Letter Tycoon: A word game for people who hate Scrabble

If I had to pick one thing that immediately makes me feel conflicted, it’s patents.

There are serious problems with the United States’ patent system, from overwhelming litigation costs to overbroad patents. Take software patents, for example. One main thing you learn from studying computer science is that all software programs are fundamentally mathematical formulas. And one main thing you learn from studying patent law is that mathematical formulas are not patentable. And yet, in the United States, software programs are patentable. It requires a tremendous amount of cognitive dissonance to think that makes any sense. Not to mention that the whole purpose of patent law is to promote innovation, and software patents hinder it more than they promote it.

On the other hand, at its heart, the patent system is a noble idea. I’ve seen what it means to people. The first time I went to my wife’s grandparents house, her grandfather started showing me around. Knowing that I had studied patent law, he pointed out copies of patents hanging on the wall. I don’t really know anything about laminating wood products, but I could tell how proud he was. For inventors, patents are the embodiment of their work—not just a legal document that grants protection, but a symbol of affirmation and accomplishment.

Now, aside from patents, if I had to pick a second thing that immediately makes me feel conflicted, it’s word games.

I realized the other day that my wife and I didn’t own any word games. I mean, technically, almost every game involves words in some way (rulebooks are typically full of them). But you know what I mean. We didn’t own any games like Scrabble, Bananagrams, Boggle, or Quiddler—games that involve constructing words.

Scrabble is by far the most popular word game, right? But we don’t own it because neither one of us really likes it. Just like living next door to the circus, Scrabble sounds fun in theory but is actually depressingly aggravating in practice. Between triple letter scores, getting stuck with a trayful of consonants, and other people playing words like “isogriv” and “paxwax” that (no matter what the Scrabble dictionary says) are obviously not real words, it can be an extremely frustrating experience.

I mean, Scrabble is a fun game—its popularity is proof enough of that. In small doses, it’s a satisfying treat for your inner polyglot anagrammist. But if you want a game you can pull out with friends or family, a game that everyone can enjoy without the risk of destroying friendships or marriages, it’s probably not the best option. Scrabble is harsh enough that it’s made me very skeptical of all word games.

Anyways, you can probably guess where this is going: it turns out that there’s a word game that involves patenting letters. When I heard about it, I was immediately conflicted: it sounded very intriguing, but it’s hard to put aside my feelings about both word games and patents. Could Letter Tycoon actually be fun?

Letter Tycoon

Letter Tycoon components

Letter Tycoon is a game from Breaking Games where two to five players take on the role of alphabetic business moguls—instead of building factories or skyscrapers, you are building words. Each player has a hand of seven letter cards, plus there are three letter cards in the middle of the table. On your turn, you create a word using any of the cards in your hand or in the middle of the table. The longer your word is, the more money—in the form of cash and stock—you get for it. Stock adds to your score at the end of the game. Cash can be used to buy letter patents. Letter patents allow you to “own” a letter: you get a dollar in cash from the bank any time someone else uses that letter in one of their words. At the end of the game, the player with the most money (in cash, stock, and patents) is the winner.


Just like the American pharmaceutical industry, Letter Tycoon is all about the patents. Patents on more common letters are more desirable (because other people will be using those letters more), but they are also more expensive. On the other hand, patents on the least common letters are less expensive and grant special powers (for example, the ability to use a letter card twice or get double points for words that are at least half vowels).

At the beginning of the game, you probably cannot afford patents on the more expensive letters, so it is generally a bit of a race to buy the less expensive patents with the special powers. However, by the end of the game you feel like a patent troll as you are raking in more and more money each turn from your burgeoning patent portfolio, enabling you to afford ever more expensive letters.

Vowels are red, consonants are green, rare letters give you powers to earn points umpteen.
Vowels are red, consonants are green, rare letters give you powers to earn points umpteen.

All of the patent powers are quite interesting. I’ve seen a few reviews suggesting that some of powers might be stronger than others. I don’t think that’s accurate. For instance, the ability to make two words per turn appears extremely powerful at first glance, but because you get considerably more points for longer words, making two short words each turn is not actually going to get you the most amount of money possible. A six letter word is worth more than twice the value of two three letter words, for example. Similarly, one of the powers allows you to double your score if your word only has one vowel—but it’s difficult exploit that kind of power too much because it’s difficult to make a long word that only has one vowel.

Letter Tycoon vs. Scrabble

It turns out that Letter Tycoon is actually extremely fun. Going back to Scrabble for a minute, Letter Tycoon has a number of features that, in my opinion, make it more enjoyable than Scrabble.

First off, the main way to get more points for a word is to make it longer. Unlike Scrabble, where you are strongly incentivized to use rare letters and put them at certain positions in your word, your main incentive in Letter Tycoon is just to make words longer. It is better to include letters that your opponents haven’t patented so they don’t get any money, but the points you get are based on the length of the word. This means you don’t need to be a savant who’s memorized every word with the letter X; you just need to be able to make any word that has a lot of letters.

Additionally, all words must be at least three letters. So you don’t have to worry about all of those questionable two letter Scrabble words like “fa” and “um.”

Also, there isn’t a board where you have to play off of existing words, so you aren’t limited by the available locations on the board, nor do you have to consider every location on the board to figure out how to maximize your points. The only letters you have to worry about are on the ten cards in front of you.

Plus, at the end of your turn, you get to discard as many cards as you want if you don’t like what’s left in your hand. You don’t have to choose between discarding and playing.

Lastly, you don’t need a pencil and paper to keep track of the score. I always appreciate that in a game.


The click clack of stacking wooden tokens never gets old.
The click clack of stacking wooden tokens never gets old.

Beyond how fun it is to play, the production and graphic design of Letter Tycoon game are show-stopping. The coins are wooden. The stock tiles are extremely thick cardboard. There is an enormous amount of detail on every linen-finished card. I love the steampunk-ish, Metropolis-ish, Art Deco-ish look of the game.


I have a few minor complaints. One is about the rulebook. The very first thing it tells you about how to play is that you have two options on your turn: discarding cards, or playing a word. This is a bit misleading. There’s almost no situation where you would want to discard instead of playing a word (maybe if the other player had a patent on every letter in your hand, or if you absolutely couldn’t think of a word). Also, even when you do play a word, you can still discard as many cards as you want. I think it might have been better to phrase the rulebook slightly differently and classify not playing a word as an exception.

Box lid

Another complaint has to do with the box. I’ve discussed this kind of thing before, but the lid of the Letter Tycoon box fits so tightly that it’s a serious chore to remove. When I first got the game, it took me a couple minutes just to cajole it open and it hasn’t really loosened up much since then. After you’re done playing, it’s like, please don’t put the lid back on, we might want to play again tomorrow. Also, whatever you do, don’t even think about sitting the bottom of the box in the upside down lid.


Mit? Eim? Mie? There's definitely a word in here somewhere...
Mit? Eim? Mie? There’s definitely a word in here somewhere…

Sometimes, when you see a jumble of letter cards, a word jumps out at you right away. Other times, it doesn’t. To get your thoughts into gear, it’s helpful to be able to rearrange your cards to see if there are any words in there that you didn’t notice immediately. In Letter Tycoon, your ability to move all of the letters around and see what pops out is slightly hampered because three of the cards you can use are community cards. You can’t just pick those up and mix them around with the cards in your hand. Mentally accounting for the community cards can be a bit confusing and adds some time to the game.

Admirably, the rulebook accounts for this by instructing players to refill the community cards first, giving the next player the maximum amount of time to think. This helps, but the act of searching for a word in a mess of letters is never going to be instantaneous—the whole reason it’s fun is because it’s fundamentally difficult for the human brain. Like most word games, Letter Tycoon is susceptible to bogging down if players want to be certain they’ve exhausted every possibility before they settle on a word.

Final thoughts

Also, Scrabble doesn't come with a sweet zeppelin first player marker.
Also, Scrabble doesn’t come with a sweet zeppelin first player marker.

When I bought Letter Tycoon, I knew it had amazing graphic design and I was hoping it would be enjoyable. However, I would’ve never predicted that I’d find myself playing it late into the night.

But that’s happened.

It turns out that Letter Tycoon is a little bit addictive.

When I first told my wife I was going to buy this game, I mentioned that it was a word game and she sounded pretty skeptical. However, after playing it two or three times, she said, “I like this and I don’t even like word games.”

Letter Tycoon takes the core part of Scrabble—combining random letters into words—and it makes it fun again.

Fidelitas is bona fide fun

The summer before my senior year of college, I took an intensive class on Latin. Yes, Latin. I know what you’re probably thinking. Latin is the second car of the language world—it’s a luxury language. And yet, Latin is also the gateway to understanding the ancient world, much of our own English language, and many great works of literature. Whenever you are learning another language, you are also learning about another culture, and this is particularly true with Latin: it is an opportunity to learn about the beginnings of our global civilization.

Since Latin hasn’t changed much over the past two millenia, the teaching of Latin—at least, as a written language—has essentially been perfected. For the past half century or so, many courses in the US have used the same textbook: Wheelock’s Latin. In a world where all of us are increasingly fragmented, where there are so many news outlets, television channels, and other forms of media that no two people are ever exposed to a common narrative, where in some ways we all have increasingly less in common, studying Latin connects you with generations of learners who came before.

Latin also helps to forge relationships with people today. When you take an intensive language course, you build up a camaraderie with your fellow students. Studying Latin in particular makes you feel like part of a club. Team Lingua Latina. It brought about moments of connection with older people that I wouldn’t have otherwise had as they recalled snippets they remembered from studying Latin when they were younger. “Amo amas amat,” “Gallia est omnis divisa in partes tres,” et cetera.

As much as Latin is the world’s most popular “dead language,” it would probably be more accurate to describe it as a “ghost language” or “zombie language” since it is still hanging around post mortem. Latin has many practical applications today. From a product design perspective, Latin enables you to choose a product name that is distinctive but still somewhat familiar and pronounceable to speakers of most European languages. Plus, your product can have the same name in multiple countries without the need for translation. Several board games have chosen the Latin approach, including Dixit, Agricola, and Terra Mystica. Also, a little card game called Fidelitas.


Fidelitas components

Fidelitas (Latin for “faithfulness”) is a ludus (game) for one to four homo sapiens from Green Couch Games (Lectus Viridis Ludi). The prima facie goal of the game is to organize a group of townspeople to plan a revolution. Each player starts with a hand of character cards and goal cards. Several location cards are placed in the center of the table to form the town. Each turn, you add a character from your hand to one of the locations, use that character’s unique action (for example, the Dockmaster lets you move other characters next to the harbor location), then draw another character. Once the characters are in situ to meet the conditions of one of your secret goals (for example, members of four different guilds at the magistrate’s office), you can claim the points for that goal and draw a new goal. The first person to get ten points in toto is the winner.

The key aspect of the game, the sine qua non that keeps you engaged, is that while you are trying to meet your goals, the other players are trying to meet their completely different goals. Your modus operandi always has to be guessing what they’re trying to do while being none-too-obvious about what you’re trying to do. Sometimes you might move a character to a location and unwittingly help another player meet one of their goals. Sometimes another player might do that for you. Sometimes someone might figure out what you’re trying to do and block you, or vice versa. The feeling of clandestinely manipulating the town under the very nasum of your opponent transforms the game into a gratifying experience.

Veni vidi lusi

Fidelitas is an excellent game for two players. Technically, you can play with as many as four players, but I think I’m on terra firma in saying that two is optimal.

The character cards are called Virtus cards, which technically means "character" in Latin... in the sense of moral character.
The character cards are called Virtus cards, which means “character” in Latin… in the sense of moral character.

Learning the game is enjoyable, particularly if you and the other player are both new to the game and discovering it pari passu. The first couple of games, you don’t know what all of the different characters and goals are—ergo, you can’t really intentionally trip up anyone else—but it’s fun to see the variety of cards in the game for the first time. Once you’ve played once or twice, you’ll start to have an inkling of what other person might be attempting and you can try to outwit them. Of course, nota bene, if you focus too much on disrupting someone else, you won’t have time to meet your own goals.

Fidelitas is competitive but not cutthroat. It has some conflict, but it is not per se a confrontational game because it’s often hard to tell for sure what your opponent is doing. The tagline on the Fidelitas box is “a game of medieval meddling,” and “meddling” is a pretty accurate description. At the most, you feel like you are bumping and jostling the other players, not stabbing them in front in the entire Roman Senate while shouting, “Sic semper tyrannis!”

Ars ludi

Dulce et decorum est Fidelitati ludere.
Dulce et decorum est Fidelitati ludere.

One of the things that attracted me to Fidelitas was the pulchritudinous artwork. I love how the character cards bring to life the different dramatis personae of the game in a way that echoes the look of medieval illuminated manuscripts, while also harkening back to classic, hand-drawn Disney animation in movies like Sleeping Beauty and Peter Pan.

Appendices ludi

The game comes with an expansion called Manu Forti, which is Latin for “with a strong hand.” This is a rather clever name since the expansion cards each have an additional ability that can only be used if you have a large hand of cards at your disposal. Therefore, these cards are ipso facto a bit more complicated than the core game’s cards, but the differences are essentially explained on the cards themselves. Since it’s included in the box, it’s a bit of a non sequitur to call it an expansion and it’s easy enough to grasp that you can shuffle it in ab initio.

The goal cards are called Missio cards, which means "mission" in Latin. The Manu Forti expansion cards function as both characters and goals.
The goal cards are called Missio cards, which means “mission” in Latin. The Manu Forti cards function as both characters and goals.

The Kickstarter edition of the game came with a few promotional cards, making up a de facto second expansion. The cards are a bit of a mixed bag. On the one hand, they’re a great addition because you get some fun new characters for some of the rarer guilds, which boosts the variety of the game and slightly eases the frustration of trying to complete certain goals. On the other hand, the new candlestick maker goal is difficult in extremis, and it’s only worth a measly two points, which is basically nil considering how unlikely it is you will be able to score it.

Cogito ergo Fidelitati ludo.
Cogito ergo Fidelitati ludo.

Caveat emptor

Fidelitas has thick, linen finished cards, but the linen finish is only on one side of the cards and is less defined than in many other games. One of my cards got a crease in it from shuffling, although—mea culpa—this may be because I am bad at shuffling. Also, it may simply be because we’ve played the game ad infinitum and the cards are wearing out.

Cogitationes ultimae

After so long as our card game du jour, Fidelitas has a de jure position on my list of favorite games.
After so long as our card game du jour, Fidelitas has a de jure claim to being one of my favorite games.

Fidelitas has a special place in my heart because it was the first game I Kickstarted that both my wife and I really fell in love with. Between the whimsical artwork and the playful antagonism of trying to meet different secret goals, I think it is a perfect choice for times when you want to play a game with a little intrigue, but not wage an all out war. A fortiori, it is a great game for couples because it can’t get too mean; you can poke and prod your partner with no risk of it turning into a casus belli.

I could go on ad nauseam about how much I love this game, but I’ll just say this: Fidelitas always makes me smile. With gorgeous design and enjoyable gameplay, I consider Fidelitas the ne plus ultra of Kickstarter card games. If you’re looking for a delightful game for two players, you should definitely pick it up—carpe Fidelitatem!

Deception may be the best murder mystery board game ever devised

Clue is a pervasive cultural influence. We all know what it means to talk about Colonel Mustard in the library with the candlestick or Professor Plum in the study with the rope. There are a lot of reasons that Clue is such a popular game, but one of them is definitely the situation that Clue puts you in. You get to feel like you’re solving a mystery. It lets you live out an Agatha Christie novel as upper-crusty aristocrats trying to catch a murderer in a stately old mansion.

But Clue has some drawbacks.

The worst part about Clue is if you put the cards in the envelope wrong and it turns out to be the revolver with the wrench in the conservatory.
The worst part about Clue is if you put the cards in the envelope wrong and it turns out to be the revolver with the wrench in the conservatory.

One of those drawbacks is metaphysical certainty. Like a lot of deduction games, Clue is based on symmetric information and precise logic. When you receive a clue in Clue, you learn something with 100% confidence about who the murder is or is not. A computer program could play Clue just as well as a human.

That’s not the only way to set up a deduction game, though. There’s another board game about solving mysteries that discloses clues in a completely different way, with asymmetric hints that point you toward the solution without any one clue telling you anything for sure about who the murderer is. That game is Deception: Murder in Hong Kong, and it requires you to employ your whole human imagination if you want to solve a case.

Deception: Murder in Hong Kong


In Deception: Murder in Hong Kong, all of the players are detectives investigating a murder. The twist is, of course, that one of the detectives is also the murderer.

At the start of the game, each player has eight cards face up in front of them: four weapon cards and four evidence cards. That way, each person has four weapons that they might have committed the murder with and four pieces of evidence that they might have left behind at the crime scene. Secret role cards are dealt to each player to determine who the murderer is. Then the murderer chooses one weapon card and one evidence card from their own cards as the actual murder weapon and actual evidence left behind.

The game is facilitated by a “forensic scientist” player. Instead of weapon and evidence cards, the forensic scientist has six clue tiles in front of them. The forensic scientist knows the solution to the crime (from a phase of the game where everyone else has their head down), and is trying to help the investigators find the murderer. However, the forensic scientist is not allowed to talk. The only way the forensic scientist can communicate is by placing markers on the clue tiles (each clue tile is a multiple choice description of something to do with the crime: for example, the location, the cause of death, the motive, or the time of day).

The game can double as a language learning tool because all of the cards and tiles have both English and Traditional Chinese on them.
The game can double as a language learning tool because all of the cards and tiles have both English and Traditional Chinese on them.

Every investigator gets one official guess at the exact solution to the murder. An investigator who guesses wrong must turn in their badge, but can still participate in the discussion. If every investigator turns in their badge, then the murderer wins. However, if one investigator correctly guesses both the murder weapon and evidence left behind, then all of the investigators win.


The game roles play very differently, but all of them are very enjoyable and challenging.

As an investigator, you are discussing with all of the other investigators, trying to pick out the correct murder weapon and evidence based on the vague clues that the forensic scientist is allowed to give and your intuition about which of the other investigators is lying to you.

As the murderer, you are trying to blend in with the investigators while secretly misleading and misdirecting them into guessing the wrong solution.

As the forensic scientist, you are silently and carefully listening to the discussion of the other players, using what they are saying to decide how to place markers on the clue tiles and which clue tile to replace after each round of discussion. (The rulebook says to assign the forensic scientist randomly with the other roles, but we’ve found that some players really want to be the forensic scientist, while other players really don’t, so we tend to give it to the players who do want it.)

In larger games, you can add several additional secret roles, including an accomplice who knows the identity of the murderer and helps mislead the other players, and a witness who knows who knows the identities of both the murderer and accomplice but must keep their own identity a secret. Since a full game typically averages around 15 or 20 minutes, you can play several times in a row and everyone can get a chance to experience multiple roles.

Moments of insight

The best way for me to talk about why Deception is so good is to talk about a specific game that I was part of.

A while ago, we were having a game night to celebrate my cousin’s birthday and we brought out Deception. There were eight people at the table so we included the witness and the accomplice roles. I was the forensic scientist. The first game was a bit of a learning experience since we had four people who’d never played the game before and there was some confusion about how all of the roles work. The murderer had picked a whip as the weapon and a Kleenex tissue as the evidence left behind. As clues, I was able to give “bedroom” as the location, “lovers” as the relationship between the murderer and victim, and “bodily fluids” as a trace at the scene. By the end of the game, two people had figured out the correct solution and were lobbying the last person with a badge to guess it, but that person guessed something else and the murderer got away.

In our second game, everyone was now clear on exactly how to play. The murderer picked a dumbbell as the weapon and a cassette tape as the evidence left behind. I was the forensic scientist again. Initially, I thought I was going to have an easy job of it because I would just pick “gym” as the location to suggest the dumbbell. However, looking through the location tiles, I realized that there is no gym. There isn’t even anything that remotely resembles a gym. Eventually, I settled on “storeroom” because weights and old tapes both seem like things that might be in a storeroom. I was also able to pick “entertainment” as an activity that was happening, and “hot” as the weather.

We started to go around and have everyone give their theory of the crime. Most people seemed very uncertain and were focusing on a broom because of the storeroom clue. Guesses were all over the place about what entertainment meant.

Then we got to one of the new players. He looked around the table and said, “You know, I don’t know why, and this is kind of off the wall, but I’m thinking a storeroom could also be a weight room, and maybe the person was in there lifting weights and jamming to this cassette tape. That’s just what I’m thinking.” Now, he didn’t turn in his badge to guess that and ultimately the murderer ended up getting away again…

…but that moment convinced me of the greatness of Deception.

We were playing with three weapons and three clue cards per player to make the game easier for the new players, but that meant we still had 42 cards out on the table and 63 possible solutions to the murder. And yet, somehow, from only six very vague clues, there was a meeting of the minds between me and this guy who I had never even met before about the exact way that the crime happened.

That’s what I love about Deception. When you get a clue, it doesn’t actually tell you anything. (I mean, sometimes clues are extremely strong indicators. For example, if the cause of death is poisoning, you can probably safely eliminate a blender as the murder weapon. Although, then again, could the poison have been in the blender?) This pervasive sense of ambiguity means that you get a great lightning bolt moment when you put the clues together with a solution in a way that makes sense. And yet, it also always leaves some wiggle room for a smooth talking murderer to point out a different solution. If you figure it out successfully, you feel like you’ve solved the crime using both halves of your brain because the game allows you to develop and play a hunch in a way that you cannot do in a game like Clue that relies solely on logical deduction.


There is a card for just about everything, from working someone to death to leaving an air conditioner at the scene of the crime.
There is a card for just about everything, from working someone to death to leaving an air conditioner at the scene of the crime.

In addition to being an extremely fun and engaging game, Deception is also very well-produced. It includes enough components for 12 players (13 if you have the Kickstarter version), plus almost 300 cards and over 30 clue tiles. Generally, this is enough to play the game three or four times in a row without seeing any duplicate murder weapons, evidence, or clues.

Family friendliness

A couple of the cards are graphic enough to give you nightmares.
A couple of the cards are graphic enough to give you nightmares.

The recommended minimum age for Deception is 14. The recommended minimum age for Clue is eight. Obviously, murder is never really family friendly. Clue has you trying to figure out if someone was bludgeoned to death with a pipe or hung with a rope—is that undercurrent of horrifying violence really appropriate for eight year olds? I don’t know, but I can see why the age for Deception is higher than the age for Clue. A handful of the cards in Deception have overtly disturbing images on them. Also, younger children (and some adults!) might have difficulty with the poker face that you need to play some of the roles.

Final thoughts

One of the very first games of Deception that we ever played will always stick in my mind. The evidence left behind was a cigar. I was the forensic scientist and one of the clue tiles was the weather. I chose “humid.” One of the other players said, “humid… humidor… maybe it’s the cigar.”

As the forensic scientist, you are not supposed to talk, gesture, or emote, but inside I was jumping up and down, screaming, “Yes, that’s exactly what I was thinking!”

That’s the kind of roundabout thought process that you often have to use in this game—and I love it.

I’m not going to claim that it’s a perfect game. Sometimes it’s less exciting than others. Sometimes the murder gets caught in about a minute because the murder weapon they picked is completely unlike anything in front of anyone else. And there are things about the game that don’t make any sense. I mean, if the forensic scientist is a police officer, why can’t they just say who the murderer is, you know?

Deception also has a lot in common with other games like Mafia, Werewolf, Bang, and The Resistance, but, in a way, I like it better than any of those because it requires you to use fuzzy logic and lateral thinking as part of the game. Sometimes I ask myself, what is my favorite board game? I’m not sure, but Deception: Murder in Hong Kong is definitely near the top of the list.

My journey to toilet seat enlightenment

Your home is an important part of your life. It is the place where you sleep, the site of many of your most personal memories, your refuge of solace and privacy. Most of us think of our homes with a sense of affection. But, theoretically, there is only one part of your home that you touch with your naked butt. Yes, I’m talking about toilet seats: the most intimate point of contact between you and your home.

Five years ago, when I moved into a condo, one of the first things I did was replace all of the toilet seats. However, I went about it in a way that often gets me into trouble: I just went to store and bought something without doing any research.

I’d never given toilet seats much thought. But, in short order, I stated to notice some things. Even though they were still practically new, the toilet seats I had purchased seemed to be losing their finish. Also, whenever I stayed in a hotel, I noticed that their toilet seats weren’t like mine at home. Their toilet seats appeared to be much nicer and, even though they were presumably being subjected to many more abrasive butts than mine at home, they were not losing their finish.

Hotel bathrooms have always been my benchmark for durable luxury. For example, why do hotels have shower curtains instead of shower doors? Because they’re easier to clean and more economical. Durable luxury. Hotels aren’t even shy about this; they want their bathrooms to feel nicer than your bathroom at home to make you enjoy your stay, so they tend to use very high quality fixtures.

Eventually, it became apparent what my problem at home was: faulty toilet seat construction.

There are essentially two types of toilet seats. The toilets seats I had unthinkingly purchased were made out of “molded wood”—basically a particle board or chipboard with a paint coating on it. On the other hand, the toilet seats at hotels are typically made out of solid plastic, which means they can never lose their finish, even if they get scratched or worn. Also, the plastic is thick: it can take more abuse than residential toilet seats and you can sit on the lid without bending it. (Some companies also sell solid wood toilet seats, and those weird poofy plastic ones, but let’s not go there.)

Once my eyes were opened to the realities of what toilet seats are made out of, there was no turning back. Also, my toilet seats were becoming more and more difficult to clean due to their loss of finish. When my wife and I bought a house and started to remodel it, I was determined to get hotel quality toilet seats so every visit to the bathroom would feel like going on a lavish vacation.

Now, foolishly, I had thought that since we live in the internet age and you can buy basically anything on the web, magnificent hotel quality toilet seats would be just a click away. After quite a few clicks, I had a sinking realization: “I’m going to have to become a toilet seat expert to be able to figure this out.”

There are tons of options. Shapes. Colors. Features for ease of installation. Self-closing mechanisms. Whether or not they have an opening at the front of the seat. I dug into the research.

In the end, after many hours of browsing on toiletseats.com (an actual website—nobody is cybersquatting on toiletseats.com), I finally found it: the pinnacle of modern toilet seat engineering. Luxurious and dependable enough for the penthouse suite at a five star hotel, yet rugged and simple enough to last forever in your bathroom at home.

The Bemis 7800TDG.

(Note: the Bemis 7800TDG only fits elongated toilets. If you have a round toilet, you may need to get a different model.)

I immediately ordered one of these for each of our bathrooms. And I am happy to report that, after more than a year—including one time where we had a party with over 60 people in our house—they still look brand new.

Really, this is all the toilet seat that anyone needs. It’s not stuffed with features that aren’t important. Self-closing mechanisms wear out over time and almost every toilet seat is easy to install or remove. It’s just stuffed with commercial grade quality, bringing the durable luxury of a hotel bathroom into your everyday life. Plus, at around $35 or $40, they’re not that much more expensive than wasting a bunch of gas and money to drive to store and buy a horrible chipboard one. In fact, you could probably call it an investment in your bathroom’s future since it may well be the last toilet seat you ever need to buy.

Also, every visit to the bathroom really does feel like a sumptuous hotel stay now.

I think one challenge of life in a consumer society is that stores are full of items that look like actual products, but are actually hollow facsimiles. Toilet seats that don’t last. Foods that are just lumps of artificial flavorings. Art that is mass produced. Clothes that are the wrong shape. This one time at Harbor Freight, I bought some work gloves that I’m pretty sure cannot actually fit on human hands. Sometimes you have to learn from the painful experience of buying a product that doesn’t stand up to actual use before you can figure out what you really need. That happened to me with toilet seats, but it ultimately led me to a new plateau of toilet seat satisfaction.

Yardmaster Express: A tiny train game that delivers on fun

I recently wrote about Yardmaster, calling it the quintessential train card game, even if it is probably not the best.

So why isn’t it the best train card game?

Well, there are lots of train card games out there—in fact, there are so many that it doesn’t really even make sense to talk about which one is the best overall. Also, there’s one in particular that I like just a bit more than Yardmaster. I’m talking, of course, about its protégé: Yardmaster Express.

Yardmaster Express


Yardmaster Express takes the core hook of Yardmaster and boils it down to its essence: you’re still building a train and you can still only add cars to your train if they match the color or number of the previous car. However, in Yardmaster Express, you only use one type of card—train car cards—and each card has two train cars on it. Also, instead of each player having their own hand of cards, the players pass one hand around the table. Each turn, you add a card to the hand, pick a card from the hand to add your train, and then pass the hand to the next person. After everyone has a specified number of cards on their train (for example, five cards in a four player game), the winner is the person with the most points on their train.

The game is blinkofaneye fast. From start to finish, it takes less than 10 minutes. But those 10 minutes are packed with fun as you try to get as many points as possible onto your train, while keeping a watchful eye on your neighbors’ trains to make sure you don’t let them have the exact card that they need.

Points are earned from the numbers on the train cars, from getting a bonus for the longest consecutive color run, or from the caboose card. Each time you play, one caboose card is randomly drawn and placed in the center of the table. The caboose gives a bonus at the end of the game to each player whose train meets the condition on the caboose (for example, having no yellow cards on their train, or a specific sequence of numbers).

The cabooses all have clever names. The game even includes blank caboose cards so you can make up your own cabooses, like "The Bilbo," a bonus for finishing with a very unlucky 13 points on your train.
The cabooses all have clever names. The game even includes blank caboose cards so you can make up your own cabooses, like “The Bilbo,” a bonus for finishing with a very unlucky 13 points on your train.

Unlike Yardmaster, where the caboose expansion felt like one thing too much in a game stuffed full of addons, the Yardmaster Express caboose cards are the icing on the cake, adding an interesting new dimension to the game, distorting your motives so that picking lower point cards might potentially pay off at the end.


Yardmaster Express shares the minimalist art style of Yardmaster, with silhouetted trains and primary colored cards. I still love this art style; something about it always fills me with delight when I bring out the game. Plus, Yardmaster Express takes it into the third dimension by including a large wooden train piece for keeping track of the first player (which is also fun for driving around the table while making train noises).

Bottom: Yardmaster Express first player token. Top: Meeples from Wits & Wagers for size comparison. Not pictured: anything else.
Bottom: Yardmaster Express first player token. Top: meeples from Wits & Wagers for size comparison. Not pictured: anything else.


There are many different lenses to use when discussing what makes a board game great.

One lens to use is concrete: a game consists of a set of rules and a box full of physical pieces with material attributes used to enact the rules. Here, the quality of the game is determined by the clarity and character of the rules and the richness of the components.

From this perspective, Yardmaster Express is a great game. The rules are comprehensible and cohesive. The linen finished cards, magnetically closing box, and wooden first player token are extremely high quality.

Another lens is decisional: from this perspective, playing a game is making a series of decisions. This is often discussed in reviews of board games, but I’m not a huge fan of this lens because I’m not sure that a game is better the more thorny and agonizing the decisions are. The problem with evaluating games on the “quality of their decisions” is that it ends up promoting certain types of excruciating games over other games that are equally, if not more, entertaining. (Also, you know, are we even able to make decisions or is human consciousness a delusion?)

Still, the decisions in Yardmaster Express are clear and consequential: do you take good cards for yourself or keep bad cards from your opponents? Do you break up color runs to keep high numbers? Do you take lower point cards to try to get the caboose points?

There are an infinite number of other lenses for looking at games. Games as experiences… games as stories… games as promoters of social interaction… For me, what makes Yardmaster Express a great game is the emotions that it evokes. It’s a great game to sit around and play with family and friends. Anyone can play this game and I’ve seen firsthand how much people enjoy building their trains and trying to complete the bonuses while keeping other people from getting them.

Final thoughts

Let's just take a moment to acknowledge that "Express" is an outstanding pun for a faster version of a game about trains.
Let’s just take a moment to acknowledge that “Express” is an outstanding pun for a faster version of a game about trains.

Yardmaster Express is special—an ingenious elevation of the ideas in Yardmaster, a distillation that adds by subtraction to become an even better game than its predecessor.

And yet.

I’ve seen a number of videos where the owner of Crash of Games has criticized the choices he made in publishing Yardmaster Express, calling out the game as being confusingly named and having gray box art.

I could not disagree more. It is not confusing that there was one game called Yardmaster and another game called Yardmaster Express—that’s called branding. Also, I find the art on both of these games to be extremely engaging. So what if the box is mostly gray? The striking, minimalist look of the game stands out. It’s a bold, dynamic, ageless looking game.

Interestingly, both Yardmaster and Yardmaster Express have been reprinted under new names with completely new artwork. The new version of Yardmaster, published in France, is called Aramini Circus (after the designer, Steven Aramini) and is about assembling a circus train with different types of animals. The new version of Yardmaster Express is called Backyard Builders Treehouse and is about adding levels to a treehouse. These new versions look amazing, I don’t think anyone can reasonably dispute that. But I’m still sad at the loss of the train cargo theme and iconic artwork. Yardmaster and Yardmaster Express were my cup of tea, two of the games that drew me into backing games on Kickstarter and two games that I still love to play.

Yardmaster is a first-class train card game

My wife alleges that Johnny Cash’s “I’ve Got a Thing About Trains” should be my personal theme song. See, general speaking, my wife and I have very different tastes in music.

Music Venn Diagram

However, there is one artist that we can both agree on liking: Johnny Cash.

Why do we both like Johnny Cash so much? His country ballads? His Gospel music? His social advocacy? His acting career? His unused James Bond theme song? His exploratory concept albums analyzing the American spirit—which happen to be absurdly underrated by Allmusic.com, where they say things like “the album consists almost entirely of first-rate material” and then only give it three stars… how does that make any sense?

Anyways, there are many reasons to like Johnny Cash. Another one of them is his train songs. “Hey Porter.” “Orange Blossom Special.” “Casey Jones.” The entire Ride This Train album. Even “Folsom Prison Blues” is a bit of a train song. There’s hardly a folk song about trains that wasn’t written or at least recorded by Johnny Cash.

Still, if there’s anything I like more than songs about trains, it is games about trains. And if there is any one card game that perfectly embodies my love for games about trains, it is Yardmaster.


Yardmaster components

Yardmaster is a card game often described as a spiritual hybrid of Ticket to Ride and Uno. Each player is building a train out of train car cards. Each train car card has a cargo type (coal, wood, oil, cattle, or automobiles) and a number (one through four). The main hook of the game is that a car can only be added to your train if it matches either the cargo or the number of the previous car. Each turn, you draw cargo cards from the cargo deck and use those to buy train cars for your train. For example, a wood car with a three on it costs three wood cards. The cargo deck also contains bonus action cards that allow you do things like exchange cargo, pay less for cars, or draw extra cards. The first person to get a specific number of points on their train wins.

I always enjoy playing Yardmaster. It manages to be both fun and relaxing. The requirement that cars have to match to be added to your train never feels onerous since you can always buy cars and add them later. You can always do something on your turn, even if it is just build up your hand of cards. And it’s always a bit exciting when you draw a bonus action card: they give you plenty of opportunities to boost yourself or trip up other players without the game ever feeling mean-spirited or underhanded.


Yardmaster cards and tokens

The thing that attracted me to Yardmaster in the first place was the minimalist art style. I love the bright colors and timeless iconography. To me it always brings to mind the industrial simplicity of historic railroad logos like the Great Northern or the Chicago & Northwestern. I wish more games looked like this.


The one problem I have with Yardmaster is that the rules feel a mite overcomplicated. I mean, in the grand scheme of things, the game is not that complicated, but its structure makes it feel like there’s too much going on. If this game was a Christmas tree, it would be too small for all of the ornaments that they tried to hang on it. It’s built around a simple idea: you use cargo cards to buy train cars. I love how the bonus action cards add a fun twist to that by allowing you to break certain rules. Unfortunately, the twists don’t stop there.

For example, the game includes a “Yardmaster token,” which gets passed around in the opposite direction of play and gives the person holding it three actions on their turn instead of two. On paper, this is great way to make sure the player who’s going first doesn’t win just because they’re going first. However, in practice, it just feels like complication for the sake of complication. It’s annoying to have to remember to pass the token, and it’s much easier to explain and play the game if you just have two actions per turn, period. The sliver of extra strategy and fairness that the token adds by giving you one extra action every third or fourth turn isn’t worth the hassle.

Similarly, the game’s Caboose Expansion seems like it was produced just for the sake of having an expansion. I mean, I get it… the concept of creating a “caboose expansion” for a game about train cars was too compelling to pass up. But it feels like it’s just adding more rules to the game without making it any more fun.


You'll feel like you need a train to haul all of this.
You’ll feel like you need a train to haul all of this.

Speaking of the Caboose Expansion, it seems like the only thing there’s more of than Johnny Cash train songs is addons for Yardmaster.

There is the Caboose Expansion that adds caboose cards. There are wooden tokens you can get to replace the game’s cardboard tokens. There is a cloth travel bag. There is the optimistically-named Bonus Card Pack #1 that adds more bonus action cards (no other Bonus Card Packs exist). And there is the Heisenberg Heist promotional pack that replaces all the oil cargo cards with ones referencing Breaking Bad.

As part of the Kickstarter, you could even get Yardmaster dice! (Note: dice are not used in the game at all.)
As part of the Kickstarter, you could even get Yardmaster dice! (Note: dice are not used in the game at all.)

Yardmaster is an interesting case study in the economics of Kickstarter projects. I got the game and almost all of the expansions for $20 during the Kickstarter. If you wanted to buy everything from Crash of Games today, it would set you back a staggering $47. That said, the only addon that I would classify as really essential is Bonus Card Pack #1, with one small reservation…

“Swap Railcars” card

My nemesis.
My nemesis.

Bonus Card Pack #1 adds a bonus action card that lets you swap two cars on your train, provided you still follow the rules about matching cargo and numbers. (Ordinarily, cars can’t be moved once they’ve been added to your train.)

No other card in the game has brought me as much angst as this one. During some games, I feel like I’ve been loaded down with two of these in my hand the whole time, unable to use them. At first, I thought that this card was vastly less powerful than the other bonus action cards and should have allowed you to break the matching rule, too. However, subsequently, this card has helped me to win on the last turn of the game, so I’ve come to realize that it is useful. Still, it’s hit or miss and if there was ever a Bonus Card Pack #2, I would want it to contain a bonus action card for adding a car to your train even if it doesn’t match the cargo or number.

Box strength

All in all, Yardmaster feels like an heirloom-quality game. The cards are thick and plentiful; you never have to reshuffle the decks during play. The wooden tokens are fancy enough for a railroad baron, but even the standard cardboard tokens are linen-finished and substantial. However, the game’s box is what really stands out. Yardmaster comes in the burliest board game box that I’ve ever seen. It is made out of 1/8 inch thick cardboard. I haven’t tested this, but I think it’s possible that an adult human could stand on the box without crushing it. It’s that sturdy.

Final thoughts

Yardmaster cards

I don’t think that Yardmaster is the best game ever created. It’s probably not even the best card game about trains ever created.

But I think it may be the quintessential card game about trains. Channeling the golden age of rail through stark, iconic artwork, it is the train card game that is as close to the Platonic ideal of train card games as it is possible to get. Conjuring up images of loading coal to the tune of a folk ballad, mile-long timber trains rolling down the winding mountains, wheels clacking loudly on the rails as they carry goods from city to city, or dodging the brakemen and freighthopping your way to adventure and a new life, it’s a fun, fast, boldly-colored endeavor to couple together the best train you possibly can.

Burger Up brings grilling to game night

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

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

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

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

Almost a year later, we finally tried it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Burger Up

Burger Up components

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

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

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

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

Game length

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

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

Recipe book

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

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

Burgers of the World expansion

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

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

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

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

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

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

Final thoughts

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

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

Ghostbusters: Protect the Barrier busted all of my expectations

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

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

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

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

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

Because this is a fantastic board game for everyone.

Ghostbusters: Protect the Barrier

Ghostbusters: Protect the Barrier components

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

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

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

Adjustable difficulty

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

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

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

Card size

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

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

Ghost pieces

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

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

Final thoughts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ride the double-decker getaway bus in Scotland Yard

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

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

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

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

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

Scotland Yard


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

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

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

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

The hat

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

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

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

Two players

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

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


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

Final thoughts

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

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

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

Stratego Waterloo lets you rewrite history

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

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

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

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

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

Stratego Waterloo

Stratego Waterloo components

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

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

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


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

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


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

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


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

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

Final thoughts

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

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