Monday, April 27, 2015

Episode 6 - Games from Oz

Another happy Monday is here, and that means a new episode of Cardboard Insanity is live!  This week's episode features a man from Down Under, designer and publisher David Harding.  Our Game of the Week is actually a double-shot this time featuring David's games One Zero One and Elevenses.  Plus, we announce the winner of our Billionaire Banshee giveaway contest.

Hit the iTunes and download it now or head to the Podcast page for the RSS feed.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Lions and tigers and lemurs? Oh my! - String Safari review

One of the main reasons I prefer board/card games to video games is the tactile sensation.  I like to have things in my hands.  It’s why I prefer reading a book to reading on a Kindle or why I prefer to browse an old-fashioned catalog over a website.  There’s just something about touching pieces and seeing their shapes that I really enjoy.  When I opened the box to String Safari and saw actual string in the box, a big part of me smiled and the other part was concerned.  I was thrilled to see a unique component in there and intrigued about how that was going to fit into the gameplay.  I was also a bit worried about the same thing.  And more importantly, how would this work for kids since they’re the target audience for this game?
Front and back of the box
The "board" at the start of the game
String Safari has a very simple ruleset which is ideal for kids.  To start, the big string is laid out on the table and then 16 Animal cards are placed randomly in the circle along with the landscape cards.  Lay out 5 Research cards face up and then let each player select one, placing it face-up in front of them.  Give each player a number of colored cubes which varies by player count.  The person who last went to Africa starts!  Now that’s an unorthodox start player selector.  In fact, if I sat at a table with someone who went to Africa recently, we’d probably sit there talking about it for hours.  Each player takes a Research card and draws an Animal card. 

Turns are very simple. First, you place your animal card on the board.  Next, you use the Research String to lasso a group of cards on the board.  You then place one of your cubes on any animal you’ve lassoed.  Lastly, draw a new Animal card and choose a new Research card to play on top of your current card.  That’s it!  Just that simple.

Research cards showing a variety of options
Don’t let the simplicity of the rules fool you.  There’s a legitimate game here and its driven by the Research cards.  Each Animal card has 3 traits: Activity, Family, and Food with each trait having its own categories.  The Activity category, for example, has Night, Day, and Evening as it’s categories. The Research cards will tell you how many points you get if you lasso Animals whose category matches the Research card.  For example, if your Research card shows “Night X3”, then you will want to lasso Animals that show that the Night icon to maximize your points.

Some cards also feature an icon at the bottom that tells you how you have to interact with the play area.  Some cards specify that the Research string must touch the border string.  Others specify that you have to enclose a rocky landscape card with your lasso.  To add just a bit more, each of the Research cards is worth points at the end of the game.  These things all add up to create a nice layer of choice around which Research card you take each turn.  Your decision is also tied to the Animals on the board and how they are laid out.  

There's only one animal left to put a cube on here.
When you lasso Animals, you then put one of your cubes on that Animal.  At the end of the game, that Animal will score points for you.  However, when you are lassoing Animals, you don’t score points for any Animals that have Research cubes on them.  Essentially, an Animal can only be researched once. This also feeds into the decision of which Research cards to take because you have to analyze the board and figure out where your best bet for points is.

The name of the game comes from the Research string so I’d be remiss to not talk about it.  Each turn, you use the Research string to lasso Animals that match your Research card to score you points and also so you can mark Animals for end-game scoring.  There are a couple rules to laying the string to make it a bit tougher:  You can’t touch any Animals or Land cards and the string can’t cross over itself.  Navigating this thing between Animals can be really difficult so you have to carefully place it and move it delicately.  It definitely doesn’t like to move how you want it to.  This is also one of those beautiful rules where kids can sometimes do much better.  Their little fingers tend to work really well.  Games like Gulo Gulo also take advantage of that aspect.  Here, it can often level the playing field significantly.

Using the Research string to lasso 3 herbivores, giving me 6 points
 String Safari has plenty of choices and fun to be good for adults, but this is primarily aimed towards children and families so how does it work?  In the games I’ve played with kids, I’d say it works incredibly well.  First off, String Safari offers several learning opportunities.  The Traits on the Animal cards are great for teaching kids about different types of animal behavior.  You can teach them about herbivores vs. carnivores, diurnal vs. nocturnal, and about the different animal families and how they act in the wild.  There’s also a lot of simple math with adding up points and some very basic multiplication so the kids get some arithmetic practice.  Matching the animals to the research tiles will teach the kids about pattern recognition and gives them “gaming 101” on the concept of goals.  Maybe most important of all, manipulating the string teaches them fine motor skill controls.  It’s all done smoothly and will leave them having fun without catching on that they’re learning.  

The Research cubes along with the 50 point markers
Secondly, the game looks awesome.  Kids are drawn to the "board" being a piece of string because it's unusual.  They've been typically enamored with the different animal cards.  Best of all, they love lassoing animals with the string.  It's so cool to watch a child work that string in such a way as to get all the animals they want.  You can almost watch them process it before they put the string down.  In many ways, this is one of the most enjoyable aspects of the game.

Don’t sell this one short as just a kid’s game, though.  There’s enough fun here for adults to enjoy themselves with or without kids at the table.  In fact, I’ve played this one with just adults and it can get downright nasty.  Since you can see other players’ research cards, you know what they’ll be going for and therefore you know which animals to target with your research cubes.  It’s not super-cutthroat, but it does have interaction.

If you want a family game that the kids will really like and won’t leave the adults bored, then String Safari is a great choice.  It plays quickly, has wonderfully engaging mechanisms, and looks great on the table.  There’s plenty of decision-making for old and young minds alike.  The Research string can level the playing field quite nicely and keep everyone in the game.  Overall, an awesome presentation that could very easily find itself on the shelves of big-box toy stores as well as hobby game stores.  It’s unique enough to satisfy a wide range of players and that makes it a success.

Monday, April 20, 2015

Billionaire Banshees and Biker Gangs - Episode 5 is up!

Want to win a copy of Billionaire Banshee?  Then this is your podcast.  Episode 5 of Cardboard Insanity features an interview with the game's designer, Razlo Bailey.  Razlo has teamed up with Cardboard Insanity to give a copy of Billionaire Banshee away to one lucky winner.  Want to know how to enter?  Just listen to our interview!

As if that wasn't awesome enough, I've got the Game of the Week review.  This week, I look at Sons of Anarchy from Gale Force 9.  This game is the ultimate combination of smooth Euro-game mechanisms and theme-drenched Ameritrash gaming.

As always, you can find us on iTunes or on the RSS feed:

Monday, April 13, 2015

Episode 4 is ALIVE

Episode 4 of Cardboard Insanity is live on iTunes and at the RSS feed.

This week's episode features a wonderfully informative interview with Gil Hova of Formal Ferret Games. Gil and I discuss tons of different topics from his games, Kickstarter, curating a game group, and his lack of interest in hockey.

I've also got the one and only Horsey Avenger along for the ride. She helped out on our review of Samurai Spirit from Passport Game Studios and FunForge.

Don't forget to follow us on Twitter @cardboardinsane and also on Facebook.

I've got surprises and fun coming up in the next couple episodes. You don't want to miss it.

Thursday, April 9, 2015

Tech Tree: The boardgame - A gateway game for tableau builders

Multiplayer solitaire is a word that terrifies me.  My general thought is “why play a game if I’m not interacting with people?”  but I find myself coming back to those kinds of games.  I love Race For the Galaxy.  I love Dominion and it’s countless expansions.  Core Worlds takes both of those and combines them to perfection.   Sometimes it’s just nice to not be in competition.  Sometimes it’s relaxing and fun to do your own thing.  Sometimes I want to play a game that lets me build my perfect world, free of disasters or interference; a game where I can watch my people grow and prosper, where my civilization can blossom and reap the rewards of their hard work.  When I want a game like that, I want Progress: Evolution of Technology.

If you’ve ever played any civilization-building video game or even a lot of boardgames, you know that as your civilization advances you need to decide what they specialize in.  For example, at some point you will have to decide between war and science.  You can do both and never go far in either, or you can specialize and push farther up the tech tree.  Progress takes this idea and distills it down wonderfully into an intuitive game that’s somewhere between full-blown Euro and gateway game.

The entire game is driven by the Technology cards.  These cards are divided into three Ages simulating historical periods.  The game starts with Age 1 and ends after Age 3.  Some cards have an Age icon on them. When the required number are brought into play (this varies by player count), the game moves to the next Age.  When this happens in Age 3, the game ends.

At the start of the game, a player has two actions on their turn.  You can Discover a technology to put it directly into play.  Instead of Discovering, you can Research a card as long as you are under your Technologies in Development limit.  You play the card down with tokens equal to your Research skill.  In addition, you have the Quick Draw action which lets you pull from either a deck or discard pile, a Shuffle & Draw action which lets you shuffle up one or more Age decks and then draw a card, and the Draw action which gives you three cards and ends your turn.

Your player board at the beginning of the game.

One of the key aspects to Progress is that all of these skills can be increased by playing Technology cards.  Every card has some benefit that it gives when played and sometimes this will be increasing one of these skills.  While Progress starts out slow, the game ramps up very quickly when you get more Actions.  The ability to have multiple Technologies in Development is huge because of the cost savings.  Putting less cubes on your Technologies by increasing your Research skill makes it even more powerful.  Increasing your Quick Draw ability gives you flexibility in drawing cards.  The ability to tailor your options to match your play style and strategy is a very unique aspect.  It seems like a lot to manage at first, but the player aid that tracks these things makes it effortless and turns it into one of the game’s highlights.  There’s not much else out there that gives you that sort of gameplay variety.

What your player board may look like by the end of the game.
In this example, I can play Philosophy for free because it's
two costs, Musical Instruments and Alphabet are already
in my tableau.

Discovering a new Technology is the most direct way of getting them into play.  To Discover a Technology, you have to pay any costs listed on the card.  Costs will be a number and a symbol, follow by a slash and then a card name.  There may be 1 or 2 costs depending on the card.  If you have the named card in your tableau, the cost associated is nullified.  If you don’t have the card, you will have to pay the cost either with cards from your hand or with Knowledge tokens you get during the game.  That’s right, you not only play cards to build your civilization but you also use these same cards to pay for other cards.  I absolutely love the hand management required to balance your options.  It creates a steady stream of small decisions that really add up.  Combine that with the tech tree concept and you have some great decision points.  Do I go towards Agriculture or do I go the other side towards Culture?  Those add up as you proceed in the game.

In this example, Philosophy has been
researched and will come into play
four turn later.
There’s another option should you not want to part with your precious cards, but this option costs Time: Research.  You start the game being able to have one Technology under Development and your Research skill starts at 4.  In lieu of Discovering, you can play that card as a Technology Under Development with Research tokens on it.  Each turn, a Research token comes off with the card going directly into play when the last one comes off.  This gets you around any costs for that card and allows you to sort of jump around the tech trees.  However, the cost is time so you need to balance that out. Additionally, to really maximize this power you need to spend time getting cards to increase our Research and Technology under Research skills.  This may put you behind in the early game, but it can yield huge benefits if the game goes long enough.  That’s another decision layer added to the game and one that I find this to be really interesting.

In most games with a tech tree, you have to go one way and commit to it. Progress offers you the ability to change courses somewhat.  You're never stuck staying with your tree.  You can build any Technology you can afford and that's one of key factors in this game.  Sometimes you start off one way and then get cards that support moving to a different tree. The trick is knowing when you should and managing your resources to support the move.  It's a balancing act for sure, but one that rewards good play and doesn't punish anyone for getting bad card draws.

Calling this game multiplayer solitaire isn’t quite fair because there is some interaction.  The Power Board is set in the middle of the table and features three tracks: Prestige, Population, and Army.  Some Technology cards feature these icons so when you put one of those into play, you increase your marker on the associated track.  These tracks are worth a lot of points at the end of the game so you need to pay attention to them.  In fact, if you don’t win any your odds of winning are very slim.  I learned this the hard way and made sure to not forget that in subsequent games.

Here's what the Power Board may look like in a 3-player game. You can see the payouts on the right.  In this situation, Red is clearly dominating on points followed by Blue and then yellow.

I mentioned earlier about moving through the Ages and ending the game and this also supports the player interaction. It’s possible for one or more players to play a cautious game, proceeding slowly while another player tries to push towards the end quickly.  You will see interaction between the players as they try to pace the game to suit their needs.  When Age 3 starts, all cards from Age 1 that are not in play (cards from your hand and Technologies under Development) are discarded.  One intrepid player pushing far ahead could ruin the hard work of others with that ploy.  Again, it’s indirect, but it’s not as if there’s no interaction at all.

It feels like the player count on this game is best with 3.  That’s the right amount to get competition on the Power Board without causing excessive downtime.  The sheer number of options for tech tree advancement can cause some AP so I feel like the game bogs down at higher counts.  With two or 3 players, it moves at a good pace and still has plenty of competition.  In fact, I’d say this makes a wonderful game for couples due to the solitaire nature.

As an added bonus, I feel like this could be a most excellent gateway game to the next tier of games.  Once you get past Catan, Ticket to Ride, and Carc, there’s a bit of a void. Progress will fit incredibly well in that void, giving a nice step up in complexity and introducing players to Euroglyphics.  There aren’t too many symbols and the ones that are there are very clear as to their use.  There’s really no gateway games that offer Euroglyphics 101 so this would work incredibly well to teach that concept.  If you are looking for a step-up towards games like Race For the Galaxy, this is your best bet.

I do appreciate the addition of a couple add-on modules and feel that they really help the gameplay.   I’m a big fan of the Personalities as these help move each player towards different play styles.  The fact that these can be changed mid-game is a nice plus.  I love the Heritage powers on these cards because it offers yet one more decision layer.   The Milestones help with player interaction by giving everyone a common goal to work on.  If you want a longer game, just add in the Age 4 cards which take you right up to modern day.

One of the best aspects of Progress is the wonderful graphic design and artwork.  There are few games presented as well as Progress.  It’s incredibly well thought out and really helps make the gameplay easier.  Many games look nice. Others are laid out well.  Progress is a work of art in the form-meets-function category, marrying those concepts perfectly.  The rulebook is also wonderfully clear making the game playable right out of the box.  Huge kudos to whoever was responsible for the presentation.

Notice the General Knowledge symbol
in the bottom left.
 If I had to pick something I don't like, it's that all cards can be played with General Knowledge.  While costs have specific types, you don't need to have that type to play the card.  I do wish the costs actually required specific types of Knowledge to play. That would certainly complicate things, but it would ratchet the resource management aspect up several notches.  If they ever do an expansion, I'd love to see more cards offering specific types of Knowledge.

So maybe I do like multi-player solitaire games after all.  I certainly like Progress.  It has a lot of small decisions that combine to create your strategy for the game.  You may not realize it but from turn 1 you are shaping how your game will play out.  There’s opportunities to course correct along the way so you’re not stuck, but maximizing your strategy will pay dividends.  Progress offers a wonderful experience for seasoned and new gamers alike, providing common ground that should please everyone.

I’ll always be a guy who likes player interaction in my games.  Honestly, I want to be able to mess your stuff up and laugh when things go horribly wrong for me.  But there are also times I want to watch my imaginary civilization prosper.  There are days I want to build that tech tree and revel in my technological marvels.  On those days, I want something where I can steer my people to glory and not be messed with.  On those days, I’m reaching for Progress: Evolution of Technology.

Monday, April 6, 2015

Sheepishly going where no farm animal has gone before

A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away….

Space Sheep - sand timer
The simplest of technologies
I’ve always had an infatuation with sand timers.  I remember being mesmerized by them as a kid.  How did they get the sand in there?  I couldn’t figure it out.  All that mattered was that I liked to turn them and watch the sand fall.  There’s something peaceful and calming about that.  Until you add it into a boardgame.  Once you add it to a boardgame, all bets are off.  People get frantic.  They yell, they make bad decisions, and sometimes they freeze up and do nothing.  It’s almost as if they are instantaneously aware that their lives are passing by with each grain of sand and it freaks them out. 

As games have evolved, this ancient time-measuring device has remained a constant.  Sand timers have been a fixture in party games.  Modern hobby games took this concept of timed play and turned it into something else.  Galaxy Trucker saw players racing to build a ship simultaneously.  Space Dealer requires you to use a timer for almost every action and times the whole game.  Space Sheep takes the sci-fi theme and the real-time play aspect of those games and turns it into a cooperative puzzle game that is incredibly challenging and very unusual.

Space Sheep - A 2-4 player game just under way
A 2-4 player game just under way
Space Sheep is a very unique animal:  It’s a real-time co-op puzzle game.  There aren’t a whole lot of games in that design space!  The game plays 1-8 players so you can even do this one solo.  There’s one different-colored planet for each player in the game.  There’s also one Space Sheep token and one Sheppard token matching each planet’s color.  These are randomly assorted on the board so that no Sheppard and Sheep of the same color are together and no Sheppard or Sheep is on its matching planet.  A random rule is placed on each planet along with a token matching the color of one of the planets.

The game is played in turns, but it’s all under duress of the timer. On a player’s turn, they can play a card to do a couple things:  1)Play a card to activate the planet of the matching color, moving the Sheppard, Sheep, or both if they are the same color in accordance with the rule on the planet 2)Play a card to move the Sheppard of that color one space clockwise or 3)Play a card face down on the Defense Console.  At any time on your turn you may play a card matching the color of the planet the Wolf is on to attack the Wolf, knocking him down.  You then draw cards back up to your starting hand size at the end of your turn.

Space Sheep - The Wolf is ready to attack!
The Wolf is ready to attack!
Wolf?  Yup, this is a co-op so there needs to be some way to lose and that is accomplished by the Wolf.  Should the sand timer ever run out, the Wolf attacks.  When the Wolf attacks, cards are discarded equal to the number on the Wolf tile chosen at the beginning of the game. These come from the Defense Console first, then the deck, and then the players’ hands.  If there are not enough cards to discard, the Sheep have lost!

You can stop this from happening, though.  If the Wolf has been attacked, the Supreme Flock Commander (chosen at the start of the game) can flip the sand timer, stand the Wolf up, and roll a die to move the Wolf to a new location.  This will buy the Sheep more time to work on their plan but it allows the Wolf to regroup.  Don’t underestimate how important this is.  Wolf attacks are devastating.  Even one can be the difference between winning and losing depending on when it happens.

That sounds like a lot, right?  It is!  But only because that sand timer is about 60 seconds.  It is incredibly tough to figure out a good move quickly and that’s one of the great things about this game.  You have to balance that out.  Do I make the most optimal move I can find or do I do something quickly to get to the next player?  If I can’t find something quickly, should I just drop a card on the Defense Console?  Or maybe I should just attack the Wolf!  How much time do I have? 

One of the big issues with a lot of co-ops is alpha-player syndrome.  There’s just no time for that here.  The timer creates a huge amount of tension so you don’t have much time to figure it out, let alone have someone try and dictate what you should do.  You are really going to be scrambling to do anything.

An example of one of the rule tiles.
One of the most amazing ideas in this game is the random rules tiles.  Each planet gets a rule tile with a color token on it.  When a planet is activated, you need to follow the rule for moving the Sheppard or Sheep (both, if they are the same color).  This setup will be completely different from game to game so you’ll never have the same puzzle twice.  But it always works!  What’s even more interesting is that usually the rules are triggered off the Sheep or Sheppard pieces so as they move around the board, the effect of each rule is going to change.  This can be really tough to follow for your first couple games, but once you crack the nut you’ll see how ingenious it is.

Speaking of your first couple games, get ready to lose.  The rulebook sets up a “family game” designed to create a good learning atmosphere.  It does a fine job of teaching… to lose.  The game is just very hard out of the gate, mostly because the learning curve is steep.  That’s not a complaint, just something I think people should know.  Don’t get discouraged if you get your butt whooped repeatedly.  In fact, maybe play the first couple games without the timer to get a feel for how the pieces move and interact.  We did that and it helped immediately.  Some of my gaming partners were overwhelmed so we took out the timer and that helped them learn.  Then when we played with the timer it was a much better experience.

Tactics cards
One of the other really strong points of this game is how flexible the rules are.  There are a bunch of different Wolf tokens to make the game harder or easier.  You can add more or less Tactics cards to the deck to tweak difficulty.  You can add planets to add complexity.  You can changes rules to get a different experience.  You can even play the exact same setup and just change the color tokens on the rules to shake the game up with minimal effort.  This game is almost a toolbox, allowing you to create the experience you want.  Once you find a recipe that works, write it down and you’ll have something solid anytime you want to play.  Of course you may want to tweak that recipe from time to time just to keep it fresh.

If all that isn’t enough for you, Space Sheep also has a hidden traitor element you can bring in.  The proverbial “Wolf in Sheep’s clothing” is present and works just like any other hidden traitor game.  Players even get to vote the traitors out like Werewolf.  Of course all this is still done under the strain of the ever passing grains of sand!
The proverbial "Wolf in Sheep's clothing" is quite literal here.

Player count is pretty wide open for Space Sheep, although I think it plays best at 5 or less.  We’ve played with two and it works perfectly.  Playing solo is a great way to get good at the game.  Playing with more creates a different sort of atmosphere.  It gets more and more chaotic which may not be for everyone.  Once you get to 5, that feels like critical mass for having any real control.  It’s a hoot to play with more, but your odds of winning go down significantly. 

I would be remiss to not mention the amazing wooden Sheep and Sheppards.  These things are HUGE!  Almost to a point of being silly.  I really like them though.  It adds a certain presence to the board.  Let’s just say you’ll never overlook them. 

The purple token is slightly smaller than a quarter to give you some scale.

Space Sheep is flying with its cloaking device on and that’s a shame.  This is a very-underrated game that deserves more love.  If what I’ve written about here sounds like something you’d like, then I highly recommend you check it out.  I liken it to something like Zombie 15’ in that it’s sort of a real-time co-op puzzle game.  Unlike Zombie 15’, this one is going to be different every single time you play it which gives it a lot more replayability.  There are no scenarios here, just a toolbox allowing you to make the game exactly what you want.  That kind of flexibility is unparalleled and yet this game still remains undiscovered which is a shame

The caveat to Space Sheep is that if you don’t like games with the time-induced stress element, then you won’t like this.  I find that genre to be a “love it or hate it” kind of thing.  I personally love it.  I love the tension.  I love having to make tough choices with no chance to reconsider.  I love the chaos of so many things going on.  If you like that sort of insanity, then this is a game you really need to look at.

Episode 3 is live!

Episode 3 of the Cardboard Insanity podcast is now live!  This week, we take an in-depth look at The X-Files from IDW and Pandasaurus.  We also review the awesome new party game Billionaire Banshee. 

Two great games, one great podcast.