The Gallerist: A Board Game Review

**Editor’s note: As mentioned, this is the first guest post on Baby Brown Bear. The pictures may be mine, but the text is all Jason’s. All I’d like to add is that this beautiful and meaty strategy game has quickly become one of my favorites. If you’re seriously into board games and are willing to invest a little time to set it up and learn it, I almost guarantee you will not regret playing this game.**

gallerist

Clever tagline. [Source]

Board games nowadays come with any exciting theme you can think of. You can terraform a new planet, navigate your clan in an early-industrial dystopia, battle your viking enemies for favor of the gods, and trade exotic goods along the Silk Road. You can investigate mysteries in the Cthulu mythos, fly X-Wings of your own against the Empire, and prevent the spread of epidemics while desperately searching for cures.

You can also stitch together a quilt, cultivate a farm, run a 1950s-era soda shop, or, the topic of this post, operate an art gallery. All of these themes are in well-regarded games and illustrate that a theme doesn’t have to be flashy to be compelling. So set your viking war helmets aside and put on your turtle neck sweaters for this review of Vital Lacerda’s The Gallerist.

Background

Who made this game, anyway? First, a word on the designer. Residing in Portugal, Mr. Lacerda has made a name for himself in the last decade as a designer of complex games with hits like Vinhos, Kanban, and, most recently, Lisboa. Many gamers consider his designs to be must-buy upon release. Just like when you used to stand in a line around the block for N’SYNC’s latest CD, gamers around the world sign up for pre-orders as soon as they are announced for designers they follow. Though I suspect game designers get far fewer lady undergarments thrown at them.

Lacerda’s games are famous for having seemingly simple actions to choose from, but in reality each action ripples through the entire game space, affecting each player and each future decision. The Gallerist is no exception.

The Basics

In The Gallerist, each player assumes the role of a gallery operator, tasked with trading art, promoting artists, overseeing employees, and building an international reputation. Whoever accumulates the most money at the end of the game is the winner.

Time: 60-150 minutes
Players: 1-4
Ages: 13+
Designer: Vital Lacerda
Artist: Ian O’Toole
BGG Rating: 8.0*
Baby Brown Bear Status: Owned

*The top-ranked games have ratings of ~8.5/10.

Actions

I won’t bore you with a complete rules explanation, but I will briefly describe each action spot.

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Action spaces from top, going clockwise: sell art/take a contract (4), buy art/discover an artist (1),  promote artist/hire assistants (2), international auction/international reputation (3). As you can see here, the orange pawn has just moved to the sell art/take a contract spot and has consequently given the yellow pawn a “kicked-out” action. The two players have a smattering of visitors in their galleries but no one in their lobbies. There are a bunch of VIPs in the plaza. To the left of the board is the international auction area. To the right of the board is the artist area. On the bottom of the board is the reputation track.

1. Buy art / discover an artist

This spot allows you to either buy art from an established artist or commission a piece from an unknown artist. The price of the art is set by the fame level of the artist. However, if you commission a piece, the price of the piece is locked in at the lowest price, no matter how famous the artist is when you fulfill the commission and buy the piece (the benefit of discovering young talent).

2. Promote artist / hire assistants

Here is where you use your influence in the art world, and maybe cash in on a few favors, to promote an artist. This increases that artist’s fame and thus the value of their works. You can also hire assistants, who act as worker bees running errands and as representatives of your empire internationally.

3. International auction / international reputation

Remember those assistants from literally one sentence ago? Put them to work here. At the end of every game, there are artworks from foreign artists awarded to players. However, one player is guaranteed to miss out on a piece of art, so you better get your assistants to place bids in quickly and early! You also use your assistants to earn you reputation abroad, which yields some end-game bonuses for their hard work.

4. Sell art / take a contract

Pretty self-explanatory. Take this action if you wish to sell a piece of art. In order to sell that piece, of course, you first need a contract of that artwork type (there are four types).

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A close-up of the photographers and sculptors. Not shown are the painters or digital artists.

That’s not so bad!

Four action spots, each with two choices. Pretty simple right? In order to execute those actions, you use two main currencies in the game. The first is money and the second is influence. Some actions give you more money or influence, others cost money or influence. Even better, you can use influence as money if you’re a few bucks short for an artwork. See? Everything connects with everything else.

So how do you take these actions? This is, quite simply, a worker placement game. If you want that action, just place your pawn on the action spot and take it. The only restriction is you can’t choose the spot on which your pawn is currently standing. Finally, something straightforward!

The last major component in the game is managing your gallery visitors. These visitors come in three types: Collectors, VIPs, and Investors. These visitors give you bonuses in fame (Collectors; white meeples), influence (VIPs; pink meeples), and money (Investors; brown meeples), depending on how many of each type you have in your gallery. You can lure the visitors to your gallery by spending tickets (see pink tickets in the above picture).

Game end

The visitors and tickets are also the timing mechanism of the game. The game ends when two of these three events occur: when there are no more tickets, when all the visitors are on the board, and/or when two artists attain the highest fame possible to become celebrities.

Putting It All Together

Easy peasy, right?

There is a lot to manage in this game. Each action has several steps that may affect money, influence, tickets, assistants, reputation tiles, bonuses, fame, contracts, etc. Truly, everything is linked, and unless you are sharp, you risk wasting actions because you don’t have the right resources. You have to make sure you have enough assistants in order to maximize your international presence and get every extra bonus and action you can. You have to have the money to buy the artwork at just the right time. You need to make sure you have the right contract to sell your art. You have to have enough influence to promote your artists and take extra actions when available. And about those extra actions…

Wait, more rules?

Remember when I said that the worker placement aspect of this game was straightforward? Well, I lied. The twist here is that if you are standing on the buy art action spot, and I decide to go there, that means I’ve kicked you out, and you get to perform a “kicked-out” action. With this kicked-out action, you can spend tickets, move assistants on the board, or spend influence to perform the buy art action again, essentially giving you an extra turn. Manipulating your opponents to give you kicked-out actions–while limiting doing so yourself–is a key component to success in this game.

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Here you can see the cheat sheet and secret goal cards, plus the player mat with contracts, assistants, gallery art, commissions, and visitor tickets.

My Thoughts

So, what do I actually think of the game? Glad you asked!

After my first couple of plays of the game, I was hesitantly impressed. I could tell there was a good game here, but I didn’t fully grasp what I was doing. It almost felt like I was not only playing against my opponents, but also battling the game itself. With each subsequent play, the actions and their ripples became clearer, until my fourth or fifth game, when I finally felt like I was in control of both the game and my actions. Now I’m able to determine a strategy, implement the strategy, and adapt as needed. (Editor’s note: said strategy not guaranteed to win.)

Cons

  • Complexity (the bad one). Clearly, this game isn’t for the faint of heart. I’m not saying it takes four plays for everyone to fully grasp the game, but your first play, at least, will probably be rough. It’s a common critique among a select few that too many strategy games these days have way too many rules and are too complex for their own good. Though there is a barrier to entry for this game, the investment is well worth it. Yes, there are a lot of different icons, and the some of the actions have seven steps to complete them, but the game provides each player a small rules card that explains many of the icons and summarizes the actions.
  • Amount of components. Although the components are nice, there are a lot of them. Be prepared to set aside time for game setup and teardown.
  • Two-player artist shortcoming. One of the key parts of the game is increasing the fame level of the artists, thereby increasing the value of their art. In a two-player game, this mechanism falls a little flat. After all, if both of you own one piece from the same artist, why bother increasing that artist’s fame? Any benefit you would get, the other player gets as well, except you spent an action and resources to do it. With more players, this becomes less of an issue because there are only so many artists to choose from, and with a maximum of two pieces available from each artist at a given time, not everyone would get the benefit.
  • Two-player auction shortcoming. As mentioned, at the end of the game the international artwork is distributed. The value of these pieces is determined by going rate of the most famous artist of that art type, so they can be quite lucrative. This also means they can greatly swing the outcome of the game, especially with two players. Veterans of The Gallerist will tell you that putting bids on the international auction is an important action throughout the game and that you shouldn’t ignore it. Yes, that’s true, but in a two-player game, it may not be worth the investment for the trailing player. I might but in a bid to combat my opponent, then my opponent puts in a bid, then I do, etc. In the end, I’ve just spent a lot of resources and actions for virtually no gain, other than wasting the resources and actions of my opponent. But my opponent gets the international work, and I get nothing.

Pros

  • Complexity (the good one). I love the puzzle aspect of this game, I love how interconnected all the actions and resources are. I know I want to do X, and in order to do that, I need to accomplish A-D first, but I need to do it better than my opponents. It’s such an enjoyable strain to map it all out in my head, and during plan execution I’m bound to get distracted by other opportunities and deterred by my opponents. Do I stay the course, or go the alternate route? And for as puzzly as this game is, I appreciate that it only has four action spots.
  • Investment. I like investing in an artist by buying their piece and watching that valuation go up, up, up! There are a few ways to get money in this game, but buying low and selling high is the most fun way to do it.
  • Quality. The components are top notch. Normally game components don’t move my needle unless they’re so bad they affect the gameplay. But in The Gallerist, the board is very nice. The cardboard components are thick. The artwork has, like, actual art on them from actual artists. It’s simply a pleasure to handle the components and view the board with everything laid out.
  • Unique theme. I appreciate that Vital took an uncommon theme and ran with it. Would he have gotten more buyers from a fantasy theme or steampunk setting? It’s possible, but he had a vision and ran with it, and the result is certainly a gem of a game.

In Short

The Gallerist is a well-produced game of high strategy with a unique theme. Your brain works on overdrive throughout the game to fit all the pieces of your strategy together. If this kind of game appeals to you, go try it out! As for me, it’s one of the highlights of our collection. It looks great, it plays great, and I can’t wait to explore it more.

Even Shorter

That’s still too many words!

Okay! I give it an 8 of 10, with the potential to rise further. Top 20 game.

About the Reviewer

I started out on “designer” games about 10 years ago, but have only been all-in on the hobby for the last three years. I like all sorts of games, not just long complex ones, so please ask if you’d like a recommendation. We have 60 or so games in our collection, but aren’t looking to grow that number until we have more time for games and more space to put them. Well, maybe there’s room for a few more…plus the kids need some games…and I’ve been waiting on a reprint for that one…

Editor’s note.

 

 

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Introducing Papa “Board Game” Bear

We play board games regularly, and yet my last board game post was an embarrassing year and a half ago. Since there are just so many games I would like to share with you, I’ve enlisted my husband to help me get back on track.

He’s what you might call a “board game enthusiast,” to say the least. “Board game obsessed” may still be an understatement, because Papa Bear lives and breathes board games. As a regular visitor on BoardGameGeek (BGG), he’s a wealth of board game knowledge. He’s plugged in to the global board game community, too, and is the reason we were invited to play games at a stranger’s house in the Netherlands earlier this year. He’s the best. (More on the Netherlands eventually, I promise.)

Needless to say, he was agog at the idea of doing a guest post when I asked him to review The Gallerist, one of our favorite games. Well, “agog” is a stretch seeing as how his outwardly emotional range is that of your stereotypical engineer, but if nothing else, his eyes shone with some semblance of excitement. His gleeful, one-day turnaround was indication enough that I needed his help. Before I publish said post, however, I want to take a minute to properly introduce him in all his board game glory.

Papa Bear: The Board Game Extraordinaire

Jason, because continuing to refer to him as “Papa Bear” feels borderline inappropriate, is worth blogging about for many reasons. After all, he’s an incredibly devoted father, husband, and friend. But his real passion–I say this mostly jokingly–is board gaming. I mentioned a long time ago that our journey into the strategy, or “designer,” board game world began around the time of our wedding more than seven years ago. The obsession grew slowly in those first years, until Jason discovered Power Grid in 2014. Seeking a rule clarification online, he stumbled upon BGG and has never looked back. Now, four years later, he’s an avid user and contributor on the site.

So much so that one the most highly esteemed board game designers quoted him about his own game.

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I kid you not, this is probably one of Jason’s proudest moments.

The board game poet

Board games also make Jason’s creativity flourish (as do family bracket challenges, but that’s a story for another time). A year or so ago, he sent me an email with the following board game limericks. Limericks! Just because!

Hanabi

In Hanabi, you can’t see your hand
Others can, and insinuate commands.
They point to a card with glee,
Say, “You have a three!”
Then you play it, there’s no mental demand.

Five Tribes

It’s got yellow meeples, green, red, and blue,
And white, and soon purple, too.
Some applaud the game’s makers;
They added the fakirs.
Gee, who would’ve thought slaves are taboo?

Power Grid

Supplying the most power’s the goal;
Pure strategy, no luck of the roll.
When a good plant is auctioned,
Best proceed with caution,
Lest you run out of money for coal.

Power Grid*

So many expansion maps to be used,
This game never fails to amuse.
But my group still can’t learn,
Is it phase, step, or turn?
Wait, what round are we on? I’m confused.

If you haven’t played the aforementioned games and don’t understand why these are so clever, just take my word for it. If you have, then you can look forward to more of this wit in future post(s). If I’m lucky, he’ll write posts about these games as well. (Hint hint, J.)

*He just really loves this game.

Our Game-Playing Dynamic in GIFs

By now, I’m sure Jason has unknowingly won you over and you’re just itching to read his Gallerist review. Before I let him loose, and because no post as of late would be complete without them, I must first share this series of GIFs to shed some light on what it’s like when we play games together. I promise it’ll make you like him even more, if me a little less.

See, my husband is generally happy to play any game at any time with anyone. He doesn’t want to do poorly and likes to see improvement in his strategy, of course, but he genuinely doesn’t seem to care whether he wins or loses. While I also feel this way when I play in a larger group of people, I’m sadly not always the best loser when it’s just the two of us. Miraculously, he continues to play with–and love–me despite this unfounded and one-sided competitive streak.

It’s kind of like this. Maybe you can relate?

Playing with our friends

When I win

I mean, who doesn’t like to win? [Source]

When I lose

Pretty much the same except with snack sweats and not professional basketball sweats: “Good game, good game. Pass the chips, please.” [Source]

Playing with each other

When I win

When I keep my winning streak going. (Sadly, there aren’t many games like this.) [Source]

When it’s a close call and I pretend I’m not surprised I came out ahead. [Source]

When we total the score and I can’t believe my eyes. [Source]

When I have a snowball’s chance of winning and end up pulling ahead by the skin of my teeth. [Source]

When I finally beat him at a game he always wins. (Even the hair looks the same.) [Source]

When I lose

When he wins a game for the millionth time and I’m not even that surprised. [Source]

When I lose that close game by a couple of victory points, especially if he scored a bunch of those points right at the end. [Source]

When he wins after he totally screws my strategy.[Source]

When I finally am slated to win but then he gets some obscure bonus at the end. [Source]

Obviously, I experience a whole range of emotions when we play games. None of this should surprise you at this point.

When he wins

When he’s happy with himself, but only allows a brief smirk so as not to flaunt his victory to his fragile wife. [Source]

When he loses

When he loses, is happy to have played the game, and congratulates me on my victory. (Side note: this is also how my husband looks in a tux. Me-ow.) [Source]

Really, if this doesn’t convince you how much of a stand-up guy he truly is, then I’m not sure anything will.

Without Further Ado

My next post will be Jason’s review of The Gallerist. I know you’re biting your nails with excitement, so stay tuned! My hope is that you like it–and Jason–as much as I do.

 

 

[Featured image source]

 

Odin’s Ravens: A Board Game Review

If you’re in search of a fast-paced two-player game, then look no further than Odin’s Ravens.

While the original edition debuted in 2002, designer Thorsten Gimmler released this completely redesigned version just this year. Having won the “Best Strategic Card or Dice Game” category at the UK Games Expo 2016, I’d say it’s been a success.

cover

[Source]

The Basics

Time: 20-30 minutes
Players:
 2
Ages: 8+
BGG Rating: 7.2*
Baby Brown Bear Status: On loan

Unfortunately (and embarrassingly), my knowledge of Norse mythology is primarily based on the Marvel Comics movies (Chris Hemsworth, though, amirite?!). If you are in the same boat, please let me refresh you.

thor-chris-hemsworth-dark-world

Swoon.
[Source]

great-odins-raven-ron-burgundy-cant-believe-his-eyes-in-anchorman

The only appropriate response to the above picture.
[Source]

*The top-ranked games have ratings of ~8.3/10.

Baby Bear’s half-assed refresher of Norse mythology

Odin, also referred to as “Allfather” because he is considered the father to all the other Norse gods, is the multi-faceted god of poetry, magic, and war. According to legend, his unquenchable thirst for knowledge led him to sacrifice an eye (via self-gouging) in Mimir’s Well, whence he gained some sort of cosmic knowledge. Interestingly enough, you can see a replica of this well at the Brunk Children’s Museum of Immigration.

Another, more practical, way he gains his wisdom? By sending out his trusty ravens, Huginn and Muninn, to bring back news from across the world.

georg_von_rosen_-_oden_som_vandringsman_1886_odin_the_wanderer

Decidedly less swoon-worthy.
[Source]

In this game, you and your opponent are those ravens, racing against each other to see who can return to Odin the fastest. However, to do so, you may need to enlist the help of the trickster god, Loki (who, I just found out, is actually Odin’s blood brother and not his son, as the movies would have us believe). Check out the section in that link entitled “Loki’s Role in the Pre-Christian Northern European Worldview” for an interesting analysis of Loki’s importance in the Norse mythology universe.

TL;DR

You’re a raven and you fly across the world to bring information to Odin. If you return before your opponent, you win.

Setup

The setup is incredibly simple and is shown in the following picture.

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At the top of the picture is the stack of land cards. In the middle of the picture to the left are the two wooden raven figures, ready to race. To the right of those are 16 land cards. On the bottom of the picture are the black player’s 25 flight cards and 8 Loki cards, the rule book,  and the red player’s 25 flight cards and 8 Loki cards. The path the ravens must follow is a loop, meaning the white raven on top must go straight in front of him until he reaches the end of the row. Then he must go down to the other side of the card (in this case the forest) and circle back on his opponent’s side until he arrives back at the starting point.

Ravens start on the left side of the board and must traverse land cards. While there are 40 total land cards, they are shuffled and 16 are placed on the board. Players must make sure no two spaces in a row are of the same terrain (e.g., two fields cannot be touching). All remaining land cards are placed (in this case) on top of the board.

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Ready to fly.

Below the land cards are each player’s decks. Both the black player and red player have two stacks: 25 flight cards and 8 Loki cards. Players draw five total cards for their starting hand. They can choose to draw cards from either or both piles. I’ve personally found it best to draw at least one Loki card.

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An example starting hand includes four flight cards and one Loki card. Tom Hiddleston is a much more attractive Loki.

Turn summary

The nice thing about this game is that it’s pretty flexible in terms of what you can do, meaning you can play as many or as few cards as you can or want. That said, the basic actions you can take are flight or trickery.

Flight (flight cards)

To advance a raven, players must use flight cards that match the terrain of the next space on their route. If there are spaces of the same terrain in a row (which could only happen after moving cards around with Loki), a player can move his raven to the last card in the row, meaning the raven only uses one of those terrain cards to fly over all of that terrain.

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For example, the black raven must play a desert card next. Since there are two desert cards in a row, he will only need to use one desert card to fly over both of the deserts in front of him.

If a player has no matching flight cards, he can use any two flight cards of the same terrain in place of the one flight card he needs.

Once used, players discard flight cards into a pile that will eventually be reshuffled back into play.

Trickery (Loki cards)

There are four types of Loki cards and each card has two different actions. A player can choose only one of these two actions. Once the action is taken, the card is removed from the game. This means each player can use up to eight Loki actions total throughout the game.

The four types of cards are shown below. Their abilities are fairly self-explanatory based on the drawings, but more explicit instructions are in the rule book.

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Here are all four types of Loki cards. A player can choose to use the top OR the bottom action. 

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One of the Loki cards allows you to build a loop that elongates the route for the other player. For example, the white raven on the bottom is trying to move left. He must now play a forest card, a field card, and a fjord card to win instead of just a fjord card.

Turn end

After you are done playing your cards and have discarded them appropriately, you must draw three new cards to end your turn. You can choose any combination of flight and/or Loki cards.

Note: you can never have more than seven cards in your hand and must immediately discard down to seven if you do. Remember, discarded flight cards are eventually reshuffled into play, but discarded Loki cards are not to be seen again!

Game end

The game ends when a player moves his or her raven into the final space on the opponent’s side. If that player went first, the other player is given a chance to move to the end of his or her track. In case of a tie, the player with the most cards left in hand wins.

My Thoughts

Cons

  • Lack of strategy. The only real con is that there’s not all that much strategy involved in this game. You can plan a little bit, but you’re mostly at the mercy of the luck of the draw.

Pros

  • Easy to learn. This game is incredibly easy to learn. In fact, you can skim the rules and start playing within 20 minutes.
  • Quick pace. Odin’s Ravens is great “filler game,” as we often call them in our game group. By this I mean that it’s fast-paced, doesn’t take long from start to finish, and isn’t too heavy. You can play it to relax and catch your breath between longer and more strategy-heavy games.
  • Artwork. I really appreciate the illustrations on the land cards. Each terrain is unique, colorful, and surprisingly detailed. They make me wish I could fly over them in real life.
  • Two-player game. While some may view it as a con, I like that this is a two-player game only. It’s a nice option for weeknights when you feel like playing a game, but don’t want to play something that’s really designed for multiple players. It’s a good date night game, too.
  • Lighthearted. I like the theme on this one a lot (as evidenced by my need to go into a little more thematic detail above), but I especially love that it’s lighthearted. I’ve been known to become a little cross when playing more serious games against Papa Bear, but this one is just light enough that I feel like we can challenge each other to multiple plays with no hard feelings. Does admitting this make me overly competitive? Probably, but no one loves to lose to the same person repeatedly.

In short

Odin’s Ravens is engaging and approachable for all experience levels. It’s fast enough to play a few times in a night without growing tired of it, and is very easy to learn. So far, it’s one of my favorite games of 2016!

What say you?

 

Ticket to Ride: A Board Game Review

Around since 2004, Ticket to Ride is an established fan favorite. I’m often asked for game recommendations for people who like to play games, but wouldn’t describe themselves as “serious gamers.” Well, look no further. Ticket to Ride is a perfect game for novices, experts, and everything in between.

tickettoride

[Source]

The Basics

Time: 30-60 minutes
Players: 
2-5
Ages: 8+
BGG Rating: 7.5*
Baby Brown Bear Status: Owned (original and Ticket to Ride: Nordic Countries)

In Ticket to Ride (or TTR, as we affectionately call it), you and four of your old college buddies are racing by train to see who can visit the most U.S. cities–and claim the most routes– in just seven days. It’s a winner-takes-all competition for a $1 million prize, an especially astounding amount in 1900, when the game takes place.

The main game play mechanisms are card drafting and network building. The object of the game is to score the most points, which is done in three ways: claiming routes, successfully connecting cities on your destination tickets, and/or completing the longest continuous path of routes.

The game ends when any player has only 0, 1, or 2 trains left at the end of his or her turn. Each player, including that player, then has one final turn before scores are calculated.

*The top-ranked games have ratings of ~8.3/10.

Setup

The setup is quite simple. Here, you can see the major components.

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Below the map, from left to right are: a player’s initial hand of four train car cards; a player’s initial hand of three destination tickets; and the pile of train car cards with the top five face-up.

Map

In the center of the table is the map (in the original game, it is of the U.S. as shown here). On the map are several train routes connecting various cities. The colored rectangles in any given route represent the number and color of train car cards needed to claim that route. For example, the route between El Paso and Houston requires six green train car cards.

Some of the routes are gray. This means that a player may choose any color train car card as long she has the specified number all in the same color.

There are also some double-routes. In games with two or three players, only one of the double-routes can be claimed. In games with four to five players, both routes can be claimed, but not by the same player.

Finally, surrounding the map is the scoring track, where players keep a running tally of the points earned from claiming routes.

Destination tickets

Each player is initially dealt three destination tickets and must keep at least two of them. The discarded destination tickets are placed on the bottom of the remaining cards and the deck is put off to the side of the board.

These cards contain the names of two cities and a point value. If the player successfully connects the two cities by the end of the game, she adds that point value to her score. If she does not successfully connect the two cities, she subtracts that point value from her score. These cards should be kept secret so your competitors cannot see where you are trying to go. This is important because your strategy should be largely based on your destination tickets.

Train car cards

Each player is initially dealt four train car cards. The rest of the deck should be set to the side of the board and the top five cards should be placed face-up on the table. There are eight types of train car cards that represent the colors of routes on the map. There are also locomotive cards that act as wild cards and can be used to complete any route (the locomotive card is the rainbow-colored card in the above picture).

Trains

Finally, each player chooses a color and takes the corresponding set of 45 trains and scoring marker. The scoring marker is placed along the scoring track (beginning at zero). Optionally, the trains are lined up in a pretty little row, as shown below.

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Always bet on blue.

Turn summary

According to the rules, the most experienced traveler begins. In clockwise order, each player can do one the following. Remember, these are simplified rules to give you a flavor of the game. Before you play, make sure you read the real rule book.

  • Draw train car cards. A player can draw two train car cards from the face-up pile or she can blindly draw from the top of the deck. Face-up cards must be immediately replaced. If a locomotive card is face-up and a player wants it, she may only draw that one card. If the locomotive card is drawn from a blind draw, the player may still draw two cards (and consider herself lucky).
  • Claim a route. A player can claim a route by turning in a set of train car cards that match the number and color of the desired route. She then places her trains on the route spaces. Finally, she scores her route according to the scoring table printed on the board and moves her scoring marker accordingly.
  • Draw destination tickets. A player may draw three destination tickets, keeping at least one of them. This is a good strategy if the game is still young and she has completed all her other destination cards already.

Again, this continues until a player has only 2 or fewer trains left in her stock. Each player then has one more turn and final scores are calculated (taking into account completed or uncompleted destination tickets and the longest route).

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My Thoughts

Another easy one, and I think you know how it’s going to go.

Cons

  • Spite. If other players are able to detect where you are trying to go, they are able to cut you off by claiming the route you need. Since there are so many single routes connecting cities you need to reach for your destination tickets, this can be a real pain in the ass, especially when it’s done out of spite and not necessity.

Pros

  • Family friendliness. Yes, this is another train game, but it’s a lot easier to set up, learn, and start than Snowdonia. Like I mentioned at the start of this post, it appeals to people of all ages, interests, and game-playing experience. There’s hardly any learning curve, scoring is straightforward, and it encourages a lot of interaction with other players. The theme is light enough to make it fun and engaging, and yet it requires enough strategy to be interesting. This is one of the only family friendly strategy games I regularly play that requires those meaningful decisions I discussed previously.
  • Fast-paced action. Because this game is pretty easy to learn, it means you don’t have a lot of analysis paralysis. In turn, it moves quickly and you’re able to keep up without issue, even if you’re just starting.
  • So many versions! I mentioned above that we have Ticket to Ride: Nordic Countries in addition to the original game, and we love it just as much. There are many different versions of this game, with new maps, slightly different rules, and unique player counts.
  • Wanderlust. I always feel a sense of wanderlust when we play this game, regardless of which map we play. I absolutely love to travel, but since it’s not entirely practical (or affordable) to travel nonstop, I can usually–temporarily–scratch the itch with a quick game of TTR.

In short

This is a great game to have in your personal collection. If you’re not ready to commit, check it out at your local game store. No self-respecting game store would be complete without it in their trial library. It’s a classic game, respected–if not loved–by every board game fan I know, yours truly included. I’m already looking forward to the day I can teach Baby Bear how to play.

Are you a TTR fan, too? Which version is your favorite?

 

 

 

 

Food Chain Magnate: A Board Game Review

Burgers, pizza, beer, pop (cheers, Midwesterners), and lemonade. As an American food enthusiast, what’s not to like?

food chain

[Source]

Food Chain Magnate (FCM) is a relatively new game, published in 2015. This is the first Splotter Spellen game I’ve played, and since the company has such a reputation for quality games, I was curious to learn more. Amazingly, especially given their success, designers Jeroen Doumen and Joris Wiersinga don’t even design games full time; it’s their night and weekend hobby. Doumen is actually a mathematics PhD and Wiersinga designs computer games to improve elderly and rehabilitation care for SilverFit. By their powers combined, they create notoriously complicated and component-heavy games. After all, their company’s front-page says, “Splotter creates deep, complex board games for strategy enthusiasts.”

It should come as no surprise, then, that my pre-play research concluded that FCM was rather involved. While looking past all the components and (millions of) cards scattered across the table can be hard, I found it to be pleasantly simple to learn. Which is a good thing considering that we decided to learn it at midnight one day. (Note: It is not recommended to start any game at midnight when you have a baby.)

P.S. Remember our friend Tony Boydell? He recently played FCM and posted about it on his blog.

The Basics

Time: 120-240 minutes
Players:
2-5
Ages:
14+
BGG Rating:
8.4*
Baby Brown Bear Status: 
Played a friend’s copy

Food Chain Magnate transports you to the artery-clogging diner era of the 1950s. In it, you are the CEO of a fast food company trying to out-maneuver and out-sell your competitors’ chains. To do it, you must hire the right mix of employees (from kitchen trainees to regional managers) to create an unbeatable production, sales, and marketing strategy. The game’s length depends on how long your fellow food chain magnates want to compete. The show is over when the bank runs out of money and the magnate with the most money wins.

Just as I mentioned in my Dominant Species review, this post is not intended to be a complete explanation of the game. It has far too many intricacies to do that justice. Instead, I’m just here to give you an idea of how it works so you can decide if you want to learn the rest on your own.

*The top-ranked games have ratings of ~8.3/10. That means this is one of the best games according to BGG (as of this publication, it is listed at number 90).

Setup

There are quite a few components you need to sort out before you can start. They are as follows.

  • Employee cards. As the CEO of a company, you must hire employees across a variety of departments. As seen below, the employees on the left may be recruited by a recruiting girl or your CEO. To advance them, you must train them. As they move up the ranks, they begin to require salaries.

food chain structure

[Source]

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Our friend saw this genius idea on BGG. Instead of laying each card on the table (and taking up an insane amount of space), he carefully folded a piece of poster board to create just enough slots for each employee card. He even set it up so the hierarchy matched that printed on the player menu (as seen above).
  • Map tiles. The number of players determines the number of tiles needed. Each tile is then placed randomly to form your town. It initially consists of roads, drink stands, houses, and empty spaces.

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This map is set up for three players.
  • Milestone cards. Another part of the game that can greatly affect strategy is the milestone card. There are 18 different milestones a player can reach, such as first to place a billboard as seen below. These cards are earned any time a player fulfills a card’s requirements during a turn. If multiple players meet the same milestone during a turn, they each receive that milestone card. Most cards have benefits on them which take effect immediately.

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  • Food and drink pieces. Perhaps unsurprisingly, I love the little wooden figures that represent the food and drink: pizzas, burgers, lemonades, sodas, and beers. They signify different things depending on where they are placed. On marketing campaigns, they show both what is being advertised and for how long. On a house, they show that house’s demand. In a player’s hand, they show that restaurant’s available stock.

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  • Bank money. Ooh, paper money. So despised by this game’s owner. The bank begins with $50 times the number of players (so $150 in this three-player example). The rest of the money goes into the box at the beginning. Players do not begin with any money.
  • Player markers and restaurants. Each player has three available restaurants. The restaurant tiles have little triangular symbols that mark their entrances. Pay attention to these as distances from the restaurant start from the entrance. To begin, players randomly choose player markers to determine turn order. Beginning with the last player in this turn order, each player chooses an empty square to place his starting restaurant. Restaurant entrances must touch a road and no two restaurants can be placed on the same tile.
  • Bank reserve cards. Each player receives three bank reserve cards ($100, $200, and $300). After all restaurants are placed, each player chooses one of the three cards and puts it face down next to the bank. These cards are not unveiled until later. They indicate how much money will be added to the bank once the initial stockpile runs out. Since the game ends when the bank’s money does, this means players do not know at the beginning of the game how long it will end up being. This makes strategy difficult to determine. For example, in a short game you may want to focus on producing and selling food as quickly as possible, whereas in a longer game you may want to focus on building a larger corporate structure.

Alright! The map is out, the restaurants are placed, and players are ready to start swaying the feeble minds of the town’s citizens.

Turn summary

Okay, here’s where the going gets tough. Here’s a very simplified overview (if you can believe it).

Restructure

This is when you secretly decide which employees you want to use during the turn. You are only able to use as many employees as you have open slots (the CEO, for example, has three open slots). This number may grow depending on who you hire and put to work. Everyone who is not working during a turn is on PTO (“at the beach”). During the first round, all players will only be able to use their CEOs.

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Mid-play corporate structure. I really took advantage of the extra spots that came with the junior VPs and management trainees. Those waitresses really came in handy, too, not only because they earn you money but they also help you win business.

Phase 1: Turn order 

The player with the most open slots in his corporate structure chooses his position in the turn order track, followed by the player with the second most open slots, etc. If there is a tie, the player who went ahead in turn order last time chooses first.

Phase 2: Business

This is where you take care of your operations.

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I’d use this meme a million times if I could.
[Source]
  1. Recruit new employees based on the number of recruit actions you have (the CEO always has one).
  2. Train (or upgrade) employees based on the number of train actions you have (the trainer trains one, for example). The person being trained must be “on the beach.” Think of it as “away at a conference.”
  3. Initiate marketing campaign based on which marketing employee is working. As a professional marketer, the overly simplistic view of marketing is somewhat insulting, but it’s supposed to be the 1950s, I guess. This marketer will be away for as long as the campaign lasts, so pay special attention to the type of campaign, placement, duration, and good you choose.
  4. Get food and drinks based on which buyers and kitchen staff you have working.
  5. Place a new house or garden if you have a new business developer working.
  6. Place or move restaurants if you have a local manager or regional manager working.

Phase 3: Dinnertime

Here’s where a lot of the juicy stuff happens because it’s when you find out if your carefully crafted plans have been thwarted by that no-good businessman across the street.

During dinnertime, the town’s citizens finally consume the food and drink they’ve been craving (because of advertising; these people have no minds of their own). Starting with the lowest numbered house, players determine which restaurants have produced the food and drink in demand by that house. For example if there are two beers and one pizza on the house, the restaurant needs to be able to provide exactly two beers and one pizza in order to sell anything to that house. Unless otherwise noted (like with a milestone card), each good sold is $10.

If multiple restaurants can provide exactly what is in demand, the restaurant closest to the house wins the business (connected by a road, of course). If that is still a tie, the restaurant that has the best price (if there’s a discount manager working, it will be a little lower) or the best service (with a waitress) will win the business. If that is still a tie, the restaurant who went first in turn order will get the business. Houses with gardens pay double the unit price for each item (rich snobs!). I haven’t even covered everything here and yet you can already see how complicated it can become!

The first time the bank runs out of money, the reserve cards that were put aside in the beginning of the game are shuffled and revealed. The tallied number shown on the cards is how much money is added to the bank. The second time the bank runs out of money is when the game ends (but not before finishing up the payday phase and making sure all employees are paid for the work they do). Believe it or not, a tie goes to the person who went first in the most recent turn order.

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Mid-play shot. Here you can see the goods I produced this round (three sodas), my corporate structure (I loved those management trainees!), and my milestone cards. 

Phase 4: Payday 

First, players must decide if they want to fire anyone (except for marketers who are out in the field). Second, they must then pay all employees who require a salary, including marketers in the field. Each salaried employee earns $5 during this phase.

Phase 5: Marketing campaigns

This is where those advertisements persuade people to want whatever it is you advertised to them. Starting with the lowest numbered campaign (as opposed to house), players place the little food demand tokens on the houses that are within each campaign’s reach. Houses can only have three demand tokens on them and houses with gardens can have five. Therefore some houses may be full by the time a higher numbered campaign takes effect, rendering it (and your strategy) useless.

Here are some examples of houses and the goods they desire. On the left, house five wants exactly two sodas. Billboard marketing campaign 13 is active and eternally promotes one soda at the end of each round. On the right, houses 15 and 16 want exactly one burger and one lemonade. There’s an active burger mailbox marketing campaign that will last two more rounds. 

Phase 6: Clean up

During this phase, players must discard leftover food or drinks (unless they have a milestone that allows them to keep it), all employees go back into their hand, restaurants that are “coming soon” flip over to “welcome,” and milestones are earned and flipped over to signify that they are no longer available. Then the game repeats from phase one.

My Thoughts

Cons

  • Paper money. I don’t care about this as much as some people (cough, Nick), but I’ll admit paper money is a little annoying to handle. However, when trying to think of an alternative that would fit the theme, I keep coming up short. It’s a theme-appropriate kitschy detail.
  • Unforgiving with mistakes. This, like many other strategy games, I suppose, is a game where it hard to visualize all that will occur each round. There are a lot of variables that may not play out like you expect, and it’s easy to miscalculate your and your opponents’ moves. Altogether, this makes it pretty unforgiving when you make a mistake. Even if your mistake occurs early in the game, it can be nearly impossible for you to ever bounce back.
  • Loser disengagement. Because it can be so hard to bounce back, it’s easy for the loser(s) to become disengaged. The first time I played, another player and I were neck and neck until the end, making it very interesting for us. The third player was unable to catch up and proceeded to become fairly disinterested. The second time I played, I was that third player and started to tune out once I realized I had a snowball’s chance of bouncing back. Because so much of what you do is based on your corporate structure and isn’t too combative until dinnertime, it’s easier than I’d like to only pay attention to your own board unless you’re doing well enough to be a contender.

Pros

  • Graphics. I absolutely love the retro, ’50s-themed artwork. It’s simple but provides a nice flavor for the game.
  • Theme. It’s possible I love the graphics so much because I think the theme is so fresh. Who knew that it’d take a couple of Dutchmen to create such an interesting Americana game?
  • Variable length. The fact that every player has a hand in determining the game’s length but that it’s not revealed until mid-game is very intriguing. During our first game, we decided to play a short one (especially because it was after midnight). During the second game, we didn’t talk about it at all, so I was excited when we had one of each card, meaning it would be a longer game. That excitement waned, however, when I started losing by such a wide margin.
  • Employee cards. The card drafting mechanism can be a little trite, but its execution here is new and exciting. You’re recruiting employees and deciding who works and who gets to go on vacation every single round. You are in charge of their career paths, or lack thereof. Maybe it’s because I was a cog in the corporate wheel myself, but this power went to my head and I liked it.
  • Strategy differences. Since I won the first time, I tried to see if that strategy  would work the second go around and I can tell you it definitely didn’t. While I didn’t enjoy the feeling of not being able to catch back up, I do appreciate that the game forces you to alter your strategy each play. So much changes depending on the placement of the tiles and restaurants, the length, and the other players’ strategies that you must adapt.
  • Competition. It’s quite a thrill when you can accurately visualize exactly what you need to do to win the most business in a round. It’s also thrilling when you can prevent other players from properly executing their strategies. No matter what, I looked forward to the dinnertime phase each round because it was so fun to see who would be able to pull through the most. It was also very apparent both times how meaningful the milestone cards are; the first to $100 card is especially critical to win in my opinion.

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What game isn’t more fun when you walk away with loads of cash?

In short

Since I won’t spend my time and energy reviewing a game I hate, it should come as no surprise that I would recommend playing this game.

Simply put, it’s very different from any other I’ve played and that alone makes me like it. Food Chain Magnate is simultaneously complex and simple and demands that each play is different from the last. Yes, it can be frustrating that the rich get richer, but that’s all the more motivation to be in the rich camp. It may sound boring when people listening in hear, “I’m going to train my management trainee to become a junior vice president,” but they don’t know what that junior VP is capable of doing!

I had been told that this is a game for “serious gamers,” but I don’t think that’s necessarily true. There is a lot of planning and thinking ahead, but it’s not so complicated that you can’t figure it out while you’re playing. I think it’d be better labeled as a game for “people willing to invest time and energy into a new game.” It’s not going to take you ten minutes to explain, but it’s also not going to take you an hour. Like anything else, you just have to start. It may be hard to find, but I suggest you go check out Food Chain Magnate and give it a go.

As always, I’d love to know what you think!

 

Snowdonia: A Board Game Review

Ah, Snowdonia. A train game unlike any other.

snowdonia

[Source]

Perhaps my favorite part of doing these little game reviews is finding out more of the backstory behind them. Snowdonia’s research didn’t disappoint.

The game is based on the real Welsh mountain of Snowdon, whose Welsh name is the nearly unpronounceable “Yr Wyddfa.” Designer Tony Boydell said he wanted to design a single railway game and was inspired to base it on Snowdon, which he had visited as a young boy. The original working title of the game was Mountain Railway, but luckily the publishers thought Snowdonia had a little more zing to it and rightly changed it before publication. Oh, and for what it’s worth, Boydell says the Welsh name is pronounced “Ear with-fuh.” If you’re interested in reading the full interview, you can find it here.

I also want to drop a quick shoutout to Boydell, of whom Papa Bear is a big fan for his witty BGG blog, Every Man Needs a Shed. It’s fun to love a game and find out the designer is pretty cool too.

The Basics

Time: 30-90 minutes
Players: 1-5
Ages: 10+
BGG Rating:
7.5*
Baby Brown Bear Status: 
Owned

The year is 1894 and you are the head of a company that provides labor for the construction of the great Snowdon Mountain Railway. You must allocate your laborers wisely, perhaps by earning contracts or making use of your additional, drunkard worker, to excavate, lay track, and build the rail and stations up the mountain. The weather is ever-changing, though, and you must pay close attention to the forecast as it greatly affects your construction abilities. Whichever company contributes the most wins all the glory (and victory points).

Snowdonia is mainly a worker placement game. In keeping with the theme, the game ends at the end of the round when the last track has been laid and the railway has completed its ascent.

*The top-ranked games have ratings of ~8.3/10.

Setup

Despite its many components, Snowdonia is not a very complicated game. Below, you can see the initial setup for a five-player game.

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In the center of the board, you have the stock yard, where you find the following resources: iron ore (orange cubes), stone (gray cubes), and coal (black cubes). Underneath the stock yard is the event track. If a white cube is drawn when you replenish the stock yard, an event space is marked and the game completes the corresponding action on its own.

To the right of this event space is the weather forecast. While it is a little hard to see in this picture, the weather is determined by the back of the contract cards, which are seen here face-down in the bottom right-hand corner of the board. In this example, the next two rounds show sunny weather (yellow discs), which increases excavation and track work rates. Blue discs represent rain, which decreases those rates; gray discs represent fog, which prevents any excavation or track work. These work rates are shown in the two tracks above the contract card deck. The contract cards, meanwhile, have various bonuses both for a one-time boost during the game and extra victory points if they are fulfilled at the end of the game.

Across the top of the board are the action space cards, where you assign your laborers each turn. Surrounding the board are the track cards and station cards. On them are brown cubes that represent rubble to be excavated before track or stations can be built.

Below the board are the train cards, of which each player may only own one. The trains are helpful in different ways, but they all allow you to hire your extra (third) laborer and send him up the mountain to do some work.

Turn summary

Each round consists of the following:

  • Assign laborers. Each player starts with two laborers. In clockwise order, each player assigns one laborer to one of the action spots along the top of the board. Once all players have placed both laborers, each player with a train may spend some coal to hire their third worker from the pub and shoot him up the mountain. Available actions are:
    • Take resources from the stock yard
    • Excavate rubble
    • Convert resources into steel bars or stone
    • Lay track
    • Build stations or buy a train
    • Visit the site office to select a contract
    • Move the surveyor up to the next station
  • Resolve actions. Starting from the left (action A) and working your way to the right (action G), actions are resolved in numerical order. Contract cards may be played during this phase according to the action shown on the card. For example, if a contract card has an A on the bottom of the card, the player can use it before all A actions are resolved.
  • Restock contract cards. Someone needs to shift the contract cards over and discard any card that is in the left-most position. Each space should have a card.
  • Check the weather forecast. Someone also needs to shift the weather discs to the left and look at the top contract card on the deck to see what the third weather spot should show. Take the disc of this color. Then, move the track and excavate work rate tracks according to the current forecast.
  • Restock the stock yard. Finally, someone needs to pull the appropriate amount of cubes out of the supply bag for the number of players in the game.
  • Complete any events if applicable. If any white cubes are drawn, play the next available event spaces.

Any time a player claims a track or part of a station, she places a cube of her color on that box. This is how she will tally up her points at the end of the game.

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Here you see the middle of a five-player game. Some of the rubble is gone, some of the stations are built (as indicated by the colored cubes on the station cards), and two of the surveyors are out at stations one and two. Three event cubes have been played so far and laborer assignment has started for the next round.

These actions continue until the last track has been laid as a result of a player action. Then, each player counts victory points by category (station cards, track cards, contract cards, trains, and the surveyor).

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This shows the end of the game. As you can see, the last track has been laid by the purple player. 

My Thoughts

This one is pretty simple.

Cons

Honestly the only con I can think of is that we have all these other games I want to play, too, so I can’t justify playing Snowdonia all the time. I suppose another is that we don’t have any expansions, but that’s not the game’s fault either!

Pros

There’s just so much to love about this game. Let’s see…

  • Weather variables. The fact that the game has a weather component is really interesting to me. In real life, a sunny day would allow you to get more work done, just like a rainy one may slow you down. Apparently there is snow in an expansion that actually forces you to put rubble back on the board, which is a brilliant addition to the theme. I haven’t played that version yet, but I’m excited to check it out.
  • Length. Once you learn how to play, which doesn’t take long at all, Snowdonia is pretty fast no matter how many players you have. Even with all five players, I don’t think I’ve ever played a 90-minute game as stated on the box.
  • Straightforward. I really respect a designer who can create such an entertaining game without making it extremely complicated. Snowdonia is very straightforward but still multi-faceted, and I admire Boydell for that.
  • Player count differences. As I’ve stated before, I love when games play differently depending on the number of players present. Snowdonia definitely does that. The unique thing about this game is that I actually have no preference for the number of players because they all play so well. Yes, they’re different, but they’re all really fun and engaging.
  • Choices. Like any great strategy game, Snowdonia is a game of meaningful choices. One of the neat things here is that when you’re assigning your laborers, you can choose any open spot on the board, regardless of the spot’s number. For example, I may want to excavate the last pieces of rubble off a station so I get those victory points. But I know based on the future weather forecast and the work rates that the second person to excavate will get those points. Well, I can put my laborer on spot two and hope someone else puts it on spot one without realizing my sneaky behavior. It’s unlikely it would go unnoticed, but hey, you gotta try. The surveyor is another neat choice you have. It seems like moving him might be a wasted turn (though not as much so in expansions, from what I’m told), but I’ve been part of many games where that surveyor has crept up enough to score game-winning points.
  • Event cubes. The number one thing I love about this game is that it advances itself no matter what you do. You think you’re competing against the other players, but man, when those event cubes start coming out rapid fire, you realize that you’re all just playing against the game. It’s like a ticking clock, really. A beautifully designed ticking clock.

In short

I absolutely love this game. It’s actually probably my favorite to date. I can’t think of a single other game where I don’t have at least a little preference of how many people play; I’d play this one with any number of people, any time they want to play. This is even a good solo game! And I don’t even like solo games. At $70, it was a little more expensive than most of our games, but its cost-per-play is probably at about $3 now. I’d say that’s worth it.

Any other Snowdonia lovers out there?

Dominant Species: A Board Game Review

Though it was published in 2010, another old game by board game standards, Papa Bear and I just recently started playing Dominant Species. Because it is so vastly different from Dominion, I wanted to review it next.

dom species cover.jpg

[Source]

Interestingly enough, when I looked for more information about the designer, Chad Jensen, I found a 2006 interview he conducted with Dice Tower founder Tom Vasel. In it, he said that he started “tinkering with existing games […] 30 years ago! [He] would invent games using a simple deck of cards and parts from Monopoly or Risk, for example, and them try them out with [his] friends.” He said he started designing games in earnest around 1995.

This interview came out shortly before his war game, Combat Commander, debuted. He also mentioned in the article that he would soon begin “casting [his] Euro-themes around and see if any of those publishers bite.” Well, it turns out GMT Games bit Dominant Species only four years later. Nominated in several categories, it won the 2011 Golden Geek Best Strategy Board Game award.

The Basics

Time: 2-4 hours
Players:
2-6
Ages:
14+
BGG Rating: 
7.9/10* 
Baby Brown Bear Status: 
On loan from a game group friend (thanks, buddy!)

Dominant Species is set in year 90,000 BC. You represent an animal trying not only to survive but also become dominant in as many different terrains as possible before an impending ice age, when the game ends. In the meantime, your goal is to accumulate as many victory points as possible. You do this by having species present in different terrains and by being dominant in some of them.

Although this is primarily an area control game, it does use card drafting, tile placement, and worker placement mechanics as well.

Okay, I’m not going to lie to you. This game is much more involved than Dominion. After all, it has a 20-page rule book. It’s so involved that our friend gave us homework to watch a run-through video and then surprised us with real homemade aptitude quizzes before we started.

Therefore, my “overview” won’t be a complete explanation of the game. If you are interested, I would be more than happy to start a dialogue with you. Otherwise, you can find numerous videos and rules summaries online.

*The top-ranked games have ratings of ~8.3/10.

Here is one of the aptitude quizzes. I was so impressed that he took the time to create, administer, and grade them. Very clever. There was also a true or false page and the final statement was, “[Baby Bear] is cute.” I obviously put, “VERY TRUE.” It’s incredibly heartwarming to me that these guys enjoy (or at least pretend to enjoy) the babe so much. He’s become a board game group mascot of sorts, and I couldn’t be prouder.

A throwback to 9th grade biology

In this game, it is helpful to remember the animal taxonomy system: animal (kingdom), phylum, class, order, family, genus, and species. Remember, your “animal” is what you represent broadly. In food chain order, they are: mammals, reptiles, birds, amphibians, arachnids, and insects. When the game refers to “species,” it means your cubes, since they represent different kinds of species within your animal classification. Phew. I hope my biology teacher would still give me an A today, but I think that might be a stretch.

Setup

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All of the following pictures (except one) show the two-player version of the game. This is the initial setup. The hexagonal tiles represent different types of terrains.

Basically, each player chooses an animal and each animal is represented by an equal number of species on the earth. Each animal is able to survive in a certain type of terrain based on what elements are available there. For example, in the above picture, the amphibian is able to survive on terrains where water is present (as evidenced by the three blue circles on the player board).

Turn summary

There are three phases in this game:

  1. Planning phase
  2. Execution phase
  3. Reset phase

Planning phase. This is where players choose what actions they want to take in this turn by going in initiative track order and placing their action pawns on available “eyeball” spots. A detailed list of what each track does is available in the rule book. For now you’ll just have to get a taste from my picture. Otherwise we’d be here all day.

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Domination was strong this turn. We obviously needed points and wanted domination cards.

Execution phase. Once all action pawns are placed, the execution phase begins. Going in top-to-bottom and left-to-right order, each action pawn is removed from its eyeball spot and the corresponding action is performed by the owner of that pawn.

Reset phase. During this phase you remove species that go extinct (are on terrains without any of that animal’s elements) and one animal may gain victory points from the Survival Card (related to tundras). This is also when you reset the board (draw new dominance cards, flip wanderlust tiles, etc.).

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It’s a big, sturdy board that gives you most of the information you need. If not, the player boards are extremely helpful.
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A lot of speciation occurred. A lot of amphibians became dominant. A lot of points were scored.

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Here you can see how many points are awarded to the animals with the most species on a terrain. Not shown: tundras earn the animal with the most species one point and that’s it.

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My only picture of our six-player game to show you the difference with the species on the tiles and the action pawns fighting for their placements on the right.

My Thoughts

Cons

I like starting with the negative first, especially for games I really like.

  • Learning curve. Okay, obviously this is a long game and it has a fairly steep learning curve. This is another case of “I’m glad I watched a run-through video and had friends teach me,” because solely relying on the rule book would have been daunting. I like to think that I understood what I was doing very well the first half of the first game I played (especially since I won), but it was probably a little longer than that. However, I will forever deny that luck was on my side. It was all strategy, baby. Don’t worry about the second time I played (when I lost).
  • Scoring. At the end of the game, you score each individual tile for victory points based on the number of species of each animal on the tile. A tie always goes in food chain order, so the mammals (the highest on the food chain) gain first place points, and so on. While I tried to circumvent this problem with the dominance cards so that I had the most species on any given tile with a lot of potential points, I still found it a little irritating that some of those points went to something basically determined by the luck of the draw. I suppose it’s just one more aspect you need to keep a close eye on towards the end of the game.

Pros

Now we can end on a good note.

  • Control of destiny. Yes, your turn order is first determined by food chain order. However, the initiative track allows you to change your turn order if you so choose.
  • Dominance cards. In both plays, I found the dominance cards to be incredibly powerful. Some players may argue that these cards give players too much power, and that if you’re higher up the food chain, you likely won’t get first dibs on the best ones. However, to my point above, you can change the turn order, albeit incrementally per turn. And you can place your pawn on the domination spot early on if you really want a card. I’ve only played twice, but I think it’s critical to take advantage of these cards.
  • Level of engagement. Surprisingly, Dominant Species has never felt like a long game despite its considerable length. Both when I played the six-player game and when I played the two-player game, I was interested in everyone’s turns, not just my own. In so many games, especially once you understand the rules, it’s easy to zone out when it’s not your turn. That’s probably one of my biggest complaints about games, actually. I don’t want to be bored, even when I’m not playing. Which is what makes me love this game even more.
  • Theme. I think the designer put together a thoughtful, well-crafted theme. I love how the animals need certain elements to survive in their respective terrains. Amphibians and water? Check. Insects and grass? Check. I also love the choices you have during the execution phase. Speciate to spread yourselves across new terrains? Adapt to survive on new elements? Yeah, that makes sense. When I played the six-player version, we brought up biology a few times. You have to appreciate a game that does that.
  • Player count differences. As I mentioned in the Dominion post, I really love when a game plays very differently from one player count to the next. Now, I’ve only played with the two extremes, but they were markedly different. In the six-player version, you only have three action pawns and the board can change so drastically by the time you need to play your next pawn. However, you generally always have an idea of what your strategy is because you have so much time to plan. In the two-player version, you have seven action pawns, meaning you have so many actions and decisions to make each turn. It was overwhelming trying to figure out first what I absolutely needed to lock down, then what I didn’t want my opponent to do, and finally how all of the action pawns would play out in order. I felt a lot more pressure in the two-player version because of this.

In short

Play this game. It’s long, yes, but it’s interesting and unique. It has a little bit of everything: battles (or at least a good amount of competition), cool mechanics, and an on-point theme. It provides good fodder for table conversation and keeps everyone involved throughout the game. Plus, the player boards help you remember what each track does, so it’s not like you have to remember all the rules to be successful.

I’m curious to know what you think. What’s your take on Dominant Species?