In our series of publisher top fives, we’ve looked at party games (Big Potato), big Euro games (Stonemaier) and some of the most diverse games designed (AEG). Today’s pick for a publishers top five is a favourite of the bloggers, especially those with kids. All the games chosen are designed with developing skills in children as a key goal, but they are not “kids games". There’s a lot of strategy in here but the games are very easy to pick up and play. Strap in folks, we’re going in with our Blue Orange Top Five!
I have a very soft spot for this game. It’s a game I played with my partner on our first date, something that we both loved, later we bought the exact copy from the board game café. That game was Photosynthesis, a game about growing trees and harvesting the sun. You follow the life cycle of a tree, from seed to timber (as in the falling down, not the sawing into planks part). You have to plan the growth of your trees and the timing to distribute the seeds to grow new trees.
The taller the tree, the further you can throw the seeds and the more sunlight you can gain. However, nature is a fickle mistress and trees cast a shadow and can impact your opponents. (Also your own) sun gathering. You can do the equivalent of hate drafting (hate growing?) but of course, the sun still keeps revolving so there’s only so much control you have. Positioning is key and growing your trees as close to the centre as possible is going to get you the most points. The more you grow, the fewer points you’ll get as a reward.
I love how cute the art is and how relaxed the game play is, despite there being a cutthroat element. You can happily go about your day building your own tree engine or you can be mean and make sure you grow only where it best ruins your opponents day. But really, that’s not the spirit of the game. You’re contributing to the circle of life and that’s the beauty of Photosynthesis.
A drink down the local tavern. What better way to end a hard day as a merchant of magical objects? Stabbing your fellow peddlers in the back, that’s what!
Kameloot by Blue Orange and Coiledspring Games is a brilliant little set collection game with a traitorous twist. Beginning with a hand of 4 cards, on your turn you either lay a card down to start a set of matching magical objects, or you activate a card’s magical power. If you’re laying a card, each object type has a minimum number of cards needed to complete the set (e.g. 6 for a cloak or 2 for a ring). If you’re activating a magical power, you have to use that ability immediately. These range from being able to take cards from the discard pile to stealing cards from your opponents, and even flip reversing their tavern allegiances.
Why is that important? Well, remember that traitorous twist I mentioned? In the game you begin as a member of either the Hooting Owls or the Black Cats. When you complete a set and convert them into gold coins (by flipping them over – I love multi use cards!), you must share them equally between the members of your tavern. With savvy use of tavern token flipping (either your own or by flipping your opponents’ (that magical cloak is indeed a wonderous thing!) and smart timing, you might sell when you’re the only member of your tavern type. All the money, all for you! Oh and you can even take another player’s incomplete set of the same magical object type to complete your own and cash in. Doubling down on their pain - bonus!
Karma is a kicker though. Because, if you can do it to them, you can be sure that they are going to do it to you. And with that, Kameloot becomes a fast flipping, set grabbing, coin generating card fest. A super twist on the usual set collecting filler games, Kameloot is a win in our house!
Battle Sheep is one of my under-the-radar faves. The first thing I love about it is the first thing you do – build your own board. You (and 1-3 other players) place four tiles each to make a less than mellow meadow. This makes every game a little bit different; part of the puzzle takes place before the game even begins. With the board built, the first player takes their full stack of sheep, places the whole pile somewhere around the perimeter and they’re ready to start getting territorial.
Once other players have done the same, turns consist of moving your stack of sheep as far as they can travel in one direction, then splitting the stack between where it started and where it ended up. The winner is the player who spreads most sheep across the board. If that’s a tie, the winner is the one with the largest connected flock. That’s it.
Conspiratorial whisper: “Battle Sheep” is actually a canny re-branding of the perfectly serviceable game – “Splits”, elevated with a little personality and love. One of the recurring pleasures of the game is introducing it to a new player group. Reactions upon noticing the sheeps expressions are a regular delight, as are comments on the satisfying heft of the counters. It’s a quick game to play, each turn consisting of trying to box in your opponents’ sheep (baa-baric, I know), while leaving your own free to roam. It’s an excellent warm-up or warm-down game, a stealth favourite of several groups I play with and another Blue Orange way to have a woolly good time.
Blue Lagoon is a bit of un undiscovered gem. Renier Knizia has again designed a simple yet crunchy puzzler, which shares lots of common DNA with Through the Desert and Babylonia. The difference is a bright, cartoony design; a simple but effective production and a much lower price point, thanks to Blue Orange.
The turnly activity of placing islanders or huts across the archipelago is in many ways a soothing one: sometime scattering boats far and wide and at other times building chains that criss-cross the islands. Yet beneath that simple satisfaction there’s plenty to make your brain work – it’s a real puzzle, and a darn good one at that. It’s also highly competitive: you will be blocking each other, denying each other spaces and nabbing resources that others were planning on having for themselves.
Strategy and tactics are all informed by the scoring criteria, which come in two broad categories: ‘area control’ and ‘collect the set’. You end up constantly parsing the board state to consider which will give you the best return. That is then modified by the tactical decision of what your opponent(s) is/are up to. Have they forced a rethink to your next move? Do they need blocking?
Blue Lagoon plays really well with all player counts. Two players will give you more space, so you have a greater choice of how confrontational to be, and potentially a greater opportunity to focus on strategy rather than tactics.While strategy remains important you are going to have to be more flexible and tactically agile. It's perfectly suitable as a family game but also can be enjoyed by hard-core gamers. I keep coming back to this again and again – it may be unprepossessing but it’s a keeper.
When asked to consider Blue Orange Games one of the first to spring to mind was Planet. Over the years this has been making a regular appearance at the gaming table. It is a family-friendly game for two to four players that usually 45 minutes to complete. To describe this as a tile laying game is to misrepresent it. The first thing that we love are the large dodecahedrons. These form the core of each players planet. Each of the 12 sides will accept a pentagon tile.
The game is played over 12 turns. Each round a player can select one of the five-sided tiles on offer and affix it to their world. These pieces show different terrains; water, ice, forest, desert and savannah. As these are placed on the world so different habitats grow, with the aim to place these to maximise adjacent areas. You need to think in 3D too.
Each player has their own unique target for scoring a specific habitat. However, as the game progresses so additional scoring opportunities become available. Depending on the juxtaposition of regions so each player can have the chance to gain extra scoring cards.
At the end of the game players hold a lovely representation of their world. The colours are vibrant there’s a sense of ecology at play as the bonus cards have animals that can only live in certain habitats. The upcoming bonus cards that are available are laid out to see in advance so the selection and tile placement can be used strategically to win points later in the game.
So in the depths of a cold snap in January, this colourful thinking game gives us the chance to design our own world in a way that we would want and then see who’s done the best job.