Whenever I hear a game is inspired by a classic game, I’m always intrigued. King of Tokyo puts a new spin on Yahtzee. Letter Tycoon is like Scrabble with cards. So many games manage to offer up a fresh take on a classic idea.
So when I heard that Pocket Ops was inspired by tic-tac-toe, I was immediately interested.
No, actually, I was like, “Is this a joke? Tic-tac-toe barely even qualifies as a ‘game.’ What’s next? Fill in the blank? Connect the dots? There could be a whole Highlights Magazine collection.”
Even after reading the publisher’s description of Pocket Ops from Marc at Grand Gamers Guild—which essentially said, “Yes, this is based on tic-tic-toe. Yes, I know, that sounds crazy. Everyone makes that face that you’re making. But it’s actually really good.”—I still didn’t believe it.
ThenI actually played Pocket Ops.
In Pocket Ops, you’re a spymaster sending spies to infiltrate a facility. Like tic-tac-toe, it’s a two player game with a three-by-three grid and your goal is to get three of your spies in a row. However, unlike tic-tac-toe, each turn, before you place a piece, your opponent uses a deck of cards to guess where you’re going to place. If they predict correctly, your placement is rejected: you can’t ever go where your opponent thinks you’re going to go.
This whole new layer of second-guessing transforms Pocket Ops from the trivially tractable tic-tac-toe into an entertaining, and even slightly sweat-inducing, experience.
On top of that, Pocket Ops includes several types of special pieces that allow you to take an action after you place them (“assassins” that remove an opponent’s piece, “pushers” that push adjacent pieces, etc.). All of the specialists feel equally useful and interesting. Each round, you get a random one, so there’s plenty of variety and you never know exactly what to expect from your opponent.
This game is legit.
The first play of the game, you’re thinking, “It’s basically a one-in-nine shot in the dark to guess the other person’s move. And yet, most people go for the center square in tic-tac-toe… are they going to go for the center square here… or do they think that I think they’re going to go for the center square…”
As you get more and more pieces onto the board, it gets more and more interesting. You’ve got to wonder about things like whether the other player is going to go in the same space where you just blocked them last turn. Are they going to go for the immediate win, or are they not going to go for the win because they know I’ll probably block them? Also they haven’t used a special piece this round, maybe they’ll try to remove my piece…
As there are fewer and fewer open spaces on the board, it becomes clearer where you need to place, so the amount of second guessing keeps going up.
Plus, you’re almost never out of the game. Even if you’ve totally failed and the other player has three spots where they could win, you can still come out on top if you can successfully anticipate their next move.
There’s nothing more gratifying than when you watch your opponent decide what to do and put their piece on the board, and then you flip over your card and show you knew where they were going before they did.
Even if you lose, Pocket Ops is always best two out of three. The first win gets you a power crystal, and a second win means you get to power up the Doomsday Device (although, even though it’s called a “Doomsday Device,” by putting it together you are actually saving the world, not blowing it up). If you want to get cynical, the Doomsday Device is an unnecessarily elaborate score tracker, and yet… it’s just fun. There’s something tremendously satisfying about putting that crystal onto that empty, crystal-shaped space for the win.
At this point in time, Grand Gamers Guild is a relatively new publisher. However, judging by their previous campaign for Unreal Estate, it’s clear that they care deeply about making solid games with excellent art and graphic design, and about keeping backers in the loop with frequent updates (and a surprising amount of puzzles).
Honestly, I doubt I will ever be able to look at tic-tac-toe again without thinking about how Pocket Ops is better. This is tic-tac-toe 2.0. This is tic-tac-toe fixed. This is tic-tac-toe transformed into a pocket-sized, take-anywhere, play-with-anyone board game where there’s actually something intriguing and fun going on.
Like, I don’t think you understand. Bang makes me feel like a kid again. I probably wouldn’t be writing this blog if it wasn’t for Bang.
But I never get to play Bang because dV Giochi came out with the annoyingly great Bang: The Dice Game, which takes the concept and overall feel of Bang and makes it into a faster game that is easier to teach. I begrudgingly acknowledge that Bang: The Dice Game is, in some respects, better than Bang.
And yet, The Dice Game can still feel a bit bland in comparison to the wealth of options and variety available in the card game. A die only has six faces. Bang has dozens and dozens and dozens of different cards.
So, when I heard that an expansion was coming for Bang: The Dice Game, I was immediately intrigued. Would it strike a perfect balance by adding some spice to The Dice Game without sacrificing too much of its simplicity and speed?
The Old Saloon adds a number of new modules. Let’s take a look at them.
Bang: The Dice Game is a dice game, so naturally The Old Saloon adds two new dice. On your turn, you still roll five dice, but you can choose to replace one of the original dice with one of these. The “loudmouth” die is weighted towards attacking: it has faces with double bang and double Gatling symbols, but it also has a new face for shooting yourself. The “coward” die is weighted towards healing: it has a double beer symbol and a broken arrow that allows you to return an arrow. The new dice are a different color to distinguish them from the original dice (although they are both the same color, which can make them difficult to tell apart at a glance).
I’m not big on the names of these dice. I know the whole game is kind of cheeky, but the word “coward” is so negative that it begins to affect the calculus of whether you want to roll that die. (Also, interestingly, unlike the shoot yourself symbol on the loudmouth, there’s no new negative symbol on the coward die… maybe the negative thing about it is just that it calls you a “coward?” Is this toxic masculinity used as a game mechanism?)
Regardless, the new dice are probably my favorite part of The Old Saloon. They give you more control. You can consider what your goal is each turn—do you need to attack? do you need to heal yourself?—and then pick a die based on that.
Plus it’s funny when you really want to take someone else out and—of course—you shoot yourself instead.
Possibly the biggest addition in The Old Saloon is the ghost. The first person to be eliminated becomes the ghost. The ghost still gets to take a turn, but they only roll two dice and they can’t use the results directly. Instead, they give one of the symbols they’ve rolled to any other player (or, if they roll doubles, they can give two symbols). On the first roll of the recipient’s next turn, they must set dice to those symbols.
So, for example, the ghost can try to give a beer to a player they want to help or dynamite to a player they want to hurt.
Obviously, adding the ghost extends the length of the game a little, but it also offers some much needed consolation to those in the unfortunate position of being eliminated first.
Plus it’s funny when the ghost saddles you with two dynamite from beyond the grave and—of course—you roll a third one and blow up.
Indian chief’s arrow
The Old Saloon also adds the Indian chief’s arrow, which is yellow to differentiate it from the ordinary blue arrows. You simply add this to the pile of arrows and, any time a player must take an arrow, they can opt to take it. The Indian chief’s arrow is worse for you in that it counts as two arrows. However, if you have both the Indian chief’s arrow and the most arrows (including the two from the Indian chief’s) you do not take any damage when the Indians attack.
This is the module that surprised me the most. I really wasn’t expecting to enjoy it, but it’s great! From a game design perspective, this is genius: it flips the arrows from something you don’t want into something you do want, inverting your whole thought process about rolling more times. Plus it’s funny when you try to get the most arrows, but—of course—you fail and lose half of your life points.
Role cards with abilities
The Old Saloon also adds an alternate deck of role cards. The secret roles (deputy, outlaw, renegade) now have a once per game ability that allows you to do something like, for example, take a second turn in a row or prevent another player from being eliminated. However, to use your ability, you have to flip over your card and reveal your role. There are enough different deputy, outlaw, and renegade cards that you can shuffle each type up and never be sure who will have what ability.
I like what these add but, in practice, we haven’t actually invoked the abilities very often. Sometimes we forget about them. Other times we are reluctant to reveal our identities. Other times we try to save them until the best possible moment but—of course—get eliminated first. Still, even if you don’t end up taking advantage of these right away, they give you something to grow into as you get more comfortable with the expansion.
The expansion also adds a number of new character cards. Most of these can just be added to the deck from the original game, although a few require other modules from The Old Saloon—for example, one character lets you roll the loudmouth die in addition to the five original dice instead of replacing one.
All of the new characters fit in perfectly with the original ones.
The only one whose ability even sounds bad on paper is the Apache Kid, who allows you to take the Indian chief’s arrow from another player. When I saw that, I was like, “That’s it? That sounds lame.” However, this is actually an awesome, game-changing ability. It puts the Apache Kid in pole position if he wants to make himself immune to arrows. Plus, it’s funny if someone thinks you’re on their team and they start going for the most arrows, but you’re not on their team and you use the Apache Kid to pull the Indian chief’s arrow out from under them.
Technically, the expansion also adds a couple more bullet tokens (in case you’ve lost some or don’t like making change as often?).
Because the expansion is structured as modules, you might consider picking and choosing which ones to add in. However, if you’re reasonably familiar with Bang: The Dice Game, I would actually suggest just putting them all in.
Without the expansion, Bang: The Dice Game feels a bit like it’s the actual Gunfight at the O.K. Corral: straightforward, stark, and blisteringly fast.
With The Old Saloon, Bang: The Dice Game becomes more like the embellished version of history. There’s more to see, more to do, and it feels like you’re in the middle of a bustling Wild West town where there’s something exciting going on around every corner.
One day I was browsing through my local Barnes & Noble when something on the shelf caught my eye: a copy of Lanterns: The Harvest Festival. I felt an unexpected rush of surprise and excitement and pride.
Some time earlier, I’d backed the game’s Kickstarter, got my copy, played it, and fallen in love with its beauty and simplicity. I don’t have kids so I don’t know exactly how that makes you feel—and I can only account for, at most, 1/1213th of Lanterns‘ commercial success—but seeing it at an actual store… I think that’s a small measure of how you must feel when your kid gets an A+ on their report card or hits a home run. You knew all along that they had it in them. It goes without saying that most games from Kickstarter don’t hit the big time and make it onto the shelf at Barnes & Noble, but Lanterns is that good.
Lanterns: The Harvest Festival is a game for two to four players about dedicating lanterns by placing them on a lake, more or less based around the Chinese Mid-Autumn Festival and Ghost Festival. The goal is to accumulate sets of lantern cards (three pair, four of a kind, or seven different) and trade those in for points. The winner is the person with the most points.
Each turn, you place one tile. After you place the tile, each player gets a lantern card in the color of the side of the tile that’s facing them.
As a result, every move you make gives a lantern not only to yourself, but also to the other players.
I know what you’re probably thinking. “If everyone gets a lantern every turn, how does anyone get ahead?”
There are a couple of ways. First, the supply of lanterns is finite, which allows you to try to orient tiles so your opponents qualify to pick up a color that is temporarily unavailable. Second, if you place a tile so it matches the color of an existing tile, you get an extra lantern in that color (plus, if one of those tiles has a platform, you get a coin; two coins can be spent to swap one color of lantern for another).
Consequently, the game is all about placing your lantern tiles to maximize the number of sets you can form while preventing the other players from benefiting off of your placement. Adding an extra twist, the number of points that you get for each set changes and decreases over the course of the game as you remove point tiles from a stack, so you need to keep an eye on which sets are currently the most valuable.
Lanterns builds an absorbing, puzzle-like atmosphere where figuring out your best next move is difficult, but not-quite-impossible.
On top of that, it’s gorgeous. The lake seems to ripple. The lanterns seem to gleam. It’s as if the haunting beauty of a harvest moon shimmering across the water is captured and boxed on your board game shelf.
The quality is impeccable, too. The tiles are durable. The cards are linen-finished. The coins are wooden and lovely. The first player token is a reasonable, proportionate size—not one of those ginormous ones that’s 10 times bigger than anything else in the game.
By all accounts, Lanterns has been a massive hit. So much so that Foxtrot and Renegade recently published an expansion: Lanterns: The Emperor’s Gifts. Because of all the hipster joy I take in saying that I backed Lanterns before it was cool, I was a bit disappointed that they published the expansion without a Kickstarter campaign.
Still, under any typical circumstances, I would rush out to buy any expansion for any game I love. But Lanterns is something else entirely…
Lanterns isn’t just good, it’s so good that it has me wondering whether an expansion could possibly improve it. It just seems so fully-formed and complete the way it is. It’s like if you heard about an expansion for chess. Sure, it could work—but is it going to make it better?
For me, there’s just the right amount to think about in Lanterns. You can’t play in a rush, and yet, you don’t want to either. The look of the game is so tranquil, it invites you to slow down and relax and spend some time pondering each move.
Who knows. Someday I will probably try the expansion. For now, I’m convinced the game is perfection.
I recently treated myself to an extravagant purchase. Like some kind of fabulously wealthy sheik to whom money means nothing, I went on eBay and dropped $50 on an out-of-print DVD.
Why? Because I wanted to see the rest of Star Wars.
We all know about Star Wars: the soon-to-be-nine episode saga of movies about the Empire and the rebellion and the Skywalker family. We all also know about Rogue One: A Star Wars Story and Disney’s upcoming lineup of additional spinoff movies. And we all probably even know about The Star Wars Holiday Special because we either suffered through it personally one night in a friend’s dorm room or we’ve heard it made fun of on The Big Bang Theory.
And that’s it, right?
Sure, there are a bajillion other Star Wars animated series, and computer games, and comics, and all kinds of other media.
But, as far as live action Star Wars movies, that’s it… right?
Actually, there are two other movies. Well, made-for-TV movies. From the 1980s. About Ewoks. Yes, Ewoks. The cute, cheerful, battle-hardened teddy bears.
These two movies haven’t been officially available since 2004, when a DVD release was made—probably for some kind of copyright or trademark maintenance reasons more than a desire to actually disseminate these to the public.
What you have to ask yourself is… was Leia meeting an Ewok your favorite moment in all of Star Wars? Did the the scene where the Ewoks take Han, Luke, and Chewie to their village leave you hankering to learn more about their complex society? Were you so disgusted that George Lucas added CGI eyelids to Ewoks for the newest special edition Blu-rays that you just want to see any bit of Star Wars that hasn’t subsequently been ruined with incongruous tinkering?
If so, I know just the thing for you.
Caravan of Courage
The first “Ewok Adventure” has a terrible title: Caravan of Courage. Maybe it’s just me, but I can’t hear Caravan of Courage without thinking it’s going to be about Stormtroopers forcibly marching Ewoks on an Ewok version of the Trail of Tears. Thankfully, that’s not what it turns out to be. Participation in the titular caravan is entirely voluntary.
I don’t want to spoil the plot in case someday you watch these. Let’s just say, some kids get separated from their parents… and then they meet some Ewoks (including Wicket—the same Ewok who Leia met in Return of the Jedi!).
Are you going to like this movie?
Well, do you want to see a move about a little girl who looks like Shirley Temple and a teenage boy with an attitude reminiscent of whiny-Luke-on-Tatootine-I’m-not-such-a-bad-pilot-myself?
Do you enjoy movies where most of the dialog is in Ewok-ish, except for occasional wildlife documentary style narration by renowned crooner (and voice of Frosty the Snowman) Burl Ives?
Do you want to see something that’s going to have you go “this is the weirdest thing I’ve ever seen” in the first ten minutes, before it kind of makes you want to fall asleep, before it then turns into a pretty decent and relatively-exciting mythopoeic story about an epic journey by a band of scrappy heroes carrying ancient talismans in a quest against insurmountable evil?
You could ask a lot of questions if you want. Exactly where were the kids during the first scene of the movie? Why is it called “the forest moon of Endor” if this much of it isn’t actually forested? Why does the giant have such fabulous hair? Is he in a hair band?
Who knows. None of that matters. The point is, don’t get mad at your parents because maybe your star cruiser will crash and you’ll never see them again and you’ll have to live the rest of your life in a hut with ferrets while eating blueberries out of orange peels.
The Battle for Endor
In case you thought the first Ewok Adventure had a terrible name, this one totally redeems itself in that department.
Just kidding. It’s called The Battle for Endor, which makes it sound like it’s about the battle at the end of Return of the Jedi.
Actually, though, the battle at the end of Return of the Jedi is the Battle OF Endor. This is about a totally different Battle FOR Endor. And these two Endor battles have about as much in common as my struggle to button my tight pants does with the actual Battle of the Bulge.
In case you were wondering what happened to the characters at the end of Caravan of Courage, this movie picks up right where that one left off. And then the Ewoks are immediately abducted from their village in a shocking, Trail of Tears type event.
This time, there’s no narration, but we do meet character actor and diabeetus spokesman Wilford Brimley playing a crotchety old hermit who lives in the woods like he’s six of the seven dwarves. Soon our heroes are fending off an evil sorceress (who’s totally not named Malificent) and infiltrating an ominous castle filled with basically, like, all of the least scary Deadites from Army of Darkness.
Again, you could ask a lot of questions. How is that spaceship going to fly in space if the gun turrets have open windows? What is the deal with that witch lady… is she yet another human who crash landed here? Does anything else come up if you Google “Wilford Brimley fight scene”?
I actually think I liked this one better than the first. The pacing is faster. There’s more action. The budget appears to have been higher (Wicket’s mouth moves!). It even manages to build genuine tension and then skillfully break it with clever, laugh out loud comedic moments.
My wife claims to like Ewoks but she didn’t like these movies. I said, “I’m sorry these aren’t the serious, mature, sophisticated films about Ewoks that you’ve apparently been wanting to see.”
I, on the other hand, loved them. I love the stop motion animation of the creatures, and the not-quite-John Williams theme music, and how the Ewoks always, always work together.
Do not expect anything remotely like the rest of Star Wars. These are not 1930s serial and science fiction inspired adventures. They are fantasy and fairy tale inspired stories targeted at children—in the same vein as other 1980s films like Labyrinth and The NeverEnding Story. There’s no mention of the Force or the Jedi or the Empire or anything else.
But if you’re tired of the space age and you just want to turn back the clock and spend some time hanging out with these little fuzzballs in the stick age, these could be the movies for you. Someday. When the rights are about to expire and they’re released again.
I didn’t grow up in the 1950s, but I can still remember when I was little and the ice cream truck would drive by. We’d hear the warbling of “Turkey in the Straw” in the distance, our mom would give us money from her purse, and my brother and I would run outside, waving a couple dollars in our tiny fists.
I remember all of that in a halcyon haze. That was before the internet, before smartphones, before memes, before Twitter… When I think about ice cream trucks, some part of me is still wanting to run to the curb, unrepressed.
But now it’s the 21st Century and I’m a grown-up millennial. I can’t even think about buying from an ice cream truck without a lot of questions.
First off, do they take cards? Because I don’t carry cash. Also, do I really want to pay ice cream truck prices when I could spend the same amount and get a whole box of Drumsticks on sale at Safeway? Also, just how fresh is the ice cream truck’s ice cream—some of that must have been sitting there for a while—the truck owner’s inventory turnover ratio can’t be that big, right? Plus, what is the carbon footprint of an ice cream truck?
I could go on.
Is it possible to recontextualize ice cream trucks? To restore their innocent and uncynical joy? It just might be…
Rocky Road à la Mode
Rocky Road à la Mode is a game for two to four players from Green Couch Games when you own and operate an ice cream truck. Each player gets an ice cream truck token and, as you take actions, your token advances around the neighborhood on the board. Using cards, you line up customers and serve them, earning yourself points and bonus abilities. The game ends once someone gets nine points and everyone else catches up to them, and the winner is the person who earns the most points.
When I read the rules, I was like, “I know what this is! This is like a tiny little version of Thebes!” The games use the exact same form of turn management where, instead of taking turns in order around the table, every action costs an amount of time and the person farthest back on the time track takes actions until they aren’t last anymore. However, in Thebes the board represents a fixed number of years; here, you keep going around the neighborhood until someone gets enough points to end the game.
As for how to take actions, there is one type of card in the game that represents everything: customers, ice cream, points, and bonus abilities. As you’re playing, you choose which cards to play as customers and which cards to serve to the customers. Then, once you’ve served all of the customers on a card, you earn the points and bonus abilities on that card.
The bonus abilities are treats you can serve without needing to play a card. You can also earn additional points based on those bonus abilities. For example, the first person to earn three orangesicle bonuses gets a card worth four points.
Also, you can pick up “wild” ice cream treats off of the street as you advance around the neighborhood. I don’t really even want to think about what that’s supposed to represent.
The game is challenging! It’s tough to balance and fully optimize which cards should be played as customers and which cards should be used as treats to serve the customers.
The only hangup was managing the cards you’ve played. Since the cards have different uses, you need to arrange your cards on the table to show or hide certain elements (for example, to hide any customers you’ve already served or to show the points you’ve already earned). The game gives you a truck card for this. However, trying to stack all of the cards under one truck card quickly started to feel like more paper pushing than doing Satan’s taxes. It was easiest to keep just the customers under the truck card and keep the bonuses and points under the reference card.
The artwork in this game is eye popping. At first I thought it might be so eye popping that it would distract from the actual information, but it’s easy to pick out all of the different elements on each card.
My one gripe about the graphic design would be that the card fronts are directional but the card backs don’t look directional. Maybe this is just me, but I hate it when I’m playing a game and I flip over a card and then I have to rotate it because I’m looking at it upside down. It’s nice when you can just look at the back of the card and determine which way to orient it.
Now, technically the backs here are directional, but you have to look so close to spot the directionality that it’s functionally impossible to see. Then again, this is a pretty minor thing, and I might be willing to make an exception because—honestly—the backs of these cards look awesome. I love the concept of collaging different art from the game to look like a traditional playing card back.
This is Green Couch Games’ first board game that actually has a board. Unfortunately, at least in my copy, the board never quite stays completely flat against the table. If it had been printed on the other side, the fold would lie down better.
That said, the wooden ice cream truck pieces are huge and graspably thick, and their mass helps to keep the board flat.
The game also includes a ton of extra treat tokens for use in variants.
Rocky Road: Dice Cream
The Kickstarter version of the game included a mini-game called Rocky Road: Dice Cream. It’s kinda sorta like a miniature version of Rocky Road à la Mode. It has a similar time track, but the customers you’re serving are dice and you track your inventory and points using little tokens. It’s not a bad game, and the tiny Neapolitan dice are so mouth-wateringly adorable that you want to pop them in your mouth like they’re ice cream bites. Still, the tokens are so small that it’s tough to play.
As I’ve gotten older, I’ve developed a sort of horror of suburbia. Do I want to look out my front window every day and see row upon row of identical houses? Do I want to be trapped in a neighborhood of interchangeable little plats, far away from everything? We’re not earls or barons, but we’re supposed to want to live in these imitation estates en miniature.
Rocky Road à la Mode embodies the empty darkness of suburban life: you just keep going around in circles until its over.
But Rocky Road à la Mode also captures a sense of joy and wonder, holding up the ice cream truck as a jubilant symbol of childlike excitement. This is a game I’d love to play on a hot summer night while relaxing with a bowl of ice cream.
Everyone knows Sherlock Holmes, the world’s greatest detective, created by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Lately I’ve been reading the Raffles short stories by E.W. Horning—Conan Doyle’s brother-in-law. Instead of a detective, Raffles is a gentleman burglar, essentially Sherlock Holmes’ opposite. Reading them is the closest I’ve come to feeling like I’ve discovered new, authentic Holmes adventures. If the original Sherlock Holmes stories are the Bible, the Raffles stories are the apocrypha.
Just like the typical Holmes story formula of an impossible to solve case, a Raffles story typically centers around an impossibly difficult theft. And, just as the Holmes stories are written from the point of view of Dr. Watson, the Raffles stories are written from the point of view of Bunny—Raffles’ devoted, practically sycophantic sidekick.
Raffles shares many characteristics of Holmes—intelligence, courage, penchant for disguises—but puts them all to use as a criminal. You wouldn’t say that Raffles is evil, necessarily. He tends to steal from morally dubious characters. Still, Raffles is a bad man. In one story, he plots a murder, partially to protect his criminal identity, but partially just for the thrill of secretly knowing that he’s committed the most heinous crime possible.
The stories were apparently quite famous and scandalous at the time, although as Sherlock Holmes has only grown more popular, Raffles fame hasn’t kept pace.
If a gentleman burglar was legitimately scandalous to Victorian audiences, how much have things changed? Fiction about criminal exploits doesn’t exactly carry a stigma today.
In fact, you’re no longer limited to just reading about burgling as you relax in the parlor in your smoking jacket. If you want to feel like a burglar, plenty of board games let you carry out your own daring heists. Which brings me to another game based on Batman: The Animated Series…
Batman: The Animated Series Dice Game
Batman: The Animated Series Dice Game is a game for two to four players from Steve Jackson Games where you take on the role of one of four DC Comics villains. Your goal is to steal as much money as possible without getting caught by Batman. Each turn, you pull dice out of a cup, trying to roll as many money bags as you can. You can stop at any time, keeping any money you’ve rolled, or you can keep rolling—but if you roll three Bat-symbols, your turn ends and you get nothing. The winner is the person with the most money at the end of the game.
Each die has six sides, two of which are alarm symbols. Whenever you roll an alarm, you can choose to re-roll it. Blue dice have more money bags, gray dice are equally balanced, and yellow dice have more Bat-symbols, so you can tell by the color of an alarm how risky it is to re-roll.
The game is a slightly redesigned version of Steve Jackon’s Zombie Dice. The main differences are this version has less dice (10 instead 13) but adds villain characters with unique abilities. For example, Catwoman scores double for any blue money bags, and Riddler gets an extra die on his first roll.
Zombie Dice 2.0?
I came into this game with zero knowledge about how to play it or Zombie Dice. Unfortunately, after reading the rules, I still felt as blind as Batman in the episode “Blind as a Bat.” I had to look up how to play Zombie Dice to understand what was going on here. Part of what’s confusing is the rules attempt to explain the special characters before explaining how to play the game. Also, the explanation of what to do on your turn tells you what to do so specifically that you don’t get a general idea of what a turn is like.
I’d always shied away from Zombie Dice because I find the zombie on the game’s artwork disturbing—and not in a good way. However, Zombie Dice is an ingeniously designed game. You’re a zombie. You want to roll brains. You don’t want to roll gunshots because that’s like you got shot. And, if roll footsteps, it’s like your victim ran away: you get to chase them down and re-roll. Green dice have more brains, yellow dice are balanced evenly, and red dice have more gunshots.
This translates directly into the Batman: The Animated Series Dice Game. Money bags are like brains; alarms are like footsteps; and Bat-symbols are like gunshots.
Except… does this actually make as much sense as Zombie Dice?
In Zombie Dice, a footstep icon for re-rolling works perfectly because a footstep icon doesn’t look inherently good or bad.
Here, the symbol for re-roll is an alarm. Technically, that checks out. You’re a super criminal and the dice are like buildings that you’re breaking into. You want to find money bags, you don’t want to find Batman, and if you just set off the alarm, you don’t care.
But… it’s pretty firmly established in the human brain that setting off alarms is a really, really bad thing. If you’re a criminal breaking into a place, you don’t actually want to set off the alarm. When you’re playing, you roll the dice, and your immediate reaction is, “Oh no, I set off the alarm! Oh wait, alarms aren’t the bad thing. Batman is the bad thing? But Batman is good? Oh wait, that’s right, I’m bad. I’m Poison Ivy. I don’t want Batman to show up. I mean, I probably do, because I probably want to kiss him with my poisonous lipstick. But, no, really I don’t.”
There’s an extra cognitive hoop you have to jump through to remember which icons are good and which icons are bad.
Related to that, the colors in Zombie Dice make total sense: green dice are good, yellow dice are meh, and red dice are bad. Every automobile driver, if not literally every single human being, understands that green, yellow, and red mean go, caution, and stop.
Here, the dice are blue, gray, and yellow. Those are the colors of Batman’s suit, but they don’t have the same innate simplicity. Blue, gray, and yellow aren’t hard-wired into your subconscious. It always takes a moment to remember which colors are good and which are bad.
On the other hand, that’s all assuming that you’re not color blind. For most forms of color blindness, blue and yellow are actually easier to distinguish than red and green. Plus… maybe it would just be weird to have green, yellow, and red dice in a Batman game?
The game ends once someone gets at least 30 points and everyone has had an equal number of turns. However, the game doesn’t include a way to track those points. You have to either use a piece of paper, or come up with some other way (Batcomputer?). It would be cool if there were tokens. Then again, for a four player game, you’d need potentially over 120 tokens, so it’s pretty obvious why they’re not included. One thing to consider is using poker chips or money pieces from a different game.
Also, the game is a cup full of dice, but you don’t actually use the cup to roll the dice. On your turn, you reach into the cup, pull out dice randomly, and roll them. Getting the exact amount of dice you need out of the cup can be problematic.
Keep in mind, this is not a bag, it’s a cup. It’s rigid. And we’re talking the size of cup you get when you order fresh squeezed juice at a restaurant: it’s not generous. Unless you have weird suction cup fingers, you’ll probably end up trying to tip it over and catch the dice without looking at what color they are (because that would be cheating). Except, of course, you end up dropping a bunch of them because you can’t look at them.
The inherent problem with creating a character-driven, muli-player game about Batman is there’s only one Batman. Sure, maybe the other players could be Robin, Batgirl, and Nightwing, but if you want a wildly diverse array of player characters, you have to make the villains into the protagonists of the game.
Batman: The Animated Series Dice Game embraces this, casting the players as Joker, Catwoman, Poison Ivy, and Riddler. Each of the villains has an interesting power that is reasonably tailored to that villain’s personality, and none of them seem conspicuously more powerful than the others.
A fifth villain, Mr. Freeze, exists as a promo card. It looks like the easiest way to obtain this promo is to order the game directly from Steve Jackson Games’ Warehouse 23 online store. Unfortunately, the Mr. Freeze villain is a card instead of a token like the other villains so you can’t mix them all together and draw one randomly. However, Mr. Freeze’s power is pretty intriguing since it enables you to run out of dice faster, which gets you more points.
The Batman: The Animated Series Dice Gamecontinues the trend from Batman Fluxx of putting the animated Batman license on a pre-existing popular game. In that case, it was Fluxx. Here, it is Zombie Dice.
Batman Fluxx is a clear improvement over ordinary Fluxx. Here, I’m a bit more conflicted.
You can’t say that the Batman: The Animated Series Dice Game is worse than Zombie Dice, right? Because they’re basically the exact same game. But… it’s kinda worse because it doesn’t have the same intuitive clarity. Then again, it’s definitely better because it’s got Batman and villains with evil superpowers.
Steve Jackson Games recently announcedZombie Dice Horde Edition, which includes a score pad for tracking your score and a dice bag instead of a dice cup. This fixes two of my biggest complaints about the Batman: The Animated Series version. The Horde Edition also includes two expansions.
This is a tough call! If I didn’t have any version of the game, I would find myself pretty tempted by the Horde Edition. And yet, the things I didn’t like about the Batman version were pretty minor, and the nostalgic draw of Batman: The Animated Series is undeniably strong.
When I first heard they were making a dice game based on Batman: The Animated Series, it instantly hit my wish list. Then, the very first time I played, on my very first roll, I got three Bat-symbols: an immediate bust. I’m not holding that against it, though. The Batman: The Animated Series Dice Game is fun, and I think it’s the best version of Zombie Dice if you’re a Batman fan.
Something interesting happened on Kickstarter in September 2016. In a brief flash of odd synchronicity, two projects for card games featuring anthropomorphic, kawaii-cute doughnuts launched within a day of each other.
I couldn’t decide which one of them looked better so, of course, I backed them both. (I have a problem.) Both of them ended up funding.
The first, Go Nuts for Donuts by Daily Magic Games, is still in pre-production. However, after the campaign, it was signed by the publisher Gamewright—pretty much guaranteeing it will appear on store shelves everywhere, eventually.
On the other hand, the second project, Doughnut Drive-Thru by Grail Games, has already been printed, delivered to backers, and will soon enter distribution channels.
Doughnut Drive-Thru is a game for two to four players where you bake and serve doughnuts. On your turn, you can draw a doughnut card, prepare a doughnut card you have drawn, or serve a doughnut card you have prepared. Each doughnut card has a preparation cost (the amount you must roll on a die to prepare it), a serving cost (the amount you must roll on a die to serve it), and a point value. The game ends once one player has served five donuts and the winner is the player with the most points.
Of course, there’s a bit more to it than that, though. You start the game with two doughnut tokens (or three tokens in a two player game). To take the action of drawing, preparing, or serving a card, you must put a token on that action. If the action you want is full, you cannot take it. If you run out of tokens, you must pick up tokens from one of the actions. So, you need to be able to get the actions you want before you can even try to get the particular die rolls you need to prepare and serve your doughnuts.
Also, doughnuts that you have served can be used to give you a “plus-one” for any die roll. At the start of the game, you only have a realistic shot at preparing and serving low-cost doughnuts, but the more you serve, the better you get at it. Eventually, as you build up your supply of plus-ones, you can even try to prepare and serve doughnuts that require a seven or eight—higher than it is even possible to roll on the game’s six-sided die. However, even with plus-ones, nothing is guaranteed because rolling a one is always an automatic failure.
I don’t know exactly what it is, but this game sucked me in. The rules are simple, the cards are cheerful, and rolling the die is fun, but there’s also a lot to think about. You can’t just play on autopilot. What doughnuts do you want to go for? How many of your plus-ones do you want to spend to try to guarantee success? What action are you going to take next if you get the roll you need? What action are you going to take next if you fail? Also—and this is really important—what are your opponents trying to do?
Since you can see what doughnuts other people have in front of them and what they need to do, you can get into a bit of a mind game where you can try to block other people from getting the actions that they need. You’ll constantly be asking yourself, “If I go here, they’re going to go there… so should I go there instead of here?”
Evaluating artwork is entirely subjective, but I still think I’ve come up with a foolproof proposition for determining whether the artwork in a food game is good:
The artwork in a food game is good if and only if it makes you hungry.
If the game reminds you of the food so much that you start craving it, the artwork is probably pretty good, yeah? For Doughnut Drive-Thru, the smiling dessert cards are very stylized, but they make me really, really want to eat a doughnut. I’ve been dreaming about biting into a Boston cream or raspberry filled pastry ever since I opened the box for this game.
I came across a few little things in Doughnut Drive-Thru that stuck out and distracted me.
One of the types of actions you can take on your turn is called “work.” I wish they had called this literally anything else. Bake? Cook? Confectionify? Kitchen-up-a-storm? An action called “work” makes me think about, well, work—which is the last thing I want to think about during a game.
Similarly, most of the doughnuts have fun names (“Tastalicious Almond Bomb”) and/or names that are understandable puns (“General Custard”, “Cinnamoan”). However, one of the doughnuts is called “Annoying Wasabi and Guava.” As far as I can tell, this might be some kindof reference that I’m too web-is-a-series-of-tubes-ignorant to get. Who knows, maybe the other cards have in-jokes that I’m not getting either? Whatever the case, every time I see this card, it jars me right out of the game because “annoying” is not an adjective that describes food. All of the donuts sound delicious, except this one.
Also, the back of the box says the game includes “eight very small wooden doughnuts.” This just sounds weird. “Very small” is so relative—what does that even mean? Sure, they are “very small” compared to real doughnuts. But, at approximately the size of a defectively large Cheerio, I would say they are averagely-proportioned wooden board game pieces. I guess describing them as “very small” is expectation management that means people will be pleasantly surprised when they see the actual size.
The thing that is actually “very small” is the die that comes with the game. It’s a custom six-sided die with a doughnut instead of a one, but it’s tiny. Rolling the die is such a critical part of the game that I wish it came with a big, beefy die instead of this decidedly diminutive one. I’m sure price point and production costs were a factor here, though.
In spite of the size, having a custom die with something different on the one face is still a huge positive feature for the game since it treats rolling a one differently than rolling any other number.
The game includes four optional special “baker” characters. I love how compactly these are implemented: the reverse side of each player aid card has a unique power. The rules suggest that you should either deal them out randomly or let players choose them in reverse turn order.
I’m concerned the powers might not be completely balanced. Ordinarily, when you’ve used one of your served doughnut cards for a plus-one, you can’t use it for a plus-one again until you reset it by taking the “Coffee Break” action. However, the Peter baker allows you to Coffee Break one card each turn. Arguably, I can see how this might be balanced because you need a served doughnut to use it, and some of the times you are getting a plus-one from it, you would have gotten one from taking a Coffee Break anyways. However, when playing the game, this seems to generate a lot more plus-ones than the other powers.
This is not a huge deal, though. The powers are an optional part of the game, and you could just play without this one if you wanted to. Or, if you were playing with a younger player, you could give them this card. Or, maybe I’m wrong and it is balanced.
You know how, if you just eat sugary doughnuts for breakfast, you end up hungry and wishing you’d had something more? This game is not like that.
I didn’t expect this game to stick with me, but it did. I keep finding myself wanting to go back and play it again.
When I was little, we didn’t go to the movies or rent movies. I only got to see a movie if it happened to be on TV when I happened to be watching, or if read through the TV schedule section in the newspaper and set the VCR to tape record it (seriously, this is the kind of thing we did back then). If a movie wasn’t on TV at all, I never got to see it.
At some point, when I was in college and finally had a computer with a DVD drive, I realized that I could check out any movie I wanted from the college library. I could finally watch all of the movies I kept hearing were great. I started with Citizen Kane and kept going from there.
Later on, I realized that I wasn’t limited to things I’d recently heard were great, I could go back to things I’d wanted to see in the past… things that I’d wanted to see when I was little but never got to. Which, one day, led to me bringing home Batman: Mask of the Phantasm.
Batman: Mask of the Phantasm, if you’re not familiar with it, was a theatrically released movie based on Batman: The Animated Series. I watched Batman: The Animated Series all the time as a child and so did all of my friends, and I remember distinctly when Mask of the Phantasm came out, but I’d never gotten to see it. The movie was itself something a phantasm—the closest I got to as a child was cutting an article about it out of a magazine (again, this is the kind of thing we did back then) and unsuccessfully trying to find the Phantasm action figure at every toy store.
It turned out that Mask of the Phantasm was great, too (and also, oddly enough, strongly influenced by Citizen Kane)—slightly darker than the series, filling in some of Batman’s backstory, and delivering some surprising revelations—everything you could possibly want from a movie based on a show. Seeing the missing piece of my favorite childhood TV series did not disappoint, even though it took me years to realize that I could just get the movie and watch it if I really wanted to.
For kids of a certain age, Batman: The Animated Series defined our childhood. When we played, we were always Batman and Robin. We had action figures, and Batmobiles, and Robin’s hang glider. We were experts on Batman’s different grappling hooks, from the regular to the needle-that-sticks-into-anything. I remember one time, on a field trip, a kid tried to attack me using the O-Nemuri Touch from the “Day of the Samurai” episode. I say “tried” because, hey, I’d seen the episode, of course it wasn’t going to work. (Also, it’s from a TV show—it’s not a real martial arts thing.)
Even as I grew up, I was never far from whisperings of Batman: The Animated Series. I remember girls in college saying they put the show on in their room and it got guys to come over—like some kind of guynip.
For kids of a certain age, Batman: The Animated Series has followed us all of our lives. Initially, it spawned Superman: The Animated Series, Justice League, Batman Beyond, and a host of other shows and direct-to-video films. The voice actors reprised their roles for the Arkham Asylum series of video games. Harley Quinn has ascended from sidekick created for the show to iconic part of the Batman mythos and America’s most popular Halloween costume.
This is pretty weird, right? It’d be weird for even one game to be based on a 25-year-old children’s cartoon show, let alone three games, right? I can only surmise that the people making these games are like me and grew up watching it and still love it. (Also, maybe those girls from college went on to become savvy marketing executives in charge of licensing old TV series?)
In this series of reviews, I’ll be taking a look at these new games, starting with Batman Fluxx.
Batman Fluxx is a Batman-ified version of the two-to-six-player card game Fluxx from Looney Labs. At the beginning of the game, each player gets a hand of cards and there are two rules: each turn you draw one card and each turn you play one card. The different types of cards you play either go in front of you (“keepers”), perform actions (like discarding or exchanging cards), or manipulate the rules of the game. For example, new rule cards can change the number of cards you draw each turn, change the number of cards you play each turn, or even change the victory condition (“goal”) of the game. The winner is the first person to have the keeper cards on the current goal card.
There are many, many different versions of Fluxx, from the basic, ‘unthemed’ game with keepers like love, war, milk, and cookies to licensed versions for everything from Monty Python to Firefly. They’re all largely the same, but each version has its own unique twists, from special rule cards, to different mixes of card types, to new card types like “creepers” (cards that prevent you from winning) and “surprises” (cards you can play on other people’s turns).
In Batman Fluxx, the keeper cards are Batman, his allies, and his Bat-gadgets. The creeper cards are villains from the series. There are also little Batman specific touches everywhere, like the Batcomputer gives a boost to your abilities, and you’re not allowed to have the Bruce Wayne card and the Batman card at the same time, and sometimes discarded villains go to Arkham Asylum (and then sometimes they break out again, too).
Essentially, Fluxx is about manipulating the rules of the game to make it easier for you to win and harder for other people to win. For example, you might play new rules that allow you to draw a lot of cards, but not your opponents. Or you might change the goal so it doesn’t include any keepers held by your opponents.
The first time I played Fluxx, I hated it. I thought it was a terrible, poorly-designed, aggravating, un-fun game. However, subsequently, I have totally changed my mind.
When I first played, it was basic Fluxx, version 4.0. The basic Fluxx deck, especially the 4.0 version, is somewhat meaner than other Fluxx derivatives. It has cards like “Hand Limit Zero” that can force other players to discard everything. It also has several creeper cards that, once you get them, are very difficult to get rid of. In fact, Looney Labs actually toned down the meanness of the game for the 5.0 version.
Batman Fluxx doesn’t have the harshest cards from core Fluxx, and while it does have a host of villain creepers, it has lots of cards that make them easy to get rid of or win with. For example, many of the goals require specific villains. Also, having any member of the Bat-family as a keeper allows you to discard one villain per turn, so there’s kind of a game on top of the game where you’re using the good guys to bust the bad guys.
I mean, it doesn’t feel like you’re playing a whole new game where you’re Batman tracking down crooks from the rogue’s gallery and catching them. You still feel like you’re playing Fluxx. But, Batman Fluxx is an exceptionally good version of Fluxx. Maybe not quite good enough to win you over if you’re still in the camp of people who hate Fluxx, but it’s good.
In a manner of speaking, technically, Batman: The Animated Series never really existed. There was never actually a show with the title “Batman: The Animated Series” shown on screen. What we remember today as Batman: The Animated Series is one of two or three distinct but closely related shows. The series initially appeared with no title or words of any kind shown during the opening credits. During the second season, the opening was changed and the title shown as The Adventures of Batman and Robin. Two years later, a follow-on series—with slightly redesigned appearances for the characters—was produced with the title The New Batman Adventures.
Batman Fluxx uses these later character designs. Frankly, I don’t think they are quite as good as the originals, but they are the standard look for Batman in the original DC Animated Universe. Also, Scarecrow isn’t one of the villains in the game, so you aren’t subjected to the terrifying redesigned Scarecrow.
The backs of the cards are the familiar “Fluxx” design to allow you to mix this with other types of Fluxx, however the fronts have detailed art deco borders with a tiny Bat-symbol to match the “dark deco” look of the series.
The box is the standard Fluxx box: a nearly perfect two-piece box with finger cutouts for easy opening and no wasteful air space inside. The cards are standard Fluxx quality: i.e., not thick or linen finished.
If you’re going to get Batman Fluxx, you should get the promo cards. The promo cards are the icing on top of the game. (Also, thank you to Looney Labs for selling their promo cards on their webstore so that they’re actually obtainable for people who aren’t able to get them at conventions or stores or wherever else promos come from.)
The first promo released was the “Two Face Flip” action card. Whenever you get this card, you can flip the included Batman coin to double your hand or lose all of your cards. This is maybe the single most fun card in the entire game. I always flip for it.
The second promo was Clayface. This is maybe the single most powerful card in the entire game because it can be used in place of any other villain. For example, if the goal requires two specific villains, you only need to get one of them and Clayface. This helps to keep the game from going too long (which is occasionally an issue with Fluxx) and brings a lot of extra intrigue because this card is so powerful that everyone tries to steal it.
On the other hand, the third promo is Killer Croc. He’s just a basic villain with no exciting powers. Which, you know, kind of describes Killer Croc for real, so it’s well-designed. But, since it doesn’t add any new rules to the game, it’s not as essential as the other two promos.
I guess I’m finally old enough to be marketed to based on nostalgia. I remember when I was little, seeing advertisements on TV for things like Time Life boxed sets of 1960s music or commercials with people like Mickey Rooney, who I literally only knew from commercials. When you’re not the target audience, marketing based on nostalgia looks pretty transparent and pretty unappealing. However, now that I find myself on the receiving end of it, it looks a lot different.
Should I buy a card game based on a TV show I loved when I was in elementary school?
Back then, I couldn’t afford to buy every toy that was coming out based on Batman: The Animated Series. There were tons of them and I didn’t have an allowance that big (and sometimes I got into trouble and didn’t have any allowance).
Now, I set my own allowance.
Obviously nostalgia is a big selling point for Batman Fluxx. But there’s more to Batman Fluxx than just nostalgia; there’s an interesting game, too. Fluxx was originally released in 1997—it’s practically almost as old Batman: The Animated Series. Over the years, the game has been tweaked, polished, refined, and expounded upon. One end result of that is Batman Fluxx. If you like Batman and you’re looking for a fun, fast card game, this is well worth it.
I have absolutely zero interest in gardening. My personal gardening motto is “It’s impossible to control nature, so why bother trying?” If it wasn’t for my wife, our landscaping would just consist of whatever hardy weeds happened to come out on top in the epic Darwinian struggle for control of our front yard.
However, my love for food-themed board games is well-documented. I know, it’s kind of weird that I like food games given that my personal food motto is “You have to eat, but that doesn’t mean you have to spend a lot of time on it.” (Again, if it wasn’t for my wife, I’d be subsisting on microwave meals and whatever foods can be cooked and eaten while creating no more than two dirty dishes.) Still, I just like board games about food.
In fact, last year I had a streak going on Kickstarter where I’d backed four food-themed games in a row. At that point, Pencil First Games launched a campaign for Herbaceous, a card game about herb gardening.
I was not excited about the gardening part of it, but herbs! Herbs are technically a food! This could technically get my streak up to five! Plus, the game was designed by Steve Finn, and I’d heard a lot of great things about Biblios and other games from Dr. Finn’s Games. I decided to give Herbaceous a try.
Herbaceous is a card game for two to four players. Each player gets four pots for planting herb cards and a private garden area for staging herbs—plus there is a community garden in the center of the table. Turns are very simple. First, you can take herbs from your private garden and the community garden and plant them in one of your pots. Next, you add more herbs to the gardens: you draw one herb card and add it to either your private garden or the community garden, then you draw a second herb and add it to the other garden.
Each of your four pots is different. One can only contain identical herbs, one can only contain different herbs, one can only contain pairs, and the last one grants bonus points for certain special herbs. The more cards you put into a pot, the more points you score. Once the draw deck is empty and everyone has potted everything they can, the game is over and the person with the most points wins.
The real catch is that each pot can only be planted in once. So, over the course of the game, more and more herbs build up in the gardens, and you wait until the perfect moment to grab the biggest set of cards you can and use up one of your pots. Since everyone is trying to do that at the same time, you end up with several simultaneously ebbing and flowing, “if I don’t grab these now, are they going to grab them” situations.
When I read the rules, my first thought was, “This is definitely not going to be as relaxing as it looks.” In a sense, there’s not much going on in the game since you’re kind of only doing four things the entire time. On the other hand, because you can kind of only do four things, there’s a relatively high sense of tension.
The feel of the game is also quite dependent on the number of players. With two players, you randomly leave a lot of the herbs out of the deck, making the game much shorter. In fact, it’s so quick, tense, and strategic that it almost feels like a microgame.
In some ways, I actually found the game more enjoyable with more players, though. With four players, it feels like there’s less brinksmanship. You basically just have to take what you can get—an experience that aligns better with the placid looking cards.
Speaking of the cards, Herbaceous is hands down one of the most beautiful card games I’ve ever seen. I found myself looking through my board game shelf to see if there was something that I could try to claim is objectively more beautiful than Herbaceous, but I came up empty. There are many gorgeously illustrated games, but I’ve never seen one that conveys quite this feeling of watercolory tranquility before. Maybe Dixit or Lanterns: The Harvest Festival?
Flavor Pack expansion
The Kickstarter version of Herbaceous also includes a “Flavor Pack” expansion, which consists of three spice cards. I like the concept of a spice expansion (herbs and spices… get it?) and the spice cards have the same gorgeous illustrations as the herb cards. But, otherwise, I wasn’t a big fan of this.
First of all, the instructions are confusing. There are two instruction cards. One of them says to shuffle the spices into the bottom half of the deck; the other one says to “slide” the spices in and implies you shouldn’t shuffle. Obviously, it would be problematic to not shuffle them in because you’d have a decent idea of when they’re going to come up. But, if you’re expected to thoroughly shuffle them in anyways, why do the other instructions explicitly tell you to not put them on the top or bottom of the deck? That’s confusing, but it’s a relatively minor annoyance.
My biggest gripe is that the expansion changes the whole feel of the game. The core game has a very harmonious mix of predictability and randomness. However, with the expansion in play, you find yourself going along, watching the cards, making a plan—and then a random spice card pops up and completely disrupts the entire flow. At best, it makes you do something that feels pointless, like move cards around. At worst, it has you taking cards from other players and them taking cards from you, significantly increasing the amount of hostility in the game.
Also, this is a corner case, but one of the spice cards (star anise) can put you in a situation where you have to cause yourself to lose points (if you’re facing just the right mix of cards, you can be left with no option but to plant a regular herb in your special herb pot, costing you bonus points). That’s just not fun.
I might be okay with the spice cards if there were more of them. But, with only two in the deck at a time, they’re very jarring. I wouldn’t feel like I was missing out if I didn’t have this expansion.
There’s a duality to Herbaceous. On the one hand, you’ve got the breathtaking artwork. On the other hand, you’ve got the rules of the game. There’s a kind of dissonance in the intersection of the two halves. When you see a game about gardening, you probably expect something that recreates the peaceful feeling of sinking a trowel into fresh soil to plant a colorful spring flower. This is not that game.
In the grand scheme of things, Herbaceous probably isn’t “mean” or “aggravating,” but it’s definitely meaner and more aggravating than it looks from the artwork.
Don’t get me wrong—I really like Herbaceous.
But I’ve also seen people get really ticked off while playing this game. Fundamentally, I think that has to do with the scarcity of actions. You’ve basically only got four chances to score points over the entire course of the game, and each one of those chances requires you to have a very different set of cards. So, when someone else torpedoes one of those chances, it’s pretty frustrating because there’s not much you can do to readjust.
Lately, I’ve been reading this novel—The Centaur by Algernon Blackwood. In it, the main character has these vaguely supernatural encounters. At the same time, he experiences a sort of awakening, becoming aware of a level of consciousness where the Earth is a single living organism, where he can feel more than just his own body. He begins to express a desire to live one half in the material world of perception and one half in the world of greater awareness: a perfect balanced outlook.
I think there’s a lot of wisdom inside that “half-in, half-out” philosophy. None of us are going to meet a centaur, but there’s still something in there that we can all apply to our own lives. We can get so wrapped up in the things around us when the universe is much vaster, deeper, and older than our transitory problems. We can’t spend every minute of the day spaced out and thinking about abstractions, but we’d all have an easier time dealing with difficult situations if we were less focused on our immediate reality and more focused on the brief, small nature of all the material things we interact with.
This is particularly true with Herbaceous. When you’re playing, you really have to keep in mind, “half-in, half-out.” Sure, people are taking the herb cards you want, but it’s okay. There will be other plantings. If you stay focused on that, it’s an all-around beautiful game.
I first heard about Thebes shortly after I became interested in board games.
A game about going on archaeological digs? Hopping the globe to build knowledge, then traveling to ancient sites to unearth artifacts? I never knew it before, but this is what I’d been dreaming about. I wanted to play it posthaste!
However, it was several years before I would actually get to.
Thebes is a slightly adapted version of a 2004 German game called Jenseits von Theben, which actually translates into English as “Beyond Thebes.” Since Thebes isn’t exactly one of the locations you’re going to, it kind of doesn’t make sense that this is the name of the game, but whatever (who knows, maybe the Greek location is supposed to be Thebes? Or the Egyptian location?).
Right off the bat, Thebes reminded me a lot of another 2004 game: the celebrated route-claiming game Ticket to Ride. They look very similar. They’re set in same time period. They both have boards that are maps with tracks around the edge. They have similar art, similar wood tokens, tiny-sized cards that you pick up, other tiny-sized cards that show goals, plus end game bonus points.
Also, both were nominated for the Spiel Des Jahres award (Ticket to Ride won. Thebes lost to Zooloretto.)
Does it go deeper than that, though? There are visual similarities, but Ticket to Ride is a commercial and critical success and playable by almost all ages. How does Thebes stack up in comparison?
Thebes is a game for two to four players from Queen Games. The board depicts a map of Europe and the Mediterranean. Each turn you choose where to move on the map and then either pick up one card or conduct a dig. Digs are conducted by reaching into a bag and pulling out discs, hoping to get discs with points on them instead of blank discs. The more knowledge you have from the cards you’ve picked up, the more discs you get to pull out of a bag on a dig.
There are two key aspects to understanding Thebes: the way the game treats time and the deteriorating returns that you get from digs.
Unlike most games where players take turns in a particular order, in Thebes, the player who is in last position on the time track takes the next turn. Everything in the game costs weeks. Moving from one city to another costs weeks. Picking up a card costs weeks (and more valuable cards cost more weeks). Conducting digs also costs weeks (the more weeks you spend, the more discs you get to draw). When you use weeks, you move that many spaces on the time track.
You have almost complete freedom over how to spend your time. You can invest a lot of weeks amassing a huge amount of knowledge before you dig—or you can try to rush and be the first to each site. Sometimes, if you find yourself really far back on the time track, you can even take two (or more) turns in a row; although using the absolute least amount of time isn’t always going to be to your advantage. Once you’ve gone around the time track two or three times (depending on the number of players), you’re done for the game—and once everyone completes the time track, the game is over.
Each ancient location on the map (Crete, Egypt, Greece, Mesopotamia, Palestine) has a corresponding bag full of tokens. About half of the tokens in each bag have point values on them and about half of them are blank. When you go on a dig, you draw tokens out of the bag. You choose how many weeks to spend and then use a dial to determine how many times you can draw out of that location’s bag based on how much knowledge you have.
You keep any point tokens you draw. The catch is, any blank tokens you draw will go back into the bag. As players collect the point tokens and leave the blank tokens, there will be less and less chance of drawing useful tokens over the course of the game. So, as the game progresses, it’s more and more difficult to dig up anything—just like real archaeology, presumably.
Ticket to Thebes?
One of my reservations about comparing Thebes to Ticket to Ride is that Thebes has more rules and takes much longer to explain.
Thebes doesn’t exactly feel streamlined. Ticket to Ride has three kinds of cards: trains, locomotives, and destinations. On the other hand, Thebes has ten! You’ve got special knowledge, general knowledge, rumors, assistants, shovels, cars, zeppelins, permits, exhibits, and congress cards. If Thebes was re-published today, I wonder if certain card types would be left out, particularly the permits, vehicles, or shovels (shovels and assistants are basically the same thing… does the game really need both?).
Thebes also takes fairly long with four players. But, you know, so does Ticket to Ride.
It’s just hard to shake the feeling that there might be too much going on in Thebes. For example, each location’s bag has slightly different contents. Some locations have approximately equal numbers of high and low point tokens. Other locations have a lot of one point tokens and few high point tokens.
The different distributions are really interesting, but in practice, how much do these sort of wheels within wheels actually influence your decision making?
There are so many other things to think about when deciding where to dig: where you have the most knowledge, where you’ve already dug this year, where you’re at on the time track, how far away the locations are from where you are. I’m not sure it really matters that each bag is different. It’s one more thing to think about, but does it actually make the game better?
At the same time, in spite of how much is going on in Thebes, every element of the game just makes sense. It makes sense that locations would be different. It makes sense there would be extra dig permits. It makes sense how the travel cards work. It makes sense that you can display your artifacts at exhibitions.
Thebes is a game where, yes, you have to explain a lot to get started, but you only have to explain it once because every element of the design just fits together perfectly. I’d guess anyone who can learn to play Ticket to Ride can learn to play Thebes without too much more difficulty.
Ticket to Ride seems very simple at first, but my wife always wins, so I know there’s actually a lot of strategy underneath.
Thebes also seems pretty simple at first, but I’m not sure if Thebes has those same depths, or if there’s just so much randomness in the game that it appears to. Each draw can be a big swing. You might get one point… you might get seven points… you might get absolutely nothing. I’m not sure what Ticket to Ride strategy is all about (seriously, I always lose), but Thebes is all about putting yourself in a position to mitigate randomness.
Even though their rules are very different, both Thebes and Ticket to Ride evoke the same feeling when you play. Both feature a massive amount of tension over getting things before the other players do. In Ticket to Ride, you want to wait until you have enough cards to claim a whole ticket, but you also want to get routes before other people do. In Thebes, you want to wait to dig until you have enough knowledge, but you also want to get to locations before other people have cleared out all of the artifacts.
If you enjoy walking the tightrope of “do I draw more cards or do I claim a route” from Ticket to Ride, Thebes will have you questioning “do I pick up more knowledge or do I start digging.” It’s a great alternative if you want to play a game that puts you in that same frame of mind but, for whatever reason, you don’t want trains.
For myself, I love the turn-of-the-20th-century archaeology theme, but even more than that, I love the intriguing mixture of temporal and spatial elements in Thebes. You’re trying to maneuver around the map, gain knowledge, and dig up the most points possible without wasting your limited supply of weeks. It’s a fun challenge that the whole family can enjoy.