Otys.

Otys is a new-ish midweight strategy board game from Asmodee’s Libellud imprint, released here right around the holidays, and the first title from designer Claude Lucchini. It’s a sort of futuristic deep sea-diving themed game, where players try to gather resources to complete contracts, and must manipulate two sets of tiles to be able to make moves. There might be a better game in here somewhere, but I found it rather overdesigned, and the mechanics aren’t well-connected to the theme.

In Otys, two to four players each work with a player board that has six tokens, numbered one through five plus a neutral “X” token, and eight diver tiles, each of which has a different ability. The board has slots for the numbered tokens, and then a column where you randomly stack the diver tiles in a way that has five of them adjacent to the five numbered slots. On a turn, you will pick one of the numbered tiles, slide it to the right, use one of the five “sponsor” tiles from the central board to get something (a credit, a battery, the right to use your diver’s skill twice, etc.), and then use the ability of the adjacent diver. Four of the divers get you specific resources. The others let you add abilities like gaining a new contract card only you can complete or trading credits for resources.

The contracts come in two forms. The game has four resources – white, green, blue, and black, which I think mean actual things like plants and water, but it really doesn’t matter to the mechanics – and some contracts simply require you gather two to four specific resources to fulfill them, gaining points and sometimes a credit or battery token. The other contracts tell you to acquire specific combinations of any resources – so, two of one type, two of another, and one of a third – where you get to pick the colors, and then have similar rewards.


The Otys board; diver tiles are in the center column.

The big catch in Otys, and the only mechanic here that I thought was novel, is that each token/diver row on your player board has a storage space for resources, and to fill a contract, you must have all the right resources in one specific storage space. The spaces can hold three to six resources, but in practical terms, you’re going to use maybe two of them heavily, because gaining resources in all of your storage areas will leave you unable to ever fill contracts. You can also add tokens via one diver (the ‘explorer’) that let you pay two credits, take one resource or victory point or battery now, and then place that token on its other face next to a storage area, providing you with a permanent bonus whenever you fill a contract from that area. The divers are also double-sided, with each bringing an ‘upgraded’ side that lets you invoke its power for one fewer credit or that gives you something else in addition to the single resource.

The numbered ‘key’ tokens must be placed in the ‘hacker’ track below your board after they’re used; you can only bring them back up when the track is filled, which at the start of the game would mean using all of your tokens at least once before using them again. You get one X token to place in any row where you’ve already used the key, and there’s a way – very poorly described in the English rules – to acquire more X tokens from the central supply. This mechanic felt trite, reminiscent of games from Puerto Rico and San Juan to last year’s Entropy, where you have to use all or most of your roles and then ‘reset’ your hand, and the combination of this mechanic and the diver one – when you use a diver, s/he has to ‘resurface’ by going to the top of the queue, with everyone above him/her moving down a spot – just made the game overly complex.

The game ends when anyone gets to 18 points, after which you finish the round so everyone can try to complete one more contract. In practice, that means 3-4 contracts plus the random point or two you’ll add along the way, and it does play in about an hour. The theme has almost nothing to do with the game, and there are way too many restrictions and twists here for me to enjoy the experience. I wish more effort had gone into streamlining the rules, even if it came at the cost of some of the artwork or component design.

Stick to baseball, 2/17/18.

My one new piece for Insiders this week covered the top 30 prospects for this year’s MLB Draft, in advance of yesterday’s opening night in Division 1. And I held a Klawchat on Thursday. Unfortunately I did not recover enough from whatever ailment I had this week to make the trip to Myrtle Beach, but hope to be on the road next weekend.

I reviewed the board game Seikatsu, one of my daughter’s new favorites, here this week, with another review hitting Paste‘s site next week. Also, I never tweeted this link at all, but reviewed the Romanian-language film Graduation, from Oscar-nominated director Cristian Mungiu, on Wednesday.

Smart Baseball comes out in paperback on March 13th! Some readers have reported difficulty finding the hardcover version in stores, but it is still available on amazon at the moment.

And now, the links…

Stick to baseball, 1/13/18.

No new Insider content this week, as MLB appears to still be asleep and I was working on the top 100 prospects package, which is scheduled to start running on January 22nd. I did hold a Klawchat on Thursday.

My latest board game review for Paste covers Pandemic: Rising Tide, a standalone spinoff of the original Pandemic, this time pitting players against rising waters threatening to flood the Netherlands, so players must build dikes and pumps while trying to complete four hydraulic stations to win the game. We liked it, as it gives a new twist to the now-familiar cooperative mechanics of Matt Leacock’s various games.

Feel free to sign up for my email newsletter, which costs you nothing and totters somewhere between occasional and infrequent. And, of course, thanks to everyone who bought Smart Baseball for themselves or as a Christmas gift, or as a Christmas gift for themselves.

And now, the links…

Tobago.

I’ll be updating the annual boardgame rankings (that links to the 2011 list) in about two weeks, so as a prelude to that I’ll post reviews of the half-dozen or so new games I’ve gotten this year, some as far back as Christmas. First up is Bruce Allen’s Tobago, ranked #226 on Boardgamegeek’s master rankings and #27 on its “family game” rankings, which sounds about right – it’s a fun game, not that complex at heart, with two twists that make it a little more interesting to play, yet simple enough for younger players to learn without having to pore over the rules.

Tobago is set on an island containing several different terrain types across its hexed map, as well as three kinds of objects on certain hexes (palm trees, native huts, and statues). Players attempt to look for buried treasures on the island by narrowing down the treasures’ locations using clue cards tied to the terrain types. Clue cards may say a treasure is on a specific type of terrain, or next to a hex with a statue on it, or on the largest lake or mountain range – or they may say the treasure is not on a certain kind of hex. Once a treasure has been limited to no more than fifteen possible hexes, players place colored cubes on all possible locations for that treasure to know when its location has been identified.

There are four active treasures at any time, and each card added to the column under one treasure type narrows the number of hexes that might contain that treasure. Once enough cards are in a treasure’s column to guarantee that the treasure is on a specific hex, any player can move his vehicle to that spot to raise the treasure, after which coin cards are distributed to players depending on how many clue cards they added to that column. Coin cards show between two and six coins; the player with the most total coins at game’s end is the winner.

The distribution of the coin cards represents the game’s first significant twist. The deck of coin cards contains two curse cards, which, if revealed, can cost any player who was involved in that specific treasure hunt his/her highest remaining coin card. Coin cards for a raised treasure are distributed via a sort of draft format: The player who raised the treasure gets first crack at a coin card, followed, in order, by the players who placed each of the clue cards in that column, from the most recent card to the first one. One additional coin card is added to the stack to be distributed for a treasure.

For example, in a two-player game, if Player A placed the first clue card under a treasure, Player B placed the next two clue cards, narrowing the treasure to a specific hex, and Player A raised the treasure, Player A would get the first option to take a coin card (or pass), Player B would choose (technically with two chances), and Player A would get the final one. Once a player takes a coin card, he’s removed from the queue for that treasure, so if Player A took the first coin card to appear, then for the next coin card, Player B would choose first, followed by Player A. If a Curse card appears, that treasure hunt is terminated.

The second significant twist to the game involves the statues, which produce tokens called amulets every time a new treasure is raised. These amulets appear on the edges of the game board, depending on where the statues are located, and may be picked up by player vehicles in the course of their turns. A player may use an amulet to ward off a Curse card, or may use an amulet for any of these additional moves:

• Playing an extra clue card beyond the one allotted per turn;
• Moving his/her vehicle up to three hexes or terrain areas;
• Removing a single treasure cube from the hexes that might contain that treasure, possibly reducing a treasure’s possible locations to a single hex;
• Exchanging all of his/her clue cards for a new batch.

These amulets can be hugely valuable as the game goes on, especially due to their power to circumvent the clue-card process. For example, a player can put his/her vehicle on a location holding a treasure cube, then use amulet tokens to remove other cubes so that he’s occupying the hex that must hold the treasure, allowing him to raise it and get one more token in the coin-card queue.

The lone obstacle I could see to family play here would be the logic required for placement of clue cards. Some plays are illegal because they would eliminate all possible locations for a treasure; others are illegal because they don’t add any information and thus don’t reduce the possible locations at all. (One such move: adding an “on a lake” clue card to a column already containing the “on the largest lake” card.) The actual mechanics of Tobago are really straightforward – on each turn, you play a card or move your vehicle, perhaps supplementing your turn with an amulet – and the game involves no text on the board or cards, so even younger players can follow along with just the images. The game also plays well with two players; the BGG forums show some complaints from players who found they couldn’t make a legal card play in two-player games, but we’ve never run into that issue. Gameplay takes about 45 minutes for two players, an hour or a little over that for three; we haven’t tried it with four, which is the maximum. Tobago also offers added replay value because the board itself comprises three reversible pieces that may be connected in different fashions, allowing for 32 distinct game boards. It’s a good chance of pace if you’re a fan of Stone Age or Small World but want something with simpler mechanics and less strategizing.

Battle Line game and app.

Battle Line is another two-player card game from the prolific Reiner Knizia, the man behind Lost Cities, Samurai, and Ingenious, one that brings a little more randomness to the table than Lost Cities offers but with plenty of opportunities for strategy – the type of randomness that forces you to rethink your approach to the game, rather than the kind that makes you throw up your hands in frustration. There’s also a very good Battle Line app available for iOS, with good graphics and a solid AI but as yet no online play option.

The main deck in Battle Line includes 60 cards, 10 cards numbered 1 through 10 in each of six different colors. Players begin with seven cards in their hands and on each turn play one card and draw one replacement. In between the two players sits a line of nine flags, and at each flag players place cards to try to create a winning formation, one that ranks higher than the opponent’s formation at the same flag. A completed formation contains three cards. The first player to either win five of the nine flags or to win three adjacent flags wins the game.

A formation’s value is determined by the numbers and colors of the cards it contains. The game has its own lingo, but you’ll notice a correlation to poker hands as well. The top formation is the game’s royal flush – three consecutive cards in one color, with a tie going to the formation with the highest sum on his cards, leaving 10-9-8 as the best possible formation in the game. (If a player completes a 10-9-8 formation at a flag, he wins the flag even if his opponent has yet to finish his own.) Next highest is three of a (numerical) kind, followed by a flush, a straight containing more than one color, and last just any assortment of three cards. When both players have identical formation types at a flag, the above tiebreaker applies. It’s also possible to claim a flag before the other player has completed his formation if it is no longer possible for the second player to create a formation to top the one that’s already on the board.

The twist in the game is the existence of a second deck of ten Tactics cards, each unique, which may be drawn instead of cards from the main deck. These cards run from the lifeline (Hero and Champion, two wild cards that can stand in for any card you want, although each player is limited to playing one of these per game) to the attack card (Traitor, stealing a card your opponent has played and using it yourself; or Deserter, trashing a card your opponent has played). The number of Tactics cards you can play is restricted by how many your opponent has played – the delta must not exceed one, so once you’ve played your first Tactics card you can’t play a second until your opponent has played one.

Battle Line strategy breaks down into two major areas. One is deciding how to fill out formations – if you have the green 9 and the green 8, do you play those together and hope you get the 7 or 10, or do you break up the 9 and 8 to try to build the easier three-of-a-kind formations? But the more interesting part is deciding when to fill out formations. Holding back the second or third cards in a strong formation might entice your opponent to waste a valuable card there – but playing that second card might open the door for him to waste your cards by dropping a stronger formation there. And do you challenge his formations early or try to play at empty flags and create large obstacles in the center of the board? It’s one of those “simple rules but different every time” games, like Lost Cities, that work very well for a quick two-player match.

The game’s card constraints are more confining than those in Lost Cities, which makes it a little more random because of how much you’re at the mercy of the deck. In Lost Cities, you’re just waiting for a larger card in any color you’re using, preferably not too much larger. In Battle Line, you have more formations in play but are often looking for a specific card or one of two in a specific color, and can’t discard a card without using it as you can in Lost Cities. If you want a change from Lost Cities, however, Battle Line is the most comparable two-player game I’ve found.

The Battle Line app (a.k.a. “Reiner Knizia’s Battleline”), from Gourmet Gaming, features two AI opponents, allows you to play two-player against someone sitting next to you, and offers a basic game that involves six cards in your hand and no Tactics cards if you want a tutorial. The strong AI player uses Tactics cards well, doesn’t do anything stupid, and will seize on player mistakes nearly every time. Flags are claimed automatically regardless of the winner, and the graphics involved are very clear. The app had problems with crashing and with incorrect values on two Tactics cards, but both glitches appear to be gone since an update about three weeks ago. It’s been my go-to app of late when I don’t want to get sucked into a long game of Carcassonne since you can knock out a game quickly and there’s enough random variation to keep it fresh.

Ingenious app.

I’m starting to feel like the president of the Reiner Knizia Fan Club, as I’ve raved about two games he designed, the card game Lost Cities and the Samurai app (an adaptation of a board game he published in 1998). I’ll now do the same about (the app for Ingenious, another award-winning board game that is a perfect candidate for adaptation because the machine can ensure the scoring is done accurately. And since Ingenious plays very quickly, it’s become my go-to app when I know I have just a few minutes for a quick game. At $1.99 for iPhone or $3.99 for the iPad, it’s a steal given how often I play it.

Ingenious is an abstract game, meaning there’s no theme or graphics, just a large hexagonal board made up of smaller hexes, with six per side. Each vertex is filled with a single color, each color unique (that’s six colors for the Jack Morris voters in the audience). Players place two-hex pieces on the board – most contain two colors but some contain two hexes of the same color – and receive points for placing them adjacent to the same colors on the board, including any pieces beyond the immediate piece that extend out in a straight line from the piece the player just placed. Points accumulate in each color, so each player has six separate scores.

The twist, however, makes the game … well, I’ll call it clever. The winner is the player with the best “lowest” score among his six. If you neglect one of the six colors, you’ll lose. There is some benefit to maxing out a color at 18 points, as you get a bonus turn after doing so, but chasing 18s may leave you too unbalanced and you can absolutely win a game without reaching 18 in any color even if your opponent does.

For example, in that screenshot above, the player has a tile with red on one half and purple on the other. If he played that tile in the one open space on the top right with the purple side at the top, he’d get four points in purple (adjacent to two tiles, each of which extends out in a straight line for one more tile) and four points in red (adjacent to the top-left red tile, adjacent to the tile below that plus two more extending down and to the right in a straight line). And since red is his lowest color, that’s probably his best play.

The Ingenious app plays just two players and has no online component, but the AI has three levels and is very competitive, with the hardest level considering what you need in late-game moves and blocking you if possible. There is a solitaire mode which I haven’t played (I’d much rather play an AI opponent than a modified game for solo play).

My only real criticism of the app is that rotating tiles can be a little tricky. To move a tile into place, you just drag it, which works fine, but to rotate it, you have to make arcs around the tile, which only works well if the tile is well away from the bottom edge. If you’re placing it towards the bottom of the board, it’s better to press and hold on the tile until it pops to the foreground, rotate it there, and then drag and place. It’s a minor nuisance overall for a very simple but consistently challenging app.

I’ve never played the original board game Ingenious, which appears to play up to four players, but would be curious to hear any of your thoughts on it and how it differs with more than two players.