Harry Potter: Hogwarts Battle is the ultimate Harry Potter board game

I don’t remember when I first heard about Harry Potter. I was fairly little. It had to do with witches and magic so I remember some other kids at church weren’t allowed to read it.

At some point, I read the first book and eagerly watched the first couple movies on TV, but I wouldn’t say I was a huge fan.

Recently, at the encouragement of my wife—who is a huge fan—I read the entire Heptateuch of Harry Potter novels, plus Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, Quidditch Through the Ages, The Tales of Beedle the Bard, and The Cursed Child play. Then I watched all eight of the movies. Then read a whole bunch of stuff on Pottermore (apparently my Patronus is a wolf!). Then I watched the new Fantastic Beasts movie.

Of course, at some point along the way, I researched to see if there were any Harry Potter board games, and found… not much. Harry Potter Trivial Pursuit. Harry Potter Uno. Two versions of Harry Potter Clue. Some other long out of print and not very exciting looking games.

Then a new Harry Potter game was quietly announced: Harry Potter: Hogwarts Battle, “a cooperative deck-building game.” I had a number of reactions, ranging from “Those screencaps look like bargain-basement trading cards” to “Is this a trap to ensnare me?” to “It doesn’t matter, this could be the one.”

Harry Potter: Hogwarts Battle

Harry Potter: Hogwarts Battle is game for two to four players from USAopoly—noted publishers of a million different licensed versions of Monopoly who actually publish a lot other games, even though their name doesn’t sound like it. Players take on the characters of Harry Potter, Ron Weasley, Hermione Granger, and Neville Longbottom, working together to defeat villains.

The turn order and character names are printed on cards. Could that be because they’re replaced by different cards later?

Players start the game with a small deck of spell, item, and ally cards. Each turn, one player flips over Dark Arts event cards to simulate villain attacks, then plays a hand of cards from their deck to generate health points, attack points (for attacking villains), and coins (for buying more powerful cards for their deck). If the players can defeat all of the villains before the locations in the game fall to the Dark Arts, the players win.

What new surprises are inside each box?

The kicker is that inside the game box are seven smaller boxes corresponding to the seven novels in the Harry Potter series (and seven years of the characters’ educations at Hogwarts). You start with the first box, and then open a new box each time you win. Each box contains new locations and adds more villains, more cards, and more complexity to the game. Every card says which box it came from, so once you’ve finished all seven games, you can reset back to the beginning, or continue playing game seven.


I wasn’t sure what to think when I first saw Hogwarts Battle. Part of me thought that maybe it would be a bit too complex for my tastes, part of me thought that maybe it would be too simple.

But it’s fun! The progression of years is extremely enjoyable.

The first game is essentially a tutorial with weaker villains and only basic items available. Later games introduce more powerful villains, as well as more powerful allies, items, and spells. Everything in the game should be familiar to any Harry Potter fan, with allies like Hedwig and Hagrid, items like chocolate frogs and Nimbus 2000s, and spells like “Accio” and “Wingardium Leviosa.”

Oooh, essence of Dittany… this will come in handy if someone tries to Crucio us…

The cooperative nature of the game makes it great for kids or families. Although there’s quite a lot going on by game seven, it is all introduced in stages, which makes the game quite easy to learn. Also, contributing to the cooperative spirit, players cannot die in the game (if you lose all of your health points, you have to discard half your cards and give more control to the villains, but you go back to full health on the next turn).

My wife and I played through all seven games as Harry and Hermoine, only losing one time. This made us suspect that Hogwarts Battle is fundamentally quite easy (the game contains rules for how to ramp up the difficulty, if you so desire). However, in subsequent plays with different numbers of players and combinations of characters, we have lost quite a few times. Each of the four characters has slight differences, including different starting decks of cards. It feels like Harry is the most powerful, followed by Hermione, then Neville, then Ron.

There is a lot of variety in the game. What order the villains appear will significantly impact your chances of victory because certain villain combinations are much more devastating than others. Additionally, by game seven, the deck of cards available for purchase will be quite large, meaning you won’t see every card in every game, or necessarily come across the best cards for your situation.

Initial games are quite short, probably around 30 minutes. By the seventh game, it is considerably longer, potentially as long as 90 minutes.


The view when you open the box.

The production of the game is pretty close to jaw-dropping. The outside of the box looks like a suitcase (reminiscent of Newt Scamander’s suitcase, but maybe it’s supposed to be Harry’s trunk?). When you open it up, you’ll see the back of the game board, which looks spectacularly like the inside of a suitcase. Underneath the board is a smartly configured insert with compartments for everything.

I love these metal tokens. I mean, I hate them because they mean we’re losing. But I love them.

The nicest bits in the game are metal tokens with the skull from the Dark Mark on them, used to show how much control the villains have over the current location. The other tokens in the game are thick cardboard. Some reviews have criticized the quality of these tokens—and metal coins and counters would absolutely be an improvement—but the cardboard ones seem durable enough and have the advantage of colored graphics that match the symbology on the cards.

Take that, Malfoy! Don’t you dare call Hagrid anything ever again!

The game’s cards are adequate, but not linen-finished. They seem to hold up well to the repeated shuffling that you have to put them through.

About spoilers

There are several ways that spoilers come into play in Hogwarts Battle. If you’ve never read the Harry Potter books or seen the Harry Potter movies, this game is going to spoil them right off the bat because one of the villains you face in the first game is a character whose villainous nature is a plot twist.

Also, I wish the game did a better job of keeping its own twists a secret.

Hogwarts Battle includes card dividers for sorting out the cards and storing them in the box. However, the initial stack of dividers includes one for a type of card that you don’t actually get until one of the later boxes.

Also, the back of the box shows a component list, which includes a component that you don’t get until one of the later boxes.

I really enjoyed speculating about what would be in future boxes based on the novels and then finally opening them and seeing all of the exciting new cards. The designers obviously attempted to avoid some spoilers; I’m just not sure why they didn’t go further and keep the contents of every box a secret. It would have improved the experience if the game had kept everything completely hidden from you until you get to it.

Minor complaints

I do have a few small complaints.

There are two sections in the box for cards. One of them is exactly the same size as the large cards, so the cards always fall over and are really hard to pry out.

Also, every card in the game makes total sense… almost. Dumbledore is aloof but powerful. Dobby is awesomely helpful. Dolores Umbridge is just the most infuriating. However, the Arthur Weasley card gives everyone two coins. What? I’m sure Mr. Weasley would give you his last bronze Knut if you needed it, but whole thing with the Weasleys is that they don’t have a lot of money. This doesn’t add up.

Also, it seems like they should have called the games “Year 1”, “Year 2”, etc. instead of “Game 1”, “Game 2”, etc. to take the Harry Potter feel up a notch, but maybe licensing issues came into play.

I kind of wish there was more than one playable female character, too. But that’s down to the source material because Luna and Ginny are younger, so it wouldn’t make sense for them to be going through the same seven games.

Honestly, my biggest annoyance with Hogwarts Battle is that there are a number of amazing sounding promotional cards—like the Basilisk fang—that appear to be basically impossible to get. That drives me crazy! Publishers, why do you torment me so?!

Final thoughts

Look out, it’s Lord Fear-of-a-Name-Increases-Fear-of-the-Thing!

One theme of the Harry Potter series is learning. At the start, Harry, Ron, and Hermione are children and Harry has zero knowledge of the Wizarding World. Over the next seven years, they grow to be powerful wizards. Hogwarts Battle doesn’t have a spatial element to make you feel like you’re roaming the halls of Hogwarts, taking a trip to Hogsmeade, or flying a car into the world’s angriest topiary, but it does feel like you’re going on the same journey of growth as the characters, facing new and more difficult challenges each year.

If you love Harry Potter as much as Romilda Vane—or even if you’re just a casual fan—there’s a good chance you’re going to love this game, too. If you don’t know a bezoar from a pensieve, you would probably still enjoy the game, but you might not get as much out of it. On the other hand, if you detest magic as much as the occupants of Number 4 Privet Drive… well, you’re probably not reading this anyways.

After playing Hogwarts Battle, it is apparent that what the designers tried to do was make the best and most comprehensive Harry Potter board game to date. It is also apparent that they succeeded. If that’s what you’re looking for, this is the game.

Don’t Judge Me: A party game you shouldn’t judge before you play

I’ll admit it. When I first saw the game Don’t Judge Me, I judged it by its cover. Which is to say, I read the rules and I thought I knew what I had on my hands: a good-looking but terrible game.

But I wanted to give it a fair shot. It sounded like the kind of game that was intended to be played by adults at a party, so I waited until a holiday get-together where I could observe such persons playing the game. Then, cautiously, I brought it out.

I was prepared for this game to suck. I was prepared to bring out other games to play after it sucked. I was prepared to take notes and write a bad review delineating the many facets of its suckage.

I was prepared for this game to bomb so hard I would have to start referring to my dining table as “the Bikini Atoll.”

However, the one thing that I wasn’t prepared for happened: this game was actually a hit!

Don’t Judge Me

Don’t Judge Me is a card game for at least three players from OniiChan Games. Every round of the game, one of the players acts as a judge. Two other players each draw one character card (for example, “nurse” or “secretary”). Then the two players alternate making statements about their character, such as, “This nurse doesn’t like to do math when preparing drugs for her patients, so she just assumes every pill is 100 milligrams.” After each player has made three statements, the judge decides which player’s character is the worst person.

It might not sound like it, but this game is tremendously fun. We were all laughing so much it hurt and didn’t want to stop playing. Everyone had fun hearing the hilarious characters that people came up with. Everyone had fun incorporating annoying things they’ve done or experienced into the characters. Everyone had fun riffing off other people’s descriptions and trying one up them.

Don’t Judge Me is obviously aiming for the same market as other adult-oriented party games like Cards Against Humanity or Midnight Outburst. However, Don’t Judge Me also has something common with party games like Balderdash or Snake Oil in that it is BYOJ: Bring Your Own Jokes. Unlike Cards Against HumanityDon’t Judge Me isn’t funny in and of itself. It merely provides a framework for the players to say funny things. This has a few important implications.

First, you need to play the game in an environment where everyone is feeling relaxed and chatty. We found that it was easier for players to make two statements per turn instead of three, and even players who weren’t feeling in touch with their creative side were able to come up with very funny descriptions by drawing on personal experience.

Also, because the game depends on your wittiness, the darkness or lightness of the humor in the game will vary significantly depending on the preferences and personalities of the players. This means that the game could actually be suitable for a very wide range of audiences—if not for how the rules are written.

The rules of the game contain extremely dark, offensive characters as examples. I don’t understand this design decision. It unnecessarily reduces the target audience of the game. Plus, I think it guides players in the wrong direction. It was very easy to describe characters who were beyond the pale—but ultimately less funny. We got the most laughs out of descriptions that were only sliiightly evil in a deviously passive aggressive way (for example, “This librarian waits to enter your returns in the system so you always get a late fee” or “This barista secretly gives regular coffee to people who order decaf”).


Police person, fire person, and mailman cards from the game.

This game looks good. I like the logo on the back of the cards. The blocky, abstracted, faceless pictures of the characters are perfect for jump-starting your thought process. Unfortunately, there’s not a lot of racial diversity and some of the characters depicted may veer in the direction of inappropriate cliché (for example, of course the “nurse” is depicted as female and the “doctor” as male). But I appreciated that at least some of the characters weren’t obviously a specific gender, giving the players more freedom in their descriptions.


The game comes in clear cellophane, allowing you to see the card back and the Taylor Swi—I mean, “country singer” card.

The game does not come in a box, so you will need to find a different way to keep the cards together, such as a rubber band, hair tie, mysterious incantation, or sandwich baggie.


I appreciate the game’s consistent use of font sizes.

I have several quibbles with the game’s production. My copy of the game came with two “writer” character cards. Also, the game’s rules do not explicitly give guidance on how to rotate the game roles among the players. It’s easy to just go around in a circle, but more guidance on how to manage a large number of players would have been nice.

Good Guy Greg variant

OniiChan Games pointed out to me that a more family friendly variant of the game is describing characters who are the best instead of the worst—essentially Good Guy Greg descriptions instead of the Scumbag Steve ones you give in the basic game.

This should be officially included in the rules as it turned out to be an extremely fun alternative for adults, too. Everyone enjoyed joking about characters who were outrageously or unexpectedly breaking with stereotypes (for example, a chef at a foodie restaurant who actually makes satisfying portions or a mortician who sells caskets at cost).

Final thoughts

Don’t Judge Me isn’t a perfect game.

A rules rewrite would make the game better. Using family friendly examples would make this game playable by anyone.

More cards would also make the game better. One of the cards in the game says “friend” instead of a specific occupation and everyone wished there were other cards in this vein to open up new avenues for creativity (for example, “brother,” “aunt,” “roommate,” etc.).

But Don’t Judge Me has what counts: fun. Ever since we played, people have been talking about playing again and asking me if they can borrow it for their next party. In my judgment, that makes Don’t Judge Me a great game.

Note: A review copy of this game was provided by OniiChan Games.

The greatest Christmas lifehack of all time

At Christmas, my wife likes watching It’s a Wonderful Life. I like watching A Christmas Carol. They’re basically inverse stories, right? George Bailey feels terrible until the angel visits him and he realizes he’s lived a great life. Scrooge feels great until the ghosts visit him and he realizes he’s lived a terrible life.

Sometimes I wonder if one story speaking to you over the other says something about your self image. Deep down, do you think you’re a good person like George Bailey or a bad person like Scrooge?

Some parts of Christmas definitely bring out the penny-pinching, sharp-as-flint miserly Scrooge in me. For example, last minute shopping for wrapping supplies. I mean, I get that Scotch tape is a space age miracle without which we’d all just be using spittle and hopefulness to hold things together, but that stuff is priced like it’s made out of petrified moonbeams and reindeer tears.

But the absolute worst is when you’ve already wrapped some gifts and you run out of gift tags. You desperately need to do something before you forget which gift is which, and you don’t want to just write on the wrapping with a sharpie because that would be utterly déclassé, so you go to the store and all they have are the cheap-looking gift tags that are just a sheet of cartoony stickers, and you’re like, “$4.99 for this! That’s 31 cents a humbuging tag! A fine excuse for picking a man’s pocket this 25th of December!”

I’m going to let you in on a Christmas secret. “Gift tags” are just pieces of paper with fancy Christmas printing on them that happen to be shaped like tags.

You might have noticed that people already send you lots pieces of paper with fancy Christmas printing on them every year: Christmas cards. The only problem is that Christmas cards aren’t shaped like tags.

If only there was a way to turn Christmas cards into tag shapes, you could have an endless supply of gift tags from the cards that are already being delivered to your mailbox! Basically, it would be like discovering perpetual motion, or something.

Well, it just so happens that there is a way to turn Christmas cards into gift tags, and it’s probably as close as your nearest craft store: the Fiskars Tag Lever Punch. Buckle up for a ticket to savings town because this is like printing free money!

All you have to do is get one of these punches, take any Christmas cards you get, and punch a bunch of tag shapes out of the front. Since you’re punching the shapes out of Christmas cards, the tags will have, like, great pictures of mistletoe and elegant snow-covered cottages on one side and they’ll be blank on the other side (assuming your grandma didn’t write you a massive letter all over the inside flap of the card). When it’s time to give a gift, you just write on the blank side and tape it to the gift. Boom! You’re on an all expenses paid cruise out of the spending rat race!

Obviously, I’m not the first person to figure this out. Other people have discovered this as well, but I want to make sure the word keeps getting out. This is what Big Gift Tag doesn’t want you to know!

Plus, there’s another benefit besides saving money and reducing or reusing or whatever: I actually enjoy receiving Christmas cards again! The old me was like, “Oh great, more fodder for the recycle bin to graze upon.” But, these days, every time I get a Christmas card, I immediately start thinking about making it into tags. “Frosty’s face would make a great tag! But if I punch out his face, will there still be enough room to get the top of this Christmas tree? What if I center the tag over Frosty’s hat instead?” Every Christmas card is a fun little optimization puzzle to see just how many tags I can squeeze out of it.

I mean, there are some caveats. You still need a pen to write on the tags. And you need some tape or string (or old-fashioned Christmas ingenuity) to attach the tags to presents. Also, you do need some friends and family to actually send you Christmas cards—but you don’t want them to be the kind of high rollers who send photo cards or those fancy ones full of electronics that sing “Wonderful Christmastime” when you open them. You need plain old cards.

So, this Christmas, if the high price of gift tags has you more upsot than the horse in “Jingle Bells,” consider making your spirits bright by getting yourself a tag punch. It’s a small, one-time investment and you’ll be freeing yourself to spend more on bows or wrapping paper or, you know, actual gifts for the special people in your life.

Feast your eyelets on the Grommets and Hooks card game

Most of us have a junk drawer. When I was shopping for a desk for my home office, I specifically looked for one that didn’t have any drawers to prevent myself from starting another junk drawer. Junk drawers are the enemy and you must take them out before they even have a chance to sprout.

I haven’t been entirely successful in eradicating junk drawers from my life, though. I still have a giant junk drawer in my garage. It’s full of screws, weird extra bolts from Ikea furniture (I think everything is put together correctly?), and cast off washers I’ve found lying around (our garage door is, like, molting or something).

Sometimes you put too much in a junk drawer and it comes back to bite you. Have you ever been rummaging through your junk drawer, searching for a highlighter or a rubber band or a tiny tube of super glue, only to be stuck by a random fish hook you threw in there five years ago?

Are you tired of board games about ridiculous things like zombie apocalypses, spaceships with laser guns, and Lovecraftian abominations? Do you yearn for games that bring to mind everyday household dilemmas?

What if the sweat and trepidation of rummaging in that junk drawer, trying to pull things out without getting stuck by that fish hook, could be turned into a card game?

Well, don’t worry, because it has.

Grommets and Hooks

Grommets and Hooks is a card game for two to four players from OniiChan Games. Each player gets one turn. On your turn, you draw as many cards as you want from the deck, one at a time. If every card you draw is a grommet, you are safe. However, if you draw a hook, you are out of the game. Among the players who were not eliminated, the winner is the player who drew the most grommet cards.

I was expecting to hate this game but, I can’t lie, I actually had a bit of fun. There’s something absurdly delightful about flipping over a card and seeing a macro shot of a tiny piece of rubber—a nonsensical gamification of the experience of browsing a plumbing supplies catalog. You’ll find yourself recoiling as if you’ve been pricked whenever you draw a hook-exclamation-point. My new Pavlovian response is relief whenever I see a grommet.

I mean, a cynic would probably say that there’s not much of a game here. And there’s some truth to that. You only have one choice to make: how many cards to draw (and, if you’re the last player, you don’t even really have that—you have to either keep drawing until you have the most grommets or lose). But, you know, from a decisional perspective, that’s infinitely more of a game than some extremely popular games like Candy Land or the card game War. Those require literally zero exercise of free thought: you just go through the motions and see what happens.

This left me sitting and thinking for a quite a while. What’s more fun: a stripped-down, minimalist game like Grommets and Hooks where there are still decisions to make, or a dolled-up game with all the trimmings like Candy Land where there are no decisions at all? Is a game still a game if you can’t actually change anything? Are actions meaningful without consequences? Why wasn’t Captain Kirk happy living in the Nexus? Is Westworld fun if the robots can’t shoot back? Are rollercoasters exciting or are they just perfectly safe little trains with a lot of hype?


Many times you’ll flip over a card and think to yourself, “Hey, I’ve seen those little doodads before.”

The cards in Grommets and Hooks consist of pictures of grommets and hooks (plus words indicating which are which—in case you don’t know a rolled rim from a wacky worm). As far as I can tell, all of the cards are unique, so you get a bit of an education in the wide, wide world of grommets.


Grommets and Hooks did not come in a box. It was simply a pack of shrinkwrapped cards. However, the cellophane wrapping appeared to be very high quality. It was brittle and there was a hole in the end, making it easy to tear off.

I like the logo design on the back of the cards… unfortunately you can’t see it while the cards are in shrinkwrap.

The cards feel kind of papery, but they are thick, resilient, and shuffled easily.


There are some weird things going with the scoring. You get one point for winning the game. Presumably, you can play multiple times in a row and keep a running total of all the points to see who is the ultimate winner.

In the event of a tie, however, the rules specify that you get a partial point. For example, you get one third of a point if you are one of three players tied for a win. Calculating this out could quickly become difficult if you played multiple times in a row and different numbers of players tied each time. You could end up with a really weird score, like seven twelfths of a point. That’s an overly complex scoring system, but it does prove your math teacher right: you do need to know how to add fractions with different denominators.

What does it all mean

I’m still grappling with the idea behind Grommets and Hooks. The rule card doesn’t contain any background information, so there’s nothing to explain why you’re doing what you’re doing. Rummaging in a junk drawer was the only thing I could think of to explain the actions you take and the workings of the grommet and hook cards.

I think maybe this is something very rare: a Surrealist card game. Grommets and Hooks asks us to accept a world where grommets are good and hooks are bad for no logical reason. If we search for meaning in it, what we find only reflects our own desire for understanding.

Final thoughts

Do you have a passion for photographs of perforated plastic protective parts? If so, this is probably going to be game of the year for you.

For the rest of us? A big part of me is like, is there some sort of joke I’m missing here? Grommets and hooks? Why grommets and hooks?

This is the kind of card game that I would expect to see appear in a David Lynch movie. This is probably what they play inside The Black Lodge. There are alternating layers of simplicity, layers of familiarity, and layers that make no sense. The juxtaposition isn’t unpleasant, but it’s not going to hang everyone’s shower curtain, either.

Note: A review copy of this game was provided by OniiChan Games.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Blend Off

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

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

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

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

Fruit pieces

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

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

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

Becca and Kevin

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

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

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

Game setup

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

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

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


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

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

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

Blend Off Jr.

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

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

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

Final thoughts

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

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

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

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

Board Game Holiday Gift Guide

If you’re anything like me, you have a really hard time figuring out what other people are thinking. Also, you probably tend to project your own thoughts and feelings onto other people, when in reality their minds are filled with totally different ideas. Your subjective personhood makes it really difficult to shop for other people for the holidays because you can never actually know if you’re getting them something they want or not!

Don’t worry! I’ve come to your recuse and made a gift guide for 2016. You can use this to find the perfect gift for anyone in your life this year.

Note: Some of my own biases may have influenced the selections.

For the dice game fan

Batman: The Animated Series Dice GameNothing makes a better gift for a dice game fan this Christmas than the new Batman: The Animated Series Dice Game from Steve Jackson Games!

For the husband

Batman: The Animated Series Dice Game

I’m a husband, and if there’s anything I think would make a great gift, it’s Batman: The Animated Series Dice Game from Steve Jackson Games!

For the wife

Batman: The Animated Series Dice Game

If your wife is anything like my wife, she is willing to watch Batman: The Animated Series with you. You can take that aspect of your relationship to the next level by getting her Batman: The Animated Series Dice Game from Steve Jackson Games!

For the kids

Batman: The Animated Series Dice Game

Kids love Batman. That’s why there have been so many animated series about Batman. But only one has achieved the critical acclaim of Batman: The Animated Series. You can bring the joy of Batman: The Animated Series to your kids (or anyone else’s kids) this holiday season with Batman: The Animated Series Dice Game from Steve Jackson Games!

For the Batman fan

Batman: The Animated Series Dice Game

Nothing would make a Batman fan happier than getting a great Batman game as a gift. I would suggest Batman: The Animated Series Dice Game from Steve Jackson Games!

For the Marvel Comics fan

Batman: The Animated Series Dice Game

This person is clearly misguided. You can help them see the light by getting them Batman: The Animated Series Dice Game from Steve Jackson Games!

For the cat lover

Batman: The Animated Series Dice Game

If there’s anyone who loves cats, it’s Catwoman—a crazy cat lady from DC Comics’ Batman. This year, you can get the perfect gift for the catwoman (or catman) in your life by getting them Batman: The Animated Series Dice Game from Steve Jackson Games!

For the dog lover

Batman: The Animated Series Dice Game

You know who doesn’t have a dog? Batman from Batman: The Animated Series. He is too busy fighting crime to take Ace the Bat-Hound for a walk! You can keep the dog lover in your life busy this holiday season with Batman: The Animated Series Dice Game from Steve Jackson Games!

For the millennial

Batman: The Animated Series Dice Game

If there’s anything that millennials remember fondly, it’s sitting in front of the TV watching the episode of Batman: The Animated Series where young Bruce Wayne sits in front of the TV watching The Grey Ghost! Appeal to their sense of nostalgia and help them stave off the specter of middle age by getting them Batman: The Animated Series Dice Game from Steve Jackson Games!

For the grandparent

Batman: The Animated Series Dice Game

Grandparents are old enough to remember what life was like before Batman: The Animated Series. They’ll appreciate your assistance in getting past the memory of those awful times if you get them Batman: The Animated Series Dice Game from Steve Jackson Games!

For the whole family

Batman: The Animated Series Dice Game

Nothing brings the family together like the story of a millionaire who thinks he’s above the law as he drives around in a fancy car and punches a bunch of misguided social outcasts! Celebrate that around your kitchen table this Christmas season with Batman: The Animated Series Dice Game from Steve Jackson Games!

Those are my recommendations for this year. Hopefully this gift guide will help you as you’re making your holiday purchasing decisions! Be sure to share it with anyone in your life who’s struggling with gift ideas!

Top 10 things to look for when buying a board game

I spend a lot of time reading about the hundreds of board games that are released every year. Much less frequently, I will actually buy a board game. What is it that I’m looking for in a game before I plunk down some hard-earned clams to bring it home?

I mean, obviously, the number one thing that I’m looking for in a game is fun. If you’re buying board games for some reason other than fun, you should probably re-evaluate your priorities. But what actually makes a game fun? How can you know whether a game is going to be fun if you haven’t played it yet? Also—and this is maybe the most important question—are there times you shouldn’t buy a game even though it looks fun?

In order to make my purchasing decisions easier (and yours, too), I’ve created the following list of factors to consider when debating whether or not to click the buy button.

1. Engaging concept

Usually, the very first thing that I look at is, “What is the game about?” Ghosts? Zombies? Saving the world from an unfortunate confluence of diseases?

I tend to be drawn to games that are family-friendly and about things that are relatively pleasant and relatively non-violent: for example, trains, food, history, cowboys, or cartoonish pirates. Over half of the games I’ve backed on Kickstarter have been about either food or trains. (Still waiting for someone to make a game about operating a dining car on a train…)

Sure, there’s more to a game than it’s subject matter, but if a game is centered around a subject that you (or the people you’re planning to play it with) find boring or distasteful, how often are you going to be able to actually play it? On the other hand, if it’s centered around something that you think is exciting, then you’re probably going to enjoy it all the more.

2. Elegant rules

Clear and comprehensible rules are a must. If you can’t understand how to play or you have to check the rulebook every 30 seconds, it’s not going to be fun. One trick that you can use to gauge whether a game has well-designed rules is to look at the list of components. A lot of the time (especially on Kickstarter), you see a game’s list of components and it’s overwhelming, like:

77 score adjustment cubes
16 victory advancement counters
87 gold hoard miniatures
19 player negotiation aids
12 monster health meeples
3 power creep tracks
19 enemy strategy boards
35 setup diagrams
175 worker building cards
45 bidding placement markers
44 bluffing placement markers
14 experience control chits
7 decision reduction dice
27 action majority hexes
41 point balance discs
20 fiddly bits
2 first player tokens
1 reference card

Now, there are probably some people who see a list of components like that and think that game sounds fun. And, obviously, there are times where more components can actually streamline a game design. But when I see a list like that, all I can think about is how difficult it’s going to be to learn the rules myself, let alone explain them to someone else—in the unlikely event that I can actually convince anyone else to play.

I don’t need one game to be everything to me. I want a game that I actually have a chance to learn and play without giving up on everything else that’s going on in my life.

3. Workable number of players

Sometimes you see a game and it looks really fun, but it requires ten players. In that situation, you should think about whether you have ten people together to play a game on a regular basis. Maybe you have a giant get-together every weekend. Maybe you don’t.

For myself, most of the time, I play board games at home with my wife. The rest of the time, I usually find myself playing with one or the other of our families. Therefore, I tend to play games with either two, five, or six players. If a game only supports exactly three or four players, I won’t have the chance to play it as often, so I’m probably not going to buy it.

4. Reasonable playing time

Everyone’s schedule is different, but any game you buy needs fit into your schedule somewhere. For me, if a game takes over an hour to play, I’m not sure that I’m going to have enough time to play it very much. I don’t dislike games that take over an hour, I just don’t want to invest a lot of money in them because I know I won’t be able to play them as often.

5. Attractive art

I’d rather play a game with eye-popping illustration than something with an illegible font and some screen beans. It could be the stark graphic design of Concept or the retro aesthetic of Bottom of the 9th, but beautiful and unique artwork always makes a game more delightful to bring to the table.

6. Quality components

It doesn’t bother me to play a game that has thin cards or plain, plastic cubes. Those don’t make a game worse, per se. Lots of great games wouldn’t get published if some corners weren’t cut to keep their printing costs down. But there’s just something satisfying about playing a game that has high quality pieces, something that elevates the experience. Linen-finished cards and wooden tokens basically always make a game more enjoyable.

7. Good value

Price is always a factor when buying anything, but price isn’t just about the number on the price tag. You have to consider a game’s price relative to the thousands of other games out there. For example, if a game costs $25 and it’s just a small deck of cards, that’s probably not a good value. If a game costs $25 and you get a deck of cards, 20 plastic miniatures, a stack of tokens, and a board, that’s probably a good value.

8. Variety or expandability

I always try to consider whether there’s enough going on in a game that it isn’t going to get old immediately. Now, sometimes this desire does conflict a bit with the desire for elegant rules, but I love when a game includes a massive amount of variety without sacrificing simplicity. For example, Dixit has a core game that can be expanded with a practically infinite number of cards—without adding additional rules. I am a sucker for games like that.

9. Educational content

Sometimes, when I think about buying a game, there’s a little voice in my head that says, “Is learning this game just going to be a waste of your brain space, like how you know the names of all of the Planet of the Apes movies? They’re just made up stories about apes! How is knowing those making you a better person!”

The way I shut that voice up is by looking for games that have some kind of educational aspect. For example, the Ticket to Ride maps are all maps of actual places (albeit from the past), so they help you to learn a bit of geography. Timeline helps you learn a bit of history. Spyfall probably makes you better at lying telling when other people are lying.

10. Different from games you already own

Whenever a new version of a game you loves comes out, you have to consider whether it’s a good idea to buy multiple games that are very similar. For example, do you need two different sets of Munchkin? Do you need both The Resistance and Avalon? Do you need King of Tokyo and King of New York?

This applies to more than just spinoffs and sequels, though. If I see any board game, and I think, well, that looks almost exactly like something I already own, then I’m less likely to buy it. For example, there are a lot of World War II games out there, but I already own Memoir ’44. At this point, I’m pretty unlikely to buy another game about World War II squad combat because, I really don’t need more than one game like that.

So, there you have it. Those are the top ten things that I look for in a board game. Hopefully this gives you some food for thought next time you’re browsing the board game aisle.

Spyfall: A game of suspicion and sangfroid

My wife and I met through online dating. The hardest part about online dating is writing your profile. I wrote and rewrote mine dozens of times until I had something I was satisfied with. In the end, it turned out to be intriguing enough that women, including my future wife, actually contacted me first.

I’d share the secret formula for writing an intriguing online dating profile, except—of course—there isn’t one. Every person has to tap into what makes them unique. (Also, if I had a secret formula for anything, I would probably keep it a secret so I could bestow it on to my children as a sort of powerful dynastic birthright—like, I’m sorry, I don’t have a ring of power to pass down to you and we’re not wizards or anything, but I can show you how to get a date online so we can hopefully keep this thing rolling for another generation.)

I still remember statements I read on profiles of women from back when I was online dating. A lot of what people write is trite and you forget it. “I just moved here, and I just want to see who’s out there, and I like TV or whatever.” The things that I remember the most are the things that seemed the most shocking, the red flags indicating fundamental incompatibilities. One woman sent me a message and then I saw on her profile that she was looking to date single dads—which, as a non-dad, was confusing.

I remember one woman who asserted that she used her student ID to get discounts on as many things as possible, even though she’d graduated years ago. I know… that’s not objectively shocking. It’s actually a great profile statement. It’s charmingly hipster and one of those fun things that shows you have a personality.

Of course, it’s also pretty unethical. Which enabled me to quickly decide to move on to the next person.

There are basically two kinds of profile statements: statements about who you are and statements about who you’re looking for. When writing an online dating profile, a truculent pronouncement of exactly who you aren’t interested in is extremely helpful to your readers.

For example, I remember another woman who wrote, if your idea of fun is sitting around a table playing board games, don’t contact me.

That was back before I really owned any board games, when I was a lonely single man working from home and going to my cousin’s for a game of Catan was one of the few times I really got out of the house and socialized. I distinctly remember feeling a little sad for the woman who wrote that. Not because I think she was wrong to say it, but because, bless her heart, in spite of how clear it was, she probably had to spend a lot of time deleting messages from men saying, “Board games are actually fun.”

Board games aren’t for everyone—for quite a few reasons. There are a lot of people who’d rather be outside doing something more active. There are a lot of people with health issues that make it difficult to participate in certain games. Also, board gaming can be expensive. You see people on Epic Shelfie posting pictures of their massive board game collections and it’s a reminder that, like fox hunting, marathon running, and donning the mantle of the Batman, board gaming is only accessible to the at-least-sort-of affluent.

On the other hand, of course part of me feels like people don’t know what they’re talking about if they diss board gaming as not fun. Board games are literally designed with the express purpose of entertaining the human mind. When people say board gaming isn’t for them, it’s probably just because they haven’t played a board game that’s for them.

There are many, many different kinds of board games. Some board games allow you to just sit around and relax and have a good time. Some board games require intense logic and math. And some board games can literally send you into a cold sweat of terror. Case in point: Spyfall—quite possibly the most heart-racing experience you can have while sitting around a table. If you want to feel your whole body tense up and your flight or fight response kick in like you’re in a real life version of the tavern scene from Inglourious Basterds, this is the game you’ve been looking for.


First of all, you have to be prepared for people to make a lot of jokes about Skyfall.

Spyfall is a game from Hobby World and Cryptozoic Entertainment about sitting around a table and finding the spy in your midst. At the start, each player gets a card, which they look at secretly. One of the cards just says “spy.” All of the rest of the cards have a location (for example, everyone else will have a card that says “hotel” on it). The players attempt to suss out who has the spy card by taking turns asking each other questions. Questions can be literally anything (for example, “how much did it cost to get in here?” or “what’s your favorite thing to eat here?”). At any time, anyone can accuse another player of being the spy; if there is unanimous agreement, and that player is actually be the spy, then the non-spies win. Alternatively, at any time, the spy can reveal themself and, if they can correctly guess the location, then they win. After a eight minutes, if the game hasn’t already ended and the non-spies cannot agree on the spy, then the spy wins.

Many board games are based on taking a difficult task and making it fun, like how Pictionary makes a game out of drawing. Spyfall is based on the difficulty of innuendo—saying something that shows you know what a secret is without actually giving away that secret. Basically, it’s all about asking and answering questions to find out who doesn’t know the location without giving the location away.

As a spy, the game is nail-bitingly tense as you try to blend into the background, give out ambiguous answers, and add up the characteristics of the location. On the other hand, as a non-spy, the game creates an atmosphere of suspense as you try to mentally check off which players have said enough to show that you can trust them.

Sometimes the game ends in about two questions because the spy gets asked a direct question, says the wrong thing, and everyone bursts out laughing. (For example, if the location is police station and the question is “do you want to spend the night here” and the spy says “yes.”)

Other times the game ends in about two questions because someone says something that makes it obvious to the spy what the location is.

Usually, the game lasts well into the time limit, though. At the start of a round, the spy is in an extremely difficult position. However, as the game goes on, it becomes easier and easier for the spy to give convincing answers or guess the location because they’ve heard more and more information. It also becomes more and more difficult for the other players to ask and answer questions without giving the whole thing away.


Spyfall rulebook locations
When I’m the spy, my favorite thing to do is figure out the location and then not reveal myself and answer questions perfectly to sow dissension in the group.

The game contains just the right mix of locations to keep things interesting. There are locations you would typically associate with espionage or spycraft (embassy, military base, submarine), mundane locations (bank, supermarket, school), and really bizarre locations (pirate ship, space station, crusader army).

As an extra quirk, many of the locations lend themselves to different interpretations. For example, does “carnival” mean only the type of Carnival masquerade festival pictured on the card or is it any type of carnival? Does “passenger train” encompass subways and light rail? Is a “service station” a place to get your car fixed or a place to buy gas? This ambiguity contributes to the sense of paranoia in the game. Other players might be giving answers that sound completely wrong to you, not because they are the spy, but because of a genuine disagreement about what exactly the location is.

Every location card also states a unique role. For example, the airplane location cards have pilot, passenger, and flight attendant roles. For a more complex game, you can require players to answer from the perspective of their role. The roles can also help struggling players get into the right mindset to come up with a question or answer.

Number of players

The game supports from three to eight players. However, generally speaking, you need at least five people for Spyfall, especially if you have new players. Technically you can play with less, but it’s virtually impossible for the spy to win.


Basically, Spyfall is a box full of bags of cards.
Basically, Spyfall is a box full of bags of cards.

Even though there are relatively few rules, there are a few logistical issues to consider with Spyfall. First of all, you need a timer, so someone’s probably going to have to pull out their smartphone and be in charge of timekeeping. Because each round of the game revolves completely around keeping a single piece of information secret, it is very important to prevent that secrecy from being accidentally compromised. The game comes with a bag for each deck of location cards. You have to be careful to store the decks in the bags in such a way that you can separate out the correct number of cards for the players without seeing what the location is (always storing the spy card on the bottom of each deck works pretty well). Also, any nick or mark could spoil the game, so it is a good idea to use card sleeves.

Many reviews have noted that Spyfall does not include player aid cards listing all of the possible locations. While I wouldn’t turn down player aids, I also haven’t found the lack of them to be a barrier. During games, we pass around the rulebook so everyone can see the page with all of the locations. This is superior to a player aid card because the rulebook has room to show each location’s picture, not just the name (and occasionally players will reference specifics of the artwork, even though it is discouraged). Unless the person asking for the rulebook is clawing for it while dripping in sweat, you can’t really infer that they are the spy; non-spies often just want to see it so they can craft a question or answer without revealing too much.

Final thoughts

I love Spyfall, but I’m a chill cookie and I’ve played it enough times—and been the spy enough times—that I find it more exciting than frightening.

Spyfall is not for everyone. Being the spy is extremely stressful… as in, your body’s stress response literally triggers, your heart kicks into high gear, and your stomach knots up. Sure, you’re just sitting around a table with your friends, holding a card, but it’s not like most other games where you might have a secret role. As the spy, you start with nothing. You have zero information and everyone else has all of the information. You have no choice but to lie your pants off and one wrong glance, strange intonation, or answer that isn’t exactly the right amount of vague could give you away.

I’ve played the game with people who haven’t enjoyed it. When you’re the spy, it can feel like you’re under the gun in a way that isn’t necessarily consistent with the fun, happy-go-lucky experience you might be looking for in a casual evening of board games. If you’re uncomfortable answering questions under pressure (and laughing along if you get caught giving a ridiculous answer), this may not be the right game for you.

I don’t mean to just focus on how draining the spy role can be, either. The game is pretty tough for non-spies, too. You have to be able to think of relatively creative questions and relatively subtle answers. If you take too long to formulate something, other players may get frustrated (or start to think you’re the spy).

But Spyfall is worth experiencing. Spyfall is enjoyable because it’s a holistic challenge. Once it starts, every word and gesture is part of the game and you have to use the full extent of your perceptive faculties to either find the spy or keep yourself hidden. Most of us want to believe that we’re clever raconteurs, skilled at witty comebacks and cunning wordplay, able to drop hints that will go completely over others’ heads and quickly detect when people are lying to our face. Spyfall lets you put that belief to the test, and you’ll probably end up laughing harder than you’ve ever expected.

Why I changed my mind about Exploding Kittens

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

Why was I so turned off, you ask?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It is legitimately fun.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rolling the rails in Trainmaker, a train dice game

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

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

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

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


Trainmaker components

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

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

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

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

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


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

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


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

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

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

Number of players

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

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

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

Mini games

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

All Aboard

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

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

Lawmen vs. Robbers

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

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

Rail Tycoon

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

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

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

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

Final thoughts

What should we expect from Trainmaker?

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

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

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