GameWright Games
Price: $12
Players: 2-6
Ages: 10+
Time: 10-20 minutes

The first layer of family game testing here at Casa McD is the hardest. New titles are subjected to rigorous examination and play-testing by a team of the best 10-13-year-olds money can buy. If your family game doesn’t pass muster with them, it will certainly be given further consideration, but it will have an uphill battle.

Gubs is the first game since Sleeping Queens to hit the tables and become a hit immediately. We began with a dozen 2-player hands, and spent the next few days demanding everyone else give it a try. Even normally jaded gamers (and I’m not singling out teenagers here … no, wait, I am) managed to bestir themselves from their usual indication of intense approval (“yeah, it’s fine”) to call it “really addictive” and demand more hands. That’s a pretty clear indication that GameWright has another success on their hands.

Gubs is credited to Cole and Alex Medeiros, with fantastic artwork by Israel Woolfolk. On the website, Cole tells the story of the game’s evolution from a homemade project for family and friends, to self-publishing, and finally to the slick treatment given to the game by GameWright. Everything from art, to rules, to card design, to fun-factor, to play balance is spot-on. It even comes in my favorite packaging: the compact embossed tin.

A “gub” is kind of a bug-like fairy creature. They ride toads and giant moths, hide behind mushrooms, and face threats from all manner of fey creatures. A feather is enough to dispel a powerful attack, but a soap-bubble can trap them. The world and the characters mines the same kind of lore which made Spiderwick such a success, placing players in a charming world hiding just beyond our gen.

Gubs is a card game, and the goal is to collect as many gubs as possible before you draw a final letter card spelling out the word “G-U-B”. Play is from a single deck of 70 cards, with each player starting with a hand of three cards, and one free gub face-up in front of them.

A gub must be played to the table to count for points, and each one may either be free, barricaded, or trapped. A free gub is just a gub card on the table, with nothing on top of it. These may be lured away easily by other players to become part of their gub lineup. If player places a barricade (toad, moth, or mushroom) on top of the gub, then that gub cannot be lured away. Gubs may also be “trapped” by gold rings or “sud spouts.” Trapped gubs do not count towards the final score, but they also cannot be lured away once trapped.

These fundamental elements are put through myriad modifications by event, hazard, tool, and interrupt cards.

  • Event cards are unique, changing the game suddenly by adding dangerous events to play. A Rumor of Wasps may force all gubs on toads back into the deck, while the Travelling Merchant forces everyone to pass their hands (except for one card) to the right. 
  • Hazards are the cards that can change the balance of play in an instant. A lure, for example, allows a player to take an unprotected gub from another player, but a super lure allows a player to take all free and protected gubs from another player. Cyclones can clear all the barricades from a target player. Lightning can kill the Esteemed Elder, the only gub in the game that can’t otherwise be stolen or killed. These hazards are what give Gubs its unique feel and create radical, rapid turns of fortune. A player can go from leader to nothing in a single card.
  • Interrupts are what make the vicissitudes of hazards bearable. These cards can be played at any time to negate an event or hazard, and are the key to a good defense.
  • Tools are ways to manage your hand and your gubs, allowing you to break the ring enchanment, retreat all gubs and barricades back into your hand, sneak a peak at the deck or another player’s hand, or even kill a gub.

Despite the diversity of cards and card types, this is not a hard game to teach or learn. The basics can be grasped in a couple of minutes, while the subtleties and tactics become clear after a few hands.

Everything about Gubs just works. The art, rules, and flavor text quickly convey the appealing, fun, magical world of the gubs. With just a hand of cards, you’re drawn instantly into the life and challenges of a hidden world. The sudden turns of fortune can be maddening, but the balance of cards makes it quite fair. There’s a brutal quality to way cards can be lost or stolen, and this can really irritate younger players, right up until they get to do it to someone else.

This is the kind of light, fast game that some call “filler,” but I don’t think that’s quite fair. Filler games are usually warmups before or between bigger, better games, but Gubs stands well on its own and demands repeat play. We’ve gone through 8 hands in a single sitting, in part because it can play very quickly, but also because the mix of cards provides a fresh experience each time. This one is going to have a long life.

App O’ The Mornin’: Ascension: Chronicle of the Godslayer

Grade: B
Price: $5

Although burdened with a cumbersome title, Ascension: Chronicle of the Godslayer scratches an itch many gamers didn’t even know they had, at least prior to the release of Dominion.

Ascension is a deck-building game created by a team of Magic: The Gathering tournament players. Originally publishes as a conventional tabletop game, it feels a bit like a mashup of Magic and Dominion. Players take turns building a deck by buying various cards. Most cards either generate Runes or Power. Runes allow you to buy more cards to add to your growing deck, while Power allows you to defeat monsters. Players earn honor points by defeating monsters, and the player with the most honor, wins.

Each turn, a player can draw five cards. At the center of the table is a line of cards which can either be purchased for your deck, or “banished” in order to keep another player from purchasing them. As your deck grows, you begin to search for cards in specific classes—Enlightened, Lifebound, Mechanic, or Void—since these work well together. By careful deck building and management, you can create a hand that allows you to buy and fight effectively, thus earning more honor and winning the game. There is a modest strategic element to the deck building, and the game has a quirky, appealing feel.

There is a load of data on the screen, which makes the layout a bit cramped on an iPhone/Touch screen. It functions well, however, and there are no accidental moves that can ruin a game. Gameplay is addictive, with clever card design and a diverse range of powers to draw upon. The AI didn’t impress me much, but fortunately the game has a multiplayer component with a matching service. The result is quite entertaining.

Cribbage in the Field (Minneapolis Event)

I had an email from Jordan Wiklund, who writes about cribbage at Cribbageland, and is currently at work on a book of the same name. In collaboration with the Walker Art Museum in Minneapolis, Jordan is running Cribbage in the Field, a “free, family-friendly, all ages cribbage extravaganza.”

The event will feature local artisans and their custom cribbage boards, plenty of boards and cards, open play, and even a 5-foot-tall peg from the man who “carved the world’s largest board through the ice of a Minnesota Lake.” There will also be prizes and raffles, including a one-of-kind custom cribbage board (shown at the right) that currently resides at the Walker.

Location: Walker Art Center, Open Field / 1750 Hennepin Avenue / Minneapolis, MN

Time: 10am – 2pm
Find more information at Facebook or Cribbageland 

A Closer Look: French Tarot: Trumps 15 & 16

Many people are familiar with the standard Tarot suits (the “Major Arcana”) used for “divination” purposes, but they’re less aware that Tarot cards were created for playing trick-taking games and have a rich and diverse design history. These images are part of an ongoing series highlighting the art of a single deck used in France, which contains scenes of rural and domestic life in the 19th century.

Click to enlarge

Tarot Trump 15: Detail

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Tarot Trump 16: Detail

REVIEW: Spot It!

Designer: n/a
Publisher: Blue Orange
Players: 2-8
Ages: 7+
Time: 1-2 minutes per round
Price: $14

This review is going to be short and sweet, just like the game. Spot It! is a remarkable little confection that works great as a warm-up game or just a quick bit of fun. It comes in a compact tin that contains a set of 55 circular cards. Each card has 8 symbols drawn from a set of 50. These are clear, clip-art-style images like scissors, bullseye, snowflake, pencil, dragon, etc. The images are scaled, so you may see a large zebra or a small zebra, but each tends to have a single dominant color. Between any two cards there is only one matching image. I’m not certain how they pulled that off, but they did, and it forms the heart of the gameplay.

The goal is to draw cards and spot the matching images. It’s that simple. The size doesn’t matter, so a large snowman can be matched to a small snowman. However, there will only ever be one match between two cards.

With this basic setup, Blue Orange offers 4 gameplay options. In The “Tower”, players are each given one card face down, with the rest of the cards forming a face-up draw pile. Players flip their cards simultaneously, and the winner is the first person to announce a match with the top card of the draw pile. They place that card on the top of their own pile, and the matching continues until the draw pile is exhausted. The person with the most cards, wins.

“The Well” is like The Tower in reverse. One card is dealt to the center and the rest are dealt to the players. The goal is to shed your pile of cards by matching a symbol from your top card to an image on the center card. 

“Hot Potato” is also a shedding game, but this time players each hold a single card in their palms. The first person to call a match places all of his cards on top of the matching card, then draws another. Play continues until one person has all the cards, then a new round begins. The winner is the player who has the fewest cards once the draw pile is exhausted. This one plays better with larger groups.

The final variant is called “The Poisoned Gift.” Each player has a single card, with a draw pile at the center of the table. The goal is to make a match between the top card of the draw pile and another player’s card. That player then takes the matching card and play continues. The winner is the person with the fewest cards when the draw pile is exhausted.

If all this just sounds like a simple matching game … well, it is. But it’s also a whole lotta fun. It’s much more entertaining than you might expect from a mere description. Play is lightening fast, with quick turns of fortunate and split-second decisions. You have to be observant and fast, and each player develops a technique of rapid observation in order to compare visual elements as quickly as possible.

If I just saw this game sitting on a shelf, I never would have bothered with it. It looks too rudimentary and seems to lack replay potential. In fact, repeated play only makes it better, as you become familiar with the images and the pacing. I must have played at least 100 games with just my daughter alone, and it still comes out as a 5 minute filler or a compact travel game. It’s immensely clever and appealing, and scales quite well for different ages and group sizes.

You can try the online demo, but this really plays better with another person.


The Rivals For Catan: The Card Editor

I haven’t had a chance to play The Rivals for Catan, but I just noticed that Mayfair has a custom card creator for the game. Here’s how they describe it:

Here you have the possibility to create your very own playing card within minutes. The “Harald” card serves as a template. Just insert a picture, choose a name, and create a short text for your very own hero card. After that, all you have to do is save your work as a JPG or PDF file, print it, and glue it to the original “Harald” card.

A Closer Look: French Tarot: Trumps 13 & 14

Many people are familiar with the standard Tarot suits (the “Major Arcana”) used for “divination” purposes, but they’re less aware that Tarot cards were created for playing trick-taking games and have a rich and diverse design history. These images are part of an ongoing series highlighting the art of a single deck used in France, which contains scenes of rural and domestic life in the 19th century.

Click to enlarge.

Tarot Trump No. 13 Detail
Click to enlarge
Tarot Trump No. 14 Detail

Online Poker’s Black Friday

While I was away, the online poker world suffered a complete meltdown. It may–and most likely will–emerge from the wreckage, but it will take time and it will be something new.

On April 15th (yes, tax day: take a moment to savor the irony), the U.S. Department of Justice seized the domains of Full Tilt Poker, PokerStars, and Absolute Poker; unveiled indictments against 11 of their officers; and froze billions of dollars in assets.

No one really knows how many people make their living from online poker, but based on anecdotal evidence and industry information, the number is significant. All of that vanished in an instant, with nary a concern for the lives affected or its impact on an economy already at the brink.

The reason this needed to happen are unclear. We’ll get to the individual cases in a moment, but the larger issue at hand is online gambling, and the entire online economy.

Should online gambling be legal? If not, then why? Who suffers? Who benefits? The legality of gambling is a state issue, but online gambling is a gray area. The Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act of 2006 has the following to say:

No person engaged in the business of betting or wagering may knowingly accept, in connection with the participation of another person in unlawful Internet gambling— (1) credit, or the proceeds of credit, extended to or on behalf of such other person (including credit extended through the use of a credit card); (2) an electronic fund transfer, or funds transmitted by or through a money transmitting business, or the proceeds of an electronic fund transfer or money transmitting service, from or on behalf of such other person; (3) any check, draft, or similar instrument which is drawn by or on behalf of such other person and is drawn on or payable at or through any financial institution; or ‘(4) the proceeds of any other form of financial transaction, as the Secretary and the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System may jointly prescribe by regulation, which involves a financial institution as a payor or financial intermediary on behalf of or for the benefit of such other person.

The key phrase in this is “unlawful Internet gambling,” which is not clearly defined except as “to place, receive, or otherwise knowingly transmit a bet or wager by any means which involves the use, at least in part, of the Internet where such bet or wager is unlawful under any applicable Federal or State law in the State or Tribal lands in which the bet or wager is initiated, received, or otherwise made.”

Translation: “unlawful Internet gambling” is “using the Internet for gambling unlawfully.” It’s simply a tautology. Gambling laws are not comprehensive enough to make that definition clear. Nevada is the only place where gambling is legal statewide. All other states maintain strict controls on the locations and types of gambling which they consider legal. The goal of the Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act was to shut off the flow of money to the online gambling sites by preventing them from using any of the financial mechanisms available for e-commerce, without making any of the hard decisions about how to define online gambling. It was a punt.

And thus we get to April 15th, and the end of online gambling. The United States District Court for the Southern District of New York launched a federal criminal case against the executives for the Full Tilt, Poker Stars, and Absolute Poker. Portions of the charges dealing with violations of various gambling laws are nonsense, since those laws were never written for the internet age.

More serious is the charge of bank fraud. offers one example of the money games being played by some of the indictees :

Chad Elie and his associates persuaded small, local banks facing financial difficulties to process gambling transactions in return for sizable fees and multimillion dollar investments in the banks. The indictment cites a Sept. 23, 2009, e-mail in which defendant John Campos, a vice chairman and part owner of the SunFirst Bank in St. George, Utah, proposes to accept processing gambling transactions in return for a $10 million investment in the bank, which would give Elie and his partners more than a 30-percent ownership of the bank. The indictment further alleges that Elie and his partners made a $3.4 million initial investment in December of 2009 and that, around that time, the bank began processing payments for PokerStars and Full Tilt that would total about $200 million over the next year or so. Campos and Elie were arrested Friday morning.

The online poker companies were trying to circumvent the e-commerce prohibitions, and broke the law. But the issue about the legality or illegality of online gambling remains, and the United States needs to make a decision. Rep. Barney Frank has made some attempts over the years to clarify the position of online gambling with the Internet Gambling Regulation, Consumer Protection, and Enforcement Act, and this case should finally force some action that will define online gambling, for good or ill.

That will almost certainly take years, and the damage done to online poker could take even longer to undo. In the meantime, the pros and grinders who make their living playing poker are toast. The poker economy is driven by casual players, who are now so spooked that they are unlikely to trust online poker sites with their money. What will emerge (eventually) will be government regulated, heavily branded extensions of casinos into the online realm. I have no idea whether or not that will be a good or bad thing, but I do know that the government will favor established entities over new startups. It’s just what they do.

The collapse of internet gambling will have a ripple effect on all gambling, particularly the lucrative realm of professional poker, which now has marquee stars, TV shows, events, and sponsorships, just like a sport. Many of those sponsors were online poker companies, now known as “the defendants.” So you think Daniel Negranu is going to keep wearing all that swag?

This case wasn’t about wire fraud or money laundering. It was about the Justice Department staking out a position on internet gambling in the absence of decisive Congressional action. The Obama administration chose to pursue this case, just as they chose not to pursue users of medical marijuana.

Internet gambling is a soft target in the coming war on the entire internet economy. The government needs to feed the budget beast, and the left is desperate to tax e-commerce. They will do this without the least bit of concern for the lives that will be disrupted and the money that will be lost. There are thousands of pro and semi-pro online gamblers–now out of work and trying to pick up the pieces of their lives–who can vouch for that.

A Closer Look: French Tarot: Trumps 11 & 12

Many people are familiar with the standard Tarot suits (the “Major Arcana”) used for “divination” purposes, but they’re less aware that Tarot cards were created for playing trick-taking games and have a rich and diverse design history. These images are part of an ongoing series highlighting the art of a single deck used in France, which contains scenes of rural and domestic life in the 19th century.

Click to enlarge

Tarot Trump No. 11 Detail
Click to enlarge

Tarot Trump No. 12 Detail