Shadows: Amsterdam (Libellud, 2-8 players, ages 10 and up) is the newest entry in the micro-genre (that includes Dixit and Mysterium) of "guess what the other people are guessing about ambiguous pictures" games.
The ambiguous pictures, in the case of Shadows, are a multitude of charming, somewhat dark paintings of what is best described as a furry-noir Amsterdam-by-way-of-Zootopia. Anthropomorphic animals tend tulip fields, enjoy clog dancing, and take romantic selfies, but also lurk in doorways, bribe officials, discover bodies, and brood menacingly in the 150 or so images that make up the game's board and deck of cards.
Thematically, the game is a race between teams of private eyes (or as one team against the clock) to solve an unspecified mystery by navigating your team's pawn to the locations of clues while avoiding locations with police. These locations are marked on a map visible only to each team's "dispatcher," whose job it is to give the clues to their teammates.
The dispatcher guides their team by silently handing them cards from a face-up pool of 10, and the team's job is to figure out from the picture where it is the dispatcher wants them to move. The meat of the game lies in the fact that most of the pictures aren't really that similar, or alternatively might be equally good/terrible matches to multiple spaces for different reasons. Does the baby raccoon in the stroller match the panicking scientist behind the biohazard door because they both have big eyes? Or does it match the chicken fingers and fries in the cafe because that's what he's going to want to eat?
The puzzle gets thornier when the dispatcher gives out two cards — that means the team must move two spaces, drastically increasing the number of possible destinations and the chances of landing on one of the three-strikes-you-lose police spots.
At its heart, Shadows: Amsterdam is a game about theory of mind — success lies in grokking what aspect of the cards is likely to spark an association in your teammates. Is it the color? The theme? The mood? The number of characters on the card? Their species? Sometimes the clue-giver won't be able to guide their team by the most direct path because the available clues simply don't match well enough. Beyond that, people see the world — and interpret the pictures — differently. In one game I missed a clue because where I saw a picture of Godzilla terrorizing a city in the background, the dispatcher was looking at the bowling alley in the foreground.
Shadows works well as a party game, since it's simple, frantic, and silly in team vs. team mode; and as a more cerebral co-operative puzzle with 2 or 3 players. It can be a bit fragile as the dispatcher has to maintain a poker face in order not to give unfair amounts of information, but it's been equally well-received around here with groups of both kids and adults, and it gives you some interesting insights into how others interpret the relationships among the images they see.
Suburbia is a technocrat's take on urban planning. The art is streamlined to the point of austerity, there is almost no luck, and the game is unashamed to show off its mathematical guts. At heart, Suburbia is a simple, subtle economic simulation with three moving parts. Players take turns buying hexagonal tiles from an ever-changing market and placing them in their town to develop their city in ways that affect its population, income, and reputation.
The population tally (which serves as the game's scoring mechanism) models the disadvantages of urban growth in a very clever and elegant way – every so often on the track there's a red line, and when your population surpasses it you lose one point of income (more expensive municipal services) and one point of reputation (more density/pollution/crime/whatever). This simple mechanism creates delightfully rich feedback loops that take a number of plays to fully appreciate – grow too quickly without an economic base and your town stagnates, unable to afford the development you need to serve your population; but bring in too much business or industry and nobody will want to live there.
Buying tiles for your city isn't just an exercise in math, though – building your city is a spatial and temporal puzzle, with a limited ability to impact the other players' cities as well. Some of the tiles' effects work spatially (placing residential areas next to a highway hurts your town's reputation while placing businesses there makes them more profitable), others work based on what else is in your city (building schools helps your reputation based on how many residential areas you have), and some affect other players' cities. Once the market is emptied out, the game ends and players score based on population, plus additional public and secret individual scoring goals that you draw at the start of each game.
This game seems to lean heavily toward being a muliplayer solitaire puzzle at first glance, but once everyone is familiar with managing the feedback loops between reputation, population, and income, and with the scoring goals that are available, denying other players what you think they need becomes pretty competitive. Another nice mechanism is that tiles from the market can be played upside down as small lakes, which provides a cash infusion but also allows you to take a tile out of the game that's useless to you but helpful to an opponent.
Where the game can bog down a bit is in keeping track of the interdependent effects of some of the tiles, particularly the ones that affect other players' towns, but after a few plays we got familiar enough with the tiles' effects that it was manageable. It bears mentioning that Suburbia has one of the best app implementations (both Android and iOS) of a board game I've seen, with smooth design, interesting single player puzzles, and local and online multiplayer.
Game of Thrones: The Board Game ($48) (published by Fantasy Flight Games, allegedly 3-6 players but really 6-6 players*) is based on the classic game Diplomacy, with some of that game's mechanics streamlined and a few layers of thematic chrome added on. It's a perfect fit for a game set in Westeros, as the game forces players to work together toward an unshared victory while providing ample incentives and opportunities to betray each other.
This game is an event that you plan your weekend around; the 2-4 hour playtime printed on the box is laughable. Two sessions (one alcohol-free, the other drink-like-a-Baratheon-no-not-Stannis) with a mix of new and experienced players each ran nine and a half hours, plus an hour and a half or so of teaching beforehand – you could play it as a race against someone in the other room who's binge-watching a season of the show. Both times, however, it felt like about 3 hours of epic conflict (the "Epic Soundtracks" Pandora station helped), and almost everyone playing thoroughly enjoyed themselves.
Why almost? Well, because this is Game of Thrones, and as such terrible things are bound to happen to some of the people involved. It's a game of incredible highs (when you have your opponents pegged and pre-emptively ruin their plans and scatter their troops) and lows (when your lands are being carved up to feed the war machines of your erstwhile allies). If those lows come hard and early, it's going to be a long afternoon.
The basic structure of the game is simple: each player controls the troops of one of the great houses of Westeros in open civil war set around the time of Robert Baratheon's death (there are no overt spoilers for the books or show in the game, though some of the card effects may come close). First player to hold 7 of the board's 20 or so castles wins.
At the start of each of ten rounds, everyone places tokens representing orders to each location on the map that their troops occupy. Then everyone flips the tokens face-up, and the orders (mostly moving, attacking, and disrupting other peoples' orders) are resolved in turn order. At the end of the round, event cards from three decks are turned face-up, which will cause the players to gain troops or resources, cause auctions for turn order and other benefits to happen, and sometimes restrict what players can do in the coming round. Then you do it again until either someone wins or you finish the last round ("Winter is here"), in which case the player holding the most castles wins.
That description leaves out all the richness, though. Everyone starts the game with barely enough troops to credibly hold their own borders on a map that's way too tiny to expand on without bothering your neighbors, and getting more troops is difficult. The combat is designed so that troops neighboring a conflict, no matter who they belong to, can throw their support to one side or the other in a battle at no risk to themselves. So from the very first round, during that token-placing phase you're walking into the other room with the other players to negotiate borders, beg and horse-trade for support in battle, offer temporary alliances, and shamelessly lie to each other. The moment when those tokens flip over and you find out who was lying to you is one of high drama.
In one game I was the Martells, and every turn I had a "yearly summit" with the Greyjoy player, even though my troops never came within 2 provinces of his. We did this both to get a sense of what would be happening on our adversaries' other borders, and to assess the truth of what our neighbors had been telling us. Then I started feeding him false information, and seeing which things I said got back to me through my allies the Tyrells to try to get a read on both their intentions. It paid off when the Tyrells betrayed our alliance – my troops and orders were in place to deal with his attack because I knew he was lying when he told me Tyrell and Greyjoy were going to crush the Lannisters between them that round. This is a game where you play the players as much or more than the pieces on the table.
There's also thematic richness – every area and castle on the board takes its name from the books, and the board is designed to allow many of the iconic moments from A Song of Ice and Fire to play out: The Starks' armies have trouble getting out of the north, Riverrun and Harrenhal are heavily contested, and controlling Blackwater Bay with your navy is a powerful advantage if you want to take or hold King's landing. There are even demands to send resources to help the Night's Watch against the Wildlings, which may or may not cause terrible problems for everyone if unmet, but benefit only the Watch's biggest benefactor if fulfilled.
The combat is thematic as well (and there's not a die roll in sight – you live and die by your own decisions). Each player has a hand of seven cards named for characters in the series that modify the combat value of your troops in battle. The catch is that you have to play all seven cards, one per battle, before you can pick up your discarded hand again, so losing the threat of your strongest card may be worse than just losing the battle they're expecting you to play it in to win. Furthermore, several cards for each house have powers that go beyond their simple numeric value – Cersei Lannister's card, for example, helps the troops not one bit, but disrupts other orders that haven't been resolved yet; and Roose Bolton helps the Starks tremendously, but only when played in a losing fight. When you lose a battle, you might lose a unit or two but usually the bulk of your army is displaced to fight another day, making holding territory difficult and counterattacks near-inevitable. Still, if you can pin down an army with no avenue of retreat they get slaughtered.
Unlike Diplomacy, it's very, very hard to actually knock someone out of the game; but quite possible to make them functionally irrelevant. In our first session, the player in Stannis Baratheon's role (who played it to the hilt; every time someone wronged him he'd pull out a little notebook and silently record his grievances) was reduced by the end to no castles and a single ship; but kept an unwavering hold on the Iron Throne (with its power to decide all ties on his whim) for the entire game.
I ended up apologizing to my real-life neighbor after the game for straight-up lying to his face about where I thought he should send his troops in a sidebar on turn 3; then taking advantage to steamroll through his lands and sink his navy. It took him nearly the whole game to recover to relevance (although he held King's Landing the entire game, the city walls were the limit of his authority); meaning that he spent a good chunk of the 570 minutes we spent playing knowing his actions were mostly fruitless. He said he'd play again, though; and not be nearly as nice next time.
* The Feast for Crows expansion, which I have not played, tweaks the rules for a shorter game and is reputed to provide a credible 4-player-only setup using houses Stark, Lannister, Baratheon, and (new to the expansion) Arryn.
When I was a kid in the eighties, there was a game, heavily advertised on television, called Crossbows and Catapults. Each player built a castle out of loose-fitting plastic blocks, placed little army men and flags, and then took turns knocking each others' castles down with discs launched from rubber band-powered siege engines. I loved that game so much that I taped out a regulation 6-foot by 5-foot battlefield on the basement floor.
But Crossbows and Catapults had a problem. The rules didn't make sense. It all sounded good, but the game rewarded things that were easy to do (like knock your opponent's whole castle into next Tuesday) much more than things that were hard to do (like snipe the flag off the top of the tall tower); and the really cool little army men pieces didn't serve much purpose. We tried to figure out ways to fix the game, but all our rules overcomplicated things, and games regularly devolved into more UN Tribunal on Crossbows and Catapults Violations than actually knocking over plastic castles.
Thirty years later, Cube Quest (2 players, ages 8+, 15 minutes or less, published by Gamewright) hits a lot of my nostalgia buttons for Crossbows and Catapults, but in a smart, modern, fast-playing way that you don't need 30 square feet of smooth floor to make happen.
Dr. Reiner Knizia is an extremely prolific and well-regarded German game designer. A signature element of his designs is that they tend to present the game's mathematical underpinnings rather openly, but those underpinnings have a twist that makes the game engaging and fun rather than a dry exercise in arithmetic.
In print for nearly 20 years, High Society (3-5 players, 20-30 minutes, ages 10+) is an auction game that's a good example of his style of game design. Players in High Society take on the role of nouveau-riche twits attempting to out-ostentate each other through extravagant purchases. This is done through a series of auctions for cards representing the trappings of wealth (fine art, a castle, jewels, etc.) that are worth varying numbers of points.
All the players start with the same hand of money cards, denominated so that no two cards in a player's hand have the same value. One at a time, cards worth various amounts of points come up for auction, and players bid to obtain them. There are also some cards that make you lose points where everyone but the person who takes the card pays into the auction.
You make or raise a bid by laying down one or more of your money cards on the table, and here's the first twist — you can't pick up any cards you've already laid down when raising a bid, and there's no making change. This makes the relationship between the face value of your money and its strategic worth less than straightforward. If you don't hold onto some low-value cards, you'll be forced to overbid when raising later on in the game, possibly all the way into bankruptcy.
Hanabi (2-5 players, about 30 minutes, ages 8+, published in the US by R&R games)is a co-operative card game that is nominally about fireworks, but is really about communication and knowing the limits of one's own understanding. It won the Spiel de Jahres (tabletop gaming's equivalent of the Oscar) in 2013.
Mice and Mystics (1-4 players, ages 8+, from Plaid Hat Games) is a mouse-sized sword-and-sorcery tale in a setting that will be instantly familiar to readers of the Mouse Guard and Redwall books. It's a beautifully-produced board game that creates a relatively all-ages-friendly dungeon crawl RPG experience—without the need for a dungeon master.
The game's plot and thematic trappings concern a human prince and his loyal retainers who, having been imprisoned by the evil usurping queen/witch/stepmother Vanestra while the good king is bedridden with poison, magically turn themselves into mice in order to escape the castle dungeon.
Over the course of 11 "Chapters," the mice fight their way through huge numbers of evil weapon-wielding rats (as well as non-evil-but-hungry cockroaches, spiders, centipedes, and the castle's tomcat Brodie) to save king and kingdom and defeat Vanestra. This of course requires secondary goals, optional side quests, recruiting allies, sudden-but-inevitable betrayals, and the retrieval of legendary MacGuffins along the way.
Coup (3-6 players, ages 10+, published by Indie Boards & Cards) is a delightfully vicious little card game that blends the bluff and uncertainty of Hold 'Em with the aggressive calling-out of Bullshit and a touch of deeper strategy. It's a game that clicks with gamers and non-gamers alike, and a friend of mine summed up the experience well as "a game you should be able to play for money."
Tzolk'in: The Mayan Calendar is a heavy European-style game for 2-4 players (the box says age 13+, and although my 7-year old plays it with me I'm inclined to agree), with perfect information and almost no randomness beyond the initial setup. It takes about half an hour per player once you learn it, but your first games will be much longer. It is my favorite game that I am absolutely terrible at.
Like many other Euro games, Tzolk'in is a competitive resource-gathering-and-conversion puzzle with multiple paths to victory, where conflict between the players is limited to passive-aggressive denial of resources and the winner is the player who was most efficient.
There are a great many games like this, and people who are not board game hobbyists often find them dry and unfulfilling. Why review the game for Boing Boing's audience, then? Because Tzolk'in takes the "Euro cube-pusher" trope and adds the dimension of time; which not only makes it a really satisfying game to sink your teeth into, but also gives it something to say.
The genius of the design is in the simplicity of what you are allowed to do on a turn, the intricate and divergent results those actions can achieve; and the way the physical design of the game board makes it all work automatically.
(Mayday Games, 2-4 players, says ages 6+ on the box but really more like 3+) is goofy dexterity game from South Korea that has no business being as much fun as it is. Its appeal is a testament to the power of great product design.
Players use plastic catapults that look like monkeys to fling little rubber coconuts into a grid of plastic cups in the middle of the table. A successful shot enables you to claim that cup and move it in front of your monkey. First to get six cups wins, but you can steal other players' cups by landing a shot in them.
While the game is great fun, it suffers from a number of mechanical difficulties, which One Night Ultimate Werewolf (3-10 players, ages 8+) addresses.
The two biggest problems with classic Werewolf are the need for a non-playing moderator, and the fact that players who are killed early in the game (sometimes before they get a chance to do anything at all) are in for lots of downtime.
One Night Ultimate Werewolf tackles the first problem by replacing the moderator with a smartphone/tablet app (you can also memorize the moderator script and use a stopwatch or egg timer in a low-tech setting), and the second by limiting the game to a single night during which nobody dies, ten timed minutes of discussion, and a single win-or-lose vote. This works because the game both introduces additional uncertainty about who everyone is; and gives several Villagers a very limited amount of semi-reliable information during the night.
At the start of the game, everyone gets a card with their role printed on it. This might be a Werewolf, a simple Villager, or a villager with a special power or action. Three additional cards are dealt to the middle of the table. Then someone starts the app, and everyone closes their eyes. One by one, the app tells the special roles to "wake up" and do something which gives them a bit of information and/or changes the state of the cards. For example, the two Werewolves silently make eye contact (and if there is only one wolf they get to peek at a card in the middle); the Seer gets to peek at one or two cards; the Robber swaps cards with someone and looks at the new one; and the Troublemaker switches two other people's cards sight unseen.
Once everyone has performed their action, which takes about a minute in all, the app directs everyone to "wake up," and starts a timer to the final vote. This is when the insanity begins.
The Villagers need to logic out who's who from their scraps of incomplete (and possibly erroneous) information in order to correctly vote out a Werewolf at the end of the game. The Werewolves need to come up with plausible lies that misdirect suspicion onto Villagers, and back each other up without appearing too suspicious.
If Villagers wait too long before revealing what they know, they themselves look suspicious, but the sooner they reveal their info the harder it is to catch a werewolf in a lie. After a few games, Team Village starts realizing they can catch Werewolves more effectively if they lie as well, but then they have the additional burden of convincing their fellow Villagers they were lying for good reasons. Meanwhile, someone who thought they were a Werewolf could have had their card switched by the Troublemaker or Robber, giving them an incentive to out their partner and the Villagers an incentive to trick them into outing themselves.
The game is played on a board showing the layout of a house with tokens indicating areas that are filled with smoke or actively on fire. There are also a number of "points of interest" that may either be victims in need of rescue or false alarms (you find out when you get there). The goal is to rescue at least seven victims from the building before the building collapses from accumulated structural damage or too many victims are lost.
Each firefighter gets a small pool of actions (move around, extinguish some fire, open a door, etc.) to spend on their turn or save for a later turn; and after every player's turn the fire spreads based on a dice roll. The spread of the fire is very well done mechanically; making the progression unpredictable (the dice could give you anything from gently spreading smoke to a huge cascade of building-damaging explosions) but not totally random (you can see where bad things are going to happen before they do).
What makes the game so tense is the tradeoffs your group must constantly make. Moving victims toward the outside of the house (which you need to do to win) means you're not spending actions fighting the fire (which you need to do to not lose). Chopping a hole in the wall for quick access to a room means adding game-ending structural damage to the house. This means that even the games you win frequently end on the knife edge of disaster; your firefighters pulling the last victim to safety as the house teeters on the brink of collapse.
The game has a two-sided board with different house layouts, as well as a set of advanced rules for older kids and adults that makes the spread of the fire more dangerous (and accelerates the fire over the course of the game); adds explosive hazardous materials and a driveable ambulance and fire truck; and gives each firefighter a specialized role that makes them more or less suited to various tasks (the Rescue Specialist can move and chop walls quickly, but has a harder time fighting fire for example, while Fire Captain can use her actions to move other players' pieces.)
Note to parents of young children and squeamish people – nowhere in the game's rules or imagery is death mentioned specifically. Firefighters caught in the blaze are "knocked down," and start their next turn in the ambulance; while victims are "lost."
Escape: The Curse of the Temple takes the same hectic dice-rolling at the core of Tenzi (review), but builds a raucous co-operative adventure game around it that plays in just a few minutes more. Players take on the role of a group of explorers looting an ancient temple, Indiana Jones-style. You begin in the inner sanctum, with no idea where the treasures or the exit are, and exactly 10 minutes until the roof caves in (there's a soundtrack that serves as both game timer and atmosphere). Players have to escape as a group — if anyone gets left behind when the roof caves in, everyone at the table loses.
Each player has five six-sided dice with symbols instead of numbers, and you "spend" various combinations of the symbols you roll to take certain actions — key symbols let you unlock doors and add new room tiles to the temple from the draw pile, running symbols let you move your pawn around, etc. There are no turns; everyone rolls and re-rolls their dice, takes their actions, and shouts their plans at each other as quickly as they can.