Halloween is possibly my favorite holiday. I love the crisp fall air, the smell of pumpkin spice and apple cider, and the sense that there might be spooky things going on as the daylight hours grow shorter and shorter.
Halloween also means that it’s time to get out spooky card games, which brings up the eternal question, “Will I get out Tricks & Treats this year?”
Based on the name, Tricks & Treats sounds like it might be a game about magicians who make dog biscuits, but actually it is about Halloween candy. I bought this game because I’d seen it recommended multiple times by The Dice Tower and, from the rules, it sounded like a game that would be both simple and fun—one of those clever little games that takes a minute to explain but offers endless entertainment.
You start with several candy basket cards in the center of the table. One basket belongs to each player, but you’re the only person who knows which one is yours (there are also two extra baskets that don’t belong to anyone). You take turns placing candy cards onto the baskets. The person who has the most candy on their basket at the end of the game wins. That’s really almost all there is to it.
There’s just one catch. At any point during the game, someone else can guess which basket is yours. If they’re wrong, they’re eliminated. But if they’re right, you’re eliminated. So you have to get as much candy as possible into your basket without making it obvious which basket is yours.
Tricks & Treats also comes with a host of special baskets you can include for a more advanced game. Each special basket has a unique effect, like blowing up certain types of candy or moving certain types of candy around.
If you buy Tricks & Treats, it’s definitely for the gameplay, because as a physical product, it is unexciting. Technically speaking, Tricks & Treats has art. It’s like the Tootsie Rolls of art: bland, simple, and, if you didn’t know that anything else existed, you probably wouldn’t think there was a problem. Tricks & Treats doesn’t look terrible, and the graphic design is extremely functional, I’m just not a fan of the CGI-looking pumpkins.
Also, it comes in an ordinary tuckbox, which sucks more than getting a basket full of nothing but Tootsie Rolls on Halloween. Some tuckboxes have a nice finger cut out that makes it easy to open them. This doesn’t even have that.
On the other hand, the game is ten bucks. If you can’t stand the box, you can stop whining and buy one of those plastic deck boxes.
Part of me feels like Tricks & Treats doesn’t live up to the hype. This is a game that’s been featured on multiple Dice Tower Top 10 Lists. It’s got such an amazing hook—get the most candy for yourself right under everyone else’s nose. But every time I’ve played with people, they’ve kind of been like, “is that all?”
There’s just something about Tricks & Treats. It’s simple and ingenious.
It’s like… if I was sitting at a table with Frankenstein, Dracula, and The Mummy, would I get this game out? Well, playing cards weren’t invented until sometime around 600 AD, so it’s going to be tough to explain to The Mummy what we’re doing, but—yes—I would. You can go over the rules in a minute, and—barring the appearance of a 3,000 year old undead Pharaoh who has no basic familiarity with the concept of card games—no one is going to get confused. Tricks & Treats is not a classic game, it’s not something that everyone knows like Uno, but it feels like it should be. It has that same purity of design.
I’m a bit hesitant to recommend it for adults, and it’s not particularly fun as a two-player game, but I think Tricks & Treats is perfect as a Halloween game for kids. It’s straightforward, there’s a bit of math and a bit of deduction, and, if you only bring it out around October, it’s not going to wear out its welcome. For three or four little Halloween partygoers, I think Tricks & Treats is going to be hard to beat.
I felt like I’d been waiting on my copy of Go Nuts for Donuts for an eternity. When the package finally hit my doorstep, I went back and checked Kickstarter to see how many months behind schedule it was. To my surprise, it was actually right on time. It only felt like it had been forever.
Part of the reason was, in a freakish coincidence, Go Nuts for Donuts had Kickstarted at the exact same time as another card game about doughnuts: Doughnut Drive-Thru. Unable to decide, I’d backed them both. And Doughnut Drive-Thru had arrived months ago.
Another part of the reason was that the Go Nuts for Donuts Kickstarter project had been dogged by drama. First, the game hit the jackpot. Gamewright —BMOC publisher behind Sushi Go, Forbidden Island, and more—had swooped in and added Go Nuts for Donuts to their stable of titles, taking over many aspects of printing and fulfillment from Daily Magic Games. However, the acquisition ended up causing some friction in the campaign.
Gamewright kept most of the art for the game and made minor refinements to the rules, but gave the graphic design and logo an extensive makeover. The most controversial changes were to the doughnut cards—a total redesign of the backs and very significant alterations to the fronts—setting off several rounds of Kickstarter updates and backer outcry, ultimately culminating with one backer being credited as a graphic designer on the game after submitting mockups with suggested improvements in the Kickstarter comments.
Gamewright also removed 25 doughnut cards from the game, bringing the total down to 70 cards. Backers of the Kickstarter received all of the cards originally promised in the campaign, but retail copies are smaller and Gamewright may use the other cards as promos or future expansions (you know… I always suspected this is what you’ve been doing, publishers… taking things out of games and making them into promos no one can get…).
So, after all of that, it was a bit surreal finally holding a copy of Go Nuts for Donuts in my hand.
And my first reaction was mild panic.
I told my wife I’d only been backing small card games on Kickstarter and they wouldn’t take up much space. As soon as I saw this I was like, “Oh no, I’m in trouble.”
Gamewright, you done me dirty on the box size here.
Go Nuts for Donuts
Go Nuts for Donuts is a game for two to six players about collecting sets of doughnuts. Each turn, a row of doughnut cards is placed face up in the center of the table and everyone uses their own set of numbered cards to secretly select which doughnut they want. The catch is, you only get a doughnut if no one else wants it. If two or more people select the same doughnut, that doughnut is discarded.
Some doughnut cards are worth a fixed amount of points at the end of the game. Others are worth a variable amount of points (for example, Doughnut Holes are worth more points the more Doughnut Holes you have). Other cards allow you to take actions, such as taking cards from the discard pile. Once all of the doughnuts in the deck are gone, the winner is the person with the most points.
As I feared when I first laid eyes on it, Go Nuts for Donuts is suffering from an acute case of box-is-way-bigger-than-it-needs-to-be-itis. The game consists of one deck of regular-sized cards, one deck of small cards, and eight tokens. The box is approximately the same size as the box for The Resistance, except even larger.
Fortunately, in spite of it taking up so much extra room, my wife hasn’t divorced me yet, possibly just because Go Nuts for Donuts turned out to be really fun. The doughnuts look adorable and it’s exciting to try to build up a collection while out-thinking what other people think you’re going to pick.
So, perhaps a more interesting question would be… is Go Nuts for Donuts as fun as it could have been? And is it more fun than its erstwhile Kickstarter rival, Doughnut Drive-Thru?
Did Gamewright screw this up?
I have to be honest. I was in the camp of backers thinking Gamewright’s changes to the graphic design weren’t for the best. Originally, the doughnut cards were cleverly designed to simulate what you’d see in a bakery display case, with the doughnut depicted on a tray and the card text appearing on a placard—elements that Gamewright subsequently removed.
However, now that I’ve played the final version of the game and looked back at the original graphic design, I think it’s clear that Gamewright improved the clarity and crispness of both the cards and the logo. I’m still a little bummed about the loss of the placard stand, but I honestly think the updated design is better, cleaner, and more readable.
I also really like the “Dunkin Donuts”-esque font and graphic design that Gamewright decided to use. I don’t know that I would have recommended it if I was on Gamewright’s legal team. But it’s a step above the original ‘generic retro’ logo.
Which doughnut game is better for two players?
Go Nuts for Donuts is designed for two to six players. With each number of players, you vary the number of cards in the deck, aided by the background color of the cards (for two players, you include all of the green cards; for three players, you include all of the green cards and all of the pink cards; etc.).
The downside to this is, with two players, you leave out so many cards that you’re using less than 50% of the cards—and missing out on many fun and interesting types of doughnuts. It’s not so much a two-to-six-player-game as a six-player-game that you can play half of with two. I’m not faulting it for that, per se. It’s probably an unavoidable side effect of the design.
That said, Doughnut Drive-Thru compresses down for two players in an essentially lossless manner. Also, Doughnut Drive-Thru is just a slightly more complex, brain-taxing game that forces you to employ a much more roundabout thought process to play. As a result, I have to say Doughnut Drive-Thru is a better two-player game than Go Nuts for Donuts.
Which doughnut game is better for groups?
On the other hand, I gotta go with Go Nuts for Donuts for bigger groups. Doughnut Drive-Thru‘s tiny pieces and die make it feel like a much more intimate gaming experience—or almost like you’re playing travel size game. Go Nuts for Donuts has a much more easygoing feel, and the structure is perfect for larger groups because everyone plays every turn. No matter how many people are playing, everyone is always going to be engaged.
However, there is a problem with Go Nuts for Donuts and more players in that one person can get more donuts than other people (if you only play Go Nuts for Donuts with two, both players will get the same number of cards each turn). However, this discrepancy tends to average out over the course of the game. Also, there are lots of doughnuts that give you more points for having less cards.
Which game has tastier looking doughnuts?
One thing that’s sure to come up when playing either game is that the cards make you hungry for doughnuts.
As far as which ones look tastier, it’s an extremely close call. Both games feature similarly anthropomorphic donuts (and both also include a few non-doughnut treats like cookies, milk, or cupcakes). However, I have to give the scrumptiousness crown to Doughnut Drive-Thru because it has many, many more exotic flavor combinations (e.g., honey matcha) and its doughnuts generally just look a bit happier. Some of the doughnuts in Go Nuts for Donuts look like they will cut you.
Did Gamewright pick the wrong doughnut game?
I sincerely love both Go Nuts for Doughnuts and Doughnut Drive-Thru. I love the quickness and engagement of Go Nuts. I love how almost confusing it can get in Drive-Thru. There are areas where I think Doughnut Drive-Thru is clearly superior (two player experience and general bodaciousness of the doughnuts depicted).
However, I think Gamewright made the right pick. Their oeuvre is family-friendly games, and while Doughnut Drive-Thru is by no means inaccessibly complex, Go Nuts for Doughnuts is definitely the more straightforward, universally enjoyable game. I would feel comfortable bringing out Go Nuts with literally anyone: kids, adults, people who play a lot of games, people who don’t. I just can’t say that about Drive-Thru.
I’ve played Go Nuts for Donuts a bunch of times with different numbers of players and I’ve enjoyed it every single time. I find it to be an almost stress-free game. I don’t have to stress when bringing it out because I know it’s not going to be off-puttingly complex for anyone. And I don’t have to stress when playing because each turn offers a clear set of options, everyone picks, and whatever happens happens.
At the same time, it’s been hard to get a read on how other people feel about it. Looking around the table at the end of games, I haven’t necessarily seen a look of unbridled joy on everyone’s face.
Sometimes, when you’re playing, you will end up getting less cards than other people. I think some people have found this disheartening. On the other hand, I’ve played this game, sat there, not gotten any donuts for several turns, and thought to myself, “I’m not getting any donuts, but I’m still having fun.”
I mean, I get it. It’s frustrating to not get a card. But also… it’s kind of your fault if you don’t get a doughnut. Any time you don’t get a card, there’s always going to be one still out there that you could have picked.
So, I don’t know. I love Go Nuts for Donuts. Some people haven’t liked it as much, but there’s no game that everyone is going to like. Go Nuts for Donuts has become a new go-to option for me and, because it’s so easy to teach and learn, I’m probably going to play it more than Doughnut Drive-Thru. I’m not pleased with the box size, but when you consider the simplicity of its rules combined with the approachability of grinning doughnuts, there aren’t many games with the versatility of Go Nuts for Donuts.
On the one hand, there was Can’t Stop. I keep hearing about it, this “press your luck” classic from 1980 with a stop sign shaped board where you roll dice to move your traffic cones across.
On the other hand, there was Spookies, a cartoony ghost-filled game somewhat like Can’t Stop where you’re daring a group of kids to go farther and farther into a haunted house.
A couple of things sealed the deal. One, I played an online version of Can’t Stop and wasn’t totally feeling it. Two, Spookies was on sale on Amazon for about half as much as Can’t Stop and I had a promotional credit that was about to expire.
Spookies came out in 2015 from HABA Games, part of an effort to expand from their traditional dominion of children’s toys into the broader world of family board games. They kicked off with a lineup of three titles: Adventure Land, Karuba, and Spookies.
Spookies is clearly the black sheep of those three initial releases. Karuba was nominated for the Spiel des Jahres, the highest award in board gaming. Adventure Land already has one expansion and has received repeated praise from noted YouTuber Tom Vasel of the Dice Tower. Spookies, on the other hand, is just… around.
But Spookies was always the one that intrigued me. My heart abides at the spooky intersection of silly and scary. Could this be the Halloween game I’ve been looking for?
Spookies is a game for two to five players where you’re exploring a haunted house. Each turn you roll a special die to see which kid (or dog) you will control for that turn. Then, you choose to roll two, three, or four dice to attempt to move that kid higher into the house. Each level of the house requires a higher number to advance (for example, you need to roll a six to move through the front door and a seven to move onto the second floor).
If you successfully make it to the next floor, you get point chips based on how few dice you used and how high you are in the house—and you can choose to roll again to go even higher. If you don’t make it, you must leave behind some chips, go down to the floor you did roll, and your turn ends. The winner is the person with the most points on chips at the end of the game.
I gotta say, having played it, I love Spookies. You’re constantly evaluating whether you think you can make it to the next floor and whether the chips you might get make it worth rolling again.
I love the ghostly artwork. I love the double-sided wooden pieces and the enormous wooden dice. I love the thrill of rolling and rolling and rolling, trying to get all the way from the courtyard to that pile of chips in the attic on a single turn. It’s even got a dog piece that kind of looks like my dog.
The only weird thing about Spookies was there was this humongous sticker on multiple sides of the packaging that said “Game Night Approved.” At first, I thought this must be something like the Golden Geek, Dice Tower Seal of Excellence, or any of the 500 logos emblazoned on the boxes for Concept and Wits & Wagers.
Curious about what website, podcast, or other self-appointed arbiter of taste had designated it as “Game Night Approved,” I went looking on the internet and found… practically nothing—except for a couple of promotional posts from HABA itself, including this statement:
“HABA family games all have one thing in common; they are ‘game night approved,’ meaning that they were tested in several gaming rounds of friends and families… all of whom gave all three games a big thumbs up.”
So basically… it’s just a made up thing for advertising purposes.
C’mon HABA. This is just sad. Your games are sustainably manufactured in Germany to the highest possible standards of quality… and then you slap this mountebank accolade on the box? You don’t have to stoop to making up emblems. Your games are amazing. Karuba was nominated for the Spiel des Jahres! Stefan Kloß and Michael Menzel, the designer and illustrator of Spookies, are both literally award-winning. Plus, everyone loves Spookies. I love Spookies. Actualreputablebloggers love Spookies.
Let me help you out.
This is something I never do, but this is just too much of an injustice for me to let it stand. Here’s an official award:
Yes, I’m proud to announce that Spookies is the very first recipient of the coveted Existential Reviews Meaningful and Independent Nod of Endorsement, also known as the Silver E.R.M.I.N.E. (or affectionately just as the “Ermy” for short).
This is an actual, for real award that is definitely not something I just made up because I’m feeling bad for Spookies because it got bupkis while Karuba was nominated for the Spiel des Jahres. Unlike other logos that are just marketing jibber jabber or other gaming “awards” that are given out based on totally subjective evaluations of loosely formulated criteria, the Silver Ermine carries unmatched prestige because it is only given to games that exemplify the resilience, staying power, and perniciously irrepressible spirit of the invasive ermine weasel for which it is named.
Yes, just as the ermine is a “top 10 invasive mammal,” games that receive the Silver Ermine™ are practically guaranteed to slowly and relentlessly take over as much of your heart, mind, board game shelf, ecosystem, and/or wallet as they possibly can, resulting in complete displacement of any vulnerable, defenseless, endangered, or otherwise less worthy games therein.
So please join me in giving a hearty congratulations to Spookies! You can take that fake award off of the box now, HABA. And other publishers, don’t lose heart, I know it’s disappointing that you didn’t win this one, but there’s always next time!
Also note: there’s a printable mini expansion for Spookies (and Karbua and Adventureland, too!) that you can get from HABA’s website—except their link is broken so you’ll have to get it from an Internet Archive cached version instead. I haven’t tried it because I’m too cheap to buy a new color cartridge for my inkjet printer and also life is too short to try to figure out how to get this to print double sided or whatever. But it does look like it could be fun!
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.