These written so far. More in time.

Attila ▼


Published by Hans im Gluck, Rio Grande Games, and 999 Games. Designed by Karl-Heinz Schmiel, 2000.

This is a board game for 2-5 players (supposedly, but see below). The game involves a pack of cards, coloured wooden markers, and a full-colour main board, as well as a separate smaller board for scoring. The theme is tribes (Goths, Vandals, Saxons, Huns, Franks, and Jutes) pouring out from Germany to find new homelands in Europe to settle.

Unusually, each player does not play the role of one tribe, but instead influences the progress of any or all tribes, and tries to manipulate the successes of the various tribes so that he moves his markers up each tribe's scoring track. By being furthest up a tribes's scoring track, a player scores the most points.

I bought this game because I was in a German supermarket and saw it going cheap. I have played it a few times, with 2,3, and 4 players. The first time people play it, they don't get it. A common way to start playing a game is to take a turn doing whatever, and then sit and see what happens as a consequence of this first turn, learn from it, and then pick the game up by trial and error. The rules are short and seem simple enough, so it is reasonable to imagine that a player will pick up how to play the game pretty quickly.

One thing that does not help is the confusion with colour coding. The tribes and the players have colour-coded pieces, and some of the colours are the same, but this has no relevance in the game. This could surely have been avoided. The score board is a smooth stiff piece of card, and the scoring markers are smooth cubes of wood that have to sit accurately on narrow scoring spaces. One jog to the table and the game is ruined.

Anyway, everyone takes his first turn, and remains confused. This confusion does not go away. In some games I played, even at the end of the game, players were still playing nearly at random and were no closer than at the start to working out tactics that might work.

The game suffers from a problem shared by many others: each player plays in turn, and in a four-player game, the situation on the board is so different when a player takes his turn from the situation when he took his last turn, that it is near enough impossible to plan ahead and make sensible decisions. After two or three games of it with four players, I considered the game to be very poor indeed.

I then tried it with two-players, and I found that I won by miles. I had used skill to win, and this skill showed in my score. With two players, I could make fairly good predictions about what my opponent might do, and how the board might look when it came back to my turn. It ceased being a game of random play-and-hope and became a working game of skill. I should point out, however, that my opponent did not see how her moves were good or bad, and did not grasp the game, so even with a two-player game, the tactics are so subtle that they can elude an inexperienced player.

More recently, I played with three players, and we found that our decisions did have a noticeable effect on how the game progressed, but with three, the influence of decisions was so subtle that no one could put a finger on why exactly the winner won.

For a game to be simple, having few rules, is a good thing, and that its tactics should not be obvious is good too, but in Attila the tactics in a two-player game are perhaps a bit too subtle, and by the time you have four players, the influence of decisions is so very subtle, that it can be difficult to tell if any tactic is better than playing at random. I am very surprised that some voters on BoardGameGeek have recommended this game for more than 2 players.

The Big Cheese ▼

The Big Cheese

Published by Cheapass Games, designed by James Ernest and Jon Wilkie.

I bought this little card game from a specialist games shop for a mere £2. It is a game for three to six players, and is very attractively simple. The rules are printed on one side of a small piece of paper. The cards are printed one side only in black and white, with very simple line drawings and hand-written lettering. The style goes for cuteness over lavish production, and I think succeeds.

Each player is a businessman hoping to become the boss of the company. The boss will chose as his successor the player who delegates and prioritises most efficiently. A game lasts about forty-five minutes.

The pack of cards is placed face up in the middle of the table, and the players bid for the top card, not knowing what lies beneath it. Each player has ten counters to bid with. These represent underlings that he, as a senior executive, controls. If a player bids high and wins a card, he cannot use it straight away, because he has delegated many of his underlings to work for a long time on that project, because he has attached to it great importance. Each turn, one of his underling markers is removed from the card until none remains and then it can be played.

When a number card is played, a die is rolled to see how much the card scores. In the basic game, this is a six-sided die, the result of which is multiplied by the number on the card. Another variant is to use multi-sided dice, and assign different die types to the various cards. For instance 1d20 could be rolled to determine the value of a card with 20 written on it. Both these methods yield very highly variable values for cards, and this is the game's main weakness. A player may play very well, but be a little unlucky, and lose, while another could get one value 20 card, roll a six and get 120 points. The game is won by the first player to make 200 points, so you can see that luck plays a massive part.

In all other respects, it is a very good game. It is quick to learn, and very well balanced. There are three kinds of card. Most are number cards that have values between 2 and 20. The other two kinds are Veto and Big Cheese cards that do not score points, but allow players to cancel number cards, or increase their value. Some players may consider that some cards, like Veto or number 2 cards, are not worthwhile having. These players will then not bid for them, and so other players will pick them up cheaply, which means that they can be played quickly, and so become worthwhile. The bidding system thus makes every card worth considering.

A possible fix for the game might be to roll 1d6 and on a 1 or 2 halve the value of the card, on a 3 or 4 score the value of the card, and on a 5 or 6 double the value. Another might be to remove the die roll altogether and just score the value of the card.

The Big Idea ▼

The Big Idea

Published by Cheapass Games, designed by James Ernest.

I picked this game up for a mere £2.50 at a games show in Stockton. It is another of the "Hip Pocket" card games from the prolific James Ernest.

The players use their cards to create products, and then try to get other players to invest in those products. The players all control five "venture capital" assets, representing millions of other people's money, and they all try to back the most successful products, so that they can make the most cash for themselves.

The cards are very simple. They are printed on one side only, in black and white, but this harms the game not one bit. There are only two types: products, and product descriptions. They are cleverly designed with large words printed one way up at one end, for everyone else around the table to read, and small words the other way up the other end of the card, for the player of the cards to read. The best thing about the cards, is that they are very funny indeed, and I and my fellow players spent quite a while laughing at the various combinations of cards we came up with. Indeed, we liked them so much, that we played a game with them that didn't involve anything more than voting on the funniest product.

It would be a shame to spoil the fun by telling you what many of the cards say on them, but I must give a couple of examples. Two product cards are Game and Cat, neither of which is funny on its own, nor are the descriptive cards Frozen and Disposable. Put these together, however, and you have "Frozen Game ™ - It's like a family board-game, but frozen in a block of ice!" and "Disposable Cat ™ - It's like a cat that you never have to clean!" or if you prefer, "Frozen Cat ™ - It's like a cat, but frozen in a block of ice!", and "Disposable Game ™ - It's like a family board-game, that you never have to clean!" The players have a hand of five cards from which to select the two cards that will define their unique product, and these products are revealed to the other players and their virtues extolled. We had quite a laugh trying to persuade each other that our ridiculous products would appeal to various markets and prove long-term sellers.

Players then decide where to invest their clients' money. First they do this in secret, and then, after the secret round they can see which products seem to be attracting investment, and they have a second chance to invest, but this time openly.

Once the investing has been done, then each player rolls a six-sided die to see if his products do well, and can "go public" and be sold on the stock market for lots of profit. He must roll equal to or under the number of venture capital markers on his product cards. Investors get a profit equal to double the die roll, per venture capital market they have invested in the product. This means that a product with six million invested in it will certainly be able to go public, and could make a huge profit for all its investors, but if the die roll is a one, the reward for investment will not be great. If a product has little invested in it, then a low number must be rolled for it to go public, and so even if the roll succeeds, it will never generate much profit. This is a neat element of game balance.

At the start of the game, the fun of the products is great. I have corresponded with James Ernest, and he has a great sense of humour. Players can judge which are likely to be the most successful products on artistic grounds. Later, what the actual products are starts to become irrelevant, because the decision of whose products to invest in starts to become based more on who is in the lead.

One frustration is when a player has a hand of five cards all of the same type, and so cannot make up a product. This is no fault of theirs, and does lessen their involvement in the coming round. I'd prefer to see some mechanism to make it possible for every player to offer a product every turn.

At the end of the game, the player who has made the most personal profit wins. The rules contend that though in the real world people do not always make profits, it is more fun for everyone's score to be going up pretty much all of the time. I see this as a weakness in the game. There is not a great deal players can do to ruin each other, to harm each others' profits. At the end of the game, all the players end up rich, and so there is no feeling of having lost the game. I felt the same after I played Grand Union Pacific. The game had ended, and I was stinking rich. The fact that another player was even richer did not make me feel that I had lost. He hadn't harmed my ability to make money, it was just that he had made money a little bit faster. I prefer games where the actions of players affect other players a bit more deeply. I also like games where players can gang up on each other, and though this is not impossible in The Big Idea, it is not a major element of the game.

To play, you need five counters per player for the venture capital markers, and something to represent money, and one die.

I have never been enthralled by any game the object of which is to make money. This is a personal thing, I suppose, since I have never had interest in money at all, which goes a long way towards explaining my poverty. I love the cards and the way they go together to make hilarious products, but the rest of the game is a miserly exercise in penny-pinching. Overall, a decent game.

Frozen cat, anyone?

Bitin' Off Hedz ▼

Bitin' Off Hedz

Published by Cheapass Games, designed by James Ernest, Toivo Rovainen, and Jeff Vogel.

I got my copy of this cheapie for £3 at a games show. Cheapass games certainly are cheap. It is a silly race game, akin to Ludo, in which players control dinosaurs that race to throw themselves into a volcano. First one to go extinct wins.

You need something to represent the racing dinosaurs. I found a kiddies' pack of plastic dinosaurs in my local supermarket that did the trick, but you could just use counters. You also need something to represent rocks, and at least two six-sided dice, although I found that enough dice for each player to have his own made things a lot faster. A turn can be over so quickly that the act of passing the dice becomes an irritation.

The board is 21" by 33", which is pretty big, and is made up of sixteen sections that do tend to wander about a bit if not fixed down somehow. The sections are thin card printed on one side in black and white. The board depicts a winding path around an island and up to the volcano. A player in his turn rolls the dice and moves that number of spaces along the track. Some spaces grant an extra go, others slow a dinosaur down, and others earn them rocks.

So far, so simple. The fun comes from the various things you can do to make things difficult for other players. You can choose not to overtake a player, but to push him ahead of you instead, which can have unfortunate consequences, and if you land on the same space you can send them back to the start. You can also send them back to the start by knocking them off the steep path with a hurled rock, which causes them to roll back down to the start. Rocks can also be used to re-roll movement dice.

It is difficult to say what the ideal number of players is for this game. The rules say that it can be played with 2-8 players. With just two, it would be a dullish game, relying a lot on luck. With eight players, each player getting close to finishing would have seven enemies all trying to send him back to the start, and so it would be near impossible to finish. Even when I played with just three players, there was a point at which we were worrying that the game could go on forever. It didn't, however, although everyone was sent back to the start at least once or twice. About five players might be the ideal.

This is not a game to satisfy the avid strategist. It is a silly race game, that could be played by young and old, for a bit of a laugh. I doubt that a game enthusiast would want to play it many times, because pretty quickly you exhaust the possibilities for tactics.

Caesar and Cleopatra ▼


Published by Kosmos, designed by Wolfgang Lüdtke.

This is a two-player card game. I had this game for ages before I ever played it. For me, board and card games are usually social affairs when I have a few friends over for a chat and a game. I play table-top wargames against single opponents, and so an exclusively two-player game is not tremendously appealing. Having tried to design a couple, I know that two-player card games are very difficult to design well. This one is a success.

One player is Caesar, and the other plays Cleo. There is an issue of some sort, to do with the way Egypt is run by the Romans. What the issue is, is irrelevant. What matters is that Caesar and Cleopatra disagree, and each tries to win over the patricians of Rome to support one view. Twenty-one patrician cards are placed down face up on the table at the start of the game. These represent the floating voters, who might be won over to one side of the argument or the other, and so tip the balance to one player. At the end of the game, each patrician is worth one point. However, the patricians are of five types: Aedils, Quaestors, Senators, Censors, and Praetors (or to translate into modern terms, the Ministry of Defence, the Treasury, the Judiciary, the Department of Administration and Works, and the House of Lords). If a player can win over most of one category, he gets an extra point. If he can win over all of one category, he gets another bonus point. It is very useful to have all of the army or treasury on your side.

Players also have secret mission, picked randomly at the start of the game. Achieving a majority in the category on this card gains a player another two points. Since there are two of each secret mission card, it is possible that both players have the same mission, and so competition for one category of patrician will be especially fierce.

The players start with identical hands of cards, and five cards to be placed face down next to each of the stacks of patricians. These are "influence" cards, and vary in strength from one to five. In his turn, a player may place down one influence card face down, or may place two cards down face up. The desire to place cards face down is very great, but so is the desire to place down as many cards as possible, and every turn it is a tricky decision which to go for. This is a very good rule that makes the game both a lot more fun and a lot more skilful.

At the end of his turn, a player turns over the top card on a pile of "vote of confidence" cards. This is the major part that luck plays in the game. The turned-up card sometimes says that there will be no vote, or it may declare a category of patrician that will be contested. If a patrician category comes up, players turn their cards influencing that category up, and the higher total value wins. The winner gains one patrician card, and then another neat and effective game-balancing rule comes into effect: the winner loses his highest card influencing that category, and the loser loses his lowest. This means that after a victory in one category, is it often the case that the influence of the losing player ends up greater.

After his turn, a player replenishes his hand from either of two piles. One is of influence cards, and the other is of "action" cards. These cards when played enable a player to do things like look at one of his opponent's pile of face-down cards, or to assassinate one influence card, or to rearrange the cards he has put down. These are quite powerful cards, and add to the skill of the game, because they must be used effectively.

Another twist is that each pack of influence cards includes two "philosopher" cards. These are often played face down for secrecy, and they have the effect of making the lower total of influence win a contest rather that a higher. They add both fun and skill.

The game doesn't take very long. The box estimates 30-40 minutes. It remains fun to the end. A game can be turned around by good play, and so it does not suffer badly as many games do from "uncatchability", in that a player who is doing well at the start may well run into trouble later. If he had a run of good luck on the cards, then the likelihood is that things will change for him later, as both players have identical packs, and so his opponent will start to pick up good cards before long. Each turn, a player will try to end up winning in as many categories of patrician as possible, so that the random process of turning up a vote of confidence card will probably lead to a victory.

An interesting variant of this game, which I have never tried, is to allow a player to decide in advance on the order of the cards in his action card pack. I imagine that it might even be possible to play the game with a "stacked" influence card pack.

This is a German game, and English translations of the rules are available on the internet from Boardgame Geek.

Cathedral ▼

CATHEDRAL (or Cathedral World)

Cathedral, by Family Games, under license from T.O.Y.S. International Inc.

The rules of this game do not acknowledge any inventor, but the mysterious name Robert P. Moore appears printed on the back along with the date 1978. Possibly he designed it in that year.

This is a two-player game. Each player has a set of shaped pieces. My edition is the "Global Village Edition", in which the pieces are all resin castings of little sculptures of famous buildings, such as the Taj Mahal, Parthenon, Westminister Palace, St. Basil's Basilica, and Sydney Opera House. An earlier production of the game had the pieces made of wood, which represented medieval buildings to be placed inside a walled town. The game is not cheap, and the cost comes mainly from the producers' decision to make the components in a very fancy way. In fact, the only significant thing about a piece is its base's shape, and so it could be just a piece of flat card. The fancy pieces add to the game of course, but it is a shame that they put this good game beyond the pocket of many people. Perhaps a simpler version should be made.

The player with the lighter-coloured set of pieces goes first by playing the special piece. This was a cathedral in the original edition, and cruciform. In the Global Village Edition, it is a memorial to the people of the world (who consist of one Arab, and lots of European-looking types). After this, players alternate, placing down one piece in each turn. The rules are very simple, and the game is nice and quick. The players try to claim areas of the square board by surrounding them with their own pieces. Once an area is claimed, only the owning player can place pieces there. One way to stop a player claiming territory is to place one's own pieces where they interfere with his formation, but there is a danger here, because if a player can surround one lone piece of his opponent's, then that piece is then removed. The game carries on until one player can no longer fit any of his pieces on the board. At this point, each player scores the pieces he has failed to place on the board.

The game is slightly skewed towards one player, because one player goes first, so the best way to play it is to have two rounds, and total the scores of the two rounds to find the outright winner. After the first round, the players swap pieces, so each has had an identical opportunity to benefit from any advantage of going first. The starting piece is a neutral piece owned by both players, and this has a few simple rules associated with it. One frustration with this is that there seems to be little to be gained from having the choice of where to put it, as any place seems as good as any other.

If you can afford the price tag, and are looking for a two-player game, I'd recommend this one. It looks and feels nice, it is quick, and the winner is the one who played better. There is almost no luck in it at all, and a better player will win quite consistently. When choosing where to play a piece, it is tempting to concentrate on claiming space or getting rid of big awkward pieces, but this would be at the expense of letting an opponent build towards a bigger claim, or missing out on an opportunity to change the board radically with a well-played larger piece later. Because it is so quick (perhaps five minutes per round), you will want to play a few games of it.

Tip: if you have the Global Village Edition, be sure to label the pockets of the vacuum-formed storage trays before you take all the twenty-eight pieces out, or else it will take you ages to put the game away, as each piece only fits in one pocket.

Coloretto ▼


Designed by Michael Schacht, published by Rio Grande Games.

This is a card game for three to five players. It is very simple indeed, and plays quite quickly. The first time I played it, my opponents immediately asked to play it again and again. It is quick, too, which is usually a good thing.

The bulk of the cards show a chameleon of a certain colour, against a background of that colour. The chameleons are irrelevant, and just decorative. There are seven colours.

Row-marker cards are placed on the table - as many as there are players. A player takes the top card from the main pack, and places it next to one of the rows. The next player may then either take that card or take a card from the face-down pack and add it to one of the rows. Simple, eh? The game is such, however, that it is almost always difficult to decide what to do.

The object is to collect as many as possible of three colours, and as few as possible of the other colours. At the end of the game, a player scores three of his colours in his favour, and then subtracts the scores for the other colours. So, imagine a player who is collecting green, red, and yellow, has a turn. He sees that one row has a blue card on it, and another has a brown. He wants neither of these, and so he takes a card from the pack. It is a red. He must place it down. Where? An empty row seems like a good idea, but his opponents are collecting blue and brown, so he may prefer to contaminate one of the other rows with his red card. He decides on this plan, and places the red card with the blue. The next player is collecting blue, but not red. Does he pick up the blue card and the red? He must take all of the cards in a row or none, so the red card will count against him at the end, but the blue will be worth more to him than the red will deduct (a set of four cards, for example, earns 10 points, not 4). He takes the red and blue card, which is a compromise decision. Perhaps later someone will dump another red on him and he will curse his luck. There is almost always a cogent argument for placing a card down on any of the piles, or for taking a pile and not adding to any.

There are also other beneficial cards. Very useful are the multi-coloured cards that can be declared as part of any set at the game's end. There are also some that give a +2 point bonus. When picking up one of these cards from the pack, the player picking them up is often very unlikely to be the one adding these to his hand, and so must place them where they will contaminate an opponent's hand when picked. There is also one card depicting a strange fantasy stone tower with drawbridge and gaping mouth-like archway. Nowhere in the rules does it explain what this card is for. My guess is that it went with a rule that was removed from the game, perhaps because this one card was too powerful.

The rules are clear, the game is simple and quick, and requires lots of tricky decisions. This is all good. The artwork isn't the greatest, the description of the game on the back of the packet is cryptic and unhelpful, but these are tiny quibbles. A good game.

Ebola Monkey Hunt ▼


(Placebo Press)

Each player has to capture four monkeys in the lab, and get them to the "Cold Zone". The board is a piece of paper with squares on it, with a  maze-like load of walls drawn on. In games like these, all buildings have maze-like lay-outs.

Each turn, a player rolls 1d6, and moves that number of squares towards one of the four places on the board where there are monkeys to be collected. First one with four monkeys in the cold zone wins.

So far, this seems to be like Ludo, and rather dull. What makes the game fun, is the cards. If a player rolls a 1 or 2, he picks up a card, as well as moving a small way. Bad die rolls for movement, therefore, mean more cards. The cards allow players to mess things up for each other. Cards allow players to do things like puncture each others' bio-suits, and release airborne viruses. They also allow players to defend themselves, with such things as puncture repair kits and switching on the ventilation systems to rid the air of the viruses. Viruses, lack of oxygen, and a  few similar predicaments, mean that a player will die in three turns, unless he can remedy matters, which when I played, he usually could.

Making things even more haphazard, is a second set of cards. These are the monkeys themselves. When a player picks up a monkey, only then does he find out what sort of monkey he has. I was playing with an expansion set which included lots of "power-monkeys" which were advantageous to have. Most monkeys, though, make things very difficult in a variety of ways, for the carrier.

There are many ways, therefore, in which one player can make things tricky for another. Each player is also equipped with a dart gun, with which he can stun his fellows for a turn at critical moments. A good time to do this is when the victim is just about to deliver a monkey to the cold zone. Stun him and steal his monkey (but will he hang onto it, using his "kung fu grip" card?).

Naturally, when one player has delivered three monkeys and is about to deliver his fourth to win the game, the other players all gang up on him. This is fun, but it means that the game can take a long time to resolve.

The components are of tolerable quality. The drawings of the monkeys and men in bio-suits are so bad that one wonders whether they were the roughs given to the artist, who instead of re-drawing them, just pasted them onto the designs. Players have to supply various counters for bookkeeping, and pawns or figures for their bio-suited characters.

The game is simple, fun, a bit too long, and has enough tactical skill to it to entertain a gamer for a few games. You wouldn't want to play two games on the trot, though.

Hnefatafl ▼


A traditional game, with several commercial versions.

This game has many names, some of them old, like tawl-bwrdd and Cyning Tæfl, and some more obviously modern and commercial, like Viking Chess, and the literal meaning of "hnefatafl": King's Table. Do a search for "Hnefatafl" in Google and you'll find a few sites describing the history of the game. Suffice here to say that it predates chess, and versions of it have been found all round Europe, Scandinavia and the British Isles. Though it is best known as a Viking game, it was far from confined to the Viking areas of the world. It was known to be played in Wales as late as 1587, and in Lapland in 1723, though it was at its height of popularity around 400 A.D.

My home-made hnefatafl board, with glass pieces.

One advantage of its being a traditional game is that no one owns the idea, or the rules, so I am free here to say what I like about them, and to describe the full game. One drawback is that there are many many different versions of the game, and no utterly complete set of rules survives from its heyday, and so it can be difficult to settle on a set of rules that one likes.

There are many known different boards from the past, and different numbers of pieces. To make your own set, you need to create a grid of squares for a board, and have two sets of pieces, one for the attackers and one for the defenders, plus one special piece to represent the king. I used flower-arranging glass blobs for the pieces, and drew a board with a pen, coloured it in with pencils, and stuck it with sprayed glue to the back of a board that came with a commercial board game, then covered it with book-covering film. I have drawn on five "king's squares": one in the centre, sometimes known as the "throne", and four in the corners. Other squares are drawn on showing the starting positions of the pieces. I have made mine 11 x 11, which is a common size, though other boards are much bigger, and some are 7 x 7 or 9 x 9. The board is always square and always has an odd number of spaces to a side, so that the king can start in the centre.

Most two-player games are symmetrical, in that both players have the same resources and the same objective. Hnefatafl is different. One player starts in the centre of the board and tries to get his king to escape, and the other starts around the edges with about twice as many pieces, and has to capture the enemy's king. All pieces move like rooks in chess - orthogonally along rows and columns, but not diagonally, any number of empty squares - and are blocked by other pieces. So far, I have told you the rules common to all versions. After this, things get a bit variable.

Since the game is not symmetrical, there is a difficult issue of game balance. With one set of rules, it may seem that the attacker captures the king almost every time, and with another set, the defender whips his king to freedom with ease. However, it often turns out that the tactics used by a player when testing a set of rules were poor, and that with the same set of rules, a good player can reverse the bias and win every time when before it seemed that he should lose.

However, for the serious gamer, who loves experimenting with rules and strategies, this can make the game a satisfying intellectual exercise. The ideal would be to find a game that is balanced such that the attacker wins about half the time. Hnefatafl offers players the opportunity to balance the game according to the relative skills of the players. An expert playing against a novice can balance the game by adopting a few rules that favour his opponent.

Instead of trying to describe a hundred variants of the overall game, which would take a hundred thousand words, I will describe the variations on each single rule. You will have to put them together in your own way to make a complete game that is reasonably balanced. Each variant will favour one player or the other, and some will favour one player massively when they are used in combination with some other rule. I shall call the ordinary pieces that make up all of the attackers and all but one of the defenders "soldiers". The last piece is the king. The squares where pieces start are "camps", except the central one, which is the "throne".

A. Objective for the king:

1. The king has to move to any square on the edge of the board to escape.
2. The king has to escape to one of the four corner squares to escape.
3. The king has to escape to any edge square that is not an enemy camp.

B. Capturing pieces:

1. A soldier is captured (killed - removed from the board) when he is sandwiched between two pieces of the opposing side.
2. A soldier is captured when he becomes sandwiched between opposing pieces, thanks to the movement of one of those opposing pieces. He is not captured if he moves of his own volition to a space between enemy pieces.
3. A soldier can also be killed when he is sandwiched between an enemy piece and one of the "king's squares" (these are usually the central square where the king starts, and the corner squares in games where the king has to escape to the corners).
4. The throne and the corner squares can be treated differently for capture purposes, with only (a) the throne or (b) the corners having the killing effect.
5. The king's squares can be part of a capture only against (a) attacking, or (b) defending pieces.
6. The throne can be part of a capture against defenders only when it (a) is, or (b) is not occupied.
7. The throne is hostile to defenders when the throne is occupied, but never to attackers.
8. When the king is surrounded on three sides by enemy soldiers, and on the fourth by a defending soldier, his defending soldier can be killed when an attacking soldier moves to sandwich the defender against his king.

C. Capturing the King:

1. The king is captured just like a soldier.
2. The king has to be surrounded on all four sides by enemy pieces to be captured.
3. The king can be captured by three enemy pieces on three sides, and a king's square on the fourth.
4. The king can be captured by a combination of board edges, king's squares, and enemy soldiers, and so will lose if he is next to a corner piece, with his other three exits blocked by two enemy soldiers and the board edge.
5. The king can be captured by three attackers on three sides, and the edge of the board on the fourth.
6. The king can be captured by being blocked in, unable to move, in any position other than on his throne.
7. The king can be captured by being blocked in, unable to move, as long as at least (a) one, (b) two, (c) three, or (d) most of the pieces next to him are enemy pieces.
8. The king can be captured like a soldier when he is not on his throne, otherwise it takes four attackers to surround his throne to kill him.
9. In games where the king escapes at any edge square, and where he can be killed like a soldier, the king still wins even if he becomes sandwiched if he is in a position to move to the edge with his next move.

D. The king's movement:

1. The king can move like a soldier.
2. The king can only move up to a maximum of a certain number of squares, perhaps three or four.

E. Base camps:

1. Base camps show the players where to set up, and nothing more.
2. The attacking soldiers may move within their four base camps as normal, but once having left a camp an attacker cannot return to it, nor can a defender enter a camp.

F. Fighting with the king:

1. The king can take part in captures like a soldier.
2. The king cannot play any part in captures. Attacking soldiers sandwiched between the king and a defending soldier do not die.
3. The king can act as the anvil of a capture, but not the hammer. The king cannot kill soldiers by moving to sandwich them, but can kill when a soldier defender moves to sandwich the opposing soldier up against the king.
4. The king can act as the hammer of a capture, but not the anvil.

G. The throne:

1. The throne is an ordinary square.
2. Only the king may ever move to occupy the throne.
3. Only the king may move through the throne.
4. No piece may move onto or through the throne once the king has left it.
5. Pieces may move onto, but not through the throne in one move.

H. First go:

1. The attacker moves first.
2. The defender moves first.

I. End warning:

1. No warnings need be given of impending victory.
2. The attacker must warn the defender if his king can be captured next move if the king stays still. Failure to warn means that the capture cannot be made, and the attacker must make some other move.
3. The defender must warn his attacker that the king is in a position to move to a winning square.
4. Both players must warn each other that victory is potentially imminent.

J. Stalemates:

Stalemates are a problem in Hnefatafl, and I have read many suggestions for avoiding them, many of which are far too complicated. I rule that players must make a move, and can never opt to stay still with all their pieces. I also rule that if both players find them selves making the same moves back and forth over and over again, then the defender must make a new move. If a player cannot make a move, then the game is a stalemate. This would only ever happen when one player was doing very well, and so is a rule to force a player with a big numerical advantage to leave his opponent some room to move or else lose the opportunity to get a victory.

K. Board configuration::

The smallest boards I have seen are 7 x 7, and these work nicely. Personally, I don't like the look of the boards bigger than 13 x 13 as they appear to make the game longer than it needs to be. The size of the board can affect which rules you might want to use. If the throne cannot be traversed by any but the king, this makes a bigger difference with a smaller board. The attacker almost always has twice the number of soldiers, and never far from this amount. On a 7 x 7 board, the defender might have a king with four soldiers, forming a plus (+) sign in the middle of the board, and the attacker might start with eight pieces arranged in four pairs, each adding the size of the plus-sign formation. The formation you see in the picture of my board is one of the commonest. Sometimes the attacking pieces are in four rectangular camps each 3 x 2. Almost any symmetrical arrangement can work, with the defending side in a circle or plus-sign formation, and the attackers in four camps, usually in a rectangular or T-formation. One fairly common version has a 9 x 9 board, with eight defenders and king in a plus-sign formation, and sixteen attackers in T-formations, making all the pieces form a sort of Maltese cross.

Rules I like to use are: A1 or A2; B2 and B3; C7(a) I use a lot, although I find C1 does work; D1 is my usual, but D2 is good for game balance; E1 is my usual; F1 or F2 are good for balancing a game; G 2 and 3; H 1 or 2 - makes little difference usually; I1. You might think that certain rules, such as having a king killed like a soldier, would skew the game far too much towards one player, but there is usually a tactic that makes each game variant winnable for both sides.

The game often starts with a frantic rush to block the exits by the attacker, but as the attacker does this, the defender can develop his position unmolested. The defender can usually get a soldier or two near to the exits, where they can keep the exit open. If the attacker can surround the defender's pieces entirely, then with careful play he can slowly tighten the net and win, although there often comes tricky part when the row of advancing attackers has to negotiate the throne, which often has special rules affecting it. If the attacker does block the exits, the game is not over, because he hasn't yet captured the king, and it takes a lot of his men to block the exits.

A game for experimentalist gamers.

You may now be dying to have a go at this game. Why not try it online at one of these three websites?

Aage Nielsen's site (go to the games page once you're there and select web games)
Caltech site

The last of these, I've just noticed, repeats most of what I have just written. Heigh ho.

For lots on the history of the game, try Game Cabinet or treheima.

Ironclad ▼


Published by in the book Rules of Play (MIT Press) 2004, designed by Frank Lantz.

(Review and rules clarifications)

Ironclad is a simple two-player abstract board-game played on a 6x8 grid of squares. To make the board, you could use a chess board with two rows of squares covered over.

Each player has "robots" and "stones". The robots are represented by stacks of 1, 2 and 3 discs (you could use draughts). These move like kings in chess, and can either move or shoot. If they shoot, their combined firepower can destroy enemy robots. If one robots makes it all the way across the board into the opponent's first row of squares, then this wins the game.

The players also place and then perhaps move the stones, which are small markers placed at the corners of the squares on the board. If a player forms an unbroken string of stones all the way across the board, he wins.

There are, therefore, two different ways of winning the game, and a player has to be vigilant lest his opponent sneak a win in the apparently less-contested "sub-game".

The two sub-games are described in the rules in dramatic prose. The robots are apparently ancient battle machines that blast away with lasers and so forth, and the strings of stones apparently represent the sequences of logic put together by debating philosophers. I don't think that this theme helps the game at all. The game is clearly not a simulation of a real form of conflict.

The two sub-games are not completely independent of each other. The robots affect the placing of stones in that a stone cannot be placed next to a robot. The stones meanwhile offer ‘cover' to the robots when they shoot at each other. Here a die is introduced to the game to determine the effect of the cover. This introduces the game's only element of luck, and I feel that this spoils the chess-like luck-free purity of the game. Luck does not come close to dominating, however, and this is a minor quibble.

My major criticism of the game is not in the design of the game itself, but in the explanation of it given in the rules. I have written games myself, and find that the task of designing a game has two distinct elements, each of which can as challenging as the other. One is to create a game that works, and the other is to create a set of rules that explain the game clearly to a newcomer.

One very unusual aspect of the game is that half of the moves made are by one player moving the pieces of his opponent, to his opponent's disadvantage, rather than the far more common situation in which players move only their own pieces, to their own advantage. The crucial rule that says this is however very ambiguously phrased, and when I played the game for the first time, I interpreted the rule incorrectly.

I know that I interpreted the rule incorrectly, because I corresponded with the game's designer, and he very kindly put me right. Here follow the clarifications to the rules that arose from that correspondence:

Stones are considered to be connected, for the purpose of forming a winning ‘string' across the board, only when they are on corners of the same side of a square, and not when they are on opposite corners of a square. Another way of putting this would be to say "no diagonals".

The game can be won not only by a string of stones from one long edge of the board to the opposite long edge, but also it can be won by forming a string of stones from one short end of the board to the opposite short end.

The turn sequence is as follows: Player A (chosen at random) takes the first turn, and starts this by choosing either to move a robot or place a stone (he chooses to play one move in either of the sub-games). Player B then reacts to this by making one move in the other sub-game using one of Player A's pieces. Each turn therefore consists of two moves, one by each player, and one in each sub-game. For example, if Player A moves a robot, then Player B must then move or place one of Player A's stones. After these two moves, it would then be Player B's turn to choose a sub-game in which to play and make one move, and the Player A would react to this with a move of one of Player B's pieces in the other sub-game. If Player B in this example were to choose to play a move in the stones sub-game, then this would mean that a stone move would be followed by another stone move.

With these clarifications, the rules are I think clear enough, and pleasantly simple once you have trained your eye to skip over all the guff about laser beams and philosophers.

Since this is not a familiar turn sequence, and both players will have to give some thought to each move, it is possible to lose track of where on is in the turn sequence. It may help to have some token, and pass this back and forth at an agreed moment, such as when a second (reactive, of an opponent's piece) move has just been made.

When first trying the game out, I misinterpreted the designer's intentions, and played with a different turn sequence. I played that Player A played a move in one sub-game, then Player B played a move in the other sub-game using one of B's own pieces. However, I am reporting here that the game played perfectly well this way, and so players of this game might like to try both ways of playing the game, and may enjoy both. In my games, playing it the intended way meant that the stones were the more likely way of winning the game, and the main use of robots was to hinder the placement of enemy stones. Playing in my mistaken way, the game involved rather more aggressive robots.

I would recommend this game. To play it, all you need apart from the rules is a flat 6x8 grid of squares, and 24 (12 in each colour) stackable pieces for the robots, and 64 (32 of each colour) little markers for the stones. There are not many rules, and the game is one of skill, and each turn a player has a few tricky decisions to make, with quite a few options presenting themselves as tempting.

Light Speed ▼

Light Speed

Published by Cheapass Games, designed 2003 by Tom Jolly and James Ernest.

This is one of the new "Hip Pocket" games from Cheapass Games. These are cheap little card games that could quite literally fit into a small pocket. I bought my copy from a high-street shop for £3.50. Light Speed is a game for 2-4 players which earns its title from both the theme and the manner of its playing.

There is an asteroid floating in space containing some valuable rare element sought by rival powers. These rival powers all have the same idea: to send a load of mining space ships to the asteroid and mine it before someone else does the same. Ships appear out of hyperspace, fire their lasers, and depart. The lasers beam up the vital element from the asteroid, or they hit other ships and damage them.

The game divides into two parts: the playing and the scoring.

In the playing round, the table starts empty but for the asteroid card floating in the centre, and each player has a shuffled pack of cards in his hand. Each player has the same number of ships, one each of ten types, but doesn't know what order they will come up in. One player places down his first ship card, starting a general free-for all, as all the players place down ship after ship wherever they like on the table so long as it doesn't overlap any other ship. Speed is essential, because once one player has placed down his entire fleet, he declares this, and no one else may place any more ships. Judgement is essential too, however, because hurriedly plonking ships down in ill-considered places is likely to end up with unfortunate consequences in the scoring round.

Once the placing down of ships has ended, the scoring round starts. This is far and away the slower of the two rounds. Players have to find the fastest ships on the table (those with the lowest speed numbers), and work out what they are doing, before moving onto the slower ships. Once these ships have been found amongst the mass, the players look at which way they laser beams are pointing, as pictured on the cards. Lasers that hit the asteroid mine the asteroid and accumulate the vital ore (referred to in the rules simply as "rock", but this surely must be very special rock), while others might fire uselessly into space, might hit other craft (allied or enemy), or might hit the shielded sides of enemy ships and have no effect.

The winner of the game is the one who has scored the most points by either mining rock, or destroying opposing ships. The game's rule-sheet claims that each round takes less than a minute to play. The first round is certainly fairly fast, although I and my fellow players were more considerate than frantic in our deployment. The second round takes quite a while, though, and is a lot less fun. With practice, both rounds would get faster. All the decision-making, strategy and pace is in the first round, and the second round is just an exercise in bookkeeping. Ideally, one would want an automated system to handle the second round, though of course this is impossible with a card game.

The cards are printed in colour on one side, and this is the only way the fleets are distinguished, which might make it a bit tricky to play for colour-blind players or those using poor lighting. The cards are small, which actually helps the game rather than hinders it, because you need a fairly large amount of space to place them all down as it is. My main criticism with the cards is that they have sharp corners which are likely to suffer from the thousand natural shocks of speed card play. I imagine that they exist mainly because it is cheaper to produce such cards than cards with rounded corners, although I suppose that they might make adjudicating whether a laser shot is a hit or not a little bit easier.

To play, you need some markers of different colours to represent mined rocks, and damage points. I use glass flower-arranging beads.

The idea of the game is a good one. It is certainly a different type of game from the norm, and it is quick, and so might do for a game to be played after another more meaty one. The scoring does not take ages, but it does take a lot longer than the playing, and this is a frustration. It is quick to learn, and thanks to the considerations of shield deployment, asteroid mining, avoidance of hitting friendly ships, and relative speed of craft (a ship can be blown up before it gets a chance to shoot), there is enough to think about for a variety of strategies, and those with super-swift hands are unlikely to beat those with wiser minds.

Since the game is so quick that it has an inconsequential feel. It might be a good idea to play a few hands of it and combine these into a total game, keeping the score from previous hands, or perhaps continuing the game with ship cards that survived previous conflicts.

Lunch Money ▼

Lunch Money

Atlas Games produces this sick little game, and much fun it is. You get 110 standard-sized playing cards in a thin cardboard box, and one sheet of paper with the rules printed on it. Each player plays the role of a vicious little girl in the playground fighting her rivals for lunch money.

Before going on to describe the game itself, words must try to describe the design of the cards. A photographer has photographed his young daughter in a variety of inventive ways, creating a collection of blurred, dodged, shadowy, and jagged images that invoke a dark gothic atmosphere. When I first played the game, I didn't even notice straight away that the photographs were of girls, and had imagined that boys were shown. Some of the pictures need concentration to make sense of. Adding to the feel are many little phrases in a CHildiSh miX oF cAses, such as "I'm in MY HappY place. Aren't you?" which appears on the Choke card. The designs will appeal to people with a young and gothic sense of style and humour, while others may find them a bit disturbing.

Each player has a hand of five cards, which he replenishes after each turn. Players attack with simple attacks like Kick and Jab, and defend with cards like Dodge and Block. Attacks do damage points, which are subtracted from a starting score of fifteen, until a player is knocked out of the game at zero. Some cards like Hail Mary do lots of damage, while others, such as the bizarrely-named Pimp Slap do very little. Players may choose to keep their Block and Dodge cards for the big attacks. There are cards with special powers, such as Stomp, which halves the damage of the opponent's next attack, and Poke in the Eye, which renders the victim incapable of blocking or dodging the next attack.

Other cards act in conjunction, such as Grab and Headlock, and so it is possible that a player might play three or four cards on the trot to make up some fearsome attack. Some counter-attacks can be a nasty surprise too, such as Humiliation which sets up an attacker for an instant and near-unstoppable reprisal.

Learning the game is not tremendously easy, largely because there are many special combinations of cards, and so many cards with their own little quirks. The rules are not particularly clearly written either, and require a bit of interpretation and re-reading. To aid myself, I wrote a chart summarising how the various cards interact. Generous chap that I am, I have it downloadable for you here as a Rich Text File (.rtf), and I hope you find it useful. Once the game is mastered, though, it is nice and quick, and I found that first-time players are happy to play several games of it in one session.

The game is nicely balanced. At first, I thought that the weapon cards like Knife , and Chain were too powerful, since the user of such a card does not discard it after use, and can use it again and again, and there are only four Disarm cards in the pack. However, now I have played many times, I see that the weapon cards are not so great, partly because only by discarding cards can new cards be picked up. Similarly Headlock and Choke cards seemed at first to be pretty poor things, because they were difficult to get to work, and rendered both the attacker and the victim vulnerable to further attacks, as well as being very slow ways to finish someone off. The arbitrary viciousness of the game compensates for this, though, as players will usually choose to attack the weaker victims first.

The fight is all-against-all. It needn't be - one could have teams or temporary alliances, but the basic game is one of every little girl for herself. Part of the malicious fun comes from ganging up on one player at a time. If a player has not blocked or dodged a few attacks, then it seems likely that he has none of these cards, so if you have a nice Uppercut card in your hand, then you are likely to choose to attack that same poor player, because it would be a shame to waste it on someone else capable of defending themselves.

It is a good, well-balanced game, with lots of replay potential. It is nice and quick, a bit sick, and with a bit of a learning hurdle at first. Recommended.

Suggested House Rules:

1. The player who finishes off another player replenishes his hand not from the main pile of cards, but from the cards of his defeated foe. This means that there is an added incentive for being the one who defeats an opponent, since the victorious player gets to choose the cards from the hand of the fallen, and so is likely to end up with some particularly good ones.

2. The Humiliation card negates the last card played, and sets up the victim for a basic attack. So, if someone plays Poke in the eye on you, then you might choose to play Humiliation immediately, before the follow-up attack. Alternatively, you could wait for the follow-up attack before playing Humiliation , but if you do, then you still take the one point of damage from the first card, and are still helpless to defend yourself against the next player, because you have still been poked in the eye. Similarly, you might use Humiliation to negate the three points of a  Powerplay, and not wait to see what the follow-up attack would have been, or, believing that the follow-up attack will be worse, you could take the three points of the Powerplay and negate the seven points of the following Hail Mary. This tones down the Humiliation card a bit, and makes playing it much more of a skilful choice.

3. Weapon cards are played down in front of a player and left down. The player then replenishes his hand to five cards, so that he has six cards in total. This makes weapon cards worth having. The fact that they stop you from picking up new cards when you use them is such a drawback that they are usually not very useful.

Playing tips

1. Very often, the best use you can make of your turn is to change cards. You never want to be without good defence cards, and it is worth shedding some poor attack cards to get them.

2. A very good tactic when there are still three or more players in the game is to pass, and do nothing with your turn. People usually attack people who have attacked them already, and so you make fewer enemies this way. Also, people will be inclined to believe that attacks against you would be wasted, since your passing indicates that you have a good defensive hand. Wait for the other players to beat each other up before making your move.

3. Place Stomp, Choke, Headlock and perhaps Poke in the eye cards away from the main discard pile, and in front of their victims. Leave them there until their effects have been negated. This is not a tactic, it is just something to make play easier for everyone to follow.

4. Have two discard piles. One is for cards played in the usual way, and the other is for cards discarded by players when they use their turn to change cards. This second pile is face down, and so people do not get to see what is being discarded. Unexpected counter-attacks are a part of the fun of the game. If people can see that you are discarding good attack cards, then they know you must be desperate for defence cards, and will attack you. Ignorance preserves fear and mystery, and thus fun.

Murder city ▼


Designed by Will Hindmarch, published by White Wolf.

I have played this game twice now, and this was at least one time too many.

The theme is fine: each player is an investigator putting together evidence to bring murder cases to court, and the motive is pure profit, not justice. The style they have picked is dark Blade-Runner-esque and dystopian. So far so okay.

The components are not perfect, but are near enough adequate. In an attempt to look a bit sci-fi, the dice are metallic silver-finished, although we don't get enough of them to play the game easily. Most of the cards are small and difficult to shuffle, and the backs look very similar, which makes sorting the cards out before during and after the game a bit of a pain.

The game itself is slowish, requires little skill, has a largely irrelevant role-playing element, and has some nonsensical elements. Most of the fun in my second game (which by common consent was cut short) came from suggesting better rules.

Each turn, every player is supposed to roll dice to decide on the order of play. This is a pain because it takes time, involves no skill, and makes no difference to the game. Who goes first is largely irrelevant. The first time we played we just started with the same person each time, and the second we just rolled one die once to see who went first each turn.

Putting together a court case requires coming up with two or three pieces of pertinent evidence. A given case (the cases are all VERY similar, with stats that vary very little, and graphics that vary not at all) might ask for "Eye Witness", "Forensic" and "Murder weapon" cards, for example, but a player may send a case to court with perhaps just two cards, and often he is wise to do so, because if he only has one card of the correct colour, it is more likely to be picked by any official who challenges it.

The most cards allowed is three, and when a case has three cards allotted to it, it must be sent to the courts. At this point, the investigator is supposed to describe the evidence he has, and supposed to try to make it seem convincing, but in the game there might be advantages to make it seem unconvincing (to invite an opponent to challenge a good case), and there is no requirement to stick to the facts on the cards. In fact, the only thing that is relevant is what colour the cards are, because only those of a colour matching the case are impervious to a challenge. The game gives very few opportunities for finding out the colour of an opponent's cards, because very little trading happens - why give the opposition what it wants? - and most turns people take as many cards as they can from the face-down packs, because every piece of evidence played down is worth a credit, and there are only six turns to create as many cases as possible, so players wisely get and keep all the cards they can.

Most of the time, the player to an investigator's left audits the case, and is the one who may choose to challenge the evidence (by picking one card and checking to see that it is the right colour). This is arbitrary. Worse, if he knows the game, then he will always challenge almost every case, because a case that is thrown out is a major blow to the other player and earns the challenger benefit, and if the evidence turns out to be good, there is NO cost to the auditor. There is only a minor cost of a credit or two to the auditor if he challenges a bad case but is unlucky and picks the one good bit of evidence in it, but the risk of this is not huge, and the benefit of throwing out a bad case is much greater than the cost of failing to do so. There is precious little skill to auditing - pick a card at random and cross your fingers.

It would make far more sense to me if the rules said that challenging a GOOD case was a cost to the auditor. Here, he would be preventing a sound case from going to court, and would have failed the call-my-bluff test. Challenging a case should be a serious risk. If the game hung on the bluff element this would be an improvement over hanging on blind luck.

Once a case has been made and passed audit, dice are thrown to see what charge the accused is convicted of. If the investigator is lucky and rolls high, the accused is convicted of first-degree murder. If the dice go against him, he may get nothing or just aggravated assault. He is not required to bid a severity of crime - he does not have to judge the strength of his case and press for, say, manslaughter (which in alternative rules could preclude his getting murder-one). Instead, he just rolls all the dice and hopes - blind luck deciding the points instead.

We won't be playing this game again as the designers intended. We might write new rules and get a much better game out of it, but we probably won't bother. Two or three cards per court case is too blunt an instrument for this sort of game, and there needs to be more information given to players on which to base their decisions. Another mildly annoying thing about the game is that it would be possible to learn the packs, because there are only two of every type of card, and so one could memorise which two colours a given card appears in, and so if one could be bothered, it would be possible to gain a level of information that would kill the game even deader.

Avoid, unless you are a student of game design.

Nexus ▼


Published by Cheapass Games, designed by James Ernest.

This "Hip Pocket" card game cost me £3.50 from a specialist games shop. It is for 2-4 players, each of which will need about twenty counters in their colour. The rules say that a game lasts about twenty minutes, and I don't think that this is far wrong.

Years ago I played one of the first ever Cheapass games, called The Very Clever Pipe Game. Though I liked it a bit, I felt that there were only two strategies. One was to make my own pipe network simpler so that I might finish it and score points, and the other was to complicate my opponent's network so that he might have trouble finishing it. Nexus is a similar game in that players place down cards that have on them junctions and lines reaching to their edges, and the lines link up with lines on other cards to create a network, and a network can be completed if all its lines lead to end-nodes. In Nexus, however, there are very many strategies.

Another game I own is Carcassonne. This is a very popular full-price full-length game in which players place down very nicely produced full-colour tiles to build up a landscape. In Carcassonne, a player may elect to place one of his markers on the tile he has just placed down. In Nexus, he is free to place one marker on any node on the board. This makes the decision of where to place the marker a very interesting and difficult one, and many tactics become possible.

Nexus is like a cross between Carcassonne and The Very Clever Pipe Game, and in many ways is better than both. It has the element of trying to finish networks which is the core of TVCPG, and it has the element of placing down counters to claim parts of the board from Carcassonne. It is quicker than both games, and has at least as much skill to it as either. It makes no attempt to simulate anything, but instead has a clean abstract style.

Each turn, a player takes a card and plays it down anywhere on the board where it will fit, and then places down one of his coloured markers. The networks have nodes, and the more lines that connect to a node, the more it is worth. The way to claim a network ("nexus") is to have counters of your colour in it. Another player might try to steal a nexus off you by placing his counters in it as well. For example, you might have a counter on a node with two lines connecting to it, so you have two points in that nexus. A rival player might place one of his counters on another node of the nexus that is worth three points. He now owns the nexus, and when it is complete, he will score the points for it. The very simple, clever, and game-balancing element is that a nexus is only worth in points the value of the nodes that have no counters on them. In other words, the more a player invests counters in a nexus, the more likely he is to score the points for it when it is finished, but the fewer points it will be worth.

Just as in The Very Clever Pipe Game, a tactic is to add value to an opposition-owned nexus by adding cards to it, in order to make it harder to finish and score. However, the best cards for this purpose are ones with high-value nodes. These make the nexus very difficult to finish, but also make it worth more.

Every time I have played this game, it has gone down very well, and I get lots of requests to play it again. Every turn a player has, he has at least a few good options of where to place his card and dozens of options for his counter placement, many of which will be tempting for different reasons.

Another problem with The Very Clever Pipe Game, was that the three-player version of it was a bit awkward. Not only was it difficult to get a grip on how to play it, but it was also unbalanced, as one player had a different way of playing from the other two. Nexus has no such problem, and is equally good for two, three, or four players.

This game is cheap, fast, simple to learn and difficult to master. There is a little luck in what cards a player picks up, but mostly the winner is decided by skill. From me it comes very highly recommended.

Roborally ▼


By Richard Garfield published by Wizards of the Coast.

This game has spawned many imitations and several expansion sets. Richard Garfield, a multi-squillionaire after designing the Magic collectable card games, presents a game in which each player controls a robot. The board represents a factory floor, covered in conveyor belts, pushers, crushers, laser beams, turning gears, walls, and pits. The players have to program their bots to race across this field of hazards, to get from one flag to another. First one to the last flag wins.

There are, however, problems. First, is that the robots are very stupid, and can only deal with five instructions at a time, and these they cannot perform in one smooth series of movements, but instead in five separate lurches. At the end of each lurch, all the other robots have a chance to move as well, and all the machinery of the factory floor operates. The second problem is that each player can only use the cards in his hand to program his bot, and the cards he is dealt are not always convenient. Third, as each robot gets damaged, its player gets dealt fewer cards. Fourth, all the robots have laser guns and at every opportunity take pot shots at each other. Fifth, robots may either deliberately or as often as not accidentally bash into each other, pushing each other off course. Sixth, even if a player has an undamaged bot, and a good set of cards, it is very easy for him to make a mistake and get his cards in the wrong order.

The program cards regulate movement. They indicate things like forwards one square, and turn about. A player looks at his hand, selects five cards, and places them face down in front of himself. Once all players have done this, the first card for each player is turned up, and the one with the highest priority number on it goes first. Very often, this number can be ignored, because it isn't critical which bot goes before another, but sometimes it can make the difference between carrying on freely, and being carried into a pit by a conveyor belt. When playing this game, players can often be observed trying to work out the effects of certain card combinations, while using their hands and head turns as conceptual aids. After each robot has made its first move, the factory floor machinery does its bit, and robots on conveyor belts are carried along, those on turning gears turn, and those under crushers get crushed. So great are the hazards of the race, that bots often get destroyed completely and have to be replaced by new bots starting from the last flag reached by the old.

The game components are quite nice. The basic game comes with six stout one-sided square boards representing the factory floors. These can be put together in different combinations, and the flags, the checkpoints of the races, can be placed in many places on them, and so each race can be different. The cards are good, and you get eight pewter miniatures of humorously sculpted robots, each with a different system of movement. One is on a big roller, another on double tracks, another on triple tracks, one is a hovercraft, another has two wheels, one has three legs, one spins on a ball, and one looks like a television on two legs. A couple of them look mean, but most of them look frightened. I have painted mine, but they come unpainted.

The game also comes with lots of fiddley little cardboard counters for keeping track of damage and the like, and two rules summary cards which don't have enough of the rules on them. There is also a small pack of options cards which describe special upgrades that the robots can get during the race, such as improved software, and bigger guns.

The back of the box boasts that the rulebook is fifty-six pages long. This is too long. The rules are difficult to absorb in one go, and finding a rule in the rulebook can be very difficult and frustrating. The rules are not brilliantly explained, and are badly laid out. The game isn't actually very complicated, but the rulebook makes it appear that it is. The rules need a bit of pruning, and rewriting.

The races recommended in the rules are too long. The way to get fun out of this game is to keep the races short. One big flaw in the game is that if a robot can get significantly ahead of the pack, it becomes almost uncatchable. The fun of the game is in the interfering with other players' robots, and this happens when the robots are all near each other. Once one robot has put some distance between it and the rest, it is very unlikely to be hit by a rival's laser, or pushed off-course. To get a good game, therefore, you need to have a shortish race (one or two boards only), and lots of players. The game says that it is suitable for two to eight players, and I have played it a few times with two players, but it is MUCH better with more. The real fun is in the five-to-eight-players range, with the more the merrier. With eight robots all starting the race in the same place, the first few turns are a maelstrom of crashing, shoving, laser blasting, and wreckage.

Another flaw is that there is no penalty for taking ages over playing cards. With a two-player game, you might be able to solve this with a chess clock. With many players, a better fix is to force the last player to play down his cards to pay a penalty. This would mean that the players would race every turn to play down their cards, to avoid the penalty, and thus the game would speed up greatly, and have a better atmosphere of friendly panic. I suggest that the last player to make his mind up and finish laying down his program cards should have the player to his right play down the last cards at random blindly. With just three or four players, however, this would probably be too harsh, so perhaps a point of damage or some other penalty might work better.

There are a few expansion sets, with more boards, more options cards, and more rules. I am not convinced that these make the game better. They may just make it more complicated and lengthy. They certainly make it a great deal more expensive, as the expansions are far from cheap (about £30). I cannot comment from an informed position, since I have not played the expansion sets. Armed and Dangerous adds a lot of deadly weapons to the robots, which can be fun, but the game is pretty dangerous enough as it is. Expansions also add more hazards on the boards such as water and oil.

Roborally is a good idea for a game, but the result is not perfect. It is a bit on the pricey side, and only works well with lots of players. It also has an unsatisfying balance of skill and concentration. You have to concentrate quite hard to work out what cards to play, and so it is not a game to try when you are drunk, but even after all that concentration, things are likely to go very wrong when someone else's robot smashes into you, blasts you causing one of your registers to lock (one of your five program cards to remain in place limiting your ability to program your movements), and shoves you onto an express conveyor belt heading for a large pit. You may have a turn to rescue the situation, but you might not get a helpful hand of cards. You are required to take it seriously enough to concentrate on the rules and cards, but not seriously enough to make you care much about the misfortunes that will befall your hapless bot.

Serenissima ▼


By Dominique Ehrhard assisted byDuccio Vitale 1996

Board game for 2-4 players.

This game recalls the time in the Renaissance when powerful port cities were dominating the trade in the Mediterranean. The word ‘Serenissima' is an old name for Venice.

The pretty board shows the Mediterranean, divided into sectors, and the ports around it. The land in this game is irrelevant. There are four main ports: Venice, Genoa, Valencia, and Istanbul, and these have six spaces for commodity markers. There are then medium-sized ports with four spaces, and small ports with two. The four main ports are the player ports. In a two-player game, Venice and Genoa are used, and in a three-player game, Valencia joins in. Each port has a colour, which corresponds to one of the seven commodities: cloth, spice, iron, timber, gold, gems, and wine. That is the commodity which can be bought from that port.

At the start of the game, each player has two ships, and a starting fund of money. Each turn, the players bid money to establish the playing order, then they buy commodities, recruit sailors, load up their ships, move ships, resolve any fighting, then any ports that changed hands are claimed, and then everyone sells things and gets rich.

The plastic ships, with their little flags, the little forts, and the map are pretty. The cardboard money is quite nice, and in general the physical production of the game is good. The rules are simple enough and clear, and each player gets a useful rules summary, which covers most things.

The representation of time and trade is quite abstract. In the game, a single ship sails to a port, lands a sailor to claim a neutral port, and sells for example one wine marker to that port. Once that marker is there, no more wine can ever be sold to that port. Although the rules do not state this, I think that it is better not to think of the wine marker as representing a single cargo from a single ship, but instead the establishment of a wine trade with that port.

At the end of the game, the winner is the player with the most points. Points are scored for ownership of ports, and ports whose commodity spaces (‘warehouses') are all full are worth a lot more. Points are also gained for ducats in the treasury (unspent money), still having a capital, and there is a bonus of ten points for having a full warehouse in your own capital. I have never seen this bonus achieved. It is almost impossible, because it requires a player to get one of every single type of commodity (other than the one his capital produces) shipped back to his capital, and the game does not have many turns, and there is almost always at least one commodity which another player has a monopoly on (meaning he can charge very high prices for it).

The game is largely about the balance between aggression and peaceful trade. A ship can have lots of sailors on it, in which case it moves very fast and is powerful in a fight, but when it gets somewhere, it has nothing to trade. One vital rule is that the number of sailors recruited at a port in a turn can never be greater than the number of commodities in the port's warehouse. This means that if a ship with sailors but no trade goods goes to a neutral port and takes it, then lands men to defend the port, it is then very vulnerable, because it cannot recruit any men to recrew the ship. The ship, with fewer crew on board, will now also be slower and perhaps unable to make it back in one turn to its mother port, and every voyage made with no trading is a waste. With four players, the game only lasts eight turns.

Every turn, players have to worry about leaving themselves vulnerable to attack. If a player is very aggressive, he will probably not win the game, because fighting is very costly, and all the time he is fighting, he is not trading, and trading is the way to make money. However, if he is naïve and does nothing to defend himself, his rivals can do him great harm. It is possible to lose one's capital port, and this is crippling. Not only does it lose ten points at the end of the game, but also 300 ducats every turn is paid to every player still having his capital. Ships lost to combat can be taken over, and a ship carrying a sought-after commodity may be attacked in preference to a peaceful trading voyage to get that commodity.

Timber and iron are quite common, and these are needed to build new ships. Early on in the game it is vital to get a port with both of these commodities represented, in order to expand or replace a fleet. Gems are to be bought at only one port, and so it is easy to get a lucrative monopoly of gems. Spices are rare (just two ports in the east), as is gold (again, just two ports). The game often starts with a race to the gold ports. Gold is especially important because gold and wood are needed to fortify a port.

One minor niggle is that the wine ports have a dull red circle that is very easy to mistake for the dull reddish brown of the timber ports. I intend to paint these circles in a bright scarlet one day to make them clearer.

A much more major criticism I have of the game is the combat system. It is simple and quick, which is good. However, it involves having to do a calculation (you add the die roll result to the number of sailors and then divide by three (or four if attacking a fortified port), so if I have three sailors, and I roll a five, I've inflicted... 3+5=8, 8÷3=2.67, rounded down to 2. I don't want to have to do this in my head every time, so I would rather have a simple chart derived from this. Note that the relative sizes of forces is not a factor – one attacker will inflict as many losses against a vast army as it will a small force of enemy. Another thing I don't like is that if a port has a very big garrison, it becomes invulnerable. For example, if a player had a garrison of ten (not very difficult to achieve), a roll of 5 or 6 would kill five attackers in a single round, and sink their ship.

For the convenience of those playing this game, you can download my combat table (Word .doc format), which is formatted to print three times on one sheet of A4 paper.

These, though, are minor niggles compared with another aspect of the system: it is too predictable. The only way to inflict no losses at all on the enemy is to roll a 1 when attacking with one sailor. All other rolls will certainly inflict some losses. If attacking with a full ship of five men, a roll of 1-3 kills two enemies, and a roll of 4-6 kills three. An attacker can, and usually will, attack when he is certain of victory. For example, if your ship has three men on it and mine has five, and I roll a 1 and you roll a six, I kill 2 and you kill two as well. In the next round of fighting it is three of my men versus one of yours. If I again roll 1 and you roll 6 (the worst possible result for me), you kill two of mine and I kill your last man. True, this is still a set-back for me, because I now no longer have enough men to take over your ship, but this example was of very common crew size (three) being attacked by a warship (no commodities), and so it shows you that a player can be very tempted into attacking a reasonably well-defended enemy, and be certain of victory. Real war is not that predictable.

In the last game I played before writing this review (I have played the game many times now), I was playing Venice, and while Genoa and Valencia competed for the western Mediterranean, I mugged the Istanbul player. Quickly I built ships, then sacrificed these in fights against him, sinking all but one of his ships. I had taken a gold port, but Valencia captured that from me. However, I was able to capture an Istanbul ship carrying two units of gold, and with these I was able to fortify my two spice ports, and I ended up winning the game. My tactics were fine, Istanbul's play was weak, so that is not a flaw with the game, but the Istanbul player was dealt such a blow, and only about a third of the way into the game, that after that he lost interest in the game, seeing no way to recover from this early loss.

Combat should be less predictable, and a bit more dangerous to the attacker. In a multi-player game, this second requirement is not so important, because after a fight, a victor is usually pretty vulnerable to a vulture-like player who kept out of the first fight, but in a two-player game, the victor can be too sure of himself. I propose to use a combat system similar to that of the game Risk. This is also simple and fast, and uses d6 rolls, but it requires no tables nor calculations, gives a small advantage to the defender (defender wins in the case of a tie), limits the deadliness of large forces, and makes combat very unpredictable. In Risk, every game has in it one example of a single defender holding out against great odds.

I have not yet playtested my suggestion. When I do, I shall add the result to this review.

Tigris and Euphrates ▼


Original German title: "Euphrat und Tigris", by Reiner Knizia 1997, published by Hans im Gluck.

I bought this game on trust. I'm glad I did.

It is possible to tell a newcomer to this game all the rules, before the start. There are not very many rules, and they are simple enough. The rule book is, as rule books go, unambiguous. This is a good start.

A newcomer, though, might be confused by how he should play the game. Most of us are familiar with games in which a player occupies territory, defends it, and tries to acquire more. Also, many gamers will be familiar with games where players try to dominate some aspect of the play, such as in a WW2 wargame achieving air-power dominance or the like. In Euphrat und Tigris, however, such experience may prove to be a hindrance.

Players do not 'own' their kingdoms, they merely have members of their dynasty who control some aspect of the running of a kingdom. Consequently, a player may decide that it is not worth trying to gain control over the markets and trade in his kingdom, and may let a leader from a rival dynasty set up shop in his kingdom. Similarly, a player may build up a huge kingdom, and then abandon it entirely, and try to gain control over some aspect of another's kingdoms. This can take some getting used to, and it means that players can invent all sort of strategies which they would never use in other games.

This is a "tile laying" game. Players have a hand of square tiles, which in their turn they may place in the board, to create and expand "kingdoms".

The game is abstract, as ultimately all games are. The board needn't represent Mesopotamia, but could be viewed instead as a grid of squares, with two lines on which only one type of tile may be laid (farming tiles need irrigation, and so need access to one of the two rivers), but the setting is a good choice, as it is a time so long ago that much of our knowledge is vague, and so actual history will not interfere too much with players' expectations. One could say, judging from the symbols, that the dynasties are Persians, Hittites, Babylonians and Assyrians, but these peoples are never mentioned in the rules, and one could just see these as arbitrary symbols to differentiate the players.

The game claims to be playable in ninety minutes. I'd say that this is wildly optimistic, and would allow a fair bit more time than that for a completed game.

As a two-player game, it works well. There is a lot of space on the board in which each player might build kingdoms, and so many options. Much like Settlers of Catan, an early decision is whether to have one grand contiguous kingdom, or whether to have a few scattered kingdoms, any one of which might flourish, or be a hindrance to rivals. As a three or four player game, the nature changes a bit, as the board is more crowded, clashes between kingdoms harder to avoid, and a new type of strategy is possible: start a war between two of your rivals, and sit back and watch them fight it out. Be warned, though: the winner of such a war will become stronger.

The complexity of the game is just about right: players will have to think about what to do, but will not have to concentrate on any one turn so much that they spend ages taking their turn. Turns pass fairly quickly, and a conflict will involve other players.

The game components are nicely finished. The inside of the box has a lining with a printed design - a nice touch. The tiles are printed on VERY thick card, and come with a black cloth drawstring bag. The screens for hiding one's tiles are a bit flimsy, and they have a rules summary on them which is only useful to those who read German, but otherwise the physical aspects of the game are very good.

Looks good, plays well, will last well.

One game aid I've made for this is a one-page summary of the rules. Note that this game aid assumes that you have the game already, and does not tell the layout of the board, the numbers of the pieces, nor does it explain much, so it is only of use to people who have the game. Rules summary sheet.

Traverse ▼


Published by Glacier Games Co.

This is a good board game for two to four players. The board is a fairly simple grid of squares, with starting rows all around the edges. Players try to get their pieces from their starting rows to the rows opposite. First one to finish wins.

My home-made Traverse board, with glass pieces.

Each player has eight pieces: two circles, two squares, two triangles, and two diamonds. Each has its own way of moving, and there is a logical connection between a piece's shape and its movement: each can move in the direction of its faces (not its corners). A circle, therefore, can move in all directions, whereas a triangle (positioned with one point pointing forwards across the board) can move forwards on the diagonal, and straight backwards.

Players are free to set up their pieces in any order on the starting row. This is a nice touch. After this, they make moves in turn across the board. After a few moves, a piece is likely to be in a position to make a jump or two. Pieces can jump each other in order to move faster. Players can position their own pieces to help each other, or can take advantage of opposing pieces and jump them. They jump a bit like draughts (checkers) but jumps do not capture pieces, but instead just speed up movement. There are advanced rules, which you will probably quickly find yourself adopting, that allow pieces to make very long jumps, and for circle pieces to be sent back to the start when they are jumped. Since circles are such useful pieces, this is a nice rule that makes it a challenge to choose when to bring out the circles. Too early and they are likely to be sent back, but too late and the race will be over.

I first encountered this game in a home-made form. A friend had made a travelling version, where the board was a piece of painted leather, which became a bag to keep the pieces in. The pieces were white blobs of glass onto which the shapes had been painted in glass paint, in the four colours of the players. I have now made my own version, with a conventional flat board, and, since I couldn't find white glass blobs, I used coloured glass (flower arranging) blobs, with the shapes painted on in white outlined in black. The commercially available game has pieces that are the actual shapes, rather than having the shapes depicted on them.

The game is certainly one that demands skill, but a child could learn the rules quite easily. The winner will be the player who played better. The rules cater for a few different levels of challenge. One cruelly difficult one forbids moving a piece once it has ended up in the finishing row, which means that a player will have to plan very carefully to avoid getting into a position where finishing is impossible.

The four player version has players jumping not only their own pieces and those coming towards them, but also the pieces of the players either side coming across them. The three player game I have not tried, and I feared that it might be unbalanced, since one player has no one opposite him. An experienced player of the game has assured me that the three-player version works fine.

Traverse is simple enough to learn, takes skill to play, and doesn't take too long. A goodie.

Die Sternefahrer von Catan ▼


By Klaus Teuber, published by Kosmos Mayfair Games.

The title I think translates to something like "Starfarers of Catan". It is published by Kosmos, and designed by Klaus Teuber.

This is one of the latest and most expensive variants of the tremendously successful "Settlers of Catan" series. In this, the settlers of Catan have settled the whole of the Earth, and are now ready to move out into the rest of the galaxy.

Justifying the cost, are the bits. This is a "bit-intensive" game. The board is big and stout, and shows the home/start planets at one end, and a  scatter of unexplored planets elsewhere on the board, and four species of aliens to be encountered, two on each side of the board. All of these are linked by the familiar, large, hex-grids of all the Catan games.

Each player has a large space ship, in which one could easily imagine Buster Crabbe flying with gritted teeth. With this, a player keeps records of his people's technology and achievements, by adding or subtracting various plastic moulded add-ons. The number of extra engine pieces determines how quickly his people's ships can travel over the board, the number of guns how well they will fight if they need to (space is full of pirates), cargo rings around the belly of the ship tell him how well his people will survive on cold planets, and how much he can offer to the aliens in trade. The ships also act as dice. Each has a few coloured balls which rattle around inside, before two come to rest in a  transparent cup at the bottom end of the ship.

The game starts like other Catan games, with players placing their colonies on the home planets, next to planets which offer one of the five resources: carbon, technology, food, energy, and good old-fashioned rock. Every turn, a player rolls 2d6 and the effects of this are the same as in other Catan games: players next to planets with the number rolled get the resources produced by those planets. Players also shake their space-ships and consult a little table to see what they have rolled. The coloured balls determine how far ships can be moved, and whether a black card is to come into effect (which often they do).

Black cards are read out by another player, and they have on them flow-charts. These are all in German, and English translations have to be pasted over the top. These say things like "You receive a distress call from a ship about to crash into a sun, do you go to its rescue?" For doing good things, like rescuing ships, players get glory points, and these are lost for doing bad things. There is usually a risk in doing good things, however. Usually, the risk is resolved by pitting one player against another, so a particular set of choices made in the flow-chart might lead to a box saying "Make a movement roll and the player to your left should make one too", then lines lead from this box labelled "faster than other player" and "slower than other player", which lead to the outcome.

Players send out ships to visit other planets, and when they get to them, they get to see what resource numbers the planets have, and then they can choose whether to colonise them or not. Resources are needed to build ships, and to upgrade them.

Another way to get ahead, is to trade with aliens, and to befriend them. It takes a while to get to them, though, and later in the game, other players might win the aliens' affection from you. Mind you, the rewards are great.

The game is Settlers of Catan at heart, except that the board is very big, and so it can take a while to get anywhere, and each turn is a bit more complicated, especially if a black card is to be played. This is its downfall. It is pretty much the same game, only slower, longer, and more frustrating. Once one player has started to do badly, he has very little chance of catching up, and, in a game as long as this, this is a big frustration. If the other players have more engines, then they can zip across the board faster, colonise more planets, do more trade with aliens, and become faster still. Catching up becomes harder and harder. Another problem is that the game is likely to be won long before players are strong enough to do some of the more interesting things, such as colonise pirate planets (one needs a LOT of guns to do this). Once one player has the required number of victory points, the game is over for all.

Overall, I'd say that this game is a good way to appreciate how good the original game of Settlers of Catan is. Starfarers looks interesting, and fans of Catan will like giving it a try, but I doubt that they'd choose to play it very often.

Upwords ▼


No inventor is credited in my edition of the game, however Elliot Rudell has e-mailed me claiming to be the man, and I see that Boardgame Geek confirms this. It is published by MB (Milton Bradley) Games, 1985, as well as by Hasbro, Parker and MB Spellen.

This is a word game for two to four players. The board is an 8x8 grid of raised squares, onto which fit the sixty-four letter tiles, and each tile is shaped so that other tiles can stack on top. The game comes with little racks so that each player can prop up his tiles in front of him, and perhaps keep them secret from the other players, but the game works fine without these.

Upwords resembles Scrabble in a few ways. Each player has seven letters and tries to place these down on the board to make words that link up with other words on the grid, like a crossword puzzle, so that they score as many points as possible. The board is smaller, and so the game is quicker, and it doesn't have all those tedious "triple word scores" and "double letter scores" that slow Scrabble down.

The biggest difference from Scrabble is that once a word has been placed, any player may then alter it to another word, by placing tiles over some of the letters. For example, the word CAT could have an H placed over it to make HAT, or an H over the C and an E on the end to make HATE. If a player can alter two words at once, he scores both, so if the word CAT were already played, then an H could be placed over the C, and then A, R, and P added to make both HAT and HARP. The potential for clever play is quite great and most games include in them some turn in which a player makes three interesting words all at once to score a lot of points.

Awkward tiles such as J, X, Z, and Qu must be got rid of fairly quickly, because few opportunities to play them will arise, and all tiles unplayed at the end of the game score against the player holding them. There is only one of each of these letters. More common letters like N and T have four tiles with them on, and there are 8 with E on them. Very oddly, there is only one tile with the letter C on it. That the board has sixty-four squares on it presumably inspired the designer to have sixty-four tiles, but this is perhaps not the ideal number, and I personally would have included about three or four Cs. There are only two Hs as well, which limits the number of words using SH, CH and TH rather a lot. Nevertheless, the total number of tiles is about right, as the board gets crowded enough to make playing a challenge, but not so crowded that it becomes a great frustration.

As stacks of tiles get higher, they get worth more points. This means that sometimes it can be worth playing a simple word on a tall stack of tiles rather than a more clever word elsewhere. All word games will reward some gamesmanship however. Players with better vocabularies will have an advantage regardless of such tactics. When a stack is five tiles high, it cannot be added to, which is an important rule which stops the game becoming dominated by a couple of huge stacks.

One tactic is to place down a word that is so unusual, that it is very difficult to transform it into anything else. This is a good ploy with four players, but can backfire with only two. The game works very well indeed with two players. With four, each player will have far fewer turns before the game is over, and so luck plays a much greater part, as a single high-scoring turn is so much more important. Also, it is more fun to have more turns, so I would recommend this more as two-player game than as a three or four-player one.

Upwords is quicker and less fussy than Scrabble. Each tile is worth the same as every other tile, regardless of the letter on it, and there are no bonus squares on the board, so players will not spend an age trying to find a way to get a Z on a triple letter score. Since players can use existing words so much more readily to make their words, they are likely to play many more interesting words than in Scrabble because in that other game, a player will usually use just one letter already on the board, and have to do the rest with what he has, which might not be easy if his tiles are J K G U F T Q.

Tip: use a chess clock (or two, if you have 3 or four players), and give each player thirteen minutes (from experience I have found this to be about right). This way, players will not take ages over every turn, checking the dictionary, and searching for a play that might make another point or two. It makes the game much more exciting and quick if each turn is against the clock. Once a player's time is up, he can add no more tiles, while other players carry on having turns until their time is up too. In a two-player game, a player should score his turn before pressing his button on the clock.

Suggested house rules:

1. I found it annoying that the rules gave no extra points for long words, and that very often a shorter word on a taller stack got a lot more points. To counter this, and reward cleverness, I suggest that the following bonuses be given to players who make long words. If a player puts down a long word, he gets the bonus. If another player later converts the word with more letters, a bonus is only scored if the new word is longer.

Length of word Bonus
Five letters +1
Six letters +3
Seven letters +6
Eight letters +10

If a player uses all seven of his tiles, he gets the twenty-point bonus instead of the above bonuses.

2. Sometimes the board becomes clogged, and it is next to impossible to add new words that fit onto existing ones. Fitting words onto existing ones is part of the challenge of the game, and so creating words that do not link on to others should score less, but this tactic should be allowed. For one thing, it opens up the board and gets the game going again. I suggest that it be allowed to place words that do not link to any other words already played. When this is done, each tile is worth just one point, so it is an act of desperation.

Witch Trial ▼


Designed by James Ernest, published by Cheapass Games.

In this game, the players play lawyers prosecuting and defending women who may or may not be witches. Truth of guilt is not an issue, winning the cases is the issue, because this makes the lawyers more money.

The game comes with eighty-four cards with beautiful illustrations by Charles Dana Gibson (1867-1944) of characters in late Victorian/Edwardian clothes and poses. The players play charge cards on suspect cards to create cases, and then use witness cards to bolster their cases, and motion and objection cards to simulate legal manoeuvring. When the jury comes to make its decision, a die roll is made, and the score of the trial added, and the result is either victory or defeat for the prosecution.

Players need to provide the dice, and something to use to keep track of money.

A line of five cards is laid out, face up. On one end is a card that can be picked up for nothing, but the one on the other end, being the last one added from the shuffled pack, costs twenty dollars. Those in between cost between five and fifteen. Players therefore have to think carefully how much a card is worth. When a card is taken, all the others move down a place and a new twenty-dollar card is added. A player could wait for a card to get cheaper, but another player might snap it up before he gets another chance to buy it.

When a case comes to trial, a player may be able to influence which other player will represent the opposition. The two lawyers involved then battle it out with cards and a final die roll. Different charges are worth differing amounts to the victor, and different suspects are more or less likely to be found guilty, so choosing the right case is a major factor of the game.

In play, I find that too often a case hardly needs rolling for at the end, because the die roll is 2d6, which will quite predictably roll at least 4, and so cases within 4 of the required number for a conviction will almost always be won by the prosecution. Perhaps this is not a bad thing, because it just means that the use of cards is a greater part of the game, and so luck plays a lesser roll, although I have considered using 1d12 or 2d6-1 or some other variant to make cases a little less predictable.

This is not a quick game. A game that is cheap, as Cheapass games are, with a tiny board (actually, the board isn't really needed at all), and some smallish cards, might look as though it would be a quick thing to play, but actually this game is a full-length game, likely to fill the greater part of an evening.

The greatest thing about this game is the design of the cards. The pictures are beautiful and atmospheric, and the captions often very funny. Charges are for such crimes as "showing of ankles", "aloofness", and "heliotropism". The names and characters of the suspects (who can also act as witnesses) are great: "The Mugworts - too friendly for old people", "Blythe Stutterkin - known to own cats and to go shopping by herself" (she's a witch!), "Esmerelda the Mild - obedient and kind but unmarried at twenty-one" (she's a witch!), "Little Nellie - is known to associate with men after nine o'clock" (she's a witch!).

The evidence cards act differently for the prosecution and the defence, for example, the Casts no shadow card is worth 4 for the prosecutor but only 1 for the defender, as this might seem to be good evidence of witchood, whereas Reads without moving lips is worth 3 to either side of the case. The cards, these ones especially, give the players a lot of scope for role-playing the trial. For example, the card Works with children is worth 4 for the defence, but a prosecutor might still play it, even though to him it is only worth 2, saying as he does so:

"We see that the accused chooses of all things that she might usefully do with her life, to work with children. Why should this be, if not to take advantage of these innocent little ones, and fill their minds with corruption and deviltry? Do not children deserve to be protected from such evil? Furthermore, the counsel for the defence has the affrontery to claim that this work is evidence of the accused's good nature. Of course a witch would seek to obscure her mischief by such means! Gentlemen of the jury, there sits a woman of calculating coldness."

The game is fun, a bit long, has good opportunities for role-playing, and some funny cards. I have played it with three different gaming groups and it went down well each time.

Zombies!!! ▼


Game design by Todd Breitenstein, published by Twighlight Creations Inc.

This game is selling well. I bought a copy because it seemed fun, and you get 100 plastic zombie figures with it. It has, therefore, achieved its aim: to sell well. Whereas I am convinced that its design is commercial, I am not convinced that the game is great one.

The board is made up of thin card squares with colour printing on one side, which get placed down during the game. Each player also has a hand of quite nicely-produced playing cards with colour (but perhaps not full colour) paintings on them depicting zombies and their hapless victims. The game also comes with two six-sided dice, six coloured plastic figures for the players' pieces (depicting a man in a leather jacket with a pump- action shotgun), small fiddley black-and-white card counters for life and ammunition points, and the star attraction: 100, yes one hundred plastic zombies. These are all the same, but quite nicely sculpted, and they paint up well and easily. Yes, I have painted mine. I'll use them in fantasy wargame one day. They are approximately 25mm scale and depict a zombie in an advanced state of putrefaction shambling forwards, holding out one arm.

My quibble isn't with the game components, but with the rules. I get the impression that some gamers thought that it would be fun to play a game in which the players play a few poor souls stranded in a town filled with zombies, as in countless B-movies of this genre, and that they then threw together some simple rules that would allow them to wander around the town blasting their way through hordes of undead. This is fair enough as an amusing distraction, but on its own it does not make a game that requires thought and skill.

According to the rules that come with the game, the players all start at the town centre, and then move away from this place in search of the heliport. A player making it to the heliport can then get aboard the helicopter, and fly away to victory. The heliport board square is placed at the bottom (or in a suggested variant, near the bottom) of the pile of board pieces, and each turn a player takes a board piece and places it anywhere where it will join on to the existing board. The placement has no connection to the movement of the player's piece. A player rolls a die to see how far he moves (a frustration much of the time), combats zombies with a very simple combat system, and then rolls another die to see how many zombies he must move one space. Once familiar with the combat system, it is usually pretty obvious what the best way to fight is, and the zombie movement is seldom a decisive factor in the game, or difficult to decide on.

Making things a bit more interesting are the fact that some board pieces have buildings that can be entered, and these have in them ammunition and medical packs for equipping players. The hands of playing cards mean that it becomes possible to get better weapons, and to make things difficult for other players by playing nasty surprises on them, such as "butterfingers" which makes them drop a weapon, or "slight miscalculation" which doubles the number of zombies in a building. There is no logic in how one player is able to cause these mishaps to another whose piece is the other side of town.

The consequences of death in the game are not dire. The designer presumably did not want players to be left out if they died early in the game. However, death is little to be feared. The main consequence is that a player starts back in the centre square, although this may turn out to be closer to the heliport anyway, which could even be an advantage.

Whereas kids wanting to play at zombies or half-drunken adults who just want something fairly mindless will probably enjoy this game, there is little here for the serious gamer. On the Twighlight Creations website, there are many suggestions, sent in by enthusiastic customers, for alternative rules, many of which are better than the original ones. Some have "scrolling" boards, where the board is added to when a player's piece moves off the edge of the existing board. Others have more logical meanings and uses for the cards. Some have better motivations for player movement. One, for example, has one player start off with the keys for the helicopter, and this player gets a short head start, while the other players have to give chase. Another good suggestion is to place the helipad on the table in the centre at the game's start, and then the players start from the table edge and fight their way to the helipad by moving over a scrolling board. A nice idea is for "dead" players to turn their pieces into zombies, and to use these to stop the surviving players from escaping.

There are actually two ways to win, according to the main rules, and escape is one. The other is to kill lots of zombies. The first player to collect 25 destroyed zombie pieces wins. This rewards lucky die rolling, slaughter for its own sake, and doesn't seem to me to constitute a proper victory ("Yes, I am surrounded by zombies, and cut off without any weapons, but I win because I've smashed up a load of zombies. You guys about to get onto a helicopter must be so jealous of my body count.").

On the other hand, you do get 100 plastic zombies with it. Yes, one hundred.

There are several expansion packs available (army base, extra cards, zombie dogs etc.), but I won't be getting any.