First Impressions · Two-Player Only · Wargame Garrison

What I Learned in my First Failure at Meltwater: A Game of Tactical Starvation

Since my friend added yet another game to our growing list of games needing a session report after the first play, it became apparent that I needed to hammer out another one quickly. This time the focus is on Meltwater: A Game of Tactical Starvation from the delightful Hollandspiele Games. Wow, this is a game that came out of nowhere for me, as I hadn’t even known of its existence until my friend told me about it. He kept trying to lure me with the name which, admittedly, is pretty fantastic. And tactical is definitely the name to suit the game, as there is a lot of short-term planning pivoting going on in this one.

After plays of games like 13 Days: The Cuban Missile Crisis and Twilight Struggle, we were ready for the standard factions of U.S. vs U.S.S.R., and per the “norm” my friend randomly was given the Russians. After his crushing victory in Twlight Struggle, it seemed like it would be time for him to ride that momentum to another victory. The first 1/2 game we played we missed a critical trait regarding the Dead hexes and how all adjacent hexes become Dirty – it explicitly states that when talking about the Attack action, but not when discussing the Doomsday Phase. However, back in the Overview it does mention that every adjacent hex to a Dead hex is Dirty, so we missed it. Still, I think an addendum in future printings would only benefit. After that missed rule was discovered, we reset and started over for real.

And, well, I learned a few insights from that play.

Insight #1: If you fail to plan, you can plan on failing

The game might be tactical in nature, but you can still plan for the long-term. I did some really good things early in the game that I think were a strong benefit, but the real turning point came when I had too many people isolated and, ultimately, they got consumed by the overrun of Dead and Dirty hexes filling the board. I stopped having answers for anything the board, or my opponent, were doing and became completely reactionary in my efforts to stay alive longer. It is no surprise, therefore, that the game ended poorly for me even if it was “closer” than it probably should have been. You have plenty of open information in this game, and can see how the board will change at the end of your turn AND at the end of your opponent’s turn. Use that to your advantage for the entire game, not just the first 50%.

Insight #2: No Man is an Island, so Don’t Treat them as Such

This ties in strongly with the above point, but is a bit more specific. You see, the U.S. player has the distinct advantage of having 2 civilians start the game on the far western corner of the map, 3 hexes away from the nearest Neutral civilian and 4 away from the nearest Friendly and Unfriendly units. This seemed like a strong advantage at first, as they were safe from anything my opponent could do. And then the map started shrinking fast, and it became clear that they were going to get pinned in and, eventually, wiped off the map without doing anything useful ever. Far too late, I started trying to move them across the map. One of them made it, but at a high cost because during those 2-3 turns spent trying to move all of those guys out (by that point in time we had Pressganged a Neutral into our side, making it so I was trying to move 3 units and failing spectacularly) and across the map, my opponent was positioning himself for a victory by upgrading to Soldiers, killing off my guys while shrinking the map in his favor, and taking my Stockpiles. I should have cut my losses sooner, yes, but I also could have been slowly moving them across much sooner to get a stronger numbers advantage.

Insight #3: Don’t Underestimate the Usefulness of Militarize

It seemed like a complete waste. Spend all four of your actions to do ONE thing, upgrading 1-2 units to Soldiers. Except it became clear, far too late, that the Soliders are the key in the late game to controlling the board in your favor. Shoot, even early on they are useful. They make Threaten easier to accomplish, block your opponent’s attempts to Threaten, and do the same on Pressgang. We used them far too quickly for Attack, which is probably why I undervalued them since they were quickly removed so the cost of a turn to lose them again in a single action felt ridiculous. Little did I know, they would be really, really useful in the late game – even if for nothing more than being able to move through Dead hexes.

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Insight #4: Be a Bully and Push People Around

Normally I wouldn’t advocate something like this, as I personally suffered from bullying most of my school years. However, the imagery is suited for this one with the use of the Threaten action. There are a lot of things you can do in Meltwater to change the position of things, but one of the most important things you can do is to be vicious in Threatening your opponent – or neutral – civilians. Not to your advantage, but rather to your opponent’s disadvantage. Especially as hexes get Dirty, start trying to overcrowd an area and fill in the hexes around it with your own units – or empty them of units. Because, as you will notice, the units cannot Flee OR Defect into an empty hex in the Starvation phase. Which means that if there is nowhere to go, units start to die. The faster you can begin to deplete their numbers, the better it will go for you because then they NEED to make Soldiers to Threaten or Pressgang, or to cluster into small areas to have large enough stacks to use those actions.

Insight #5: Wage War Over Those Stockpiles

This game is all about numbers. You will be counting time and again how many units can be supported on a hex, to make sure you don’t need to send anyone packing (or worse, your opponent chooses where to send your guy packing). Which means those Stockpiles, which you both begin with two of, are essential to control. Wresting control from your opponent is a key to putting them at a disadvantage. Unfortunately, I waged war on them far too early, when the map was still relatively open. So while there was a good time where I held 3-4 of them, my opponent could survive because there were places to spread out. Later in the game, when I was struggling with Insight #2’s problem, he reclaimed some of these and took some of mine away, putting me in a critical bind to compound my other growing list of problems. If you take it, make sure you can keep it, and redouble the efforts later in the game as that map shrinks.

Insight #6: Expand early and often

This might sound like an interesting thing, but there are two key reasons for this. First, the Doomsday spreading of Dead hexes ignores any hex with a unit on it (until it no longer can), going instead to the nearest Dirty hex that isn’t occupied. So if you have a lot of space you control, you are maintaining a lot of areas that might become Dirty, but will remain free from becoming Dead. Second, during the Starvation phase a unit cannot move out of a hex into an empty hex. I know, it sounds crazy that they can’t go where they could live, even if it is there, but that’s the way it goes. This is Antarctica, after all, and an isolated civilian fleeing to an isolated location would be as likely to starve or die of hyopthermia, or something equally cheery. So the more hexes you occupy, the more places you can shift into when needed – especially if you control those Stockpiles along important areas.

Wrap-Up

What a cheery game, right? I thoroughly enjoyed the first full play we had of the game, and it cemented Hollandspiele as a publisher I need to play more often. Since then I’ve pulled back out my copy of Charlemagne, Master of Europe (review on that coming hopefully sometime this month!) and might have placed an order for The Great Heathen Army. Not all of their games are for me – anything needing 3+ is likely a hard pass – but I will be expanding my adventures into their lineup. And eventually I’ll coerce my friend into playing his copy of this one 4 more times so I can get a full review in of Meltwater: A Game of Tactical Starvation in as well. Because who knew it could be so much fun forcing your opponent to die of starvation until you have the last man or woman standing on the map?

First Impressions · Two-Player Only · Wargame Garrison

Watergate: First Impressions and Lessons Learned

Hoo boy, the session reports are coming out of isolation now! Two of them in two days! Well, killing off the commute from work definitely gives me a little more downtime to work on things like this, and so I’m trying to get caught up a little on these before plunging back into my normal set of reviews (which are coming! And I’m hoping to get my first wargame review for 2020 up this month as well). This particular title is one of those interesting ones, as it isn’t really a wargame. Yet it has strong influences from the Card-Driven Game system made popular in games such as Twilight Struggle.

When Capstone Games first announced Watergate, I was excited and disappointed. Excited for a 2-player only game from one of my favorite publishers. Disappointed because I was almost positive my wife wouldn’t even give it a try if I set it up on the table. Political themes turn her away from a game, and I can’t fault her for that. The Watergate scandal doesn’t exactly make me excited for the game, either. However, I finally got a chance to try it back in the beginning of February and enjoyed the game tremendously. As per the usual cycle, here are some of the insights I learned from that first play as the journalist:

Insight #1: The board is small. Really small. Which keeps things as tight as a string.

The board is going to deceive you. After all, you’ll count spaces and realize you need to connect the center to one of six spots on the outside, and each of them is only a few spaces away. Piece of cake, you might say after the first round of the game. After all, it can’t be that hard to make the proper connections, especially since each person has several branches to get there. Enter the opponent, who has an easy time blocking your path since, of course, they can see where you want to go and cleverly block them. That straight path is suddenly doubled in length and, of course, they will be able to block that as well. Because when the map is this small, every placement can have a strong impact.

Insight #2: Hidden Information Holds Power

Nixon is on the defensive for most areas of the game, but that doesn’t mean he is without his resources. Most importantly, he knows what is pulled from the bag each round. That means he can be aware of what is movable and can plan accordingly, while the journalist hopes to strike “gold” with some impactful guesswork. Thematic, sure. But there are definitely times I felt like I was grasping at straws hoping to get momentum, coming up short as often as I got exactly what I needed.

Insight #3: For Every Card, An Opposite Reaction

Oh man, I got burned so often by the cards in this game. It didn’t leave me in a winless situation by any means, so they aren’t the only factor at play in the game, but it felt like I could never get things going. My opponent closed off four of the targets early in the game, and every time I had a good card to play it seemed like he could cancel it – yet every time he had a powerful card my hand was absent any counters to it. This game is so tight, especially when you trim out one-time events, to the point where it feels like there is a chance to fine-tune your “engine” of a deck over time. Learning important early plays, and which events are better to play the 2nd time you draw them, leaves me hopeful that this game has long staying power.

Insight #4: Focus on the informants early

One of the things my opponent did well was closing off my early paths. Yes, I nailed down an informant really early, but before I blinked there was only one other I could gain and I was forced to play that one as soon as possible in order to avoid an even more difficult battle. Yes, there are ways to get them back in play (something I was forced to attempt), and ways to open paths up that had previously been closed, but you don’t want to be forced to rely on getting those avenues. What you want is to have options, and to keep Nixon guessing. I failed at this, partly because of a completely lackluster card draw which saw me getting those removed informants near the end of my deck, and then again early after the reshuffle. By then, it was too little too late and I was stuck trying to pry things back into play so I could pounce on the opportunity. In such a short, tight game that is a formula which will lose more often than it wins.

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Insight #5: That Research Track is Where (most of) the Game is Won or Lost

I love multi-use cards, whether we’re talking Euro games or Wargames. That’s probably why the CDGs were the perfect gateway drug for me toward the Wargaming side of the hobby. And as much as I love the multi-use cards here in Watergate (in typical fashion, used as either an event or for its Value to shift things along the Research track. What sort of things? Well, I’m glad you asked! Most obvious is the three Evidence tokens that are randomly drawn and placed on there each round. You have to match its color to move it, which means as the Editor you need to ask Nixon if a face-down token matches and they will either flip one up that matches or tell you there are none that match among the face-down tokens. These are what get placed on the main part of the board, connecting the center toward the Informants or blocking those paths when Nixon wins them. They are gained by either reaching the 5 on a side during the round, or get placed by whomever they are closest to at the end of the round.

The other two things are almost as important. The Initiative marker is on there, and whomever holds initiative gets to draw an extra card and play first on the next round. Yes, that can be extremely powerful. The other thing is a Momentum token, which is up for grabs every round. Nixon needs to get 5 of them to win the game. Easy, right? As the Editor, you also want them to prolong the game as well as to trigger powers as you gain more of them – some of those powers are really, really impactful to flip the board.

All of this combines to give you 5 things to possibly move in a game where you are playing either 3 or 4 cards in a turn. You can’t do everything or win everything. You need to decide what you need and whether or not it is more important to prevent your opponent from getting what they need that round. Oh my, the decisions abound here! I absolutely love the decisions here, and the way in which you need to decide how to spread those plays. The push-and-pull here is powerful, and there are cards which will make your head spin in this part of the game.

Wrap-up

Let’s start by saying that Watergate makes the short list of 2019 titles that are in the running for my game-of-the-year. Had you told me that at the time the game was announced, I would have remained unconvinced. I expected it to be good, since Capstone was publishing it. I had no idea it would be this good.

And so now I have a conundrum: to purchase the game in the hopes that my wife will play it, or just force my friend to play his copy with me a lot more times. The more I think about, and write about, this game the more I am convinced that the game deserves a spot on my shelf, even if only for an occasional play or two every few months. I have far bigger games that see far fewer plays, after all, and this one is just as good (and sometimes better than) those ones. And all this post has accomplished so far has been to make me itch to play Watergate again. I think this needs to become part of my COVID-19 survival package…assuming I can find a copy locally.

If you have a copy and have been waiting to play it, don’t delay any longer. This game is good. Really, really good. It is one of the best titles in Capstone’s gaming library, and one of the best titles released by them in a year where they also released Pipeline and Maracaibo.

Review for Two · Two-Player Only

Review for Two: The Rose King

Thank you for checking review #124 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 in exchange for an honest review. All opinions remain my own.

An overview of The Rose King

The Rose King is a board game designed by Dirk Henn that is published by KOSMOS. The box state it plays 2 players and has a playtime of 30 minutes.

The battle between farmers and ranchers is fairly abstract. A single pawn travels on a square grid. Each player has a hand of cards face up. These each have a direction and a distance. The player can either draw a card and add it to his hand, or play a card. If he plays a card, then the pawn moves the appropriate distance to an empty square, and the player places one of his markers. Each player also has judge symbols that can each be used only once. The judge lets you move onto a previously placed opposition marker and reverse it. Players score points for each contiguous region equal to the square of the number of markers. If a player is not careful, such a move may be forced, as there is a maximum number of cards that a player may hold.

Contains rules for playing with 4 (in two partnerships of two players).

Later republished 1999 as Rosenkönig by Kosmos, as part of the two-player game series. The republication also included a re-theming of the game. The setting changed from Texas to England, and the factions changed from farmers and ranchers to the factions of the Plantagenet family from the Wars of the Roses (1455-1485) – the Lancaster (red rose) and the York (white rose) factions in a similarly abstracted fashion.

Rosenkönig is part of the Kosmos two-player series.

My Thoughts

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 The Rose King is like so many of the other titles in the Kosmos 2-Player line: it has a fast setup time, good 30-ish minute play time, and an easy teardown of the components. This might actually be the fastest of them all that I’ve played, with almost no setup time involved. The rules are simple and straightforward, with scoring being the one area that could trip new players up until they see an area scored. My suggestion: the first time the deck runs out, walk through how a few of the areas would score if the game ended at that point, so they can see just how much more valuable a 5th piece is than the 4th in an area, etc. Thanks to the handy table on the back of the rules, multiplying your areas becomes a breeze and simply requires a fair amount of addition.

 Gameplay here is extremely simple, as you are either 1) playing a card to move the crown to an open space, putting one of your tokens in that new space, 2) drawing a card if you have fewer than 5 cards, 3) playing a card with your special knight card to move the crown to a space your opponent occupies, flipping their piece to your side, or 4) passing. The board itself tells you the orientation of your card and the card tells you the number of spaces and direction in which you can move the crown. It is really easy and intuitive to see what you can do, and to execute each turn. And with a limit of 5 cards, even the room for AP-prone thinkers is small enough to prevent the game from bogging down.

 It is an interesting design decision to have the cards align based on the printed Crown at the top of the board. Which means your cards are oriented so the crown is in the same direction, so if the crown is facing you your cards will be “upside down”. My guess is that this was to ensure the proper distribution of moves in each direction, etc. and it is one of the more interesting aspects of the game. I also like how you are moving a crown piece around the board, which is where you are moving from with your cards.

 Each side begins with four Knight cards, which are essentially all one-time-use for a very powerful move. It allows you to move to a space occupied by an opponent, flipping their piece to your side in the process. It gets played together with a movement card, so you need to have the “right card” for movement in order to make these plays, and using these can be absolutely vital. Especially if you end up having 2-3 of them remaining when your opponent has already burned through theirs. This is the one direct way you can counter what they’ve placed, and is a great way to turn a “block” into your advantage.

 You don’t draw a new card as you play a card, which I both like and dislike. It forces you to consider when to play a card and when to forego the action to replenish your hand a little, opening up future options. Sometimes the position of the crown might dictate playing a card or two more than you expected, and other times it might force you into drawing since you have no plays. It isn’t a negative of the game, but it can lead to moments where you draw unplayable cards and can only watch, helpless, while your opponent plays card after card and then draws the card you could have finally used. The fact that you’re likely to have at least one of those action-droughts during every game means this is a very real hurdle you’ll have to overcome, and how well you can overcome it is completely dictated by the cards you draw and the cards your opponent draws.

 Not a negative per say, but a pad of paper and a small golf pencil easily could fit in the box at minimal cost (I suspect) and would be a useful tool for scoring the game. Even a blank pad of paper would suffice here, and even leaving out the writing utensil could be forgiven if it had said paper to track the score. As it stands, we usually both have our phones out to the calculator app to punch in the bundles of numbers. But paper would help make sure we don’t suffer from fat-finger syndrome or miss scoring an area.

 When things go bad, they can go really bad in The Rose King. Your moves are dictated by the cards you draw and the position of the crown on the board. Nothing can be more frustrating than spending a chunk of the game forced into suboptimal moves based on the card draw while your opponent seems to get the perfect card every time they draw, expanding their swelling mass of a territory while you are stuck building random croppings of 2-3 markers. An abstract game like this should have a little less luck involved, which might be a sign of the game’s age.

Final Thoughts

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The Rose King was one of those games I was interested in but didn’t have high expectations for, as it was an older title and much of its reputation might have been built before modern “replacements” arrived that were better. And sure, it isn’t the best abstract game I’ve ever played, nor the best 2-player game I’ve played by a longshot. However, this game was a delight to get to the table at the tail end of 2019 and again in 2020 for this review. It even surprised me by winning over my wife, whom I expected would be absolutely uninterested in the abstract nature of the game. Her enjoyment of The Rose King convinced me of two things: 1) she might just enjoy other abstracts like Santorini or Tash-Kalar, and 2) we can’t go wrong with exploring even more of the Kosmos 2-player line of games.

When it fires on all cylinders, The Rose King offers a host of interesting decisions about where to move for placement of your pieces. There can be ample room to strategic planning and tactical maneuvering. There is something satisfying about connecting two growing masses of your tokens into one unified, higher-scoring cluster – a feeling only surpassed when that is accomplished by flipping your opponent’s piece to make it happen. Moments like that are what make The Rose King a memorable and fun experience when it hits the table.

Unfortunately, there are ample limitations that can prevent those power moves from ever happening. The movement is completely restricted by the cards you draw, and a hand limit of 5 cards means it is possible that you can get into a situation where you are unable to make a play and helplessly watch your opponent drop down pieces unchecked until you have a valid move again. Most of our games ended with the pieces running out, but we have seen it position to where neither player had a valid move within their combined 10 cards which brought the game to an early conclusion. Added to that is the fact that you need to spend an action to draw a card and you might be forced to watch your opponent get to chain 2-3 plays together while you are trying to find a playable card to interrupt their flow. The game is very much an ebb and flow in its current, and whomever can capitalize on those momentum moments will usually hold the slight advantage needed to win.

And yet so much is limited by the chance of drawing the cards needed. With movement ranges of 1-3 and 8 different directions possible, there is a good chance you draw card after card that is playable yet doesn’t help position you where you want to go. Sometimes your cards play better into where your opponent wants the pieces to fall than your own, making you want to toss your hands in the air out of frustration. If the game was any longer, or had any stronger random factor in here, that would probably be a deal-breaker for the game. But it is a quick game to get to the table and move on to either the next game or a rematch of this one.

Ultimately The Rose King is probably my least favorite Kosmos 2-player game that I have tried so far, but that statement is kind of misleading. After all, I wouldn’t say that any of the games I’ve played are bad, and I wouldn’t qualify this one as bad by any stretch of the imagination. I’ll never turn down a game of The Rose King, but I’ll probably grab Targi, Lord of the Rings: The Duel, or Lost Cities before this one most of the time when I want a play of a Kosmos title.

Strategy · Two-Player Only · Wargame Garrison

A New Wargamer’s Guide to Failing Spectacularly at Twilight Struggle (i.e. Lessons learned from my first failure)

Greetings Grognards! Hopefully, with my pending application for status as a certified newbie wargamer, I can use that term in such a familiar fashion. For years I’ve danced around wanting to be a wargamer. I’ve played a lot of War of the Ring, which has been my absolute favorite game for half a decade (which is about as long as I’ve been consistently playing modern board games). I’ve dabbled in a few games here and there, even going as far as to review a very small selection on my blog (Stamford Bridge: End of the Viking Age and Agricola, Master of Britain and 878: Vikings – Invasions of England) and post a few articles for the early wave of GMT Insider a few years ago based around 1960: The Making of the President. But so far my experience with wargaming has been more of a “I’d like to play more of those” without any real progress on actually playing any of them. And in the past two months, that has started to change because I have a good friend who loves playing wargames and is a willing opponent. We’ve played matches of lighter fare, such as 13 Days: The Cuban MIssile Crisis and Watergate, and some of longer affairs, such as Twilight Struggle and Sekigahara: The Unification of Japan. I’ve even borrowed his copy of Peloponnesian War and run through the introductory part of the scenario in preparation of playing out the rest of that solitaire experience. And so, with this brief introduction out of the way, let me dive into the first of what I hope will be a semi-regular occurrence going forward at Cardboard Clash: a focus on wargames!

This time I’m going to reflect back on a fateful night nearly a month ago, when I sat down across from my friend at about 10pm at night to learn Twilight Struggle together. In keeping with 13 Days, I was the U.S. and he played as the Soviets. It was probably closer to 11 by the time we got it all set up, walked through the rules, and finished that very first round. Two hours after that, the Soviets won a hallmark victory in the final round by bringing the game to a premature close…and the contest wasn’t ever really in question from the start. He anchored in an early advantage in key areas, holding a strong VP lead throughout almost the entire game as I flailed about and attempted to decipher how to best utilize my cards and where to value using Ops points.

There are innumerable resources out there for those looking to sharpen their Twilight Struggle game, and this isn’t intended to replace any of them, or even to try and supplement them. This is simply a player reflecting back upon some of the things I learned after that first game, in which I entered the game knowing very little apart from how a CDG system operated (from playing 1960: The Making of the President and 13 Days: The Cuban Missile Crisis prior to that Twilight Struggle game). Part of me hesitates to even put this out so soon, as my opponent will undoubtedly read this and be able to prepare counters to any semblance of strategy I might muster. And yet for the sake of others who, like me, might be on the verge of their first plays and are not quite ready to grok some high-level depth in strategy, this can hopefully provide some insight so you can learn from my mistakes.
Insight #1: The European Power Struggle, or Lack Thereof

My opponent opened up the game in a very big way, leading to a theme that encapsulated much of our entire play: a struggle for power in Europe. Or rather, a struggle to weaken the Soviet stranglehold in Europe, something that I was wholly unable to flip over the course of the game because every time I took a step forward, it seemed he had a way to move my progress back and cement a stronger hold on Europe. Early in the game I spent far too many resources trying to keep a foothold in there, and for a good portion of the game it was able to remain in-tact. A late-game push for the auto-win condition of controlling Europe during scoring by my opponent made me dedicate even more resources into Europe that I wasn’t really able to spend in order to hold one final Battleground.

What this taught me, ultimately, was a lesson that also ties into a later point: the map is big. Really big. There is a whole world to fight over in order to gain control of territories! Yes, Europe is an easy one to fight over because you both start in that same sandbox. But just because there is only one shovel in that sandbox doesn’t mean you should fight over it – go pick up a rake or a bucket instead and use those to your own advantage instead of dedicating too much effort to one thing. I’m not advocating a complete ignoring of Europe on the map, as it does provide some good points and that auto-win potential. But investing too much into one place, especially on the defensive, puts you in the role of the tortoise rather than the hare as the game gains momentum.

Insight #2: The Overpowered Might of the Space Race

Oh the Space Race. It felt like a great thing: toss a card with an opponent’s event in here and you are safe from said event firing off, AND you get the bonus of possibly moving along a track. And early on in the game, I really enjoyed the Space Race. One might say I emphasized on it too much, actually, taking an early lead along the track thanks to a well-timed event and some die rolls that went my way on both sides of the Space Race. Especially once I got to where I could toss 2 cards into that Space Race! Everything felt wonderful surrounding the Space Race. Except…

Well, that early lead disappeared eventually as he got some clever plays in as well, swinging it back in his favor at the end. Not to mention that those bonuses only last until he reaches that point on the Space Race track which, unfortunately, was never as long as I wanted. And this board created a different problem, something I’ll be expanding on with a different insight: tempo. I got so caught up on maintaining the Space Race advantage that I was using my first play(s) of the round to toss cards into the Space Race, meaning he got to use 2-3 events or OP Cards sometimes before I was making any difference on the map. And in Twilight Struggle, I’ve found it is far easier to be the first to impact an area of the map than to try and flip an area your opponent already controls. So I spent the middle of the game focusing first on a track that provided diminishing returns while allowing him to make far-reaching impact that I had to fight hard to undo later.

Insight #3: Dogs Chase Their Tails. Don’t Be a Dog.

A common theme you may have noticed has been regarding being behind. And this isn’t really bringing about anything new with this insight, but rather expands it in a new way of looking at things. We’ve all watched dogs chasing their tails, spinning in endless circles as they attempt to catch that just-out-of-reach tail. Most of us find some humor in the scene, and know better than to do that ourselves. It becomes easier said than done sometimes in the context of a competitive game, though. Which brings about the biggest issue I probably had in my lack of strategy for Twilight Struggle: I spent too much time chasing things that were providing little, or diminishing, return for my efforts. On occasion I was able to make a proper read and determine what scoring card he just drew and make a strong drop that forced him to abandon the dominance he dreamed of in the area. But far too often, I was chasing after phantom points.

It is almost a knee-jerk reaction to try and “fix” an area of the board right after it scores in their favor. After all, if there is any amount of time still remaining in the game it is pretty likely that scoring card will come back up at least one more time, and you will want to make sure it scores more favorably the next time around, either by reducing their points scored or by flipping it to where the net gain goes your direction. The problem is that most of the time, the card won’t come back out for at least a few rounds and, by then, so much can change to where your efforts are not really needed right now. They would be better spent focusing on the areas of the map which haven’t scored yet this shuffle, so that you can be a step ahead when that card does come into play.

Insight #4 – Don’t Chase Squirrels, Either

A correlating concept to the above involves the Squirrel concept: i.e., getting blinded by that scoring card, or that shiny event, in your hand that you focus on working around that for an entire turn. Which may not seem like a bad thing in itself, especially if it does help you take steps forward. The problem comes when you ignore everything else your opponent is doing, allowing them to also move forward unchecked. This may not be a bad thing if your combination of plays reaps stronger rewards, but most of the time it feels like the best play of a hand of cards is to do a little bit of combo-chaining combined with a little map control and a little countering the directions of your opponent.

Twilight Struggle, reflecting back on the experience, felt more like a game of a thousand papercuts than a game of powerful shifts in power. Dumping half your round into flipping Italy might feel a worthwhile use of those cards, but it seems like dispersing your influence across several smaller locations, spreading control across the entire map, rather than focusing hard into one area is the better way to go for the long run. The same goes for those juicy card combinations: sometimes it might be better to use the Ops points than the action off the event. Don’t let the game’s cards or your opponent dictate your strategy in a reactive way.

Insight #5: Lead with a Haymaker, not a Whisper

And that kind of leads into the final insight I’m sharing here. Honestly, so much is closely related to where it probably all can be summed up with this thought: be proactive, not reactive. Too often the “turtle” strategist in me wanted to rise to the surface, slow-playing the things in my hand with the intent of using the stronger stuff a little later in the round, when I could see the direction things were heading. Twice my opponent completely burned me with reducing all of my Ops points by 1, leading me to strongly regret not playing key things earlier in the turn. As mentioned before, it is far easier to stake the first claim than to flip it. You already know you will be forced to play almost your entire hand. You have a good idea about what you will need to try and accomplish with that hand, and can prioritize from there what should happen first, before they can interfere with your plans. Lead with strong plays, whether in the form of events or in Ops, in order to make them sweat and potentially spend their time trying to counteract your moves instead of fulfilling their own agenda for the turn. And if that isn’t motivation enough, that Defcon track ought to inspire you about where to focus your early efforts in an attempt to lock down key areas of the map before they get restricted.

One of the tendencies was also to lead with non-Soviet cards and save those for the very last cards. I think this is likely a very common tendency, too, as they are the ones that can hurt back. One you can discard into the Space Race location, and that should be the one with either an event you cannot really weather or with diminishing returns on the card value. Far too often I was tossing the highest Op Point card for my opponent, but what if that card’s Op Points were enough to make it a better play overall than that 1-Op card which gave them a far better event than I could earn with that single Op? Better yet, what event, if played early, might make their focus shift to somewhere less important for the round and thereby open the door for a stronger play when getting to my other cards? Either way they were getting to play one of those events since I had those cards in hand, and if I can get them to play into my hand (or lose sight of how to optimize their own hand) by throwing them off-guard a little early in the round, isn’t that a sign of a small victory in Twilight Struggle?

Wrap-Up

So there you have it. Straight from the fingertips of an amateur, both in Wargames and to Twilight Struggle. I’d like to think that I’ve given a fair amount of consideration with my reflections. These aren’t high-level tips or strategies. I’ve tried reading and watching some strategy tips out there and most, honestly, go over my head so far because I am not nuanced enough in the game to catch the subtle references and the X counters Y layers. It’ll take many more losses before I get to that point. My hope for the rematch isn’t even to win, but to do better than the last game where I moved the VP into my side only twice, both fleeting “advantages” during the middle of the game where I actually was playing decent in terms of strategy.

My hope is that you found some enjoyment here, even if you are a seasoned veteran of Twilight Struggle. Even if it is at the expense of an amateur who may be in for a rude awakening if he realizes these insights are still off the mark during that rematch.

And I hope this is the first (recent) of many contributions to GMT Insider in the future as I explore more games within their lengthy catalog.

Review for Two · Two-Player Only

Review for Two: Targi

Thank you for checking review #120 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 in exchange for an honest review. All opinions remain my own.

An overview of Targi

Targi is a board game designed by Andreas Steiger that is published by Kosmos Games. The box state it plays 2 players and has a playtime of 60 minutes.

Theme and overview:

Unlike in other cultures, the desert Tuareg men, known as Targi, cover their faces whereas women of the tribe do not wear veils. They run the household and they have the last word at home in the tents. Different families are divided into tribes, headed by the ‘Imascheren’ (or nobles). As leader of a Tuareg tribe, players trade goods from near (such as dates and salt) and far (like pepper), in order to obtain gold and other benefits, and enlarge their family. In each round their new offerings are made. Cards are a means to an end, in order to obtain the popular tribe cards.

Gameplay:

The board consists of a 5×5 grid: a border of 16 squares with printed action symbols and then 9 blank squares in the centre onto which cards are dealt. Meeples are placed one at a time on the spaces at the edges of the board (not including corner squares). You cannot place a meeple on a square the opponent has a meeple on already, nor on a square facing opponent’s meeple. Once all meeples are placed, players then execute the actions on the border squares the meeples are on and also take the cards from the centre that match the row and column of the border meeples.

The game is predominantly scored and won by playing tribal cards to your display. These give advantages during the game and victory points at the end. Usually cards are played (or discarded) immediately once drawn. A single card can be kept in hand but then requires a special action to play it (or to discard it to free the hand spot for another card). Each card has a cost in goods to play. Goods are obtained either from border spaces or from goods cards.

The display (for scoring) consists of 3 rows of 4 cards that are filled from left to right and cannot be moved once placed (barring some special cards). There is also a balance to be found between the victory point score on the cards themselves (1-3 VP per tribal card) and in the combinations per row (a full row of 4 identical card types gets you an additional 4 VP, and a full row of 4 distinct card types gets you 2 VP).

The winner at the end of the game is the player with the most victory points.

My Thoughts

 This game provides incredible brain burn. It won’t seem like it at first, but there is more to this game than the average game because there is a huge spatial aspect to the game. Your workers are placed along the borders, and the points where your workers “intersect” in the center of the grid of cards will give you 1-2 additional actions to execute that round. That in itself is really clever. However, the ruthlessness of being unable to place a worker across from your opponents’ workers means the grid of cards shrinks quickly. Which means your first placement isn’t necessarily on a card you want the action for, but rather to hopefully lock down the center card you are banking on this turn. But, oh no, your opponent unwittingly (maybe) just put their worker on the other card you needed to make that perfect intersection, so now you’re trying to figure out how to salvage the rest of this turn without ruining your attempt to get that card next round instead. This is the brilliance of Targi.

 The set collection aspect of the game adds a great layer of decisions into what you are choosing for actions. You are strongly incentivized to fill a row with 4 cards of the same type, as that is an extra 4 points. However, failing that you want to get a row of 4 unique card types for 2 points. Anything else is a wasted opportunity for bonus end-game points in a game that is often tight enough to where even 2 points can make all the difference. Neither of those sets are easy to collect, and there will be times when you seriously consider whether or not to take that card which will ruin said collection you are working toward, since you only have 3 rows to work with.

 There are three great spots on the outer board that are worth mentioning, because they open up flexibility and, at times, some push-your-luck. First, there is an action space which will let you move one of your central cylinders to an open central card that round, meaning it is a valuable place to go when your opponent blocks you out of a row or column you really wanted – assuming they don’t mark that very card you wanted. Second, there is a space which allows you to take the top Goods card off the deck. This is a strong risk-reward play, but it can provide a great feeling when it gives you a coin for the gamble. Last is the space which lets you take the top Tribes card and either buy it immediately, add it to your hand, or discard it. However, there are several reasons this can be risky because…

 You have a hand size of 1 for the Tribes cards. If you have one in hand, you need to use the space on the board which allows you to play or discard that hand card, otherwise you’re going to have to buy or discard any Tribes cards gained until that card is gone from your hand. And with only one space to play/discard that card, it is entirely possible your opponent may block you out from using that spot on the turn when you wanted to play the card, forcing you to pivot your entire plan. Anyone claiming worker placement games have no interaction has clearly never played Targi, because there is constant interference in this one with such a tight board and limited actions per round.

 There is a neutral piece that moves around the outside perimeter, advancing 1 space each round. This is great for two reasons: it is the timer for the game (although players CAN trigger it early), and it blocks one space from placement each round. In addition, the four corners contain Raid spaces where players immediately lose either goods or points and then the piece advances to the next space. So while there are 16 cards making up the border, it’ll really be a 12-round game at most with up to 4 penalties paid – which can be a lot less forgiving than you’d think. This game can be TIGHT.

 A “board” made of cards where the center 9 cards are constantly changing definitely creates a dynamic game experience. However, it also creates the issue of needing to remove and replace cards constantly, alternating which type of cards goes into that spot (i.e. if the card used/removed is a Goods card, a Tribes card replaces it). These cards are initially placed face-down as the actions are resolved for both players, and then flipped to end the round. Okay, fine. Except that’s a lot of placing and flipping over the course of the game, and if you have even the slightest ounce of perfectionism in your body you will get a nervous tic every time a card slides askew from the others. A small board or playmat to place the cards on might be a nice way to “deluxify” the game experience and help provide a small amount of control to the layout of cards. I learned the hard way in our first play, when I had the cards tight together. Ever since there has been a nice cushioned gap in every direction.

Final Thoughts

Targi is one of those games I always hoped to try because it was a 2-player worker placement game – something I know is up my wife’s alley for gaming. I expected a game that was extremely overhyped, because I’ve heard numerous times just how excellent Targi is as a game. No game, especially one so small in size, could be that good, right? Let’s just get this out of the way now: Targi doesn’t hit the expectations from word of mouth. It exceeds them. This little game is, somehow, even more impressive than I had been led to believe.

At its heart, Targi is just like most worker placement games: you put out workers each round to gain resources which you then convert into points. It adds set collection, which also isn’t that uncommon to worker placement games. It doesn’t allow you to place a worker where your opponents are, just like many other worker placement games. So what is it about Targi that sets it apart from so many other games?

This game provides incredible brain burn. It won’t seem like it at first, but there is more to this game than the average game because there is a huge spatial aspect to the game. Your workers are placed along the borders, and the cards in the center where they intersect will provide 1-2 more actions to execute for 4-5 total per round. Clever, but still not special. However, the restriction to prevent you from placing directly across from an opponent is what elevates this from small worker placement game to mind-melting puzzle. This is the brilliance of Targi. This is what sets it apart from most vanilla worker placement games, and what makes it an incredible experience that sets it up as one of the absolute best games to play with 2 players.

When I get the itch for a worker placement game (which isn’t often, since they almost always end in defeat against my genius wife), this is one of the first games that will come to mind going forward. It is quick to set up, plays in well under an hour, provides incredibly crunchy decisions, and has a fast teardown time. Even more importantly, it has a moderate table presence, meaning it isn’t a game that needs a ton of real estate to play. It probably isn’t the best coffee shop game to take along, although the small box is nice, but it does work fine on almost any sized table.

All in all, Targi is easily one of the best new-to-me games I have played this year. And I’ve played some really amazing gems, even in the 2-player only market with hits like Bushido, Skulk Hollow, and Exceed Street Fighter making it to my table this year. Don’t make me have to choose which one is best – I’ll be struggling with that come June when I refresh my Top 100 (where I expect Targi to easily place on there somewhere). If you haven’t tried Targi and you like thinky 2-player games, this is definitely one of the more unique and worthwhile titles to add to your collection.

Review for Two · Two-Player Only

Review for Two – Imhotep: The Duel

A quick note: I am collected data from folks on their top games to play with 2-players. Not necessarily 2-player only games! Essentially, send me a message with up to your Top 20 games, ranked in order, and I’ll enter them into my spreadsheet. I am collecting data on this until 12/14/2019, and shortly after that I will begin unveiling the results. Currently I have nearly 50 lists, and the more we can collect the more accurate we can represent the People’s Choice Top 100 Games for Two. You can find more details here: https://www.boardgamegeek.com/article/33412597

Thank you for checking review #119 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 in exchange for an honest review. All opinions remain my own.

An overview of Imhotep: The Duel

Imhotep: The Duel is a board game designed by Phil Walker-Harding that is published by Kosmos Games. The box state it plays 2 players and has a playtime of 30 minutes.

The competition of the builders continues in Imhotep: The Duel!

In this game, players take on the roles of Nefertiti and Akhenaten, one of Egypt’s most famous royal couples. Game pieces must be cleverly placed so that players can unload the most valuable tiles from the six boats. While this is happening, each player builds their own four monuments in order to gain as many fame points as possible.

My Thoughts

 The 3×3 grid may be reminiscent of tic-tac-toe, but it is used in such a clever way that I think 3×3 turns out to be the perfect size for what they are trying to accomplish here. Because you each have four workers, it will never be completely full. And most of the time you won’t even have all four workers out at once, since there is a constant ebb and flow of people on the board (more on that next). I like a nice, tight space where you can continuously have your best plans thwarted in clever ways by your opponent.

 The game is simple, since you can either place a worker onto a space, or unload a boat (technically the blue action tokens provide a third option, usually some enhanced version of the two core actions). And each space on the grid connects with two of the six boats out there, meaning your worker is never fully locked in on which boat they help unload – only which tile position on said boats. Unloading is restricted only by the need for at least two workers to be in that row/column for the boat – but you also don’t need any of the workers to be yours in order to trigger said unload action. So this opens up the tricky play opportunities to try and slow down, or deny, your opponent the tiles they are working hard to set themselves up to gain. Since those workers will come off the board and need to be replaced, any time you force them into the unload they don’t want to take, you are slowing them down. And if you have at least one worker out in that area, you’re gaining something in return each time. Will they likely replace the key worker on the spot they really need for their next turn? Probably. But it might open up one of the spaces you needed also, making it totally worth doing.

 The blue action tiles are the only tiles which do not go onto one of your four boards. However, they are arguably the most important tiles to target because they allow you to either break the rules (such as unloading a tile off any boat, or swapping the position of two tiles on a boat) or to take more efficient actions (such as placing two workers in one action, or unloading two different boats). Depending on when these tiles come out, they can either be used tactically to gain a strong advantage during a key sequence of turns, or they can be stockpiled for a point each at the end of the game.

 Apart from those action tiles, there are four other types of tiles that all are sought after for different scoring aspects. Not only do they differ by type, but the side of each board you use changes how they are scored. Because there are a limited number of each of these tiles, and for the most part they are open information on what a player has gained, you can get a sense of what you and your opponent really needs and plan accordingly. This allows you to not only optimize taking what you need, but also potentially taking tiles you don’t need in order to deny them to your opponent – or making sure a boat unloads to discard a tile they need.

 If you are against games with negative player interaction, this game might have enough potential take-that opportunities to sour the experience for you. Granted, every step of it is based on choices you are making, but if one player is being cutthroat in their play it can feel bad for the other player. However, that is a player choice, not the fault of the game. It allows you to be as gentle, or as ruthless, as you would like. Which means this game should cater strongly to most gaming pairs. Just know what to expect based on the player sitting across from you.

 I do wish that some of the tiles were removed at random (apart from the three placed on the dock space, which may or may not come out). Some players prefer perfect information, knowing that X number of Y tiles will come out over the course of the game and can plan accordingly with their strategy. I, on the other hand, like when at least a small amount of information is imperfect (such as in Hanamikoji) and you must carefully try to adapt your plans as things are revealed. Personal preference here, and it doesn’t stop me from absolutely loving this game when it hits the table.

Final Thoughts

Imhotep: The Duel may or may not be like its predecessor – I cannot tell you how closely the two games align with each other. However, I can speak about the experience that came from this 2-player game and, quite frankly, it is really fun. I wasn’t sold, when reading the instructions, about the 3×3 grid for worker placement and everything but it all turns out to be a fine-tuned system with far more player interaction opportunities than I would have believed. With some clever timing, you can very much interfere with an opponents’ plans before they come to fruition, setting them back a turn or two on something they were working toward. Of course, it isn’t a forced thing and you can play and enjoy this completely as a pair of carebears, but for those who like a little meanness and the ability to interfere with an opponents’ plan…this will be a pleasant surprise.

The game moves along at a quick pace. With a small supply of workers and two primary choices of actions, it is bound to be a punchy pacing for the game. Yet within the simple mechanical confines there are riches of decisions to be made. Like the aforementioned aspect where you can play mean or nice, you can also base your decisions around what your own plans are, or play based upon what you see your opponent doing and try to capitalize on their action selections. After all, any time they can select an unload action where you have at least one worker, you put yourself a little further “ahead” – which might only be the appearance of advancement, but it is still a rewarding feeling to get something from their turns.

The real star of the show comes from the multiple tile types and how they are all used in different ways along your “player board” area. With four different sets to collect, each interacting in different ways, makes this a really interesting puzzle of figuring out how to value the tiles available – and how to value what your opponent is trying to gain. And with an A side and a B side to each of the four boards, there is a really drastic change in approach on some of these when you change sides. Suddenly what you used as a strategy in the first game might be a suboptimal approach in the second game because it scores very differently now. And I absolutely love that aspect.

This game is exactly what I look for in a dedicated 2-player title: quick setup/teardown, high replay value, “thinky filler” status, and a playtime that clocks in at around 30-40 minutes which enables multiple plays in one evening if desired. Imhotep: The Duel is an excellent game when considered on its own merits. You might be intrigued because of the experiences you’ve had with regular Imhotep and, again, I cannot tell you how it compares to that (yet). But don’t hesitate to pick up this game, because it is an above-average 2-player game that will be a welcome visitor onto my table any time someone requests to play it with me.

Review for Two · Two-Player Only

Review for Two: Skulk Hollow

Thank you for checking review #116 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 Skulk Hollow

Skulk Hollow is a board game designed by Eduardo Baraf, Seth Johnson, and Keith Matejka that is published by Pencil 1st Games. The box state it plays 2 players and has a playtime of 40 minutes.

THE GREAT RETURN
​Over generations and generations the ancient woodland of Børe prospered and grew. The world was bestowed with great spirit, which lifted the animals of the land to new heights. Unfortunately, over the years these clans lost touch with the spirit of the land and faction warring developed. The Foxen Kingdom of Skulk Hollow in the South, The spiritual Red Pandas of Cupboard in the North, the Mischievous Mice of Multon in the West, and the colony of Blackheart Bunnies in the East. As skirmishes started breaking out across the continent, lives lost, there was a monstrous shake and then The Great Return. No one quite knows why, but the Guardians have risen – but not the kind, life-giving Guardians of spiritual legend. Dark, ferocious, versions that are now attacking all the kingdoms of the land.

OBJECTIVE
In Skulk Hollow, two players take the roles of either a towering behemoth of a Guardian trying to eliminate the clans of foxes who have been causing havoc on the countryside, or a band of foxen heroes out to vanquish the evil beast that has been terrorizing the land and reunite the four kingdoms of Børe.

The Guardian wins the game by either eliminating the Foxen King, or by gaining enough Tribute.

The Foxen Heroes wins the game by eliminating the Guardian.

GAMEPLAY
Skulk Hollow is a 2-player, asymetric, tactical combat game. Player use action cards to move their units, summon, and use special abilities. Taking down a guardian requires the Foxen player to leap onto the Guardian player board and take out different parts of the character.

My Thoughts

 The first thing that impressed me about the game had absolutely nothing to do with the game itself. The contents inside the box were incredible, with a functional insert containing a tuck box for each of the four Guardians and a tuck box for the Foxen Heroes. Everything is held in the box really nicely, giving it an internal presentation that I am coming to appreciate more in my games, even if it means a slightly higher MSRP, because I know it will all be stored well. Bonus: the tuckboxes even hold the cards if they are sleeved with just enough room to keep the associated Guardian meeples in their respective boxes. Because some gamers are going to be interested in knowing that information.

 The Guardian meeples tower on the main board, but I really love the presentation of their own unique “side board” where the Foxen Heroes will be climbing and trying to destroy them. This is the show-stopper aspect of the game, and what will win many gamers over because it, honestly, is really cool. The only way it could have been better? If the Guardian figures were made to be upright/elevated with small ledge platforms where the heroes climb, making it go onto the vertical plane for the players as well.

 Tying in with the above, I really love that the Guardians lose abilities as those parts take damage. It makes the Guardian have to be able to adapt their strategy around the damage they are taking, and it forces the Foxen Heroes player to consider how to strategically approach disabling the Guardian. For instance, the first Guardian recommended for use if Grak, and he has a ranged attack called Gaze. Obviously, you want to get rid of his attack that hits Foxen folk on adjacent spaces, but to do that you need to Jump twice up to its area, and then deal it 4 damage (which, of course, is the most required for disabling out of his features). So do you rush for that, hoping to stay ahead of the Guardian’s own Mend ability, or do you methodically remove his other, smaller and more circumstantial moves first and then close in on the Gaze?

 Did I forget to mention that the path up to certain parts follows white dotted lines, making it so you can’t just automatically reach anywhere you please? Not only that, but there is a limit to the number of figures per space. Going back to Grak, his Gaze can only have one Foxen Hero on there attacking it at a time. If he manages to remove that person, that means actions spent moving someone up to that hard-to-reach location to start damaging it again.

 I think I love mutli-use cards more than anything in board games. Yes, even more than deckbuilding. It opens up flexibility to the player and makes them face decisions every turn. It isn’t just a “well, this is what I have so I guess I’ll do that” approach to the game. In particular, most of the time the card will have a movement and some form of power to use. Some cards have two action choices instead, which are nice when you don’t need movement. And there are two aspects of the game that complement the dual-action card system nicely, allowing players to remain in control of what they are going to try to accomplish.

 There are two ways to break the usual “I play a card to do X” routine. First is to Prepare, which uses an action to draw two more cards. Why is this important? Because you aren’t bound by an arbitrary hand limit. You have a hand minimum, which you’ll draw back up to each turn, but never have to discard down to. In fact, even if you have more cards in hand than that draw amount, you’ll still get to draw a card for free at the end of the turn which helps you to cycle your deck to the cards you need. Second is the Power system, which appears on cards and has you Gain Power. Those little cubes are gained during your turn and then, at the end, are allocated to any open Power Cube spot on your characters. For instance, the King of War can hold two of them. A Thief can hold one. But the Archer cannot hold any. So what do they do? On a future turn (so not the turn you play the card to get the cubes), that character can spend a cube to, as a free action, do any one of their available actions (usually movement, some sort of attack, and for Foxen Heroes a leap). So playing 3 cards this turn to get 5 Power does nothing for you now apart from cycle those cards out of your hand, but as soon as your next turn that could be 5 extra actions on top of the 3 you start with each turn – leading to some really massive shifts in the game. But because they can’t be immediately used, that means the opponent can have a chance to react, taking out as many characters with cubes as they can.

 The board is small, a 3×3 grid. You might think this should be a bad thing, as it really restricts strategic maneuvering of your Foxen troops or isolating single targets as the Guardian. However, the game isn’t about massive battles, but a fierce skirmish between a monstrous titan force and the small woodland heroes trying to fend it off. Having a smaller map ensures the action is fast and tense, as there isn’t much chance to just have characters sit back and watch from the sidelines. It is a strength I’ve seen in other games, like Hoplomachus: Origins, which is where I first came to appreciate the smaller battle map because it cuts out turns of “Move, move, move” that are usually characteristic of the opening turns in a game like this. A Foxen hero could, realistically, be onto the Guardian within their first turn and dealing damage by the second. That makes this exciting from start to finish – why have a first turn that doesn’t really matter, in the end?

 There have been other reviews whom voiced concern about only one side being exciting to play, and so I figured I should address that in here as well. For me, I think both sides are very compelling, even though one of them reuses the same deck of action cards and has the same victory objective every game. However, the choice between the four Foxen leaders makes a drastic difference in how the game can play out, especially when facing someone like Apoda who can drop damage to Foxen characters on her character board. Between the difference in leader approach and the Guardian you are facing, there is enough difference here to make them a fun and engaging side to play. Just because the Guardian side is more exciting doesn’t mean the other side is bad, or unfun, to play as. It just has far more novelty, much like my initial reaction to playing as the Cave in Vast.

Final Thoughts

Skulk Hollow is one of those rare games that come along and blindside you with how refreshingly fun it can be. It is not a perfect game – no game is without some blemish – but it is exactly the sort of 2-player asymmetric experience that I can’t get enough of when it hits the table. It is a game I want to cry out about from atop the mountaintops, heralding the coming of this great hit from Pencil 1st Games that needs to be in any and every collection if you ever find yourself playing a 2-player game. It is that good, in my opinion, and has instantly become the game to beat in my highly contested list of 2019 2-player releases.

While the biggest issue in the game is that one side offers more variability than the other, I find that there is still enough variety to make the Foxen Heroes fun and engaging to play. Not only does the leader you choose alter things, but the Guardian you are facing will also require very different tactical approaches to defeat them. If you try to just use the same strategy, you may find that you’re losing more games than you will win, which is why the Foxen Heroes remain a fun side to play – while everyone will still secretly want to play as the massive Guardian.

So much consideration went into how to make this game play out effectively, and it shows. The double-use action cards make sure the player always has options, usually holding movement in one part and an ability in the other (although not always). That provides a flexibility to allow players to use cards in the ways they need them. And by restricting everything to card use, it ensures players cannot simply spam their strongest attacks. Careful planning, clever use of cards, hitting the right timing, and being prepared for your opponents’ likely counter-move are all present here in the game. And it plays out delightfully.

Perhaps the moment it all clicked was my first play as the Foxen Heroes (I started on the Guardian side as Grak), and realized the power behind Gaining Power. Storing those cubes for use on a future turn is POWERFUL, because that lets you use the action you need. However, it puts a giant bullseye on the Foxen who is carrying a cube, because they have that flexibility of a free action of their choice as soon as the next Foxen player turn. Cards not going your way? There’s a way around that – it just takes a little investment now to pay off later. And then realizing that every Guardian except Grak also can gain power…talk about a mind-blowing moment that opens it all up.

I will sing the praises of this game, not because I’m being pressured to do so in any way but because this is a top-tier game in my collection. I was ready to crown the game after just playing three rounds of the King of War vs. Grak battle. And let’s just say it gets even better beyond the recommended starting battle, part of why this game is so highly regarded by this reviewer. If you haven’t heard about Skulk Hollow yet, you are in for a real treat because this is one really good game. I like gathering resources and turning them into points as much as the next gamer, but sometimes what you really want – especially in a 2-player game – is a battle of wits played out among two very distinct factions as you try to outmaneuver your opponent. And then, when the dust clears, you can swap seats and play it again but reverse the roles for a completely different player experience. Which means you can play this 32 times without playing the same exact side on the same exact match-up (4 different Leaders vs 4 different Guardians). With so many games getting “recycled” after a play or two, it is refreshing to find one that begs to be played often, and is fast and fun enough to be played several times in succession every time it does get to the table.