Friday, September 18, 2009



You live in Saskatchewan where a hill with a covering of snow -- which can happen anywhere from late September to mid May, as we saw this spring – attracts a bunch of kids and their toboggans. It's a childhood activity, a near rite of passage, a coming of age sort of thing. That's why the kids can usually convince mom and dad to take a few runs down the hill without too much argument.
Of course as a kid, you often dream of speeding up the old sled, and cartoons of course do that with all manner of rocket engines and imagination.
So when you see the board game Toboggans of Doom from Bucephalus Games, there is an immediate interest, not to mention the attraction of the game box which shows a Sasquatch swinging a club at a sledder. Come on, how cool is that?
The 2008 game release looks good on the outside. And, once you crack the box on the two-to-four player game you get a pretty good idea what the game is all about.
To start with the main components are a bunch of well-made, glassy, cardboard tiles, which of course influence the game as they are played. There is a meteor shower, fireworks array, portable hole, avalanche, the frightening ex-girlfriend and of course the Sasquatch to name a few. Yes it sounds like the Acme catalog from Looney Tunes is alive and well.
The cards are basically divided into two categories, obstacles, and sled upgrades. One helps you, one disadvantages your opponents.
The next big thing you notice in the box is a bag of dice, the standard array of four, six, eight, 10, 12 and 20-sided ones. So, yes you guessed it, the luck of the dice is a huge influence on the game. Randomness reigns supreme here. Generally a personal turn-off, let's face it when you are talking about a game which is essentially a fantastical race down a mountain on a toboggan dodging shark attacks, and Viking opera singers.
The Obstacle cards are shuffled and laid out face-down in three columns of 10. They essentially make up the run. An obstacle is turned face up, and through the roll of dice again, you have to clear it.
You score points as you progress down the hill.
Upgrade cards are purchased depending on the roll of dice and how that corresponds to the upgrade 'cost'.
As you can see rolling dice and the randomness of the race down obstacle cards create a lot of uncontrollable mayhem.
A game lasts only three rounds, so it plays rather quickly, although getting to the bottom is a monumental task given the luck involved and only three rounds to survive.
The game has replay in the sense the run varies each time, but the lustre wears a bit quickly. Yes it's kind of cool getting past the Sasquatch the first time, but you soon realize there is no skill at all. It's kind of like pushing the button on a VLT, you have zero control.
Good premise, solid components, but game play just isn't as fulfilling as a serious board gamer may seek. That said, a fun once in a while game where no one has to think, and there are some laughs and chuckles along the way.

-- Review first appeared in Yorkton This Week newspaper Sept. 16, 2009 - Yorkton, SK. Canada

Monday, September 14, 2009

Review -- TZAAR


If you have been reading the gaming reviews over the past year or so, then the gipf series of abstract games will be familiar, since half of the series of six games released over the last decade have been covered here.
You are also likely familiar with the name Kris Burm, the creator of all six games. There are other game creators with a longer list of games to their credit, but in terms of abstract strategy games Burm truly stands at the head of the class.
That is not to say the six games in the series are the best games of the genre. In fact, they are not in my opinion. That said however, when I sit down to list the Top-25 abstracts of all time, Burm creations show up rather often. Zertz, which ranked number seven when I did the list, is in my estimation the best of the group, although I will admit to liking it because it is familiar in the sense of reminding of Chinese Checkers. Yinsh, reviewed here only a few weeks ago is arguable as good, although it was number 10, when I did the list, which admittedly could use a ranking update. Gipf, the first of the series, and today's game Tzaar the most recent creation, both rank in the Top-25 as well.
Tzaar is a game designed, as most abstract strategy games are, for two players, and is rated eight and up in terms of age. The game is supposed to play in about 15-minutes, but good abstract players usually slow that in the sense you want to study moves, which is the key to winning such games.
Each player has 30 pieces, divided in three types; six Tzaars, nine Tzarras and 15 Totts. Yes the names are a bit funky, but that's part of gaming. The three types of pieces have a connection which is central to the game, they cannot exist without each other. The aim is rather straight forward, and like the best games, there are multiple win conditions, either to make the opponent run out of one of the three types of pieces or to put him in a position in which he cannot capture anymore.
With the exception of the first player's first move, you have two actions on each turn. The first action has to be to capture an opponent's piece. The second action can be to capture another opponent piece, or to move one piece of yours onto another. The stack created can only then be captured by a stack of equal, or greater height.
There is the big decision each turn whether to reduce the opponent's pieces, or to strengthen your own position by building stacks. This is a simple mechanic, but one which adds considerable depth to the game.
The rather simple to grasp win conditions and game mechanics make Tzaar a great game to introduce people to abstracts, and that is a good thing. Chess for example, while wonderful, has a rather steep learning curve. This one does not.
At the same time though, there are tough decisions, a forward planning required to be successful. You have to think to win.
Like all the gipf series games I have experienced so far, the board and pieces are great quality, and the rulebook clear and thorough.
A nice addition to learning this game is that Burm himself has an instructional video online at Check it out.

-- Review first appeared in Yorkton This Week newspaper Sept. 9, 2009 - Yorkton, SK. Canada



The first caveat on this review is simple; if you don't like rolling dice to determine the outcome of a game, then move on right now.
Elementalis is pure and simple a dice fest.
The game has players rolling dice, and if they succeed in achieving certain results, they can choose to roll again. The second roll can gain a player more 'mana' towards victory, although certain poor rolls can have the player losing that which he earned with roll one.
On the second roll certain results can again lead a player to a point where he can roll a third time.
In that regard Elementalis holds much in common with other dice push games, where you can risk what you have to gainer better results; Cosmic Wimpout and Can't Stop being two games of that type.
At least in terms of dice the set comes with neat looking dice with emblems for the four elements, water, air, earth and fire rather than simply the numbers you usually see on dice.
If that was it, this game would be rather uninteresting, but designer Robert C. Kalajian Jr., has done a nice job of incorporating some other features which at least add to this game for two to four players.
Players take on the role of wizards; in the basic game either elementalist, harmonists or purist. Each mage type had an effect on what certain dice roles mean to that player. This feature at least creates a situation where players are not all rolling dice to achieve the same results.
Players also chose what elements their wizard is looking for.
The ultimate goal of the game is to accumulate the mana by the end of six rounds, the mana accumulating by good dice rolls.
There is however, some ability to combat the pure luck of rolling dice. As a wizard you can cast spells, using mana you have already gained. The spells, each of the four elements have a short spell list to draw from, generally improve your chances as you roll dice, or work to thwart an opponent's roll.
As you might expect to cast a fire spell, you must have the required fire mana.
While the spells are useful, they have to be managed wisely, since they deplete your mana reserve, which is the key to ultimate victory.
The game has some nice features with the mage selections and spell casting which allow this game to step a bit above the average dice fest which is so luck driven as to be rather boring.
It helps too that the creator, who released the original game in 2006, has stayed interested in the game by releasing three expansions, one in 2007, and two in 2008. The expansions allow for additional mage type selections, and one of the three expands the game to allow for five players.
The mage types are not all balanced, and that is all right, since it allows new players to be handed the more powerful types as a way of balancing the game against experienced players.
It will be interesting to see if Kalajian has more ideas to come. Perhaps one day new dice with an added mana type or two? Eight-sided dice would make that possible.
However, as is, Elementalis is a nice filler-style game. It is not overly deep, but has enough options, and fun to make it worthwhile.

-- Review first appeared in Yorkton This Week newspaper Sept. 2, 2009 - Yorkton, SK. Canada

Review -- SIX


Six is one of those games which really impresses on several levels.
To begin with it comes in a nice, small, cube-shaped box that is sturdy, and ideal for taking over to a bud's for a night of gaming, or down to the coffee shop to play a few games. That is a huge plus, and it stores well too.
Inside the wooden pieces, and yes wood is also a nice touch in terms of game pieces, are stored in a simple cloth bag, with an easy pull-string to keep the pieces safe. Another fine touch for Six.
The game pieces are hexagonal; shaped, with a set of red and a set of black. There is no board, with the pieces creating the play area as they are added to the the game. That means you can play Six on any flat surface, which is another plus.
The rulebook is well laid out, and has a number of coloured examples, so picking up how to play is very simple. Of course the rules are pretty basic too, which is good as well.
While a simple rule set, there is still some definite depth to this two-player abstract strategy game which was designed by Steffan Muhlhauser. To begin with, Six has three objectives with achieving any one of them creating a win.
To win you must either end up with six of your pieces in a straight line, or six pieces in a triangular shape, or have six pieces in a ring shape. Having multiple win conditions adds much to a strategic game, and is one of the nicest features of Six.
The game is played in what are two distinct phases. To begin with players take turns adding one piece of the their colour to the ever growing 'board' until all 38 pieces are played, or someone has achieved a winning position.
Once all the pieces are placed without a win, play continues with players again alternating as they move a previously placed piece of their colour. A player cannot move a piece that would leave the configuration split into more than one connected group. Play continues until someone wins.
Advanced rules allow players to move a piece that would split the configuration, with all the pieces in the smaller group removed from the game. The advanced rules then add another win condition, or more correctly a loss condition. If a player is left with fewer than six pieces they lose.
While the advanced rules add to how one must approach the game, a loss by simply being isolated with fewer than six pieces is less satisfying in terms of game play.
Released initially in 2003, and available through Fox Mind Games, Six plays quickly, has great components, simple rules, and transports and stores easily. In terms of what you want in a game, at least a two-player abstract, it's hard to find fault with Six when you add up the positives.
That said, like most games where you are looking to create a pattern, the first player has an advantage if they play perfectly against someone of comparable skill. And, while there are different ways to win, the strategy is not as deep as the best abstracts; Arimaa, Terrace, Chess and the like.
Still, this is a game accessible to all, and one well worth having in a collection.

-- Review first appeared in Yorkton This Week newspaper Aug. 26, 2009 - Yorkton, SK. Canada