Fighting Entropy: Spirit Island Board Game Review (First Impressions)

There are plenty of good civilization building games, but Spirit Island takes a wonderful alternate approach where players take the role of spirits trying to protect/reclaim their island from colonists building towns and cities, often at the expense of the natural habitat.

 

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Spirit Island is a challenging co-op with a real sense of entropy and things getting out of hand. Each turn the game controlled colonists the players are working against explore new areas, while building villages and cities in areas they’ve already explored and cause damage to the island, native inhabitants, and spirits in areas they’ve already built in.

The mechanics that govern the progression of what players are fighting against are ingenious, including an interesting, natural mechanic where one of the victory conditions gets less stringent as the game goes on. That’s not to say it gets easier though, as the colonists and their buildings spread rapidly and become more entrenched turn by turn. At the same time the spirits evolve and grow of the course of the game, giving players more options to fight back with. This is something that really feels different among all the games I play, to great effect.

There are couple of different ways to win, speaking to different strengths of spirits and strategies around winning by causing destruction versus purely scaring the colonists away. The game is also specifically designed to scale with the number of players, in all aspects from the number of various counters used to the board size itself. So far it all seems really well designed and balanced.

 

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But the wonderful thing is within that balance they’ve achieved a tangible feeling of pressure and escalation. At times we felt a bit of the type of frantic energy and “quick – what are we going to do now?!” edge usually present in real time games, which is an impressive feat in a game where there isn’t actually any time pressure to the turns. The level of immersion and the way the gameplay draws the players in is fantastic, and perhaps most importantly in a game like this while challenging it is beatable, and players can easily see how close they came even in case of defeat.

I’ve played Spirit Island with 2 players with a couple of different people, and have tried it solo as well. As harrowing as things were with 2 players, I found the single player mode even more difficult as there’s no help to make up for your particular spirit’s weaknesses. It’s a really interesting, different challenge, and I can see myself playing both solo and multiplayer modes regularly in the future.

There are also scenarios, specific colonizer adversaries, and a variety of spirits to play that enhance variety and replayability. This looks to stay fresh and engrossing for quite some time, even before diving into the available expansion content.

 

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Overall Spirit Island is a well executed, highly thematic, fun game of increasing pressure.

Detective: A Modern Crime Board Game Review (Spoiler Free)

Given the mystery based nature of the game let me state up front that this review will be spoiler free.

 

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I’m a big fan of immersive storytelling experiences in games like T.I.M.E Stories, and a huge mystery buff, so was extremely intrigued by the concept of a modern style investigation in the form of a game.

Players are agents of a special investigative agency in current times, and that’s pretty much all the background needed before jumping in. Cards and well implemented online features provide information as the cases proceed, and it’s all up to players to decide how to use the (in game) time they have to pursue leads and then piece together the answers needed for the particular case they’re tackling.

The rule book warns that there’s no “right answer card.” This isn’t a matter of searching for that one statement that jumps up and down saying “you win now!” There’s plenty of information to analyze, but players will never see it all and have to make choices about what to investigate and (even more importantly) make inferences from what’s discovered. A series of summary questions at the end of the case will determine if the players were successful, or if they’ll need to try that particular case again.

The feel of the game and level of immersion were incredible. Playing felt like we were doing detective work. This is a storytelling experience as much as it is a game, and each case will run around 3 hours or so. But it never felt that long.  The way research is integrated, the story elements,  a real sense of discovery and tension, and the constraints of not being able to investigate everything while still feeling like we got enough to figure things out kept us engaged and excited.

There are historical and real world connotations wonderfully tied into the fictional narrative that unfolds, and the mechanics and the way everything comes together is really clever and well done.

I played this with one other person. It went extremely well with the two of us given our level of gaming experience, etc. I think for most groups three people would be the sweet spot, although the game is listed as for 1-5. Everything is highly connected from case to case in the included campaign (five cases), so it’s highly preferable to continue the campaign with the same group from start to finish.

I’ve seen some understandable criticisms of some of the leaps of intuition needed in a couple of places and of some plot points. But I thought the mystery level overall was challenging but reasonable, and the story engrossing and well enough executed as the campaign unfolded from case to case. One case bordered on frustrating in some ways for us (and we did have to replay it), but it was still fine in the end, fit into the greater picture well, and we loved the other four.

With the length, note taking, gradually unfolding pace, and other elements I’ve mentioned, there is a rather specific target audience that will enjoy Detective. For me it was a wonderfully compelling cooperative game. Simply incredible overall.

Watson & Holmes Review (First Impressions)

 

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Watson & Holmes is kind of a competitive, tighter version of things like Sherlock Holmes: Consulting Detective. For each case, a set of cards is laid out representing places of interest. Each turn, players visit different locations and read/take notes on the information on the other side of the card in an attempt to be the first to correctly answer three questions presented at the beginning of the case.

There are token based mechanics via which players jockey for position (only one person can visit each location per turn), attempt to block each other, etc. After the first case character roles are introduced that give players special powers, and there are also methods for gaining information about eliminated players’ failed guesses.

The structure and gameplay elements are incredibly well integrated with the mystery solving aspect. There’s a real sense of exploration and immersion, the scope and length of the game feels right, and the cases themselves (I’ve played two of ) are interesting. In one game no one was actually able to solve the case due to not quite having enough detail in one of our answers, but everyone still had fun and having a better idea of what the game’s looking for I don’t think it’ll be an issue going forward.

I love that they found a way to keep the story and mystery aspects of cooperative type Holmes’ games in a competitive, compelling, mechanics driven game. The overall balance and way everything comes together is fantastic, and I loved what I’ve played of this thus far.

Top Ten “New to Me” Games early-2019

As in the past, I’d again like to look at some of the best games that I’ve tried for the first time (relatively) recently.

 

Ground rules:

  • The only qualification for this list is that I personally played the game for the first time since my late-2017 list.
  • It’s been over a year since my last list, so I’m doing a top 10 this time instead of 5, and there are STILL great games that didn’t make the cut. Honorable Mentions include, but aren’t limited to Argoat, Dark Moon, and Herbalism.

 

Special mention: Trickerion has been featured here before, but I played it for the first time with more than 2 players recently and really loved it in that manner as well, so wanted to give it another shout out.

 

 

10. Sentient

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Sentient perhaps looks a little more complicated than it is at first glance (and sadly any use of mathematical symbols immediately scares away some players). The mechanics are actually really straightforward and clever, with chosen cards changing the dice values on a player’s mat when played and the final values of the dice determining points scored based on the formulas on the cards. The balancing act gives rise to interesting choices in this unique, great little game.

Further thoughts here.

 

 

9. Gloomhaven

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Gloomhaven has massive setup and a million bits and pieces, but it all allows for a level of flexibility and depth that make it an extremely compelling dungeon crawler. It’s a bit cumbersome, but really well done and engrossing overall.

 

 

8. Unicornus Knights

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Unicornus Knights is a cooperative game with a wonderfully ridiculous premise. A “throw-caution-to-the-wind” princess wants to reclaim her lost kingdom, and the players are the various knights and retainers trying to keep her alive as she marches straight towards her goal. It’s hampered a bit by a rather poor rulebook and some odd graphic design choices made when bringing the game to the US, but once everything is sorted and settled this is a unique, highly engaging group game.

 

 

7. Spirit Island

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Spirit Island is a challenging co-op with a real sense of entropy and things getting out of hand as players take the role of spirits trying to protect/reclaim their island from colonists building towns and cities. The mechanics that govern the progression of what players are fighting against are ingenious, including an interesting, natural mechanic where the victory condition gets less stringent as the game goes on. This is something that really feels different among all the games I play, to great effect.

 

 

6. Raiders of the North Sea

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Raiders of the North Sea is a highly thematic game that captures a nice rhythm of building up in preparation for a specific action (in this case making raids of the surrounding area), executing, then doing it again, all without things ever feeling stagnant. I’ve only played with two players so far and there are aspects I think might be better with more players, but overall I really enjoyed this.

Further thoughts here.

 

 

5. Minerva

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I didn’t know anything about this before my friend brought it to the table, and it ended up being a wonderful surprise. It’s the first tile laying game in ages I’ve gotten excited about, with an interesting and unique activation mechanic that leads to meaningful choices with an eye towards balancing needing straight lines for optimal use of tile abilities with “blocks” for maximum scoring. This is a great game that made an excellent first impression and is something I anticipate adding to my collection in the future.

 

 

4. Shadows in Kyoto

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Shadows in Kyoto is a two player game of hidden information and strategic movement. The imaginative new take it brings to classic gameplay elements seen in games like Stratego and the depth arising from the hand management and asymmetric power aspects combine to something really fun and engaging. I loved this accessible, intriguing game immediately.

Full review.

 

 

3. Exit: Sinister Mansion, Dead Man on the Orient Express

 

It’s hard to know how to treat the Exit series in lists like this, as the new installments aren’t expansions or remakes but are generally similar enough to be treated as such. But I felt these two pushed new boundaries with the format and puzzle types and they are perhaps my two favorite of the entire series. So I’m featuring/recommending them both in this single entry.

More thoughts on the series.

 

 

2. Watson & Holmes

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Watson & Holmes is kind of a competitive, tighter version of things like Sherlock Holmes: Consulting Detective. The structure and gameplay elements are incredibly well integrated with the mystery solving aspect as players visit different location cards and take notes on the information they find trying to answer three key questions asked at the start of each case. The overall balance and way all the various elements come together is fantastic, and I loved the two games of this I’ve played thus far.

(Review to follow.)

 

1. Detective

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Simply incredible. Full review on the way once I get to finish up with the final case, but Detective is a wonderfully compelling cooperative campaign game that feels like doing actual detective work in a fun and captivating way. Each session/case does require a bit of time (~3 hrs each), but it doesn’t feel it at all. The way information is gathered is key, and between the decisions on what leads to follow, incorporation of a special website, and historical connotations this really knocks things out of the park in terms of creating an engrossing experience.

 

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That’s it for now. It continues to be a great time for gaming, and everything here is well worth at least giving a try.

What are everyone else’s new favorites?

Yokohama Board Game Review (First Impressions)

Yokohama is a thematic worker placement game in which players are merchants in the Meiji period trying to thrive via fulfilling orders, expanding foreign ties, and building up their company and parts of the community around it.

 

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At first glance Yokohama is a bit overwhelming in terms of the sheer number of components and disparate elements. There are several things to keep track of and different ways to score points, but it all comes together really well and in a logical manner. The key to the accessibility of the game once play starts is that the actions taken each turn are straightforward themselves. The game’s depth comes from the fact that the implications of executing those actions become complex and far reaching.

Each turn a player will generally play workers to the modular board, then move their president to a particular tile and execute the related action. The workers help determine where the president can be moved and the power of the action performed, and the different tiles themselves determine whether the player will be collecting resources, placing workers on special scoring spaces, drawing cards, etc. But the core of a turn (including the way each tile is activated) is almost always mechanically the same. This allows the game to build complexity from those mechanics with varying scarcity of the different resources, various ways to gain points, technology cards that provide bonuses and/or special abilities, etc.

I found the path element, where a player’s president can only move along a series of tiles where that player has a worker, particularly interesting. It creates a nice balancing act of being spread out for mobility and concentrated for more powerful actions, and as such forces both preplanning and adaptability.

Yokohama the type of game that will take a few games to grasp best strategies and learn to properly weigh options, but is immediately engaging regardless.

 

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I first played a friend’s “deluxified” version (shown in the pictures in this review), which was limited to only Kickstarter and commanded high after market prices once the game came out, then purchased my own retail copy. Both have high production quality as far as there respective components went, but the retail version has considerably fewer “bells and whistles” and does pale a bit when compared side by side. Cardboard chits replaced the wooden resources, wooden cubes replaced the meeples, cardboard coins took the place of  metal ones, etc.

I do find TMG’s approach to limited KS versions frustrating in general. They pat themselves on the back for providing the upgrades at cost, but if priced more reasonably they could produce some extra copies and people who can’t commit during a specific one month window (or heaven forbid want a chance to play the game/read reviews before committing to purchase the more expensive version) would have opportunity to get the best version of the game without paying triple in aftermarket. However I will note in this case the deluxe version is being offered again, as part of the currently running Kickstarter for the 2 player only spin off Yokohama Duel (which also has a KS only “deluxified” version).

 

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The benefit of the component overload I talked about is the incredible amount of variation it lends to the game. The board is modular and the positions of the action tiles change from game to game. Beyond that the building spaces and bonuses on those action tiles are determined by cards and chits, which also changes the relative desirability of taking high powered actions on certain tiles. Technologies, orders, bonus goals, etc are also card based and variable. It all reminds me a little of  Ars Alchimia in the way certain aspects are implemented, and it’s really well done in both games.

 

I have now played this a few times with 2 players, and really enjoy it. But since I have yet to play with more players (and I imagine dynamic will change, especially considering the extra tiles involved), I can’t speak to that aspect and so am leaving this review marked “first impressions.” Regardless of that though I find Yokohama a game of meaningful choices and immense replayability, and an pretty easy recommendation for anyone willing to get past the initial bit of information overload.

Quick Thoughts: Minerva and Raiders of the North Sea

Some quick impressions on my first experiences with a couple of new games.

 

Minerva

 

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I didn’t know anything about this before my friend brought it to the table, and it ended up being a wonderful surprise. It’s the first tile laying game in ages I’ve gotten excited about, with an interesting and unique activation mechanic that leads to meaningful choices with an eye towards balancing needing straight lines for optimal use of tile abilities with “blocks” for maximum scoring. This is a great game that made an excellent first impression and is something I anticipate adding to my collection in the future.

 

 

Raiders of the North Sea

 

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This is a nice, highly thematic game that nicely captures the feel of building up in preparation for a specific action (in this case making raids of the surrounding area), executing, then doing it again.

The mix of complimentary mechanics seems to work really well and made the game fun. I did feel the two player game was greatly influenced by the setup in our game, and it seemed a bit prone to a runaway leader scenario. I imagine this would be less of an issue in a multiplayer game though, and overall I really enjoyed this and want to play more. Also, the expansions look interesting and seem like they may tailor this even more towards my personal tastes.

 

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Two strong, engaging games this time around. I’ve been lucky enough to try numerous new games in the last few months, and hope to be back soon with more thoughts. 🙂

Quick Thoughts: Pocket Ops, Dragon’s Hoard, and Sentient

Some quick impressions on my first experiences with a few new games.

 

Pocket Ops

 

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Tic-Tac-Toe was never so much fun. The idea here is you try to predict what spot your opponent will take, and if correct their piece doesn’t get placed. It’s a wonderfully simple concept that turns a trite old favorite into something different and intriguing. Beyond that are optional pieces with special powers that add further depth and variation. Really nice execution of concept here to make something new and interesting.

 

 

Dragon’s Hoard

 

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Dragon’s Hoard is a set collection game where players are dragons trading the requisite number of sheep of each color for treasures worth varying points. Yeah, I didn’t quite get the thematic execution either. There’s a glimpse of potential here, with the card backs being the resources needed to play the “treasures” on the fronts, different colors perhaps lending strategic choices to card drawing, and bonuses for specialization. In practice though the gameplay felt lacking (at least in the two player version I tried) with actions to attack the other player (and defend) that felt tacked on and run of the mill and an absence of interesting choices. A really poorly written  rulebook certainly didn’t help either. A second chance with more players is perhaps in order, but this felt like it could have and should have been better than it is.

 

 

Sentient

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Sentient is a game that caught my eye in previews, then seemed perhaps a little too involved for my group as I tried to read up on it. So I was interested, but wanted to try it first before a purchase. It’s fantastic. The mechanics are really straightforward, with players simply choosing a card from those available each round and deciding where to place it in their area to affect their dice and score points based on their final values and the card conditions.

The conditions on the cards and trying to properly manipulate the dice are where the strategy comes in, and the game was a series of interesting, meaningful choices. A final element of having a certain number of workers to place when choosing cards to try to obtain bonus multipliers for different cards types at the end of the game is another great aspect. Really enjoyed this and will likely be adding it to my collection in the future.

 

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That’s it for this time. Hope to be back with more soon. 🙂