The Judge’s Pick’n’Mix, Part One – Rolling Japan and Red7 reviews

The Judge likes his big, meaty games. Something he can spend hours pouring over, calculating probabilities in his mind, considering the options he has, the moves he can make. Then he takes the wrapping off and actually opens up the damn thing. Sometimes though, even he desires something smaller, though no less mentally delicious. Here’s the first of a two-parter from him on some little games that pack a punch. Or, in his case, a meathook clothesline.

“Life is like a box of chocolates, you never know what you’re going to get – unless you look at the useful cheat-sheet which meticulously details the nutritional information, ingredients and potential nut content of each delicious treat.”

Not as catchy as the original quote, perhaps, but certainly more accurate – which is appropriate for today I am going to look at a few smaller games that have crossed my table recently (a pick‘n’mix selection, shall we say) and give you lovely readers a breakdown of which are hazelnut pralines (yummy) and which are strawberry creams (icky!). [You, sir, are an idiot. Strawberry Creams are the best. – Michael]

RollingJapan

You have to respect a game that proudly states that it plays up to 99 players in around fifteen minutes and isn’t even lying. Created by Hisashi Hiyashi of Trains fame, Rolling Japan game encapsulates the wave of micro-games that have come from the East in recent years insomuch as it brings a great deal of entertainment with relatively few components in a tiny little package.

Quick summary for those not in the know – a player rolls 2 dice and announces their number and colour to the assembled throng. Those players then take their pencil (8 are included – the other 91 need make their own arrangements) and write those numbers on their own personal playsheet that contains an approximation of Japan split into coloured boxes. The only restriction is that a red two, for instance, must be placed in a red box, and it may not be placed adjacent to any number that isn’t equal to it or one number away. So a three may only be placed next to threes, twos or fours. If you can’t go then add an X instead – after 8 rounds the least X’s wins.

So then, it’s really simple and easy at the start but maddeningly tricky by the end, and its good fun. A tricky little personal puzzle (this really is the definition of multiplayer solitaire) with more than enough think and decisions to entertain across its short running time.

Rolling Japan is a perfect start / end of night filler and with everyone playing simultaneously, it moves along at a good clip and can genuinely cope with very large player counts. Not revolutionary (though I wouldn’t be surprised to see it on next years’ recommended list for the Spiel des Jahres) but it fits a niche that guarantees a space in my collection.

Red7Cover

The new HOTNESS coming out of BGG.com was a simple little card game with a good pedigree. That game is Red7.

Now this was described to me initially as Fluxx for gamers. Few words in the gamer vernacular strike fear into my heart quite as, erm, strikingly as Fluxx. The popular card game that could conceivably last for ever, and often feels like it does, is not a favourite of mine. That said, the core mechanism of rules constantly evolving over the course of a play is a truly interesting one and it is this gamespace that has been explored and refined in Red7.

As far as pedigree goes, any new card game from Carl Chudyk, the designer of Glory to Rome (a truly innovative civ building game) and Innovation (a tech tree in card game form which lots of people really like but I can’t stand) is worth exploring. With that in mind, and the buzz surrounding this new release, I was initially quite optimistic.

And rightly so! Mechanically straightforward (at least in its basic mode which is all I have and intend to play for the time being) this is a great game. Like Rolling Japan, it’s very quick – and feels more akin to a trick taking game than anything else, in so much as a hand is playable in just 5-10 minutes.

Players begin with a hand of 7 cards with a further card placed in their palette or display in front of them. The deck contains numbers 1-7 in the seven colours of the rainbow (Richard Of York Gave Battle In Vain, remember?) and each colour also has a rule associated to it – such as “Most different colours wins.” The game begins with the rule being “Highest number wins” so the player with the highest number in their display (with ties broken by the rainbow colour hierarchy) is winning. Play continues clockwise from them and on a turn players may add a card to their palette, play a card to change the rule, or both. The only restriction is that you MUST be winning at the end of your turn, or you’re out of the round.

Again this is mechanically simple, but with elements of long term strategy and deeper tactics. You are not drawing additional cards throughout the round, so you simply must survive as long as you can and make things difficult for the other players whilst making the best of the hand you have been dealt. Which, in many ways, is a metaphor for life… Take that Forrest Gump!

A few hands of Red7 are a great way to begin a gaming evening. Simple to teach and quick to play, I heartily recommend this game.

Follow Stuart on Twitter, and be sure to come back for part 2 where we have more sweet (and perhaps some sour) treats to explore…

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Bomb Diggy – What’s He Building In There? review

WHBITCover

Gather round, and let your Aunt Emma tell you all a story, a story of wow this is kind of creepy I’ll stop.

In any case, our story begins in the mists of May of last year, when I was spending a lot of time looking at board games on Kickstarter. At one point, I decided to drop some of my money on What’s He Building In There?, a competitive game of mad science and supervillainy, where each player controls a mad genius and his henchmen, trying to build the best doomsday device while also constructing an escape plan on the side (because nobody wants to be stuck in town when your IQ-Reducing Idiotifier goes off). However, you’ve only got a limited time before Scotland Yard turn up to ruin everything, so you’ve got 15 turns to efficiently use all the resources at your disposal to make your plans the best they can be. Over those 15 turns, you’ll be sending people to markets to buy your raw resources, turning your henchmen into raw manual labour, and sending your doctor to do all the heavy thinking, as well as advancing on the Social, Security, and Exotic Pets tracks, because nobody’s going to take your Evil Doctorate seriously if you don’t have a komodo dragon or two in your heavily-fortified lab complex. On another note, just writing that phrase has made me want to put D.Ev after my name, and I encourage all my readers to do the same.

Anyway, to get back to the story, the estimated delivery on the project was August 2013. Now, I was never really expecting it to arrive on time, because Kickstarters never do, but I started to get seriously concerned around November, when I started seeing the game in shops. At first, I thought it was just my game that hadn’t come, but looking at the project, it became clear that nobody’s had. As time wore on and Baksha Games were less than forthcoming with replies on why all this was happening, I pretty much lost all faith in the game actually turning up, or in it being any good. The latter thought was not helped by me picking up a copy of Baksha’s previous game, Good Help, to which WHBIT is billed as a sequel, and finding that it was…well, it’s not very good. At all. Finally, a couple of months ago my copy turned up, and I eventually broke through the mists of apathy and disappointment around it to try it out.

The first time I played WHBIT, my thoughts on it were basically AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAactuallythisisprettyfunAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA… You swiftly become aware that 15 turns is not very long at all to bring your plans to fruition, especially when you only have one doctor, and he’s the only one that can perform almost half the actions on the board, including producing the all-important Genius Labour, which you’ll need to build all your inventions. Efficient play is a very big part of this game, and that ties in nicely with the hectic, industrial feel of it all, even if it does feel like it’ll give you a migraine when you realise it’s round 7 and you haven’t got anything done. This stress is lessened somewhat with more players, as the game plays with 2 to 6, and the main balancing mechanic for this is that you only get as many resource markets available as there are players. Thus, when you’re only playing with two, you can end up waiting for several rounds for either of the resources available to be useful to you, but with more, it’s a lot more likely to get something you want. There’s another advantage to having more players, and that has to do with how the game manages inventions.

See, the invention system in WHBIT feels kind of like Craftsmen, in that you need raw materials to make refined materials, which you need to make Intermediate Inventions, which you will need (along with more raw and refined materials) to build your main objectives. Inventing any of the intermediate components requires Genius Labour, which you’re only going to get a finite amount of, but if somebody’s already invented the thing you want, you just pay them for the designs rather than making it yourself. In two-player games, you’re probably going to invent the majority of the things you need yourself, which ties up your doctor for most of the game producing Genius, but with more, it’s more likely that you can buy the designs you need off your rivals, and your henchmen can help generate money to do that with.

Another thing I like about WHBIT is its inclusion of something we don’t see in a lot of competitive games: a failure state. When you get dealt your Doomsday Device and Escape Plan at the start of the game, as well as noticing the cool way in which they interlock to form a privacy screen, you’ll see that each of them have three stages, each granting more points but requiring more materials, with stage 1 being relatively manageable and stage 3 infuriatingly impossible. Now, the corollary of this is the fact that, if you are unable to complete at least stage 1 of both your Doomsday Device and your Escape Plan, you cannot win the game. You can get as many points as you like for exotic pets and intermediate inventions, but you’ll never quite escape the shame of how you either blew yourself up with your own master plan or fled town with not even an apocalypse to show for it.

To be honest, shady Kickstarter practices aside, there really aren’t many things I don’t like about this game. Sure, the first-player marker is the same white cylinder as the turn marker, the victory point track is both tiny and extraneous, and the Direct-Effect Inventions (which give you interesting new abilities) seem weirdly underpowered, but to an extent, these all feel like quibbles. What’s He Building In There? is, at its heart, an exceptionally solid game, marrying hardcore Euro worker placement with interesting theme and enjoyable new mechanics, and I’d honestly recommend it to anyone at least once. Just watch out for the headaches. Also the tarantulas. And did I mention the death rays?

What’s He Building In There? was designed by Sean Garrity and released earlier this year by Baksha games. Copies are available of this terrifying brain-melter of a game (that’s a recommendation, by the way) from the good folks at Gameslore, where it’ll set you back a shade over £30. Oh, and follow Emma on Twitter where she’s @Waruce!

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Go Go Go Tokyo – Rolling Japan review

Hisashi Hayashi, you magnificent bastard.

Trains. Edo Yashiki. String Railway. Sail to India. Four great games, all designed by the same guy, Hisashi Hiyashi, that I’ve played plenty this past year or so, and will continue to do so for a good long time. Now I can add a fifth game into the rotation, Rolling Japan, that at first appearance seems to be the lightest of the bunch. In reality, this one might end up being the most brain-melting of the five, despite being little more than some paper maps and a bunch of dice.

Any number between one and eight can play, though that eight is only down to the fact that’s how many little pens are included in the box. In reality, Rolling Japan is a single player game at heart where each time you play, you’re looking to score as low as possible. Of course, that extrapolates to a larger game with more people where you’re ALL trying to do that, but yes – this is essentially solitaire dressed up as multiplayer. Not that it’s a bad thing in any way, not at all.

To play, everyone is given a small sheet with an abstract map of Japan on it, split into six different coloured zones, themselves segmented into sets of smaller boxes. Rather than go into ludicrously in-depth description, here’s a picture. Much easier.

And so it begins. Once more into the breach, my friends.

And so it begins. Once more into the breach, my friends.

Also included in the package is a bag of seven dice, six of which correspond to the colours of the areas on the map; so, white, black, green, yellow, red and blue. Played out over the course of eight rounds, three pairs of dice will be pulled from the bag and rolled; the numbers that appear must be written down in the boxes of the same colour on the map – so far, so simple. Oh, if the purple one comes out, it’s treated as a wild, so you get to put that number in any coloured area you like.

Once the six dice have been drawn, they’re thrown back in the bag. There’s a helpful Round Marker to strike off, then you move on to do the same thing again… but there are a couple of things to consider. First of all, no more than one number can be put in a single box. Second, if you’re looking to put a number in a box next to one that’s already been filled in, it has to be either the same or one above or below. And, immediately after realising quite how awful those restrictions are, you swiftly get quite how great this little puzzle is.

Halfway through and things are going OK! Only had to use a single Colour Change and there's only one X so far... This could be a good shot!

Halfway through and things are going OK! Only had to use a single Colour Change and there’s only one X so far… This could be a good shot!

If you’re unable to place the rolled number(s) onto the map, you have to choose a spot to fill with an X – Rolling Japan‘s mark of shame. It’s these Xs that are tallied as your score at the end of the game – remember, the lower the amount, the better – but there are thankfully three lifelines in the form of Color Changes available to you. Instead of being forced to throw down an X, filling up a space and potentially screwing yourself over later in the game, you can take the number and drop it into another colour region. Sure, you still have to follow the rules of placement as detailed previously, but it’s way better than having to scribble down a dreaded and terrible X…

Pretty soon, things start getting very busy on your map. At around the halfway mark you’ll realise that you’ve probably made a mistake in at least one region that has messed up things royally. Numbers start squashing up against each other quickly and you’ll be letting out a few curses when, yet again, you’ll be drawing in another pair of Xs because you simply don’t have any legal placements anywhere. Sure, there’s probably a perfect game out there in probability-land, but with the numbers being provided by those damned dice, perfection simply isn’t going to happen. This is a game, not a jigsaw puzzle, and a truly challenging game at that. While you may be feeling pretty confident in early rounds that everything is going fine, just you wait until the end when all you see is a parade of Xs dotted about your map. Oh, did we not mention that every empty space is filled up with an X at the end of the game? Thought you were cocky holding off on marking those spaces weren’t you? Yeah – here’s what happens:

And here's my completed game. Thirteen as a final score isn't too awful. Still bad, but not too awful.

And here’s my completed game. Thirteen as a final score isn’t too awful. Still bad, but not too awful.

Now, I know that the usual complaints will begin – because the game revolves around dice, the whole thing is too chaotic for players to have any control over. Really, I’ve found it better to consider the chaos as an intrinsic part of playing Rolling Japan; the main meat of the game is reacting to what’s been rolled and just desperately trying to not screw up too badly. If I had any gripes, there’d be my usual one that the included pad of maps will run out pretty quickly especially if you’re playing with a larger group on a regular basis. Oh, and why the hell isn’t this on my iPad? Of all the games that I’ve played recently from Essen 2014, this one feels ripe for a conversion to tablets and phones. It’s a highly entertaining way to kill fifteen minutes, either with friends or by yourself, and I can only think that Rolling Japan‘s popularity would increase if transferred to a digital platform. Plus, with future maps planned to appear in the near future – there was talk of Rolling America amongst others – you’ve got instant and easy to introduce DLC expansions! OKAZU Brand take note! Oh, and print more copies ASAP.

Rolling Japan was designed by Hisashi Hayashi and released at Essen 2014 through Japon Brand / OKAZU Brand. Between one and eight can play though, as mentioned, it’s essentially a single player affair. Copies are somewhat hard to find (as with most Japon Brand releases) but some have popped up on BGG and eBay. Here’s hoping for a wider release from another company in 2015!

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Episode 85 – Paranoia and Producers

Hey there, dearest listener! Ready for another Little Metal Dog Show? Yes? Good! This time around it’s two interviews with two people each, so essentially you’re getting double the content for the same low, low price of free! First up, Dean Donofrio and ErinRose Widner from The Great Indoors join me to talk all about the joy and pain of putting together their brand new (potential) webseries. The story of a game night group who open their doors to a couple of new people and the mayhem that ensues, you can support their efforts on Kickstarter today! After that, James Wallis and Paul Dean come along to discuss Paranoia. Not the mental condition, no, but their reboot of the classic 1980s RPG involving clones, stupid rules and Friend Computer. Love The Computer, for The Computer loves you. Sometimes a little TOO much… Also, James lets slip some information about Other Things but you’ll have to listen to find out what.

The Computer is also a fan of links.

Direct Download of the Episode – http://littlemetaldog.podbean.com/mf/web/jfkdrt/LMDS_Episode_85.mp3

The Great Indoors’ page on Kickstarter – https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/719584582/the-great-indoors-web-series-tv-pilot?ref=nav_search

Paranoia on Kickstarter – https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/1990654819/paranoia-rpg?ref=nav_search

Shut Up and Sit Down (it’s very good) – http://www.shutupandsitdown.com/

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The Big Sky – Tiny Epic Galaxies preview

TEGCover

I’m delighted when I see new designers start to truly make a name for themselves in our little world of gaming, and even moreso when their creations really fit in my wheelhouse. Scott Almes’ Tiny Epic Kingdoms went insane on Kickstarter and is now gracing tables around the world, offering a fantastic gameplay experience that I’ve returned to again and again since getting my copy. Tiny Epic Defenders is currently on the conveyer belt over at Gamelyn Games, but the latest in the series was shown to me while at Essen this year – it’s called Tiny Epic Galaxies and great as they are, this one is easily better than its two predecessors.

Offering a comprehensive but pocket-sized 4X experience in around half an hour, I think that TEG (as it will become known) is going to break the records set by the earlier games in the series. Quick playing yet satisying, TEG will never see you looking to chuck out your copy of Twilight Imperium 3rd Edition – but you won’t have to schedule a visit to IKEA to buy a second table next time you want to play around a mate’s house either.

The game sees players attempting to reach a certain score, racing to utilise and colonise a series of planets that appear on cards in the middle of the table. Each card is laid out in a similar fashion, a numbered ladder on the left hand side, a symbol in the top right corner showing whether it’ll yield you Energy or Culture when you land a ship there, its points value in the bottom right and – probably most vital – the planet’s Colony Action. Players also have a larger Home World card in front of them that acts as a base as well as a way to track your stats and resources (the previously mentioned Energy and Culture).

grhseateth

The grid basically shows how you’ll (hopefully) progress through the game – start at the lowest level with four dice, two ships and zero bonus points. You’ll have to spend either Energy or Culture to upgrade to the next level (only once per turn) and pull in new stuff to use.

Your selections are dice driven with everyone kicking off the game rolling only four dice, but depending on how things turn out you could well be hurling seven of them across the table – and this is one thing you should be aiming to do as more ships mean more options AND more points. At the beginning of a turn you roll your allotted amount then, depending on what’s landed face-up, take actions. A single re-roll is allowed in case what you want doesn’t quite come up (which you will use a lot) and you’ll then, one-by-one, resolve the dice you’ve got. One lovely little element to TEG now shows its face – when you trigger an action, a player may spend one of their Culture Points to trigger that same action themselves, even through it’s not their turn. You might think you’ve got some excellent plan up your sleeve, but a Culture rich heavy player could potentially screw you over over the course of someone’s turn – even your own.

So, what can you do? Well, arrows allow you to move one of your ships around, either to the planet’s surface (which will pull in Energy or Culture if those symbols are rolled) or to the card’s Diplomacy track. Roll those symbols (a $ and ! in the current prototype) and you’ll move up the ladder, claiming the planet for yourself and tucking it in underneath your Home World. The final symbol shows the Colony Action, a potentially gamechanging thing that’s entirely dependent on the planets you’ve added to your collection. Everyone begins with the same ability – spend a set amount of one resource to upgrade your Galaxy (meaning more dice and Victory Points, as mentioned), but with each planet offering some kind of rule bending power, you’ll be seeking out the best ways to turn things in your favour.

A few of the planets you'll hopefully collect. Top right tells you what resource you'll grab, Diplomacy Track is on the left side, bonus and VPs on the bottom!

A few of the planets you’ll hopefully collect. Top right tells you what resource you’ll grab, Diplomacy Track is on the left side, bonus and VPs on the bottom!

As the game progresses, players’ tableaux eventually hopefully grow into a splendid collection of planets, pulling in all manner of useful resources and looking grand, tucked underneath your Home World – but all the while there’s that sneaking suspicion that everything will crumble beneath you, that all your plans will come to nothing thanks to that bloody rule of other people copying your Actions. Got your eye on picking up another planet? Tough, someone else has stolen it from under you, AND ON YOUR OWN BLOODY TURN AT THAT. Notice that someone seems to be running low on a resource? They won’t be for long, pushing their trackers up on your go. And this is wonderful as it means there’s pretty much no downtime in TEG – you’re constantly paying attention to what’s being rolled and when the dice are triggered. Manage to do this well and by the time your turn comes around to you again, you’ll be able to pull off some incredible stuff.

And that, for me, is what makes the game so damn good. Sure, it plays out in about half an hour, but for that whole time you’re watching, waiting, ready to jump while also planning your own strategy out. It’s a glorious, exhausting thirty minutes, fun as all hell, and when it launches in January on Kickstarter, you’d best get in on it. Tiny Epic Galaxies is showing that Scott Almes is growing into a truly talented designer, and it’s so exciting to thing that if he’s turning out games like this now, what kind of stuff will we see from him in a few years? If the game is this good with no graphic design and relatively plain iconography in a PNP, imagine what the end product is going to be like.

Tiny Epic Galaxies will be on Kickstarter in January 2015. You will want a copy of it. Cheers to Michael Coe at Gamelyn Games for handing over a copy for us to check out!

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