South African Railroads

South African RailroadsI bought this game – I was actually the first person to buy the game from Winsome Games when it was first announced.

The gameSouth African Railroads by John Bohrer, published by Winsome Games in 2011.

Elevator pitch: A game of shares, railroads, and auctions set in South Africa, streamlined from the earlier Pampas Railroads and Veld Railroads.

What’s in the box? The typical Winsome clamshell contains typical Winsome components: plain paper board in two pieces, bunch of wooden cubes, share certificates made from coloured paper and small plastic locomotives for player pieces. Everything is spartan, yet functional. My only gripe is the borders on the board: they are pointless, but too prominent, and just confuse players.

What do you do in the game? The goal of the game is simple: get more money than everybody else. Money is made by holding shares and getting dividend payments from the railroad companies.

After the initial auction where the first shares of the companies are auctioned off, players start taking turns. On your turn, you can choose from four different actions: construct track, develop settlements, offer stock and pay dividends.

The actions are limited: the stock action can be chosen by one player, and the action remains blocked until the next turn of that player, who must then choose a different action. Offer stock is available for two players and develop for three. Construct track is an unlimited action, and you can repeat it turn after turn.

When you build track, you choose a company where you are the majority shareholder (a shared majority is enough) and either pay $5 for one link or $15 for a double link. The track network is already present on the map, players just place cubes to build the track. The track network is fairly sparse: it’s easy to get slightly blocked.

Develop action makes stations more valuable. When railroads build links, their income goes up, based on the value of stations on the ends of the link. The focal point of the map is the city of Johannesburg, which slowly develops to be worth up to 10, which is huge. That’ll draw the attention of the railroad companies.

When offering stock, player chooses one share, which is then auctioned. The auction system is very basic, and the money is paid to the company coffers, funding future track construction. Pay dividends action triggers a round of dividends: each company pays their income, divided by five (each company has five shares) to each share.

The dividend payments also control the game length: the game is over after the sixth dividend. The dividends are also triggered by the action track: there’s a track that goes from 1 to 35, and each action chosen advances a cube on the track: track-building by 3, development by 4, and a share auction by 5. Once the cube moves off the track, it’s dividend time. The pay dividends action resets the track.

The sixth, final dividend is paid in a different fashion. It also takes into calculation the company value, which is $5 per link cube on the board. There are also two special areas, which are very expensive, but increase the company value a lot. Also, this final dividend is not divided by five, but by the actual number of outlying shares. A small company with just one or two shares out may pay a lot more than a large company with all five shares out.

There’s plenty to think about on your turns: controlling your money, the company money in the companies you’re interested in, timing issues, game length control – plenty of meat in this game, but it’s all packed into 40 minutes of play.

Lucky or skillful? There’s chaos, but no luck. The winner is the player with the best plans and the best calculations. Sometimes other players do unexpected things which can catch you off guard and there’s definitely some psychological factors in play to devalue pure calculation, but the better value calculation usually wins.

Abstract or thematic? As solid as share-holding cube-pushing railroad games go. The earlier version of this game, Veld Railroads, includes more historical flavour, like the Boer war, but South African Railroads is very streamlined and has no historical flavour outside the names of the cities. It can feel a bit abstract, but the streamlining is worth it.

Solitaire or interactive? Very interactive. Often someone wants to turtle in a corner with a single-share company, but good players won’t let anybody do that, and will attack aggressively. The board offers lots of chances for blocking, too. The game is brutal.

Players: 3–6. I’ve yet to try the game with the full six players; I have a feeling that might be interesting. The game does work well with the range from three to five players.

Who can play? Age recommendation is 42+. That’s John Bohrer’s wry sense of humour, but then again, this is a somewhat demanding game. I’m sure my 11-year-old son would grasp the rules without issues, but I’m fairly sure he’d be pretty far from actually playing well.

What’s to like: Condenses what used to be a two+ hour game into 40 minutes of pleasantly nasty railroading; very interactive: lots of blocking, co-operation, hostile takeovers.

What’s not to like: Very hard – borderline impossible – to actually acquire; the Winsome look will turn off the uninitiated; updating the action track is fiddly.

My verdict: I forgot this game for couple of years, but now that I got back into it, I realized it’s actually one of Winsome Games’ best titles: it’s very short and effective, but also offers lots of depth, variability and plenty of delightful interaction between players.

Too bad Queen Games (or somebody else) never licensed the game: this one would deserve wider distribution. If you’re a game publisher looking for a meaty game to publish, I urge you to contact John Bohrer to get a license for this gem.

On the scale of Enthusiastic, Suggest, Indifferent or Avoid, South African Railroads gets Suggest from me.

South African Railroads

Dawn of Peacemakers preview

Dawn of PeacemakersSami Laakso was kind enough to loan me a preview copy of Dawn of Peacemakers to try out. I had the game for a week or so, and was able to play it for a while. The game had near-final art, prototype components, and lots of flavour text missing.

The game is coming to Kickstarter in November 2017.

The gameDawn of Peacemakers by Sami Laakso, published by Snowdale Design in 2018 after what is hopefully a successful Kickstarter campaign in November 2017.

Elevator pitch: A co-op campaign game, where players are peacemakers trying to stop a war between two nations.

What’s in the box? Dawn of Peacemakers is a big box with a double-sided board, terrain tiles to generate the scenario maps on the board, miniatures for player pieces and the warring factions, and lots of cards. Everything is illustrated by Sami Laakso and full of cute animals. If you like the art style in Dale of Merchants, you’ll love this.

The campaign game borrows a leaf from Mechs vs Minions: it introduces new content and rules in every scenario. Things start simple, but get more complicated as the game goes on. There’s no legacy elements here, but if you want to and are able to keep yourself from reading the campaign book, there will be interesting surprises in store for your first run-through of the campaign.

What do you do in the game? There are 12 scenarios in the campaign. In each scenario, your goal is to get the opposing forces to withdraw. That depends on their motivation: in the first scenario, the attacking macaws start with seven motivation and the defending ocelots start with three. Both need to end up at one or two at the same time, so that both want to stop fighting. Dropping to zero motivation causes a side to immediately surrender, which is not good.

The most common way to lose motivation is to lose a unit. So, in the first scenario, players want the macaws to lose most of their units – but not their leader, because that’s an immediate surrender condition – while the ocelots should lose just one, or perhaps just have their archers desert their defensive towers which grant one motivation when held.

The players move between the armies, doing actions by playing cards. Each card can have movement, influence and fortify symbols, and a card effect. You can pick one of those for each card you play, so you can play one card to move around, another to fortify a hex and third one to get a card effect – but your cards are severely limited, so you can’t do many turns like that.

Influence is a basic action in changing the course of the battle. It lets you peek at the army order cards and to reorder them. That way you can affect what the armies do.

When players are done with their turns, the armies act. Each army has two decks of cards: one is for tasks and another is for ploys. The ploy deck used depends on the animalfolk the army represents. These give flavour to the different armies: ocelots are shifty and surprising, just like in Dale of Merchants, while the macaws are quick to move. The task decks are built for each scenario and represents the tactics. For example in the first scenario, ocelots have archers who will not move from their towers, but will shoot at enemies, and warriors that will move around and fight.

For each army, draw one card from each deck and do what it says. Fast actions happen before regular or slow actions, move happens before cover and cover before strike. There are no decisions to be made in this phase: it’s fully automatic.

In the campaign mode, you move on to the next scenario whether you win or lose. Winning will give you small rewards. Losing will give you a small penalty. The leaders of the armies can be defeated, in which case they will be permanently removed from the campaign. If a macaw leader dies, macaws will be slightly disadvantaged in the future scenarios. There’s thus some permanence to the campaign.

There’s also a two-player skirmish mode, where players command their armies using the same order cards, but instead of a blind draw, players get to choose their orders.

Lucky or skillful? Seems like a good mix of luck and skill. Players need to have a strategy, but sometimes the armies can do surprising things.

Abstract or thematic? The theme is strong. The different animalfolk behave in different ways, and the players must influence the armies in a subtle way. The illustrations are really charming.

Solitaire or interactive? Fairly usual co-op in this regard: players must co-operate to do well, but there’s nothing to stop one player from dominating the game. The game also works as a solitaire game, there’s no hidden information between players.

Players: 1–4. There’s a good balance: players get a total of four cards per turn. In solo game, you get four cards and can do more, but have to spend more cards moving around. With more players, you can split the responsibilities, but have less means per player to actually achieve something.

Who can play? Age recommendation is 14+. There’s no particular reason why younger players couldn’t participate, but for smooth gameplay, having an experienced adult controlling the armies is a good idea.

What’s to like: The peaceful premise is something I haven’t seen before; the campaign mode keeps the game interesting; the art is lovely.

What’s not to like: It’s a co-op campaign, so if you don’t like that, this may not change your mind.

My verdict: I generally don’t like co-op games or campaign games. Pandemic Legacy was really thrilling at first, but we never finished the campaign. Mechs vs Minions was more successful: I played the whole campaign. Dawn of Peacemakers is more Mechs vs Minions than Pandemic Legacy to me.

Having players put in between two opposing forces, trying to keep them in check, is a brilliant idea. The peacemakers can be quite cynical and even violent, but the goal is interesting and unique in my collection. As the gameplay goes, it’s an interesting puzzle to figure out the way to reduce the motivation for the armies enough, but not too much.

On the scale of Enthusiastic, Suggest, Indifferent or Avoid, Dawn of Peacemakers gets Suggest from me right now, with potential for Enthusiastic. I will definitely back this game.

Dawn of Peacemakers components

 

Deja-vu

Deja-vuI played Deja-vu at the local board game cafe. How very convenient!

The gameDeja-vu by Heinz Meister, published by Amigo (and several other publishers) in 2017.

Elevator pitch: A combination of a memory game and a reaction test: pick up the items you’ve seen twice in the cards, but make no mistakes!

What’s in the box? A huge pack of cards (not many cards, they’re just big)  and bunch of cardboard objects. The illustrations are really nice, and the black borders of the items make them look really sharp and neat. Everything is well done.

What do you do in the game? The goal is to pick up as many items as possible. Cards are shuffled, three are removed unseen and then you start flipping cards one by one. Each card has one to three items, and each item appears on exactly two cards.

When you think you’ve seen an item appear twice, you can pick it up. It’s one point for you. There are no turns, so the fastest player takes the item. However, if a card is flipped and it shows an item you’ve picked, you’re out of the round. You keep your items, but score zero points.

In the end of the round, the three cards that were taken aside in the beginning are flipped face up. If you have any of those items, you’re busted. Count points for items for players who didn’t make mistakes, and play again. The player with the most points after three rounds wins the game.

Lucky or skillful? There’s no luck involved, it’s all memory and reaction speed. There’s input randomness to keep things fresh.

Abstract or thematic? There’s no theme. The items are a random assortment of household objects, all cleverly similar with at least one other item (clock looks like a compass; shovel looks like an axe; the hat is depicted in the stamp and so on).

Solitaire or interactive? There’s no interaction outside the race to grab the tiles.

Players: 2–6. I guess you can also play alone. I’ve played with five and it was ok, but I think the game is slightly better with fewer players.

Who can play? Age recommendation is 8+. It’s accurate, could even be lower. The rules are simple enough for almost anybody. However, to be enjoyable, the game requires players of approximately similar skill. Because of the heavy memory element, this isn’t quite as brutal as many reaction test games are, but still, in a family environment this may not work perfectly.

What’s to like: New twist on reaction tests and memory games; looks really nice.

What’s not to like: If you don’t like memory games or reaction tests, this game will not change your mind.

My verdict: I like most reaction test games and don’t mind memory games (but dislike memory elements in other games). Deja-vu sounded like a fun game and I wasn’t disappointed – it sure is a fun little game. The idea feels fresh and the components are excellent, so it’s really a pleasure to play.

It represents a divisive genre, and if you hate reaction tests or memory games, you’re not going to love Deja-vu. If you have a bunch of players, roughly on the same skill level, Deja-vu is a hoot. The way the memories of the items you’ve seen start to mix up after a couple of rounds is delightful and leads to surprising failures – all of which is a lot of fun.

On the scale of Enthusiastic, Suggest, Indifferent or Avoid, Deja-vu gets Suggest from me.

Deja-vu

Twenty One

I bought a copy of Twenty One from a trip to Amsterdam as a souvenir. The game: Twenty One by Steffen Benndorf and Reinhard Staupe, published by NSV in Germany and White Goblin in Netherlands in 2017. Elevator pitch: Another quick die-rolling, coupon-filling game that keeps everybody active on everyone’s turn. What’s in the box? A pad of … Continue reading Twenty One

Gnomi

I backed this game on Kickstarter. The game: Gnomi by Brian Fouts, published by Poppy Jasper Games in 2017 following a successful Kickstarter campaign. Elevator pitch: 10-minute filler card game that doesn’t require a table to play – just keep your cards in your hand and put the decks in your pocket! What’s in the box? Small, sturdy box … Continue reading Gnomi

Träxx

I bought a new copy of this game myself. The game: Träxx by Steffen Benndorf and Reinhard Staupe, published by Nürnberger-Spiele-Verlag in 2015. Elevator pitch: A quick simultaneous play route-building filler. May the best route win! What’s in the box? Four boards, four dry-erase pens, fifteen cards and rules. The components are minimalistic, but perfectly functional. Colours are bright … Continue reading Träxx

Heat

I bought an used copy of this game myself. The game: Heat by Dave Chalker and Chris Cieslik, published by Asmadi Games in 2015. Elevator pitch: Heist-themed drafting game, with artwork inspired by Saul Bass. What’s in the box? 34 cards, a small board, bunch of cubes and some plastic chips for money. Component-wise, this is almost … Continue reading Heat

Dungeon Rush

I received a free review copy from the publisher. The game: Dungeon Rush by father and son team Rustan and Eli Håkansson, published by Lautapelit.fi in 2016. Elevator pitch: Slapjack in a dungeon. Turn over monster cards and slap the ones your heroes can beat. What’s in the box? Bunch of cards: 10 oversized hero cards and 110 … Continue reading Dungeon Rush

Triominos Tribalance

I received a free review copy from the Finnish distributor. The game: Triominos Tribalance by Michael Sohre, published by Goliath in 2013. Originally published as Tri-Ba-Lance by Theta Games in 1995. Elevator pitch: A balancing challenge: try to get the best pieces on the best locations on a wobbly board without unbalancing the board. What’s in the box? There’s … Continue reading Triominos Tribalance