Gizmos

Gizmos

Whirlygigs? Don’t tell me…

I said don’t tell ffffFFFUUUUUUUUUUUU

Gizmos is a two to four player, engine building game about… building engines, really. You start with a board listing the types of cards and one starting card that lets you draw an energy sphere blindly out of the thingamajig they all go in. From there you can file away cards from the board (only one, unless upgrades improve this capacity) or build cards that give you more and better abilities if you take the action associated with them on your turn. Those abilities are File, Pick, Build, or Research.

File and Build are obvious; Pick is choosing one of the energy spheres in the thingamajig chute; and Research is drawing cards equal to your research level from one deck, choosing one, then either filing it or building it right away. What’s important about these, especially as the game goes on, is not so much the abilities but the chance to trigger all the gizmo cards underneath the ability you used that turn. The right engine with the right energy can take two black and build them into a card that takes four yellow to make, all on one turn.

The balancing point is that the game ends when someone has sixteen cards in their play area. Is it better to balance your cards in each category, so you get a decent benefit no matter what ability you use? Or should you pile them in one or two abilities and find a way to lean heavily on those all game? This depends on what’s available, especially at the start, and understanding how to build an efficient engine early. Whatever that engine can build, you run with to the greatest extent possible, and hopefully that’s enough to carry the game.

What all of that means, to the engine-building veterans out there, is that the game becomes substantially easier once you know what’s available or likely to be available for you to build. Watching a bunch of people try to figure out what they’re looking at and how it fits together on the fly is almost painful next to that one person who knows exactly what cards they’re looking for and how to best fit everything together. The game is fine when everyone knows what they’re doing or no one knows what they’re doing, but a mixed group is going to create a pretty imbalanced experience.

One thing I still haven’t figured out is the reason for building the thingamajig for the energy spheres. Did they see Potion Explosion and decide it was a fun concept to swipe? There isn’t much reason to limit the energy that can be taken with the Pick action. It’s not uncommon for it to be loaded up with two colors. Although it doesn’t happen often, someone’s engine can get throttled by not having access to the energy colors they need. Did it need this element of randomness to keep the game from playing the same way all the time? Gizmos is pretty good, it doesn’t seem like it should need that. It mostly seems like they felt the need to put something “cool” in the box.

Short version: If you like engine building games and you’re willing to play a couple of rounds to learn what’s available, you’ll have a good time with Gizmos. You might even like the thingamajig more than I do.

(4.1 / 5)
Railroad Ink

Railroad Ink

Choo choo, goes the train. Vroom vroom, goes the car. Rattle rattle, go the dice. Squeak squeak, goes the dry-erase marker. Mailing in the opener, goes the review writer.

That box looks pretty big, but Railroad Ink is a tiny little thing from Horrible Games that is weirdly entertaining if your brain functions like mine. I don’t wish that on anyone, but still, there’s an audience for this.

Each player gets a 7×7 dry erase grid to draw on. The even numbered squares (2, 4, 6) along all four sides have either a highway or a railroad track on their edges. There are four dice rolled each round (seven rounds total) that have highway and/or railroad tracks on them; players all use the same rolls each round, and new roads and tracks being drawn either need to come in from a matching type on the edge or connect to something already on the grid. Each of the tracks coming in also counts as an exit point; your goal is to connect as many of the exit points together as possible, preferably with one set of tracks and roads, no matter how convoluted it may look at the end.

Game boards unfold into the dry erase surface and a small guard that protects some of your drawing surface (it doesn’t need to protect everything; the only useful information would be if opponents could see your whole map clearly) and shows both the possible dice rolls and special tiles you can use once per game. There are six specials in all, of which you can use three total. These are especially important because they’re the only reliable source of stations—black squares that serve as the only way to connect highways and railroad tracks.

There’s no interplay between players, unless you want to talk shit or draw on each other. All you’re trying to do is score the most points via connecting the most exists, having the longest contiguous set of highway and rail lines, and using as many center squares as possible, while having the fewest dangling roads and rails on your grid. It’s basically competitive solitaire, which allows it to function as a single player game, where your goal is to simply do better than you did last time. A common complaint with games is when players don’t get to affect what happens to each other, and if you’re a person who feels that way, this is not going to be for you.

But, if you’re fascinated by games where everyone gets the exact same resources, has to do the best job they can with them, and victory is decided by who plans the best (and gets a little lucky if they take a chance on certain dice rolls hitting), this is a great little game. Once again, the core theme of these reviews comes into play: whether you like it or not, Railroad Ink is doing exactly what it’s trying to do.

(4.5 / 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)

Dice Forge

Dice Forge

Sadly, the world’s cleverest board doesn’t come with the world’s cleverest board game.

Dice Forge is a game more literally about forging dice than you might think is possible. At its core, though, is a resource management game. Rolling dice and taking spots on the board earn you gold, sun shards (red), moon shards (blue), and of course the ever-important victory points. Spend some shards and you can get cards that help you towards victory. Collect some points and you get points. Spend some gold…

And this is where a game of resource management tries to do better than just making you collect different, more, or better cards/dice/cubes/insert abstract resource symbol here. Spending gold improves your dice. Not gets you better dice, but literally improves your dice. In much the same way that you improve your cards in Mystic Vale rather than add to your deck, you pull faces off your dice and replace them with better faces. It’s viscerally fun, there are strategic choices with what you need better odds of rolling, and the game stays relatively casual—all you can do in a dice-based game is maximize your odds of winning, not shut out your opponents completely.

Plus, the way they set the board up is fantastic. There are a bunch of fiddly bits that have to sit in the board, and setting them up initially is kind of a pain in the backside. But rather than make you dump them all out after the game and put the pieces in baggies, there’s a sleeve for all the board pieces to go in that keeps them locked down tightly, making sure the fiddly pieces stay in place. You only ever have to replace the parts you use in a given game. It’s brilliant, and it’s something other games should emulate if possible.

And… yeah. That’s Dice Forge.

Short review, right? Here’s the thing: Dice Forge is a good game. It has clever bits, it has functional bits. It has a more complex design than you’d expect from the cartoonish aesthetic, but board game veterans shouldn’t have a problem figuring it out. New players may get a little hung up on some of the rules, but by the end of their first game they should understand how it plays.

But these days, in what has been an extended golden era for board games, good is the expectation. Good is normal. Good is the average. Understandable game? Check. Nice art? Check. Unique selling point? Check. An experience that creates makes you anticipate the next time you’ll get to play? Not so much. Play, enjoy, play again, enjoy. This is a game that will win many fans but relatively few true admirers. It’s a shame, but it’s the truth.

(3.8 / 5)

Key Forge

Key Forge


Keyforge is hailed as a game where “every deck is as unique as the person who wields it”.

To that I say… have you met people?

Keyforge comes straight from the mind of Richard Garfield, creator of Magic, and Fantasy Flight Games, publishers of card games that aren’t really like Keyforge at all. The premise is simple: most competitive card games have an effective entry cost, where you can’t expect to do much at even small tournaments unless you spend a certain amount of money building your deck. Keyforge attempts to do away with that scheme, selling full-fledged decks for $10 a pop and—most importantly—making them unalterable. The deck you buy is the deck you play with. Every deck is procedurally generated by a system that’s supposed to make them relatively balanced against each other, maximizing player agency and minimizing cost in the competitive scene.

Let’s cut to the main question: Does it work? Did they succeed?

The answer: Yes…?

Better answer: It mostly seems like it, though we’re early in the game’s run and that could change for better or worse.

By and large, as far as I can tell, not many decks stomp hard or get stomped hard. Given the breadth of the card pool, it makes sense. The number of potential deck combinations is bonkers, and mathematically only a tiny percentage of decks will roll over everyone (except similarly powerful decks) without the player needing to be better than her opponent. Likewise, rare is the deck that’s hopelessly outmatched by almost everybody. There will be small advantages for some decks over others, but it seems that you’re as likely to find those advantages because one deck matches up well against another as you are because one is simply stronger.

More importantly, to the designers’ credit, they’re implementing methods of curtailing the power of those oddly mighty decks on the competitive scene. First is the deck-switch method. Players play each other, then switch decks and play again. If the match is tied, if they each would prefer to play the same deck for a tiebreaker, they bid chains for the right to use it. This is a very useful way of keeping competition balanced, but may suffer from game length (more on that later).

Another method uses the game’s chain system. Normally, the chain system is similar to the overload mechanic in Hearthstone—play a card that’s very strong, but suffer consequences on later turns, in the form of reduced card draw. Competitively, however, chains are also used to handicap decks that overwhelm all the others.

On a small-time level, if a deck wins a local competition (going 3-0, for example), that deck is tracked and given a chain for its next competition. If it wins again, it gets another chain, because it’s clearly too strong for the available competition. If it doesn’t, the chain goes away, because maybe it’s only slightly stronger.

At larger competitions—and this is through the grapevine, nothing solid is written and posted—decks that keep winning will have chains added during the tournament. At a glance, this may seem unfair, like success is being punished. However, if a serious, large-scale competition didn’t have this in play, one of two things one happen. First, the slim percentage of powerful decks would run everyone else over, making serious competition feel like it requires either a lucky draw or buying the deck from whoever has it, killing the entire goal of making Keyforge a minimally pay-to-win game. Alternately, if decks were tracked and chained going into the tournament, it would incentivize players to never take place in trackable events and instead test decks on their own, which would hurt community events and participation.

In the long run, Keyforge’s viability will depend on the competitive scene’s foundations, which makes these questions of paramount importance. Let’s set that aside, now, and briefly talk about the game itself.

The system of play, where you choose one of your three houses and are free to play or use any cards from that house on that turn—but you can only use cards of that house, barring some special effect—will offer a welcome sense of freedom for some and a weird sense of limitation for others. Players who are comfortable using and manipulating outside energy sources in CCGs (mana in Magic, mana crystals in Hearthstone, wind stones in Force of Will, etc.) may find it awkward figuring out how to play efficiently with this system. The simplicity will be a major draw to some, though, and given time most players who are used to maximizing efficiency will adapt to Keyforge’s mechanics.

The games tend to run longer than other games, though. Things speed up once you’re comfortable with the game, but the mechanics combined with the fact you’re less likely to be familiar with what your opponent is playing compared to a Magic tournament (where the same relatively small subset of cards keeps showing up) slows down the proceedings. A best-of-three finishing in fifty or sixty minutes is less likely than in other CCGs, which is unfortunate since the aforementioned best-of-three style has the best odds of creating a strong competitive format. The game is young, though, so game speed may increase more and more with time, rendering this issue moot.

Finally—and this isn’t about the function of the game itself, but man, did it irritate the hell out of me—Keyforge is advertised as a game that doesn’t require anything besides a $10 deck to play and compete. Technically, that’s true. However, where cards on the battlefield in Magic have two states—tapped or untapped—that’s not the case in Keyforge. Tokens are necessary for a number of things, including stuns on creatures (stuns can add up, so keeping it tapped isn’t enough), embers (I’m not calling them ‘aembers’, bite me Garfield), and keys. You need something to represent these things. Unless you buy the starter set, the game doesn’t provide any of them. You can use whatever you want, be it coins, dice, whatever, but that still requires having those things available. Someone new to the game isn’t going to know that and is unlikely to be appropriately prepared, making the whole “buy a deck and play” not exactly how it works.

All that being said, if the biggest complaint I have is about peripherals, the game can’t be that bad. The biggest concern about Keyforge as a gaming experience is if long games (30+ min.) are the norm or outliers. In addition to the previously mentioned issues, because Keyforge is a game where the deck cycles its discard pile, you see the same cards again and again, which can become tiresome when the game just won’t end. But if the game matures and game times shorten to twenty minutes or so, I think that problem will be largely alleviated. Then it’s just a matter of whether or not they can sort out the competitive scene.

Short version, Keyforge needs work in some spots, but it’s better than I expected.

(4.2 / 5)
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