Guest Review : Caylus

Caylus Box CoverIn Caylus, you and your opponents play the roles of builders who are tasked with building a village and castle for King Philip the Fair in the year 1289. Caylus is a fairly heavy strategy game that revolves around a worker-placement mechanic. Resource-management is also a very important part of the game. Not a game for beginners to European-style board gaming – there is virtually no luck involved, accommodates 2-5 players, and games often run between 1.5 and 2.5 hours.

Appearance: This is a tricky subject, because there are actually two main versions of this game. In the original (blue box) version of the game, the board/tile art is merely average, and the coins are cardboard tokens. In the limited edition (black box) version of the game, the art is spectacular, the colours are beautiful – albeit dark – and the metal coins are a pleasure to handle. The limited edition also comes with nice cloth/felt bags for the wooden player tokens, building tiles and resources, and coins.

Rules/Ease of Learning: As I mentioned in the introduction, Caylus is not a game for beginners. There is a lot to keep track of in this game, and it can be frustrating for new players to fall behind in the early game and stay there for two hours. That being said, the rules are not terribly complex – there are just a lot of them.

The game is played over a number of rounds (averaging around 15), with seven phases per round. Players receive income to fund their worker placements in the following phase. Workers are placed along a winding track, populated with six squares that are printed on the board, six pink tiles that are randomly distributed, and a number of blank squares that are filled when the players purchase building tiles.

Each square has an action associated with it – some produce resources (wood, stone, food, cloth, gold) or money, some change turn order, some allow you to build new tiles to place along the track. Each round, players may pay to move a ‘provost’ marker that may prevent some tiles from activating at all. Players may also acquire royal favours that allow them to advance along one of four reward tracks (victory points, money, resources, or building).

Additionally, players may place workers alongside King Philip’s castle, in order to contribute to the construction of the castle dungeon, walls, and towers. Victory points are primarily scored for purchasing building tiles and building sections of the castle. The game ends when the ‘bailiff’ marker (a companion to the ‘provost’) reaches a particular square near the end of the building track.

Gameplay: Though the rules are rather complex, it is the strategy and resource juggling that makes Caylus so difficult. Deciding when you should purchase a new building, when you should build castle pieces, and when you should just take a turn to replenish your resources and money can be a headache. You may sometimes have to decide between placing a worker on a tile that benefits you and placing a worker on a tile just to prevent an opponent from reaping its benefits.

Like some other moderate- to advanced-complexity worker-placement games (Dungeon Lords, Egizia), Caylus can be quite frustrating when you make a mistake. Building tiles execute in order, and it is possibly – even likely – that you will forget that at least once in your first few games, resulting in you wasting a worker because you don’t yet have the cloth you need to joust, or the food you need to build a castle piece. However, since the game is played over more than a dozen rounds, making a mistake like this isn’t quite as devastating as in some other games.

One thing worth mentioning is that individual players’ turns are relatively short in Caylus. Since there is a worker placement phase every round, and each player may potentially place up to six workers, this is important. In my personal experience – even when playing with players who usually take a long time analyzing their moves – the phases move relatively quickly, and players will rarely find themselves waiting a significant time before it is their move once more.

It will certainly take a few games to get the hang of Caylus, but it’s well worth the effort. Gamers who have played several resource-management or worker-placement games should be able to figure things out with a minimal amount of difficulty. With no dice or cards, the only random element in Caylus is the initial six pink tiles – and the order of those tiles does modify the gameplay a fair amount.

Conclusion: Caylus is certainly one of my personal favourites. The almost nonexistent luck element and the moderate degree of competition (as players vie for turn order and choice worker placements) combine to make a game that is quite fun overall. The game works best with four players, though it plays fairly well with three or five as well. If you’re looking for a deep strategy game that will keep you and your friends busy for a few hours, Caylus is a good bet.

Guest Review : Battlestar Galacitca Board Games

Battlestar GalacticaBattlestar Galactica is a 3-6 player semi-cooperative game based on the re-imagined series. Players take on the role of one of the major characters on the Galactica trying to survive after the Cylon’s attack on the Twelve Colonies. Throughout the game, players must manage of finite resources while trying to identify and mitigate the threat of any Cylons among the humans. A game of Battlestar Galactica takes about 3 hours.

Appearance: The components of Battlestar Galactica are of high quality and fit in the 12” X 12” X 3” box with plenty of room to spare. While all of the tokens, cards, rules, and board fit easily in the box, the insert that comes with the game is not at all useful once the cards and tokens are taken out of their shrink-wrap. Even a simple tray that could be used to store the cards would have been a nice touch. That complaint aside, the tokens are made of sturdy cardboard and feature clear art identifying its purpose. There are two sizes of cards: Mini-American – 1 5/8”X 2 1/2” and Standard American – 2 1/4” X 3 1/2”. Both card types look great and feature images from scenes from the television show. The smaller cards sometimes have more writing than I’d like on them, making them hard to read, but making them full- size would be too large. It’s a minor complaint and only really affects maybe 10% of the cards – and I’d prefer a little crowded over too empty.

There are 32 plastic ships in sculpts of Vipers, Raptors, Raiders, and Heavy Raiders. The plastic is a little malleable, but doesn’t seem to warp or bend much if accidentally bent a little out of shape. The sculpts are quite good and significant detail is shown on pretty small models.

The board itself is a 24” X 24” square that is dominated by an overhead view of the Galactica, with small areas representing the Cylon fleet, Colonial One, dials to track key resources (Fuel, Food, Morale, and Population) and other Tracks and card deck locations. The board is well designed and efficiently uses space.

Character cards are perhaps the best item in the box. The cards are cut in the elongated octagonal shape of the paper in the television show, which shows attention to the little details. A prominent photo of the character is shown as well as skills, character type and special abilities. Easy to read and quickly gather information from.

Rules/Ease of Learning : The rules for Battlestar Galactica are not incredibly complex, and the rulebook is generally well done. An experienced player can easily teach a new player how to play in about 20 minutes. The goal of the human players is to reach the planet of Kobol by executing 8 units worth of FTL jumps. Cylon players must prevent the human players from reaching this goal by depleting a resource to 0, a centurion invasion, or destroying the Galactica.

To start the game, players must select a character. Characters come in four types: Political, Military, Pilot, and Support, which correspond to the skills and how the character can help the Galactica. For instance, only Pilots can fly Vipers to defend against Cylon attacks, whereas Political leaders are more likely to be President, and Military leaders are more likely to be the Admiral. Players pick characters in an order determined by the table, but players must select from the types that are most plentiful (or Support). This ensures that each player has a sphere of expertise and that the largest cross-section of skills is obtained. Title cards (President and Admiral) are distributed to those highest in the line of succession. The President is the political head and can utilize Quorum cards to help the humans survive. Quorum cards can increase certain resources, brig suspected Cylons, and the like. The Admiral is the military head and receives two nuke tokens that can be utilized against the Cylon ships attacking Galactica. Both the President and Admiral also are called upon to make choices throughout the game from Crisis Cards or selecting FTL jump locations.

With the characters in play identified, a Loyalty Deck can be constructed. The Loyalty Deck dictates whether or not you are a Cylon or a Human and your Loyalty may change mid-game! The number of players and the characters in play will change the composition of the Loyalty Deck. Cards are dealt out and the remaining cards in the deck are set aside. Halfway through the game, a second card will bedealt to the players, which might change their allegiance.

Loyalty Cards are kept secret, so no one knows if or who is a Cylon. Deft Cylons can subtly prevent success of the Galactica’s crew. However, a Cylon may be discovered and becomes a revealed Cylon. Revealed Cylons harass the humans from the Cylon Fleet locations.

A game turn typically consists of drawing skill cards, moving, performing an action, and resolving a crisis card. To additional steps: Activating Cylon ships and prepare for jump are completed if a Crisis Card dictates that they should take place. Crisis Cards are either a skill challenge or a Cylon Attack. Skill challenges have a difficulty value and skill types that can help to resolve the challenge. Each player may place cards into a check’s pile but any skills contributed that are not identified as valid forthe challenge are subtracted from the total. In addition to the player’s contributions, a Destiny Deckplaces two cards in every check. This deck provides a little randomness and allows a Cylon to operateundetected by providing a degree of deniability. When a skill challenge is failed, one or resources are reduced.

Cylon Attacks represent situations where the Cylon Fleet has discovered Galactica. Cylon ships are placed on the board and create a physical threat to Galactica and nearby civilian ships. Cylon ships on the board mean that civilian ships may be destroyed (which result in resources being lost), Galactica being damaged, or Centurions boarding the Galactica.

Battlestar Galactica backGameplay : Battlestar Galactica is able to capture the feeling of the television show very well. The distribution of Loyalty Cards and the Destiny Deck contributing to skill checks feed the feeling of mistrust of your fellow players. The Destiny Deck allows Cylon players can covertly contribute negative cards to skill checks, which will make checks harder to complete, or sink the attempt entirely, furthering the Cylon agenda.

Each character’s special abilities and rules feel right and make them come alive. For instance, Baltar has the Cylon Detector once-per-game ability, which allows him to view all of one player’s Loyalty Cards. Baltar is also a coward and starts the game with two loyalty cards which increases his chance of being a Cylon and immediately makes him more suspicious. Another example is Starbuck’s Expert Pilot ability, she can make two actions when she starts her turn in a Viper; Insubordinate makes it easier for her to be thrown in the brig. Not only do the characters feel right, they seem to be well balanced against each other.

When the Cylon fleet arrives the space battles are furious and often very challenging. Strategically selecting how to manoeuvre in space to protect the fleet and Galactica is very important for the Viper pilots. Vipers are the main way for humans to prevent Civilian ships from being destroyed or Centurions boarding the Galactica.

Secrets are important in Battlestar Galactica. The cards contributed to a skill check are shuffled before revealing them, Loyalty Cards, and the Destination selected by the Admiral are all examples of secrets kept in the game. Again, this drives the tension and mistrust among the players skyward.

As a Cylon player, you need to weigh the risk of staying undercover too long against the damage you can do while unrevealed. Revealed Cylons cannot contribute as many cards to skill checks, but can activate the powerful Cylon Fleet locations. The most devastating parts of revealing yourself as a Cylon do not take place if you are in the brig – so choose when to reveal carefully.

There are a few minor issues with the game. First off, the sympathizer loyalty card is confusing and does not seem to add much to the game. The second issue revolves around the brig. If a human player is suspected of being a Cylon and is thrown in the Brig, influential players can keep that player in the Brig by convincing others to keep them there. A true Cylon would likely reveal themselves after an attempt or two to get out of the brig. A human player can only be released from the brig on a successful skill check, so particularly paranoid groups could leave a human player in the brig for the entire game – which isn’t much fun for the affected player. If the Cylons are able to get all the humans in the brig, well…game over.

Conclusion: One doesn’t need to know the television show to enjoy Battlestar Galactica, but it does help to really appreciate the game. The themes of trust and a race against limited resources are well showcased, and the characters are well designed and feel like their small-screen counterpart. If you’re a fan of the show or like games with hidden traitor mechanics, Battlestar Galactica should be on your game shelf.

Guest Review : Ticket to Ride Nordic Countries

Ticket to Ride : Nordic Countries box cover
Ticket to Ride : Nordic Countries box cover

Ticket to Ride hardly needs an introduction. The family strategy board game has won numerous awards around the world, including by far the most important, the Spiel des Jahres (Game of the Year in Germany), and is enjoyed by hundreds of thousands of families all over the world. As is natural for a game that has had so much success, a number of spin-offs have been published to offer long-time fans greater variety.

Ticket to Ride Nordic Countries is a stand-alone game specifically designed for two or three players only, and due to its focus, is better than the original game for those numbers. The game introduces several new concepts and challenges to overcome.

In all variations of Ticket to Ride, the goal is to score the most points by claiming train routes on the board and completing secret objectives assigned at the beginning of the game. The board depicts a map showing dozens of cities, and routes connecting nearby cities to each other. Players are given several goals each to join two
non-adjacent cities on the board via a connected network of train routes; bonus points can be scored at the end if successful, while those points are subtracted if not. This is an element of risk if the player chooses to obtain additional goals during the game.

Players can connect adjacent cities by playing train cards. There are eight colours of cards, plus a wild (depicted as a locomotive), and a route will typically require a number of a specific colour of train card in order to claim it. Most player turns consist of drawing face-up cards (or blind from the draw deck) or playing these cards to claim routes. Once claimed, a route cannot be connected by another player — which can cause frustration for those who hoped to make that same connection!

There are two ways to play Ticket to Ride. Many families will concentrate on their own secret goals and only claim the routes they need; if such claims cause problems for other players, this is accidental. However, some people who are more competitive and confrontational may deliberately claim a route they do not need if they believe another player will need it. The game works great either way, but to avoid frustration for casual players, I recommend discussion and agreement before the game on what sort of experience you wish to have.

The game is however very simple and is otherwise very, very suitable for families. While the original game is excellent for four or five players, a lot of the challenge comes from the crowded board and the interference (accidental or otherwise) caused by other players, so the game loses something when played with fewer participants. Ticket to Ride Nordic Countries is an alternative experience for those who wish to have a more challenging Ticket to Ride experience with smaller player numbers.

The Nordic Countries board depicts cities in northern Europe, in the countries of Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Finland and Russia. The experience is similar to the original game, but introduces some additional challenges:

  • Wild cards can only be used on special routes, of which there are two types: tunnels and ferries. One can now not play these on regular routes.
  • Tunnels are special routes that may need more cards than required for a normal route. A player declares her attempt to build a tunnel of a colour, then draws three cards blind from the draw pile. For every card of the same colour (or wilds), the player must play additional cards (or wilds) from her hand beyond the original cost. If she is unable to, her turn is forfeit, though she can try again on a later turn.
  • Ferries are special routes. For each locomotive depicted on the route, the player claiming the route must play a locomotive (wild) card. For each of the remaining spaces, the player must play either a matching colour card, or a wild card, or any three cards.
  • Many of the more valuable secret-goal cards require building into the far north, where the few connecting routes are more difficult special routes.

The game is very recognizable as Ticket to Ride, but the additions give it its own character. The special routes are more difficult to claim, certainly, but because of the change that wild cards are not usable for most routes, now even the basic routes are tougher to complete. If you wish to complete a basic orange route, for example, you absolutely need orange cards, and woe to you if you need this route and are unable to draw any. It actually gives an advantage to card counters — to have an idea of how many orange cards have already been drawn and so to know whether more will be easy to find.

The western coast of Norway and the extreme north of the map are simply brutal to work in. It would be a challenge for one player to work in this area, but if two are competing there to complete their goals, one or both are going to lose many points at the end. Because of this, Nordic Countries is a very unforgiving game, and final scores between players can differ wildly.

Compared to the original, Nordic Countries has rules exceptions which are difficult to teach and remember. You can only use wild cards on tunnels and ferries, but any three cards will also work as a wild — but only for ferries. Wilds cannot be used for basic routes, except for one particularly long route, but here (and only here) you can substitute four cards as a wild, not the three as with the ferries. This is not a game one should teach new players — for that you should stick with the original game.

For experienced “Riders”, though, the restrictions make the game more tense and cutthroat, and for like-minded players, this is very welcome. The original game is one I will happily pull out for new and casual gamers, but Nordic Countries is my preferred choice for small groups already familiar with the game. The increased difficulty makes the game more engaging and adds many important decisions to consider.

Ticket to Ride Nordic Countries is not a game for casual players new to the Ticket To Ride series. For hobbyists, experienced Ticket to Ride players looking for a greater challenge, and those wanting a better experience than the original for two or three players, however, this is a game I can safely recommend. It is a great way to play Ticket to Ride in an all new way.