player as if he or she landed on any other property you own with the same number/type of buildings on it. (For example, if someone lands on your property with two houses on it, you may charge them the rent for any other property you own with two houses on it.)

DEALER: You have the power over cards.
Anytime anyone else draws from Chance or Community Chest, you may cancel their first flip and make them draw again. When you draw a card, draw the top two and choose the one you want to occur. Both are discarded.

DEPOSITOR: You have the power of gain.
Any time any other player pays money to the Bank other than for the purchase of properties or buildings, you get half (rounded down). If you must pay such money, you need only pay half (rounded down).

DEUCE: You have the power of two.
After completing your turn, you may take another one. You may make trades or purchase buildings between your turns, but no one else can.

GAMBLER: You have the power to bluff.
When you roll the dice, you may do so secretly. Announce your total and if you rolled doubles to the group, lying if you want. If no one challenges you, move your token as if you actually rolled as you claimed. If one or more people challenge you, reveal the dice. If you were telling the truth, each challenger must pay you $500. If you lied, pay them $500 as a group; they then divide it equally amongst themselves. (You must be Zapped before you roll.) If you are challenged, move based on the correct roll of the dice.

GRIEF: You have the power of pity.
Whenever you involuntarily pay money to the Bank or another player, select one other player (except for the one who received the money from you) to pay the same amount of money to the Bank. Not recommended in a 2 or 3 player game.

HOMEMAKER: You have the power to horde buildings.
At the start of the game, collect half the houses and hotels. VVhenever anyone else buys a house or hotel, they may buy it from the Bank as normal or from you at a 100% increase. You may buy houses and hotels from either your horde or the Bank as normal. Any sold houses or hotels go to your horde. Horde buildings can be auctioned as normal; the 100% increase applies to the final auction price (if you don’t win it).

INSECT: You have the power to copy.
As soon as you pass Go, choose any power held by another player. Until you pass Go again, you may also use that power. You may not copy the same power twice in a row.

LAND GRABBER: You have the power to usurp.
If you land on an unbuilt owned property, you may buy it off of the owning player for twice the on-board purchase price.

LASER: You have the power to blind.
When any other player purchases a property, you may make him or her do so at random. First he or she pays the on-board purchase price of the property he landed on. Next you take all available properties, and mix them up. He or she draws one at random. In an auction, if you don’t win it, mix up all available properties, and give one to the winning player at random.

LIQUIFIER: You have the power of liquid assets.
When unmortgaging properties, you pay no interest. When selling buildings, you receive the full purchase price (not half).

LLOYD: You have the power to insure.
Before any other player rolls the dice, you may offer to insure their properties or buildings for fees that you specify. If the player accepts, he or she pays you your fee immediately. If forced to pay rent on that turn, the player may take the mortgage value of insured properties from the Bank without turning the deed over, or the resale value of insured buildings without removing the house or hotel from the board. (If a hotel is insured, the insured player may take as much money for selling five houses.)

MINT: You have the power of money.
You can spend $1 bills as if they were $10 bills. You are never forced to make change. When drawing money from the Bank, you must take the smallest number of bills possible.

MOBILE HOME: You have the power to relocate.
Your token is a house. Whenever another player lands the space you currently occupy, and it is a buildable property, he/she pays you as if you own the property with one additional house built on it. (If there is a hotel on the property, the rent is the hotel rent plus the “one house” rent.) The actual owner (if it’s not you) collects no rent. Not recommended in a 2 or 3 player game.

NEGATOR: You have the power to cancel.
Once per trip around the board, you may negate any one decision by any other player as long as it does not involve collecting rent or use of a power. The negated player may not attempt to redo the action until that player’s next turn.

NEGOTIATOR: You have the power of deals.
Any trade must include you in some way. If you refuse the original proposed deal, the original traders can “buy you off’ by each paying you $200. If they do not pay or Zap you, they cannot trade. (If you are paid off, you contribute neither money or properties to the deal.)

PASSENGER: You have the power to ride.
Whenever your roll crosses a Railroad, you may continue counting from the next Railroad on the board. If you land on one Railroad, you may move onto any other. You may collect Go money if your ride allows you to pass Go.

PLANT: You have the power to graft.
Instead of collecting rent from another player, you may choose to either collect half rent and take one of that player’s powers (your choice), or charge no rent and take both powers. While you have them, you may use the powers, and he or she cannot. The grafted player immediately regains his or her stolen powers upon passing or landing on either Free Parking or Go.

PROXY: You have a silent partner.
You start the game with an extra $500, and earn $300 for passing Go. If you win an auction, up to $300 of the purchase price is “paid for” by the Bank; you must pay the rest out of pocket.

QUEUE: You have the power to order.
You decide the order of people’s turns. You must give each player a turn in one “round” of play. You may also enforce a 1 minute time limit for building purchase and trade discussion between turns.

REALTOR: You have the power to discount.
When another player buys a property, he/she may either buy it from the Bank, or buy it at half price from you. You buy properties at a 50% discount.

SCHIZOID: You have the power to alter reality.
At the start of the game, determine an alternate winning condition that

1. is possible for all players to meet
2. is clear to all as it happens
3. does not require remembering past events
4. relates directly to the game
If anyone achieves this condition, that player wins immediately. Whenever someone pays you rent, they may ask you a yes-no question about your condition that you must answer truthfully aloud. A player who goes bankrupt is still out of the game.

SEEKER: You have the power to question.
At some point during your turn (before the next player rolls the dice), you may ask any other player a yes-no question concerning the game. This question may involve any action taken before your next turn. The asked player must answer truthfully, and must abide by his/her decision, if possible.

SKIPPER: You have the power to omit.
Whenever your roll would cross GO, you instead stop on GO and your turn ends. Before your next turn, you select which of the four sides of the board that you will skip this time around. If you choose side 2, for example, then when your token crosses Just Visiting you continue counting from inunediately after Free Parking. No card or power can send you to a space that you are skipping.

SILENCER: You have the power to quiet.
Once per trip around the board, you may silence any one player as he or she attempts to communicate by calling “silence”. That player must not speak, gesture, or communicate in any way until their next turn. A silenced player may not purchase properties or buildings, demand rent (although another player may demand for him), or participate in trade negotiations. Mandatory powers must still be used; optional powers that require talking or a response from another player cannot be used.

SLUG: You have the power to glue.
After you leave a space, you leave a “sticky spot”. Any other player who would normally pass over that space must instead stop there, gaining rewards or paying penalties as appropriate. You may leave a sticky spot on the “Go to Jail” space. If you roll doubles, all spaces you land on in your turn are sticky. All spots disappear at the start of your next turn.

SNAIL: You have the power to slow.
You may designate how many houses/hotels any other player can purchase at a time (at least one). A player may make no other building purchases until his or her next turn.

SNATCHER: You have the power to abduct.
If another player decides not to purchase the unowned property just landed on, you may buy it immediately from the Bank at a 10% discount (rounded up).

SPEEDSTER: You have the power to run.
The higher of your two dice is doubled. If doubles are rolled, double both.

TAXMAN: You have the power of tariffs.
You gain any money paid to Income Tax, Luxury Tax, or a tax-related card. You also need not ever pay such taxes.

TERRORIST: You have the power to bomb.
At the start of the game, plant one bomb on any space of the board. If any player (including you) lands on that space, their turn is cancelled and they return to their original starting space. The landed-on property cannot be purchased, and no rent or Go money can be collected. If the property is unbuilt, it is immediately returned to the bank; if it is built, all buildings on it are destroyed. The owning player receives no compensation in either case. Once the bomb goes off or when you pass Go, you may move the bomb to a different space (thus resetting the bomb). A Zap prevents you from planting a bomb during your current trip around the board; it does not cancel an explosion.

TRADER: You have the power to swap.
If you land on your own unbuilt property, you may exchange it with any other unbuilt property owned by another player.

TRAM: You have the power to shuttle.
Once per trip around the board, after you roll, you may choose to make someone else move their piece by the number on the dice. They pay money or gain rewards as appropriate. If you roll doubles, you still get to roll again; otherwise the “shuttling” is in lieu of your turn.

TRANSPORTER: You have the power to beam over.
If you land on a square with someone else’s token, you can move them to a square occupied by any other token. If anyone lands on your token, you may move them immediately to another occupied space. If one player lands on the space another occupies, you may move one or both of them to other occupied spaces. They are affected as if they just landed on the new space. However, they collect GO money if and only if they would collect it on their original roll. Not recommended in a 2 or 3 player game.

TRASHER: You have the power to raze.
Before paying rent, you may destroy one building on the property whose space you occupy. The owning player gets no compensation for the removed building.

TRIPLICATE: You have the power to select.
Once per trip around the board, you may roll three dice on your turn. Choose any two of them to make your roll.

TWEAK: You have the power to alter.
Once each time around the board, you may change any single number by 1.

USURER: You have the power over mortgaged properties.
If anyone lands on a mortgaged property not owned by you, that player must pay you as if you owned the property (as if it was unmortgaged). If someone mortgages a property, you may immediately buy it from him/her at half its on-board purchase price.

UTILITARIAN: You have the power of utilities.
You are given both utilities at the start of the game. You may not lose them for any reason (even if Zapped). In addition, if both properties are unmortgaged, whenever a player passes GO, he or she must pay you utility fees of $20 per house and $80 per hotel he or she owns.

VISA: You have the power of debt.
You never pay immediately. Instead, keep a tally of all payments and pay to the appropriate parties (in any order you choose) upon passing GO. You may not mortgage properties or sell buildings until they are paid for. If you cannot make the payments, you go bankrupt.

WAITER: You have the power to delay.
Whenever you draw a Chance or Community Chest card, you may, if you wish, keep it unrevealed, playing it on yourself or another player at a later time. You can retain only one of each type of a card at a time- if you’re holding a card when you have to draw one from the same deck, you must play the held card immediately.

WARDEN: You have the power to arrest.
You never go to Jail. If you are forced to go to Jail for any reason, you send one other player to Jail instead. All bail money is paid to you instead of the Bank. You may also claim 50% of any money collected by someone in Jail.

WARRIOR: You have the power of experience.
Each time you pay rent, you earn one point. The next time you pay rent, you may deduct twenty times the number of points you have from the amount you owe. If this deduction exceeds the amount due, you pay nothing, but may not get another point.

WITCH: You have the power to curse.
After you pay rent to someone, you may place a curse on the property. The next time rent is collected on that property, half the rent goes to the owner, and the rest goes to you. If you land on a cursed property, you only pay half rent, and you may curse the property again.