Sunday, June 21, 2009

Review -- GIPF

GIPF

The Gipf Project is one of the most successful, no make it the most successful, game projects ever in terms of creating winning and popular abstract strategy games.
The idea had creator Kris Burm creating six games over a period of years, all with a commonality of 'feel', yet each able to stand on its own as well.
It was somewhat unfortunate that the first game in the series was also named Gipf. At times the game seems to get lost behind the overall project. Or, perhaps because it was the first of the six games, it is seen as somehow lesser in nature. Either way, that does a disservice to Gipf the game, which offers its own unique challenges and interesting twists which make it a fine game.
Gipf, which was created in 1997, is one of those games, which like many abstract strategy games, works because of the simplicity of design. The simplicity makes Gipf easy to learn, but like the best of the genre, not easy to master, as clich├ęd as that many sound.
Gipf comes with three rule sets, basic, standard and tournament, which is something I must say I disagree with. Multiple rulesets in my mind simply muddy the waters. In this case I really can't fathom why you would start with the basic game since it really is a watered-down rule set, which leaves out the central 'Gipf' piece. Simply go to the standard rules and start there.
As a game, Gipf is about making connections. Each player starts with a pool of 18 pieces, out of which you begin by making three stacks of two, which creates the “Gipf' piece. These pieces start on fixed positions of a board with 37 inter-connected spots.
From there players take turns placing a piece just outside the actual game board area, and then sliding it onto the board. Each spot around the board provides two options in terms of where a piece enters play after the slide.
The goal is to create a line of four pieces of your colour. Once you do that, those pieces are removed from the board going back into your reserve. However, the beauty of the game comes in that each opponent's piece which directly extends your line of four are also removed, not only from the board, but the game.
The goal then becomes one of running your opponent out of pieces to win the game.
The exception to the rule is that you do not have to remove your Gipf piece if it is part of a line of four. That allows you to keep those pieces on the board, which is almost always an advantage. You can of course capture your opponent's Gipf pieces.
If you do chose to remove your own Gipf piece, it reverts to two single pieces in your reserve.
The game plays smoothly, although the better players will of course wish to review and analyze the positions of the pieces. In extreme cases you may need to place a time limit, although reasonably this game is not so incredibly deep that over thinking is a huge problem.
The tournament rules allow players to create as many Gipf as they want, instead of the standard three. And they are entered onto the board like any other pieces, rather than starting on set spots. Both add a level of strategy that makes sense at a tournament level.
Like all games in the Gipf Project, the boards are nice, the pieces well made, with a nice tactile feel, and the rulebook is thorough, with good illustration, and several languages.
The game stores in a nice moderate size box standard to the series, which makes the collection look good on the shelf too.
The first of the series, but certainly not one to be overlooked. Very well done on all levels.
-- CALVIN DANIELS

-- Review first appeared in Yorkton This Week newspaper June 17, 2009 - Yorkton, SK. Canada

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Review - KASL

KASL

Sometimes the best ideas mean taking something and making it better.
In some respects that is what happened with the creation of Kasl from Canadian game designer Marc Baudoin.
When you first pull Kasl, from Magma Editions, out of the box, you can't help but be reminded of Risk, a game which more people have played, and is widely known as sort of an entry level war game.
Kasl is certainly the same genre, with the same basic premise in that you start with territories on the board. Each turn you add to your forces on the table based on what territories and forces you already have, then you move those forces to capture area from your opponents.
However, Kasl adds a few neat new twists to the mix, which at least in my mind add immensely to game making is superior to the aforementioned Risk.
To begin with Kasl has a finite time limit imposed on the game. Too often these sort of territorial games can bog down toward the end as two superpowers are left trying to gain an edge. The near stalemate can be a bore for the players still involved, and is even worse for those who have been literally wiped off the map.
Kasl, which accommodates up to four players, is limited to only eight rounds, and then points are awarded to determine a winner based on territory and forces.
The good thing about the eight round limit is that it will be a rarity a player is actually wiped out before the game ends, keeping everyone active in the game.
The second mechanic which really sets Kasl apart is the introduction of the possibility of the plague beginning to ravage the lands.
Each turn a random roll is made, and the plague can gain a foothold, not so unlike it might have happened with disease in the Middle Ages. The later in the game, the higher the probability plague starts. If it does start, a territory is selected at random, and the forces there are obliterated.
The next turn there is a chance plague spreads to one, or all neighbouring territories.
While the spreading disease can devastate a force, and it is insanely random, so too would be the occurrence of real disease out breaks. It just works.
Kasl also diversifies the force list for players, giving players more options in terms of both attack and defence. Choice is a good thing.
With infantry, archers, cavalry, war machines and lords, each with some advantage in terms of play, for example cavalry easily defeat infantry, and a war machine is a huge benefit capturing a city, there are a lot of decisions to be made along the way.
The game also has a good system in terms of developing strongholds. Each player starts with a single fortified city. Over time you can build additional cities, or grow the ones you have, first to a fortress and then to a castle. The additions help in terms of force recruitment each turn.
The additional choices a player has, the fun black plague idea, and the set time limit make this a winner in terms of game play.
The board is serviceable, if a bit bright in terms of colour choice. The pieces are wood, and that just adds to the aesthetics in terms of recommending this game highly.
Simply a great entry-level war game which anyone can learn rather easily. Check it out.
-- CALVIN DANIELS

-- Review first appeared in Yorkton This Week newspaper June 10, 2009 - Yorkton, SK. Canada

Saturday, June 6, 2009

Review -- HARRY'S GRAND SLAM BASEBALL

HARRY'S GRAND SLAM BASEBALL

So you are a baseball fan. You and a bud have settled down to watch your favourite team on the tube, and there's a rain delay.
Your options are some silly craziest moments in sports fill-in, or a re-run of some television show that wasn't that good the first time around.
So you go looking for an option as to how to kill the time until the tarps come off the infield. If you are lucky you have Harry's Grand Slam Baseball to pull out and fill the time.
Harry's GSB was actually create by Harry Obst (somewhat obvious eh!), back in 1962. Now this is a card game, so the chances of having the game from nearly 50-years ago is rather slim. If you do have a copy, lucky you.
For the rest of though all is not lost. Out of the Box has reissued Harry's GSB through its Heirloom Games Series.
The new issue has kept the rule set of the original game, and most importantly the art work on the cards. And packaged it all in a nice presentation tin rather than a cardboard box, which is a very nice touch.
Now back to the art for a moment. The cards have art drawn pictures of baseball players in various game poses. The art is simple, with a highly nostalgic feel given the lens of time looking back nearly five decades now.
The game also comes with a rather quaint folding scoreboard, that actually stands like an outfield fence, and allows players to keep score. While there would be simpler ways to keep score, this so adds to the 'old game' feel.
In terms of rules, Harry's GSB keeps things insanely simple, yet they work perfectly in terms of simulating a baseball game.
Each player is dealt only three cards from a small deck. Each card has an action, ranging from batting actions such as home run, single, or steal, to defensive options such as strikeout and walk.
Players take turns playing their cards, with the player at bat of course wanting to use cards which create base runners and scores, while the player on defence looks to strikeout the side. However, with only three cards, there are times you have to lay a strikeout card when batting, and at times when on defence the cards will force you to give up a hit.
When you have played the three cards, you replenish your hand from the draw pile.
There are special cards too which add another realistic aspect to the game. If you draw a pinch hitter / relief pitcher card, you play it face down, then draw an additional card that is laid beside the special card. At any time you can use the card instead of one in your hand, giving you an unseen option which may work out, or may not, just as a real pinch hitter or relief pitcher.
There is limited strategy here. With only three cards in hand you don't have a lot of options. Yet as the game plays out you see that it does mimic baseball rather well.
It is hard to have a big inning on offence, you can't pull enough good cards at the sane time the opponent gets a bad hand, but at the end of the game scores are usually close, with extra innings a definite possibility.
If you are looking for a deep and detailed baseball simulation then Harry's GSB is not the ticket, but as a fun, quick game to fill in some time during that rain delay, it's perfect, and the nostalgic 'feel' simply adds to the fun.
-- CALVIN DANIELS

-- Review first appeared in Yorkton This Week newspaper June 3, 2009 - Yorkton, SK. Canada

Review -- GRID STONES

GRID STONES

Are you good at recognizing patterns? If so, then Grid Stones is a game you definitely want to check out.
The game is really one of those simple ideas which works well, and makes you wonder why no one has thought of it before.
The game is played on a simple squared-grid. For two-players the grid is a 4X4 area, growing to 5X5 for three and four players, and to 6X6 for five or more players.
As a pure abstract game the ability to scale up from just two players to up to seven is a definite plus, although the larger the number the more randomized the game is going to become (more on that in a moment).
In terms of game play, players draw from a common source of glass beads. On their turn they either add a bead to a square within the grid, or they remove a bead already in play. In terms of mechanics that's it, with the caveat in a two-player game you can't remove a stone just placed, or replace a stone just taken.
So what are players trying to accomplish as they add and subtract beads from the board?
That's where the genius of the game comes in, and the aforementioned pattern recognition aspect of the game.
Grid Stones comes with a deck of small cards. On each card is a pattern of beads on a 3X3 grid. At the start of a game a player is dealt five cards. Throughout the game they work to match an area of the playing surface to the pattern on the cards they were dealt. The first one to complete all five patterns wins.
There are two opportunities per turn to match a pattern. The first comes at the start of your turn. There will be occasions where your opponent inadvertently creates a winning pattern for you, and you can announce that at the start of your turn.
Then after adding, or removing a stone, you can again announce you have a match.
Since the pattern can be anywhere on the board, there is a need to see what your cards require from different angles, so pattern recognition is a huge asset.
It would help here if the game came with some sort of holder for the player's cards, rather than having to keep the under-sized cards in-hand, making it difficult to see all the patterns you are seeking.
In the two-player version there is some sense of control of what you are trying to accomplish. You can be working toward a pattern that can draw you nearer to a couple of your cards, and then react off what the opponent does.
As you add players, the grid does grow larger to allow for some additional bead placement options – remember even on the 6X6 board you are still looking to match a 3X3 pattern.
However, as you add players there is an increasingly long time between moves too. That means a player has a more difficult time actually impacting what he is trying to do. More often than not, in multi-player games, the opponents may set up winning patterns for others.
Of course the more stones in play, the harder it is to match a card too, since cards will have a number of blank (empty) spaces as part of the required pattern.
Grid Stones is the creation of Canadian designer Tim W.K. Brown, and is produced by the Montreal-based Danawares, and is an entertaining game, although at times luck seems more at play than strategy.
-- CALVIN DANIELS

-- Review first appeared in Yorkton This Week newspaper May 27, 2009 - Yorkton, SK. Canada

Review -- NINJA VERSUS NINJA

NINJA VERSUS NINJA

Sometimes a game becomes something of an enigma in terms of how you view it.
Ninja Versus Ninja from Out of the Box is one of those games.
I'll start by noting this game is rather simple in its mechanics, and plays very quickly, neither of which are inherently bad things, but they can be a detriment in some cases as well.
In this situation the rule set is easy to grasp. Each player has six ninjas situated on their side of the board. On a turn you roll two four-sided dice, and may move one ninja piece as many spaces as the total of the dice.
The goal is to cross the board into your opponent's side of the board, in this case they call it his dojo to add colour to the game. The deeper you get into enemy territory the more points you potentially score. The catch is, once you leave your 'dojo' with a piece, it has to return safely in three turns, or it is removed from play. So, if you move too deeply into enemy territory, you have to roll big numbers to get him home to score.
Of course things aren't that simple either, because on an opponent's turn they can move a ninja too. If a ninja completes a move on a spot already occupied, it captures that piece, the same as in chess.
The movement of a piece is easy too, you can generally make one 90-degree turn during a move.
If on 'a mission' that is in the opponent's side of the board, you are allowed to retrace your steps, so you get the feeling of running in, and scampering out at times.
That's about it in terms of game play.
It is amazing how easy it is to track down invading ninjas on the board, and most games come down to one of attrition. Wipe out the enemy, they can't score, you win.
The second victory path is to accumulate points 'on missions' based on how far you get into enemy territory, but that is a more difficult and tactical road to victory.
At times the game seems almost too simple, yet, there is something that is just a lot of fun about dueling Ninja bands.
In the case of this game created by Tushas Gheewala, it has a lot to do with the very high production standard of the game. While glass beads could easily be used to represent the ninjas, this game offers up nicely sculpted plastic ninja pieces, in red and black, complete with their swords. The pieces are a huge aspect of the game's appeal.
There is even a Ninja Master piece which is used as a score marker, and a Shadow Ninja piece used simply to mark how far you have made it into the enemy dojo.
That level of production is wonderful to see.
The dice too, are unique. They are small cubes, but since you are only using them as four-sided dice, a sword is through the dice, limiting it to how it lands on the table. Again, very in-the-theme of the game, and a very nice touch.
There is little doubt had Out of the Box gone with a simpler production standard, using say glass beads instead of the neat Ninja pieces, much of the charm of Ninja Versus Ninja would have been lost, and then the limitations of the game play might have tipped this game onto the also-ran pile.
However, the highly tactile pieces, which also look awesome on the game board, take this game to a higher level in terms of wanting to bring it out to play. The whole Ninjas at war theme just adds to that fun game experience as well.
Not the deepest game you will ever play, but very much fun. Recommended on the fun factor, and highly recommended in terms of 'looks'.
-- CALVIN DANIELS

-- Review first appeared in Yorkton This Week newspaper May 20, 2009 - Yorkton, SK. Canada

Review -- BATTLEFIELDS OF OLYMPUS

BATTLEFIELDS OF OLYMPUS

If you are looking for some light game play for two, and you appreciate wonderful artwork which enhances the gaming experience, you need look no farther than Battlefields of Olympus.
Any review of this game has to start with a comment on the stunning artwork. The trio of Fred Dee, Ryan Slemko, and Shih-Kai Chang has created some wonderful works to depict the warrior era, which while not specifically stated by the game, is very reflective of the time of the Spartans. The game was actually released in 2008, by Canadian designer Peter Grant, and it's rather clear a movie like '300' was likely very much an influence in terms of the games look.
Battlefields of Olympus is a two-player card game, with the cards split into two different decks, one of warriors, and the other of cards which influence play in some fashion.
The cards are high quality, but have a sort of black border which may show wear if played a lot. Card sleeves are a good idea to keep these beautiful cards pristine.
Each type of card has its own unique, and well-rendered artwork, Some, such as the heavy infantry, or cavalry card artwork, would make a stunning print for anyone's game room. The only poor art is that of the ambush card, showing a sort of wolf-man attacking. It simply does not fit with the other cards that are so Spartan-like.
As for game play, Battlefields of Olympus is a straight forward battle game, that relies on a fairly simple rule set to provide a quick game where combatants play various warrior cards, at times enhanced by other cards, to battle for possession of land cards. The goal is to reach 16 points worth of land cards first, with each land card having a specific victory point value.
The warrior cards work by what is best described as a modified rock-paper-scissors mechanic.
For example spearmen die to most attackers, but they kill off cavalry. Archers are deadly against most forces, although heavy infantry with their massive shields overtake archers.
There are some tactical decisions within the luck of the card draw. For example, when a battle for a land card is initiated, players must decide which forces to commit to the fight and when it is better to hold forces for another encounter.
Obviously there is less urgency to battle over a land card with a value of one, where you are likely to throw everything you have to secure victory of a six-point land card.
Since a player has a maximum of four warrior cards in-hand at any one time, you need to gauge when, and how to battle well.
The fate cards throw the wild card aspect of war into the game. For example, the 'flank' card can turn a loss into a sudden win when played, while the opponent can counter with the 'surround' card to cancel the 'flank' action.
The strength of Battlefields of Olympus will forever be the artwork, followed by quick play, which makes it a nice filler game.
There is a planned expansion for the game, which could add some depth, which would be a bonus.
You can pick up this fine little game through the company website at www.smartassgames.com
Remember it's Canadian so that too is a bonus.
-- CALVIN DANIELS

-- Review first appeared in Yorkton This Week newspaper May 13, 2009 - Yorkton, SK. Canada

Review -- CHECK: THE CHESS CARD GAME

CHECK: THE CHESS CARD GAME

There are games you just so want to love .... but.
That is exactly where I find myself with Check: The Chess Card Game. This is a game which had “I'm going to love it” written all over it.
To start with, anything that has even a remote connection to chess is automatically of interest. Chess to me, in all its variant forms, is one of, if not the greatest games ever.
And, yes this game has a definite chess aspect.
Check was released in 2003, by Canadian game designers Alan and Peter Biggs.
The deck of cards is limited to 32, with each player in control of 16 cards, each representing a different piece in a typical chess array.
Once the wrapper was off the card box, you get to look at the art work. The card art, for the power pieces, anything besides the pawns, has an Arthurian era feel to it. It's not highly stylized and detailed art work, yet there is a simplistic charm to the work which is quite appealing.
The rule set is pretty straight forward here too. Each of the cards has a strength and fence values which are the same. For example a common pawn card is a one, while the queen has a value of five.
Each card also has an attack pattern on it. Again as an example a rook attacks straight ahead, while a queen attacks straight ahead, as well as diagonally forward left and right. The pattern is easily identified on the cards too, so there is no way to misunderstand that part of the game.
Game play is pretty straight forward too. A player shuffles his set of 16 cards and draws six.
The first player selects a card and plays it face down in front of themselves. The opponent then does likewise.
The first player then plays a card face up to the right, or left of their first card, the opponent responds, and then the process repeats until each player has three cards in front of them.
The hidden card is flipped over.
Now part of the problem of this game is that in laying out your three cards the decisions are a tad limited. For example, the pattern of attack of a knight really limits it to either outside position, and since you lose if the king is taken, you just never put it into play until the very end of the game when you have only three cards left. The rules even point these observations out as hints.
The queen too, because of its strength, and attack pattern is really relegated to always being the hidden centre card.
So the three-card sets are now face-up on the table. Check becomes a game of math from that point. The attacking player determines what his combined attack is against each opponent card, minus their defence. The card defeated by the highest margin is captured, if tied multiple cards can be taken.
The defending player now attacks with his remaining cards (more math), and a card may be taken – if defences are higher than all attacks nothing is lost.
The remaining cards go to the bottom of your deck, and you redraw to six cards and play another round, with players alternating who attacks first.
Run your opponent out of cards, or capture the king to win.
The game plays fast. But, there isn't much to hold interest. The choices are limited, and the game play is really doing some straightforward simple addition and subtraction.
Advanced rules to give each pawn a different value, which opens the door to a bit more strategy but not enough to really capture interest.
Check is a game which is easily transportable, and quick to play, both good attributes for a game, but this isn't one that I'd suggest very often. It just falls too far short of expectations. Just not enough chess here.
-- CALVIN DANIELS

-- Review first appeared in Yorkton This Week newspaper May 6, 2009 - Yorkton, SK. Canada

Review -- NHL ICE BREAKER: THE CARD HOCKEY BOARD GAME

NHL ICE BREAKER: THE CARD HOCKEY BOARD GAME

Every once in a while you get to try a game that you weren't sure about, only to find out you had been missing out on something really quite excellent.
NHL Ice Breaker: The Card Hockey Board Game was just such a game. After only a couple of plays it was obvious this game is a must for anyone who loves hockey, and board games.
In terms of mechanics, this is a card game which is essentially war. Each player flops down a card, and high card wins. The deck is 54 cards in size a regular card array, plus two jokers, which are high card.
The cards are high quality, but you'll want to put them in protective sleeves anyway since you'll want to play this game a lot and for a lot of years.
In this case though, if a player drops a higher card, say a king, and you've only put down a six, you can win by playing a second six. Two of a kind beat a high card, although three-of-a-kind is still better.
While war would make for a pretty boring game, Ice Breaker designers at CSE Games, a Canadian company, have done a simply amassing job of adding the feel of hockey to the game.
With each win, a player gets to move the puck across a rink-shaped game board, according to the pattern laid out on the winning card.
As the puck moves, it can land on a number of highlighted squares, which call for a card to be drawn from the deck and the special 'icebreaker' rule used. Here the rules range from the puck going over the boards, creating a face-off situation, to a penalty being called, reducing the offending player's hand from five to four cards, or a big body check is thrown allowing the identified player to play additional cards.
Through the play you want to move the puck into the 'shooting zone'. Once in the zone the cards played represent the shooter and the goaltender. If the shooter has high card he scores. If the defensive player plays the high card the netminder has made the save. Unless of course you have played a trump card.
In NHL Ice Breaker, each card has a two logos, one used when shooting, one when the goaltender. NHL Ice Breaker is licensed by the National Hockey League and features all 30 teams. You can also play seven international teams including Team Canada and Russia, or either NHL all star team.
Players select a team, and if they have the card with that team's logo, they have a trump card.
This game offers just enough decisions to be interesting – do I use my ace to win the face-off or sluff off a deuce, lose the draw but have a card to make a key save with – to give you some control.
Yet the basic 'war' mechanic is so simple it can be taught in minutes.
The game plays fast, and with the ice breaker cards, it can change the flow rapidly, which really mimics the real game of hockey well.
The designers have also done a great job of adding the flavour of a real game to the mechanics.
As an example, in the third period a player can call a time out, allowing him to replenish his hand by two cards, without requiring the usual stoppage in play.
There are also rules allowing a player to 'pull the netminder' allowing them to draw an extra card, but automatically giving up a goal if the puck ends up in their shooting zone.
Rules allow for an overtime period and shoot-out scenarios too.
In correspondence with Fabio del Rio one of the game developers, he explained, “regarding the game development process, NHL Ice Breaker started as a simple simulation of the action of the sport of hockey using a deck of cards. Over a period of about a year and a half we developed the system and mechanics in such a way as to incorporate more of the fun and strategy of great playing card games, while maintaining strong hockey theme and feel.”
The game plays rapidly, and in general the scores are close. It would be somewhat rare to score more than six goals in a game, a period is defined by paying through the 54-card deck once, and usually only a goal or two will separate teams in the end.
While probably smoothest as a two-player game, rules exist to allow two teams of two to face off.
This is a game like cribbage in the sense you could play it over and over, and for hockey fans it's great as you add colour to play, like “Curtis Joseph makes a save for the Leafs,” or “The Russians take a lead over Team Canada with a stunning goal.”
This is a definite gem for hockey fans, well worth playing anytime.
And, the good news, del Rio said, “we do have expansion plans for Ice Breaker; we hope to have more details later this year.”
--CALVIN DANIELS

-- Review first appeared in Yorkton This Week newspaper April 29, 2009 - Yorkton, SK. Canada