Category Archives: boardgames

Death and the dice level all distinctions

It’s been a while since I properly grouped up with people for online games, MMOs have become a bit of an online Diogenes Club for me. Thankfully semi-regular boardgame gatherings keep me from turning into a complete gaming recluse; some of the games played since the last not-even-semi-regular update here include:

Kingdom Builder

Spiel des Jahres (Game of the Year) winner in 2012, it’s nice and quick to get to grips with Kingdom Builder. Each turn you draw a terrain card, and build three settlements on that type of terrain. The beauty of it is that victory conditions are determined by drawing cards at the start of the game, and the game board is built from four randomly selected sections, so each game (usually) requires a different strategy. Thematically it doesn’t make a huge amount of sense, the mechanics are rather abstract, but they’re good and solid, work well with two players, and the random setup makes it very replayable.

Castles of Mad King Ludwig

I’ve only played this once so far, and would definitely like to give it another go. Each player constructs a castle one room at a time, and like Kingdom Builder there’s a random element to the way points are scored to vary things from game to game. Unlike Kingdom Builder the theme is integral to the game, loosely based on the titular Ludwig II of Bavaria, much of the fun is in trying to explain why the primary feature of your castle is a large theatre connected to the stables. It’ll need another few playthroughs to determine if the mechanics are as strong, but it looks most promising.

Discworld: Ankh Morpork

As the name suggests, a Discworld game set in Ankh Morpork. Each player assumes a hidden identity, each with their own victory condition, and sets about trying to take control of areas of Ankh Morpork, cause trouble, or (in the case of Commander Vimes) ensure nobody else wins before the cards run out. Much bluff and counter-bluff as players try to assess what the others might need to do to win. The mechanics don’t always meld completely seamlessly with the theme, but the cards feature masses of Discworld characters great and small with terrific art, and the chaotic nature of magic certainly fits well.

Unfortunately it seems that since Terry Pratchett’s death, the Discworld licence is not being renewed with publisher Treefrog Games, so Discworld: Ankh Morpork (and The Witches, their other Discworld game) won’t be reprinted. A bit of digging around turned up plans for a third game based on the gods of Discworld that sounded most interesting, but won’t now come to fruition, rather a shame. On the positive side, there’s a news item on their website about a second edition of A Study in Emerald, a game based on the Neil Gaiman short story of the same name blending Sherlock Holmes with the Cthulhu mythos that I’ll be keeping an eye out for, could be a good companion to…

Sherlock Holmes Consulting Detective

An interesting one; a text-heavy collaborative roleplaying crime-’em-up in which the players take the role of Irregulars, trying to solve a case before Sherlock Holmes smugly reveals how obvious it all was. There are ten cases, each with a Fighting Fantasy-esque book of numbered paragraphs of exposition, but rather than the book instructing you to turn to section X, players use props like a map of London and editions of The Times to determine where to go and thus what paragraph to read.

Extensive note-taking is helpful as you try and pick out relevant clues and avoid red herrings, and investigations can be rather stymied if you miss what, in hindsight, turns out to be the crux of the case, either through your own foolishness (in our first case, we bumbled around London quite unhelpfully for some time before thinking of visiting the murder scene), or the obtuse nature of a clue (I mean really, if trying to leave a clue in your dying moments, smashing a display case and turning a figurine around would be some way down my list after, oh, I don’t know, writing a short note with the name of the killer…)

It won’t suit all groups, but if you’ve ever fancied yourselves as a whatever-the-collective-noun-for-Sherlock-Holmeses-is of Sherlock Holmeses, it’s rather a fun change of pace.

King of Tokyo

My most recent acquisition, based on searching for a game that supported up to six players with a maximum playing time of an hour, for a quick warm-up or interlude on gaming days. Each player controls a giant robot/alien/monster aiming to rule Tokyo by defeating the other monsters, or getting to 20 victory points. Turns consist of rolling and re-rolling six dice, a bit like Poker Dice or Yahtzee, to accumulate victory points or energy (currency), heal yourself or damage the other monsters. Energy can be used to purchase cards with either one-time or lasting effects. It took about ten minutes from ripping the cellophane off the box to starting the first round, and turned out to be so much fun, we just kept playing it! An ideal family or party game.

Most gods throw dice, but Fate plays chess, and you don’t find out til too late that he’s been playing with two queens all along

I’ve been somewhat remiss in posting about the card & board game exploits of our irregular (in many senses) gaming group. Over the past couple of years we’ve tackled a fair assortment of cardboard-based diversions, many covered during Murdering of Time, or in textual form at The Azadian and Power Armoured Beard. Settlers of Catan, Carcassonne, Dominion, Thunderstone, Small World, Battlestar Galactica, Ticket to Ride, amongst others, have been big hits, and last weekend featured a couple of new additions to The Shute Library.

Gloom, as seen on Wil Wheaton’s Tabletop, is a card game in which the objective is to make your family as miserable as possible, and then kill them off. Gloomy, eh? As well as making your own family unhappy, you can play cards on other families that make them more happy, although of course that makes their player unhappy. It’s something of an emotional rollercoaster… The cards are nicely done, being transparent, so they can be stacked up to cancel out or enhance previous effects. A lot of the fun is in the storytelling that players are encouraged (though not obligated) to do to explain precisely how the family member in question became Popular in Parliament, or was Devoured by Weasels. In our game there was a particularly action-packed park where, amongst other improbable happenings, a teddy bear (with a human brain) Found Love by the Lake (in the form of a swan, apparently), while a hapless explorer was Drowned by Ducks after being Pursued by Poodles. We had six players, using additional families from a couple of expansion packs (but not the extra rules, while we got used to things), and the only slight problem was that the game dragged a little. We used all five family members for each player, and cutting that down to four as the rules suggested for a four player game, or even three, would’ve probably been ideal; as it was it took too long to kill off an entire family, especially with action cards preventing several untimely demises.

Lords of Waterdeep is a Dungeons & Dragons boardgame without many dungeons, or indeed dragons. It’s about gaining power and influence in the city, mostly by collecting resources, then spending those resources to complete ‘quests’. To stick to the D&D theme the resources you collect are Fighters, Rogues, Mages and Clerics, but with a bit of a tweak to the fluff text they could just as well be Brick, Wood, Sheep and Wheat. You might pick up a few references to Elminster or Zhentil Keep or something if you’re into the Forgotten Realms, but there’s no need to have any D&D knowledge at all. Like many games it seemed confusing and overcomplicated when pressing out hundreds of cardboard tokens and first reading the rules, but it only took a couple of turns to get the hang of things, and it rattled along very nicely after that.

On a bit of a stroll around the forums of, I think I stumbled across the boardgame equivalent of the MMOG “theme park” vs “sandbox” debate: “German-style” vs “American-style” games. In neither argument do the terms have a concrete definition, more a series of characteristics; in neither argument is there a “right” answer, just personal preference, with many people perfectly happy to play games of, or with characteristics of, either or both types. Naturally, then, there’s no shortage of flamewars burrowing into deep semantic rabbit warrens as participants attempt to convince each other that their subjective personal opinion is The Truth. As The Economist put it, “arguing over what the difference is seems to be gamers’ second-favourite pastime.” Today’s xkcd is strangely aposite, fractal nesting of subcultures indeed.

It turns out I’m generally on the Eurogame side of the fence, particularly the element: “There is very little randomness or luck. Randomness that is there is mitigated by having the player decide what to do after a random event happens rather than before. Dice are rare, but not unheard of.” It’s something of a surprise; dice, for me, are inextricably linked to games, from early family games (Ludo, Monopoly etc.) through the polyhedral splendour of RPGs, but sure enough there’s a remarkable paucity of dice in the games I’ve enjoyed; Small World and Battlestar Galactica feature a little bit of rolling, Settles of Catan uses 2d6 per turn, but as a randomising element rather than resolving actions. On the other hand Blood Bowl decides almost everything with dice, and I didn’t get on with that at all, though I still haven’t tried it against a human opponent. Blood Bowl: Team Manager, though, a card game, was excellent. We tried Last Night on Earth once as well, a zombie boardgame. It didn’t help that, thanks to certain cards being played, two of us human players missed our first two turns, a pointlessly frustrating start that might’ve coloured my view of the rest of the game, but then there was all the rolling; roll a dice to see how far you move, roll dice to determine the outcome of fights, roll dice to see if more zombies turn up, yada yada. Not my cup of tea at all.

It’s not that I’ve suddenly become dice-phobic; Zombie Dice are great fun, and there’s something oddly satisfying about throwing a massive handful of dice to resolve a ludicrous short-range broadside in Uncharted Seas. I can certainly understand the arguments in their favour, the dramatic tension that dice rolls can bring, but for whatever reason I’ve enjoyed the diceless games more. It might retrospectively explain why I was more into the theory and fluff of RPGs and wargames than actually playing.

There’ll never be an end to the debate, though. Even Albert Einstein and Stephen Hawking are in on it, both trying to co-opt God to their side of the argument. Einstein’s famous “God does not play dice” suggests He is more of a Eurogamer, whereas Hawking counters with “Not only does God definitely play dice, but He sometimes confuses us by throwing them where they can’t be seen.” So I’m definitely not inviting Him round for a game of Blood Bowl.