I love playing clever puzzle games with friends and for years my go to company has been ThinkFun. They’ve just released a title with the claim of “teaching the basics of computer programming without a computer”. The designer of Code Master is an ex NASA virtual reality simulations programmer named Mark Engelberg and I think he’s hit his mark.
Like most of ThinkFun’s games, it comes with an ingenious, well-ramped set of levels that teaches new mechanics as you go. Even though the later levels are driving me batty, the “Huzzah!” moments encourage me to keep playing long after I should have gone to bed.
You play the role of an adventurer who needs to collect gems on each level before escaping through a Portal. To aid you in your quest you’ll need to “write a program” that moves your hero across the map.
To write the program you’ll need to order a random set of movement tokens that allows your avatar to travel on appropriately colored paths.
For the level shown above, you’re movement tokens are 1 red, 1 blue and 2 greens and must be placed in the following order to make it from start to finish.
This particular level may seem simple but believe me – the game ramps to insane levels of difficulty!
Early on you’ll be introduced to special paths that only allow your Avatar to move in the direction the arrows are pointing and Loop paths that bring your Avatar back to his current position. Read the rest
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King Ludwig II of Bavaria, having built Neuschwanstein, has tasked players in their role as builders to build him the most extravagant and amazing castle ever. You'll have both open and secret goals based on the king's desires, and every round, someone will take a turn as the master builder setting prices for the individual rooms that are available. If they're not chosen, they'll be discounted on the following turns.
Castles of Mad King Ludwig is a superb game. Not only are you having to juggle the layout to determine what you can place in your castle, but you must complete rooms by connecting other rooms to them to earn points and other bonuses. How you price the individual rooms is another strong element when you're playing the part of the master builder. You need to interpret what you think your opponents want to build, and put it just within their monetary reach, since you're paid any money they spend on rooms while you're the master builder.
You'll end up with highly unlikely layouts in the quest to get all the rooms to fit into your castle. Trying to figure out what your opponents really want, and what bonus cards they might have is tough, particularly since more of them can be drawn during the course of play. After several rounds the game ends, and after points are awarded for the secret and the public goals, the most points wins.
– James Orr
Castles of Mad King Ludwig
by Bezier Games
Ages 13 and up, 2-4 players, 1-2 hours
$40 Buy a copy on Amazon Read the rest
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In Arcadia Quest, the mighty city of Arcadia has fallen to a foul vampire lord, Lord Fang, and his army of orcs, goblins and other monsters. They control the entire city, but the guilds of the city aren't going to take it laying down. There's loot to be had, and a throne to reclaim. The guild that does it sets themselves up in a position of power in the new regime. You'll guide a guild of three drafted heroes through six campaign-style missions with and against up to three opponents, attempting to complete objectives and gain power by fighting all comers.
The miniatures in the game are exceptional, with the individual sculpts for the heroes being incredible. The game play is tense, too. You weigh pursuing goals with not wanting to rush in and get the objectives, only to have the opponent's fresher guild members come in right after you and take it from you. The scenarios are well balanced and the map design is set up to not favor any particular side. Being able to grow your heroes and build them up, getting better armor and abilities is exceptionally appealing. You'll build rivalries with your fellow players, but they still need your firepower to help complete the missions, or at least need you to not be at their flanks while they fight the monsters. Win the day, for Arcadia – and also fat loots, and power.
– James Orr
by Cool Mini or Not
Ages 14 and up, 2-4 players, 45-60 minutes
$68 Buy a copy on Amazon Read the rest
You’ll have tons of fun playing this well-balanced board game even if you never win - and I should know.
Getting my wife to play games with me is a bit like pulling teeth. To increase my odds of making it happen, I normally promise to light a fire and make a cozy evening out of it.
Here, you can see the lengths I went through last weekend to get my game on. On this particular night, we played The Duke!
It’s a 2-player strategy game that takes place on a simple board of 36 squares. The game is a bit like chess – only better. The mechanics are constantly in flux and it forces you to think in a way that’s very different from other games.
Like chess, players take turns controlling the movement of troops on the playing field. The player's movement options are graphically portrayed on the front and back of each troop but only the side that’s facing up is in play. Each time you move a troop, it's flipped and the movement rules change.
Each player begins with 3 "stock" troops a sack of mixed wooden tiles that'll be chosen from later.
Stock troop #1 - The Duke. He’s like the King in Chess. It’s important to keep him safe at all times because once he’s captured - you lose. The Duke can move clear across the board like a Rook.
Stock troops 2 & 3 – The Footmen. These are like pawns in chess. Read the rest
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If you’re familiar with Pandemic then you’ve already got a handle on the basic game play of Pandemic Legacy. Fly around the world, cure diseases and save humanity. The first differences you’re going to notice with any Legacy game is the sheet of stickers, secret envelopes with little numbers and Advent calendar-like little packages in the main box. Pandemic Legacy takes place over the course of a really bad year for humanity. You’re going to be trying to save the world from four diseases, but this time, each individual game is going to affect the future ones as you place stickers on the board and the game changes permanently when certain events occur.
We’ll not be going into spoilers here, but some of the common knowledge things that carry over from Pandemic as slightly changed are that when cities outbreak, the first one is free, but then they slowly spin out of control there, restricting travel to and from those cities, making it harder to move in and out. Also your role will be with you for the duration of the game, and being in a city when it falls means bad things happening to your character that’ll provide lingering effects.
As far as play goes, you’ll get about 12-24 plays out of a single box of Pandemic Legacy. You get two chances per month to win, and the game adjusts difficulty based on how your record is going by varying the number of special cards in the player deck. Read the rest
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A cream pie in the face! It’s an ageless slapstick comedy routine that is also the inspiration for Hasbro’s Pie Face Game. Thanks in part to a viral video that’s making its rounds on social media, this equally ageless game is destined to be a hit this holiday season. Pie Face is as easy as pie to setup and play, although clean-up will be required. To get started, players attach the purple Chin Rest and Splash Card Mask to the Pie Thrower base, which comprises two handles and a throwing arm in the shape of a hand. After setting the throwing arm in place, you add the pièce de résistance: a dollop of whipped cream from your kitchen.
The rules of the game dictate that the youngest player goes first. A numbered spinner determines how many times a player must turn the handles of the pie thrower. Each player then places his or her chin on the Chin Rest with face protruding through the opening in the splash card (which is thankfully made of laminated, washable plastic). A point is awarded for each successful click of the handle that does NOT result in the player getting a face full of whipped cream. If a player completes a turn without getting hit, the points double. For the faint of heart, partial turns are allowed. For example, if a player spins a 4, he or she may elect to turn the handle only 2 times. But, this strategy comes with a price: you can’t score double points. Read the rest
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Pengoloo is a fun game that encourages memory and color recognition. Young players will love the game design, with 12 adorable penguin characters and colored eggs (6 colors, 2 of each). The penguins are hollowed out wood pieces that sit on top of the eggs to hide them. Players take turns rolling two colored dice to determine what color they’re looking for. Then they pick up two penguins to see if the eggs underneath match the dice. You put matching penguins on your iceberg scoreboard; the winner is the first player to fill their iceberg (or whoever has the most after all the penguins have been picked). The game gets more fun as you try to memorize egg locations to gain an advantage.
Both kids and adults will enjoy Pengoloo. Kids get a kick out of the cute little penguins and the thrill of finding the right color egg. Even children who don’t fully grasp the memory aspects of the game will enjoy playing with the penguins. Adults will like playing a game without having to compensate for their child’s lack of skill; luck is just as important as memory and it’s entirely possible for your child to win just by picking up penguins at random. This makes the game enjoyable for children of all ages and skill levels.
The game is also well put together for something so simple: you get 12 penguins, 12 eggs, 4 scoring icebergs, and 2 dice in the box. Read the rest
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Katamino is a wooden puzzle and board game that can be played solo (puzzle) or with two players (puzzle game). As a two-person game, players must arrange the twelve different shaped blocks – pentaminos [same as pentomino, but this is how Katamino spells it] – so that they fit and completely cover the grid on the board, which can be adjusted in length before the game starts. Players take turns fitting the pentaminos over the squares until one player can no longer fit a piece. The game is simple, quick and challenging. The wooden pieces are high quality and beautiful enough to keep out on display. I am not much of a window shopper myself, but was amazed by this puzzle game from the moment I saw it. I spent quite a while working the puzzle in the store before I went ahead and purchased it. With over thousands of possible combinations and a handful of variations to play the game, I'd say Katamino satisfies the requisite for a must-have puzzle game for anyone who's up for a challenge.
– Joseph Nicholas
Ages 5-100, 1-2 players
$38 Buy a copy on Amazon Read the rest
See sample pages from this book at Wink.
Pocket Imperium is a surprisingly big game in a very small box. The “Pocket” in its name refers to its microgame stature, while “Imperium” offers a clue to its galaxy-spanning scale and 4X game mechanic (eXplore, eXpand, eXploit, eXterminate), popular among galactic empire games. The first thing you notice about Pocket Imperium is the quality of its components. The box and art are lovely, as are the command cards and seven main “sector tiles” (the game board). The game also comes with 52 brightly colored wooden spaceship markers in four designs. There's a lot stuffed into this box, and with everything placed on the table, it really makes for a satisfying game spread. But at $40, you do pay for all this.
The rules for Pocket Imperium are deceptively simple. Each player plays three cards (six if it's two players) that contain movement commands (Expand, Explore, Exterminate). These moves are “pre-programmed” before each turn with the cards turned over simultaneously and executed in the sequence of Expand, Explore, Exterminate. So, one player may want to expand first, another explore, and maybe another exterminate. If you're the only player commanding an expansion that turn, you get two bonus ships; if two players execute the same order, they each get one extra ship; if all of the players execute the same turn command, no one gets extra vessels to field. The turn sequence and bonuses are indicated on quick reference cards you can keep on the table. Read the rest
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The history of Communism intrigues me. I have traveled to and worked with game development companies in Russia, China, and Hungary. When I was growing up, I visited the Berlin Wall where my Father was stationed – he later spent time in the military on both the borders of then South Vietnam and South Korea.
Queue succeeds where Monopoly failed in two distinct areas. Monopoly was originally designed to illustrate the pitfalls of capitalism, but gameplay actually rewards it. And, let’s all be honest, Monopoly, is not the most fun game in our collections. Queue is both fun and successfully educates the player on some of the inherent problems of communism.
Queue was created by the Polish Institute of National Remembrance to ensure that a small portion of what it was like to live under Communist rule in the 1980s was kept alive. Specifically what is it like to shop in a country where production is controlled by the state and not the free market. For the MTV generation, you may remember that was the time of Solidarity/ Solidarność and Lech Walesa. You may have had a red and white pin with their logo on your jacket next to those of The Clash and Give Whirled Peas a Chance.
The game is beautifully crafted, with 40-page manuals individually printed in seven languages. The game instructions themselves only take up 15 pages, including the FAQ. The rest of the manual is devoted to history and photos of the lines themselves. Read the rest
And Then We Held Hands is a special tabletop game about silently negotiating the emotions of a partnership. Thanks to Kickstarter, fans can own a proper physical version for the first time.
Tokaido is a set-building game about traveling the eastern sea road in Japan from Kyoto to Edo. You'll be playing the part of one of 10 different characters with unique powers, vying to have the most fulfilling experience. During the trip, you'll have the opportunity to meet other travelers, buy souvenirs, visit hot springs, paint scenic vistas, donate to one of the many countryside temples, and if you're strapped for cash you can work on a farm for a day to earn a little spending cash. At the end of the day you'll check into the inn to enjoy a meal with your fellow travelers.
The movement mechanic is particularly interesting in that the player that is furthest back on the track goes next. There's a careful balance to strike when moving ahead to get what you want. For example, the last player to arrive at one of the three inns on the board goes first the next round, but getting into the inn first gives you pick of the few meal cards that are being served at the inn – if money is an object, you might want to get there before the cheap food is gone. Score is kept continuously across the top of the board during play, but at the end of the game, after everyone has dined at the last inn, there are several bonus awards for doing the most of something, or being in the ranking of donators to the temples.
Tokaido looks amazing. The art is particularly well done in this game. Read the rest
I’m loving Gamewright these days, the fun factory that churns out Sushi Go, which I reviewed last week, as well as the latest game in my house, Pyramix. The self-described “three-sided strategy game,” which takes about 15 minutes to play, starts off with 56 cubes stacked into the shape of a pyramid (okay, not a true four-sided pyramid, but what the hey). The cubes each sport a symbol of an ankh (1 pt), a crane (2 pts), an eye (3 pts), or a cobra (0 pts). The object is to take turns removing the cubes to earn the most points.
Sounds simple enough. In fact, I collected as many eyes and cranes (high point cubes) as I could during the first game I played, thinking the game a bit too simple. And then I lost by a landslide. What I hadn’t taken into account was the strategy level the game’s handful of rules create, such as: 1) you can only take a cube with two or three sides exposed, 2) you can’t take a cube that’s right against a Cobra cube, 3) although you can take a cube from the bottom of a stack (causing the rest to slide down), you can’t take the last cube standing in each stack, and 4) at the end of the game, whoever has the most ankhs in each color category takes whatever is left on the base board in that same color. The fourth rule gives the game an interesting twist, making 1-point Ankhs often more valuable than the others combined. Read the rest
Betrayal at House on the Hill is a board game that takes place in a haunted mansion. You and your friends must explore the mansion to discover its dark secrets. But you should tread carefully as one of you might be a traitor.
The game starts out as cooperative, in which players explore the abandoned mansion to find omens, trigger events and pick up items. This continues until the 'Haunt' phase starts. The Haunt is triggered by the omen cards. Every time an omen card is picked up, the player must roll the dice and try to score more than the collective omens currently on the board. If the player fails the Haunt starts and then, depending on the omen, one player will take on the roll of the Spider-Queen, Witch, Demon, Zombie Lord or Werewolf and the rest will fight for survival.
This is a really fun game for anyone interested in horror. It's interesting, different and will always keep you guessing. Every play through the mansion will be different. Couple this with random card picks, twelve characters to choose from and over 50 scenarios you can play, and this game equals great replay value. However, it isn't perfect. The Haunt will sometimes favor one side or the other, which can make it next to impossible to win, so it can be a little unbalanced.
The quality of the game is great. There are six miniatures (all colored), and each has a character's sheet printed on glossed cardboard. The tiles are solid, strikingly eerie and excellent quality. Read the rest
Apparently Blokus is a popular game that’s been around since 2000, introduced by the French company Sekkoia before being sold to Mattel in 2009. But it’s new to me. I just bought it a few weeks ago after my daughter came home from her friend’s house raving about the game, and we’ve had many a summer Blokus evenings since.
Blokus is a strategy game that takes two seconds to learn, but many games to master. In a nutshell, each player picks a color and starts with a pile of Tetrus-shaped plastic pieces made of 1-5 squares. For instance, one piece is only one square, another is a line of three squares, another a four-square block, another a five-square L-shape, and so on. No piece is alike. Players start off by placing a piece of their choice in a corner of the gridded board. They then take turns connecting pieces to one of their own pieces already on the board. But you can only connect pieces by their corners – not by the edges (although your edges can connect with an opponent’s edge). As the board gets filled, the turns get more difficult, and after a few games you’ll realize how much strategy can make or break a game. The game ends when no one can make another move. The player left with the least amount of squares wins. Addictive and challenging, yet simple enough for a child to learn, Blokus is a great family game.
Note: The version above is 10" x 10", which is smaller than the original 13" x 13". Read the rest
“Certainly there is no hunting like the hunting of man…” wrote Hemingway. It is precisely this Holmes-versus-Moriarty style rivalry that makes Scotland Yard worth an hour or more of your time. At the outset, a player is chosen to be the infamous “Mr. X,” pursued throughout the game by the remaining 1-5 players. The board is an intricate map of London, detailing lines of public transit, but also including fun landmarks, such as Buckingham Palace and the London Eye. The transit routes, however, are the key to winning the game.
Detectives are issued tickets for each type of transit—taxi, bus, or underground (train), which cannot be replenished, and therefore must be used wisely. If less than the full number of detectives are playing, the extra pieces become “bobbies,” after the British slang for police. Bobbies act as shared pieces at the detectives’ collective disposal that don’t need tickets to explore London. Likewise, Mr. X does not need tickets for regular transit. Additionally, he is issued special tickets that allow him extra privileges, like using the ferry or making two moves in one turn. Detectives take turns collaborating and moving their pieces from one station to another, according to the tickets at their disposal. When all of the detectives and bobbies have moved, Mr. X takes his turn, recording his invisible moves on a special notepad. Detectives are allowed to know what type of transit he used, assuming he hasn’t used one of his special tickets. Mr. X only appears on five of the twenty-three turns, lending hide-and-seek anticipation and lots of discussion on where he could be next. Read the rest