Lost Cities

Lost Cities

I don’t know why I always assume games with the ‘South American explorer’ vibe revolve around Mayans. The Incas were pretty legit.

Screw the Aztecs, though. Stupid Eagle Warriors.

Wait, which game are we playing?

Lost Cities is a Reiner Knizia game, which is good! Reiner makes good games! So Lost Cities is… it must be…

Ok, look. This is a 2008 reprint of a 1999 game. Less was expected of the industry back then. It’s useful to go back and look at games like this so we see where our hobby came from while also looking towards where it’s going.

So.

In Lost Cities, you have five explorers and five tracks for them to go down. Each track has a randomized set of bonuses on certain spaces, and are worth a certain number of points at the end of the round depending on how far your explorer moves. There’s also a huge deck of cards, with cards numbered zero through ten and corresponding to the color of one of the tracks. If you want to put an explorer on a track, you play a card of that color. Easy.

However, if you want to move the explorer further along, you have to play a card of the same value or higher. Therefore, in order to move the explorer a decent distance (hopefully all the way to the end), you need to start with low value cards and work your way up as slowly as you can. You can discard a card and draw a new one rather than play a trash card; however, you can’t take too long, because as soon as a certain number of total explorers reach the break line on their tracks, the round ends, and explorers who haven’t moved very far are actually worth negative points.

The points get kind of stratospheric, which is neat—many games don’t go above fifty, and most don’t go above one hundred. If you’re not getting triple digits in a single Lost Cities round, that wasn’t a very good round.

But there’s not much strategy here. As the round draws nearer to a close, you may need to decide whether it’s worth the risk to start an explorer down a new trail when they could be worth negative points. It can be a consequential choice, but it’s about the only intellectual decision you’ll need to make. If you can go down a track and you have a low card, you play the card and go down the track. If you can hit bonuses that give you extra moves, you link them together as best you can. Maybe you play a 2 on one track rather than a 0 on another because you like the bonuses on that first track more, but you still have the 0 and you’ll still play it pretty soon.

I imagine that people looking for games that weren’t Twilight Imperium-sized but more friendly than Monopoly and less mindless than Chutes & Ladders were probably happy with this in 1999. Today, it’s quite possibly a good tool for teaching game basics to kids. Beyond that, it’s just a casual game that can kill an hour. Don’t avoid it like the plague, but it’s not much more than a thrift store purchase.

(3 / 5)
Tea Dragon Society

Tea Dragon Society

For some time, Renegade Games has been held up as an example of a company that consistently puts out quality products. I’m starting to wonder if it’s more a matter of them very consistently putting out products, and some of them are quality.

 

The art on the box is exactly like the art in the game: flipping adorable. If you want a game you can hug because it’s so KAWAII, this is definitely your thing.

 

For everyone else, it’s Fisher-Price: My First Deckbuilder. Everyone gets a character and a starter deck (differences are aesthetic only). You don’t have a hand of cards; all cards are face up in your ‘hold’. However, you draw cards and add them to your hold, which is functionally the same as adding them to your hand in a more normal card game. It’s like the entire point is to keep the information open so you can teach kids how to play, as if you couldn’t figure out playing with hands on the table if the kid’s problem was struggling with what to do without advice.

 

Cards can have up to four parts to them. Growth is effectively mana, the resource you use to buy cards. You can find growth in the upper left (that’s what she said…?). The cost of a card is in the upper right. If there’s an effect, that’s in the lower middle. Points are at the bottom/middle. And some icons are also in the bottom middle, while others are on the pictures, which is confusing but not a huge deal.

 

Your entire turn is drawing a card and, if you want to, buying a card. This at least has the effect of keeping the game moving. Your hand is sitting in front of you (that’s probably what she said), and you don’t throw it out every turn, so you already know how much growth you’re working with (she definitely said that) minus the card you draw next. The market and memory cards are all sitting there for you to peruse, so you’re considering your next play on other people’s turns, which don’t take long, and the game stays fairly active.

 

Market cards get added to your deck by using sufficient growth (do you think she said that? I do) and putting it in your discard pile. Memory cards also get added to your deck, but tend to be worth more points, have different effects, and are related to specific seasons—the game is played in four rounds, representing the seasons, and once one memory card is left you move on to the next season. When one memory card remains in winter, the game’s over. Count up your points.

 

It’s… fine. There’s not much here for adults to enjoy in terms of rich strategy. Anyone who comprehends deck builders will talk more about how cute the artwork is than the game. Bump it up in priority if you have kids in the mid-single digits to whom you’d like to teach very basic game ideas. Other than that, this isn’t going to entertain most people for too many playthroughs.

 

(3.1 / 5)

Bloodborne: The Card Game

Bloodborne: The Card Game

From Software is known for basically one thing: the Dark Souls phenomenon. In addition to the three Dark Souls games, this includes Bloodborne, a faster-paced affair still predicated on knowledge of enemy patterns, a high degree of skill, and grinding out some levels and items if your skill isn’t quite there.

The Dark Souls board game, for better or worse, stayed fairly true to these ideas, especially grinding through the same level to get stronger if you ran into a roadblock. Does Bloodborne in card form manage the same feat?

The Bloodborne card game looks like a psuedo-coop affair, where players work together to defeat monsters but try to end up with more blood echoes than their fellow hunters by the end of the game. ‘Pseudo-coop’, however, is overstating the cooperative nature. In reality, the monsters are something of a filter through which you fight each other. Non-boss monsters are either killed in one round or run away; boss monsters, including the final boss, stay and accumulate wounds until they die. If you damage a monster during the round in which it dies, you earn blood echoes and trophies in accordance with what’s printed on the card. Trophies lead to bonus blood echoes at the end of the game. If you can work it so you help kill a monster and someone else doesn’t, you gain an advantage over them.

Bloodborne is a hand-building game—you don’t have a deck you draw from, you just hold all your cards in your hand and discard them after use. One of those cards is the Hunter’s Dream; when you play it, you take half damage for the round, stash all your blood echoes, collect your discards, and choose an item from the three on display. Usually you go to the dream when you’re concerned about dying, because death makes you lose all your unstashed blood echoes, but it can also be beneficial to go when a strong item is available, especially if your absence will make it difficult or impossible for the other hunters to kill the current enemy.

Battling the monsters is pretty straightforward. Every card has an amount of damage that it does, an ability, or both. If the damage done amongst all hunters is enough to kill the monster, it dies. Of course, some items screw with other hunters if they use a certain type of weapon (ranged or melee), does damage to all other hunters or all hunters including yourself, or otherwise goofs with the math everyone is doing to figure out if they’ll survive the fight. After all, the monster swings first, and you only have eight health at most; you need to not just survive, but survive with enough health to make it back to the Dream on a following turn, unless you have a way to not lose your blood echoes if you die.

And this is where the game starts to collapse. Bloodborne is predicated on walking the line between life and death and being good enough not to cross over, or at least not too often. Damage is done via dice rolls, which is the polar opposite of this.

Now, a bit of unpredictability is ok. Calculating the odds may not be exactly how the video game works, but it’s a skill. How safely can I play this without letting my opponents back into the game? How poor are my odds if I make this risky play? Do I have to take that risk anyway because I can’t win if I don’t?

Bloodborne, however, amplifies this by putting faces on the dice with plus symbols. If you roll one of these faces, it does that much damage and you roll again. If a die has two faces with plus symbols, you have a one in three chance on any roll that you’ll roll again. One in nine times, you’ll roll three damage dice. That’s potentially once per game, depending on the dice of the monsters in the deck.

In addition, each die has a zero. So if you roll a red die for a monster, you have a one in six chance of it doing no damage, and a one in nine chance of it doing almost certainly half your life in damage. Yellows are slightly less bad in terms of top end damage, but you can still take a major hit, or no hit at all. But you have no way to plan for the damage any given monster will do. That’s part of what Bloodborne is about, knowing your margin for error and using it to the greatest possible extent. This game gives you none. It’s very unlikely you’ll take eight damage in a round, but that doesn’t really matter; if you get knocked down to two from full or high health, the next round you could easily die while trying to get into the dream. And taking four to six damage is liable to happen at some point, so you either play ultra safe or get lucky, neither of which are satisfying methods of play.

There’s an expansion out called The Hunter’s Nightmare. It adds many more monsters and end bosses, which are fine. You get two special abilities at the start of the game and choose one to keep; these are pretty fun. And it adds death tokens, so when you die your maximum number of each trophy type gets capped lower and lower depending on what killed you. I’m sure there are maniacs who think the game is too easy, but it’s neither too easy nor too hard—you might play better than your opponents, but how much you die is highly luck dependent, so being punished for death is the worst idea possible. You can leave it out, but holy hell, what was this guy thinking?

Maybe with a more lighthearted, screw-your-neighbor theme, this game would have come off better. As Bloodborne… it doesn’t give the sense of being Bloodborne at all.

Score: Two out of four umbilical cords.

Honshu

Honshu

How much nonsense we could do away with if it was possible to just lay better nonsense over the top of it…

Honshu is an trick-taking card game about building… let’s call it a community. There are buildings you want to put together to form a city, but you also need to pay attention to how much forest you have popping up, the size of your lakes, and how well your factory capacity matches the resources you gather during the game. Everything counts for points at the end except the deserts, because deserts are literal wastes. They’re a tiebreaker because the more desert you manage to deal with in your community, the better you’ve apparently done.

Everyone starts with one map card. Each starting card has a different layout and is double-sided to increase the number of starting possibilities (starting map cards always have a resource space). Players are then dealt six regular map cards; these are numbered one through sixty. Players then put down a map card and may also place a resource on the card to increase its value by sixty, guaranteeing that anyone who uses a resource will wind up ahead of someone who doesn’t. After that, a new player order is determined by the bids, and in that order players choose map cards from the ones offered for that turn. Having the first choice as often as possible is best, but as with any trick-taking game, knowing when to dump your garbage cards can be just as important.

Placing map cards must be done by connecting them to at least one of the cards already in front of you. This means placing it on top of current cards so that one or more of their spaces are covered, or sliding it beneath current cards so that one or more of the new card’s spaces are covered. Players run their hands down to zero cards, then are dealt six more, with the process repeating so that the game ends after twelve rounds. (In a five player game, this means all cards will be used, and tracking what’s left becomes a valuable skill.) At the end, points are added for contiguous city spaces, contiguous lake spaces, number of forests, and number of factories which you can supply with the appropriate resource. A substantial balance point in the game is deciding when resources are more valuable as a method to jump ahead in turn order and when you need to save them for the end of the game.

Once you see the mechanics in action, Honshu is a very easy game to learn, and very replayable as long as the basic gameplay appeals to you. Every community gets built differently, and every game requires learning how what you have available can offer advantages in whatever situation you find yourself facing. It’s a clever little game about which I have very little clever to say—it’s short, coherent, and simply good.

Score: Seven. Play it and decide what the seven is out of.

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