Thursday, April 23, 2009



A favourite board game pastime for me recently has been seeking out games created and designed by Canadians. The list is well over 300 titles, most of which are just names on a list as I have not yet found the games to actually try.
Pentagonia is one game that I do have, and not only is it Canadian, but actually from Saskatchewan. It was designed by Jacob Zunti and published by Saskatchewan Internet News Ltd in 1998.
The game is really just a modernization of a much more ancient game Nine Men's Morris, a game which dates back more than a thousand years, and has been played all over the world in varying forms.
Everyone has played the old root game, where you move pieces on a square board to get three-in-a-row, at which time you can remove an opponent's piece. The goal is to make it so the opponent can no longer move, or is down to two pieces so that they cannot get a line of three.
Pentagonia changes up the old game in a few ways, in an attempt to update what is essentially a game that has been relegated to children.
To start with, as the name implies, Pentagonia is played on a five-sided board. The extra side creates a bit of new strategy, but isn't exactly a revolutionary addition to the old root game.
As far as mechanics go, Pentagonia borrows heavily from Nine Men's Morris.
In the first stage of the game players take turns placing their pieces on the board, attempting to make a line of three. Once all the pieces have been placed players may slide them, still attempting to make a line of three. Whenever a player makes a line of three they remove an opponent's piece of his choice.
When a player is left with five pieces, or less then can start jumping from any space in the board, to any open spot. The idea here is to give the player on the short end of the stick some added ability to block their opponent, or to create three-in-a-row in order to get back into the game.
If both players fall to five, or less pieces, both can take advantage of the leaping mechanic.
Components wise, Pentagonia has a basic heavy cardboard game board, functional but not particularly special. It is quite large and would be more convenient if it folded so the box would be smaller for storage, or transporting to a friend's to play. The big box hints at more than you get once you open Pentagonia.
The playing pieces are simple glass beads, so if one is lost, they can easily be replaced at any thrift store.
The rules are on an 8 ½ by 11 sheet, but realistically there is way too much detail. The designer tried to make the rules look beefier than they need to be. For example there is a hint that you need to be careful how you initially place your pieces since those choices will impact the game. My there's a revelation which deserved to be in the rule set.
I would like to like this game since it is a Saskatchewan product, but it simply doesn't offer enough beyond Nine Men's Morris, a game which you can buy a set for a dollar at almost any thrift store.
Find this one at a yard sale cheap, and it is worth a pick-up for the Saskatchewan novelty – if you are from the province – otherwise Pentagonia isn't worth much effort to find.

-- Review first appeared in Yorkton This Week newspaper April 22, 2009 - Yorkton, SK. Canada

Thursday, April 16, 2009



People are generally familiar with Chinese Checkers, the marble jumping game we all have played at one time or another, usually in our youth.
Well Gute Nachbarn is a game which at least reminds of that old marble jumper, but Gute offers a bit more in terms of strategy.
The game was developed by Alex Randolph, a rather prolific designer of games, back in 1986. While not widely known, it is a game which deserves to be.
In terms of game mechanics, Gute Nachbarn plays out rather simple, and thus can be taught in a matter of minutes.
The game board is a hexagon, with four spaces per side, actually depressions on the board into which a marble seats comfortably.
The game board begins with each space occupied by a marble. There is one silver marble, four white, and eight each of red, yellow, blue and green. These marbles are randomly seated onto the board, meaning you can randomly grab out of a bag and place, or simply roll the marbles onto the board letting them stop where they will. The randomness means that each game starts out with a different pattern, which certainly helps keep interest in the game.
From there it's a case of marble moves.
Players take their turns moving the silver marble to an adjacent non-empty hole and capturing the marble which is contained in that hole.
The key is that not all marbles on the board have the same value. The white ones, of which there are only four, are each worth 10-points.
The remaining marbles are scored in a rather unique fashion, using a system which really ups the strategic significance of the game.
Red, blue, yellow and green stones are worth the square of their number, so as an example, if you capture three red stones, you get nine points; if you capture four green stones, you get 16 points, and so on.
The game ends when the silver marble can no longer move to capture. There are times when you can make a move which isolates the silver marble before the board is clear, a wise move if you are doing the math and know you are in the lead. It will get to the point your opponents may hide their marbles just to keep the running score a bit harder to determine.
Adding a little more flavour to the scoring is the way the game counts points if more than two players are in the game. It is a game where up to six can play.
In a game with three or more players, the final score of every player determined by adding their personal score for marbles captured, to the sum of the marbles captured by the player to the right. The mechanism means that you have to be aware of what other players are doing, and it makes it harder to simply work to wreck someone's else's chances. Very ingenious.
It is the unique multi-player scoring which gives Gute Nachbarn its name, meaning 'Good Neighbour'.
This game has enough strategy to keep players interested, yet is simple enough that even a casual gamer can quickly learn, and grasp the concepts at play. The scoring system is fun, and adds an additional element to the game.
It really works well for two players, or a small group. Highly recommended if you get a chance to play this one.

-- Review first appeared in Yorkton This Week newspaper April 15, 2009 - Yorkton, SK. Canada

Review -- PENTE


While a game created 30 years ago might be termed a vintage game given that it is 30 years old, in the case of Pente you really have the feeling the design is much older than that.
Pente works on such a simple, basic level in terms of mechanics, you might think it would have been created a century, or two ago. But, that's not the case as Gary Gabel and Tom Braunlich designed the game in the late 1970s, and the rest as they say is history.
In fact, Pente is a Games Magazine Hall of Fame Inductee, and that speaks of just how well-respected the game is, considering there are only about 25 games awarded the recognition to-date.
Pente is a perfect information abstract strategy game for two players (variant rules for more participants are out there), which works on a very simple premise, the placement of stones toward achieving a straight forward goal. Players place glass bead markers on intersections of a 19-by-19 grid. The object of the game is to get five of your own markers in a row, or capture five pairs of your opponent's pieces, with the first to achieve either goal the winner.
The variant rules, which emerged with the game's 20th anniversary, allow for up to six players, but you would need beads of multiple colours. The game is still best in general for two, as is the case with most abstracts.
Capturing takes place when exactly two pieces are sandwiched between pieces of the opposite color.
Interestingly, Pente, although having a huge board to play on, tends toward being a generally quick game, with the win conditions usually not before the board gets overly filled with pieces. As you get better, and play better players, of course the depth of the game will grow, and bring more pieces into play as experience allows each player to block and protect to avoid giving the other the win.
Even when the game play gets better, this is a quicker game, allowing you to roll through a bunch of plays in a single evening, and that is usually a good thing since it keeps the interest up. Playing a best-of-seven, or nine, is really the way to go with Pente.
Now I stated earlier Pente has the feel of being a game which might have been created a century ago. That feeling might be because the game shares a root lineage with a trio of much older Oriental classic games; Go-Moku and Renju,which do not feature capturing, and Ninuki-Renju, which does have a capture mechanic.
There are numerous other games which revolve around getting five-in-a-row as a win condition, but most pale in comparison to Pente. If you are interested in such connection games, Pente really is the place to start.
There have been several different versions of the game released over the years, ranging from a cardboard board that folds like a typical checker board, to much nicer vinyl boards which roll up and store in tubes.
If you are looking for a Pente set opt for the vinyl board, it may be more pricey, but really is worth the investment. The vinyl game board in a tube is ideal to take to the coffee shop, or the park on a summer's day.
This really is a game for anyone's collection, quick, deep enough to offer re-playability, well made, and a classic which has stood the test of time.

-- Review first appeared in Yorkton This Week newspaper April 8, 2009 - Yorkton, SK. Canada

Review -- Spite & Malice


When it comes to card games, a definite rarity is one which plays well for only two people. The list of such games is rather shorter, and even shorter if you are looking for a truly engaging game which holds a level of replay ability.
One game which you can add to that list is Spite & Malice, which plays well with two, but can be played by up to five.
Spite & Malice is a fairly new game, released initially in 2003 (its roots being older), coming from the well-known games company Parker Brothers, so the cards are good quality, and the rule set well-illustrated and straight forward.
The game fits into the family of card games widely known as 'stacking games'. The idea is rather simple, players build stacks of cards, in this case in numerical order, trying to rid themselves of certain cards before the others.
In Spite & Malice each player is dealt a card stack of eight cards, the top card placed face up. These are the cards you want to move into the play stacks as quickly as possible.
In addition a player has a hand of five cards, replenished from the common card pile at the start of each of their turns.
When a player draws a number one card, he must play it to the centre of the table, and twos must also be placed as soon as possible. After that players can decide when, and if to play cards to the piles, which build to 13, and are then removed from the table.
The goal is to be able to play the face up card on your stack to one of the stacks, allowing you to then turn up the next card, and eventually wade your way through the eight cards.
If you can't, or don't wish to play a card to the stacks, a player can put one card a turn into a store pile. You can have a maximum of four store piles, from which you can only play the top card. So on any given turn you have a maximum of 10 cards to start placing to build piles, five in-hand, up to four from the store piles, and the crucial top card of your card stack.
It soon becomes clear that it may not be wise to play a card just because you can. For example you will not want to play a three, if you can't also play the four, if you see your opponent's card stack has a four showing. You don't want to help them work through their eight cards.
The play is helped along by wild cards, which can be used with a few exceptions to help get cards playing. A wild card cannot be used as a one, two, seven or 13, and you can't play back-to-back wild cards into a build pile. You must also be able to add at least one card to the pile after playing a wild card, for example using the wild as a five, you must then be able to play a natural six on the same turn.
So, it's pretty easy to see where the spite comes from.
The malice side of things comes by way of special powers that are part of a wild card. A player can give up a wild card to use the special ability, like exchanging a store pile with an opponent, or taking a card from the discard pile to your hand. They are not overpowered little tricks, but add a little more randomness to the fun.
The game play is smooth, rather quick, and while there is strategy in how you work your store piles, and when to play without helping your opponent, it's not so deep as to bog down.
The game is also helped along by the whimsical artwork of two cartoon cats with all manner of evil devices, in one case the cat is winking as he draws his claws across a chalkboard, in another the second cat sharpens an axe on a grindstone. There is a devilish charm to the cards and that's a plus.
Overall, if you are looking for a game that plays two nicely, and can be used for more – it might bog down at five in terms of ability to control any strategy – then Spite & Malice is well worth acquiring.

-- Review first appeared in Yorkton This Week newspaper April 1, 2009 - Yorkton, SK. Canada

Review -- LANCER


There are always those games which are just plain old fun, even if they aren't particularly well-known.
If you are a fan of checkers and of Chinese checkers, then Lancer is likely to be one of those games which is just plain old fun.
Released in 1973 by Waddington Games, Lancer really combines elements of both aforementioned games, in what is a pure abstract strategy game.
Each player has a force which contains two types of pieces, a set of smaller pawns that make up the bulk of a force, and then larger pieces which are defence only.
Lancer is played on a board of hexagons. The board is a sort of muted pink colour, that screams the 70's. A tad loud to be sure, OK really it nearly hurts the eyes, but that was the era of disco too, so what should we expect.
The hexagonal board allows for movement and capture can take place in six different directions. As an opponents piece is jumped it is removed from the game. Any number of captures can be made in one turn and pieces may jump over their own men.
Jumps are not mandatory so you can't force a foe into a trap.
The combination of six avenues of attack, and the ability to use your own pieces to set up long combination moves allows for some massive offensive strikes. One miscue in terms of keeping your main forces with a strong defensive formation can be a huge mistake. In one move a significant portion of your force can be lost in a single extended jumping sequence.
In that regard Lancer tends to favour those who can best manage their forces in terms of a creating a defensive formation, that allows for the quick attack once an opponent makes a mistake.
Defensive positions are on one hand made somewhat easier to maintain by the ability to hopscotch your lead forces forward, although the hexagonal board means that protecting your forward flanks are critical, or you can be left open to an attack which simply zigzags through your pieces capturing along the way.
Another interesting aspect of Lancer is that the board is reversible. One side has a playing surface for two players, the reverse allowing for three-player action.
Since very few abstracts allow for three-player games, it is a nice feature with Lancer. Like most three-player game attempts, it usually comes down to two players focusing their attention on the third, eliminating that opponent, then turning on each other.
That said, because Lancer does favour a flare for defence, a player can 'turtle' their forces in the face of a combined enemy, and work to pick off pieces when the moment is right.
The more dramatic the attack, the more likely a flank will come open, and that is when the turtle has to come out of his shell.
Now it might sound like the goal of Lancer is simply the elimination of the opposing force, but that is not the case.
A player must actually traverse the board with his pieces in order to enter what is essentially the opponent's goal. In the two-player game you have to have two pieces in the opponent's goal area (a four-space area). Once a piece is in the goal, it can still be captured, so you can't get a piece in the goal unprotected because it won't last long.
In three-player action you have to get one piece in the goal area of both opponents.
That is where the defender pieces play a significant role. Since they are not allowed beyond a certain point on the board, they are there primarily to guard the goal, a last line of defence if you will.
The defender pieces are another aspect of the game that is purely 70's in flavour, made of clear plastic, embedded with glitter. Again sort of garish, but part of the period charm of Lancer.
Not well-known, but the game plays quick, is simple to learn, and offers challenges that make it fun to play, and you get a healthy dose of retro-70s to boot.

-- Review first appeared in Yorkton This Week newspaper March 25, 2009 - Yorkton, SK. Canada



It's always good to have a game that is highly transportable, and Three Sages Games has taken that idea to new heights with the games it produces.
Three Sages games generally come in a tube about the size of a can of shaving cream, with makes the game pretty much 'pick up and go' as they are. However, this company goes with the idea of taking your games on the road with you, by actually printing the board itself on a draw string bag. The bag is quite large, so you can toss the game components inside, along with a book, or two and head to the park, or coffee shop and be ready for a game if the opportunity arises. It's a pretty neat idea.
In terms of specific games, this week we'll look at Dwarf Stones, an interesting little game from the company which combines several elements.
To begin with the game is basically a fantasy war game with two-to-four players, each assigned a 'home fort' situated in one of the four corners of the board. If your home fort is taken over by enemy forces, you are out of the game.
Players may add war bands, represented by simple, but functional glass beads, to the board. As a side note using glass beads, while not as fancy as little dwarven miniatures, does mean if a piece is lost at the park, you can replace it for pennies at a variety of stores.
Of course it takes resources to keep war bands on the march, and in Dwarf Stones that means 'mining for gems' which can be used to enhance your chances for victory. Mining is a luck thing, with the results of your efforts based on the roll of a dice.
A neat little aspect of the game here is that when you roll a '6', it represents a wandering monster attacking your miners, setting up a combat phase. It's an element that has a true fantasy gaming feel, something like the role playing game Dungeons & Dragons.
When a gem is found, it must make its way back, a space a turn, along an unbroken supply line to the home fort, in order to be a resource you can use.
The game also relies on dice for combat, and when your forces and those of an opponent occupy the same space, battle takes place. The loser, means a war band is lost. If the war band was in possession of a gem, then the opponent gets to collect the body.
The game offers a player a lot of choices, mine, battle, build up forces, and yet has luck built into the system as well with the dice determining results. The designer Jeff Walker achieved a reasonable balance in a game that is fairly light, with the emphasis on simplicity with so many elements at play.
The game is best played with two, or with four. While the rules allow for three players, it suffers the usual problem in that regard, two players inevitably, either by consensus, or by game play, end up focusing on the third, and overwhelming them. With two, or four you achieve a better balance.
Now Dwarf Stones is not the next great board game, but it doesn't profess to be. This is supposed to be a fun, portable, relatively quick game, which combines resource management, with conquest combat. Taken for what it is, Dwarf Stones is a fun little game that has enough depth that it grows on you with repeated plays, as you start to see some additional strategies to explore. Just don't expect a game that is too deep. This one is light fun.

-- Review first appeared in Yorkton This Week newspaper March 18, 2009 - Yorkton, SK. Canada