Wednesday, 21 September 2016

The Handmade Fair - September 2016

The Handmade Fair Logo

I can't believe it's been a year since our last trip to The Handmade Fair! This year we weren't blessed with the same beautiful weather, rendering my obligatory bunting pics a little soggy...

Tuesday, 6 September 2016

Cardboard - 13 Days: The Cuban Missile Crisis board game review

It's 1962, I'm pretending to be Russian and someone has left me in charge of the nuclear codes again. Ruh roh. Time for some strategic Cold War cube-shuffling in Cuban Missile Crisis game 13 Days!

13 Days - Random Nerdery review

I'm not usually a huge fan of the 'modern day conflict' type genre, so when Esdevium Games sent over a copy of this for me to investigate I wasn't exactly spraying the living room with polystyrene packing beads in a rush to break out the game like I was when, say, Colt Express turned up.

However, this was pitched to me as a mini-Twilight Struggle where you could get the same tense tug-of-war experience in a much shorter time, making it definitely worth a look. Having reigned supreme at the top of the rankings for what felt like forever (until it was unceremoniously swatted from the top spot by Pandemic Legacy: Season 1 at the beginning of 2016), the Cold War themed two-player epic Twilight Struggle has always been one of those games I felt I should be trying but have never quite gotten around to. These days the 3+ hour play time is also a big ask, so the promise of something similar in condensed form was definitely interesting.

13 Days - game setup

Jolly Roger Games' 13 Days focuses on the few days in October 1962 when the world came terrifyingly close to obliterating itself in a nuclear war between USA and USSR over the (not unprovoked) deployment of Soviet missiles in Cuba. The two sides struggled with mistrust, miscommunication and the need to save political face, but after tense negotiations an accord was reached between Kennedy and Khrushchev, staving off Armageddon for a little longer.

Before playing 13 Days my knowledge of the Cuban Missile Crisis was limited to vague awareness and X-Men movies (Professor X saved the day, right?) but it's impossible not to absorb some of the information included in this game. There's an informative little pamphlet in the box that gives you plenty of background on the Crisis and every Strategy card has a snippet of historical flavour text to tie it back to real events, helping to remind you of what a truly scary period of time this was.

The game uses an area control mechanism to simulate the conflict, having two players take on the roles of the USA and USSR. Players use their Influence on political, military and world opinion targets to gain the most Prestige at the end of three rounds of play and win the game.

13 Days - round order

Each round you'll have an Agenda card which forms your secret objective for the next few turns. Some Agendas are based on 'dominating' a particular spot (or 'battleground') on the board by placing a majority of Influence cubes. Others are related to your position on one of the three DEFCON tracks (political, military, or opinion) which go up or down as you place/remove your Influence cubes, or via card effects.

13 Days - Agenda cards

Completing these Agendas gains you Prestige points and swings the little tug-of-war marker on the Prestige track closer to your side (and victory!)

13 Days - Prestige track

Players are dealt three Agenda cards each, and both place their miniature flag tokens on the three battlegrounds or tracks targeted by these Agendas. They then choose one of these to be their real target (tucking it under the board in the spot indicated) and discard the other two. This means you're never sure which spot is your opponent's true target until it's revealed at the end of the round and you realise you've piled all your little Influence cubes in completely the wrong place. Very tricksy!

13 Days - battlegrounds

Next, both players get a hand of five Strategy cards. These are the cards that drive the game, allowing you to 'Command' (place or remove) Influence cubes and manipulate the DEFCON tracks or use 'Events' which can modify these Command actions.

13 Days - strategy cards

Cards belong to one of three factions: USA, USSR or neutral UN. If you play a card from your own faction, you can choose whether to Command its value of Influence cubes or to use the Event written on the card. If you have to play a card from your opponent's faction you can still Command the number of cubes shown, but your opponent gets to use the Event, effectively giving them another turn. Disaster.

It's hugely upsetting to pick up your hand of cards and see that most of them belong to the other faction. However, (once you've had a little sulk) this does allow you to work on one of the cleverest puzzles in the game: when to play each card whilst making sure your opponent gets the minimum benefit from your misfortune. I really enjoyed this mechanism; I thought it was a clever set of decisions to throw in, and the idea that sometimes you can only choose the 'least worst' option adds to the tension and helps evoke the theme.

Players take turns to play these cards until only one is left, with the remaining card getting tucked under the board in the 'Aftermath' space.

13 Days - Aftermath

At the end of three rounds the Aftermath resolves - the little stack of cards tucked under this spot in the board throughout the game is revealed and the Influence cubes shown on the cards for each faction are counted up. Ignoring any UN cubes, the player with the highest number of Influence cubes gains another 2 Prestige. This potentially game-swinging amount means the decision of what card to save for the Aftermath really is tough. Do I give my opponent a super-useful Event now, or take the risk of putting this 3-Influence card into the Aftermath and hope it gets cancelled out at the end? Argh!

The winner of the game is the player with the most Prestige at this point. It can be ended before this, however, if a player 'accidentally' triggers a nuclear war with their position on the DEFCON tracks (during the jarringly benign-sounding 'check for nuclear war' step) causing them to lose the game.

13 Days - DEFCON track

These tracks give you something else to panic about while you're balancing achieving Agendas, playing the right cards and second-guessing your bluff-tastic opponent.

13 Days - winning prestige track

There's plenty more to the game than I've mentioned here, but you can find out about that in the rule book, which is nicely written and includes a handy play-through of the game which helpfully explains lots of the situations you might get into. The components do the job and the odd typo on the cards didn't cause any major misunderstandings (although PDF paste-up corrections are available on BGG here). My one gripe is the box; hugely petty and insignificant, I know, but my shelf space is limited! If the board needs to be held in place with a chunk of cardboard you've picked the wrong size box, especially when most of it is filled by empty air!

13 Days - box insert

Packaging rants aside, I think this is a great game. I didn't think I was going to be a fan because of the Cold War theme, but 13 Days holds its own in a competitive two-player-only market with a huge amount of strategy, tough decision making and tension packed into a little box. [Even if the box isn't little enough... Wait, no, I'm talking about the box again, argh!]

Designers Asger Harding Granerud and Daniel Skjold Pedersen have managed to cleverly condense a deep, thinky game into a nicely manageable 45 minute play time, with mechanisms that fit the theme beautifully and lots of potential replayability. I guess that's Twilight Struggle knocked off of my wish list...

13 Days - board title

Designers: Asger Harding Granerud, Daniel Skjold Pedersen
Publisher: Jolly Roger Games, Ultra PRO
Players: 2
Age: 10+
Cost: RRP £34.99 [Take a look at Esdevium's store locator to find a local brick-and-mortar retailer in Europe]

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Thursday, 11 August 2016

Cardboard - Exciting games from Gen Con 2016

One day (when I'm a inexplicably vastly wealthy) maybe I'll make it to one of the awesome overseas conventions like Essen or Gen Con, but until then I'll have to attend vicariously through the Twitter feeds of others like a slightly geeky stalker and marvel at the shiny new games from afar.

This year's Gen Con in Indianapolis hasn't disappointed, with a huge crop of exciting new games to add to the wishlist. Here are a few of my favourites based on various hype, news and the odd pre-release playthrough:


Designer: Rob Daviau
Publisher: Plaid Hat Games

After the stellar success of Pandemic Legacy: Season 1, King of the Legacy game format Rob Daviau has gone it alone for this seafaring adventure. SeaFall puts each player in control of their own empire and lets them explore, trade and fight in a world that changes with every game.

Goodness knows where I'll find the time for this when we're still only half way through Pandemic: Legacy but I'm determined to try this out somehow - luckily there's still a bit of a wait until this will be available. Pandemic has been huge amounts of fun so far and SeaFall has been a long time in the making so I'm convinced this is going to be good! It'll also be interesting to see how the format works when we're not working as a team (having never tried out Risk Legacy because, well, it's Risk, and sadly I'm not a fan).

Codenames: Pictures

Designer: Vlaada Chvátil
Publisher: Czech Games Edition

I love, love, love the original version of Codenames, the word-linking party game from the awesome Vlaada Chvátil (Galaxy Trucker, Mage Knight, Dungeon Lords) and having tried out a prototype of Codenames: Pictures at the UK Games Expo I think I like this version even more. There seems to be more potential for some super-tenuous links that really test how much you're on the same wavelength as your friends.

Codenames: Pictures was pre-released at Gen Con but won't be available on general release until September, so I still have a little while to wait until I can get my hands on a copy of this!

Here's the Czech Games Edition official rules video by Gaming Rules! if you're interested in how this plays:

Mystic Vale

Designer: John D Clair
Publisher: AEG

Mystic Vale is billed as a 'card crafting game' where you're not only building a deck but also the cards within it. The system allows you to slot together sections of card within sleeves to form individual custom cards which look really cool! Whilst the artwork is beautiful, I'm mainly drawn to the card-building system as it looks like it would have a ton of replayability along with the novelty value.

Pandemic: Reign of Cthulhu

Designer: Matt Leacock and Chuck D Yager
Publisher: Z-Man Games

It seems that you can't have a game franchise these days without making a Lovecraftian version at some point, and now it's the turn of disaster-aversion brain-burner Pandemic. After days of patient hovering around the demonstration table at UKGE we managed to get a game of this before it was released (well, 1.5 games, since we were immediately beaten in our first game...) as well as a couple of games on friends' pre-release copies.

I really enjoyed the new theme and mechanics, and whilst I'm not sure it'll get huge amounts of play the new version is different enough from the original to be fun. First thoughts from UKGE are here if you want to read some more.

(I guess I'll have to wait a bit longer for a R'lyeh map for Ticket To Ride...)

So many games to look forward to! What are your favourites?

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Tuesday, 2 August 2016

Pokémon Go!

It feels like forever ago that I was excitedly writing about the announcement of Nintendo and Niantic Labs' collaboration on a new Pokémon-based artifical reality game. Last month it finally arrived, causing millions of people worldwide to abandon their sense of propriety, grab their phones and go outside to hunt down their favourite Pokémon in the wild.

Pokemon Go Pikachu
Pikachu obtained. Game over!

My lunchtimes are now spent wandering the campus in the tell-tale start-stop fashion of all Pokemon Go players. The recent sunny weather has provided ample opportunity to visit Pokéstops, collect Pokémon (let's face it, mostly Pidgeys) and attract odd looks from strangers. It's been great fun, even if trips are often punctuated by wails of 'but you're thiiiirty fooour!' from pained co-workers.

So is it any good? I think as a game it's pretty thin, really, missing huge chunks of gameplay compared to a 'normal' Pokémon game. Gym battles are cut down to just tapping on the screen and I really miss the feeling of levelling up a little team of loyal Pokemon. Sending them off to the Poke-chipper to be ground into candy (I mean, carefully looked after by the Professor) whenever you find a better one just doesn't have quite the same feelgood factor.

Even compared to its Niantic predecessor Ingress, Pokemon Go is feature light. Ingress had an in-built chat facility and the ability to support portals (transformed into the Pokéstops and gyms of the new game) from afar once you obtained a portal key. It also included a much more immersive starting experience, giving you background information on the world in the form of little video snippets that you would 'find' on your travels.

The game also uses the 'free'-to-play model, which I'm not a huge fan of - I'd much rather pay up front for a complete game. The inverted commas there represent my eternal worry about how cheaply I sell my user data, but that's a whole different post!

Despite the drawbacks, it seems that the Pokémon license renders me incapable of rational thought, putting up with server instability, login issues and bugs that would ordinarily have had me grumpily uninstalling most other games. It is, after all, a collecting game which usually means I'm immediately addicted (I'm looking at you, Animal Crossing!) and having played many incarnations of Pokémon for the greater part of (gulp) the last two decades, there's also plenty of nostalgia value to be had.

Let's also not forget how cool it is to see Pokémon in the real world; at least until the novelty wears off:

Gotta catch 'em all (as long as they're cute!)

And no, I'm not driving, that's in the passenger seat!! Although I am slightly terrified by the tales of people crashing cars, trespassing, falling off of cliffs and generally getting into trouble playing the game. Luckily, I've managed to avoid getting eaten by a Gyarados so far (although I have been known to drift off of a path or two).

Accidents aside, playing the game has had the very real benefit of getting millions of people out of their chairs and exercising. I've explored places around my home town that I'd thought about visiting but never made time for before and the game has also made me appreciate old places in a new light. We have some pretty lovely places to catch Pokémon!

Pokemon Go - castle PokeStop

Pokemon Go - park Pokemon catching

Pokemon Go - fountain PokeStop

It remains to be seen whether there's enough gameplay in Pokémon Go to hold my interest past the first month or so, but with the recent SDCC announcements from Niantic it looks like a lot more features are headed our way, like the trading promised in the original trailer video. I'm not sure how long-lived the game will be once the shine starts to wear off, but hopefully it'll tide me over until November when Pokemon Sun and Moon are released!

Let me know if you've been on any exciting Pokémon adventures on my Facebook page or come and say hello on my Twitter or Instagram feeds.

Monday, 25 July 2016

Cardboard - Cortex Challenge card game review (with giveaway!)

Cortex Challenge is a family card game for 2 to 6 players designed by Nicolas Bourgoin and Johan Benvenuto. It's published by Asmodee and Captain Macaque who, as an aside, are now front runners in my mental competition for cutest publisher logo along with Happy Otter Games and Formal Ferret Games.

Cortex Challenge review - box art

Wednesday, 22 June 2016

Cardboard - Knit Wit board game review

Matt Leacock is possibly best known for designing genre-defining team-work game Pandemic, but all co-operative thoughts go out of the window in his latest offering, social game Knit Wit.

Knit Wit board game review - Random Nerdery

Knit Wit is a word game for 2-8 players where they create Venn diagrams out of loops of coloured string, each of which has a word attached to it. Spools are placed at various overlaps in the diagram and players race against each other to think of a word or phrase for each spool, defined by the words looped around them.

Wednesday, 15 June 2016

UK Games Expo 2016 - Day 3

[Catch up with Friday or Saturday]

Sunday arrived, bringing with it one last day of gaming awesomeness at the UK Games Expo and the jarring realisation that all the games I'd carried up to my hotel room over the weekend would have to be carried back down again for packing into the car. After multiple trips through the hotel (including one where I almost caused Tom Vasel to miss a lift by wittering at him) it was time to head back to the NEC and see what we could cram into the final few hours.

Having looked forlornly at full Pandemic: Reign of Cthulhu demo tables for the last two days, this was our first destination when the doors opened. Our hope was to try and sneak in a play of this latest horror-themed offering in the Pandemic series before the hall got too packed. Katie and I had apparently timed it perfectly and were lucky enough to get seats for a game - only to be beaten on the second turn. Not second round, second *turn*... I didn't even get a go!

Pandemic: Reign of Cthulhu at UK Games Expo | Random Nerdery
Well, that escalated quickly...
This game can be mean! Luckily because it was still quiet we were allowed to start again and have a proper go - I've written a separate post on my first thoughts of the game here.