Goodcritters

Goodcritters

You dirty rat! You actual dirty rat! Wash your fur, you’re disgusting!

Goodcritters is a pseudo-bluffing game very much in the spirit of Cash ‘N’ Guns, but without the nerf guns and with slightly fuzzier gangsters. Each round there’s a boss and a selection of loot set to be passed out among the criminals, and victory depends on your nerve, your ability to figure out what your opponents are doing, and how well you can maximize your take on every round. How the looting works is how the two games most differ.

One player starts as the boss. A number of loot cards are drawn equal to the number of players plus two, as opposed to the flat eight per round of Cash ‘N’ Guns. (There’s a larger deck of loot cards with a Fuzz card slipped into the bottom third, so the end of the game is harder to predict.) Rather than players trying to brave their way into the heist so they can split the loot, the boss hands out the loot herself. The players get a vote, though; if more people vote no than yes, the loot is put back in the center and the next person becomes boss, passing out the same loot however he sees fit.

Of course, nothing’s ever as simple as a vote.

After the loot is distributed, everyone gets an action. Voting yes or no are only two of the options. The others are to rob another player; guard against a robbery; or skim money off the top of the deck. Skimming only works if you’re the first person to do it, which makes it great for the boss and a more chancy proposition the farther down the line you are. Robbery can only be done if you put your threat token in front of somebody else, which means if you do try and rob someone everyone knows who it will be already. It also means that if no one is threatening you, there’s no need to guard yourself.

Therefore, if you’re the boss, passing out the loot isn’t a simple matter of making enough people happy with the split to keep you in charge. It’s also a question of not giving people a reason to vote against you. Since not everyone has to use their threat token, the game ends up leaning more towards the politics of getting people to do what you want rather than calling their bluffs when guns are pointed at you, and the money split is a major part of that.

There are optional rules that involve bribes and payoffs, and each loot card as a type of loot attached to it (jewelry, paintings, etc.) which are currently irrelevant but should be put to use in future expansions. However, none of this affects the main drawback of the game: no catch-up mechanism. Not every game needs one, but it’s pretty important in a game with a light tone that’s designed to be an enjoyable experience.

For example, in Cash ‘N’ Guns, it can be difficult to make up ground if you’re behind, but you do have an option—stand up and take part in every heist no matter how many guns are pointed at you. No, it may not work, but you can at least try. It’s possible that other players were constantly throwing bullets at you, so that you never had a chance, but in most circumstances falling behind happens because you sit out a heist when the people threatening you were bluffing. Even if your decisions made perfect sense, at least it was your decisions that created the situation.

In Goodcritters, unless you’re the boss, you have no control over the loot split. You can’t make anybody give you anything. You can rob people, but that only gets you one random card from their stash (if they don’t guard against it and rob from you instead). You can vote no, but even if it works, you don’t make up any ground, you just stop everyone else from getting their loot. The balancing factor is supposed to be that if you’re a good boss, you can keep the troops happy while also making more profit for yourself than you’re giving to them, and it’s better for the boss to give you money if you’re behind because you’ll vote for them while also being less of a threat. In theory, that should work, and with a group that knows how to play, it probably does. However, if everyone’s just chucking loot splits in a way that will get them votes, it may keep going to the same people. If you’re not among them, it leaves you pretty helpless, as you don’t have the tools to do much about it.

There’s also the question of what they plan to do with the loot types. In theory, there are ways to do set collection that function as a way to have fewer cards but more value, which may go a long way towards fixing the catch-up problem. But selling the game with aspects that don’t come into play right away—especially when they’re so prominently featured on the website—is some shenanigan behavior. When whatever expansion makes use of the loot types comes out, this game might be great. Not giving us that game is not OK.

(3.3 / 5)

Reef

Reef

There are games which involve underwater life, where you escape big fish with big teeth or spawn salmon or escape from an island which is about to become underwater life, but rarely do you get to be… the plants. And not even the soft green plants, but the rocky crap we step on and it hurts.

Although pretty soon there won’t be any of that either.

Reef is something of a puzzle game. Everyone gets a 4×4 board and four pieces of coral, one of each color, set in the center four squares however you wish. This isn’t done blindly; everything revolves around cards, and you get to see a display of three to choose from right away, as well as having two in your hand, and you can use these to determine good starting positions for your coral.

The cards are key, so here’s how they work: each card has a top and bottom. The top has two pieces of coral, often (but not always) of the same color. When you play a card, you take those two pieces out of the stockpile and place them on your board. You can put them anywhere you want—different spaces, stacked in the same space, stacked on top of other pieces already there, etc. The only rule is that stacks cannot go above four high. Once a stack is four high, it can no longer be changed.

The bottom has a scoring mechanism. This is some pattern the coral must follow to score the points on the card. Only the top-most color on each stack matters for these patterns. Some of them are easy—for example, score one point for each top piece that’s green. Some are more complicated, requiring two different colors diagonal to each other on stacks at least two high. The more complex the pattern, the more point each matching set is worth, but the simpler the pattern, the more times you may be able to score it when you play the card. Therefore, depending on how your board looks, any card may end up being able to score a good chunk of points.

One tricky aspect is that the colors a card lets you play don’t match the colors the card lets you score (apart from a handful that let you score any color). A winning strategy involves playing as many cards as possible that let you score points while also playing corals that will let you score points on a future card. You don’t need to score every card; if you can combo well enough, taking a zero on one card to score ten on another is better than two three-pointers. But comboing off big time isn’t as important as scoring consistently while looking for a big combo. Putting too many resources into setting up a big score will usually leave you behind people who consistently grab points, because if you’re thinking a few cards ahead (no one can take cards out of your hand, so you know what you have), you can always set up good combos.

Basically, it’s not a question of small scores versus one big score. It’s a matter of who can land bigger small scores or more big scores. The game runs for a reasonably high number of rounds, so if you can’t pull anything that nets points right away, you still have time to set up something nice for yourself if you keep an eye out for the right cards. Variance can mess things up, of course, especially in a four-player game, but usually the cards come for you to create some nice scores.

And… that’s pretty much it. It’s a perfectly good game. Like so many games, it will find a niche crowd that adores it, a handful that really don’t like it, and a large majority that find it an acceptable way to spend some gaming time. In theme, it’s fairly unique; in form, it’s reasonably different from most other offerings; yet it doesn’t feel hugely different from a lot of perfectly good games that have crossed the gaming landscape in recent years. It’s a game with a very pretty box designed to draw you into a game that you’ll probably tell your friends is fun. So, if it sounds like a cool concept, by all means pick up a copy. If you’re looking for a game that will blow your hair back with its unique greatness, this isn’t quite it.

(3.9 / 5)

Arkham Horror

Arkham Horror

Arkham attempts to not get transformed into Tentacle Ground Zero for the third… seventh… twelfth… however many times across however many games. Because, in the end, barring the greatest luck, no matter if you’re playing Arkham Horror, Eldritch Horror, Elder Sign, or whatever other Cthulhu game is out there, Arkham, and the world, are destined to fall.

But cheer up! You usually find an interesting way to die. Just look at Old Man Henderson.

This is the third edition of Arkham Horror, and it marks a massive departure from the first two. Gone is the massive board displaying the glory of Arkham, the kind of board that (along with the many, many peripheral pieces) requires a legit gaming-friendly table to play. In this game, Arkham consists of five hexagonal tiles, each representing a neighborhood. Like the neighborhoods in the other versions, each one has three locations, with encounter cards for each neighborhood split into the three locations, so this edition manages to basically maintain the number of places you can go while containing it to a much smaller area.

However, the game’s functions are largely similar to previous Fantasy Flight Cthulhu games. You take two actions per turn, performing no action no more than once; movement is limited to two spaces, though there are ways to extend that; and monsters are a roadblock unless you manage to evade them. The game moves in phases, investigators first, and if your character dies, you pick up a new one and keep going.

The main changes (besides the style of the board) are with the characters and the storytelling. Every character still has a familiar set of stats, albeit familiar from Eldritch Horror, not the slider system of old Arkham Horror. However, improvements to stats are called focus, and boosting a stat through focus doesn’t require a special event or item; you just take the focus action and raise a stat. The limitation is that almost every character has a limit on how many focus tokens they can have, and almost every character can only have one focus boost in a given stat. Still, the ease of ramping up your character is nice. Furthermore, focus tokens can be discarded for rerolls, which adds to the strategy in their use.

The storytelling is… different. It’s better, mainly, since the old game didn’t really try to tell a story at all. In this version, there are story cards that see use depending on the scenario you’re playing. The scenario card tells you which cards to start with, but from there you have to dig into the deck to find whatever the initial cards say you need, which is generally dependent on game state. Did the investigators complete their goal? Take one card. Did too many doom tokens pile up before that? Take a different card. Some goals can both happen, and eventually you’ll get the cards from both sides of that equation. Each scenario has its own set story, so if you play one through, you’ll see the same one coming next time you run it. But it adds a nice flavor to the proceedings, especially on your first run through any given scenario.

Like all FF Cthulhu games, there are a TON of cards and tokens that you need to keep track of for potential use. If you didn’t mind it before, it’s no worse; if you hated it before, it’s no better. What does suck is that there is basically nothing to help you sort or organize all those pieces. There aren’t nearly enough baggies to keep you from dumping a bunch of stuff into the box loose, which makes finding everything the next time a huge pain in the ass. It’s a relatively small problem, at least in the sense that you can fix it with a handful of your own baggies, but it’s a dumb oversight.

The game itself is a definite improvement from the old Arkham Horrors. Mind you, that’s on the most objective level possible—the storyline aspect means it’s basically impossible to wind up in the six-hour slog that a big game of old Arkham Horror could become. The game runs like other Cthulhu games in style and pace; if you enjoyed those games on a basic level before, you’ll probably like how this one palys as well.

Minimizing the space taken up while not carving off any substantial part of the game is extremely impressive. I saw back of the box and immediately questioned what kind of nonsense they were pulling, but it works, and it definitely feels like Arkham Horror. That said, the smaller physical space taken does mean that a bigger (5-6 player) game can get cramped with stuff. The same concept with bigger hexes would have also taken up much less space, but with room to place everything you need in any size game, not just 2-4 players. It’s more a quality of life issue than anything with the game itself, but unlike the baggie problem, this isn’t anything you can change.

Basically, this is an updated Arkham Horror that makes some things better and nothing worse, unless you require an epic board to have fun. If that’s a need of yours, I can’t help you.

(4.3 / 5)
Century: Eastern Wonders

Century: Eastern Wonders

The second in the Century series of games, Eastern Wonders blends with Spice Road to create a third game called From Sand to Sea. Maybe this is how they’re going to get to a hundred*.

*the author has no information suggesting they plan on getting to one hundred.

Where Century: Spice Road involved trading spice cubes with cards, Century: Eastern Wonders involves trading spice cubes with travel. The abstractness, then, decreases slightly—you’re on a boat! Rather than collect a hand of cards that lets you make trades, you place outposts on pieces of land that let you make trades (once the outpost is up, you don’t need to be on the tile to make that tile’s trade). The overall mechanics are similar, however—you place an outpost rather than take a card, make a trade where you have an outpost rather than with a card in your hand, or visiting a port with the cubes that will earn you the VP tile in that port rather than simply trade in the cubes for the VP card on the table. You also have the option to simply take two yellow cubes on a turn (harvest), in lieu of having a card that gives you that ability.

The difference in the core gameplay, if it’s not glaringly obvious, is the travel aspect. You move one space per turn, unless you earn upgrades that let you move more spaces per round. The faster you swing across the board, the faster you place outposts, especially since outposts are free if you’re the first one to place one in an area—once opponents have outposts up, it’s a little more costly, since your outpost costs one cube per outpost already on the tile. Thus, while sticking with one move per round is doable, two tiles of movement is very helpful; whether you want more depends on when you get your upgrades and, in many cases, how many players are in the game. You also can’t land on a tile with an opponent, so extra movement helps you avoid that scenario.

Upgrades are the main new feature in Eastern Wonders. You start with a board that has numerous outposts laid out in rows. Each row has a symbol replicated on some of the island tiles. If you place an outpost on a tile, you take the next outpost in line from the row matching the symbol on that tile. When you empty a column, you get an upgrade. You can choose from the aforementioned extra movement, extra cargo space, gain red cubes when you harvest, upgrade a cube when building an outpost, or take flat points for the end of the game. This, obviously, incentivizes spreading your outposts across certain spaces. However, the farther along a row you go, the more points each of those outposts are worth at the end of the game, so you’re doing fine as long as you throw down outposts wherever you can for free, and anywhere else that it’s worth the associated cost (keep some yellows handy).

Other than that, it’s still seventy percent recognizable as Spice Road. There’s not so much going on that you need to have played Spice Road to understand Eastern Wonders, but it definitely helps if you have that background knowledge so you only have to add the parts about the ships and the outposts. It’s probably better as a game in an objective sense; it’s just as solid, just as coherently designed, but there’s more going on, more options, and the lack of a hand of cards you need to reshuffle every so often smooths out the gameplay.

The option to sit in a space (like a port) and force an opponent to pay you a cube if they want to land there seems silly, but I got screwed over by it, so I’m definitely biased. Game’s still good.

(4.2 / 5)

Between Two Castles of Mad King Ludwig

Between Two Castles of Mad King Ludwig

How many fking castles does this guy need?

 

Between Two Castles is, as the name does not make any effort to hide, a mash-up of Between Two Cities and the Mad King Ludwig franchise. The core gameplay comes from Between Two Cities—there are two rounds, and at the start of each round, each player takes a stack of tiles. Draft two tiles, pass to the left, draft two tiles, pass to the left, until only one tile remains, which is discarded. You’re building a castle with each of the people adjacent to you, and your score is the lowest of the two castles you help build, which means you can’t let one of them suck.

 

The Mad King aspect is how all the tiles go together. There’s no spatial aspect like the original Castles of Mad King Ludwig; instead, you have several types of square tiles which can be placed around the core of your castle, the throne room. Like Castles, each tile has a type, and most tiles have a way to score points that relates to other tiles in the game. The most common adjacency rules are to score for tiles in the eight spaces around a given tile, or for all tiles above a tile, below it, or both. These can relate to the room type itself (utility room, outdoors area, etc), or the second icon on these tiles (swords, a mirror, and so on).

 

Another similarity to Castles is that you have much more freedom to build your castle however you want. Most rooms have to be built at the ground floor (the level of the throne room) or above, but there are downstairs rooms that can go below. Tiles have to be placed adjacent to other ones. The castle can go as high as you want, but all rooms must be supported by actual room tiles beneath them (you can’t place a tile above an outdoor area). Alternately, you can go as wide as you want—whatever works for your grand architectural plan.

 

Also like Castles, you get bonuses for fulfilling certain basic requirements. In this case, if you place three of a tile type, you get an associated bonus, and if you place five of one type, you get a specialty room tile that can add substantially to your final score. It takes some getting used to the bonuses; none of them are hard to understand individually, but understanding them well enough to grab them quickly in the flow of the game can be hard.

 

And if there’s a flaw in this game, the bonuses are it. Between Two Cities is a fantastic game. Castles of Mad King Ludwig is a game I don’t like playing, but which I can’t deny is well-designed—I’m just crap at spatial awareness. Putting together a castle in the Ludwig vein, according to BTC rules, is quite fun on a basic level. But the draft mechanic works best when everybody sorts through the available tiles, picks two, then everyone plays their tiles together and moves on to the next decision. When people get bonuses, new players will often overlook them because they want to move on to building more castle pieces; once everyone’s used to grabbing their bonuses, then the game either slows a bit while decisions are made (some of the bonuses require players choose from tiles or bonus cards), or some people move on with their next decision and are left to wait while the bonus earners catch up.

 

I didn’t have a chance to play this with a group who was experienced enough to blow through the bonus-grabbing process, so it’s theoretically possible the game plays very well once everyone is on point. Thing is, BTC is a fairly casual game, and it’s unlikely this game (especially with a bigger group) is only going to have experienced players in it. The rhythm of Between Two Cities that this idea relies on gets thrown off by the Mad King Ludwig aspects. Thus, while the idea is sound and the baseline game is pretty good, it winds up being about 90% as good as what you’d hope to get when putting two games of this quality together.

 

Still, when you’re working at this level, 90% is solid. If you liked both of the component games, you’ll probably like this. If you liked one and didn’t play the other, it’s worth trying. If… look, just play the game if you get the chance.

 

(4.1 / 5)

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