Burger Up brings grilling to game night

Sometimes you look forward to something for a really long time, and then it’s not what you expected.

When my wife’s sister and her husband got married, they had two food trucks cater their wedding reception. One of the food trucks was extremely slow and I never got to try it. The other one was a taco truck.

That taco truck was my hero. They were fast. They were friendly. Their tacos were delicious and just slightly too spicy. When I went back for seconds, I asked how many tacos they could fit on a plate.

My wife and I loved those tacos so much that we vowed to try the restaurant associated with the taco truck someday. I found myself thinking about going there every time we talked about eating out.

Almost a year later, we finally tried it.

It was a strange feeling walking down a busy street during peak lunch hours and then stepping into a deserted restaurant. Initially, I wasn’t sure that they were even open. The very front was just an unused room full of old deep fat fryers. In the dining room, one of the walls was exposed plywood. There was lots of weird stuff sitting around. A rusty ladder. A baby stroller. A dusty office chair with a pile of clothes in it. A bunch of candy just dumped in a display case under the counter.

Every table had crumbs on it. When we sat down, my chair was missing an arm. I spotted a chair arm on the floor nearby, and at first I thought it was the one from my chair, but then I realized it was from a different chair at the next table over. The napkin dispenser was dirty and empty. There was a crusty bottle of hot sauce with no lid. Flies joined us at our table. I found myself thinking, “Is it rude if I shoo these flies away while the owner is looking in this direction? I don’t want this to get too awkward.”

In their defense, the plate of food they brought out looked great. It was colorful. It was exactly the right amount of food. It was those same delicious tacos all over again.

But even the best tacos imaginable could not possibly redeem the atmosphere. We walked out feeling like we’d just been on the “before” segment of a Kitchen Nightmares episode, wondering if it was actually even a licensed and health-inspected restaurant.

So, sometimes you look forward to something for a long time and it lets you down.

Something else I had looked forward to for a long time was the game Burger Up. I had backed it on Kickstarter and followed all of the project’s weekly updates, looking forward with excitement to eventually getting to play it. A few days ago, my copy finally arrived…

Burger Up

Burger Up components

Burger Up is a card game from Rule & Make where each player is assembling burgers by creating stacks of ingredient cards. On your turn, you stack ingredient cards from your hand onto your bottom bun cards (each card specifies the type of ingredient that can be stacked on top of it). If one of your ingredient stacks meets the requirements of one of the top bun cards in the center of the table, you can complete the burger. For example, the “Vegetarian Cowboy” top bun requires a veggie patty, barbecue sauce, and no meat. When you complete a burger, you receive money based on how tall the burger is, plus a bounty for finishing the top bun. At the end of the game, the player who completed the most burgers receives a bonus and the winner is the player with the most money.

Unlike the taco truck restaurant, the Burger Up Kickstarter did not let me down. This game is fun.

I love completing a burger and raking in a big stack of coins. I love strategizing which top bun to go for and claiming it just before someone else. I love how the game gives you so many options that you never feel stuck. Each ingredient card has two ingredients on it, so it can be placed in two different ways. If you don’t like the ingredients you’ve gotten from the draw pile, you can purchase ingredients from the center of the table. If all else fails, you can use your spatula card to rearrange your burgers and bail yourself out.

Details make a game great and Burger Up gets all of the details right. The cards are thick, linen-finished, and easy to read. The rulebook is a paragon of clarity: I didn’t encounter a single confusing issue or rules question. The game’s artwork is outstanding, right down to the unique garnishes on almost every top bun card. Burger Up even includes details that you didn’t know to expect, but will be looking for on all future games: one of the reference cards has a first player marker so that you can shuffle them up and deal them out to determine the first player.

Game length

These top buns definitely cut the mustard.
These top buns definitely cut the mustard.

I have two problems with Burger Up. First, the artwork looks so good that it makes you hungry for a burger every time you play. Second, the game feels a smidge too long. The game has one element of long term strategy: if you cash in a “colossal” burger with ten ingredients, you can either get money for it or give yourself the ability to build burgers faster by increasing the number of ingredient cards you can stack each turn. That’s a real dilemma, but it just doesn’t feel like enough depth to justify the game’s length (which the box correctly states is around 45 minutes). Instead of going through the whole top bun deck each game, it feels more fun to just play with half of the deck.

Recipe book

If the base game cheeses you off, the recipe book dishes up a double stack of meaty variants that won't leave you in a pickle.
If the base game cheeses you off, the recipe book dishes up a double stack of meaty variants that won’t leave you in a pickle.

Burger Up plays from two to four players, but the Kickstarter version of the game includes a “recipe book” with variants for one, five, and six players. The recipe book also includes an actual hamburger recipeplus instructions for Burger Up variants inspired by the games Between Two Cities, Galaxy Trucker, Hanabi, and Sushi Go. It’s kind of like getting five different games in one box.

Burgers of the World expansion

Still hoping for an expansion that adds a fish patty.
Still hoping for an expansion that adds a fish patty.

Burger Up also has an expansion called Burgers of the World. The expansion includes new ingredient and top bun cards with regionally specific foods from Australia, France, Germany, Japan, and Mexico. The expansion does exactly what I want an expansion to do: expand the game with exciting additional content. If you shuffle in all of the countries, it does seem to slow the game down a bit because certain top buns that require specific ingredients become more difficult to fulfill. Still, that feels like a fair tradeoff for the increased variety of ingredients.

The expansion also includes Globetrotter cards, which are ingredient cards that say “Globetrotter Ingredient” instead of having an actual ingredient on them.

I'm never going to use these.
I’m never going to use these.

According to the creators, the Globetrotter cards were included because they wanted to meet a demand from backers for customizable cards, but they didn’t want to include blank cards that could only be written on once. I get that. Write-on cards make me uneasy, too. But these are the worst of both worlds—these permanently have nothing on them. Yes, this is Existential Reviews, but that doesn’t mean that I want existential cards where whatever you imagine to be on them is what’s actually there. I wish that they had made write-on cards or just picked another country. Any country. Jamaica. Zanzibar. Mordor. I would rather have cards with my least favorite foods on them than these cards.

Anyways, the reason I’m bagging on the expansion cards is that they’re the only thing about this game’s production that can reasonably be criticized. Rule & Make invested a lot of time into making sure this game was literally perfect.

Final thoughts

I think that board games about food are underappreciated. Board games have a great capacity to create joy and build relationships, but a lot of people are never going to be comfortable stepping into the board gaming hobby and immediately sitting down around a table to play a game about dwarves, orcs, zombies, superheroes, spaceships, or giant monsters destroying Tokyo. However, almost everyone is comfortable sitting down around a table for food. Food games are uniquely positioned to put people in their comfort zone and open up the board gaming hobby to a wider audience.

In Burger Up, the red and white checked wrappers on the bottom bun cards remind me of every great burger I’ve ever eaten at a diner or cafe. There’s just something satisfying about getting together at a burger place with friends or family. The server brings out your orders and everyone’s gotten something different. Some people start by picking up their bun and squirting ketchup on it. Other people put pickles on. Other people pick their onions off. You’re all eating and everyone says to everyone else, “How’s your burger? What did you get?” Burger Up is that satisfying feeling, packaged in a board game box.

Ghostbusters: Protect the Barrier busted all of my expectations

Ghostbusters: Protect the Barrier is probably a board game. Then again, it’s hard to say for sure.

It is very difficult to define what is and is not a “board game.” After all, “board game” is just a phrase made up of words. Words don’t have any inherent significance. The same word could have different meanings to different people in different situations. Words are just hollow building blocks, one part of the broad spectrum of ways that we communicate ideas—along with things like context, tone of voice, hand gestures, frowns, winks, smiles, ominous pauses, non-word vocalizations, and emoji.

I have to give a 👍 to the insightful folks at Amazon.com for tipping me off to the questions surrounding the nature of Ghostbusters: Protect the Barrier. On their website, it is not categorized as a “board game” with all of the other so-called “board games” like Battleship, Star Wars: Rebellion, Marvel Avengers Monopoly, and the Ghostbusters game that has the male Ghostbusters in it. Instead, it is listed under a category called “Dressing Up & Costumes > Pretend Play.” Other products in the “Pretend Play” category include tea sets, toy vacuums, toy shopping carts, and play kitchens.

Maybe Amazon has caught on to the elusive, chameleonic nature of language and given up on the fool’s errand of trying to categorize things using words! Every “board game” could arguably be called a “pretend play toy,” right?! Maybe, from now on, they’re just going to lump all of the things we think of as “board games” into the “pretend play” category!

Or, you know… I guess it’s possible some person at Amazon saw a product based on a movie that stars women and just reflexively stuck it in the same category as Easy Bake Ovens because that’s where “girl toys” go. Hopefully that’s not what happened, though.

Because this is a fantastic board game for everyone.

Ghostbusters: Protect the Barrier

Ghostbusters: Protect the Barrier components

Ghostbusters: Protect the Barrier is a game where you play as the Ghostbusters trying to remove paranormal devices from a building before it is overrun by ghosts. Each turn, players roll dice to move around the building, bust ghosts, and pick up devices. Players also have to flip over cards, causing ghosts to appear in the building’s rooms. As more and more ghosts appear, rooms become haunted by larger ghosts who are more difficult to bust. If six rooms become haunted, all of the players lose. On the other hand, if all eight devices are removed, all of the players win.

You might assume that this is a hastily-developed game churned out to capitalize on a movie. In fact, it is an adaptation of a celebrated German board game called Geister, Geister, Schatzsuchmeister (Ghost Fightin’ Treasure Hunters), which won the 2014 Kinderspiel des Jahres prize (Children’s Board Game of the Year). In that game, instead of the Ghostbusters, the players were children searching for jewels in a haunted house. An English-language version of Ghost Fightin’ Treasure Hunters is available, but it costs around $35, while Protect the Barrier is only around $20.

There’s a reason this game won one of the Spiel des Jahres awards: it is just plain fun. I love walking into a room and rolling the die to bust a ghost. I love the tension of trying to rush out of the building with the very last device when five out of six rooms are haunted. In my opinion, this is the best cooperative board game you can get for around $20. It is more fun than, for example, Pandemic or Forbidden Desert. I enjoy those games, but after I play them I always feel like, “I’m done playing that for a while.” After playing Protect the Barrier, I find myself thinking, “Let’s do that again!” This is a cooperative game that I would actually consider playing with my entire family, including people who haven’t played cooperative games before.

Adjustable difficulty

The game’s difficulty can be easily adjusted for more or less of a challenge. Additional cards can be added to the deck, causing doors in the building to close, ghosts to appear faster, or a large “boss” ghost named Rowan to appear. You can also require that the devices be carried out in numerical order.

As if anything in the box isn't exclusive to this game.
As if anything in the box isn’t exclusive to this game.

Ghostbusters: Protect the Barrier actually has more strategic depth than Ghost Fightin’ Treasure Hunters because the original game does not have an equivalent for the “Exclusive Rowan Mini-Figure.” It may look like just a tacked-on marketing gimmick designed to manipulate curious children and birthday-shopping grandparents into pulling this game off of the shelf at Target, but the “Exclusive Rowan Mini-Figure” actually adds a very interesting dimension to the game, creating chain-reaction hauntings as it moves through the building.

Card size

Cards from Protect the Barrier compared to cards from Ticket to Ride, Fluxx, and The Resistance.
Cards from Protect the Barrier compared to cards from Ticket to Ride, Fluxx, and The Resistance.

One review I saw said that the cards in Protect the Barrier were even smaller than the notoriously small cards from Ticket to Ride. Technically, the cards are shorter but a tiny bit wider than Ticket to Ride cards. I did not find the small cards to be an issue. The cards don’t need to be big because you’re not holding them in your hand and they don’t have very much text on them. They are large enough that flipping and shuffling them is easy, and the information on them is written in a legible font.

Ghost pieces

Has anyone stopped to consider whether a building full of cute ghosts is actually a bad thing?
Has anyone stopped to consider whether a building full of cute ghosts is actually a bad thing?

Although the card size is borderline, the rest of the pieces are high quality. The game comes with tons of plastic ghosts. If these little ghosts were in my house, I’m actually not sure who I would call… they look pretty adorable, like if Casper the Friendly Ghost showed up at your door with all of his ghost friends. They look like their version of “haunting” you would be bringing you a pitcher of sweet tea and a plate of cookies and giving you lots of compliments on your interior decorating.

Final thoughts

Maybe ghosts are as scared of us as we are of them.
Maybe ghosts are as scared of us as we are of them.

It’s difficult for me to think about Ghostbusters without any cynicism.

In our society, for better or worse, many stories are also intellectual property. Ghostbusters is a wonderful tale about four lovable folk heroes who bust ghosts. Ghostbusters is also a billion dollar line item on some corporation’s ledger that helps pay for their executives’ private jets and mansions. Those executives don’t know or care about P.K.E. Meters or Egon Spengler’s hairdo. They see devoted fandom as a byproduct of their marketing budget. The new Ghostbusters movie is part of a conspiracy, but it’s not a conspiracy that has anything to do with gender. It’s the same conspiracy that pervades every aspect of life in a consumer culture: it’s a conspiracy to move money from your bank account to a rich corporation’s bank account by any means necessary.

But it’s also difficult for me to think about Ghostbusters without any joy. When I think about what Ghostbusters means to people, I always think about one day in high school.

When you’re a junior or senior in high school, freshmen are practically on a different planet. You’re basically an adult and they’re basically little kids. On one of the days that people wear costumes to school—maybe it was Halloween—there was this freshman girl who wore a Ghostbusters costume with an authentic-looking jumpsuit and proton pack. I still remember that costume all these years later. High school is a time where showing passion about anything opens you up to being mercilessly made fun of. Wearing a costume like that was a small act of courage. When I think about all of the hate surrounding the new Ghostbusters movie, I also think about walking past that little girl in the hallway, and I think about all of the other little girls like her who just love Ghostbusters.

No matter what iterations it goes through, Ghostbusters is always going to be exciting because busting ghosts is inherently exciting. But I think a movie about women busting ghosts is actually even more exciting—not just for little girls, but for adult men like me, too. I can’t think of much that is more appealing than a story about smart, capable, nerdy, underdog, science-loving women in frumpy sweaters who investigate and bust ghosts.

I want to see stories with women like that in the lead roles. I want to see them portrayed as actual heroes and not quavering, diaphanous damsels in distress. I want to see them overcome the odds. I’ve seen plenty of movies with women just shrieking at ghosts. I want to see them bust ghosts and save the city. I want to see them take charge, take things into their own hands, and take care of business. Those are the kind of women that I want in my movies, my board games, and my life.

Ride the double-decker getaway bus in Scotland Yard

I remember the first time I drove a car. I was behind the wheel with my dad in the passenger seat and we were going down an empty street behind our neighborhood. I mean, it was completely empty. There were no houses, no other cars, no people around, nothing but a straight, flat road through an open expanse of yellowish grass and dirt. It was absolutely terrifying. We were literally inching along at about 5 miles per hour, but—to me—it felt like the world was flying by uncontrollably and we were about to crash through the sound barrier. It’s not like I’d never ridden in a car before. It’s not like I hadn’t put in hours driving as fast as possible in Need for Speed III. But there was something frighteningly different about actually being in control of an actual car.

I wasn’t one of those kids who got his driver’s license on his 16th birthday. When I was in college, I took the bus and train to get to class every day. Sometimes I miss it. You get on, you sit down, you can read a book or stare out the window at the city passing by, and eventually you end up where you want to be. When you’re sitting by yourself in your car with the radio on, nothing happens. But, when you’re on public transportation, things happen.

Sometimes you have to wait 20 minutes for a connection, standing huddled in the back of a bus shelter to keep out of the horizontal rain. Sometimes you overhear a hipsterish guy three seats in front of you claim that the only person who plays guitar like him is Jack Johnson and, because the human brain is completely unexplainable, you still remember that 10 years later. Sometimes the person next to you gets taken off by men in uniform because they don’t have a fare. Sometimes you’re so tired that you’re practically sleepwalking and you accidentally step in front of a crew of firefighters and obstruct them as they’re going to put out a fire in a planter by the train platform. Sometimes, when it’s snowing, you need to grip the handrail tightly so you don’t slip on the slushy bus step in front of the girl who is your bus crush.

If only there was a board game incorporating all of the bewildering clamor and complexity of taking public transportation.

In fact, there is such a game: Scotland Yard.

Scotland Yard


In Scotland Yard, the board is a map of London showing locations connected by train, bus, and taxi routes. One player is “Mister X,” a fugitive from justice. The other players are detectives trying to capture Mister X by landing on the same location as him. The players take turns using train, bus, and taxi tickets to move from location to location. The catch is that the detectives can only see where Mister X is after every fifth move he makes. The rest of the time, his location is secret and the detectives have to try to deduce where he is based on the types of tickets he has used.

The idea of Scotland Yard is instantly compelling. There’s just something primally interesting about the story of a suspect on the run. North by Northwest, To Catch a Thief, Man Hunt, The Fugitive… most of my favorite movies have that as the plot. Plus it’s set in London! You can pretend you’re Sherlock Holmes chasing down a scoundrelly criminal. Or Bert the chimney sweep running away from responsibilities.

Like a lot of games I’ve come to enjoy later, I wasn’t completely enamored with Scotland Yard right off the bat. Counting out all of the tickets to set up the game is a bit tedious. The game appears relatively simple… you’re just moving pieces around a map? That’s the whole game? But it got into my head. The first time we played, I was Mister X and every turn I kept thinking to myself, “Should I play it safe and go to a space where it’s impossible for them to get to me, even though it backs me into a corner—or should I make a move to slip past them, taking the risk that they might catch me?” Sometimes you don’t have a choice and you have to just sit there, sweating and hoping they don’t pick the one move that would cause them to land on you.

The rule book is only about two pages long, but out of those two pages and the irregular, labyrinthine board, a surprisingly subtle and complex game emerges. The thing that I enjoy most about Scotland Yard is feeling like I’m learning and grasping it more and more each time I play. I enjoy those moments when I feel my understanding of the game grow deeper, when I feel like I’ve peeled back another layer of strategy.

The hat

The hat is black so you don't want to be Mister X if you have bad dandruff.
You probably don’t want to be Mister X if you have bad dandruff.

Scotland Yard comes with a hat. Like, a full-sized cloth baseball cap that you put on your head. It indicates which player is Mister X and it prevents the other players from seeing exactly where he’s looking on the board as he’s planning his moves.

When you’re Mister X, you can hide meekly and quietly under the hat. Or you can do what I do: try to psych the other players out. I always enjoy conspicuously staring at one part of the board when actually I’m on the opposite side. Or using a mystery move next to the river to make the detectives think I’ve taken a boat. Or just saying ridiculous things like, “You’ll never guess where I’m going to next… location #92…”—when obviously that’s not where I am… or is it?

Two players

Scotland Yard can be played with two players. In that situation, one player is Mister X and the other player is all of the detectives. Because each detective has a separate supply of tickets, the detective player must manage five different stacks of tickets and keep each stack associated with a specific pawn on the board.

The easiest way to do that is with a set of markers that are the same colors as the detective pawns (red, yellow, blue, green, and black), sitting one marker next to each pawn’s tickets. Unfortunately, the version of the game that I have doesn’t include any markers for this (possibly because of the high cost of baseball caps?). Fortunately, tokens from other games like Payday or Ticket to Ride work great.


It sort of doesn’t make sense if you think about it. Do we even need to be doing this since London has CCTV everywhere now? Why does Mister X have an unlimited supply of tickets? Is he really rich or something? Couldn’t he just hire an Uber and get out of here? Why is the country’s largest police force only sending out five detectives to cover an entire city? And why do the detectives have a limited supply of tickets? Budget cuts? Really onerous bureaucracy? Couldn’t the department just get them a bus pass? If the police department can’t even afford a bus pass, I can see why people were mad enough to vote for Brexit.

Final thoughts

If nothing else, Scotland Yard helps you learn the geography of London.
Not recommended: carrying the board around London and trying to use it as a transit map.

Scotland Yard is not a game about Celtic lawn mowing, but it is one of the best presents my wife has ever gotten me. It’s special to me because it’s not something I told her I wanted—it’s something she discovered that she knew I would like. She researched games similar to ones we enjoy, then she researched the best edition of the game, and then she bought it for me. The fact that she put that amount of thought and effort into getting a present for me makes me feel loved.

One thing I wonder about every time we play is whether you are guaranteed to win if you play perfectly. In chess, a king and a rook can always checkmate an unprotected king, but you can’t force a checkmate with a king and a knight. Are the detectives guaranteed to haul in Mister X unless they make a mistake? Can Mister X always slip away unless he makes a wrong move? I don’t know. I haven’t figured it out, but that’s okay. Not knowing your chances of success is just a part of life.

Stratego Waterloo lets you rewrite history

When I was younger, computer games came in cardboard boxes—just like wine, Pop-Tarts, and McDonald’s chocolate chip cookies. I used to browse the clearance shelf at my local GameStop looking for bargains. For a long time, they had a copy of a game called Waterloo: Napoleon’s Last Battle. Eventually, when it was marked all the way down to $2.99, I couldn’t resist any more.

I had enjoyed computer games like Age of Empires and Close Combat, so I thought I knew what I was getting into with Napoleon’s Last Battle. (Plus, like the box said, it was based on the critically acclaimed Sid Meier’s Gettysburg—whatever that was.) In no time, I expected to be outflanking Wellington and crushing all of Europe under my leather boot like a Corsican OG. However, sadly, that did not happen. It turned out to be less of a “game” and more of a “simulation so complex and accurate as to be devoid of any fun.” Basically, the Microsoft Flight Simulator of the Napoleonic Wars. I can still hear the clopping of my cavalry units as I tried ineffectively to maneuver them into position in the tutorial level.

Ancient artifact from primitive times. Also, evidence that I am a hoarder.
Ancient artifact from primitive times. Also, evidence that I am a hoarder.

Even though it didn’t grant me the hours of dictatorial satisfaction that I’d been craving, it did provide me with my first glimpse inside the world of Napoleonic history buffs. (I’m not sure what you call them. Like… Taylor Swift fans are Swifties… Bieber fans are Bieliebers… Napoleon aficionados are… Napoleonados?) There was a flyer inside the box advertising a new Napoleonic history magazine that would supposedly be appearing quarterly for the next 15 years, up until the 200th Anniversary of Waterloo in 2015. It was $29.95 for a preview issue or $120 for an initial eight-issue subscription. At those prices, I couldn’t help but absolutely not subscribe.

Ironically, though, I did find myself commemorating the 200th Anniversary of Waterloo. By playing an entirely different game about it—the board game Stratego Waterloo.

Stratego Waterloo

Stratego Waterloo components

Stratego Waterloo is based on the classic board game Stratego. (Stratego is a bit like chess, except you can’t see which of the other person’s pieces is which.) In Stratego Waterloo, one player commands Napoleon’s forces and the other player commands the allies opposing him. Each player’s army consists of infantry, cavalry, and artillery units of varying strengths. The unit pieces are double sided so that you can see all of the information about your units, including their strength, but the other player can only see whether they are infantry, cavalry, or artillery. The goal of the game is to either cut off the other player’s supply lines (by getting two of your pieces to their edge of the board) or eliminate their commanders.

Napoleon is holding a spyglass. Or possibly a Twix.
Napoleon is holding a spyglass. Or possibly a Twix.

From a historical perspective, the game is massively inaccurate because Napoleon is allowed to win. However, it does incorporate many historical flourishes. The French player starts with a slightly larger and stronger army, but the allied player receives Prussian reinforcements partway through the game. Almost all of the pieces have unique artwork depicting the uniforms of the regiments involved in the battle. In the standard or expert setups, you add terrain tiles to the board to represent the geography of the Waterloo battlefield.


One feature sets Stratego Waterloo apart: semi-deterministic combat. In many war games, any piece could technically defeat any other piece. However, in Stratego Waterloo higher strength pieces always defeat lower strength pieces and you only roll a die when the attacking and defending piece are equal strength. For example, if you’re attacked by an infantry piece, it might turn out to be a nameless light infantry unit (strength 1), or it might be the practically invincible Old Guard (strength 6). If it’s the Old Guard and you don’t have any of your own pieces of strength 6 nearby (or fortuitously positioned artillery), there’s not much you can do to stop it from crashing through your ranks.

You choose the starting position of your pieces, so setting up the board is part of the game and you can strategize how to protect your supply lines, hide your commanders, and prepare for the arrival of reinforcements. As battles progress, you sometimes feel like you’re managing a few powerful units amidst a vast expanse of hapless cannon fodder, which is unfortunately probably an accurate simulation of Napoleonic warfare. As you’re narrowing down the location of your opponent’s supply lines or commanders and the game draws to a close, it begins to take on the tension and thrill of a suspenseful chess endgame. Overall, it’s an extremely engaging hybrid of a traditional abstract game and a modern strategy game.


Apparently soldiers actually fought battles while wearing these clothes.
Apparently soldiers actually fought battles dressed like this.

Stratego Waterloo feels like a premium gaming experience. The box is large and heavy, with a perfectly configured insert. The artwork is gorgeously detailed. The board and tiles are linen finished. You get all of the rules and components for basic, standard, and expert versions of the game. It even includes terrain tiles specifically for designing your own scenarios. You’re getting a massive amount of content in a single box and it’s accessible enough to play with almost anyone so, if I was shopping for any Napoleonados, I would definitely consider getting them this game.


The rulebook's graphic design is off the chain. Like... $120 magazine quality.
The rulebook’s graphic design is off the chain. Like… $120 magazine quality.

There is one flaw. The rulebook doesn’t do a good job of explaining exactly what constitutes an action. For infantry and cavalry, moving into and attacking an enemy unit is one action. For artillery, moving and firing are separate actions. I had to read the forums on Board Game Geek to figure this out.

Final thoughts

It’s fascinating to me that Waterloo was only 201 years ago. Waterloo was closer to the start of World War I than the start of World War I is to today. Waterloo was only three years before Frankenstein was written. Waterloo happened after the Lewis & Clark expedition. Cars were invented less than 80 years after Waterloo.

Here and now, I find myself looking at the list of features on the back of the Waterloo: Napoleon’s Last Battle computer game box. It turns out that the board game Stratego Waterloo has all of them: great artwork, exhaustively researched historical details, numerous units with accurately depicted uniforms, maps with geographical landmarks, ability to design your own battles, and even multiplayer with other humans. The slogan on the board game’s box is “relive and refight the Battle of Waterloo.” That’s what I wanted to do when I first pulled that computer game off of the bargain shelf. I just never imagined that I wouldn’t be doing that until 13 years later in a board game.

Bang is a dangerously fun card game

I used to be a normal person who didn’t own any board games. Then I went to a party with some friends and played Bang.

It wasn’t my first experience with modern board games—I’d played ones like The Settlers of Catan, 7 Wonders, and Agricola before. But there was something different about Bang… it had this je ne sais quoi that spoke to something deep inside me. Afterwards, I had a dangerous, Damascene realization: “I’m an adult with a job and income… I can buy Bang for myself and get other people to play it with me.” That was the moment where I mentally transformed from “player who just shows up” to “game facilitator.” I was infected.

Bang is essentially a Wild West card game version of the game Mafia or Werewolf. One player is designated as the sheriff. All of the other players have a secret role: deputy, outlaw, or renegade. The sheriff and the deputies win if the outlaws and renegades are eliminated. The outlaws win if the sheriff is eliminated. And a renegade wins if everyone else is eliminated. Each turn, players use cards to draw guns, shoot at each other, dodge bullets, increase their health, etc. Since all of the roles except for the sheriff are secret, considerable intrigue surrounds who is on which team and—consequently—who to shoot.

I’ve seen things in Bang. I’ve seen the sheriff shoot at his own deputy. I’ve seen the deputy shoot at his own sheriff. I’ve seen an outlaw shoot down his own teammates just to get a clear shot at the sheriff. I’ve also seen delight and laughter and joy.

Bang was created in Italy and most printings have both English and Italian on the cards, creating a Spaghetti Western vibe. There are several editions of Bang available, along with numerous expansions and licensed versions, including Halo and The Walking Dead. The edition I have is called Bang! The Bullet. It comes in a 109-mm-cartridge-shaped tin with the core game, most of the expansions, and a plastic sheriff’s badge.

I bit on The Bullet because it includes lots of expansions. However, there are a few things that I dislike about it.

It’s difficult to transport because it rolls around and the lid comes off easily.

Also, the shape of the bullet is historically inaccurate.


Two things are immediately obvious about The Bullet‘s bullet. First, it’s rounded on top instead of pointy, so it’s for a pistol or lever action rifle. Second, the cartridge is rimless.

Bang! The Bullet's tin

You’ve probably seen movies where a cowboy is loading a revolver by sliding cartridges into the back. The reason those cartridges don’t just slide all the way out the front is that they are rimmed: a tiny protruding ridge around the bottom fits into a groove in the revolver’s cylinder. By contrast, most ammunition used in modern semi-automatic pistols is rimless to allow it to be stacked inside a magazine.

Rimless cartridge (left) vs. rimmed cartridge (right).
Rimless cartridge (left) vs. rimmed cartridge (right).

Since The Bullet‘s cartridge is rimless, it is for a semi-automatic pistol. Semi-automatic pistols weren’t invented until the 1890s—the very tail end of the Wild West era. They do appear prominently in several notable Western movies like The Wild Bunch, Big Jake, The Last Hard Men, and Duck, You Sucker, but those movies all specifically deal with societal change and the decline of the cowboy way of life.

None of these firearms use a rimless cartridge.
None of these firearms use a rimless cartridge.

If the shape of the tin was more stylized, it probably wouldn’t bother me. But it looks unmistakably modern (basically like an elongated .45 ACP or .45 Winchester Magnum). It wouldn’t work in any of the firearms depicted on the Bang cards or any of the other firearms commonly associated with the postbellum American West. It’s like if there was something called Bang! The Hat, but instead of a cowboy hat, it was a baseball cap.

Bang! The Dice Game

Bang! The Dice Game

Bang has spawned a whole family of related games. When I heard Bang! The Dice Game was coming out, I immediately added it to my Christmas list because it sounded like a great way to get my Bang fix faster. It’s more or less a hybrid of Bang and Yahtzee. The secret roles are the same, but instead of drawing and playing cards each turn, players roll six dice and use the results to attack and heal.

The Dice Game has a few advantages. It plays in roughly half the time of the card game, so eliminated players don’t have to wait as long for the next game. Also, the dice only have six sides, so there are only six actions to explain to new players. The downside is less variety and strategy, and an overall less dramatic feel than the card game.

The cartridges on The Dice Game's tokens are rimmed (although they look quite a bit like .22 caliber cartridges, a smaller caliber than any of the firearms shown in the game).
The cartridges on The Dice Game’s tokens are rimmed (although they look quite a bit like .22 caliber cartridges, a smaller caliber than any of the firearms shown in the game).

Family friendliness

The manufacturer’s officially recommended minimum age for both Bang and Bang! The Dice Game is eight years old. Bang may not be appropriate for young children for several reasons. The central conceit of the game involves using guns to shoot people. Players tend to cheekily say “I’m Bang-ing you” a lot. The card for healing yourself is called “Beer,” with a picture of a frothy stein on it. Plus, the various expansions include cards called “Russian Roulette,” “Whisky,” “Tequila,” “Hard Liquor,” and “Peyote.” That said, it’s probably not that much different than letting your kids watch a John Wayne movie (except for the peyote part).

Bang's thirst-quenching beer cards.
Bang’s thirst-quenching beer cards.

Final thoughts

Today, I probably wouldn’t buy Bang. I still think it’s a great game, but I’ve had to set some personal limits to keep myself from buying too many games. These days, I tend to only buy games that either support two players (so I can play them at home with my wife) or are easy to teach (so I can play them with anyone, anytime). Technically, Bang has variants for two or three players, but you need at least four or five people for the actual game. And, with all of the symbology and card types, Bang is pushing the limits of what is tractable to many new players.

On the other hand, Bang! The Dice Game offers a very similar experience in a faster game with a flatter learning curve.

Still, as good as The Dice Game is, I sometimes find myself missing the epic feel of the card game, wanting to chase that high that got me hooked in the first place. In the right setting, with the right group of players, you can bring it out and be transported from sitting around your kitchen table to squaring off in a riveting showdown at the OK Corral.

Love Letter: A perfect honeymoon game

When I think of the game Love Letter, I’ll always remember our honeymoon train trip. The afternoon after our wedding, we set off on a week-long vacation. Walking into the train station downtown felt like stepping back in time. Since we’d booked a roomette (a private compartment with two seats that fold down into beds at night), we were able to wait for the train in the first class lounge. We enjoyed the comfortable couches and complimentary beverages, and then we boarded Amtrak’s Empire Builder. After we’d settled into our compartment and the locomotive carried us out of the city, I brought out the new card game that I’d bought for the trip: Love Letter.

I put a lot of thought into our honeymoon. I picked the historic hotel we stayed at on our wedding night. I bought a new train-friendly travel duffel so I didn’t have to try to maneuver a rolling suitcase through the train cars. And I’d heard about this new little 16-card-game-in-a-bag called Love Letter. It seemed almost too perfect: a game with a romantic name, small enough to take on the train, and inexpensive enough to fit in the budget even after we’d just paid for a wedding. I drove over to the nearest game store and bought a copy.

I’m still not really sure what the storyline of the game is. Nominally, it has something to do with getting a letter to a princess, but it doesn’t really simulate the process of doing that. When you’re playing, you always have one card in your hand. Each turn, you draw a second card and choose one of your two cards to play. There are eight different types of cards in the deck, and each one has a different character with a different ability. So, when you play, what you’re actually doing is using the characters on the cards, trying knock the other players out of the game, or else have the highest-numbered character in your hand at the end of a round.

It turned out to be the perfect game to bring on the train. We must have played dozens of times. At the beginning of each round, you’re mostly just bluffing and trying to guess what card the other player has. However, as each round goes on, more and more cards are revealed, so it gradually turns into a more deductive game where you can narrow down with certainty which card the other person has. I think, in part, Love Letter is so much fun because it takes advantage of our cognitive biases. At a subconscious level, there’s just something exciting about sitting across from another person and declaring, “You have the handmaid.” Logically, you know you’re just making a random guess, but cognitively you feel like you have ESP when you’re correct. There was a lot about our train trip that wasn’t enjoyable—like horrifying delays and a missing rental car—but those games of Love Letter are something that I will always treasure.

These days, there are countless different versions of the game, including the original Japanese version, Archer, Adventure Time, The Hobbit, Munchkin, Santa Claus, and more. Also, there is Love Letter: Batman.

Love Letter: Batman


A few months after our honeymoon, when Love Letter: Batman was first announced, I told my wife that it was what I wanted for my birthday. She probably got sick of me bringing it up all the time, but she did get it for me. Like some of the other versions of Love Letter, it has some minor rules differences from the original, but basically it’s the exact same game. I enjoy it, especially the tiny Bat Symbol tokens that replace the wooden cubes from the original version. However…

Ars Technica recently reviewed a number of the Love Letter versions and described Love Letter: Batman as, “The most kid-friendly version.” Love Letter: Batman is definitely not the most kid-friendly version. The artwork is very similar to the style of the recent Batman comics. And while I do like this style of artwork, the depictions of the female characters made me feel a little bit awkward that I’d asked my wife to buy it for me. It didn’t have to be like this.

Love Letter: Batman (top) compared to Batman Fluxx (bottom).
Love Letter: Batman (top) compared to Batman Fluxx (bottom).

If you want to get your kids a Batman card game, get them Batman Fluxx. If you want to get your kids a Love Letter game, just get them the normal version.

Card quality

Have you ever noticed how traditional decks of playing cards always have a white border around the edge? There’s a reason for this: when you shuffle, deal, or otherwise handle cards, the edges get a lot of nicks and dings. If the cards have a white border, you probably won’t be able to see the marks. However, if the cards are printed edge to edge like in Love Letter, you’ll start to see marks after just a few minutes (also, storing them in a cloth bag doesn’t really do the cards any favors). Since Love Letter has a very small number of cards and involves trying to guess what other people have in their hand, a conspicuous mark on one of the cards can ruin the entire game. I’ve given up worrying about it and now depend on the fact that all of our cards are pretty much equally thrashed. But if you’re just starting out, it’s worth thinking about getting plastic card sleeves.

Love Letter card edge compared to typical playing card edge.
Love Letter card edge compared to typical playing card edge.

Reference cards

Love Letter is played with 16 cards, but it actually comes with 20 cards. The other four cards are reference cards (one for each possible player). I still find it useful to have a reference card even though I’ve played the game more times than I can count, but it’s really annoying that the reference cards have the exact same back as the game cards. I also can’t count how many times I’ve picked up the game and accidentally shuffled the reference cards in. Different types of cards should have different designs on the back.

Final thoughts

Supposedly, the human brain is the most complex object in the known universe. If that’s true, then love is as momentous and powerful as the collision of galaxies. Love is the definitive experience that we can have in this world. Sometimes, it’s very difficult to distill that into words. What do you put in a love letter? What do you say when your whole being is moved and consumed and focused into passion and desire? Love Letter doesn’t really have that much to do with love letters, so it probably isn’t going to help you figure that out. But, as a game to enjoy with someone you love, I highly recommend it.

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

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



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

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

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

Avalanche at Yeti Mountain


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

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

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

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

Game pieces

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

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

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

Box size

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

Barriers to entry

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

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

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

Avalanche at Yeti Mountain: 12 seconds
Bigfoot: 15 seconds

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

Final thoughts

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

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