According to the Reddit thread, some Targets have a special end-cap display with a secret door(!!!), behind which is a $4 pack of cards. Plus, it’s associated with some kind of mysterious “website”—cardhole.lol.
This immediately brought to mind all of the past Cards Against Humanity expansions that I’ve missed out on, as well as every other awesome, limited-edition board game promo that I don’t have and can’t justify paying outrageous prices for on eBay.
Following the links in the thread, I looked up the exact inventory at my closest Target via another website called BrickSeek—how does that even work—and they supposedly had nine of the packs in stock.
I determined to see if I could get my hands on one of these, so I headed to the store.
As I’ve written before, I was extremely skeptical about Exploding Kittens at first, but I’ve come to enjoy it. I have a love-hate relationship with Cards Against Humanity. It’s horrifyingly vulgar. It’s always baffled me that they even sell Cards Against Humanity at Target, that it’s just sitting there in the toy section, two steps away from Lego and Barbies and baby rattles. But, the game is funny, and once you get past the point where cards are funny just because they’re vulgar, there’s a surprising breadth, complexity, and poignancy to its humor.
I arrived at Target and made a beeline for the back of the store, suspiciously eyeing the other customers, wondering if any of them were there on the same quest that I was.
When I got to the toys, sure enough, there was a huge display for Cards Against Humanity and Exploding Kittens. And, somewhat anticlimactically, there was the slightly cracked open, not particularly secret looking hatch at the bottom, sort of obscuring a whole stack of card packs. There was no clamor of people peeking in. No surrounding crush of disappointed or elated faces. Just an ordinary store shelf, partially concealed by a flap of cardboard.
What have I done, I thought to myself. I’ve fallen for a marketing gimmick. I’ve just driven for miles to give away some of my money in exchange for a handful of cards for two games that I like but aren’t necessarily my favorite. What was I thinking. Every Target in the state has several of these in stock. This isn’t buried treasure, it’s ordinary merchandise, a shrink-wrapped box mass-produced in a factory in China.
Anyways, I bought two of them.
It turned out to actually be an expansion for three games: Cards Against Humanity, Exploding Kittens, and the Exploding Kittens Party Pack. It consists of 15 white cards for Cards Against Humanity, three cards for the Exploding Kittens Party Pack, two cards for Exploding Kittens, and one instruction card (for either version of Exploding Kittens).
The Exploding Kittens cards are called “Blind as a Bat” and essentially give you the ability to force someone else to play their cards at random for a turn. Unlike promos for some games that just don’t fit and ruin the whole experience, it actually seems like an interesting, screwy, Exploding-Kittens-y addition. Also, counterintuitively for something that comes packaged with Cards Against Humanity, there’s nothing indecorous about the Exploding Kittens cards, so you can add them to any version of the game.
On the other hand, the Cards Against Humanity cards are, in the words of Cards Against Humanity, “exactly what you’d expect.”
In the end, yes, selling cards out of a secret card hole in store displays is a marketing gimmick. But it’s fun, and $4 actually seems like a reasonable price for what you get.
As I removed the unusually thick plastic wrap from Fish Frenzy, one thought stuck in my mind: “Crash Games did it big.” Even the shrinkwrap was the highest quality I’d ever seen.
Crash Games was one of the first game companies I came across when I got into Kickstarter. I’ll never forget excitedly telling my wife about this train card game I’d just backed as we actually happened to be sitting on a train. That game, Yardmaster, turned out to have the thickest possible cards, huge wooden tokens, and a box that could probably survive a low yield nuclear strike.
The story of what subsequently befell Crash Games is probably well-chronicled elsewhere. There was a merger, a name change to Crash of Games, an un-merger, a name change back, and the founder went through some really tough personal times. The end result was massive debt and a Kickstarter campaign to fire sell inventory of their last two titles—Backyard Builders Treehouse and Fish Frenzy—in an attempt to pay the bills.
They sold a lot, but not enough to save the business.
That’s how I came to be melancholically cracking the plastic wrap on a Fish Frenzy box (I already had the original version of Backyard Builders Treehouse, a.k.a. Yardmaster Express), knowing it was the last time I’d ever open a brand new Crash Game.
Fish Frenzy is a game where three to five players are seagulls fighting to steal fish off of three to five fishing boats. Each round, fish cards are dealt out to the boats and then players claim boats. If two players try to claim the same boat, there is a fight using fish tokens. The winner of each boat gets to either keep the fish cards on that boat, or gain a certain number of fish tokens. At the end of the game, players get points based on who has the most of each type of fish card, and the winner is the player with the most points.
The idea behind Fish Frenzy is intriguing. It’s not a pedestrian game about fishing or fishmongering. It’s about what happens in between those two, it’s about externalities, about seagulls scavenging for a meal like hyenas of the sea-savanna.
The colorful, cartoonish artwork sparkles with an unabashedly jubilant joie de vivre that’s actually surprisingly hard to find in a board game. There’s a feast of depth and detail just on the box cover alone, the crisp caricatures of birds and fish subtly capturing the graven, dilated quirkiness of animal eyes, midway between Cookie Monster’s goggly ping pong balls and Quint’s monologue about lifeless doll’s eyes in Jaws.
Add to that Crash Games’ tremendous component quality and you have a seeming recipe for success.
In fact, I think the only possible gripe about the production is that the wooden player tokens don’t exactly look like seagulls. They didn’t seem to get the beaks quite right.
I annoyed everyone who came over to my house by asking them what they thought the tokens were without showing them what game they were from. Guesses included seals, geese, swans, loons, dinosaurs, Nessie the Loch Ness Monster, and shoes.
Aside from that one pointy little issue, though, Fish Frenzy is a perfect-looking game, stacked with so many bowlfuls of little wooden pieces that opening it up feels like tearing into a brand new box of sugary, rainbow-colored cereal.
Where Fish Frenzy falls flat is when you’re actually playing. It’s tough to explain because the game sounds interesting on paper. It sounds like there would be a give-and-take between needing fish tokens to fight with and needing fish cards to score points. But there isn’t. It sounds like there would be epic clashes over the best hauls of fish. But there aren’t.
It’s all undone by the fights. Basically, whoever has the most fish tokens wins. There’s perfect information and no randomness so there’s such an inevitable certainty to who’s going to win that you feel like it’s futile to even try to fight. You know exactly who’s going to come out on top before it ever happens.
I’ve thought a lot about Fish Frenzy in the months since we first played it. It seems like the idea is you’re bidding on the boats and the fish tokens are your currency. But it never really feels like that. There’s a hard limit on the number of fish tokens you can have, you start with a bunch, they’re useless at the end of the game, and points are in such short supply that taking the wrong boat can cause you to lose. So, everyone’s almost certainly willing to go all in every round. Which means there’s always an obvious pecking order, and you have a 0% chance of disrupting it.
Fish Frenzy just didn’t feel very fun.
Still, I don’t know. I’d probably play it again. Evidently some people thought it was a good game. And it did come with a pack of bonus objective and event cards that could add some new twists.
But maybe part of that is just me wanting Fish Frenzy to better than it is. I love the idea behind it and the screwy art and the wooden fish so much that I want to believe there’s a fun game underneath there, somewhere. I wanted Crash Games to go out on a higher note than this.
I was browsing Kickstarter instead of doing something productive and I noticed a new campaign for a game by Green Couch Games. It was called FrogFlip and it was to be limited to 100 copies.
I’ve been a fan of Green Couch ever since their first game, Fidelitas, so I was excited to see a new game from them, and since it was a limited run, I backed it pretty much without even looking at the description.
“Finally, all of my time spent absent-mindedly refreshing Kickstarter has paid off,” I thought.
And I was right.
FrogFlip is a game for two players. You sit on opposite sides of the table and line up four lily pad cards between you. Each turn you flip a plastic chip with a frog on it onto the table, with a deck of score cards telling you which lily pad to aim for. If the frog chip touches the target lily pad, you score; if it lands on the lily pad, you score double; but if it falls off of the table, you get nothing and lose a turn. Once the deck is empty, the player with the most points is the winner.
It turns out that it’s surprisingly tricky to flip a chip like a coin and get it to land where you want. You’re never going to make all of your flips. And yet, it’s also not so difficult or random that it ever becomes frustrating.
Because it was a limited run and hand-assembled, the game came in a plastic bag. However, the cards and chip are high quality and have stood up to many, many plays.
The whole game is so simple but so satisfying. Every time I’m browsing my game shelf, not sure what I’m in the mood for, and my eyes land on FrogFlip, I’m filled with a tremendous sense of joy and a desire to get flipping. FrogFlip is just fun.
I don’t mean to gloat because I have this game and you don’t, but honestly, this may be the biggest blast you can legally get out of a plastic bag.
Is the game completely without problems? Probably not. There’s definitely an issue with the scoring. Some successful flips earn you eight points while others earn you only one or two points, meaning scores can quickly become lopsided. The final scores can feel a bit more like they are based on luck of the draw than flipping skill.
Then again, one major application for this game is for a child to play with a parent (or other responsible adult)—it was created by a father-daughter team. This kind of scoring gives the child a chance against the adult’s presumably better motor skills.
Also, the whole thing only takes about five minutes. You can always play again. And the real fun is in flipping and watching other people accidentally flip the frog off of the table, not whether you get the most points.
I would also point out how delightful everything looks. A game this small needs just the right art and graphic design to make it pop, and this has it.
Before Green Couch Games’ campaign, FrogFlip was also Kickstarted back in 2013 by Sprocket Games (including a limited edition metal version that definitely seems like it wouldn’t break your table or send anyone to urgent care). So, who knows, it just may see another print run in the future. Don’t hesitate to buy it if you ever get the chance.
Now it’s time for a look at the Almost Got ‘im Card Game from Cryptozoic. Unlike the previous titles, this is not a remake of an existing game. It’s a completely new game based on the acclaimed episode “Almost Got ‘im”—where the villains of Gotham City get together and play poker, but one of them is actually Batman in disguise.
Now, I have to say, out of all of the episodes of The Animated Series, “Almost Got ‘im” is not really my favorite. I acknowledge its greatness. It’s extremely well-written and animated, the inclusion of so many villains makes it a classic, and it has the best closing line of any episode. However, personally, I much prefer the mind-bending confusion of “Perchance to Dream,” the cosmic horror of “Avatar,” or the grown-man-cry-inducing pathos of “Beware the Gray Ghost.”
Now that it’s back in stock and I’ve finally gotten to play it, what do I think?
Almost Got ‘im Card Game
A quick synopsis of the episode (“the villains of Gotham City get together and play poker, but one of them is actually Batman in disguise”) is enough to tell you basically what’s going on. The Almost Got ‘im Card Game is a lot like Werewolf or Mafia, with a poker-ish layer on top. One player is secretly Batman. All of the other players are villains. Batman wins by “subduing” villains. The villains win by figuring out who Batman is.
Each player gets a public persona: one of Gotham City’s villains. Each player also gets a private persona: one player is “Batman in Disguise,” while the other players get attributes like “Crafty” (can give out extra cards) or “Watchful” (can protect players from being subdued).
Each player has a hand of five cards from an ordinary deck of cards and takes turns drawing and discarding. Each player’s secret role ability is activated by a specific poker hand. For example, Batman can subdue another player with two pair (subdued players are partially out of the game). After each round of drawing and discarding, there is a blackout phase where the poker hand abilities are activated by secretly showing cards to a moderator.
I played this game with people who are frequent players of games. We all encountered stumbling blocks. As far as I can tell, there are three main problems.
First, this game convoluted. There’s a huge amount to explain just to get off the ground.
Everyone has two roles to keep track of. Plus, both of their roles have special abilities that are activated by cards. Plus, over the course of the game, you’ve got some players who are subdued and can’t do anything—except they can still vote and draw cards.
Plus, you’ve got “The Brains” role that rotates among the players each round. Only The Brains can accuse someone of being Batman and trigger a vote.
Also, one of the secret roles is “Catwoman in Disguise,” who has a totally different winning condition. And, if you’ve got enough players in the game, there might be even more players with unique winning conditions.
Also, there’s that blackout phase that happens after every round. During the blackout phase, everyone closes their eyes and the moderator checks with each player to see if they have the hand to activate their ability. A significant portion of the actions in Almost Got ‘im are taken during the blackout, and everyone is doing something slightly different, which inevitably means questions are going to come up. But, if anyone needs to ask for clarification during the blackout, it can completely ruin an entire game.
You’ll notice I mentioned a moderator. The second, and possibly biggest issue, is the game requires a moderator to keep track of what’s going on. This means one player essentially doesn’t get to play. Other games in this vein have innovated ways to play without a moderator (The Resistance), or have automated the moderator as an app (One Night Ultimate Werewolf), or have incorporated the moderator as a player (Deception: Murder in Hong Kong).
It’s not even just that Almost Got ‘im requires a moderator, though. It’s that the implementation of the moderator is awkward and inelegant.
The moderator’s main role is to verify which players have formed the poker hand they need. So, basically, during the blackout, the moderator has to get up, walk around the table, silently meet with each player, and—if necessary—give them a new hand of cards and keep track of who they’re subduing/protecting/healing/etc. The problem is, during a given blackout phase, most players will not have a hand to activate, but the few who do will take a long time to exchange their cards and point out who else they’re affecting with their ability.
If you were the moderator, and you spent 30 seconds with one player, and then one second with every other player, and then announced that Batman has done something, it’s going to be obvious who Batman is.
So, that means you have to spend 29 extra seconds with every player, just standing around, wasting a lot of time, and making a lot of distracting background noises to try to keep other people from guessing what’s going on.
The actual game in Almost Got ‘im is supposed to be during the drawing, discarding, and voting phase. That’s where the interesting discussion and deduction take place! However, in practice, it feels like you spend most of the time with your eyes closed and the moderator standing there, shuffling around, trying to keep things mysterious.
To add on to the general complexity and clunkiness, we experienced what you might describe as a “bad game.”
In the first round, Batman got two pair and subdued a villain. After that, because of Batman’s total lack of a poker face, everyone was essentially positive who Batman was. However, at that point, the Batman player was also The Brains, and since only The Brains can make an accusation and Batman wasn’t going to accuse himself, the villains couldn’t act on their knowledge. Plus, to top it all off, Batman got two pair again and subdued a second villain for the win.
Essentially, it was impossible for the villains to win no matter what they did.
This got me to thinking. Was this just a fluke? How easy is it for Batman to form the poker hands he needs?
Poker hand probabilities are a frequently studied problem in mathematics. The probability of being dealt two pair (and/or four of a kind) in five card poker is around 5%. This would put your probability of being dealt one of those hands twice in a row at less than 0.03%. But, that probability jumps dramatically when you go from ordinary five card poker to Almost Got ‘im.
Calculating the exact probabilities of forming a hand in Almost Got ‘im is a little tricky because you have a deck with two jokers and a choice of drawing from any one of three face-up discard piles or a face-down draw pile. I’m kind of lazy, so I did what anyone would do and wrote a Perl 6 script that partially simulates 1,000 games of Almost Got ‘Im.
The probability of Batman getting two pair in both of the first two rounds of the game is around 18%.
That means that, in a four or five player game, Batman is practically unstoppable around 18% of the time: the villains will only ever get one chance to guess his identity before he wins.
Now, I know there are some nuances to this. Some of the other players also need two pair, so—if those particular roles are in the game—they have the same odds of getting a hand and using it to do something that could block Batman. Also, the villains can astronomically boost their odds of getting a good hand by openly discussing and cooperating and using the discard piles to give each other cards. Plus, Batman’s got a tough enough job trying to blend in; if it was any more difficult, maybe Batman would never win.
But how fun is the game if a reasonably-poker-faced player is practically guaranteed to win a fifth of the time?
I guess the flip side is, in a five player game, you always have at least a 20% chance of randomly guessing who Batman is. So the odds are kind of even? Then again, there’s always a 20% chance that Batman is going to be The Brains… Plus, if Batman has already subdued one player, a wrong guess is going to give Batman the win…
So, who knows. The game is probably fine. It just really irks me that everyone can still lose even if they figure out who Batman is.
I was so excited for this game to come out. I’m the target audience. I love Batman: The Animated Series. I love any game with secret roles.
This game does capture the feeling of Gotham City villains playing a poker game. It really does.
But I’m not loving this game.
I worry about people who bought this based on the articles that said things like “Hey, remember that great episode of the TV show you loved as a kid? Now it’s a fun card game you can play at home with your friends!”
No, it’s not. It’s really, really not.
If you just want a fun, easygoing card game based on Batman: The Animated Series, you should probably get the excellent Batman Fluxx.
I try to avoid a lot of jargon, but let’s call Almost Got ‘im what it is: it’s a complex social deduction game for people who want to play a complex social deduction game.
You should sit down a have a long think before buying this. If you—yes, you, the person who is reading this—buy this game, are you ever actually going to get to play it? It’s too involved to easily explain to someone else how to be the moderator, so chances are you will have to be the moderator every single time. You may never even actually get to experience it as a player. Is that what you really want, or not? Personally, I enjoy moderating and facilitating games. But I don’t want to be locked into doing that every single time.
Maybe, if you happen to be part of a group that has played a ton of Werewolf or The Resistance, and you’re looking for something with a Batman spin that you can invest a lot of time into, and you’re interested enough to be on the web looking for articles about Almost Got ‘im, you would enjoy this. Just know what you’re getting into.
Whenever I hear a game is inspired by a classic game, I’m always intrigued. King of Tokyo puts a new spin on Yahtzee. Letter Tycoon is like Scrabble with cards. So many games manage to offer up a fresh take on a classic idea.
So when I heard that Pocket Ops was inspired by tic-tac-toe, I was immediately interested.
No, actually, I was like, “Is this a joke? Tic-tac-toe barely even qualifies as a ‘game.’ What’s next? Fill in the blank? Connect the dots? There could be a whole Highlights Magazine collection.”
Even after reading the publisher’s description of Pocket Ops from Marc at Grand Gamers Guild—which essentially said, “Yes, this is based on tic-tic-toe. Yes, I know, that sounds crazy. Everyone makes that face that you’re making. But it’s actually really good.”—I still didn’t believe it.
ThenI actually played Pocket Ops.
In Pocket Ops, you’re a spymaster sending spies to infiltrate a facility. Like tic-tac-toe, it’s a two player game with a three-by-three grid and your goal is to get three of your spies in a row. However, unlike tic-tac-toe, each turn, before you place a piece, your opponent uses a deck of cards to guess where you’re going to place. If they predict correctly, your placement is rejected: you can’t ever go where your opponent thinks you’re going to go.
This whole new layer of second-guessing transforms Pocket Ops from the trivially tractable tic-tac-toe into an entertaining, and even slightly sweat-inducing, experience.
On top of that, Pocket Ops includes several types of special pieces that allow you to take an action after you place them (“assassins” that remove an opponent’s piece, “pushers” that push adjacent pieces, etc.). All of the specialists feel equally useful and interesting. Each round, you get a random one, so there’s plenty of variety and you never know exactly what to expect from your opponent.
This game is legit.
The first play of the game, you’re thinking, “It’s basically a one-in-nine shot in the dark to guess the other person’s move. And yet, most people go for the center square in tic-tac-toe… are they going to go for the center square here… or do they think that I think they’re going to go for the center square…”
As you get more and more pieces onto the board, it gets more and more interesting. You’ve got to wonder about things like whether the other player is going to go in the same space where you just blocked them last turn. Are they going to go for the immediate win, or are they not going to go for the win because they know I’ll probably block them? Also they haven’t used a special piece this round, maybe they’ll try to remove my piece…
As there are fewer and fewer open spaces on the board, it becomes clearer where you need to place, so the amount of second guessing keeps going up.
Plus, you’re almost never out of the game. Even if you’ve totally failed and the other player has three spots where they could win, you can still come out on top if you can successfully anticipate their next move.
There’s nothing more gratifying than when you watch your opponent decide what to do and put their piece on the board, and then you flip over your card and show you knew where they were going before they did.
Even if you lose, Pocket Ops is always best two out of three. The first win gets you a power crystal, and a second win means you get to power up the Doomsday Device (although, even though it’s called a “Doomsday Device,” by putting it together you are actually saving the world, not blowing it up). If you want to get cynical, the Doomsday Device is an unnecessarily elaborate score tracker, and yet… it’s just fun. There’s something tremendously satisfying about putting that crystal onto that empty, crystal-shaped space for the win.
At this point in time, Grand Gamers Guild is a relatively new publisher. However, judging by their previous campaign for Unreal Estate, it’s clear that they care deeply about making solid games with excellent art and graphic design, and about keeping backers in the loop with frequent updates (and a surprising amount of puzzles).
Honestly, I doubt I will ever be able to look at tic-tac-toe again without thinking about how Pocket Ops is better. This is tic-tac-toe 2.0. This is tic-tac-toe fixed. This is tic-tac-toe transformed into a pocket-sized, take-anywhere, play-with-anyone board game where there’s actually something intriguing and fun going on.
Like, I don’t think you understand. Bang makes me feel like a kid again. I probably wouldn’t be writing this blog if it wasn’t for Bang.
But I never get to play Bang because dV Giochi came out with the annoyingly great Bang: The Dice Game, which takes the concept and overall feel of Bang and makes it into a faster game that is easier to teach. I begrudgingly acknowledge that Bang: The Dice Game is, in some respects, better than Bang.
And yet, The Dice Game can still feel a bit bland in comparison to the wealth of options and variety available in the card game. A die only has six faces. Bang has dozens and dozens and dozens of different cards.
So, when I heard that an expansion was coming for Bang: The Dice Game, I was immediately intrigued. Would it strike a perfect balance by adding some spice to The Dice Game without sacrificing too much of its simplicity and speed?
The Old Saloon adds a number of new modules. Let’s take a look at them.
Bang: The Dice Game is a dice game, so naturally The Old Saloon adds two new dice. On your turn, you still roll five dice, but you can choose to replace one of the original dice with one of these. The “loudmouth” die is weighted towards attacking: it has faces with double bang and double Gatling symbols, but it also has a new face for shooting yourself. The “coward” die is weighted towards healing: it has a double beer symbol and a broken arrow that allows you to return an arrow. The new dice are a different color to distinguish them from the original dice (although they are both the same color, which can make them difficult to tell apart at a glance).
I’m not big on the names of these dice. I know the whole game is kind of cheeky, but the word “coward” is so negative that it begins to affect the calculus of whether you want to roll that die. (Also, interestingly, unlike the shoot yourself symbol on the loudmouth, there’s no new negative symbol on the coward die… maybe the negative thing about it is just that it calls you a “coward?” Is this toxic masculinity used as a game mechanism?)
Regardless, the new dice are probably my favorite part of The Old Saloon. They give you more control. You can consider what your goal is each turn—do you need to attack? do you need to heal yourself?—and then pick a die based on that.
Plus it’s funny when you really want to take someone else out and—of course—you shoot yourself instead.
Possibly the biggest addition in The Old Saloon is the ghost. The first person to be eliminated becomes the ghost. The ghost still gets to take a turn, but they only roll two dice and they can’t use the results directly. Instead, they give one of the symbols they’ve rolled to any other player (or, if they roll doubles, they can give two symbols). On the first roll of the recipient’s next turn, they must set dice to those symbols.
So, for example, the ghost can try to give a beer to a player they want to help or dynamite to a player they want to hurt.
Obviously, adding the ghost extends the length of the game a little, but it also offers some much needed consolation to those in the unfortunate position of being eliminated first.
Plus it’s funny when the ghost saddles you with two dynamite from beyond the grave and—of course—you roll a third one and blow up.
Indian chief’s arrow
The Old Saloon also adds the Indian chief’s arrow, which is yellow to differentiate it from the ordinary blue arrows. You simply add this to the pile of arrows and, any time a player must take an arrow, they can opt to take it. The Indian chief’s arrow is worse for you in that it counts as two arrows. However, if you have both the Indian chief’s arrow and the most arrows (including the two from the Indian chief’s) you do not take any damage when the Indians attack.
This is the module that surprised me the most. I really wasn’t expecting to enjoy it, but it’s great! From a game design perspective, this is genius: it flips the arrows from something you don’t want into something you do want, inverting your whole thought process about rolling more times. Plus it’s funny when you try to get the most arrows, but—of course—you fail and lose half of your life points.
Role cards with abilities
The Old Saloon also adds an alternate deck of role cards. The secret roles (deputy, outlaw, renegade) now have a once per game ability that allows you to do something like, for example, take a second turn in a row or prevent another player from being eliminated. However, to use your ability, you have to flip over your card and reveal your role. There are enough different deputy, outlaw, and renegade cards that you can shuffle each type up and never be sure who will have what ability.
I like what these add but, in practice, we haven’t actually invoked the abilities very often. Sometimes we forget about them. Other times we are reluctant to reveal our identities. Other times we try to save them until the best possible moment but—of course—get eliminated first. Still, even if you don’t end up taking advantage of these right away, they give you something to grow into as you get more comfortable with the expansion.
The expansion also adds a number of new character cards. Most of these can just be added to the deck from the original game, although a few require other modules from The Old Saloon—for example, one character lets you roll the loudmouth die in addition to the five original dice instead of replacing one.
All of the new characters fit in perfectly with the original ones.
The only one whose ability even sounds bad on paper is the Apache Kid, who allows you to take the Indian chief’s arrow from another player. When I saw that, I was like, “That’s it? That sounds lame.” However, this is actually an awesome, game-changing ability. It puts the Apache Kid in pole position if he wants to make himself immune to arrows. Plus, it’s funny if someone thinks you’re on their team and they start going for the most arrows, but you’re not on their team and you use the Apache Kid to pull the Indian chief’s arrow out from under them.
Technically, the expansion also adds a couple more bullet tokens (in case you’ve lost some or don’t like making change as often?).
Because the expansion is structured as modules, you might consider picking and choosing which ones to add in. However, if you’re reasonably familiar with Bang: The Dice Game, I would actually suggest just putting them all in.
Without the expansion, Bang: The Dice Game feels a bit like it’s the actual Gunfight at the O.K. Corral: straightforward, stark, and blisteringly fast.
With The Old Saloon, Bang: The Dice Game becomes more like the embellished version of history. There’s more to see, more to do, and it feels like you’re in the middle of a bustling Wild West town where there’s something exciting going on around every corner.
One day I was browsing through my local Barnes & Noble when something on the shelf caught my eye: a copy of Lanterns: The Harvest Festival. I felt an unexpected rush of surprise and excitement and pride.
Some time earlier, I’d backed the game’s Kickstarter, got my copy, played it, and fallen in love with its beauty and simplicity. I don’t have kids so I don’t know exactly how that makes you feel—and I can only account for, at most, 1/1213th of Lanterns‘ commercial success—but seeing it at an actual store… I think that’s a small measure of how you must feel when your kid gets an A+ on their report card or hits a home run. You knew all along that they had it in them. It goes without saying that most games from Kickstarter don’t hit the big time and make it onto the shelf at Barnes & Noble, but Lanterns is that good.
Lanterns: The Harvest Festival is a game for two to four players about dedicating lanterns by placing them on a lake, more or less based around the Chinese Mid-Autumn Festival and Ghost Festival. The goal is to accumulate sets of lantern cards (three pair, four of a kind, or seven different) and trade those in for points. The winner is the person with the most points.
Each turn, you place one tile. After you place the tile, each player gets a lantern card in the color of the side of the tile that’s facing them.
As a result, every move you make gives a lantern not only to yourself, but also to the other players.
I know what you’re probably thinking. “If everyone gets a lantern every turn, how does anyone get ahead?”
There are a couple of ways. First, the supply of lanterns is finite, which allows you to try to orient tiles so your opponents qualify to pick up a color that is temporarily unavailable. Second, if you place a tile so it matches the color of an existing tile, you get an extra lantern in that color (plus, if one of those tiles has a platform, you get a coin; two coins can be spent to swap one color of lantern for another).
Consequently, the game is all about placing your lantern tiles to maximize the number of sets you can form while preventing the other players from benefiting off of your placement. Adding an extra twist, the number of points that you get for each set changes and decreases over the course of the game as you remove point tiles from a stack, so you need to keep an eye on which sets are currently the most valuable.
Lanterns builds an absorbing, puzzle-like atmosphere where figuring out your best next move is difficult, but not-quite-impossible.
On top of that, it’s gorgeous. The lake seems to ripple. The lanterns seem to gleam. It’s as if the haunting beauty of a harvest moon shimmering across the water is captured and boxed on your board game shelf.
The quality is impeccable, too. The tiles are durable. The cards are linen-finished. The coins are wooden and lovely. The first player token is a reasonable, proportionate size—not one of those ginormous ones that’s 10 times bigger than anything else in the game.
By all accounts, Lanterns has been a massive hit. So much so that Foxtrot and Renegade recently published an expansion: Lanterns: The Emperor’s Gifts. Because of all the hipster joy I take in saying that I backed Lanterns before it was cool, I was a bit disappointed that they published the expansion without a Kickstarter campaign.
Still, under any typical circumstances, I would rush out to buy any expansion for any game I love. But Lanterns is something else entirely…
Lanterns isn’t just good, it’s so good that it has me wondering whether an expansion could possibly improve it. It just seems so fully-formed and complete the way it is. It’s like if you heard about an expansion for chess. Sure, it could work—but is it going to make it better?
For me, there’s just the right amount to think about in Lanterns. You can’t play in a rush, and yet, you don’t want to either. The look of the game is so tranquil, it invites you to slow down and relax and spend some time pondering each move.
Who knows. Someday I will probably try the expansion. For now, I’m convinced the game is perfection.
I recently treated myself to an extravagant purchase. Like some kind of fabulously wealthy sheik to whom money means nothing, I went on eBay and dropped $50 on an out-of-print DVD.
Why? Because I wanted to see the rest of Star Wars.
We all know about Star Wars: the soon-to-be-nine episode saga of movies about the Empire and the rebellion and the Skywalker family. We all also know about Rogue One: A Star Wars Story and Disney’s upcoming lineup of additional spinoff movies. And we all probably even know about The Star Wars Holiday Special because we either suffered through it personally one night in a friend’s dorm room or we’ve heard it made fun of on The Big Bang Theory.
And that’s it, right?
Sure, there are a bajillion other Star Wars animated series, and computer games, and comics, and all kinds of other media.
But, as far as live action Star Wars movies, that’s it… right?
Actually, there are two other movies. Well, made-for-TV movies. From the 1980s. About Ewoks. Yes, Ewoks. The cute, cheerful, battle-hardened teddy bears.
These two movies haven’t been officially available since 2004, when a DVD release was made—probably for some kind of copyright or trademark maintenance reasons more than a desire to actually disseminate these to the public.
What you have to ask yourself is… was Leia meeting an Ewok your favorite moment in all of Star Wars? Did the the scene where the Ewoks take Han, Luke, and Chewie to their village leave you hankering to learn more about their complex society? Were you so disgusted that George Lucas added CGI eyelids to Ewoks for the newest special edition Blu-rays that you just want to see any bit of Star Wars that hasn’t subsequently been ruined with incongruous tinkering?
If so, I know just the thing for you.
Caravan of Courage
The first “Ewok Adventure” has a terrible title: Caravan of Courage. Maybe it’s just me, but I can’t hear Caravan of Courage without thinking it’s going to be about Stormtroopers forcibly marching Ewoks on an Ewok version of the Trail of Tears. Thankfully, that’s not what it turns out to be. Participation in the titular caravan is entirely voluntary.
I don’t want to spoil the plot in case someday you watch these. Let’s just say, some kids get separated from their parents… and then they meet some Ewoks (including Wicket—the same Ewok who Leia met in Return of the Jedi!).
Are you going to like this movie?
Well, do you want to see a move about a little girl who looks like Shirley Temple and a teenage boy with an attitude reminiscent of whiny-Luke-on-Tatootine-I’m-not-such-a-bad-pilot-myself?
Do you enjoy movies where most of the dialog is in Ewok-ish, except for occasional wildlife documentary style narration by renowned crooner (and voice of Frosty the Snowman) Burl Ives?
Do you want to see something that’s going to have you go “this is the weirdest thing I’ve ever seen” in the first ten minutes, before it kind of makes you want to fall asleep, before it then turns into a pretty decent and relatively-exciting mythopoeic story about an epic journey by a band of scrappy heroes carrying ancient talismans in a quest against insurmountable evil?
You could ask a lot of questions if you want. Exactly where were the kids during the first scene of the movie? Why is it called “the forest moon of Endor” if this much of it isn’t actually forested? Why does the giant have such fabulous hair? Is he in a hair band?
Who knows. None of that matters. The point is, don’t get mad at your parents because maybe your star cruiser will crash and you’ll never see them again and you’ll have to live the rest of your life in a hut with ferrets while eating blueberries out of orange peels.
The Battle for Endor
In case you thought the first Ewok Adventure had a terrible name, this one totally redeems itself in that department.
Just kidding. It’s called The Battle for Endor, which makes it sound like it’s about the battle at the end of Return of the Jedi.
Actually, though, the battle at the end of Return of the Jedi is the Battle OF Endor. This is about a totally different Battle FOR Endor. And these two Endor battles have about as much in common as my struggle to button my tight pants does with the actual Battle of the Bulge.
In case you were wondering what happened to the characters at the end of Caravan of Courage, this movie picks up right where that one left off. And then the Ewoks are immediately abducted from their village in a shocking, Trail of Tears type event.
This time, there’s no narration, but we do meet character actor and diabeetus spokesman Wilford Brimley playing a crotchety old hermit who lives in the woods like he’s six of the seven dwarves. Soon our heroes are fending off an evil sorceress (who’s totally not named Malificent) and infiltrating an ominous castle filled with basically, like, all of the least scary Deadites from Army of Darkness.
Again, you could ask a lot of questions. How is that spaceship going to fly in space if the gun turrets have open windows? What is the deal with that witch lady… is she yet another human who crash landed here? Does anything else come up if you Google “Wilford Brimley fight scene”?
I actually think I liked this one better than the first. The pacing is faster. There’s more action. The budget appears to have been higher (Wicket’s mouth moves!). It even manages to build genuine tension and then skillfully break it with clever, laugh out loud comedic moments.
My wife claims to like Ewoks but she didn’t like these movies. I said, “I’m sorry these aren’t the serious, mature, sophisticated films about Ewoks that you’ve apparently been wanting to see.”
I, on the other hand, loved them. I love the stop motion animation of the creatures, and the not-quite-John Williams theme music, and how the Ewoks always, always work together.
Do not expect anything remotely like the rest of Star Wars. These are not 1930s serial and science fiction inspired adventures. They are fantasy and fairy tale inspired stories targeted at children—in the same vein as other 1980s films like Labyrinth and The NeverEnding Story. There’s no mention of the Force or the Jedi or the Empire or anything else.
But if you’re tired of the space age and you just want to turn back the clock and spend some time hanging out with these little fuzzballs in the stick age, these could be the movies for you. Someday. When the rights are about to expire and they’re released again.
I didn’t grow up in the 1950s, but I can still remember when I was little and the ice cream truck would drive by. We’d hear the warbling of “Turkey in the Straw” in the distance, our mom would give us money from her purse, and my brother and I would run outside, waving a couple dollars in our tiny fists.
I remember all of that in a halcyon haze. That was before the internet, before smartphones, before memes, before Twitter… When I think about ice cream trucks, some part of me is still wanting to run to the curb, unrepressed.
But now it’s the 21st Century and I’m a grown-up millennial. I can’t even think about buying from an ice cream truck without a lot of questions.
First off, do they take cards? Because I don’t carry cash. Also, do I really want to pay ice cream truck prices when I could spend the same amount and get a whole box of Drumsticks on sale at Safeway? Also, just how fresh is the ice cream truck’s ice cream—some of that must have been sitting there for a while—the truck owner’s inventory turnover ratio can’t be that big, right? Plus, what is the carbon footprint of an ice cream truck?
I could go on.
Is it possible to recontextualize ice cream trucks? To restore their innocent and uncynical joy? It just might be…
Rocky Road à la Mode
Rocky Road à la Mode is a game for two to four players from Green Couch Games when you own and operate an ice cream truck. Each player gets an ice cream truck token and, as you take actions, your token advances around the neighborhood on the board. Using cards, you line up customers and serve them, earning yourself points and bonus abilities. The game ends once someone gets nine points and everyone else catches up to them, and the winner is the person who earns the most points.
When I read the rules, I was like, “I know what this is! This is like a tiny little version of Thebes!” The games use the exact same form of turn management where, instead of taking turns in order around the table, every action costs an amount of time and the person farthest back on the time track takes actions until they aren’t last anymore. However, in Thebes the board represents a fixed number of years; here, you keep going around the neighborhood until someone gets enough points to end the game.
As for how to take actions, there is one type of card in the game that represents everything: customers, ice cream, points, and bonus abilities. As you’re playing, you choose which cards to play as customers and which cards to serve to the customers. Then, once you’ve served all of the customers on a card, you earn the points and bonus abilities on that card.
The bonus abilities are treats you can serve without needing to play a card. You can also earn additional points based on those bonus abilities. For example, the first person to earn three orangesicle bonuses gets a card worth four points.
Also, you can pick up “wild” ice cream treats off of the street as you advance around the neighborhood. I don’t really even want to think about what that’s supposed to represent.
The game is challenging! It’s tough to balance and fully optimize which cards should be played as customers and which cards should be used as treats to serve the customers.
The only hangup was managing the cards you’ve played. Since the cards have different uses, you need to arrange your cards on the table to show or hide certain elements (for example, to hide any customers you’ve already served or to show the points you’ve already earned). The game gives you a truck card for this. However, trying to stack all of the cards under one truck card quickly started to feel like more paper pushing than doing Satan’s taxes. It was easiest to keep just the customers under the truck card and keep the bonuses and points under the reference card.
The artwork in this game is eye popping. At first I thought it might be so eye popping that it would distract from the actual information, but it’s easy to pick out all of the different elements on each card.
My one gripe about the graphic design would be that the card fronts are directional but the card backs don’t look directional. Maybe this is just me, but I hate it when I’m playing a game and I flip over a card and then I have to rotate it because I’m looking at it upside down. It’s nice when you can just look at the back of the card and determine which way to orient it.
Now, technically the backs here are directional, but you have to look so close to spot the directionality that it’s functionally impossible to see. Then again, this is a pretty minor thing, and I might be willing to make an exception because—honestly—the backs of these cards look awesome. I love the concept of collaging different art from the game to look like a traditional playing card back.
This is Green Couch Games’ first board game that actually has a board. Unfortunately, at least in my copy, the board never quite stays completely flat against the table. If it had been printed on the other side, the fold would lie down better.
That said, the wooden ice cream truck pieces are huge and graspably thick, and their mass helps to keep the board flat.
The game also includes a ton of extra treat tokens for use in variants.
Rocky Road: Dice Cream
The Kickstarter version of the game included a mini-game called Rocky Road: Dice Cream. It’s kinda sorta like a miniature version of Rocky Road à la Mode. It has a similar time track, but the customers you’re serving are dice and you track your inventory and points using little tokens. It’s not a bad game, and the tiny Neapolitan dice are so mouth-wateringly adorable that you want to pop them in your mouth like they’re ice cream bites. Still, the tokens are so small that it’s tough to play.
As I’ve gotten older, I’ve developed a sort of horror of suburbia. Do I want to look out my front window every day and see row upon row of identical houses? Do I want to be trapped in a neighborhood of interchangeable little plats, far away from everything? We’re not earls or barons, but we’re supposed to want to live in these imitation estates en miniature.
Rocky Road à la Mode embodies the empty darkness of suburban life: you just keep going around in circles until its over.
But Rocky Road à la Mode also captures a sense of joy and wonder, holding up the ice cream truck as a jubilant symbol of childlike excitement. This is a game I’d love to play on a hot summer night while relaxing with a bowl of ice cream.
Everyone knows Sherlock Holmes, the world’s greatest detective, created by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Lately I’ve been reading the Raffles short stories by E.W. Horning—Conan Doyle’s brother-in-law. Instead of a detective, Raffles is a gentleman burglar, essentially Sherlock Holmes’ opposite. Reading them is the closest I’ve come to feeling like I’ve discovered new, authentic Holmes adventures. If the original Sherlock Holmes stories are the Bible, the Raffles stories are the apocrypha.
Just like the typical Holmes story formula of an impossible to solve case, a Raffles story typically centers around an impossibly difficult theft. And, just as the Holmes stories are written from the point of view of Dr. Watson, the Raffles stories are written from the point of view of Bunny—Raffles’ devoted, practically sycophantic sidekick.
Raffles shares many characteristics of Holmes—intelligence, courage, penchant for disguises—but puts them all to use as a criminal. You wouldn’t say that Raffles is evil, necessarily. He tends to steal from morally dubious characters. Still, Raffles is a bad man. In one story, he plots a murder, partially to protect his criminal identity, but partially just for the thrill of secretly knowing that he’s committed the most heinous crime possible.
The stories were apparently quite famous and scandalous at the time, although as Sherlock Holmes has only grown more popular, Raffles fame hasn’t kept pace.
If a gentleman burglar was legitimately scandalous to Victorian audiences, how much have things changed? Fiction about criminal exploits doesn’t exactly carry a stigma today.
In fact, you’re no longer limited to just reading about burgling as you relax in the parlor in your smoking jacket. If you want to feel like a burglar, plenty of board games let you carry out your own daring heists. Which brings me to another game based on Batman: The Animated Series…
Batman: The Animated Series Dice Game
Batman: The Animated Series Dice Game is a game for two to four players from Steve Jackson Games where you take on the role of one of four DC Comics villains. Your goal is to steal as much money as possible without getting caught by Batman. Each turn, you pull dice out of a cup, trying to roll as many money bags as you can. You can stop at any time, keeping any money you’ve rolled, or you can keep rolling—but if you roll three Bat-symbols, your turn ends and you get nothing. The winner is the person with the most money at the end of the game.
Each die has six sides, two of which are alarm symbols. Whenever you roll an alarm, you can choose to re-roll it. Blue dice have more money bags, gray dice are equally balanced, and yellow dice have more Bat-symbols, so you can tell by the color of an alarm how risky it is to re-roll.
The game is a slightly redesigned version of Steve Jackon’s Zombie Dice. The main differences are this version has less dice (10 instead 13) but adds villain characters with unique abilities. For example, Catwoman scores double for any blue money bags, and Riddler gets an extra die on his first roll.
Zombie Dice 2.0?
I came into this game with zero knowledge about how to play it or Zombie Dice. Unfortunately, after reading the rules, I still felt as blind as Batman in the episode “Blind as a Bat.” I had to look up how to play Zombie Dice to understand what was going on here. Part of what’s confusing is the rules attempt to explain the special characters before explaining how to play the game. Also, the explanation of what to do on your turn tells you what to do so specifically that you don’t get a general idea of what a turn is like.
I’d always shied away from Zombie Dice because I find the zombie on the game’s artwork disturbing—and not in a good way. However, Zombie Dice is an ingeniously designed game. You’re a zombie. You want to roll brains. You don’t want to roll gunshots because that’s like you got shot. And, if roll footsteps, it’s like your victim ran away: you get to chase them down and re-roll. Green dice have more brains, yellow dice are balanced evenly, and red dice have more gunshots.
This translates directly into the Batman: The Animated Series Dice Game. Money bags are like brains; alarms are like footsteps; and Bat-symbols are like gunshots.
Except… does this actually make as much sense as Zombie Dice?
In Zombie Dice, a footstep icon for re-rolling works perfectly because a footstep icon doesn’t look inherently good or bad.
Here, the symbol for re-roll is an alarm. Technically, that checks out. You’re a super criminal and the dice are like buildings that you’re breaking into. You want to find money bags, you don’t want to find Batman, and if you just set off the alarm, you don’t care.
But… it’s pretty firmly established in the human brain that setting off alarms is a really, really bad thing. If you’re a criminal breaking into a place, you don’t actually want to set off the alarm. When you’re playing, you roll the dice, and your immediate reaction is, “Oh no, I set off the alarm! Oh wait, alarms aren’t the bad thing. Batman is the bad thing? But Batman is good? Oh wait, that’s right, I’m bad. I’m Poison Ivy. I don’t want Batman to show up. I mean, I probably do, because I probably want to kiss him with my poisonous lipstick. But, no, really I don’t.”
There’s an extra cognitive hoop you have to jump through to remember which icons are good and which icons are bad.
Related to that, the colors in Zombie Dice make total sense: green dice are good, yellow dice are meh, and red dice are bad. Every automobile driver, if not literally every single human being, understands that green, yellow, and red mean go, caution, and stop.
Here, the dice are blue, gray, and yellow. Those are the colors of Batman’s suit, but they don’t have the same innate simplicity. Blue, gray, and yellow aren’t hard-wired into your subconscious. It always takes a moment to remember which colors are good and which are bad.
On the other hand, that’s all assuming that you’re not color blind. For most forms of color blindness, blue and yellow are actually easier to distinguish than red and green. Plus… maybe it would just be weird to have green, yellow, and red dice in a Batman game?
The game ends once someone gets at least 30 points and everyone has had an equal number of turns. However, the game doesn’t include a way to track those points. You have to either use a piece of paper, or come up with some other way (Batcomputer?). It would be cool if there were tokens. Then again, for a four player game, you’d need potentially over 120 tokens, so it’s pretty obvious why they’re not included. One thing to consider is using poker chips or money pieces from a different game.
Also, the game is a cup full of dice, but you don’t actually use the cup to roll the dice. On your turn, you reach into the cup, pull out dice randomly, and roll them. Getting the exact amount of dice you need out of the cup can be problematic.
Keep in mind, this is not a bag, it’s a cup. It’s rigid. And we’re talking the size of cup you get when you order fresh squeezed juice at a restaurant: it’s not generous. Unless you have weird suction cup fingers, you’ll probably end up trying to tip it over and catch the dice without looking at what color they are (because that would be cheating). Except, of course, you end up dropping a bunch of them because you can’t look at them.
The inherent problem with creating a character-driven, muli-player game about Batman is there’s only one Batman. Sure, maybe the other players could be Robin, Batgirl, and Nightwing, but if you want a wildly diverse array of player characters, you have to make the villains into the protagonists of the game.
Batman: The Animated Series Dice Game embraces this, casting the players as Joker, Catwoman, Poison Ivy, and Riddler. Each of the villains has an interesting power that is reasonably tailored to that villain’s personality, and none of them seem conspicuously more powerful than the others.
A fifth villain, Mr. Freeze, exists as a promo card. It looks like the easiest way to obtain this promo is to order the game directly from Steve Jackson Games’ Warehouse 23 online store. Unfortunately, the Mr. Freeze villain is a card instead of a token like the other villains so you can’t mix them all together and draw one randomly. However, Mr. Freeze’s power is pretty intriguing since it enables you to run out of dice faster, which gets you more points.
The Batman: The Animated Series Dice Gamecontinues the trend from Batman Fluxx of putting the animated Batman license on a pre-existing popular game. In that case, it was Fluxx. Here, it is Zombie Dice.
Batman Fluxx is a clear improvement over ordinary Fluxx. Here, I’m a bit more conflicted.
You can’t say that the Batman: The Animated Series Dice Game is worse than Zombie Dice, right? Because they’re basically the exact same game. But… it’s kinda worse because it doesn’t have the same intuitive clarity. Then again, it’s definitely better because it’s got Batman and villains with evil superpowers.
Steve Jackson Games recently announcedZombie Dice Horde Edition, which includes a score pad for tracking your score and a dice bag instead of a dice cup. This fixes two of my biggest complaints about the Batman: The Animated Series version. The Horde Edition also includes two expansions.
This is a tough call! If I didn’t have any version of the game, I would find myself pretty tempted by the Horde Edition. And yet, the things I didn’t like about the Batman version were pretty minor, and the nostalgic draw of Batman: The Animated Series is undeniably strong.
When I first heard they were making a dice game based on Batman: The Animated Series, it instantly hit my wish list. Then, the very first time I played, on my very first roll, I got three Bat-symbols: an immediate bust. I’m not holding that against it, though. The Batman: The Animated Series Dice Game is fun, and I think it’s the best version of Zombie Dice if you’re a Batman fan.