Little Wonders – Hue, Gem, TKO and Fly reviews

Games

For once, a banner telling the truth!

Innovation isn’t often found in the world of gaming, but sometimes there’s a little thing that really catches my attention. In the case of today’s review, it’s actually four little things that are currently on Kickstarter and have really rather impressed me. Designed by Chris Handy (previously best known for his ace horse racing game, Long Shot), a new series of microgames going under the banner of Pack O Game (like a pack o’ gum, see?) landed on my doorstep while I was over in the US at Gen Con. On getting back earlier this week, I cracked them open with my little group and we played the four of them. 

No-one was really sure what to expect, to be honest. The idea is sweet enough, but the gameplay is what matters, not the size of the package. The selling point behind Pack O Game is that they’re microgames that fit in your pocket but still offer a wide range of gaming options, so in tribute to the teeny size of the boxes – seriously, you can easily fit the four of them in your pocket – I figured it’d be best to put together mini-reviews on each one.

HUE

First up, Hue, a charming and surprisingly brain burning abstract that sees players laying their cards out to create fields of colour across the table. Each card is separated into at least three sections – starter cards have nine – but your aim is simple: make large areas of colour, then score the three colours that are on the final card in your hand. Squares are worth three points, the smaller rectangles one apiece, but there are a couple of twists. First of all, you’re not just laying the cards next to each other as you play each game; you’re also allowed to lay them on top of each other as long as you’re only covering one square, meaning you can cut bigger areas in half and ruin the plans of your opponents.

If you’re feeling particularly vicious, you might even throw out a poison card, a nasty piece of work that sports a skull and crossbones in its middle section. Link that to an area of the same colour and the whole thing is worth nothing when the game is scored, so this adds a rather ruthless element to a game that initially comes across as sweet and lovely with everyone collaborating to make pretty patterns. It’s only when you realise that hey, we’re actually looking at scoring points here that your placements need a little more consideration. Game one is a delight. Games two to infinity are as cut-throat as any other title you’d care to mention – it’s just that Hue only takes ten minutes.

GEM

Next it’s auction time with the sparkling Gem where players collect sets of six different precious stones using very limited resources. Played out over a series of rounds where the options get more and more limited as time progresses, everyone begins with three cards in front of them that represent their funds split into a 3, 2 and 1. All cards in this game are double ended, with the green end showing that the money is available, the red end meaning it’s been spent – for now. Rounds play out quickly with the active player checking out the cards on offer (and the gems they depict, of course) then declaring a bid; note that they don’t have to say which card they have their eye on. Everyone else gets the chance, once around the table, to either up the bid or pass, and as you’d expect the highest claims whichever card they please. To show the money’s been spent, you rotate your cards around to point the red sides into the play area, and the just-purchased card slides into your tableau showing its red end too. Once all cards have been bought – a zero bid is totally fine, by the way – players who have any funds left get to ‘invest’ in the gems they have, spinning the cards to their green side which can be used in future rounds to pick up more gems. Before the next round, your coins refresh so you have something to use, but splashing out may not be the best idea every time…

At the end of the final round, only gems that are active – ie: green side in – will contribute to your set. If you have the majority of a gem type you pull in three points, sharing a majority is worth two, and you get one for each stone in your line up. I’ve made that whole thing sound so much more complicated that it really is – out of the four titles sent over, Gem is undoubtedly the most elegant – but it’s incredibly simple once you get it laid out before you. I can’t get over the feeling that it should be part of a much larger beast, but for a microgame that plays out in fifteen minutes this is a brilliant little thing that I recommend entirely. If you’re only grabbing one, this is the choice for me.

TKO

TKO was the most curious of the bunch, a two player only effort set – surprise! – in the squared circle of the boxing ring. This is a quick playing affair (even when compared to the other games) where you need to win two rounds in order to claim the TKO Belt and a glorious victory. Each of the eight fighter have their own stats, shown by four sliding markers that represent Uppercuts, Head Blocks, Body Shots and Body Blocks. Before the fight these markers are set to the lowest numbers on each fighter’s cards – and then it’s time to rumble!

Think of this one as Rock Paper Scissors with a bit of bluffing, a dash of strategy… oh, and four options instead of three. Each player hides a card under the table that shows the four moves and selects one by pinching the card in the right place – it makes sense when you play, honest! Both players reveal at the same time and we work out the result. Uppercuts are cancelled out by Head Blocks, Body Shots by… you can probably guess for yourself. If you successfully get a hit in or manage to block a punch, you move the markers up the requisite track. If you happen to do that and the other player doesn’t you gain a small advantage as the POWER card comes your way, meaning that you can raise the value of any of the four tracks if you score a hit or block. Get all the way to the end of one of the tracks and you win a round – get to the end of two and the title is yours!

TKO was the only one of the four that we had to house rule as it wasn’t entirely clear if you reset your fighter to their basic stats if you won a round (we did as we felt that made more sense), and it felt like the lightest and most throwaway of the set. With eight fighters in the package, each with their own look and set of stats, there’s plenty of replay in the pack but this would be the last one on my list. Not that it’s a bad game at all, it just wasn’t as great as the other three.

FLY

And with that, the awesome surprise of the bunch, Fly! I thought we’d managed to make the world’s smallest dexterity game with Sprocket Games’ FrogFlip but now I concede and hand the crown to Chris Handy. I do this gracefully and with love, because Fly is frankly bloody hilarious. Twenty-seven cards are laid out (twenty-five with a fly each and two blanks) to make a tabletop, one card representing The Sky is tucked into the box and two swatter cards are kept aside, ready to take those dirty bugs down. One by one, players drop the swatter card from above the sky, hoping to take down a fly or two by covering them up entirely. Manage to do that and you claim the card(s) as you look to make sets of the same colour or shape that are shown on the bugs’ butts. The table shrinks and flies move around as the game continues, points are awarded for sets and no-one cares about the score because you’re too busy shouting at each other for daring to breathe while you’re setting up for a particularly tricky drop. Fly is a party game disguised as a dexterity game disguised as a fight waiting to happen – and it’s fantastic.

To wrap it up, the four titles from the Pack O Games series that I’ve managed to play have been very impressive. Chris has managed to create four very different games using only thirty cards in each pack and, to be honest, that’s a feat in itself. The fact that they’re all fun and entertaining is even more incredible – and he’s got even MORE available on the Kickstarter. Head on over to the page, check out the options available – I particularly like the look of Bus – and throw some money his way. Innovation should be rewarded – particularly if it’s wrapped up in a bunch of really fun games that you can whip out and play at a moment’s notice.

Hue, Gem, TKO and Fly are four of the titles available in the Pack O Game line, all designed by Chris Handy and up now on Kickstarter. A mere $6 will get you one of the games, with $24 grabbing you all four PLUS three other ones as stretch goals – and there could be more! Check them out today – the campaign ends this weekend!

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Episode 80 – Trust in the Realm!

Another Episode of the show rolls off the audio production line, and this time it’s a doozy! First of all, Darwin Kastle from White Wizard Games steps up to chat. Who? Well, just one of the guys behind one of the hottest games around at the moment: Star Realms. After pretty much taking over every square inch of space at Origins, he’s gearing up to do pretty much the same at Gen Con 2014; we talk design, Darwin and co.’s background (which is hardcore) and all the usual rambling you expect from one of my interviews. After that, I’m joined by friends of the show Jason Kotarski and Philip duBarry to discuss their latest game Fidelitas. Currently going down a storm on Kickstarter, it’s the first release from Jason’s new company Green Couch Games, and I heartily recommend it. Check out the review here!

Links:

Direct Download – http://littlemetaldog.podbean.com/mf/web/du4yt5/LMD_Episode80.mp3

Star Realms site – http://starrealms.com/

Fidelitas on Kickstarter- https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/2005228768/fidelitas-a-card-game-of-medieval-meddling-for-2-4

Jason’s Site – http://thegreencouch.wordpress.com/my-board-games/

Philip’s Site – http://www.phantasiogames.net/

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Keep The Faith – Fidelitas review

Fidelitas Box

Collaborations can be great. Two incredible minds coming together, working alongside each other to create something truly wonderful… it’s a thing of beauty to behold. Of course, some team-ups can be utterly wretched (Paula Abdul and MC Scat Kat, take a bow) but generally two heads are better than one. Oddly, multiple designers on a single game isn’t something that happens that often, but some great titles have been borne of teamwork; Wolfgang Kramer and Michael Kiesling have been an award winning pair several times with games like Tikal and Asara, for example.

A fresh new collaboration now seeks your support, with two great current designers now coming together to create something that is both small and special. Jason Kotarski (creator of The Great Heartland Hauling Company and FrogFlip) and Philip duBarry (the man behind Revolution and some of AEG’s Tempest series) have joined forces to make the card game Fidelitas, and a lovely little thing it is too.

In a town, far, far away, the citizens live an unhappy life of being downtrodden by the local elite. There is only one thing to do – rise against them! However, it would seem that all of those capable of doing so got too drunk and can’t remember quite what they’re supposed to do… and this is where you and your fellow players step in. Ladies and gents, it’s time to incite some good old-fashioned revolution. Grab your pitchforks and flaming torch!

Actually, that’s not a good idea – the nobility’s guards would have you chopped into pieces in moments. What you need to be is sneaky. Whisper a few words into the ears of the right people. Get your most powerful allies into the right places and, once the word is given, a concerted attack can begin! Unfortunately, there can only be one leader (a bit like in Highlander) so everyone is trying to manipulate the same people in this terrified town; you’ve just got to make sure that it’s you.

On the table at the start of play sits a line of cards representing the town itself, four of which have two locations that are particularly prized by a certain guild. The Tavern, sat in the middle of the line, is a special place that’s beloved by all (surprise!) and  has its own ability which we’ll cover shortly. Meanwhile, the two end cards also point to other locations, the harbour and the castle. It’s these places where we’ll make our stand!

Cards are divided into two types: Missio and Virtus. Missio are your secret missions, the cards that tell you what type of people you need to be moving and where they need to end up. Meet the necessary requirements and you’ll score the points shown at the bottom of the card. Score a set amount of points (6 with four players, though you can aim for more for a longer game) and you are seen as the voice of the rebellion and win the game! Truly, you are the Mockingjay.

Or you will be if the people actually listen to you. The Virtus cards are where they are all to be found, and each person will have their own ability that needs to be taken into consideration. Each turn, you can play someone to one of the two locations of their own guild, then follow the instructions written on their card to start moving other people around the town. The previously mentioned Tavern has no guild affiliation, so instead a player must discard a Missio card when someone is sent there. Also, instead of having two differently named locations, the Tavern is just one big place – however, you must consider which side of the bar to sit, as it were. Where you are in this wicked little town is VERY important.

When you’ve played your Virtus card and done the ability upon it, you may turn in a Missio card for points (assuming that the requirements have been met. This may be gathering a certain amount of characters at a named location, or get guild pairs (ie: two people from the game guild) into a number of places. If the target has been met, you flip the card up and declare your total score, draw back up to two Missios and pass play to the person on your left. And the game is as simple as that – play a card, follow the instructions, score points (hopefully) and move on!

If there’s one word I can use to describe Fidelitas, it’s clean. Having played a fair few rounds of it now, I’ve noticed just how well put together the game is and also seen the influence of both Jason and Philip in there too. Fidelitas is a beautifully balanced game where any mistake that’s made is down to you – the position of certain characters may open up the opportunity for other players to complete their own missions, but through multiple games you’ll learn how to not get yourself into that kind of tangle. I’ve had several incredibly satisfying moments playing a Baker card allowing me to move any two cards to new locations, doing so, then swiftly scoring a Missio while simultaneously ruining the best laid plans of the other players. You’ll hear a lot of muttering under breath when a copy of Fidelitas hits your table.

I mentioned the influence that the designers had on the game and honestly see their fingerprints all over it. The compact game set-up and lean card count says Jason to me – his love of smaller, shorter games shines through in Fidelitas – while I feel that the theme and relative complexity come from Philip’s side. I think that his sterling work on his Tempest games have rubbed off a little on him (seriously, go play Canalis, it’s incredibly underrated) and I’m honestly surprised that this effort wasn’t made part of the series – it certainly would’ve fit incredibly well. Regardless, the two have come together and made a very enjoyable game indeed.

Of course, the game is only in prototype stage at the moment and – at the time of writing – seeking funds on Kickstarter. However, the copy provided to me showed off the beautiful comic art very well indeed and the game cards are well laid out, so a hat-tip goes to both artist Jaqui Davis and graphics chap Darrell Louder for their sterling work. It can be hard getting the message across on a relatively simple card game, but they’ve done admirably.

Also of note is that this is the first release from Jason Kotarski’s brand new publishing company, Green Couch Games. We at The Little Metal Dog Show wish him the very best for Green Couch and hope that all future releases match up to the splendidness of Fidelitas! This is truly a great filler, the ideal candidate for your table when you’ve got twenty minutes or so to spare and feel like playing something that will tax your brain a little. Not too heavy, but not feather light either, Fidelitas will be making it into the Best of the Year lists of a fair few gamers when the time comes around.

You can back Fidelitas today on Kickstarter, with the campaign running until September 1, 2014. $19 will get you a copy of it delivered in the US, with international pledges running a little higher (UK gamers, you’re looking at $28 which isn’t bad at all). Designed by Jason Kotarski and Philip duBarry, it will be released in early 2015. Between two and four can play (though I’ve found it better with four) and games will take you around 15-20 minutes. 

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Hit The Road Jack – Oss review

Oss Box

Emma steps up to throw, flip and flick stuff in Oss, an update of a playground classic that is decades old. Will it make the grade or fail to impress? Discover for yourself…

I like dexterity games, I like quirky components, and I like terrible bilingual puns, so Oss, the new release from Spiel-ou-Face (seriously, I love that name) seemed like a sure-fire hit. It’s simple enough to get your head around – on opening the box, you’re faced with a deck of cards and a bag containing six moulded plastic sheep knuckles of varying colours. As you do. The game plays in three rounds, and each one sees you bidding on your ability to do various tricks using the bones, as listed on the cards. Most of these consist of you throwing one of them in the air and performing some action before catching it again, and range from the simple (picking another bone up off the table) to the tricky (putting a bone down without dropping any of the others in your hand) to the rage-inducing (like the first one, but with your hand in a bag). Depending on how the bidding goes, some players might face off in an extra duel, which is basically like doing one of the tricks but with the added obstacle of your friend doing it at the same time, and then everybody does a simultaneous challenge to determine the new first player, which could be anything from counting how many of the bones are a certain way up to knucklebone Jenga. After that, whoever has the most points (gained by winning tricks and challenges) wins.

If you think that sounds pretty simple, you’re right. If you also think that sounds pretty much exactly like the game of jacks you might have played in the 1890s, then you’re also right, as well as kind of impressively old. Oss is, at its core, a modern reinvention of the classic game of jacks, with a little tabletop veneer added to market it to boardgamers. In its defence, however, it never really pretends to be anything else – even the tagline on the box is “The Jacks are back!” Now, I’m all up for classic games, and as you might have guessed by now, I’m something of a fan of modern board games, so Oss should be my new Reese’s Pieces game, no? (Dear Michael – you’re not the only one who can drop advertising references in their reviews) Well, no – if we continue the peanut butter/chocolate allergy, Oss is more along the lines of chocolate butter: weird, not quite what it wants to be in either direction, and likely to thoroughly confuse your friends if you bring it out at parties.

What's in the box? Well, lots of cards and some ceramic sheep knuckles. Thanks for asking!

What’s in the box? Well, lots of cards and some ceramic sheep knuckles. Thanks for asking!

See, if you like jacks, you probably already have a set lying around and won’t want to shell out the retail price for what is basically the same game with a few new elements, and if you’re a tabletop gaming fan, you’ll probably be put off by the crazy skill threshold. Now, I can hear people moaning at me through my amazing Internet precognition, saying that that’s true of any dexterity game. While I guess so, to a certain extent, most modern dexterity games revolve around the mechanics of “balance thing on other thing” or “hit thing with other thing”, as opposed to “throw thing in the air and keep an eye on its trajectory while doing something else on the table in the same half-second before catching thing A again”. And there’s no room for error, either – you’ll only be doing three tricks in the whole game, and if you mess it up once, your try is immediately over.

Not only is this really hard to get into, it’s also strangely at odds with the slower, more mathsy bidding section of the game – you spend ages working out which trick you want to bid for, and for how much, and then fail within seconds of attempting it. Also, that planning section is usually at least half taken up by trying to work out exactly what the cards ask you to do – the rulebook was originally written in French, and it shows, with most of the poorly-translated descriptions doing nothing to elucidate the imprecise diagrams on the trick cards. The developers have tried to sidestep this issue by including QR codes on the backs of all the cards that link to an ‘instructional’ video on how to do the trick, but in reality these just consist of the developers performing the trick once, with no real explanation about what’s going on.

Also, it took me a while to get round to the other reason why I didn’t really enjoy playing Oss, which is that it’s…kind of racist? The tricks all have completely arbitrary foreign-sounding names like ‘Aslik’ or ‘Cumi-Cumi’, and the art is a weird mishmash of Native American/African/Mesoamerican/Australian tribal designs. All of this combined with the fact that the rulebook proclaims the winner as “Big Chief” lends the whole thing an air of generically-foreignness, as though it was designed by a Victorian imperialist, and (for me at least) makes the whole experience kind of uncomfortable as well as crazy hard.

Overall, then, I think Oss has a lot of good ideas, and I think there is a game to be made using jacks mechanics. But this isn’t it. It’s taken the worst aspects of all the things it imitates, and it has no clue who it’s for. If you want to enjoy this one, I’d recommend finding an old jacks set in your attic, then playing with them for a couple of decades – then, if you still want to, you’ll be able to get over the ridiculous skill threshold and maybe enjoy Oss for the game it wants to be deep down. But I’m still not sure you would.

Oss was published in 2013 by Spiel-ou-Face and was designed by Vincent Lemaire, Jean-Michel Maman and Charles Amir Perret. Between two and six players can get involved, but this is obviously one of those ‘more people is better’ scenarios. Games should take you around half an hour, unless you lose one of the jacks under the sofa. Oh, and follow Emma on Twitter! She’s @Waruce!

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White Wedding – Love Letter review

So, last weekend it was my fifth wedding anniversary, celebrated with friends and cake – the best way, of course. In addition, a few games were played that included Love Letter, but not the one that’s on general release. No, this one is the one that AEG reserve for weddings, a special edition to celebrate lovely things, complete with the Princess in her white gown and custom white Love Letter bag. I begged and pleaded and the lovely folks at AEG eventually gave in. However, while playing it struck me that we’d never had The Judge’s take on the game – so I asked him what he thought.

Love-Letter-Wedding-300x171

Love Letter has been heralded as the game that truly popularised the ‘micro-game’ – that being a fully functioning, ‘gamerly’ game with very few components. I think those plaudits are fair – Love Letter, with its 16 cards and a small handful of red cubes, has indeed raised awareness of this blossoming genre and has, for many people, made them think about how much fun you can cram into a clean and simple game, exploiting a single, simple mechanism.

Many other reviews have attempted to put Love Letter in an historical context – examining its place in the gaming world and examining the ripples it has caused since launching to widespread acclaim in 2012. I’m not going to do that however. I will examine Love Letter in a vacuum and give you my opinion as to how good the game actually is. So with that lengthy preamble…

Love is in the air! The princess is dealing with depression resulting from her mother being imprisoned. What could lift her mood? How about a love letter from a potential suitor? Well that’s where this game begins.

This storyline comes from the AEG Tempest universe – an overarching narrative that provides a theme for several very mechanically different designs. The idea of linking these titles together is a good one – hoping to create a sense of investment in the world and the characters that carries over from game to game. Ultimately, though, and despite an honest try I don’t think the project has worked. In fact, the lukewarm reaction to many of the first wave of titles has actually made me less interested in future games in the series. Nevertheless, Love Letter has become an enormous successful with a particularly unusual theme.

The overall goal is to deliver a perfumed note to a member of the royal family – certainly somewhat unique in a world dominated by fantasy / sci-fi / zombie games. To do this you will employ Guards, Handmaidens, the King and even the Princess herself to deliver your note and discard those of the other players. Except that the whole theme is poppycock and doesn’t hold up to any sort of scrutiny – very much the epitome of ‘pasted on’. It’s a good job, then, that the mechanisms are pretty robust.

Players begin with a hand of one card, which represents one of the members of the court. On their turn, they draw a second card, then play one. The special rule triggered by this character will affect one or more of the other players – perhaps forcing them to reveal their hand, or letting you guess the card of an opponent to eliminate them. Once the draw pile is empty the player with the highest value card in their hand will win. [Or last person standing! - Michael]

The entire deck of 16 contains only 8 different characters, so as cards are used and discarded, the players around the table can deduce what is left and the likelihood that they have the highest ranked card – and will perhaps try to play the deck out. If not, they must try to eliminate the other players to become the winner.

Simple rules. Very easy to teach. Very quick running time. BUT… is their enough game to bother with? YES! But only just.

Love Letter is a very simple deduction game with a huge slice of luck. Knowing what your opponents have in their hand and trying to work this out whilst bluffing and disguising what you may be holding is the core mechanism and 90% of the fun of the game – and this remains good fun for about ten minutes – which is almost exactly the running time for a single game. Unlike purer deduction games, luck does plays a major part in the game flow. The swings and arrows of a player making a fluke guess and eliminating you from the round IS frustrating, and like receiving a knife-edged chop across the chest (only the wrestlers amongst us will understand this reference, but sod the rest of you) it stings, but only for a few seconds. [More Ric Flair references please - Michael]

I will happily play a round or two of Love Letter between larger portions of ‘proper’ games. If that sounds elitist or snobbish, then so be it, but you’re reading this to hear my opinion, and this is a micro game, with a micro running time, and a micro amount of fun. But sometimes, that is just enough.

Love Letter was designed by Seiji Kanai and is currently available from AEG in several different editions, the latest being the Legend of the Five Rings. There’s also an upcoming Munchkin one, due for release later in the year. Between two and four people can play with games taking no more than ten to fifteen minutes. Oh, and should you want to get a copy of the Wedding version, click this link! Oh, and don’t forget to follow everyone’s favourite games writer / wrestler on Twitter: @Judge1979

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