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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

Show off your smoothie moves in Blend Off, a fruit-filled dice game

One of my favorite headlines from The Onion is “Relationship At Point Where Woman Has To Learn Boyfriend’s Family’s Weird Card Games.” I’ve been there. I reached that exact point when getting to know my wife’s family.

See, in my own family, there’s always been a lot of variety in the games we play. We might bring out Apples to Apples, Yahtzee, Upwords, Taboo, Outburst or any other party game. In my wife’s family, there are only two games: Five Crowns and Dutch Blitz.

Five Crowns is a fairly straightforward card game where you take turns drawing and discarding, attempting to assemble a hand of straights and threes-of-a-kind.

Dutch Blitz, on the other hand, is unmitigated chaos. It’s roughly comparable to playing solitaire (the Klondike, Microsoft Solitaire kind). Except you’re playing against other people. And the cards have, like, buckets and ploughshares and dapper little Pennsylvania Dutch children on them. And you’re playing as fast as possible.

It’s a trap! Not pictured: your downcast face after playing this game.

When my wife, her sister, and their mother get around the table, it gets a little dangerous. Everyone sits on a pillow to get a better view of the cards. Hands get slapped. People start shouting “Darn your hide!” It’s scary.

One time, they offered to include me in a game of Dutch Blitz. My spidey sense should have tingled since I’d never seen my wife’s father play with them—but, with hearts in my eyes, it seemed like a great idea to partake in my then-girlfriend’s family pastime. So how did it go?

Look, I’m an over-thinker. I know that. I wouldn’t be writing this blog if I wasn’t. And the reason that solitaire-like games are engaging is that there’s quite a lot to think about. To level the playing field for me, a greenhorn noob, they restricted themselves to playing one-handed and I still lost by about negative 150 points. (Literally. You can get negative points in the game.)

I decided to employ the entrepreneurship “fail fast” mantra and stop playing Dutch Blitz forever before things got any worse.

Ever since then, I’ve been extremely skeptical of any speed-oriented game. However, earlier this year, I spotted a speed game about making smoothies on Kickstarter. I have a soft spot for games about food so I decided to give it a shot.

Blend Off

Blend Off is a game for 2-4 players from Thunderworks Games. You get one fruit die and two blender cards, and your goal is to fill smoothie order cards by rolling the die and adding the fruit on the die to one of your blenders. The order cards specify the exact fruit that a smoothie must contain (for example, two oranges and two bananas) and a number of stars based on the order’s complexity (larger orders are worth more stars). The difficulty in filling orders is that once you put a piece of fruit into one of your blenders, you can’t take it out—you have to either use it to fill an order or dump the entire blender. When you have the exact fruit to claim an order, you shout “Blend,” grab the order, and replace it with a new order. After all of the orders in the deck have been claimed, the winner is the person who collected the most stars.

I love the cleverly named smoothies like “Two to Mango” and “Rhymes with Orange.” Although, if you pause to read the names in the middle of the game, you’re probably going to lose.

Rolling and adding fruit to your blender is a great concept, but it’s made even better by a few ingenious little complications. The fruit pieces are limited in number. If all the pieces of one type are currently in use and you roll that type (for example, if there are no bananas left, and you roll a banana), you can grab the one durian fruit piece in the game and put it in another player’s blender, forcing them to dump everything (durian is apparently the world’s grossest fruit). Also, some of the order cards are “special orders” that modify other cards. These modifications are simple (for example, add an extra strawberry, or hold the second ingredient), but in the heat of the moment, they are just enough to mess you up. Plus, if you do mess up an order and get caught by another player, you have to sit and wait until someone else shouts “Blend.”

I was worried about the speed aspect being too frustrating, but the game is fun. Sometimes you only need one more orange to fill an order and someone else claims it. Sometimes you’ve just rolled the strawberry you wanted and someone else tosses the durian in your blender. Sometimes you roll three fruit you need in a row and grab an order just in time.

Fruit pieces

Blend Off has component quality where it counts. The cards are basic, but the dice are engraved and the fruit pieces are delightful wooden tokens. They remind me of the fruit-shaped Trix of yore or those gross Runts candy that taste like wet chalk.

The only confusing part is the mango is green and looks a lot like a pepper.

I also appreciate the considerable number of plastic bags that came in the game’s box. The dice and each type of fruit piece came in a separate bag, all of which were in another bag. Plus there was one of those silica-gel-do-not-eat packets. Any time a game comes with enough wooden bits to warrant a silica gel packet, I am a happy customer.

Becca and Kevin

When I explained the rules above, I didn’t say anything about Becca and Kevin. Who are Becca and Kevin, you ask? Becca and Kevin are characters mentioned extensively in the rulebook.

Conceptually, the story behind the game is that you’re a Smoothie Artist working at a smoothie place and it’s slammed with business because the high school girl’s volleyball tournament just ended. Becca is the manager of the smoothie place who gives you the orders (i.e., Becca is the deck) and Kevin is the runner who brings you the fruit to put in your blender (i.e., Kevin is the dice).

I don’t know how I feel about Becca and Kevin. I do genuinely enjoy the backstory they bring to the game. A hard-nosed boss and a slightly erratic assistant make perfect sense, and explain why it is so difficult to blend the right smoothies. But the Becca and Kevin abstractions also feel a bit forced. It kind of feels like, somewhere along the line, someone demanded that the game include characters just for the sake of including characters. At any rate, mentioning them to explain almost every rule in the rulebook didn’t make it any easier to read. I found myself getting stumbled up by their names when trying to learn how to play.

Game setup

If there’s one thing that I don’t like in games, it’s when you leave certain cards out of the deck when playing with certain numbers of players. If I’m playing a two player game, I still want to get the full variety of the game! Also, one of my biggest fears is that my wife and I are going to play the game about 50 times, and then we’ll have someone over and need to add in the additional cards for three players, and the extra cards will be pristine and snappy, and the two player cards will be greasy and tattered and floppy.

In short, I like my games like I like my hard drives: with consistent wear-leveling!

Blend Off has me conflicted in this respect. All of the order cards have the same back. However, on the front, different background colors specify which cards to include (i.e., if there’s a “blue” player in the game, you include the blue cards; if there’s a green player, you include the green cards; etc.). This is a really clever, intuitive way of showing how many cards to include for each number of players without saying something like “count out 10 cards for each player.” I love that. It’s a really slick solution. But, in the back of my mind, I’m always going to be worried about different amounts of wear on the cards.

Expansions

Blend Off includes a host of extra modes and modules. There’s an “Endurian Challenge” order card you can add where you actually want to get the durian. There’s a race mode where you’re not competing as directly against other players. There are spill cards you can use to enable spilling other players’ blenders. There’s also a Kickstarter-exclusive “Mystery Twister” expansion that adds cards with a “wild” ingredient on them.

That mystery ingredient better be orange or mango, or else I’m not drinking this.

I love what the wild ingredients bring to the game. On paper, it doesn’t sound like a big difference: if the ingredient is a question mark, use whatever type of fruit you want. But when you’re scrambling to make smoothies as fast as possible, that wild symbol trips up your brain in just the right way to make the game more difficult without introducing frustration.

Blend Off Jr.

When I was thinking about Kickstarting Blend Off, I told myself, “Hey, if the speed aspect is too much, it says there’s a non-speed variant for younger players.” This game mode is called “Blend Off Jr.” and it’s almost exactly the same as the main game. However, instead of each player rolling one die at the same time, everyone takes turns rolling four dice and trying to get pairs of fruit symbols.

Technically, this works. However, it’s just not as much fun as going full speed. It feels plodding and simplistic in comparison. I think it would be a good alternative for introducing the game to very young players, but it’s probably not a reason to buy the game if you can’t stomach the speed aspect.

Also, one thing in Blend Off Jr. was really jarring. On your turn, you roll the four dice, set aside any you want to keep, and then optionally make one re-roll. For me, at this point, the Yahtzee-style of allowing two re-rolls is so ingrained from games like King of Tokyo and Bang: The Dice Game that only getting one re-roll feels really weird. Plus, one re-roll feels very limiting with only four dice. I know there are probably legitimate reasons for only allowing one re-roll, but if you try this variant, it’s worth considering jazzing it up and just giving each player two re-rolls.

Final thoughts

The blender cards are mirror images so you can’t face them in the same direction. I applaud the designers’ commitment to aggravating OCD people.

Basically, I hate speed games but I love Blend Off. I love that it takes a familiar situation that’s typically a bummer (a busy restaurant is something everyone can identify with) and turns it into a fun game. I love the colorful look. I love the upbeat, preppy graphic design.

Also, for me, it’s nice to play a speed game where I feel like I’m not fighting an impossible uphill battle against my wife’s years of Dutch Blitz experience.

The actions you’re taking in Blend Off are simple enough that anyone can fully learn and comprehend the rules in about a minute. The challenge comes not from the complexity of the task that you’re trying to complete, but because it’s always going to be tricky to manage two blenders and keep an eye on three or more orders. It’s just the right amount of difficulty for a speed game: your brain is maxed out but not overwhelmed, which makes this game a winner for me.

Why I changed my mind about Exploding Kittens

I’ve been backing projects on Kickstarter since 2013. When Exploding Kittens launched in 2015—and went on to became the most successful board game Kickstarter of all time—my initial reaction was… how do I put this… a little bit dejected.

Why was I so turned off, you ask?

First off, from the perspective of someone who backs a lot of Kickstarter games, the actual game part of Exploding Kittens sounded questionable. The campaign’s refrain was that it would be a “highly strategic, kitty-powered version of Russian roulette.” As an elevator pitch, I found that less than appealing. When I think of really fun games to play, I think of Russian roulette… said no one ever. Also, I’m not going to say that calling the game “highly strategic” is flat out wrong, but it strikes me as kind of tone deaf or possibly just wishful thinking. On the spectrum of strategic things, it was clear from the start that Exploding Kittens was going to be closer to, say, slapjack or go fish than chess or the planning of the D-Day invasion.

When you back a lot of board games on Kickstarter, you get used to certain things. Most board game Kickstarters release the text of the rulebook, a playthrough video, and a detailed components list. Exploding Kittens did none of that. In fact, it was still being playtested. As in… they were asking for money before the game was even completely designed. That’s counter to what I’ve come to expect.

On top of that, the game seemed relatively expensive. $20 for essentially one deck of cards? $35 if you wanted the NSFW deck, too? Generally speaking, a Kickstarter game consisting entirely of 50-or-so cards is probably around $15. Even considering that they were planning on printing Exploding Kittens in the USA, $35 for the whole game was pretty expensive. Cards Against Humanity is printed in the USA, was $20 during its Kickstarter, and has 10 times as many cards as Exploding Kittens. On the retail side, Fluxx is printed in the USA, sells for under $15, and has about twice as many cards as Exploding Kittens.

Additionally, the Exploding Kittens creators seemed to have a bit of basic ignorance about how to use Kickstarter. Throughout the campaign, they had it categorized in the Playing Cards category, which is typically for decks of traditional playing cards with customized art, instead of the Tabletop Games category, which is for card and board games. (To their credit, at some point after the campaign ended, they did finally move it to the Tabletop Games category.)

I mean, I’m a big fan of The Oatmeal. He’s an SEO genius. Also, he’s a great cartoonist. His comics like “Why working from home is both awesome and horrible” and “What it’s like to own an Apple product” soothe my meme-addled, millennial soul. But was I ever clamoring for a game with a cat joke on every card? Honestly, not really.

You see really great, family-friendly card games like Fidelitas or Yardmaster make several thousand dollars, and then a mediocre-sounding game made up of jokes about hair and potatoes and stuff brings in eight million? (I mean, right now, the Bears vs. Babies follow up to Exploding Kittens has raised almost two million dollars, but a very similar looking game called Stitches that launched about a week earlier hasn’t even funded for $11,000.) It’s just sorta dispiriting. [Edit: Stitches has now funded after being promoted in a Penny Arcade news post.]

Anyways, that’s why I didn’t back Exploding Kittens when it was on Kickstarter.

Months later, when Exploding Kittens shipped, reports were mixed. You didn’t really have to look very hard for reviews heavy-handedly trashing almost every aspect of the game.

So, when I received Exploding Kittens as a Christmas present last year, it was with a bit of trepidation on my part.

The game sat on the shelf for a few weeks until some of my family came over for a game night. We mentioned that we had Exploding Kittens. They said they had it at home, had been playing it a bunch, and loved it! So we got it out and played it. And you know what?

It is legitimately fun.

The goal of the game is to not draw an exploding kitten. Every turn, you play as many action cards as you want (to do things like steal cards from other players) and then draw one card. If you draw an exploding kitten, you are out of the game—unless you can play a defuse card. The defuse cards eventually all end up in the discard pile and the deck always has one less exploding kitten than the number of players, so all but one of the players will inexorably draw an exploding kitten. The player left at the end of the game is the winner.

From the description, you might think the game is all about the exploding kitten cards. It’s not. It’s actually mostly about the defuse cards. When you’re playing, you’ll be trying to figure out who has defuse cards so you can steal them. Everyone starts the game with one defuse card so you have a general idea of who has and hasn’t played theirs yet (there is also a slim chance you can get more defuses randomly from the draw pile).

You’ll also be trying to manipulate the draw deck to make the exploding kittens blow up other people instead of yourself. When you do draw an exploding kitten and save yourself with a defuse, you get to put the exploding kitten back wherever you want in the deck—maybe right on top to get the next person, maybe three cards down, maybe on the very bottom. Other action cards also help you to alter the deck—by allowing you to reshuffle the deck, skip drawing a card, or force other people to draw more than once.

No game can be everything for every situation. I don’t think most people would want to make a whole game night out of just Exploding Kittens (unless maybe it was the only game available?). It doesn’t have the cavernous depths of nuance of certain other quick games like The Resistance, Coup, or Spyfall. I also don’t think it’s something you would just keeping playing and playing like you might Apples to Apples, Dixit, or Balderdash.

But you’d have to have a crusty, mummified heart to think that none of the jokes in this game are funny or that there is no enjoyment to be found here. There’s not much more intriguing than putting an exploding kitten in the deck and looking the next player in the eye to make them think it’s on top. Plus, the primordial pleasure of slapping down a “Nope” card to stop another player never gets old—and it’s even more entertaining when that “Nope” card has a picture of “Nopestradamus” or a bug-eyed “Jackanope” on it.

There are a couple of things I don’t like about Exploding Kittens. As with a lot of other games, the box is way too big for what’s actually inside it (although, it is a sturdy box and the finger cutouts for opening the lid are much appreciated).

Also, the rulebook has a big warning on it that says “Don’t read these rules: reading is the worst way to learn how to play a game” and refers you to an online video. In fact, reading is not the worst way to learn a game—but writing is the most difficult way to teach a game. Writing a good rulebook is really, really hard, but I wish they’d invested a little more time in that, particularly the “Taking Your Turn” section, which contains three numbered points that don’t exactly make sense.

In the end, though, I like Exploding Kittens because I had fun playing it.

After hearing “the most successful Kickstarter ever,” there are a lot of people who automatically think that Exploding Kittens must be the most amazing game ever. On the other hand, there are also a lot of people who are incredulous because they think that any relatively simple game must be terrible. In reality, Exploding Kittens is not the best game ever or the worst. It’s just fun, which is all that really matters.

Rolling the rails in Trainmaker, a train dice game

I read something very interesting about memory once: when you remember a moment, you’re aren’t just remembering that moment, you are also remembering every time you’ve ever remembered it. What that means is that you can never remember something without changing your memory of it. We think we’re calling up photographic images of the past, but actually our memories are actually always slightly distorted, like the rippling reflection of the clouds in a stream. You can never really know if anything you remember is true. I’m not going to claim that my memories are any exception to that, but I do have a few memories from my very early childhood that I think are real.

One of my earliest memories is looking under a train car. My family was at a train museum and I poked my head under one of the boxcars. The underside was black and crisscrossed by pipes and cables. I don’t know why I remember that, I guess because it was frightening and fascinating.

Trains are kind of awe-inspiring. I live in a noisy urban area, far from the nearest track, but sometimes at night you can hear the whistle of a train in the distance, a mechanical lion’s roar reverberating across miles of metropolitan savanna.

Perhaps this impressiveness is why trains have inspired so many board games. There is a whole spectrum of games involving trains to explore, from the largest board games to the tiniest card games and everything in between. For example, Trainmaker, a train dice game.

Trainmaker

Trainmaker components

Trainmaker is a game for two to five players from Grey Gnome Games. At the start of each turn, there are three station cards in the middle of the table and you’ll attempt to claim as many of them as you can. Station cards have a type of cargo (timber, coal, passengers, etc.) and a particular type of train (for example, a train with two blue cars and one green car). You claim a station card by rolling a set of seven dice with train cars on them and making that station’s train. Trains must start with an engine and end with a caboose, so you have to roll at least one engine, then roll the cars for the station, then roll a caboose. You can roll as many times as possible, but after each roll, you must remove at least one die and add it to the train you are building. The winner is the first person to claim one of each of the six types of station cards, or to meet the condition on their secret goal card (for example, three timber stations or three coal stations).

Trainmaker is essentially Yahtzee-like. You roll dice and choose which ones to set aside. However, instead of threes-of-a-kind or full houses, you are trying to make the trains on the station cards. I think it’s quite a bit more fun than Yahtzee, though. You don’t need a pencil and paper. You have a secret goal. Every single turn, you find yourself thinking, “Am I going to be able to pull this off?”

In fact, I think the game is fun, period. Trainmaker has just the right amount of interesting complications. You start almost every turn with a tough choice: do you add one engine to your train or two—if you only add one engine, you’ll have more dice available to try for the cars you need, but if you add two, you give yourself the opportunity to make another train to your turn to try to claim another station card.

There are also a number of ways you can manipulate the dice to your advantage. Every game, you get one train token you can spend to set one die to any side. Plus, you can spend station cards you’ve claimed to take special actions (for example, to re-roll dice or set one die to a specific side), but that means you won’t have those stations available to win the game.

Occasionally you will bust and not be able to make a train at all because you didn’t get an engine on your first roll. More often, you will find yourself desperately trying to roll a caboose to finish your train. Therein lies the fun of the game. It’s always exciting to risk it and see if you can get lucky and claim all three stations.

Art

I hear the train a comin', it's rollin' 'round the bend, and I ain't rolled a caboose since I don't know when.
I hear the train a comin’, it’s rollin’ ’round the bend, and I ain’t rolled a caboose since I don’t know when.

The cards in Trainmaker feature gorgeous illustrations in a sort of cowboy-Impressionist style. It brings to mind Western movies and the transcontinental railroad spreading out from big cities to the new frontier. You can almost feel the dust on your boots as you step onto the platform. The cards don’t all have unique artwork, but there are enough different designs in the game to keep it interesting.

Quality

The attention to detail in Trainmaker clearly shows that the game was a labor of love. Each station card has the name of an actual city on it. Less valuable stations are smaller cities, more valuable stations are larger cities, and I believe each station’s goods are based on the region of the city. For example, cities from the Pacific Northwest have timber stations and cities from Appalachia have coal stations.

Dice comparison: King of Tokyo (left), Trainmaker (center), Chessex 16mm (right).
Dice comparison: King of Tokyo (left), Trainmaker (center), Chessex 16mm (right).

The components feel premium. The cards have a sharply tactile linen finish on them. The train tokens are wooden. The dice are extremely high quality, with etched and painted train cars. Perhaps the only way the dice could be better is if they were slightly larger à la King of Tokyo. However, all in all, Trainmaker is in the top tier of quality.

Number of players

The game feels most engaging with two players. With two, you can keep an eye on what station cards your opponent probably needs and try to take those cards for yourself. With more than two players, you can’t really impact anyone except for the player after you and any stations you miss out on will almost certainly be gone before it’s your turn again.

However, something really interesting happens with more players. You are slightly disconnected from the other players and it feels a bit like everyone is playing their own game. I guess you could look at that as a downside, but I think there is also an upside to it. On other people’s turns, I find myself cheering for them to build the train they need.

I mean, yes, it’s still a competitive game. You’re still trying to win, and for you to win, everyone else has to lose. But you don’t win by tearing the other players down—by stealing their points or crushing their forces—you win by building yourself up. This means you can cheer for other people to finish a train without cheering against yourself. I like that.

Mini games

The back of the Trainmaker box advertises that it includes three additional “mini games,” all of which were added as stretch goals during the game’s Kickstarter project. I tried all three of them so you don’t have to.

All Aboard

Trainmaker All Aboard mini game
All Aboard? More like One Aboard…

All Aboard is a solitaire game practically identical to Yahtzee. You have a card with six options—for example, five of a kind or a full house of train cars. The card is used just like a Yahtzee score pad: you have three rolls each turn and then you either put a train token next an option to show that you scored it or you cover it with a token to cross it off. The goal of the game is to get as many points as possible. This is a fun solitaire game if you’re enamored with the train dice but don’t have another person to play with. The only downside is that the train tokens are slightly too big to lay flat on the card so you have to stand them up.

Lawmen vs. Robbers

Trainmaker Lawmen vs. Robbers mini game
Note: two of the six sides of the train dice are engines. The other four sides are one caboose, one blue car, one yellow car, and one green car.

Lawmen vs. Robbers is essentially a two player version of Texas hold ’em poker with train dice instead of cards. The dice are assigned a hierarchy from engine (lowest) to caboose (highest) and you try to make pairs, straights, etc. using three dice of your own plus one community die. Also, the lawmen and robbers each have two unique combinations they can roll to for a special action. Again, it’s a decent tiny game if you’re hankering for something else to do with the train dice.

Rail Tycoon

Trainmaker Rail Tycoon mini game
Remember, being a rail tycoon was so soul-suckingly unsatisfying that Andrew Carnegie gave his entire fortune to charity.

In the Rail Tycoon “mini” game for two to four players, each player is building a grid of station cards. You start with a hand of stations and roll the dice to buy stations from your hand, draw more stations, or steal stations from other players. When you buy a station, you can add it to your empire by placing it next to one of the stations you already own, assuming the icons of the two cards match. At the end of the game, you get points for having the most stations of a particular type, plus some additional bonuses, and the winner is the person with the most points.

In the first place, it’s a bit rich to claim that this is a mini game. It takes at least as long as playing Trainmaker and requires a vast expanse of table space. Also, it’s incredibly confusing. The matching rule for how to branch station cards is not clearly explained in the rules (I’m still not sure I got it right, or that there’s any way it makes sense). The scoring is tediously complex. The whole thing is overwrought, overlong, and just not very fun. There was a good idea for a game here, but it was hamstrung by the need to use the exact same components as Trainmaker.

On the whole, the mini games are a nice bonus, but I would steer clear of Rail Tycoon.

Final thoughts

What should we expect from Trainmaker?

What is the most that you can expect from any game? That it delights you? Surprises you? Engages you? That opening its box puts you in a dream state reminiscent of a Christmas morning, redolent with the tingling, expectant fragrance of freshly fallen fir needles and adhesive tape?

Trainmaker is a small dice game. I wouldn’t say “Hey, everybody come over on Saturday night and we’ll all play Trainmaker” anymore than I would say “Hey, everybody come over, we’ve got snacks and we can all play Yahtzee.” It’s just not that kind of game.

But I will say this: Trainmaker is one of my favorite games. It’s not intimidating to new players, it can be enjoyed by children or adults, and there’s just something ineffably satisfying about rolling those shiny, colorful train dice when you just need to get a caboose.

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!