The my favorite thing about the holidays is that it brings people together…for board games. Here’s what I’ve been digging this holiday season.
Mysterium is a cooperative murder mystery party game. Psychics conduct a séance to divine how someone died in a mansion. One player plays a spirt that can only communicate to the other players (the psychics) through abstract, surrealist imagery. Players must work together to formulate the suspects, locations, and objects that were involved in the ghost’s demise.
The key challenge to Mysterium is that the ghost is not allowed to speak or signal through expression any indication of the correct answers to the other players. They can only hand abstract and surrealist depictions on cards to the players to help clue them in. (For example, if the school teach is a suspect, the ghost may hand me a card that depicts a mechanical, letter delivering turtle with a helicopter propeller on its shell.
La Mancha is a fun party game—if you were to only invite Lit majors to it. (Which sounds like a dreadful party.) It’s based on the classic Spanish novel penned in 1605, Don Quixote. In La Mancha, everyone plays a self-appointed knight errand that must woo women, gain powerful weapons, ride their trusty steed, and of course: tilt at windmills.
Where La Mancha shines is that there are different types of event cards (Romance cards, Encounter cards, etc.) and the player who draws that card becomes a judge for other players. Other players must use cards in their hand, which have excerpts from the novel, to construct a story or poem depending on the situation that convinces the judge to give them that card or an item card! This leads to an atmosphere of knowing a bit about what makes your fellow players tick. The judge also gets a slight bonus for just being a judge.
Shobu is a two player abstract strategy game in the spirit of Go. Players control their own set of stones on four small boards, each board with a 4×4 grid. Your goal is to push all of your opponent’s stones completely off the board.
They must make two moves on their turn, in this precise order:
Passive: Move your stone up to two spaces in any direction without pushing another stone.
Aggressive: Make the same exact move with one of your other stones on another board. (This time you can push your opponent’s stones around.)
This game requires a lot of domino-effect style thinking. Most of the strategy revolves around positioning your opponent in a way that prevents them from making their own aggressive moves.
My title is too long, you say? I know, but I had to go for it. It communicates my feelings for this pairing well, this article is just to offer the details on how I came to this conclusion.
I backed Call to Adventure on kickstarter. When my copy was delivered to me, complete with Name of the Wind cards and a neat original backer cinch bag, I was ecstatic! Call to Adventure is a hero story building game. Players “compete” (I’ll get to why this is in quotes later) to become the most damn interesting hero in the world.
Your title is too long
Imagine a D&D-esque world where—after a hefty journey—you’re finally able to relax for a moment in a hole-in-the-wall tavern, far from where you’re from but somehow you still feel at home. As you plop your rear end in your seat and take your first foamy gulp of your ale, you overhear someone boast their tales of peril and wonder, logic and madness, natural and supernatural. You have only one thing on your mind: my life story is way better!
That is Call to Adventure, a fantasy world where you build your hero’s back story, motivation, and destiny. Seems fun right? Well…
Uh oh is right. The artwork and custom assets for Call to Adventure are phenomenal. The game has blood-red rubies for experience tokens and custom two-sided “dice” runes that are shaped like large pieces of Eclipse gum.
The actual gameplay of Call to Adventure is severely lacking. It suffers from severe mechanical over-engineering. Call to Adventure also has the poorest written rule book that I’ve ever had to parse. If this game were set during the Spanish Inquisition as opposed to a fantasy world, I could see Catholic priests using it to torture people for information on where all of the heretics are hiding.
There are so many inconsistencies in the wording of the rule book and the over designing of the game that I’m under the conclusion that the developers, Brotherwise games, were so caught up in the idea of a “hero story building” game that they didn’t stop to think about what makes for a great tabletop game: fun, challenging mechanics and an extremely well-articulated and well-organized rulebook.
But can anyone tell me what all this means?
A great tabletop game transcends its theme; Call to Adventure, unfortunately, succumbs to it. There were so many times when I just wanted to stop playing this game. It has all of the iconoclast mechanic explanations of a game like 7 Wonders with absolutely zero wonder of its own.
I’m sad now, can we talk about something nice now?
When I was perusing the beverages of my local alcoholitorium, I was looking for a drink that wanted to share its story with me. Something that spoke to me and said, “you’ll want to hear (or in this case, drink) this.”
I settled on Dragon’s Milk—a bourbon barrel-aged stout from new Holland Brewing in Holland, Michigan. I bought it for the ridiculous name and my affinity for dark beers, but I continued to drink it because of just how damned interesting it is as a beer.
Dragon’s Milk does not suffer from over-engineering. Quite the opposite, in fact! This beer is filled with complexity: it’s malty and creamy smooth like a chocolate cream stout, but includes the caramel and slight buttermilk notes that you’d find in a bourbon barrel-aged beer. It’s thick, its full, but it’s not overwhelming. Once you get past the name, and all of the dirty dragon-based jokes that you can make from the name, you get a beer that’s on par with those fancy, limited edition, longer-aged craft beers that you see on the market. (It also has 11% ABV, whooo dog!)
But what does it all mean?!
Call to Adventure comes with a lot of lessons:
Even tabletop games from established publishers can be absolutely rushed and deliver a substandard experience.
Do not rush your rulebooks. This rulebook was clearly rushed. If it somehow wasn’t rushed, get better people to host your playtests. Like I said—worst. rulebook. ever.
Having great artwork and fancy custom runes and tokens doesn’t make your game fun. And it definitely doesn’t make up for poor, clunky game mechanics.
Don’t get cute and call victory points something else. Call to Adventure calls them “destiny” points. They’re victory points—get over it. I’m not gaining any thematic suspension of disbelief from you calling a spade a clover.
Over-engineering your game is the one true evil. I believe in this case, having an over-engineered game coupled with an absolutely horrid rulebook (Spanish Inquisition torture device) made Call to Adventure extremely frustrating to play at all times. I would wager that you can have an over-engineered game with a fantastic rulebook and have that game be a delight. Don’t shoot me for this, but I believe that a lot of aspects of Dungeons & Dragons are or were at one point extremely over-engineered—but the insanely smart rulebooks completely remove the pain from the game.
Was there anything aside from the assets that was good about this game?
Definitely! My favorite aspect of this game is that it gives you the vehicle to tell a story without having to start from scratch. Another part of Call to Adventure that I enjoyed was that, although someone is declared winner, I never actually cared about competing in this game. Some may find that frustrating but I found it refreshing. Competition can be fun but I enjoyed the fact that, when my partner won the game by one “Destiny” point, I really just wanted to hear her connect the dots between the cards she gathered along the way.
If I had a chance to play Call to Adventure before eagerly kickstarting it, I wouldn’t have backed it. What I did was based on blind consumer trust. I’ve enjoyed every Brotherwise game I’ve played until now—Boss Monster and all of its expansions and Unearth. I believe that in the future, I’m going to wait until a Brotherwise game hits retail stores and I get a chance to borrow a copy to play from my friendly local game store before I put my dollars in their hands again.
But as for Dragon’s Milk? Oh I’ll be putting my dollars in New Holland’s hands in the future, you can count on that.
Root and its expansion were an impulse buy. So far, it’s been the best tabletop game purchase that I’ve ever made. I’ve played it twice—once with two players and another time with five. Let me tell you: the rules of this game are fucking hard to understand.
This isn’t just a difficult game to understand, I believe this was an insanely difficult game to develop. Imagine taking four different area control games and smashing them together. Then imagine developing an expansion where you take two more area control games and smash those into that game as well. Root is six different games bundled into one experience.
Is that a good thing or a bad thing?
I like to think of it as a book that you’re compelled to read multiple times in order to understand. There’s both good and bad in that. The good—well, you want to keep playing this game. When you’ve finished, you want to play again from the perspective of a different faction. The bad—you fuck up a lot AND no matter how many different rule books, walkthroughs, overview cards, how-to-play-the-game quick guides are thrown at you (Root has all of these), you’ll forget or completely cock up a rule.
Wait, I’m confused…
I understand, let me back up a bit and explain the game.
Root is an asynchronous area control game. I mean asynchronous in every sense of the term. A player controls one of six factions, each with completely different assets, rules, mechanics during their turns, and methods of scoring points.
When playing with more than two people, expect to take a lot more time than the 90ish minutes advertised. Most of that time is spent thinking about your moves, consulting the multiple rulebook to see if your play is valid, and figuring out how other players work. Even if you’ve played a few times, remembering the rule sets of six asynchronous factions is difficult.
Oh, never mind that sounds easy, carry on!
Exactly. It’s not only difficult to understand how your own faction fits in with the game, let alone understanding how your competition plays their game. And that’s just it, each player in Root plays their own game. Some more than others. (I’m looking at you, Vagabond.)
Players typically only attack one another when they need to own a clearing. I’m positive that that’s the entire point of Root: figure out how you score points and only be aggressive when you need to be.
One small gripe that I have is on precisely that, though. I wish that there were more strategic reasons to claim a clearing other than “I need more resources and building spots.” I think that would force more challenging (in a good way) player interactions.
One larger tribe that I have is with how difficult it is to explore the rules and find the answer that you need. Simple set-up things that I would’ve hoped would be on the back of the faction boards are buried deep in the core rulebook. Sometimes rules are a little too vague, other times rules are overtly complicated in their wording. I think another pass or two over these rules would’ve fixed that right up. (I hear that a new edition of the rulebook is being released, so these issues may be fixed!)
This is too much…I need a drink
Then might I suggest that you go with a 2011 Pike Place Brewery Barleywine.
This is a complex, strong (as in, high ABV) drink. Can you see why I chose it to pair with Root? Pike Place is a brewery local to Seattle, currently nestled in the heart of the Pike Place market.
Also, the artwork of this game seems inspired by novels like Redwall—in which there are moments where cute, anthropomorphic animals guzzle down barleywine by the cask.
So do you like this game or not?
Yes, yes, a thousand times yes. Root has the best kind of complexity. It takes several sessions for you to get down the logistics of each faction, let alone to try and think of complex strategy. But you still want to be a mastermind and learn the rules.
I have the core game and the expansion. Leder Games, makers of Root, have already announced a second expansion that they’re kickstarting in a matter of days and I’m going to back it on day one.
Root is the first game in a long time that compels me to play it. I can hear Root whisper, “play me” when I see it on my shelf. I want to try and play a faction again just to pin down those amazing plays. I want to play different factions to figure out how to master them. When I don’t have time to play, I just stare at the box and think about what could be…then I have a drink.
Looking for something fun to play with your spouse or that one person in your family who likes tabletop games? Ten years ago, it’d be difficult to find a game that’s designed for two players. But now there’s a whole market for two-player games out there! Here’s my list of favorite games that either work well with two players (but can support more) or are designed specifically for two people to play.
You control two of five different persons of influence—each with their own unique abilities. Your mission? To kill both of your opponent’s persons of influence before they can kill yours.
A great buffing game becomes an intense interrogation in a two-player setting. Coup is a lot more difficult when you have to look the same person in the eyes and claim that you have the Duke, the Captain, and the Contessa all in one match. It’s more fun to play a few games in rapid 10-15 minute successions.
My internal torment includes:
Do you really have the Duke this time around?
Should I call your bluff, you lied last game?
What the fuck am I supposed to do?!
Coup is a game that provides a thrilling setting of hidden identity politics whether you have 2 players or 8 players. Most importantly, it doesn’t seem like you’re getting a reduced version of the game when you play in a 2 player setting. We have the Reformation expansion and swap out the Ambassador for the Inquisitor for extra flavor.
Despite what she keeps telling me, my partner is a master at bluffing. I’m on to you! (I think.)
9. Boss Monster
As a famous dungeon-crawling hero, have you ever wondered what it was like to be that grotesque villain with impeccable interior design instincts? Wonder no more with Boss Monster: the game where you play the boss at the end of the dungeon that you’ve built! Create dungeon rooms and use spell cards to lure entirely suspecting adventurers to your crib and kill them before they can reach you directly. In Boss Monster, souls are currency, and it takes ten to win and be the best bad guy-girl-thing in town!
This game is built for two- to four-players. I think this game is more fun with two, as you can reduce extra layer of having to pick your indirect spell battles against your opponents and just focus on trapping more souls than one other person.
Grow and sell beans in this fun game about…well, bean counting. The more coins you get at the end of the game, the better off you are as a farmer. Bohnanza takes the tried-and-true mechanics of the classic commodities game Pit and adds the nuance of balancing what’s in your hand versus what you plant in your field versus what you sell to the market to support your rich farmer lifestyle.
7. Machi Koro
Be the first to activate the attractions that will put your city on the map. Machi Koro is all about playing the odds. Compete with your opponent to purchase buildings from a market area which will give you coins or other benefits depending on how you (or sometimes how your opponent rolls).
I typically dislike games that rely on a luck factor, but I think that as long as you can spread everything out enough to the point that you’re collecting money for most of your rolls, you’ll be swimming in metropolitan tourist money for days.
The reason that I like this game in a two-player setting is due to the amount of things you need to keep track of in the mid- to late-game stages. I think it’s just right with two players.
6. Welcome to the Dungeon
This game is quick and hilarious. Welcome to the Dungeon is a “push your luck” style game where you fill a dungeon with monsters, destroy buffs from a dungeon crawler, and then ultimately decide whether you’re going to make your opponent run the dungeon with that crawler. If the dungeon crawler dies, the person who had to run it takes a wound. If they survive, a victory point is awarded. Two victory points and you win. Two wounds and you’re out.
I think that Welcome to the Dungeon is fun with two, three, or four players. The game was designed so well that you don’t have to entirely change your strategy (if you even have one) to accommodate for the extra players.
5. Century: Spice Road (or Golem Edition)
I blogged about this one awhile back. I love this game. It’s a delicate balance of holding gems, upgrading gems, and trying to claim those golems!
This is another game I blogged about. I appreciate modern life being breathed into a classic card game like Hearts or Spades. The artwork is lovely—something that I’d frame and hang on my wall if I didn’t need the cards to play the game!
3. 7 Wonders Duel
Are you starting to see a pattern here? This is one of two games on my list that was actually designed as a two-player only game. I love 7 Wonders Duel. It gives me all of the open strategy and theme of Civilization, but it doesn’t take three years to finish.
Ah memories…this was my first review! (I should experiment with more frozen lasse, that stuff was delicious.) Jaipur is the other game on this list that is designed just for two. My partner and I are so familiar with this game that when we play it, we fall dead silent so that we can focus on getting into the good graces of that Maharaja. (That merchant looks so excited and worried at the same time.)
This isn’t just number one on my two-player list, this is my number one of all time. Period. Out of all of the games on this list, Carcassonne always finds it way onto my table—and into my heart. I have fond memories of playing this game with the people that I love. It has everything you need from a tabletop game: strategy, rivalries, city planning.
Not to mention the expansions, of which there are like eleven. Each one weirder and more fun than the last. Playing with five or more expansions makes my brain explode with madness! (In a good way.)
When I play and review tabletop games, I try to figure out what type of alcoholic drink thematically pairs with them. When I think of a game like 7 Wonders—I think of an alternate history of the old world. At first, I was going to pair this game with a barley wine, but then I thought about what most people drank during the time of Ancient Greece and Rome: white wine.
Truth is, 7 Wonders blends many cultural landmarks, not just that of Ancient Greece and Rome, but also that of the Sumerians, Egyptians, and Phoenicians. These are all different peoples who lived along the Mediterranean Sea. The main reason that I chose white wine is because I’m not much of a wine drinker and I thought that I’d give it a shot. (It wasn’t bad!)
What’s so good about this game?
As a history major (and lover), a game like 7 Wonders intrigues me. As a tabletop gamer, the mechanics of 7 Wonders keep me engaged. As a wine-drinking amateur, I found the white wine we had, a Pinot Grigio called Chloe, to be semi-sweet and smooth.
7 Wonders Duel is a two-player only reimagining of the game 7 Wonders. The spirit of 7 Wonders is definitely there in Duel, but mechanics are streamlined and meant to only work for two players.
What are the differences between the original 7 Wonders game and Duel?
There are a lot of similarities between the two: you take a card and construct the building on it (granted you have the resources at hand or can trade for them), discard it for sweet coin, or use it to construct a Wonder.
Duel has a few different ways for you to win:
Military supremacy—move a military tracker all the way to your opponent’s space
Scientific supremacy—collect six out of seven scientific symbols
Civilian Victory—after three ages of card drawing have passed, whomever has the most victory points wins
There are other major differences between 7 Wonders and its two-player adaptation. For one, drawing mechanics are different—you arrange the cards in a special pattern for each age, with certain cards face-down or face-up. (You flip over face-down cards when they become uncovered.) You can only draw cards from the pattern which aren’t partially covered.
Secondly, the trading mechanic works a little differently in Duel. Players pay two coins plus the number of brown or grey cards that their opponent has in order to trade for a resource. There are yellow card buildings that players can employ which lock trading at one coin. (You can see two of them in the image above.)
Wonders also work differently: each player draws four Wonders at the beginning of the game and they can only construct seven Wonders between them—it’s a race for players to construct their anachronistic attractions!
What’s with those little tokens some of the cards?
That’s a part of the Pantheon expansion! In Age I you activate gods from the pantheons of five different ancient civilizations (the Phoenicians, Mesopotamians, Egyptians, Romans, and Grecians).
Age I—religious tokens trigger a god to placed in a slot on the pantheon
Ages II & III—players pay coins to activate a god’s single-use ability
So who won?
My opponent beat me with a rare military victory! When you construct military buildings, you move the military token (that bright red piece on that track of oval-shaped spaces in the image above) one space toward your opponent’s city. If you move it all the way to the end, you win.
Typically, players are able to last out all three ages and compare their victory points, but not this time. My opponent had just a few spaces left to a military victory and I thought that they wouldn’t be able to build any new military buildings, but I was wrong!
What’s your verdict on 7 Wonders Duel?
I love this game. It captures the card generating mechanics and the ancient city development that you’d find in a game like Civilization, while keeping gameplay to a tight 45-60 minute. The Pantheon expansion adds more opportunities for you to change the balance of power in your favor.
I’ll definitely bring 7 Wonders Duel back to the table.