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  • Roll into Cascadia, Fill a House with Cats, Tour Seoul, and Colonize Mars

    by W. Eric Martin

    December tends to be a slower month for game announcements, so I want to spend much of the next few weeks covering older new games.

    What do I mean by that? I tag game announcements in email, then I dip into that folder to find things to write about, typically having a through line for each post — Knizia, mushrooms, trick-taking, etc. — but far more games are released than I can cover, so these announcements compost over time. I have more than 1,800 messages in that folder dating to 2018, along with 700+ messages in a separate "game industry news" folder, so I thought I'd search for games and topics that might still be of interest while also clearing out the deadwood. Can I start the new year with a clean slate? We'll see!

    Games due out in 2024 and beyond will be included in posts to stay on top of what's being announced this month, such as:

    Cascadia: Rolling Hills and Cascadia: Rolling Rivers are a pair of flip-and-roll-and-write games from Randy Flynn and Flatout Games that give you new things to do in this ludic version of the Pacific Northwest. The pitch:
    Simultaneously roll dice, collect wildlife, and complete habitat cards to fill in different environments in Cascadia. Use special actions to manipulate your dice, and dynamic completion cards to unlock powerful combos.

    Each set contains components for 1-4 players with four maps, so you can combine the two for games with up to eight players. Additionally, each game features a unique "central special die that changes the way each round plays out", along with a mini-expansion with new gameplay elements.

    House of Cats from William Attia, Kristian Amundsen Østby, and Aporta Games debuted at SPIEL Essen 23, and its main twist on the roll-and-write formula seems to be that each turn you can write anywhere on your player sheet, but what you write has to all be connected.

    In more detail, each turn someone rolls four dice, then everyone chooses three of the dice to add to their player sheet. The dice show 2/3/4/5/cat/mouse, and your main goal is to make number groups the size of the number in the group, i.e., a group of three 3s, four 4s, etc. Each time you do this, you gain the ability to use an action that was randomly assigned to this group size at the start of play, such as write one number not adjacent to the others or add or subtract 1 from a number that you're writing. Additionally, you score points for each group you create.

    Image: Ilya Ushakov
    House of Cats includes four map layouts, each with their own rules for how to score cats and mice, as well as twists on how to play.

    • In September 2023, designer Arif Nezih Savi of Turkish publisher Keepers of Fun crowdfunded Pioneers of Mars, a roll-and-write game in which two players duel on the same sheet of paper to claim and colonize different regions of Mars. In more detail:
    The duel for Mars begins with the selection of specialized tools, each represented by unique icons: dust devils to simulate the Martian environment, rovers for exploration, solar panels to harvest the sunlight, greenhouses for cultivating food, satellites for communication, settlers as the brave pioneers, and volcanoes as potential energy sources.

    Their mission is not only about survival, but about harnessing the planet's unique resources and establishing a self-sustaining settlement.

    Pioneers of Mars is still available via the Keepers of Fun Patreon account.

    • In April 2023, designer/artist Torben Ratzlaff of Shapes and Dreams released Tiny Travels: Seoul, a roll-and-write game for up to ten players:
    Visit amazing sights, taste a variety of foods, and bring home great souvenirs in Tiny Travels: Seoul. Whoever experiences the most within seven days wins!

    Each round, one player rolls four dice and chooses two of them to pursue activities at twelve different locations. All other players get the remaining two dice. For each die, you cross off one matching number box of an activity at your current location. If you cross off all boxes of an activity, you get the activity symbols associated with it. Activity symbols are your main source of points. You can also choose to move to an adjacent location once per turn and use one or both dice there.

    Lastly, the player who rolled the dice has to recommend an activity they pursued for the other players to follow.

    The game ends after 21 rounds have been played. The final score is calculated, and the player with the most points had the most fulfilling journey.

    Tiny Travels: Seoul is available both in a published form and as a print-and-play game on the Shapes and Dreams website.

    • March 2023 saw the release of Colour Square from Patrick Katona and SPIEL DAS! Verlag, a roll-and-write in the vein of Qwixx, with all players participating at the same time and everyone racing to complete fields first:
    Each turn, the active player rolls five dice colored, red, green, blue, yellow, and white. They choose two of the non-white dice, then write the value on each die in an empty space on their player sheet matching the color of the die. (The player sheet shows scoring blocks made of four colored squares; each block has a value in the center, e.g. 6, 14, or 20.) All other players write the value on the white die in any empty space on their player sheet.

    If you fill the four colored squares of a block, and the sum of the numbers you wrote matches the value at the center of that block, circle that value; you'll earn that many points at game's end. All other players must X out this block and no longer write in it. If you fill a block and the numbers sum higher than the value, cross out the value; you'll lose 10 points for this block at game's end, but other players can continue to try to score it.

    If you complete and score adjacent blocks, mark out the bridge that connects these blocks. Each marked bridge is worth 5 points. Twice during play, you can discard a number instead of writing, but you lose points equal to the discarded numbers.

    When a player has no more open blocks, each other player takes one final turn rolling solely for themselves, then they cross out the value for all blocks with open spaces, losing 10 points for each one. Whoever has the highest score wins.

    Colour Square includes two types of player sheets with different values and slightly different rules.

    I think this post covers all of the take-and-make games in my folder, but I'll know for sure only in the weeks ahead... Read more »
  • Sonic Prepares for Another Run, Commanders Fall on Planets, and The Witcher Is Unmatched

    by W. Eric Martin

    • Los Angeles-based Kess Co. has released a few titles based on video games, such as Mega Man Adventures and Contra: The Board Game, and in Q1 2024 it will add Sonic the Hedgehog to its catalog in the form of Sonic Roll, a game for 1-4 players from Anthony Thorp:
    Sonic Roll is a semi-collaborative multiplayer game in the style of 16-bit classic Sonic. Each player chooses Sonic, Tails, Knuckles, or Amy to play as they make their way through four classic Sonic Zones. You can challenge a single Zone or adventure through all of them in campaign mode.

    As you traverse these iconic Zones, you can save the woodland creatures the evil Dr. Eggman has captured, using character-unique abilities to roll dice and take out obstacles in your path. Place dice to run through Zones; collect rings, power-ups, and Chaos Emeralds; and defeat the Badniks that stand in your way. A Zone isn't complete until the players face off against one of the bosses from across the Sonic franchise, where they must try to score enough hits to defeat Dr. Eggman and his army before time runs out!

    • In other video game to tabletop game news, at the end of November 2023 Arcane Wonders released Age of Wonders: Planetfall, a 2-6 player game from Stepan Opalev based on the Age of Wonders: Planetfall video game from Paradox Interactive:
    The heyday of the Star Union has come to an end. Setting off massive gravity bombs designed to create spatial rifts to new worlds led to the Collapse, and many planets were cut off from the rest of the Empire.

    The surviving factions began gradually rebuilding civilization and rediscovering lost technology. Being once part of a single state, they will have to meet again and find out who is worthy of succeeding the great power.

    In Age of Wonders: Planetfall, you are the Commander of one of the six surviving groups that have set out to explore the once-abandoned parts of the Star Union. Your expedition will explore seven planets in search of valuable resources and technology, battle hostile units, and seize landmarks. Will you be able to create a new world from the shards of the old Empire?

    The game is played over seven rounds, and a new planet is explored each round. Each player may conduct two explorations on every planet. The players will gain Empire points by defeating units, studying technology, claiming landmarks, and running operations on those planets. At the end of the game, players score Empire points for meeting certain conditions listed on a particular goal sheet. Whoever scores the most Empire points wins.

    I remember reading articles back in 2012 about Lindy Hemming's design of Bane's coat in The Dark Knight Rises (such as this one), and that style lives on here.

    Also, given Arcane Wonders' licensing of this title and World Wonders, publishers around the world might consider using the word "wonders" in their title to ensure a future U.S. partner.

    • In 2024, Restoration Games will release two Unmatched sets based in the world of The Witcher video game — "Steel and Silver" and "Realms Fall" — with each set containing three playable hero decks and two unique battlefields. From the publisher: "In addition to the White Wolf himself, fans of The Witcher will be thrilled to: lead Ciri to her destiny as the Lady of Space and Time, quaff a Tawny Owl potion, and race across the battlements of Kaer Morhen to stalk your foe."

    • In 2024, Steamforged Games will release Dark Souls: The Board Game – The Sunless City Core Set, a 1-3 player standalone co-operative game that can be integrated with 2017's Dark Souls: The Board Game to have up to four people at the table.

    What's new in this edition of the game? Says the publisher, "Six years on, this new core game reimagines the original Dark Souls: The Board Game experience with refreshed rules driven by community feedback, including a new campaign and encounter system."

    Read more »
  • Designer Diary: Raising Robots

    by Brett Sobol

    Hey everyone,

    Seth Van Orden and Brett Sobol here, the designers and publishers behind Stockpile, The Reckoners, and our latest creation, Raising Robots (available now). Today, we want to take you on a detailed journey behind the scenes of our design process for Raising Robots. Join us as we delve into its origins, unique mechanisms, and the challenges we encountered along the way.

    Living Apart, Designing Together

    Despite not living near each other, we both greatly enjoy designing games together. Every year, we make it a point to meet in person for a few gaming sessions. Typically, we'll do this at Gen Con after the convention hall closes with a stack of Gino's pizzas. We make it a point to play as many new games together as possible, discussing what we liked and disliked about each one. These rare opportunities have been the breeding ground for nearly all of our game design ideas, and Raising Robots is no exception.

    The Genesis at Gen Con 2021

    At Gen Con 2021, fate led us to acquire a copy of Khora from the exhibitor hall. Neither of us had played it before, but we eagerly dived in. Khora employs a mechanism in which players roll two dice each round and assign an action to each die. We were enthralled by the tactical choices presented by the random inputs and the challenge of making the best of the numbers we rolled. However, there was a downside: Higher numbers hold a significant advantage over lower ones. Those who rolled well were inherently better off, with no need to expend additional resources to compensate for low rolls.

    This sparked a thought-provoking discussion on improving this mechanism. We concluded that by replacing dice with a deck of cards, we could retain the randomness we loved while mitigating the impact of extreme luck. Each player would draw through their card deck, ensuring a similar distribution of high numbers over the course of the game. Adjusting the values with resources would still be possible, but the frustration of feeling cheated by bad rolls would be eliminated.

    Following our Khora adventure, we played Lorenzo Il Magnifico and loved it. In particular, we admired the rows of cards that could be triggered by a single die. Each card could activate if the number on the die met or exceeded its activation cost. However, these rows were run only a few times during the game, typically at high power, making the exact value needed to trigger a card less significant than desired. Building a large engine of cards that required low dice values seemed less profitable than we had hoped.

    And thus, the core fundamental mechanisms of Raising Robots were born. From our experiences with Khora, we adopted the concept of receiving two numbers from a deck of cards each round, with each card being assigned an action or phase. Drawing inspiration from Lorenzo, we incorporated the idea that the chosen number for a phase would activate everything in that phase with a certain number requirement or lower.

    This fusion of ideas formed the bedrock of Raising Robots, creating a dynamic gameplay experience that balanced tactical decision-making, random elements, and strategic planning.

    Simultaneous Play: Enhancing Player Interaction

    One of our design goals for Raising Robots was to incorporate simultaneous play mechanisms that would allow for higher player counts within shorter time frames. We were captivated by the idea of games in which everyone takes their turns simultaneously, but we were also mindful of the potential lack of player interaction that can arise in such games. We sought to address this challenge by drawing inspiration from titles like Race for the Galaxy and Terraforming Mars: Ares Expedition, where players' chosen phases trigger actions or benefits for others, creating a sense of engagement and interdependence.

    In Raising Robots, we were determined to create a game in which players not only influenced their own progress but also had a significant impact on others. To achieve this, we devised a unique mechanism using Energy Cubes found on each player's Energy Cards. When a player performs a high-powered action, they must place Energy Cube(s) on the Central Board, allowing other players to "Follow" their action and reap its rewards.

    This added depth and tension to the gameplay as players had to carefully manage their Energy Cubes and make strategic choices for how to use them, considering both their own objectives and the potential advantages they could provide to their opponents. Furthermore, this mechanism ensured that all players remained actively involved and invested in the actions and choices of their fellow participants. By enabling players to follow and benefit from high-powered actions, it created a sense of interdependence and interaction throughout the game.

    However, we quickly found that adjustments needed to be made to maintain consistent interaction and engagement across different player counts, so we introduced a simple change to the game set-up. This change specifically affected the Energy Cards found in each player's deck. By modifying the distribution of Energy Cards, we ensured that a similar number of Energy Cubes would be placed on the Central Board over the course of the game, regardless of whether the game was played with three players or six.

    By incorporating this element of consistent interaction into Raising Robots, we aimed to create a dynamic and expert-level gameplay experience that could be enjoyed by up to six players in less than ninety minutes. The simultaneous play mechanisms, coupled with enhanced player interaction, added layers of depth and strategy to the game, making each session unique and compelling.

    Picking the Theme and Artist

    In our design process, mechanisms typically take precedence, but selecting a theme early on serves as a wellspring of inspiration for future iterations. As we explored different ideas and tested the game with placeholder resources, the concept of powering something at different levels resonated deeply with us.

    Robots emerged as a natural fit for the theme, but we wanted to steer clear of the predictable and cliché approaches often associated with them. That's when we stumbled upon the awe-inspiring artwork by Matt Dixon for Transmissions. His style captivated our imaginations and sparked a new direction for our game. We envisioned our robots as creations of young inventors, each infused with their own imaginative spark and creative flair.

    Finding an artist capable of bringing our vision to life proved to be a challenging endeavor. After an extensive search, Brett discovered Howard McWilliam, whose previous work hadn't delved into the realm of board games. Despite initial reservations, we decided to collaborate with Howard, and it turned out to be a serendipitous choice. His artwork for Raising Robots surpassed our expectations, delivering breathtaking visuals with intricately crafted details in each robot. The allure of his art sometimes captivates players to the extent that they momentarily lose track of the rules during their initial playthrough, enraptured by the charm of Howard's illustrations.

    To provide a clear direction and inspiration for Howard, we crafted a detailed prompt that conveyed the thematic background and framework for the game's concept. We envisioned the perspective of a precocious inventor, a child between the ages of 10 and 20, determined to create their first robot. With limited resources, the young inventor ventures into their family's garage or shed, brimming with antiques, oddities, mementos, and various pieces of junk waiting to be repurposed. We emphasized that the only limit to their creation is their boundless imagination.

    To help Howard develop each character, we posed a few questions: What would the robot do? Would it be cool, be functional, or have multiple functions? Would it be a loyal friend? Additionally, we asked Howard to consider the materials available in the garage and the problems they might have to solve creatively. We encouraged Howard to envision the robot running its first program, and we described how its response and emotions might be depicted.

    Our North Star Vision guided Howard's interpretation and style, and through his incredible talent and meticulous attention to detail, our game, Raising Robots, came to life. We love how it turned out and believe that the creativity and charm from Howard's illustrations complements the mechanisms and captures the hearts of players young and old.

    Graphic Design: Connecting Art to Audience

    To bridge the world of adorable illustrations with the expert-level mechanisms in our game, we recognized the need for exceptional graphic design. We sought out the expertise of Viktoriya Fajardo, an enterprising graphic designer who proved to be an invaluable asset to our team. Initially, our expectations were focused on managing the hundreds of cards and icons within the game. However, as we delved deeper into the development process, we realized that creating a cohesive and expert-level product required a more extensive overhaul of our prototype than we had initially anticipated.

    Viktoriya's contributions went beyond our expectations. She not only took charge of managing the visual aspects of the game, but also played a pivotal role in ensuring that the creative elements aligned harmoniously with the game's mechanisms. This involved even revamping the cover art for the game, ensuring that it accurately conveyed the essence of Raising Robots without giving off "kids game" vibes.

    Throughout our work, Viktoriya proved to be a wonderful collaborator, demonstrating her passion and dedication to delivering a top-quality product. She provided thoughtful suggestions, leveraging her expertise to enhance the overall visual experience. Furthermore, she confidently advocated for what she believed was right, offering her insights and perspectives to ensure that every aspect of the game design and graphics were aligned.

    Viktoriya's commitment extended to owning the final product end-to-end, ensuring that every detail was meticulously attended to and that the final result exceeded our expectations. Her attention to detail, creativity, and dedication were instrumental in creating a holistic expert-level product that seamlessly integrated adorable illustrations with sophisticated mechanisms.

    Robot Balancing with Mathematical Precision

    As we delved deeper into the development of Raising Robots, we faced the complex task of balancing the unique abilities of each robot. Component Studio, an online tool we mentioned in a previous guest blog post, played a vital role in streamlining this process. It saved us tons of time and proved incredibly helpful in keeping all the robot powers in check.

    However, balancing the robot cards was no simple feat. Each robot had an assembly cost, consisting of resources and energy requirements. Additionally, each robot was assigned a specific number of victory points and possessed two powers, each with its own benefit and energy requirement. What we discovered was that the relationship between the energy requirement and the benefit was not linear. As game designers, this is the first time that we legitimately needed to employ the quadratic formula.

    Furthermore, powers could have associated costs or provide multiple benefits. We found that powers offering multiple benefits were more impactful than simply the sum of the individual benefits. Needless to say, there was a substantial amount of math and formulas involved in keeping everything balanced and coherent.

    In reflecting upon this mathematical endeavor, we cannot help but pay tribute to the many exceptional math teachers who fueled our love for mathematics. If Raising Robots is deemed a success, it is undoubtedly due, in part, to the invaluable lessons they imparted.

    Player Powers and Famous Inventors

    In Raising Robots, we wanted to offer players a chance to step into the shoes of famous inventors from various disciplines, paying homage to their groundbreaking contributions. To achieve this, we introduced the concept of player powers, with each player having unique, game-changing abilities that reflect an area of expertise. For example, players might play as Nikola Tesla with electrical prowess, channel the innovative mind of Marie Curie with scientific discoveries, or tap into the imaginative genius of Yo-Yo Ma with artistic ingenuity. Each inventor's power provides a special advantage that can be leveraged strategically to excel in different aspects of the game.

    But the inventors' abilities are not static; they can be upgraded and enhanced throughout the course of the game. As players progress and develop their robots, they can also invest resources and effort into upgrading their inventor's powers. This progression system allows players to unlock additional abilities, strengthen existing ones, or even acquire new game-changing effects. The upgrades serve as a testament to the inventors' ongoing dedication to innovation, mirroring their real-life pursuit of advancing their respective fields.

    By incorporating these player powers and famous inventors into the game, we aim to immerse players in the world of invention and discovery, celebrating the achievements of remarkable individuals who have shaped our world. These unique powers add an exciting layer of asymmetry to the gameplay, enabling each player to forge their own path and employ distinct strategies based on their chosen inventor.

    Other Influences

    The game design process is not always a linear one. Along the way, we found inspiration from a variety of sources, and we would be remiss not to mention them.

    Drawing inspiration from games like Terra Mystica and Scythe, we introduced an upgrade phase that provided players with meaningful choices to enhance their robots and the player board from which the upgrade token was removed. The upgrades were themed around various programming concepts such as efficiency, speed, and communications, which we were able to link to the ability and energy concepts already present in the game. This addition not only deepened the thematic elements of the game but also allowed players to customize and strategically optimize their robots based on their goals.

    Additionally, we received valuable input from fellow designer Kane Klenko, whose suggestion to incorporate the concept of power cubes benefiting the player who placed them transformed the game's intuitiveness and brought a new level of tactical decision-making to the forefront. This innovative twist became a cornerstone of Raising Robots, enhancing both the thematic and mechanical cohesion of the gameplay experience.

    Our love for engine-building games like Wingspan and Earth also influenced the development of Raising Robots. These beloved titles inspired us to create a game in which players could gradually construct and fine-tune their robot tableaus. By integrating these influences and ideas into our design process, we were able to craft a game with expert-level mechanisms and engaging gameplay. Raising Robots stands as a unique blend of inspiration from various sources, resulting in a game that offers depth, strategy, and a touch of whimsical creativity.

    Final Thoughts

    Raising Robots has been an exciting journey for us as designers. From the initial spark of inspiration at Gen Con to the refinement of mechanisms, theme, and art, every step of the process has been a labor of love.

    We hope that players will find joy and satisfaction in building their own robot engines, making tough decisions, and engaging in strategic interactions with their opponents. We can't wait to share Raising Robots with the gaming community and see how players embrace the challenge that we've created. Thank you for joining us on this behind-the-scenes journey, and we look forward to seeing copies of Raising Robots on tables in the near future thanks to a December 2023 release.

    We want to express our heartfelt thanks to our friends and family, our playtesters, our Kickstarter backers, and everyone else who played a part in making Raising Robots a reality. We feel truly blessed by the support we've received throughout this journey. Feel free to ask us anything about the design process, mechanisms, or the creative decisions behind Raising Robots. We're here to share our insights and engage in a meaningful discussion with all of you.

    Thank you,
    Seth Van Orden and Brett Sobol

    Brett (l) and Seth at Gen Con 2021 Read more »
  • Walk in the Snow, Plant Tulips, Harvest Mushrooms, and Replace Humanity

    by W. Eric Martin

    Nature will apparently continue to be a hot theme for board games in 2024, with plenty of titles embracing animal protagonists and greenery in one form or another.

    • U.S. publisher Pencil First Games has been working in this field for years with titles like Herbaceous, Floriferous, and Sunset Over Water, and in 2024 it's releasing Snowfall Over Mountains, a solitaire game from Eduardo Baraf, Melissa Caputo, and Scott Caputo that leans heavily into the setting in its description:
    Discover the beauty of nature in the peaceful silence that fills the mountains in the wake of freshly fallen snow. Set out from your cabin to follow paths, look for animal tracks, and find plants amidst a new winter morning. Enjoy the solitude of a calm walk through the snow.

    Explore the mountains around your cabin by placing and connecting tiles with different features. Find ways to earn points through goals for arranging animal tracks, ponds, trees, and shrubs in your environment.

    Place tiles and chill.

    Pencil First Games also plans to release a pocket-size edition of Floriferous, a design from Steve Finn and Eduardo Baraf that I covered in 2021.

    • Flowers also take center stage in Windmill Valley, a Dani Garcia design for 1-4 players coming from Board&Dice inspired by the Bloemen Route in The Netherlands:
    In Windmill Valley, you and up to three players take on the role of tulip farmers and entrepreneurs. You will build and enhance your windmills, look for new tulip bulbs in foreign trades or among local vendors to buy and plant, and try to get an edge with hired help and lucrative contracts. Let your blooming fields make your competitors green with envy!

    During their turn, players choose the action by rotating the wheels on their windmill board. During the game they can:

    — Enhance their wheels, by adding enhancements, to build their engine
    — Plant tulips in their fields, which will score VP at the end of the game
    — Build windmills on the main board to activate rewards from adjacent fields
    — Hire helpers that provide bonuses for certain actions
    — Get contracts for endgame scoring
    — Visit the local market and conduct a foreign trade

    Natera: New Beginning takes a page from After Us for its subject matter, but expands the character roster to include more species. Here's an overview of this 2-4 player game from Eric Fugere, Hugo Tremblay-Ledoux, and Horizon Games:
    In Natera: New Beginning, you play as a sentient and intelligent animal tribe, exploring and controlling areas abandoned in a bright, post-humanity world.

    With the help of your unique tribe leader and your explorers, you will explore, build authority, and take control of four distinct areas. Doing so will unlock new, more powerful tiles and allow you to establish settlements to further cement your presence. Improvements with human science will unlock powerful bonuses on a tech tree. Collecting the most venture points after four seasons will prove you are the animal tribe that adapted the best to the new "Natural Era".

    The game includes 150+ basic and advanced exploration cards featuring discoveries, improvements, science, and forty unique specialist cards, allowing each animal tribe to navigate and explore different strategies every single game.

    • Competition for control of four areas takes place on a smaller scale in Nestlings, a 1-4 player game from Brandon Ohmie and Tangerine Games:
    In Nestlings, players assume the role of birds competing to gain priority across four biomes: savannah, alpine, freshwater, and desert.

    Each round, players roll their biome dice, then place the dice in biomes one at a time. If you place first in a biome, you'll have priority for selecting a resource first and discarding another resource — unless someone else places more dice there. With resources, you can feed your nestlings and add to the resource ring on your player board, which can lead to other effects. You can also shoot for endgame nest goals.

    • Rings of a different sort play a role in Gnome Hollow, a tile-placement game from Ammon Anderson of Levity Games that has been picked up by The Op for release in 2024.

    Here's an overview of this 2-4 player game:
    Since the beginning of time, gnomes have been the humble caretakers of nature. In secret they emerge from their underground homes to maintain meticulous rings of mushrooms known to the humanfolk as "fairy rings". But the work must be done quickly because as soon as a mushroom path is finished, the mushrooms are ready for picking. Who will be the cleverest gnome and harvest the most mushrooms by the end of the season?

    Each turn, you place a tile into the garden, then move a gnome to take a single action. Once a ring is completed, you harvest each mushroom, then eventually carry them to market to sell for treasures. As you grow the garden, some rewards give players access to rare signposts that become unique worker placement spots once placed in completed rings.

    Wildflowers can complete any ring, and planting them grants the player a wildflower token. Other players can move to that flower to collect that same token, and in sets these tokens prove more valuable.
    Read more »
  • Study the Sun and Earth, Draw Dapper Bears, and Pass Pa a Pass Pass

    by W. Eric Martin

    • If you've ever wanted to see a bear in a zoot suit, your dreams have now been fulfilled thanks to Short Zoot Suit, a 2-4 player design from Taylor Reiner of Taylor's Trick-Taking Table that will debut from Japanese publisher Gotcha Gotcha Games at Tokyo Game Market in December 2023.

    An overview:
    In the land of Bollywood — that is, Bear Hollywood — the bears are out tonight looking good, but trying to make sure their suits aren't too short!

    Players try to balance the number of tricks they win with the number of times they short suit, i.e., play off-suit. Specifically, at the start of the hand, players create a personal draw deck from some of the cards they are dealt. Drawing from this deck can help players manipulate their hands for later play and short-suiting.

    The game ends when any player is out of cards, allowing for player-defined hand lengths.

    • Reiner and Gotcha Gotcha Games have a second release as well, with both titles having art by Sai Beppu. Here's an overview of the 3-4 player "almost shedding"/climbing game Of What's Left:
    It's nighttime in the kingdom of Owlberta and the Knight Owls are standing guard — but five in the morning was never the best time to defend anything really, and they're all falling asleep. Can you allow enough of your Knight Owls to take a quick snooze, while not fully abandoning your post?

    The moment one player sheds out, the other players score points based on the number of cards left in their hands. The fewer cards, the more points, so get as close to shedding as possible without doing so!

    • After bears and owls, let's move on to cats with CATsle Builders from designers Fukurou and Yozaemon Matumoto and publisher 梟老堂 (Fukuroudou).

    In this 3-5 player trick-taking game, players aim to build a robust castle with five types of buildings, collecting cards according to the blueprint and adjusting the ranking of structures through smart predictions.

    Hipparchus is a two-player-only trick-taking game from Korean designer Geonil that contains only three types of cards: Sun, Moon, and Earth, with ten copies of each. It sounds bizarrely fascinating:
    Hipparchus was an ancient Greek astronomer who calculated the ecliptic and orbit of the Moon, and the paths of the sun and the moon, discovering in the process that the center of the universe was not Earth.

    In Hipparchus, players become ancient Greek astronomers and present their findings on the Sun, the Moon, and the Earth to one another. You want to share the study of one celestial body with your colleague without monopolizing it, yet still gain more authority than them.

    Each player gets a hand of fourteen cards and cannot rearrange them. The lead player plays 1-3 cards of a single suit, and when choosing something to play, you can't break up pairs or triplets in your hand. If you have three Earth cards in a row, you can play them only together as three Earths. The following player must play the same suit, if possible, but a different number of cards; if they can't do this, they can play 1-3 cards from either other suit.

    If both players play the same suit, the player who played more cards wins the trick, stacks the cards in their collection, then leads to the next trick. If players play different suits, then the player who has fewer cards of their played suit in their collection wins the trick. (In a tie, the following player wins.)

    When a player runs out of cards, the round ends. Each player tallies their score. If you have more cards in a suit than your opponent, you score points equal to the number of cards they have. Whoever has the highest score wins the round; the first player to win two rounds wins the game.

    Pass Pass debuted in France in June 2023 from designers Alexandre Droit and David Paput and publisher Funnyfox, and it's a loosey-goosey trick-taking game for 3-6 players in which you can play any card you want on your turn, hoping to create temporary alliances so that you can score:
    Each round, players start with eight number cards in hand; cards come in four suits. The first player leads a card of their choice, then each other player plays a card of their choice. Whichever color collectively has the highest sum "wins" the trick.

    More specifically, whoever played the highest card in this color takes one of the played cards and adds it to their collection; whoever played the second highest card in this color adds the two cards with the lowest values to their collection, then leads the next trick.

    After eight tricks, the round ends, and each player scores 1 point for each collected card and 1 point for each diamond on those cards. Additionally, when a player has a set of one card in each color, they score a "pass pass".

    After three rounds, the player with the most points wins — except that if a player scores three pass passes, they win the game immediately.
    Read more »
  • Designer Diary: Doubt Is Our Product, or A Game About Tobacco Disinformation

    by Amabel Holland

    When I close my eyes and try to picture my father, I see him with a cigarette.

    Both of my parents smoked constantly. I grew up in houses with yellowing walls. I spent Friday nights with my parents in smoke-filled bingo halls and bowling alleys. One of my regular chores at home would be to sift through grocery bags stuffed with empty cigarette packs to clip out Marlboro points so that my mother could get a new baseball cap or tote bag. The sickly stale stink of it was everywhere, and it wasn't until I was an adult, living for the first time in a smoke-free space, that I stopped having problems breathing, smelling, tasting. I had just thought that was what air smelled like, what food tasted like.

    Of course by that time my father was dead. Lung cancer. He was thirty-eight. I saw him die.

    It was early on a Sunday morning. I had been dreaming about something, although I don't remember what — but at some point in the dream, I heard my mother screaming in the distance, and when I jolted awake, she was still screaming. It was coming from the living room. From my father's hospice bed.

    My two brothers, with whom I shared a single room on the second floor, were still asleep. Alone, I headed down the stairs, toward my mother's voice.

    "No, Tom, don't leave us," she cried over and over again, repeating it until the words seemed to lose their meaning.

    His body convulsed. He vomited profusely. It was yellow and red and black: bile, blood, organ tissue, and fecal matter all over his face and chest. It was violent, and ugly. And when it stopped, my mother doubled over, pressing her face against him, sobbing uncontrollably into the wet puddle.

    When I picture my mother, I see her with a cigarette, too. More than that, I can hear her voice. I don't remember what my father sounded like, but my mother, I remember the hoarse cough lurking in her laughter.

    She kept smoking after he died. In fact, she told me often, before his death and after, that she didn't think the smoking caused the cancer. That somehow, the doctors had "put" the cancer inside his lungs, like they had her grandfather, the firefighter. And she believed, firmly, that there was no proof smoking caused cancer because of a fifty-year campaign of disinformation used by the tobacco industry to avoid culpability for a hundred million deaths.

    After they took the body away, my mother spent the day slowly smoking one cigarette after another in the basement. I gave her a wide berth, as did my siblings. Late in the afternoon, I finally went down to see her. The rage of her grief had mellowed into something bitter and flat.

    I asked her how she was doing, and she looked at me like I had just asked the stupidest fucking question in the world. "How do you think I'm doing?"

    I felt embarrassed and ashamed. I sputtered an apology. I wanted to leave, but my body froze.

    Then she told me it was our fault. Me and my siblings. That if we hadn't been born, my father wouldn't have been under such stress. If we hadn't been such terrible, ungrateful children, he wouldn't have smoked.

    It was the only time I ever heard her admit that it had been the smoking. The only time that she ever acknowledged that she knew she was lying.

    I can trace my lifelong interest in disinformation to that conversation. What makes people susceptible to it, how pernicious it is to disrupt, how people choose to sincerely believe things they know aren't true, returning to it even after admitting they were wrong. It was something that concerned me, something that fascinated me, something that made me sad and angry: sad for the people who believed the lies, and angry at the people who spread them – who did so deliberately, knowing the harm it would cause, knowing the human cost. That interest certainly became sharper these last few years as disinformation became an existential threat.

    Our world is boiling while the corporations responsible deny consensus, ask for "more research", and fund "studies" by cranks and fools. The narrative there has shifted to one of personal responsibility, each of us individually tracking our carbon footprint while on an industrial level – the only level that actually matters — nothing changes.

    Politicians openly traffic in deranged conspiracy theories, encouraging their followers to take violent action against their opponents for imagined crimes. Vaccination – one of our most important tools as a society for preventing the spread of disease – has become another signifier of our ongoing culture war. Bad actors try to shift the narrative to a matter of personal choice, ignoring that choosing not to be vaccinated endangers others, just as smokers ignored the effects of secondhand smoke on those around them.

    And certainly, I am intensely aware of the way disinformation about queer and trans people is used to justify our marginalization, oppression, and eradication.

    And the people responsible will remain unencumbered by guilt or consequence. The tobacco industry continues to take in annual profits of over a hundred billion dollars while being responsible for killing eight million people a year, targeting children and the marginalized, especially in impoverished and developing countries where their marketing is largely unconstrained.

    (Not) Working On The Game

    When someone asks, "Where'd the idea for Doubt Is Our Product come from?", the answer is: all of this. My personal history, my anger, my frustration, my despair. Unsurprisingly, that's where all my more political games come from. When I work on those games, I am steeped in those emotions for months at a time. Often, I need to immerse myself in dozens of primary sources from the period – reading that feeds my bitterness and depression. It has a severe effect on my mental and emotional health, strains my personal relationships, and generally makes me unpleasant to be around.

    And I know this going in, every single time. It's the cost of making these things — and in the case of this project, I knew the cost would be higher than before, that the game would take more out of me, so I pushed it back. I first started talking about the game in 2018, as I was finishing up work on This Guilty Land, with the idea that it would be the end-of-the-year "prestige" game for Hollandspiele's 2020 sale.

    Instead, that game ended up being The Vote: Suffrage and Suppression in America. The Vote charts two things in parallel: the struggle for women's suffrage, and the oppression of Black Americans under Jim Crow. The first was achieved by allowing the second – the movement that sprung out of abolition abandoning its roots. It seeks to both celebrate and condemn – to recognize the achievement, and also its incompleteness. Key to this model is the unequal nature of interference between the two players: Equality and Suppression. Suppression opposes Equality in her pursuit of suffrage, but Equality leaves Suppression to its own devices.

    Completing this game helped me firm up what Doubt Is Our Product would look like. Like The Vote, I wanted it to be an expression of both triumph and despair. Triumph, because anti-smoking activism did win, and despair, because the tobacco industry didn't lose – not in any meaningful way. And I thought I could take The Vote's structure, of two opposed sides playing their respective "games" in parallel, but with key if unequal points of intersection, even further and more literally. Each side would play their own game, with their own mechanisms, rules, and components – two completely different kinds of games: an economic deck-builder for the tobacco industry, and a market-based political tableau builder for the anti-smoking movement.

    And as I was putting The Vote through its paces in early 2020, I fully expected Doubt Is Our Product to be my next "big" game, releasing at the end of 2021, but then a funny thing happened. It turned out I was a woman this whole time? And nobody told me? Rude.

    I assumed, correctly, that while I was redefining every aspect of my personality and my entire conception of myself that probably I shouldn't also be spending months working on a game that would leave me angry and depressed all the time. This was doubly true once I started hormone replacement therapy, giving me the emotional regulation of a teenage girl. Not the best time to put myself through the wringer.

    Instead, I switched my attention to Nicaea. I like to joke that in making the game, I processed my religious trauma with dumb middle-school jokes, then a bunch of people gave me fifty bucks for it. And while that's largely true, the ability to use humor – something which would be wholly inappropriate for a game like Doubt or The Vote – and the fact that I didn't need to immerse myself in documents filled with virulent racism, misogyny, or ghoulishness meant that it was a relatively breezy affair.

    It also helped that Nicaea was the first game I designed on estrogen. Up until that point, my brain was foggy. It was difficult to focus, and everything always took so much effort. My work up until that point certainly reflected this, but once I started dissolving tiny blue pills under my tongue, all that just fell away. I was able to think clearly for the first time in my life. As a result, Nicaea was very streamlined and approachable. It made its argument more directly and succinctly than my previous "message" games – it hit the mark I was always clumsily aiming for with my earlier work. That made me reasonably confident I could do the same with Doubt Is Our Product – that I could model the dynamics with a minimum of mechanical fuss.

    That's not the only thing the design borrowed from Nicaea. That game is a tableau builder in which you flip cards face down to buy or play other cards. Those cards are bought from a market, and each market space has an action that you trigger with your purchase. That basic structure would form the core of the activist side of the game.

    And so, huge parts of this game built on the work I did with The Vote and Nicaea. If I had started working on Doubt Is Our Product immediately, none of those elements would be present. It'd be a very different design, and a lesser one at that. Sometimes the best thing for a game is to not work on it – not yet, anyway.

    By the summer of 2022, I had been on HRT for over a year. I had enjoyed my self-imposed break from big depressing serious games, dedicating my time to baubles and diversions like Eyelet, Watch Out! That's a Dracula!, and the co-designed Dinosaur Gauge.

    But I also felt ready to do things that were more ambitious. It was at this time that I was entering the home stretch of my work on Endurance, my bleak solitaire game about the Shackleton expedition. and began talking with Wil Alambre about the cast of monsters for Kaiju Table Battles, my queer giant monster legacy game. Both of these would be released in 2023, and would be some of my most ambitious and experimental designs in recent years, but that still left the question of what was going to be our last game for 2023 – traditionally, the one that garners the most attention and drives purchases during our big end-of-year Hollandays Sale. And that's when I decided that it was time to finally get to work on Doubt Is Our Product.


    As with my other political games, the first step was research. My interest in the subject had led me to read several books over the years, but one that I found particularly compelling was Allan Brandt's The Cigarette Century. I returned to that book, using it as a jumping-off point to other resources. I also spent quite some time sifting through tobacco industry documents – a fraction of the fourteen million that were made public as a result of the Tobacco Master Settlement Agreement. Highlights include discussions of how to better target and pressure children to take up smoking, a proposal to increase market share among queer people and the homeless (contemptuously dubbed "Project SCUM"), and the memorandum "Smoking and Health Proposal", from which the game takes its title:
    Doubt is our product since it is the best means of competing with the "body of fact" that exists in the mind of general public. It is also the means of establishing a controversy.

    All this took the expected toll on my emotional and mental health. For the months that I was immersed in it, I was just full of despair and anger. So angry that sometimes I was paralyzed by it – I couldn't speak, couldn't give it expression. Words were too small for it. I felt hollowed out. Drained. I started having trouble sleeping. I became moody and restless, less patient with those around me.

    And I was happy to be done with the research phase, but of course I wasn't really "done" with it. As I put the game together, I had to go back to the research frequently throughout, so for as long as I was working on the game, I was still paying the price of it.

    But. Like I said. I knew that going in. I had been there before. Did it go smoother this time than in the past, as I had hoped? Yes, it did. There was none of the incoherent grasping that had defined my earliest "message" games, but it was still a hell that I knew I was inflicting on myself. Even revisiting that process here is kicking at the hornet's nest; the last couple days as I've been writing this, I've felt irritable and restless. There's a reason I didn't write one of these for This Guilty Land or The Vote.

    Game As Semicolon

    The trickiest thing was designing a game that functioned as a semicolon: two independent halves, each with its own internal logic, dynamics, and series of challenges, that together created a new thing.

    With the tableau builder for the activist side I found myself in somewhat familiar territory. As I said, I built it on the basic mechanism of Nicaea. There was more to it than that, of course. Nicaea's tableau is all about generating and spending influence, and is in service of its stock game; its market actions reflected that. Here, the market actions would see the player combating disinformation and agitating for legislation, and the strength of the action would be dictated by the face-up cards within one's tableau. And so, flipping them face down to buy a new card from the market, taking the associated action, created a tension as you might be reducing the strength of that action in order to take it. Managing that, finding ways to flip cards back, would be key, as it was in Nicaea.

    In Nicaea, the size of your tableau can vary but is largely limited by the fact that three to five other players all compete for the same small pool of cards — but there's only one player tableau-building here, and once that player got above a certain number of cards, the tension created by flipping cards dissipated: you'd have plenty to do whatever you needed.

    So I capped the tableau size at eight. This meant that to add a new card to your tableau, you'd need to remove one – shifting your focus in pursuit of your competing aims, balancing the concerns of the disparate groups making up your coalition.

    By comparison, the deck-building game I built for the industry player was a bit more sprawling, accounting for most of the cards and the majority of the game's table space. Each card in your hand generates some amount of Budget, which is spent (discarded) both to play cards for their actions and to buy new cards from the market, adding them to your discard pile. The card market itself is made up of five standard card stacks, and seven special ones, the latter chosen randomly from a pool of sixteen.

    Cards can be played either for a standard immediate action, or into your reserve – a row of cards that stays in front of you until your deck is exhausted. These cards either have passive effects or are triggered by the play of subsequent cards – you could, for example, trigger that effect several turns in a row. Once it's time to reshuffle, your reserve is trashed – it's the primary way you remove cards from your deck. The actions themselves are mostly concerned with increasing the number of victims so as to eventually generate profit, and to protect those profits by spreading disinformation.

    The industry side of the game is called the Company, but I came very, very close to calling it Capitalism because the tobacco industry isn't exceptional. The way it pursued profits at the expense of human lives wasn't some kind of mustache-twirling villainy. It is the consequence of capitalism and its incentives. And even if I ultimately decided to swerve from the name, I did want to reflect those incentives – the unsustainable and amoral pursuit of maximum profits, of infinite growth.

    And so, the catch: playing and buying cards is mandatory. On each turn, the Company player must play at least one card and buy at least one card. If you're unable to do so – if you don't have enough Budget to do both, or if there are no cards in the market left to buy – you lose the game. You're able to buy cards from your trash pile, but it always must be the topmost card, and it is purchased it at a premium.

    One of the standard cards that might be added to your deck as a result of your opponent's legislative agitation is Restrictions – a card that provides no Budget and costs a tremendous amount to play, for no tangible benefit. That legislation might also ban the play of specific cards, increasing the chance that you'll draw a hand that is unplayable, causing you to lose the game.

    The Company can oppose this through the use of Lobbyists, peeling off Profits (i.e., your victory points) to make those legislative goals more difficult to achieve, so you can't just pursue your victory conditions – you need to spend time and resources slowing down your opponent. Likewise, the activist player can't only concentrate on that legislation, but must work to convince your victims of the danger of smoking – but only after they debunk your disinformation. Reflecting reality, it takes considerably greater effort to debunk than it does to put it out into the world.

    It's at these points of intersections that the game makes its arguments about disinformation and the corrupting nature of capitalism – something that neither "game" could do on its own. That's why I haven't provided a solitaire mode that allows you to play only one side unopposed. I did give it quite serious thought, but ultimately decided against it.


    Playtesting took place over much of 2023. The basic structure remained the same with some minor tweaks to player victory thresholds. The most substantive changes were made to a handful of the Company's cards. It probably won't surprise anyone to hear that making a deck-builder for the first time is difficult, and that when you're coming up with a wide variety of card effects they're not going to be perfectly balanced right out of the gate.

    Mostly this was a matter of the math being off. This card cost too much for what it did, or that one cost too little, making the card too powerful. Costs were bumped up or down by one or two, and in some cases the actions were modified to make a given card less dominant.

    I'm sure if I were a more mathematically-minded designer, the kind of gal who has a bunch of formulas and spreadsheets and determines that this action is worth 1.5 points and that one 1.75, that I would have avoided some of those pitfalls. But maybe not? I remember talking to John Bohrer, the original publisher and developer for Irish Gauge, about some of my math anxiety when I submitted that game, and he said, in essence, that there is no secret math to game design. You put something together, you try it out, you see what works or what doesn't, then you make changes and try again. That's when you apply the math to the problem – to figure out what went wrong, not to prevent it from happening in the first place. At any rate, the corrected cards worked a treat.


    Concurrent with this process, I was finalizing the game's presentation: the rulebook, the tokens, the display sheets, the card layouts. Here I chose deliberately not to immerse players, but to alienate them.

    It's easy to imagine a version of the game that has lots of vintage art in service of a slick presentation mimicking the Madison Avenue campaigns used by these ghouls to profit off the death of millions, a game that in its form reflects and thus subverts the seductive lie at the heart of the industry.

    But I didn't really see the purpose of that. It strikes me as the kind of formal affectation that the occupants of a college dorm room would find deep. I think given the seriousness of the game's subject matter that if you're buying it, you're not a child asking to be dazzled or inveigled, so I stripped away all euphemism. That's the reason why I call them "Victims" instead of "Customers". From the point of view of the industry, wouldn't they have called them customers? Yeah, they would, but who cares about their point of view? A hundred million dead, while they lied through their teeth. To hell with them. To hell with anyone who asks about their point of view.

    Identification and immersion are tools, and like all tools, they're well-suited for some purposes but not for others. I've used them many times before in my career and will do so again, but here, alienation is the hammer of choice. A blunt instrument, ugly, inelegant. The components for the company player are drab and functional, stark and uninviting. For the most part, their cards have been stripped of specificity: Journalism, not Edward Murrow; Mascots, not Joe Camel; Lifestyle Branding, not Marlboro Rewards.

    This is in contrast with the movement. Here, each card is named for something specific, explained in flavor text. Hand-sketched icons dance across soft blues and purples. If I wanted the company to feel brutish and alien, I wanted the movement to feel human. To be, in its own way, immersive.


    All that's left now is to release the damn thing. There's an anxiety to that. There always is, putting a new game out into the world, especially one that's important to me — but there's also a relief. I have lived with this game for years. True, many of those were spent only in uneasy anticipation of self-inflicted suffering. Putting it off until I couldn't any longer. Then going through it.

    I don't know whether I have any more of these in me, these big depressing angry political things. They're the ones people seem to like the best, that garner the most attention and admiration. Just my luck.

    Each game like this takes something from me. Something that I won't get back. I'm happier once on the other side of it, but I feel smaller than I was going in. And of course there's always the disquieting voice asking if it's worth it.

    I hope so.

    Amabel Holland Read more »
  • Happy Camper Launches Trio in the U.S.

    by W. Eric Martin

    Happy Camper is a new U.S. publisher that will launch its first title at PAX Unplugged 2023: an English-language edition of Kaya Miyano's card game Trio, a.k.a., nana. (Technically, the game is available now through the Happy Camper website, but the public debut will be PAXU 2023.)

    For those not familiar with the game, here's how to play:
    The deck consists of 36 cards, numbered 1-12 three times. Players receive some cards in hand, which they are required to sort from low to high, and the remaining cards are placed face down on the table.

    On your turn, choose any single card to reveal, either the low or high card from a player's hand (including your own) or any face-down card from the table. Then, do this again. If the two cards show the same number, continue your turn; if they do not, return the cards to where they came from and end your turn.

    If you reveal three cards showing the same number, take these cards as a set in front of you. If you are the first player to collect three sets, you win — except that a player wins immediately if they collect the set of 7s.

    Trio includes rules for a "spicy" mode in which you can also win by collecting two linked sets, such as 1s and 6s, as well as rules for playing in teams with four or six players.

    In short, Trio is gamer Go Fish. You're searching for cards to make sets, so you have a memory aspect as to who has revealed which cards, along with a deduction aspect as to who has not revealed cards...assuming you can keep track of all the info you see.

    For the team play, team members sit opposite one another and exchange one card before play begins (pulling cards from their hand and adding them below the table to hide their location), and each time an opposing team collects a set, your team can swap again.

    nana debuted in 2021 from Japanese publisher Mob+, then French publisher Cocktail Games licensed the design and re-branded it as Trio. The word "nana" in Japanese — ナナ — is one way of saying 7, so the title emphasizes the winning condition. "Trio" instead relates to the sets you collect, and I would imagine it's a more meaningful word for casual game buyers than "Seven"...which would undoubtedly inspire endless "What's in the box?" jokes. (Answer: It's cards. Cards are what's in the box.)

    How did a new publisher land the license for Trio? Probably because Happy Camper is run by Jason Schneider, who was vice president of product development at Gamewright for more than twenty years, with several Gamewright titles, such as Imagine and Happy City, having been licensed from Cocktail Games. (The licensing went the other way as well, with Cocktail releasing Gamewright titles like Sushi Go! and Super Mega Lucky Box in France.)

    I've talked with Schneider multiple times over the years at NY Toy Fair, Spielwarenmesse, and other conventions. He has a great eye for what's appropriate for his audience, and he can pick apart tricky elements in a design immediately, making suggestions to move the design toward being mainstream appropriate. Compare, for example, the back of the box on the Cocktail and Happy Camper editions of Trio:

    Cocktail uses a long header ("Who will be the smartest...") that doesn't stand out that much from the other text around it. The Happy Camper box strips that header down to "Can you find three of a kind?" Boom! Now you know what the game is about!

    I've watched enough people in game stores (creep alert) to know that you don't have much time to catch their attention. Most people don't even flip a box over to see the back of it, and those who do don't spend much time looking at it. The Happy Camper edition has a gold cover instead of a yellow one, so that will stand out from other games, while also mirroring the gold color of the 7s that you'll find once you open the box.

    Similarly, Cocktail highlighted the phrase "only the lowest or highest number" in orange, which is good since that element of the game is a neat hook, but then Happy Camper changes that to make "lowest" orange and "highest" blue...which mimics the card colors adjacent to the text, adding a bit of hidden resonance.

    In my opinion, pretty much every element on the back of the Happy Camper box is better than what's on the Cocktail box. (The Cocktail box isn't bad; it's just that the Happy Camper one is better.) The only drawback, at least from a gamer's perspective, is that the Happy Camper box is larger than Cocktail's. I don't think this would make a difference to the average person, but I wanted to point it out.

    In any case, I wish Jason well with his new venture because I respect his approach to development and marketing, as well as his knowledge of the industry as a whole. Also, because Trio is great, so it's nice to finally have it available in the U.S.! Read more »
  • Japanese Game Round-up: Build a Train Network in Shinjuku, Take Tricks with Time, and Play Cards in a LOOP

    by W. Eric Martin

    Is it possible to put together another post highlighting games that will debut at Tokyo Game Market on Dec. 9-10, 2023? Absolutely! In fact, if my Japanese skills consisted of more than identifying individual characters, I could probably post a JP round-up daily, but as it is, a semi-regular round-up is what I can offer:

    LOOP is a new ladder-climbing card game from Takashi Saito and BrainBrainGames in the vein of OPEN, which debuted in 2022 and which I covered in October 2023 after Mandoo Games licensed the design. Here's how to play this 2-4 player game:
    How well can you play the same cards as someone else?

    In the first round of LOOP, each player receives a hand of eleven cards from a deck of three suits, with each suit having cards numbered 1-15. They each choose two cards to set aside face down.

    The lead player starts the first trick by laying down a single card, a pair of the same number, or two or more consecutive cards of the same suit. The next players in turn must play a higher matching combination of cards or pass, although a player who passes can re-enter the trick later. Once everyone passes, the player who won the trick leads again. (Note that all played cards stay in front of who played them.)

    If a player lays down an 8, whether alone or in combination, everyone else must pass, then this player leads a new trick. If a player runs out of cards, they score points based on how many players still have cards in hand, and play continues until all but one player goes out.

    The last player then takes over a player's seat: first in a two-player game, second in a three-player game, and first or second in a four-player game (with the third player then taking the other option). After moving to their new locations, players then take the eleven cards in front of them, discard two, then play the round again. If the player in the fourth seat can do better than fourth, they score points — lots of points if they come in first. Along the same lines, if the player in the first seat does poorly, they lose points.

    If a player has set aside an 8 in their two cards, they can declare "どんでん" (donden = revolution) by revealing the card on their turn. Now 1s are the high cards and 15s the low ones for the remainder of the round.

    Play multiple rounds until a player has reached the point threshold, which is based on the player count.

    • Designer Masakazu Takizawa from こぐま工房 (Koguma Koubou) has created several games based on the manipulation of components, with you building a tower in BABEL, grabbing cards from a vertical pile in HIKTORUNE, and manipulate a shared pen in Magicalligraphy.

    For 2023, however, he's putting his spin on a trick-taking game with PARADOMINETOR (パラドミネーター), with 3-5 players representing various time-travel organizations. Here's how to play:
    The game is played with chips instead of cards, and these chips are kept behind a player's screen. One side of the chip shows the suit and rank, and the other side shows the time: past, present, or future. Each chip is unique in the game.

    Players follow suit as in a normal trick-taking game, but when chips with the same suit and rank are played, they become trump and are resolved based on their time phase; the earliest phase wins the trick, with the latter one earning half a trick.

    After fifteen tricks, the player with the highest score wins.

    For added style, the player screens are slightly raised so that you can flick your tile into play, probably to keep you from accidentally showing the reverse side of the tile:

    • I'm not quite clear on the gameplay of 指輪を落とさないで ("Don't Drop Your Ring") from designer O-sake (お酒) and publisher 酔いどれ趣造 (Drunken Hobby), but I found it compelling enough to include anyway.

    This 3-5 player trick-taking game features seven unbalanced suits. You try to predict how many tricks you'll win by taking one of the rolled dice (I believe with the unchosen die affecting the strength of the bid), but if you win a trick that contains the same number as the card you used, then the win counts twice. Collect three of those numbers, and that's three tricks won! If you miss your bid, you lose points, which is symbolized by a ring falling lower on your finger. If the ring falls off your finger, you lose.

    Your ring is on a plastic sheet that you slide lower on a hand scoring card, and that representation of the scoring is a thing of beauty.

    Prototype version• Is every new game at TGM a trick-taking game of some type? No, but those designs catch my eye and are generally easy to describe. For variety, though, let's look at something else: Gary Kacmarcik first posted info about his game Shinjuku in 2019, and the first published version of the game will debut at Game Market from リゴレ (rigoler). (Kacmarcik had planned to Kickstart Shinjuku in 2021, then held off due to the uncertainty of shipping prices at that time.)

    Here's an overview of this 2-4 player game:
    In Shinjuku, a strategic network-building and pick-up-and-deliver board game, you build stores in Tokyo and the rail lines to connect them so that you can build the most successful shopping/rail conglomerate.

    Every turn, new customers will arrive on the map looking to purchase one of four different goods. On your turn, you choose two different actions from: (a) build a store, (b) expand your rail, (c) upgrade to a department store, (d) draw cards as income, or (e) move customers along the rail to stores.

    You start with a hand of four location cards and draw a new card each turn. The build, upgrade and move actions require that you play a matching location card from your hand. Cards in your hand that match locations where you have previously built a store are wild and can be used to match any location.

    The game ends one round after the last customer has been placed, and victory goes to the player who acquires the most sets of customers.

    The publisher notes that it's incorporated changes to the game's beginning as suggested by Hisashi Hayashi "to make the early stages of the game more interesting". Read more »
  • Hoard Veggies, Place Blocks, Keep Tulips, and Bomb a Dragon

    by W. Eric Martin

    • I've recently covered 2024 releases from Ravensburger (here), KOSMOS (here and here), Helvetiq (here), and AMIGO (just a smidge here). Which other European publishers are previewing their release calendar?

    How about frechverlag, a German book publisher founded in 1955 that started releasing games in 2020 under the brand TOPP? Gamer, BGG user, and Central and South American game fan Hilko Drude is a product manager at frechverlag, and I feel his influence on some upcoming titles, such as Alejandra Pini's Blockits, which was first released in 2022 as Juanito Blockits from Argentinian publisher El Dragón Azul.

    Here's an overview of this 2-4 player game:
    Blockits is a roll-and-write game of managing blocks, both placing them in rows and using them to block others!

    Image: Mael Morholt
    Each player has an individual game board, and each round you place the figure rolled on the die in your game area, either to complete one or more lines or to maximize the number of blocked spaces. You also want to create specific figures to score more points, but the game boards rotate from one player to another, which might complicate your plans.

    • Another early 2024 release is Drachentanz from Taiwanese designer DuGuWei, who self-published it as Bomb the Dragon in 2020. Here's how to play this 2-6 player game:
    Drachentanz is a celebration of the Hakka people held in Miaoli, Taiwan during the Lantern Festival. Players in the game bomb the dragon by throwing firecrackers to win the blessings for themselves!

    To play, shuffle the 19 dragon-body cards, lay out as many as dragon-body cards as players face up between the dragon-head card and dragon-tail card, then you shuffle the 45 firecracker cards and deal three cards to each player.

    Original graphics
    Each turn, players simultaneously choose and reveal a firecracker card from their hand, then place the firecracker onto the bomb zone by the dragon-body cards in order. When the total firepower next to a dragon-body card equals or exceeds the vitality point on that card, whoever played the most recent card wins it. If not enough dragon-body cards are available to fill up the vacancies of the dragon body, the round ends immediately. Record each player's blessings (points).

    Continue playing rounds until someone has collected at least 50 points.

    • Similarly, frechverlag will release Vegetable Stock from Zong-Ger and Good Game Studio in Germany as Veggie Crash, which is probably due to Germans not using the word "stock" in two ways as English speakers do. (The game's original title in Taiwan was Small Farmer.)

    This 2-6 player game plays in 10-15 minutes, and win or lose I've had a blast with it. Here's how the game works:
    Vegetable Stock is a simple card game about vegetable economics. Each round, reveal one more card than the number of players on the table. Each card has three vegetable icons on it, with vegetables coming in five types. Players take turns choosing one of the cards and placing it in their harvest pile face down. The price of the vegetable(s) on the card not chosen goes up — but if the price goes too high, it crashes, although it can rise again next round.

    After six rounds, determine your score by multiplying the number of each vegetable you have harvested by the final price of that vegetable. The player with the highest score wins!

    Sara Perry's A Gift of Tulips from Weird Giraffe Games will become Eine Tulpe für Dich ("A Tulip for You") in frechverlag's January 2024 release.

    As with Veggie Crash, Eine Tulpe für Dich is for 2-6 players, and you're collectively manipulating the value of items on a market, although now you're messing with tulips...and you're not just keeping them for yourself.

    Tulips come in four types, and two of them are initially valued above the others. Each player starts with one tulip card in front of themselves, placing a second card face down into a "secret festival" pile. On a turn, a player draws a card, then:

    Keeps it, scoring points if that type is currently ranked third or fourth,
    Gives it to another player, scoring points based on that tulip's rank and value, or
    Adds it to the secret festival, either face up to adjust the ranking of the tulip types or face down.

    Image: Eric Yurko
    Then the player draws a second card and chooses a different action than before. When the deck runs out, shuffle the secret festival cards, then reveal five of them and adjust the ranking of the tulips, if needed. Whoever has the most and secondmost cards of the highest three types scores their cards.

    • To circle back to South American publishers, in February 2024 EMF Verlag will release Clever wie Archimedes, a German version of Reiner Knizia's Arquimedes, which debuted in 2021 from Brazilian publisher Adoleta Jogos.

    This real-time game is aimed at younger people, with 2-5 players racing to use mathematical operations — addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division — to rid themselves of cards as quickly as possible.

    Read more »
  • Visit a Swiss National Park, Collect Treasure, Build a Tower, and Defend Your Secret Drug Network

    by W. Eric Martin

    Alpina will be a May 2024 release from Luc Rémond and Helvetiq in which you explore the Swiss National Park with a camera around your neck to photograph animals in their natural habitat:
    The spotted nutcracker, grass frogs, and more are waiting for you and offer you a unique opportunity to collect points in an original way that is related to the landscape and interaction with your neighbors.

    Do you play a card to score more points, or do you use the opportunity to deceive your opponents? Find the card that allows you to strike a balance between these two objectives, and victory will be yours!

    • Another upcoming Helvetiq title — Odin from Gary Kim, Yohan Goh, and Hope S. Hwang, due out in January 2024 — has even less information available: "Odin is a simple and dynamic game with quick rounds and far-reaching decisions. Be strategic, collect the cards that best suit your strategy, and carve your way to glory to become King or Queen of Valhalla."

    • To follow up an earlier November 2023 post, German publisher KOSMOS has previewed more new game releases for the first half of 2024, such as Anno 1800: Die Erweiterung, which adds additional ship tiles, island expansions, and population tiles to Martin Wallace's Anno 1800: The Board Game.

    Lucky is a dice game for 2-6 players from Drew Richards in which you're once again splitting booty on a pirate ship and trying to end up with the most loot in your pocket, but to do so, you must risk it falling into the hands of others:
    You all take turns placing your treasure cards in the middle of the table. Now the person whose turn it is rolls up to five dice, depending on the number of cards on display that are to be won. If the roll succeeds, the treasures from the center or those of the other players become their own. Treasures are never safe from the others, though, and can be stolen again...

    One of Us from Johannes Berger and Julien Gupta falls into the "majority wins" category of party games, but it's not clear from the publisher's description how this 3-7 player game differs from others: "Who do you think of whenever you see a cat? And who do you think of when you see a sparkling diamond necklace...or a leek? All you have to do is agree with the majority of players, and you've already scored a point together."

    TowerBrix is a co-operative game from Simon Thomas for 1-6 players that works as follows:
    Over the course of the game, you build a tower out of bricks, with the cards in your hand telling you who has to fulfill which conditions — but each person knows only their own tasks and cannot tell the others about them. During the building process, the aim is to find out which conditions must be fulfilled in order to successfully complete the round.

    TowerBrix features different levels of difficulty and additional missions.

    • Finally, KOSMOS is continuing the "Masters of Crime" series from designers Lukas Setzke, Martin Student, and Verena Wiechens with three new titles. These games put you in the role of shady characters — members of the New York mafia in 2021's Vendetta, and part of a gang of art thieves in Stillleben — and you use the materials in the box as well as information online to play.

    In Masters of Crime: Mosquito, you're on the hunt for a legendary Latin American treasure and must figure out how to outwit the powerful secret organization "Mosquito", which is one step ahead of you and wants the treasure for itself.

    In Masters of Crime: Inkognito, you're on the side of the law this time, specifically an undercover agent with the FBI who embeds themselves in a maximum security prison in Brooklyn to discover who killed a gang member that had become a police informant.

    In Masters of Crime: Tiefenrausch, you've built secret drug network on the "Isla de Cubaidos", but international superstar Dayana — who comes from that Caribbean island — has vanished, and you need to figure out what's happened to her before the police search party arrives and inspects your island.

    Read more »

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