Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Quick Look: New Bedford

After having a blast feeding the Montgomery Burns side of my personality in Le Havre I was tipped off to a new contender in the industrial worker placement genre with New Bedford.

I was tipped off to this new game by an extraordinary Dice Tower News brief, obviously written by an incredible genius and masterful journalist. Look at all the quotes and hyperlinks, like a carefully trussed filet mignon.

I have a cousin who's favorite novel (possibly ironically) is Herman Melville's Moby Dick. There are few Thanksgivings I have not heard of Captain Ahab's revenge-fueled whale-pursuing "circumnavigations".

Marry Moby Dick with the industrialized machinations for ultimate efficiency of Le Havre and I think you might just have New Bedford.

I must say one of the messier aspects of Le Havre is the ship-building. There is no point where you naturally feel the urge to build a ship, you just NEED to at certain points to artificially inflate your food production otherwise all your workers run out of fish guts to gnaw on. And then you ship resources and convert them into money…through a shipping lane "building" that can magically accommodate as many people as there are players.

New Bedford looks like it makes ship-building feel a bit more natural and part of the game as a whole.

I don't know for sure what resources you can gain, just by looking at the kickstarter. Wood and bricks for sure. I'm not positive on the timeline, but if coke production makes an appearance the game will be a shoe-in. Because who doesn't want to go on a coke-fueled whaling expedition?

No coke in sight

More details are posted by the designer here.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Gravwell: Try to Escape, and It Pulls You Back

Before I talk about Gravwell, I need to talk about Star Trek.

In "The Void", the crew of Voyager find themselves trapped in a pocket dimension. Surrounded by the corpses of derelict ships similarly trapped long ago, they must use all of their resources to find the faint path back to their own universe. And of course, there are still living ships within this dark space to contend with. A great episode, and the first thing I thought of when Gravwell came out. A game in which you MUST escape, before one of the other players does the same.

Gravity is a Rubber Band

As you take the first turn, the simplicity of Gravwell is almost overwhelming. You play a card with a number on it. You move your ship that number. Easy as cake. Could be a kid's game. But then the feeling evaporates. Because after the first turn of movement, things get tricky in a big way.

Movement cards in Gravwell don't have a direction. They instead push you either towards (yellow cards) or away (purple cards) from the nearest ship.

If you are last in line (or its the first turn of the game and all the gravity is in front of you) movement is straightforward. Once the other players start flailing around, making big grabs for the escape route, the "closest ship" is incredibly unpredictable.  Moving takes serious thought if you expect to get anywhere.

All movement cards are played at the same time, then resolved alphabetically. Carbon goes before Florine for example. So in addition to predicting the distance your opponents are going to travel, you also have to predict the order they will move in.

Red Ship, Blue Ship and Derelict, together at last!
Bumping Robots

A long time ago, the best game in my existence was a multi-hour programmed movement game called Robo Rally. I went to a couple "game nights" where all we played was Robo Rally, over giant boards of obstacles to navigate.

The absolute best part of Robo Rally was when the robots ended up very close together. Bumping, bumbling over each other, with the greatest chance of something completely unpredictable happening. A robot might miss a step, or end up on the wrong conveyor belt, or get crushed because a single misstep was made.

In Gravwell, the players are always squabbling like that fleeting moment in Robo Rally…from the beginning to the end. Ships try to escape. But they are inevitably drawn back into the chaos by ill-timed movement cards and the incredibly heinous tractor beams your opponents insist on playing.

More like "Jankarium"

Tractor Beams

Beside the yellow and purple movement cards, there are also blue "anti-movement" cards. The tractor beam does not move your ship, instead it sucks all the other ships in the game (including the 2 normally stationary derelict ships) towards the tractoring ship. This is akin to a lobster trying to escape a pot, only to have the other lobsters pull him back in, along with some lemon and seasoning salt.

This has to be the most hard-won "You Win" space ever.

Climbing out of a Hole

The feeling of attempting escape, and being foiled constantly in that attempt, is the heart of Gravwell. Often you will make progress in a single movement phase, only to have most of that progress erased in the next movement phase.

When I first started playing, I thought it would be easy to draft the cards I needed to stay consistently ahead. But what Gravwell is really all about is putting yourself in a good position as a part of the group.  Moving as a giant lump of ships going forward and back, ready to make the one mad dash for victory a split-second before anyone else.

You never, ever want to be in front. You want to be just behind the front ship…yet all the movement cards work to either shoot you back down into the hole or rocket you far into the lead where you will only plummet back again.

An Original Design

I love the originality and simplicity of this game. I can honestly say I have played no game "like" Gravwell. When I was rounding up opponents, I explained the game as "Candyland with space ships and the space ships are all chained together." Despite this, everyone wanted to play. The rules are simple, the game is fast.

Time for Lunch

Gravwell is a lunch break game. You aren't building an economy or maximizing victory points. In an hour long lunch break, you can spend the first 10 minutes teaching the game and playing the other 50 no problem. People who have never played modern games before can learn the rules easily. People who have played modern games before will still be interested.

The End Game

I think the only trouble with Gravwell comes from people expecting more than it is. There is randomness. Bad things will happen, and the very limited opportunities to make corrections during the turn (a single "emergency stop" card) will leave you with little option most of the time but to take your lumps.

Conflict with the other players is always turned on. The constant fluctuations keep all players excited and in the game. I find myself wanting to play Gravwell. And so far that has been easy to do.

Friday, November 14, 2014

Racing To the End Game

All games come to an end. But what about those games where you can control the time and place of the ending?

It feels like most games I play have a set number of rounds. A smaller number end after some other predefined condition occurs (like the deck runs out of cards). The last, most exclusive group are those that allow the players some limited control of the tempo of the game.


A smaller game most people don't even know about. I can't count how many times I've been caught flat-footed by another player in this game. Firenze closes down once someone uses up their own limited supply of seals. Intially, when the game starts and everyone is on even footing it makes sense to score as many points for your towers (a finished tower uses up one of your seals) as you can to get the most value.

Once you score a big pile of points, inevitably another player will switch gears and attempt to spend his/her seals as quickly as possible. Because if they can run out fast enough, and eek out ahead of your big score, the game will end and they will win.

Puerto Rico

Shipping points, colonists and buildings. Any of these 3 elements can be "run out" by an enterprising opponent to end the game when he or she is in a position to win.

Puerto Rico is such a soulless game. And yet, there lives within its husk an incredible adrenaline rush when everyone's economic machines start working. If you are really screwing up your turn and bombing out on your developments…the game will at least be over quickly.


I thought Puerto Rico was the most obvious one. But then I thought of Dominion. Every single game of Dominion has 2 parts: first players are building card engines and adding to their deck. Then the moment comes when the leap is made to scoring victory points. When that first province is grabbed, the game turns upside down and hopefully you have what you need to get some points of your own.

Race for the Galaxy

Sharing some development with Puerto Rico, Race for the Galaxy inherited some of the same racing end conditions. With a few more to make it play even faster. Add the 2 player expert rules, and you can lay down extra planets/developments each turn and really run out the clock if you have a plan. The dream scenario is 2 developments and 2 settlements in the same action phase…running out a full 1/4 of the game in the span of a single turn.

Woe be the player who chooses production, while his/her opponent sneaks out another card into the tableau to end the game!

Glen More

You can move your little guy around the rondel as fast as you want. Other players can take as many turns as they want until they catch up. Yet, the game punishes you for having too many tiles so surprisingly it doesn't hurt as much as you'd think to leap ahead quite a ways. Since the game ends as soon as the 3rd tile stack is depleted you can really make a run for it if you feel like you're in a good position.

I'm still trying to figure it out. It might sound like I'm continually campaigning for highly-interactive games that keep you on the edge of your seat. Yet there's something to be said for relaxing, laid-back games that let you kick back and plan your turn a little.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

3 Parents Play 2 Player Games

My last game day, there were three adults, plus a bunch of kids at various ages. For the majority of the day, we played 2 players games. I came away thinking it was a winning concept.

A World of Constant Distraction

Very few kids want to play board games for extended periods of time. So the first thing all of our kids did were book it out into the yard. Where they played well for the most part.

The 2 player idea came about just because that's what we happened to have. Here is what went down.

Agricola: All Creatures Big and Small

I've played Agricola.  I've played Caverna. All Creatures Big and Small focuses these classic worker placement games into a laser-tight beam. And the result is awesome. In fact, I had to sit back for a moment and try to figure out exactly what they had taken out. True, the game is only 2 players. But there is also no feeding or maintenance costs. This fits right into my narrative about Enjoying a Debt-free Existence in your Board Games.

Also, and surprisingly important, you are limited to the workers you start out with. There is no way to generate more workers, so you are confined to figuring out how to optimize things with what you have. Because I am constantly undervaluing (or overvaluing when it's too late) the "grow workers" spot in traditional worker placement games I felt actually competitive.

Finally, there are less buildings and upgrades. You still get a few different paths and ways to take your farm in different directions, but its not overwhelming.

Star Realms

Balancing a 2 player worker placement game was the latest deck builder on the block. The more I play Star Realms, the more I am amazed how much game fits into what is essentially a Magic: The Gathering starter deck box. Fast, direct, vicious. With surprising deck-building avenues depending on how the cards in the trade row come out. If you wanted to play a deck builder with me, I would suggest Star Realms every time right now. The only reason I continue to play stuff like the DC Comics Deckbuilder is the desires of other players. And you always need to remain in tune with the wants of the rest of your play group!

Fast and Furious

Playing these 2 games made it so there was very little down time for the odd adult out. Each game would take maybe 20-30 minutes and then opponents could be switched with ease. The odd adult out could handle kid requests, or just supervise the game and make sure people are doing it right.

I love to watch other people game, and 25 minutes is about the right sweet spot before I start to lose interest. Knowing full well the hot seat is coming allows me to think about the coming game and how I would play differently.

The Learning Game

Playing multiples of the same game also threw my slow-paddling game-learning brain into overdrive. I am champing at the bit to play my next Uwe Rosenberg worker placement monolith because of the hard-core resource allocating and farm building I was doing on All Creatures Big and Small. Deck building with Star Realms has me ready to take on my frothing-at-the-mouth workplace game opponent over my next lunch break. He's been coming coming in ahead on far too many games and honing my deck building skills might just be enough to tip the edge.

The Fun-ening

Overall, instead of 1 giant game possibly interrupted several times by upset children…It was my child, I admit it!…we instead had a lot of fun several times over in quick, easy-to-digest bites. At the end, we even got 2 of the older kids together and introduced them to Star Realms. I can tell you as a parent this is the most wonderful feeling in the world when you can legitimately get your offspring excited about something you yourself are interested in. Rarely, rarely can you ever expect this.

Monday, November 10, 2014

Spoon Wars: Dueling Dexterity with Monster Bake

Finding games to play with my 3 year old presents a special challenge. She's not super interested in following complicated rules. Or achieving far-off objectives (the kind that might not happen for an entire turn!).

To a board gaming fan who watches all the reviews and sees all the news popping up over at boardgamegeek, it might seem like little kid games are the farthest concern.

They are out there! Today we take a break from grown-up fare and look at a primo little kid game I stumbled across. HABA's Monster Bake!

Note: my household had quite the discussion on what to call this game. The official English name is "Monster Bake" however as the rulebook clearly calls out, the monsters are certainly not baking they are DECORATING.

The listed age on the box is 5-99, but my 3 year old was happy to jump right in. She seemed to comprehend everything just fine. My 9-year-old son played along to make her happy, but would certainly never play this if she wasn't involved. My wife got extremely competitive, and will no doubt be the reigning Monster Bake champion in our household, probably forever. So the right adults can find something to like here, too.

Sorting Marbles

The objective of Monster Bake is simple. We played the game a couple different ways (true to a 3 year old's idea of fair play) but all the ways were close to the actual rules. Essentially, you flip over a card and the card shows the kinds of marbles you need to sort out of the middle and place in your bowl.

The objectives range from 4 marbles of different colors, all the way down to 1 (for instance, a single red marble). There are no objectives showing multiple marbles of the same color. The single and double marble cards are really nice for younger kids, who sometimes need to catch up if the game starts moving too fast.


There is a trick to using the spoon. Approach a marble too slowly, and the smooth wooden sphere tends to roll off the sides instead of ending up in the middle. What you have to do instead is jerk your spoon towards the target and try to get the marble to bounce up and in. And least, that's how it seems during the 50 or so times we've played so far.

Once you've grabbed your marble, just carefully navigate it over to your bowl and drop it in. Hopefully no one will try to knock the marble back off your spoon, which sometimes happens in more cutthroat sessions. Vicious!

Need for Speed

The most important goal when playing with younger kids, and the part Monster Bake meets and exceeds, is keep the action moving along.

Filling your bowl with the correct marbles takes half a minute. Then the objective is completed, and we are ready to move on to an entirely new objective. Meeting the requirements of each card was actually the most important part of the game for my daughter, rather than her competition with me.

In fact after quite a few competitive games, the variant she prefers puts me in the role of the game, turning cards over for her and telling her when to go, and allowing her to fill the order by herself. I end up being a referee and game master for what is essentially a solo game.

How it stacks up

The closest equivalent to Monster Bake in my collection is another game I bought for my daughter…Think Fun's Roll n' Play. Remove the giant plush die (which my daughter does anyway) and you have a bunch of simple objectives for kids to perform.

Monster Bake is a step up in complexity, changing the objectives from simple "touch your nose," "jump 3 times," style body awareness exercises and focuses attention like a laser beam into a challenging dexterity puzzle. If your little one wants to start out using their hands to help guide the marble onto the spoon, don't blame them because this can be HARD even for an adult!


As a kid, they are going to get the hang of it pretty quick.

Now I'm in the process of analyzing the rest of the HABA catalog. If you want to do the same, check out their web site or see some really awesome videos showing kids in action.