With all the festivities combined with the cold weather, it's arguable December is the ultimate month for board gaming. It's time to find out which board games stood out the most last month!
Draftosaurus seemed to take an age to come to the UK! So I was pretty excited by the time my notification email from Zatu arrived. “The item you subscribed to is in stock!” Boom! Now it’s in my basket. Boom! Now it’s in the post. Thankfully, It did not disappoint.
Already this month I’ve played it over 20 times and taught it to more than 10 people. It’s supplanted Kingdomino as my go to cafe game. In fact, I think I can safely say it’s the best game in my collection that plays up to five people in 15 minutes!
In Draftosaurus the chief mechanism, surprise surprise, is drafting. Rather than your standard card or dice drafting though, each player picks six Dino Meeples out of a bag. One of which they’ll place on their Dino Park player board. Each park has six Dino pens with unique placement parameters. Once everyone has placed a brightly coloured prehistoric reptilian, they then pass the remaining five to one neighbour and receive a new set from their other neighbour.
When all original dinos are placed you start a second round with a final six. Just to mess with all your nice neat little plans there’s also a die. The active player rolls and all others must adhere to its placement restrictions. So you might only be able to place a Dino on the left side of your board, or in one of the forest locations, or only in an empty pen.
We’ve had so much fun playing it. It’s simple enough for our four year old to play but engaging enough for us to really enjoy too. Oh and the board’s double sided with a simple and an advanced side. No wonder it’s been our Game Of The Month!
This month has been our craziest this year, as it will have been for most people. However, we still found time for gaming and our top pick this month has to be Charterstone. This is a legacy game with a really lovely theme to it. Unlike other legacy games, it lacks a sense of true danger and suspense and instead focused on building something. You've left the successful kingdom, under the instruction of the Forever King, and are building a new settlement. Although you're working alongside everyone else, you're also in direct competition. Everyone wants to be in the king's good books, but also bragging rights, right?
Charterstone is a worker placement, economic, city building game which spans over 12 games. Up to six players can play, and players can drop in and out of the campaign, however that's unlikely to happen. The impact of short term choices are long, and the game's story twists and turns as you please/disappoint the king and time goes on.
Each player receives their own tuck box to keep cards/objects in dependent on what they're able to take from game to game. As time goes on, players will enhance their own settlements and acquire valuable assets to help them. They track their progress on the tuck box and advance faster the better they do in each game.
In all honesty, I've not played many games that have grasped my attention like Charterstone has. Sure any game can be enjoyable, but Charterstone requires deeper tactics and a game plan to win. Taking actions on a whim will only provide tiny benefits. You'll need to have a plan to enjoy this, and it gives you the chance to get your teeth into a plan! Something about it's whimsicality and charm gets you invested in decisions and makes you want to win. Knowing your area is doing better than someone else's is a big thing, and seeing it grow is very satisfying! Although, the king doesn't frown on failure and encourages choices to be made.
In some scenarios, the losers are the ones to get to make bigger decisions. Each game, a goal is set and dictates the focus of the scenario. This may require a player to do badly or work within situations they're not strong with. If they ignored the king's instructions they aren't likely to gain the benefits he bestows. However, doing so may result in a loss. Do you choose long term benefits? Or short term buffs? We really recommend this as a legacy game for those who are less competitive in a "take-that" sense. You'll always have a sense of achievement, and each loss builds up your strength still. It's genuinely wonderful and enjoyable.
There were a few good games which hit the table in December. I really enjoyed my first plays of Chocolate Factory, and Trismegistus (despite the unforgivably poor rulebook). Even Rhino Hero made its way out of hiding.
However, there was one game which stood out, which was pitched perfectly, from a designed with a good pedigree, in recent years, of producing strong heavier euros. Maracaibo does not immediately look like any other Alexander Pfister game. The board shows a map around the Caribbean, with what appear to be shipping routes marked. However, once the game play is revealed, it becomes more obviously a Pfister game, with hand management being a key mechanism in the game, and the multi-use cards looking not dissimilar to those in his small card games, such as Oh My Goods! Or Tybor der Baumeister.
At its core, Maracaibo is a reasonably solid, fairly typical, if a little heavier than usual, Prister game. It is driven by the rondel (the aforementioned shipping route) which dominates the map. There are towns and villages scattered across the map - all villages offer the same possible actions, all towns offer different actions (mostly from a random set up at the start of the game). Cards act as both ingredients to build a tableau (to reinforce the player’s engine) or alternatively as goods - specific goods can be delivered to specific destinations. Doing so removes markers from the player boards, which in turn provides additional benefits.
So far, so familiar (although it all weaves together very well). The difference with Maracaibo, however, is that there is a (short) campaign. Decisions made in response to story events can result in (non-permanent) changes to the board. This makes the game feel a little fresher every time, without fundamentally changing the way that it plays.
Whilst Maracaibo is probably the heaviest game Pfister has designed, I think I am tending to think it is also his best. I guess time will tell.
I can’t get enough of Tom Lehmann's Res Arcana. It is not only my game of the month but probably my game of the year for 2019. I am a big fan of lean games that manage a lot with a little, and games with a fast pace and a fairly short play time. Res Arcana manages all this in spades. A simple drafting mechanism is used to build a deck of just 8 artefact cards. Over the course of about 6 turns / 1 hour you use these build an engine, producing resources (essences) to claim monument and/or place of power cards from the public display. These you then weave into your engine and they provide the principle source of the 10 victory points which will secure your victory.
While much of play is a brisk, solo puzzle, certain artefacts – like dragons! – provide the opportunity for just the right amount of ‘take that’. It’s hostile action that might prove pivotal, but doesn’t feel overly punitive at the time and can be defended against with planning – a bit of bite that’s neither trivial nor immediately world-ending for the victim.
As you pelt towards the end you are trying to squeeze every last efficiency from what you have to hand and trigger creative combos – in some cases initiated in the first turn or two, and at other times hastily improvised as the game emerges. Often it’s a tight race and often it’s not the first to 10 who wins but a comparison of 10+ scores across several players in a final round that determines victory. I have enjoyed playing it with all of the 2-4 player counts and I am looking forward to trying the new expansion which adds a fifth player as well as some scaling rules and a new artefact type – demons.
I have also played it with varied audience, from my regular gaming group, to relatively inexperienced board gamers and also my daughter (the 14+ printed is probably more like 10+). The fantasy theme while beautifully executed might put some off but simple-ish rules, good player guide cards and strong iconography make it more accessible than it might seem.
Also a quick shout out to the many party games enjoyed over the festive season. Fake Artist has been a hit with hilariously awful drawing and plenty of bluff play, and Letter Jam has had a good run out – though we found an unexpected downer when the game ends and one person has blown the guess for their hidden word. The winner so far has been Pictomania though, in its newer and cheaper guise. We had a fantastic 4 player with 2 novice garners, plenty of good humoured competition and some hysterical laughter.
Blackout: Hong Kong feels like a lovechild. It’s as if Alexander Pfister had taken elements from two of his other games and smushed them together. An electrical power outage has hit Hong Kong. Players have to build networks to re-power the country’s grids. A big part of end-game points is by having a valuable deck (like the cattle in Great Western Trail).
Turns begin with a roll of a red, blue, and yellow D6 dice. Their faces have icons, not numbers. They’re placed in corresponding sextants in a circle; this represents which materials are available this round.
Players then use hand management to play three action cards. If said cards feature the colours that match the dice, they’ll gain those resources. You can opt to spend resources to complete new, improved cards throughout the game. (You buy them with money, but they don’t join your hand until you complete their requirements.)
But, like Mombasa, the cards you play have to remain face-up in front of you. You pick which pile you want to add them to at the start of your turn. At the end of your turn, if you have four or less cards remaining in your hand, you can Refresh. This means you pick up the largest group of cards and have them available to you in the next turn.
An enjoyable twist is that as the game progresses you might unlock certain rewards. You’ll receive these every time you Refresh your hand. These felt like a nod towards removing markers from your player board in Great Western Trail, and getting upgrades. I’m unsure if this is my favourite game by Pfister, but it was enjoyable, nonetheless. If, like me, you admire the mechanisms in GWT and Mombasa, chances are you’ll take a shine to Blackout: Hong Kong.
Ho ho ho. Enough of that. December is traditionally the time of year when you try to persuade your family and extended family that there is more to board games than the M-word. This can sometimes not be the easiest of tasks. Regardless of whether it is a game that everyone knows, its length to play, its tendency to allow one player to run away with it and its argument generating ability, it makes the prospect of playing other board games daunting because if other board games are like that, count me out.
So with this in mind, I have two games: friends and family. First, the friends, and the game is Space Base. I’d heard a lot of good things about this from fellow gamers and following a quick peruse of the reviews thought ‘oh yes, that’s going on the Christmas list’.
Well, I must have been very good, because 1) I got it and 2) it’s great! Rolling dice is fun; down time is not. Space Base pretty much eliminates the latter and gives you plenty of the former. You have 12 ships in dock, each with a different gain for activating it and at first it’s usually wonga.
On your turn, roll the dice, activate your ship(s), spend your wonga on better ships– you can add your dice or take them separately. If it’s not your turn, though, you still get to play – those replaced ships get ‘deployed’ and will activate when it’s not your turn – yeah, Space Machi Plus.
My second game for families? Well, if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em, but use Monopoly Deal instead of the board of DOOM – quicker, board less and an introduction to the world of card drafting, and once you get them there, it’s only a short step to Dominion, 7 Wonders, Arkham Horror: The Card Game… and then it really will be a very Merry Christmas indeed!