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Out In The Fields – The Castles of Burgundy review

CoBCOVER

So it seems that at the moment, golden boy of boardgaming Stefan Feld can do no wrong. We’ve extolled the merits of a few of his games over the last couple of months here on littlemetaldog.com and – surprise surprise – here’s another glowing write up. This time we’re journeying into medieval era France as we take on the tricksy and delightful The Castles of Burgundy, a game that combines a little bit of chance with more options than a high-end car showroom.

From the start, I’ll say that Castles is not for everybody – if you’re the kind of person who complains that Dominion is nothing more than multiplayer solitaire, I’d avoid even picking up the box. What little interaction there is in the game is limited to someone snatching away a tile that you had your eye on before play managed to get around to you. It’s an exercise in brain burning where you’re constantly having to change your plans depending on what kind of things are available for do.

So, how does it work? Despite the multitude of choices, the way the game is played is simple. Each player has a board comprising of thirty seven hexagonal spaces, themselves formed into a large hexagon that represents the land you’re trying to build on. A central board is filled with tiles that are split into six groups and refreshed at the beginning at each of the game’s five phases. By rolling two dice at the beginning of your turn, you’re given the chance to spend whatever you roll and pick up a tile from that area – so, roll a 5 and you get to choose something from the space marked with the same number.

The Central Board where

The Central Board where the options open to you can be dazzling. Goods everywhere, hexagonal tiles that’ll form your own settlement, bonus points… how did he come up with such an intricate game?

Taking one of those tiles doesn’t mean that you get to add it to your board immediately, though. Three spaces are found at the bottom left of your playmat where you must put a tile first – sort of holding it in transit for a while – before it gets to become a part of your settlement. Again, a dice must be used to ‘build’ the tile, as each space is also numbered. You may think this is limiting in the extreme, and you’d be right in thinking that. Thankfully, players have worker tiles that can be spent to add or subtract from whatever you rolled, allowing for a bit of manipulation.

Those tiles come in many different types, each one offering a little boost or way to skew the rules in your favour. Grey tiles represent mines, giving you an extra silverling (the game’s currency) at the start of each phase that you can spend on a selection of more randomly selected tiles found in the centre of the communal board. Yellows are all about bonuses, screwing with the rules and generally boosting your powers. Greens are farm animals and can prove an immense boost as each time you add one of the same type – sheep next to another sheep for example – the points stack.

The Blue tiles add to your rivers, meaning that you take goods from the central board for you to sell; the more you sell of the same type, the higher the points return. Dark Green tiles are the Castles that give the game its name, and these allow an extra play of… well, whatever you like. They’re incredibly powerful and should be used wisely. Finally, the Brown Building tiles offer the widest variety of options as each type gives you a different ability.

Some bestow money or extra workers on you, while others allow for the immediate grab of another tile from the board or the placement of extra ones to your play area. A true master of Castles of Burgundy will be able to put together a truly impressive chain of these, transforming the two standard actions that you normally get in a turn into a parade of hexes being taken from here and added to there, all of which sending that final score into the stratosphere.

One of the Advanced player boards

One of the Advanced player boards. These are filled with randomised set-ups and everyone will have a different one, but there are Starter boards where each player works with the same spaces. Also, see how everything is language independent!

It can feel that pretty much everything gives you points in Castles; selling goods, finishing off areas of land, getting animals… keeping track of everything that’s going on with your board as well as what’s available (and what’s been taken!) from the central area requires a sharp mind and plenty of focus. Managing to do so is a valuable skill, and it’s that skill that will raise you above other players of this game. As with all of Stefan Feld’s creations, Castles is a game that rewards multiple plays and the investment of your time. While you learn and develop your strategies, you’ll also have to cope with the luck of the dice rolls and the random element of what tiles will actually get pulled out at the start of the phases. Adaptability is key – if something isn’t working for you, a change of plan can often be a better choice than sticking desperately to course.

If I were to have any criticism, it’d be the downtime you get with three or four player games. It’s far from a dealbreaker, of course, but I much prefer to break out Castles of Burgundy as a two-player effort. Not only does it mean that you’re almost always engaged, it gets the play time down to a very manageable thirty to forty minutes – ideal if you’re filling time while waiting for others to arrive. That’s not to say that I don’t enjoy playing with more than two though – it’s still an excellent game with three or four around the table, but for a speedy yet deep experience, Castles of Burgundy is hard to beat.

The Castles of Burgundy was originally released in 2011 by Ravensburger / Alea and is designed by Stefan Feld. Between two and four can play with games taking between 30 – 60 minutes.  Copies from Gameslore are a bargainous £24.99, so head on over and grab yourself a truly great game.

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Connected – LINKEE review

LinkeeBOX

I’m not a massive fan of the party games genre, as you’ve probably worked out if you’re a regular reader / listener. For me, if I’m playing a game at a party it’ll invariably be something ‘normal’ like Ticket to Ride or something else along those lines. Something that won’t scare off people who are teetering on the fence about whether or not they’ll play. If I can convince them to give something like that a try, excellent. Of course, such games aren’t for everyone – even Carcassonne can terrify some folks – so there are still a few party titles in my collection.

The latest one to arrive is LINKEE, a new release that purports to be the world’s first crowdsourced game. It’s trivia based which will immediately make some people flee in fear but really, you shouldn’t be too worried. With a focus on team play rather than individual knowledge, even if you’re weak in certain areas you’re still in with a decent chance with a well balanced team. It also favours those who have the ability to think in a slightly odd manner, so who knows? Even the most awful quizzer could be in with a shot!

The objective is to complete the word L-I-N-K-E-E by collecting question cards with the appropriate letters printed on the back. One person takes control of the game as the question master and all other players split into teams, grabbing one of the pads and pencils that are included per team. Once everyone is settled, the questions begin… but this isn’t your normal quiz blowout.

Each card has four questions on the front which are read out in order by the question master, but in a twist to what you may expect, you don’t actually need to answer these out loud. The aim is actually to spot the link between the four correct responses and a final clue that is given once all four questions have been read. At any time, if you reckon you have the connection between the answers, someone in your team must scribble it down and interrupt everyone else by shouting LINKEE at the top of your voice.

Get it right and you claim the card, another step towards glorious, trivial victory. Fail and you’re out until the next card is pulled – it’s a one shot deal that, perhaps unsurprisingly, leads to some pretty tense moments as you’re getting nearer to getting that sixth card. What is surprising is that I really got into LINKEE – as I said, I’m not really that into party games. I also reckon that trivia games are played out, but for some reason this one kind of worked with me.

Why? A couple of reasons. First up, the fact that I’m a big fan of BBC4 uberquiz Only Connect helps a lot. If you’ve not seen it, all you need to know is that it’s all about linking apparently disparate things, it is ROCK HARD and is one of the best things on telly. LINKEE takes that concept and adds in the extra element of needing to work out answers to questions rather than just presenting facts while also making the potential connections that little bit simpler.

This is the kind of thing you can expect. Any ideas? Answer at the bottom of the review!

This is the kind of thing you can expect. Any ideas? Answer at the bottom of the review!

Another nice touch comes from that crowdsourcing thing. Where most trivia games are developed by a small team who craft their questions in a certain style, LINKEE is random in the best sense of the word. Thanks to questions being submitted by players, the topics are all over the place which means that pretty much everyone will get that moment of “Oh! I know that!” once in a while. It’s really rather sweet and inclusive.

Of course, the downsides of any question based game are based around the questions themselves. If you’re playing with the same people again and again those cards will soon come round once more, so unless your friends have goldfish-esque memories you will run out. It’s far from a massive issue and is easily solved through expansion sets – not that there are any available at the moment, but should the game prove successful I’m sure we’ll be seeing them before too long.

Aside from that, I’ll happily recommend LINKEE if you’re after a nice little game that everyone can get involved in. It’s nicely produced, simple enough for anyone to understand and – as far as I can see – error free (which is very important for a quiz nerd like me). It’s surprising how many small companies make a trivia based game and fail to check for spelling mistakes or factual inaccuracies, but thankfully the team behind this one have put the effort in. Now… any chance of some new question cards?

LINKEE is currently available from the rather fabulous Firebox site and will set you back a rather affordable £19.99. Oh, and the answer to the LINKEE above? Ice Creams!

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Cash in My Pocket – Monopoly, Money and You review

MMAY cover

It’s not often we look at books here on The Little Metal Dog Show, and even rarer that we check out those that fall into the financial section of the shelves. That’s probably down to the fact that such tomes aren’t exactly flying out of the publishing houses of the world, but perhaps the new one from Monopoly guru Phil Orbanes will start a new trend? Board gaming as life coach? There are worse things to base major decisions on…

Anyway, the book is called Monopoly, Money and You, and purports to be your passport to improving your situation by mastering the world’s best selling game. While your first thought may be that such a concept is crazy, if you consider it a little more it does kind of make sense. After all, Monopoly is a game with a dual aim – increase your portfolio as much as possible while bankrupting your opponents. Ignore that second aspect (because you really don’t want to be That Kind Of Person) and things begin to get clearer… is it possible that the skills you develop through Monopoly could transfer to the Real World?

Before Phil throws himself into the suggestions part, he devotes a decent chunk of the book to investigating the statistics of Monopoly. Being quite the nerd, I found this incredibly interesting – the likelihood of landing on certain spaces is far from equal, for example, but even though there are sections of the board that are more vistited than others it’s no guarantee that they’re the best investments. There are also specially commissioned surveys into everything from token selection to gameplay choices as well as an indepth look at dice rolls and the potential return on investment from the game’s many properties (and yes, as you might expect, the Orange set is definitely the best bunch to get).

One – well, three – of the most interesting bits of the book are the run-throughs of actual games. Now, I’ll happily put my hands up and say that these aren’t for everyone, but as someone who enjoys the details and minutiae of how games of any kind are played out, I found these pretty fascinating. The third game that’s gone through is actually the 2009 world championship final, and seeing how these pro-level players approach their opponents is incredible. They’re still playing by the rules that everyone else has to but it’s like a whole new game.

Rules are made to be broken, mind you, and Phil also goes into detail on the subject of House Rules. In an interview I did with him for the show a few months back we also discussed that it feels like no two families will ever play by the same set, introducing their own ways to skew the game. The most famous manipulations are laid out in Monopoly, Money and You, complete with the positives and negatives of how they affect play – boiled down, if you’re bringing more money into the game, you’re extending play by a pretty significant amount. So don’t do that.

Throughout the book, little references to real life situations are inserted here and there – not enough for the text to become preachy and filled with “this is what you should be doing”, though. Phil’s writing comes across like that of an affable uncle proferring useful hints and tips over his favoured arena of the Monopoly board. Some of his suggestions come across as a bit of a stretch, but generally the ideas laid out in the book make decent sense. Interjections from previous championship players also add new voices to the mix with how they use their finely honed skills in everyday life. Even if you’re not entirely sure that their applications fit, it still makes for interesting reading.

Much of Phil’s book comes down to common sense, but it’s still an entertaining read and you could well learn something from it. Of course, many gamers will turn their noses up at it, declaring Monopoly as broken, a relic from the past… but it’s still a defining element of the hobby. You’d be hard pressed to find someone who hasn’t heard of it, let alone not played it, and this unifying aspect makes Monopoly, Money and You one of the most accessible books on investment out there. It’s certainly taught me a thing or two.

Monopoly, Money and You was written by Philip E. Orbanes and is published by McGraw-Hill in the United Kingdom. A copy will set you back £16.99.

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Ooh Stick You – Sopio review

SopioCOVER

Listeners to the show should probably be at least aware of Sopio, due to me speaking with Danny Hooper, one of the game’s co-designers, on Episode 50. Originally a mad little game that he and his cousin (who happens to be internet celeb Alex Day) designed to play just with themselves and friends, it’s quietly become the obsession of many people – many of whom don’t know or care that something like BGG even exists.

Case in point. Last year, I was demoing games at the MCM Expo in London with the folks from Esdevium. We had a good selection of stuff, selected to appeal to the splendidly geeky clientele that attend the event. We’re talking Star Trek Catan, Fleet Captains, X-Wing… all good stuff. We were busy all weekend (as my lost voice on the following Monday showed) but the one game that people were requesting the most? Well, it was Sopio. And I didn’t have a clue what it was.

Naturally, I had to investigate. So, after wandering the halls while on a quick break late on the Saturday, I came across a very small table that could only be described as rammed – honestly, it was ten people deep wherever you turned, and all of them were desperately trying to get their hands on this Sopio thing. There was no way I was going to even get close unless I managed to grab a replica weapon from one of the many cosplayers, so I just took note to return the following morning before the doors opened and see what the fuss was all about.

Which I did! Danny was personable as all get out when I told him about the show and site, then thrust a bunch of Sopio decks into my hands. Never one to turn down a game – after all, I only look dumb – I gratefully accepted them to play at the next available time. And it turns out that the guys have created the sweetest, swingiest game that you’ve never heard of.

When most people start out gaming they will always – ALWAYS – end up playing Fluxx at some juncture. And that’s OK. It’s just that Fluxx a very divisive game, mainly because of the randomness and the occasional tendency for rounds to last absolutely ages. Thankfully the Looney Labs team are doing their best to deal with these issues with each new edition that’s released, but I’d like to suggest the next time you’re looking for a quick, light game to play, why not reach for a Sopio deck instead?

A few card examples from the very first deck. This is far from a normal game...

A few card examples from the very first deck. This is far from a normal game…

It’s so easy to understand, the rules can be condensed into a single sentence. At the start of your turn, you draw up to a hand of five cards and play one on ANY player at the table, with the winner being the first to one thousand points. That’s all there is. Sure, there are plenty of little nuances but the basics are so ridiculously easy to get round that pretty much anyone can play, regardless of age, skill, whatever… it’s a game where everyone starts on a level playing field and as long as you have some basic math skills in your brain, you’ll be grand.

Any cards that affect players’ running totals are stacked next to them alongside any that have lingering effects. Others that trigger one-off powers get discarded to the centre of the table, and play continues until one person hits that magic target. Some cards lower your necessary points total, some increase that of your opponents – things will often change drastically over the space of a couple of rounds, but don’t worry about it too much. Sopio is such a fast paced game that it’s very easy to pull things around in your favour again in a matter of moments.

That statement will pretty much decide whether it’s a game you’ll enjoy or despise; as mentioned previously, I see it very much in the same league as something like Fluxx or even 1000 Blank White Cards: a quick, almost disposable little game, a palate cleanser that’s ideal when you’ve got some spare time and don’t fancy anything too serious. Don’t see that as damning Sopio with faint praise, however – it’s very well made (thanks to it being produced by the good people at Cartamundi), highly playable and filled with silly humour. Admittedly some of it is downright awful – Danny and Alex have a minor obsession with bad puns, it seems – and the stick figure art style may turn some people off, but personally I enjoy the often terrible jokes. Plus I love XKCD, so little stick dudes and eggs with teeth are totally my bag.

In their own way, the designers have managed to carve out a little niche in gaming that many folks won’t even be aware of, but Sopio stands up for itself – the legions of fans who meet up for tournament play (because, oh yes, it exists!) is testament to that. Again, not everyone will enjoy it, especially those who see themselves as serious gamers, but if you’re the kind of person who can just take something on its merits, you could have some fun times with this one.

Sopio is designed by Danny Hooper and Alex Day, with the first deck being released back in 2010. Since then, a further three decks and six expansions have been issued, with the latest Easter based one available just about now. Pretty much any amount of people can play but it’s probably best with between two and five. Games take about fifteen minutes at most so play is super quick. Should you like to get hold of some decks yourself, there’s only one place to go – sopiocards.com – so why not head over there and support the little guy?  

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Game Design: How to Create Video and Tabletop Games, Start to Finish – book review!

GDbook

We rarely cover books here on The Little Metal Dog Show, but I recently read through a copy of a new one on game design by the legendary Lewis Pulsipher. I was honoured to meet Lewis a couple of years back at the UK Games Expo in Birmingham where I chaired a discussion he held on the same subject, where he took questions from the crowd on a range of subjects and answered them in his tempered, thoughtful style of delivery. His new book, Game Design: How To Create Video and Tabletop Games, Start To Finish, is written in a very similar voice and – though it can be a little dry and even blunt in places – I’ve found it a most useful read.

With his list of game designs including the classic Britannia and Flatlined Games’ Dragon Rage, Lewis’ credibility is bolstered by the fact he lectures on design – the guy knows his stuff and it shines through in this hefty book. From the off you’re thrown into the development process, laying out the basics but never looking to hold your hand. It’s a grown-up approach to creating a new game; he’s not here to give you a bunch of ideas, more to get you thinking about what you want to make and how on earth you’re going to go about it.

The whole process from genesis of the idea through to building and testing prototypes – after that, what you do with your new game is entirely up to you. Finding the right audience for your project is an important subject and is covered well, but as the book looks at both digital and analogue gaming, I found that some areas were more biased towards video-based pursuits. It doesn’t take too long to stumble across something that feels for relevant those more concerned with cardboard, but it made me think that I’d really like to see a longform text from Lewis focused solely on board game design.

One aspect I really enjoyed is the fact that Lewis sugar-coats absolutely nothing; it’s straight talking all the way through, regardless of the topic. Whether you’re designing for tabletops or tablets, he makes it very clear indeed that making a game is not a thing to take lightly. Problems are always going to pop up but rather than let them destroy you and your project, he makes suggestions of ways you can use them as a springboard to push ideas further. The honesty in his writing makes it feel as if he’s someone who’s looking to assist you in your design rather than lecture – even if that is his day job.

A minor negative; while there are plenty of references and examples throughout the book, the vast majority of them are based around the games that Lewis himself has designed – of course, as he’s the guy who built them from the ground up, that’s to be expected as he’ll have insight into everything that went into their design (as well as elements that have been excised). I’d like to have seen a wider range of games cited, but maybe that’ll be for the next volume.

Rather than having someone standing in front of you, telling you what to do to move on, Lewis’ writing feels more like he’s sitting by you, making helpful suggestions on how to get out of sticky design issues and encouraging you to think your way through the stages of your game. Whatever level you may be at, whether you’re an experienced designer or just someone who dabbles in game design, you’d do well to pay attention to what the man has to say. It may not be precisely how everyone goes about creating a game, but this is a detailed and helpful book that will inspire and drive any good designer.

Game Design: How to Create Video and Tabletop Games, Start to Finish was published by McFarland & Co in 2012. Running to 268 pages, a copy will set you back around £30 (it is a textbook, remember) though you can also get the Kindle version for £16.

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