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.

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.

Fidelitas is bona fide fun

The summer before my senior year of college, I took an intensive class on Latin. Yes, Latin. I know what you’re probably thinking. Latin is the second car of the language world—it’s a luxury language. And yet, Latin is also the gateway to understanding the ancient world, much of our own English language, and many great works of literature. Whenever you are learning another language, you are also learning about another culture, and this is particularly true with Latin: it is an opportunity to learn about the beginnings of our global civilization.

Since Latin hasn’t changed much over the past two millenia, the teaching of Latin—at least, as a written language—has essentially been perfected. For the past half century or so, many courses in the US have used the same textbook: Wheelock’s Latin. In a world where all of us are increasingly fragmented, where there are so many news outlets, television channels, and other forms of media that no two people are ever exposed to a common narrative, where in some ways we all have increasingly less in common, studying Latin connects you with generations of learners who came before.

Latin also helps to forge relationships with people today. When you take an intensive language course, you build up a camaraderie with your fellow students. Studying Latin in particular makes you feel like part of a club. Team Lingua Latina. It brought about moments of connection with older people that I wouldn’t have otherwise had as they recalled snippets they remembered from studying Latin when they were younger. “Amo amas amat,” “Gallia est omnis divisa in partes tres,” et cetera.

As much as Latin is the world’s most popular “dead language,” it would probably be more accurate to describe it as a “ghost language” or “zombie language” since it is still hanging around post mortem. Latin has many practical applications today. From a product design perspective, Latin enables you to choose a product name that is distinctive but still somewhat familiar and pronounceable to speakers of most European languages. Plus, your product can have the same name in multiple countries without the need for translation. Several board games have chosen the Latin approach, including Dixit, Agricola, and Terra Mystica. Also, a little card game called Fidelitas.

Fidelitas

Fidelitas components

Fidelitas (Latin for “faithfulness”) is a ludus (game) for one to four homo sapiens from Green Couch Games (Lectus Viridis Ludi). The prima facie goal of the game is to organize a group of townspeople to plan a revolution. Each player starts with a hand of character cards and goal cards. Several location cards are placed in the center of the table to form the town. Each turn, you add a character from your hand to one of the locations, use that character’s unique action (for example, the Dockmaster lets you move other characters next to the harbor location), then draw another character. Once the characters are in situ to meet the conditions of one of your secret goals (for example, members of four different guilds at the magistrate’s office), you can claim the points for that goal and draw a new goal. The first person to get ten points in toto is the winner.

The key aspect of the game, the sine qua non that keeps you engaged, is that while you are trying to meet your goals, the other players are trying to meet their completely different goals. Your modus operandi always has to be guessing what they’re trying to do while being none-too-obvious about what you’re trying to do. Sometimes you might move a character to a location and unwittingly help another player meet one of their goals. Sometimes another player might do that for you. Sometimes someone might figure out what you’re trying to do and block you, or vice versa. The feeling of clandestinely manipulating the town under the very nasum of your opponent transforms the game into a gratifying experience.

Veni vidi lusi

Fidelitas is an excellent game for two players. Technically, you can play with as many as four players, but I think I’m on terra firma in saying that two is optimal.

The character cards are called Virtus cards, which technically means "character" in Latin... in the sense of moral character.
The character cards are called Virtus cards, which means “character” in Latin… in the sense of moral character.

Learning the game is enjoyable, particularly if you and the other player are both new to the game and discovering it pari passu. The first couple of games, you don’t know what all of the different characters and goals are—ergo, you can’t really intentionally trip up anyone else—but it’s fun to see the variety of cards in the game for the first time. Once you’ve played once or twice, you’ll start to have an inkling of what other person might be attempting and you can try to outwit them. Of course, nota bene, if you focus too much on disrupting someone else, you won’t have time to meet your own goals.

Fidelitas is competitive but not cutthroat. It has some conflict, but it is not per se a confrontational game because it’s often hard to tell for sure what your opponent is doing. The tagline on the Fidelitas box is “a game of medieval meddling,” and “meddling” is a pretty accurate description. At the most, you feel like you are bumping and jostling the other players, not stabbing them in front in the entire Roman Senate while shouting, “Sic semper tyrannis!”

Ars ludi

Dulce et decorum est Fidelitati ludere.
Dulce et decorum est Fidelitati ludere.

One of the things that attracted me to Fidelitas was the pulchritudinous artwork. I love how the character cards bring to life the different dramatis personae of the game in a way that echoes the look of medieval illuminated manuscripts, while also harkening back to classic, hand-drawn Disney animation in movies like Sleeping Beauty and Peter Pan.

Appendices ludi

The game comes with an expansion called Manu Forti, which is Latin for “with a strong hand.” This is a rather clever name since the expansion cards each have an additional ability that can only be used if you have a large hand of cards at your disposal. Therefore, these cards are ipso facto a bit more complicated than the core game’s cards, but the differences are essentially explained on the cards themselves. Since it’s included in the box, it’s a bit of a non sequitur to call it an expansion and it’s easy enough to grasp that you can shuffle it in ab initio.

The goal cards are called Missio cards, which means "mission" in Latin. The Manu Forti expansion cards function as both characters and goals.
The goal cards are called Missio cards, which means “mission” in Latin. The Manu Forti cards function as both characters and goals.

The Kickstarter edition of the game came with a few promotional cards, making up a de facto second expansion. The cards are a bit of a mixed bag. On the one hand, they’re a great addition because you get some fun new characters for some of the rarer guilds, which boosts the variety of the game and slightly eases the frustration of trying to complete certain goals. On the other hand, the new candlestick maker goal is difficult in extremis, and it’s only worth a measly two points, which is basically nil considering how unlikely it is you will be able to score it.

Cogito ergo Fidelitati ludo.
Cogito ergo Fidelitati ludo.

Caveat emptor

Fidelitas has thick, linen finished cards, but the linen finish is only on one side of the cards and is less defined than in many other games. One of my cards got a crease in it from shuffling, although—mea culpa—this may be because I am bad at shuffling. Also, it may simply be because we’ve played the game ad infinitum and the cards are wearing out.

Cogitationes ultimae

After so long as our card game du jour, Fidelitas has a de jure position on my list of favorite games.
After so long as our card game du jour, Fidelitas has a de jure claim to being one of my favorite games.

Fidelitas has a special place in my heart because it was the first game I Kickstarted that both my wife and I really fell in love with. Between the whimsical artwork and the playful antagonism of trying to meet different secret goals, I think it is a perfect choice for times when you want to play a game with a little intrigue, but not wage an all out war. A fortiori, it is a great game for couples because it can’t get too mean; you can poke and prod your partner with no risk of it turning into a casus belli.

I could go on ad nauseam about how much I love this game, but I’ll just say this: Fidelitas always makes me smile. With gorgeous design and enjoyable gameplay, I consider Fidelitas the ne plus ultra of Kickstarter card games. If you’re looking for a delightful game for two players, you should definitely pick it up—carpe Fidelitatem!

Bigfoot vs. Avalance at Yeti Mountain: Searching for the best cryptozoology board game

Legends of Sasquatches, Yetis, and other undiscovered creatures have fueled human imaginations for centuries—including my own. When I was young and we would drive through remote parts of Oregon, I would look at the endless stands of evergreens, wondering if Bigfoot was out there somewhere, roaming the forests. I remember being a little boy, sitting on the floor in front of the TV, watching programs on the History Channel debunking videos of Bigfoot and the Loch Ness Monster. I also remember staying up late one night, watching the movie The Abominable Snowman of the Himalayas, captivated by the unexpected elements of cosmic horror and atomic age dread. I still haven’t written the definitive Bigfoot novel, but I did recently purchase two board games involving cryptozoological creatures: Bigfoot and Avalanche at Yeti Mountain. Are these games as majestic as the creatures that inspired them?

Bigfoot

bigfoot-components

Bigfoot is a game for two players, essentially a sophisticated version of the game Mastermind. One player takes on the role of a cryptozoologist attempting to locate Bigfoot’s hidden lair. The other player takes on the role of Bigfoot, trying to evade discovery. In each round of the game, the cryptozoologist player sets out two trails of clue cards. The Bigfoot player chooses which trail to take, and consequently, what types of clues to reveal. Then the cryptozoologist uses those clues to attempt to deduce the location of Bigfoot’s lair.

What does playing Bigfoot feel like? Well, what does “playing a game” feel like in general? You know when you’re halfway through a game of Battleship and you’ve narrowed down where you think the other person’s carrier is and you call out “A7” and you’re waiting for them to tell you if that’s a hit or not? Or when you’re playing Apples to Apples and you’re trying to figure out which card your friend will think is most “scenic” (“Ikea,” “Russia,” or “The Dump”)? Or when you’re playing Settlers of Catan and Sam just picked up five wheat so you declare a monopoly on wheat? Those moments of excitement define what “playing a game” feels like, right? You feel immersed and engaged, but you’re also relaxed because you’re having fun and enjoying yourself.

The point is, when you’re playing a game of Bigfoot, it definitely does not feel like you’re “playing a game.” You feel like you’re trying to solve a logic puzzle about solving a logic puzzle while another person is staring at you, hoping you mess up. It’s not like playing chess where there’s basically an infinite number of possible moves and counter moves. In Bigfoot, you know that there’s a finite number of moves. And you feel like, if you had a computer brain, you could figure everything out for sure. But you don’t have a computer brain. So you either have to pull out a piece of paper and make every turn last 10 minutes while you fully analyze the problem, or just hope you’re not making a dumb mistake because your tiny organic brain cannot fully comprehend all of the information in the game.

Avalanche at Yeti Mountain

aaym-components

Avalanche at Yeti Mountain is essentially SkiFree: The Board Game. If you don’t know what SkiFree is, just don’t tell me or it will make me feel old and outdated. In AAYM, the players take on the role of skiers trying to avoid a Yeti and outrun an avalanche. Each turn, players use cards to advance their skier. Then the player in last place chooses where to move the Yeti. Then the avalanche advances a predetermined amount of spaces, knocking out any skiers in its path. The winner is the first skier to reach the bottom of the mountain, or the last skier who hasn’t been flattened by the avalanche.

SkiFree was a computer game for Windows 3.1 where you get eaten by an Abominable Snowman. I loved setting the trees on fire.
SkiFree was a computer game for Windows 3.1 where you get eaten by an Abominable Snowman. I loved setting the trees on fire.

AAYM faithfully captures the spirit of SkiFree. It can be an extremely fun time. It can also be a frustrating test of your patience where it feels like you are crashing every two seconds. Essentially, AAYM is the polar opposite of Bigfoot. The only random element in Bigfoot is the order that the cards are drawn, and the rest of the game depends entirely on the deductive skill of the players. On the other hand, AAYM is practically a game of chance. You get choose which card to play each turn, but because you can never know for sure what cards other people are going to play, you can never really predict how many spaces you’re going to move. As a result, fully controlling your movement down the mountain is impossible.

AAYM looks like a game where you move your skier from Point A to Point B. However, if you approach it like that, it’s probably not going to be an enjoyable experience. You do have to be aware of your skier’s relative position on the mountain, but the fun of the game comes from trying to bluff the other players into playing a card that will make them crash. It feels a lot more like playing Skip-Bo than a sophisticated modern board game. But sometimes, at the end of the day, when you’re worn out from decision fatigue and you can’t stomach the thought of a demanding game, you just want to play something that’s quick, simple, and entertaining.

Game pieces

Avalanche at Yeti Mountain's wooden Yeti and skier meeples.
Avalanche at Yeti Mountain’s wooden Yeti and skier meeples.

I love the silly, cartoony artwork in both of these games. It’s legitimately difficult to hate either one of them when they look like this much fun. Plus, if there’s anything as fascinating to me as Bigfoot and the Abominable Snowman, it’s a board game with high quality wooden pieces. I love the wooden footprint tokens from Bigfoot and the wooden skier and Yeti pawns from AAYM. Unfortunately, the wooden tokens for Bigfoot were a Kickstarter exclusive item. The cardboard tokens included with the retail version of the game are tiny and sad in comparison.

Bigfoot's wooden (Kickstarter exclusive) and cardboard (retail) foot tokens.
Bigfoot’s wooden (Kickstarter exclusive) and cardboard (retail) foot tokens.

Box size

Bigfoot looks like it is a much larger game than AAYM. Do not be deceived. The actual components of Bigfoot are small enough to fit in the AAYM box. In fact, the actual components of Bigfoot are small enough to fit inside the tuckbox included inside the Bigfoot box. The Bigfoot box is a receptacle for transporting air from a factory in China to your house that incidentally happens to include a board game.

Barriers to entry

In a really bizarre coincidence, Bigfoot and AAYM come in two of the most difficult to open game boxes that I have ever encountered. You know how safes and vaults are rated on the amount of time that it takes a burglar armed with ordinary hand tools to open them? For example, a TL-15 safe can withstand a typical attack for 15 minutes and a TL-30 safe can withstand a typical attack for 30 minutes. The lids on these boxes are so tight, this type of rating system seemed appropriate. For comparison purposes, I scientifically measured how long it takes to open the boxes of several popular board games:

Batman Fluxx: 1 second
King of Tokyo: 1 second
Star Trek Catan: 1 second
Ticket to Ride: 1 second

Then I measured how long it takes to open the boxes of these games:

Avalanche at Yeti Mountain: 12 seconds
Bigfoot: 15 seconds

15 seconds doesn’t sound like a long time, but when a game takes 15 times as long to open as normal, it’s unbelievably frustrating and annoying.

Final thoughts

The legendary Bigfoot-ed Yeti.
The legendary Bigfoot-ed Yeti.

If I was forced to keep one of these games and throw the other one in the garbage, I would keep Avalanche at Yeti Mountain and trash Bigfoot. Bigfoot isn’t terrible. I can actually see myself playing it with my kids someday, with them as the cryptozoologist and me not trying to win, but just engaging in it as a fun way for them to practice logic and deduction. However, as a game to bring out with my wife, family, or friends, I would rather play Avalanche at Yeti Mountain. It doesn’t capture the experience of skiing down a mountain with visceral verisimilitude, but it is a viable value if you’re vying for a game with a vibrant, vivacious vibe.