Call My Bluff

When you starting playing board games regularly, you’ll eventually develop the skills needed to succeed.  Strategy, planning, cooperation are all things you’ll need to hone when you start your board game hobby.  Bluffing and deceit are also key skills in certain games.  Cooperative games are becoming quite popular, but that doesn’t mean you need to give up your poker face.  Bluffing games will still remain as top favorites.

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Adventures in Cardboard Spelunking – A Review of The Cave

A lot of little pieces
A lot of little pieces

What could be more fun than embarking on an adventure into the unknown and exploring environments never touched by other humans?  Squeezing in tight spaces, descending into new depths, or mapping new caverns sounds like a remarkable adventure.  What about making sure you brought enough food, getting lost, or being caved in?  In the real world, these are the things that a claustrophobe like me would worry about.  I’ll stay above ground, thank you very much.

The Cave doesn’t exactly replace real-life adventures with its little cardboard tiles, but if you’re a homebody, it’s still an entertaining board game.  Each player takes on the role of a group of speleologists exploring a new cave system.  This isn’t a horror game; there are no monsters lurking inside.  You are discovering new areas of the cave and collecting tokens for completing certain actions, such as descending to a new depth or taking a photo of a cave formation.   While there is some tension in managing your resources, such as food, we found that it’s a fairly easy-going game.  This is unlike K-2, another game by Adam Kaluza that we enjoy.  K-2 is more intense, as player compete for spots on the mountain as they risk the elements and potentially die from exposure.  Inside the cave, you must manage your food.  If you happen to run out of food, you just have to crawl back to base camp.  No meeples will be left to die in the cave.

One of the things we enjoyed about The Cave is the randomness.  After all, players are exploring an unknown cave system.  The game board consists of tiles, grouped into levels I – IV.  As each player takes their turn, if they choose to explore a new section of the cave, they take a tile from the top of the pile, beginning with level I, and place it adjacent to the tile they are currently in.  Sometimes the tile will not match up along the borders.  If that happens, a boulder choke tile is placed.   There are also expansion tiles that we later bought to make it a bit more difficult.

At the beginning of the game, the player start at the center tile—base camp.  Here there are seemingly infinite resources.  Each player must fill their packs with items they are going to need while in the cave.  Food tokens are most important.  A player may also choose to take items needed to gather tokens for points at the end of the game.  For example, if a player moves into a newly discovered tile where they may get a token for diving, but they didn’t pack an oxygen tank, they can’t take that token.  That is a down side to this game.  There are a lot of little pieces and a lot to remember as you lay tiles.  Sometimes it’s easy to forget to put a token down on a tile that you could later pick up for completing that action.

Exploring the cave
Exploring the cave

As each player takes their turn, they can take up to 5 action points (APs).  Different actions can require multiple action points to complete.  Before taking any APs, a player must use a food token, unless they are back at base camp.  If the player is has no food, they only action they may take is to move one tile towards base camp.  Each player has a reference card that will tell them how many APs an action is worth.  Laying a new tile is one AP.  Moving into that tile is another AP.  A tile with a tight squeeze III is 4 AP’s.   As you complete certain actions on tiles, you collect the token.  Sometimes, the board can become a bit confusing when it comes to the depth tokens.  The instructions were a bit unclear, and we ultimately just made house rules that seemed intuitive to us as we reached new depths.

We did ultimately house rule a few things that seemed unrealistic or to aid with the game’s playability and flow.  The instructions were a bit confusing for us, and as I am writing this I realize we were playing the boulder choke tiles wrong.  However, the game is easily adaptable and our house rules don’t interfere with the overall game.  Again, it’s a rather relaxing way to spend an evening.  Players aren’t directly competing with each other, but off exploring different areas.  The game ends once the last tile is played from level IV and the players have 3 turns to return to base camp.  If the player doesn’t return within 3 turns, they forfeit all their points, and I suppose, the meeple is lost or dies in the cave.  We house-ruled that the player would simply lose points for additional turns needed.  It would be frustrating to spend the whole game gathering points, only to lose everything at the very end.

photo 3(1)Overall, it’s not a bad game to play.  It comes with a link to download theme music to set the mood while spelunking.  It’s not too intense.  Given a choice, I prefer K-2 from Adam Kaluza.  I’m competitive, and I find some morbid joy in watching my opponent race to the top of the mountain, only to run out of steam and die at the top.  While our friends didn’t seem to enjoy it, The Cave is something that Cam and I can play together, without directly competing with each other on the board, but when we’re not in the mood for a co-op game.  So, while we may play K-2 first, we’ll finish off our game night with a chill game of The Cave.

Board Games for History Buffs

historical games

One of the great things about board games is that they can be educational. Basic strategy is often the foremost of skills you increase your knowledge of – learning to anticipate your opponents moves, setting yourself up for later moves, and the generalities of board control. However, board games can take you far beyond this, helping you learn vocabulary or math with the mass market Scrabble or lesser known Paperback. While a lot of games benefit from imagination and creativity, a few like Dixit or the more abstracted Rory’s Story Cubes feature these in the forefront. The majority of games utilize competition, but many focus on teamwork and cooperation such as Pandemic or Flashpoint. Cam and I enjoy a wide variety of games, but I must say that we most enjoy board games that focus on a particular historical event or period.  I consider myself an eternal student of history, so I love diving into a board game that is also going to teach me a history lesson.  Geography is also one of my favorite subjects, and most history board games focus on a regional or world map from that era.

We’ve already reviewed a couple of our favorites, including Twilight Struggle and Memoir ’44.  Twilight Struggle is, hands down, my favorite game.  It is a two-player strategy game based on the events of the Cold War.  One player is the USA and the other is the USSR.  It’s a brilliant card-driven game that has consistently been the #1 ranked game at Board Game Geek.  Not only does it accurately portray the events of the Cold War, it also does a pretty good job of mimicking the tension between two political ideologies.  While players are competing against each other for influence all over the world, a bit of realistic cooperation must be obtained while watching the DEF-CON status.  When each player makes an aggressive move, such as a coup or realignment in a country, the DEF-CON status moves down.  If it were to reach zero, nuclear war ensues, the game is over and both players lose.  One of my favorite things about it is how it is somewhat realistically unbalanced.  In the early war cards, USSR definitely has an advantage, and in the late war cards, the advantage tilts towards the USA.  Overall, I think it’s a great teaching tool for the era and a must-have for history buffs and gamers alike.

Memoir ’44 is also a two player game, Allies vs. Axis during World War II.  It is a war game designed to emulate specific battles during 1944.  Like Twilight Struggle, it attempts to be realistic and some of the missions seem a bit unbalanced to portray each battle as it happened in history. Setting up a game can take a while (laying terrain, villages, soldiers) as each mission is set up to depict a battle from history you choose out of the scenario book.  Game play isn’t very long, so it is possible to play the mission multiple times.  It’s a fairly simple game for someone wanting to get started playing war games.  It involves a mix of strategy and luck based on cards drawn and played.  The mechanics are fairly simple and you don’t have to constantly keep track of multiple war theaters or variables like you do when playing Twilight Struggle.  I would definitely suggest it as a first wargame.

1775: Rebellion
1775: Rebellion

Another great game is 1775: Rebellion.  Players of the American Continental Army and Patriots against the British Army and the Loyalists.  The game can be played with between 2-4 players in teams, and the game ends with the signing of the Treaty of Paris.  1775: Rebellion was published by Academy Games, a publisher that focuses on historical board games.  Their games generally blend your typical wargame with political influence games.  Like most historical games, you don’t have to know a lot about the American Revolution to enjoy it, but it does give detailed write-ups so you can understand the social and political context.

If you don’t feel like competing with your friends, you can also try a different Academy Games’ offering, Freedom: The Underground Railroad.  This is a cooperative game about slavery in the American South during the early to mid 19th century.  Players take on the roles of Abolitionists attempting to free slaves through the Underground Railroad and into Canada.  Again, it comes with excellent write-ups and a teacher’s guide so you can learn/teach about a controversial time in America’s history.  Instead of battling through a war game with your friends, you can work together.  It’s still tense as you attempt to avoid slave catchers.

If you’re not in the mood for a lengthy game, but more in the mood for some easy trivial knowledge, Timeline might be more up your alley.  Timeline is a simple card that can include up to 8 players.  Each player is given two cards with a picture of an invention on each.  One card is randomly drawn from the deck and placed in the middle of the table as the first card in the timeline.  During each player’s turn, he/she must decide where in the timeline does the invention go?  When was it invented?  In the beginning, it’s fairly simple to determine that fire was invented before the light bulb.  Once a player’s card is placed on the timeline, it is flipped over to reveal the year of the invention.  Once several cards are played, it becomes a bit more difficult to estimate whether the fax machine was invented before or after the photocopier.  There are several versions of the game, from Timeline: Inventions to Diversity, Discoveries, Music and Cinema.  We’ve only played Inventions, but I dream of a day where I can really test my historical knowledge and play several decks at once.

There are historical board games designed for all major world events, from ancient to modern.  They are designed for all levels and ages as well.  While I realize this list only scratches the surface of historical board games, I wanted to highlight a sample across different historical eras and types of games.  These are the ones we are most familiar with, but hopefully our shelf will be filled with more historical games as our collection grows.  Are there any other historical games you’ve played that you recommend we add to our collection?

Hanabi – The Quieter, Safer Fireworks

Anyone with a young child or nervous dog knows that they don’t handle fireworks well.  For the past week, our poor pooch has been sleeping under our bed due to the celebrations in our neighborhood.  My friends with babies talk of how much fun it is to try and soothe their little ones once the fireworks begin.

Well, now Cam and I can enjoy fireworks thematically with the cute little card game, Hanabi. At around $10-11 bucks, it’s cheaper than buying actual fireworks and provides hours more entertainment than watching your hard earned money explode within seconds in the sky.

Hanabi is a card game for 2-5 players.  Preferably 2-5 players with good memories.  It is a cooperative game, with everyone working together to build a fireworks show.  Each player has a hand of card.  Be careful not to look at your hand.  Each player’s hand faces outward towards the other players.  Half the time I picked up my hand, I absentmindedly looked down at them, forcing us to shuffle and redeal.  So cards should be fanned out so that each person doesn’t look at their own hand, but can see all the other players hands.

There are five colors of cards.  Within each color, cards range from 1-5.  The goal is to build the fireworks with each color and playing cards in sequential order.  For example, a red 2 can only be played after a red 1.  If a green 3 is played, but a green 2 hasn’t been played yet, then it’s essentially a miss.  There are special fuse token.  Once a mistake is made, a fuse token is taken away until the last one is reached, which is the explosion.  There are only 4 fuse tokens, so within a game, only 3 mistakes can be made until an explosion and the game is over.

So, how do you play if you don’t know what cards are in your hand?  That’s where the good memory comes into play.  During a player’s turn, he/she may play a card, give a hint, or discard a card in their hand to gain another hint.  There are 8 hint tokens.  In the beginning of the game, it’s more common for players to spend the hint tokens and give one player a hint, so players can start playing cards for their fireworks show.The hints must be specific and you must point to the cards.  Two types of information can be given, a hint about which cards are a specific color, or which cards are a specific number.  A player must also give complete information.  If a player happens to have three 1’s, but you only point to 2 of them, this is incomplete information.  The player receiving the hints must remember and keep track of what he has been told about his hand.  I suck at that.  Sometimes, I play a card, thinking I was told it was a blue 1, and it turns out it was a red 5.  If a card is played out of sequence, it is discarded.

If the hint tokens are all used or getting low, a player may choose to discard a card to gain a hint toke for the group to use.  This is useful if a player thinks or has received a int that tells them that they have a card in their hand that has already been played for the fireworks show.  For example, there are three 1’s for each color in the deck.  The fireworks show only needs one.  If a player thinks they have a extra one in their hand, they can discard it to gain a hint.  Sometimes, this backfires though, when a player can’t remember what they have, or if the hints are played poorly and some players are playing blind.

The best part of the game for me is when I forget what I have in my hand.  Trying to break or bend the rules, I look at Cam and point at my cards, saying “This is a red 5, and this is a blue 3.”  He refuses to answer, saying “I already told you several turns ago.”  His laugh can sometimes give it away though.  It’s even funnier when he does the same thing and I watch him point at one of his cards, saying “It’s a white 4,” as he points to a green 2.

Overall, it’s a fun little cooperative card game.  It’s very simple and was pretty cheap from Barnes and Noble.  If you don’t feel like spending a ton of money on your next new game, I recommend this one.  It’s great for kids, or old fogies like me to need to improve their short term memory.

You Win Some, You Lose A Lot

For the third week in a row, Dead of Winter hits the table at our weekly Saturday afternoon/evening gathering. So far, either we’re doing something wrong or we just haven’t found a good workable strategy to victory as each of the three plays we’ve had have ended in a miserable, depressing defeat for the colony. Yet, like masochistic Alzheimer’s patients, we chomp at the bit for the next opportunity to play. So while we may or may not be playing wrong, Plaid Hat Games has clearly done something very right.
Dead of Winter is a board game about survival; specifically, survival following a zombie apocalypse. Objectives thematically frame the game, with each player having a unique (and secret) objective to complete by the game’s end, as well as a primary objective shared for all players. On top of this, each round brings with it a crisis to be resolved, typically collecting X amounts of varying items committed to the colony’s survival. The aforementioned secret player objectives can (if you so choose) include a betrayal element. If you haven’t picked up on it, there’s a lot to keep up with while playing as far as what it driving the group forward. As if that isn’t enough, before each player’s turn, a crossroads card
is drawn by another player, the one to your right. If the event is triggered during the turn, play is stopped and the player(s) are faced to make a decision between two brutal options. Everything about Dead of Winter tells the player that surviving after the fall of humanity is anything but happy fun-times.
The majority of the secret objectives and crises each round require you collect certain items, ranging from fuel, food, and medicine, among others. The items are on cards drawn from one of the locations a survivor can move to and search. A player can choose how to play these cards. Even while working together semi-cooperatively, we found that each player must make difficult choices in how they play their cards. A player may choose to use food cards to ensure the colony survivors don’t starve, play a card to assist with certain actions, or even hold on to them for their secret objective. The cards a player contributes to the crises are placed in a pile faced down. This is a great opportunity for the betrayer to sabotage the game. If the crisis for the round isn’t met colony morale goes down. Once morale hits zero, the game is over. The goal is to achieve the main objective before the rounds are finished or morale hits zero. As I pointed out, we haven’t quite achieved this yet.With crises popping up every round, you might think that gameplay will feel derivative of Battlestar Gallactica. Surprisingly, you’d be incorrect. The crisis element is familiar (as is voting betrayers off the island) but what the player actually does in their turn is markedly different. Each player gets an amount of dice equal to the number of survivors they control (2 at the start), and at the start of each round the dice are rolled. Players use the dice to complete certain actions during their turn. These actions include searching for items, killing zombies, or building barricades. Moving from the colony to another location, such as the gas station, doesn’t require to use one of these dice. It does require you to roll the exposure die. Rolling this die when you move or when you choose to kill a zombie can be pretty risky. Your survivor can instantly die by zombie bite, get wounded or frostbit. If you’re lucky, you’ll roll a blank side and your survivor is safe.

We got more laughs in the game from the survivors themselves. Each character has a special ability. Some are able to pick up multiple items in the locations. Others are stronger when killing zombies. My personal favorites are the drunk Santa, who’s only special ability is to exile him from the game to increase colony morale, and Sparky the stunt dog, who conveniently seems to be featured in every game we have played. Once we get going in a game and refresh our memories of the rules, it is completely immersive and it’s easy to get caught up in the story. Overall, we couldn’t give this game a higher recommendation. We’ll keep you updated on our progress toward survival.

Agricola – A Farming Game for Non-Farmers

Agricola, designed by Uwe Rosenberg and published here in the US by Z-Man Games, is a German-style (Euro game), agriculturally themed board game for up to 5 players including a solitaire variant. If you’re not familiar with the Euro game distinction, they are often abstracted, low luck, high strategy games with oftentimes simple rules and short to medium play times.
As a basic overview, Agricola is played across 14 rounds, organized into 6 stages. Before the game begins, players are dealt a hand of 7 occupation cards and 7 minor improvement cards that can be applied to their farm. The players take actions, the number of which corresponding to how many family members they have (starting value of 2). There are basic actions like collecting clay or reed, or collecting seeds. Then there are randomized actions that become available as play progresses through each round, such as collecting sheep or cattle or sowing grain. Only one player can take a particular action each round. The object of the game is have the most points, achieved by building the best possible farm, utilizing as much space as possible. It is also important to not have your family go hungry, as players will accrue negative point cards if they are unable to feed their family members at the end of each stage.
Tab was very excited when I borrowed my friend’s copy of the game so we could play. She grew up on a farm, and so was intensely curious as to how the designer would implement crop and animal management in the game. The excitement slowly morphed into an amused frustration. Tab expressed again and again how the mechanics used in the game were next to nothing like actual farming, and would verbally berate the board at multiple opportunities. It became one of the most enjoyable negative experiences of gaming we’ve had, as Tab grew increasingly emphatic that “that’s not how it’s done!” to my continued quips “but it’s a game.”
I am, admittedly, not a big fan of Euro games in general. While fine in low doses, I find the lack of variance fairly off-putting. The first few plays feel novel and engaging, but increasingly become same-y and dull. Agricola doesn’t break the mold, but does what it can to keep you playing with the randomized actions across the stages. Tab, however, is big fan of Settlers of Catan, another game under the Euro cloth, and I’ll assume her take-away was tainted mainly by expectations in the theme. Ultimately, Agricola is fun and challenging game, but past the 4 or 5 plays I’ve had it loses it’s appeal.