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Sketel

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Go to the Puerto Rico page
10
Go to the Puerto Rico page

Puerto Rico

79 out of 86 gamers thought this was helpful

Puerto Rico is a fairly ugly game in a fairly ugly box, reminiscent of old Amstrad game titles. Thankfully, it is a joy to play – a true king of light strategy games. In Puerto Rico, the players assume the roles of landowners on the recently settled island of Puerto Rico, and are seeking prestige and glory by developing the city of San Juan and shipping goods back to Europe. They will do this by inviting various artisans to the island – the mayor, the captain, the settler, the builder, the prospector, the craftsman and the trader.

Each player has their own board, with a representation of the things they own on the island. The area at the top of the board shows the buildings the player has built, while the area at the bottom of the board is the player’s plantations – fields which produce the game’s 5 goods: corn, indigo, sugar, tobacco and coffee. At the top right of each player’s board is a compass rose, which the game suggests players display their assets on (money, goods, victory points), though it doesn’t really serve much purpose. This board is pretty. The other cards, less so. The wooden components are nice – each good is represented by painted wooden ‘barrels’, which is very pleasing. The ship cards (used to ship workers to the island and transport goods from the island) are pretty dull looking, and the buildings have no visual representation at all – they are simply chits with the words like ‘Factory’ and ‘Office’ on them. There is a market board too, which stores the money and buildings the players can access.

Really though, it is the gameplay that has made Puerto Rico one of the most acclaimed games of all time. In each round, one player is the ‘governor’, meaning they take action first. Each of the 7 artisans begin in the middle of the table in the form of ‘role cards’. The governor takes a role card, essentially meaning he or she has invited that specialist onto the island. This now means that, in clockwise order, all players can take the action allowed by that card. For instance, if a player selects the builder card, all players get the opportunity to build a new building. The player who selected the card also gets an extra, related bonus for choosing it. To use the builder example again, the player who actually selects that card gets a discount on buildings for that turn.

After that, the next player chooses a role from the remaining cards and everyone takes that action. This continues until the turn arrives back at the governor, at which point there will be 3 roles that have not been chosen (the prospector role is duplicated when there are more than 4 players). The governor then places a coin on each unused role card as an added incentive to choose that card next time round. The less popular cards can pile up a small fortune of coins before someone decides to take them. The roles are returned to the middle of the table, the governor card then passes on, and the next round begins.

To explain all the roles would be boring and long, but to really understand the game, you need to know what each role does – everything that is done in the game relates to one of the roles. An overview however, would be something like: the settler grows plantations which produce goods to be harvested by the craftsmen. They won’t produce goods without the right buildings built by the builder. Building requires money, which is acquired through the skills of the trader, who sells goods and the prospector, who guarantees a small cash return. Buildings and plantations are worth nothing without workers, who are managed by the mayor. Goods can then be shipped back to Europe with the assistance of the captain in exchange for victory points. All goods are worth equal victory points, but trade for different values in the trader phase, and conversely some are easier to produce than others.

As you can see, every role is linked to every other role, and the design of this is practically perfect. The captain phase, in fact, is like a mini-game in itself, as players attempt to load all their goods and limit opponent’s options.

This is essentially the spirit of Puerto Rico – you are attempting to study the current situations of all of your opponents and select a role which will benefit you without benefiting your opponents too much. Taking some roles can be risky – if you select the craftsman to harvest goods, is the next player from you going to get a more lucrative harvest and then select trader and capitalise on the harvest you’ve just given them?

The game has a perfect blend of strategy and tactics. There are two main ways to gain victory points: shipping goods and buildings, which each have a victory point value. Which will you choose? To build a great city, or become a great farmer? What about a blend of the two? If you choose to farm the land, will you specialise in a couple of goods, or try to get a wide variety? If you choose to build many buildings, which ones will you choose to benefit you the most, as each building has unique abilities? The other main tactical point is, if you think you are ahead, you could try to bring the game to a speedy close by either filling your city or using up the last of the game’s worker supply.

The tactical part of the game, however, comes from the timing of each role. Can you spot a shrewd move which will allow you to ship all of your goods, but allow your opponent’s produce to perish? Are you the only person who can exploit the trading house to its maximum potential this turn? Do you really need to take this role now, or could you choose a different one because you know one of your opponents will probably choose this role next anyway? Do you leave a role until next turn because it will hopefully have acquired some money on it? There are many interesting decisions to be made throughout the game, and every one has an instant effect on all the players.

My only real criticism of the game is that in a group of varied skill and experience levels, the winner will almost without fail be the player sitting to the left of the least experienced player – the less experienced player probably won’t be thinking ahead, and the more experienced player will be able to take advantage of every move made by the newbie. The game truly does encourage strategic thought, and there is only one random element in the entire game – the plantations that are available during each settler phase, but even then, if the plantation tiles aren’t in your favour, you can opt not to play that phase. You will always be comparing the situation of you and your opponents, but because you cannot see your opponents victory point chips (and because some buildings allow bonus victory points at the end of the game on top of the normal points for buildings), you never know who has actually won until the end.

Puerto Rico is a truly excellent game, a modern classic. If this game gets reprinted with more attractive graphics (and possibly a few minor adjustments to building effects and costs), I would honestly buy it again. The game lasts just the right length of time, and, while there is no actual negotiation, the level between the roles and players is huge. I imagine myself playing Puerto Rico in many years to come.

8
Go to the Zooloretto page

Zooloretto

61 out of 69 gamers thought this was helpful

Stick or twist? That’s what the majority of Zooloretto is about. You are a zoo keeper, and you want to beat the rival zoos by filling the most enclosures with animals. The problem is, in the world of Zooloretto, the animal transit system is completely bonkers. Thankfully, it’s very fun and easy to play, and children will just love this game.

The premise is simple. You have 3 or 4 enclosures in your zoo, and score points for filling them up. Each enclosure can only contain one kind of animal. Any animals you acquire that you don’t find a home for can count against your final score at the end. In the middle of the table are some trucks, and a bag of animals. On your turn, you either draw an animal and place it in a truck of your choosing, or you take a truck. If you take a truck, you can no longer participate in the round. The fun part of the game is taking a lucky dip into the bag of animals, and trying to work out which truck to place it in so as to make trucks that will suck for your opponents (by giving them animals they don’t need) but be beneficial to you. If you take a truck, the next animal out the bag might be just what you need and you’ll miss out! There are a bunch of other rules, such as being able to move animals around your zoo for the cost of coins, and the ability to buy and sell animals to the other players, but these are easy to pick up.

Also, animals have babies. Sometimes a blessing and sometimes a curse, having male and female animals in the same enclosure means you get free baby animals.

This game is absolutely ideal for children – the animals are cute, the action is simple but exciting and anyone can win. The games only last about 30 minutes, too – it is one of the best family games I can recommend.

5
Go to the Ticket to Ride: Europe page
48 out of 59 gamers thought this was helpful

I don’t think Ticket To Ride is a bad game, but my experiences have been lacking somewhat.

The board and components are gorgeous, and I really cannot fault these. It’s interesting looking at a map of Europe 100 years ago, with all the borders in places we don’t consider these days, and the overall art style is lovely.

The game rules are extremely simple making this a good gateway game. Players get ‘Destination tickets’ at the start of the game. These are cities they must connect up with train routes they have claimed to score points. Any leftover tickets that have not been completed count against your score. Routes are claimed by discarding the required train cards from your hand and placing little train counters on the board. On your turn, you can draw more train cards, claim a route or draw a new Destination Ticket, which adds an element of ‘press your luck’ – will you have time to finish the route before the end of the game, or will you lose points?

There are a handful of extra rules. Players can play ‘stations’ which all you to use an opponent’s route to complete one of your destination tickets, though there is a point penalty for doing so. Also, there are ‘tunnel routes’, which represent the unknown. These routes might cost more than they appear – up to double. Any additional costs are determined by drawing more cards from the deck. If certain train cards show up, you have to pay extra. Throughout the game, players are supposed to try to block each other’s routes off, or try to acquire the cards their opponent needs to claim the routes they desire.

The game lasts about an hour, and because it is easy, it would be a great game to recommend to new players if not for how… dull… it is. Every time I have played it, there has been very little conversation about the game. In fact, there has been little conversation about anything, except ‘could you pass me a card from the pile please?’. For that reason, my recommendation for a gateway game is still (groan) The Settlers Of Catan – your friends will feel much more involved and interact a lot more. Just make sure you introduce them to some other games soon after!

9
Go to the Carcassonne page

Carcassonne

69 out of 76 gamers thought this was helpful

I have only ever experience Carcassonne with 2 players at the time of writing, but I am perfectly happy with this. In fact, I have almost no desire to play it with more people because for me it is the ideal 2 player light strategy game.

Carcassonne is, as the game description will tell you, a clever tile laying game. Players draw tiles at random and must connect like sides – each side of the tile will contain a road, city or field, and these sides must be placed next to tiles with matching sides. When you place a tile, you can also choose to put a meeple (miniature people) on the tile to say ‘I’d like to try and score off this tile’.

Then, whenever the feature you have placed your meeple on (road, city or church) is complete, you score points based on the size of that feature. You can then pick up that meeple and use him again to score more points. This leads to a very clever dynamic. You’re trying to make the feature as big as you can before completing it to score big points. Your opponent on the other hand is either trying to finish the feature, put you in a position where the tile you need to complete the feature is hard to come by, or cleverly join their meeple to your feature to try to steal your points! The game ends when all the tiles have been laid. Any extra points are added on, and the winner is declared!

The game is kind of like a more tactical version of dominos, and that’s what makes it so good for 2 players – any more, and the game is too unpredictable to be tactical. Any computer gamer will know that a free-for-all game of Quake can be won by anyone because of its chaotic nature. Carcassonne’s strength is in its 2 player elegance. The illustrations on the tiles are lovely, the meeple have become a symbol of light strategy games and the scores are totalled up by moving around a track, which makes it quick and easy.

The best bit however has to be that it sets itself up. You don’t have to set up Carcassonne; it builds itself as you play!

UPDATE

Having had a lot more experience playing Carcassonne with more players now (I took it to my family’s house and they all played it), I can tell you that it’s still a blast. You can’t plan ahead as far, but the game didn’t lose any of its competitiveness or fun.

9
Go to the Sid Meier's Civilization: The Board Game page
57 out of 68 gamers thought this was helpful

As someone who only joined the Civilization party on the computer at its most recent instalment, I won’t pretend I’m absolutely qualified to compare the board game to its digital father. I would even go as far to say that these days, I would much rather sit down with a game of Civ on the table than on my desk.

I bought this game because my girlfriend and I enjoyed many late nights of passing my laptop to and fro, playing Civ in Hotseat mode. This game is a must-buy if you want to enjoy Civilization as a more social game.

Since this game is so big, I will break the review into sections.

Components and packaging

It is the beauty of Civilization’s components that drew me to this title above its spiritual sister game, Through The Ages. While TTA is very abstract, Civ has a wonderfully illustrated selection of pieces and a detailed map to play the game on. The chits are pleasing, and the Civilization sheets have two dials on them, which provide an easy way to adjust the information about your Civilization’s current status. The map itself is modular, and is assembled blindly and randomly (more on this later), and means the game board scales well to the number of players.

The game also includes 2 kinds of figure to move around the board in 4 different colours – the colours also correspond to your cities and technology cards.

The downside is that there is a little bit of piece overload. Many of these pieces when not in play are arranged on the market board, which is detailed and clear, but many of them aren’t. You might want to consider using some tupperware containers to keep the pieces you are not currently using together and tidy. You will also need to invest in some way to keep the pieces separate when the game is in the box, unless you want to deal with some VERY long set up times.

The game!

Once you have assembled the board, arranged the pieces and gone over the rules, which are long but very helpful, you will discover the game to be quite a delight to play. In Civ, true to the computer game, you are the leader of a great nation, and have to develop your nation’s military, wealth, culture and technology to prosper and win the game.

These 4 facets of your nation are also the 4 paths to victory. Each victory path feels very different, thankfully. The military victory is achieved by successfully conquering 1 other opponent (although I’m sure there are many possibilities for home-brew variants on this one – elimination? 2v2?). To win by wealth, the player should invest in buildings, Great People and technologies that boost the nation’s economy. For a tech victory, the player must be the first to research Space Flight by reaching the 5th level on the clever technology pyramid (see below). Cultural victory is achieved by expending resources to advance along a track, and with each move gain increasing potent ‘chance cards’. These victory conditions feel very balanced, with the exception of Cultural Victory, which just doesn’t seem to be attainable fast enough unless the player focuses entirely on culture to the detriment of everything else, not least national security and military might.

Every leader, of which there are 6, has its own unique abilities, as well as a starting government type and a starting technology. These are balanced for the most part, and tend to be geared toward a particular victory type – the game suggests randomly selecting a leader, which will probably determine your route through the game. Russia is the only nation I would call overpowered. She starts with Communism, an advanced and effective government, and also boasts more military power than the others.

The map is hidden at the start of the game. Each leader has its own pre-set starting tile, designed to reflect the needs of that nation. The rest of the modular map is laid out face down, waiting to be explored by the players. Each map tile is divided into a grid, and each square within that grid contains information that should be familiar to anyone who has played the computer game. The terrain type affects the building possibilities on that tile (and in the case of water, movement). Each tile also has associated with it resources. These may be general resources, such as production, used to construct things; trade, used for research and other things; culture, used to advance closer to a cultural victory; and also more specialised resources, like iron, silk, and wheat, which can be used to effect more specific things – iron can be spent on various actions during combat, for instance. Building different buildings around a player’s city will modify the resources available – a bank, for instance, will make a square provide wealth instead of its usual resource.

The map might also contain villages and barbarians. These can be explored and conquered to gain rewards. Barbarians are never actually aggressive, though – the player is always the one to initiate any conflict.

A game turn is broken into 5 phases, which all players participate in, taking turns to be the first player to act on a turn. The game usually lasts around 12 turns, though it is possible to win in around 10. The game usually won’t go on too long – one nation will usually achieve Space Flight at some point and thus win the game if the other victory conditions have stalemated. It keeps a nice timer on the game.

The first 2 phases are essentially upkeep phases. Players may found new cities during this phase, change their nation’s government type (within the limits of their research) and perform other start of turn actions. The next thing the players do is count up how much ‘trade’ they have access to on this turn, provided by buildings, cities and scouts. Once they have counted, they add their trade to the dial on their Civilization sheet. During this trade phase, players may also trade resources and negotiate, though why this isn’t allowed in any phase I’m not sure.

The next phase is City Management. The players may, for each of their cities either construct a new building or wonder, devote to the arts (and thus gain culture), train more troops, or harvest a resource the city has access to, such as wheat. A lot goes on in this phase and it is really interesting – you really do feel like your nation is taking shape as you add new buildings to your cities. Wonders are like buildings, but only 1 nation may have each Wonder, and the Wonders have a special ability associated with them. The available Wonders become increasingly more modern as the game progresses, which is a nice touch.

The fourth phase is Movement and Combat. During this phase, players may move their scout and army figures about, engage enemies, and explore new areas of the map. Figures on the map are not the player’s actual units, however. they simply represent military presence. Upon engaging the enemy, players enter a separate sort of ‘mini-game’ to resolve combat which involves playing unit cards from the belligerants’ hands in a kind of rock-paper-scissors fashion.

The combat seems balanced enough, and there are lots of things you can do to gain an edge – research better troops, move multiple figures onto the enemy at once (thereby allowing more cards in your hand) and using specific moves during battle that cost resource to use. The only problem is that to me, it disrupts the feel of the game, and I have to say combat is my least favourite part of the game. I stop feeling like I’m actually controlling an army. Instead, it feels more like the children’s card game Top Trumps. Civilization on the computer involves tactical positioning, attacks and retreats. On the board, it is simply playing cards to an imaginary frontline. This could have been done a lot better. It is also possible for a player to have all his cards wiped out during battle and yet still win, since the outcome is dependent on the player with the highest score at the end of a battle, and troops aren’t the only thing that contribute to this.

The final stage of the turn is Research, and this part is very clever. Each player has a large deck of possible technologies. Any leftover ‘trade’ resource at the end of the turn can be spent on ONE technology, and these technologies have a level corresponding to a level on the ‘technology pyramid’. Rather than a tech tree, players must construct a triangle with their tech cards, each level requiring a foundation on the level below. So a level 2 tech can be constructed over 2 level 1 techs, and a level 3 over 2 level 2s. An efficient player can achieve Space Flight with 5 level 1s, 4 level 2s, 3 level 3s, 2 level 4s and finally the level 5 Space Flight. Of course, other layouts are possible. A player may choose to simply buy the cheaper level 1 techs and never advance further. Each tech provides a different benefit, such as new buildings, units and abilities, so choosing an effective path is part of the strategy of the game.

The players continue to repeat these 5 phases until a winner is found.

Final comments

Whew! That was big. You’ve done well! I really recommend this game if you are a fan of Civilization, of course, but I think any light strategy gamer who is after a game with a lot of meat on the bones. This game is definitely on the heavier end of light strategy, and is such probably the only game of its type I will buy for a long while yet. You will need a large table to play this game on.

The game balance is reasonably ok. Unfortunately, if you draw a Civilization which favours the cultural victory, you’re in for a tough battle. While the game map scales down for an enjoyable 2 player game, the game rules do not suggest any rebalances to the buildings available, so when my girlfriend and I play together we half the number of available buildings, and remove one of the wonders which would be fine with more players, but is too good in 1v1 (basically gives a player a free army every turn – with negotiation, the other players could gang up to keep this under control and destroy the wonder. in 2 player games, the never ending armies is overwhelming).

The main good things about this game is this game is the detail, the depth and the overall ‘Civilization building’ feel of the game. The worst part is by far the combat.

6
Go to the Elder Sign page

Elder Sign

62 out of 69 gamers thought this was helpful

The theme of this game should be familiar to anyone who has played Arkham Horror or read Lovecraft’s works, but to those who haven’t: the universe is a harsh and uncaring place and a Great Old One, essentially a creature of immense power, is coming and will, if not stopped, destroy the world. The players take on the role of investigators who must co-operate to put together the resources to slow and eventually prevent the coming of the Great Old One, fighting minor monsters along the way. Players have a stamina value, representing their physical state, and a sanity value, representing their mental state – discovering how cruel the universe and its inhabitants really are is sure to leave an investigator traumatised.

Elder Sign is essentially the ‘light’ version of Arkham Horror. It’s nice and portable, and doesn’t take as long to play. That doesn’t mean it’s any easier! This game is still challenging, and it is not unusual for the team to be devoured by the Great Old One at he end of the game, rather than emerge triumphant.

The mechanics are very different, and while dice-rolling still plays a large part of the game, the dice are used in a very different way. In Arkham Horror, the players use dice-rolls along with their RPG-style skills to determine the outcome of narrative events. In Elder Sign, however, each place the player visits has symbols associated with it which correspond to dice outcomes (the game features custom dice with non-standard symbols). For instance, you might be required to get a magnifying glass, a skull sign and a tentacle sign in a single roll. The player has various resources available to give them more chances of achieving this outcome.

Instead of a map of Arkham, players can simply choose a location to visit from the available cards. The location may or may not have a monster on it, which must be defeated by achieving a certain dice combination, or it may have other challenges which require dice-rolls. The difficulty varies hugely, with some requiring several challenges to be done in one sitting, in order, to complete the task. Successfully completing a task will net rewards to help you on your way. Failure has negative effects. The challenges can be tense, and as with all dice-rolling games, there is a real buzz when a player needs a lucky roll to win.

Unfortunately, the main thing that I feel lets this game down is the lack of any narrative. Arkham Horror is full of cards which explain the terrible things that are occurring, and explains why you have to achieve the dice-rolls. For instance, the game might tell a player they’ve spotted a strange meeting and with a dice-roll to check their ‘sneak’ skill, they may be able to spy on the meeting and get additional clues. In Elder Sign, you really get no sense of why you are trying to get these rolls. They seem purely arbitrary. Visit location > roll dice > may get reward.

Similarly, the items, spells, and special character abilities and clues all do roundabout the same thing – they allow you additional chances to achieve the dice-rolls you might need under specific circumstances. One player might get to re-roll 2 failed rolls for free, while another might get to roll extra dice when in an alien world.

One nice touch is the clock, which goes around as players take their turns. As time goes on, the nearer the players’ impending doom becomes, and also the more events occur. While the clock is very pleasing, the events suffer from a similar lack of narrative – in Arkham Horror, each event is accompanied by context, and there is a lot of variety. Less so in Elder Sign.

All that said, Elder Sign is not a bad game. It is simply inferior in nearly every way Arkham Horror. Players familiar with the Cthulhu Mythos may find something to enjoy here. The illustrations are as good as Arkham Horror, so perhaps a seasoned investigator wouldn’t have too hard a time imagining the horrors and trials they face. To players just looking to start their adventures in Lovecraft’s terrible world, the lack of narrative and context could be a real turn off, raising questions such as ‘Why am I rolling these dice?’ and ‘Why does using my gun here allow me to roll again? What is that supposed to represent?’. It’s not that the mechanics are bad. They just don’t feel like they fit in.

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