John - Cyclades
My game of the month is an oldy but a goody. Cyclades was published by Matagot back in 2009; I have had it in my collection for a while now (along with its buddies, Kemet and Inis) and it has always come out fairly regularly. But over the past month it has had a couple of extra sessions at the table which has reminded me how awesome it is and made it my Game of the Month. I have also added the Titans expansion to it which dramatically alters aspects of the gameplay (for the better) and promises the prospect of team play.
Once my friends at my regular group and I have become a little more accustomed to this expansion’s add ons the prospect of 3 teams of 2 sounds great – after all 878 Vikings’ magic is partly down to the team dynamic.
Cyclades at its heart combines an auction for action selection, with a ‘dudes on a map’ area control game. Every turn player bid for the favours of on one of four (or five with Titans) gods, each of which offers a series of action, purchasing and building options. Ares is about armies, Poseidon about fleets, Zeus is about temples and Athena about philosophy. Everyone is racing to be the first to build/conquer two metropolises and these are constructed by combining one of each of the four gods’ signature buildings or through collecting 4 of Athena’s philosophers.
The money for bidding, building and buying comes from controlling prosperous territories on land or sea. So, typically there is a constant tussle for control of territory worth income, or containing gods’ buildings/metropolises. Additional flavour and tactical options come from also being able to buy mythical creatures, some of which give instant powers and other a fighting mini on the map for a turn. With Titans you also add a new regular mini type ( the eponymous Titans) with a few new rules, magic items, a different board and super metropolises.
There’s plenty I love about this game. It’s brisk and combines some proper strategic thinking with the need to be flexible and tactical when you can’t afford the god you want or the board state changes suddenly. Combat is simple but meaningful – luck plays a role but with 0-3 on the dice that aspect isn’t hugely swingy. There are lots of ways to achieve the two metropolises: sure you have to build them or steal them (in part or whole), but creatures can make a big difference to how you get there. It does have a reputation for ‘hit the leader’ or kingmaking, but as soon as you know that you avoid pushing for the obvious lead too early. Instead the smarter play becomes to build towards some strong game finishing play from nowhere.
When there is turn by turn swing, underneath it is the very palpable tension that you are collectively getting closer and closer to end state - it’s just a question of who will pluck the crown. You get all of this whether playing the base game or Titans; however, with the latter you get all the best or the core with a number of rich extras providing significant change without lots of extra complexity. I will happily play both variants now and am even considering the other, Hades, expansion, which has had a mixed reception but looks worth a go. If you like quick, punchy games with a good variety of strategic options and a few (but not too many) curve ball moments then this one is definitely for you!
Tom H – Valley of the Kings: Last Rites
You can’t take it with you. That’s the YOLO attitude some kids of today live by, but it’s not how the pharaohs did things, back in Ancient Egypt. Polar opposite, in fact. You took _everything_ with you – it all got buried in your tomb, alongside your sarcophagus.
Valley of the Kings is a deck-building game by AEG. Players start with a default 10 cards and aim to use them to buy better, more valuable cards. Then, you use said better cards to get even better cards, in a snowball effect. In a standard deck-builder like Dominion or Clank!, players score their final deck. Usually players will find ways to ‘thin their deck’. (Get rid of your weaker cards, so you’ll see your stronger cards on a more frequent basis.) But that’s not the way things work in Valley of the Kings…
Cards have multi-purposes. They can be a currency to buy new, better cards. They can activate as their specific action, allowing you to do cool extra stuff, but usually helping your rivals out, too. Or, you can can place one of your cards, per turn, into your tomb. ‘Entombing’ is deck-thinning. Only at the end of this game, players score the cards that they’ve placed in their tomb – not the ones left in their deck. Meaning, you have to buy these amazing cards, but you’ll only score them if you get rid of them!
Valley of the Kings becomes a game of timing. You’ll want to reap the benefits of your better cards once or twice, but then, at some point, you’ll have to entomb them. This flips the traditional efficiency arc of a deck-building game on its head. There are peaks and troughs. Because, at some point, you’ll have to find a way to take those great cards with you.
Matt - Coloma
January was a time of sitting down and delving in to the newly acquired Christmas presents. For January, my game of the month must go to Coloma. Coloma is a one to six player, hand management, simulataneous action selection game, designed by Jonny Pac Cantin and published by Final Frontier Games. Coloma is set in the American West at the time of the 1849 gold rush.
In Coloma you play as a pioneer looking to strike it rich and make your fortune and a name for yourself. Players will prospect for gold, survey rivers, build bridges, establish businesses and travel to surrounding frontier lands.
Coloma is played out over three years with each year consisting of five rounds. Each round there will be an event that occurs, players will select their action (in secret) and perform the selected action. If the majority of people select the same action it goes “bust” and becomes less powerful. At the end of each year there is a shootout with the local bandits. Players will receive points based on how many “dudes” they have contributed to the shootout.
The action selection mechanism is fantastic and allows for some banter and table talk. You can try and get into the heads of the other players to determine where they might go. The synergism between the buildings constructed and the actions performing can create some interesting combos. Points come from a whole range of routes and options available to the players. There are lots of interesting choices to make and paths to victory all in a “relatively” short play time. Games last around the hour mark, maybe slightly longer with the higher player count.
There are optional variable player powers and player boards, as well as a “hotel” module which all add some variability in to the game to keep it fresh. The two player “buster” variant is simple, yet elegant. All in all, Coloma is a fantastic game that I have been enjoying a lot recently and can envisage it sticking around for a long time to come.
Nick T – Through The Desert
Through the Desert arrived through the letterbox late in January, but I have been absolutely loving it. I know it isn’t the latest and coolest new game on the market. In fact, it is considered as a ‘Euro Classic’ according to the box and publisher Z-Man Games. That sort of suggests it’s been around a long time – and it has! It was first published in 1998 which is absolutely bonkers! Especially when I think this first came out when I was having my first legal pint in a pub. I mean none of my incredible nieces and nephews had been born yet and some of them are at university now. Cripes, it was published in a different millennia! For 22 years this game has been missing from my life. Now I realise quite how much I have been missing out!
Through the Desert is one of Dr Reiner Knizia’s flagship games. For those that don’t know Knizia is a prolific designer with many awards sitting on his trophy shelf. His signature is probably to create games that are easy to learn but full of in depth strategy thereafter. Through the Desert is no exception.
Each player gets to place two camels out of five different coloured options. That is all you can do. There are certain restrictions on how you can place the camels, but not many. With your camel train you need to reach waterholes and oases whilst considering blocking an area off as your own. This leaves you with the quandary of too many options and not enough actions to complete them all. I can imagine some might get analysis paralysis from this, but I revel in working out my options whilst others are taking their go.
Thematically you get a sparse desert board with hexagonal spaces on which are dotted some palm trees. You then get some gorgeous, almost good enough to eat, camel playing pieces in their lovely pastel palette to round off a great looking game.
I know there are other area control and piece laying games out there, Knizia himself has created the more modern version Blue Lagoon which is a cheaper option. However, I’m still going to say this one is great. In fact Tony the Tiger would say it’s grrrreat – that’s how fun it is! It is without doubt my game of the month.