Review for One · Solo Gaming

Review for One: Dragon Keepers

Thank you for checking review #118 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 copy of the game at the cost of shipping in exchange for an honest review. All opinions remain my own.

An overview of Dragon Keepers

Dragon Keepers is a board game designed by Catalina Lacerda and Vital Lacerda that is published by Knight Works LLC. The box state it plays 1-6 players and has a playtime of 10-40 minutes.

In this fantasy universe, each player is the chief of a tribe of dragon keepers, defending the dragons from attacks by the evil hunter. The hunter wants to see those cute dragons dead, but must get past the dragon keepers. The keepers belong to different tribes but together they have the common goal of protecting the dragons. The keepers use magic in their duels with the evil hunter.

Dragon Keepers was designed by Vital Lacerda and his youngest daughter, Catarina. Says Vital, “She is the one who knows a lot about dragons and I could have never been able to do this design without her.” Dragon Keepers has two different games in the box:

KEEPER GAME: 3–6 players | 10–15 minutes | ages 6+
In this competitive mode, the hunter rolls dice to attack the dragons and the players choose which of the attacked dragons they want to defend. The game ends when one player manages to heroically defend three different dragons or if one dragon gets three hits. The winner is the player with more successful defenses.

DRAGON GAME: 2–4 players | 20–40 minutes | ages 9+
In this cooperative mode, the keepers work together to defend and train the dragons so that they attack the hunter. Players can take four different actions: Defend, Cure, Train and Attack. Those actions are limited and they need to cooperate and organized as a group to manage to stop the hunter’s attacks during the game. The players lose if a dragon is killed by the hunter, or if the battle event deck runs out. The players win if X dragons (where X is determined by the difficulty level) manage to successfully attack the hunter.

My Thoughts

 For a game that I expected to be a light dice-chucker…there are a serious number of thoughtful decision points in here. True, every round will involve rolling 1-6 dice for the Hunter. But that is the first thing that happens, and it tells you which of your six dragons are being targeted for the round, and you get two actions to try and minimize the harm to your dragons and try and make progress toward having all six dragons trained & successfully attack the Hunter. It is a challenge, especially since your pool of action tokens is limited, you have two of each color dragon card (in a solo game) to choose from before resting – meaning you can’t just repeatedly use the same dragon, and you can’t train a damaged, or targeted, dragon.

 The spell cards are a great addition to the game, oftentimes providing useful and essential abilities to help swing things in your favor, such as training damaged dragons, removing damage, or allowing rerolls of attacks. You can play one per dragon card/action token you put out, meaning you can use up to 2 per turn. Two of your four actions will give you new spell cards, taking one from the discard pile or from the top of the deck (both of which are face-up). However, that deck is also your game timer! Which means you’re punishing yourself by avoiding the draw from the discard pile. And since taking a spell card doesn’t read as being an optional reward, you might even be forced to speed up the game timer if you choose the wrong combination of actions. It allows some really tense decisions.

 There are a ton of ways to make the game more, or less, challenging. I find the “minimum” difficulty for solo mode (I believe it is Hard) to be a very strong challenge. It requires you to train and successfully attack with all 6 dragons, skipping over the easier versions where you only need to accomplish this with 4 or 5 dragons. How does it get harder? Making weak fireball die results count as misses, and making it so you need more hits on the Hunter. Also…

 The Shadow Hunter variant is brutal. Basically there are four different Hunter cards that are shuffled into the spell deck (Pandemic style, putting one in each quarter of the small deck). In the normal game, when they appear they are discarded and a die is permanently added to the Hunter’s die pool, meaning he’s going to be doing more from that round onward. That’s a challenge in itself. The variant makes it so each Hunter card does an additional effect as it comes out, which cranks the challenge up by a lot. I want to use this variant more, but I need to actually win a game first…

 The artwork is a huge win on this game. I absolutely love it. It can certainly be a subjective thing, of course, but this is the sort of game that I would see and immediately want to know more about.

 I like that there is incentive to deal damage to the Hunter as quickly as possible, because for every 3 Fireballs you hit him with, you can remove a die from his pool. This helps to offset the gradual ramp in difficulty, making it more likely the dragon you need to use is able to be selected. Because, again, if they are damaged or targeted by the Hunter they cannot be trained. Which means sometimes what you need to do gets trumped by figuring out what you can do instead.

 Let’s circle back to planning in the game. Not only do you need to manage your choice of when to use certain actions and activate/protect certain dragons, but you also need to keep in mind when to take your Rest round. Because you are forced to do it if you’ve played 6 cards (you play 2 per round, so every fourth turn is potentially a forced rest) where the Hunter rolls his dice but all you do is take all of your cards and tokens back into your hand/pool. Because the Hunter’s roll happens first in the round, you can see what is incoming and try to decide whether to play cards or to take the rest. I absolutely love that degree of planning. So why the half star? Because luck. I’ve had rounds where I felt like the right move was to press the advantage and take the forced rest. My dragons would be in good shape at the end of the current round, and barring a roll of X, I won’t lose. And then I flip a spell card and it triggers a hunter. And the next card is a hunter. And now they are rolling 2 more dice than I expected and, sure enough, three of those roll the same color dragon to make me lose even when I shouldn’t have been in a losing position. It doesn’t always happen. Nor does it happen often. But it can and will eventually happen that the 1-in-X chance of a perfect storm causing you to lose will come around

 The dragons each have their own special power, which is fantastic. However, it can be a challenge to remember which powers they have. It isn’t indicated on their untrained side, and even on the trained side it is iconography. To find out what they do you need to refer to the back page of the rulebook, where it provides better details. I would have liked 6 cards, one for each dragon, that I could place next to each dragon in the circle. Or 1-2 cards to have as a reference in front of me, outlining what each dragon’s special ability would be. Because it can be a challenge to remember. The same goes with the Shadow Hunter variant, where you need to open the rulebook to see what they do. Printing it on the cards, or having a separate 4 Hunters with that text on them, would have been a helpful addition. Neither are bad, but missed opportunities. No one wants to pull out the rulebook mid-game when it can be avoided..

Final Thoughts

Dragon Keepers is a light game on the surface but it contains a surprising number of decisions that run far deeper than expected from the box. I should, of course, not be surprised at this because it is a game co-designed by Vital Lacerda. Even a game like this is rich with decision points that have little to do with the randomness of the dice that are rolled. In fact, I would argue that the dice are (most turns) a non-factor overall in terms of their randomness because you get to see what the Hunter rolls prior to selecting your actions for the turn. Thus when you are making decisions, there is no randomness involved until you go to have your dragon attack the Hunter, and even then most dragons are rolling multiple dice and there are spell cards to help mitigate the random factor.

Did I mention that this game is far more difficult than anticipated? I am currently winless still in the game after a half dozen attempts, although I’ve had two games that were oh-so-close. One, the timer ran out on me by one turn. The other, I just needed a successful recovery round to close things out on the following turn (hopefully) and the Hunter capitalized. In none of my plays have I felt as though everything was hopeless, or even that random chance ruined me. Even the loss to the Hunter’s good roll, I could have rested the round before when I saw that the Hunter’s roll was a “safe” one for me to rest during.

And that is what I really love about this game. In spite of dice being rolled every turn, I always have control of my fate in the game. A bad decision is always what I can point back to, whether it is not Training quickly enough for all six dragons, or not taking the right token as a reward for Training, or taking a Spell card off the main deck instead of the discard pile, accelerating the game timer, or delaying a rest that I know I’ll need to take to try and maximize the plays from my hand (but then leaving me in a very prone position). It all falls back on me, and my need to play better.

You might wonder, since I’m heaping such strong praise on Dragon Keepers, why it is missing from my Top 20 Solo Games that was just posted. What a keen, observant reader you are! Yes, it isn’t in that top 15% of the solo games I’ve played, but it just narrowly missed that cut. Had the list been a Top 25, you would have found Dragon Keepers right where it belongs, as a really strong and not-at-all-light solitaire experience. It makes me think in all the right ways, yet is short enough that I can sit down and knock out three losses in about an hour. And eventually that Hunter will fall to all six of my dragon attacks, and I will be victorious until we have The Hunter Strikes Back to the tune of upping the difficulty. Or adding in the Shadow Hunters variant which gives the four Hunter cards in the deck a special ability when they appear rather than just adding to the Hunter’s die pool. And then the losing can commence once more.

And I will enjoy every minute of it.

Review for One

Review for One: ELO Darkness

Thank you for checking review #114 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. All opinions remain my own.

An overview of ELO Darkness

ELO Darkness is a board game designed by Tommaso Mondadori and Alberto Parisi that is published by Reggie Games. The box state it plays 1-4 players and has a playtime of 45-75 minutes.

ELO Darkness is a complete customizable card game in which two players (or four in the team vs. team mode) fight against each other in an epic MOBA-inspired arena.

Each player controls a 40-card deck representing a team of five heroes (divided into five different classes). Players can delve into the deck-building aspect of the game by customizing their own Team and play style. Heroes can be picked through an initial draft mode in which players alternate selecting among 30 different characters.

The unique aspect of the game is the interaction with the board, which adds an interesting tactical aspect as well as a strong thematic feeling to the concept of the card duel.
No dice are involved in the game. Randomness is limited to the draw and is mitigated by the Farming and Backing phases in which players can manage their hand and retreat from their position on the map in order to draw more cards from their deck.

Hero cards can be used for multiple purposes: they can be played during combat or they can be discarded in order to gain Experience points and gold used to buy and upgrade powerful items during the game.

Combat takes place every turn on each Lane and is determined by a simultaneous action selection mechanism and a back-and-forth phase in which players take actions like playing Gank cards or activating combos and special abilities.

In addition, to increase tension during the match, there are also objectives (monster cards) that player can conquer through a simultaneous resource bidding occurring during specific turns.

The final goal of the game is to invade the opponent’s base on the map, destroying the enemy towers and breaking through one of the Lanes on the board.

My Thoughts

 I always enjoy a game that brings levels of customization to the gameplay experience, and this one has a ton of variety in the box. There are dozens of characters lending to hundreds of team combinations, not counting the generic Laner and Gank cards that you will be adding to the deck to flesh it out beyond that initial 25 you’ll get from the characters. While there are restrictions to how your deck gets constructed, there are still a ton of options to customize things for yourself.

 Which also includes the Items, a small aspect of the game (potentially) but one that opens up a lot of flexibility in how to boost and/or interact with cards when they are played. Bringing 10 items to purchase, 2 per character, can be a difference-maker in the game of ELO Darkness. They help give you an edge or advantage, something that you are always looking to gain when playing. Each item has two sides, and each character will only get to have one of the two items in play during the game – which means this is a nice little sideboard to tailor around your team toward possible situations.

 Artwork and component quality is really well done in this game. The one thing it lacks and would have helped was some sort of organization for the game, especially with the different cards. Some foam blocks, a handful of dividers, and a row to keep the cards would have made it a home run. But honestly, those are all optional things. Everything that DOES come in the game is done quite well, and for the most part the cards are easy to interpret.

 I love the track where you can see who has the upper-hand at any moment during a battle as cards are being played. It not only shows the difference in Influence between the two sides, but also how many “deaths” are at stake if that number doesn’t move closer to 0. This helps prevent frequent stops to recalculate who is at what value, etc. as cards are being played, and I feel like more games would benefit from some sort of track like this.

 The experience growth for each character is a neat concept, encouraging you to either really focus hard in one character to get them maxed out, or to spread your usage in order to get them all a small boost early on in the game. Both of them are interesting approaches, although you’ll need some ways to pull from your discard or to get a reshuffle quickly to take advantage of a leveled-up character since most of their cards will already be used by the time they get that boost.

 I like that there are three different lanes you fight across, meaning you need to consider carefully how to approach each round. Will you sacrifice those cards to defend one lane and prevent your opponent’s advance? Will you pump them into one lane to try and break through their defences and get closer to winning? Will you try to spread things evenly and hope to end up with more advantages than losses as a result? Not only does the decision of what card to initially deploy in each lane matter, but the order in which they resolve can play a big difference. And because you don’t know your opponent’s face-down cards on the other side, you are left guessing at where you may, or may not, want or need to focus your efforts.

 The solo AI opponent is interesting, because they have a relatively intuitive way of being played. And I think it was clever coming up with a way to have them ramp in challenge as the game goes on without needing to add extra decks of cards for the solo AI. However, I feel like they get too big of a boost too early, making it so that time after time I would go from barely winning battles to handily losing most battles.

 This is 100% a me thing, which I’ll expand more on in my final thoughts, but I really wish there was more variety in the individual character decks. Yes, there are a lot of unique characters in the game. But they each add 5 cards to your deck, of which you get 2 of one card and 3 of the other. I’m not the sort of player who, when I can add up to 3 copies of a card when deck constructing, will add 3 copies of every card in my deck. I usually run 1-2 for more variety within the deck and, thus, greater flexibility in my deck. Getting only 2 different cards from your character is a bit of a letdown for me, and has been from the day I realized that aspect of the characters.

 Probably the biggest issue I have here is with the rigidity of the system. Cards are tied to specific characters, and are either Laner cards or Gank cards. You have three Laner-specific characters, and they can only be played on their own Lane, unless they withdraw for the round (giving your opponent a free advance) and then they can be used as Gank cards. Okay, cool. But what if my Blue character doesn’t have any cards in my hand when I set my attacks to begin? I either have to play a generic Laner card or withdraw there. And then if I play said generic Laner card, I can no longer play that Blue character there, or elsewhere, even if I draw their card. This happens far too often. Or getting to a point where I’m drawing back up and get all Gank cards, meaning I have to withdraw in all three lanes (or only 2 if I am lucky). Or have all Laner cards of different characters and/or generic ones, meaning I have to hope my initial Influence is enough to win. I like that you can play the 2nd card style of the same character on the battle, but if you are unlucky enough to have the 3 basics of that character you’re stuck with just the one and two dead cards in your hand. I’m probably just really bad at the game and knowing what to play, when to play cards, and when to sacrifice progress on lanes or use cards for more cards. But every single game I have played in ELO Darkness has been a loss, against opponents or the AI, and every one of them happened because my progress died 100% because I hit a wall where my hand didn’t allow me to do anything to defend, attack, or react to the situations. Which means, ultimately, 100% of my games ended with at least some measure of frustration about how cards can be played and how often they can become dead cards in your hand.

 This game needs a player aid card for each player. If for nothing else than to have one side listing out the steps to a turn (with maybe a short reminder of what you can do), and the other side mentioning some of the more common keywords (such as Chain, Defense, and Assault) and what the five different spell tokens can do. Maybe then I would have to grab that rulebook less often, and might actually remember to use one of those two spell tokens when I need it instead of groaning in frustration when I remember they are there 2 turns later.

Final Thoughts

ELO Darkness is a game that my friend introduced me to. He was a backer of the Kickstarter, excited enough for the game to build a PNP of it early, and petitioned to get a review copy sent to this little reviewer of board games. And for his enthusiasm, I am grateful. Truly. However, after a half dozen plays of the game, most of them solitaire plays, I am left feeling conflicted about the game – and several others which I’ve been dancing around getting a review finished. But the time has come to bear down and just get my unfiltered thoughts out there, regardless of anything.

ELO Darkness is a gorgeous game. I love the artwork in there, and the deluxe edition of the game comes with some fantastic components. I really like the number of characters in the box, allowing complete freedom to customize your approach toward the game, especially when playing against other players who are on a level footing with you. The gameplay is relatively easy to understand, with a few small areas that can snag a player, but by and large this isn’t going to be difficult to get to playing the game and doing so competently. I’ve enjoyed almost every minute I have spent playing the game, moreso with a friend than solitaire.

So why do I feel such reservations toward the game? Why is this not a glowing, feel-good story about a small game by Reggie Games that I’m gushing over?

I’ve thought long and hard about those things. By all means, this should be the part where I’m giving it a glowing review – and for some players this is absolutely a game for them that they will love. There is definitely a really, really good game here that is well-designed. I’m not wanting to take away from that one bit, which is why I’ve put off this review for far longer than I should have. As you can see above, most of the points I make for this game are good things about the game. For me, personally, there are four things that I think detract it for me:

I don’t play MOBAs. I have never been a MOBA player and probably never will be. There are probably appealing aspects in here for those who love those games that are completely lost on me. Which makes me not the ideal target audience. That isn’t enough to make me not like the game, but it is something that could have helped me enjoy it more had my experience with MOBAs been different.
The solitaire aspect of the game has the AI ramp up far too quickly. I’m hitting the end of my deck and have probably blown all of my good cards by now to try and not only win on one lane, but to hold as much as I can on the other two while trying to break through. At the point where I feel my options are the most limited, they get a massive boost in power that inevitably becomes a challenge to overcome and makes the experience feel poor to me, personally. And this is from someone who genuinely enjoys challenging solo games.
There are too few cards that have the flexibility to be played when and where you need them. Nothing feels worse than getting to draw 2-4 cards during a battle only to get all Laner cards. Or drawing cards before setting the Lanes and getting all Gank cards. I’ve had too many situations where I have cards that are unplayable, costing me the game, which makes me think that to be successful in a solitaire game, you really need to tailor a team toward a very specific approach/strategy to win regularly. Which would mean most of the characters are useful to play around with only with another opponent.
Call it nitpicking if you want, but I have been disappointed since Day 1 of getting the game by the fact that each character adds 5 cards to the deck, and those are only two different cards (3 of one, 2 of the other). It adds consistency, sure, but it also lacks variety in the character’s toolkit and places them into very specific roles in how they can help you. You’re already bound to taking one character of each type and no more, which means you’re getting 10 unique cards in 25/40 cards in your deck.

I get it, some of those are 100% on my tastes or expectations about the game. They may not be problems for you, or problems with the game, but they are the reasons why I can’t gush about ELO Darkness. If the theme of the game appeals to you, and the strengths I mentioned earlier get you excited about the game (and I hope they do, truly, because there is an audience that can and will love this game), then definitely check this out. A lot of work and love has been poured into the creation of this game, and it is usually fun – the exception being in solo when things ramp up and I’m staring at a hand of useless cards that are going to cost me the game…three plays in a row with three different teams… – and is one I’d absolutely play again if someone asked me to play. So I suppose that is where I should leave things on this review, because saying more would just be beating that proverbial dead horse. I enjoyed the game. I wanted to like it more, but I have my own issues with the game that prevent it from being one I would love.

One-Player Only · Review for One

Review for One – Orchard: A 9 Card Solitaire Game

Thank you for checking review #113 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 prototype preview copy of the game, which is currently running on Kickstarter. All opinions remain my own.

An overview of Orchard: A 9 Card Solitaire Game

Orchard: A 9 Card Solitaire Game is a board game designed by Mark Tuck that is published by Side Room Games. The box state it plays 1 player and has a playtime of 5-10 minutes.

Orchard is a quick solitaire ’tile laying’ game that plays in under 10 minutes. The aim of the game is to harvest fruit (score points) by playing cards so that their fruit trees overlap other trees already in the orchard that bear the same fruit. The more trees you can overlap, the more fruit you’ll pick.

As well as the 9 double sided cards, you’ll need 15 dice (of 3 colours) to keep track of your increasing harvest, and 2 cubes to represent ‘rotten’ fruit. These allow you to lay a card that you wouldn’t otherwise be able to – but come with a points forfeit. So you must decide if and when to play them.

Orchard was the winner of the 2018 9-Card Nanogame Print and Play Design Contest.

My Thoughts

 This game is so simple. So easy. Which is what makes it such a clever game – you can pick it up and learn it in minutes. Maybe even less than a minute. Yet beneath that simplicity is an elegant game that provides far more challenge than you would expect to find in this box. After all, I mastered laying down tiles back in my Carcassonne days. I mastered laying cards in games like Circle the Wagons, Sprawlopolis, Seasons of Rice, Penny Rails, and many others. But this game is unique because…

 The challenge in the game isn’t to make the biggest Orchard. Or to get groups of identical colors (sometimes that makes this game more difficult when that happens!) together. No, the challenge here is to position things to where you can play parts of a card atop other parts of cards with matching colors/fruits underneath. But one good placement isn’t enough – to really reap the fruit you’re sowing, you need to be able to do it 2-3 times to the same fruit. Without screwing up too bad, because you can at most cover with a wrong fruit twice in the game – each time earning you a -3 to your final score and making it so that spot can never be played on again.

 There are 18 cards included in the box, meaning this follows the same solo pattern as games like Herbaceous where you use half the cards for the first game and then can immediately reset and play with the other half of the cards (and can compare to see which set you did better with). Since the cards are numbered, it also makes it so you can stack the deck in a particular order to make for interesting sequences – or to potentially reduce the challenge level.

 The penalty of the rotten fruit feels a little harsh. -3 points AND that space is forever blocked. That’s cruel and unusual punishment, forcing me to make suboptimal plays. I’ve run into the same thing in games like Agricola/Caverna where you’ll make horrible decisions just to make sure you can feed your people, because if you fail at that you might as well quit now because your score isn’t going to be good. In a game where most of my fruit still score me 1 point, it makes it so I really need to think twice before making a play that causes a rotten fruit. And most of the time, even when I think it is the right play, I end up with a pathetic score anyway. Which is probably a reflection on me.

 There is no win condition or loss condition here, just a beat-your-own-high-score. And I’ll certainly play this game in spite of that because it is fast and enjoyable, even if I’m going to “lose” a ton based on my low scores. But I really prefer games that offer at least some chance of losing. Something as simple as “if you need to place a third rotten fruit, you lose” would change nothing mechanically and give you that press-your-luck risk. Not that you’re going to want those rotten fruit anyway because of how punishing they are.

Final Thoughts

Orchard falls into a funky place for me, the same sort of location that Sprawlopolis by Button Shy Games resides in. Both are games that I enjoy playing, as they are fast, easy to set up and tear down, and provide a lot of good, fun replay value in a small footprint and at a great value. However, I am pretty sure I am one of the world’s worst players at both of the games, as most of the time my scores are relatively laughable. On occasion I will have a successful play, but by and large I resign myself to mediocrity of scoring. The one edge Sprawlopolis has would be the variable scoring conditions that come with a win/loss factor. But Orchard also has some good, interesting decisions to be made along the way which gives it something unique enough to keep them both.

Trying to position yourself to get a few 3’s or 6’s on those dice is the key to this game, and one I still am not even close to mastering. Most of the time I can get some 3’s and 1’s at the cost of a rotten fruit – which almost never proves to be worth that decision. There are a ton of spatial aspects to this game which are delightful, and it is extremely easy to pull this out on a whim and play a few games because of its short playtime and small footprint. It is a delight to look at, and at the price they want for this one – let’s just call it one of the best steals on Kickstarter right now. It is a game I will be happy to add to my collection, even if it only gets pulled off the shelf a few times a year it’ll have more than been worth it. And odds are it’ll get pulled off the shelf a lot more times than that because, even though I fail miserably at the game by the standards in the scoring chart, I’m having fun doing it. The puzzle of how to position myself for this turn, as well as to set up the next turns, is delightful. That feeling when placing a card that perfectly covers 5-6 fruit is incredible.

And all I need to play this against my wife is a second copy? Even at $24 this game is a steal as a couple’s game. One that I’ll really lose horribly at because, of course, it will all probably click for her after a play or two. It won’t be quite as portable as one of my Button Shy Games, but it will still fit perfectly in a pocket or two (or a purse, if she carried one), and it plays in the right amount of time to make it a great dinner date game to pull out while waiting for our food – or as something to play after we eat and we’re sitting there just sipping on our drinks and letting the food settle before leaving. It plays quick enough that it would be a game we could bust out even on the nights when we’re exhausted but insisting on playing a game before turning in ourselves.

In short, there’s not much more to say about this game. Whether you are looking at it for your solo collection, as a couple’s game, or to have it serve both purposes – I definitely recommend this one for just about any gamer out there. You won’t regret it, and you might just find Orchard consistently becomes one of your most-played games every year because of all the strengths it has to offer.

Review for One · Solo Gaming

Review for One: Chai

Thank you for checking review #111 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: This review and photos based upon a prototype version of the game. Final quality and components will vary from those in final production.

An overview of Chai

Chai is a board game designed by Dan and Connie Kazmaier that is published by Deep Aqua Games. The box state it plays 1-5 players and has a playtime of 20-60 minutes.

In Chai, you will step into the shoes of a tea merchant, combining tea flavours to make a perfect blend. Specializing in either rooibos, green, oolong, black or white tea, you will buy and collect ingredients to fulfill your customers’ orders.

As a tea merchant, each turn you will do one of the following:
Visit the Market – The player immediately receives a gold coin and selects a tea flavour tile (mint, jasmine, lemon, ginger, berries, and lavender), adding to their tea box. If the flavour tile is touching tiles of the same type these tiles are also taken. Payment (gold, silver, or a copper coin) is placed in the money pouch corresponding to the furthest-right column the tiles were in. Players cannot have more than 12 flavour tiles in their tea box at any time.
Select Additives – Tea additive cards (milk, sugar, honey, vanilla, and chai spices) are also needed to complete most orders. A player may conduct two actions in the additive area: selecting all of the additive cards of one type (with new cards drawn after the first action), resetting the visible cards, or drawing a card from the additive deck. Players cannot have more than 6 additive cards in their tea box at any time.
Reserve a Customer – A player may also reserve a customer card from the customer pool from the visible cards or draw deck. If drawing a visible card, a new card is immediately drawn faceup into the customer pool to replace the card taken. A player cannot have more than 3 unfulfilled customer cards at any time in their tea box. If a player has more than 3 cards, a card is discarded and placed faceup in the customer pool with a copper coin from the money pouch placed on top.
At the end of each turn, a player may complete a tea order from one customer card in their hand or visible in the customer pool. A base tea token, tea flavours and additives shown on the card are needed ingredients, and placed in an empty tea cup. The player flips over a tip and receives a coin bonus, moving the thermometer round tracker up one notch if all cups are filled.

The game ends when five rounds of cups have been fulfilled. When the final order is completed, other players complete their last turn so that each player has played the same number of turns.
To score, players add up their victory points from fulfilled customer orders, and add their leftover money to this total. In 3-5 player games, additional points are awarded to the player(s) who fulfilled the most orders and most diverse tea recipes. Award ties are friendly with each winner receiving 5 points.

The player with the most victory points (from customer orders, money, and awards) wins the game as best tea merchant! In the case of a tie, the person with the least number of fulfilled customer cards wins. If still tied, the person with the least amount of money wins. If that does not break a tie, the victory is shared.

—description from the publisher

My Thoughts

 The first thing I noticed, even as a prototype, were the colorful and exciting components. I love the feel of the tiles, and I know that the final production ones are going to be even better. This game is great to look at and to feel as you’re moving things around. I question whether they needed to have such large cards (I think tarot sized?) but it does help make the artwork stand out. The only real issue is that the bag is too small for the tiles to all fit into, something I assume will not be the case with the final copy.

 I really like the concept of the market and how the tiles slide as you make each purchase, and how getting them to line up well can make your purchases more efficient. This encourages careful manipulation of the market, and in a multiplayer setting even makes for some serious interaction as you try to capitalize on the moves other people make – or ensure you don’t leave the next player with a great and inexpensive combination of tiles. Although I do wish the Chaiwalla would impact this (and the circle of ingredients) during his turn.

 The Chaiwalla is what makes the solo game interesting (more on the solo game itself later). All he does is take a card from the market after your turn. This means over the course of 10 turns in a solo game, you’re opponent has 10 scoring cards and, usually, you will have at least 2-3 fewer than that. Which is why it is a good thing he takes the lowest value of the three cards showing – which can be as low as 4 or as large as 13 in unusual circumstances. This creates a lot of tension as a player, because you need to figure out a way to score a card most turns, as well as consider how taking card X might impact what the Chaiwalla takes. Sure, you might be able to score that 5 or 6-point card this turn…but what if the other two cards are a 10 and an 11 and then a 9-12 flips out? Suddenly you LOST points that turn, essentially, by taking that small card. But if it flips out a 4, you’re further ahead. This is the point where the game in a solo play is at its most interesting.

 The rules of this game are really simple and the game is straight-forward in terms of gameplay. This is one that is easy to open and learn the day you get it, and it is going to be really easy to teach to other players. The way the solo rules are done are mostly intuitive as well, although I was confused enough to play without the Chaiwalla in my first play since it was listed as a separate thing from the solo rules. And maybe it is intended to have a standard solo beat-your-own-score meditative version as well as a try-to-beat-the-Chaiwalla variant in there. For me, only one of those versions would see repeat plays, especially since adding the Chaiwalla literally only does one additional thing each turn.

 Tying in with the above, each turn has three actions to choose from and you only get to execute one: go to the market to buy tea flavor tiles, select some additives from the additive wheel, or reserve a customer from the display and do one of three special action cards. Regardless of which you choose, you can always serve a customer at the end of your turn if you have the correct items to do so – but you can only serve one customer.

 Mixing in the entire deck of customers makes things interesting as you play. Most customers will require you to PAY a coin when serving them (and then you’ll likely get at least that back in a tip). Which makes it seem insignificant until you are in a spot where you need exactly X to buy those tiles you need to serve a customer, and X is exactly what you have for cash. Meaning you can buy those tiles but you can’t serve said customer this turn. However, if the customer is your color then you don’t have to pay that valuable coin! A small detail, but it adds a nice touch to the planning in this game.

 The special action cards are nice in theory. After all, it makes reserving a customer an action that doesn’t completely waste your turn. However, at least in a solo game, I find I rarely should use this action as it is almost always better to hit the market or grab some additives. Maybe I’m still learning the strategies for the solo game, or just haven’t had the right action out under the right circumstances. But so far this action of the three is the “forgettable” action – usually reserved only if there is a card I really want to make sure I can serve on a future turn and the Chaiwalla might take otherwise (or in the rare case that all three cards showing are high and I can find no way to serve any of them this turn, therefore this is the only way to hopefully get a lower value out for the Chaiwalla to take)

 The solo game without the Chaiwalla is the standard fare of optimization. You get 10 turns to score as many points as you can, with the optimal level being 60+ points. And since each turn you get to do one of the three actions, you are really only racing to make sure you can average 6 points per turn (which isn’t quite as easy as it sounds some games!). Without the Chaiwalla, the customer lineup can become stagnant with a bunch of cards that are either too cheap to be worth the turn or too expensive to fulfill without dedicated effort – something the market itself can suffer from with only one player taking tiles.

Final Thoughts

I need to apologize to the designers of Chai. They sent me this prototype about a month after their Kickstarter campaign ended, and I did play it once shortly after it arrived. In the midst of the chaos that followed, the blue box this game was packaged in failed to stand out on the shelf. So I forgot what was actually in the box for months, and it was only about a week ago when I realized this game was in there – after opening the box to see what this mysterious game was on my shelf. Because based on the box, it was a game I would have no reason to own.

And so I dutifully got this back to the table a few times. I remembered back to my first play and how unimpressed I was with that initial play. Well, it was because I misunderstood the solitaire experience, not using the Chaiwalla. And so it became a “score as much as you can in 10 turns” game, which is always a disappointment in a solo game. But this time, well, the Chaiwalla was implemented properly. Yes, there is still a beat-your-own-score approach in there but now there is an opponent to defeat as well who removes a card every turn (the lowest value). And holy cow did this open things up in a good way.

Sure, some turns are simple. I should do anything but take that 4-point order card out there because I want him to score only 4 points this turn. Because he is nabbing 10 cards over the course of the game, he’s going to get a lot of points. Which is why you might think twice when the time comes about taking an order card. Maybe you can fulfill that 8-point card this turn, but the other two showing are 11 and 12 points each. Odds are the next card to flip out will be lower than those, but what if it is another 12? Suddenly he’s getting 11 points, whereas you could ensure he only scores 8 this turn by doing something different.

And let me tell you, the worst turns are when you cannot fulfill an order. Because you know he’s gaining ground, because he needs a smaller average to score well with 10 cards versus the 7-8 you might end with. This tension right here is what made this go from a forgettable solo experience and turn it into something really fun. Because every decision you make could potentially set him up for more points, either during this round or the next round. Sometimes getting greedy will pay off, and other times you’re going to be wishing you had been a little more conservative. And this is where reserving cards can really come in handy, because you can set up to score that card later with no risk (during that turn) of boosting the Chaiwalla’s score.

All in all this game was quite enjoyable, far more than the first impression it left upon me. As someone who enjoys drinking tea, but never does it often enough to really call it a habit, I was curious about the game. Like many games, this one is a great game with others at the table. But if you are one who would pick it up with the intention of playing with a spouse or game group, as well as playing it solo, the experience from the latter will prove better than you’d expect upon reading the rules. It isn’t marketing itself as a heavy thinker of a game, but there are plenty of tense and interesting decisions packed into this vibrant package. And while you’re letting this review steep, don’t miss out on a chance to get the game still at Kickstarter pricing.

Review for One · Solo Gaming · Spring of Solitaire 2019

Review for One: Pigment

Thank you for checking review #108 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 copy of the game was provided in exchange for an honest review.

An overview of Pigment

Pigment is a board game designed by Michael Epstein that is published by Copper Frog Games. The box state it plays 1-3 players and has a playtime of 15-20 minutes.

You are Master Painters of the Renaissance! …Or you would be, if you had some paints!

Send your two Apprentices to gather and trade Pigments in the crowded and ever-evolving Bazaar for your works. Each Bazaar Card has two useful effects to choose from, but each Apprentice can only use one each turn.

Fetch Subjects to paint with your Pigments, and receive powerful Premier Piece Effects from the completed works.

Fill your gallery first to win!

~

Pigment is a fast, minimalist worker placement game for 1-3 players from Copper Frog Games LLC.

My Thoughts

 There simply aren’t many worker placement games out there with such a small footprint, portable design, and fast gameplay. This checks three very important boxes that helps the game to stand out in a crowded game, and worker placement, market today. Add in some quality components and delightful artwork, and this is a game that is always pleasant to pull out for a quick game or two.

 The solo opponent for the game is easy to navigate, as you simply move the worker one painting over, pull three cubes from the bag, and then check if he can paint that current painting he is on. It is a really simple and streamlined process (although not without questions, as highlighted in a later point).

 Pigment succeeds at what it sets out to accomplish: distill a 60-90 minute worker placement game down into a 10-15 minute game. There are different action spaces (with a conveyor belt shifting of spaces!), resources to generate and turn in for points, and special powers to be gained from your paintings. If you’ve ever wanted to grab _____ worker placement game off the shelf to play but didn’t have the time, this game deserves to be in your collection because it emulates a much larger experience, although distilled down a little bit due to size/component limitations.

 I wish there was more variety in the game. I love the action spaces changing as the game progresses, but the paintings themselves never change. Sure, the order in which they appear will change, but you’re ultimately gaining three types of resources to turn in for paintings and the first to obtain five paintings will win. Give my asymmetric player powers that let you break the game’s rules once per game. Give me more painting cards so I can’t know that eventually I’ll see a RRYY painting to purchase and thus keep those components set aside. Give me secret scoring objectives, such as 1 point for every 2 Red cubes in my supply at the end of the game.The base game is a solid game as it is, but it’ll get repetitive quickly because it never has variation beyond the order in which things appear.

 There is a little room for uncertainty in how the solo opponent operates. Namely, what happens when a painting is bought. Does the new painting just replace it where it was at? Or do all paintings shift? Can you buy the painting they are on? If the paintings shift, does the AI worker move with that painting or stay on the “position” they are at? Are cubes spent returned to the bag? If so, when? I’ve always played that the paintings stay where they are, and that I refill the cubes in the bag before the AI turn – but the game could be a little different if either of those are changed.

 The game’s solo system is extremely random. I’m all for some randomness in a game this short, but it never feels like I’m playing against an opponent in Pigment. Sure, it avoids the “beat your own high score” pitfall, but there is no real way to plan for the opponent nor does it interfere in any way with your own turns. And that is truly unfortunate, because even in a game like Pigment there is opportunity to have a blocking worker or two placed down on the board. A simple deck of 10-15 cards, each one depicting two space numbers on it (i.e. Position #1 and Position #4) would work. You flip the card, put a neutral worker on the first space listed on that card, take your first turn, flip the second card and place a neutral worker on the first space listed without a worker (or in the occasional case, both spaces may be occupied in which case the worker is not placed), and then place your second worker. It could maintain everything else it currently does and just this addition would make the solo experience more interesting because then you cannot count on an ideal turn every turn based on the 5 available spaces and 3 paintings shown. Or it could eliminate the moving worker on the paintings altogether and have some of those cards show a painting position at the top and the first thing you check is if they have the cubes to paint said painting and, if so, they go to that space instead. Or eliminate resource gain from the AI and seed a few paint painting cards in there and, when those appear, they just get said painting. Put five of those into the deck, having one shuffled in as one of the bottom three cards of the deck so you’ll always know when the end is near for the AI but never 100% certain when it could end while preventing the random chance of all five being near the top of the deck. There is potential here for an excellent solo system. Maybe I should design it, since i have these ideas fluttering in my mind. But as it stands, this is far too random to feel like a satisfying solo experience overall. Enjoyable? Sure. But not satisfying in the same way that triumphing over an opponent would be.

Final Thoughts

Pigment first caught my eye last year at Gen Con as I was wandering through the hordes of booths in my first ever convention. It was priced reasonably, worker placement, and boasted a small play time. At the time I wasn’t ready to make my select few purchases of the convention, and by the time I made said purchases I had forgotten about Pigment. Yet it resurfaced onto my radar as I was preparing for my Spring of Solitaire extravaganza.

The solitaire mode in this game is pretty high in randomness. You can see the pattern in which the AI player will be moving and what paints they will need to make said painting on their turn, but you have no real way of stopping them from making that painting. And that is unfortunate, because everything else about this little game is enjoyable as a solo experience. But to be able to go from losing with just reaching my 3rd painting in one game (they kept pulling the cubes they needed) to winning by a very comfortable margin in the next game (they didn’t pull the cubes they needed) isn’t a reflection of any increased skill on my end. But the fact that he does not interfere with my play in any way, apart from possibly taking a painting. A more dynamic and interactive solo opponent would make this game far more likely to see repeat plays.

Outside of that, I really like everything else in this game. It is a small worker placement game with a tiny footprint, it has a changing set of worker placement spaces, your most recent painting provides beneficial powers (in a 2-3 player game), it has nice little meeples and great artwork, and a clever little system. It’ll never replace the bigger box worker placement games, but having a 10-15 minute game in that arena is a niche that is hard to find. And while I would love for the game to have more options in there, whether a greater variety of paintings or added scoring conditions, this still is one I’m happy to keep in my collection and pull out when I just need a small worker placement game that I can take along with me.

Review for One · Spring of Solitaire 2019

Review for One – Feudum: The Queen’s Army

Thank you for checking review #107 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 copy of the game was provided in exchange for an honest review.

An overview of Feudum: The Queen’s Army

Feudum: The Queen’s Army is a board game expansion designed by Mark K. Swanson, JR Honeycutt, and Brian Neff that is published by Odd Bird Games. The box state it plays 1 players and has a playtime of 80 minutes.

Description from the publisher:

Oh Bullocks! The Queen’s tyranny is spreading into every corner of the kingdom. Her foot soldiers scour the countryside to hunt the behemoth—the bewitched king that was once her husband! Your small band of rebels will need sharp wits and a bit of luck to save the king and reclaim the land’s virtue, as well as your own.

The Queen’s Army is a solo variant expansion to Feudum. The game pits you against Queen Ann in an epic battle to score the most veneration points over 5 epochs.

First, her Majesty will ruthlessly target the bewitched King (The
Behemoth) in effort to diminish your fame. After the King is dead (or by the dawn of third epoch), she will mount her black horse to pursue your band of rebels with a vengeance.

The Queen plays the game with unlimited resources and no movement restrictions. Any actual resources she acquires along the way count as veneration points!

Can you thwart her quest for the King’s demise, while securing your own prestige? By the Sword of Leinad, you shall prevail!

Development Notes:

The elegantly crafted automa deck was developed in collaboration with J.R. Honeycutt (developer for Tesla vs Edison: Powering Up!) and Brian Neff. The expansion features an elegantly designed A.I. player that cleverly reacts to game conditions as well as keeping you guessing with unpredictable maneuvering.

Rounds are played just like the base game with alternating turns, round by round until each epoch is triggered. However, the Queen is less restrained by resource or route requirements making her a powerful force to reckon with!

My Thoughts

 The action selection aspect of this game is nice, and I love the added benefit of being able to have the actions be stronger under the right conditions. This makes planning ahead very important, and choosing the right actions for the round (and the order in which you execute them) matters even in a solo game (I assume it is just as critical with multiplayer experiences). Added into these layers are the ability to plan to take an action twice (using the proper card), taking 5 actions in the turn instead of 4 (by paying the right resource at the start of the round), or being able to take two actions in a row (again, by paying the right resource).

 Most of the actions in this game are relatively straight-forward to understand (with one glaring exception…and even that is simple in concept). Most of your time spent planning for your turn will be figuring out what to play to accomplish what you need to on your turn rather than trying to figure out what the card allows you to do.

 The same holds true with the AI decks. While I don’t necessarily see the need for five separate decks (yes, sometimes it allows them to do a fifth action but I would have preferred to see a single deck instead of five smaller ones), none of the actions they take – apart from guild – are hard to follow after a few times seeing them come up. I know Solosaurus bemoaned the “flowchart” of actions if they can’t do an action but, honestly, it is a negligible aspect of the gameplay experience.

 This is a game that rewards creating combos with your 4-5 actions in a turn. I imagine they are far more difficult to set up and execute in a game with more players, but the potential is still there. Being able to have a turn where your first action opens up the chance to score on your next action, which then enables you to do something on your third action which in turn allows you to score points on the fourth action – those are the kinds of turns I really enjoy. And, unfortunately, those are absolutely necessary to keep pace with the scoring machine that is the solo AI. But it sure does feel satisfying when a turn not only goes exactly as planned, but the execution of those works even better than expected.

 I enjoy the Epoch aspect of the game, with six different stacks of tiles. I like that one for sure is removed at the end of each round, although I wish it wasn’t randomly selected. It is a good design choice to allow only the current or previous Epoch marker that can be removed, and that a certain number of tiles must be depleted from that Epoch before the next one is triggered. And at first you might look at this and think you’re getting a minimum of 15 rounds, but there are other ways that those tiles get removed so really you’re going to be lucky to hit 10 rounds (and I have found 7 to be a fairly consistent number in solo play…that AI seems to pull tiles off there a LOT more than I can ever do).

 Which means you have about 28-40 actions to score as many points as you can. It sounds like a lot, but then you realize most actions which score require at least 1-2 actions to get into position to score those well. That aspect is one of the things I love about a Vital Lacerda design: your objectives to score are clear but require several scoreless steps to set them up effectively. And so of course I also enjoy that part of Feudum.

 The artwork and quality on the components in the game are excellent. This is a well-produced game, and you can tell a lot of love was poured into the little details on this game. I do wish the cubes were just a tad larger, but overall this game looks impressive on the table.

 The more I played the game the less I liked the long and skinny board. It eats up my entire table, which is a long table, and makes it so I can’t leave this one set up AND be able to play a game on the other half of the table with my wife. So that means I either need to be able to dedicate an entire block of time to playing Feudum from start to finish, or I need to sacrifice potentially playing games with my wife (at least on that table) until this game is completed. And for a game that regularly clocks in at about 150+ minutes for me so far, that makes it a real struggle to get back to the table often (and thus the delayed review). Give me a board that is double the width and things would be far better. Or make the guilds at each end their own board so I can set them up however is most convenient for my gaming situation. There is no way I could see this being played on a small, or even moderately-sized table.

 More on this to come throughout the final thoughts, but the Guilds in this game are that opaque mechanic which will present a hurdle to new gamers. I imagine this is not only the case for solo gamers – but it is something that any solo gamer will need to be able to overcome. That might be to resort to watching playthrough videos to see how the interactions work to get it all to sink in, or to internalize each of the three interactions that each of the six guilds can provide. On paper it all sounds simple, yet in the midst of the game this is where things slow down to a crawl at times. Especially when the AI is taking a guild action, because you need to look up what guild action she’s going to take and what in there she will do, and then see if that can be done, and the manipulate the things to execute the guild action. When people talk about fiddliness in games, I imagine this is what they mean: manipulating bits on a board for an effect. It is fun and exciting when you can pull something clever off on your turn, but it becomes a chore on their turn. And, well, I’ll just lead into these thoughts…

Final Thoughts

When I read the rules for Feudum, I found myself thinking it didn’t seem too bad. And as I started playing the game, most of the action cards and interactions were relatively straight-forward. By the end of that first play, I was echoing the sentiment that Edward from Heavy Cardboard expressed: I don’t want to have to teach this to a group of new players. 90% of what is going on in this game is relatively simple and approachable, but it is that final 10% – the guilds (both how they function and how to determine control) where this game becomes bogged down.

Feudum is an ambitious game project from a first-time designer. There are a ton of levers to pull for interactions within the guilds, and I have no doubt this is the brilliance in the game experience for most players. Unfortunately, when playing the game solitaire this never felt like the impressive push-pull system of vying for control that it should provide. And part of that, I feel, is probably because I haven’t seen this system function in its ideal situation: with a group of experienced players who know what they are doing and how to effectively position for its control. So far my only experiences have been in isolation as a solo gamer, and the guild system has failed to impress every time.

And it is unfortunate, because I think once I truly get that area of the game mastered on my end, this will turn into a far better solo experience. One that might still last too long and take up far too much table space, but one that does still provide a fun and engaging solitaire experience. And so far it still succeeds at delivering those things, but it falls into the faceless “game in a pile of games” category right now as a solo experience. I’ve never regretted playing the game, because I’ve had fun plays, but it has always dragged on longer than I wanted – and part of that is the fault of those guilds. Because every time I still need to reference exactly what happens in the guilds and what my options are. I’ve got the action selection down just fine, but nothing is worse than stopped because I need to consult the rulebook on how Guild X operates. Or worse yet, to figure out what the AI opponent is going to do within the guild…which almost always is bad news for me as a player but it takes time to unfold.

There are so many other great things going on in this game that I can forgive Feudum for this obstacle. I’m determined to master it, even if it means dedicating myself to just spending a few hours watching a playthrough or two to see it all in action. And maybe this aspect isn’t an issue for you – maybe it’ll click faster or, ideally, you’ve played it multiplayer and want to see how it all plays solitaire with the Queen’s Army expansion added into the mix. And ultimately, that is probably the best situation: play it with others a few times first and then dive into it solo. Then maybe your first few plays won’t be spent trying to muddle out exactly how everything interacts, what moves are worth vying for, and how to keep up with the AI as they run rampant and gain control (and by extension a boatload of VP) of the majority of the guilds on the board.

Every time I’ve played I have found myself far behind by the end of the 2nd Epoch, and never able to quite catch up before the end. Which is encouraging, if there are ways to catch up and I simply haven’t found an effective strategy yet (which I am sure I have not, because every game I’ve felt like a bull in a china shop in terms of my approach to gaining points). And every play has gotten a little shorter, although it still gets slowed as I reference the guild section (maybe I need a really good player aid…), meaning that hopefully I won’t always need 2-3 hours to play a solo experience in Feudum. 90 minutes would be that sweet spot I want to hit with a game like this, and I hope to get it there…eventually. This one won’t be a regular on my table due to the size and length, but when I want a longer, more involved game to play when I have a few hours to myself – this is definitely one I’ll keep around to pull off the shelf. But if you are looking to buy this ONLY to play it solo, I can’t say I’d recommend it just for that unless you have already played the game and know you enjoy it. But for those who might already own Feudum and are considering trying it solo, that little expansion adds in an AI opponent that is relatively easy to navigate most of the time and that will provide a good challenge.

Review for One · Solo Gaming · Spring of Solitaire 2019

Review for One – Hoplomachus: Origins

Thank you for checking review #106 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 Hoplomachus: Origins

Hoplomachus: Origins is a board game designed by Josh J. Carlson and Adam Carlson that is published by Chip Theory Games. The box state it plays 1-2 players and has a playtime of 15-30 minutes.

Hoplomachus: Origins takes you back to where the story begins, within the small battle arenas of 3 unique civilizations. You will represent one of the warrior houses found in these cities and will be battling for the right to represent your entire civilization in Rome. Quick fights, 3 exotic arenas, and competitive drafting of unique warriors, are what set Origins apart from our other 2 games in the series. Of course, it wouldn’t be Hoplo if you weren’t playing with premium 11.5 gram chips, neoprene mats, and custom dice!

My Thoughts

 One of the coolest things about this game are the components in here. The chips are wonderful in quality and have a nice weight. I wish the health chips were a little thicker and harder, but the presence of having 3-5 chips stacked beneath the character’s chip is pretty darn cool. It has some nice custom dice, and it comes with three box-sized playmats to present three different arenas for combat in the game. What comes in the box is a really good quality.

 I like the different factions within the box for units and how you can mix-and-match to form your own unique teams. I love a good deck construction game, and this lets you prepare your teams for the trials ahead of you. And with what you’ll encounter, sometimes a change is necessary in order to overcome a specific challenge.

 The game is extremely simple in rules and execution. This is something you can teach in a few minutes and allow people to have fun chucking dice and deploying units on the mat. Combine that with the production value and table presence and, well, this is a game I want to show off. That means photos when playing solo, and I can only imagine how it could grab crowds at a convention or game day.

 Setup, teardown, and playtime are all extremely quick in Hoplomachus – even when choosing a new team it can go at a relatively fast clip. This means the game is easy to pull out on any given night, even on an impulse, because there is no consideration about if there will still be enough time to play the game. The only question you’ll be asking yourself is how many times will you play it before putting the game away for the night. Resetting things for a rematch, or to move to the next task, are relatively simple as well which helps encourage it getting to the table often and staying there for multiple plays in one session/

 I love how this box comes with three playmats, and each of them operates in a different way. Two of them have a pair of victory conditions, and the other is a kill-the-leader approach to the gameplay. This means you aren’t necessarily forced into just wiping out the enemy forces – in fact it can often be advantageous to pursue the other victory condition instead.This also means that in a given night I can play three matches and have them all feel very different if they each use a different map. They would have been cool as just aesthetic differences, but the fact that they play uniquely is incredible.

 The solo mode in this game is interesting because it provides twenty trials to accomplish, and you move up the “ladder” so to speak as you complete each trial in order. They get a lot harder, and less straight-forward, as you go along and provide some interesting challenges along the way. Perhaps even more interesting is that losing once costs you nothing, but if you lose it a second time you drop down to the previous trial and must complete that one all over again. It feels like you are a gladiator team clawing your way up through the crowd’s favor.

 The game is random. You’re rolling a few dice in order to try and damage the opposing side and no matter which die you roll there is a chance of failure. Sometimes you’ll be rolling four dice and need just one hit, yet get none. Sometimes you’ll need three and get three. It happens. With just a few units per side, a bad turn or two can be crippling – or a good turn can lead to a rout. This game plays so far, though, that it can be forgiven for the randomness. And between recruiting your forces and how to deploy and use them, there is plenty of room for strategy even in this small, fast experience of each game.

 There are too few units in the game to keep a player satisfied for long. Games should feel like a self-contained experience that players can add expansion content if they want more. But this almost feels too restricted in size for the number of units in the game. Considering you are drafting teams of 6 in solo play (and 8-10 in 2-player games), the unit and tactic pool shrinks really quickly and you’ll find yourself relying on the same combinations over and over again rather than trying to find what else pairs well together. Even worse are the lack of dice. Far too often you will be rolling that same die several times for one attack because you just don’t have enough in said color to execute the printed attack.

 The rulebook is functional, but definitely needs some additional refinement. The game is quite simple in execution, something that benefits the game and by extension gives the rules a pass, but there is definitely room for it to improve with a nice professional editor. The solo rules could use a little expansion as well, and there are several abilities that might benefit from a visual example (such as Throw) in order to help new players wrap their heads around how the ability works. And recommended first teams, for 2-player and for solo play, might have been helpful to get players into the game quickly – it is hard to make a team when you haven’t a clue about which units are more useful than others, etc. A pair of player aids, also, would go a long way to being useful. One side could have a quick summary of the turn flow, providing gentle reminders such as you can deploy both a Tactic and a Unit at the start of a turn. But mainly, as a place to list what each ability does in brief (with maybe expanded, with examples, versions in the rulebook).

Final Thoughts

I had heard hushed whispers of the Hoplomachus series in the past, but never paid them enough mind. Had I been a more avid follower of someone like Ricky Royal I might have given the game series a closer look, but the theme never really drew me in for some reason as a solo experience. And then a friend of mine, whose gaming tastes align pretty darn close to my own, was selling his Hoplomachus collection at a really good price. After some conversations with him, I discovered it was because the game played best 1-2 in his opinion and he just doesn’t hit that player count enough to justify the game in his collection. So I started looking into it a little more seriously, as I do whenever I hear a game is best at those player counts, and tried to get a time to have him teach me Hoplomachus before committing. My daughter unfortunately caused that evening of plans to get cancelled, and my friend sold the collection off before I could try it. But the game stuck on my radar.

As luck would have it, I was able to get a used copy of Hoplomachus: Origins at what I felt was a good bargain. It was the smallest set of the series, and provided a low-risk chance to try out the game to see if it lived up to the hype. And all of this is a roundabout way to coming to this verdict: I fell in love with the game from the first play. It is a fast and furious solitaire experience (that is equally enjoyable with another player – something I intend to review later in full) that holds a really unique approach with the Solo Trials list. I’m not very far up the list yet, but I’ve experienced enough to know this game is more than a keeper – something reflected by its high appearance on my Top 100 List.

The game is a perfect balance between strategic planning and adapting to the random results of the die rolls – something that works well here simply because a game is 5-15 minutes at most. A string of rotten rolls means set it up and try again, and a run of luck can carry you up the Trials ladder to greater challenges. Apart from the first night I played the game – learning it rather late at night – I have never played it just once when it hits the table. It is always a series of 2-4 Trials getting played which makes this a perfect solo game for any situation (except on-the-go). The game takes minimal time to set up, because there are so few units to choose from, Everything about this is quick paced – except for the Keywords on the units. I wish there was a better way than looking at the back of the rulebook, but at least it is on the back and organized well. This really only becomes an inconvenience in a 2-player game since you can’t both be looking at the keywords at once.

The game certainly isn’t without imperfections, yet it is a game I’ve come to quickly fall in love with because it is so highly replayable, each play goes by quickly, and there are so many team combinations you can try without much investment beyond this box. My biggest desire in here is that there were more units to choose from, because I’m already finding myself feeling like there just aren’t enough in there for a new player. Which is probably a good thing for Chip Theory Games, because I’m going to be picking up some new content to expand the game and, eventually, probably try to add everything Hoplomachus to my collection.