Monday, September 26, 2016

#8: Ticket to Ride (Mark's 100)

Ticket to Ride 

Mark's Ranking
  • 2014: 8th
  • 2012: 8th
  • 2010: 73rd
  • 2005: 14th
  • appeared on all four lists 
  • rank: 100
  • rating: 7.50
Print Status
  • in print
Why It's On The List
  • Gorgeous production coupled with easy gameplay... a classic theme (trains!) coupled with a classic Rummy set-collection mechanic... just as playable with 2 as it is with 5.
Tips & Tricks:
  • Playing with 3 or 5 players is MUCH more cutthroat than playing with 2 or 4, due to how crowded the board can become.
  • There are a number of expansions & stand-alone versions of the game. I'm partial to the 1910 card expansion - as well as the first two map boxes (Asia &; India/Switzerland).
  • The iOS app for the game is tremendous!
  • Most importantly, this is an excellent "gateway" game for non-gamers.

Saturday, September 24, 2016

Life, Liberty & THE PURSUIT OF HAPPINESS (Game Review)

  • Designers: Adrian Abela & David Chircop
  • Publishers: Artipia Games & Stronghold Games
  • Players: 1-4
  • Time: 60-90 minutes
  • Ages: 12+
  • Times Played: 7 (with review copy provided by Stronghold Games)

I’m not sure what fascinates us about “life-building” games. Maybe we all imprinted on Milton Bradley’s oft-maligned ode to large families and stock investment (aka The Game of Life). Perhaps some of us managed to blunder into playing Parker Brothers much more enjoyable Careers - the game that first introduced customizable victory conditions and Uranium Mining as lucrative vocational choice.

Even as the technology of game design has advanced over the past 20 years, “life-building” games continue to pop up. Though not my cup of tea, you can dig into the seedier side of life with Steve Jackson’s Chez Geek franchise or 2F’s Funny Friends. Hasbro published a nifty little card game version of The Game of Life (that is sadly out of print)... and more recently Lapuduti (sp?) created CV (and the expansion, CV: Gossip). I really enjoyed my one play of CV… and it sat right on the edge of my “add to my next game order from my friendly online retailer” for a couple of years.

Though the particular game elements vary - CV uses a Yahtzee-like dice manipulation system, Chez Geek is a take-that card game and The Game of Life Card Game is tableau-builder with two different resources (Time & Money) used as action points - the basic idea of all of these games are the same: players start as teenagers and proceed through their lives, acquiring stuff, building relationships, choosing a vocation, and having various life experiences. Points are awarded for fulfilling goals and/or accumulating points - and the winner is the person with the most “satisfaction”. (Cue up the Stones as a soundtrack… and here’s a thought: it would be interesting - and a bit scary - to imagine a Rolling Stones themed “life building” game.)

That brings us to the newest addition to this particular gaming genre: The Pursuit of Happiness from Artipia Games and Stronghold Games. Pursuit uses a worker placement system as you spend time (hourglass markers) to create your best possible life and parlay those life choices into Long Term Happiness. (Why, yes, LTH is secret game code for “victory points”.)

The Facts of Life

Fact #1: No one in their right mind would name their child “Tootie”.
Fact #2: The Facts of Life TV show ran for nine seasons. Nine. (And Sports Night ran for two. There is no justice.)

And, with that out of my system, we’re back to the game.

There are five “commodities” in The Pursuit of Happiness:

  • Time (your “workers”)
  • Money
  • Connections
  • Creativity
  • Knowledge

Those commodities are spent to acquire cards that represent a variety of experiences and things:

  • Jobs
  • Relationships
  • Items & Activities
  • Projects (there are three types of projects)
    • Regular projects that take multiple hourglasses to complete
    • Group projects which multiple people can join in on… and the more people who particpate, the more rewards each participant receives
    • One time projects (such as appearing on a trivia game show)

These items and activities return a plethora of goodies for the player who invests:

  • Money
  • Resources (Connections, Creativity & Knowledge)
  • Relaxation (lose a Stress)
  • Short Term Happiness (we’ll get into that in more detail a few paragraphs later in the review)
  • Long Term Happiness (aka victory points)

4 Things I Really Like About The Pursuit of Happiness


Stress can kill you… in real life AND in The Pursuit of Happiness. Taking an action more than once (for example, taking on two Projects in one round) or working overtime or having too many things (Jobs, Projects & Relationships) going at once increase your stress. Let your stress go too far, and you can lose hourglasses (time).

There are also ways to relieve stress - for example, the Rest action gets you back 2 stress. Many activities have a stress-reducing component (called Relax) as well. And if you’re particularly health-minded, there are personal improvement projects that can results in increasing your lifespan and your available time.

Stress eventually will kill you. (Note: this is not a comment on my own vocational choices, but your mileage may vary.) In The Pursuit of Happiness, stress will take you to the end of life. The game timer is marked in rounds:

  • One round of being a Teen, where you can’t start a Relationship, can’t get a job, and can’t work overtime.
  • 5 rounds of being an Adult, when the options of life (within limits, of course) are all open to you
  • 3 rounds of Old Age, during which overtime is no longer an option… and your stress level increases until you reach the End of Life.

Short Term Happiness

One of the “goodies” you can receive is a green smiley face that indicates Short Term Happiness. This is a temporary commodity that lasts only for the current round and is used to:

  • Discount the cost of completing a project (reduce the number of resources needed)
  • Determine the start player for the next round

Of course, you can also have short term unhappiness - which causes projects to be more expensive.

One Time & Group Projects

Players can undertake projects - they start at the first level and it takes an hourglass (worker) and the appropriate resources to advance up to a higher level. The picture above shows one of those projects on the left... and, yes, the first level is "Personal Blog". (Sigh - evidently I'm stuck on level one in real life.)

The Pursuit of Happiness varies up the kind of projects available by two other types of projects.

One-time projects are events - the example above (in the center) is appearing on a Reality Show. You spend whichever level of resources you want - and receive the rewards for that project.

The group project (on the right) allows multiple players to get involved - and at the end of the round, the extra rewards for each player are noted at the bottom of the card. The more who participate, the better the rewards!

Promotions and Retirement

Jobs are not a single career in The Pursuit of Happiness... instead, you can be promoted (there are 3 levels of particular career paths) and eventually retire from a Level 3 job. You can switch careers as well.

Nice touch: all job cards are double-sided, so you can choose the job you most enjoy.

2 Things I Don’t Like About The Pursuit of Happiness

KS Promos

I’m not opposed to Kickstarter - I’ve just backed two games in the last week (Tiny Epic Galaxies: Beyond the Black and Habitats). What I don’t love is leaving out the Kickstarter promos out of the base game box. (Note: Stronghold Games was not a part of the Kickstarter for The Pursuit of Happiness.)

According to BoardGameGeek, the promos include:

  • The Events mini-expansion adds special events that are drawn at random at the beginning of every adult round and come into effect at the beginning at the next round (4 in total).
  • The Trends mini-expansion adds special trends that are drawn at the beginning of the game and effect play throughout.
  • The Pets mini-expansion adds pets to the Item/Activity cards. Pets are different in that you do not have to use card actions to advance them - they do this by themselves during upkeep as long as you feed them (pay the upkeep cost).
  • The Stand-Alone Jobs mini-expansion consists of 3 new jobs that are shuffled in with the standard job cards. The difference between standard and stand-alone jobs are that with a stand-alone jobs you can not be promoted. Instead you can choose to work harder. This is done by paying up to two times the cost in the Work Harder section and thereby getting the same times the reward. This applies to the upkeep phase as well.

Man, I’d love to score a copy of these - this is a good game that would be enhanced by these small additions. (They are available through Artipia Games.)

[Note: the bulleted text in this section is taken directly from the BGG description.]

4 Players

Admittedly, I have only played The Pursuit of Happiness one time with a full complement of four players… but we found it ran a little long with four players. I would note that three of them were new to the game, which probably slowed us down a good bit.

I’m still a bit concerned about the downtime with four players… but before I make any sweeping generalization, I need to give it another try with four players who’ve played previously.

One Is The Loneliest Number

I've played two games "solo" of The Pursuit of Happiness - and while my record is 1-1, I enjoyed both experiences. The solo rules are not difficult or substantially different than the base game... and the key differences are contained on the Life Goal cards which act as part of your victory conditions in solitaire mode.

Variety Is The Spice of Life

I have been pleasantly surprised at how many different paths to victory (or near-victory) seem viable in this game:

  • Son the Younger managed to lose by only a few points without ever getting a profession.
  • Son the Older won a game by diving into a high-level job at the first opportunity.
  • I’ve won a couple of games with a more balanced strategy - sometimes leaning into projects and sometimes into possessions.

The Life Goals set out at the beginning of the game can sometimes direct players in a particular way - but the bonuses paid are not so large that they can't be overcome by skillful decisions to pursue other avenues for Long Term Happiness.

In Conclusion

Back in the second paragraph of this review, I noted that CV had been on my wishlist for the last couple years - but with The Pursuit of Happiness in my collection, I no longer feel a need to add CV as well. Both are very enjoyable games - but I give Pursuit the edge because of the shorter player turns (the dice manipulation in CV can slow down near the end of the game) and the creative variety of the tasks.

The components are nicely made - the art on the cards is cartoon-y but never rude and the board is laid out in an easy to comprehend fashion. The iconography on the cards is clear and easy to read (even upside down). I applaud the designers for their sense of humor - they found a nice balance of silly and sensible that make the game fun to play. (It would be easy to overplay the humor here - and they do a nice job of walking the line so that it doesn't interfere with game play or enjoyment.)

The Pursuit of Happiness is a friendly game - oh, yes, you can grab something that someone else wants, but you can’t block them from making forward progress. As well, only one player can receive a reward for life goals - so there’s a bit of a race there… but it’s not a cutthroat game experience. This makes ideal as a family game - and at the same time, there are a number of interesting decisions that make this gamer-friendly as well.

You could strip the theme off of the game and you'd have a standard worker placement game left - but that misses the point. The designers have done a great job of melding mechanic/ism and theme together - making the game easier to teach and enjoyable to play.

Frankly, I think what I most enjoy is telling the story of a life while getting the opportunity to make clever plays... and getting to do that with friends and family.

The Unofficial THE PURSUIT OF HAPPINESS Soundtrack Album

  • “Life in One Day” - Howard Jones
  • “Grow Old With You” - Adam Sandler
  • “Happy” - Pharrell Williams
  • “Turn, Turn, Turn” - The Byrds
  • “Cat’s in the Cradle” - Harry Chapin
  • “It Did” - Brad Paisley
  • “My Generation” - The Who
  • “The Time of My Life” - Bill Medley & Jennifer Warnes
  • “When I’m 64” - The Beatles
  • “Don’t Fear the Reaper” - Blue Oyster Cult

This post originally appeared on the Opinionated Gamers website.

Thursday, September 22, 2016

Dastardly Dirigibles (Game Review)

  • Designers: Justin De Witt
  • Publishers: Fireside Games
  • Players: 2-5
  • Time: 60 minutes
  • Ages: 8+
  • Times Played: 6 (with review copy provided by Fireside Games)
OK, let’s get this out of the way: the name of this game always makes me think Dick Dastardly and his sidekick, Muttley… and if you don’t know who/what I’m talking about, you’re substantially younger than I am. (You can Google “Wacky Races” if you’re curious… or you can check out their board game on BGG: Dastardly & Muttley in their Flying Machines. No, I’m not making this up…)

But this isn’t a racing game as much as it is a steampunk-themed set-collecting game that makes me smile every time I play it. It’s light… but not helium-filled. Dastardly Dirigibles is a filler with meaningful decisions… and I’m enjoying it a great deal.

Up, Up And Away…

After drawing up their hand to five cards, each erstwhile aerostat (seriously, that’s what they’re called) builder has three actions each turn:

  • Play a card to your dirigible OR play a special (action) card
  • Discard a card
  • Trade a card with the Emporium (a Ticket to Ride-like lineup that contains as many cards as there are players)
  • Clear the Emporium (and deal out new cards to replace them)
Each action may be taken multiple times.

The interesting twist? When Jonathan plays a Gondola Front card on his dirigible, every other player MUST play a Gondola Front from their hand if they have one. This could fill in an empty space (yeah!) or replace an already played card (boo!).

Obviously, the objective is to finish your steampunk mode of transport quickly and efficiently, as the scoring is a little arcane (as befits a steampunk-themed game). The player who ends the round by completing their dirigible receives a 2 point bonus - and other players who finish that round receive a single point.

However, each player scores for the quality of their work:

  • You score 2 points for each card in the largest set of matching suit symbols you have in your creation… and 1 point for each wild card.
  • If you have no wild cards and no matches, you score one point for each card in your dirigible.
  • If you manage to complete your dirigible with no wild cards and no matches, you score a “Muddle” and receive 20 points. (We have yet to see this happen… and our scores for the typical 3 hand game would indicate that doing so pretty much gives you the game.)
The best score at the end of three rounds wins the game. Interestingly, there is no tie-breaker… and that’s a specific design choice from the designer. (I think it’s a good decision - the game is too light for a tie-breaker to be meaningful… and it’s another family-friendly element.)

...In My Beautiful Balloon

The artwork on the cards is quite nice- and the iconography (denoting the various “suits”) is clear and easy to read across the table. I like that the “suits” each have their own style of balloon - and that the wild cards are patchworked together out of whatever someone could find.

Moreover, the game components include 5 player mats which not only provide a nice backdrop for the steampunk dirigible you’re building, but also give the action options in a handy-dandy little chart on the side that makes the game very easy to teach.

Strategy & Tactics

OK, let’s be realistic - in game like this, there’s very little long-term strategy. But there are tactics - so let’s talk about them.

As those of you who have followed my writing about board games over the years well know, I’m a huge fan of Tom Lehmann’s Race for the Galaxy. (Free advice if you haven’t played RftG: ignore the griping about the iconography and give it a try - it’s brilliant!) As you advance in your Race for the Galaxy tactical skills, one of the key concepts you learn is “leeching” - taking advantage of the action choices of other players to advance your own cause.

That same tactical skill is just as key in Dastardly Dirigibles - setting yourself up to play cards (or not to be forced to play cards) can spell the difference between celebrating the thrill of victory or experiencing the agony of defeat. (My sly Wide World of Sports reference also shows my age… that’s becoming a theme in this review.)

Action cards are often a particular sore point for me in game designs - they can be “totally OP” (to quote my oldest son - OP stands for overpowered) or a complete waste of hand space. The action cards in Dastardly Dirigibles, however, seem to be well-designed… they can change the game without overwhelming the basic system. Because rounds in the game can be short, the question is often whether to play an action card (instead of building on your dirigible) or possibly discarding the action card in order to free up space in your hand for new cards.

Another tactical decision is when to cut your losses and stop trying to “win” the round - instead, working to have the best possible score when the round inevitably ends as one of your opponents races to the finish.

Final Thoughts

Dastardly Dirigibles does exactly what it sets out to do… provide a quick moving 30 minute filler game with interesting tactical decisions that has been well-received by kids as young as 8 as well as hardened gamers. It has well-thought-out graphic design and easy-to-teach gameplay… which makes it the perfect addition to my “games to play with non-gamer family” as well as nice opening game for game nights.

Well done, Justin & Fireside Games!

This review originally appeared on the Opinionated Gamers website.

Wednesday, September 07, 2016

Stellar Conflict - Taking Light Speed to Warp Speed (Game Review)

  • Designers: James Ernest & Tom Jolly (Light Speed) Anastasios Grigoriadis & Konstantinos Kokkinis (developed Stellar Conflict)
  • Publishers: Artipia Games & Stronghold Games
  • Players: 2-4
  • Time: 10 minutes
  • Ages: 10+
  • Times Played: 9 (with review copy of provided by Stronghold Games) 19 (with personal copy of Light Speed)

Once upon a time, there was a little tiny game company that published a whole lot of little tiny games in envelopes that tended to have odd but enjoyable themes with gameplay that usually lasted long past the actual point of enjoyment. (I’m talking about you, Kill Doctor Lucky and Renfield) There were flashes of design brilliance (Button Men, Brawl, Fightball) and genuinely inspired lunacy (Deadwood, Give Me the Brain). And then there were the abject failures (U.S. Patent No. 1)... and then there has to be a category lower than “abject failure” for garbage like Devil Bunny Needs A Ham.

That little tiny company (better known as Cheapa** Games) also put out a line of Hip Pocket Games. Along with the aptly named Very Clever Pipe Game (which would have been more clever and better served by being printed in color rather than greyscale), they published Tom Jolly’s Light Speed, a real-time game that literally took longer to score than it did to play. 

I’ve been a huge fan of Light Speed for a long time - so much so that my homemade game kit no longer fits in my hip pocket. I added colored stones to record hits & asteroid mining… and a stretchy string to check line of sight. (From now on, we’ll abbreviate “line of sight” as LOS… which will make all of the old wargamers and miniature players happy.)

So you can only imagine my joy when Stronghold Games announced that it would be releasing the Artipia Game re-imagining of Light Speed as Stellar Conflict.

The base engine for both games is the same - players place spaceships (cards) on the playing surface in real-time, attempting to position their ships to maximize the destruction of others and minimize the damage to their own ships. Ships cannot overlap any other card… which doesn’t make sense in the three-dimensional space (aka “the final frontier”) but makes for some very interesting game decisions. Ships are drawn from a shuffled deck of your own fleet - meaning you can know what ships you have but not what order they will appear.

Each ship has one (or more) laser shots of varying value emanating from their ship. As well, some ships have shields along the edge of cards that block laser fire. Ships also have an initiative value which determines the order in which the ships fire - the smaller the ship, the earlier they blast their opponents into submission… and the less damage they can take when hit before exploding into little tiny bits.

When ship placement ends, the ships open fire. (I like to think that all of the ships hyper-jumped into the same stretch of space in the matter of a few minutes.) Beginning with the lowest initiative-numbered ships, players resolve laser fire (different colored lasers cause 1, 2 or 3 points of damage) by tracing LOS to the first ship hit using the thoughtfully-provided rubber bands. Ships that are fully damaged after all ships of a particular initiative value have fired are removed from the playing surface and awarded to the player who did the most damage to the now-inoperable collection of flaming space debris. Hitting a cargo ship “steals” a cargo cube which is placed on the attacking ship.

The carnage continues until all ships have fired. Players add together the victory points from the ships they destroyed, the cargo they have stolen, and the cargo still remaining on their own cargo ship… and the player with the most points wins.

This is the game that I’ve described over the years as “it takes longer to score than it does to play” - and that’s still true. Since you can play with a timer (new rules) or “first to run out of cards stops the game” (Light Speed rules), it is unusual for the placement portion of the game to last more than 2 minutes. (In fact, the only way I can imagine it going longer is if you had a full table of AP-prone guys playing with the old rules…) Scoring length is a function of the number of ships in the game… but in our experience, we can play and score a four player battle royale in about 15 minutes.

What’s Different?

Square cards - I know this sounds like a silly thing to be excited about, but the small coaster-sized square cards make a lot more sense than the smaller rectangular cards from Light Speed.

Drafting - Each ship has a drafting cost… and the rules offer options for shorter/smaller deck games with a specific number of drafting points. So… do you want an armada of small fast ships (who can’t take a lot of damage) or a few capital ships to wreak havoc? Or do you decide to build your own specific mix of fighters & cruisers?

How the Game Ends - As mentioned earlier, the new rules use a timer for a 30 second, 1 minute or 2 minute playing time. (Each time limit has a suggested amount of drafting points.) The original “blitz” rules are included as a variant.

Cargo Ships & Flagships - Each deck has a cargo ship and a flagship that are used in every game. After you shuffle your deck, you place the cargo ship on top and the flagship on the bottom. The early placement of your cargo ship and the knowledge that you have a big capital ship at the end of your deck changes placement strategy in some intriguing ways.

Asymmetric fleet decks - Each deck has a unique mix of ships as well as a special ability specific to their race in the Among the Stars universe.

  • Some of the Wiss ships have ion lasers that hit enemy ships with a pulse that increases their initiative value.
  • Some of the Vak ships have shield penetrating lasers.
  • Some of the Hexai ships fire twice (in two different initiative phases).
  • The Tetrakori have extra scout ships that don’t have a drafting cost.

Among the Stars Theme - The original game was pretty generic… but Artipia Games slid this neatly into their Among the Stars ‘verse. Stellar Conflict is not the first stand-alone game in the series - New Dawn is another stand-alone game sharing the history, races and art style of the AtS ‘verse. (Tasty Minstrel Games has made a similar choice with Microcosm & Battlecruisers, both of which reside in the Eminent Domain universe but are separate games. (And, in my opinion, both are excellent additions to the sci-fi game genre.)

Is It Better?

Short answer: Oh, yeah.

Longer answer:

  1. For starters, a great game is back in print.
  2. The artwork is much more distinctive and evocative… and the various iconography needed for game play is easy to read.
  3. The square cards just make more sense.
  4. The drafting element adds a nice twist to the original design without overloading the base game engine.
  5. The asymmetric decks seem (so far) to be pretty well-balanced and offer some interesting choices.
  6. The new time limit rule works well - and the old Light Speed “play as fast as you can” rule is included as a variant in the rules.
  7. Using cargo ships instead of asteroids adds some defensive possibilities (since you score any cargo left on your ship) - and, once again, there are asteroid cards included so you can play with the original Light Speed set-up.

The Experts Chime In

Both of my sons are (a) gamers and (b) fans of the original Light Speed game… so they were as excited as their old man to get to play and review Stellar Conflict. I asked them some questions to garner their wisdom and share it with you.

Q: Do you like Stellar Conflict better than Light Speed?
A: (11 year old) Yes.
A: (15 year old) Yes.

Q: What’s your favorite change between the two versions - and why?
A: (11 year old) The different factions.
A: (15 year old) Yeah - the decks are balanced and I like the variety.

Q: Do you like the longer or shorter variants of the game?
A: (11 year old) Longer - I like getting to use all of the cards in my deck.
A: (15 year old) Longer - I like the way the table fills up.

Q: Does the Among the Stars theme help or hurt the game?
A: (11 year old) Neither, really - but maybe more people will buy it if they like Among the Stars. (Note: both boys also enjoy Among the Stars, with the 11 year old being an especially big fan. He and I are working on a review of Among the Stars: Revival.)

The Coaster

Stronghold Games had a promo at Origins - a coaster printed on both sides with variants:

  • The Chimera is a neutral ship that fires when it is hit… and which you can use to target your opponents, if they don’t target you first.
  • The Secret Base is a difficult to hit asteroid that awards points for the number of times it was hit to the most aggressive player… minus the hits of all the other players who hit it! (You can go negative in a multiplayer game.)

I don’t think it’s essential to enjoying this wonderful game… but I do appreciate Stronghold Games for putting out a promo that doesn’t mess up Stellar Conflict in the quest to make something cool.

This review originally appeared on the Opinionated Gamers website.