Thursday, November 15, 2018

Board Game Review: My Little Scythe

In the beginning of September I had the chance to play Scythe (another release from Stonemaier Games) with a group of friends for the first time and fell head over heels for it. My husband and I play board games together at least a few times a week and we also get together with our friends for regular game nights as well, so finding a challenging and engrossing game such as Scythe to add to our collection is wonderful. But we also have three children (a daughter 13, and twin boys, 9) and we love to play games with them too, so we were especially happy to discover that a father-daughter team (Hoby and Vienna Chou) had taken the mechanisms behind Scythe and translated them into a more kid-friendly version called My Little Scythe. I thought it would probably be a great fit for our family.

A few weeks ago a new box arrived to our home and inside was My Little Scythe. We gathered the boys around our gaming table one Saturday afternoon shortly thereafter and sat down to play (our daughter was at a Girl Scout event). The kids got excited as we laid out the components. The board is so colorful and the minis are super cute! Setup was a breeze (other than the kids fighting over who gets to be what color) and we passed around the rule book as we explained the rules to everyone. The instructions for play are presented in an easy-to-follow format and didn’t leave us with any unanswered questions.

Setup for our first family game

Game play in My Little Scythe is straightforward – players spend their time accomplishing tasks to earn trophies. There are eight different ways to earn a trophy and only one involves player vs player combat. Since you only need four trophies to win the game, it’s completely possible to avoid direct combat and still win. That makes My Little Scythe a great option for families wanting to introduce their kids to competitive games without bringing on emotional meltdowns. When kids are ready for a bit of combat, but still want to avoid attacking friends and family, the automountie can be introduced as a punching bag. This is an artificial opponent that will have a presence on the board like all other players and will perform actions on its turn according to a preset script presented on automountie cards drawn from the automountie deck. The automountie also allows the game to be played in cooperative mode – with all the humans on one team facing off against a team of automounties.  After completing our family game of My Little Scythe (which I won – woohoo!), I employed the automountie for it’s third use – as my opponent in a solo game. I played on “Normal” difficulty level and lost.  

Playing against the automountie in a solo game

Win Condition: Be the first player to place four trophies.

Inputs: pie fights won, quests completed, upgrades (power ups) completed, spell cards collected, friendship rating on the friendship track, pie level on the pie track, apple deliveries completed, magic gem deliveries completed

Strategy Tip: Play to your strengths. Each player is dealt a personality card at the beginning of the game that provides advantages toward earning specific trophies. Make sure to consider your personality when choosing which trophies to go after.  

My Little Scythe consistently held the boys’ interest throughout our game and the 13 year old would most assuredly enjoy playing it as well if she wasn’t so busy with school, sports, and music lessons that keep her from playing with us as much as she’d like. For adults who are fans of more complex games with deep analytical thinking demands (such as the original Scythe) playing My Little Scythe against children may feel a bit dull. But the automountie proves to be a consistently rational opponent holding advantages over other players and I’m guessing that playing against other adults would elevate the game play experience as well.

One thing I really like about My Little Scythe is that the designers have included achievement sheets for players to track different kids of victories over time. On it, you can mark down the name of the player who was first to win at every player count, or the first in each age bracket to finish the game with 4 trophies. It gives kids a chance to consider and remember their successes. I wish every game we owned came with a sheet for recording victories; it’s a great way to record the shared experience. 

This is a game I’d recommend buying if you have children or if you host other people’s children in your home from time to time. It makes a great game to leave out for children to play while you and your friends play more adult oriented games. And then, once you own it, you can take advantage of it being in your house and play in solo mode.


Publisher: Stonemaier
Players: 1-6 (We played with 4 and also in solo mode)
Actual Playing Time (vs the guideline on the box): About 60 minutes
Game type: area control, pick-up and deliver



Jenni’s rating scale:
OUI: I would play this game again; this game is ok. I probably would not buy this game myself but I would play it with those who own it and if someone gave it to me I would keep it.
OUI OUI: I would play this game again; this game is good. I would buy this game.
NON: I would not play this game again. I would return this game or give it away if it was given to me.

Wednesday, November 14, 2018

Trip Pictorial: Butchart Gardens

A few years ago I had the pleasure of touring Butchart Gardens in Victoria, B.C. (Canada) during the autumn season. These are some of my favorite pictures taken on the trip.



Board Game Review: Railroad Rivals

A few months ago at GenCon I had the pleasure of speaking with the team from Forbidden Games about their recent release of Railroad Rivals. After taking a cursory look at the game, I came away with a copy of it and a bit of excitement about getting on the table.

There are two different editions of Railroad Rivals available on the 20181019_215848Forbidden Games website – the standard edition (which is what I brought home) and the platinum edition. The latter features upgraded wooden tiles and components which are lovely to hold in hand, but even in the standard edition, the component quality overall is very high. I found some minor issues with my copy (a locomotive or two was not sized the same as the rest in the supply and one of the railroad stock counter tokens was missing) but the publisher took care of the problem quickly after I contacted customer service. The sturdiness and beauty of the components in the game is a reflection of the improvements in craftsmanship among board game manufacturers based in Asia.

The artwork featured in Railroad Rivals is clean and tailored and suits the theme well.

At a recent game night, I suggested we give Railroad Rivals a try and gathered together 4 other interested players. We opened the game and dug into the rule book. It’s easy to follow and features a detailed breakdown of each phase in a turn, which is very helpful. What would be even more helpful would be for the publisher to include player aid cards for each player listing the phases and key details so that we don’t have to keep passing around the rule book. This isn’t an omission exclusive to Forbidden Games; many publishers overlook this player friendly offering. 

We really enjoyed the game. The bidding of victory points for turn order mechanism employed in Railroad Rivals isn’t something I’ve encountered before and it was an interesting logical puzzle to consider. Should I be willing to give up victory points to go first? When is it worth it and when should you keep your place in line? I was last in line initially and could never stomach paying the high prices our bidding would raise so I remained last in line for all key actions the entire game. That definitely put me at a disadvantage and I lost the game. But so did 3 other players, all of whom paid the steep prices at least once to shift to first place. I’m looking forward to getting some guidance from my husband (PhD in statistics; he did not join in the initial game) on optimum strategy for the bidding phase.

20181019_215836Pictured: Player positions after a round of bidding first to last, from left to right.

After bidding for position, players take turns selecting (based on player position) railroad stock tiles to add to their portfolio and city tiles to add to their hand. Next, everyone takes turns (based again on player position) on laying down a new city tile, domino style, to expand the current rail network. Each tile laid down is secured to the existing network with the player’s railroad token and is stocked with the number of goods specified on the card (goods are pulled randomly out of a velvet grab bag). The last phase of the turn consists of delivering goods from one tile to another across a railroad link, rewarding the active player, the player who owns the railroad link used (as long as it isn’t the active player), and the stockholders of the railroad used.


Win Condition: Most Victory Points

Inputs: # of times other players use your railroad links to deliver goods, # of times any player delivers good to a tile where your hotel is, type of goods you deliver (different goods are worth different point values), value of the stock you own x number of shares you own.

Strategy Tip: A winning stock portfolio is not necessarily a concentrated stock portfolio. In our game, the player with the most diversified portfolio won by a large margin. Having a little bit of every railroad company paid off - as the rest of us worked to drive up different railroad stocks for our own benefit, she benefited as well.

Railroad Rivals is subject to moderate analysis paralysis. The number of tiles to choose from during the drafting phase is equal to twice the number of players; there are typically several locations to connect tiles during the placement phase; and there are a handful of options for which goods to deliver during the delivery phase. All of these decision points can be a source of delay when an overly analytical player (like myself) is at the table. Know your opponents and their propensity to overanalyze, plan your time allotted for the game accordingly, and use any delays on their turns to plot out your play options.

I’m looking forward to playing Railroad Rivals again at different player counts and with different groups of gamers in my community. It’s going to take several games to hone a well-crafted strategy for turn order bidding, tile placement, and delivery choices; it’s a logic puzzle of sorts that will be fun to piece together.


Publisher: Forbidden Games
Players: 1-5 (We played with 5)
Actual Playing Time (vs the guideline on the box): About 90 minutes
Game type: card drafting, auction/bidding, pick-up and deliver, tile placement


Jenni’s rating scale:
OUI: I would play this game again; this game is ok. I probably would not buy this game myself but I would play it with those who own it and if someone gave it to me I would keep it.
OUI OUI: I would play this game again; this game is good. I would buy this game.
NON: I would not play this game again. I would return this game or give it away if it was given to me.


Thursday, November 8, 2018

Board Game Review: Fate of the Elder Gods: Beasts From Beyond

A few months ago, I shared my thoughts on Fate of the Elder Gods in a lengthy review. The team at Greater Than Games has released an expansion, Beasts From Beyond, and I picked up a copy at GenCon earlier this year. This expansion adds fifteen new spell cards (2 of which can be used with the base game even if you don’t use any of the other expansion components), four new Elder Gods that cults may serve, and eight monsters who enjoy tampering with the cultists that can be called by the new spells or through Elder God powers.

As with the base game, the artwork featured in the expansion is beyond extraordinary, given the retail price point. The monster minis are rich in detail. The only improvement possible would be for GtG to offer a release with pre-painted minis for those of us with no painting skills.


The new figures are not only beautiful but also sturdy. They should endure game after game with little wear or tear.

20181107_223130Each new monster provides strategic advantages to the summoning cult such as constraining or hindering other cults, movement of one’s cultists around the main board, or destroying investigators on the board. I made use of the Hound of Tindalos twice to prevent one of my opponents who was well ahead of me on the summon track from edging closer to a win before I could catch up, so I’m going to have to grant it the honorary status of my favorite monster. Byakhee is another favorite. It allows the controlling cult to move cultists two at a time to another location, making it easier for the cult to gain control. It’s especially powerful when paired with the Elder God that offers the ability to roll dice based on the number of cultists in a location and use the results to advance on the summon track. We’ve played two games incorporating the monsters so far and I’ve still got plenty of experimenting to do with the rest of the monsters to learn the best ways to use them.

Beasts From Beyond is a great investment for fans of Fate of the Elder Gods. It offers a challenging new playing experience.


Publisher: Greater Than Games

Players: 1-4 (We played with 2 and 3)

Actual Playing Time (vs the guideline on the box): About 90 minutes

Game type: area control, dice rolling, worker placement


Jenni’s rating scale:

OUI: I would play this game again; this game is ok. I probably would not buy this game myself but I would play it with those who own it and if someone gave it to me I would keep it.

OUI OUI: I would play this game again; this game is good. I would buy this game.


NON: I would not play this game again. I would return this game or give it away if it was given to me.

Tuesday, November 6, 2018

Board Game Review: All Manor of Evil

I received a preview copy of All Manor of Evil from Kolossal Games a couple of weeks ago just in time for the Kickstarter launch. FYI, Kickstarter campaign page is HERE.

If you’ve already backed the game, then the information I’m going to give you will help you to better understand the details of gameplay so you’ll be prepped to play. If All Manor of Evil (AMOE) isn’t on your radar yet or you’re still on the fence about backing the game, the information will help you decide if AMOE is a good fit for your game library.

While the artwork is still in development, everything printed in the preview copy is beautiful. Kolossal has high production standards and I’m certain the finished copy of AMOE will delight.

20181106_083841Let’s dig into the game play. As with many games set in the Lovecraft universe, in AMOE, we try to minimize the steps toward insanity our characters take as they go about their activities. Under the baseline rules, the player who accumulates the most madness is devoured and eliminated at the end of the game before scoring. Not pleasant! The game is played in successive rounds, during which all players simultaneously select an action using the actions cards, and carry it out. These actions include improving sanity, stealing relic cards from the draw deck, or interacting with the rooms of the manor and the relic cards assigned to those rooms. Additionally, all action cards mandate a secondary action of stealing a relic card from one of the rooms in the manor to add to one’s personal cache (which is evaluated at the end of the game). Relic cards have a value associated with them in dollars and many also have a cost associated in terms of increased madness and/or pushing one of the Gods a step closer to awakening. These Gods add a layer of variability and complexity to AMOE - a subset of the Gods are put in play at the beginning of the game, each one changing a rule should it be activated through awakening (some rules affect scoring, others affect end game rules such conditions for being devoured; Gods are awakened when they have accumulated enough awakening tokens). More complexity is provided through roles that are assigned to players.  These roles change the standard rules in ways that can usually be leveraged to gain an advantage over opponents. For a seemingly simple card game, All Manor of Evil has a great amount of depth and opportunities for strategic play. 

Win condition: varies depending on the Gods in play and if one is awakened (if more than one is awakened, everyone loses). Otherwise winning player is the one with the most valued collection of relics who hasn’t been eliminated due to madness when the second clock card is drawn from the deck.

Strategy tip – once you’re certain you’ve met the win conditions under a God in play, force it to be awakened as this ends the game immediately and triggers end game scoring. I tried to do this in my last game. Positive that I had the most valuable collection of relics, I awakened the God that prevents cultists from being devoured. Victory was to be mine. Only problem was my role was not a cultist but a reporter. Oops! My opponent who was playing as the cultist immediately won by default after I was devoured for having the most madness. Bummer.

After the first round of play, AMOE is not subject to much analysis paralysis (AP) as only three of the four action cards that come in the box are available for selection (you cannot repeat your previous action) and the relic cards showing in the manor and in your hand tend to suggest definitive strategies. I was able to progress through my turns quickly and I am the queen of AP. We finished each game in 30-35 minutes. Repeat games sustain interest as the variety of Gods and roles offer a different play experience each time.

IMG_20181102_164118_845The rulebook is still in draft as of this date, but the copy I reviewed explained the rules and game play well and did not leave me with any unanswered questions related to how to play the game. 

Components for All Manor of Evil include cards, madness tokens, awakening tokens, and a first player token. Note that the madness and awakening tokens visible in my photos are not the standard ones from the game; for my preview copy I used alternative tokens.

I’m in love with all things Cthulhu so even before I ever read any details on how AMOE is played, I was excited about getting it on the table. As I’ve said many times before, I am usually drawn into games initially based on themes. Come for the theme, stay for the game play. And the game play here did not disappoint. Kolossal Games has done a great job with this release and I’m happy to add All Manor of Evil to my collection. You’ve still got time to add it to your collection too, if you mosey on over to the Kickstarter page and back AMOE before the campaign ends later this month.


Publisher: Kolossal Games
Players: 1-6 (We played with 2 and I also played a solo game)
Actual Playing Time (vs the guideline on the box): About 30-35 minutes per game
Game type: card drafting, set collection
Jenni’s rating scale:
OUI: I would play this game again; this game is ok. I probably would not buy this game myself but I would play it with those who own it and if someone gave it to me I would keep it.
OUI OUI: I would play this game again; this game is good. I would buy this game.
NON: I would not play this game again. I would return this game or give it away if it was given to me.

Friday, October 26, 2018

Board Game Review: Arcadia Quest

In our family, we are avid board game collectors (as well as players). Because so many games come into our home (over 800 and counting), sometimes games sit on the shelf for quite awhile before they are played. Arcadia Quest was one of those games. We’ve owned it since it was published in 2014, but it only recently made it to the table as part of our Quick Brown Fox challenge. For this challenge, we are working our way through our entire collection of games, one letter of the alphabet at a time, using the famous pangram “A quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog”.
Arcadia Quest is a goal oriented combat game. Kill your opponents’ heroes, kill the monsters on the board, and/or find hidden objects placed on the board (and sometimes deliver them elsewhere) to win the game.
The components for Arcadia Quest are extremely well-made. They include finely detailed miniatures that are sturdy and long lasting.
As an aside, can I take this opportunity to again beg publishers to offer a pre-painted miniatures option? I know it would raise the price of the game but it would be worth it and there are a lot of players like myself - with zero artistry skills – who would jump on the opportunity to own pre-painted minis.

There are numerous cards of varying sizes that should hold up well over time to normal use, but frequent players may want to sleeve them to extend their life expectancy. The double sided game tiles are heavy, thick cardboard, and didn’t show any signs of wear after 6 games. Here’s my sole component complaint: Arcadia Quest ships with dice but doesn’t include as many as needed once heroes are running under upgraded stats with additional attack or defense power. I can’t find anything in the rules that states the dice are limited so several times in our game we had to reroll existing dice to get the additional dice counts we needed such as when we were permitted to roll 7 or 8 defense dice but found only 6 had come in the box. I’d recommend the publisher include at least 10 dice of each type in future reprints.
The artwork incorporated into the game is really nice. The hero and monster cards are well illustrated and the cover art on the box has so much detail – it’s really quite extraordinary. The quest cards are a little dull and I would have liked to see as much attention given to their design as was clearly allocated for the rest of the components. 20180820_164730
Arcadia Quest comes packaged with a rulebook and a campaign guide. The rulebook is very clear – only once did we need to look up a rule online because we couldn’t figure out how to proceed after multiple passes through the rulebook.  As always, player reference cards or a reference page on the back of the rulebook would be a nice addition.
  We did note two rules that are in the rulebook yet are likely to be overlooked by first time players and we’d suggest CMON Games highlight these rules in future reprints. First, death curses do not have to take up a slot on a player’s hero inventory board unless they explicitly state so on their description. The first death curse we came across in the game states in its description that it does nothing other than take up an inventory slot. When we came across a card that had a more significant penalty (lowered max defense for example) we assumed it did that AND took up an inventory slot. It was a poor assumption that we corrected after a reread of the rulebook. The other rule we missed for at least the first 2 games is that extra defense die on equipment in a hero’s inventory applies even if equipment is exhausted or not used during the turn.    
Likewise, the campaign guide is engaging and well written. It is clear that a lot of thought went into the campaign structure and which games feed into others as the game progresses.

The game play is fun, challenging, and suspenseful. You’ll find yourself fending off monsters and other players, solving quests, and attacking other players to hinder their success. Thanks to endless permutations of scenarios, quests, monsters, guilds, heroes, and equipment, the game is never predictable. There are 11 different scenarios in the box to choose from (6 scenarios are required in a full campaign) and each scenario has multiple quests. There are 12 different heroes in the selection pool. Even if you manage to exhaust every possible combination of quests, scenarios, and heroes in the box, the publisher has released numerous expansions available for the base game that will keep your busy.
One thing I really love about the game play in Arcadia Quest is that it’s easy to switch strategy mid-game. I’ve played a lot of games that inherently impose penalties for strategy shifts so if you realize partway through a game you’re off track, there’s no recovery. AQ isn’t one of them. It offers a flexibility that lets less experienced players stay in the game as long as they’re willing to learn from their mistakes and correct course.
Win Condition: be the first player to complete required quests

Inputs: strategic positioning of your heroes on the board, battle strength of your heroes
Strategy Tip: Position your heroes so that you can step in to finish off any difficult monster tied into a player vs environment quest that another player has almost entirely decimated on their turn. It will be an easy kill for you and then you can steal the quest out from under the other player. Bonus – if the other player’s heroes have been weakened by their battle with the monster you can also annihilate one of their heroes to complete an additional quest.
My husband suggested that the heroes are quite unbalanced. Drafting heroes is always a personal experience for me.  I love magic so I chose Seth, sneaking past monsters seemed like a no brainer in terms of viable 20180924_223300strategies since I got clobbered so often in Descent so I chose Wisp, and the appeal of giving  wounds on defense rolls seemed brilliant to discourage player attacks against me so I chose Spike.
Chris drafted his picks based on statistical outcomes improved by heroes stats and abilities and chose Diva, Zazu, and Scarlet.
I won five of the six games and the campaign overall. 20180924_223821
This win pattern is an anomaly for us; he typically wins more of the games we play no matter the game mechanism. So maybe he has a point. A quick search through the board game forums online turns up numerous posts by players discussing the advantages the heroes I drafted have over the rest of the selection pool. Also, any built-in advantage some heroes have over others at the beginning of a campaign is going to be compounded as a campaign continues as Arcadia Quest feeds success with rewards that improve chances of success in later games – title privileges, the ability to choose the next scenario, and equipment upgrades. Leveling events or house rules could be incorporated to prevent runaway leads given the unbalanced hero abilities and advantages. Here are some that I suggest (use one or more):
~Drafting modification where the heroes are separated into tiers and each player can only draft the same amount of heroes from a given tier as his opponents.
~Extra coins going into the upgrade phase for the player whose heroes killed the least amount of monsters (because the monsters are bribing you to turn to their side, promising a place for you after Arcadia falls).
~Loser of each game selects the next game in the campaign instead of the winner.
~Confiscation: when a hero kills another hero they may swap out any of that hero’s inventory with the hero’s who made the kill.

Just writing up this review has me itching to play more Arcadia Quest. We have several of the Arcadia Quest expansions including Inferno, Hell in a Box, Poison Dragon, and Beyond the Grave. I’m torn between immediately replaying this base game or diving into one of the expansions next. Whichever I choose, I’ll be playing against the kids (any of the games should play well for kids 9+) since my husband is a bit soured on the title after losing so many times to me. Smile 

-------------------------------------------------Publisher: CMON Games
Players: 1-4 (We played with 2)
Actual Playing Time (vs the guideline on the box): About 60-90 minutes per session in the campaign
Game type: dice rolling, grid movement

Jenni’s rating scale:
OUI: I would play this game again; this game is ok. I probably would not buy this game myself but I would play it with those who own it and if someone gave it to me I would keep it.
OUI OUI: I would play this game again; this game is good. I would buy this game.
NON: I would not play this game again. I would return this game or give it away if it was given to me.

Monday, October 22, 2018

Trip Report: Moscow

A handful of years ago (before the good relations our country with Russia began to dissolve) a fortunate wave of discounted fares to Russian destinations from Washington D.C. caught my attention. Straightaway, I booked three weekend trips to this country of which I knew very little other than it was previously a member of the USSR, an entity once considered our greatest national enemy.

The first trip was a sightseeing getaway in Moscow, scheduled to begin on my birthday in March and my friend Penny agreed to join me on the adventure. It will be lovely to see Moscow in the spring, I thought, and that will give me enough time to line up the visas required. Luckily, as I lived in the D.C. area at the time I was able to complete the rather tedious process of applying for and picking up my Russian visa at their embassy. It's definitely the most extensive visa application process I have done to date. They wanted to know every country I'd visited in the past 10 years (that's 42 for me) including dates and cities and other details that I'm not always so good at remembering. They wanted a full job history and residential history dating back a number of years as well. I had to include a letter from my hotel confirming I had reservations and I had to provide justification for my trip in the cover letter for my visa application. Lots of hoops to jump through!

As I worked to obtain my visa, I planned out every detail of the weekend jaunt. We decided to focus on seeing the most well known cultural sites during our small window of time in the city: the Kremlin, Red Square, and St. Basil's Cathedral.

What I remember most about that first trip to Russia was how cold it was. So much for spring. It was very VERY cold. And also very foggy. During any commercial flight, a large portion of the time is spent above the clouds and when you gaze out the window that's all you see beneath you - endless white clouds. And then you break through them as you descend for landing, a full view of the land coming into view. As our red-eye flight started to descend into the Moscow area, the motion woke me from my slumber and I opened the window shade and looked outside. Nothing but fluffy white clouds. As we continued to descend the clouds persisted. I waited for that moment we'd clear them and I could take in the Russian landscape. I readied my camera. It never happened. The plane touched down and my body tensed uncontrollably because I wasn't expecting it - the outside world was still an endless white and I hadn't realized we'd approached ground level. There was so much humidity that visibility was impossible from inside the plane. I've never seen anything like it before or since.

Moscow under heavy winter fog (photo credit Dmitry Chistoprudov)

After we got our bags and left the airport, we walked the short distance to the subway station and entered through the heavy heavy doors. You've never walked through doors so heavy. Important travel tip learned the hard way as an American in Moscow: the doors will not be held open for you. The person in front of you will drop their hands away from the doors as soon as they clear them and if you're not prepared you're going to get hit in the face. Hit in the face by the heaviest doors you've ever walked through.

Once inside the subway that cold Saturday morning, I looked around for the subway platform signs, prepared to check them against my guidebook which indicated which subway train I needed to get on. Panic set it as soon as I found the signs and realized they were in Cyrillic instead of English. This shouldn't have been an ignorant American moment; it should have occurred to me before I made the trip that the signs would not be in English but my guidebook listed the subway train stops and the map in English and the presence of them in the guidebook in my language confused me and altered my expectations of how the signs would actually look. We tried to ask a few different passengers which train we needed (based on our hotel destination) and it took us quite awhile to find even one person who spoke English and was willing to help us. That was also a surprise for me. In all of the countries I had visited prior, many if not most of the residents spoke English as well as their native tongue. Not so much in Moscow. Eventually we got on the right train and headed to the neighborhood of our hotel and checked in.

With only two days available before our return flight home, we set out to explore the city as soon as possible. As we walked along the quiet streets I began to teach myself the Cyrillic alphabet, thanks to the presence of American retail chains that have set up shop in Moscow. If you know the American spellings you can compare the Cyrillic and begin to translate. Take, for example, Starbucks:

Anyone familiar with the iconic coffee chain would recognize the logo.  Now to work out the letter translation, it appears English S is Cyrillic C, T and A are the same, R is P in Cyrillic, B is close enough to looking like a B that we will let it slide, but what's this ..the U is an A again (if A is A and U is A how can you tell which is which???), the English C or K is a K in Cyrillic and there is our S again wearing a Cyrillic C costume. Have we got it so far? And that spells ...uh....
S T A R B U/A C/K S.
Then we have another English C (or K?) represented with a Cyrillic K, the O is the same, and the double Fs have been replaced with a new unknown to English letter, and the E is the same. And that spells Coffee. Hmmm. I'm sure I got some of that wrong, but after seeing enough signs you can start to work out a bit of the translations.

We spent the entirety of that first day exploring the Kremlin, which was the seat of the Russian Tsar. Those were the days before murderous quasi-dictators or communist revolutionaries ran the country; when Russia was the land of princes and princesses, royal balls, and Faberge eggs. The buildings and grounds are spectacular and the most beautiful area of the city (most of the rest of the city's landscape is composed of uninviting, overly-masculine, grey, concrete structures erected during the communist era). The beauty of Russia before the revolution was on full display throughout the Kremlin's museums.  We toured the armory, which holds many of Catherine the Great's possessions.  Her royal carriages stand out in my memory. They look as if they were pulled directly out of a fairytale. I felt like a princess just walking among them and her other things.
Catherine's Coronation Carriage (Image courtesy the Kremlin)
After our leisurely exploration of the Armory (where pictures were limited unless you forked over a pretty penny ruble), we moved onto the series of Kremlin cathedrals.

Dating back to the 15th and 16th centuries, all of the cathedrals and churches on the grounds of the Kremlin are adorned with gold and stunning artwork. The bodies of several Tsars are entombed within them and they were the setting of many royal weddings and funerals. These beautiful houses of worship dedicated to saints and angels stand in stark contrast with the image of Russia as a godless people that the American government tried to sell Americans in the 1980s.

After an exciting but tiring afternoon downtown, Penny and I sought out some Eastern European cuisine for dinner. Our hotel staff directed us to a cozy, upscale restaurant a few neighborhoods away and called us a cab. The food was fantastic. I had a steamy bowl of carrot ginger soup with carrot cake croutons and Penny chose a warm seafood salad. We left the restaurant sleepy and full.

GUM Building
The next day we ventured out to Red Square and St. Basil's Cathedral. Nearby the square sits the historic GUM building. Catherine the second had an Italian architect build it for her in the early 19th century. It housed thousands of stores and served as a major market. When the communists took over, they nationalized the market and turned all the shops into state stores, which did very poorly. Eventually they converted the structure to an office building and it remained so for many years until democracy came to Russia and capitalism saw fit to turn the GUM building back into a shopping center. It's now a luxury shopping mall.

State Museum
The State Museum also sits on the square and houses a vast collection of items spanning the whole of Russia history.

St Basil's Cathedral

St. Basil's Cathedral is, from the outside, the prettiest church I have ever seen. It's colorful and whimsical and breathtaking in person. 

So damn adorable I want to cry...LOOK at those teensy tiny dolls!!!

We spent the last hours of daylight on our final day window shopping. It was during this time that I fell in love with Russian dolls. Faberge eggs are lovely and all but Russian dolls are where it's at. Well beyond my budget at the time of the trip, I keep promising myself that one day I'll purchase an authentic set just for my own delight. 

Besides the dolls, I also fell for a host of culinary delights I was first introduced to on this trip - currant jam on black bread with tea, Chicken Kiev, mashed potatoes with mushroom cream gravy, black currant juice, and cherry strudel. Yum! 

It wouldn't be fitting to close this trip report without thanking the front desk overnight staff at the Mecure Arbat hotel. In the wee hours of the morning while Penny and I were packing our suitcases for the return trip, I tried on the pair of stylish knockoff Faberge egg earrings I'd purchased in a souvenir stall and realized I couldn't get them off once I'd closed the clasps on the back of them. They'd wedged themselves shut seemingly permanently. After 40 minutes of trying, with tears streaming down my face, I approached the front desk and asked the staff for help. They called the maintenance man who showed up 20 minutes later and used a pair of industrial pliers to force the clasps open while I was bent over the front desk with my hair back and ears pulled forward. I still have the earrings, although I'm terrified to ever put them on again. 

Tuesday, October 16, 2018

Board Game Preview: Kill Merlin! (the New Kickstarter Release from Schuman Family Games)

About a month ago, I spotted an attractive board game in my Instagram feed and followed the breadcrumb trail back to the publisher and designer to learn more about it. The more I read about Kill Merlin!, the more I was sure my kids would enjoy it and it looked fun for adults as well. A few days later a review copy showed up on my doorstep and after unboxing it for my IG audience I set it up on our family gaming table and called the kids (Helenipa 13, and our twin boys Max and Locke who are 9) over to take a look. They were quite impressed with the artwork (as was I; this is a well-illustrated game with beautiful colors). There were some ooohs and ahhhs immediately followed by demands to PLAY RIGHT NOW PLEASE.

Everyone wanted in on the first game so one of our sons partnered with my husband, allowing us to all play within the constraints of the 4-player maximum. Right away my husband relocated the wizard tokens from the side of the board where I’d set them up (following the instructions in the rulebook) to its center, arranging them in a cute little circle. The board was made perfectly for this.

Let’s talk about those tokens. Each player is given five at the start of the game. The design team at Schuman Family Games has come up with this clever system wherein the state of the wizard tokens is represented by the presence of their hats. If the hat is on the wizard, the token is charged. If the hat is off, the token is spent (note: the wizard tokens with removable hats are a stretch goal for the game; the base game comes standard with small chits that represent the charged token on one side and the spent token on the other. I really adore the wizards and their little hats so I’m going to need all of you to back this game to ensure the stretch goal is reached). Charged tokens allow the player controlling the token to cast the spell where the wizard token is stationed. The spells, in turn, allow the player to gain advantages over the other players by either improving the casting player’s position in the game or diminishing the position of one or more opponents. It’s very much a “take that” game. Players station their wizard tokens on a spell by paying the cost to “learn” the spell and turning in the two required ingredients (or one of the ingredients and the wild card Mimic).

The ability to place wizard tokens and cast spells begins with a draw from the treasury and the purchasing of ingredients. There are special rules governing the placement of wizard tokens on the board and the purchasing of ingredients and the rulebook covers them in an easy to understand format.

The ultimate objective across all the rounds is to position your wizard tokens on the board in a pattern matching the one dealt to you on your Secret Formula card at the start of the game. Once you match the pattern, you’ve learned the formula required to destroy Merlin and victory is yours; your last act is to shout out that you’ve killed him (my kids especially loved that part and shouted with great exuberance when they did him in).

The patterns on the Secret Formula cards always consist of a token in each of the four quadrants, and the total distance as measured by orthogonal spaces away from the center of the board for the four tokens combined is always 12.

Win Condition: Place wizard tokens on all of the spells indicated on your Secret Formula card before the other players can do the same for their SF cards.

Inputs: $$ value accumulated, ingredients amassed, token positioning shifts resulting from casting spells.

Strategy tip:  Because the win condition is always represented by a pattern 12 steps away from the center of the board, you can keep a running tally of the score by comparing the step count of each players pattern. Focus your destructive spell casting each turn against the players with the highest step count.

In addition to combating fellow players on your quest to get wizard tokens in position, you must also fend off Merlin directly who is trying to destroy all the wizards before they can take him out with their secret formulas. Each round, Merlin gets a turn to incite discord as cards are revealed from the Merlin deck that interrupt the balance of the game in quick and often dramatically punishing ways. This outside party attempting to jack everyone up whenever he can (and in such random fashion) helps to balance out the resentment traditionally elicited by take that games. It feels a little less frustrating to have an opponent take all your money when you know they might be Merlin’s next victim and lose it all themselves the next turn. It reinforces the theme that Merlin is the bigger enemy, and nothing should be taken personally as we step on each other trying to get to him first.   

My son Max won the first game. My son Locke challenged him almost immediately to a rematch and we scheduled it for a few days later. This time just the two boys and I played, and Locke won. Let me tell you, it takes a strong ego as an adult to lose to not just one, but two 9-year olds in one week.
Kill Merlin! plays well under both three and four player games (we haven’t played with any other player counts yet). The game play moves quickly and is not subject to analysis paralysis. It’s enjoyable for adults as a lightweight game, but I’d especially recommend this game for kids and teens. Replay variability is possible through the random distribution of cards in the Merlin and ingredient decks as well as the placement of spells in each quadrant. Having said that, I’d really like to see additional spell cards provided for the game (perhaps in an expansion?) to significantly increase variability over a series of replays and keep things continually interesting.

There are only 2 days left in the Kill Merlin! Kickstarter and as the publisher is small and independent, no guarantees of a reprint down the road can be made. To ensure a copy will be coming your way, you’ll want to make sure you get your name on the backer’s list while you still can.

Publisher: Schuman Family Games
Players: 2-4 (We played with 3 and 4)
Actual Playing Time (vs the guideline on the box): About 60-90 minutes
Game type: set collection, take that

Jenni’s rating scale:
OUI: I would play this game again; this game is ok. I probably would not buy this game myself but I would play it with those who own it and if someone gave it to me I would keep it.
OUI OUI: I would play this game again; this game is good. I would buy this game.
NON: I would not play this game again. I would return this game or give it away if it was given to me.

Monday, October 15, 2018

Spirit Island Jagged Earth Preview: A First Look at the New Kickstarter Expansion from Greater Than Games

Exciting news this week! The Spirit Island Jagged Earth expansion launches on Kickstarter October 16th, 2018. I had the chance to preview and play this upcoming release from Greater Than Games multiple times this week, and I can’t wait to tell you all about it.

Update: the Kickstarter is live here.

Our Spirit Island collection keeps growing. First there was the base game, which debuted in 2017 and turned the traditional narrative of the conquering colonists on its head, allowing players to take on the role of island spirits determined to keep the colonists at bay through any means necessary to preserve the serenity of the island. My husband and I picked up the game at retail (having missed the Kickstarter window) and fell in love with it immediately, enthused to work together as powerful spirits and put the invaders down. Next, we added the Branch and Claw expansion. This expansion (also part of the original Kickstarter) expanded the board, added new spirits and powers, new blight cards, new fear cards, new scenarios, and a new adversary. It also introduced events and new mechanisms for defending the island against the invaders in the form of tokens (beasts, wilds, disease, strife). Fantastic! After that we were lucky enough to snag one of the rare retail copies of the Spirit Island Promo Pack that added two new powerful spirits which have proven exciting to play. Spreading fire across the island to torch the invaders as the Heart of The Wildfire spirit is very cathartic.
And now, we have had the pleasure of previewing the newest expansion, Jagged Earth.
The full Jagged Earth expansion includes 8 new spirits, aspect cards that change the innate powers of the four base game core spirits, over 50 new power cards, more than 30 new event cards, 2 new adversaries, new scenarios, new event cards, new fear cards, new blight cards, new boards (which allow for both 6-player game play and variability in the layout of the board for smaller player counts), reprinted high quality tokens to replace or add to the sets provided in previous releases, a new type of dangerous token (badlands) to ward off invaders, and new gameplay variants to spice things up (combining adversaries, playing with an Archipelago,  or playing with larger islands). Quite an extensive list, eh? Priced appropriately, this expansion should move quickly for the publisher on both Kickstarter and (eventually) retail channels.
Typically, in my reviews, I discuss the artwork for a board game release because when done well, it’s something that often draws me further into the game. Greater Than Games has a solid reputation for high quality artwork -  on the box cover, the rule book, and across all the game components. I’ve no doubt Jagged Earth will meet or exceed the aesthetic standards Spirit Island and the other expansions have set but I’m unable to comment on them in this first look preview as the advanced review copy I received from GTG to complete my review did not include finalized artwork. Likewise, the components included in the advanced review copy are prototypes, so an evaluation of their quality is not applicable.
The rule book, even in its draft release, is well written and clears up many questions players might have when first using items (such as powers or spirits) added with this expansion. Additionally, new rules have been added to smooth game play. One such rule is to resolve only the bottom-most event on the event card drawn during the first turn. This was a popular house rule for many players as reported on BoardGameGeek so it’s nice to see GTG took that feedback and incorporated it into the official rules. The rule book included with Jagged Earth also provides clarification for several previously published rules from the base game or the Branch and Claw expansion. There were only two items*** we had questions on during our entire gameplay this weekend and I sent off an email to GTG requesting clarification.
Jagged Earth plays well under both two and three player games (we haven't had the opportunity to play yet with 1, 4, 5, or 6 players). Just as in the base game, some spirits are much more defense-oriented than others and so care must be taken during the selection process to ensure there will be balance among all spirits chosen. If one opts for a solo game, most, if not all, of the defense-oriented spirits are off the table for selection, as a strong offense must be part of any winning strategy. One of the new spirits provided in the Jagged Earth expansion is Finder of Paths Unseen.
This spirit offers the ability through innate powers and its hand of starting powers to move invaders, Dahan, beasts, and presence around the board. We found it to be extremely powerful in partnership with a strong offensive spirit such as Heart of the Wildfire or Lightning’s Swift Strike. With either pairing, Finder can shift invaders to lands for the other players to destroy or can shift Dahan to lands with new Explorers to quickly decimate the invaders.  Finder also holds the innate power to isolate lands from the explore action. Combined with the ability to prevent explorations, builds, and ravages using the tokens in the Branch and Claw expansion, Finder provides a way to keep ahead of the invaders at every turn, shifting and isolating them before they can grow too numerous to be devastating.
Another spirit debuting in Jagged Earth is Many Minds Move As One. Like Finder, this new spirit is high on defense. In particular, Many Minds harnesses the beast tokens to concentrate their power to induce fear in invader occupied lands and allows for the team to skip invader actions.
Win Condition for Spirit Island Jagged Earth: Varies based on scenario, but typically involves ridding the island of a portion or all invaders while avoiding the loss conditions.

Strategy tip: Coordinate among players to systematically act on invaders, using the combined powers of all spirits to block, corral, and destroy them.

As with the base game and previous expansions, Jagged Earth remains prone to overthinking and analysis paralysis, particularly when players are in the Spirit Phase. Trying to decide which powers to execute (to pay for them and set them aside) is always difficult for me. I am always looking for the perfect combination that will deal the most wallop to the invaders and/or provide the most defense for the island. The difficulty increases for each additional player in the game as I try to evaluate what I can do in conjunction with their plans. I love the logical puzzle challenge that power card selection presents, but sometimes the other players get a bit impatient with my slow and over-calculating thought process. These things can’t be rushed in my opinion. 😊 Kudos to me during our last game for taking enough time (my husband reports it was an ungodly amount of time) during the event step of the Invader Phase of Round 3 to plan out how to decisively win the game before the Phase was to end. I was able to determine the best targets for the required event actions to destroy the last of the invaders, giving us the victory. And that was a victory against a complex game set up – the base game with the Branch and Claw expansion including event cards, using a spirit from the new Jagged Earth expansion (Finder of Paths Unseen) and another from the Spirit Island Promo Pack (Heart of the Wildfire), adding a difficulty 2 scenario from Branch and Claw (Ward the Shores), and also including a difficulty 2 adversary (England). All that and we purged the island of invaders midway through our third round. Turns out there’s a lot to recommend in slow and calculated decision making!
With all the new content and options Jagged Earth has to offer fans of Spirit Island, I’m sold on this expansion.  As with the base game and previous expansions, there is enough variability in replay through a myriad of spirits, scenarios, events, setup choices, and adversaries to hold our interest game after game. It should make fans very happy indeed. 3 steps to finding your joy through gaming: (1) back the Spirit Island Jagged Earth expansion on Kickstarter (2) wait patiently for it to arrive at your door (3) open and play. Note: For sustained joy, repeat step 3 as often as necessary.  

***For reference, the rule questions we asked GTG to clear up for us (I’ll post a follow up with the answers when we receive them):

1. For the 'Offer Passage Between Worlds' power card for the new spirit Finder of Paths Unseen, it states "When Invaders Ravage, up to 2 Dahan take no Damage". That's different wording than protect so we want to make sure we understand. What happens if an explorer and a town are in the land targeted by this power (total damage potential of 3) and there are 3 Dahan in the land also? Does the card protect 2 of the Dahan and so the invaders concentrate all 3 damage against the remaining Dahan and take it out? Or do the invaders target our two Dahan that we are preventing damage against (because hey, they don't know they can't be damaged) and just waste their 3 damage because it has no effect and our 3rd Dahan is also spared because the invaders used up all their attack power on the other two?

2. For the 'A Dreadful Tide of Scurrying Flesh' power card for the new spirit Many Minds Move as One, it states "For each beast removed (from the target land): Skip 1 Invader Action. We were really confused by this. Assuming we have jungle land in the Ravage spot and mountain in the Build spot, does this mean we can skip one of those actions *entirely* per beast removed (for example, we remove 1 beast and so we skip the build action and none of the mountain lands experience a build event)? Or does it mean we skip one of the events triggered by an invader action per beast removed (for example we remove 1 beast and so we skip the build event in *one* of the mountain lands that would normally be triggered by the build action)? Also, it says clearly in the rules that text effects on power cards refer only to the targeted lands unless explicitly stated otherwise. So, a third interpretation of this power could mean we only prevent invader actions in the land we removed the beast(s) from?  Under that interpretation, if we removed a beast from wetlands but there were no invader actions scheduled for the wetlands we couldn't skip any invader actions. Which of the three interpretations is correct?

Publisher: Greater Than Games
Players: 1-6 (We played with 2 and 3)
Actual Playing Time (vs the guideline on the box): About 90-120 minutes
Game type: area control, cooperative

Jenni’s rating scale:

OUI: I would play this game again; this game is ok. I probably would not buy this game myself but I would play it with those who own it and if someone gave it to me I would keep it.

OUI OUI: I would play this game again; this game is good. I would buy this game.


NON: I would not play this game again. I would return this game or give it away if it was given to me.