Friday, October 23, 2009

Review -- TRAX


You have to love a game which fits in a handy little pouch about six inches square, making it a perfect ‘take it where you go’ game.
That is Trax. The package isn’t much larger than the walkman-style CD players you saw people wearing a few years back before the world went higher tech with mp3 players.
Trax is a tile-laying game that I suppose has its roots in dominoes in the sense it has that sort of ‘feel’ although the pieces here are geometric shapes, not numbers.
Trax is a two player abstract strategy game of loops and lines which will be explained later.
Each piece is identical, so Trax is a perfect information game. You know exactly what piece your opponent has, because they all match.
There is a different design on each side of the pieces, with straights on one side and curves on the other. One straight and one curve is in red and the other in white.
Each player is assigned one of the colours in this two-player game.
Trax is a game which truly excels in terms of simplicity and convenience.
The tiles are bakelite so they have excellent durability, and are easily cleaned. So if you take the game to the coffee shop and they get sticky from the caramel bun, no problem.
The tiles are also the board in the case of Trax. The game can be played on any flat surface.
The rules of Trax are also very simple. On their turn a player places a tile, or at times multiple tiles, adjacent to those already in play so the colours of the tracks match. The objective is to get a loop or line of your colour while attempting to stop your opponent with their colour. Adding depth to the game is a forced play rule which allows, or may require, multiple tiles to be played in a turn
Trax is not a newcomer to the gaming world. In fact, it’s almost into the area where you would term it a classic, having been created in 1980 by David Smith.
The game is in some respects a forerunner of several games using similar tile-laying mechanics, including Tantrix and Palago which also come from Tantrix Games Ltd.
Trax is one of those games which is nearly a must have for anyone liking board games. The quality, portability and simplicity all rate extremely high marks.
That it is an abstract strategy game which makes you think is a bonus, but it doesn’t come across as being as involved strategically as say chess, which is good in the sense chess-like games scare many casual game players away.
Just an outstanding little game which begs to be enjoyed.
-- Review first appeared in Yorkton This Week newspaper Oct. 21, 2009 - Yorkton, SK. Canada

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Review -- Playbook Football


It’s fall. The Canadian Football League is heading down the stretch to the playoffs, and that American league is going too.
It is a time of year when sports fans talk gridiron, and we all become armchair quarterbacks wanting to manage our own teams on the field.
There are of course several board games which look to mimic the game of football, and this time of year is a good one to bring those out on cool crisp autumn evenings.
If you aren't immediately impressed with Playbook Football the minute you slip it from the box, it would be quite frankly shocking.
There are times when games seem over-produced in terms of their components, and Playbook Football from Bucephalus Games would fit that description. The playing field is a heavy wooden board nearly half an inch thick. My first reaction to the board was that it had the look, and feel of a game which might have been produced in the 1920s when wood was the primary material, and there was attention to detail and quality.
The two halves of the board go together to sandwich the other game components between them for storage. A butterfly hinge and fastener would have made the system handier, but the cardboard box is sturdy, so it should last if cared for.
The components inside the playing field are well-made as well, with a wooden football that is moved down a track on the field to mark where the play is, and plastic markers which are used to mark what’s going on in terms of play, and of course dice, which are pretty much a given in this type of game.
The overall look of Playbook Football once it is set-up is of an heirloom game, although it is a recent addition to the world of football board games, having been released only last year (2008).
There are also cards which are part of the game which was designed by Kevin Barrett.
The cards are where players find the plays for the game. “With Playbook Football, you call every play and plan every drive. Offense and Defense are two sides of the same coin, and that currency funds your campaign to the end zone. You will use the Blitz and Nickel defenses to stop your opponent’s passes and runs. The Quarterback Sneak will be your sneaky weapon for two-point conversions and 4th-and 1 calls - just as in real professional football!,” states the company’s website at “The play cards in Playbook Football are the product of months of research and intensive number-crunching. 10 full seasons of professional football statistics were analyzed and distilled down into the probabilities and results contained on these cards.”
Apparently Bucephalus Games is also actively looking to acquire the rights to do theme decks based on particular teams, presumably those in the National Football League. If they can make such arrangements it would be a plus as players could look to recreate the offenses and defences of their favourite teams. It would also add more diversity to the gaming system.
When it comes to game play, simplicity really sits at the heart of Playbook Football, with instructions fitting on a couple of pages. Many sports sims get bogged down on detail. This one keeps things pretty straight forward.
There are a selection of offensive and defensive plays. Each player selects a play, and those are revealed at the same time.
Then it’s dice time with each player rolling a 10-sided and a 12-sided die. Initially the result of the two 10-sided dice are added and if they add up to six or 16, then a penalty is called.
If there is no penalty on the play, the offensive players 10-sided die and the sum of the two 12-sided dice are used on the offensive card to resolve the play. The defensive play selection may influence the play by shifting the 10-sided dice result.
There are special cards for field goals, short punts, long punts, onside kicks, kickoff returns, punt returns and the aforementioned penalties.
It’s pretty straight forward, select plays, roll dice, and battle up and down the field based on the charts. A game gets played in under an hour.
Not the deepest football sim, but being quick, simple, and so well made still make this a great way to feed the desire to coach.
Certainly a nice football board game option for fans of the real game.
-- Review first appeared in Yorkton This Week newspaper Oct. 14, 2009 - Yorkton, SK. Canada

Review -- Warp 6


Warp 6 is an interesting little game coming to the public from the small games publisher Pair-of-Dice. I say interesting because of how the game is put together in terms of mechanics, and how the game actually plays.
Starting with the components of this 2002 release, it is one where the elements are really simplicity at work.
The playing surface is a screen printed cloth which looks like a large men’s handkerchief, or small table cloth. It’s simple, but works well. I do wonder how well it might wash should the cloth get dirty. If it washes well that would be a huge plus especially since the game really does transport well for taking camping, to the park, or coffee shop. The cloth is at least black, with the play area screened in white.
As you can imagine the ‘board’ folds into a rather small package for storage, or transport.
The game pieces are equally simple, a handful of dice. In a two-player game each combatant gets nine dice, four four-sided, three six-sided and two eight-sided dice. When three players hook up in Warp 6, each player gets six dice, one less of each type.
That’s it as far as game components.
From there, game designers Brian Tivol, Greg Lam, and Luke Weisman developed a rather simple, yet potentially deep game.
Each player initially roll their handful of dice, with the person with the highest number going first. That person places any one of their dice on the first node of the spiral designed game board course. The second player goes next, and so on until all the dice are played.
The number on the dice indicated how many spots it can move on a turn as it progresses around the spiral course.
In the two-player game the goal is to get six dice to the centre of the board, three players only need to race four to the centre.
Like most race games, there is more to it than simply moving the dice.
When you move a dice, and it lands on another dice, the moving dice gets to ‘warp’ down to the next ring of the spiral course. If it lands on another dice at that point, it warps again, allowing for a chain of ‘warps’ which of course gives the game its name. By warping, you speed your movement to the centre.
Adding an element of luck to the mix, a dice that does warp is re-rolled, giving it a new number.
Instead of making a move, a player can adjust the number of a single dice up, or down one number.
The rules fit on two sides of an 8X11 page, and include some visual examples, which speaks to the simplicity of the game too.
Warp 6 is still very much an abstract strategy game even with the ability to change a dice number, because players see all the pieces, so they have perfect information. It’s a nice use of the dice rolling mechanics without it really influencing the game with dumb luck. If that dice roll really bothers you, it could be house-ruled out of the game easily too.
The strategy of Warp 6 comes in with attempting to set up chains of ‘warps’ for your pieces, or making moves to break chains before an opponent can make the jumps.
The small element of luck which is added by the roll of a warping dice is really a nice little twist to things.
This is a great little game which shines based on simplicity, portability, and that is plays two and three players equally well. You just can’t go wrong with this little gem.
-- Review first appeared in Yorkton This Week newspaper Oct.7, 2009 - Yorkton, SK. Canada

Friday, October 2, 2009

Review -- DRAGONS


Recently it’s been newer games which have attracted attention in this column, but this week it’s time to look back on a game that came out several years ago.
The exact date is seemingly lost, at least to sources I am aware of, including on the game box itself. Dragons though is a Canadian produced game, coming from Chieftain Products Inc., an Ontario-based company which produced a number of games.
As is often the case with games of the era coming from companies which had a catalogue of products, the game designer of Dragons is not listed, and is probably a fact lost to all but the creator and his/or her close friends. Too bad that at the time the genius of designers was often left uncredited.
In the case of Dragons the design builds off one of the simplest games out there, the often played pen and paper game Xs and Os, or Tic Tac Toe if you prefer.
So what is there exactly to Dragons?
Well to start with the game name is really just pasted on. I wish there was more to connect the game to the idea of dragons, but there isn’t much here in that regard. The box has a couple of nice dragons in gold, but when you get inside, they are no where to be found. Having some flying dragons around the edge of the simple cardboard play area, or on the actual pieces would have immensely improved the aesthetics of the game.
As it is, the components are function, but very plain.
The game is played on a 5x5 square board. The board is further marked out into quadrant play areas of 3x3 in each corner. The quadrants represent the different seasons, as signified by very simple art in each corner, a snowflake for winter, flower for spring etc.
The goal of the game is to get a row of three stacks of counters placed in one of the seasons.
The game pieces are in white and green, and are very well made, albeit in plastic. They have a slight concave surface that helps hold stacks in place nicely.
Players alternate placing their respective counters on empty squares until such time as somebody gets three in a row in a season (or overlapping seasons). When a player achieves a row, all other pieces in the involved seasons are removed, and the player's removed pieces are stacked onto the last played piece of his color. The opponent’s piece goes back into his off-board supply for later use.
Since you have a finite supply of pieces, 15, you need to make sure your stacks do not get too large, because when you run out of pieces to play, you use up a turn reclaiming a non-critical stack from the board.
The first stack a player forms will of necessity be at least three high. After that shrewd placement can keep subsequent stacks at two pieces in height since stacks can be part of three-in-a-row, and only single pieces are removed to form new stacks.
First person to get three stacks within one season wins.
There is certainly more here than the old pen and paper game we all played as kids, but it is also still has Tic Tac Toe at its heart, so it’s not overly deep. That said, because Dragons is based off a game which everyone knows, it’s a relatively simple learning curve.
Certainly a game worth grabbing if you see it, partly because it is Canadian. It would rank a bit higher too if they had really pushed the Dragons theme once inside the box.
-- Review first appeared in Yorkton This Week newspaper Sept. 30, 2009 - Yorkton, SK. Canada

Review -- KACHINA


It is always fun to experience a game when it is brand new. There is a sense you are in on the ground floor or a gaming experience.
There is also some trepidation since you don't know if the game will be a good investment or not. It's pretty easy to find out information on chess because it's been around forever. A game such as Kachina, released just this year by Bucephalus Games on the other hand is an unknown.
Well folks, fear not in the case of Kachina. The game created by Scott Caputo may not be around hundred of years after its release the way chess is, but in the here and now it's a darned fine game.
Let's start with the theme Caputo has used for this tile-laying game.
Kachina's are spirits in the teachings of the Hopi tribe of the southwest United States. The Hopi are also known for their bright artistic work.
So, each tile in this game represents one of eight Kachinas, or spirits, and is differentiated by some really stunning artwork, albeit in miniatures since the heavy cardboard pieces are only about 1.5 inches square. I particularly like the art for the warrior, eagle and ogre.
It was the amazing art which initially drew my attention to Kachina when I first learned of the game online, and the connection to the Hopi culture was an added attraction too.
Some games are all glitz and no playability though.
Kachina avoids that pitfall rather nicely as well.
As stated it is a tile laying game. The game consists of 60-tiles of eight different types. Six of the tile types have unique powers, which means when you place them they have some additional affect on the game in terms of where it cam be places, of how many points you may score. Each tile has a point value as well. That is a nice touch in as much as it lends a level of strategy to the game.
There are some handy player reference cards to help keep the special powers of certain Kachinas close at-hand.
The tiles are shuffled -- yes it would have been nice to include a cloth drawstring bag to hold the tiles and allow for easy random draws – and each player is given five tiles.
The game allows for two to five players, which is nice.
That you get five tiles to start, and replenish as you go along is a major plus for Kachina. That allows that each time your turns comes around you actually have some options. With certain tiles have certain powers, you need to determine when it is best to use that tile. It sort of feels like the decision of when to use your trump card in various card games.
The tiles are played out in a pattern which ends up looking a lot like a Scrabble array, or crossword puzzle. The game develops over rows and columns, with no single line allowed to be longer than seven tiles.
As you add a piece you score points for the row, or column, and sometimes both.
The game plays rather quickly, which is a bonus too.
Certainly the game is ripe for expansion. There are undoubtedly lots of other Kachinas which could be added to the mix with other abilities to impact the game. There is probably options to offer up spirits from other tribes as well, which could create some conflict mechanisms too.
The potential for expansion is good because it will keep the game fresh, much as have the creators of Carcassonne, maybe the best of the genre has gone through several expansions.
As is, Kachina though has a lot going for it. Pleasing to look at, simple game play with some level of strategy beyond the dumb luck of drawing a single tile. A definite winner.
-- Review first appeared in Yorkton This Week newspaper Sept. 23, 2009 - Yorkton, SK. Canada