Monday, August 24, 2009

Review -- YINSH

YINSH

If you are a fan of abstract strategy games, and that is of course my favoured boardgames genre, then you probably recognize that we are in a Renaissance era in terms of development right now.
While abstracts, such as chess, Shogi, Go, Othello and Camelot are lasting classics, for much of the 1900s developers didn't exactly create a bunch of notable abstracts. In fact, truly great abstracts between 1900 and 1999 were a rather scarey thing.
The last decade though that has changed with games such as Hive, Arimaa, and Navia Drapt coming along to impress.
Among the leaders of the resurgence of abstract is Kris Burm, a game designer who in terms of abstract strategy games at least, has to be considered a genius. Burm is of course the man behind the Gipf series of games, six abstracts released over the last decade, or so, and each one becoming an instant classic. This is a set of games that should still be popular a century from now, as long as they manage to keep the games in print so new gamers can easily access them. As a side note, that is the Achilles Heel of most game's in terms of longevity. They go out-of-print, making it difficult to sustain growth because new players can't easily buy them. As an example, I think of Terrace, an abstract gem, which is no longer in print.
But, I digress.
This is a week to sing the praises of one of Burma's great Gipf series games; Yinsh, released in 2003.
Let's start with a look at the components. There are basally pieces which remind of checkers. They are black on one side, and white on the other, and like in Othello, the pieces will get flipped back and forth throughout the game.
Each player also has five rings, which are crucial to game play.
All the pieces are in good quality plastic, and the folding pressed cardboard game board, while not particularly exciting in terms of graphics, or decoration, is very functional.
It all stores in a nice sized box identical to others in the Gipf series, which makes for an appealing collection on a shelf.
The rules of the game are quick to grasp too, with a rule book which is well laid out, detailed, and in multiple languages.
The game has elements of Othello, in the flipping of pieces, and several five-in-a-row games, since that is the short-term goal of the game. As a player you need to get five-in-a-row of your colour, which allows you to remove one of your rings from the board. Be the first to remove three rings and you win.
The board starts empty, and players take turns placing their five rings.
The rings are then moved on a turn. You place a marker where the ring is, and then move it in a straight line to a vacant spot on the board. In the move you can jump over other pieces (no rings) on the board, but then stop in the next vacant spot. The pieces jumped are flipped, which of course can help you establish a needed five-in-a-row, or it can help thwart the opponent's plans.
The game gets more interesting in the sense that as you remove rings, which are the key to victory, it also lessens the options you have, since only rings move. Pieces, once placed stay in the same spot throughout the game, but they can be flipped repeatedly.
What Burm has done is take some classic game features, think again of Othello and various five-in-a-row games, and added some innovative twists with the movement of rings, and the diminishing resource base on the way to victory to create a game which transcends the aforementioned root games.
This is a definite must for lovers of soon to be classic, two-player abstract game.

-- CALVIN DANIELS

-- Review first appeared in Yorkton This Week newspaper Aug. 19, 2009 - Yorkton, SK. Canada

Review -- CONHEX

CONHEX

All right, I admit it, I am a total sucker for board games made of wood. There is something about a game fashioned out of wood that speaks of an older time, when there was some pride in producing a game that would last, that looked great, that was a pleasure to own.
So many games today are plastic and cardboard. They come across as cheap, no matter how good the game plays.
That is why I drooled over Gerhards Spiel und Design's version of Conhex when it arrived.
The board is beautifully rendered in wood, a heavy, nicely grained wood, that has a beveled bottom so that it looks absolutely amazing on the table come game time.
The pieces, of which there are both glass marbles, and wooden rectangular pieces. The wood pieces are stained a rich walnut brown, the other a tan.
The game even comes with two wooden dishes to hold the pieces as you play.
The quality of components with this version of Conhex are A+. It is an heirloom game in terms of the quality, meaning it should be something your great, great grandchildren cherish.
The game itself was created in 2002 by Michael Antonow, who really brought together a few different concepts in this two-player, abstract strategy game.
The basic premise has a player taking control of certain areas of the board in order to ultimately connect two sides of the boards with their pieces. Each player has a predetermined goal as to what sides they are seeking to connect.
Several abstracts have a similar goal, but Conhex has a slightly different mechanic at work by really combining two phases of game play.
The board is a pattern of non-regular hexagons with a few non-hexagonal polygons, which are referred to as cells in Conhex. Players alternate turns placing pieces of their own color marbles on a vertex on these geometric shaped area. A player can claim a cell after placing marbles on at least half the vertices of that space, at which time he marks the space by placing one of the rectangular wooden pieces. So as an example if a cell has six vertices (points) where marbles can be placed, a player must be the first to occupy at least three to claim the cell.
Once placed marbles and cell markers are not moved during the game.
The result of the mechanics is interesting, since players are really focusing on a number of small confrontations for control of certain cells, while always looking to further their efforts in terms of ultimately connecting their two sides before the opponent does.
The depth of strategy really comes in placing marbles at points which influence at least two, if not three cells. By so doing, even as an opponent moves to block your effort in one cell, you can gain advantage in an alternate cell which was influenced by the initial placement.
The game strategy is further influenced by the fact cells around the outer board have only three vertices, so are easy to gain control over than those that have six. The middle cell has five vertices for marble placement.
The rule set is simple, easy to teach, and aided by being visually easy to interpret, so getting a new player into this game is a breeze.
There are many decisions to make each turn in regards to moving to gain control of a cell, or to try and block the opponent, set against whether you want to try to use the outer areas because you can gain control more quickly, or go the inner route where each placement can influence multiple cells.
In spite of the choices to be made, Conhex plays rather quickly, in most cases under30-minutes.
The component quality, clear, concise rule set, abstract game nature, and quick play all combine to make this a true board game gem.

-- CALVIN DANIELS

-- Review first appeared in Yorkton This Week newspaper Aug. 12, 2009 - Yorkton, SK. Canada

Review -- ART OF WAR

ART OF WAR

Sometimes the most interesting games are those which the creator self produces. In such cases it may not be the game is one of the most notable in terms of play, but there is such dedication to seeing the game produced in such instances you have to appreciate it on that level alone.
Art of War is one of those games.
Creator Nils Zilch has to be credited with the way he uses bits and pieces I am sure he picks up at the local craft store. That isn't to say the pieces aren't functional, because they work well, but it tells you the effort that has to go into creating each game.
The board itself has been marked using a wood burning set, and has a sort of country-creation charm to it.
The overall effect of the board and pieces is of a game you might find at an artisan's fair. That gives it a neat appeal.
By the name you have probably gathered this is a war game. That it is, and one which is basically a pure strategy game to boot, in that the lone die in the game has a limited impact. Instead players must use strategy to create victory.
Of course when it comes to 'battling', attempting to capture a territory, the die does come into play.
Zilch has thrown another wrinkle into things though in terms of dealing with the luck of the die. There is a karma chip in the game. One player randomly starts the game in control of the chip. At any time you may pass the chip to an opponent to change the result of a die roll. So each time a die is rolled, the chip can move around the table to influence the result.
One great aspect of the game is that it is scalable, allowing for two, three, four or six players. Not a lot of strategy games have that flexibility.
There are three actual types of pieces. Each player has a single monarch pieces. If that piece is captured during a game, you lose.
There are 25 civilian pieces per player. Civilian pieces are what allow a player to generate more pieces on the board. Each civilian piece in play is worth one point in terms of producing new pieces. If a player chooses to use his turn to build up his forces he simply adds up the number of civilian pieces, and then can in essence purchase more pieces, at a cost of one for civilians and two for military pieces.
Each player has 32 military pieces available to them, and as you might expect as they move around the board, they are the units which do battle.
From there the game is a pretty straight forward territorial battle, with players expanding their territory by capture.
Once you are in control of a hexagon on the board, you must maintain a presence there, so you cannot simply abandon the area.
The game also comes with eight 'General' cards. Each General has a specific special ability which of course impacts some aspect of game play. Players randomly select a card which is kept hidden until such time a player opts to use the special ability, at which time the card is revealed, and that General's ability can be further utilized.
The General cards are a simple way of adding a bit of a 'wild card' aspect to the game, and to keeping things fresh. With eight choices, the game play can be quite different from game-to-game based on the cards.
The battles come down to a fairly basic mechanic of who has the greatest number, with some impact by the dice. That aspect of the game isn't particularly deep, or exciting.
Where the game has its greatest merit is in the continual choice each turn of whether you move forces to expand territory and do battle, or do you produce new forces, which is essentially building your resource base for future expansion.
Mix in the general cards which are a nice twist, and the karma chip for a little luck control, and game play is at least interesting enough to warrant some games. Add the aesthetics of the self-produced game, and Art of War has its charms.
Check the game out at www.zilchgames.net

-- CALVIN DANIELS

-- Review first appeared in Yorkton This Week newspaper Aug. 5, 2009 - Yorkton, SK. Canada

Review -- HIBERNIA

HIBERNIA

It's rather clich├ęd to suggested good things come in small packages, yet the old saying fits so nicely in terms of the war game Hibernia.
The box is small, and the game components are too, which is both a plus and a minus, bit in the end you end up with a generally positive feel out of a small, light war game which is not weighed down by historic detail, but rather follows the same general gaming vein as Risk, a game we are almost all familiar with.
The game components are small wooden cubes which come in four colours. The colours chosen contrast well, so knowing whose pieces are whose is easy. The pieces, while small, are easy to grasp, so moving them around the map detailed board is not difficult.
The small size though means this is a game that you don't want small children around at all.
A simple six-sided die is included, with each side a colour, again straight forward and functional.
The board is small too; only 7 X 10 inches. It has descent thickness, and sort of an antique map look in terms of graphics. The map depicts Ireland in the Iron Age.
The board in my box doesn't lay completely flat, which is not good with such small play pieces to keep in place, but a few hours under some heavy books should address the situation.
The small size of the whole game makes it a nice one to take with you, since room is not an issue to play Hibernia, although a picnic table would be out if there was a breeze. The game plays with three, or four players.
Creator Eric B. Vogel, who released the game only this year. It is self-produced, which really makes the game 'feel' more interesting.
As for mechanics, Vogel uses a few nice elements.
The die roll for example actually adds some randomness to the game that isn't bad. Roll blue, green, red or yellow allows the active player to play into an area matching that colour. Black rolled is like a wild card allowing you to go into any area.
A player gets a second move on their turn which is essentially a free 'black roll” so you get to combine some strategic moves in a chain of events sort of way.
You score points along a soring track by holding countries of the colours along the track. So if a player has red, blue, blue, yellow in front of them on the track, they have to hold those colors to advance.
Battles are not highly strategic though. Place two pieces into a county occupied by an opposing force and you win that area.
If forces are equal at the end of a player turn, both are eliminated and the area becomes vacant for future conquest. Of course this means players will look to eliminate opponent's from certain colours to slow their advancement along the win track.
In some respects the game has a sort of race-theme feel, with the war game aspect less dramatic in terms of game play.
Of course the rule set is on an 8X11 sheet, including examples, so you can appreciate you don't get bogged down in a lot of detail.
Still, as a light little war game, that is so economical in terms of size, it's hard not to like Hibernia.

-- CALVIN DANIELS

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