FrogFlip is flipping fun

On January 17, 2017, I got lucky.

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 the 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.

Almost Got ‘im Card Game – Games based on Batman: The Animated Series, Part 3

Previously, I’ve taken a look at two other Batman: The Animated Series games. Batman Fluxx is a reworked version of Fluxx. Batman: The Animated Series Dice Game is a reworked version of Zombie Dice.

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.”

Still, “Almost Got ‘im” is a memorable episode and comes in first or second on nearly every best of episode list. Apparently, that was enough to make this game into a hit. Earlier this year, I was planning on buying this, but then a series of articles came out (such as Nerdist’s Batman: The Animated Series‘ best episode is now a card game” and Gizmodo’s “One of Batman: The Animated Series‘ best episodes comes to life…”), and it sold out everywhere.

Now that it’s back in stock and I’ve finally gotten to play it, what do I think?

Almost Got ‘im Card Game

Really though, a Batman: The Animated Series game inspired by Werewolf should be based on “Moon of the Wolf.” *sick electric guitar riff in the background*

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).

The gang’s all here. Even villains who weren’t in the episode.

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.

Complexity

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.

Moderator

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.

Difficulty

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.

Final thoughts

You do get a fantastic looking deck of cards.

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.

I mean, clearly some people are playing Almost Got ‘im and having fun with it. More power to them. I do want to play this again, eventually. But, at this point, I don’t see how this game holds candle to, for example, The Resistance, or Bang, or Bang: The Dice Game, or Spyfall, or Deception: Murder in Hong Kong.

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.

A preview of Pocket Ops

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.

Just kidding.

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.

Then I 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.

Prototype components for Pocket Ops.

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.

Prototype specialists for Pocket Ops. Some of these are stretch goals for the Kickstarter, and will likely look much nicer in the published version.

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.

Feel free to make celebratory noises that sound like a device powering up. Or not.

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.

Pocket Ops is on Kickstarter through June 26.


Disclaimer: A prototype review copy of this game was provided by Grand Gamers Guild.

Mosey into The Old Saloon expansion for Bang: The Dice Game

I love the card game Bang. It was one of the first games I ever bought.

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.

New dice

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.

Ghost player

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.

New characters

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.

More tokens

Technically, the expansion also adds a couple more bullet tokens (in case you’ve lost some or don’t like making change as often?).

Final thoughts

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.

You know how the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral has this grandiose reputation and is the basis for multi-hour long movies, but in reality it was actually over in about 30 seconds?

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.

Lanterns: The Harvest Festival is a modern classic

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.

Games you can play for dessert: Rocky Road à la Mode

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.

Is that little kid really going to eat three ice cream bars all by herself? Who knows. If you want to make money in this business, don’t ask too many questions.

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.

This just… fell off another truck? Or something?

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.

Artwork

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.

Which one of these is upside down?

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.

Components

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.

Sometimes your truck can drive onto another truck.

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.

It’s gotta be a health code violation if you pick these up off the pavement and serve them, though.

Rocky Road: Dice Cream

I wish more games had ice cream dice.

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.

Final thoughts

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.

Batman: The Animated Series Dice Game – Games based on Batman: The Animated Series, Part 2

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

I can’t see the Batman: The Animated Series logo without hearing the theme in my head. Dunn dun dun dunn dun dunnnn…

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.

One question: where are we breaking into that actually keeps their money in bags like this? Scrooge McDuck’s house?

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?

Components

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.

Villains

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.

If you want, it’s easy to pretend that Invisible Man guy from the “See No Evil” episode is another one of the villains here.

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.

Final thoughts

The Batman: The Animated Series Dice Game continues 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 announced Zombie 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.

Games you can play for dessert: Doughnut Drive-Thru

Something interesting happened on Kickstarter in September 2016. In a brief flash of odd synchronicity, two projects for card games featuring anthropomorphic, kawaii-cute doughnuts launched within a day of each other.

I couldn’t decide which one of them looked better so, of course, I backed them both. (I have a problem.) Both of them ended up funding.

The first, Go Nuts for Donuts by Daily Magic Games, is still in pre-production. However, after the campaign, it was signed by the publisher Gamewright—pretty much guaranteeing it will appear on store shelves everywhere, eventually.

On the other hand, the second project, Doughnut Drive-Thru by Grail Games, has already been printed, delivered to backers, and will soon enter distribution channels.

Doughnut Drive-Thru

Doughnut Drive-Thru is a game for two to four players where you bake and serve doughnuts. On your turn, you can draw a doughnut card, prepare a doughnut card you have drawn, or serve a doughnut card you have prepared. Each doughnut card has a preparation cost (the amount you must roll on a die to prepare it), a serving cost (the amount you must roll on a die to serve it), and a point value. The game ends once one player has served five donuts and the winner is the player with the most points.

A lot less intimidating than an actual pastry kitchen.

Of course, there’s a bit more to it than that, though. You start the game with two doughnut tokens (or three tokens in a two player game). To take the action of drawing, preparing, or serving a card, you must put a token on that action. If the action you want is full, you cannot take it. If you run out of tokens, you must pick up tokens from one of the actions. So, you need to be able to get the actions you want before you can even try to get the particular die rolls you need to prepare and serve your doughnuts.

Also, doughnuts that you have served can be used to give you a “plus-one” for any die roll. At the start of the game, you only have a realistic shot at preparing and serving low-cost doughnuts, but the more you serve, the better you get at it. Eventually, as you build up your supply of plus-ones, you can even try to prepare and serve doughnuts that require a seven or eight—higher than it is even possible to roll on the game’s six-sided die. However, even with plus-ones, nothing is guaranteed because rolling a one is always an automatic failure.

I don’t know exactly what it is, but this game sucked me in. The rules are simple, the cards are cheerful, and rolling the die is fun, but there’s also a lot to think about. You can’t just play on autopilot. What doughnuts do you want to go for? How many of your plus-ones do you want to spend to try to guarantee success? What action are you going to take next if you get the roll you need? What action are you going to take next if you fail? Also—and this is really important—what are your opponents trying to do?

Since you can see what doughnuts other people have in front of them and what they need to do, you can get into a bit of a mind game where you can try to block other people from getting the actions that they need. You’ll constantly be asking yourself, “If I go here, they’re going to go there… so should I go there instead of here?”

Art

Some of the foods aren’t doughnuts, but are still adorable.

Evaluating artwork is entirely subjective, but I still think I’ve come up with a foolproof proposition for determining whether the artwork in a food game is good:

The artwork in a food game is good if and only if it makes you hungry.

If the game reminds you of the food so much that you start craving it, the artwork is probably pretty good, yeah? For Doughnut Drive-Thru, the smiling dessert cards are very stylized, but they make me really, really want to eat a doughnut. I’ve been dreaming about biting into a Boston cream or raspberry filled pastry ever since I opened the box for this game.

Distractions

I came across a few little things in Doughnut Drive-Thru that stuck out and distracted me.

One of the types of actions you can take on your turn is called “work.” I wish they had called this literally anything else. Bake? Cook? Confectionify? Kitchen-up-a-storm? An action called “work” makes me think about, well, work—which is the last thing I want to think about during a game.

Similarly, most of the doughnuts have fun names (“Tastalicious Almond Bomb”) and/or names that are understandable puns (“General Custard”, “Cinnamoan”). However, one of the doughnuts is called “Annoying Wasabi and Guava.” As far as I can tell, this might be some kind of reference that I’m too web-is-a-series-of-tubes-ignorant to get. Who knows, maybe the other cards have in-jokes that I’m not getting either? Whatever the case, every time I see this card, it jars me right out of the game because “annoying” is not an adjective that describes food. All of the donuts sound delicious, except this one.

The only food I would describe as “annoying” is red lettuce. Every time I see a salad with a red lettuce, I’m like, why is there a tree leaf in my salad… did they just pick these up out of someone’s yard… this is annoying.

Also, the back of the box says the game includes “eight very small wooden doughnuts.” This just sounds weird. “Very small” is so relative—what does that even mean? Sure, they are “very small” compared to real doughnuts. But, at approximately the size of a defectively large Cheerio, I would say they are averagely-proportioned wooden board game pieces. I guess describing them as “very small” is expectation management that means people will be pleasantly surprised when they see the actual size.

Honey Nut Meeple-os compared to a typical meeple.

The thing that is actually “very small” is the die that comes with the game. It’s a custom six-sided die with a doughnut instead of a one, but it’s tiny. Rolling the die is such a critical part of the game that I wish it came with a big, beefy die instead of this decidedly diminutive one. I’m sure price point and production costs were a factor here, though.

14mm doughnut die (center) compared to basic 16mm die (right). 2mm doesn’t sound like a big difference, but it is.

In spite of the size, having a custom die with something different on the one face is still a huge positive feature for the game since it treats rolling a one differently than rolling any other number.

Bakers

The game includes four optional special “baker” characters. I love how compactly these are implemented: the reverse side of each player aid card has a unique power. The rules suggest that you should either deal them out randomly or let players choose them in reverse turn order.

“Gerdt” is an anagram for “gredt,” the sound you sarcastically mumble under your breath if you get stuck with that card.

I’m concerned the powers might not be completely balanced. Ordinarily, when you’ve used one of your served doughnut cards for a plus-one, you can’t use it for a plus-one again until you reset it by taking the “Coffee Break” action. However, the Peter baker allows you to Coffee Break one card each turn. Arguably, I can see how this might be balanced because you need a served doughnut to use it, and some of the times you are getting a plus-one from it, you would have gotten one from taking a Coffee Break anyways. However, when playing the game, this seems to generate a lot more plus-ones than the other powers.

This is not a huge deal, though. The powers are an optional part of the game, and you could just play without this one if you wanted to. Or, if you were playing with a younger player, you could give them this card. Or, maybe I’m wrong and it is balanced.

Final thoughts

You know how, if you just eat sugary doughnuts for breakfast, you end up hungry and wishing you’d had something more? This game is not like that.

I didn’t expect this game to stick with me, but it did. I keep finding myself wanting to go back and play it again.

And also wanting to eat a doughnut.

Batman Fluxx – Games based on Batman: The Animated Series, Part 1

When I was little, we didn’t go to the movies or rent movies. I only got to see a movie if it happened to be on TV when I happened to be watching, or if read through the TV schedule section in the newspaper and set the VCR to tape record it (seriously, this is the kind of thing we did back then). If a movie wasn’t on TV at all, I never got to see it.

At some point, when I was in college and finally had a computer with a DVD drive, I realized that I could check out any movie I wanted from the college library. I could finally watch all of the movies I kept hearing were great. I started with Citizen Kane and kept going from there.

Later on, I realized that I wasn’t limited to things I’d recently heard were great, I could go back to things I’d wanted to see in the past… things that I’d wanted to see when I was little but never got to. Which, one day, led to me bringing home Batman: Mask of the Phantasm.

Batman: Mask of the Phantasm, if you’re not familiar with it, was a theatrically released movie based on Batman: The Animated Series. I watched Batman: The Animated Series all the time as a child and so did all of my friends, and I remember distinctly when Mask of the Phantasm came out, but I’d never gotten to see it. The movie was itself something a phantasm—the closest I got to as a child was cutting an article about it out of a magazine (again, this is the kind of thing we did back then) and unsuccessfully trying to find the Phantasm action figure at every toy store.

It turned out that Mask of the Phantasm was great, too (and also, oddly enough, strongly influenced by Citizen Kane)—slightly darker than the series, filling in some of Batman’s backstory, and delivering some surprising revelations—everything you could possibly want from a movie based on a show. Seeing the missing piece of my favorite childhood TV series did not disappoint, even though it took me years to realize that I could just get the movie and watch it if I really wanted to.

For kids of a certain age, Batman: The Animated Series defined our childhood. When we played, we were always Batman and Robin. We had action figures, and Batmobiles, and Robin’s hang glider. We were experts on Batman’s different grappling hooks, from the regular to the needle-that-sticks-into-anything. I remember one time, on a field trip, a kid tried to attack me using the O-Nemuri Touch from the “Day of the Samurai” episode. I say “tried” because, hey, I’d seen the episode, of course it wasn’t going to work. (Also, it’s from a TV show—it’s not a real martial arts thing.)

Even as I grew up, I was never far from whisperings of Batman: The Animated Series. I remember girls in college saying they put the show on in their room and it got guys to come over—like some kind of guynip.

For kids of a certain age, Batman: The Animated Series has followed us all of our lives. Initially, it spawned Superman: The Animated Series, Justice League, Batman Beyond, and a host of other shows and direct-to-video films. The voice actors reprised their roles for the Arkham Asylum series of video games. Harley Quinn has ascended from sidekick created for the show to iconic part of the Batman mythos and America’s most popular Halloween costume.

Oddly enough, Batman: The Animated Series is having something of a renaissance in the form of board games, too. In 2015, Batman Fluxx was released. In 2016, Batman: The Animated Series Dice Game came out. And, this year, in 2017, Batman: The Animated Series Almost Got ‘im Card Game hit the market.

This is pretty weird, right? It’d be weird for even one game to be based on a 25-year-old children’s cartoon show, let alone three games, right? I can only surmise that the people making these games are like me and grew up watching it and still love it. (Also, maybe those girls from college went on to become savvy marketing executives in charge of licensing old TV series?)

In this series of reviews, I’ll be taking a look at these new games, starting with Batman Fluxx.

Batman Fluxx

Batman Fluxx is a Batman-ified version of the two-to-six-player card game Fluxx from Looney Labs. At the beginning of the game, each player gets a hand of cards and there are two rules: each turn you draw one card and each turn you play one card. The different types of cards you play either go in front of you (“keepers”), perform actions (like discarding or exchanging cards), or manipulate the rules of the game. For example, new rule cards can change the number of cards you draw each turn, change the number of cards you play each turn, or even change the victory condition (“goal”) of the game. The winner is the first person to have the keeper cards on the current goal card.

There are many, many different versions of Fluxx, from the basic, ‘unthemed’ game with keepers like love, war, milk, and cookies to licensed versions for everything from Monty Python to Firefly. They’re all largely the same, but each version has its own unique twists, from special rule cards, to different mixes of card types, to new card types like “creepers” (cards that prevent you from winning) and “surprises” (cards you can play on other people’s turns).

“He’s in a vehicle. It’s a black… tank.”

In Batman Fluxx, the keeper cards are Batman, his allies, and his Bat-gadgets. The creeper cards are villains from the series. There are also little Batman specific touches everywhere, like the Batcomputer gives a boost to your abilities, and you’re not allowed to have the Bruce Wayne card and the Batman card at the same time, and sometimes discarded villains go to Arkham Asylum (and then sometimes they break out again, too).

Gameplay

Essentially, Fluxx is about manipulating the rules of the game to make it easier for you to win and harder for other people to win. For example, you might play new rules that allow you to draw a lot of cards, but not your opponents. Or you might change the goal so it doesn’t include any keepers held by your opponents.

The first time I played Fluxx, I hated it. I thought it was a terrible, poorly-designed, aggravating, un-fun game. However, subsequently, I have totally changed my mind.

When I first played, it was basic Fluxx, version 4.0. The basic Fluxx deck, especially the 4.0 version, is somewhat meaner than other Fluxx derivatives. It has cards like “Hand Limit Zero” that can force other players to discard everything. It also has several creeper cards that, once you get them, are very difficult to get rid of. In fact, Looney Labs actually toned down the meanness of the game for the 5.0 version.

Batman Fluxx doesn’t have the harshest cards from core Fluxx, and while it does have a host of villain creepers, it has lots of cards that make them easy to get rid of or win with. For example, many of the goals require specific villains. Also, having any member of the Bat-family as a keeper allows you to discard one villain per turn, so there’s kind of a game on top of the game where you’re using the good guys to bust the bad guys.

I mean, it doesn’t feel like you’re playing a whole new game where you’re Batman tracking down crooks from the rogue’s gallery and catching them. You still feel like you’re playing Fluxx. But, Batman Fluxx is an exceptionally good version of Fluxx. Maybe not quite good enough to win you over if you’re still in the camp of people who hate Fluxx, but it’s good.

Artwork

In a manner of speaking, technically, Batman: The Animated Series never really existed. There was never actually a show with the title “Batman: The Animated Series” shown on screen. What we remember today as Batman: The Animated Series is one of two or three distinct but closely related shows. The series initially appeared with no title or words of any kind shown during the opening credits. During the second season, the opening was changed and the title shown as The Adventures of Batman and Robin. Two years later, a follow-on series—with slightly redesigned appearances for the characters—was produced with the title The New Batman Adventures.

Poison Ivy and Bane… I know I’ve seen them together somewhere before…

Batman Fluxx uses these later character designs. Frankly, I don’t think they are quite as good as the originals, but they are the standard look for Batman in the original DC Animated Universe. Also, Scarecrow isn’t one of the villains in the game, so you aren’t subjected to the terrifying redesigned Scarecrow.

The backs of the cards are the familiar “Fluxx” design to allow you to mix this with other types of Fluxx, however the fronts have detailed art deco borders with a tiny Bat-symbol to match the “dark deco” look of the series.

The box is the standard Fluxx box: a nearly perfect two-piece box with finger cutouts for easy opening and no wasteful air space inside. The cards are standard Fluxx quality: i.e., not thick or linen finished.

Promo cards

If you’re going to get Batman Fluxx, you should get the promo cards. The promo cards are the icing on top of the game. (Also, thank you to Looney Labs for selling their promo cards on their webstore so that they’re actually obtainable for people who aren’t able to get them at conventions or stores or wherever else promos come from.)

Flipping the coin makes you feel like an agent of chaos.

The first promo released was the “Two Face Flip” action card. Whenever you get this card, you can flip the included Batman coin to double your hand or lose all of your cards. This is maybe the single most fun card in the entire game. I always flip for it.

Clayface: a serious warning about the dangers of putting experimental pharmaceuticals in your makeup.

The second promo was Clayface. This is maybe the single most powerful card in the entire game because it can be used in place of any other villain. For example, if the goal requires two specific villains, you only need to get one of them and Clayface. This helps to keep the game from going too long (which is occasionally an issue with Fluxx) and brings a lot of extra intrigue because this card is so powerful that everyone tries to steal it.

“I threw a rock at him!”

On the other hand, the third promo is Killer Croc. He’s just a basic villain with no exciting powers. Which, you know, kind of describes Killer Croc for real, so it’s well-designed. But, since it doesn’t add any new rules to the game, it’s not as essential as the other two promos.

Final thoughts

I guess I’m finally old enough to be marketed to based on nostalgia. I remember when I was little, seeing advertisements on TV for things like Time Life boxed sets of 1960s music or commercials with people like Mickey Rooney, who I literally only knew from commercials. When you’re not the target audience, marketing based on nostalgia looks pretty transparent and pretty unappealing. However, now that I find myself on the receiving end of it, it looks a lot different.

Should I buy a card game based on a TV show I loved when I was in elementary school?

Back then, I couldn’t afford to buy every toy that was coming out based on Batman: The Animated Series. There were tons of them and I didn’t have an allowance that big (and sometimes I got into trouble and didn’t have any allowance).

Now, I set my own allowance.

Obviously nostalgia is a big selling point for Batman Fluxx. But there’s more to Batman Fluxx than just nostalgia; there’s an interesting game, too. Fluxx was originally released in 1997—it’s practically almost as old Batman: The Animated Series. Over the years, the game has been tweaked, polished, refined, and expounded upon. One end result of that is Batman Fluxx. If you like Batman and you’re looking for a fun, fast card game, this is well worth it.

Herbaceous: A card game where you play chicken with seasonings

I have absolutely zero interest in gardening. My personal gardening motto is “It’s impossible to control nature, so why bother trying?” If it wasn’t for my wife, our landscaping would just consist of whatever hardy weeds happened to come out on top in the epic Darwinian struggle for control of our front yard.

However, my love for food-themed board games is well-documented. I know, it’s kind of weird that I like food games given that my personal food motto is “You have to eat, but that doesn’t mean you have to spend a lot of time on it.” (Again, if it wasn’t for my wife, I’d be subsisting on microwave meals and whatever foods can be cooked and eaten while creating no more than two dirty dishes.) Still, I just like board games about food.

In fact, last year I had a streak going on Kickstarter where I’d backed four food-themed games in a row. At that point, Pencil First Games launched a campaign for Herbaceous, a card game about herb gardening.

I was not excited about the gardening part of it, but herbs! Herbs are technically a food! This could technically get my streak up to five! Plus, the game was designed by Steve Finn, and I’d heard a lot of great things about Biblios and other games from Dr. Finn’s Games. I decided to give Herbaceous a try.

Herbaceous

Herbaceous is a card game for two to four players. Each player gets four pots for planting herb cards and a private garden area for staging herbs—plus there is a community garden in the center of the table. Turns are very simple. First, you can take herbs from your private garden and the community garden and plant them in one of your pots. Next, you add more herbs to the gardens: you draw one herb card and add it to either your private garden or the community garden, then you draw a second herb and add it to the other garden.

Each of your four pots is different. One can only contain identical herbs, one can only contain different herbs, one can only contain pairs, and the last one grants bonus points for certain special herbs. The more cards you put into a pot, the more points you score. Once the draw deck is empty and everyone has potted everything they can, the game is over and the person with the most points wins.

The real catch is that each pot can only be planted in once. So, over the course of the game, more and more herbs build up in the gardens, and you wait until the perfect moment to grab the biggest set of cards you can and use up one of your pots. Since everyone is trying to do that at the same time, you end up with several simultaneously ebbing and flowing, “if I don’t grab these now, are they going to grab them” situations.

It’s kinda like playing 7 Wonders. Except there’s nothing but four different types of science cards. And no drafting. And… actually it’s nothing like that at all.

When I read the rules, my first thought was, “This is definitely not going to be as relaxing as it looks.” In a sense, there’s not much going on in the game since you’re kind of only doing four things the entire time. On the other hand, because you can kind of only do four things, there’s a relatively high sense of tension.

The feel of the game is also quite dependent on the number of players. With two players, you randomly leave a lot of the herbs out of the deck, making the game much shorter. In fact, it’s so quick, tense, and strategic that it almost feels like a microgame.

In some ways, I actually found the game more enjoyable with more players, though. With four players, it feels like there’s less brinksmanship. You basically just have to take what you can get—an experience that aligns better with the placid looking cards.

Artwork

Is that tarragon or Gillyweed?

Speaking of the cards, Herbaceous is hands down one of the most beautiful card games I’ve ever seen. I found myself looking through my board game shelf to see if there was something that I could try to claim is objectively more beautiful than Herbaceous, but I came up empty. There are many gorgeously illustrated games, but I’ve never seen one that conveys quite this feeling of watercolory tranquility before. Maybe Dixit or Lanterns: The Harvest Festival?

Flavor Pack expansion

It’s not just herbaceous… it’s also spicebaceous.

The Kickstarter version of Herbaceous also includes a “Flavor Pack” expansion, which consists of three spice cards. I like the concept of a spice expansion (herbs and spices… get it?) and the spice cards have the same gorgeous illustrations as the herb cards. But, otherwise, I wasn’t a big fan of this.

First of all, the instructions are confusing. There are two instruction cards. One of them says to shuffle the spices into the bottom half of the deck; the other one says to “slide” the spices in and implies you shouldn’t shuffle. Obviously, it would be problematic to not shuffle them in because you’d have a decent idea of when they’re going to come up. But, if you’re expected to thoroughly shuffle them in anyways, why do the other instructions explicitly tell you to not put them on the top or bottom of the deck? That’s confusing, but it’s a relatively minor annoyance.

My biggest gripe is that the expansion changes the whole feel of the game. The core game has a very harmonious mix of predictability and randomness. However, with the expansion in play, you find yourself going along, watching the cards, making a plan—and then a random spice card pops up and completely disrupts the entire flow. At best, it makes you do something that feels pointless, like move cards around. At worst, it has you taking cards from other players and them taking cards from you, significantly increasing the amount of hostility in the game.

Also, this is a corner case, but one of the spice cards (star anise) can put you in a situation where you have to cause yourself to lose points (if you’re facing just the right mix of cards, you can be left with no option but to plant a regular herb in your special herb pot, costing you bonus points). That’s just not fun.

I might be okay with the spice cards if there were more of them. But, with only two in the deck at a time, they’re very jarring. I wouldn’t feel like I was missing out if I didn’t have this expansion.

Final thoughts

There’s a duality to Herbaceous. On the one hand, you’ve got the breathtaking artwork. On the other hand, you’ve got the rules of the game. There’s a kind of dissonance in the intersection of the two halves. When you see a game about gardening, you probably expect something that recreates the peaceful feeling of sinking a trowel into fresh soil to plant a colorful spring flower. This is not that game.

In the grand scheme of things, Herbaceous probably isn’t “mean” or “aggravating,” but it’s definitely meaner and more aggravating than it looks from the artwork.

Don’t get me wrong—I really like Herbaceous.

But I’ve also seen people get really ticked off while playing this game. Fundamentally, I think that has to do with the scarcity of actions. You’ve basically only got four chances to score points over the entire course of the game, and each one of those chances requires you to have a very different set of cards. So, when someone else torpedoes one of those chances, it’s pretty frustrating because there’s not much you can do to readjust.

Lately, I’ve been reading this novel—The Centaur by Algernon Blackwood. In it, the main character has these vaguely supernatural encounters. At the same time, he experiences a sort of awakening, becoming aware of a level of consciousness where the Earth is a single living organism, where he can feel more than just his own body. He begins to express a desire to live one half in the material world of perception and one half in the world of greater awareness: a perfect balanced outlook.

I think there’s a lot of wisdom inside that “half-in, half-out” philosophy. None of us are going to meet a centaur, but there’s still something in there that we can all apply to our own lives. We can get so wrapped up in the things around us when the universe is much vaster, deeper, and older than our transitory problems. We can’t spend every minute of the day spaced out and thinking about abstractions, but we’d all have an easier time dealing with difficult situations if we were less focused on our immediate reality and more focused on the brief, small nature of all the material things we interact with.

This is particularly true with Herbaceous. When you’re playing, you really have to keep in mind, “half-in, half-out.” Sure, people are taking the herb cards you want, but it’s okay. There will be other plantings. If you stay focused on that, it’s an all-around beautiful game.