Review: Dig Down Dwarf by Grey Gnome Games

Dig Down Dwarf by Grey Gnome Games, (2014) is a fast-paced dice game in which each player takes on the role of a dwarf chieftain in line for the throne. In the game, you roll dice to obtain gems from the mine. Gain the most valuable collection of gems, and you’ll be crowned the new dwarf king!

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After a very successful Kickstarter campaign, Dig Down Dwarf is finally getting into backer’s hands and soon (hopefully), into your FLGS.  Designed by Jason Glover, Dig Down Dwarf enters a competitive arena with other fast-playing dice games like Dungeon Roll from TMG and Age of War from FFG.  How does it fare?

Gameplay: Each player takes a card representing one of the potential heirs to the Dwarven throne.  4 random gems are drawn from bag, adding two more gems each turn, as players attempt to roll poker hands (2 of a kind, 3 of a kind, straight, 4 of a kind, etc.) on 4d6, each die has a different color.  Rolling a 1 on a die locks it and it can’t be rerolled, but the others can be rolled up to two more times, Yahtzee-style.  Each turn can garner the player gemstones which represent victory points but can also be spent for more powerful actions like re-rolling the dice or gaining a 5th die to roll to help gain more gems on future turns.  If you roll a 6 on your favored die color (depicted on your card), you can use a special power on your card.

Most of the game is simply rolling the dice and making the best decisions you can with what you’ve got, with some options for special actions at times.  The game is over once the last gem is drawn from the bag and all players have had a turn.  Add up the points for gems, plus bonuses and high score wins.

While everything comes down to dice rolls and whatever gems are randomly drawn and available, there are still a number of choices to make in your turn, particularly how/if you spend gems you own to gain more gems, additional powers or just get a chance to reroll.

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What do I think of Dig Down Dwarf?

The good:  Straight away, I think this game is a lot of fun and is very easy to teach.  It hits the sweet spot for a filler game very well and the rules are clean and play fast.  The game is light, but I always felt like I had choices to make, and they were not always easy ones.  No one is likely to get analysis paralysis from what this games offers, but it is not mindless either.

The entire game fits in a 5”x5”x1.5” box.  Considering the game includes 45 plastic gems in a cool drawstring bag, 5 large dice and 12 linen finish cards (as well as a large plastic gem to indicate current player – Kickstarter exclusive), this game offers the highest quality components for a minimal price.

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The Not So Good:  The game doesn’t offer much player interaction. Yes, there is an opportunity for one player can swap gems with another player, but it doesn’t occur often. Most of the game is players waiting for their turn, doing the best they can on their turn and passing to the next player. That’s not to say it isn’t fun, but there isn’t a lot in the game to engage players during the down-time between turns.

The high quality of the components really contrasted with the art on the cards, which is downright amateur.  I’m not trying to be mean, but I didn’t think the art added anything to the game and, if anything, it detracted.

What is the judgment call on Dig Down Dwarf?

RETRY

Dig Down Dwarf holds its own within the light-game genre, and bests many. It is a solid filler game and I will play it regularly for a while.  I’m really glad I backed this Kickstarter, and hope to see it in stores soon. For more info, see Grey Gnome Games website.

Game Review: Car Wars, 4th Edition is a Missed Opportunity for SJG

I just got my copy of the 2014 release of Car Wars and can testify that the quality of the components is as weak as shown in the unboxing video by Gamer Goggles, here.

This is for Car Wars, 4th Edition, 2nd printing, 2014 $19.99 from Steve Jackson Games, which released in November.

Originally published in 1981, Car Wars is a game where players build vehicles complete with weapons, armor and so on, and then they duel with each other.  There are many reviews out there of previous versions  that tell you about the game play of Car Wars, so I will focus on what Car Wars, 4th Edition brings to the table.

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Different from the previous version, this version has  thicker cardboard counters than the original, but they came pre-punched in a plastic bag, so I can’t verify if the set is complete, other than count 103 pieces an hope they put all the right pieces in the bag.  I dislike this presentation and much prefer to be given the sheet of counters.

The ‘turning key’ is thin cardstock, like the original, and that is disappointing because it is such a useful tool and would benefit from being printed on chipboard or at least, thicker card stock.

The rule book is 64 pages, black and white on printer paper, and the map is of course, black and white printing on paper stock, folded up.

The game included four, 6-sided dice, but even they are low grade and I won’t be using them.

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With so much opportunity for improvement over previous versions, SJG phoned this one in.  I dig Car Wars, but all my old stuff from the 1980’s is as good as this version, the sole exception being thicker counters and a new box.

Scott Haring (Line Editor for Car Wars) was quoted as saying this is a “Classic” version of the game (YouTube link here), but I am disappointed to see so little work going into this release.

By “Classic,” I guess they mean that the quality is as crumby as it was in the 80’s.  I can understand making a classic version of the game, not doing a rewrite of the rules with new, color artwork, but this is on printer paper.  At least print the rulebook on gloss.  Print the maps on cardstock that pieces together, puzzle style, rather than a big piece of folded-up paper.  And those lousy 12mm dice… nobody wants the dice in this box.

After seeing what was done in OGRE Designer Edition, maybe my expectations were too high.  Still, I only expected some degree of concern over appearance.  I will forever refer to this release of Car Wars as CAR WARS – the Neglected Version, because that is exactly what I thought when I opened the box – this looks like nobody cared.

What a missed opportunity for SJG to introduce new players to this very fun game.  I expect that most new players will open the box, see the lack of effort put into the product, and pass.  The ones that actually play it will likely be die-hard fans of the game like myself, but then, I would play it anyway, and I will, but it won’t be this version.   It’s just too… sad.

ARIF Rating: ABORT unless you are an old school Car Wars player who no longer has a copy and is jonesing to play.

Review of Knightmare Chess (3rd Edition)

 

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Knightmare Chess (3rd Edition) by Steve Jackson Games, $29.95 is chess played with cards that break the rules in unpredictable ways. Some affect a single move and others change the entire game.

Note that playing Knightmare Chess also requires a working knowledge of chess, a chess set and an open mind to play. You’ll also need miscellaneous markers (small post-it notes work well) to place on chess pieces that have been altered through the effects of a card.

Knightmare Chess includes 158 cards, illustrated by artist, Rogério Vilela. Each turn, a player may play a card (which is optional), following the instructions on the card that supersede the classic rules of chess. All of the cards have clear text as to what can and cannot be done, and when they can be played. They have a number in the top right corner, indicating a cost when using the deck building rules.

For example, the card titled Evangelists allows the payer to, “Swap the positions of one of your bishops and one of the opponent’s bishops. Play this card on your turn, instead of making your regular move.”

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You can easily see how a card like this could be helpful and possibly detrimental to the player who uses it. It should be played at a key time, probably one that is planned, if it is played at all.

With this sort of rule-bending going on, there needs to be some jurisdiction, and there are some cardinal guidelines that take precedence over everything else.

The Checkmate Rule states that, “No regular card may directly cause a checkmate situation or capture the king.” You could play a card that changes a pawn into a knight for the rest of the game, and that knight makes a move later in the game that results in a checkmate and that would be allowed, but you can’t checkmate or capture a king directly through the play of a card. Ever.

The other rule is regarding conflicts. “When a card conflict with any other rule or the rules of chess, the card takes precedence. When two cards conflict, Continuing Effect cards take precedence. If both or neither are Continuing Effect cards, the last card played takes precedence.” There, that settles that.

The game includes variants where players build decks rather than draw cards randomly, or handicap one player over another by allowing fewer cards in his deck, and these are for more seasoned players. I look forward to joining those ranks.

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So, what do I think about Knightmare Chess (3rd Edition)?

I’m impressed by the game’s history. It came out in 1996 and disappeared from store shelves a few years later. I learned of the game afterwards and wanted it, but copies were going for ridiculous prices on eBay, so I stayed away. November, 2014, Steve Jackson Games re-released it, complete with the expansion, Knightmare Chess 2, included. Not much has changed from the earlier versions, as best I can tell and I’m pleased to finally own the game.

While the cards add some random elements to chess, they are not all powerful. They do, however, destroy any strategist’s plans of what to do three or more moves ahead. Knightmare Chess makes the game one that requires adaptability and creativity that the original game of chess thumbs its nose.

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I enjoy a proper game of chess and cherish the times I can bring out my tournament set and play. I’m not a great player but I am a good loser, and I lose often. Knightmare Chess is such an aberration to the pure rules of a classic game, I can understand that some people just can’t make the leap, and that’s ok. As for me, I adore the way it changes the game from intentionally foreseeable to shamelessly diverse– the way it puts players on their toes, trying to react to the unpredictable turns the game may take.

Chess purists may be offended that it perverts of the most hallowed of strategy games, but I recommend Knightmare Chess to anyone who enjoys chess and does not take it too seriously. I could even see this being a regularly played game in my circle, particularly regarding the deck building aspect.

Game components include:

158 tarot-sized cards, linen finish (this is all the cards from Knightmare Chess and Knightmare Chess 2)

4-page instructions sheet

2 blank cards, so you can create your own mayhem on the chessboard.

 

ARIF Game rating: Retry.

I’ll definitely be playing this one again. If you halfway dig this theme, I encourage you to buy it now, before it goes out of print again.

As a side note, I noticed Gary Gygax is credited as being a play tester for the original game.  Cool.

Game Review: Frag – A Board Game Based on a FPS Deathmatch. Wait… What?

A game of Deathmatch in Quake, Halo or any number of other First-Person-Shooter video games is where players play against each other; the winner has the most kills. It’s gloriously wanton and carefree – shooting everything that moves within your field of vision. Twitch-gaming at its best.

Now take that concept and unplug. It’s no longer a computer or console game – it’s on a table, with cardboard and plastic pieces, and dice. Lots of dice.

Wait. What?

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Welcome to Frag – Gold Edition, by Steve Jackson Games. “Frag is a computer game without the computer,” according to the introduction in the light, 4 page rule booklet. Clearly, we are not talking about deep strategy, here. It’s a gutsy, go for the glory type of game and if you die, well – wait to respawn and have at it again.

As for the strategy vs. luck involved in winning, I present this evidence: The game comes with 18(!) 6-sided dice. And consider this amazing fact – 18 dice will not always be enough! Couple that with 118 randomly drawn game cards, and well. It is guts over strategy. That will put the “serious” gamers off, and this is less like Chess and more like Risk. Or Uno – except you kill the other players.

For a game of this type to work, it has to play fast and Frag does as long as no one takes things too seriously. The brief rules are clear and well-written, but leave MUCH unsaid about specific situations, and require a degree of game-savvy and ability among the players to decide on “house rules” for circumstances that are not covered in the instructions. I chose to look at that as just another intriguing aspect of the game. If you (or your gaming group, or even one person in your gaming group) *MUST* have officially documented and complete rules, give Frag – Gold Edition a miss. For those who can lighten up and address ambiguous situations as they arise without it bringing the game to a complete standstill, read on.

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Each player has 3 stats: Health, Speed and Accuracy. You get 7 points to divide this among the attributes, as long as each stat gets at least 1 point and not more than 4.

There are also 3 different cards in the game: Weapons, Gadgets and Specials. Each player starts with 1 of each, and has opportunity throughout the game to draw more. These cards add a lot of flavor to the game and are often humorous.

The Special cards are fun and emulate online gaming experiences. The “No Carrier” card means a player is immediately dropped from the game and has to respawn. The “Lag” card causes a player to miss their turn. “Extra Ram” card allows the player to have 1 extra card in their hand, and so on. This is in keeping with the theme and holds up very well.

A player’s game turn consists of 3 phases:

  1. Check for Respawn
  2. Roll for Movement
  3. Movement, which consists of multiple possible actions:
    1. Move\jump
    2. Pick-Ups (attempt to grab an item on an adjacent square)
    3. Attack

These phases are straight-forward and resolved with dice roles, sometimes modified by the effects of a played card. After a player finishes his turn, it goes to the next player who does the same. The game is over once a player has scored 3 frags.

Basic math skills are needed – addition, subtraction, multiplication and division are frequently used, but the equations are not difficult. I’d say they were a good learning tool for kids to learn math, but the subject matter might be too violent to consider it a family game.

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The game components are great. The board is double-sided and made of thick chipboard, as are the die-cut counters for pick-ups and bullets. The cards are good stock and have rounded corners and the art is interesting and well-themed. The player boards where stats are maintained are dry-erase and reusable. 1 dry-erase pen is included (additional dry-erase pens recommended) The rules are brief and to the point. And it includes 18 d6 dice, which will be enough for most rolls, but you may have to do 2 separate rolls on occasions where more dice are required. The game needs a lot of dice.

I bought the game on Amazon for less than $15, shipped; a bargain, and I don’t know how long that will continue. For those looking for a fast-paced low-strategy game that finishes in an hour or less, Frag fits that bill very well.  This one won’t gather dust on my shelves.

Board Game Review: Halo Risk Legendary Edition

Risk has always been one of those games that  sounds like a good idea to play, and then two hours in, with no end in sight, I regret ever buying it. Still, it’s a classic game and there is a lot to be said for the simple strategy to chance ratio and the way a roll-off of dice between players feels a little like battle.

Halo Risk Legendary Edition, Hasbro – $39.99 is another in the line of many themed versions of Risk already on the market. In this case, it is the world of Halo, the wildly popular video game franchise on the Xbox platform, featuring USMC units, Covenant and the dreaded Flood.

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These themed editions are often nothing more than the same old game with a different map and different models for the playing pieces. Halo Risk is in this vein, but there are some surprisingly fresh differences that affect strategy and how the game is played.

The introduction of mobile teleports to move troops quickly to a different map area adds a new tactic to game. The campaign cards offer objectives beyond wiping out the other players, such as, “Conquer seven territories in one turn.” Finally, there are three different maps to choose from, each different from the others and one is a Halo Ring map, which spans 5 feet!

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The game pieces are cool, you are given lots of them and overall, I thought they were well-modeled (with the exception of the Scorpion tank on the UNSC side, which lacked detail) and it was easy to tell what was what on the board. The maps are interesting and beautifully drawn, and the box has a plastic insert with places to store the pieces without getting them all mixed up. From that standpoint, it’s a quality game.

That said, it is still Risk. That means long games (particularly if you play on the huge Halo Ring map) with lots of dice-rolling. Underneath the Halo theme and minor tweaks to game play, it is still just Risk.

If you hate Risk but love Halo – I’d recommend you steer clear unless you just want to add it to your collection. If you love Risk, this is a will be a version you are likely to play again and again.

Review: World War Z Board game

World War Z Board Game from University Games will let you play as elite military or CIA personnel, racing against time to prevent a pandemic zombie apocalypse. It’s no secret that I liked the movie and I’ve been known to write a zombie story or two myself, so the genre is interesting to me and like I said, I thought the movie was pretty good, though it was nothing like the (much better) novel.

I bought World War Z – The Game and after reading the rules, played it with my son, Spencer. Just to be clear, this is an old-school board game with dice and people sitting around the table, conversing and interacting, analog style. This is also a cooperative game, so all of the players are united and playing towards the same goal of eliminating enough zombie hordes that the human race survives. If a player dies, he becomes a zombie and then plays in opposition to the remaining human players, which is an interesting take on the traitor element that is used effectively in Shadows Over Camelot and Battlestar Galactica.

The game board is a map of the world divided into zones, not unlike what you see with the game Risk, but the resemblance to that classic ends there. There are also cards, polyhedral battle dice and cardboard counters. There are rules, which outline the actions a player can take each turn. It doesn’t really matter what actions you take though, because everything will come down to a dice roll.

Each player is given randomly dealt a Role Card, and these roles are not balanced. During your turn, you can move to a new part of the world. You can equip a combat card, showing a weapon. You can battle a zombie horde in an occupied zone, and you must escalate the threat by drawing a threat escalation card to determine how the zombie threat grows.

WWZ-rules and cardsWhile playing this game, there was a surreal sense of scale – we are working on a global map as elite military or CIA, but armed with a crowbar or baseball bat? I mean, the game has an aircraft carrier where you call in strikes on a map zone that takes out just as many zombie hordes as a player swinging a Louisville Slugger? More than that, the outcome of everything comes down to a dice roll. There is almost no strategy involved and a typical turn consists of moving to a zone and attacking zombies, over and over. You could leave all the pieces in the box and just roll the dice to get the same level of enjoyment out of the game as playing it by the rules.

While it hardly matters, considering the simplistic and bland rules – the component quality is poor. The cards are bland and have square corners, the board is uninspired and the cardboard counters are thick die-cut, but off-center. Overall, it is a shoddy box of sadness.

I bought this game at a discounted price, and I should have taken that as a sign. In reading the back of the box, it sounded like this might be Pandemic with a zombie theme, and there are elements of the game that are like Pandemic, such as the player roles, but it is a feeble imitation at best, rushed to market without enough play-testing to cash-in on a summer blockbuster movie’s release.

Every gamer worth his salt knows that movie tie-in games suck. It doesn’t matter if they are video games, board games or role-playing games – they are all bad with only the rarest exception. Really, they are worse than just bad. Movie tie-in games epitomize capitalism at its worst. They violate the memories of a movie we enjoyed. Rainbows fade to gray and unicorns castrate themselves with their own horns, breaking their necks in the process, to escape the badness that is a movie tie-in game. It’s very, very sad.

Games like this are to be avoided, but sometimes a soldier needs to step on the landmine to let everyone else know the danger present. That’s me, this time. Kaboom!

My rating for World War Z – The Game: The Z stands for ZERO, which exactly the score I give this game on a scale of 0-5. Stay away. Far, far away.

Game Review–Dungeon Roll

In Dungeon Roll by Tasty Minstrel Games, $19.95 – The players are adventurers, entering the dungeon with goal is to collect the most experience points by defeating monsters, battling the dragon, and amassing treasure. Each player selects a Hero avatar, such as a Mercenary, Half-Goblin, or Enchantress, which provides them with unique powers. Then players take turns being the Adventurer, who boldly enters the dungeon seeking glory.

Each Adventurer assembles their party by rolling seven Party Dice, while another player serves as the Dungeon Lord and rolls a number of Dungeon Dice based on how far the Adventurer has progressed through the dungeon. The Adventurer uses Champion, Fighter, Cleric, Mage, Thief, and Scroll faces on the Party Dice to defeat monsters such as goblins and skeletons, claim treasure chests, and revive downed companions with potions.

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The game components are excellent, and I love the custom dice and that they matched the colors on each die to coordinate with what character is most effective against what monster (Clerics are the same color as skeletons, for example). The cards have nice artwork, the counters are thick and double-sided, and the box looks like a little (3”W x 3”L x 3”T) treasure chest and is used to store and draw from for treasure tokens during the game.

Spencer and I have played this a dozen or so times now, and it’s a simple and fun game. Playing time for two players is about 15 minutes, and only slightly more for 3 or 4 players, so it’s definitely a quick-play game, suitable as a warm-up game for something longer, or to play while waiting for other players to arrive. It also has a solo mode which plays exactly like the multiplayer, and that strength is the biggest failing of Dungeon Roll.

Playing the game is really just the player doing hand-control with his party dice vs. the monster dice he is facing, pressing their luck as far as they can without being defeated and having to flee the dungeon. There is no interaction between the players. Yes, another player rolls the monster dice each round and keeps up with what dungeon level you are on, but there is no point where a player can take an action in their turn that affects another player. You are multiple players taking turns playing a solo game, and it feels that way. The only competition at all is when you add up Experience Points at the end of the game to see who had the most and therefore won.

Still, Dungeon Roll is fast, well-themed, well made and despite the lack of interaction, it is still fun. For the price, it’s worth picking up if you play games like Zombie Dice or Cthulhu Dice, or just want a simple filler game with nice components.

We will continue to play this one, but the lack of player interaction kneecaps it severely.

Dungeon Roll
© 2013 by Tasty Minstrel Games
Designed by Chris Darden
1-4 Players
Ages 8+
15-30 minutes play time
Recommended RSP, $19.95

Game Review: NUCLEAR WAR Card Game – A Blast from the Past

Let me be absolutely transparent: This is a review that is heavily weighted by nostalgia.

I was regularly playing this game with my gaming group in the early 1980’s, before a game about blowing up millions of people to win might be considered “politically incorrect” (finger quotes mandatory). It was a go-to game to play before or after a more lengthy game with heavier strategy, and I recall we played the hell out of it and both of the expansion packs. We loved playing Nuke War.

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Surprised it is still in print, I purchased a brand new copy of Nuclear War. The box is almost identical to the copy I had in the 80’s and the cards and spinner have not changed much, either.

You read that correctly – the game has a spinner. The only other game I have played that had a spinner is Twister, where I was reaching to put left hand on green and rubbing body parts with Caroline in the process, when I was still so young I was figuring out what the body parts were for, so… huzzah for spinners!

In Nuke War, each player plays as a country, embroiled in global propaganda, where population are stolen from other player’s countries to join your own. This can only go on so long before someone launches a missile and then propaganda means nothing and the cold war is over – all countries start blowing each other up. The game’s goal is to be the last player with remaining population cards, and there are other random events that shake things up, such as the Super Germ, where 25 million people die from an epidemic.

Nuke War touted it was, “One of the few games where it is possible to have no winners (often everybody loses!).” This is true, and there were quite a few games where we annihilated each other, with no player having any remaining population. In a way, this abstract game felt real. Back in the 1980’s, we worried a lot about someone pushing The Button and starting a global nuclear war.

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Jump to now and I play the game again, 30 years later. I’m playing with a 14-year-old son. I watch him and judge his reaction to the cards, spinner and game play. To me, this is old school gaming and I am almost giddy. We blew each other up with nuclear weapons. Lo and behold, neither of us won. We destroyed each other.

It was almost on queue that my son said, “Seems like the way to win a nuclear war is not to play.”

He’d never seen the movie, War Games, (a parental failing of mine that I will soon rectify) so he arrived at that conclusion on his own. But I thought I had to get it across to him that this is ONLY A GAME. We played again.

This time, I won, but not but much – just 6 million population, after my son’s nation had final retaliation.

We played 4 more games.

He won two of them, and wasn’t very talkative during these games.

“What do you think about the game?” It was a fair question after he played six games in a row.

“Next game, let’s try to keep it to propaganda until the end; until everyone has defected from one country or another. That way, no nukes and nobody gets blown up.”

He doesn’t want to play a game where millions of people are wantonly killed. Despite myself, I am raising a boy that is better than me. I could not hope for more.  Unfortunately, the game is very dull unless you do blow each other up, but we gave a cold war only version of the game a chance.

While I won’t make him play Nuke War again, I make it a point to play games with my son and cultivate the simple enjoyment of sitting at a table and interacting with people over a game.  We just don’t do these sort of things enough.

While the theme is not politically correct, I still love the Nuke War card game

· Game: Nuclear War

· Publisher: Flying Buffalo Games

· Designer: Doug Malewicki

· Year Originally Published: 1965

· Players: 2-6

· Ages: “players of all ages” but realistically, 8+

· Playing Time: 30-45 Minutes

· Retail Price: $29.95

· Serious Game Rating: 4 of 10

· Family Game Rating: 7 of 10

· Component Quality: Excellent except for the population cards, which suck and have to be cut out with scissors.

· In the Box: 100 playing cards, 40 population cards, 1 Bomb Effect Spinner, Rules and 4 playing mats

· Expansions Available: Nuclear Escalation, Nuclear Proliferation and Weapons of Mass Destruction

Card Game Review: LOVE LETTER

The title and premise of the game, LOVE LETTER, will put most guys off but this one is worth a play, for the mechanic of the game alone, if not the theme.

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The premise of the game, Love Letter is exactly this: All of the eligible young men (and many of the not-so-young) seek to woo Annette, the princess of Tempest. Unfortunately, she has locked herself in the palace, and you must rely on others to take your romantic letters to her. Will yours reach her first?

Love Letter is a game of risk, deduction, and luck for 2–4 players. Your goal is to get your love letter into Princess Annette’s hands while deflecting the letters from competing suitors. From a deck with only sixteen cards, each player starts with only one card in hand; one card is removed from play. On a turn, you draw one card, and play one card, trying to expose others and knock them from the game. Powerful cards lead to early gains, but make you a target. Rely on weaker cards for too long, however, and your letter may be tossed in the fire!

The entire game consists of a small, 24 page rule book, 4 reference cards, 16 game cards, 13 “Tokens of Affection,” and a Red Velvet Bag with “Love Letter” embroidered on it to keep everything in.

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If you’ve hung in there, reading this review even after “Tokens of Affection,” and “Red Velvet Bag” – you’re either gay or really secure in the fact that you are not gay. It’s the indecisive men who get weird about this sort of thing. So yay you – you know what gender you are attracted to, or you are a girl and you’re always smarter than guys, anyway.

That said – this game is one of the most original, unique and subtly challenging games on the market, and it costs less than $10. It can be learned in 5 minutes and the more familiar the players are with the game, the more interesting it gets. All that, and it’s a 4-player game that takes only 20 minutes. Maybe I should have opened with that part?

Anyway, the game is remarkably challenging and fun. Designed by Seiji Kanai and published by AEG, it currently has three licensed English versions available, and then some others.

American Original: I don’t know what to really call this version, but American Original works. It is the common version of the game and the one I own, with Victorian style artwork. All components are quality and fit in the red velvet drawstring bag nicely.Love Letter-2

Kanai Factory Edition: The artwork works very well with the theme. It is a boxed version, so no red velvet bag for you, and it has extra cards so you can play for the hand of the Prince, or two different Princesses. Now, this does not change the game at all, but does allow you to flavor it to your group’s preferences.

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Some of the cards are named differently from the American Original version, but play the same and have the same effects as their counterparts in the previous version. The big difference is the Minister, who replaces the Countess.

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While the Countess card is commonly a handicap card, the Minister card can put you out of the round if your total hand of 2 cards is over 12 points (and the Minister counts as 7). In a game of only 16 cards, this can change gameplay dramatically.

Love Letter: Legend of the Five Rings Edition: Different art with a Five Rings influence, and a green velvet bag (instead of red).  It also comes in a two-piece box.

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Rogue Editions: An artifact of a good game mechanic is that someone will theme the game differently to suite their own needs or ego. Love Letter has had unlicensed “Print and Play” versions of the game done to the themes of Dr. Who, Star Wars, X-Files, Alice in Wonderland and more. If you choose one or more of these downloadable versions, consider buying a retail version of the game, so the designer and publisher are compensated for their game being ripped-off.

I admit, after playing this game over and over, I broke down and bought little plastic hearts to use as Tokens of Affection, instead of the red cubes.

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All said, even now, a year later, Love Letter remains on my go-to filler game list. Either retail version has quality components and is well worth the modest price tag. It is one of those rare games that transcends theme. It is also a great gateway game for wives or girlfriends.

If you enjoy any kind of gaming at all that involves other people, Love Letter is a win.

Board Game Review: Undead by Steve Jackson Games

Note: This is a revisit of a game I played in the 1980’s and it is no longer in print, though copies are still for sale on EBay. In The Day, it sold for about $6, came in a plastic 4.5”x7.5” pocket box with a paper map and cardboard counters that had to be cut out with scissors. Dice required but not included.

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Undead by Steve Jackson Games is based on the classic novel, Dracula by Bram Stoker. Skipping the first part of the story and picks up where Dracula has reached London with his fifty earth-filled coffins. He has killed Lucy and seeking more prey, but Van Helsing and his party are out to stop him once and for all.

In Undead, one player plays as Dracula, moving around and conducting sinister business at night, and the other players play cooperatively as Van Helsing and his party, hunting him down. Lastly, there must be a game master (GM) who is the neutral party and referee. (Note the game rules state the game can be played as a 2-player game without the GM. My experience with this mode is not very good and I do not recommend it.)

The game is played on a map of 1890’s London, separated into regions of movement. Counters representing Dracula’s coffins, dummy counters placing at least one in each area. These counters are upside down, so no player knows which the dummies are and which the coffins are, except for the Dracula Player and the GM.

The players take alternating turns, with the non-moving player(s) leaving the room. Dracula makes his moves and actions such as distributing some of his coffins to other areas, searching for a servant (Renfield), and bite a victim, and so on with the GM, and then leaves the room. The Vampire Hunters enter the room, make their move and actions, such as searching for coffins, investigating victims, and generally trying to find Dracula before he raises enough female vampires. The game proceeds like this until the Hunters and Dracula wind up at the same location, in which all players enter the room and combat is played out with dice on a smaller map, representing a single room. They can fight to the death, or one or more members may flee the room, escaping (unless it is day-time, which Dracula must stay).

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The game is over when one of the victory conditions is met, but usually this means Dracula and the Hunters wound up in the same place and fight until one of the parties is eliminated.

There are other options for the players as well. For Dracula – doing a day-move, hunting the Hunters, raising female vampires or shape-changing into a wolf, bat or mist. The Vampire Hunters can likewise do a night-move, perform a transfusion on a victim (to prevent them from turning into a vampire), and hold a vigil or death watch.

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The secret moves and hunting for the bad-guy mechanic, using a map with turned-over counters was the first game of its type that I played in the 80’s. Using a GM for a board game is unique as well, and I recall it morphing into some role-playing, particularly with the players faced each other.

Playing as Dracula is cool and sucks at the same time. It’s cool, because you are a powerful antagonist, deploying coffins and raising an undead army of female vampires, and hey. Who doesn’t want their own army of female vampires? But board-gaming is a social activity, and as Dracula, you never in the same room with the other players until there is combat. This can take hours before it happens.

The Vampire Hunters (assuming there is more than one person) at least have each other to interact with, during this time. And the GM, well he is the all-knowing, all-seeing, friend to all, enemy to no one, but he doesn’t get to play. He just oversees the play.

It’s a personal gripe, but I don’t like this lack of interaction between players. A main reason I enjoy board games is the conflict\collaboration with other people that occurs in playing a table top game.

Addressing the actual gameplay, there are enough variety to make it fun. Yes, Dracula will probably shuffle coffins around and bite someone during his turn, but he could try to do a day move, or hunt the hunters. Hunters might try a vigil or night move, and it’s when these big risks are taken that the game really takes off.

Still, there are typical actions that have no real strategy, such as randomly hunting for coffins. You get lucky and find coffins (or Dracula!), or you don’t. Regardless, it is luck-based. This can result in a game that lasts 30 minutes, or likewise, 4 hours. It just depends.

I loved everything about this game back in the 80’s. Now, seeing the game with fresh eyes, I rate it a little differently. Score is 1 to 5 with 5 being best.

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Ingenuity – 5 The game mechanic is unique, and play is unlike other games.

Strategy – 3 There is a lot of luck involved in this game, but there are also a lot of choices to make, and that helps offset the chance a bit.

Social – 3 There’s some isolation of players while playing, but even jibes as Dracula and Hunters pass in the doorway are fun.

Theme – 5 Dracula. This is classic, gothic horror and it does it very, very well.

Fun – 3 I still think this sort of game is fun, and while it can go on too long with turn after turn of no much happening, it has some incredibly tense moments that other games never provide.

Components – 2 Come on. A paper map with thin, cardboard counters I have cut out myself? No dice? What do you expect for  $6!! I’ve paid much, much more for a game with nicer components, but enjoyed a lot less. Still, speaking solely about the components, I have print and play games that look better.  Just sayin’.

Overall – 3.5 (rounded to the half) Better than playing a game of Risk, and probably will take less time.

Microgames are making a comeback, thanks to Kickstarter. Unfortunately, SJGames has made no announcements that indicate it will rerelease Undead, even as a Print and Play. That’s too bad, because the components make it an excellent candidate for the PnP model.

Regardless, the game held up for me. Through my nostalgic eyes, I miss the days of the cheap, SJG Pocket games. Hell, I recently paid $100 for the Designer Release of Ogre. Is this what it is coming to?

I’d be OK with that.