Tales from the Fireside – It’s Filler Time

Campfire is back! This time he fills us in on… well, fillers.

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There are days when you’re exhausted from dungeon crawling, embittered by building civilizations, and just plain tuckered out from moving armies across battlefields. Your gaming group has slumped so far beneath the table they’re practically horizontal – you look like a bunch of em-dashes who’ve been served cards for dinner. Glutted on ponderous gaming ‘experiences’ the last thing you need is another behemoth devouring four more hours of your life.

“Come on, guys!” says your host, heaving Through the Ages onto the table. “One more game, eh?”

I’m not saying you ought to do it – and if anyone from the gaming constabulary asks me I’ll deny all knowledge of it – but if your gracious host were to vanish and appear days later with, say, a copy of Bananagrams crammed painfully up his jacksy, that mightn’t be the worst thing in the world.

Board games can be exhausting. The human brain can only contain so many rules at once and after four or more hours playing Twilight Imperium it’s only to be expected that you start looking at the coffin box it came in and wishing it was an actual coffin. Like Johnny Mnemonic ejecting memories of his childhood, more important rules are pushed out of your head: social niceties, the importance of cleanliness, how to drink alcoholic beverages in moderation. In extreme circumstances the home-owner’s kicked from his house and the gaming group refuses to let him back in until he’s solved all the Mansions of Madness puzzles while blindfolded – no mean feat considering he’s three sails to the wind on Weston’s Organic and is having difficulties finding his hands.

At times like these, rather than playing something that will test your wits and home insurance to their limit, it’s best to reach for a filler game.

Filler – such an ignominious title. Filler games are by reputation frothy and light, but like a Mr. Whippy they can be frothy and light while still being delicious. Take Coloretto, for example. In Coloretto players compete to collect sets of coloured cards. Each turn a player either draws and places a card in one of a number of rows on the table, or collects one of those rows to add to his collection. It’s terribly simple – so simple in fact that someone I once played against scoffed and said it was practically Snap.

There’s a lot more to Coloretto than simply matching colours. It’s a game about doing what’s advantageous for you while disrupting other players’ plans – which is no mean feat considering you can only do one of two things on any given turn. Once you take a row, that’s it, your turn is over. Other players can continue placing cards to their heart’s content while you look on, regretting taking the row so early. Maybe you should have risked seeing what the other players would do next. Maybe you should have risked seeing what the deck dealt you.

In a brilliant piece of design, the more cards you have in a set the more points you win from them – except this is only true of the first three colours you collect. If you have more than three colours in your collection, the extra colours start costing you points. Clever players force their opponents to take colours they don’t want along with the colours they need. Sometimes there are colours on the table none of the players need. Everyone boos when they appear, and desperately tries to foist them off onto everyone else.

In another brilliant piece of design having one card in a colour you don’t need only costs you one point, but having two cards costs you three points, and three cards costs you six. Having the odd unwanted colour spoiling your palette isn’t a problem, and can be easily off-set with cards award two bonus points for every one you have in your collection. But find yourself with a fourth burgeoning colour set in front of you and you’d better do something about it quick, before it bites you in the Bananagrams.

If Coloretto is a Mr. Whippy ice cream then Fairy Tale is a ‘99 cornet: sweet and rich with a dark, core running hardened through it.

Fairy Tale is another filler card game. Like Coloretto, it’s cheap and small and would fit neatly into your game nights between bouts of meatier titles. It even has an an innocuous title: Fairy Tale. Like something you’d tell children at bedtime, with magical castles and princesses and unicorns . . . and wolves and witchy cannibals and cursed brier thorns that stab out your eyes. It’s quick and sharp and devilishly good fun. Here’s how it plays.

There are three stages in Fairy Tale. In the first you draft cards. You pick the card you want from your hand and pass the rest on to another player. They pick the card they want and in turn pass the rest of the hand onto the next player. Each player has their own hand of five cards they select from before passing it on, and all the hands circulate until you each have five cards you’ve specifically chosen.

In the second stage you play three of these cards from your hand. You play them face down, one at a time, and once all the players have placed a card you turn them face up. You then play the second card in the same way, and then the third. Once you’ve placed all three of your cards you discard the remaining two in your hand and start the first stage again.

Once you’ve repeated these stages four times you move onto the final stage, in which you count the points your cards are worth and see who’s won.

Like Coloretto there are card sets you can collect. Some of these give more points depending on how many you have in your collection – again, just like Coloretto. Others score depending on how many cards you have from a different set – Bards, for example, are worthless unless you have an Elven Warrior in your collection; the more Elven Warriors you have, the more points Bards are worth. As in trading card games, it pays to see all the ways the cards interact with each other.

But you don’t play Fairy Tale to score points. You play Fairy Tale to stop everyone else from scoring points.

You start with good intentions. In that first drafting stage you’re still trying to determine which sets you’ll collect. “I’ll be good this time,” you promise yourself.

But you’re lying.

Because come the second drafting stage, when you see the sets your opponents are collecting you start taking cards they need out of spite. You’re not going to keep them – heavens, no! You’re going to throw them away. You steal away their cards just to throw them on the discard pile.

You screw them over in other ways. You play cards that flip their cards over, making them useless, and steal other cards they could use to unflip them and return them to the game. There are ultra-powerful cards that can only be scored under rare circumstances – like when you draw a card of which there’s only a single copy of in the entire deck – and you hoard them, not because you’re feeling lucky but because you’re not willing to risk anyone else having them. You’re so intent on disrupting everyone else’s game you neglect your own, and end the third stage with a meager, pathetic score – but maybe, if you were enough of a villain, it’s just enough to win.

I won’t say you and your friends won’t end up holding butter knives against one another’s throats after playing these games – I can’t guarantee there won’t be Bananagrams related tragedies – because these little games can be every bit as a cut-throat as their bigger siblings. What I will say, however, is that with playing times of around half-an-hour, you won’t be exhausted playing them. They’re easy to teach, easy to play, and proof if proof need be that ‘filler’ isn’t always such a bad thing to be.

Now, who’s up for a game of Bananagrams?

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Read Campfire Burning’s splendid blog over at http://campfireburning.wordpress.com and email the blighter at campfire@littlemetaldog.com

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