Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Card Game Review - Agoniste

There are lots of days I wish I could borrow pieces from other people. I don't want to completely be someone else - I'm pretty happy with my own life - but how cool would it be to have a body like that werewolf kid from those Twilight movies? Or a face like George Clooney. Or money like Bill Gates. I don't want to be Donald Trump, you understand, I just want to be able to make a phone call and destroy a local economy.

Today, though, I want to have the convoluted mind of John Clowdus. I don't know how he comes up with the games he creates, but I want to be able to do that, just for a couple hours. I would whip out some genius masterpiece, and then he could have his brain back. But since I don't think I can take manage my Calvin-and-Hobbes-style mind meld machine, I'll have to settle for playing his wacky games.

Agoniste is a good example of a game where you go, 'how the hell did you think of that?' It's about a bunch of Greek people fighting for various locations in Greece. Of course, anyone who has seen 300 knows that Sparta would win by default - they would just walk up to the other Greeks and yell, 'This is SPARTA!!' and then kick them into wells. But in this game, you don't get to win just because you're the meanest motor scooters in the known world. No, in this game, you have to play Blackjack.

See, every round, a new location card will tell you where you're fighting, and then you'll all muster armies to grab that region. One guy is the defender, and he lays down a couple cards, and the other guys attack by building armies. You'll each try to get the best army you can by playing numbered cards, but if you accidentally get more than eight points of troops, your supply train breaks down and the troops all go home, leaving you to have a huge fire sale on bronze letter openers. So you try to get as close to eight as you can without going over, and you try to beat everyone else for that piece of property.

There are lots of wrinkles that make this a pretty damned interesting game - interesting enough that we played several games in a row, when we usually call it quits after one game and move onto whatever other crap I have to play that week. Like you don't get to shuffle your discard back into your deck automatically, so if you want your cards back, you may have to pass on a fight. Or how, when you win one territory, you can use it to invade another territory, and steal cards from other players. Or the coolest twist in the game - the gods.

The god cards all have a default value of one, but you can use them for their god power instead, if you want. You might double your army strength (good if you're at four, bad if you're at five). You could shuffle all your cards together without having to pass your turn. You might just have an automatic eight, which is an instant win every time. Other cool powers can be accessed through the god cards, and these cards will let you manipulate your deck and win more fights, if you use them right. They will not let you see Xena the warrior princess naked, but if you watch that new Spartacus show, you can get all the naked Xena you ever wanted, anyway, so it's OK there's no god card for that.

One neat design consideration is that you get a pretty small number of cards, so if you're adept at counting cards, you can keep track of what other players might pull, or even get a feel for what you'll find next. This one decision means that you can have a fully functional card game with a minimal number of cards, and it's pretty darn clever in the implementation. You don't even have to be Rain Man, which is handy because you probably didn't want to shop at K-Mart anyway.

Now, as much as I love playing Agoniste, there are a few issues. For starters, the rules are fairly typical of Small Box Games, which is to say that they are slightly convoluted and confusing, with a few things that should be mentioned but are not. It will take you a few times through the rulebook to understand what you're doing, and then the first time a defender leads with an Ares, you'll wonder if that means he won, or if he's just screwed, and go to the rules, just to find out that it's not in there. That can be frustrating.

The second problem is the art. Clowdus is a good designer, but he could pick up some tips on the art. The drawings all look like badly Photoshopped clip art, and while that doesn't really impact game play, it does make you grimace a little when you look at the picture of Athena and realize there's no way you want to see that chick naked. The maps are smudged and the hoplites look like plastic action figures that got left in the oven. It's not horrible, but it's not awesome.

But you gotta cut some slack. Well, I do, anyway. Small Box Games is making these games on a miniscule budget, and if he had to put big-box graphics on everything, he could never afford to turn out so many brilliant games. While it would be nice if he could afford to have every card professionally illustrated, it's not even remotely reasonable to think that he could break out all these games and still pay for art. So I shrug, and accept the good with the bad, because in this case, the bad is barely irritating, and the good is just about awesome. It's the closest I'm going to come to hijacking John's brainpower for an afternoon.


Surprising amount of depth in a game that is basically Greek blackjack
Cool follow-on actions let you plan and exploit weakness

Rules are a little muddy
Art is just not good

It can be tricky to get your hands on a Small Box game, because they tend to sell out, real fast. Run over and preorder this one now, while you have the chance:

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Card Game Review - En Garde

Reviewing games is kind of a mixed bag. I get a lot of games, but I don't always want them. I would love to only get the games I want, but it doesn't work that way. I'll get Arkham Horror one week, and the next week I'll get a box full of Reiner Knizia games.

To be fair, I do like some Reiner Knizia games. I love Blue Moon, for example. But so often, a Reiner game is just boring math wrapped around a stupid theme and packaged with two rules and some winning conditions. When I opened En Garde and saw the little metal fencers, I was somewhat optimistic. When I read the rules, I was less enthused.

Since this is a game about two people trying to stab each other, it's no surprise that only two people can play it. Each player gets a metal figure that they put at each end of a numbered board, and then they play numbered cards to move closer to each other. If you play a card that puts you right on top of the other guy's metal dude, you stab him. When you manage to stab the other guy five times, you win.

And yes, it really is as lame as it sounds.

That's the basic game, though, and if you play it once, you'll wonder why it was included at all. There's absolutely nothing interesting about the basic rules. The pieces are nice, and the card art is pretty darn cool, but you might as well just throw cards on the table at random. It's boring. Happily, there are two more sets of rules - standard and advanced.

Standard rules add the ability to parry, which adds a little hand management to the game. It's still not enough to be fun, though, and you're definitely not going to want to play to five points. You could end up doing the same thing ten times, and that's going to get old in a hurry. So the standard rules are still boring, even though they are not as boring as the basic rules.

Finally, the advanced rules add charging attacks, ripostes, strategic retreats and other stuff that finally makes this a game, and not just half an hour you'll wish you could get back. Now you have to do more than just manage your hand and do math in your head. Now you have to time your attacks, pace your advance, and continue to do math in your head.

When you play with the advanced rules, with the charging and retreating and parrying and riposting, En Garde is a pretty fun little game. You'll discover strategies, plan your moves, position for defense and bluff for attacks. You'll try to draw your foe into a charge that leaves him open, and you'll try to maintain the distance you need to prevent swift hits you can't block. And then, right when the match gets really good, you run out of cards and have to reset.

This happens way too often. There are only 25 cards, and you waste a bunch of them just getting close enough to fight, and then by the time you're really hip-deep in strategic positioning, the round ends and everyone goes back to their starting positions. It's a little like when you're getting busy with your woman, and you make it all the way to third base, and then the phone rings and you have to go bail your cousin out of jail again. Just when it gets good, you have to drop everything and start over. Sure, there are some hokey-pokey endgame rules where you see who had more cards, but I don't want to win because I had more cards, I want to win because I stabbed you in the kidney.

I think the best way to play En Garde is to buy two sets and give each player a set of cards. Now play until someone loses an eye. If you run out of cards with these rules, it's because you're both sissies who are too scared to do violence, and then you can play with the 'both players are sissies' end rules. If you don't want to buy two sets, I suppose you could reshuffle when you run out of cards, but then it would be harder to count cards, which is an important element of winning this game.

Right out of the box, En Garde has a bunch of promise, but not enough cards to really play the game properly. I'm sure someone who loves this game would say that I'm doing it wrong because I want the round to end in a brutal stabbing, but frankly, I don't care. If I play a swordfighting game, I want there to be some bloodshed. Trust Reiner to make a game about sword duels that you can win without cutting anyone. But it is a pretty cool game, and the maneuvering part is fairly well done. The pieces are really cool, and the art is neat. If they had just put a few more cards in the box, it would feel like a fun sword game, and not a bad case of coitus interruptus.


Cool card game that actually feels a little like fencing
Advanced rules offer a good amount of tactical maneuvering and short-term strategy
Neat art, great cards, and cool figures

Not enough cards - too often, feels like it stops just as it's getting good

Dogstar Games isn't carrying En Garde right now, but you can run over and get it from the nice folks at Eagle Games. You just might want to get two, and put the cards together to make a whole game.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Big Announcement - Drake's Tales

I've decided to try something new. I had an idea based on a few different factors.

Factor 1: I like writing stuff. I may not be the next Steinbeck, but I do enjoy working in the English language. And frankly, writing game reviews all the time can get stale after a while, and I want to write different stuff.

Factor 2: For many people, writing is not a strength. Many people struggle to put together an email that doesn't sound like it was originally drafted in Portuguese and translated by a pirate. They're probably good at a lot of things at which I would fail completely, but they still can't communicate in writing.

Factor 3: Almost everyone has at least one really good story. Even if you grew up in a boring town with boring parents and went to a boring school, you probably had at least one interesting thing happen to you in your life. Whether you escaped drug dealers in Mexico City or made out with the head cheerleader in tenth grade, something interesting must have happened to you at least once in your otherwise grayscale life.

You can probably see where this is headed - I want to tell your stories. I'm starting a new blog called Drake's Tales, where I'll be writing one story a week. They'll all be true... mostly. For one thing, all the stories will be feature either John or Judy. Even if your name is Drewbert, I'll be changing it to John for the purposes of telling your story (which would be a shame, really, because Drewbert is a hilarious name). I'll even be telling some stories from my own life, if I run out of interesting stories from other people, but you won't really know if they're mine because they'll be about John.

Also, I'm taking all kinds of creative license. I'll do my best to keep your story as true as I can, but if I need random details, I'm adding them. I may describe the shocked look on your mom's face when you came in the house with your pants on backward, but that's just because you forgot to mention that your mother was upstairs with the postman at the time. I won't change the details you tell me, but I'll embellish at will.

One thing that's exceedingly important - if your story includes illegal crap that could still get you arrested, do yourself a favor and don't tell me about it. As much as I would love to tell the hilarious story of that one time when you cut up a body and lost the left arm in a gas station unisex bathroom, the first time some police officer asks me for details, I'll sell you directly down the river. I'm no priest, doctor or lawyer, and I'm not going to do time just because you weren't smart enough not to tell me about the night that got your face on America's Most Wanted.

And finally, there's the legal garbage. If you email me your story and I write it up, you can't sue me for royalties. You're granting me permission to relay that story to anyone who might read it, even if I manage to make a couple bucks at it one day. I'm not sending you a check for your titillating tale of college hijinks, even if you managed to put a VW Bus on top of the Empire State Building. Newspapers and magazines might pay their sources, but I'm not a newspaper, I'm a dork with an email address.

So if you want to let me tell your story, send me an email. Your story doesn't have to be funny - it could be frightening, exciting, or sad. It could be a silly tale about your first kiss, or it could be about the time you raced ostriches in Kenya while being chased by smugglers on jet skis. Give me as much or as little as you want, and I'll spin you a yarn. My email address for this project is:

And you can already read the first tale at I'll put up a story a week, even if I have to write about my vasectomy surgery.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Board Game Review - Robosoccer

It's been my slightly unpleasant experience that small-press publishers tend to make ugly games. This is not always true, but it seems to me that most of the do-it-yourself game creators want to publish their games without debt or investors, and this usually means they get a little skinflint with components, printing, and art.

Happily, Nestorgames gets it right. They could have made cheap boards with crappy pieces and ugly art, but instead, they have come up with a brilliant way to make durable, portable games with easy rules and great pieces. Boards are printed on mouse pads, playing pieces are laser cut acrylic, and the games come in round canvas zipper bags. Roll the durable pieces up inside the smushable board (I just invented smushable, and will be applying for a trademark on the term) and cram it all into the bag, and when you zip it up, it looks like a burrito. A logo printed on the end of the bag tells you what game is inside, so if you have a bunch of Nestorgames you can stack them up and spot just the one you want.

I must confess that I have not played all of their games. To be precise, I have only played Robosoccer. But I have spent some time at the Nestorgames website, and I've looked at all the games they have listed at BGG, and this mouse pad/canvas bag thing seems to be their standard format. Now that I have played the game, I can tell you that the format works great. The board can be rolled and crumpled, and still lay flat on the table when you're ready to play. The pieces are all kinds of sturdy, so you can knock them together a little inside the package and pull them out ready to play. Basically, this is a fun concept that will let you shove a game into a backpack and play wherever you wind up having to kill half an hour.

The game itself is pretty nifty, too. Thematically, it's about a couple teams of plastic robots trying to get a plastic ball to the other side's starting line. But in practice, it's essentially an abstract game with more in common with chess than Blood Bowl. Big robots can push smaller robots, small robots hop over bigger robots, and directional arrows on the board make a quick trip across the board an impossible task.

It doesn't seem like this game should take long, but a few very interesting elements make it incredibly strategic. You move the ball by passing it, which really means you trade places with your robot and the ball, as long as nobody is between the two. You can move one robot a turn around a six-by-six grid, but lots of the squares have arrows that prevent movement in specific directions. Walls block robot movement, but you can boot your ball right over them. With three different sizes of robot (in three very cool sculpts), you have to figure out when to block with a big bruiser and when to hop with a little cruiser.

Each side only has six total robots, so it's not like this is going to get too confusing. The rules are pretty basic. What's not basic is the maneuvering and planning and strategy you'll have to master to get really good at Robosoccer. On top of being incredibly inventive with components, this Nestor guy appears to be pretty darn good at designing games. Robosoccer isn't as deep as chess, but it's no limp-wristed wannabe abstract. It's a serious game that can be enjoyed nearly anywhere - and that makes it a pretty smart buy, if you ask me.

In fact, I can think of several really great reasons to buy this game. It's a perfect road trip game that you can set up in a truck stop while you wolf down a short stack of blueberry pancakes and a cup of hot coffee. It's a great stocking stuffer, because the whole game really does fit inside a sock. It's really easy to store, so you could buy it just to add it to your collection of fun two-player games. You could even stuff it down the front of your pants and make it look like you've got an armadillo in your trousers (imagine her surprise when she finds out you had a game in your underwear!).

If you like abstract games, or know someone who does, you should seriously consider picking up Robosoccer. It's fun, portable, and attractive. Unfortunately, right now it can be tough to get unless you're in Europe, because Nestorgames is in Spain and doesn't have any US distribution (at least, not that I can find - it's entirely possible that he has paid unwed mothers ungodly amounts of money to swallow the games and fly them into the country illegally). But seriously, companies this small should be supported directly, by ordering right from their site. Hopefully shipping won't cost more than the game.


Nifty, fun components add a lot to the game
Easy rules with smart game play
Super portable

Just for two players
Very abstract (which might be a pro, if you like abstracts)
Only available direct from Nestorgames... which is in Spain

You can peruse all the offerings from Nestorgames right here:

Monday, March 22, 2010

Board Game Review - Catacombs

I like dungeon crawl games. I also like flicking games (you know, where you flick a little wood disc with your finger in an attempt to put out an opponent's eye, or lose the piece under the refrigerator). The question before me tonight, however, is whether you can mix flicking with crawling and make a fun game. I contend that if you do it properly, you wind up with Catacombs, which is, in fact, a fun game.

If you had asked me to create a dungeon crawl game where you flicked things, I probably would have butchered it. I would have added a silly number of extra rules, unnecessary components, and possibly some cheap, ugly art. Catacombs brilliantly sidesteps the extra rules and unneeded pieces, though they seem to have adopted the ugly art, maybe to make me feel better about myself.

Four heroes romp through a dungeon constructed of a series of rooms. Each room is listed on a different card, and corresponds to one of six large dungeon boards with holes in it. The holes get filled by obstacles like pillars, rock formations, or tables, though all obstacles are actually represented by gray wooden discs (which I suppose means the obstacles could be discarded tires or unruly grade-schoolers). The heroes and monsters are wooden discs as well, and you all take turns shooting them at each other (that should be clarified - ideally, you shoot the monster discs at the hero discs, or vice verse, and not at the other players). Hit a hero with a monster, and you cause some pain. Hit most monsters with a hero, and the monster is trashed.

So far, this is a pretty simple game. What makes it work really well is that considerable thought was put into two important factors. For starters, the components are all very nice - linen stock cards, a beautiful varnish on the boards, and nice, clean discs. The game looks really swanky, as long as you're looking at physical quality and not art. The discs slide easily across the room boards, ricochet perfectly off the obstacles, and knock each other right through the non-existent walls (frankly, walls might have been nice - it would have been awesome to bank an arrow off the wall).

The game also works pretty well because the designers put a good amount of effort into creating a reasonably balanced game. I suck at flicking games (I like 'em, I just can't play 'em), so when I was the bad guy, I got my tail kicked, though I did manage to exterminate one of the heroes before my dragon took a painful boot to the face. Had I been more competent with the flicking, I might even have managed to kill a couple more, and then it would have been a far more interesting contest. Not that it was boring at all - it was like playing a live-action miniatures game, as long as all the action is provided by hitting things with your fingers, and the miniatures are round pieces of wood.

This is not a massive brain-dump of a thinking man's game. It's fun, light, and fast-paced. You flick your discs, count your dead, and do it again. It sets up fast, plays fast, and can easily be enjoyed while sampling your favorite adult beverage. A group of intelligent game nerds can knock this one out in less than hour - maybe a lot less, if everyone is paying attention and not mocking the drawing of the troll. You won't find yourself paralyzed by a staggering array of choices, but there are still a few decisions to make, like when to play the wizard's spells and how to arrange it so that the thief gets to steal more money. It's basically an easy-going opposed cooperative game, so the only ruthlessness will be from one of two sources. Either the bad guy player will do some underhanded shenanigans to try to kill you (which kind of comes with the territory on games like this), or one of the other players should be immediately expelled from your circle of friends and possibly shunned any time you are in public.

So far, Catacombs is just a fun game. The creators spent a whole lot of money on components, and healthy amounts of testing on the rules, but must have run out of budget when it came time for art. One room looks like crinkled green aluminum foil, and the fire room looks like an old lady's varicose veins. All the art is amateur-hour pencil work - no color anywhere. The graphic design and illustration got the very short end of the budget stick, and it hurt this game pretty badly. The art doesn't cause it to totally suck, but it's definitely less fun than it could have been, just because it could have looked a hell of a lot better. You can tell me art doesn't affect game play, but I'll tell you there's a damned good reason I'm spending hour after hour painting my Warhammer Quest figures. When the game looks cool, it's more fun.

Happily, Catacombs is a fun enough game that you can get past the lowest-bidder visual problems and just enjoy shooting wood discs at your friends. The boards are big enough to accommodate some pretty big battles, and the variety of monsters you can meet means that the game should be playable for a good long time before you find yourself wishing for more stuff to kill. For any long-term replay factor, this game is going to need some expansions pretty soon. Hopefully it will sell really well, and they can afford to do a reprint - only this time, they might actually pay a competent artist to make some swanky cool art that could replace the pencil drawings and ninth-grade Photoshop textures.

In fact, I hope this does sell really well. I would definitely buy a graphically-enhanced reprint, and I would collect expansions like they came with blowjobs. There's a whole lot of fun factor in Catacombs, and it's really nice to see a small-press company spend the money needed to make a game that won't fall apart after you play it twice. If you like dungeon crawlers and flicky games, you'll almost certainly enjoy Catacombs.


Easy rules let you jump right in and start shooting things at each other
High-quality components
Dungeon crawls and dexterity games work great together - who knew?

Unfortunate art decisions make this a rather ugly game

This game is fun, and I really hope it does great. It's not actually out yet, but you can follow it and check for updates here:

Friday, March 19, 2010

Board Game Review - Uncle Chestnut's Table Gype

I should have a warning label or something. I would think that the title page alone - 'crassly opinionated game reviews' - would be a pretty decent hint that I'm not always a very nice guy, but it seems many people ignore that completely. But just to be perfectly clear, to put any budding game designers out there on notice:

The surgeon general has determined that letting me review your crappy game can be bad for sales, not to mention what it will do to your ego.

Uncle Chestnut's Table Gype is a good example of a game where the designer would have done well to read that warning label. Alas, he was inattentive, and apparently never read reviews of stuff I didn't like. Well, Uncle Chestnut, you probably should have done a little more homework. Table Gype is rife with examples of things that make me walk away in a hurry.

For instance, the board is a napkin. I don't mean it's a board that has napkin art on it, I mean the game board itself is silk-screened onto a black cloth napkin. And this napkin does not want to lay flat, which makes the game slightly irritating to play. A napkin is what you use in a restaurant when you need to write something immediately and can't find a piece of paper. It is not a game board. I've seen nice cloth game boards, but those boards are actually cloth, not napkins. This game board looks like it was stolen from a neighborhood Mexican restaurant.

Also, if you do intend to include quotes around the outside of the board, do yourself a favor and hire a damned editor to check your work. Do not put sloppy mistakes right there on the board, especially when the only reason the quotes are there is to show that you have a fondness for GK Chesterton.

Another irritation point is that the game comes with 32 blank dice and about 200 stickers, and you have to peel all the stickers and put them on the dice. And since there are six different symbols, you also have to be really careful so that you don't end up putting two of the same thing on one die. Because then you will feel retarded, and worse, you will have spent an hour putting together your game just to decide that you would rather play Parcheesi.

And you know what? I don't give a flying hairless rat's ass about GK Chesterton. HG Wells has some stuff that would make great games. CS Lewis had awesome material that could be mined for a fun theme (I mention those two because they were writing at the same time, and they shared Chesterton's unfortunate luck of having two letters for a first name). But I have trouble imagining what makes a master of Catholic apologetics into theme fodder. I certainly have no desire to read a whole bunch of quotes, completely out of context, to explain why one side of every die is decorated with a human ear.

The final piece that makes this one of the worst-produced games I've ever seen is the box in which the entire bundle is contained. I'm sure the box was very affordable, but I still question the wisdom of using those flimsy plastic boxes that Save the Children uses to send you cheesy Christmas cards as a way to thank you for giving them ten bucks a year.

Now, here's the worst thing - this is a fun game. It would be a lot more fun if I didn't have to assemble it myself and then play it on a cocktail napkin while I read failures of subject-verb agreement, but it's actually very clever. It's like Chinese Checkers, but with dice instead of marbles, and you play it on a square grid. Your dice have to move from your home row to that of your opponent, and if you have four people playing, the middle of the board can turn into one heck of a sloppy mess.

Each face of a die has a different move it makes. The swords move diagonally. The book moves straight. The hat hops. The ear just sits there, which I guess kind of makes sense, because how the hell would a disembodied ear get anywhere at all? The potential answers to that question are more than a little creepy.

On your turn, you can move a die or roll it. If you jump over other dice, you have to roll them, which is a great strategy if your opponent has a fire about to do some immense string of jumps. It's best if you can turn it into one of those freakish ears. And then if you get your dice turned into ears, you'll want to jump them yourself, to see if you can't turn them into trees.

It will take about an hour to put the game together. Then it will take you about ten minutes to figure out how to play. It will take less than half an hour to actually play the game, unless you spend any time reading the game board or complaining about having to play on table linens. It's way more fun with four people, but it's still very enjoyable with two. It's a cool abstract with a bizarre theme, and if the components were not total bargain basement, I would be saying all kinds of nice things about it.

Look, I understand that the guy who made Table Gype might be an academic on a short budget with an immense fondness for Victorian Age literature. I can forgive a lot in a game, especially small-press stuff, but there are just too many things about this game that scream, 'I can't afford this!' Kudos to the guy for trying, but this is not a success. It's a fun game. It's just a pity that it comes in a recycled gift box and is played on a napkin.


Fun abstract with chances for strategy, planning, and quick thinking
Interesting derivative of stuff created by some literary geniuses

Seriously underwhelming components
Straight-up rookie night production
Odd choice of theme inspiration

You can check out Uncle Chestnut's Table Gype for yourself at:

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Board Game Review - Infinite City

I think we need a national push toward a little corporate honesty. For starters, I think all MacDonald's commercials should, from this point forward, include only fat people. Wal-Mart ads should quit featuring perky suburban housewives with lovely children, and start showing us mullet-wearing throwbacks in camouflage hot pants. And publishers who use the word 'infinite' in their games titles should be forced to make games that last longer than half an hour.

Sure, Infinite City is a tricky tile-laying game with a massive eff-you factor and a bewildering array of complex decisions cropping up every turn, but it most definitely ends, and so I maintain that the name of the game should be Finite City. In fact, you can finish a three-player game inside 30 minutes, and we finished a five-player game in less than an hour. This is clearly a case where the name of the game is directly at odds with how long it takes to play.

The premise of Infinite City is simple enough. In fact, the rules can be explained in the time it takes you to crack open a beer and find a glass. Every turn, you play a tile from your hand representing one of the architectural edifices of the titular city (if there is a word more fun than titular, I want to know about it). Then you put one of your tokens on it and follow the directions. Scoring is tricky enough that you'll have to explain it twice to anyone who wasn't paying attention the first time, but it's still not hard to grasp. In fact, you'll understand the game so quickly, you'll know for sure that the name of the game didn't come from the rules explanation.

And the game doesn't take long, either. You can usually plan your turn while you wait for it to arrive, so in most cases, the turns go pretty fast. Sometimes you'll set off a combination play that chains together for a couple minutes, but most of the time, you're in and out in 30 seconds or less.

So what, exactly, makes Infinite City so infinite? Well, I've carefully pondered the notes I took while I played (incidentally, if you believe that I take notes while I play games, you're high), and I think I figured it out. Basically, Infinite City provides a nearly infinite number of ways for other players to completely hose you. Every turn is another opportunity to be humiliated, degraded and abused. You can go from the top of the heap to the Fire Down Below in just one play. Hopefully, that play will not be your own, but it certainly could happen.

See, every building in Infinite City does something different. Some of the more innocent buildings, like the housing or the library, let you put together a few moves in a row. Some of the buildings are a little more aggressive, like the transit center or the post office, which rearrange the city and make your opponents plot your untimely demise. And some of the tiles are so rotten, so mean-spirited, and so just plain dirty that you'll be sizing your opponents for pine boxes and shallow graves.

Take, for instance, my son. He is a ridiculously smart kid, and he frequently provides me with opportunities to regret his intelligence. One of the rottenest cards in the game, the shopping center, requires you to swap hands with another player. So if you have four cards, and an opponent has ten, then you smile as you hand the opponent a pile of garbage that he can play instead of the wealth of brilliance he was holding. It's worth noting that when my son played this tile on me, my hand sucked - but it was nowhere near as bad as the hand I got to replace it. I spent the next three turns building crappy decorative water fountains miles away from the rest of the city, while he went on to dominate the world banking markets.

Another time, my son decided that I was doing much too well at the game, and played a stadium right in the middle of my occupied buildings. All of my tokens instantly rushed over to the stadium, leaving my entire scoring block completely empty. My score went from eight to zero in one turn. Meanwhile, his grandmother was buying up land like a turn-of-the-century oil mogul and protecting them with power stations.

I could go on and on... and on... but the point here is that, in only four plays of the game, I have seen an incredible number of ways to use Infinite City to completely ruin another person's chances of scoring anything better than one of those flimsy paper ribbons they give you in grade school because you showed up to the science fair wearing pants. I am quickly coming to believe that Infinite City, while a reasonably short game, may have its name because you just never run out of ways to stab each other in the duodenum.

Here's the problem, though - it's a blast. It's so much fun to try to build a good scoring pattern, maximize your bonus points, and break up your friends' plans, you'll find yourself playing it over and over. The tiles are really nice, and the art is beautiful. The writing tends to be a little tiny, which could bother someone with bad eyes, but after you play it a couple times, you won't even need to read the tiles any more. There are a finite number of building types (yet another failure on the part of the marketing team), and so you're not constantly inundated with new things to remember. By your second run through this smart, fast, brutal game, you'll know how most everything works, and be quite prepared to be completely ruined at the drop of a hat.

But fair warning, because AEG didn't provide it - this game is not Infinite. It most definitely ends, usually before you can figure out why you can't find your pants, or why your butt hurts so bad.


Requires a great combination of planning and flexibility
Really easy to learn - the rules are on the tiles
Great art and high-quality pieces
Fast enough that it should be called something like 'Quick City' or 'Zippy City', if those names didn't sound like a small-town gas station

One of the most back-stabbity games I've played in a long time (that could be a pro, depending on who you are)

If you want a quick, easy-to-learn game that provides a whole hell of a lot of good strategic game play, you should definitely check out Infinite City. And you should definitely get it from Dogstar Games, because without them, you wouldn't have been able to read about it here.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Card Game Review - Irondale

If you've never played a game from Small Box Games, you're depriving yourself. The entire company is basically one dude and his wife, and they print everything locally and ship it all over the damned place. The designer, John Clowdus, has a thoroughly twisted mind. Not like baby-oil-and-shaved-badgers' twisted, but more like how-the-hell-did-you-think-of-that twisted. His games are simple to play, once you learn the rules, but they're so unlike anything else that you'll have to read the rules six times before you understand what you're supposed to do. The ironic thing is that the rules are usually one piece of paper. It takes some serious mental hijinks to be able to come up with really simple rules that make perfect sense, but only after you read them repeatedly. I've said before that John's games are absolutely brilliant, even when they suck.

Irondale is classic Clowdus. The cards are kind of cheap, because it's really hard to find a high-quality linen-stock printer willing to do a 100-piece print run. The rules are printed on both sides of a single piece of paper, and the design is all home-grown. Unlike many Small Box Games, Irondale contains only cards, not the copious quantities of hand-assembled pieces that have been in John's game in the past. Since Irondale is part of the Pure Card line, that kind of makes sense. It also makes sense that the Clowdus clan doesn't feel like spending two hours assembling each of 100 games to make enough money to buy a nice meal.

But if the cards are a little on the cheap side, the rules are pure gold. The way the game is built means that you'll make your brain sweat every turn as you try to come up with the highest-scoring combinations as you build the city of Irondale. Each card is a building, and you score points according to the kind of building next to the one you're building now. You can build two buildings on your turn, so often your first play is to set up a big scoring opportunity for your second play. Unless, of course, you're as confused as most of my family, in which case your first play is to put down a card, discover that you can't play it there, then pick it up and stare at your hand a while longer.

To make your head hurt a little more, different buildings do different things. They might offer extra points if you build specific buildings next to them, or let you draw cards, or let you steal stuff from the other players. So now you're not just trying to put down one card to build another card, you're trying to put down the right card in the right spot so you can follow it up with another right card in another right spot, and all the while you're trying to draw more cards and steal from your opponents and get more points and plan for next turn.

In case you're not completely paralyzed with indecision at this point, on the off chance that you're still able to put together a useful play without thirty minutes of pondering, Irondale adds in the master plan. If you build two of the right kinds of buildings on your turn, you can get more points or draw more cards. So now you plan how you'll put down the one card to benefit the second card, all while keeping an eye on all the cards placed so far and trying to walk yourself through the convoluted series of events leading up to your inevitable win. You'll place the bath house next to the gay bar, which will get you two extra points and a social disease, then you'll put the county lockup in the corner formed by the bath house and the Baptist church, which will earn you the eternal gratitude of the Bible-thumping zealots and just might cost you the next election. The jail will let you make other people throw away cards (theoretically, I'm making this up now - there are no gay bars or Baptist churches in Irondale, in case you were wondering), so you'll wait for all the discarding to happen before you reveal your master plan, which was to build a jail and a bath house, which earns you two more points and a jail full of inmates who are more likely to share makeup tips than stab each other.

In case I'm not conveying this properly, Irondale is a very complicated game. The box says it is medium weight, but I think Clowdus lied to us. There is an insane number of elements to consider when you take your turn, and if your brain is not capable of juggling a dozen things at once, you're going to get completely lost. That, or you'll just slap the clown college down next to the military academy and watch the bodies pile up like cordwood. It's incredibly well-designed, and all goes together brilliantly, but it's a hell of a lot to take on board.

Unfortunately, a couple design decisions confuse the hell out of me. The main game play is great, but I fail to understand the purpose behind trading a card away when your turn is over. Not only do the rules not tell me what to do if nobody wants the card, but the trading makes it more difficult to plan for next turn, because it's harder to control what I keep for later. Not to mention the fact that it seems largely pointless. If the game needed to let you toss your old cards to get new ones, it could have just let you discard to draw new cards. That's a fairly simple solution.

The scoring method is particularly wacky. To keep track of your points, you take two cards and line them up next to each other. Spin the 1 so it faces the 11 and you've got 12 points. What the game needs in a desperate way is a scoring track. We kept track of our points on a piece of notebook paper, because this card scoring thing is just unnecessary complication and it looks really silly. I think it might also be the reason that there are three different decks, all containing pretty much the same selection of buildings and making me wonder why half this stuff happened at all.

If I do play Irondale again - and I might, I enjoyed it quite a bit - I'm making some changes. For starters, all the cards go in the same pile, and I don't care what color the backs are. For another thing, we're killing the trade step and just letting you buy new cards with discarded ones. Third, I'm painting the doors on all the outhouses I can find. That actually has nothing to do with the game, it's just a recurring dream I keep having.

I wouldn't say that Irondale is my new favorite game. It's way too tricky to play with most casual gamers. But if you like to do mental calisthenics when you play games, Irondale will rock your world.


So much going on, you'll need to plan ahead for every turn
Brilliant interaction and smart card plays
Neat buildings on the cards

Can be very confusing
Cheap cards
A few questionable design decisions

You can find out what new mad science Clowdus is making all the time at his site:

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Announcement - Geek of the Week

This will be quick, because I'm posting from my phone. I'm Geek of the Week, so if you want to ask me a bunch of questions, now is your chance.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Card Game Review - Thunderstone

I have a theory. I'll walk you through it, and then you can tell me I'm an idiot, and I can tell you that you're retarded.

Dominion is one of the most influential games of the last ten years. Whether or not you like it, it's tough not to see that a whole new kind of game has been invented. The game has drawn a huge audience, and people from all over the gaming spectrum have been drawn to it like skeeters to a bug zapper. That kind of success draws more than just fans, too - it draws people who would like to tap into the money well of gamers who have found some new shiny thing.

In fact, it reminds me of Magic: The Gathering. Before Magic, the collectible card game was, for all intents and purposes, non-existant. Suddenly this game comes out where you buy massive boxes full of cards, spending hundreds of dollars (if not thousands) on a game where you only need 60 cards to play. This makes a ton of money, so there are more CCGs being invented, almost overnight. The core idea behind the CCG is brilliant, and both gamers and designers can see lots of potential. It's not just the money pit - the whole idea of building your own game and then playing it is just plain fun.

Enter Dominion, the current game generation's version of Magic. Right now, when a deckbuilding game is released, the first descriptions of it will inevitably say something like, 'it's like Dominion, except...' But wait ten years, and people will just call it a deckbuilding game, the way Ra is a bidding game, Age of Steam is a train game, and Apples to Apples is a dumb game. We're only now beginning to see more deckbuilding games emerge, but give it ten years, and they'll be everywhere. And like CCGs, the draw is not just the money. Dominion created a whole new kind of game, and the whole concept behind the game is just plain fun. It adds a new weapon to a game designer's arsenal and gives us a new evolution in gaming.

So my review here is not actually about Dominion, it's a review of Thunderstone (the picture at the top of the review may have been a bit of a giveaway in that regard). And Thunderstone is a deckbuilding game, but it is not Dominion. Thunderstone uses the deckbuilding concept pioneered in Dominion, but it implements the idea in a rather different way. The question that remains, however, is whether or not that different way is a good one.

Thunderstone has two areas of cards. The village contains 16 different stacks, including four basic cards like food and daggers and untrained grunts, plus four hero types, and then eight random village cards that range from flaming sword (great for cooking wieners, not so useful if you have a tendency to wipe your knife on your pants) to magic spells, useful equipment and helpful villagers. Apparently the bartender does not mind being purchased, which makes him not unlike many bartenders I have personally known.

The other stack of cards is the dungeon, and at any time, three monsters from the dungeon are visible. The thunderstone is somewhere near the bottom of the dungeon stack, and you have to plow through the monsters, earning trophies, experience and victory points on your way to recover the not-very-valuable magic rock. To kill these beasties, you have to display a hand of heroes whose attack is stronger than the defense of the monster in question, and you have to show a light source, or you can't see so good. When the thunderstone finally makes it out of the dungeon, the game ends, and everyone counts up the victory points they got from killing monsters and having epic heroes (plus the points you get from owning googleberries, which despite the way that sounds, are food, not testicles).

Thunderstone is not anywhere near as tightly designed as Dominion. It relies heavily on an adventuring theme and some brilliant art (not to mention really nice cards) to draw you into the game. It's fun, but it's kind of chaotic, and you'll find yourself buying crappy stuff in the village just because you can't get enough attack points to clear out the mean critters you need to end the game. I suppose that if you play this lots of times, you'll figure out good combinations to speed up the game, but in the meantime, Thunderstone plays bad house guest and thoroughly overstays its welcome.

And I think that's the biggest issue I have with the game, really. It's an interesting use of the build-your-deck-as-you-play thing that was introduced in Dominion, and there's certainly some potential for huge awesome factor with cool art and fun stuff to play. But after about an hour, you're good and ready to see this thing come to an end, and you'll find yourself coaching the other players to try to get them to beat the bad guys so you can put it away. That's a huge shame, really, because it's definitely fun, until it's not any more. Basically, it's fun for about 45 minutes, which would be cool if it didn't take an hour and a half.

Thunderstone is interesting simply as a study in game evolution. Without Magic, there would be no Dominion, and without Dominion, there would be no Thunderstone. Thunderstone alone is not interesting enough to be the next step in the chain - there will be many more deckbuilding games, and Thunderstone will soon be lost in the historical shuffle. But it is cool to see another twist on the idea Dominion presented, and it will be fun to watch what other neat games we see in the future. Thunderstone is fun, even if it is too long, and it's super pretty, so it will amuse me until the next shiny bauble crosses my game table.


Interesting new deckbuilding twist
Great art
Cool theme
Really nice cards
45 minutes of fun

Not as tightly built as Dominion
90 minutes of game

I think you should check out Thunderstone, if only for a study in things to come. And it is a fun game, and the more you play it, the more you'll like it. So run over to Dogstar Games, thank them for letting me review Thunderstone, and while you're over there, pick up a copy.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Movie Review - The Crazies

I hate gross-out horror movies. For one thing, they're almost always really stupid. Take the first Saw movie, for instance. The cops are completely mentally handicapped - they get a tip on the biggest serial killer in the world, and decide just the two of them will go check it out. I watch Cops, and real cops call for backup if they pull over some bonehead and find out he's got a joint in the glovebox, but these two flatfoot dicks go tromping into the trap-laden house of horrors and never even bother to let the dispatcher know that they're at a crime scene.

Another big issue with gross-out horror movies is that they seem to be an excuse for some twisted writer and sick-ass director to show us the most unimaginably horrible ways people can die. I have no desire to see people skinned alive or butchered for meat, but those are practically light-weight compared to the awful acts that get perpetrated on innocent people in these ferociously disgusting films.

So, when I tell you that I went with a friend to see The Crazies this weekend, I want you to understand that I went to spend time with my friend, not because I wanted to see the movie. The ads make it look like a sick horror movie, and I didn't want to see that at all. But then my friend pointed out that the movie is from George Romero, the reigning king of zombie movies, and so I decided I could live through it. I do love zombie movies.

Boy, was I surprised to find out that the movie was a whole lot better than I thought it would be. That's not to say that it had a wealth of redeeming features, or anything, but for starters, this is not a blood-drenched festival of the disturbing, the way the commercials made it look. It's actually a pretty smart movie, and while it's still campy horror with a fair number of dead bodies and a huge budget for red corn syrup, it's actually got a cool plot, sympathetic characters and some exciting scenes.

Now that I've summed up a bit, I'm planning on spoiling a little. If you're one of those 'don't tell me anything lalalala I'm not listening you'll ruin the movie' people, you'll want to stop reading. I don't think my review will ruin the movie for you, and I'm sure not telling you the ending, but I will mention a few things you may not want to know.

For starters, the crazed killers in this movie are not the most horrifying element of the film. Sure, the psycho killers are sketchy, but they're nothing compared to the soldiers that get called in to deal with the menace. The scariest parts of the movie (for me, at least) feature the U.S. military as the villains, instead of the warped psycho killers. Like zombies, the crazies are unable to control their killer instinct, while the soldiers are heartless and evil and terrifying in their willingness to inflict harm. Ironically, the soldiers believe they are completely justified - but they wear protective masks the whole movie, turning them into faceless killing machines reminiscent of Terminators or German shock troopers. One interesting scene involves the humanizing of one soldier, and serves as the bright spot of light that makes the rest of the military actions that much darker.

Timothy Oliphaunt does a good job as the sheriff who goes through Hell to save his wife, but he's completely outshined by his deputy, a relatively unknown actor named Joe Anderson. If this performance is any indicator, Joe Anderson has one hell of a promising career ahead of him. The sheriff's wife is almost a throwaway character, basically uninteresting, but it's almost worth watching The Crazies just to see the loyal sidekick portray a level of depth that you just don't expect to see in a scary movie.

I've been talking like the movie is smarter than you might expect, but before I sound like this is high-brow fare, let me make clear that there are still some seriously nasty parts. Pitchforks to the chest cavity are pretty bad, but the guy with the bonesaw is worse. And the walk-in fridge full of bodies is even nastier. Romero has never had a problem showing us ugly deaths, and he doesn't switch it up on us now. Blood and guts and painful demise are the order of the day, and the lucky victims get shot. The unlucky ones get their faces sewn shut.

In the end, I was surprised at how much I liked The Crazies, but that's not because it's a great movie. I was surprised because I was expecting total suck, and got watchable. This is not a great film, but it does pick up some credibility from some good performances and a bit of impressive intelligence in the story (although there were some stupid parts, like the idea that the town water hits one side of the town several days before it gets to the other side). There are some clever uses of horror movie cliches, a few cool fights, and the scariest car wash in the history of film. Several times I knew something bad was going to happen, but still jumped a little when it did.

If you like Romero's zombie movies, you'll probably at least be entertained by The Crazies. But you might just wait until it comes to your local Red Box, or throw it in your Netflix queue and watch it where you can have a plate of nachos that don't cost you a second mortgage. This isn't destined to win any Oscars, I can tell you that.

Friday, March 5, 2010

Card Game Review - Jaipur

I like a game with a lot of theme, and I don't pretend to apologize for that. But sometimes a game can be fun, even if the theme is totally weak sauce. Example: Jaipur.

Jaipur is one of those games made by European people who think that mundane crap like sorting mail and stacking boxes is exciting enough to make into a game. In this two-player game, you're each merchants in Jaipur (which explains the name). You're competing to make the most money by buying and selling stuff like silver, leather and very nice scarves. To emphasize to the casual passerby how boring the theme for Jaipur is, the box cover has a strange-looking Indian dude who appears to be really enjoying the opportunity to go shopping. He may be gay, but it's hard to tell through his ludicrously bushy beard.

What you have is two players, each with a hand of cards, and a row of five cards between you. Most of the cards are trade goods like gold and jewels, but a bunch of the cards are camels. You don't actually sell the camels, but they are wicked important to making the game work, because of the way you grab sellables.

Like many European games, the rules for Jaipur are really simple. On your turn, you either grab cards or sell cards. That's it. If you buy just one, you replace it from the deck, and if you want more, you have to swap them from your hand. You can also grab every camel in the market, which fills it back up again, but gives you a heck of a chance to trade stuff later. The idea is that you use these camels to swap out for goods, thereby loading up on the cards you need to make the big sales.

If you sell cards, you take whatever you have in a single color and discard it, then take some points. The first person to sell a particular good gets more for it, and sometimes you'll run out, leaving your opponent with worthless crap that nobody wants to buy because the market is flooded. After a while, the round ends and you add up points. To win the whole game, you have to win two rounds. It's pretty straight-forward.

What is not straight-forward is the strategy and timing required to be good at Jaipur. Grab a bunch of camels, and you might offer a market full of expensive stuff to your opponent. But if you do it right before the round ends, you can score extra points for having the most camels (not sure how that makes you a great trader, but it won me the game, so I'll overlook it). Hold on to those jewel cards, and you can steal the whole stack, but hold them too long and the other player will snatch the best ones off the top and leave you with a handful of garbage. Ignore the cheap stuff, and you let your opponent collect the five-card trade bonus. Pay too much attention to the cheap stuff, and your opponent gets all the good stuff.

It will take you a round or two to figure out how to play Jaipur well, but you'll enjoy learning. For one thing, the art is so nice it's practically decadent, and the cards are that swanky linen stock that make them a breeze to shuffle and deal. There's even the coolest insert I've ever seen in a game - it has this sculpted mosque and the name of the game embossed in the bottom of the tray. You gotta see it to know what I mean, but it's really sweet. Some people might argue that components don't make a game, that you can enjoy a game just as much if it has flimsy pieces and ugly art, but I challenge them to go to a bar and choose between a smokin' hot dame in a miniskirt and a ferociously ugly girl with an ass like a phone book. Either way, you're having sex, but it's way more fun if the chick looks good.

I still say the theme is nearly as gay as collecting tea, and that no self-respecting, red-blooded, American meat-eater should enjoy the game. But on the other hand, it is a really fun game, and the theme is just not that big a deal. Hell, I love Blue Moon, and the theme for that one is sheer drug-induced randomness, so just about any game can be great if the rules work. And in Jaipur, the rules work. The game is fun, challenging and smart, which means I'll probably be playing it a whole lot more.


Simple rules that make a ton of strategy
Easy to learn, fast to play
Surprising depth
Great cards with great art

What a thoroughly boring theme

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Event Review - Whiskey Tasting

I have the coolest wife in the world. Many of you might dispute that statement, possibly arguing that you, not I, have the coolest wife, but in order to prove my case, I present the following three pieces of incontrovertible evidence.

1. My wife is a gourmet chef. Not for a living, or anything - just for me. I eat like a king. That's not an exaggeration, either - on any given night, there is a remarkable possibility that I am eating better than the British royal family. She's that good. For instance, what did you have for Thanksgiving? Turkey? Because I had foie gras and lobster.

2. Once, when we were in line at the movies, the college-age girl in front of us, probably exhausted from copulating like a rabbit with her similarly youthful boyfriend, was sitting on the floor. I only noticed her enough to keep from kicking her, but my wife not only noticed her, but pointed her out to me. The reason this was interesting was that the girl was wearing very sexy thong underwear, and because of the way she was sitting, I was able to see almost down to the promised land. And I would have missed that if my wife had not brought her to my attention.

3. Last night, my wife took me to a whiskey tasting. And she drove.

If you don't really drink much whiskey, that may not mean anything to you, but whiskey is my favorite liquor. I love to sip at a tumbler with two fingers of Johnny Walker Black while I play a game or watch a movie. It's raw and tasty, and takes very little to get a nice, mellow buzz. Beer makes me feel like I've got cotton stuffed behind my eyes, but a scotch buzz is just light-headed fun.

The tasting was held at an Irish bar, which means that right off the bat, scotch whiskey was off the menu. Considering my taste for smoky, smooth scotch, that was a little disappointing, but we were still set to drink an awful lot of seriously expensive booze, so it didn't take me much effort to be just fine with the selection.

I was not quite as accepting of the company. I probably should have figured that the kinds of people who attend whiskey tastings would not be my cup of tea, but I was delighted to find out that at least half of them are total freaks. The tub of ass-lard across from me could not eat without spilling food on his lap-desk of a belly, which would have been less disgusting had he not eaten the food that landed on his shirt. I guess he felt that the three-second rule for dropped food still applied if it fell onto his portable dining room table of a gut. Someone should have told him he was in public, however, because his shirt had holes in it. I wanted to ask him, 'do you know that people can see you?'

But he still looked better than the guy who showed up looking like a homeless guy and coughing all over everything. I was hoping the whiskey tasting came with a bottle of Purel. He left early, probably because the trash truck was about to empty his house so he could go to bed.

Speaking of spreading disease, I somehow wound up seated next to a guy who felt a need to put his fingers on every piece of cheese on the appetizer plate. He would pick up a handful of pieces of cheese with his hands, though there were little cheese spears on the plate so that you didn't need to touch the food other people were going to eat. I guess he thought the spears were toothpicks, because after he ate the cheese, he used the little plastic spears to wedge the crumbs out from between his gap teeth and send them flying across the table.

I could go on - the oddly garrulous old woman with stringy gray hair and her boobs falling out of her top, or the trio of blocky lesbians who brought water droppers to the tasting, or the unkempt college kids who showed up halfway through - but I wasn't there for the circus side show (which is not to say I didn't love it). I'm here to tell you about a whiskey tasting, and that's what I mean to do (though I reserve the right to revisit some of the freaks at the bar, if it's amusing or pertinent).

The tasting was sponsored and run by Jameson Irish Whiskey, so we only tried whiskey from one company. This actually worked out really well, for several reasons. We were able to compare a wide range of flavors from a single distillery, which meant that I was able to get a pretty good understanding for which Jameson labels I preferred.

For example, the cheapest Jameson spent five years in the barrels, and tasted a little like paint thinner. The 12-year was smoother and pretty darn tasty, while the gold and the Red Breast tasted like what happens in your mouth right before you throw up. The 18-year was freaking delicious, and the Very Rare (which usually runs about $140 a bottle) was some of the best whiskey I've ever tasted.

Aside from now knowing what kind of Irish whiskey I enjoy, I also learned a lot about whiskey in general. The girl running the tasting was a cute little Irish girl who walked us through a PowerPoint presentation that told us all about the history of whiskey, the history of Jameson, and a bunch of stuff about the brewing process. Since my wife was driving, I was drinking her whiskey, so I didn't hear most of this, and wouldn't really have cared if I had been sober. Seriously, who gives a rat's ass if your booze spent 18 years in a sherry barrel? I only care if it tastes good. I think many of the guys there, and probably the three lesbians at the end of the table, were paying more attention to the girl because she was hot. Me, I get irritated at pretty girls who chew gum while they're supposed to be talking to people, so I just drank whiskey and felt groovy and tuned out her lilting brogue in favor of whispering to my wife about how much I wanted to stab that tubby jackass across from me.

There are a few hazards you should understand if you want to attend a whiskey tasting. If possible, avoid complete strangers who think they should be talking with you at length, especially if those people are crazy old ladies who jabber about worthless crap, forget your name, and force you to stare at their gray teeth that would make a dentist faint from disbelief. The other people at a tasting can really diminish your enjoyment. The sloppy fat goober across from me couldn't quit commenting on every glass like he had a yearly membership to Whiskey Aficionado, talking about the aroma and color and smooth taste and exquisite finish. I wanted to shove my pen into his eye socket, but I wouldn't have been able to finish my whiskey if I had gone to jail, and they had some damned fine whiskey.

Also, be aware that they may want to educate you, and if you don't really care about Irish history lessons when you're trying to strap on a buzz, you may need to ignore some relatively useless information. If I ever decide to take up brewing whiskey, I'll take a night class. Unless you're one of those 'student of life' people who thinks that you have to be learning something everywhere you go, just ignore that noise and enjoy the booze.

I suppose they might have other kinds of tastings, like tequila tastings at a Mexican restaurant or vodka tastings at a Russian roadblock. I prefer whiskey, so this worked out great, but if you look around, you can probably find someone trying something. I would probably go to another whiskey tasting, as long as it was a different company offering the whiskey. I know all I need to know about Jameson Irish whiskey now, especially since I still prefer scotch to nearly all of it (though if you're ever considering buying me a gift, a bottle of Jameson Very Rare would be exceptionally well received).


Lots of tasty, tasty booze
Find out what kinds of whiskey you like

Where do these people hide when they're not pretending to be socially acceptable?

Monday, March 1, 2010

Board Game Review - Risk: Balance of Power

I've said before that I'm kind of a Risk whore. And by 'kind of a Risk whore', I mean I would be very likely to trade sex for Risk, as long as the person with whom I was trading was attractive and female, though in all fairness, if she was attractive and female, she would probably rather have sex with someone who was not interested in trading sex for board games. Now that I think about it, actually, I would make a horrible male prostitute, though I would be astonishingly affordable.

Being a would-be Risk whore, I was delighted to find a copy of Risk: Balance of Power, which Hasbro decided would not be sold in the United States, probably because they don't like money (or, apparently, sex). I would think that a two-player version of Risk would sell like it came with a blowjob, but Hasbro seems to know better. So the version I have came out of Canada, and has all the rules in both French and English, because Canadians can't just speak American like civilized people.

The neat thing about Balance of Power is that it is only a two-player game of Risk. It's still Risk, which means I know I will love it, but instead of the whole world, you're fighting over Europe, and there are a bunch of tweaks to make it work really well for two players.

Some of the extra stuff that makes this work so well as a two-player game include installations, which have no game effect outside being achievable goals, and rough terrain, where you can only attack with two guys, and thus have an extra bonus chance of getting your ass kicked if you try to steal them. Balance of Power riffs off the newly revised Risk, so the goal is not to win every spot on the board, but rather to achieve three goals before your opponent, so controlling both satellite stations is a pretty big deal.

The setup is completely new to Balance of Power, and reminds me of when I was a kid and had to share cake with my brother, and my mom would make one of us cut it and the other choose his piece. In Balance of Power, one player sets up the board, and the other player decides who he wants to play. So if you set it up so that blue is going to run roughshod over red, prepare to have several teeth loosened by your army placement.

Of particular note is that losing troops can often work in your favor. Every time you lose a guy, he goes on your troop counting card, and at the beginning of your turn, you can turn in some of those dead soldiers for bonuses. You could get more troops, for instance, or buy an airfield. You might get special forces who can roll all their dice when they attack the Swedish fjords, or you can get a statistical advantage if you attack an installation. This one little tweak means that if you really get beat down on your opponent's turn, you have all this ammunition to make a comeback. I don't think it would work very well in regular Risk, but in Balance of Power, this is a great balancing feature that prevents a humiliating loss just because your dice sucked for one turn.

But the coolest new bit that really makes this version of Risk brilliant is the neutral player. These tan pieces will be placed at the beginning of the game, but they don't attack. They just sit there and take up space. And if you spend some of those dead troops, you can get the neutrals all riled up, and they'll attack your enemy. This is really great if you're trying to get into a new space, because after they destroy all their own troops trying to knock out your enemy, they're ripe for the picking. A well-timed neutral uprising can virtually hand you some really key spots, which means that you may want to quit attacking your foe when he's in a position to stick his neutral boot up your ass.

The design shares the less-is-more look that you see with the new Risk, and I must say, I freaking hate it. It's ugly and dull and drab. The game is great, but the map is more boring than geometry proofs (in all fairness, I loved geometry proofs). And the pieces are total crap, too. Instead of little wooden squares, or little soldiers, you get flat arrows. These are supposed to make the board look like you're generals planning your assaults in the war room, but since the damned things are nearly impossible to pick up, the board ends up looking like a drunk guy giving directions on a map of the European Union.

The problem is, the game is a blast. It works great. But the map is so painfully boring that it eats a little bit of your soul when you sit down to play, and then you have to try to manipulate these ridiculous arrow-shaped wafers. So I think that since I love the game, but hate the pieces, I'm going to have to decorate it. It's going to need soldiers, and I'll have to redraw the map, but when I'm done, this will be gorgeous.

Oh, who am I kidding. I'm not going to take the time to do that. I'm just going to set it up and play it and complain the whole time, even while I'm having a grand old time invading Poland and laying waste to the Swiss Bank.


Additional rules and elements make it work great for two players
It's Risk. I love Risk.

The board is fugly
The arrows are in the advance running for most irritating boardgame pieces ever made
The Canadian version is actually missing a page of rules, which I had to get from BGG

I don't have the foggiest idea where you can find Balance of Power, but if you do find it, you should buy it. It's awesome, even if it is beat-down ugly.