Category Archives: Board Games

The Elements of a Worthwhile Board Game Expansion

With the recent, and exciting, news that the famous “Betrayal at House on the Hill” board game is finally getting an expansion, I thought now was a great time to talk about why we board game enthusiasts buy expansions. Expansions are like the DLC in the board game world as they can enhance the original board game and create new and exciting ways to play the game. And like DLC, there can be multiple expansions for the same game (Dixit or Pandemic, anyone?). As such, for all these expansions, what should you look for? Which expansion do you buy and the which one do you leave on the store shelf?

For me, it boils down to two things

  1. The expansion adds more players to the game
  2. The expansion enhances the original board game experience by balancing and diversifying it

The first point is the easiest to understand of the two. When you have a board game that only goes up to four or five players and you have five or six friends over, you can’t use that game! Simple as that (unless you double up). But an expansion throws that out the window and gives you the opportunity to add those players in. The Settler of Catan 5-6 player expansion is a great example of this. By simply adding new tiles and player tokens, the game can now incorporate more people with the sacrifice of a longer game. In all honesty, if I get an expansion, this is my primary reason.

My second point, though, is bit more subjective (your mileage may vary so to speak). Diversifying a board game can add a fresh, new take on a game you’ve played many times. The expansion adds a new element of fun into a now stale system and this is where most board game expansions fall into. To name a few off the top of my head, Night of Werewolf adds new villagers and wolves, Dixit adds new cards, Powergrid adds new maps, and Ticket to Ride adds a freaking Alien and Dinosaur! All of these expansions change up the formula, change up the gameplay, and most importantly, add a new level of fun to your favorite board games!

Along with the diversifying aspect, the gameplay developers will usually try to add balancing aspects as well. Do they work? Well, I would like to say yes but given the extreme diversity of board games and players out there, it’s really hard to say. So to cherry pick from one example, Evolution’s expansion, Flight, does an amazing job balancing a gameplay that can be, at certain times, broken (though to be fair, the 2nd edition of Evolution really cleans up the first game). The Flight expansion allows your animals to evolve flying traits that can counter defensive traits like “climbing” nicely. What’s more, the added capabilities of flight are not overpowered and also have its limits as well. Great expansion, btw.

But I think the best expansions out there are the ones that combine both of these qualifying traits of additional players and diversified gameplay. There are some legitimately good expansions out there that fall under this category. My two favorites are probably the Cosmic Encounter and Pandemic expansions. Cosmic Encounter has possibly the best expansions ever as they add 25 new aliens to an already astonishing diversity of species and they add an additional home system. What’s more, given Cosmic Encounter’s highly encouraged cooperation system, everyone has a chance to get planets even though the game takes longer to make one complete round. Meanwhile, the Pandemic expansion “On the Brink”, not only adds additional gameplay, such as mutant strain, but the additional player serves as a bioterrorist. This bioterrorist brings up the number of players to six and acts as the antagonist to the other five players. This expansion is amazing as you can do so much with it. Pandemic can now be even more challenging, more frustrating, and more fun to boot!

As for Betrayal at House on the Hill?

Well, unfortunately, it doesn’t look like we’ll be getting additional players but I’m really looking forward to the new rooms, haunts, and monsters! I think though if they want to push it to a new level they should incorporate the adventurers’ traits into certain items, rooms, or events. Think about it, Brandon Jaspers likes bugs, well, there should be an event where if a whole bunch of bugs swarm all over you, everyone loses a sanity point unless you’re Brandon Jaspers. It’s funny to me how the personality traits and birthdays are so underutilized by the game itself. I think the creators of Betrayal should really tap into that for the next expansion.

What are your favorite expansions? Let me know!

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Camel Up for Camel Cup!

I think if there was a board game that got the award for player versatility, it would likely be Camel (C)up.

Camel Cup is a board game where you bet on camel racing and that’s pretty much it! Five camels race each other on a racetrack board and the game ends when the first camel crosses the finish line. The race is divided up into “legs” where each leg is the time allotted for each camel to move (each colored camel has their own colored die that is rolled once per leg). You can bet on the overall winner and loser of the race and the winner of each leg. The game awards you with money if you bid correctly and takes away your money if you bid incorrectly.  Also, you can also add “desert” and “oasis” tiles on the board that can advance or retreat camels if they land on them.

Also, the camels stack on each other if they’re on the same space creating humorous results. Hence, why some people argue for “Camel Up.” Image from http://www.lautapelit.fi/Camel_Cup_FIN_SWE_DEN_NOR

I sincerely like this game which is bizarre considering there is a high chance, low skill ratio involved here. Many, traditional, board games, like Monopoly, rely on chance to progress the game which downplays its skill aspect. In such games, where is the fun in winning or losing when you can easily lose thanks to a bad dice roll? That is why many modern board games try to strike a healthy balance between chance and skill to make for an enjoyable experience. Camel Cup though is a crucial exception to this rule as chance is part of its theme! After all, you are betting on camels to win in a race.

But chance is the name of the game here and players have to take into account a high-risk/high reward payoff versus a low-risk/low reward scenario. Camel Cup harkens back to traditional gambling games and hones in at that crucial point of risk taking. In poker, do you dare call your opponent’s possibly bluffing hand? Or in blackjack, will you signal the dealer for a “hit” and hope you hit 21? These kinds of risks are what make those games, and Camel Cup, fun to play. This is epitomized when everyone waits apprehensively for the last die roll and when that number comes up, cheers or groans erupt the room as the winners cash in big and the losers pay up.

Camel Cup also benefits from its great game design. For instance, each player takes on the role of a betting character and their cartoon designs are a delight (I always choose the manic-looking blonde). Then you have the board itself which imposes well as a desert scenario. Players can also grow fondly of the camel tokens as they back their favorites and try to shut down camels that threaten their favorite’s winning chances. Most importantly though, the constructed pyramid at the center of the board is perhaps one of the most creative, if sometimes frustrating, hardware designs I have seen in a long time. The pyramid holds the five dice and is able to roll each dice one at a time. Although effective at rolling a random die, the pyramid itself can be awkward as sometimes a die won’t roll out while other times the structure-holding rubber band breaks on the third use. Nonetheless, it is an impressive piece as it adds a strong, three-dimensional structure to Camel Cup as other board games are usually very flat in design.

But most importantly, I think, one of the best reasons to own Camel Cup is its appeal to any group of people. I have exposed this game to many players and most of the time I have received positive feedback on it. Hard core or casual, family or adult, if you find people who are willing to learn the rules (which although dense, it is easy to pick up), you will have a fun and exciting game on your hands as players gamble their way to victory. The short length makes it a fun “breather” game that allows multiple playthroughs in one sitting. Also, the game goes up to eight players which is AMAZING as so few games of this caliper rarely go pass five (and the game doesn’t suffer from the added players either). So! In the end…

Buy it? Buy this game if you want a light, fun, and nail-biting game. This is also a fun casual game that plays well into larger-than-normal board game crowds.

Leave it? Skip this game if you want something a bit more skill heavy. Camel Cup is about chance and wooing Lady Luck.

My recommendation? Buy it! You won’t regret it!

But seriously, I have no idea if it’s Camel Up or Camel Cup.

Let’s get Creative with Dixit!

I got two board games for Christmas; the first was Camel Up and the second one was Dixit. Of these two board games, I think my friends like Dixit more and it’s easy to see why! The game is simple but it promotes a massive amount of creativity. The rules are like a combination of Apples and Apples and Balderdash with a fantasy twist to them. Basically, each player (3-6 usually) gets six cards with very strange, surreal drawings on them. The “active” player picks a card and says a clue that represents his/her card. This clue can be anything from a phrase, a poem, song, word, or, my favorite, sound effects! You lay down that card and all of the other players pick a card from their hand that best matches that description. Once the cards are in, the active player shuffles them and lays them down for all to see.

Now. This is where Dixit’s true unorthodox nature comes through and what makes it stand out. If at least one player, but not all, correctly guess which card is the “active” card, both the active player and the other player(s) get points. But if none or all of the players correctly guess the active player’s card, then the active player gets no points. The beauty of this game comes from your clue. Your clue should not be too obvious or too obscure, you have to find that healthy balance between the two. And that is where the real fun of the game comes in. What clue will you think up of when you see an armored rabbit looking at three doors, or a self-mutilating plant, or planets arranged on a galaxy-size abacus? “The unknown?” “Depression?” “John Lennon?” The possibilities are almost endless.

Image from kazoodletoys.com

Unfortunately, this can also be a drawback for new players as I found it hard initially to get in the swing of things. Mine and other player clues were either too vague or too easy for our opponents so we didn’t score a lot early on. There is definitely a certain mindset you should have when approaching this game similar to how you would tackle Scrabble, Boggle, or Balderdash. But once you find that train of thought you ride it forward towards the Land of Enjoyment!

The other major drawback of the game is the number of playable cards. Although 84 cards is an amazing number, there definitely should be more cards to help satisfy the intense variety of illustrations. Some cards are just so specific that it can be easy to identify them no matter what clue the active player gave. Luckily, there are several expansions to this game that adds more cards to the already large set. Each expansion, from what I can tell, adds 84 more cards making the expansion set well worth it. What’s more, Dixit is one of the few board games that’s organized to handle more expansions in its box which is AMAZING. So many games don’t do this and it’s a bit of a pain to carry two boxes of the same game around. Dixit cuts the BS out and gives you a great box that can easily handle several expansions.

Buy it? Buy this game if you want something light that is easy to learn and not competitive. This game is fun for those who have a creative flair (plus a beer or two helps makes the clues all the more crazy!)

Leave it? Leave the game if you want a strategic game; this is not one of those games. Also, if you don’t like Balderdash or Once Upon a Time, then this is a game you should skip.

So in the end, Dixit is a great, fun little game that should be played for fun, low key parties, family, or as a break between longer, more intense board games.

Evolution Flight Expansion and an Extinction Expansion Idea

As a paleontologist, I love the crap out of the board game Evolution.  Designed by a Russian biologist, you win Evolution by having the most successful (i.e., most populated) made-up species.  You can have more than one species who can even cooperate with each other to help you win the game.

A simple concept but it’s the animal’s traits that really seal the deal for the game.  Giving your animal “Horns” or “Hard Shell” can help deter would-be predators.  Giving your animal “Long Neck” or “Scavenger” can help them survive tough rounds when food supply is low.  Giving your predator “Pack Hunting” or “Ambush” can give your animal an edge over the harder-to-kill prey.  You can add or change new traits as you progress through the game providing you the ability to adapt to your opponents’ strategies.

This is a fun game to play and I know I’m not the only one who enjoys it.  Many of my friends who have played this game once or twice are immediately hooked by its simple but endearing concept.

But unfortunately, there are a few problems with it that I feel need to be addressed.

Let me start with a problem that occurs depending on who you play with.  At the beginning of each round you add food tokens to the Watering Hole and these food tokens are what your species eat.  If there are not enough food tokens for all the species, your animal can starve and potentially go extinct.   This is determined by the cards you add to the watering hold which can range from negative to positive numbers.  The problem is that many of my friends throw in positive numbers in fear of the watering hole running out of food tokens.  As such, the starvation aspect of the game is downplayed so much that it can cause the game to be imbalanced towards already highly successful species.

But some people want to watch the world burn and purposely throw in negative numbers making for more enjoyable and competitive games.  So this is a minor issue.

An actual issue I have is the runaway success between two traits that can be exploited easily.  In the game, if one of your species has the “Warning Call” trait, it prevents another one of your species to be attacked by your predator.  If you pair this up with the “Symbiosis” trait (a species prevents a smaller species from being eaten), then you get an unwinnable combination that is hard to stop.  Sure, you can get the “Ambush” card to negate the “Warning Call” trait but you still have to be bigger than the “Symbiosis” species in order to deal any real damage to it (not to mention the “Ambush” card is an uncommon card).

There are other traits (e.g., “Hard Shell” and “Defensive Herding” in particular) that can be exploited to various degrees but none are as effective as this winning combo.  More often than not, herbivores dominate the board game landscape even when the predators get the amazing “Pack Hunting” trait at their call.  It’s rare to have a predator that is actual top dog.

From boardgamegeek.com

If you’re a reader of my site then you know that I’m a paleontologist.  As such, as I’m playing through this board game with all my friends, I keep thinking what I can do to improve it, to refine it, and to enhance the quality of the game while embracing the awesomeness of evolution.  There are so many animal characteristics out there that can be exploited that this game hasn’t even touched like camouflage or flight.

And guess what!?!?  The creators behind Evolution are doing an expansion for Evolution called the “Flight Expansion!”  Not only have they gone back and refined the original cards, they also added so many new traits as well including flight, camouflage, keen eyesight, and more!  And oh my god the changes!

Oh. My. Arceus. Yes.  All the problems I had in the first game are now being addressed.  This kind of response to balance issues in board games is simply great.  I can’t wait to get this game.  The expansion is on Kickstarter right now.  We still got two weeks until this Kickstarter is done but don’t worry as they are already well past funding!  I was very happy I found out about the Kickstarter thanks primarily by blogger http://ohjoystick.com/

Okay, so the Flight Expansion looks promising.

But I want to indulge a bit in what I think would be a great Evolution expansion.

As I already briefly talked about, there can be a runaway effect in Evolution where one person’s species becomes so large that no other animal can take it down.  They can then just up their population count and continue to eat a lot of food prompting them to win the game.  The updated “Pack Hunting” trait can solve that issue thankfully but even still, I would like to see some change on a major scale.

Evolution has been greatly affected by extinctions from a local to a global scale.  Species survive, outcompete, or die out due to changes in their environment.  The ruling class dies and the underdogs rise up to take their place as kings.  The characters may be different and the setting may be new but the plot is still the same.

And so I say, why not have an Extinction Expansion for the Evolution Board Game?

This expansion can upset the game’s foundation to the point that people who may be succeeding during the game now find themselves in a dire situation.  Those who were struggling now have the opportunity to overtake their now weakened (or even dead) competitors.  The possibility of different extinction events affecting species with various sizes, populations and traits is amazing and I feel giddy just thinking about it.

So, how would it work?  The way I imagine it is that at the end of every round, an extinction event card is drawn to determine if an extinction has occurred.  3/4th of the time, nothing happens.  However, for that 1/4th of the time that something occurs, the players have to do what the card says.  Here are the ideas I came up with (and feel free to contribute or change anything).

Ice Age: If a species has a body size>4 or if a species has the “Fat Tissue” Trait then its population size increases by one.  Climbers go extinct (no trees).  Watering Hole’s food supply is halved.

Tar Pits: Every time a species with the “Scavengers” Trait feeds in the following round, their population size goes down by one.

Meteor Impact: Body size>4 goes extinct.  Watering Hole’s food supply is halved.

Desert World: All species’ population size goes down by two except species with the “Burrowing” Trait as their population size increase by two instead.  Watering Hole’s food supply is halved.

Plague: All species’ population size goes down by one.

Invasive Species: Species with three traits are too specialized and are outcompeted (i.e., goes extinct) by an invasive species.

Humans: If a species has a body size>4 then their population size is reduced by two. If a species has horns then its population is reduced by one.

 

Those are all of the ideas I have come up with at this time.  I know there are some more extinction ideas out there but I haven’t quite figured out how I should use them in the game.

The best part about this expansion idea is that I can make this all by myself!  Since it’s entirely separate from the board game and does not rely on any pre-existing cards, I can just make my own extinction cards and apply it here!  I have yet to test it out but I’m looking forward to it.

Regardless, this is a fun game and if you haven’t played it, you should, it’s highly entertaining, and if you have a few dollars more to spare, you should contribute to the Kickstarter as well.  Who knows, there may even be a second expansion next year (fingers crossed for Swimming Expansion)!

Chrononauts the Board Game should get an Updated Edition!

When some board games begin to show their age or are plagued with problems due to broken gameplay, unreadable rules, or untapped potential, publishers may reprint these board games in a newer edition.  For Chrononauts, it needs an update because of both reasons.

For the unfamiliar, Chrononauts is a board game, produced by Looney Labs, about time travel and alternate histories.  Ah yes, alternate histories, perhaps my favorite subject in science fiction.  What if Nazis won World War 2?  What if Lincoln wasn’t assassinated?  What if the South won the American Civil War?  There is so much potential for great and in-depth stories that can take the reader on a wild ride.

…and in some cases aliens invading Earth during World War 2 (awesome series btw)

Chrononauts is the embodiment of that alternate histories and it does so wonderfully.  Unlike other board games, the board is actually a group of cards aligned up in neat rows and columns.  You have two kinds of cards, lynch pins and ripplepoints.  Lynch pins are important events (say Lincoln gets assassinated) while ripplepoints are events that are affected by them (Andrew Johnson gets impeached).  Reversing the fate of the lynch pins (Lincoln is only wounded) affects the ripplepoints (Lincoln is now impeached instead).  Once you reverse event, the ripplepoint is a paradox that can only be cured by placing a patch on it (they’re the orange cards in the images).  One of the ways you can win the game is to get back to your own timeline as designated by your ID card.

Okay, so why does Chrononauts need an updated edition?

The drawback of a time traveling game is that it can be outdated easily.  This game came out in 2000 so many of the most recent events depicted seem unwarranted.  True, the Waco Siege and John Lennon’s assassination are important events but I wouldn’t place them as truly historical.

This was remedied in 2009 when an expansion was released called the Gore Years (lol, gotta love the name).  Anyway, as you may have guessed, the expansion adds new cards expressing the pivotal moments that happened during the 2000s decades.  Mainly, Gore winning the election instead of Bush, the events of September 11th, and the Afghanistan War.  I don’t know if it’s because these events are more recent but I like these events more so than the 1990s’ ones as they seem more important.  Plus, I just love that outcome if Gore wins the presidency then Palin wins in 2008, haha.

But there’s a problem with this.  Unlike expansions in other board games where they blend naturally with the original game, the Gore Years is simply stapled onto the original game.  Events from the 1800s or 1900s do not affect anything from the 2000s and that seems a bit odd to me…

There’s actually another version of this game called Early American Chrononauts.  This version looks fuuuuuun and I want to play with it.  It adds a lot of awesome events from the 1700s and 1800s of American history such as the Boston Tea Party, the Battle of the Alamo, and the Louisiana Purchase.  But this game is just a standalone game and does not add to the original Chrononauts game.

As such, Chrononauts would do wonders if a second edition came out for it.  This edition can have more historical events that tie all the way back from the late 1700s to the early 2000s.  These events can interweave and drastically affect each other even if they may be a century (or more) apart.  What I’m basically saying is combine the original version with the Gore Year expansion and the Early American Chrononauts to create an expansive timeline.

But wait!  There’s more!

There are two things that Chrononauts does that can be greatly expanded in the second edition.  The first thing Looney Labs can do is add more patches for the same event.  Okay, for example, the 1945 ripplepoint has three different patches.  In the original timeline, the allies with the Second World War.  BUT, one patch has the Nazis conquering Europe, one patch has the U.S. invading Japan (and doesn’t drop the atomic bomb), while the final patch is world peace (no World War 2).  The reason for these diverse events is that the ripplepoint is dependent on three lynchpins instead of the normal one or two.  As such, several events can happen for the same year.  If Looney Labs, created an edition that has more of these multiple ripplepoints for the same year, that would be really cool.

The second thing they can do is have more items that come from specific timelines.  The German Cake is the only item in the game that works as a special action.  However, this can only happen if Germany attends the World Fair with Chocolate Cake (this takes place in 1939, the real event it replaces is the German invasion of Poland).  There should be other special cards as well such as say…an open bottle of champagne celebrating the Titanic’s successful maiden voyage or the autobiography of Davy Crockett.  These items from specific timelines can make the game deeper with more possibilities to exploit.

Mmmmm racist-free caaaaaaake… Image from http://www.wunderland.com/LooneyLabs/Chrononauts/Mysteries.html

Chrononauts is already a fun, engaging, and humorous game that has the potential to be that much better.  With a few modifications, it can achieve a higher status of a more in-depth game that can balance off the chance aspect of its gameplay with strategy while still retaining its original charm.  I hope Looney Labs does come out with another updated edition to this game as that would be awesome.

Also, and on an final, unrelated note, while doing research for this article, I stumbled onto Andrew Looney’s website, the creator of the game, and his explanation of the weird historical events that happen in the game. If you ever wonder why the prevention of the Hindenburg disaster would prevent the Korean War then you should check it out!  http://wunderland.com/LooneyLabs/Chrononauts/Mysteries.html

Would You Like to Know More? 1.05 Board Games (Settlers of Catan, Pandemic, and Ticket to Ride)

 

Would You Like to Know More? Podcast episode 5.  Final episode for season 1!  Woo!  This episode we focus on the three most famous, modern board games; Settlers of Catan, Pandemic, and Ticket to Ride.  We’ll discuss each of these three board games, their expansions, our strategies, and more!  We’ll even talk about which of these three games we would recommend to new players.  Check it out!

Special guests for this episode are Kevin Tomkins, Jared Barton, and Sean Elliot.

This episode was recorded at Six Crow Studios, you can reach them at their facebook page here https://www.facebook.com/SixCrowsStudios

Thank you to all my friends for spending their time and coming onto my show!  This was definitely fun and I’m looking forward to Season 2.  We already are planning the episode ideas but recording won’t happen until January.  If you have any suggestions or ideas for us to do, I would be happy to hear what you have to say!  Until then, thanks for listening and hope to see you again!

Ticket to Ride

Our final result for our Ticket to Ride Game

Buy it or Leave it: Cosmic Encounter

Every board game should have an element of randomness so that no two rounds may be alike.  The degree of randomness employed by Cosmic Encounter is so amazing that it rivals even Betrayal at House on the Hill.

Put simply, you take the role of an alien race and set off to colonize your opponents’ planets while trying desperately to guard your own as well.  The randomness comes in from the fifty different alien species in the game.  Each species is quite unique in terms of appearance (complimented with stellar artwork), biography, and skill.  This uniqueness plays so strongly that each round is as different as the last.

The best part is how these aliens work off each other.  For more advanced aliens, a lot of strategizing comes into play as you try to outwit your opponent.  Some aliens can even counteract other aliens’ powers which makes the game that more interesting.

Unlike other board games, such as Settlers of Catan, where you can actively attempt to screw another player over, Cosmic Encounter makes it so you have no choice whatsoever who you can attack.  Destiny cards, another element of randomness in the game, are flipped over near the beginning of your turn.  These destiny cards will more often than not display a species color.  Whoever is playing that color, say blue or green, you have to attack them and them only.  This is only excused if you have an alien race that says otherwise.

Once the attacking and defending race have been established, both sides can call upon allies to help them out.  This is another fun aspect of the game.  Alliances can break and form very easily.  What your actions were in the previous round can affect who will join you and who will stop you from conquering the galaxy.  Even so, this is definitely a friendly game that will leave no traces of bitterness when it’s through.

cosmic

After alliances are forged, the attacking and defending characters play their encounter cards which usually have numbers on them.  These numbers are then added up with the ships all the players have on each side and the player with the most points wins the game.  Negotiate cards also add to the fun as well and create a “Gambler’s Dilemma.”  If both players use a negotiate cards then both can work out a reasonable deal.  However, if one player plays a number card and the other a negotiate card then the player with the negotiate card loses (which can add some trickery to the game if you decide to lie what cards you have).

In my opinion, the game works best with all five players.  Like the Resistance, Cosmic Encounter thrives on human interactions and whereas other board games can start to feel bloated or slow with five players, Cosmic Encounter is full of energy.

Buy it? Buy it if you’re looking for a low instruction, high interactive game.  If you’re also looking for a game that has a high degree of playability (i.e. randomness) then this is the way to go.

Leave it? Leave it if you’re looking for a more strategic game.  This also takes at least an hour to play so if you’re looking for something shorter then move on.