corollary: Board Games

Thursday, 5 July 2012

Board Games IIf

Listening to:

Dvořák, symphony no. 8 in G, op. 88.

Two Tile Board Games

A couple of highly recommended games featuring tiles, iOS implementations and unduly complicated scoring:


Along with the famous Settlers of Catan, which I’ve never played (but about which there is now quite an appealing Tabletop video), Carcassonne is probably the most famous “gateway” game out there. Such a game is one that is meant to get the user addicted to the modern Euro style of board game, sucking them in so that get into even heavier and meatier games.

Carcassonne is certainly light and easy to pick up (though scoring, particularly of farms, is fiddlier than one might like). It’s also visually appealing: as play progresses the players cooperate to build a pretty map of a medieval countryside. This map is made out of the tiles that the players play on the playing surface. Game-play is simple: draw a tile from a bag; add it to the growing map; optionally add a little wooden person in one’s colour (a “meeple”) to the map to lay claim to part of that map.

There are plenty of hard decisions to make, but at the same time, it’s rather luck-driven. This is because the tiles are drawn one at a time, and the tile you have in your hand critically determines just what you will be able to do. With more than two players, the game becomes even more random because the situation will typically change in fairly drastic fashion between one player’s move and their next. Despite the prettiness of the evolving map, there is plenty of opportunity to be quite nasty to other players. You may or may not see this as an advantage.

There is an extremely good iOS implementation of Carcassonne in the App Store.


In Ra, the aim of the game is to collect various sets of tiles that are worth different amounts of points. Everything is vaguely Egyptian in theme. There are monuments, pharaohs, cultural advances, lands and Nile floods. Perhaps unfortunately, these tiles are not arranged into a pretty map, but are kept in front of each player as they are acquired. Indeed, they can be kept strewn about however one wants.

The game’s central mechanic is a form of auction, and one player’s move is very simple: they can get another tile from a bag to add to the current lot, or they can decide to call for an auction of that current lot (there’s actually another third option that doesn’t get exercised very often). In general, every player’s situation will be slightly different: they’ll have different levels of resources to pay with, and they’ll also be pursuing slightly different goals. It’s very clever, and the mechanics interact very cleverly. Modern Art (also by the same designer, Reiner Knizia) is cleverer as an auction game (Ra’s auctions are actually pretty weird as auctions go), but the set collection in Ra is neat and something that Modern Art doesn’t really have. There’s less “randomness” in the final scoring: in Modern Art, a painting can be worth absolutely nothing because its artist hasn’t “placed”; there isn’t anything quite as vicious in Ra.

There’s a reasonable Ra iOS implementation, but it has no online community so for the moment, you have to be content with playing against its AI (which seems pretty good).

Wednesday, 23 May 2012

Board Games IIe

Listening to:

Fontessa by the Modern Jazz Quartet, from their CD of the same name. V. cool.

Two More Board Games

A couple of games that I haven’t got to play very much.

Ex Libris

This is a “performance” game, meaning that it requires participants to repeatedly perform a certain class of task, and to then be judged on that task. The classic Charades is probably the best known performance game. More recently, Dixit, another game in similar vein, won prizes and fame. In Dixit players compete to best play a card which sums up the phrasing of the round’s current player. Then, everyone compares the selected cards (including that of the player), and tries to figure out which was the original. Of course, if someone mistakenly votes for yours (when you are not the current player), you get points for having managed such a good “impersonation”.

Ex Libris is similar in basic feel, but puts more performance pressure on the players. Everyone is given a description of a moderately famous book (a synopsis like: Set in the 1860s, this is the powerful story of two orphaned sisters growing up on a Boer farm in the South African veld. Em is round, sweet and contented. Lyndall is clever, beautiful and unhappy. She separates Em from her lover, has a child by a man whom she refuses to marry and soon afterwards dies.), and is then told to write either a first or final sentence for that book. The person in the know writes out the real one (provided on the card), collects everyone else’s, and then reads them all out. Everyone has to vote on which they think is the genuine article. I’ve had great fun with it on a couple of occasions, and it has also fallen terribly flat once too, because the group just wasn’t feeling terribly creative.

Mr. Jack.

This is an extremely cool deduction game for two players. One is the villain (Mr. Jack) trying to escape detection for the eight turns of the game, possibly by escaping the map entirely. The board has eight characters on it, each with a unique identity giving that character special moves and abilities. For example, the lamp-lighter character can toggle the state of one of the lamps on the board (who is or is not “in the light” makes an important difference). Each pair of turns, the players get to choose which of the characters they will play. For example, on the first turn, four of the characters are nominated as movable. (On the second turn, the remaining four will be.) The detective players chooses one to move and does so, the Mr. Jack character chooses and moves two of the remaining three, and then the detective gets to move the fourth. On the even-numbered turns, the picking order flips.

The key thing is that one of the eight characters is secretly Mr. Jack, and this character is the one that the Mr. Jack player has to manoeuvre so that he escapes or, at least, avoids arrest. (A false accusation loses the game for the detective.) The beauty of the mechanic in the previous paragraph is that the Mr. Jack player may not get to actually move the character who is secretly the bad guy when he’d most like to.. Indeed, it’s conceivable that he may never get to do so. But this doesn’t really matter. This is a fantastic game: very deep, with lots of theme and quick to play. Unfortunately, I don’t play it so often because it’s for two only, and my regular group usually features more people.

Wednesday, 9 May 2012

Board Games IId

Listening to:

Toumani, by Toumani Diabate’s Symmetric Orchestra, from the album Boulevard de l’Indépendance

Four more capsule board game reviews

I’m starting to run out of space in my board-game bookcase. And I’ve just ordered a new game to boot. I think I’ll have to bite the bullet and get rid of the ones that aren’t getting any play, and aren’t going to get any in the future either…

This week, a bunch of games that come in small boxes and all by the famous Reiner Knizia:


A filler that sees players manipulate hands of merchant and pirate ships. The pirate ships can be deployed to attack merchants that others may have played. If one’s attacking ships can last a full round in top position against a ship, they win the merchant ship (each is worth a different amount). There are two incentives to play merchants out of one’s hand: if everyone else is distracted by other battles and the merchant is not attacked for a round, it makes it back, and is points for the player who started it out. Additionally, unplayed merchants count against you at the end of the game. This is a fantastic mechanic, and the game plays well, particularly in the teams variant.

Lost Cities

A two player “competitive solitaire”, where play consists of discards and or playing cards to attending sequences of five different suits. Again, a great mechanic, and one with some real heft to it. Chris Farrell discussed it nicely in his Illuminating Games blog.

Medici vs. Strozzi

This is another two-player game. I’ve only played it once, and had to agree with my counter-party that it was very dry. It’s probably a candidate for the “making space” project. The game requires constant valuation of loads of goods that have to be put onto ships, and the setup which ensures that different loads will be worth different amounts to different players is clever. If you want a calculation-heavy game, and have an opponent who wants the same, this is probably the game for you both.

Modern Art

I suppose this is the heaviest of the four games this week. I think it’s fair to say that it’s widely acknowledged as a classic. The theme is appealing: each player is attempting to convince the others that particular artists (and thus their paintings) are a great investment, and then selling them off in auctions. Sometimes, it will even be the case that the paintings will be worth good money. And so, there are two routes to wealth (and thus victory): by buying paintings that do turn out to be valuable, or simply by selling paintings at the right moment.

This is not economic like Container, but it’s definitely about accurate valuation. The thing that lifts it so definitely above Medici vs Strozzi is that there are more people involved, the values are not so certain, and there’s an obvious development to the game across its three phases. This is definitely a great game.

Wednesday, 7 March 2012

Board Games IIc

Listening to:

Missa Papae Marcelli by Palestrina. Oxford Camerata conducted by Jeremy Summerly. Naxos 8.550573. Lovely.

More Capsule Board-game Reviews

Monday night gaming continues well.


A quick game (a filler in the jargon), that doesn’t outstay its welcome. It features a neat card-playing mechanic whereby battles for territories on a map of Italy are resolved. There’s a lot of luck involved because each round of battles begins with each player receiving a random hand of cards. The strength of hands can vary quite a bit. That said, there’s lots of opportunity to be devious and cunning in the play of one’s hand (it may have to cover multiple battles), and this is definitely fun. My general principle is that random-ness is not such a big deal as long as the game is short, and Condottiere does play quickly enough.


Another filler, but not such a good one. This also features card-play, but the balance is slightly out-of-whack. The cards you play manipulate the ordering of people queueing up to be executed at a guillotine during the French revolution. (This is made out to be a cartoonishly light matter, so that it doesn’t seem at all grim. Make of that what you will.) Either you play according to the official rules which only generally allow one card per play, leading to a feeling of powerlessness; or you play as many cards as you like per play, leading to analysis-paralysis as people struggle to figure out the optimum order in which to deploy the cards.

Perhaps either mode of play could be made to work, given the right group and the right attitude.


This is a stylish, older game with an awesome central mechanic, buckets of theme, and a neat end-condition (to do with the Party Chief managing to wave at the annual May Day parades). It also plays up to six. On the down-side, it’s fiddly to track all the necessary bits of data (done with little cardboard chits). This could be done so much more elegantly with a computer (an iPad version as a shared, miniature table-top perhaps). It’s also quite possible that players may find themselves with nothing to do because their Politicians are not in positions of power. Some may also find the inter-player viciousness off-putting.

Glory to Rome

I’ve played this four times in fairly quick succession recently, and I’m definitely impressed, even though I have no real idea how to play well. It may be that there’s no real opportunity to decide on a strategy in advance. Rather, the winner will be the person who best manages the cards they draw from moment to moment, but while still managing to combine them with a view towards a coherent strategy.

The central mechanics are fairly abstract and revolve around becoming a big-shot in ancient Rome by building impressive buildings by attracting a big clientele of hangers-on to help with those projects, and perhaps also by embezzling building materials for one’s private vault. The buildings all tend to subvert the core rules to a greater or lesser extent and they can also interact quite wildly. This makes for fun effects, but these and the interactions in the core rules really do work well. (They’re also quite hard to explain so I won’t even try. Once the game is going, it all seems quite natural.)

Glory to Rome is probably the best game of this week’s four. But Kremlin is awesome too, and Condottiere is fast, furious and blessed with a cool battle mechanic. A nice set to have to choose from.

Wednesday, 22 February 2012

Board Games IIb

Listening to:

Mendelssohn, Fair Melusina overture. Played by the Bern Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Peter Maag.

More Capsule Reviews of Board Games

For super-reduced reviews of games from our Monday Games Night, see Alban’s page.


Another so-called “gateway game”, perfect for introducing non-gamers to the hobby. It’s certainly pretty light, with simple mechanics, including an appealing tile-laying aspect. One is definitely at the mercy of a shuffled deck of money cards, and if playing with too many players (more than 3 or 4), it really does become impossible to plan because the revealed set of tiles that one purchases will change too much between one turn and the next. Not currently something I’d call to play myself, but I don’t actively dislike it.


This game features a distinctive central mechanic, where each round sees you select a rôle from a set of cards, and then pass the remaining set onto your left for your neighbours to draw from. The psychology of judging what to take given what you expect others to take, and what you expect your predecessors to have taken, makes for a memorable game. I’ve mostly enjoyed my games of this, but it can drag something rotten if the card selections take too long. The rôle draws are done to build up a collection of victory-point-bearing city cards. These city cards are displayed face up on the table in front of you.

It’s possible to be badly victimised, though in a random way (people with the appropriate rôles pick their victims not by player identity, but by rôle, and so they can’t be sure who they will be harming). I don’t mind this much, but others have found this annoyingly frustrating.


An economic simulation that I find very appealing. I’ve played it a few times, and always found it enjoyable, even if my strategic thinking has been completely superficial. For the moment, I’ve just been happy to sit back and think, Yes, there’s definitely an economic web happening here. The better player would then also figure out how to exploit that web in a reasonably long-term way. The flow of money, and the control given to the players make this a better economic game than Acquire, even if the turn-to-turn activity is pretty prosaic (production of wooden “containers”, the setting of prices, and occasional auctions).


An extremely famous recent game, one that introduced the notion of “deck-building”. I’ve only played four times to date, but have enjoyed each experience so far. It’s pretty dry in terms of theme, but the mechanic is an appealing one to get one’s head around.

Wednesday, 1 February 2012

Board Games IIa

Listening to:

Shostakovich, symphony no. 7 in C major, op. 60 ‘Leningrad’. Played by the St. Petersburg Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Vladimir Ashkenazy.

Some Games Played Last Year

Here are some board games I played last year, mostly on Monday nights. The associated comments are miniature reviews, if you like, but reviews derived from only a small number of plays in most cases.

7 Wonders

A “builder”, where the thing being built is a rather abstract representation of a civilisation. You can focus on resources, or science, or the military or just awesome buildings. It has minimal random elements, but can still feel rather random in the way it develops, thanks to the fact that people are playing simultaneously from hands of cards that are whittled away. This central mechanic of playing cards from hands that are shared around the table is definitely cool. The multiple routes to victory work well. I don’t really feel in control when playing though, and that feeling of detachment is not ideal.


An oldy but a goody. A cute representation of capitalist investment in corporations, where the only objective is to own big companies, and to be the beneficiary of mergers that you and other players bring about. It has just enough fidelity to what I imagine the real world might feel like to be fun, but it’s clearly silly in a number of ways. Has been fun each time I’ve played it (have managed it perhaps 3 times in total). It’s definitely too slow to finish, and there is too much luck in the draw of tiles. It hasn’t happened to me, but it’s easy to see how the game might end up leaving you with very little to do each turn. This is due to the way money only flows in big bursts, and rather selectively. A better simulation might see money flow to and between players more evenly and more frequently.


A fun, very social game where people are constantly talking and interacting with each other to hatch deals. I’ve played this one quite a bit, and I think it’s always been well-received when people first play it. The art on the cards is comically appealing, conveying the game’s essential light tone very well. I don’t know that one’s wheeling and dealing can ever be in the service of a long-term strategy. Instead, it’s all very short-termist (very tactical if you like). One’s skills are deployed to make the best of the current situation, and that’s definitely fun (if you like the wheeling and dealing), but I’ve never felt that I’ve been pursuing any larger vision.

Chicago Express

Another economic game, featuring joint (multi-player) investments in companies. It plays quite quickly, and has a very nice physical realisation (lots of cute wooden train bits that get deployed across an appealing map of north-eastern USA). I bought this mostly on the strength of the gushing comments on the BGG site (linked above), and I think I can see the same things in the game that the gushers wax lyrical about. There’s also a fine version of the game available for iOS devices (called Wabash Cannonball there). Unfortunately, people I’ve exposed this to have mostly been pretty unexcited about it. Some didn’t like the nastiness of buying into a company and then messing it up; another didn’t like the primacy of the auction mechanic (how shares are acquired), still another didn’t like having to share “their” successful company with another investor, even if that second investor was happy just to receive the dividends and keep the company successful.

More in this vein next time. Of the four above, CE has definitely been least successful. Unfortunately, of these four, it’d probably be my first choice. If I wasn’t allowed to play it though, I’d then go for 7 Wonders: it plays very quickly, still feels new to me, and may yet reveal hidden depths.

Wednesday, 11 January 2012

Board Games I

Listening to:

Dvořák, symphony no. 8 in G, op. 88. Played by the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, conducted by Carlo-Maria Guilini. (A free download from the Dutch Radio 4 channel.)

Why Board Games?

To even make this post, and have it properly tagged, I had to edit my list of “blog categories”. It already included computer games, but not board games. I don’t know why I was so narrow-minded when I started the blog (what was wrong with just gaming?), but I’ve definitely come back ’round to an interest and appreciation in board games.

As a young child, I was taught classic games like draughts (checkers in the US), chess and various card games. None of these made a particularly big impression at the time. I subsequently played chess at secondary school a bit, but was put off by not being particularly good, and disliking opening theory. Incidentally, I’m certainly willing to consider card games as if they were board games; the BoardGameGeek website has a similar attitude.

I guess the first game to make a big impression on me was Monopoly, which I played as a child with my cousins. I was sufficiently interested in it at the time that I even borrowed and appreciated Brady’s The Monopoly Book from the library.

As a teenager I also came to learn and play quite a bit of Go and Bridge. Go doesn’t have Monopoly’s social nature, but it’s clearly an amazing game: elegant, deep and sufficiently well-regarded to support professional players and an extensive literature. These factors made it the apple of my eye for quite a while. Bridge was a bit more social, but it suffers from the problem that the best ways to play (teams or duplicate) require at least 8 people and 2–3 hours. (Bridge also has the problem that it may be in terminal decline; see David Owen in The New Yorker.)

With the exception of Monopoly, all of the games mentioned are theme-less and abstract. The board games I’ve been playing more recently are social and much better themed. But that will have to wait for Part II.

Wednesday, 30 May 2001

A Trio of Games

Listening to:
Mozart, violin concerto #5 in A major, K219. This concerto has the moniker "Turkish" because of a very rhythmically exciting episode in the final movement. It's not really Turkish at all, but it sounds quite exotic. It's certainly very appealing.
A couple of links today. The first is to a description of a game called Mafia. It sounds like a neat game, one that requires little more than people in a room (i.e., no fancy equipment). The many possible variations one can make to the rules also make it appealing. Of course, it can be very hard to judge these things from the rules alone. You really need to try playing games like these to see how they fare in practice. I'd also like to get an opportunity to try it with a bunch of people I knew reasonably well so that I'd be in a position to judge whether people were lying or not.

My second link is to another social game, invented by a quartet of researchers in game theory (including the famous John Nash), called So long Sucker. This isn't as obviously interesting, but it might work quite well. Being perfect information (unlike Mafia) makes it more like that other classic, Diplomacy. (Oops! That was a third link. Well hey, Diplomacy deserves one.)