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  • Explore Kyoto as a Kitten, Fit Cats into Packs, and Evolve as a Species in Nature

    by W. Eric Martin

    Most of the comments I've read about the 2023 train game Arabella ask why a kitten is on the cover when the gameplay focuses on track-building and share-holding. The publisher explains that the kitten is intended to represent how easy the game is to learn, but any cat lover who picks up this title is in for a surprise since the gameplay does not involve kaiju cats demolishing railroads.

    Let me instead recommend that fans of felines check out one of the games listed below instead, each of which features cats in their gameplay, starting with Kyoto no Neko, a 2-4 player design from Cédric Millet that French publisher Matagot will release at SPIEL Essen 24:
    In Kyoto no Neko, 2 to 4 players are kittens who explore the modern-day city of Kyoto, Japan through a series of independent, replayable scenarios. In each scenario, players must fulfill a variety of missions, from befriending a school boy to fighting an aggressive stray cat, or stealing the food from other player's dinner bowl. Throughout the game, each player will evolve, developing their skills and gaining the ability to explore new parts of the map by climbing on bushes and rooftops.

    Using a system of skills, Kyoto no Neko will see each player interact with some of Kyoto's inhabitants, both animal and human. Each turn provides the opportunity to uncover something new about the city as players will reveal elements from little insects to specific objects or denizens of Kyoto. While some of these elements are represented by cardboard tiles, others come as standees, ensuring a stunning visual presence.

    In a press release announcing the game, Millet writes, "I wanted to give everyone the chance to embody a kitten in a condensed experience of exploration and skill development, based on a role-playing mechanic in which every dice roll has a positive outcome. (You succeed or you learn!) The game lets you experience the sensations of a kitten's life by performing the full variety of typically feline activities (at least a new one in each scenario); I hope it will delight cat fans of all ages!" Now that sounds like a full feline experience!

    • Speaking of "neko", in August 2024 the balancing game Nekojima from David Carmona, Karen Nguyen, and Unfriendly Games will become available in the U.S. courtesy of distributor Hachette Boardgames. An overview of this 1-5 player game:
    In Nekojima, "The Island of Cats" in Japan, an electricity network is developing to supply the various lively districts of the island. The installation of electric poles becomes more complex due to the narrowness of the territory and its curious population of cats strolling on the cables.

    Nekojima is a wooden game of skill and dexterity in which you have to keep an entire installation in balance. Players take turns placing or stacking denchuu — 電柱, or electrical poles — respecting the locations without any hanging cables touching. Be careful not to be the one to bring down the structure. This game requires reflection, concentration and skill.

    David Carmona schools me in a demo at SPIEL Essen 23
    —In competition, the player who knocks down the structure loses.
    —In co-operation, the goal is to go as far as possible.

    • Designer Tobias Hall is crowdfunding the tile-laying game Cat Packs through the end of April 2024, with the goal of debuting the game at SPIEL Essen 24 from his own All Or None Games:
    Cat Packs is a fast-paced card game in which you'll cleverly put together the cat gang of your most whimsical dreams! The game includes over one hundred unique illustrated cats by artist Liselotte Eriksson.

    On each turn, players draft a new cat from the alley and use resources to play out cards from their hand to add to their cat pack. All cats have different requirements and benefits, but not all cats fit well together, so players must carefully consider their positions. The goal of the game is to earn the most "catshine", which players receive by collecting sets of five cat types, surrounding certain cards with other cards, matching corners of four cards together in a catshine symbol, or winning the power struggle taking place after each round!

    Who doesn't want to give a good home to a rough-and-tumble meowboy who needs a blanket to snuggle under?

    • Do robotic cats count for this post? Let's say yes so that I can include Cyber Pet Quest, a design by Brendan Kendrick and Bernie Lin of Dead Alive Games that they are crowdfunding in April 2024, with plans for early sales at Gen Con 2024 in August. Here's an overview:
    Embark on a thrilling adventure with Jane, a fully bionic cat, and her cybernetically enhanced friends: Clay the dog, Freya the raccoon, and Roman the goose. Join this eclectic team as they set out to find Jane's missing owner, Howard, in the intra-apocalyptic city of San Lazaro. With its diverse and immersive locations and a quirky cast of enemies, this metropolis will keep you on the edge of your seat. As you delve deeper into the city, you'll need to flex your tactical muscles and harness the pets' array of unique abilities and powerful items to succeed in your quest. Will you uncover the truth behind Howard's disappearance and guide Jane to her missing owner? Your choices will determine the outcome.

    Designed for 1-4 players, Cyber Pet Quest is played as a multi-chapter campaign. Taking the roles of the four pets, players investigate and interact with the environment, complete chapter objectives, gain power items and charms, and outsmart the enemies who are trying to stop them. The campaign has twelve chapters in a branching format so that players can play the full game multiple times to see the different branching stories.

    • Should you care more for big cats, along with many more animals of a non-cat nature, turn your eyes to, um, Nature, a Dominic Crapuchettes design that publisher NorthStar Game Studio plans to release in August 2025 following a 2024 Kickstarter campaign.

    Nature is an evolution of Evolution, which the then-named North Star Games released in 2014, with that game being a Crapuchettes co-design with Dmitry Knorre and Sergey Machin, who were responsible for the 2010 title Evolution: The Origin of Species. Over the years, North Star evolved Evolution into the standalone games Evolution: Climate, Evolution: The Beginning, and Oceans, and now it's being transformed once again.

    The gameplay of Nature resembles that of earlier games, with players experiencing an ecosystem in which food is scarce and predators are ready to eat you...although sometimes you're the predator looking for that scarce food. You can adapt your species to the environment by playing traits like fast to evade predators, nesting to grow your population, and climbing to reach fruit high above ground.

    Nature will have five thematic modules — Jurassic, Flight, Natural Disasters, Arctic Tundra, and Amazon Rainforest — available at launch, and you can use 0-3 of them in a game to modify (or not) its length and complexity. As Crapuchettes writes:
    The base game, Nature, is a meaty filler that is can be taught and played in 45 minutes. Each expansion will change core rules to dramatically affect the emotional feel of the game and the strategy:

    —Add one expansion for a 60-minute game that's roughly the complexity of Evolution.
    —Add two expansions for a 90-minute game that's roughly the complexity of Climate.
    —Add three expansions for a 120-minute game that's roughly the complexity of Terraforming Mars

    NorthStar is polling to determine which modules to release in 2026, and it welcomes playtesters who want to help see how everything fits together.

    Evolution in action Read more »
  • Take Your Place as a Knight of the Round Table, and Confront the Outer Gods in Imperial Rome

    by W. Eric Martin

    • The cartoon short "Steamboat Willie" entered the public domain in 2024, along with Tigger, The Passion of Joan of Arc, and Lady Chatterley's Lover by D. H. Lawrence.

    I'm not sure whether designers will rush to create games out of this material — especially the first item given that Disney still owns everything else related to Mickey Mouse — but over time the public domain pool will only continue to grow, a pool that game designers and publishers will return to repeatedly for a chance to put their own spin on a story or group of characters known around the world, as with the announcement from U.S. publisher Crafty Games of Knights of the Round Table, a design by Jonny Pac that will see release in 2025.

    Here's an overview of this 2-4 player game:
    In each game of Knights of the Round Table, players choose a cycle of Arthurian myth to play, setting the tone and starting rules. They rally a company of knights and Arthurian personalities, deploying them to construct Camelot, repel invader hordes, and quest for the Holy Grail. Through their choices, players sculpt a unique narrative and unlock new modules until the grail is discovered, and a winner is crowned high king!

    The game features dozens of silkscreened wood pieces, a huge game board, and a 3D castle that players build during play. Multiple game modules allow for high variability and replayability across many aspects of Arthurian myth, with the intertwining of themes and mechanisms allowing players to organically create their own spin on these legends.

    • "Alice in Wonderland" remains a source of inspiration for game designers given the rich variety of ways to approach this fantastic world.

    In 2024, new publisher Borogove Games plans to crowdfund Rolling in Wonderland, a design for 2-4 players from Daniel Alves:
    Players become children who, just like Alice, stumble into Wonderland and meet all the famous characters from the works of Lewis Carroll. During play, you use actions to discover cards, make friends, and use your mushrooms to execute powerful combos in a highly strategic action-selection/dice-drafting system — all with the long-term goal of earning points.

    • And where Alice starts to walk, Cthulhu follows. A crossover between these IPs is inevitable, but until that happens we'll have to focus on the latest game design to draw on the works of H.P. Lovecraft — Cohors Cthulhu: Tactics, a horror-themed, solitaire/co-operative game from Modiphius Entertainment that's meant as a companion of sorts to the Cohors Cthulhu RPG that Modiphius crowdfunded in 2023 for release in 2024. An overview:
    Cohors Cthulhu: Tactics is set in the Cohors Cthulhu universe during the height of Imperial Rome. You begin your heroic journey as one of a handful of survivors of an ambush, desperately trying to escape the Mythos-ridden mists of a Germanic forest. As your heroes grow in experience and power, you will fulfill your destiny, becoming the leader of a powerful legion and facing the avatars of the Outer Gods themselves in full-scale war.

    The game is meant to fuse the strategic nuance of tabletop wargames with the immersive narrative of role playing games. Cohors Cthulhu: Tactics will feature a wide range of 28mm miniatures in both resin and 3D print at-home STL files. The miniatures range features Roman Centurions, scoundrels, nobles, hunters, priests, druids, assassins, soldiers, and warriors. Facing them will be the full might of the Outer Gods: The Cult of Mormo with their Priests, Servitors, Ghouls and Overlords of Mormo, Teufel Hounds, Fluttering Fiends, Sheehad, Elder Things, Chosen and Die Draugr.

    Modiphius notes that "Kickstarter backers will have an exclusive opportunity to grab one of several powerful Avatars of the Outer Gods in resin such as the Star Spawn of Cthulhu. Stretch Goals will unlock new factions, such as the Deep Ones, Mi-Go, and the corrupt Herjan's Horde, plus more mythos creatures, additional missions, and new gameplay options."

    I'm not sure how "exclusive" these might be given that the Outer Gods appear willing to partner with as many publishers as step up...

    • Oh, hey, I should have been more optimistic...or pessimistic. Not sure which one is appropriate here, but in any case Steamboat Willie World has announced a Kickstarter for Steamboat Willie playing cards...

    ...while in May 2024 new publisher Simply Play Games plans to crowdfund the tabletop game Steamboat Willie: Dark Days.

    Here's the teaser description:
    Take the role of our classic hero, "Steamboat Willie", or one of his pals in this modern return to the Forbidden Seas in this epic 2-4 player board game.

    Return to the most dangerous seas to help rescue Caroline the Cow as she tries to get on board his steamboat to safety. In these mysterious seas, there are tales of sea monsters and pirates looking to capture his booty!

    Take the role of our hero, Mickey Mouse "Steamboat Willie," or one of his pals — Minnie, Pete, Parrot, or Goat — in this epic 2-4 player table top game.

    Given the quality of this promotional image from the upcoming BackerKit campaign, I anticipate this game being a high-quality release that will endure for decades and become a treasure that our descendants will look forward to entering the public domain in the 22nd century so that they can riff on it themselves.

    Read more »
  • VideoLink Round-up: Ticket to Ride on SNL, and Awards in Japan, in the U.S., and on BGG

    by W. Eric Martin

    Jules Messaud's Akropolis won the 2023 Japan Boardgame Prize issued by Yumoa, a non-profit organization founded in 2003 that annually honors games that are "considered to have contributed the most to the spread of board games".

    The other titles nominated for the award were Phil Walker-Harding's Super Mega Lucky Box and Challengers! from designers Johannes Krenner and Markus Slawitscheck. This latter title, which won the 2023 Kennerspiel des Jahres in Germany, won the voting section of the 2023 Japan Boardgame Prize, receiving more than twice as many points as second-place finisher Darwin's Journey from Simone Luciani and Nestore Mangone. Maxime Tardif's Earth had broader support than Darwin's Journey, but at a lower level, landing in third place. (Voters ranked five games, with first place receiving 5 points, second place 4 points, etc.)

    • The American Tabletop Awards have announced their 2024 winners for games released in the U.S. in 2023. The winners and their categories are:

    —Early gamers: Blob Party, by Pam Walls and WizKids
    —Casual games: Sea Salt & Paper, by Bruno Cathala, Théo Rivière, and Bombyx
    —Strategy games: Thunder Road: Vendetta, by Dave Chalker, Brett Myers, and Restoration Games
    —Complex games: The White Castle, by Isra C., Shei S., and Devir

    If you visit the link above, you'll find other ATTA-recommended and -nominated titles in those categories.

    • Speaking of awards, as a BGG user you are invited to nominate games released in 2023 for the 18th annual Golden Geek Awards. The nomination phase will end at 11:59 PM CDT on Sunday, April 21, 2023, with voting on the top nominees taking place over the next ten days. BGG owner Scott Alden gives details on the nomination process here.

    • Someone on the Saturday Night Live staff must be a fan of Ticket to Ride because while this skit from April 6, 2024 focuses on Jumanji, Alan R. Moon's classic train game also plays a starring role:

    Youtube Video
    • While Ravensburger publishes games, it's best known as a jigsaw puzzle manufacturer, and a paywalled article in The New York Times from Derrick Bryson Taylor details a long-running legal battle between the German publisher and the Italian government over the rights to reproduce Leonardo da Vinci's "Vitruvian Man" drawing in a jigsaw puzzle. An excerpt:
    At the center of the dispute is Italy's cultural heritage and landscape code, which was adopted in 2004 and allows cultural institutions, like museums, to request concession fees and payments for the commercial reproduction of cultural properties, like "Vitruvian Man."

    That code is at odds with European Union law, which states that works in the public domain (like "Vitruvian Man") are not subject to copyright.

    For more than a decade, Ravensburger sold a 1,000-piece puzzle with the image of the famed drawing. But in 2019, the Italian government and the Gallerie dell'Accademia in Venice, where the famous work and other da Vinci pieces are on display, used the Italian code to demand that Ravensburger stop selling the puzzle and pay a licensing fee.

    The article details other instances of the Italian government protesting commercial uses of Italian cultural landmarks, such as a 2023 case in which "a court in Florence ruled against GQ Italia for using an image of the David statue on the cover of one of its magazines in 2020 without permission".

    • Since I've already diverged into jigsaw puzzles, we close with a look at a trio of jigsaw puzzles that are a project of BGG advertising manager Chad Krizan, who also runs the company Puzzle Bomb with his wife Caylyn, so I want to highlight their Spring 2024 collection of wooden puzzles. I've watched Chad doodle many times over the years, and it's fascinating to see his work transformed in this way.

    Read more »
  • Get a Peek at KOSMOS' SPIEL Essen 24 Titles: The Gang, Battling Koalas, and Dying Patients in Miami

    by W. Eric Martin

    • German publisher KOSMOS has teased games that it will release in the second half of 2024, starting with German editions of Cascadia: Rolling Hills, Cascadia: Rolling Rivers, Linx, and The Gang, the latter of which will debut from KOSMOS in the U.S. in Q3 2024 and which Inka and Markus Brand described on Instagram as a "super good game" that even in March 2024 they can see landing a Spiel des Jahres nomination in 2025. Hmm...

    Speaking of the SdJ, Wolfgang Lüdtke's SdJ recommended title Caesar & Cleopatra, which debuted from KOSMOS in 1997, will be released in a new edition.

    As previously announced in January 2024, KOSMOS will release the card game Faraway from Johannes Goupy and Corentin Lebrat in German in the second half of 2024.

    KOSMOS will also release German editions of three titles from Dutch publisher Identity Games. Battle Royale is a tactical action game for 2-4 players in which "you play cards to position your characters cleverly, then you roll the doom dice...and little by little, the island arena grows smaller and smaller. With skill and luck, you try to keep your figures on the island for as long as possible. Create majorities, push your opponent's figures off the island, and stay away from the explosions. Continue to fight for space until only one player remains."

    Medical Mysteries: New York Emergency Room and Medical Mysteries: Miami Flatline (!) are co-operative games in which you encounter patients and need to figure out what's wrong with them. Each box has four patients of varying difficulties waiting for you, along with a tutorial case. No prior medical knowledge is required.

    In terms of new titles, Monkey Fun is a game for 1-4 players from Jürgen P. K. Grunau in which you try to claim a connected area as quickly as possible with your gang of monkeys. The cards you play indicate on which square you can place a monkey, but the other monkeys are already waiting to snatch this space from you...

    (I will confess that this might not be a new design as I'm not familiar with Grunau's dozens of published games.)

    Read more »
  • Designer Diary: Word Traveler, or the Second Time's the Charm

    by Thomas Dagenais-Lespérance

    The story of Word Traveler — which is being released in April 2024 from Office Dog — is both very short and very long. It's a party-ish game — emphasis on the "ish" — and like most games of its kind, it's based around a simple activity in which scoring is relatively secondary. This core activity took shape quickly and didn't change much throughout development, so in a sense "most" of the game was created in a short period of time. However, the devil's in the details as they say, and like Boo in DragonBall Z, the game went through many, many transformations before it would reach its final form.

    The premise is simple: Players are traveling around a city, but since they don't know the local language, they must rely on imprecise indications to get around. The idea is translated mechanically by having players want to move around a grid of images to score points based on their personal map card (think Codenames), but they cannot do so themselves, so they must communicate to the other players how they'd like to be moved by creating a sequence made of a combination of direction tokens and communication cards.

    In "short", Word Traveler is a co-operative communication programming game. Combining communication and programming was the thing I was the most excited about as it allowed players to create a sentence of sorts, one in which each "word" (move) would inform the overall path you're trying to take.

    Instead of going through a lengthy explanation of how the core activity of the game works concretely, I think it's best if I show you an example. Word Traveler is one of those games that's a bit awkward to explain in written form but super easy to teach visually. This photo's from one of the first iterations of the game, back when the game was called "PanoraMag" (short for "Panorama Magazine"...which was a terrible name):

    For their first move — as indicated by the row of cards at the bottom of the image — the red player wants to go up to the image that's the most "circle" (probably the tiger's face). For their second move, they want to go up again to the image that's the most "royal" or "regal" (probably the forbidden city). After that, they go right to the image that's the least "city" (when placed on its dark side, a card is meant to be read as "the least"). After that, they go left to the image that's the most "food" (probably the chopsticks), then they use a drone (more on that later), and finally they go down to the image that's the least "music" (probably the containers).

    That particular sequence is relatively easy to decode (in my opinion), but in practice players will often want to refer to past and future instructions if they're unsure where to go for a particular move, hence the "sentence" aspect of the communication. For example:

    Here the first move is a little bit ambiguous. What's the least "food/plant" image to the right of the red player between a desert, a motorbike, and a plane? This one's tough, but for the second move they tell us to go down to the image that's the most "weapon", which works really well with the policeman in the last column, which could indicate that they're going to the plane for their first move.

    As you probably guessed from the above examples, the game used to take place in China and players communicated with icons instead of words. This was back in 2019, and since Decrypto's release was relatively recent, I wanted to avoid doing another word-based game. As for the Chinese theme, I liked the aesthetics of it, but it wasn't kept after the game got signed.

    At first, players had access to three different maps, each with its own shape and special power: Beijing (associated with the drone, which allowed you to visit an extra location adjacent to you once per round), Shanghai (associated with the bridge, which you could cross once per round to reach the other half of the map), and China itself (associated with the plane, which allowed you to move non-orthogonally). The maps also featured hotels, and if you ended your turn on one, you would earn one extra card (and point) for the next round.

    The maps not taken...
    Unfortunately, this version of the game had many problems. Having the direction tokens and the icon cards together was a nice idea to reduce the component count, but it wasn't great for readability and also made it difficult for players to use multiple icons to point to a single destination, which a lot of players were asking for. Having complex maps composed of single images made the game frustratingly long to set up. Hotels were nice, but the extra cards and points tended to advantage players who were already doing well. I won't even go into the whole letter/number system, but suffice to say it was unnecessarily complex as well.

    The game was soon changed to feature a single square map, which allowed me to move the images from single cards to 2x3 boards for a much faster set-up.

    As for the other problems, they would get fixed only after I signed the game to Repos Production near the end of 2019...

    "Wait!", you say, "Repos Production?! But the game's being released by Office Dog!"

    Indeed, this game actually got signed to two different publishers, once in 2019 and again in 2022. This was an extremely valuable learning experience as each publisher had a (somewhat) different vision of the game and didn't come to the same conclusions regarding many of its systems.

    So, first, Repos. They wanted to integrate the game into their Concept line as both games featured similar icon-based communication. They quickly did away with the Chinese theme and changed it to a more globally relatable theme of traveling the world. They also wanted a more illustrated style compared to the travel photos I had been using thus far. Furthermore, they separated the direction tokens and the icon cards for all the reasons I explained above.

    When I first showed Repos the game, each round players would draw a new map card (i.e., the Codenames-like cards that tell each player where they want to go), but they wanted players to keep the map for the entire game so that each round would feel more like a part of a complete experience. The map cards went through a number of different iterations in an effort to accommodate that: first, there were tokens to represent the different locations that players would flip face down when they visited them, then small sheets of paper like you see in roll-and-writes on which players would note their path using a pencil, then dry-erase cards, then small boards that you kept behind a screen and on which you placed cubes to indicate what you had visited.

    The map cards themselves also changed quite a bit:

    Gone were the letters and the numbers, which had been replaced by small icons. A number of tokens showing these icons would be drawn from a bag at the start of each round, and players would divide them among themselves depending on what was easier for them to visit. Gone also were the hotels; players would earn additional cards and movements automatically to simplify things.

    A lot of smaller things changed as well. For example, players used to be able to trade communication cards with one another, but Repos wanted to shorten the game's length, so that idea was scrapped. The special actions like the plane or the drone were also scrapped. A sand timer was used to track time, then it was gone, then one appeared again. A lot of different things were tried, too much for me to list them all.

    All in all, I think most of the changes Repos did were a step in the right direction. The game was simplified in some aspects, complexified in others. They worked a lot on it, which is why it came as such a blow when they told me in early 2022 that they wouldn't make the game after all. Their reasoning (at least the one they gave me) was that they wanted the game to cost the same as Concept, but that they didn't see a way to make it work without making drastic (and detrimental) changes to the game. This was the third game of mine to get canceled during the pandemic. I know these things happen relatively frequently, but to have three games canceled in such a short period of time, all of which had all undergone lengthy developments, I almost stopped making games right there and then. It was soul crushing.

    Still, I eventually recovered and started to work on my games again, including this one. As luck would have it, Bryan Bornmueller from Office Dog contacted me around that time to see whether I had any prototypes to pitch them. They were a new studio under the Asmodee banner and wanted games from freelance designers such as myself. They really liked "PanoraMag", and after a few tests they decided to start working on it in earnest.

    One of the first big changes they did was to switch icons for words on the communication cards. One of the issues with icons, in this case, is that there's sort of two interpretation layers: First you need to figure out what the icon means for the player who used it, then you need to figure out which image they are pointing at. With words, you (mostly) have only the second layer, which makes sequences easier to interpret. They reverted the change that Repos had done regarding drawing only one map card for the whole game and went back to drawing a new map card each round since it was easier to manage and required fewer components. The maps were also simplified, with just 1s and 2s to indicate the number of points gained from visiting a place instead of a more complex system of icons and tokens.

    On the thematic side of things, rather than having players travel the whole world using 2x3 boards made of a random assortment of images from around the globe, Office Dog preferred to have players visit more specific locations. They decided to have four different boards, each one a city illustrated by an artist from that place, which I thought was a really cool idea. Finally, the name was changed to Word Traveler, which was miles better than mine.

    On display at GAMA Expo 2024
    All in all, I'm really quite happy with the work they've done, and development went extremely smoothly! After almost five years, the game is finally seeing the light of day. It was a long road, but hopefully the game is better for it.

    Thomas Dagenais-Lespérance

    Read more »
  • Make Way in the Lab for Matúš Kotry's Little Alchemists

    by W. Eric Martin

    In 2014, Alchemists appeared from designer Matúš Kotry and publisher Czech Games Edition. In the intervening decade, Kotry has become a father, and to coincide with the tenth anniversary of the game, he and CGE have come together again to release Little Alchemists. This new design due out in Q3 2024 shares elements with the original release, but is aimed at players aged 7 and up, with these players mixing potions and selling them to customers.

    Here's an overview:
    Will you surpass your teachers' knowledge and grow up to become the best alchemists in the land? Let's find out! It's time to grab your potion ingredients, sharpen your deduction skills, and get mixing!

    Little Alchemists is a family-friendly deduction game that's designed to grow with the curious minds of young players. The game starts with simple concepts and mechanisms; you'll start by gathering and combining ingredients for brewing potions to sell. However, as you collect keys by achieving your potion-making goals, you'll unlock new chapters that gradually add more components, mechanisms, and complexity to the experience.

    Not sure how to make potions? No sweat! Potion craft takes mere seconds with the free Little Alchemists companion app. To make a potion, players select two ingredient tiles, then scan them using the companion app loaded onto a tablet or smartphone. This reveals the combined result and lets players acquire and mark the corresponding potion knowledge on their secret player board.

    The proud parentWith each potion you make, you'll begin to discover the secrets that lie at the heart of alchemy. Players will have to use clever deductions to figure out the arcane properties of each ingredient, then they can use that knowledge to their advantage throughout the game!

    Over the course of seven chapters that unlock over multiple playthroughs, players will learn and master many new facets of the alchemy trade, preparing them for what's to come. Each chapter is designed as a replayable experience that expands on the previous chapter, with new layers of game mechanisms that add more subtle depth and complexity over time. Also, fully exploring the world of Little Alchemists will introduce you to many of the concepts from and better prepare you for the original Alchemists game.

    For a hint of what awaits inside the box, note the pyramidal ingredient chart in the lower left of the image below. The initial game has you play with six types of ingredients, but over time you can add a seventh and eighth by attaching new "walls" on the pyramid. The app is designed to teach players the entire game as needed to assist play with youngsters.

    Little Alchemists will debut at Gen Con 2024 in August.

    Prototype version shown at GAMA Expo 2024 Read more »
  • Go Fishing with Freidemann Friese, Then Take a Free Ride in the United States

    by W. Eric Martin

    • Designer Friedemann Friese of 2F-Spiele is no stranger to trick-taking games, having released Foppen in 1995 (then re-mixing it as Fool! in 2018) and Stich-Meister in 2010.

    In Q4 2024, he will release a new twist on the genre in Fischen, which Rio Grande Games will release as Fishing. Here's an overview of this 3-5 player game:
    In Fishing, you try to catch as many tricks as possible over eight rounds, with each card you catch being worth 1 point.You then use your caught cards for the next round — and if you didn't catch enough tricks to fill your hand, you'll draw fresh cards from the ocean stack, which will introduce new cards for you fishers to fight over.

    In more detail, at the start of each round, you have 8-13 cards in hand, depending on the player count and the round. In the first round, the cards go from 1-10 in four colors. Standard trick-taking rules apply, with players needing to follow the color led and the highest card of the led suit winning the trick.

    New cards come into play from the ocean stack in waves, with higher-value cards in the four colors, a green trump suit from 1-16, 0 cards that let you snag a card from the trick, and special-powered buoy cards that can always be played into a trick regardless of what you have in hand. With buoys, you can steal the lead or determine which color must lead the next trick, force players to pass cards or lose points; you can even steal all other cards in a trick, ideally netting yourself huge fish for use next round.

    At the end of each round, score 1 point for each card you caught. Whoever lands the most points after eight rounds wins.

    It's interesting to see Friese drawing from Fabled Fruit and his Fast Forward series in which more cards are introduced to the game over time. Rand. did something similar in his trick-taking game Tall Tales, but Fishing introduces a trump suit and special-powered cards, in addition to higher numbers, with no one knowing what you're initially drawing other than a card from level one, level two, etc.

    What's more, I'm intrigued by the idea of you using the cards you catch in one round as "bait" in the next round. After all, you might be catching junky low numbers, and sure, you score for them at the end of this round, but how well will they serve you next round, assuming you draw them? Maybe they can actually be a boon, allowing you to run a color that no one else has...until the trump cards start showing up. In any case, I'm looking forward to this one.

    • Another SPIEL Essen 24 release from 2F-Spiele is Free Ride USA, a spinoff title that features the same gameplay as 2021's Free Ride:
    In Free Ride USA, you are one of several people in charge of building railway lines, connecting the cities in the United States, and carrying passengers to those cities. The game board shows 45 cities connected by a network of potential routes, and all railway lines built will be one of three types: lines owned by you, lines owned by fellow players, and state-owned lines. When you travel along railway lines, you pay nothing to travel on your lines and state-owned lines. To travel on a fellow player's line, however, you must pay them 1 coin, which converts their line to state-owned. From then on, traveling on that line is free for all players. As coins are limited, you should carefully balance the building of your lines with the conversion of fellow players' lines to state-owned lines.

    Where do you want to build? At the start of play, each player drafts part of a travel route. Multiple travel routes are available for choosing, and each travel route consists of three cards. When you choose a route, you take either the first and second cards or the second and third cards as your starting and ending point (in that order). Return the unchosen card of that route to the box.

    Once the third deck is empty, you can either withdraw from the game with uncompleted routes (returning those cards to the box) or keep taking turns until you finish all your routes, at which point you immediately gain 1 coin and withdraw. In either situation, you earn 1 coin (and do nothing else) on each subsequent turn. Once all players have withdrawn, you tally your score, earning 3 points for each coin, 5 points for the first card you have of a city, and 2 points for each other card you have of a city. (Each of the 45 cities appears once in each of the three decks.) Whoever has the most points wins.

    For more on the gameplay, you can read or watch me rave about Free Ride here. The 45 cities in Free Ride USA are color-coded in groups of five, ideally making it easier for players to get a sense of how long a route might take to travel with your train.

    In addition, instead of nine cities around the perimeter of the game board starting with two coins — with the first player to move their train to such a city collecting those coins — coins are added to the game on a somewhat random basis. Ten cities each are designated as east coast cities or west coast cities, and whenever a potential route has an east-west pairing, say, Philadephia to Salt Lake City, two coins are added to this route from the reserve. If a player claims that route, they collect those coins, which means players have more of an incentive to grab long routes since they can use those coins to purchase rail tokens without needing to spend a turn to do so, while also converting others' routes to state-owned. Read more »
  • Be the Best Bus Driver, Spread Influence on Sky Islands, and Decipher a Dying Message

    by W. Eric Martin

    Tokyo Game Market next takes place on April 27-28, 2024, and here's a tiny sampling of new games that will be presented at that show.

    • Designer Saashi of Saashi & Saashi will release Bus & Stop, a card game featuring art from Takako Takarai that challenges 2-4 players to be efficient bus drivers:
    Bus & Stop is a card game in which you compete as bus drivers to bring passengers to their desired destinations, while avoiding overcrowding.

    On a turn, you either pick up or drop off. To pick up, choose all of the passenger cards of one color from the row waiting at the bus stop, then place them in your bus — that is, the area in front of you, which can hold at most ten cards. Senior citizens aren't going far, so you score them immediately instead of placing them on the bus.

    To drop off, choose a group of passengers on your bus that match one of the available destination cards — for example, all men, all girls, or one passenger of each color — then remove these passengers from your bus and place them under the card. You score points for each card depending on how many people you delivered at once, so aim for large groups. Whenever a player drops off, everyone else can make one of their matching passengers skedaddle, removing them from the bus and placing them in a personal scoring pile with their senior citizens.

    When the bus stop can't be refilled with passengers or only a certain number of destination cards remain, the game ends. Tally your score, earning 1 point for each single card and the listed points for each destination card. If your bus is empty, congratulations! You earn a depot bonus for not stranding passengers on your bus. They will thank you for not doing that...

    While Saashi & Saashi will debut Bus & Stop at Game Market, pre-orders will ship at the end of May 2024 with a general retail release in June 2024.

    • At the previous Game Market in December 2023, designer Fumiko Shimizu self-published approximately fifty copies of ダイイングメッセージ (Dying Message) under the brand Cinematrick.

    Now Oink Games has licensed the design and will release a new edition — solely in Japanese right now — at Game Market in April 2024, with a retail release in early May 2024.

    Here's how to play:
    You've been murdered! Well, almost, you're not dead yet, so you want to communicate the identity of who the killer is, but you have a limited number of tools to make that happen: a small number of cards with obscure marks on them and...yourself. Yes, your dying body. Maybe you can arrange the cards in some manner to convey information. Maybe your still fingers can point to — or obscure — parts of the cards to increase the clarity of your dying thought.

    If the clues are easy to understand, they will be destroyed by the culprit; if they are difficult, they will not be communicated to anyone, and your death will not be avenged, so leave an exquisite dying message.

    The other players in Dying Message are detectives, and they make inferences based on the limited information available. Detectives can co-operate or confront one another, and whether the deduction turns out to be good or bad will depend upon their discussion.

    Looking at the pic above, I was like, wait, is that a pool of blood on the table? Is that part of the game?! And it turns out that yes, it is, with the designer noting on Twitter that the blood pool on the back of the instruction manual of the first edition is now made of felt, presumably to make your final seconds more comfortable.

    • Oink has a second licensed title that it plans to debut at Game Market ahead of an early May 2024 retail release: Moving Wild, which designer Chris Priscott originally crowdfunded in 2021 and released in 2022 under the name Zuuli and publishing brand Unfringed.

    In Moving Wild, up to six players draft cards, with everyone choosing a card simultaneously, passing what's left, choosing another card, etc. Once all the cards have been selected, players each assemble their own zoo from the enclosures, animals, and upgrades they've collected.

    Enclosures have a size limit and can take animals from 1-3 terrains: desert, grass, or water. Animals need to be placed in an enclosure of a matching landscape, and they have a size on them, so you can't just shove them all in the same enclosure. Fierce animals can't be enclosed with friendly ones unless you have an upgrade to do so. Animals are worth points if enclosed, with some enclosures having multipliers for those animals. Some animals have special conditions on them that grant you bonus points if met.

    The game lasts three rounds, with everyone scoring after each round, then whoever has the most points wins.

    Happy City designer Toshiki Sato has a new title coming from their own さとーふぁみりあ (Sato Familie) publishing brand: Merchants of Sky Islands.

    Merchants of Sky Islands is a 2-4 player game, and each player starts with a random stack of ten hexagonal island tiles, taking two of them in hand. Each tile is a combination of island parts on a background of air — after all, "sky islands". A four-hex starting tile is placed in the middle of the table.

    On a turn, add a tile from your hand to the table, matching land and sky on adjacent edges. Gain the appropriate resource (or 1 VP) based on the color of the airship on the tile you placed and all adjacent tiles, then use resources to place buildings on the board, with each building costing one resource in each of the three colors: a trading house goes on an island tile to show your influence; a tower is placed next to one of your trading houses on a towerless island, then you gain points equal to the number of trading houses on that island; and a port goes under one of your portless trading houses, giving you the resource on that tile at the start of each turn. Discard to three resources in hand at turn's end.

    After ten turns, the game ends, and you score each of the islands on the board, whether they're only linked (that is, connected) or closed (with the island being completely surrounded by air). Each towered trading house in your color gives you 2 influence, and each other trading house 1 influence. Whoever has the most influence on a linked island scores 1 point per tile, and the player with the secondmost influence gets half that. Scores are doubled for closed islands. Read more »
  • Add More Gameplay to Earth, Gaia Project, Mille Fiori, and Thunder Road: Vendetta

    by W. Eric Martin

    • U.S. publisher Inside Up Games has announced an expansion for Maxime Tardif's Earth, and as much as I'd like it to be named "Moon", it is not.

    Instead it's titled Earth: Abundance, and the only detail at the moment is that it contains "new player interactions and opportunities to curate your hand" and a Kickstarter campaign for this item — as well as add-ons from the initial Earth campaign — will launch on April 22, 2024 to coincide with Earth Day.

    • In March 2024, Restoration Games crowdfunded Thunder Road: Vendetta – Carnival of Chaos, an expansion for Dave Chalker and Brett Myers' Thunder Road: Vendetta in which you're not racing to a finish line, but instead competing in an arena with powerful new weapons — or material from the original game and expansions — to collect more scrap than anyone else.

    This expansion also includes components to add a fifth player to the game, and it's due to Kickstarter backers in November 2024.

    • The second edition of Dominion: Cornucopia & Guilds, which combines Donald X. Vaccarino's two Dominion expansions Guilds and Cornucopia, was released in March 2024 by publisher Rio Grande Games, with this edition featuring eight new kingdom cards.

    As with previous updates to the Dominion game line, these new cards will be sold separately as an update pack.

    • Rio Grande Games has also updated the release date for Dice Realms: Trade Expansion to "Spring 2024", a.k.a. Q2 2024.

    Devir is taking an interesting approach to its (potential) release of Mille Fiori: The Masterpieces, an expansion for Reiner Knizia's 2021 game Mille Fiori.

    Along the lines of GMT Games' P500 pre-order program, Devir has launched Devir 500, writing that "At times we get requests from customers to publish titles, and the Devir 500 Project was created to turn those titles into reality. They can be board games, expansions, or even RPGs. The project started with some Spanish language titles, but has worked well enough that we will now offer it for projects in English and other languages."

    Mille Fiori: The Masterpieces is the first such English-language project, although Devir's edition will include rules in Spanish, Portuguese, and Italian as well to match its base game. The Devir 500 project for this title has 454 reservations to date, with no deadline listed for when Devir will pull the plug on this project, although presumably the publisher won't sit around forever waiting for order #500.

    • In its monthly newsletter, German publisher Feuerland Spiele has been posting previews of Gaia Project: The Lost Fleet, an expansion for 2017's Gaia Project from designers Jens Drögemüller and Helge Ostertag, and now it's posted the rulebook for this late Q3 2024 release on BGG.

    Read more »
  • Designer Diary: Digsaw

    by Ellie Dix

    During most of 2020, playtesting was all online. With little desire to master the necessary digital skills, I turned my attention to games that could be played over Zoom without using Tabletop Simulator or similar.

    I spent much of the year designing roll-and-write games in which playtesters could print out a single sheet of paper and dice rolls could be shared. I produced a series of print-and-play roll-and-writes of varying sizes and complexities, all of which could be played with standard six-sided dice — but I started to wonder what else you could do. I wanted to create something that felt new and different, but that shared the flexibility of the roll-and-write format.

    "Roll and _____"

    I began to think of other verbs that could replace "write" in the "roll-and-write" genre. What else could be done with paper? "Roll-and-erase"... "roll-and-stick"... "roll-and-fold"... "roll-and-roll" (as in, rolling up the paper — yeah, I know, stupid idea)... "roll-and-cut"...?

    Cutting up paper felt instantly interesting. I was immediately drawn to the idea that when you're cutting up a page, you can't erase your decision; once a cut is made, it's made. No takesies-backsies. As you cut up a page, the game physically changes, the paper gets smaller, and the challenge develops.

    Initial Design

    My initial ideas and early prototypes were entirely mechanically driven; there was no hint of a theme. I decided I wanted a game in which players cut up a grid containing icons in some of the cells with the aim of splitting the paper up so that each icon is on a separate piece of paper. I decided that the roll of the dice should determine the line along which you can cut, and the dice system from that first prototype ended up in the final game: Roll two dice, then choose the color from one die (to determine the color of the line along which you cut) and the number from the other (to determine the length of the cut).

    Three regular shapes tessellate perfectly: squares, hexagons, and triangles. The final design uses triangles, but I experimented with both squares and hexagons first. I tried square grids with red and blue lines running vertically and horizontally, as well as grids with different colored lines at different points. Two colors felt too few — you always had too many options of lines to cut along — whereas six was too restrictive and frustrating.

    Experiments with a hex grid didn't go well. The bendy lines threw up lots of problems with tracking your cuts and being able to visualize what a specific cut will do. The grid needed different colors in different places, which was messy and confusing. After one solo playtest, this was rapidly abandoned.

    But the triangle grid worked like a charm, with three colors of lines running in three different directions. After rolling the dice and deciding which to use for the number and which for the color, you could pick any line in that color — all running parallel — and cut straight along it. The 60º angles at which the lines meet means that cells can be cut out with fewer snips.

    Early experiments with a small grid of triangles helped me establish the cutting rules:

    • As soon as you cut along a line, the opened edges of this line become edges of the page. You may cut in from any open edge.
    • You may cut over a point at the end of a previous cut, but you may not cut over a completely bisected line.
    • You may choose any available line of the right color, but you must cut the whole distance. If you are unable to cut the whole distance on the chosen line, you must take a penalty, reducing the (multiplying) value of one of the types of icons.

    Exploring Theme

    Once the core mechanisms were clear, I started to explore theme. My games often arise from a mechanical concept, but I want the theme to feel integrated. As I was dividing up the paper into sections and carefully removing items on their own, it struck me that there were clear similarities between this activity and archeologists working on a dig site. Artifacts (represented by icons in cells) discovered in a dig would need to be carefully removed, on their own, without damaging other artifacts that may be nearby. The soil which filled the bulk of the site (the empty cells on the grid) were not important. Artifacts could come out with soil or without it. Soil could come out on its own, and it wouldn't matter.

    The name quickly followed. It's one of the few games I've designed in which the name has never changed. The game feels a bit like a jigsaw, but with the puzzle asking you to separate the pieces, not put them together. "Dig" relates to the theme and "Saw" to the cutting mechanism. Thus, Digsaw was born.

    I leaned into the theme when designing the rest of the mechanisms. All icons in the original, purely mechanical versions of the game were worth the same amount, but now that they were artifacts, it felt like some should be worth more than others, specifically bones, ceramics, and jewels in that order from low to high. Originally I used the same number of each icon, but I wanted to make dig sites where less valuable bones were easier to come by, while the more valuable jewels were rarer.

    Playtesting and Development

    From the first playtest with other people, it was clear that the game sparked delight. It was exciting to see players puzzling over increasingly crazy-shaped pieces of paper, held together by small sections. The "doh" moments players experienced when making a cut that they hadn't fully thought through were priceless. It felt interesting and different — but I didn't know what else to do with it.

    The game was shelved for a while...almost two years. When in-person playtesting started again, we focused on playing all the games we'd designed that we couldn't play online. In fact, it wasn't until I had nothing new to take to my weekly playtest that I pulled Digsaw out again. To be honest, I had sort of forgotten about it, the design having fallen into a Covid time-warp. From the first cut, though, there were squeals of delight. It still felt different, it still felt exciting. With the encouragement of the London playtesters, I was spurred on to develop the game further. It was clear that the playtesters wanted to play again, but they wanted different boards and new challenges.

    I started working on different dig sites with varying levels of difficulty. The second dig site was similar to the first, but with the artifacts mostly clumped together in the middle, making extraction more difficult. The third dig site was littered with artifacts, but they were of a lesser initial value. The fourth dig site contained a number of unexploded World War II bombs; these had to be removed with care, or they would cost you points. The fifth dig site was riddled with sections of granite that couldn't be cut through. These remain the five levels in the published version.

    I actually created super-advanced versions of each of the five levels with half the dig site printed on one side of the paper and the other half on the back. I enjoyed the challenge of the double-sided sheets, but others found them immensely frustrating, leading to a few angry departures from the game after rogue cuts — and with the gentle encouragement of the lovely folks at Stronghold Games, which had picked up the design, I acquiesced.

    It was important to make sure that different players could play different levels simultaneously, that is, that a new player could play Level 1 and an experienced player Level 5, while still competing on scores. I tweaked the sheets so that each level would produce the same maximum score. I did a bunch of solo tests using the same dice rolls to make decisions on multiple sheets of different levels, both single- and double-sided.

    Working with Stronghold Games

    I pitched Digsaw to Travis Worthington at Stronghold Games at SPIEL '22. He liked the game, but wanted bonuses that could chain, which was a good suggestion. I added small stars that when removed with an artifact of the same color gives a player a bonus cut on any color line. If you set up your sheet in the right way, one bonus cut can lead to another and another. The stars give no penalties, just extra cuts. They gleam — waiting for you to activate them with a swish of your scissors.

    Working with Stronghold Games has been terrific. The box art is fabulous, and the production is superb. One of the things I was worried about when I started pitching the game was that the box might include only the pads pf paper, and players would have to use their own scissors — but Stronghold fit six pairs in the box! All those scissors! Fabulous...

    Ellie Dix

    Read more »

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