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Bitches Brew – Alchemists review

Alchemists Box

Welcome, dear reader, to the Little Metal Laboratory. This is no place of clean lines and white tiling as far as the eye can see though – instead, we are shrouded in darkness as we really don’t want to see the blood, and the smoke from the explosions often leave the room as black as night. Our lab is a place of alchemical tinkering, and we are bloody awesome at it – especially when you’ve got a game as good as CGE’s Alchemists sat upon our table.

Designed by Matúš Kotry for between two and four players (though a fifth person can be accommodated, more on that later), this was CGE’s big release for Essen 2014 – and it’s definitely big as that box is packed out. With gloriously overproduced lab areas for each aspiring Alchemist, fistfuls of tokens, a couple of boards and a healthy amount of cards, you can see where much of the hefty price point has gone. As always, the art is fantastic too – the team truly know how to put a great looking game together.

But what of the gameplay? Well, this isn’t just about looking to turn lead into gold; Alchemists wants players to do an awful lot more than something as simple as that. Your main task is one of deduction, working out what results combinations of different ingredients will lead to and being amongst the first to publish your findings. Points scored will build your reputation, allowing you to sell potions to passing travellers that can then be invested in magical items, pulling in yet more points at the end of the game. However, we’re getting ahead of ourselves… before we become the most respected people in our industry, we need to put the work in. It’s time to get experimenting!

The beautiful board! It's double-sided, so choose the correct side before playing. Rounds start in the bottom right corner, then go clockwise around the board.

The beautiful board! It’s double-sided, so choose the correct side before playing. Rounds start in the bottom right corner, then go clockwise around the board.

Alchemists uses an action point system, with each player using cubes in their colours to mark what they’d like to do during rounds on the larger of the two boards. As each round is played through, players will perform their actions in strict order which is decided at the start of a round – the earlier you choose to go, the fewer bonus items (Ingredients and Favours) you’ll receive. Of course, going earlier means you’ll get first picks on each of the different actions, so it’s the traditional balancing act seen in many Eurogames.

So, what can you do? From the very first round, gathering Ingredients is first on your list, allowing you to pull cards from a face-up selection or going for whatever mystery object sits on the top of the draw deck. After that, you have the opportunity to sell ingredients that you’ve procured, the money from which you can then spend on picking up precious (and often highly useful, rule-bending) artefacts. Ingredient combinations can then either be tested on a helpless student or yourself, the results of which are tracked in your own personal laboratory. Taking the form of a large triangle of circular spaces, you’ll place a token at the space where the two ingredients you mixed cross over – pop your result in the space and you’ll be a little closer to deducing exactly what each ingredient contributes to the mix! All of this is then followed by some clean-up before moving on to the next round.

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It’s probably easier to show off how the lab looks, so here we go. The game’s eight ingredients are lined up along the bottom, and whatever result you get from the app should be placed in the crossover spot. You then mark off your deductions on the sheets that are included in the box. (Thanks to Mathias Heilmann for the photo)

At the start of round two, new options are opened up; the previously mentioned travellers appear, seeking potions that will need to be mixed fresh (read: spend a combination of two cards to get gold). You also get the opportunity to publish theories on what you believe each ingredient adds to a mix as well as debunk the concepts laid out by others, and it’s these two action that will (hopefully) pull in the big reputation boosts at the end of the game – assuming you’re correct in your publications, of course. How the ingredients’ results are defined is random every time you play, but thankfully we are people of science, so we get to use our smartphones!

Yes, the fingers of technology have crept onto the tabletop in a legitimate way once more. Players can use the free Alchemists app (available on both iOS and Android) to tap on the action they wish to use, then take a snap of the two ingredients they’re combining. Depending on what action you’re performing – either Sell Potion, Debunk Theory, Test on Student or Drink Potion – a different symbol will appear onscreen to give you your result. It’s an innovative way of introducing technology into gaming, and though it’s recommended that people use the Smartphone Solution System (© Michael, 2014) it’s far from intrusive. You only need one device for all players, though people can use their own by inputting a four-letter code before play begins, ensuring everyone gets the same results – a relatively simple thing, but it just made things work so smoothly around the table. Should no-one have an iPhone or whatever on them, you can rope in a fifth person who calculates results for the players using an included piece of convoluted cardboard stuffed with tokens that I assume 99.9% of Alchemists’ owners will never use, ever.

Over the course of six rounds the game plays out with everyone initially trying to work out the effects of each ingredient, then swiftly moves onto the ‘everyone racing to publish and debunk theories’ side of things around halfway through the game. On the final round, a new action appears to replace the testing and drinking potions spots; here you get to prove your mastery of the science by stating what potion type you’ll create, then actually do it by once again spending the ingredients. Success pulls in more reputation points while failure means losing them, along with the realisation that you’ve probably screwed up the very last part of the game – the big reveal.

All the publishing done throughout the game will see players dropping tokens on the eight ingredients. While these are placed face down, they do show the player colour, so you can keep track of who is working on what; however, once things are wrapping up, these are all flipped to reveal just how committed the players were to their findings. If you’re totally sure, you can put a token down to score you five points, while a little less conviction can still net you three. There are also tokens that will score nothing, but they’re useful to throw the other Alchemists off your tracks – we’re nothing if not sneaky as we skulk around our labs. Once the smoke clears, the highest scorer is declared the winner… and that’s the whole thing.

Alchemists, frankly, is my up there amongst my favourite games of the year – definitely top three, and depending on how my mood takes me, often the number one. It’s beautiful, challenging, meaty, nasty, deduction-filled, glorious Game of the Year worthy brilliance. The whole package is quality, from the traditional over-produced touch of CGE to the awesome gameplay by Matus Kotry that has been tightened to within an inch of its life, and every time I sit at my table to play Alchemists it never fails to impress. New players are impressed by the accessibility; it takes only two rounds into your first game to know exactly what to do. Experienced players understand that the game has depth, but never feel that they’re in trouble with the admittedly tricky way things work in Alchemists. Add in the lovely, seamless way that the smartphone app integrates with the game and there’s no wonder it’s won so many fans since hitting Essen 2014 with a bang. Just like what happens when you combine that Raven Feather with a little Mandrake Root…

Alchemists was designed by Matúš Kotry and was published by CGE in 2014. Between two and four can play with games taking around 90-120 minutes. One thing to note: the first printing of the game had result tokens that were ever so slightly too large for the tracking boards, but CGE asked all owners to get in touch with them so smaller replacements could be sent out. These arrived nice and promptly and the game is now pretty much as perfectly produced as it could be. Nice work, CGE! Now, go get yourself a copy!

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Episode 86 – Essen 2014, Part Two (Finally!)

Michael has finally got off his butt to pull together the second (and final) episode from the Show Floor at Essen 2014! Truly, it is the finest way to celebrate Christmas. Gather your family around the hearth, plug your iPhone into its dock and listen to the wonderful events from the biggest games show in the world. Happy holidays, y’all!

Who’s on this one? Well…
- Thomas Provoost from REPOS Production!
- Matthieu Bonin from IELLO!
- Kuro, Hisashi Hiyashi, Bakafire and Seiji Kanai from Japon Brand!
- Ryan Metzler from The Dice Tower!
- Ted Alspach from Bezier Games!
- Travis Worthington from Indie Boards and Cards!
- Stephen Buonocore from Stronghold Games!
- Konstantinos Kokkinis from Artipia Games!
…all in the space of just over two and a half hours! Enjoy!

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Club Tropicana – Hotel Tycoon review

HotelTycoon

Emma: When I was asked to do a review of Asmodée’s new release of Hotel Tycoon, I’ll admit I was slightly shocked. Not because it’s a bad game (it isn’t) and not because I don’t have opinions on it (I do, and besides, I’ll develop strong opinions on anything given half the chance), but because it’s not exactly a new game. It’s a new version of Hotel (or possibly Hotels, depending on the version), which I remember playing as a teenager. And so does my mother. Further digging revealed that Hotel Tycoon is probably more deserving of some kind of celebrity-interview-studded career retrospective than a new review, since the original game came out in 1974.

In any case, it swiftly became clear that the only way to review Hotel Tycoon would be to ignore the last 40 years, and treat it like a game that just came out. Which, fortunately for our suspension of disbelief, it did. Anyway, my inane meta ramblings aside, let’s get on to the actual game. But first, a warning. If you think board games today should be entirely about cubes and strategy and deadly serious, YOU WILL NOT LIKE THIS GAME. I have nothing against you, and I’ll come and lose to you at Caverna any time, but this is not a game for the super-hardcore Eurogaming crowd. Spicy variety and all that. So, for everyone else, here’s Hotel Tycoon, a game of erecting dazzlingly phallic monuments to your own financial skill and watching them get razed to the ground for a day’s wages by the people you thought you were your friends.

Now, as you might have gathered from the introduction, or indeed by playing any previous version of the game, Hotel Tycoon is very much a family game. You roll a die to move in one direction around the board, and the space you land on does things. That’s it, pretty much. And as you fly around the track in your deceptively enormous plastic planes, you will, unsurprisingly, build hotels, which you then charge your opponents to stay in. So far, so Monopoly (although Michael will probably lock me in the basement for saying that word on the site) [It’s OK, we have a three strikes policy. And a basement. – Michael] . But it’s not. For one thing, it’s a lot faster and tighter than the dreaded M-word, with games taking about 30-45 minutes, rather than entire days. This largely comes down to a few interesting twists in the rules, which I understand are new to this version (yay for being topical!) – rather than being sold back to the bank for their original value, the only way to make extra money when you really need it is to auction off your hotels to opponents, with no minimum price, and if nobody wants it, your hotel is demolished, leaving you with nothing. So, instead of property being the virtually no-risk investment it is in…other games, every purchase has to be weighed against the chance of running out of money before your new hotel makes you your money back – sure, you can buy a load of property, but if you have to pay someone else before people start paying you, you’re screwed. So points for realism. This is compounded by the delightfully vicious Planning Permission die, which you have to roll every time you want to build more hotels. One face denies you the chance to build that turn, one means you get your building for free, and one makes you pay double. Of course, you don’t roll it until after you’ve decided what you want to build, leading to some fantastically tense moments when one player goes for an upgrade that should take most of their money, only to roll the dreaded “2” and immediately go bankrupt. And yes, this does feature that other bugbear of ‘serious’ gamers, player elimination, but honestly? With games this quick, there’s rarely a long period where players are out of the game, and I think the unequivocal brutality of it meshes really well with the cutthroat property theme.

Anyway, there are any number of nice game features I could go into (entrances giving players control over the distribution of their hotels, the rules changing when only two players are left to remove all external income, the sheer brutality of a two-player game…) but I’ll get to the main reason most people are interested in Hotel Tycoon. The shinies. See, whereas games that rhyme with ‘Shmoshmopoly’ might just have you put a little red counter down when you build a hotel, in this game, you…well, you build a hotel. The game comes with something like forty different paper-and-card hotel buildings in a dozen different vaguely-stereotypical styles, and when you expand your hotels, you put more buildings on the board. This even expands to strangely-shaped card overlays that allow you to directly develop the land around your hotels and make the board look amazing. All in all, this gives Hotel Tycoon a sense of scale and development you’d be hard-pressed to find in other similar games, and definitely ranks it among the prettiest games I own, even if packing the buildings away is a bit of a nightmare (seriously, the game comes with a step-by-step instruction sheet to put them away). Sure, the components aren’t perfect – my Dragon Gate buildings have something of a tendency to fall apart, and I inexplicably have a second green plane instead of a red – but they’re probably the best you’re going to find in a game they’re selling in high-street shops.

So yeah. Hotel Tycoon. It’s got its flaws, and it’s not going to win Kennerspiel des Jahres any time soon, but if you’re looking for something the whole family can play, that doesn’t require too much thinking but brings a sense of victory and achievement, you’d traditionally only have one choice. And if you think that game would lead to your family slowly going insane and murdering each other over lunch money, maybe try out Hotel Tycoon instead. At least that way it’ll be quick.

Hotel Tycoon, originally Hotel, was designed by Denys Fisher and released back in 1974. Between two and four people can play, and you should be able to get hold of a copy of this brand new (and rather swish) version of the game for between £20-25. A bargain for such luxury!

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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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