Exit: The Game.

I have a new board game review up at Paste today as well, covering Pandemic: Rising Tide, a standalone spinoff of the best cooperative game on the market.

Exit: The Game won the Kennerspiel des Jahres in 2017 in a bit of an upset over the heavily favored and much better-reviewed Terraforming Mars, which I thought was the best complex game (or “expert game,” which is the literal translation of Kennerspiel) of its year. (It also beat Raiders of the North Sea, which I have played just once but enjoyed.) I’m guessing Exit won because it’s novel – it’s a series of cooperative puzzle games that are supposed to mimic the escape-room experience in a tabletop setting. There are other new games in this vein, like Unlock!, but Exit does this really well, with puzzles that you can reasonably solve in the allotted time and, more importantly, a very strong system for helping you if you’re stuck.

Each Exit box gives you a single play, because you’ll be changing destroying components, including tearing or cutting cards, marking up pages, and maybe even disassembling the box. I played four of the games: The Abandoned Cabin (the first in the series), The Forgotten Island, The Polar Station, and The Forbidden Castle, which vary from two to four on the game’s 1-5 difficulty scale, and there was a noticeable difference in the challenges – although I’m not sure the difficult boxes are better, just harder.

One Exit game box comes with three card decks – riddles, solutions, and help cards with hints – plus a booklet specific to that game, a disk of three concentric dials used to decipher codes, and sometimes some “special objects” that may be stencils or windows for finding clues on other cards or pages. You’ll start the game with one of the riddle cards plus the text on the first page of the booklet, and then must find a series of three-digit codes to progress through the game. Each game has roughly ten codes to find, represented by different shapes on the disk, which also help you figure out which cards and pages might work together. The puzzles come in lots of forms, and we found it was better to think a little like a kid to solve many of them. Some of the puzzles are visual – you have to trace things, connect dots, color in cards, fold pages into different shapes, cut pages into strips, all things you’d never expect to do with a board game. Some puzzles are self-contained, while others require you to solve three smaller ones to get each of the digits for the code.

Once you think you have the code for a specific puzzle, you locate that puzzle’s symbol on the outer rim of the disk and then rotate the three inner dials to match the code. (Some games use colors or other glyphs instead of numbers, but there will then be a reference card to help you translate them into numbers so it doesn’t become a drag on the game time.) A card number from 1 to 30 will show up in the center of the disk, which sends you to the Solutions deck. Some cards in that deck will tell you you’re wrong right away; others will ask where you saw that symbol – on a piece of furniture, a briefcase, a trunk, a door – in one of the images you’ve seen in the booklet or on a new card. You’ll then be directed to yet another Solution card, and if you were right, that new card will give you further instructions that will include at least one new Riddle card and perhaps give you a special object. This multi-step process makes it difficult to accidentally see an answer to a Riddle, and cheating via the Solutions deck would be nearly impossible.

Components from Exit The Abandoned Cabin
Components from Exit: The Abandoned Cabin.

The Hints deck is the cleverest aspect of Exit’s mechanics by far, and I think it’s what makes this game so playable even if you run into a puzzle you can’t solve. Every puzzle gets three Hint cards with its symbol on it, with the first card telling you what cards, pages, and/or objects you need to solve the puzzle (and maybe one small hint), the second card telling you most of the information on how to solve it, and the third giving the actual solution with an explanation. There were puzzles we solved without any Hints, and a few where we needed all three hint cards to move along. (The game has a timer app you can use, but there really isn’t any need for it except to let you know how long you’ve been playing and nudge you into looking at Hint card.) Having the first Hint card tell you which cards you must have to solve that puzzle is particularly useful if you have pieces of a few puzzles and aren’t sure which one to attack next.

Everything is fair game for solving these puzzles, including things like the game box itself, outside or inside, and each game we played had at least one puzzle that required us to use something that you might assume wasn’t part of the task. (The image on the inside of the top of the box in one game was quite faint, though, which I think is a mistake and makes the game less accessible.) We did find one glitch in The Forgotten Island, as the final riddle’s solution didn’t work; I haven’t heard back from the designer about this, but I’d pass on that particular module for now. The other three were all quite good and my daughter and I were able to solve them in about an hour using a few hints here and there; each had at least one eye-roller solution, but I think that’s the price of entry given that the designers have to come up with ten or eleven puzzles for each box, meaning some are going to be a little weird or ridiculous, especially when the designers, Markus & Inka Brand, try to make the riddles more difficult. The games list for $15-18 and, even as single-play games, they seemed like a good value to us, enough that we bought one after we finished the review copies I’d received (and my daughter will get some more for her birthday). If you’re intrigued, start with The Abandoned Cabin, since it’s first and I think the most straightforward of the four I’ve played.

Kingdomino.

Bruno Cathala’s Kingdomino won the Spiel des Jahres (Game of the Year) award this year, beating out Reiner Knizia’s Quest for El Dorado and the cooperative game Magic Maze, a result that I thought was a bit of a surprise given how little publicity Kingdomino had received prior to the win. It’s about as light a game as I can think of among winners of the prize, but incredibly fun and quick to play, striking a nice balance between crafting a game where kids can still compete and one where adults won’t be bored.

Each player starts with a single square tile and a castle on it, and will build out his/her “kingdom” from two-square rectangular tiles drawn over the course of the game. Like dominoes, these pieces have two separate images on each half, representing six different terrain types, some with crowns and some without. You must place each tile so that at least one of the terrains matches one tile it’s touching. (The start tile is “wild” and matches all six types.) Players will draw 12 tiles during the game and must not allow their kingdom to grow beyond a 5×5 grid; the castle doesn’t have to be in the center, but the kingdom can’t exceed five tiles in any direction. If you can’t place a tile legally, then you discard it and won’t get points for it.

The scoring is simple: You count up the number of contiguous squares of each terrain type and multiply that number by the number of crowns in that contiguous area. So a five-square water area with two crowns on it would score ten points. You can potentially have a huge area without crowns and score nothing – especially with the yellow wheat fields, the terrain type least likely to have a crown: there are 26 wheat squares in the game, but only five of them have crowns. Seven squares have two crowns and one mine square has three crowns, so those become highly coveted.

The tiles go to players in a draft where the order changes in each round. At the start of the game, you shuffle enough tiles so that you have 12 per player (there are 48 total, so a four-player game uses all of them) and then divide them into stacks, three for three players and four for two or four players. In each round, you reveal new tiles and order them on the board based on the numbers on their backs – one tile per player for three or four player games, two per player in a two-player game. The order for the first round is random, but after that, it’s determined by the previous round’s choices: If you took the lowest-numbered (top) tile of the ones available in that round, you get to choose first among the next set of three or four tiles. (In a two-player game, each player chooses two tiles per round.) That means the person who chose or ended up with the highest-numbered tile – probably the most valuable one for points – ends up with the last “choice” in the next round, which isn’t a choice at all because you’re stuck with whatever’s left. That internal balancing mechanism tends to keep anyone from running away with the game by racking up too many crowns.

I played the game for the first time at GenCon, when I happened upon the mini-tournament (which only had about a half-dozen players) Blue Orange was holding for the game, and two players who’d lost their round invited me to play and offered to teach me as we went. Once you know what you’re doing, an entire game takes about 15-20 minutes. We played a three-player variant, although I didn’t realize it at the time, where instead of removing 12 tiles for a 3-player game, we played with all 48, and in each round revealed four tiles; each of us chose one, and the fourth was discarded. The rules also describe a two-player variant using all 48 tiles, expanding the kingdom size to 7×7. There’s also a variant rule for any number of players where you get 5 bonus points if you never discard a tile – in other words, if you fill every square of your 5×5 grid.

The game lists the age range as 8+, but I don’t see any reason a child of 6 or 7 couldn’t play along – it’s color matching at heart, with some spatial relations stuff and a little strategy around the crowns (just tell your kid “crowns are good” and s/he’ll probably be fine). It’s also quick enough to play any time or to reel off a few games in a row, unlike most of the best family-level strategy games I recommend. There’s a standalone sequel, Queendomino, coming this fall, adding more features to the game to make it a little more challenging, but I recommend Kingdomino because it’s so elegantly simple. You can teach it to anyone in a few minutes, and it brings replay value because the order of the tiles determines the flow of the game. It’ll be a regular in our game rotation for weeknight plays for a long time.

Colt Express.

Colt Express won the 2015 Spiel des Jahres prize as the best moderate-level boardgame of the year, beating out Machi Koro (which I think should have won) and something called The Game, which was apparently named by designers who wanted to be sure no one could ever Google their product. Asmodee, the publisher of Colt Express and now owner of the boardgame and app publishing studio Days of Wonder, has just released an app versionof the game, and it’s a solid adaptation with a couple of major frustrations built into it.

Colt Express pits players against each other as bandits in an old-fashioned train robbery, with the twin goals of collecting as much loot as possible while also shooting as many of your opponents as possible; the final scoring rewards the gems and purses you collect, and gives a bonus to the ‘best shooter’ who’s discharged the most bullets. There’s a marshal on the train as well, and if you happen to run into him, you get shot and forced up on top of a train car.

All movement and action takes place via cards that are played to the table at the start of each round, most visible to all players but some hidden when the train passes into a tunnel, but not actually enacted until all cards for that round have been played – it’s a two-phase process, playing all cards, then going through the pile and letting players act on those cards. Cards allow for movement along the train, movement up to the top of a car or back down into one, punching an opponent (which forces him/her to drop one item), picking up an item from the floor, shooting at an opponent, or moving the marshal one car in either direction. If you’ve been shot, you also get a neutral, useless bullet card in your deck, which just reduces the options in your hand for your turn. You can also pass on a turn to draw three more cards from your deck if you’re looking for a specific card. A round can involve as few as two card plays or as many as five; sometimes the order reverses, sometimes you’ll get to play two in a row (very valuable for sneaking up on someone and poking him in the snoot). Some rounds end with a special rule, such as any character on top of the car that contains the marshal draws a neutral bullet card.

The entire strategy of Colt Express involves guessing what your opponents are likely to do and planning out your cards to anticipate those moves and/or give yourself flexibility to react on the fly, once the cards are played but before they’re used. When a player plays a card at the start of the round, that player doesn’t have to specify, say, how far they’re moving or in which direction, or who the target of a shooting or punching card would be, so you need to see what’s played and keep track of the tree of potential decisions from that. The only random aspect of the game is the card draw, but there’s a ton of luck involved in the guesswork – you can plan well and still whiff because another player did something unlikely or unanticipated.

The app version looks great, as all Asmodee and DoW apps have, with strong graphics and bright colors, and it ran smoothly on my iPad Pro. (I just upgraded from a five-year-old iPad 2, which couldn’t run a full game without crashing.) The app allows you to play in Classic mode with any number of the game’s pre-set characters – each of whom has some special ability; I think Cheyenne’s is the best – and has the potential for you to play with some variants, although those aren’t immediately available.

There are two real flaws with the app, one easy to fix, one less so. The app comes with a story mode that includes five short missions for each of the five characters, and completing all five missions for a character unlocks a variant for you to use in the base game, such as having the last car on the train detach at the end of a round. I have never liked this concept in app design, where certain aspects of the game are inaccessible unless you complete something else; Catan made this mistake and it is one of the main reasons I don’t recommend that particular app. If you pay for the product, you should get the whole product up front. I completed the stories for two of the characters, but the missions generally are more like puzzles than full games, because you’re often ignoring what the AI characters are doing; you’re completing one or two tasks, while the AI characters are playing the game normally. Just make the variants available from the start and use Achievements to reward players who complete the stories.

I’ve also found the AI players to be a little dumb, at least in terms of card choices. Obviously, you’re playing a little blind, not knowing what other players will play or do over the course of a round, but there are certain cards that you know you won’t be able to use, or are maybe 5% likely to be able to use – for example, punching another character when there won’t be anyone in your space, or picking up an item from the ground when the ground is empty. The AI players tend to do that a couple of times per game, in total, and there’s no excuse for it; AI players have the advantage of calculating every possible set of moves in a game this limited, and moves that are 5% (or less) likely to work should be discarded.

There’s one technical glitch that could also have been user error (meaning I may have screwed up). When you play a card to shoot or punch another character, you have to select the target, and sometimes you have more than one choice (e.g., you’re in a car with two other characters). Choosing the right target is occasionally tricky when you’ve got several characters bunched up together in a car. Twice I thought I clicked on one target but the game selected the other one, so either 1) it was not clear which selection button attached to which target or 2) I just did it wrong.

The app is $3.99 for iOS devices or $4.99 for Android; I have only played the iOS version. I think the game itself is enjoyable enough for a $4 price, but I think you’d get more out of it if you use the online multiplayer feature instead of facing off against AI opponents.

Tikal boardgame & app.

Winner of the 1999 Spiel des Jahres (Boardgame of the Year) award, Tikal has two to four players exploring a Mayan jungle, uncovering temples and discovering treasures for points, but with the added twist that you can steal control of temples or forcibly trade treasures with your opponents to maximize your point scores.

On a turn, a player draws the top hex tile from the stack and places it wherever s/he wants on the board as long as it is accessible from a hex that’s already placed. The tiles include temple tiles, treasure tiles, and empty tiles. A temple tile is worth points to the player who has the most worker tokens on it at each scoring round, and temple tiles can increase in value as players “uncover” higher levels, ultimately worth one point per temple level each time it’s scored. The treasures on temple tiles are “discovered” by workers and come in six types, with points per treasure increasing as you add more examples of each type – one point if you only have one treasure of that type, three points if you have a pair, and six if you collect all three. The empty tiles are useful primarily for a player’s ability to place one of two new base camps on one (or on a treasure tile from which all treasures have been collected), allowing the player to place new workers closer to unclaimed temples and treasures.

Once a player has placed a tile, he has ten action points to use on his turn. Actions include placing a new worker or his one leader token for one point; moving a worker to another tile for one point per “step” between tiles; uncovering a temple level for two points; collecting a treasure for three points; trading treasures with an opponent (in which s/he has no choice) for three points; placing a base camp for five points; or guarding a temple, thus protecting it for the player for the remainder of the game, for five points. Uncovering temple levels, gathering treasures, guarding temples, and scoring points for temples all require the use of workers, so placing and deploying them constitutes the critical decision in the game.

In those scoring rounds, players score for treasures as described above and for controlling temples. When multiple players have workers on a temple tile, the points go to the player who has the most workers on that tile, counting any leader tokens as three workers. But each player takes a turn in the scoring round before counting up his points, so before you score, you get to move workers around to control as many temples (or dig up as many treasures) as possible. And since the three scoring rounds before the final one are somewhat randomly timed, each player has to keep one eye on his positioning for the next scoring round – both how well he’s defended temples he’s controlled and how quickly he can move workers and/or his leader around to grab control of another temple. Guarding temples does help, but a player can only guard two temples per game, and when guarding a temple the player loses control of all workers on that tile for the rest of the game.

One other constraint covers new temple levels: Uncovering a level requires placing a small square game piece with the next level number on top of the highest current level. If all game pieces with the next level number have been used, that temple can’t get any higher.

Because there are multiple scoring rounds and the types of tiles revealed vary as the game goes on, Tikal almost plays like a game with two halves, similar but far from identical. In the first half, players are primarily uncovering temple levels and guarding their highest ones, but as the game moves on to the second half, the inability to uncover new levels means players use more action points on stealing control of temples and/or swapping treasures. Of course, the first half can set up the second half, such as controlling temples that are remote from the rest of the action, thus guaranteeing the player a few points without having to spend action points or workers to shore up his defense.

The main flaw in the boardgame is the length of time between a player’s turns. With each player given 10 action points and an ever-widening number of options on the board, a single turn can take several minutes as the player maps out a plan to use up all 10 points in the most efficient and effective way possible while also setting himself up for the next turn. The compensation for this is that the tension created by the knowledge that the other players are likely to screw you out of some points, so while nothing good is going to happen while it’s not your turn, you will want to watch to see just how badly you get screwed. I’ve also seen the suggestion on boardgamegeek that players use a timer to limit just how long each turn takes, which isn’t the worst idea for a four-player game.

Tikal players two to four players, but the board size doesn’t change, so with two players there’s somewhat less interaction or need to steal from other players. With four players, you’re fighting for smaller pieces of the same pie, and there’s more movement and intrigue involved.

One final positive on the game is the box, which is well-designed for easy cleanup given how many different tokens and tiles there are in the game.

Several other commenters at BGG compare Tikal to El Grande, saying the latter game uses a similar mechanic with a better implementation. I’ve never played El Grande, but I’m sure many of you have and am curious whether that should be an upcoming purchase and whether it plays reasonably well with just 2-3 players.

The Tikal app for iOS received some pretty tough reviews when it was first released because it was a buggy mess, very crash prone, hard to decipher on screen, with really weak AI players; I bought it early and had all of those problems, but heard about a forthcoming update and decided to sit on a review until that update arrived. The update has made the app much more stable, cleaned up the UI significantly so it’s easier to follow what’s going on, and I think the AI players are a little better – but not a lot, making it more of a training app if you’re not going multiplayer through GameCenter (which I haven’t tried). At $4.99, it’s definitely worth the trial run if you have an iPad and want to try Tikal before you purchase the physical game. One comment I’d offer is that the game graphics are different from the boardgame, including trucks instead of workers, and the screen is a little dense on an iPod or iPhone. On the plus side, however, the AI moves pretty quickly, so you can run through a solo game without dragging, and the animations make it clear what the AI players are doing.

7 Wonders.

New post for Insiders on interesting guys in this year’s Futures Game.

The Spiel des Jahres award, the most prestigious (and commercially important) prize in the boardgame industry, has now been split into two separate awards; one retains the old award’s name, but focuses on simpler, more mainstream games, while the other, the Kennerspiel des Jahres (roughly the “Connoisseur’s Game of the Year”), goes to more complex strategy games. The inaugural Kennerspiel des Jahres award was handed out yesterday, and the winner, 7 Wonders, is more than worthy of the honor.

7 Wonders hits the sweet spot of German-style boardgaming: The structure is complex, but game play is simple, with a three-player game taking about 25 minutes after our first abortive run through it. (The rules could be written more clearly. A lot more clearly.) That combination means that gameplay is pretty rich, with many different strategies and no clear path to victory. And one quirky mechanic manages to go a long way to balance out the randomness that is inherent in almost any game that revolves around a deck (in this case, three decks) of cards.

In 7 Wonders, each player has a home city representing one of the seven cities to house one of the Wonders of the Ancient World. During the three stages of the game, called Ages, the players build buildings that allow production or trading of resources, add military power, or just give the player victory points. These buildings come on cards, some of which may be played for free while others require expenditure of money or resources (although some of those become free if you’ve played another card in an earlier Age). Each Age has six turns, so a player can build up to six buildings; resource-producing buildings produce on every turn, and there’s no accumulation or depletion of resources. The ultimate goal is to finish the game with the most victory points, but with seven different ways to earn points there are many, many ways to win the game.

The one great mechanic of the game is the distribution of the cards. At the start of each Age, each player receives seven cards, and gets to play one of them, usually to construct the building on the card’s face. After that, the player passes the remaining six cards to a neighboring player, so the decision of what card to play depends on what suits the player now, what his/her neighbor might need, and, depending on the number of players, what cards might still be there when the hand comes back around. During each Age, six cards from each hand are played or discarded, and the last remaining card is removed from the game. So in each round of a game, you can be assured of seeing the majority of the cards at least once; in a 3-player game, you’ll see 18 of 21 cards, and with 4 players it’s 22 of 28. (The game is for 3 to 7 players, with rules for a 2-player variant included.)

There’s also a strong trading component in the game, as it’s very hard to produce all the resources you’ll need yourself. You can buy any resource you need from a neighboring player who produces it for 2 coins, which can be reduced to 1 by certain commercial buildings; those purchases can’t be refused, but don’t affect the selling player’s production, either. Therefore, you could choose not to produce a certain good, or to produce less of it, because you know your neighbors will have some available for you even if the price is steep.

In our handful of 3-player test games, we found gameplay to be far more straightforward than the rules, which are written more like a reference work than like a straight explanation of how to play a game from start to end. The mechanic that allows you to build one card free because you built another related card earlier is very powerful, while the mechanic that gives you points for building the three levels of your Wonder using any card from your hand (without considering what’s on its face) is the least powerful aspect, as none of our winners ever completed his/her Wonder. One facet that I thought was insufficiently explained in the rules was that you can only build production buildings for the seven resources in Ages I and II; by Age III, you’re just going for points. We didn’t find huge differences between the Wonders except for the Colossus of Rhodes, which has a military power that was worth 18 points if its holder made a few relatively simple moves to maintain that advantage, and in a game where winning scores were in the 45-55 range that’s a significant bump.

I can imagine that with six or seven players this game would get messy, and the luck factor in what cards you get to see starts to increase once you get past five players. For three players, however, gameplay is smooth with a hint of randomness but nowhere near enough to make the game frustrating, as great decision-making won’t be undone by rotten luck. I can see why it won the Kennerspiel and is ranked #12 overall on BoardGameGeek’s global game rankings, but if you do buy it, be prepared for a little confusion the first time you read the rules. The game isn’t as complicated as they make it sound.

Alhambra.

Somehow the board game Alhambra has slipped through the cracks here on the dish, which I’ll blame on our move into the new house in the middle of last month. I’m hoping that now that we’re in (albeit far from unpacked) I’ll get back to more frequent posting here.

Alhambra won the Spiel des Jahres award in 2003 and looks like it should be a great game – players purchase castle tiles from a central “market” and try to earn points while building their own Alhambra-style castle. But the randomness factor is way too high for my tastes, particularly in the way it can leave one player in the dust from the outset if the cards/tiles don’t line up for him.

That central market has four tiles in it, drawn randomly from a bag as needed. Tiles come in six colors representing different types of rooms or building structures (like Towers or Gardens), each carrying a different potential point value, and with walls on anywhere from zero to four sides. You may place a tile only in a way that would allow a person to “walk” into that tile from your existing castle without having to hop a wall. There are three scoring rounds, coming roughly at the one-third and two-thirds marks as well as at game-end; each time, points are awarded to the player with the most tiles of each particular type, with smaller point gains available in the later scoring rounds for players with the second- or third-most tiles of each type.

The hitch, and it’s a big one, is how players acquire money to buy the tiles. The conceit is very clever: The masons you hire to build your Alhambra come from different countries and insist that you pay them in their own currency. The central market has four squares of different colors, and the currency required to buy a tile from the market is determined by the color on which that tile happens to sit. But you acquire currency from a separate currency market: Four cards, randomly drawn, that sit out for players to take in lieu of buying a tile. A player may take any single card from the currency market, or take any number of cards whose values add up to five or less. So the tiles you’re able to buy over the course of the game will depend on what color and value of currency cards are available to you when your turns come up.

On his turn, a player may buy a tile, take currency, or make a very small modification to his castle. The currency takes on added weight because of the rule that allows a player to take an extra turn if he buys a tile with exact change. (If you overpay, you’re out of luck – you don’t get the difference back.) The result is that there’s very little strategizing possible around tile purchase and placement; it’s all about your currency options, and while there is some turn-to-turn strategy there, in a four-player game the central market changes so much each time around that the value of good currency decision-making is severely curtailed.

My wife disagrees with me on Alhambra; she’s not bothered by a high randomness factor and places more value on visuals and production value. We have played the two-player variant, where you assign some tiles to a hypothetical third player, “Dirk,” and the game actually works a little better than it does with four people because the central market changes less between turns. But on the whole, I can’t see buying this game over other tile-based games like Carcassonne, which folds its randomness more seamlessly into gameplay in a way that actually enhances the value of good decision-making.

Again, I’m hoping that’s the last long layoff on this blog for a while, and I apologize for neglecting it. I’m almost through with An American Tragedy and am planning a long music post for some time in early April, as well as reviews of some of the Dominion expansions we’ve acquired over the last few months. In the meantime, check out my post on UCLA star Gerrit Cole and listen for me on the Baseball Today podcast three times this week starting on Tuesday.

Thurn and Taxis.

We finally played the boardgame Thurn & Taxis with more than two people last night – we had a Game Night on Game Night with a couple of friends – so I’m confident enough to review and recommend the game. It’s fun, it’s quite simple to pick up, and it moves quickly; it’s probably most comparable to Ticket to Ride among games I’ve reviewed before, but with a little more complexity in scoring, allowing for more ways to win the game without the rigidity of fixed routes.

T&T, which won the Spiel des Jahres in 2006, is played on a map of southern Germany and the borders of a few nearby countries, with 24 cities marked on the map across nine different regions. The object of the game is to amass points by building, turn by turn, postal routes (the House of Thurn und Taxis* ran a postal company in north-central Europe for over two centuries) that connect these cities based on cards drawn from the main deck of 72 cards (3 of each city), with six cards visible at any time. Routes must run at least 3 cities, and you must add to your route each turn or “close” it, placing houses on the cities in the route and collecting any point bonuses; if you can’t add to an open route on your turn, you must discard it and start over, an often fatal error. But your ability to place houses on cities in a route you close is limited by a rule that says you may only place one house per region in a closed route, or place houses in only one region of the route, meaning that a route of seven cities across three regions is inherently inefficient, as is a route that includes many cities in which you’ve already placed houses.

*Yes, I’ve read Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49, and no, I neither liked nor fully understood it, two things that are most likely connected.

The bonuses are the key to winning the game, of course, as you earn points by placing houses on all cities in a region (or pair of regions in the case of smaller regions with one or two cities each), by placing at least one house in all nine regions, or by building routes of five or more cities. Each bonus declines by a point when each player achieves it. There’s also a sequential series of bonuses, where you receive a carriage card for building routes of at least 3, 4, 5, 6, and 7 cities, in order, without skipping any of the cards, with the points ranging from two points for the three-city route to ten points for the seven-city route. When a player gets the 7-city carriage card, or places the last of his 22 houses, the game ends, with each player taking one more turn.

Those are almost all of the rules of the game, summarized in under 400 words, but those rules allow enough different strategies to keep the game interesting. You have enough houses for all but two of the cities, so you can try to win by placing all your houses first (there’s a penalty of one point per house left in your pool at game end), but have to sacrifice one or two of the regional bonuses to do so. You can try to race to the seven-carriage card, but may be short in region bonuses, or be late for the long-route bonuses. And you’re always at the mercy of the cards in the pool and the deck.

That proved to be the major wrinkle between two- and four-player games. In the two-player game, I found it easy to look ahead a few turns, because I knew what city cards were likely to be available to me the next time around. In the four-player game, not only is that impossible, but the player who chose cards right before me was executing a similar strategy and going after similar routes, so if a card I needed was in the pool, he’d have a chance to grab it, and I clearly wasn’t fast enough to make the mid-game adjustment. (Also, it is absolutely the wrong game to play with your friend the operations research consultant, even more so if he’s the player going right before you, doing critical-path modeling in his head while he steals the cards you need. But I’m not bitter.) Those adjustments aren’t required in a two-player game, so while the two-player game is fun, there’s a solitaire-ish element to it, while the four-player game has just enough randomness to throw a wrench in your strategy and force you to rethink plans on the fly. Like Stone Age, it seems to me to have a good balance of luck and strategy for this type of game. It’s definitely a good starter game for any of you looking to jump into German-style board games, with enough sophistication to satisfy someone who’s already into the genre.

Some of you have asked me questions, here, on Twitter, and in chat about games by skill or complexity level. Our collection of German-style games has grown to the point where I think I could categorize them roughly for you by my perception of their complexity, both in terms of learning the game for the first time and in terms of repeated play. Links are to reviews on this site or to the top ten rankings for three games (Babel, Metro, Settlers) that I only wrote up there.

Lowest complexity:

Moderately low complexity:

Moderate complexity:

  • San Juan (long, complex rules, but very simple to play after that)
  • Stone Age (moderately complex rules, a few simple strategies)
  • Babel
  • Carcassonne (simple game, complex scoring strategy)

Moderately high complexity

Highest complexity:

  • Puerto Rico (played twice, many rules, long setup, complex strategy)