Tower of Strength – Rhino Hero review


I’ve written before about the merits of an excellent children’s game, and sung the praises of the best in the business, HABA, many times. Tier auf Tier remains a firm favourite with each passing year, and the bright yellow box sits proudly on the shelf alongside some of my most loved games. And now, another title has joined the ranks of games that are ostensibly aimed at children but can bring great pleasure to grown ups too. Rhino Hero is here, designed by Scott Frisco and Steven Strumpf with gorgeous, sweet art by Thies Schwarz, and it is bloody marvellous.

Part dexterity game, part gentle strategy, Rhino Hero – like Tier auf Tier – is once again all about stacking, albeit in a more collaborative fashion. On their turn, players take cards from their hands and add them to a central skyscraper that quickly becomes far from stable. Each card represents the top of the previous floor, capping the building temporarily, until the next player adds to this wobbly creation as the time comes. After choosing which card you’ll be using from your starting hand of five, you gingerly add walls made from folded cards before placing your new roof on top of the building; should the building fall when you’re the active player, you’re out.

Oh man, this is going so well - we've never built the tower this high before...!

Oh man, this is going so well – we’ve never built the tower this high before…!

It’s not that straightforward, of course. Different card types bend the rules ever so slightly, changing the direction of play, forcing the next player in line to miss a turn or take an extra card from the deck, or even allowing you to place two cards on your turn – not that it’s always a great idea, as they are slippery little buggers and can offset the balance of the every growing tower of cards. The most dangerous one is the card that brings the titular Rhino Hero into play…

Should one of these cards be added to the building – and there are a lot of them! – the active player has an additional action to perform that could well bring the literal house of cards crashing down. You see, also included in the box is a cute-as-a-button wooden Rhino Hero mini, which needs to be taken from whatever position he currently is sat at in the tower, then placed atop his image on the card that was just put on top as a roof. A gentle touch and nerves of steel are required to make sure this dangerous move doesn’t topple the lot.



It’s a very simple affair, but still quite the challenge, which is why it appeals so much to players of all ages. Dexterity games are a great leveller – a steady hand isn’t reliant on the ability to plan five moves ahead, after all, so it doesn’t matter if you’re five or fifty. Of course, excellent play could mean that the tower gets very high, so smaller children could struggle to reach the top, but that’s far from a major issue. If you manage to get rid of all your cards, you win, though it’s far more likely that victory is decided by whoever has the smallest hand leftover once the building is destroyed.

And that’s it. Short and sweet, much like this write up! Coming in at under $20 (just checked, at the time of writing it’s $12.34!), Rhino Hero is a bargain. It’s quick to set up, speedy to play, and as equally fun for grown ups as it is for younger players. Much along the lines of Loopin’ Louie, I can see competitive rules being introduced for convention play between Serious Adults (especially when beer is involved) but that doesn’t mean that the gameplay out of the box is watered down or weak in any way. In fact, its simplicity is what makes it such a wonderful little game to play. Now, anyone seen a relatively affordable copy of the Japanese large-format release? If so, let me know! I need it in my collection!

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Sweet Little Mystery: Codenames review (Czech Games Edition)

Codenames cover

Party games still have that curious stigma about them, despite the leaps and bounds that the genre has taken over the past few years. Even with the rise of the juggernaut that is Cards Against Humanity (as well as the insane amount of copycat rip-offs that are still being released some three years after CAH first debuted) the vast majority of people, especially those who wouldn’t refer to themselves as gamers, will still harken back to to the dark era of Trivial Pursuit when it comes to playing something in a group that is deemed accessible by all. For many games companies out there, managing to tap into that market is something of a dream, but with the right alignment of stars, Czech Games Edition could well be in with the best chance of making the leap to mainstream success.

There’s already a lot of love out there for Vlaada Chvatil’s latest game, Codenames, and frankly you’re not going to hear much dissent from The Little Metal Dog Show on this one. I first got to check it out at this year’s UK Games Expo where the game immediately was the subject of a fair amount of buzz – while not many people got to actually play it over the weekend, those who did manage to get around the table with the prototype were quick to extol its merits. Thankfully, we didn’t have to wait too long for the actual release as copies were released at Gen Con 2015 and – of course – I was there to grab one on day one.

It is certainly something of a departure from Vlaada’s usual output. Codenames doesn’t have the complexity of Dungeon Lords or Space Alert, but for those who complain about its straightforward nature (and there’s been a small but vocal minority who have criticised the game’s simplicity), I’d say that they should remember that designers who stick with doing the same old stuff every time – medium to heavy eurogames in the case of Chvatil – generally end up seeing a marked drop in the quality of their output unless they start switching things up a bit. And don’t forget, he’s got previous experience with working on lighter material – the rather lovely Pictomania was released only four years ago, so the guy’s able to create interesting gameplay experiences without having to put together a usable 32-page rulebook as well.

Two groups are required to play Codenames, with a minimum of two per side – there are rules for a single-side, two player game, but two folks sat at a table really doesn’t constitute a party, does it? In the middle of the table sits a five-by-five grid of hobbit sized cards, each of which have a unique single word upon them – the codenames that give the game its title. These cards represent the agents that must be found by the teams, as well as unsuspecting members of the public and [dun-dun-duuunnnnnnn] an assasin that will ruin your day if they’re discovered (or at least this round of the game). From these two groups, each must elect a Spymaster who will lead the play; everyone else are the Spies who will be guessing at the codenames that are being alluded to.

Before play starts, the two Spymasters secretly check out a square Key Card that shows the positions of each team’s agents in the field of play. Flashes of either red or blue are dotted around the outside of this card, determining the side that will go first – both teams are looking for eight agents, but the team that goes first have their advantage somewhat nullified by the fact they’re also seeking a ninth double-agent.

In this case, the Blue Team are going first, but their advantage is lessened somewhat by having to find nine agents versus the Red Team's eight.

In this case, the Blue Team are going first, but their advantage is lessened somewhat by having to find nine agents versus the Red Team’s eight.

Agents are hunted down by the Spymaster for the active team saying exactly two things – a word and a number. The word must refer to at least one of your agents’ codenames, as shown on the positional Key Card, and the number is the amount of cards you’re looking your team to ‘contact’. So, let’s have some examples!

You could have an agent in play called Honey, which you could signal by saying “Sweet: One”. With that clue, you’re hoping that your team will make the mental connection and touch the card with Honey written upon it – that physical action must happen, by the way, or else the call isn’t official – but the trick to Codenames is to combine your clues to include more than a single agent. For example, if you happened to also have an agent called Hive, your clue could be “Bees: Two” – that single word can be linked to both Honey and Hive, and your teammates can contact each agent one by one, hopefully swinging the game in your favour.

If your team have successfully made contact with an agent on your side, the Spymaster takes one of the slightly-larger-than-hobbit-sized tiles of their colour and covers the correctly chosen name. This success allows the team to choose again, with up to one more attempt than the number uttered by the Spymaster for that side – so, that “Bees: Two” clue could lead to up to three selections by a team, assuming they get each choice correct.

Using the Key Card above, Blue Team could give the clue of "Animals: Four", but that risks the Assassin hidden under Lion being chosen, losing you the game. Much safer saying "Marine: Three" and hoping your team choose Shark, Whale and Ray! Three in one turn is pretty decent!

Using the Key Card above, Blue Team could give the clue of “Animals: Four”, but that risks the Assassin hidden under Lion being chosen, losing you the game. Much safer saying “Marine: Three” and hoping your team choose Shark, Whale and Ray! Three in one turn is still pretty decent!

An incorrect choice, resulting in either of a member of the public or – even worse – an agent from the opposing side getting picked, means that those cards must be covered by the necessary tiles and the team’s turn ends immediately, with play switching to the other side. Worst of all, if the Assassin is somehow selected, the team who chose it loses straight away and the Spymaster kicks themselves for giving a clue daft enough to include a cold-blooded killer in their midst. This little wrinkle in the game really does add an element of danger to playing Codenames, especially when both sides have made a few correct calls and the amount of options on the table grow fewer and fewer.

As you can see, rules-wise this is very simple little affair, but like all good party games there are a couple of elements that make things shine. There’s a delightful agony when you’re stuck watching your team consider your clue, then go in the completely different direction to what you thought you were on about; the Spymaster must not say ANYTHING apart from their single word clue and the number of cards, and even pulling anguished faces is frowned upon by the rulebook. You must remain stony faced, even if the other folks at the table are wandering down some ludicrous mental cul-de-sac and are getting dangerously close to tapping the Assassin’s name, throwing the game away despite your hard work.

From the opposite side, playing as one of the selectors is equally as entertaining; constantly trying to remember previous clues, making links between the slowly decreasing words on the table in front of you… it’s a lot of fun. There’s also the fantastic feeling of managing to correctly choose a set of names from a particularly good clue that links three or more cards in play – it’s a rarity but man, when your entire team is working perfectly in tandem, it’s utterly glorious.

Now, there’s always going to be a section of the population who simply won’t get on with how the game works. Links can end up being very tenuous and I’ve been involved in a couple of games where players simply don’t understand the Spymaster’s thought processes, but I find this to honestly be part of the fun. Codenames‘ scalability works very well – you can dumb down your clues a low as you need to, picking off agents on your side one by one, and there’ll always be a tipping point where the options have been pared back so much that you should (should!) be able to make a link between a couple of those still remaining in play. Managing to have your side pick up on this and choose two or more correct agents on one turn really does swing things your way quite drastically, and after a couple of games of relatively simplistic play to feel your way around how the whole thing works, you’ll soon find the Spymasters really striving to call out bigger and braver clues.

Production is relatively simple, but CGE have really pushed the boat out on the amount of included content to ensure plenty of replayability. With two-hundred double-sided codename cards in the box, the potential available combinations are huge. Expansions are surely being planned, and will hopefully be as inexpensive as this initial release – copies are available for a mere $20, making Codenames one of the real bargains of 2015. Even if your regular group maxes out at four players, I can’t recommend this one highly enough, but if you manage to get together with larger amounts of players once in a while, you won’t regret adding Codenames to your collection. I’ve found that more players means more confusion, and that leads to some truly entertaining discussions about what the Spymasters could be thinking about. It’s part Password, part Minesweeper, part mental torture, and you need to get yourself a copy of what will inevitably be one of the Games of the Year – you’ll honestly have a blast.

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Animal Army – Shephy review


Essen 2014. An excited Tony Boydell, he of Snowdonia fame, comes up to me with a smile on his face as wide as can be. “I got it!” he says, an air of triumph in his voice. “I managed to get a copy of Shephy!” to which I responded “Eh?”. You know, like you do. He went on to describe it to me, a solitaire card game from Japan, released in ludicrously small numbers (even smaller than your average Sprocket Games effort) all about trying to gather as many sheep as possible. Sounded interesting, sure, and I lodged it in that part of my brain for games I’d probably never get the chance to see, let alone play.

Wind forward to UK Games Expo 2015. The Math Trade brings some excellent results for me, including a copy – miraculously – of this mysterious game. I receive mine on the Sunday, and immediately head for Boydell’s Surprised Stare booth. I show him the game, and he conspiratorially leans in to say one thing: “You’re one of us now.”

My name is Michael Fox and I am a Shephy addict. It’s not too late to save yourself. Run while you can.

Shephy is a game about gathering as many sheep as you can. What I didn’t originally know is that, according to the charmingly strange story on the back of the rules sheet, the game is actually set in a post-apocalyptic world where there are no humans – the sheep have taken over, but despite seemingly being the dominant force on the planet, there is still danger around every corner. Whether it’s meteors crushing part of your flock, overcrowding that sees some of your sheep fall off a cliff or, most terrifying of all, the rise of an ovine-specific Great Old One called Shephion, your target of getting to 1000 sheep in your fields is going to be quite the challenge.

So many sheep! The one in the bottom left is the Enemy  Sheep, rotated 1/4 anti-clockwise after each run through of the Event Cards deck.

So many sheep! The one in the bottom left is the Enemy Sheep, rotated 1/4 anti-clockwise after each run through of the Event Cards deck.

So, how does the game work? Well, it’s all about managing two things – the  “field” that will hopefully contain a maximum of seven Sheep cards, and the Event Deck that will both help and hinder you. The game begins with you drawing five cards from the stack and a single 1 Sheep card in the field. The other Sheep cards have values of 3, 10, 30, 100, 300 and 1,000, and cards can be combined through some of the Events that pop up, freeing up space in the field and allowing you to bring more sheep into your flock.

Each turn sees you choosing one of the Event cards in front of you which you must follow, place on the discard pile and then refill your hand to five cards. As you slowly work your way through the twenty-two Event cards, the actions you take may duplicate your Sheep cards that are already in play, introduce new ones and  even upgrade them to higher levels. Once you get all the way through the deck – assuming you actually manage to do so, for it’s pretty tough – you’ll rotate the included Black Sheep card to show that your enemy tribe has managed to increase their numbers. Play through the deck three times or end up with no sheep in the field at any time and the game is over. If you’ve got over 1000 sheep in your field, then you’re a winner (but you can continue to play as you bid to get an even higher score). Anything less and you’ve failed.

In all honesty, that’s pretty much it, and reading back it may appear at first glance that Shephy is a straightforward, basic affair. However, once you get past your first terrifyingly confusing play, wondering what the hell is going on and why you died after the eighth card, the game will get its claws into you. Trying to work out the optimal play will become an obsession – maximising the positive cards that are available to you while trying to rid yourself of the overpowered negative ones is hard, but certainly possible. Of course, some choices are pretty obvious – for example, if you don’t chuck out the Shephion card in the first round of play you’ll lose automatically, so the criticisms that the game does has an element of solveability (if that’s even a word) are valid. However, this isn’t really an issue – there are so many bloody awful cards that scupper your plans, any chance of solving the game is ruined most of the time, but not to the degree of every game feeling unfair. Just most of them.

Not all of the cards you deal with are awful, just most of them.

Not all of the cards you deal with are awful, just most of them.

Another part of Shephy’s appeal is how it looks – the designer (who goes only by the name of Pawn) is also responsible for the art throughout the game. The simple illustrations are silly and charming, especially the giant cubes of sheep that appear on the larger value cards that appear in the Field, and you’ll never see a more sweet representation of sheep mating in a game this year. Of course, actually getting your hands on a copy of the game is as much of a challenge as winning the damn thing, so seeing them in real life may not happen. However, if you manage to source a copy from Japan (because I believe that it’s still kind-of available over there) it’s well worth checking out, especially if you’re looking for a quick-playing solo game that is going to hand your arse to you almost every time. However, when you do manage to pull a win from the jaws of defeat, it’s an incredible feeling – and that’s why you’ll be as addicted to Shephy as much as everyone who has a copy of their very own. Now… back to the field – there’s a whole lot of Being Fruitful to deal with!

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Up In The Sky – Forbidden Stars review by Chris O’Regan


We’re back! We’re settling in to our new place in the US (in sunny New Hampshire) and as such, it’s time to start spinning things up again on – so here’s Chris with a look at Fantasy Flight’s recent big box launch, Forbidden Stars!


“Oh look, it appears the Chaos Marines are about to get wiped out”, said an observer of my most recent play session of Forbidden Stars muttered. “Actually, they’re about to win”, I replied. This exchange encapsulated my experience with Fantasy Flight’s latest foray into the realms of the Warhammer 40,000 universe rather well. For Forbidden Stars is not a simple area conquest game as the casual observer would assume, but it is in fact a collect token at any cost game instead. As soon as the players around the table understand this, strategies that seem rash and outright ridiculous suddenly start to make sense.

Forbidden Stars is a long form tactical board game that is a rehash of the now out of print Starcraft game that Fantasy Flight made some years ago. The board is made up of double sided square panels that are in turn sub-divided further into 4 quarters. The size of the board varies depending on the number of players, with the maximum being a 5×4 grid for four players. There are four factions that are represented in Forbidden Stars: The Ultra Marines of the Human Imperium, the Eldar race of nomads, the Orks who only live to fight and the Chaos Marines who serve the dark lord of Khorn. Sadly no Tau, Terranids or certainly no Squats are present, but we can but hope for an expansion or two can’t we? Each of the factions plays slightly differently, but all of them are restricted to the rules that run through Forbidden Stars.


Rounds are split into three phases: Planning, Operations and Refresh. Forbidden Stars plays for 8 rounds or until one player holds a number of objective tokens equal to the number of players. The means by which players gain these tokens is entirely up to them, but it normally requires the a fair few military clashes with the other factions in order to acquire the tokens. The Planning phase concerns the placement of orders that come in four varieties: Build, Strategize, Dominate and Advance. Build allows players to construct units and builds, but only in that order as the buildings have an impact on a player’s ability to build units. This rule is one of the many tiered and multi-layered rule set that Forbidden Stars is saddled with that sadly can stifle the play experience, especially for those who are unfamiliar with this type of game. The word ‘no’ is uttered more often than not when players ask a question as to whether they can do something during the game, simply because they fail to meet a seemingly arbitrary rule. But these rules exist to create a balanced environment else Forbidden Stars becomes broken. Thankfully the design of Forbidden Stars is of familiar Fantasy Flight quality with iconography that can be easily read and thus reduces the need to constantly audit your own actions as well as everyone else’s. It does not negate this, however, forcing all participants to be extra observant when others are executing their actions.

Strategize is a rather interesting order in that it doesn’t impact on other players immediately, but does enhance a player’s abilities to execute actions on the board and deal with combat engagements. The player can buy enhanced units for use in their combat and can also buy abilities that have a lasting effect as soon as they are bought, making their purchase early on in the game somewhat advisable. Once completing this order it is possible to place an order token on the event deck of cards that results in the player carrying out additional action(s) during the event section of the Refresh phase mentioned previously. This can bring about significantly game changing actions that can turn the tide of the game very quickly when used judiciously.

Dominate is what can be referred to as gathering of resources and pulling off unique moves to a player’s faction. Once triggered it allows players to reap assets from the systems that exist within quadrant the Dominate order has been triggered in. Assets come in three flavours: Reinforcements, Supplies and Forge. Reinforcements are used in combat, Supplies are used to reduce the cost of buying units and structures and Forge are special tokens that are required to built certain stronger units and also temporarily increase the technological level to allow for the building of stronger units one level higher than would normally be legally built.


Finally, Advance is the order around which Forbidden Stars orbits as it concerns the movement of units and conflict it usually leads to. The timing of deployment has a huge impact on the likelihood of a satisfactory outcome. Movement follows a very strict set of rules, which are often misinterpreted at the frustration of the player trying to execute the order. Ships can only move between friendly quadrants within a system and they cannot cross a warp-storm rift, an obstacle that moves between sectors that is impassable to all except the Chaos Marines once they acquire an upgrade. Units can only be moved from one sector, preventing a massing of units from across the board to a single rally point. This rule confounds many and puts paid to attempts at shoring up forces from spread out installations throughout the board.

As a legacy from the Star Craft game that Forbidden Stars is based on, the placement of these orders can be on top of other players, resulting in some blockage of play and careful manipulation of order execution at the expense of the players orders. This can force players to miss their turn as they wait for other players to execute their orders, requiring them to react to what their opponents have done in their wake. This placement of orders and their location is pivotal in successful play of Forbidden Stars and it is often that players can mess this vital stage up by placing something in the wrong place or worse, in the wrong order. Many is the time during play sessions that a player will berate themselves for mistiming an Advance order.

Now for what can be described as the ‘elephant in the room’, the combat. I’ve deliberately been putting this off describing it in this review as it is a somewhat convoluted affair that has the first few skirmishes becoming little more than a lot of scratching of heads and wondering ‘is that it?’ by those involved. Combat is initiated by the rolling of 6 sided custom dice, the number of which is determined by the units taking part in the engagement. These dice remain in place and can be added to or removed during the combat, which is split into three execution rounds.

See, I told you it was convoluted!

Once the dice are rolled the results are noted, bolters or guns are attacks, shields are defence against attacks and eagles are morale that come into use at the end of the combat. The next action is for players to elect to use Reinforcement assets. They can only place as many reinforcements as they have units taking part in the combat and they only act as a damage sponges during the fight. Once reinforcements are placed the first execution round begins by playing one of the five cards the combating players have drawn from their combat deck.

Are you keeping up with this? I wouldn’t blame you if you’re not.

These cards are played simultaneously, but resolved by the attacker first. Most cards have bolters, shields and eagles attributed to them that add to the dice results described earlier. Additionally there are actions that are executed by both attacker and defender as they play the cards. These come in two forms, green and brown. The green action is always applied, regardless of the battle conditions while the brown action is only triggered if a certain set of units are present during the combat. No I’m not making this up, this is genuinely how the combat works.


Once all of the actions are resolved, the attacker determines if they have successfully landed any hits against the defender. If they have the amount of damage is compared against the hit points of the units that are participating in the combat. If it is only partially hurt then units are considered to be routed. They are not dead, but they no longer contribute to the morale of the forces taking part in the battle. This has a significant impact on the end phase of the engagement as it is morale that governs the victor, assuming there are units still alive after three execution rounds are over. Yes, that’s right, combat cards are placed two more times to resolve the battle, with the attacker dealing damage and the defender retaliating. This can and often brings the whole proceedings of play within Forbidden Stars to an almost shuddering halt as the combating players try to execute combat cards in a desperate attempt to thwart their opponent while the other players look on and can but stare at pictures of cats on Facebook via their smart phones in order to pass the inordinate amount of time passing. Nothing can be done to speed this process up. Even after multiple plays of Forbidden Stars the combat always slams on the brakes to the point of despair to those not involved with the fight. I’ve even had people leave the table to make a cup of tea while the combat occurs, it’s that lengthy.

The last phase, Refresh, is an administrative one more than being impactful to play, with the exception of gathering objective tokens. This has players taking tokens they earned from gaining control of systems with the tokens of their faction on them, knowing that they cannot by stolen from them in any way. This is a very important point to note as everything is geared towards the acquisition of these tokens in Forbidden Stars and players who recognise this do far better than those who seek to gain territory from others.

Event cards are also played in this phase that sees the impassable warp storms moving across game board and the triggering of actions within them. These can be very powerful, with some being able to be stored for later play in the form of ‘Schemes’ that can earn players an additional action during the Operations phase. This often throws other players off kilter as they see their carefully laid plans obliterated by a well timed play of a Scheme event card. Trust me on this, I have personally benefited and punished by such an action on far too many occasions.


Forbidden Stars is a good game, but I say that cautiously as it has a lot of problems that would be churlish of me to ignore. The pace of play for the combat is a blight on what otherwise would be a very slick game to play. The complex and cumbersome rules of movement are also maddening at times that, while needed, are only present because of the base design of the game demands their presence. It’s akin to a self fulfilling prophecy, which is never a good thing. It is because of these aspects that gives me pause to recommend it unreservedly as the both conspire to increase the length of play time. This reduces the likelihood of it hitting many tables as 5 hours is a minimum for a four player game session, and that’s with experienced players around the table.

In summary then, the movement and combat rules bring Forbidden Stars to its proverbial knees. Every action has to be carefully measured, calculated and audited to ensure they are done fairly for all involved as the rules are very finely balanced that one miscalculation can result much gnashing of teeth.

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Metal Guru – Guns & Steel review

Guns Cover

Awareness about Tokyo Game Market seems to have grown rapidly over the last couple of years, much of it probably thanks to the awesome guys at Japon Brand. Their regular trawls of the new and interesting titles that are produced in tiny amounts by the most indie of games makers at the twice-yearly event have brought us some great additions to our shelves – Colours of Kasane and Villanex are just a couple that still get regular play around here following their release at Essen 2014, for example, and many more games are on their way for this year’s Spiel. More and more folks are going to the source though, heading over to Tokyo to see what kind of things are on offer.

I’m not jealous at all.

One good thing though – sometimes folks get in touch with me and ask if I’d like to try out a game, and when I got a message asking if I’d like to see Guns & Steel by Jesse Li, how could I refuse?

A couple of weeks later, a small envelope landed on my (temporary) doorstep. Inside was a plastic baggie containing a deck of 56 cards and a rulesheet, nothing more – the boxed version of the game had sold out at TGM. Of course, having come from Japan, everything was covered in kanji and a slight air of panic came over me, but on closer inspection, everything in the game is also in English – it’s just that the print was a little smaller and I’m getting ever more blind as I grow older…

So unassuming, and yet filled with delights!

So unassuming, and yet filled with delights!

Regardless, Guns & Steel‘s graphic design is straightforward and clear, and once you know the symbols used throughout the game you’ll barely refer to the text on the cards. What’s the game about though?

Well, simply put, it’s the most portable Civilisation Building game I’ve ever come across, and it’s a very clever little bugger indeed. As you’d expect, you start off small with a handful of cards (everyone’s got the same to begin with) and are racing to evolve your own wee culture from riding around on horses to zipping around in space, collecting wondrous buildings and sites along the way that will score points. As you’d expect, the player with the highest total at the end is the winner, but Guns & Steel does that whole “you may have triggered the end of the game, but you may not necessarily win” thing – it’s very much a game of paying attention all the time, though it’s not up to the brain-melting level that many other civ games drag you too. Think of it as an introduction to the genre but don’t take it too lightly, for G&S will bite you if you don’t treat it respectfully.

Each Civilisation card in the game is double-sided, showing the Resource it can provide on one side and it’s Development on the other. The Resources are taken from each of the game’s ages (Horse, Gunpowder, Oil, Earth and Space Ages are all represented), and a large pyramid of Development cards is laid out before play begins with the three Space Age cards on top, down to seven Horse Age cards at the bottom (though there’s one less per row if you’re playing head-to-head with someone else). One Wonder card is placed next to each of these lines; these are also double sided but they don’t provide a Resource, just two time-line relevant buildings or events, each of which you and your fellow players will be fighting to get hold of as they bring in the big points. But how do you get hold of them?

As you’d expect, it’s all about spending those resources to pick up cards, and it’s here where the pyramid layout is important. You begin the game with those five lowly cards which can be used either as Developments or Resources, and each turn must be played out in the following manner:

  • You MUST play a card in front of you as a Resource.
  • You MUST play a card as a Development, but you don’t have to you use the effect on it.
  • You MAY buy one of the cards from the ones on the table
  • …and that’s pretty much it, apart from the thinking that you’ve just done the wrong thing and everyone is secretly laughing at you inwardly.

Each Development card has a cost shown on its right-hand side, but you may only purchase cards that are ‘open’ – in other words, the ones that have no other cards underneath them. (Actually, this is something of a fib – you can buy whatever cards you like in G&S, but each card below the one that you want to pick up will cost you one extra resource, meaning that things can get very expensive). As you start off with bugger all, you’ll be looking to slowly work your way through the cards and, thematically, through the game’s technological ages. Food and Iron could combine to get you a Philosophy card, the reverse of which provides a Horse resource (res-horse?). Combine that Horse with another Iron and a Knight could be added to your tableau. Collect a handful of the correct resources and you could be grabbing a Wonder. It’s a simple but beautiful system that works very well indeed where even the whole ‘pay an extra resource for a higher up card’ thing fits into the game’s theme – after all, civilisations make surprising technological leaps all the time, so why couldn’t a people who are still using gunpowder come up with the concept of a tank? Da Vinci did stuff like this every day before breakfast!

Play begins...

The birth of a new Civilisation! Or several, at least.

No civ game worth its salt would forget combat and with a name like Guns & Steel, this one has it there at its forefront – if you want it. Red cards are for attacking your opponents, and a successful battle is determined by who has the higher amount of military strength symbols in their tableau. Aggressors must be careful though, as their opposition can play cards from their hands in retaliation, so even though someone may look weak and a tempting target they could turn the tables on you – another splendidly sneaky way in which G&S works so well. Of course, you may choose a more pacifist attitude which is a totally viable attitude to take too. Once you start pulling in cards from the Gunpowder Age onwards, you’re immediately scoring points, so quiet development of your own part of the world while others all around you are losing their tempers can prove most fruitful.

I must admit that I was somewhat surprised when I saw that Guns & Steel wasn’t in the Essen 2015 line-up for Japon Brand – to me it feels like the perfect match for them. It’s portable yet deeply satisfying to play. It’s simple to get your head around but lends itself to a higher level of thought that you may initially consider. Sure, it’s not the prettiest game on the shelf, but its stark graphical style means – to me, anyway – that you get to see the information you need quickly, and frankly I rather like the way it looks. This game means business, no screwing around. Set it up, improve the lot of your people, and reach for the stars – or, in Guns & Steel’s case, the International Space Station at least. And all in around thirty minutes? Publishers should be biting off Jesse Li’s hand.

Guns & Steel plays with between two and four people with games taking around twenty to thirty minutes . Designed by Jesse Li, it’s available now through the guys at Board Game Bliss in Canada, and according to the game’s translator (the splendid Desnet Amane) there’ll also be limited quantities soon on the BGG Store in the near future. Best of all, the guys will be making their way to Essen 2015, so you’ll be able to pick up a copy there too. And you should. You really, really should.

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