Shadows in Kyoto Review (First Impressions)

I adore Hanamikoji, and its designers have released another excellent 2 player game with a tied in theme / aesthetic.





Like HanamikojiShadows in Kyoto has a classic Japanese theme to it, but this time players take on opposite sides of the Meiji Government and Oniwaban in a battle to uncover the other side’s spies and capture key intelligence without being misled.


Each player controls six pieces with values ranging from 0 to 3. There are Stratego-like elements of piece values being hidden from the opposing player and the “weakest” piece being able to capture the opponent’s best when attacking. From there on though Shadows in Kyoto is entirely its own game.




The core of the game revolves around the concept of “key intelligence.” Two of each players’ pieces are marked as carrying their key intelligence. Thematically this means they have “real” information the enemy wants and the rest of the pieces are carrying “fake” information to confuse them.

A player wins if either of their two agents carrying real intelligence reach the opponent’s back row, or if they capture both their opponent’s such agents. However if a player captures too many (three) of their opponent’s agents with fake intelligence they LOSE.


There are also clever card based mechanics related to moving player pieces.  Basic colored cards relate to spaces on the board and can move any friendly piece forward (straight or diagonally) into a space of that color. Limited tactics cards add options like moving/attacking sideways or backwards, swapping pieces, or forcing an opposing piece back.  The two types of cards are drawn from separate decks giving players interesting hand management options.


Finally, the base game can be modified by the addition of included asymmetric character and equipment cards with special abilities that increase variability and strategic choices.





General Thoughts

First off, there’s nothing tying Shadows in Kyoto to Hanamikoji beyond the art style and setting. But  that’s fine, as both games shine as their own unique creations and the common aesthetic is a nice enough touch.

I’ve always enjoyed the hidden information aspect of Stratego, and this pulls the best elements of it and improves them several fold with the concept of real and fake information and multiple victory conditions. The added dimension of often needing to attack yet having to be careful about capturing too many of the “wrong” pieces gives a fantastic extra layer of strategy and a strong “cat and mouse” feel to the game.




The asymmetric elements seem well varied and balanced, and again add an intriguing extra layer to the solid basic gameplay that extends replayability. There are some nice thematic ties running through the powers available to each side as well, particularly given the Oniwaban player always goes first.



The imaginative new take Shadows in Kyoto brings to classic gameplay elements 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.






Triplock Board Game Review (First Impressions)

Triplock is a memory based game where four stacks of chips represent the cylinders of a lock to be solved. On a player’s turn die rolls will determine the actions available as they try to manipulate the stacks to match various diagram cards in front of them.




This has a unique feel to it as it combines memory and positioning aspects. There are lots of little nuances that provide good depth, from choosing which of the four options on a diagram card to pursue to being able to discard both die options to pick any action to manipulating the options available to your opponent. There are also several characters to play with different player powers for added variability.


The production values Triplock this are excellent. The stacks of chips that are central to gameplay are of nice weight and design. The plastic coated cards have good thickness and play well, and the oversized character cards provide additional story and more of the game’s wonderful art. The flexible gamemat lays flat when needed for play and rolls up nicely to conserve space for storage. Really impressed overall with the quality of the components here.




I was interested in the look of the solo game for this, but while it’s fine the two player game is better. The solo mode is a series of challenges based on a “room” (scenario) being played. Only one’s included, with others planned as expansions. The story elements are clearly meant to be ongoing, as they were really just a prologue here. I wonder if there’s a set number of expansions planned that will complete this story, or if it’s going to be an indeterminate number of subsequent cliffhangers. Without knowing that I’m unlikely to keep spending additional money on an open ended narrative framework, but the “rooms” will be available in a print and play format that I will likely keep an eye on.




Triplock is an extremely well put together package featuring a fun an different type of game with a fair amount of replay value. Definitely one of the better memory based games I’ve come across.

Top Five “New to Me” Games Late-2017

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 mid-2017 list.
  • As usual I’ve tried 10+ new games since then, so it was difficult to narrow this down. Honorable Mentions include, but aren’t limited to Triplock, Einstein, and Thunder & Lightning.




5. The Captain is Dead




If ever there was a game that exceeded my expectations, it’s The Captain is Dead. The odd premise is incredibly fun and engaging from the moment the game begins, as well as being ingeniously integrated into the gameplay and highly engrossing. There’s a real sense of entropy that the players need to get ahead of to succeed. Great co-op all around that’s highly recommended for anyone who’s ok with reactive gameplay and the quirky sci-fi setting.

Full review.


4. Magic Maze



The premise of Magic Maze completely ridiculous. The pawns represent a party of adventurers that need to resupply and have decided to rob the … local mall. Yes, really. 🙂 The players share control of all four of them and try to map out the mall, get each adventurer to their favorite shop simultaneously, then get everyone out.

Overall Magic Maze is a fantastic real time co-op that features phenomenal design and brings something new and fun to the genre. It made a strong positive impression on everyone I’ve played with, and is a great addition to the game closet.

Full review.


3. Exit Series


The Exit games are the best Escape Room inspired home games I’ve played. Embracing a low cost point so they could make the games single use, the designers take full advantage of having components that can be cut, drawn on, and otherwise destroyed to create really clever puzzles and thoroughly engaging experiences. All three I’ve tried have been quite impressive and fun, and capture some of the wonder of playing actual escape rooms.

More thoughts on the series.


2. Near and Far



Near and Far is a gorgeous adventure themed game with high production value, great atmosphere, and a real feeling on progress and exploration. The story elements are wonderfully integrated and enhance, rather than disrupt, the competitive game mechanics. With several game modes, maps, and variations this is a deep game with high replayability.


1. Yamatai



Yamatai is a great area claiming game that’s reasonably accessible yet achieves significant depth due to modular setup, the variety of action choices available, and needing to properly exploit boats/resources placed by opponents. There are a lot of interesting choices every single turn and subtle underlying strategy and tactics to experiment with. I’ve played two and three players and the dynamics were quite different while still retaining the same feel and appeal. This is a fantastic new addition to my collection that jumped right into my list of favorite games.



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?

My Top Ten Favorite Board Games (late 2017)

Tastes constantly evolve, so as I mentioned in my previous versions, I intend to periodically revise my top ten games to see how things change and share any new games that have impressed me.

Ground rules:

  • This reflects my favorite things to play. I love everything on this list. Order is pure personal preference and whole list HIGHLY subject to change and reshuffling, as ten is a small number to cover all the great games I’ve played and something’s bound to be missing.
  • Narrowing things down to just ten games is always difficult. Some games have been replaced here simply because of other games that suit my current tastes (and those of my group) just a little more. Blueprints, Euphoria, Mysterium, and The Duke are all still fantastic games well worth seeking out / trying.
  • Expansions I have are considered with the base game and won’t be listed separately.
  • The write-ups for reappearing games were changed only as needed.
  • Links to further reviews included as available.


Outside Looking In:

Here are some honorable mentions of games I’ve enjoyed that very well could make this list as I play them in the future: Ars Alchemia, Magic Maze, Near and Far, Ravens of Thri Sahashri, Trickerion, Yokohama, and many more…


10. Viticulture


The debut game from Stonemaier, which instantly made them one of my favorite publishers. Beautifully realized worker placement game that is just completely infused with the unlikely theme of winemaking. The Tuscany expansion adds several great aspects that make it even more amazing, and the game scales incredibly well and feels like the same game no matter the player count. As usual with Stonemaier the production quality is absolutely unreal, with individually shaped building pieces and gorgeous art elevating the immersion.




9. Yamatai


Yamatai is a great area claiming game that’s reasonably accessible yet achieves significant depth due to modular setup, the variety of action choices available, and needing to properly exploit boats/resources placed by opponents. There are a lot of  -interesting choices every single turn and subtle underlying strategy and tactics to experiment with. I’ve played two and three players and the dynamics were quite different while still retaining the same feel and appeal. This is a fantastic new addition to my collection.


8. Castles of Burgundy 


Castles of Burgundy  is a wonderfully unique, and it shines in the unusual way uses dice to determine both which tiles a player can buy and which purchased tiles can be placed on their personal player boards. There are a lot of “moving parts” and things to keep track of, but it’s all logically laid out and intuitive once you get the hang of it. There’s tons of replayability and different viable strategies, even before considering the numerous different player boards available. I fall more and more in love with this game each time I play.



7. Scythe

Scythe definitely has a learning curve and is Stonemaier’s heaviest game yet, but I was pretty well acclimated after a single game and I adore the way it comes together. This is a unique game that won’t necessarily appeal to all fans of Jamey’s other offerings, but players who can take it for what it is and enjoy adapting to (somewhat) constantly changing situations and balancing needed actions with required currencies will find a thoroughly enjoyable (and quite possibly addictive) experience here. Extra praise is deserved for a great included solo player variant that captures the same feel as the “regular” game. If I had more opponents up for this and thus more opportunities to play it would likely be ranked even higher.



6. Ghost Stories


Fantastic co-op game that’s fairly easy to teach but has a lot of variation and depth. Best on its own or with Ghost Moon (Black Secret has fallen flat with my group so far). Notorious for its difficulty, but we’ve found it challenging rather than frustrating. The changing board, player powers and enemy cards make every game significantly different, which greatly aids its longevity. It’s also great to have a go to co-op game on hand, as many of my “non-gamer” friends have really enjoyed trying something that has them working with, rather than against, the rest of the group. I played a LOT of excellent co-ops lately that are nipping at Ghost Stories’ heels, but for now this is still the standard bearer for the genre.


5. Hanamikoji


Hanamikoji‘s gameplay design is phenomenal. A selection of four specific actions, all of which must be used eventually, determine how cards must be played in attempting to play more matching “gifts” for each central geisha card on your side of the table. The depth and brilliance of the game come from actions that involve picking several cards from your hand, of which your opponent then gets to choose some for themselves. You can essentially only ever guarantee a single card in your hand each round is going to count for your own scoring, and the psychology and  strategy of picking what options to give your opponent are vexing in the best possible way. This is quick, surprisingly deep, and addictive.


4. La Citta


La Citta is over fifteen years old and feels so timeless and classic I’m actually surprised it’s not older. Wonderfully thematic game that combines tile laying and resource management as players try to build the most attractive cities and lure the greatest population (the game’s victory points) to them. Details like needing water sources to grow beyond a certain point, having to produce enough food to feed your population, and a changing priority system signifying what people value most in their cities each round make this a fantastically deep, balanced game.



2. (tie) TIME Stories



The best part of T.I.M.E Stories is how engaging it is. The sense of foreboding and immersion, as well as the depth of gameplay, achieved with just a deck of various cards is INCREDIBLE. The artwork and graphic design are both exquisite and work in tandem to fulfill both functional and thematic demands perfectly. We were completely invested on surviving the game and completing our mission, and extremely intrigued with the mysterious happenings we were thrown into. It really felt like we were exploring and investigating, which again is amazing given everything is represented by and explained on cards. The puzzles and situations are appropriately challenging without being impossible, and it all further enhances a strong core story that has some great twists.

This really comes together brilliantly and blew me away in all aspects of design, immersion, and fun, as evidenced by the fact that it actually tied my previously clear cut favorite game of all time…



2. (tie) Princes of Florence


For the first time in a great many years I’m not only ranking something equal to Princes of Florence, I’m ranking something else higher. But make no mistake, it’s still the bar for me in terms of design and longevity.

It incorporates what’s usually one of my least favorite mechanics (the auction) in a quick and enjoyable way that enhances the balance of differing strategies greatly. At any point if an opponent’s strategy seems to be working too well, the others players need to be making them pay more for the needed components. The way the different elements that can be purchased and used come together is wonderful and allows deep and varied gameplay. The combination of resource management, strategic choices and maximizing opportunities is just perfect and I could (and probably will) play this a million times.


1. Tragedy Looper



Here’s the juggernaut that finally toppled Princes from it’s perch atop my favorite games. Tragedy Looper is unlike anything else I’ve played and I absolutely adore both the atmosphere and the way its core mechanics combine mystery elements with those of a logic puzzle. It’s somewhat of a tough game to get your mind around, given unusual mechanics and a non-trivial learning curve, but once you do it’s a great mystery game (a genre that’s underrepresented and hard to do well).  It’s asymmetric, with players who are time traveling and trying to prevent a tragedy, and a gamemaster that is trying to stop them. There are limitations on possible actions based on the scenario and various stats of the characters being controlled, which is where clues about what has happened and how to prevent it come from. It requires the right group of players, but is highly enjoyable once you’ve found them.



And that’s it for this time. Will be interesting to track how this list changes in the future. What are everyone else’s current favorites?

Magic Maze Review

Real time cooperative games are a growing genre with a lot of potential for innovation. I enjoyed Escape: The Curse of the Temple and loved Project: Elite, and was extremely curious when a friend introduced me to another unique, imaginative entry into that general category of games.




The premise of Magic Maze completely ridiculous. The pawns represent a party of adventurers that need to resupply and have decided to rob the … local mall. Yes, really. 🙂 The players share control of all four of them and try to map out the mall, get each adventurer to their favorite shop simultaneously, then get everyone out.




There’s several catches that make those objectives difficult, and Magic Maze a ton of fun. First, this is again a real time game, so players are not acting sequentially but all at once while an hourglass relentlessly winds down.

Second, each player specific actions they are limited to. I may only be able to move pawns North, while other players are responsible for the other three directions. Only one person will be designated to add new tiles to the board when pawns are in position to discover them, etc. Finally, all the teamwork that the previous limitations give rise to in order for players to be successful and win must be done in silence. Player can only tap a special pawn in front of other to indicate that want the other person to do something, without talking, pointing, or otherwise indicating what it is that needs to be done.

That last twist gets a lot of odd looks when trying to teach the game, but it’s an absolutely essential aspect and actually one of the most engrossing things once people start playing. The tension of others not quite seeing what you are or moving towards a different goal or not noticing time running out is palpable and incredibly compelling. Everything comes together wonderfully and the feeling of accomplishment as how to play effectively starts to click is great. There’s definitely a learning curve here, but the time nature of the game means those first couple of games needed just to get a feel for how things work go quick and the game’s uniqueness means it’s immediately compelling even during the inevitable early mistakes and failures.




The replayabiliy is incredibly high here, between increasing complexity and difficulty through additions like more tiles, special abilities, and restrictions, modified strategies needed at different player counts, and varying which players get which moves/powers.

So far I’ve played several two player games of this trying around five of the difficulty levels and a few with eight people at the introductory level (well, level 2 technically with each pawn having their own exit). The challenge ramps up naturally with the new additions, which all fit well within the basic framework. The game is incredibly well designed and balanced.

Playing with two, where each person controls two directions and some of the special actions (use stairs, warp to portals, or place tiles) is quite different than with eight where everyone has a single direction but all are duplicated (and the special actions are spread out among three players). But both were great and felt balanced. My inclination is other possible counts will present other nuances, and I’m looking forward to trying them out. Again, put all of the above together and this seems exquisitely built to stay intriguing and challenging through a ton of replays. Perhaps best of all, it always feels like a full experience while playing in (a max) of 15-30 minutes.


Overall Magic Maze is a fantastic real time co-op that features phenomenal design and brings something new and fun to the genre. It made a strong positive impression on everyone I’ve played with, and is a great addition to the game closet.


Quick Thoughts: Bears vs Babies and Shahrazad

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


Bears vs Babies




As I’m sure is beyond clear from the title and box art, this card game is completely absurd and ever so slightly disturbed. Players build frankenstein monstrous creatures by stitching together body parts to fight off approaching hordes of hideous babies and eat them if victorious. Highest combined value of eaten babies at end of game (collected points) wins. Three different types (land, air, and sea) of attacking babies and defending monsters, as well as the players being in control of when babies attack and thus able to perhaps force other players into action before they’re ready form the backbone of the game’s strategic elements.

The gameplay’s ok but seemed limited. It might have been a bad draw, and/or the player count leading to a limited number of actions per turn. Although I feel I got a good enough feel for it to know there are better games in this vein. But the ridiculous theme is main draw anyway. If grafting a pair of lobster claws onto a body wearing a tutu with tank treads for legs and a beaver head to fight deformed babies sounds hilarious the shallow mechanics likely won’t matter much. Wasn’t quite enough for me though.







In Shahrazad the goal is to lay out the twenty one tiles in such a way that no tile touches a lower value to its right and every tile is connected to the first and last columns via direct left to right path. After tiles that do not meet those conditions are eliminated score is determined by the largest connected sections of each color.

There are two player co-op rules, but this really feels like it’s primarily a single player puzzle, and that’s how I’ve played. It’s interesting and I had fun with it, but I think I’m done. The (admittedly reasonable) limits on column height makes it feels “solvable” in the sense of having a best strategy/layout to go for that doesn’t change much. The randomness of the two tiles in the player’s hand at any time doesn’t do enough to get by that. The second round where “eliminated” tiles from round 1 aren’t used can actually be more interesting because of having a different number of tiles, but it’s a direct result of playing poorly in round 1.

Overall I did really enjoy this for a little under ten games and do recommend it on a short term basis, but it unfortunately lacks in longevity.



Hope to be back with more soon.

Exit: Secret Lab & Abandoned Cabin Board Game Reviews

I adore the Escape Game phenomenon, and have previously played the first of ThinkFun’s home version. I’d heard a lot of positive things about another series with a slightly different approach to the concept of adapting the experience. Here’s a SPOILER FREE look at two of the Exit games.



Exit games are similar to the Escape the Room version in that there’s an introductory booklet that basically just sets the stage and explains how to check your answers via the decoder disc. The disc is really well implemented here with colors and numbers on three different rings to be lined up with whatever symbol matches the puzzle to be solved, revealing a card number to check. There’s also a chart determining a final score depending on how long players take to solve everything and how many help cards they choose to consult. Reasonable enough way to provide incentive without real penalties for needed time/assistance.

From there Exit games become unique in the way they try to simulate the feeling of being trapped in a room with locks to unlock and puzzles to solve. The box is small and warns that the game can only be played once, as game materials will be marked up, folded, and torn. The main components are a booklet and a deck of cards, usually with a couple of additional “strange objects” which players are told to ignore until a called for.

Players start by diving into the booklet and “exploring” the environment by looking at the various puzzles, pictures, and maps inside. Whenever a picture of a card is found that card is removed from the deck and enters play. Many of the puzzles will involve a number of cards with new information, so there’s a real sense of unfolding discovery.  It reminds me a bit of T.I.M.E Stories somewhat in the excellent and innovative way cards are used and incredible amount of atmosphere and immersion achieved with only a booklet and deck of cards.

I was also reminded of the puzzle book Journal 29 in the clever way the format was used to enhance the puzzles. I won’t go into further details to avoid spoilers, but I was very impressed with the execution in both Exit games I’ve played.

Another nice touch is the presence of help cards, which are coded to the puzzles with the same symbols that are used on the solution wheel. The first help card for each puzzle lists in full what materials are needed to solve the puzzle (so players know if they’re trying to solve a puzzle prematurely) and provide a small clue. The second a more pointed clue and guide for solving, and the third gives the solution. This is a great way to allow players to control the difficulty and prevent anyone from becoming permanently stuck.

The decision to make these disposable, one time experiences actually serves the games well, as they aren’t limited in puzzle construction by needing components to be preserved. This all combines to make these feel much closer to an actual escape room than the other types I’ve tried. Add in the fact that they found a way to pack a lot of gameplay and information in a small package to keep the cost down and I think their approach is fantastic.

As for the specific two I’ve played, both The Secret Lab and The Abandoned Cabin were engaging and fun with interesting puzzles. I think I liked Cabin better by just a touch, but I recommend either as a starting point into this great series of games. Great stuff overall, and I can’t wait to play more of them.