Takenoko: Chibis Review (First Impressions)

Takenoko has become one of my go-to games for when I want to play something a little lighter while still enjoying a bit of strategy and depth. It’s easy to teach and fairly straightforward to play, but still has a good number of strategic choices and room for competitive play.

So I was quite excited about trying the expansion, hoping it would supplement and enhance the game without diluting it or making things too complicated. It did.

 

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This is a direct expansion, and as such requires the base game to play. It introduces a “Miss Panda” figure, new land types, additional goals for each of the three kinds, and baby panda tokens (3 for each bamboo color).

The new land types have a Miss Panda icon, which determines when she comes into play, additional movement, and is relevant for some goals. They also have various powers that activate when the gardener is moved to them such as growing bamboo on all irrigated plots of the same color anywhere on the board, one plot where players can chose to grow an color of bamboo, and a “gardener’s hut” tile that allows the player to look at the top card of each goal deck and choose one. All the tile abilities make sense and work well within the established gameplay framework.

 

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The baby panda tokens can be claimed for one piece of bamboo of the same color whenever a player moves Miss Panda to the location of the (original) Panda, and provide small immediate bonuses (including the new ability to exchange a goal card from your hand for a new one) as well as 2 points per token at the end of the game. They are well balanced and seem reasonable in terms of powers and point value.

 

 

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The new goal types are great natural extensions of the ones in the base game. New land goals include having a set number of a land type on the board and formations involving the Miss Panda symbol. The new panda goals are worth more points than the base game goals for the same color/number of bamboo, but can only be redeemed if the Panda is on a lake tile. The new gardener goals are perhaps the most interesting, involving having bamboo stalks of minimum height(instead of exact heights) as well as goals needing varying heights of the same type of bamboo. The point values seemed reasonable and the variety was nice.

 

 

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Overall the new rules expand the depth of Takenoko nicely without being overwhelming. However I would still introduce new players to base game first, if only because of the numerous new tiles with “powers” and the intricacies of having two pandas to move with different effects. The theme of the expansion is quite cute (although the thematic ties of mechanics had my group chuckling often) and it all fits well in the established framework.

Best of all there are small nuances added that increased depth without making things too complicate. Everything in here is integrated well and nothing felt extraneous or unneeded. Excellent expansion, and an easy recommendation if you like the base game.

 

 

 

Hanamikoji Review (First Impressions)

Emperor S4’s version of Hanamikoji attracted me with its beautiful art and some good word of mouth, but I didn’t know much about the game going in.

Simply put: it’s fantastic.

 

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This edition has a classic Japanese theme to it. Seven oversized cards representing Geisha (female artisans) placed in the center of the table. For each Geisha there are 2-5 associated item cards which will be played on either player’s side, and whoever has more of that Geisha’s items played at the end of a round wins her favor (represented by a victory marker). If at the end of any round a player has won four Geisha markers or has markers for Geisha worth a total of 11 “charm value” (value on Geisha cards, corresponding to the number of her items in the deck), that player wins the game.

If neither player satisfies a victory condition, another round is played in the same manner except victory markers are not reset. So you can win the favor of a Geisha that your opponent did in previous rounds, but any claimed Geisha will never be “neutral” again during the game.

 

The key to the game is in how cards are played. Each player has four action tokens and will use each exactly once during the round.

  1. Pick one card to play face down that will count for you during end round scoring.
  2. Pick two cards to play face down that will NOT count for end round scoring.
  3. Pick three cards to reveal. Your opponent then chooses one to play on their side of the board, and you play the other two.
  4. Pick four cards to reveal and separate them into two pairs. Your opponent then chooses one pair to play on their side of the board and you play the other two.

 

So in a round each player will see a total of ten cards in their hand, but three of them will end up on the opponent’s side for scoring and two . This “pick and choose” system is easy to understand and teach but creates significant strategic depth. Every step is a difficult decision, from deciding what order to take actions in to picking which options to present to your opponent.

 

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The gameplay design here is phenomenal. You can essentially only ever guarantee a single card in your hand each round is going to count for your own scoring, and the psychology and  strategy of picking what options to give your opponent are vexing in the best possible way. The fact that a single item card is discarded face down before play begins adds the perfect amount of uncertainty and luck, is while players can make reasonable guesses about hidden cards in play things can never be fully counted out.

 

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This is an abstract game at its core, and as such the theme is lightly integrated and honestly could have been anything. But the chosen theme fits well, and the gorgeous art style and graphic design really do enhanced the game significantly.

 

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Overall Hanamokoji is a wonderfully deep 2 player game with simple mechanics that comes together beautifully. I’m quite excited to play it again soon.

Santorini Review (First Impressions)

Had been really looking forward to getting to try this out, as both the concept and aesthetics looked fantastic.

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The basic game of Santorini hits the easy to learn yet hard to master sweet spot all abstracts strive for. Each player has two builder pawns on the board, and a turn consists of picking one to move one space in any direction then building one level (as appropriate) on an adjacent space to the moved builder. When builders move they may change levels (up one or down as many as they like), and a player wins if they get a builder on level three of any building.

Adding strategic choices are two restrictions: a fourth level can be built on buildings, capping them and preventing builders from scaling them, and if any a player can’t legally move one of their builders on a their turn they lose the game.

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It’s a wonderfully realized abstract that I immediately enjoyed. There’s a depth to it that will take some time to get a firm grasp on, like any good game of this type. It also supported by beautiful, high quality pieces. The theme doesn’t matter much for the base game, but the aesthetics are great and do add a “centerpiece” feel to the game.

In addition, the theme DOES matter for the included variants. Each player can pick a character to play (based on Greek Gods and Heroes) that grants them a specific powers. The powers make Santorini a COMPLETELY different game, adding asymmetry and numerous new strategic options that must be considered. One power we played with even added an alternate victory condition for one player.

Players HAVE to significantly adjust playing style depending on both their own power and opponent’s, which is great as it takes a phenomenal base game and changes it into something equally compelling. Both versions great and indicate impressive longevity for the game as players experiment with various pairings of powers and likely also switch back and forth with the base game.

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Rules are also included for the forthcoming expansion, with explanations of the new powers. There are also pieces and variant rules for playing with three people or even four (with team rules), although it’s mentioned the game is really designed to be one one one.

Put it all together and Santorini is an wonderful game that clearly had a lot of effort put into every aspect to present to really make it something special. Thrilled with how this one turned out.

Quick Thoughts: Red Riding Hood, The Pied Piper, & Kabuki Board Games

I recently tried more younger player aimed games with my niece. While they didn’t all have quite the hook for older / more experienced gamers like my previously examined Abraca…What? and Sushi Go!, they still presented fun experiences simple enough for younger players yet with a bit of depth to entertain those playing with them.

 

Red Riding Hood, The Pied Piper (Tales & Games)

The first two I’ll talk about are from the Tales & Games series, which are games based on stories and fairy tales that come in wonderfully thematic boxes designed like books.

Immediately striking is the quality of components and visual style of these games. The boxes don’t just look like books, the top flips open like a bookcover. Inside said covers are setup diagrams for the included game, which is a great touch. The cardboard chits and tokens are of decent weight, and each game had at least a couple of wooden character pieces.

In deciding to try these my main concern was that they’d be generic games with the theme haphazardly pasted on. Reviews seemed to indicate that wasn’t the case, so I chose two that seemed most interesting and had the most postive buzz. There are six different games in the series so far.

I’m happy to report my concerns were in fact unrealized. Each game is fairly suitable to it’s inspirational story, with goals and mechanics that make sense.

In Red Riding Hood the goal is to get Red to Grandma’s house before the wolf. There are two game modes, one with everyone alternately controlling Red and one with one player as the wolf against everyone else. We only played the co-op version, so I can’t comment on the differences nor the mechanics of playing the wolf.

Gameplay centers around a press your luck element where each drawn card can increase the number of spaces Red might move, but at any point if you draw a card with lower value than those already on the board everything is cleared, Red doesn’t move, and the wolf gets closer.  There are a couple other aspects, like a shorter but risky secret path to take and bonus movement when a card depicting Red is drawn, that add depth without making things too complicated. My niece loved this and the rest of us found it fun enough.

Pied Piper has a little more to the mechanics, with each player trying to keep their house from becoming infested with rats. The infestation level is marked with a tracker that moves up whenever a rat passes their house and down when the Piper does. Movement is determined by player directional arrows on cards that are color coded to correspond to specific rat tokens in between the various houses. We tried this with just two players, which was fine but it really seems the game would be more interesting with more people.

Like Red Riding Hood I think this is great for the target ages, but here the younger players are at a clear disadvantage against older players who can process and plan what the different arrows will do in sequence. Be careful not to be too ruthless when playing this one with young gamers, as I imagine it could frustrate them quickly.

Overall though these are two distinct, well done games that make good use of the recognizable themes. I’m curious to see what the other games in the series are like.

 

 

Kabuki

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Kabuki really is a brilliant little gem. It’s a “simple” memory game that has an actual game built around it. There are four performer cards, which are the bases for four piles. On each turn a player draws a mask card and places it on one of the piles. That’s it. The key is you’re trying to play it on a performer that isn’t already “wearing” that particular mask. If another player thinks the mask you played is already in the pile, they say “stop” and call for a check of the pile. If they’re right they take one of your victory points. If not they lose one to the bank. That’s it. Most points at the end of the game wins.

It’s a wonderful elegant variation that puts everything in the players’ hands. The chosen theme lends itself wonderfully to the concept, as the mask cards can be stylistic in a way that makes it hard to remember exactly what’s in each pile. Yet when masks are side by side they’re quite distinct and easy to tell apart (which is equally important). Beautiful, vibrant artwork enhances both aspects. Most colors have 2 different mask versions (blue has 3 and green only 1), and each mask version has 5 copies in the deck. So eventually a copy of every single mask will HAVE to be played in a pile that already has a copy.

The straightforward core mechanics make Kabuki extremely easy to teach, yet remembering the contents of the piles as the 60 mask cards are played will tax anyone’s memory. Perhaps best of all the playing field is pretty even, regardless of age and experience of the players. Overall my niece was just a little faster at calling out misplays and a little less likely to be wrong and won most of the games we played (with a variety of opponents all older than her). While she enjoyed all five games mentioned between this column and the one linked to above, I think this was her favorite (with Sushi Go! and Red Riding Hood close behind).

 

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That’s all for now. Hope to be back with more soon. 🙂

T.I.M.E Stories: The Marcy Case Board Game Review

I love the general setup of T.I.M.E Stories and really enjoyed the initial adventure (Asylum). I’d heard mixed things about this followup first expansion and was curious to see if the potential of the established mechanics would continue to be capitalized on.

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As with my review of the base game / first mission I’ll try to be as spoiler free as possible.

The overarching structure and premise of T.I.M.E Stories remains the same: the players work for a time travel agency and go back in time on missions. Each player is sent back into a receptacle (character), Quantum Leap style, and they must work together to figure out what’s happening and complete the mission. This expansion provides a new story deck representing a completely new mission from the one included in the base game.

Here the brilliance of the design choice to use token and symbols that can be reassigned to different meanings from mission to mission really shows. It allows context appropriate and specific characteristics and items that enhance the story and fit within the particular adventure and time period the players find themselves in.

For example where in Asylum characters might have to talk their way out of certain situations using a “glibness” trait, here the ability to “search” affects how the scenario unfolds for the players. There are other traits, items, etc that are defined within the scenario being played yet use the same components and rules established in the base game.

And highlighting the flexibility those design choices allow might very well have been one of the primary design goals of this expansion. A friend of mine summarized it best with the comment that The Marcy Case “demonstrates the versatility of the system.” It does feel and play quite different from Asylum, and I think that was pretty much the whole point.

I understand why people expecting more of what Asylum was would be somewhat disappointed (and I honestly do think Asylum was just a little better), but this was still an excellent entry in the series that captured that same atmosphere of tension and adventure. Perhaps most importantly like Asylum also had a strong theme and story, including meaningful choices to be made and some of the best and well executed red herrings I’ve ever seen (even if they did sometimes make me want to pull my hair out).

Additionally the conveyed detail and nuance of the environments to be explored and general immersion that is achieved with just cards continues to be amazing. I know I’m harping on it a bit but the framework of T.I.M.E Stories and what can be done with it just incredible.

 

 

That’s not to say that this was perfect. As I mentioned in passing above I did like Asylum a touch more, and there are a couple of minor things here I would have liked to seen done differently (that I can’t get into due to spoilers). But I thought it was great overall and don’t agree with the idea that it suffers for being different.

 

Overall

The more I play T.I.M.E Stories, the more and more I adore it. Bring on the next expansion. 🙂

Ars Alchimia Review (First Impressions)

Alchemy is a hallmark of a lot of video game sidequest activities, and I was both amused and intrigued by the thought of a board game based around it.

 

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The general setup is great and makes a lot of sense thematically: players gather materials, learn recipes (“orders”), and perform alchemy (all represented by different cards on the board). There are also cards representing assistants that can be hired to provide specific bonuses.

The key mechanics are worker placement and resource management. Collection and spending the proper resources to complete orders is the main way to collect victory points, which of course determine the winner at game end.

Taking actions is where the worker placement comes in. Players deploy workers to the board spaces associated with the card they want to claim/use. A significant amount of strategy revolves around this deployment. At least one more worker must be placed than those currently on the space (the previous workers are then moved to a general area for the rest of the round). So popular spaces become more and more “expensive” as the round goes on.

The second aspect to deciding how many workers to play involves bonus die rolls when taking certain actions. Playing extra workers increase the chances of collecting bonuses, but will also make that space require even more workers to use again in the future. It’s a really great aspect: players always get a set benefit for using the card regardless, but can mitigate the luck for bonuses if they choose.

There are other interesting elements that add depth, including players who go later in turn order getting more workers, elixirs which count as any resource when completing orders, etc. I found it all came together really well and provided interesting, meaningful choices during the game.

 

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Ars Alchimedia has very nice looking components and attractive art, but admittedly it could have been “spruced up” a bit. It’s clearly reflective of Japanese design and original production in the economy of space everything has. There is an incredible amount of information and functionality compressed down into a general board and a bunch of different card types.

While impressive, this also makes things a bit overwhelming on the cards sometimes and leads to very small and occasionally hard to read type, particularly since TMG made the odd decision to leave the original Japanese text in addition to the translations. While the Japanese student in me likes this, from a gameplay perspective it’s unneeded and distracting. My opponent (who is not colorblind) also had some trouble telling the small colored boxed apart on the cards, which could have been easily addressed by using the symbols for each resources shown on the player’s tracking cards.

This is a hefty game cleverly packed into a small box, and as such while I generally really like the design and artistic style there are some minor resulting inconveniences.

 

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The overall balance seemed good, with harder to get materials and orders being involved in higher scoring. Although there is luck involved in the available options on the board at any given time and some are strictly better than others. However there is a mitigating mechanism for turn order, so I think it all fits nicely and fairly.

I really enjoyed my first experience with Ars Alchimia and am excited to play it again sometime, try it with more players, etc.

Yakitori Board Game Review (First Impressions)

One of the most intriguing things about how gaming continues to expand and grow is the way designers take inspiration from all kinds of unexpected (and sometimes “mundane”) sources to create original and engaging games. One example of such is Yakitori, a laser cut wooden game based around trying to maximize profit while grilling and selling the titular street food.

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The gameplay is both a well simplified play on the chosen theme and a deep enough game in itself.  Each round players roll three dice and then use them to choose (in turn) which available actions they want to perform. The die values will determine action order within each action category.

  1. At Market players will buy raw ingredients or sell their cooked dishes. There are three different types of meat tiles and three different vegetable tiles available in the game.
  2. The Influence category allows manipulation of demand for ingredients, moving their individual buy and sell prices up or down.
  3. Finally Grilling allows players to cook the food on their skewers or accelerate/slow the speed with which it reaches doneness.

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The skewers are both a fun thematic component and a clever mechanic. Raw food starts on the lowest section of the skewer, and moves upward as time passes. Which section it is in when a player sells it will determine whether they get a monetary bonus (for perfect doneness) or a penalty (for overcooking vegetables or undercooking meat).

At the end of the game players also receive bonuses for cooking the most of a particular type of food and for groups of diverse types sold (although each food item sold during the game may only be counted once for bonuses).

There are meaningful choices each round, although in the 2 player game certain limitations almost felt too restrictive. It adds strategy but can be a little frustrating and makes the learning curve for playing well steeper than first apparent.

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This is definitely a game enhanced by the production value and design choices. There’s a wonderful classic quality to a well made wooden game that fits nicely with the theme, and again the way the food tiles interact with the skewers is a unique hook to build gameplay around. The center slots on a couple of the tiles were a bit too tight to properly move along the skewers, but that should fix itself as we play more and seems better than having them too loose.

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While the game seemed quite accessible, as I mentioned earlier I feel like there’s aspects of the strategy I wasn’t quite getting. This isn’t necessarily bad early on, as it encourages more play to begin to understand certain subtleties beneath the  seemingly straightforward base mechanics. The 2 player game definitely felt a bit cutthroat, where one mistake might put the game out of reach. It seems like this will play much differently with more players, something I look forward to trying in the future.

There’s more to Yakitori that initially meets the eye, and all around it strikes me as a nice package. It’s a game with a unique (yet accessible) theme, good production quality, and interesting gameplay.