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Good Morning Sunshine – Carcassonne: South Seas review

CarcSS Cover

The Judge checks out a new version of one of the pillars of modern gaming… but does it sink or swim?

Ah, Carcassonne! Like an old friend, we welcome you back to the table. Yes, you have a few flaws, and some of your mechanisms seem a little clunky now, and your vast array of expansions makes you bloated and difficult… Ummmm… Tell me again why we still like you?

Carcassonne is often cited as a gateway game, in so much as its simple tile-laying mechanisms and jolly looking artwork provide a low barrier to entry for newer players into the hobby. There will be no overview of the base game here, as I would imagine most readers of this are at least familiar with the concept and if not – stop reading this, play a game of basic Carc and come back.

[Please take this time to go and have a quick game of Carcassonne should the mood take you. You’ll enjoy it! – Michael]

Right, we’re all on the same page now. Hopefully you enjoyed placing your tiles to make long winding roads and sprawling cities. Hopefully you took pleasure from judicially playing your Meeples to capture points. And you almost certainly were disappointed when the game inevitably came down to the player who best understood and exploited the rather obtuse and unintuitive Farmer rules.

You see, Carc is great, but the points that the Farmers generate is almost always SUCH a big deal in the final scoring that it can make much of the game seem redundant. The expansions tweak this, and add more options, and many, many more ways to score – but in doing so, it adds extra complexity and cost to the base game which takes it away from being that gateway experience.

Put the lime in the coconut and break out South Seas!

Put the lime in the coconut and break out South Seas!

Enter Carcassonne: South Seas. Firstly, though the visual style is completely different (and the attractive tile art does capture that feeling of building a tropical paradise) we are comfortably in familiar territory here – though not in medieval France. Roads and pathways are built. Islands are constructed. Areas of water (instead of farms) feature Meeples happily backstroking along. The key difference – and massive improvement in my eye – is the scoring method.

So firstly, we’re gathering resources. Each finished road generates a number of shells indicated by iconography on the tiles. Finished islands offer bananas and there are fish in the water (obviously). Enclosed sea areas provide fish for the Meeple in that area. Also, any boat icon that is placed in the same water space instantly scores fish, and returns the Meeple as well.

At the end of your turn, you can ship those resources out by claiming a boat token (four of which are always face up on the table) for the points they offer. Churches (or cloisters) are replaced by market tiles which, when surrounded by other tiles, allow you to score a boat token of your choice. At the end of the game, you get 1 extra point per 3 resources that you are yet to spend.

And that’s it! Simple as that. No convoluted maths. No complex farmer scoring. Just total up the points on your boats and the highest score wins.

The pieces in South Seas are lovely. Beyond the aforementioned tiles, there are nice, tactile wooden shells, fish and bananas to grab when you claim the appropriate resources. Iconography is clear, simple and visible from the other side of the table. Everything is crafted to make it a pleasurable experience to play – and it is.

South Seas – part of the ongoing ‘Carcassonne Around The World’ series – reboots the original base game and would now be my ‘go-to’ perhaps even before Ticket to Ride, to introduce non or newer gamers to our lovely hobby, and for the grizzled veterans amongst us, this provides the best type of nostalgia. In fixing the scoring and diffusing Carc down to its purest elements, South Seas is a great time, in less than 40 minutes, that plays really well for between three and five players.

Designed by Klaus Jurgen Wrede and based on the multiple award winning original, Carcassonne: South Seas is available now! Get yourself a copy from Gameslore for £23, then be sure to follow Stuart “The Judge” Platt on Twitter as well!

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Tower of Strength – Asara review

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So, I play a lot of board games, of course, but I also spend probably more time that can be considered healthy with a PS3 or 360 controller in my hand. And you know what? I’ve noticed that there’s a curious difference between the two – where in the vast majority of the games on my screen I am destroying stuff, the opposite is true when it comes to the tabletop. There I prefer to build and create stuff, starting with little and improving my lot. Whether it’s the wonderful Suburbia or Trains, Alhambra or Manhattan, I do enjoy a game where you get to make things. Asara, the 2010 game from the previous Spiel des Jahres winning dream team of Wolfgang Kramer and Michael Kiesling, is another splendid example of a great title where creation is king.

Over the space of four rounds, each representing a year in game time, you and your opponents become builders who are looking to cement their place in society by constructing the biggest, best and beautiful-est towers in the city of Asara – no mean feat considering that this is “The City of A Thousand Towers”. As the game progresses, you’ll be getting your hands on more and more tower pieces and putting them together in order to score points. Score the highest and – as you’d expect – you win.

So, how do you get these towers made? Well, each player has a hand of cards that they’ll get to use on their turn, where one card will be placed on an action space. These are dotted around the board and will let you take those much needed tower sections, grab money and – probably most vital – actually build those monuments to your greatness. The twist (for this is a Kramer and Kiesling design, so there’s always something to deal with) is that whatever card is first placed in a section has to be followed up by cards of the same colour, meaning that its entirely possible to screw over other players in no time at all should they have a particularly shoddy set of cards at their disposal.

Thankfully, this doesn’t mean that you’re boned for the entire round; in fact, you’ll be able to play most (if not all) cards, but you’ll have to really prioritise when considering early plays. Do you run the risk of potentially being locked out of a much needed action because you need to grab something equally as important? As with many games by the team of K&K, a lot of the pleasure comes from working out what other people will need and go for first. Doublethink abounds in Asara, and it’s an analytical dream – or an Analysis Paralysis nightmare, depending on which side of the fence you prefer…

Once players are out of cards, the end comes to a close and it’s time for scoring. Depending on the number of towers you’ve created (and how ornately you’ve managed to make them look), you’ll pull in points for everything you’ve made at the end of each round. There are also additional bonuses handed out for players who have the largest towers of each colour as well as the most towers overall at the end of the game.

And that, in a nutshell, is that. With only four rounds to contend with, Asara really is a game where less is more. Only a limited amount of actions are available to you, so using them in the most optimal fashion is paramount. While it’s far from the most difficult game in the world to learn (the instruction booklet is super straightforward), the decisions that you make require a lot of thought if you’re going to leave behind the biggest legacy. As a caveat, I probably wouldn’t go back to it again and again, especially with a more experienced gaming group, but as a way to introduce newbies that isn’t one of the holy trinity of Gateway Games I’d say that Asara is pretty much ideal.

It’s also – once everything is done and dusted – a very lovely looking game. Ravensburger’s production quality continues at the high level you’d expect from one of the biggest companies out there, their reputation for decent games with lovely bits remaining intact. Another plus: As it’s been around for a couple of years, you should be able to pick it up for a very good price. The Kramer and Kiesling partnership has come up with another winner, particularly if you’re looking for something accessible and approachable.

Asara was designed by Wolfgang Kramer and Michael Kiesling, and was originally released rough Ravensburger back in 2010. Nominated for the 2011 Spiel des Jahres, this two to four player game can normally be played in around an hour. Copies should set you back around £25 to £30.

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Shiny Happy Meeples – Carcassonne review

Last weekend was a bit of a geekfest at mine. For the last three weekends a whole bunch of us have met up in various places around the country, with a moving-in party in London, a splendid wedding in Glasgow, then finally mine last time round for Eurovision related shenanigans. A uniting theme for all three of these events was the fact that games came out every time because… well, we’re a big bunch of nerds, and we’re proud of that. The brave and hardy souls who had survived to the bitter end of last weekend fancied playing something, and as a few were new(ish) to the kind of games you find here on Little Metal Dog, it was an ideal opportunity to break out something from the gateway games pile.

There were six of us, so selection was a little more limited. My eyes fell on Carcassonne (and the Inns and Cathedrals expansion, but we stuck to the basic rules, just grabbing the extra meeples), one of the first games I bought after rediscovering my love for the hobby. I haven’t played it for a while, but it’s such a simple set of rules you never forget them – it’s the tile-laying equivalent of riding a bike. A set of tiles are placed in a bag (though I don’t have one, so we just set them up in different piles and grab them randomly that way) and players take one per turn. You generally start with the River expansion that is included with most sets that are sold now, and get the opportunity to put down one of your little wooden guys to claim some land. After the river tiles have been placed, you then start drawing the regular ones – these must then be placed on the table, connecting to the map in a position that fits correctly. For example, a road must always connect to another road that’s already there, fields with fields, towns with towns… that kind of thing.

And so it begins. That's a farmer there in the foreground, by the way.

Once you’ve put your tile down, you’ve got a chance to put one of your meeples (aka: ‘little wooden fella things’) on that same tile. Not one near it, only on the one you have placed. You do this to score points, and popping them on different bits of the tile will get you differing amounts. Put them astride a road and your guy becomes a thief, stealing a point for each tile that comprises a completed road – from a town to a crossroads, for example. Putting one on a town area transforms the meeple into a knight, getting you two points for each tile when the town is finished. A little more risky is dropping a guy on a cloister should you draw one – this monk now gets you nine points if you manage to completely surround the church-y tile in a 3×3 grid style fashion. Now, with these three, if you manage to complete their various things, you get the meeple back on your stack, free to use again any way you wish – but there’s a fourth option, the farmer. This gets you no points during the game, but is awesome at the end. You permanently place it on any greenery on your tile, and any finished towns that are served by this field that you now control will rack up four points each – this is a great spin to the game, meaning that even if you’re dragging behind in the points, judicious placing of farmers can help you catch up and often grab the lead in the endgame. However, one caveat – you’re not allowed to put a farmer on a field that’s already been claimed. If your field joins another one then that’s fair enough, but invading someone else’s? Not allowed. Never rub another man’s rhubarb, remember?

That, in a nutshell, is Carcassonne. Get tile, place tile, choose whether to place meeple, rinse and repeat. However, there’s an awful lot of strategy in there – do you put your tile down to start a new town that has the potential to join up onto another player’s already huge metropolis with the possibility of sharing their points (because you can do that!) or venture off on your own, hoping you’ll be able to compete? Or do you risk throwing a few farmers down early, meaning that you’ll be down on usable meeples for a lot of the game, but you could really cash in at the end with bonus points? Even newbie players will be able to develop strategies early on with little problem, as long as they don’t forget about controlling a field or two by the time the game is done.

One of the good things about Carcassonne is the fact it plays as well with a couple of people as it does with six – sure, there’s a little more downtime with more folks involved, but you won’t be waiting long for your turn to come around. There’s also the ever increasing amount of expansions that are available from the (in my opinion) indispensible Inns & Cathedrals to the slightly ludicrous Catapult and Wheel of Fortune. Some add more strategic elements while others bring a level of chance, but how you customise your game is up to you – you can use as many or as few additions as you like.

Scoring this will be a pain in the butt. Always is.

So, six of us were playing, and it was the first time for four of them. Did they enjoy it? Well, they said they did, but what really showed that they had fun was when one of the guys poked me on Skype in the week to let me know he’s ordered his own base set to play this weekend with his mates. That, ladies and gentlemen, is a successful gateway game. Another gamer joins the fold, and it’s thanks to this (deserved) winner of the 2001 Spiel des Jahres. It’s one of the biggest selling releases of all time for a reason, you know…

Carcassonne was designed by Klaus-Jürgen Wrede and first published in 2000. It’s currently available through many different publishers including Rio Grande Games and Hans im Glück. The base game handles between two and five players and is available in the UK for around £15-£20. There’s also an Xbox Live version available as well as an excellent interpretation on the iPhone, iPod Touch and iPad – no excuse not to play!

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Race for the Prize – Forbidden Island review

Co-operative games, ones where you and your colleagues team up and attempt to defeat the game, have become quite fashionable of late. As a genre they’ve been around for ages, and for quite some time Arkham Horror was king of the castle. While it’s a good game, my thoughts always turn to Pandemic (previously reviewed here) when someone says they want to break out something co-op. Alternatively, if someone is still determined to have a traitor element, there’s the truly great Battlestar Galactica – but for that real You And Me Versus The World feeling I always find myself reaching for Matt Leacock’s game of disease and ickyness. I was lucky enough to speak with him a few days ago for an upcoming Little Metal Dog Show, and talk turned to his latest game – another co-operative effort called Forbidden Island

The adventure begins. But it won't stay this pretty.

Published by Gamewright (and not yet out in the UK, but it will be soon), Forbidden Island is more family friendly than Pandemic, but no less of a challenge. Between two and four intrepid adventurers find themselves on a rapidly sinking island. Each one has an individual role and special ability that will hopefully assist them in their effort to grab four treasures that are dotted around the island. To do this, players must collect four matching cards and race to a location that holds the corresponding treasure. The map, made up of  randomly positioned tiles so each game is different, has two separate places that each treasure can be grabbed from… but why does there need to be two? Well, as the game progresses tiles will flood and eventually sink, never to be seen again – and they will disappear very quickly, I promise. 

Forbidden Island, being a co-op game, is against you. In fact, it actively hates you – after performing your actions you must draw some Treasure Cards – these are the ones you need to collect four of to claim the elusive treasures. However, within that pile lurk Waters Rise cards – and these are the ones you will come to hate. Every time you draw one, the pile of discarded Flood Cards is reshuffled and placed back  onto the deck, so you will see them all again soon. These Flood Cards are actually drawn at the end of every single turn – on a location’s first appearance, you flip the corresponding island tile revealing the blue, washed out flooded version of the image. If you draw that card again, the tile is removed from the game forever. As more and more Waters Rise cards appear, the rate of Flood Cards drawn after each turn increases until the game turns to mayhem and eventually beats you. Which it will. Many times. 

Thankfully though, players can spend an action to shore up a tile, flipping it back to its safe and full-coloured glory. There are also Sandbag cards that allow you to do save a location for free, but they’re rare – and with a hand limit of only five cards per player it’s a delicate balancing act. Do you aim to collect a specific set of cards at the expense of another, or just try and get what you can to help out your colleagues? 

As you can probably tell, Forbidden Island shares a fair few traits with Pandemic, but it definitely stands as it’s own game. The theme is solid and it’s a lot of fun – working together as a group, trying to get the treasures before you’re trapped or lose your one route off the island is very entertaining indeed, and it’s a way more accessible concept than curing rampaging diseases – kids will love it. It involves a fair bit of thought though, so you may have to assist younger players – but also be ready to be bossed around by small people who think they know better than you! 

Just about managed to escape. Just about.

A special mention must be made of the production quality – Forbidden Island is utterly beautiful. The artwork is by C.B Canga and as far as I can tell, this is his first effort at a board game – he really deserves to get more work. You can also check out some excellent original sketches from the game on his blog; they’re ace. It’s fantastically presented, coming in a tin instead of the normal box, but the best things in the whole package have got to be the treasures themselves. Also designed by C.B, they’re chunky and look amazing – really satisfying to grab and hold high above your head when you claim them (not that I did that, no). 

Behold - THE PRECIOUSES.

Games are quick – normally around 20-30 minutes. The rules are easily explained and once they’ve been run through, the only things you really need to keep check on are the different abilities bestowed by the roles. I’ve played this with grown ups as well as a group of children and both groups managed to forget these powers at least a few times in their excitement – however, with a few plays I’m sure they’ll naturally recall them. Forbidden Island doesn’t seem to punish as much as Pandemic does, though – I imagine as it’s more aimed at family play, Matt has toned down the game’s evil quotient. That isn’t to say that the game lacks challenge – it’s definitely a tricky beast to beat and will reward teamwork with an entertaining experience that everyone will enjoy. Gamewright have come up trumps with this release – now here’s hoping they release it here in Europe as soon as possible.

Forbidden Island is a Matt Leacock game and is published by Gamewright. It’s already an award winning game having picked up one of this year’s Mensa Mind Games trophies, and is available for pre-order in the US at the ridiculously low price of $15 at Amazon (and should be available in Europe soon through your Friendly Local Game Store).

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Going Underground – Diamant review

I was a little bit reticent about reviewing Diamant what with it not being in print any more. Of course, it has been redesigned and reissued by Funagain, Sunriver and most recently Gryphon Games under the guise of Incan Gold but for me the original is king. Originally released back in 2005, Diamant was the brainchild of two of the greats of game design in recent years; Alan R. Moon and Bruno Faidutti. Between them they have created classics like Ticket to Ride (previously reviewed right here on Little Metal Dog) and Citadels – Faidutti is also responsible for one of my all-time favourite games, the excellent Mission: Red Planet. Surely a collaboration between two of the better game designers of recent years would be a winner, yes?

Thankfully, yes, it is. While Diamant is a very simple game, it is extremely entertaining and a lot of fun to play. Between two and eight players are given a very simple task – collect more diamonds than your opponents. The game is split into five rounds, each one representing a visit to an underground cave. The players are explorers, venturing deep underground in a bid to become wealthy – however, the mine’s previous owners have very different ideas. Turns begin with a card being drawn and placed face up in the middle of the table. Numbered cards (between 1 and 17) are good – the diamonds (which are only plastic, but still look brilliant!) are divided between the players still in the round at the time, and any remainders are left on the card. After each card has been drawn and the loot shared out, players are given a choice – do they wish to continue further into the mine, or do they want to leave? Your selection is made with your Indiana Jones-esque meeple – secrete it in your hand and you leave (sharing any diamonds on the track with other escapees). If you do leave, all diamonds you collected in that round are placed into your treasure chest and you take no further action. An empty hand means you press on in search of further riches… but as mentioned above there are some little presents left behind.

Shuffled into the card deck are a series of hazards – three cards of five different types such as poison gas traps, giant scorpions and explosions. While those staying in the cave may well get a bigger share of the diamonds, they may also run into these hazards – and if a matching pair appear on the track, the round is over. Any players who didn’t run away leave the cave with nothing, having pushed their luck just a little too far this time. Thankfully, as the game consists of five rounds there’s always plenty of opportunity to catch up with others. As the game progresses, players who are lagging behind will find themselves taking more risks in the hope they’ll turn up that elusive 17  card (and keep it all to themselves!) – however, when there’s a plenty of dangers already on the track, the chances of the round coming to an abrupt end get higher and higher. And there lies the big draw of the game – how far do you press your luck? Do you keep pressing further and chance losing everything or leave early with a guaranteed (but invariably smaller) amount of gems?

If you found diamonds that large, you'd never work again.

Diamant is one of those games that – although it plays well with a few people – is definitely a case of the more the merrier. My copy is pretty much wrecked (surely the sign of a good game!) thanks to it getting thrown around and played a few times a week with the kids at school – they jeer at the early quitters, cheer on the brave and bold classmates who choose to keep going and yell madly when a second rockfall card comes out, ruining their chances of actually beating someone who played smart and left with a mere handful of prizes.

To summarise, I love Diamant, but please don’t think that Incan Gold is a poor replacement. It is, in fact, exactly the same premise – only the theme and pieces are different. There’s still the same element of pushing-your-luck while keeping an eye out on your opponents’ totals, but… well, Diamant is just so shiny. The jewels, the little Indy-meeples… everything comes together thematically to really enhance the game. If you really want to play it (and I really do recommend you do), go for a copy of the remake; however, if you’re patient I’d say check out the boardgamegeek marketplace or even hunt around on Amazon.de and get yourself a copy of the original and best.

Diamant was originally released in 2005 by Schmidt Spiele. It was designed by Alan R. Moon and Bruno Faidutti, can handle between two and eight players and is really quite splendid. Go find a copy now, seriously. Or, if you fancy it, grab Incan Gold. I don’t mind! They’re both ace!

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