Board Gaming · Review for Two · Two-Player Only

Review for Two – Holmes and Moriarty

Thank you for checking review #83 by Cardboard Clash. My aim is to focus on reviewing board games and how they play for two people and, on occasion, how they play for one person. Because my wife is my primary gaming partner, a lot of consideration goes into finding those games that play well with 2 players, and we typically prefer to find those games that do not require a variant (official or otherwise) in order to play it with just the two of us.

**Note: The publisher provided a review copy in exchange for an honest review.

An overview of Holmes and Moriarty

Holmes and Moriarty is a board game designed by Brad Lackey and Joshua Tempkin that was published in 2018 by Escape Velocity Games. The box states it plays 2 players in 30-45 minutes.

“… If a detailed account of that silent contest could be written, it would take its place as the most brilliant bit of thrust-and-parry work in the history of detection.”
-Sherlock Holmes to Dr. Watson in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s “The Final Problem”.

Professor Moriarty is almost ready to enact his nefarious plan! Sherlock Holmes suspects that something is about to happen, but he doesn’t know the details. As Moriarty’s crimes set the final pieces into place, Holmes desperately searches London for the clues he needs to foil his nemesis. London’s greatest intellects go head to head in this intense battle of wits!

Holmes & Moriarty is an asymmetric two-player drafting game in which players take on these iconic roles. Over a series of hands, players try to win “cases” by drafting crimes and clues drawn from Conan Doyle’s stories. Players mark their winning positions on the scenario board. If Moriarty can score three in a row, he can activate his master plan for the win! If Holmes can foil Moriarty’s plans, he wins!

—description from the publisher

My Thoughts

 This game has a clever decision in having each player play out cards face-down in two rows and having the card in one row be key for Holmes and the other be key for Moriarty. It opens things for some interesting decisions that need to be made in terms of where your stronger cards should go – not only to try and win the contest in that case but also to be able to mark on the board where you need.

 The problem with a game having cards numbered 1-16 is that a hand of high cards is always going to be better than a hand of low cards. However, there are two things this game does to offset that lucky hand of cards. First, it makes you swap hands after placing two cards for the case. That means you’re giving your opponent a chance to use what you didn’t – and you also will see some of those opening cards back again. The second thing it does is have a wrap-around effect where the highest numbers can be defeated by some of the lower numbers (1 can beat 14, 15, or 16, 2 can beat 15 or 16, 3 can beat 16)

 The game immediately feels unbalanced, with Moriarty taking early victories and placing out tokens on the board. But then you get two rounds in and realize suddenly the Moriarty player needs to narrow their focus on what cards they win with, meaning it is harder for them to score meaningful victories. Every game I’ve played has seen the Holmes player come roaring back in a strong way to make things interesting and place the outcome in doubt.

 The box has a nice magnetic close, and top flap is repurposed for the spatial map for this game. It could have easily been a thin piece of cardboard – and one could argue it would be more convenient that way – but I happen to like that extra touch in this small game.

 There is incentive to win big in a round, as players gain bonus placements if they fulfill certain conditions. Moriarty wants to win the majority of cases each round for bonus tiles – although those bonus ones are placed by the Holmes player. Holmes wants to win his aligned case cards to get extra tiles out to block the Moriarty player. This layer of asymmetry adds a nice touch.

 This game is relatively easy to teach, as most gamers will have some familiarity with trick-taking card games and with the spatial aspect that resembles tic-tac-toe. The most difficult concept I’ve had with this has been the difference between the two rows being played, which one is important for each side, and how only one of those has the wrap-around effect while the other will have a trump suit. The comfort of some of these familiar mechanics will make this an easy game to teach to newer gamers while demonstrating a stronger depth of strategy that modern board games will provide.

 I don’t know what sort of game I was expecting on this one but, like Holmes: Sherlock and Mycroft, this is not the Holmes game I was looking for. While it definitely feels more thematic in ways than Sherlock and Mycroft, this still could have any number of themes substituted in without missing much of a beat. I love the theme and the concept in this game. It has all sorts of potential, and sounded so amazing from the description. Maybe I set my expectations too high, or maybe I should have taken a closer look at the actual gameplay on this one. Sadly, the biggest problem this probably has is that it simply isn’t a good fit for my gaming tastes, something that makes it inevitably suffer in spite of its strong points.

Final Thoughts

Holmes and Moriarty is one of those games that, if I was a bigger fan of trick taking games or other more standard card games, could be a stronger hit. I can appreciate all of the cleverness in the game, just as I do for a game like The Fox in the Forest or Custom Heroes, but it’ll never be a game that I think about pulling off the shelf to play because it is not my type of game – something I’ve only recently come to terms with. Did I appreciate the game? Absolutely! Have I enjoyed my plays of the game? Without question. But is this game for me? Unfortunately, no matter how great the theme is and how well they did the mechanics of this game, it is not for me.

This game is clever in ways I definitely appreciate. There is a really solid design in place, and this game can serve as an excellent way to bring more traditional gamers to explore the modern board game scene. This is a fast and enjoyable 2-player experience that presents a ton of crunchy decisions.

I love the asymmetry in the game, and how each side functions in very different ways. It has a clever balance where Moriarty feels powerful really early and then the edge shifts sharply to the Holmes player as the game goes on. Having the cards get played into two different rows, each being resolved in a different way, is brilliant. There is so much that is worthy about this game that, for the price and the size of this one, it is absolutely worth taking a shot on the game. If you enjoyed games like The Fox in the Forest, or have fond memories of playing games involving numbered cards, this one might really suit you well.

Board Gaming · Review for Two

Review for Two – Obsession

Thank you for checking review #81 by Cardboard Clash. My aim is to focus on reviewing board games and how they play for two people and, on occasion, how they play for one person. Because my wife is my primary gaming partner, a lot of consideration goes into finding those games that play well with 2 players, and we typically prefer to find those games that do not require a variant (official or otherwise) in order to play it with just the two of us.

***Note: A review copy of the game was provided in exchange for an honest review.

An overview of Obsession

Obsession is a board game designed by Dan Hallagan that was published in 2018 by Dan Hallagan. The box states it plays 1-4 players in 30-90 minutes and has a BGG weight rating of 3.17.

You are the head of a respected but troubled family estate in mid-19th century Victorian England. After several lean decades, family fortunes are looking up! Your goal is to improve your estate so as to be in better standing with the truly influential families in Derbyshire.

Obsession is a game of 16 to 20 turns in which players build a deck of Victorian gentry (British social upper class), renovate their estate by acquiring building tiles from a centralized builders’ market, and manipulate an extensive service staff of butlers, housekeepers, underbutlers, maids, valets, and footmen utilizing a novel worker placement mechanic. Successfully hosting prestigious social activities such as Fox Hunts, Music Recitals, Billiards, Political Debates, and Grand Balls increases a player’s wealth, reputation, and connections among the elite.

Each turn, players choose a building tile representing a room or outdoor space in and around their 19th century British country house. The tile chosen dictates the event that can be hosted and the guests to be invited. Players must carefully plan, however, to have the proper staff available to service the event and support guests as needed. The reward for success is new investment opportunities, permitting further renovation of the estate (acquisition of more valuable/powerful building tiles), an increase in reputation in the county, an expanding circle of influential acquaintances, and a larger and highly-trained domestic staff.

Throughout the game, a competitive courtship for the hand of the most eligible young gentleman and lady in the county presents specific renovation and reputation objectives. The player who best meets these objectives while accumulating victory points will win the hand of the wealthy love interest and the game.

—description from the publisher

Differences for 2 players

There are fewer tiles seeded into the bag for a 2-player game. Only 3 monuments are used total, one copy of each blue building is used, and all tiles that do not have a solid black dot by the Reputation value are removed from the bag. There are also fewer servants to hire: 4 footmen, two valets, two ladies maids, and one underbutler.

My Thoughts

 Let’s start with the thing that first interested me in Obsession: its theme. I get it, not everyone is going to go nuts over the 19th Century time period, the literary-inspired box, or the period-appropriate photos on the cards. It might even turn some people away from the game. My wife’s first words, when she saw the box, was that it looked boring and dumb. Yet it is this very quality of the game that makes it stand out from the crowds of zombies and Lovecraftian-themed games that oversaturate the market. The theme sets it apart, rather than being something that caters to what is currently trendy.

 And I’d be a horrible reviewer if I didn’t mention how thematic a lot of the game’s mechanics are. You host events in the rooms you’re adding to your estate, inviting family and guests to attend. You need to make sure one of your servants is there to make sure the event is in order, and some guests require additional support from valets of ladies maids so having a vibrant, diverse staff pays off. Those valets and maids, however, can’t be out there entertaining every time – in general the servants you use this turn will be out of rotation for the next turn, but will be back to your pool on the following turn. There’s a lot of great intertwining of mechanics with the theme that went into the design of Obsession, something Dan Hallagan should be commended for.

 I love the process of growing my estate, and the simple decision in the design that encourages players to continue that growth rather than spam the same room or two all game. When a building is used for the first time to host an event, it is flipped over to the side showing a rose in the corner. The first thing this does is usually adds victory points to its overall value – which means that purchasing a tile is sometimes only worthwhile if you intend to use it before the end of the game. This means that a strategy of just buying tiles for the sake of buying a ton of tiles isn’t necessarily a winning one as they can start at 0 or a negative value before that first use. The second thing that happens is that, in most cases, the buildings cost more guest cards from your hand to play again while giving smaller rewards from the room itself. So instead of getting 5 reputation from 2 cards, you’re getting 4 from 3 cards. And while using more cards isn’t necessarily a bad thing (as they give you benefits, too when used), there’s another key ingredient:

 You’re going to have to pass and skip a turn at least once in this game. You get 12 actions, and one of those goes to “nothing” but taking cards back into your hand. It actually isn’t a bad action, but it won’t flip those precious buildings to make them more valuable. You can only go so long before you run out of people, or worthwhile people, to invite to events. I’ve even had a game where I passed twice. But all is not lost when you pass – not only do you get those cards back in hand, but you get some money or you can wipe the building market…

 Money is tight in this game – at the very least it FEELS tight most of the time. Buildings cost from 300-800 pounds, and have modifiers ranging from (I think) -200 to +400. Most guests that provide money give around 100-200 pounds when you use them, and most buildings that provide money give 200-300 pounds. Most of the time, you’re treading just above water. I don’t think I’ve finished a game yet with any money, because it is just that tight for spending. It makes those decisions on what to purchase, and when, even more important.

 The Cabinet of Curiosities is a tile in this game. It is Narnia, and I must buy it every time I see it. Dang it Dan, but you make me have to buy this tile every single time it comes out…and I’m yet to fail to get it when it appears! It is easily my favorite thing in the whole game.

 I enjoy the balance you need to have in order to do well. You want to get a bigger estate, but to use it effectively you also need to gain more guests to invite to events. But in order to use those buildings and guests you probably are going to need to increase your reputation some. And once you start getting more reputable rooms, you’re going to need even more guests, and those more reputable guests are going to demand servants to assist them. Which means you probably need to hire a bigger staff at some point. You’re definitely doing a little engine building, which is one of my favorite things to do in a game.

 The objectives are varied and interesting. I like having secret objectives, and getting 3 of them over the course of the game to score. However, the “easier” ones such as 1VP per Prestige Room in your estate are too undervalued in points. The most valuable ones tend to involve getting 2-3 specific rooms in your estate, but there is no guarantee you’ll see them. The last game I played, we saw all but 7 tiles from the bag and I needed one of those seven tiles (from the start) but it never appeared. That potential for 10+ points never surfaced. The game prior to that, I wiped the market twice in the final three rounds to finally get the two rooms I’d been waiting for to appear in the market. I think I probably broke even, having spent 8 reputation and a passing turn in order to make those market changes. Even when I actively try to avoid taking more than one of those cards, sometimes you just get dealt really crappy objective cards compared to your opponent. Nothing is worse than spending a ton of effort to get those 10 points, or impractically miss them, and then see your opponent getting even more points for collecting servants or hording money.

 I state this solely for those who keep their inserts: this box lid does not close with the insert in there. I haven’t been able to remove it yet as I haven’t pulled out my baggies for sorting yet, but I cannot get this box to close properly no matter how I try. I’m relatively certain it’ll close once that insert is gone, though.

 Perhaps my biggest gripe with this game, even though it is delightfully thematic in a way, is that the rich get richer in this game. I’ve seen it play out two different times, once a 2 players and once at 3. If a person gets one or two key buildings (such as a monument), they can win more than their share of those VP cards. Not only that, but the game rewards the person who gets the most of those VP cards (because let’s be honest, the person with the highest combined VP on the building types needed is almost always going to be the one who was winning most of them along the way) by giving them another 8 VP at the end of the game via one of the Fairchild cards. I would rather see, especially in a 2-player game, one player get a VP card and one get the Fairchild until the next courtship along the way. At least then there’d be a chance to keep up along the way.

Monuments feel way too powerful. Yes, they cost MORE money than the spot they are on. But they give a boatload of VP, almost assuring a victory in that category if needed for the Courtship. Nothing is worse than seeing your opponent wipe the market just once in the game, but happen to see a monument pop into the market and they can afford it and swipe that building without contention. And let’s not even talk about the bonus of gaining a Reputation on every. Single. Player. Turn. It feels so broken, and it is disheartening when your opponent gets a monument first because that adds to their advantage in several key areas. Again, the rich get richer here.

Final Thoughts

A week ago, fresh off playing the game with my sister, I was ready to herald Obsession as a potential best game of 2018. It still might earn that honor since there is yet to be a standout game for me, but it has a longer road to climb after my last play where there was a 60-point difference in a 2-player game. I got steamrolled in a bad way, and that play showed just how important the right set of circumstances can be to this game. For a game that doesn’t feel random, it has a relatively high amount of it tucked into the nooks and crannies of this game. Casual and Prestige guests are blind draws off the top of their respective decks (with few exceptions, which may allow you to draw 2 and keep 1) and their benefits can range wildly. If you happen to draw all low-point guests who provide you with the same things as most of your hand, you’ll do really well in one area but struggle in others. You’ll see 7 different Objective cards and keep 3 during the gameplay, but some of them are dependent on getting specific buildings (which may never appear) or specific colored buildings (which this game isn’t going to reward that specialization over the course of the entire play). The Fairchilds are going to want a specific type of estate focus every quarter of the game, but you only know the current quarter’s focus. Someone can eek ahead because there were 2 green buildings to buy and they happened to get the one that flips to a +3 rather than a +2 and thus get those extra VP and add a Fairchild to their hand for the next quarter.

I could keep going on here, but you get the point by now. I don’t need a game of perfect information – some randomness can add a lot of fun and variety to the game. But when you can look back on a single play and see where every lucky break went the same way then it can be discouraging. Was it an anomaly? Perhaps, but that’s twice where the 1st place player won by 40+ points in my 6 plays of the game. That’s far too high of a percentage so far, and lends me to be cautious toward what this game can hold.

Yet when luck doesn’t trample the players, Obsession brings about a fun and delightful experience. You have some great decisions right out of the gate, such as whether or not to try and get the bonus money and reputation at the two Fairs or keep the 3 VP tile. Trying to figure out how to maximize your one play per round – with 12 rounds of actions across the standard game – is a fun puzzle as long as you don’t play against severe AP opponents. The tiles flip after use, usually giving more VP and making the usage of that tile less appealing (higher cost or diminished rewards, usually) and so that encourages players to make purchases and use those purchased tiles rather than just repeat the same cycle.

Theme is all over in this game, from the delightful meeples to the literature-inspired box to the various guests and their photos and text on the cards. Put on a kettle of tea, play some 19th century music, and revel in the time period that the game tries successfully to evoke. You don’t even need to be a literature buff like myself to enjoy the thoughtfulness that went into making things thematic throughout the game’s appearance and mechanics.

It has a fun solo mode that I need to play a few more times before speaking intelligently about how well that experience goes, but it might provide the best experience out of all the player counts in the box because it gives you several known milestones to overcome from the start and places some pressure on the player to be aggressive in their approach.

Ultimately, this game is one I look forward to exploring more in the future. I was sad, when it was on Kickstarter, that I didn’t have the ability to back the game. It has mostly lived up to every expectation I had of the game from the first time I saw its Kickstarter page – and hopefully with more plays I’ll see the steamrolling victories happen less frequently and can enjoy the package this delivers. While I did get a review copy of the game, I’ll put it this way: If I could travel back to last year when it was on Kickstarter, armed with the experience and knowledge I have of the game so far and with the money available to back it in my bank account, I wouldn’t hesitate for a moment to back the game. It is a good game, probably even a really good game. It has the potential to even be a great game, especially if the solo mode lives up to those first impressions. While I’m not ready to crown this one yet as the best game of 2018, it definitely stands up there as a legitimate contender for that honor.

Board Gaming · First Impressions

First Impressions of Millennium Blades Solo

**Note: The game I played of Millennium Blades was in no way a complete experience, as I only have Set Rotation and a few mini-expansions in my collection so far. No base game was used – but, honestly, the game was able to be played in a complete enough manner to really get a taste for what it offers. I was able to sub in some tokens for the bundles of money and the sell markers and it worked effectively enough to get a taste of the game. There happen to be enough cards in the box to make a full market deck, although I suspect there are a LOT more Core Set cards in the base game that add a lot more accessories.

Magic: The Gathering was one of my first entries into modern board gaming. I had a regular group of guys in high school that I would get together with and we’d spend our weekends playing games of Magic, sessions of Dungeons & Dragons, and dump hours into games on the Playstation 2. I loved the thrill of opening packs and seeing what new powerful cards I could build decks around, I loved building new decks to test out against my group, and I loved trying to take under-valued cards and seeing if I could find combinations to make them work. But eventually high school ended, we all went our separate ways, and Magic: The Gathering left my life.

Last year I found myself immersed in Star Wars: Destiny, and it instantly rekindled both the love and hate I have for these styles of games. Love because there is a thrill in opening packs and finding a great new card to build around and to spend time dreaming up possibilities for card/deck pairings. Hate because it becomes both a time and money sink. Eventually the release cycle’s aggressiveness scared me away from the game and I moved on from Star Wars: Destiny. Early in 2018 I fell into that same dance with the Final Fantasy Trading Card Game. It was a great game, one I still really enjoy playing, but I found I just can’t justify trying to build a collection to be competitive – and the need for real opponents in order to test decks and get better made my skill progression curve quite glacial. It was hard to play more than once or twice a month, and a CCG really needs at least weekly gaming sessions to test and improve decks, and the ability to buy the latest and greatest sets of cards to keep up with what other players will be playing.

Which is why I absolutely am convinced I am going to fall hard for Millennium Blades because it eliminates virtually everything I hate about the CCG scene while embracing the best aspects of that hobby. The buy-in for everything in this game so far is quite reasonable, even at full MSRP from the publisher ($212 for the base game, Set Rotation, all the mini-expansions, and a playmat), when compared to what I heard of people spending for a single cycle of cards in Star Wars: Destiny ($400) – and there has been a cycle out about every 3-4 months since that. There’s a new expansion planned for Kickstarter in early 2019, and that’s still likely to make this cheaper than a single buy-in for one complete cycle of any CCG out there apart from maybe Dicemasters. To play solo, you really only need just over half of that ($80 base game + $40 Set Rotation expansion) – and you’ll end up with such an incredible amount of card variety that it will make your head spin just thinking about it.

But the buy-in alone isn’t the real reason to be a fan of Millennium Blades after a single play as a solo exercise. Set Rotation adds in four bosses to face, each with their own unique deck containing a deck box, 4 accessories, and 8 cards. They will use 2 of those accessories (randomly chosen) and you’ll slowly get to know what those are and can somewhat plan around their deck’s strategy. You can freely look at their 8 cards, but 2 of them won’t be played and you’ll never know what order they will come out – so you can’t completely plan for that, either. Yet had I looked just a little at the boss’s synergies during my 20 minutes of building, I would have seen that he was almost guaranteed to flip each and every card I would get into play. My initial deck plan went right out the window within 2 cards, and I was left scrambling to make lemonade from the cards I didn’t sell or Fusion during the deckbuilding phase.

But I’m getting ahead of myself, because one of the real stars here is that deckbuilding phase! In a non-solo game you’ll do that full phase 3 times, but in the solo game you get just one shot at building that deck (which is broken into two 7-minute phases and a 6-minute phase). This is where you can buy cards (you start with $30, and new cards cost from $3 to $6), sell cards (you can sell at most 4 cards, which are worth from $1 to $9 that I saw, with the average being $4-6) so you can buy around 8-16 cards to add to your starter deck and the other 15 cards you get over the course of the building phases. From all of that you need to figure out what 6 cards you are likely wanting to play, plus a deck box to use and up to 2 accessories to bring, for your match against that boss.

The catch is that cards are blind buys. You know the set they belong to and how much they cost, but you have no idea what cards are underneath. Which is where the longer meta comes in through learning the cards in the sets and where combinations can come from in order to make smarter decisions – which will never come to you in the first play. It is generally a safe bet to buy cards in the same set, as there is often some overarching synergy you can find, but you can also trade 5, 7, or 9 cards of the same “rarity” for a special, powerful promo card that can bring your whole deck together or just provide something powerful to hold back for an emergency.

If this all sounds like a lot – it is. Yet that is what delights me about the game. There is a massive card pool (the base game alone apparently has over 700 cards) of which you’ll use a hefty chunk every time you set up the market. The thrill of the blind buys – and seeing how you can or cannot make that card work with what you’re aiming for – is something close to mimicing that blind buy of packs in a real CCG. The limitation on how much you can purchase, how much time you have to buy and sell, and to piece a deck together is what makes this a crisp package. From setup to teardown (if you maintain the market after the game ends) can be done in under an hour solitaire, and there are ways to string together a gauntlet of boss battles (and a mini expansion that expands those bosses) which will give strong legs to this game.

It scratched every itch I hoped for – and I’ve spent the past 12 hours (apart from when sleeping) constantly thinking back to the game, the clever cards, the decisions I could have made differently, and how to best the boss the next time I face him. The experience has stuck with me ever since the final card was played and the scores tallied, and that is what I want out of a game like this. I want to be theorycrafting card combinations and exploring strategies, finding out how to best make each starter deck work efficiently and analyzing the various sets of cards that can come out. That’s something you don’t get in modern board games very often, but is very much a part of the CCG scene. And so if I can get that CCG experience without breaking the bank account, that is an all-around win.

This might be the best game in the Level 99 Games catalog. It has a good chance of becoming my favorite game in their lineup. It won’t appeal to every gamer, and can’t possibly be recommended for every gaming group or even every solo gamer.

But for those who are seeking a blend of modern with the format of a CCG – and who want their bank account to remain in tact while doing so – this is a game that I think will have a strong appeal, and one I can’t wait to dive back into in order to see if these powerful first impressions hold up after a dozen plays.

Board Gaming · Review for One · Review for Two · Solo Gaming

Review for One and Two – Shadowrift

Thank you for checking review #80 by Cardboard Clash. My aim is to focus on reviewing board games and how they play for two people and, on occasion, how they play for one person. Because my wife is my primary gaming partner, a lot of consideration goes into finding those games that play well with 2 players, and we typically prefer to find those games that do not require a variant (official or otherwise) in order to play it with just the two of us.

***Note: A review copy of the game was provided for what had been planned as a deckbuilding month. With the medical time spent on my daughter since September, than plan went by the wayside.

***Second Note: I didn’t know there was an upcoming Kickstarter for an expansion, but once I became aware of it, I played the game a few extra times in order to get this review up during the campaign. You can find the Kickstarter link here, and at the bottom of this review:…

An overview of Shadowrift

Shadowrift is a board game designed by Jeremy Anderson that was published in 2012 by Game Night Productions and later rereleased with a 2nd Edition by Game Salute (this review is based on the 2nd Edition). The box states it plays 1-6 players in 45-120 minutes and has a BGG weight rating of 2.69.

Haven Town is facing total annihilation at the hands (and teeth) of a horde of monsters from beyond the Shadowrift.

You, the heroes, must band together to drive them back. To do this, you will need powerful spells, skills, attacks and loot. When the game begins, you are a basic hero; you can explore and fight. Luckily for you, Shadowrift is a deck-building game! You can buy new cards to add to your deck, cards that will define you as an adventurer and complement the strengths of your fellow heroes. Unlike other deck-builders, there is constant interaction with your fellow players as you figure out who will gain which benefit from the limited supply of townsfolk, offer their coin to help construct walls, and seek healing from anyone who’s learned such magic.

Shadowrift also features monsters that don’t merely sit waiting to be slain; if you leave them alone, they will rip Haven Town asunder. They’ll kill people, break walls, and kick your heroes in the face. Combat with them is intuitive (though frequently painful). For defeating a monster, heroes gain Heroism, a simple, consistent boost to their power that makes them better at anything they undertake. Since the monsters won’t stop coming until the last Shadowrift is sealed or the town has been built into a mighty fortress, you’ll need every boost you can take.

The second edition of Shadowrift features many improved mechanisms, including a revised system for how monsters choose who to attack (based on types of villagers, instead of specific people) and a new system for monster powers (making them much more dangerous). It also has a revised card layout and a great deal of new and improved artwork.

Differences for 1-2 players

For one player: Assuming one-handed play for solo, you have 8 Heroism rather than 1 per player, and during the Monsters Gain Power round they gain 3 rather than 1 per player. Additionally, the player gets two full turns after each Monster turn; however, the Town and Traveller lineups do change after each player turn. 2 Shadowrifts are added to the deck rather than 1 per player as well.

For two players: Monsters gain 2 power per round, 2 Shadowrifts are added to the monster deck, and 10 Heroism cards are used. Really, these are just based on # of players and in no way changes the rules of the game.

My Thoughts

This game was a novel approach to the deckbuilding genre long before it rose to extreme popularity. To put it into perspective, Dominion came out in 2008. This came out in 2012. It came out after Ascension (2010), Arctic Scavengers (2009), Eminent Domain (2011) and Thunderstone (2009), the same year as Legendary (2012), Fantastiqa (2012) and DC Comics Deck Building Game (2012), and before both Star Realms (2014) and Aeon’s End (2016). Compare it to the ones out before, and around the same time, and this one stands pretty tall in its uniqueness. Maybe only Fantastiqa can really compete in that sense. Shadowrift still provides a very unique deckbuilding game that can stand alongside those other names because there isn’t one of them that does the same thing as Shadowrift.

At first this game appears to be about fighting off hordes of monsters. Then it appears to be a town defense game. Yet it is both of those things while at the same time being neither of those things. Some games, when they try to be clever and incorporate too much, lose some polish in the final product. And maybe the 1st edition had some of that. But the 2nd edition of Shadowrift juggles the deckbuilding genre, multiple types of currency, hordes of monsters, and town defense in a way that I’ve never seen before. For an older game (relatively speaking), it is surprising to get such a breath of fresh air from this game’s approach.

There are a lot of combinations in the box. Yes, astronomical computations could be made. But essentially you get six monster factions to fight against using a set of 8 market cards of your choosing. Most people will probably play a monster faction a handful of times, realistically, before wanting to either move on or expand the game. But even there you have roughly 20-25 plays just in the base game alone. The nice thing with these market and monster-driven games is that they are easy enough to integrate expansions into without needing to really change any core rules.

There are three currencies in the game, and you start with just the most basic of them in your deck. You can spend 2 to buy coins, which are one-time use and can be spent in a variety of ways. The most difficult to obtain would be the magic symbols, which often appear on spells but then you get the decision, when it is in your hand, on whether to use it for the spell or for the magic symbol. This factors into what I’ll be alluding to shortly regarding the absence of deck thinning, making it essential to decide early how to fill your deck with cards. Nothing is more frustrating than always drawing the Seal you need to clear a Shadowrift and never having a Magic symbol to use its ability.

Another neat deckbuilding decision comes from the Epic symbols on some market cards. On a player round (players take turns simultaneously, meaning the order in which you play cards as a team can matter and so communicating as a team is essential to be as effective as possible) you cannot play more Epic cards than there are players. So in a solo game (one handed, of course) you can play only one. Draw a hand of 3 of them? Too bad (unless a specific villager is in the Town to let you play an extra one). These are often the most powerful effects, usually based around combat in some fashion. You definitely want them in your deck. But you don’t want JUST them in your deck. They add interesting decisions along the way as you play the game, something you’re going to hear me say more and more about Shadowrift.

The Town and the Travelers are what really gives this game flavor and makes it shine when compared to some of the other staples in the genre. At the start you have 10 villagers in the Town deck, each of which have some sort of effect when in the Town or an Aid ability the players can use (once) on their turn. There is also a slightly thicker Traveler deck, which will flip over two cards every round. Some of the cards are people you can buy into the town deck, usually costing Coins and/or Prowess (the generic resource). However, there are some red Infiltrator cards that, when flipped into the face-up Traveler spots, immediately go into the Town discard pile. Which means they get shuffled in the next time you need to shuffle the Town cards to refill those five cards (which happens every round). If you ever have 5 corpses and/or Infiltrator cards into the Town display at the start of the Heroes’ turn, you lose. This deck refills before the monsters go, who then go before the Heroes. Which means even getting out 3 of those red cards can signal danger if there are some monsters about to act and Kill some villagers. Lucky for you, most Infiltators have a cost you can pay to put them back on the bottom of the Traveler deck (which is also where dead townspeople go). It is a simple pair of mechanisms at work here, but they add such intriguing decisions: do you spend resources to buy cards for your deck, or do you add travelers to the Town, or do you try and remove those Infiltrators?

The monsters follow a very simple sequence once they enter play. Every town they advance one space and do what is printed for that space# on their card. Many times it is to Kill some symbol of villager in the Town display, which not only removed that Villager from the deck (it goes to the bottom of the Traveler deck), but it also adds a Corpse card in their place. Which not only thins out the useful cards in that Town deck, it also advances the odds of losing. Because you can see what monsters will do on the next space, you can plan ahead on which ones you NEED to focus on taking out. However, with just 2 attack in your starting 10 cards, you’ll need to “level up” your hero some before taking down the biggest of baddies…

We come now to the elephant in the room that I can already hear people begrudging this game over: there is no deck thinning mechanism. Yep, you read that right. There are ways to remove wounds and afflictions, both cards that enter your deck via monsters, but once you buy a card it is in there forever. Same with your starting ten cards. Bold move? Perhaps, and something no deckbuilder today would dream of doing. Yet it is slightly balanced from the Heroism cards you get from killing monsters, which not only counts as any 1 of the 3 resources, but also lets you draw a card immediately when you draw the card into your hand. There’s also some Might cards that are the cheap currency which allow you to draw a card, but remove themselves when used for anything but a keep-in-play trigger on an action card. Rather than begrude the game for what it lacks, this should be embraced as an interesting puzzle each round. Every card you buy makes it less likely you’ll draw every card in that deck, meaning it needs to carry its weight. Is that generic 1 melee damage worth adding to your deck, or should you just buy a coin instead for a future turn? This is one of the things that makes this game so darn interesting to puzzle out right now, because most deckbuilders you can take thinning for granted and race to remove those starter cards.

Getting the rifts closed is important in the game. With 1 or 2 players, you’re looking for two rifts that are added to a 20 card deck – one in the top 10 and one in the bottom 10. Another element of randomness, you see. However, you have a card in your starting deck that can place the top Monster card from the deck onto the bottom of that deck – and you can always see what the next card is coming off the deck (it is face-up) so you won’t accidentally throw that Shadowrift to the bottom. There are a few other cards that can help cycle those cards, too, letting you dig a little faster. I’ve seen both Shadowrifts only once, but I’m not a great player yet. It stinks that your rifts could be cards 1 and 22 off the deck, but it is great that you can help speed it along.

My first plays of the game felt like I was losing to the luck of random draw. And yes, that will always be a possibility. If you get a strong reaction toward knowing your game could end due to a bad draw, this one might leave a sour taste for you. However, the redeeming quality in here is that you can do things to give that Town deck better odds by buying new Travelers, eliminating Infiltrators as soon as you can, or preventing the monsters from Killing townsfolk. It is a lot to juggle, especially solo. I’ve heard the game is far easier at higher player counts, simply because you have more hands on deck to specialize and deal with the unique areas of the game. When playing solo, those resources are scarce enough that it makes every decision matter. And even when you are playing well, it still could end with 4 of the 5 cards flipping out red and the one monster that just got added happens to Kill the exact symbol that isn’t red. It can happen even if you only have 4 red cards in that deck. Early in the game, this doesn’t sting so bad. But if it happens when you’re nearing the end of a grueling, long fight…that could become table-flipping territory for some players.

Final Thoughts

When I looked at this game, my immediate thought was Aeon’s End plus Marvel Legendary. While it has some thematic and mechanical similarities to both, this game is nothing like either of those games, but is more like Legendary than it is like Aeon’s End.

What if I told you this game originally came out before either of those games?

Some older games do not age well. Others just take longer to gain popularity and hit their prime. I’m convinced that Shadowrift still has not “arrived” yet in terms of making waves, but it definitely should not be overlooked. This game provides a far more thematic approach to defending the town than you had in Aeon’s End. This game gives a greater challenge, and requires far less setup/teardown time than Marvel Legendary.

And boy, is this game a challenge. Not necessarily because of any heightened difficulty built into the game, but rather because you are trying to balance several things effectively. The obvious threat comes from the monster deck and the interactions brought about by the monsters traveling across the play area. Fighting them is essential, yet clogs the deck through wounds (usually) gained from battle. But if you overlook the travellers coming to town, you could find yourself filled with infiltrators and corpses and bring a premature end to your efforts, no matter how successful you are at fighting back the monstrous horde.

My first loss in the game was bitter. Not only was I doing a poor job at killing dragons, I was poorly managing the cards clogging up my hand and completely ignored the Town deck. It got overrun with bad cards, which meant sooner or later I’d see 5 dealt out to give me the loss. I felt like the game was impossibly hard and lacked good decisions. I tried it again against the same match, with the same market, and had much of the same results. Turns out the recommended starting game wasn’t a great starting one for winning solo.

But as I kept returning to the game and playing further, I started to get better at tracking my deck of cards and keeping an eye toward the Town deck. Have I perfected that balance? Hardly. In fact, I’d argue that I am quite a ways away from hitting that efficient stride after 6 plays of the game.

Which is something I really like about this game, because it makes you think in ways that other games in this genre don’t. Not only are there three resource types in the game, there are also two methods of attack. Resources can be spent to improve your deck, or to improve the Town deck, and sometimes to help cycle the monster deck. The game is more than just get buying power early to get attack power and then stop buying cards while you smack enemies around. The game is more than culling cards ruthlessly until you can play your entire hand for super turns every round.

And that is a breath of fresh air in a genre that, at times, can feel repetitive and stale. There’s a reason why Mystic Vale is my favorite deckbuilder: it takes the genre and does something fresh with it. Aeon’s End did the same thing with the breaches and not shuffling. But this game takes the deckbuilder concept and really makes you have to consider, every single turn, how your decisions will impact your long-term goals.

As a solo/co-op gamer, I hate high win percentages (looking at you, Sentinels of the Multiverse). My favorite game is sitting firmly at a 31% win rate after over a hundred plays, and that feels perfect. The wins in Shadowrift are coming for me eventually. And until then, I’ll enjoy having this hit the table as part of a rotation of games I definitely want to make sure I play every month.

As a reminder, the newest expansion is on Kickstarter right now. And yes, I am a backer. That should confirm things: I enjoy this game and it is in my collection to stay.…

Board Gaming · Review for Two

Review for Two – Fantastiqa Rival Realms

Thank you for checking review #79 by Cardboard Clash. My aim is to focus on reviewing board games and how they play for two people and, on occasion, how they play for one person. Because my wife is my primary gaming partner, a lot of consideration goes into finding those games that play well with 2 players, and we typically prefer to find those games that do not require a variant (official or otherwise) in order to play it with just the two of us.

An Overview of Fantastiqa: Rival Realms

Fantastiqa: Rival Realms is a board game designed by Alf Seegert that was published in 2018 by Eagle-Gryphon Games. The box states it plays 1-2 players in 20-30 minutes and has a BGG weight rating of 2.50.

Victims of a curious card trick gone very, very wrong, you and a rival Magician find yourselves lost in a billowing sea of fog. When it dissolves, you gaze upon the immense emptiness of Fantastiqa, the legendary land of fabled beasts and fantastiqal quests, only moments before it is summoned into being…

And you are the Magicians who will summon it!

With nothing but a shared pack of magical cards, you and your opponent continue your competition by creating Rival Realms in Fantastiqa itself. Summon strange landscapes! Adventure through arcane regions! Find fabled beasts! Gather odd and awesome artifacts! The Magician who scores the most points for her Realm in these weird ways is declared the winner.

Rival Realms is a standalone game. You do NOT need a copy of Fantastiqa to play this game.

Players play cards from their hands to create Regions and to go adventuring in each of their Rival Realms. By collecting Adventure Tokens, players gain the assistance of Creatures and Artifacts which allow them to perform special actions that help them explore further. The player who scores the most points by creating and exploring Regions, connecting Regions of the same type, and by completing Quests wins the game.

Differences for two players

None, as this is a 2-player only game, with a built-in solo mode!

My Thoughts

 The simplicity in concept cannot be understated here. You are trying to make three rows of 6 cards, going in ascending order. The deck contains 50 cards, numbered 1-50. In a nutshell, this is what you are fighting to accomplish. However, like any great game, there is far more to it than meets the eye. A game with just this exercise in ordering could be fun, but would lack staying power. This game, however, adds two major wrinkles (covered in the next two points).

 Simply filling your board with cards might be enough to end the game, but it won’t be enough to win unless your opponent gets stuck with a ton of negative points. Your other action available (besides placing a card out) is to adventure. You see, each player has a standee on their half and this standee can move to adjacent cards in their row, and to new rows across valleys (cards placed between the rows, half being on the mountain side and half on the valley side). An explored card is turned sideways, and can be moved across for free on future turns. To explore, you have to discard a card of a matching terrain type (or flip a token with the matching color). However…

 Those cards used to explore go into your opponent’s discard pile, which they can draw from (any card in there, not just the top one) at the end of their turn rather than the top of the deck. Which does two things, potentially: allows them to draw the numbers they might need to fill in a row, or draw the terrain they need to explore. The decision of what cards to use for your own exploring can be a critical choice to make, as you don’t want to gift your opponent with the perfect cards they need.

 Tying further into all of this comes the scoring at the end of the game, which is done in a remarkably clever way. There are six quest cards (more on those below) that reward the player who gains specific achievements first and awards 4-7 points, players lose points for every slot they didn’t fill with a card, players gain 2 points for cards in the same row that is adjacent to the same terrain, and 3 points for the same concept but from row to row, connected by valleys. So just rushing out cards to fill your board won’t net you a ton of points, you need to balance the exploring as well. But then you need to consider the placement as well, as matching terrain cards are 5 numbers apart but give extra points during scoring. But then they also require more cards of that terrain type to explore them, meaning you need to horde that terrain for a few turns in order to pull it all off. Clever, clever, clever.

 The tokens that can be earned via exploring should not be underestimated. Not only do the animal ones allow a substitution for using a card when exploring, but there are three gems and three artifacts. The artifacts are all different, allowing you to instantly move to a new location, reposition cards, or even take an extra turn. The gems are worth 1 point at the end of the game…but only if you don’t use them. And you’ll be tempted to at some point, as they allow you to take 2 cards from any pile to your hand, even your opponents’ discard pile. Or they can be used to move the raven onto a mountain, essentially making it a valley while he is there.

 Once you get the main game down (one play is likely enough), there are two ways to expand your fun: events and enchantments. Events shuffle a few more cards in the deck and, when the event is drawn, it is revealed and executed. The player then draws a replacement card. The enchantments alter fundamental aspects of the game, such as setup and gameplay, but is known from the start by both players. Both of these modular items are fun inclusions that add a little variety and randomness that players will have to work around.

 There is a solo mode for the game in the box – I’ve played it only once so far but it is an enjoyable puzzle as you race against the Raven. Look for a review of the solo mode in either December or early 2019!

 If you have a tiny table, this game will NOT be your friend. For a small, compact box…this thing needs a ton of real estate! You need room to make a 3 x 6 surface for cards, that is wide enough for them all to get explored (tapped), and have space for rows of mountains and valleys between them (thankfully, these are small cards). Then do it again for the other player. Could you play this on a pair of airplane trays? Yes, but only through creative stacking of cards being played. Very creative stacking.

 I like the raven in theory. He does something really helpful in making an impassible path usable. Or he lets you draw extra cards. However, we almost never use him! If those gems weren’t worth points at the end of the game, he’d be used often. But rarely is he an essential part of the plan, usually only coming into play to pull off a big move late in the game that is going to earn more points than the player is losing by using that token.

 I am all for clever flavor text. In fact, I absolutely LOVE the flavor text in this game. However, there is nothing to evoke the fun of the text on those cards. No special art or meaning, just the text on the cards at the bottom. And do you know what that means? It often goes unread and unnoticed. I understand the reasoning for the cards having no special art. But I think it was a missed opportunity here to add immersion that complements that flavor text.

 Player elimination is never a good thing in a game. This has a similar vibe, in that if a player cannot make a play on their turn they have to reveal their hand and pass. This removes them from the game, and the other player can keep on going until the game ends by either depleting the draw deck, placing the 18th land card, or passing as well. Should there be a penalty for painting yourself into a corner? Sure. Watching your opponent potentially play for 5+ more rounds with no pressure on the game ending is not the ideal punishment.

Final Thoughts

When I was at Gen Con this year, the Eagle-Gryphon booth was on my short list of stops that I had to make before I left, and it earned that for two reasons: I wanted to see Vital Lacerda’s Escape Plan and demo it if possible (I saw it, but they didn’t run demos) and to pick up Fantastiqa if it was there. The wonderful Mina’s Fresh Cardboard reviewed it so long ago and I fell in love with the game’s artwork, mechanics, theme, and literary inspirations. I hadn’t played it yet, but on the strength of her review I was ready to purchase that game with my very limited spending budget. Sadly, they did not have any copies of that game.

Happily, they had this there and I picked it up instead.

This game has served as my introduction to Alf Seegert as a designer, and it was a pleasant one. The game is simple at its heart, yet how everything flows together makes it as beautiful to experience as the art on the cards. Like Hanamikoji, the core of how to play is simple and it gets the weight, and depth, through the interactions and the strategy within the game. The star of the show, of course, is the clever way cards are discarded after spending them to explore – that in itself makes this game one I love to play because it makes you pay attention to what our opponent might need before you use a card. The last thing you want to see is them drawing turn after turn from that discard pile you’ve been fueling.

Which then ties into the Adventuring portion of the game, being one of the two actions you can take on your turn. You can explore as many unexplored cards as you are able to on your turn, so long as you do not double back to the same card. But wait, there’s mountains blocking your path across some of the board. Oh, and those cards you use go to your opponent’s discard pile. But there’s also tokens you collect via exploring (some of which can be used in place of a card for exploring), and a lot of the scoring centers around explored cards. So suddenly those cards in your hand have two purposes: the number or the terrain type.

And those are just a few of the layers of this onion you get to peel away, delightfully, as you play this game. Because there is rarely an easy, obvious decision to make. Every move can and should be considered carefully because it can have some lasting effects later in the game. Which leads me to one of my only concerns: a player prone to severe analysis paralysis might find this to make their brain explode in the same way it might while playing Hanamikoji. Those simple decisions are rarely able to reveal the perfect moves to make, and a person who needs to make THE optimal move every turn could stall out for long periods of time while trying to decipher what is that optimal move.

But for gamers like us, who play for fun and who enjoy those challenging decisions but rarely let them force us into long delays of quiet contemplation, this game will definitely deliver a delightful blend of tactical and strategic decisions within clever, yet simple, gameplay. I am always eager to play this game again, to add in some new cards that will affect the gameplay, and ultimately to pick up the small expansion and see how it alters the overall experience in this tiny box of fun.

Board Gaming · Review for Two · Two-Player Only

Review for Two – Professor Treasure’s Secret Sky Castle

Thank you for checking review #78 by Cardboard Clash. My aim is to focus on reviewing board games and how they play for two people and, on occasion, how they play for one person. Because my wife is my primary gaming partner, a lot of consideration goes into finding those games that play well with 2 players, and we typically prefer to find those games that do not require a variant (official or otherwise) in order to play it with just the two of us.

**Note: A review copy of this game was provided in exchange for an honest review.

An Overview of Professor Treasure’s Secret Sky Castle

Professor Treasure’s Secret Sky Castle is a board game designed by Jason D. Kingsley that was published in 2018 by Level 99 Games. The box states it plays 2 players in 15-30 minutes and has a BGG weight rating of 2.00.

That dastardly Professor Treasure is at it again! This time, he’s stolen all the world’s treasures and hidden them away in a secret floating castle! As an intrepid treasure hunter, you and your friends have finally managed to track down the castle. However, another team of explorers is already here!

Professor Treasure’s Secret Sky Castle is a competitive puzzle game in which you and your opponent race to find keys, unlock treasure chests, and collect priceless treasures from around the world and history! Send out your team of treasure hunters, each with their own unique way to explore the castle. But beware! Your opponent will try to thwart your plans and grab the treasure for themselves!

—description from the publisher

Differences for two players

None, as this is a 2-player only game!

My Thoughts

 It will never be a favorite mechanism, but I really like the action programming in this one and how it is handled. Both players have the same 8 roles, of which 2 are randomly removed (potentially making both players using a different 6 roles). After the tiles are placed for the map, the players simultaneously break their cards into groups. The first player of the round makes 3 groups of 2, the second player makes 2 groups of 3. The the players take turns putting out a grouping at a time onto the board. I really enjoy this aspect of the game, and need more games with something similar.

 Pairing with the programming is that all characters have a determined order of activation, with the 1’s triggering first and ascending up to the 7’s. The first player’s card goes first when both players have the same card# in play. This adds a good, strategic depth to not only the placement of your cards, but also how you group the cards, when to put that group out, and more.

 I love that all 8 cards are unique in how they can be placed and what they do. Some are placed directly onto a tile and take that tile. Some are placed outside a column or row and can take any tile in that column or row. Some can shift tiles around, or thieve tiles as an opponent takes one. Since you don’t know up front what 6 cards your opponent is able to use in a round, the planning at the start can be an interesting game of trying to decide what to place and where with those first cards.

 Scoring in this game is far more intuitive than I expected from reading the rules. Since it is all done at the end of the game, there is no bookkeeping to do along the way. And since you keep the tiles you earn, there is no tracking it that way. There is also a pair of great player aids with how all three things score. Overall, well done.

 This game wouldn’t be as good without a measure of pressing your luck, and it comes here in the form of skeleton keys. You see, chest are worth a lot of points but need keys (1-4 per chest) to open them. Each key you have can be used once per round, which means if you need more keys than you have available you have to take Skeleton Keys to open that chest. Not only are they worth negative points (after the first one you take), but they become increasingly more impactful if you take too many (for instance, the 5th key would be worth -4 points, the 6th worth another -5 points) so you need to decide how aggressive you want to be on taking chests.

 This game could have been done using just cards. Given the production by Level 99 Games, it wouldn’t have surprised me to see all cards in there. However, the tiles in this box are fantastic quality and enhance the experience of building the map each round and the stacks made of tiles as you collect them is fun, too.

 Not enough good can be said about the artwork done by Fabio Fontes and Laura La Vito at Level 99 Games. There are big names in the board game art world, but these two (and Nokomento) are severely underrecognized as a whole. The art in this game is crisp and clean, and the graphical design is intuitive and complementary of the game design.

 This game has a little variety because you’ll only use 6 of the 8 cards each round and there is a good chance a few tiles won’t appear. But how I wish there was a little beyond that in this box – a few “advanced” roles to mix in after some plays, or more tiles than the exact number you’d need as a maximum. There’s a little room here to add a mini-expansion in the future, maybe adding 5-6 tiles of a set together where if you get 1-2 of them you lose points and move into some strong points if you get 5-6 of them.

 There is a small problem with the number of rounds in this game and the advantage it provides to the player who goes first. Since the first player in a round places their final cards last, they can make those last decisions with perfect information about what their opponent is doing. Granted, this requires grouping well and saving the right pair to place last, but this feels like a position of power. So with 3 rounds, the start player goes first twice in a game. Yet 3 rounds is the perfect number for the game, as it would get ridiculous (or really uninteresting) in a 4th round, and would end prematurely in the 2nd round. So while I don’t have a good answer for how to fix it, and it isn’t something that breaks/ruins the game, it definitely feels like the start player gets a small advantage over the course of the game.

 I hate the decision to have the rulebook to be a folded oversized sheet of paper, essentially. It isn’t really feasible to have it unfolded on the table while playing, meaning you need it folded up beside you and will need to unfold it to look rules up. I’d much prefer a small booklet, which would also be good for referencing things in an organized manner.

Final Thoughts

When I got my review copy at Gen Con, I knew only two things for sure about this game: it has an awesomely unique title and was produced by one of my personal favorite publishers. I also knew that my wife had yet to find a game (other than, finally, Argent: The Consortium) that she really liked from Level 99 Games. Enjoyed enough to tolerate? Sure, she hasn’t hated anything from Level 99 yet, but she hadn’t instantly liked any of them to want to play more. I’m happy to report that she really liked this one, an opinion that mirrors my own feelings about this game.

In fact, one of my favorite things about this game is that it uses a mechanic completely missing from our collection: action programming. I’ve played a very small handful of those games, and I think the only one my wife has tried has been How to Rob a Bank (leave me recommendations on non-cooperative ones to try in the comments, please!). So I was very interested in how this would pan out when it hit the table for us. This is a game that is going to exist in our collection for the same reason that games like Holmes: Sherlock & Mycroft do – they are games that will never be our favorites, but are unique enough and small enough that we’ll want to pull them back out several times a year for a game or three (likely a best-of-three series). For the price on this one, there is plenty of game to keep us coming back for years to come without it growing stale.

While it would be great to see some more variety in the cards or tiles, the simplicity of everything in here allows the game to get out of the way and open things up to strong, creative play. I knew this was a gem when, during our first two plays of the game, we were both complaining about moves the other person made…in a good way. You’re going to get in each others’ way, resulting from clever (or lucky) placement or selection. If we had our own “Glory to Rome” board, it’d get filled with tallies over the course of a best-of-three play of this one.

And really, that is what I want from a filler game: a game that fills a unique niche in my collection, has quick setup/teardown time, and provides a very thinky and competitive game experience against my wife. For the small box this comes in, at a great price point, this is a quality 2-player game from a company that puts out a lot of excellent 2-player games. While all of their games may not appeal to every couple, this one will have a more universal appeal than most.

Board Gaming · Review for Two

Review for Two – Carthago: Merchants & Guilds

Thank you for checking review #77 by Cardboard Clash. My aim is to focus on reviewing board games and how they play for two people and, on occasion, how they play for one person. Because my wife is my primary gaming partner, a lot of consideration goes into finding those games that play well with 2 players, and we typically prefer to find those games that do not require a variant (official or otherwise) in order to play it with just the two of us.

An Overview of Carthago: Merchants & Guilds

Carthago: Merchants & Guilds is a board game designed by Ralph Bienert and Bernd Eisenstein that was published in 2018 by Capstone Games. The box states it plays 2-4 players in 60-90 minutes and has a BGG weight rating of 3.00.

Carthage – about 800 years BC.Founded as a humble trading post by the Phoenicians, the city quickly grew into an important trade hub where precious goods from around the ancient world were traded.

In Carthago, players represent merchants who attempt to increase their wealth and influence while improving their status within the Merchant’s Guild. Become the greatest merchant in Carthage by loading valuable wares, financing expeditions, and exerting influence in clever ways. An extraordinary card-driven game of tactics that demands making the right decisions at the right time!

Discover and trade valuable goods to acquire special abilities. Gain influence by trading goods. Use your influence to battle enemies, secure more seats in the Merchant’s Guild, or unlock special achievements. Multi-use cards provide players various ways to improve their status within the Merchant’s Guild. The game’s components are language-independent.

Differences for two players

On the surface, very little changes regarding the gameplay on Carthago regardless of player count. The number of ships in the harbor decrease to 3 (# of players +1) and the board pieces clearly identify what ones are used in a 2-player game. The biggest change comes from the use of neutral pieces. They serve no function other than being obstacles, with discs covering the four corner seats on that board, and both unused color cylinders being placed on the action wheel. When you use an action where a neutral cylinder is located, you have to discard a card to the right side of your board (like you would if an opponent was present) and move that neutral cylinder clockwise one space at the end of your turn (it goes to the next unoccupied action space, so it may skip up to 2 spaces on the action wheel). That’s it, the rest of the game plays out like normal.

My Thoughts

 A lot of what this game does right is how it handles the action wheel. For every other player’s cylinder on the space you go to, you have to pay an extra card from your hand to use the action. So some actions in a 2-player game will be “free”, requiring no additional discards, while others will likely cost you an extra card. With a starting hand of 7 cards, you can afford to pay extra twice before you need to start tapping into cards earned from the market or from ships. While the 2-player game loses the risk of a spot costing 2-3 extra cards, it makes it so most spaces will cost you something which makes planning ahead essential, as you can predict how those cylinders will move (to the next unoccupied action space going clockwise) and, if you read your opponent right, you can know when a space should open up for you to move in and take a cheaper action. This game requires efficiency here, something I really enjoy.

 I love multi-use cards. Honestly, it is one of my favorite things to see in a game, as it provides difficult decisions from turn to turn. Here they can be used for their action, for the good, or for the monetary value. The ideal would be to never use those cards for their action, as it is the least effective way to employ the card – however, it does gain the benefit of returning to your hand at the end of the act if you use it for the action (or as the added cost for an action if another player is there, too).

 The guild is an interesting mechanic in the game. There are two guild houses on the action wheel, and they move clockwise after being used. Here is where you go to either purchase a seat in the Senate, or to purchase an end-game scoring achievement. This is the primary way you’ll end up spending cards (most likely) from the market and ships – as their currency value. And the brilliance of this is that it ties in with both the multi-use cards (because you’re needing to decide if to spend them here as currency and how many to use) and the action wheel (is it worth spending an extra action card to go where the guild is now – if I wait, does that let my opponent get the spot I wanted?).

 The game is tight, granting you exactly 15 actions over the course of the game. You will never feel like you’ve accomplished everything you wanted in a round, yet at the same time you can usually see how much you were truly able to do by the end. This makes me want to play it again and explore how to be more effective and efficient the next time I play.

 I like a little set collection in a game, especially when it plays off that multi-use card aspect by forcing you to use the cards for the goods, and trade in 2-3 of them. Your reward? Removing a disc off your player board, which can gain you extra seats in the Guild at the end, boost your attack power, or just get you more discs in a faster method. Bonus seats are given for emptying a full row, too, adding extra layers of decisions and strategies on how to use those cards and when to take that action.

 Scoring in this game is far more interesting and clever than I initially realized. While the achievement tiles are fairly standard fare (more on those to come later), the real showstopper comes from the Guild seats. You see, points here come from the number of seats are covered by your discs, plus bonus seats uncovered from your player board, plus bonus seats gained from emptying columns on that player board, times the number of ships you have. What does that mean? You can go heavy into seats and pick up a couple of ships and score well. You can go heavy into ships and pick up a seat or two and clear some of your board and do well. One strategy does not rule them all, which adds to the replay value, and excitement during the game, of Carthago.

 In spite of what I’ll be stating next, I really do like the use of the ships in this game. There are two harbors, one where you deliver a good of the matching type to the ship and one where you flip a random ship and compare attack values. You need to spend actions to place discs on each of these areas (meaning you’ll spend a minimum of 2 actions setting up) and then use an action to trade, which allows you to activate both areas (or just one, should you have a disc in only one of the harbors). Even better is when you deliver goods at the main harbor, that ship goes to your supply and all ships behind your harbor space move forward one space. Which allows a clever player to plan around their opponent…or for the mean player to use that action one turn faster to move that ship out of the harbor space your opponent is sitting on.

 Let’s not pretend that the randomness element doesn’t exist in here – probably just a bit more impactful than I’d like in a game like this. It comes into play in three primary ways: the market, the attack ship, and the rewards from a ship. Usually you’re looking at the market to try and collect the required sets to unlock spaces on your board and get more discs. That can get frustrating when you have 2/3 of a card type and the third one never appears in the market. The attacking of the ship is a blind flip of a card value 1-6…your base attack is 1 and it caps at 5 without a ship’s special ability to add +2 meaning there’s always a chance of victory or defeat in what could ultimately be a wasted space which required an action to place the disc to use in the first place. Finally, there are few things worse than winning a ship and getting rewarded and you gain a single card, while your opponent flips 2 small cards and then one big one when they fill a ship’s order on the next turn. Because you flip cards off the deck until you equal or exceed the value printed on the ship, this can happen far more often than you’d expect.

 The ships you gain not only earn you cards that are worth actions/currency/goods, they also go to your personal supply and provide you with a usable action that can be used on your turn in addition to moving on the wheel. These range from wiping the market to moving ships in the harbor to being able to purchase achievement spots from a previous age. I love this in concept, but so far I rarely see use from any player out of these extra actions because they rarely become necessary. However, the other nice thing is the market action lets you flip a ship back to its ready side, meaning they don’t have to be 1-time use abilities.

 The end-game scoring achievement tiles are the biggest detriment in this game. Not only are there not enough of them to add variety (2 of the 3 for each age are used in a game), but they feel undercosted. The first person to mark one only has to pay 2, the second person 5. Cards range in value from 2-6, so the first player to mark one has to pay only one card guaranteed. Considering the price of a Senate seat in comparison, and how many points these scoring achievements can be worth, and how easy it can be to get at least 6 points from most of them, they just feel like the obvious choice for using your coins/guild action.

Final Thoughts

Carthago is a game that Clay from Capstone rightly put onto my radar as one I would probably enjoy and would play well with two players, and this was definitely the best purchase I made at Gen Con this year. While my wife wishes we didn’t need to use neutral pieces in the game, it isn’t like they do anything other than add cost to actions and therefore makes your decisions a little harder and the order of taking actions more important. I feel it would definitely lose out on something if the neutral items were removed, making it a far more open game that requires less planning and provides more abundance for cards and resources. The tightness is part of what makes this game enjoyable, as scores typically have ranged from 30-50 as an overall range across our plays.

After just a handful of plays, this game shot up among the contenders for my favorite game released in 2018. Two more plays last week only solidified that placement, as this is a tight game about efficiency in action selection, resource/hand management, and planning ahead. That in itself would be enough, but it is also a game with sharp elbows as your opponent can easily foil your plans in a multitude of ways. You never openly play things in opposition to your opponent, but the game is small and tight enough that you’re always going to get in each other’s way – something I delight in even if I am not always happy about it in the heat of the moment.

I’ve mentioned before that I enjoy the effective deployment of multi-use cards, and this one does a nice job with that as every card (apart from your starting hand) can be used in three different ways. Most of the time you’ll use the starting hand as the five actions in an era, but sometimes you want or need more of a specific action. Or you had to discard too many cards with your movement, and so I like that the market cards all have actions on there, too.

The ships are a great aspect of the game, and having two ways to get them is great. Maybe I’m just underutilizing them, but the actions on the ships are mostly just okay during the gameplay. I’ve seen cases for each of them being useful, but I’m as likely to not use the ship’s ability over the course of the game.

Yet this is not a perfect game, even though it is delightful and hits all of the right notes along the way. Ultimately, replay value in here is what comes into question as there is not a lot of change. Sure, you’ll have different ships at different times and a different market, making certain resources more scarce than others and affecting how much currency is “available” at a time. What I’m talking about is the scoring goals on the act tiles. In the box there are 3 tiles per act, and you use 2 of them per game. That means ⅔ of those tiles are used every game and even if the next game uses the unused tile, you’ll still have a repeated scoring condition. This doesn’t detract from the game experience, but certainly could limit its freshness upon future plays.

Overall I really like Carthago. It would certainly be somewhere in my Top 25 Games if I remade that list today, and this game is priced really well at a $40 MSRP. This game has the meaty decisions that I love as a heavy gamer, combined with a simple ruleset that can be taught to almost any gamer in a short span of time. Between the value of this game, the excellent gameplay, and the moderate rules overhead in the box – this becomes the sort of game I don’t hesitate to recommend to almost any sort of gaming group. And because the game scales quite well, it would be a solid experience whether you have 2, 3, or 4 players.