Friday, November 30, 2012

Review -- PITCHNUT


I love finger flicking games. 
I love that the best of the genre are close to being a sport, not just a board game. 
I love that they are games where skill wins out, so you can get better at the game by practice and dedication.
So I was more than a little excited to get my hands on a pitchnut board.
Pitchnut is a game with its exact origins lost to time.
It is credited to French Canada, with an origin around 1900.
The game owes some pretty obvious family-connections to crokinole, also created in Canada in the late 1860s, and to carrom. In the case of carrom, which remains huge in countries such as India, several games have sprung from it, including American carrom and Norvuss the national game of Latvia.
Pitchnut, which is now actually a trademarked name, which seems a bit unusual for a game so old but according to www.pitchnut.com, is a game of pure skill.
Like carrom, players must use a flicking motion of finger and thumb to use a shooting disk to hit other disks into four corner pockets.
There is a French game pichenotte which is similar, the name actually referring to the finger-flicking action. In the case of pichenotte it is nearer carrom but with larger 'pockets'.
Pitchnut adds pegs in a circle in the centre of the board, a direct connection of crokinole.
There are also two pegs guarding each pocket, which should make the sinking of disks more difficult, but really doesn't since there are channels along all four sides. Once in a channel a piece is essentially 'a gimme' in terms of sinking it on the next shot, the channel really being a guide to the pocket.
Like many older games rules do vary.
The pitchnut website has it pretty simple. Each player has a set of disks he must sink, and once those are cleared you shoot the one odd-coloured 'poison' piece for the win.
Scratch your shooter you must bring a piece back to the board.
Sink the poison before you clear your pieces you lose.
A variant which favours good shooting has you playing to score 50-points. You can sink the poison at anytime, worth 15 points, plus five points for every opponent piece still on the board.
In another variant you must 'cover' sinking the poison by then sinking another of your own stones before ending a round.
While the variant rules up the 'skill' level, the channels really are a balancing mechanism which means players need not always make precise shots to sink pieces. As a result I would not rate the skill level of pitchnut as equal to crokinole and carrom, which require more finesse.
That said pitchnut is a great game which is quick to learn and to play.
In the case of boards from www.pitchnut.com they are high quality. They have surprising weight, and barring a hurricane the board should become a family heirloom. This is a board which will easily be handed down generation-to-generation with family enjoying it for years.
Check it out at the aforementioned website.
If anyone is interested in this game, or other board games feel free to contact calmardan@sasktel.net
 -- Appeared in Yorkton This Week newspaper Nov 28, 2012

Review -- SHADOWFIST


It's great to see good games can evolve and stay relevant even as the general trend of gaming changes.
With the launch of Magic: The Gathering back in 1993 a new genre of gaming was born; collectable card games (CCGs). 
The idea of CCGs caught on in a major way thanks to Magic. The idea of buying a pack of cards with a random selection inside -- much like hockey and other sport cards have been distributed for decades -- was new for gamers. Many of us loved the idea of cracking a pack and finding an especially powerful card for our decks, and for more than a decade CCGs prospered with literally hundreds of titles being created.
Most are little more than vague memories for even the most devout CCG player, the art, mechanics and distribution of many signaling a rather quick death.
The idea of CCGs was also one many gamers did not like. They saw the collectability as simply a way of draining money from their gaming budgets as they ripped packs looking for the key cards to tweak their decks.
For the most part CCGs faded away, although Magic remains vibrant with new cards coming out at least a couple of times a year.
Among the myriad of CCGs which arrived on the scene in the hay day of the genre, a few were actually excellent games, ones which prospered for a time with a number of expansions to the core game being created.
Shadowfist was one such CCG.
The game was one which was based on a combination of kung fu, sci-fi and action movies elements which simply put, was fun.
The premise of the game had players competing against each other to control the world's feng shui sites across time.
It was the sort of open-ended story line which gave its creators Jose Garcia and Robin D. Laws the ability to incorporate a wide range of elements which were compelling to gamers who are already generally interested in the world of sci-fi and its relatives.
Shadowfist went through expansions, and publisher changes, carrying with it a significant gaming fan base which kept the game active when most CCGs failed.
But alas Shadowfist stopped producing new cards, and for a CCG that is the death knell as generally the genre feeds on new cards keeping players interested.
But as I stated to start this review, good games find a way to survive.
The new trend is toward 'Living Card Games'. New cards are offered on a regular basis to keep aspects of deck building and game play fresh, but instead of being randomly distributed, the new cards are offered as a one-purchase set.
Raising money through Kickstarter to pre-fund the relaunch, supporters pledged 250 per cent of what those behind Shadowfist today were looking for. The $50,000 raised should ensure a strong rebirth of the game.
The new set and the planned expansions will be fixed sets of cards, which is good news for many since you will not have to purchase packs in the hopes of cracking the cards you really desire.
So what do you get with Shadowfist?
"Shadowfist is the mile-a-minute, sword-clashing, butt-kicking, Uzi-spraying, boat-exploding, car-chasing, monster-crunching, Hong Kong cinematic action card game that is so epic it would take fourteen John Woos to film and a cast the likes of Jackie Chan, Jet Li, Chow Yun Fat and Michelle Yeoh. And that's just in the first five minutes," related the games Kickstarter page.
Remember what I mentioned earlier about fun.
Shadowfist can be played one-on-one although a strength has been that it is one of the better multi-player games to come out of the CCG era.
The relaunch of Shadowfist will include four pre-constructed starter decks, one each for the Dragons, the Guiding Hand, the Ascended and the Eaters of the Lotus.
At the same time, Inner Kingdom Games is releasing the first expansion to Combat in Kowloon, titled Back for Seconds. This expansion will feature two additional pre-constructed starter decks, one each for the Jammers and the Monarchs.
"Future expansions will be released as non-randomized packs of 50 cards featuring all six factions delving into new themes and conflicts within the game story line. Existing cards for Shadowfist will always be welcome in open formats, and players are free to engage the new environment in the non-collectable model at their leisure," noted the Kickstarter page.
The fact the relaunch will support using cards from the game's CCG past is a huge bonus, and will have old Shadowfist fans digging out their stashes.
For those new to the game, well heads up, Shadowfist is a blast as a game, one which has stood the test of time, and is well-worthy of being supported by a new generation.
Check it out at www.shadowfist.com
If anyone is interested in this game, or other board games feel free to contact calmardan@sasktel.net
 -- Appeared in Yorkton This Week Newspaper Nov 14, 2012

Review - PANDORA


Mantic Games is a British-based miniature gaming company which is making major waves in the sector.
Recently Dreadball, a futuristic port board game raising close to three-quarters of a million dollars on Kickstarter.com, a site focused on allowing game companies, among others, raised seed funding to launch new efforts.
Dreadball is a success weeks before even launching to stores, but it is not the first entry into gaming for Mantic.
Warpath and Kings of War are both large scale miniature wargaming systems which off battles in space, or in a more traditional high fantasy setting.
Project Pandora is really a spin-off of the space war game. 
It is a stand-alone offering, so you don't need to worry about being drawn into a miniature war game setting where you are constantly adding new forces to your army.
While the game is a one-shot -- at least for now, it is a system which could be expanded with new scenarios -- the game offers significant re-playability.
The board is modular, so you can vary the 'gaming' simply by changing what the play area looks like.
The rule book also offers different scenarios to explore. With different end objectives the game plays quite differently.
The ability to keep the gaming experience fresh within the confines of a single box is a huge part of the appeal of Project Pandora. As an aside the box for this game is rather thin and flimsy, so if you are into stacking your games you best keep this one at the top of the pile, or it will crush.
The game pits 'Corporation Marines' against alien Veer-myn (rat-men). The miniatures are a touch smaller in terms of scale than some similar games, but the detail is still good.
The 'minis' are plastic, and come in pieces, so you'll need to get out the glue and go to work before playing. You can leave the minis unpainted, but they will look better with some paint.
In general terms the Veer-myn have an edge in most scenarios, and while that might bother some, it is one of the things I like here.
Rarely are skirmish battles in any war carried out between exactly even forces. Someone has superiority in arms, or numbers, or both.
But good tactics can overcome superior forces.
Project Pandora nicely mimics that reality.
It's not always easy to win this game for one force, depending on the scenario being attempted, but therein lies a challenge gamers should relish.
The game will remind of games such as Space Hulk and Doom the Boardgame in general terms, but Project Pandora has enough merit on its own to be worth gamers liking miniature action to take a much closer look.
Check it out at www.manticgames.com
If anyone is interested in this game, or other board games feel free to contact calmardan@sasktel.net
 -- Appeared in Yorkton This Week newspaper Nov 7, 2012

Review -- CAVEMAN CURLING


It is fall, and in Canada that means turning attention to winter pursuits such as curling.
Not all of us want to get out on the ice and throw stones, but with the 2010 release of Caveman Curling there is a fun boardgame alternative you can play at the kitchen table.
Caveman Curling is a creation from game designer Daniel Quodbach, who also created Pitch Bowl, a finger-flicking dexterity game based on football which looks great too, but is sadly out-of-print.
The designer hasn't exactly created something stunningly original, or unique, but what he has managed to do is put together something really simple and fun.
If you know curling at all you will recognize it clearly as the root of Caveman Curling.
The 'caveman' aspect is purely a fun theme pasted on to the game mechanics which allow for some whimsical art of the roll-up board.
The board rolls up, and while that often means an issue with getting it to lay flat come game time, a pair of magnet-based strips address that issue nicely.
Once the board is laid out players take turns flicking a stone down the board, think crokinole in terms of the flicking action.
As in real curling you want to end up with the stone(s) close the centre of the rings at the opposite end -- the imaginary cave in this game.
The development of a game around the mechanics of curling, and using flicking of pieces is not new at all.
What is new is the addition of 'big' and 'small' hammers, pieces you can employ to move a just shot stone closer to the centre by the length of the 'hammer'. Players get two of each hammer, and since they only have six stones can pretty much influence the final positioning of any important shot.
It is too bad if you are out to mimmic curling the designer/production company did not opt for eight stones for each player.
As it is though I would suggest limiting hammers to one large and one small per player to increase the importance on a skilled initial shot.
Players, or teams of two, also get two totem pieces, which can be placed on a shot stone. It has a couple of effects on the game, the biggest being if the totem-protected stone is knocked out of play, the play gets to re-shoot that stone at the end of the term.
Again I would suggest one totem would suffice.
While the game allows a bit too much interference with stones once they are played, which devalues the skill aspect of a dexterity game, Caveman Curling is still a lot of fun.
And the interference can be addressed by leaving some hammer and totem pieces in the box.
The theme, while not really necessary, does give a pasted-on theme that explains the hammers and token.
The game pieces are wood, with stickers you apply to one side to add to the theme.
With the board compactly rolling up the game stores and transports well. It should be a hit with younger players, but is easily accessible by anyone, so think a Christmas family gathering, or a cold winter family night and have fun.
For more information check out www.eagle-gryphon.com
If anyone is interested in this game, or other boardgames feel free to contact calmardan@sasktel.net
-- Appeared in Yorkton This Week newspaper Oct 10, 2012

Review -- LITTLE BIGHORN RUMMY


When it comes to card games few are any more popular than rummy. 
As a two-player option gin rummy -- created in 1909 -- in particular is a great way to wile away more than a few hours on rainy summer days, or cold winter evenings.
Rummy, probably because of it familiarity, and the easily adaptable mechanic of creating melds, has become the root game behind a number of variants.
As is often the case the variants, because they are building on an already well-understood and very workable system, become better than the root game.
As good as gin rummy may be, there are a few variants out, most emerging in the last decade which are actually deeper games, without getting so bogged down in complexity that the game loses its appeal especially for the more casual card player.
Among the recent developments is Little Bighorn Rummy, a 2012 release by designer John Longstreet.
As you might think from the name the game is themed around the battle between Col. George Custer and Chief Sitting Bull, one of the most fabled conflicts of the American west.
On June 26th 1876 Lt. Col. George A. Custer drove his seven companies of the U.S. 7th Cavalry into the valley of the Little Bighorn River where he met a vast gathering of Native American nations not willing to back down. Custer's fate and place in history was sealed as he and 255 of his men were killed at the Little Bighorn.
It is the battle which is the backdrop for Little Bighorn Rummy.
Longstreet said working on a historic theme was a natural.
"Being a History teacher and having my concentration in 19th century American History I've always loved the American West," he offered.
"I've read and studied Native American and Military History for 40-plus years.  Little Bighorn was the apex of much of both of these two cultures.  
"When I decided to tackle the subject I had already played a few board games that you could classify a typical 'war games'. You know, hex and counter, move and attack. I didn't want to repeat this. "What always impressed me about the conflict was the hectic nature of the event. Many of the Indian accounts, Sitting Bull included, mention that they did not believe that they were going to win and up until the final moments of the battle they felt the battle was possibly lost. 
"I began to search for some kind of mechanic that would allow me to play both sides at the same time, if that makes any sense."
So Longstreet went looking for what could portray the event in game format to his liking.
"Searching my own game database I remembered Mike Fitzgerald's Jack the Ripper Mystery Rummy. It let you play all of the suspects of the crime," he said. "So I began to look at a rummy-style game.  
"The only drawback was I knew that 'rummy games' had gained that 'dime-a-dozen' aspect as so many have been created. I had to try to add new concepts or enough history themes to make it work."
Longstreet said he started with the cast-of-characters, Braves, Companies, Chiefs, Custer, and Sitting Bull.  "What to do with them?" he asked.
"The first thing I decided was to use Custer as a 'bad' guy. He did die didn't he? I used a little 'Hearts' here and made him count as a negative number.  
"I started with Companies: a commander worth three-points, a guidon flag two-points, and five troopers one point each for a 10 point company.  I tried to do the same for Indians and chiefs"
Not all went smoothly, admitted Longstreet. 
"Early play-testing with my wife was blah, so I went to another idea that was brewing. The separating Chiefs from Indians and adding the Coup Stick options to steal points," he said. "This changed play drastically. A move I was looking for to help build a mechanic that added spice to the game that would change strategy and play. Next I wanted to find a way to deal with the negative Custer card.  
"I added the Staff card for a little revisionist history.  The staff cards could be melded alone or could be used to add to Custer to help escape him and escape the negative point.  
"But was that fair?
"Well Sitting Bull was Custer's foil, logic said develop a card that would stop Custer from escaping.  Easy, days before the battle, Sitting Bull went into a trance at the Sundance ceremony and foresaw the Battle. A sundance card played on Sitting Bull prevents Custer's escape if not yet accomplished.  Now other cards were developed with historical meaning -- scout cards, villages, and special cards to lend more advantages to build points."
The backs of the cards have a historic photo of both leaders and it makes for a dramatic looking card back.
Actually the art of this card game is pretty amazing. Card fronts include historic photographs including personas such as Major Marcus Rena, Captain Miles Keogh, Chief Spotted Eagle and Chief Dull Knife.
Other cards rely on artwork, much of it primitive in nature, but equally historic. As an example the 'Chief's Coup Stick" is artwork from a native American participant in the Sioux War in 1876.
As a variant Little Bighorn Rummy is about set collection, or melds. In this case players collect melds of both Native America and U.S. Cavalry.
Where the game adds from the root game is in the addition of special support cards which impact play. It maybe a situation of being able to play a single card to the table (rather than needing an initial meld of three cards), or the special card might allow actions such as going through the discard pile in search of a card you need.
It is the special cards, and the actions they allow which give Little Bighorn Rummy its uniqueness.
Now in broad terms this game does not offer anything radically new, but what it does offer is satisfying just the same.
I will suggest rummy fans are going to like this one quickly, but the great art and historic western theme should bring new players to the table to try it.
I loved the art at first look, and the special cards add enough to make it different enough from gin rummy to make you want to play it again.
Longstreet admitted the art is a definite draw.
"What will attract players -- first I have to admit Matt's (Art Designer Matt Hulgan) fantastic artwork is a plus," he said.
"But I hope that the historic appeal and quirky game play will bring people to the game and keep them playing it.  To be honest, some hands run very plain and simple, but when chiefs and sticks come into play and point are stolen, Custer shows up and you don't want to lay down you staff meld because your opponent might steal them to put on that Custer card, or you can't 'sluff' off Coup cards, etc., hands can get tense trying to go out before your opponent racks up points.  
"To me that's a sign that there is strategy and mechanics in a game."
Little Bighorn Rummy is easily in my top-10 variants on the game, and likely breaks the top-five, and there are many out there.
Check it out at www.ftfairfieldgames.com
If anyone is interested in this game, or other boardgames feel free to contact calmardan@sasktel.net
--Appeared in Yorkton This Week newspaper Oct 3, 2012

Review -- MERCS


Gaming with miniatures has a long, and proud tradition.
People have been re-playing the great battle of history with small lead soldiers for decades and enjoying every minute of it.
As a gaming option miniatures offer more than just game play as many find equal enjoyment in the painting of the pieces often going for minute historical detail in the paint scheme.
Today there are a wide variety of miniature gaming options, some, over time leading to massive armies of miniatures and requiring large tables on which to battle. Those battles can takes hours.
There are however options which require fewer miniatures, reducing costs, and lessening the time and space to play.
A newcomer to what is often referred to as 'skirmish' gaming is MERCS, a game played in a future earth setting where corporations control large areas of the world.
The game is designed to be played with a small number of miniatures per player and that is to start, its greatest strength.
Brian Shotton with MERCS said while there are many miniature game options their new offerings is one players can get into easily without a huge cash outlay.
"MERCS is a small model count game that is easy on the wallet. There is no escalation of participation; those MERCS you buy today will be viable members of your team for the duration of the game," he said via email.
“As to timing, there has never been a better time to get into MERCS. The starter kits make it extremely easy. Our website has been redesigned to better support players and stores. We have articles in magazines; videos on major miniature gaming sites; eight factions are out now; the seventh models for all the factions will be out before the end of the year; the list goes on and on."
While low cost might attract some to try MERCS it needs to offer something beyond price point.
Shotton said he feels it does.
"The game is very balanced. It is tactical in a way that makes sense in a 'real world' sort of way. A game of MERCS is fast and fun. The models are amazing, as is our fledgling community," he said.
Shotton is right the miniatures are finely detailed, and have a look not so different from today's soldiers.
Yes there is a sci-fi aspect to MERCS, but it is not exactly the focus of things. That may not appeal as much to diehard sci-fi-gamers, but it does allow a closer tie to realism others will like.
There is also a lot of attention to detail with MERCS, likely because it is very much an effort of love for its creators.
"There are only two of us, Keith and myself, and we have day jobs. This has its disadvantages certainly, but it also has advantages. We aren't releasing 10 models a month to support a staff. We release about 20 minis a year to support a game. We have a fantastic game," offered Shotton.
The smaller scale is by design to keep the game accessible for anyone.
"When I first started in mini-gaming I was okay with spending money," said Shotton. "My thinking on that has changed over the years. I created MERCS to play a game that was tactical and as different as my next opponent. I don't want people to have to spend a bunch of money every year just to be competitive, nor do I want to make anyone's MERCS obsolete and need replaced."
The neatest thing about MERCS is that you are fielding very small units, which heightens the need to good tactics. With a five-man squad the base of a game if you lose one man, that is 20 per cent of your force.
Being reliant on tactics means skilled players will win more often than not and skills can be learned and improved. That is highly compelling in terms of re-playability.
Shotton noted the game is not designed to evolve to mass-army play.
"Each MERCS faction will cap at 10 minis," he said. "There will be options to play the game with two squads of five, but the core game will stay five-versus-five. No giant vehicles. No big army game. The depth of MERCS is gameplay and squad selection. Each squad will get their seventh member this year (the eighth and ninth in 2013)." 
More good news about MERCS is that there is a plan for steady, but affordable for players, growth.
"We'll have every faction out by 2014," said Shotton. 
At GENCON they were releasing the Texico and ISS factions. In early 2013 plans call for the release of House 4 of the FCC, and later next year they'll release EU, Inc and EIC factions, explained Shotton, adding "2014 brings the GCC (the 12th faction) and a surprise (13th) faction.
"That is the extent of the MegaCons for the most part. Any expansion will come in the form of addition members for each faction and campaigns that alter the world over time."
More good news comes from the likelihood of  MERCS coming up with campaign rules where characters can grow in skills over a series of games.
"Short answer, yes," said Shotton. "This is something I have been toying with for over a year. When all of the factions are out (2014), we have planned on revising the ruleset and providing an all-inclusive book that same year. I think it will be in that book."
That may be a while to wait, but by getting into MERCS now players are in on the ground floor of a great game.
As it stands the hardcover rule book is detailed and well-laid out.
The rules are pretty straight forward, and movement using a unique card as the measure is quick and simple.
The game is one a few of us locally have already taken the plunge into, and it would be great to see others hop on the MERCS wagon and start a local community here in Yorkton.
It really is a game with far too many good things going for it not to get involved.
For more information check out www.mercsminis.com
If anyone is interested in this game, or other boardgames feel free to contact calmardan@sasktel.net
-- Appeared in Yorkton This Week newspaper Sept 19, 2012

Review -- HEAP


Heap is a card game you are either likely to love from the start, or shelve and not look at often.
Mark me as one who likes the game because I expected random nonsense in this card game from the outset.
The game box pretty much tells you that, when it states "Each player plays a gang of crazed goblins that have travelled across the post-apocalyptic wasteland in broken-down vehicles to converge on a gigantic heap of long-discarded scrap – perfect ingredients for demented automotive modification. In arena-style bouts, each gang selects its champion driver to storm the heap and duke it out for the best parts to upgrade their vehicles."
Several people online have remarked Heap is somewhat reminiscent of Uno, which is true in terms of game play, although the game is more in-depth than that overall.
At times the heavier rule set can be somewhat daunting if you are looking to Heap as an occasional fill-in game. That simply means, like most games, the more you play Heap the more comfortable you will become with the game and how it plays.
Now if you think about the theme a minute, goblins modifying vehicles out of parts scavenged from a scrap heap you might naturally expect random craziness to prevail. In game terms blind dumb luck is often the determining factor in earning victory.
The game, released in 2012, needs to be approached in those terms. Go at it for laughs and fun and worry less about the victor.
Designer David Carl shows he has a sense of humour with Heap and artists Laine Garrett, Manny Trembley and Chris Walton capture that with some very cool art; Scrap Hog and Doombuggy being two of the best cards in terms of illustration.
Heap is not a game likely to make anyone's top-10 list, but for many it will be a fun diversion every once in a while (it does play two-to-four players).
For more information check out www.privateerpress.com
If anyone is interested in this game, or other boardgames feel free to contact calmardan@sasktel.net
-- Appeared in Yorkton This week newspaper Sept 12, 2012

Saturday, September 1, 2012

Review -- RAIDING PARTIES


Raiding Parties is a neat little card game I've had on the list to review for far too long.
I had actually thought I had covered it, then recently came to realize I haven't shared this solid game with readers, so here goes.
Let's start by stating the game's theme centres around pirates. Really do I need to say much more? I mean pirates are just fun. From the days of Long John Silver as a kid through to Pirates of the Caribbean, most boys (men) at least have thought of being a pirate at some point.
So Raiding Parties immediately has a draw.
It doesn't hurt that the art on the cards by Don Maitz is fantastic. There is a ton of detail in the art that crosses somewhere between realistic and whimsical.
Raiding Parties is a game design from Nick Pace, and is just new to the marketplace. Well it's been out long enough to spawn plans for a Series II of cards to expand the game, but that is getting ahead of things here.
The original series comes with a 'Hit the Deck' set of playing cards, again with Maitz's great pirate art highlighting the standard 52-card deck of cards.
The 54-card Raiding Parties deck is where the art gets really fantastic, but the cards do have a black back and the edges are prone to 'chipping' where the black flakes off. If you want to maintain a pristine deck, get some cards sleeves before you play them too much.
There are some hit tokens you can cut out of the box top too, but opt for some pennies or something. This is one area the game could use an upgrade, but remembering it is a self-published effort you can pretty quickly overlook this shortcoming.
There are three levels of play, one where ships and forts are not allowed in one's raiding party, one where you can have one ship or one fort, and one where you can have two in any combination.
The regular playing cards are used as a flip deck, as Raiding Party members hit depending on the suit turned up. It's a simple mechanic without using dice.
You can attack opposing cards through projectile fire, or melee, relying on the 'hit the deck' flip to determine successes.
As you might expect cards may have special abilities, such as evade, which can modify the way combat resolves.
With a limited card stock party creation is also limited in set one, but the game is still fun.
With the aforementioned Series II on the horizon deck building will get to be more fun, especially with the addition of one-time effect cards, and land cards.
The game is going to grow in depth and that will keep it fresh.
That said as a base game Series I is very solid, thanks to theme and great art work helping create the atmosphere to have fun.
A definite winner as a two-player card game.
For more information check out www.raidingparties.com
If anyone is interested in this game, or other boardgames feel free to contact calmardan@sasktel.net
-- Review appeared in Yorkton This Week newspaper Aug 29, 2012 - Yorkton, SK. Canada

Review -- SJOELEN


Games which I would term culturally significant have always been of interest.
There is something about a game which becomes so ingrained into a particular culture almost everyone has played it at some point, or at least is aware of it.
You think of Mancala in terms of Africa, Go in terms of China and Japan, and if you happen to be from The Netherlands Sjoelen or Sjoelbak.
An indication of how significant Sjoelen is in The Netherlands came recently as I attended a small reception for Johannes Vervloed, Consul General of the Kingdom of the Netherlands here in Yorkton.
After the short presentation by the Consul General it was time to mingle, which brought me into a relaxed conversation with Vervloed's wife, as well as a couple who have recently immigrated to Canada from The Netherlands and now farm in the Wroxton area. I mentioned I was going to be reviewing Sjoelen, and in spite of my tongue having no idea how to properly pronounce the name, the three immediately knew about the game.
So what is Sjoelen?
Simply put it is a form of shuffleboard. Be aware as a game related to shuffleboard the board itself is huge. The board I have is from Dutch Games (www.dutchgames.us) and even though it folds, it's big, being six-feet when in play position, and of course half of that in its folded storage position.
The game is said to date back to the late 19th century, with its roots like in the English game of 'Shove-a-Penny' another one I'd truly like to try one day.
In Sjoelen a player takes control of a pile of 30-discs, think crokinole pieces, only larger. The pieces are slid one at a time down the table in an attempt to get them through the arches numbered one to four at the other end.
The neat twist for Sjoelen is that a player is attempting to get an even number of disks through each arch because each set of disks in all four compartments scores double. It is this aspect of the game which lifts Sjoelen above other 'shuffleboard-style' games.
Dutch Games has a video to help new players, a real bonus for any game. Check it out at; http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wf22S8U-Qqs
Boards are not available in every store of course. Jackie Heyden with Dutch Games said they are one of only a few suppliers in North America.
In terms of sales, Heyden said the good news for the game is that the buyer is changing.
"We see steady growth in our business and a shift from mainly Dutch customers to more and more American buyers," she said.
So why the interest in Sjoelen?
"The key element to its popularity is the competitiveness of a well thought out game," offered Heyden. "The level playing field (players of all ages can compete against each other) makes it a great family game."
Certainly anyone can slide disks down the table, although there is skill to big scores. And that to me is a big aspect of the game. Practice will make you better as this is a game of skill, with no imposed luck.
Now back to the board from Dutch Games. It is all wood construction and should be in the family for generations if looked after.
There is a nice compartment built into the board to hold the disks between games, a great touch.
If two things are missing it would be that a handle of some sort to aid in moving the board once folded to store would help, as would a fastener to hold the board in its folded position.
Still this is a well-made board, as is really required with a game as large as Sjoelen. 
In terms of game play, Sjoelen is easy to learn, but mastering, well like most games of skills, that is another story.
For more information check out www.dutchgames.us
If anyone is interested in this game, or other boardgames feel free to contact calmardan@sasktel.net
-- Review appeared in Yorkton This Week newspaper Aug 22, 2012 - Yorkton, SK. Canada

Review -- ENTRAPMENT


Whenever an abstract strategy game comes along I am interested.
If the game is made out of wood so that it has that classic 'feel' you have definitely caught my attention.
Such was the case with Entrapment, a game actually released back in 1999, but getting more attention lately.
It's a good thing that the game is drawing some renewed interest because designer Rich Gowell has created something that is really quite outstanding in terms of a two-player abstract strategy game.
The game is based on the idea of area control and piece immobilization.
"The object of Entrapment is to capture your opponent’s roamers (pawns) by rendering them incapable of movement. A roamer that cannot move is considered captured, ands is eliminated from the board. When all three of a player’s roamers have been captured the game is over and his or her opponent declared the winner," explains the game rules.
Entrapment will remind many of Quoridor, a game released a couple of years earlier, although Gowell said he came to the general idea independently.
"Regarding Quoridor, believe it or not, I had never heard of it at this point. Shortly after I started play testing it at work a coworker came up and said something like 'hey, I saw your game in a store up in Grand Haven'," he said. "So I quickly researched and found out about it, and realized, to my relief, that there seemed enough difference to proceed. To this very day I have not played Quoridor, though it's clear from people's comments that it's an elegant minimalist abstract."
That said the two games obviously share some elements, in particular the use of barriers to restrict pawn movement.
In the case of Entrapment a pawn may jump a friendly barrier, although this causes the barrier to be set on its end and from that point on no piece may jump it. That is one of the innovative rules which take this game to a higher level.
The game may not quite reach the level of Go, or chess, in terms of complexity, but there is plenty here to challenge gamers too.
"The game has some 'Go-esque"' qualities, and so for sure those players. Chess players seem to like it as well," said Gowell.
It is interesting how Entrapment came to be as a game. Gowell said it wasn't his initial idea to create an abstract strategy game that should become a classic is enough people give it a try.
"Back in '98, when I started to have game design on the brain (started with word game obsession, morphed to abstracts) I came up with an idea involving pawns and barriers, as well as another kind of piece," he said. "It was 10-by-10, and I made it by cutting out squares of quarter inch plywood and gluing them on a base board. 
"(I) tested it one afternoon, and it had promise, but not enough. So as I sat looking at this beast, I started dinking about with the pieces. Quite suddenly the core element of entrapment came to me, the notion of jumping friendly barriers one time. It really had a kind of 'eureka' feel to it. 
"From there on it was clear that the key ingredient of something cool was in place."
After that Gowell said Entrapment came together rather quickly.
"Most of the game was in place within a few months, such as move range of roamers and forced move rule, but it took as much as a full year I think to add the double force rule, and it wasn't until about two years ago we tried 6x7, because I felt it might cut down on what I call 'wander' -- that 'wide open fields' thing that persists awhile in the early part of a 7x7 game)."
So does Gowell think he has a classic game on his hands?
"Too early in the curve to see the phenomena you mention (tournament play and leagues) emerge yet, but would be a dream come true, to put it mildly, if and when that happens," he said, adding he is "trying my best to keep the game chugging forward."
Well in terms of quality production Gowell is certainly doing that. The board and pieces for Entrapment are all wood, and that really adds to both the look and 'feel' of the game. No game pieces have a better tactile feel than those of wood.
The game plays different enough from popular abstracts such as chess, go and the great Gipf series to offer up a unique game experience. 
There is sufficient depth to be highly re-playable.
And finally the wooden game is one with heirloom potential.
Certainly one to seek out.
For more information check out www.gowellclassicgames.com
If anyone is interested in this game, or other boardgames feel free to contact calmardan@sasktel.net
-- Review appeared in Yorkton This Week newspaper Aug 15, 2012 - Yorkton, SK. Canada

Review -- INFERNAL CONTRAPTION


If I were to list my favourite games of all times Warmachine, a miniature war game from Privateer Press would certainly make the top-five.
Warmachine was actually one of the first games I reviewed, years ago for a toy collecting magazine here in Saskatchewan. The review included material from an interview with designer Matt Wilson. I have since played the ever expanding game for years, and have come to respect the job Wilson did in designing my favoured game.
So when Infernal Contraption (second edition) from Privateer Press and designed by Wilson, was released I was immediately intrigued.
Infernal Contraption has virtually nothing to do with Wilson's other game, being a light, fun-filled card game, a far cry from the heavier theme of vast battles between steam-spewing 'warjacks'.
The game first hit shelves back in 2007, and an expansion followed.
The new edition combines both into a single box, so that is a nice aspect of the release.
"This edition also includes cards from the Infernal Contraption: Sabotage! Expansion, so throw a wrench in your opponent’s plans and watch the resulting madness," explains the box.
The cards here are good quality, with whimsical, but game-appropriate art. That said if you play regularly card sleeves are recommended since these are not as heavy a material as say a good poker or bridge deck.
In terms of play, "where goblin bodgers race to assemble their nigh-uncontrollable machines of mass consumption," details the box.
What that means is simple enough, you play with a sort of dual goal. On one hand you want to build your contraption, but you also need to stay alert to opportunities to thwart the plans of your opponents. Yes this game is really about sabotaging other players, so make sure you play with those who can take being picked on, since that will happen.
If you like putting a monkey wrench into the works of your gaming friends, you will love Infernal Contraption.
As is the case with most card games, the box is small enough to store and transport well.
In terms of games card games are also on the lower end of the price scale, so you can add it to your collection without a second mortgage.
The 'fun' theme, and lighter play, makes this a nice filler, although it can play out at close to an hour with four.
The rule set is pretty straight forward so introducing new players won't be a barrier to play, so haul this one out when you want something to play amid relaxed conversation.
For more information check out www.privateerpress.com
If anyone is interested in this game, or other boardgames feel free to contact calmardan@sasktel.net
-- Review appeared in Yorkton This Week newspaper Aug 8, 2012 - Yorkton, SK. Canada

Review -- BOCCE


So we are already to the last issue of July and our little excursion away from the game table to play some games outdoors in the backyard.
This week its Bocce, a game that is readily available in most department stores, with sets coming in a number of price ranges, which is good news for families on a budget.
For those unfamiliar bocce is closely related to bowls and p├ętanque with a common ancestry from ancient games played in the Roman Empire
Bocce is played with eight large balls and one smaller ball (called the pallino).  The game can be played with 2, 4, or 8 players and divide the bocce balls evenly between the number of players. 
Open bocce (played without a defined court) is that it can be played almost anywhere there is open space.  This includes grassy surfaces such as a front lawn or back yard, dirt surfaces, sandy surfaces such as the beach, and even paved surfaces like parking lots. 
The game can be played on a court, something this city could use when you think how many sets are likely owned locally, but you can also just toss out the pallino and then work to get the bigger balls as close to the smaller target as possible.
Close cut grass works ideally for this. Unfortunately city parks have the grass cut a bit too long, and when you toss the pallino you can't actually see it from very far away. A baseball diamond outfield would be a prime spot given its manicured grass.
The game plays simple enough, lob or roll the larger ball to get it close to the pallino, scoring points for every ball you, or your team get closer than opponents.
The sets are highly durable, and can easily be taken on vacation for play at the lake, so a bocce set is pretty handy as a family game.
Like other backyard games reviewed here this month, bocce can also be taken much more seriously, with the game being highly competitive in many countries. To me that is always an added bonus.
For more information check out www.boccestandardsassociation.org or www.bocce.com
If anyone is interested in this game, or other boardgames feel free to contact calmardan@sasktel.net
-- Review appeared in Yorkton This Week newspaper July 25, 2012 - Yorkton, SK. Canada