Most of us have a junk drawer. When I was shopping for a desk for my home office, I specifically looked for one that didn’t have any drawers to prevent myself from starting another junk drawer. Junk drawers are the enemy and you must take them out before they even have a chance to sprout.
I haven’t been entirely successful in eradicating junk drawers from my life, though. I still have a giant junk drawer in my garage. It’s full of screws, weird extra bolts from Ikea furniture (I think everything is put together correctly?), and cast off washers I’ve found lying around (our garage door is, like, molting or something).
Sometimes you put too much in a junk drawer and it comes back to bite you. Have you ever been rummaging through your junk drawer, searching for a highlighter or a rubber band or a tiny tube of super glue, only to be stuck by a random fish hook you threw in there five years ago?
Are you tired of board games about ridiculous things like zombie apocalypses, spaceships with laser guns, and Lovecraftian abominations? Do you yearn for games that bring to mind everyday household dilemmas?
What if the sweat and trepidation of rummaging in that junk drawer, trying to pull things out without getting stuck by that fish hook, could be turned into a card game?
Well, don’t worry, because it has.
Grommets and Hooks
Grommets and Hooks is a card game for two to four players from OniiChan Games. Each player gets one turn. On your turn, you draw as many cards as you want from the deck, one at a time. If every card you draw is a grommet, you are safe. However, if you draw a hook, you are out of the game. Among the players who were not eliminated, the winner is the player who drew the most grommet cards.
I was expecting to hate this game but, I can’t lie, I actually had a bit of fun. There’s something absurdly delightful about flipping over a card and seeing a macro shot of a tiny piece of rubber—a nonsensical gamification of the experience of browsing a plumbing supplies catalog. You’ll find yourself recoiling as if you’ve been pricked whenever you draw a hook-exclamation-point. My new Pavlovian response is relief whenever I see a grommet.
I mean, a cynic would probably say that there’s not much of a game here. And there’s some truth to that. You only have one choice to make: how many cards to draw (and, if you’re the last player, you don’t even really have that—you have to either keep drawing until you have the most grommets or lose). But, you know, from a decisional perspective, that’s infinitely more of a game than some extremely popular games like Candy Land or the card game War. Those require literally zero exercise of free thought: you just go through the motions and see what happens.
This left me sitting and thinking for a quite a while. What’s more fun: a stripped-down, minimalist game like Grommets and Hooks where there are still decisions to make, or a dolled-up game with all the trimmings like Candy Land where there are no decisions at all? Is a game still a game if you can’t actually change anything? Are actions meaningful without consequences? Why wasn’t Captain Kirk happy living in the Nexus? Is Westworld fun if the robots can’t shoot back? Are rollercoasters exciting or are they just perfectly safe little trains with a lot of hype?
The cards in Grommets and Hooks consist of pictures of grommets and hooks (plus words indicating which are which—in case you don’t know a rolled rim from a wacky worm). As far as I can tell, all of the cards are unique, so you get a bit of an education in the wide, wide world of grommets.
Grommets and Hooks did not come in a box. It was simply a pack of shrinkwrapped cards. However, the cellophane wrapping appeared to be very high quality. It was brittle and there was a hole in the end, making it easy to tear off.
The cards feel kind of papery, but they are thick, resilient, and shuffled easily.
There are some weird things going with the scoring. You get one point for winning the game. Presumably, you can play multiple times in a row and keep a running total of all the points to see who is the ultimate winner.
In the event of a tie, however, the rules specify that you get a partial point. For example, you get one third of a point if you are one of three players tied for a win. Calculating this out could quickly become difficult if you played multiple times in a row and different numbers of players tied each time. You could end up with a really weird score, like seven twelfths of a point. That’s an overly complex scoring system, but it does prove your math teacher right: you do need to know how to add fractions with different denominators.
What does it all mean
I’m still grappling with the idea behind Grommets and Hooks. The rule card doesn’t contain any background information, so there’s nothing to explain why you’re doing what you’re doing. Rummaging in a junk drawer was the only thing I could think of to explain the actions you take and the workings of the grommet and hook cards.
I think maybe this is something very rare: a Surrealist card game. Grommets and Hooks asks us to accept a world where grommets are good and hooks are bad for no logical reason. If we search for meaning in it, what we find only reflects our own desire for understanding.
Do you have a passion for photographs of perforated plastic protective parts? If so, this is probably going to be game of the year for you.
For the rest of us? A big part of me is like, is there some sort of joke I’m missing here? Grommets and hooks? Why grommets and hooks?
This is the kind of card game that I would expect to see appear in a David Lynch movie. This is probably what they play inside The Black Lodge. There are alternating layers of simplicity, layers of familiarity, and layers that make no sense. The juxtaposition isn’t unpleasant, but it’s not going to hang everyone’s shower curtain, either.
Note: A review copy of this game was provided by OniiChan Games.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
My wife and I met through online dating. The hardest part about online dating is writing your profile. I wrote and rewrote mine dozens of times until I had something I was satisfied with. In the end, it turned out to be intriguing enough that women, including my future wife, actually contacted me first.
I’d share the secret formula for writing an intriguing online dating profile, except—of course—there isn’t one. Every person has to tap into what makes them unique. (Also, if I had a secret formula for anything, I would probably keep it a secret so I could bestow it on to my children as a sort of powerful dynastic birthright—like, I’m sorry, I don’t have a ring of power to pass down to you and we’re not wizards or anything, but I can show you how to get a date online so we can hopefully keep this thing rolling for another generation.)
I still remember statements I read on profiles of women from back when I was online dating. A lot of what people write is trite and you forget it. “I just moved here, and I just want to see who’s out there, and I like TV or whatever.” The things that I remember the most are the things that seemed the most shocking, the red flags indicating fundamental incompatibilities. One woman sent me a message and then I saw on her profile that she was looking to date single dads—which, as a non-dad, was confusing.
I remember one woman who asserted that she used her student ID to get discounts on as many things as possible, even though she’d graduated years ago. I know… that’s not objectively shocking. It’s actually a great profile statement. It’s charmingly hipster and one of those fun things that shows you have a personality.
Of course, it’s also pretty unethical. Which enabled me to quickly decide to move on to the next person.
There are basically two kinds of profile statements: statements about who you are and statements about who you’re looking for. When writing an online dating profile, a truculent pronouncement of exactly who you aren’t interested in is extremely helpful to your readers.
For example, I remember another woman who wrote, if your idea of fun is sitting around a table playing board games, don’t contact me.
That was back before I really owned any board games, when I was a lonely single man working from home and going to my cousin’s for a game of Catan was one of the few times I really got out of the house and socialized. I distinctly remember feeling a little sad for the woman who wrote that. Not because I think she was wrong to say it, but because, bless her heart, in spite of how clear it was, she probably had to spend a lot of time deleting messages from men saying, “Board games are actually fun.”
Board games aren’t for everyone—for quite a few reasons. There are a lot of people who’d rather be outside doing something more active. There are a lot of people with health issues that make it difficult to participate in certain games. Also, board gaming can be expensive. You see people on Epic Shelfie posting pictures of their massive board game collections and it’s a reminder that, like fox hunting, marathon running, and donning the mantle of the Batman, board gaming is only accessible to the at-least-sort-of affluent.
On the other hand, of course part of me feels like people don’t know what they’re talking about if they diss board gaming as not fun. Board games are literally designed with the express purpose of entertaining the human mind. When people say board gaming isn’t for them, it’s probably just because they haven’t played a board game that’s for them.
There are many, many different kinds of board games. Some board games allow you to just sit around and relax and have a good time. Some board games require intense logic and math. And some board games can literally send you into a cold sweat of terror. Case in point: Spyfall—quite possibly the most heart-racing experience you can have while sitting around a table. If you want to feel your whole body tense up and your flight or fight response kick in like you’re in a real life version of the tavern scene from Inglourious Basterds, this is the game you’ve been looking for.
Spyfall is a game from Hobby World and Cryptozoic Entertainment about sitting around a table and finding the spy in your midst. At the start, each player gets a card, which they look at secretly. One of the cards just says “spy.” All of the rest of the cards have a location (for example, everyone else will have a card that says “hotel” on it). The players attempt to suss out who has the spy card by taking turns asking each other questions. Questions can be literally anything (for example, “how much did it cost to get in here?” or “what’s your favorite thing to eat here?”). At any time, anyone can accuse another player of being the spy; if there is unanimous agreement, and that player is actually be the spy, then the non-spies win. Alternatively, at any time, the spy can reveal themself and, if they can correctly guess the location, then they win. After a eight minutes, if the game hasn’t already ended and the non-spies cannot agree on the spy, then the spy wins.
Many board games are based on taking a difficult task and making it fun, like how Pictionary makes a game out of drawing. Spyfall is based on the difficulty of innuendo—saying something that shows you know what a secret is without actually giving away that secret. Basically, it’s all about asking and answering questions to find out who doesn’t know the location without giving the location away.
As a spy, the game is nail-bitingly tense as you try to blend into the background, give out ambiguous answers, and add up the characteristics of the location. On the other hand, as a non-spy, the game creates an atmosphere of suspense as you try to mentally check off which players have said enough to show that you can trust them.
Sometimes the game ends in about two questions because the spy gets asked a direct question, says the wrong thing, and everyone bursts out laughing. (For example, if the location is police station and the question is “do you want to spend the night here” and the spy says “yes.”)
Other times the game ends in about two questions because someone says something that makes it obvious to the spy what the location is.
Usually, the game lasts well into the time limit, though. At the start of a round, the spy is in an extremely difficult position. However, as the game goes on, it becomes easier and easier for the spy to give convincing answers or guess the location because they’ve heard more and more information. It also becomes more and more difficult for the other players to ask and answer questions without giving the whole thing away.
The game contains just the right mix of locations to keep things interesting. There are locations you would typically associate with espionage or spycraft (embassy, military base, submarine), mundane locations (bank, supermarket, school), and really bizarre locations (pirate ship, space station, crusader army).
As an extra quirk, many of the locations lend themselves to different interpretations. For example, does “carnival” mean only the type of Carnival masquerade festival pictured on the card or is it any type of carnival? Does “passenger train” encompass subways and light rail? Is a “service station” a place to get your car fixed or a place to buy gas? This ambiguity contributes to the sense of paranoia in the game. Other players might be giving answers that sound completely wrong to you, not because they are the spy, but because of a genuine disagreement about what exactly the location is.
Every location card also states a unique role. For example, the airplane location cards have pilot, passenger, and flight attendant roles. For a more complex game, you can require players to answer from the perspective of their role. The roles can also help struggling players get into the right mindset to come up with a question or answer.
Number of players
The game supports from three to eight players. However, generally speaking, you need at least five people for Spyfall, especially if you have new players. Technically you can play with less, but it’s virtually impossible for the spy to win.
Even though there are relatively few rules, there are a few logistical issues to consider with Spyfall. First of all, you need a timer, so someone’s probably going to have to pull out their smartphone and be in charge of timekeeping. Because each round of the game revolves completely around keeping a single piece of information secret, it is very important to prevent that secrecy from being accidentally compromised. The game comes with a bag for each deck of location cards. You have to be careful to store the decks in the bags in such a way that you can separate out the correct number of cards for the players without seeing what the location is (always storing the spy card on the bottom of each deck works pretty well). Also, any nick or mark could spoil the game, so it is a good idea to use card sleeves.
Many reviews have noted that Spyfall does not include player aid cards listing all of the possible locations. While I wouldn’t turn down player aids, I also haven’t found the lack of them to be a barrier. During games, we pass around the rulebook so everyone can see the page with all of the locations. This is superior to a player aid card because the rulebook has room to show each location’s picture, not just the name (and occasionally players will reference specifics of the artwork, even though it is discouraged). Unless the person asking for the rulebook is clawing for it while dripping in sweat, you can’t really infer that they are the spy; non-spies often just want to see it so they can craft a question or answer without revealing too much.
I love Spyfall, but I’m a chill cookie and I’ve played it enough times—and been the spy enough times—that I find it more exciting than frightening.
Spyfall is not for everyone. Being the spy is extremely stressful… as in, your body’s stress response literally triggers, your heart kicks into high gear, and your stomach knots up. Sure, you’re just sitting around a table with your friends, holding a card, but it’s not like most other games where you might have a secret role. As the spy, you start with nothing. You have zero information and everyone else has all of the information. You have no choice but to lie your pants off and one wrong glance, strange intonation, or answer that isn’t exactly the right amount of vague could give you away.
I’ve played the game with people who haven’t enjoyed it. When you’re the spy, it can feel like you’re under the gun in a way that isn’t necessarily consistent with the fun, happy-go-lucky experience you might be looking for in a casual evening of board games. If you’re uncomfortable answering questions under pressure (and laughing along if you get caught giving a ridiculous answer), this may not be the right game for you.
I don’t mean to just focus on how draining the spy role can be, either. The game is pretty tough for non-spies, too. You have to be able to think of relatively creative questions and relatively subtle answers. If you take too long to formulate something, other players may get frustrated (or start to think you’re the spy).
But Spyfall is worth experiencing. Spyfall is enjoyable because it’s a holistic challenge. Once it starts, every word and gesture is part of the game and you have to use the full extent of your perceptive faculties to either find the spy or keep yourself hidden. Most of us want to believe that we’re clever raconteurs, skilled at witty comebacks and cunning wordplay, able to drop hints that will go completely over others’ heads and quickly detect when people are lying to our face. Spyfall lets you put that belief to the test, and you’ll probably end up laughing harder than you’ve ever expected.
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.)
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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
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.
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.
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.
If I had to pick one thing that immediately makes me feel conflicted, it’s patents.
There are serious problems with the United States’ patent system, from overwhelming litigation costs to overbroad patents. Take software patents, for example. One main thing you learn from studying computer science is that all software programs are fundamentally mathematical formulas. And one main thing you learn from studying patent law is that mathematical formulas are not patentable. And yet, in the United States, software programs are patentable. It requires a tremendous amount of cognitive dissonance to think that makes any sense. Not to mention that the whole purpose of patent law is to promote innovation, and software patents hinder it more than they promote it.
On the other hand, at its heart, the patent system is a noble idea. I’ve seen what it means to people. The first time I went to my wife’s grandparents house, her grandfather started showing me around. Knowing that I had studied patent law, he pointed out copies of patents hanging on the wall. I don’t really know anything about laminating wood products, but I could tell how proud he was. For inventors, patents are the embodiment of their work—not just a legal document that grants protection, but a symbol of affirmation and accomplishment.
Now, aside from patents, if I had to pick a second thing that immediately makes me feel conflicted, it’s word games.
I realized the other day that my wife and I didn’t own any word games. I mean, technically, almost every game involves words in some way (rulebooks are typically full of them). But you know what I mean. We didn’t own any games like Scrabble, Bananagrams, Boggle, or Quiddler—games that involve constructing words.
Scrabble is by far the most popular word game, right? But we don’t own it because neither one of us really likes it. Just like living next door to the circus, Scrabble sounds fun in theory but is actually depressingly aggravating in practice. Between triple letter scores, getting stuck with a trayful of consonants, and other people playing words like “isogriv” and “paxwax” that (no matter what the Scrabble dictionary says) are obviously not real words, it can be an extremely frustrating experience.
I mean, Scrabble is a fun game—its popularity is proof enough of that. In small doses, it’s a satisfying treat for your inner polyglot anagrammist. But if you want a game you can pull out with friends or family, a game that everyone can enjoy without the risk of destroying friendships or marriages, it’s probably not the best option. Scrabble is harsh enough that it’s made me very skeptical of all word games.
Anyways, you can probably guess where this is going: it turns out that there’s a word game that involves patenting letters. When I heard about it, I was immediately conflicted: it sounded very intriguing, but it’s hard to put aside my feelings about both word games and patents. Could Letter Tycoon actually be fun?
Letter Tycoon is a game from Breaking Games where two to five players take on the role of alphabetic business moguls—instead of building factories or skyscrapers, you are building words. Each player has a hand of seven letter cards, plus there are three letter cards in the middle of the table. On your turn, you create a word using any of the cards in your hand or in the middle of the table. The longer your word is, the more money—in the form of cash and stock—you get for it. Stock adds to your score at the end of the game. Cash can be used to buy letter patents. Letter patents allow you to “own” a letter: you get a dollar in cash from the bank any time someone else uses that letter in one of their words. At the end of the game, the player with the most money (in cash, stock, and patents) is the winner.
Just like the American pharmaceutical industry, Letter Tycoon is all about the patents. Patents on more common letters are more desirable (because other people will be using those letters more), but they are also more expensive. On the other hand, patents on the least common letters are less expensive and grant special powers (for example, the ability to use a letter card twice or get double points for words that are at least half vowels).
At the beginning of the game, you probably cannot afford patents on the more expensive letters, so it is generally a bit of a race to buy the less expensive patents with the special powers. However, by the end of the game you feel like a patent troll as you are raking in more and more money each turn from your burgeoning patent portfolio, enabling you to afford ever more expensive letters.
All of the patent powers are quite interesting. I’ve seen a few reviews suggesting that some of powers might be stronger than others. I don’t think that’s accurate. For instance, the ability to make two words per turn appears extremely powerful at first glance, but because you get considerably more points for longer words, making two short words each turn is not actually going to get you the most amount of money possible. A six letter word is worth more than twice the value of two three letter words, for example. Similarly, one of the powers allows you to double your score if your word only has one vowel—but it’s difficult exploit that kind of power too much because it’s difficult to make a long word that only has one vowel.
Letter Tycoon vs. Scrabble
It turns out that Letter Tycoon is actually extremely fun. Going back to Scrabble for a minute, Letter Tycoon has a number of features that, in my opinion, make it more enjoyable than Scrabble.
First off, the main way to get more points for a word is to make it longer. Unlike Scrabble, where you are strongly incentivized to use rare letters and put them at certain positions in your word, your main incentive in Letter Tycoon is just to make words longer. It is better to include letters that your opponents haven’t patented so they don’t get any money, but the points you get are based on the length of the word. This means you don’t need to be a savant who’s memorized every word with the letter X; you just need to be able to make any word that has a lot of letters.
Additionally, all words must be at least three letters. So you don’t have to worry about all of those questionable two letter Scrabble words like “fa” and “um.”
Also, there isn’t a board where you have to play off of existing words, so you aren’t limited by the available locations on the board, nor do you have to consider every location on the board to figure out how to maximize your points. The only letters you have to worry about are on the ten cards in front of you.
Plus, at the end of your turn, you get to discard as many cards as you want if you don’t like what’s left in your hand. You don’t have to choose between discarding and playing.
Lastly, you don’t need a pencil and paper to keep track of the score. I always appreciate that in a game.
Beyond how fun it is to play, the production and graphic design of Letter Tycoon game are show-stopping. The coins are wooden. The stock tiles are extremely thick cardboard. There is an enormous amount of detail on every linen-finished card. I love the steampunk-ish, Metropolis-ish, Art Deco-ish look of the game.
I have a few minor complaints. One is about the rulebook. The very first thing it tells you about how to play is that you have two options on your turn: discarding cards, or playing a word. This is a bit misleading. There’s almost no situation where you would want to discard instead of playing a word (maybe if the other player had a patent on every letter in your hand, or if you absolutely couldn’t think of a word). Also, even when you do play a word, you can still discard as many cards as you want. I think it might have been better to phrase the rulebook slightly differently and classify not playing a word as an exception.
Another complaint has to do with the box. I’ve discussed this kind of thing before, but the lid of the Letter Tycoon box fits so tightly that it’s a serious chore to remove. When I first got the game, it took me a couple minutes just to cajole it open and it hasn’t really loosened up much since then. After you’re done playing, it’s like, please don’t put the lid back on, we might want to play again tomorrow. Also, whatever you do, don’t even think about sitting the bottom of the box in the upside down lid.
Sometimes, when you see a jumble of letter cards, a word jumps out at you right away. Other times, it doesn’t. To get your thoughts into gear, it’s helpful to be able to rearrange your cards to see if there are any words in there that you didn’t notice immediately. In Letter Tycoon, your ability to move all of the letters around and see what pops out is slightly hampered because three of the cards you can use are community cards. You can’t just pick those up and mix them around with the cards in your hand. Mentally accounting for the community cards can be a bit confusing and adds some time to the game.
Admirably, the rulebook accounts for this by instructing players to refill the community cards first, giving the next player the maximum amount of time to think. This helps, but the act of searching for a word in a mess of letters is never going to be instantaneous—the whole reason it’s fun is because it’s fundamentally difficult for the human brain. Like most word games, Letter Tycoon is susceptible to bogging down if players want to be certain they’ve exhausted every possibility before they settle on a word.
When I bought Letter Tycoon, I knew it had amazing graphic design and I was hoping it would be enjoyable. However, I would’ve never predicted that I’d find myself playing it late into the night.
But that’s happened.
It turns out that Letter Tycoon is a little bit addictive.
When I first told my wife I was going to buy this game, I mentioned that it was a word game and she sounded pretty skeptical. However, after playing it two or three times, she said, “I like this and I don’t even like word games.”
Letter Tycoon takes the core part of Scrabble—combining random letters into words—and it makes it fun again.
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 (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.
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!”
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.
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 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.
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.
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!
Clue is a pervasive cultural influence. We all know what it means to talk about Colonel Mustard in the library with the candlestick or Professor Plum in the study with the rope. There are a lot of reasons that Clue is such a popular game, but one of them is definitely the situation that Clue puts you in. You get to feel like you’re solving a mystery. It lets you live out an Agatha Christie novel as upper-crusty aristocrats trying to catch a murderer in a stately old mansion.
But Clue has some drawbacks.
One of those drawbacks is metaphysical certainty. Like a lot of deduction games, Clue is based on symmetric information and precise logic. When you receive a clue in Clue, you learn something with 100% confidence about who the murder is or is not. A computer program could play Clue just as well as a human.
That’s not the only way to set up a deduction game, though. There’s another board game about solving mysteries that discloses clues in a completely different way, with asymmetric hints that point you toward the solution without any one clue telling you anything for sure about who the murderer is. That game is Deception: Murder in Hong Kong, and it requires you to employ your whole human imagination if you want to solve a case.
Deception: Murder in Hong Kong
In Deception: Murder in Hong Kong, all of the players are detectives investigating a murder. The twist is, of course, that one of the detectives is also the murderer.
At the start of the game, each player has eight cards face up in front of them: four weapon cards and four evidence cards. That way, each person has four weapons that they might have committed the murder with and four pieces of evidence that they might have left behind at the crime scene. Secret role cards are dealt to each player to determine who the murderer is. Then the murderer chooses one weapon card and one evidence card from their own cards as the actual murder weapon and actual evidence left behind.
The game is facilitated by a “forensic scientist” player. Instead of weapon and evidence cards, the forensic scientist has six clue tiles in front of them. The forensic scientist knows the solution to the crime (from a phase of the game where everyone else has their head down), and is trying to help the investigators find the murderer. However, the forensic scientist is not allowed to talk. The only way the forensic scientist can communicate is by placing markers on the clue tiles (each clue tile is a multiple choice description of something to do with the crime: for example, the location, the cause of death, the motive, or the time of day).
Every investigator gets one official guess at the exact solution to the murder. An investigator who guesses wrong must turn in their badge, but can still participate in the discussion. If every investigator turns in their badge, then the murderer wins. However, if one investigator correctly guesses both the murder weapon and evidence left behind, then all of the investigators win.
The game roles play very differently, but all of them are very enjoyable and challenging.
As an investigator, you are discussing with all of the other investigators, trying to pick out the correct murder weapon and evidence based on the vague clues that the forensic scientist is allowed to give and your intuition about which of the other investigators is lying to you.
As the murderer, you are trying to blend in with the investigators while secretly misleading and misdirecting them into guessing the wrong solution.
As the forensic scientist, you are silently and carefully listening to the discussion of the other players, using what they are saying to decide how to place markers on the clue tiles and which clue tile to replace after each round of discussion. (The rulebook says to assign the forensic scientist randomly with the other roles, but we’ve found that some players really want to be the forensic scientist, while other players really don’t, so we tend to give it to the players who do want it.)
In larger games, you can add several additional secret roles, including an accomplice who knows the identity of the murderer and helps mislead the other players, and a witness who knows who knows the identities of both the murderer and accomplice but must keep their own identity a secret. Since a full game typically averages around 15 or 20 minutes, you can play several times in a row and everyone can get a chance to experience multiple roles.
Moments of insight
The best way for me to talk about why Deception is so good is to talk about a specific game that I was part of.
A while ago, we were having a game night to celebrate my cousin’s birthday and we brought out Deception. There were eight people at the table so we included the witness and the accomplice roles. I was the forensic scientist. The first game was a bit of a learning experience since we had four people who’d never played the game before and there was some confusion about how all of the roles work. The murderer had picked a whip as the weapon and a Kleenex tissue as the evidence left behind. As clues, I was able to give “bedroom” as the location, “lovers” as the relationship between the murderer and victim, and “bodily fluids” as a trace at the scene. By the end of the game, two people had figured out the correct solution and were lobbying the last person with a badge to guess it, but that person guessed something else and the murderer got away.
In our second game, everyone was now clear on exactly how to play. The murderer picked a dumbbell as the weapon and a cassette tape as the evidence left behind. I was the forensic scientist again. Initially, I thought I was going to have an easy job of it because I would just pick “gym” as the location to suggest the dumbbell. However, looking through the location tiles, I realized that there is no gym. There isn’t even anything that remotely resembles a gym. Eventually, I settled on “storeroom” because weights and old tapes both seem like things that might be in a storeroom. I was also able to pick “entertainment” as an activity that was happening, and “hot” as the weather.
We started to go around and have everyone give their theory of the crime. Most people seemed very uncertain and were focusing on a broom because of the storeroom clue. Guesses were all over the place about what entertainment meant.
Then we got to one of the new players. He looked around the table and said, “You know, I don’t know why, and this is kind of off the wall, but I’m thinking a storeroom could also be a weight room, and maybe the person was in there lifting weights and jamming to this cassette tape. That’s just what I’m thinking.” Now, he didn’t turn in his badge to guess that and ultimately the murderer ended up getting away again…
…but that moment convinced me of the greatness of Deception.
We were playing with three weapons and three clue cards per player to make the game easier for the new players, but that meant we still had 42 cards out on the table and 63 possible solutions to the murder. And yet, somehow, from only six very vague clues, there was a meeting of the minds between me and this guy who I had never even met before about the exact way that the crime happened.
That’s what I love about Deception. When you get a clue, it doesn’t actually tell you anything. (I mean, sometimes clues are extremely strong indicators. For example, if the cause of death is poisoning, you can probably safely eliminate a blender as the murder weapon. Although, then again, could the poison have been in the blender?) This pervasive sense of ambiguity means that you get a great lightning bolt moment when you put the clues together with a solution in a way that makes sense. And yet, it also always leaves some wiggle room for a smooth talking murderer to point out a different solution. If you figure it out successfully, you feel like you’ve solved the crime using both halves of your brain because the game allows you to develop and play a hunch in a way that you cannot do in a game like Clue that relies solely on logical deduction.
In addition to being an extremely fun and engaging game, Deception is also very well-produced. It includes enough components for 12 players (13 if you have the Kickstarter version), plus almost 300 cards and over 30 clue tiles. Generally, this is enough to play the game three or four times in a row without seeing any duplicate murder weapons, evidence, or clues.
The recommended minimum age for Deception is 14. The recommended minimum age for Clue is eight. Obviously, murder is never really family friendly. Clue has you trying to figure out if someone was bludgeoned to death with a pipe or hung with a rope—is that undercurrent of horrifying violence really appropriate for eight year olds? I don’t know, but I can see why the age for Deception is higher than the age for Clue. A handful of the cards in Deception have overtly disturbing images on them. Also, younger children (and some adults!) might have difficulty with the poker face that you need to play some of the roles.
One of the very first games of Deception that we ever played will always stick in my mind. The evidence left behind was a cigar. I was the forensic scientist and one of the clue tiles was the weather. I chose “humid.” One of the other players said, “humid… humidor… maybe it’s the cigar.”
As the forensic scientist, you are not supposed to talk, gesture, or emote, but inside I was jumping up and down, screaming, “Yes, that’s exactly what I was thinking!”
That’s the kind of roundabout thought process that you often have to use in this game—and I love it.
I’m not going to claim that it’s a perfect game. Sometimes it’s less exciting than others. Sometimes the murder gets caught in about a minute because the murder weapon they picked is completely unlike anything in front of anyone else. And there are things about the game that don’t make any sense. I mean, if the forensic scientist is a police officer, why can’t they just say who the murderer is, you know?
Deception also has a lot in common with other games like Mafia, Werewolf, Bang, and The Resistance, but, in a way, I like it better than any of those because it requires you to use fuzzy logic and lateral thinking as part of the game. Sometimes I ask myself, what is my favorite board game? I’m not sure, but Deception: Murder in Hong Kong is definitely near the top of the list.
I recently wrote about Yardmaster, calling it the quintessential train card game, even if it is probably not the best.
So why isn’t it the best train card game?
Well, there are lots of train card games out there—in fact, there are so many that it doesn’t really even make sense to talk about which one is the best overall. Also, there’s one in particular that I like just a bit more than Yardmaster. I’m talking, of course, about its protégé: Yardmaster Express.
Yardmaster Express takes the core hook of Yardmaster and boils it down to its essence: you’re still building a train and you can still only add cars to your train if they match the color or number of the previous car. However, in Yardmaster Express, you only use one type of card—train car cards—and each card has two train cars on it. Also, instead of each player having their own hand of cards, the players pass one hand around the table. Each turn, you add a card to the hand, pick a card from the hand to add your train, and then pass the hand to the next person. After everyone has a specified number of cards on their train (for example, five cards in a four player game), the winner is the person with the most points on their train.
The game is blinkofaneye fast. From start to finish, it takes less than 10 minutes. But those 10 minutes are packed with fun as you try to get as many points as possible onto your train, while keeping a watchful eye on your neighbors’ trains to make sure you don’t let them have the exact card that they need.
Points are earned from the numbers on the train cars, from getting a bonus for the longest consecutive color run, or from the caboose card. Each time you play, one caboose card is randomly drawn and placed in the center of the table. The caboose gives a bonus at the end of the game to each player whose train meets the condition on the caboose (for example, having no yellow cards on their train, or a specific sequence of numbers).
Unlike Yardmaster, where the caboose expansion felt like one thing too much in a game stuffed full of addons, the Yardmaster Express caboose cards are the icing on the cake, adding an interesting new dimension to the game, distorting your motives so that picking lower point cards might potentially pay off at the end.
Yardmaster Express shares the minimalist art style of Yardmaster, with silhouetted trains and primary colored cards. I still love this art style; something about it always fills me with delight when I bring out the game. Plus, Yardmaster Express takes it into the third dimension by including a large wooden train piece for keeping track of the first player (which is also fun for driving around the table while making train noises).
There are many different lenses to use when discussing what makes a board game great.
One lens to use is concrete: a game consists of a set of rules and a box full of physical pieces with material attributes used to enact the rules. Here, the quality of the game is determined by the clarity and character of the rules and the richness of the components.
From this perspective, Yardmaster Express is a great game. The rules are comprehensible and cohesive. The linen finished cards, magnetically closing box, and wooden first player token are extremely high quality.
Another lens is decisional: from this perspective, playing a game is making a series of decisions. This is often discussed in reviews of board games, but I’m not a huge fan of this lens because I’m not sure that a game is better the more thorny and agonizing the decisions are. The problem with evaluating games on the “quality of their decisions” is that it ends up promoting certain types of excruciating games over other games that are equally, if not more, entertaining. (Also, you know, are we even able to make decisions or is human consciousness a delusion?)
Still, the decisions in Yardmaster Express are clear and consequential: do you take good cards for yourself or keep bad cards from your opponents? Do you break up color runs to keep high numbers? Do you take lower point cards to try to get the caboose points?
There are an infinite number of other lenses for looking at games. Games as experiences… games as stories… games as promoters of social interaction… For me, what makes Yardmaster Express a great game is the emotions that it evokes. It’s a great game to sit around and play with family and friends. Anyone can play this game and I’ve seen firsthand how much people enjoy building their trains and trying to complete the bonuses while keeping other people from getting them.
Yardmaster Express is special—an ingenious elevation of the ideas in Yardmaster, a distillation that adds by subtraction to become an even better game than its predecessor.
I’ve seen a number of videos where the owner of Crash of Games has criticized the choices he made in publishing Yardmaster Express, calling out the game as being confusingly named and having gray box art.
I could not disagree more. It is not confusing that there was one game called Yardmaster and another game called Yardmaster Express—that’s called branding. Also, I find the art on both of these games to be extremely engaging. So what if the box is mostly gray? The striking, minimalist look of the game stands out. It’s a bold, dynamic, ageless looking game.
Interestingly, both Yardmaster and Yardmaster Express have been reprinted under new names with completely new artwork. The new version of Yardmaster, published in France, is called Aramini Circus (after the designer, Steven Aramini) and is about assembling a circus train with different types of animals. The new version of Yardmaster Express is called Backyard Builders Treehouse and is about adding levels to a treehouse. These new versions look amazing, I don’t think anyone can reasonably dispute that. But I’m still sad at the loss of the train cargo theme and iconic artwork. Yardmaster and Yardmaster Express were my cup of tea, two of the games that drew me into backing games on Kickstarter and two games that I still love to play.
My wife alleges that Johnny Cash’s “I’ve Got a Thing About Trains” should be my personal theme song. See, general speaking, my wife and I have very different tastes in music.
However, there is one artist that we can both agree on liking: Johnny Cash.
Why do we both like Johnny Cash so much? His country ballads? His Gospel music? His social advocacy? His acting career? His unused James Bond theme song? His exploratory concept albums analyzing the American spirit—which happen to be absurdly underrated by Allmusic.com, where they say things like “the album consists almost entirely of first-rate material” and then only give it three stars… how does that make any sense?
Anyways, there are many reasons to like Johnny Cash. Another one of them is his train songs. “Hey Porter.” “Orange Blossom Special.” “Casey Jones.” The entire Ride This Train album. Even “Folsom Prison Blues” is a bit of a train song. There’s hardly a folk song about trains that wasn’t written or at least recorded by Johnny Cash.
Still, if there’s anything I like more than songs about trains, it is games about trains. And if there is any one card game that perfectly embodies my love for games about trains, it is Yardmaster.
Yardmaster is a card game often described as a spiritual hybrid of Ticket to Ride and Uno. Each player is building a train out of train car cards. Each train car card has a cargo type (coal, wood, oil, cattle, or automobiles) and a number (one through four). The main hook of the game is that a car can only be added to your train if it matches either the cargo or the number of the previous car. Each turn, you draw cargo cards from the cargo deck and use those to buy train cars for your train. For example, a wood car with a three on it costs three wood cards. The cargo deck also contains bonus action cards that allow you do things like exchange cargo, pay less for cars, or draw extra cards. The first person to get a specific number of points on their train wins.
I always enjoy playing Yardmaster. It manages to be both fun and relaxing. The requirement that cars have to match to be added to your train never feels onerous since you can always buy cars and add them later. You can always do something on your turn, even if it is just build up your hand of cards. And it’s always a bit exciting when you draw a bonus action card: they give you plenty of opportunities to boost yourself or trip up other players without the game ever feeling mean-spirited or underhanded.
The thing that attracted me to Yardmaster in the first place was the minimalist art style. I love the bright colors and timeless iconography. To me it always brings to mind the industrial simplicity of historic railroad logos like the Great Northern or the Chicago & Northwestern. I wish more games looked like this.
The one problem I have with Yardmaster is that the rules feel a mite overcomplicated. I mean, in the grand scheme of things, the game is not that complicated, but its structure makes it feel like there’s too much going on. If this game was a Christmas tree, it would be too small for all of the ornaments that they tried to hang on it. It’s built around a simple idea: you use cargo cards to buy train cars. I love how the bonus action cards add a fun twist to that by allowing you to break certain rules. Unfortunately, the twists don’t stop there.
For example, the game includes a “Yardmaster token,” which gets passed around in the opposite direction of play and gives the person holding it three actions on their turn instead of two. On paper, this is great way to make sure the player who’s going first doesn’t win just because they’re going first. However, in practice, it just feels like complication for the sake of complication. It’s annoying to have to remember to pass the token, and it’s much easier to explain and play the game if you just have two actions per turn, period. The sliver of extra strategy and fairness that the token adds by giving you one extra action every third or fourth turn isn’t worth the hassle.
Similarly, the game’s Caboose Expansion seems like it was produced just for the sake of having an expansion. I mean, I get it… the concept of creating a “caboose expansion” for a game about train cars was too compelling to pass up. But it feels like it’s just adding more rules to the game without making it any more fun.
Speaking of the Caboose Expansion, it seems like the only thing there’s more of than Johnny Cash train songs is addons for Yardmaster.
There is the Caboose Expansion that adds caboose cards. There are wooden tokens you can get to replace the game’s cardboard tokens. There is a cloth travel bag. There is the optimistically-named Bonus Card Pack #1 that adds more bonus action cards (no other Bonus Card Packs exist). And there is the Heisenberg Heist promotional pack that replaces all the oil cargo cards with ones referencing Breaking Bad.
Yardmaster is an interesting case study in the economics of Kickstarter projects. I got the game and almost all of the expansions for $20 during the Kickstarter. If you wanted to buy everything from Crash of Games today, it would set you back a staggering $47. That said, the only addon that I would classify as really essential is Bonus Card Pack #1, with one small reservation…
“Swap Railcars” card
Bonus Card Pack #1 adds a bonus action card that lets you swap two cars on your train, provided you still follow the rules about matching cargo and numbers. (Ordinarily, cars can’t be moved once they’ve been added to your train.)
No other card in the game has brought me as much angst as this one. During some games, I feel like I’ve been loaded down with two of these in my hand the whole time, unable to use them. At first, I thought that this card was vastly less powerful than the other bonus action cards and should have allowed you to break the matching rule, too. However, subsequently, this card has helped me to win on the last turn of the game, so I’ve come to realize that it is useful. Still, it’s hit or miss and if there was ever a Bonus Card Pack #2, I would want it to contain a bonus action card for adding a car to your train even if it doesn’t match the cargo or number.
All in all, Yardmaster feels like an heirloom-quality game. The cards are thick and plentiful; you never have to reshuffle the decks during play. The wooden tokens are fancy enough for a railroad baron, but even the standard cardboard tokens are linen-finished and substantial. However, the game’s box is what really stands out. Yardmaster comes in the burliest board game box that I’ve ever seen. It is made out of 1/8 inch thick cardboard. I haven’t tested this, but I think it’s possible that an adult human could stand on the box without crushing it. It’s that sturdy.
I don’t think that Yardmaster is the best game ever created. It’s probably not even the best card game about trains ever created.
But I think it may be the quintessential card game about trains. Channeling the golden age of rail through stark, iconic artwork, it is the train card game that is as close to the Platonic ideal of train card games as it is possible to get. Conjuring up images of loading coal to the tune of a folk ballad, mile-long timber trains rolling down the winding mountains, wheels clacking loudly on the rails as they carry goods from city to city, or dodging the brakemen and freighthopping your way to adventure and a new life, it’s a fun, fast, boldly-colored endeavor to couple together the best train you possibly can.