Final Box Cover

2 Plays (3 & 4 Players)

ARRR!!!! With the release of both Libertalia: Winds of Galecrest and Ahoy this year, I’ve certainly gotten into the pirate spirit (apparently the 1400 other pirate games failed to get me in a piratey mood).  Where Libertalia captures more of the backstabbing greed of piracy, Ahoy leans into the high seas adventures.

As is Leder Games’ trademark, there is plenty of asymmetry to be found here. 2 factions — the Bluefin Squadron and Mollusk Union — compete with each other to control region tiles while two other factions act as pickup and deliver smugglers. 

Rounds proceed with players rolling their 4 or 5 dice and then taking turns to assign dice to actions on player boards. Your board actions allow you to sail around, load your cannons (in preparation for battle), repair your ship (clear action spaces that get blocked by damage tiles), and utilize unique abilities. You can also recruit more crew members from islands — in essence adding powers and actions to your growing card tableau.  

As promised, Ahoy is much more streamlined and easier to get into compared to Root. The rules are simpler, the asymmetry is lighter, and the game is supposed to be quicker (although I will note that both of our plays went beyond 90 minutes, certainly a bit longer than ideal for this weight of game). Overall, there’s a refreshing brevity to the turn-by-turn gameplay.

The map starts out with merely two region tiles, and players can voyage off in any direction their seafaring heart desires to create a unique sprawl of ocean features. Each region comes with its own value die, and that value may gradually increase if smugglers decide to deliver goods there. 

As the region dice spread outward and tick upward, the big dogs of the sea begin to salivate for control. The Bluefin Squadron spreads patrols and erects island fortresses while the Mollusk Union gathers and deploys comrades. Positioning their faction pieces is key to success, as each region will grant points equal to its value to whoever controls it. 

While the two heavyweight factions spread far and wide, the smugglers are simply looking to weave in and out of islands as quickly as possible with their precious cargo. Encountering enemy ships can sometimes be a great inconvenience — forcing the active player to stop dead in their tracks because somebody loaded their cannons and is looking for a fight. Of course, the smugglers have cannons of their own and a victory in battle can result in a lucrative reward from their player board.

The smugglers aren’t completely disinterested in the area control war, though.  While they aren’t competing in it themselves, they are placing bets on it. Each card of cargo that gets delivered becomes a pledge where the player secretly tucks it under a Bluefin or Mollusk token. This is a chance to score bonus end-game points if the bet was correct (who controls the islands which match that card’s suit?). This may even persuade a smuggler to help out the faction they are invested in for specific regions.

Like any deeply asymmetric design from Leder Games, there’s a lot of interesting stuff going on here… and just as much potential for one player to have a great experience as another has a rough experience. Leder is not the type of publisher to sell a game with guard rails — there is ample opportunity for opponents and luck to rain on your pirate parade. But there is also a lot of freedom to chart your own course and explore the wacky possibilities.

I’ll be honest, I came into Ahoy excited but apprehensive. The concept and presentation were thrilling to me, but it certainly has some big shoes to fill as a follow up to the likes of Root and Oath. Thus far, I’ve been able to try both the Bluefin Squadron and Smugglers. In both cases, I had a grand old time. The Bluefin Squadron felt like a great territorial tug-of-war with those pesky Mollusks. The Smuggler felt more like a slippery troublemaker who doles out bruises and bonuses in equal measure. The crew cards I’ve recruited have also played a significant role in my strategies thus far and been key contributors to my success.

The fact that I can essentially play 3 refreshingly different versions of Ahoy (based on my faction) with impactful crew specialization on top of that makes me eager to set sail once more.

Prognosis: Good



Orléans, Capstone Games / dlp games, 2021 — front cover (image provided by the publisher)

2 Plays (4 Players)

My first taste of the legendary Orleans actually came in the form of trying its spiritual sibling, Altiplano, over three years ago. That play feels like it was from another lifetime, probably due to the fact that I’ve played hundreds of other games since then and because it was in the before times. But I still recall feeling incredibly underwhelmed by Altiplano due to a sloppy rulebook, long playtime, and dearth of player interaction.

Here is what I wrote about Altiplano after giving it a go, “My major complaint would have to be the nearly complete lack of player interaction. 99% of the rounds could be played simultaneously, yet that 1% outlier situation keeps you from doing so and thus extends the length of the game even more.  When a non-interactive game can last nearly two hours with only two players, at that point I would just rather play A Feast for Odin (which provides a far more satisfying resource conversion Euro experience).”

So that predictably killed my interest in trying Orleans. But I’ve since had the opportunity to play a friend’s copy of this game twice (once last year, and once again this month), so at this point I might as well give my proper first impressions.

The good news is that I find Orleans to be better than Altiplano. The bad news is that I think it’s only marginally better. It still checks my main complaint of being largely solitaire with just enough interaction to noticeably slow the game down without providing genuinely meaningful or satisfying interaction. At the very least, Orleans mitigates this issue better by having a cleaner system and faster pace than Altiplano.

On top of that, where Altiplano is invested in bland resource conversion, Orleans is more interested in engaging engine building. In Orleans, you’re essentially drawing workers out of your bag which can be assigned to their matching spaces on your player board to earn you more workers, increase the number of tokens you can draw each round, and create new action opportunities and discounts on your player board. As you build your bag and improve your board, you’ll feel much more powerful and flexible in later rounds which makes for a satisfying arc.

The game board also provides plenty of tracks for players to advance up as well as many flavors of points to collect from money to goods to citizen tiles. It’s a clean system with a variety of strategies to explore, so I can see why it’s popular. Back in 2014, when it initially released, its bag building mechanism was certainly more novel and fresh. Its success has likely served as inspiration for many bag builders since then, which is perhaps both a compliment and a curse. With bag building being more common and familiar nowadays, Orleans has perhaps lost some of its novelty and uniqueness. For me, the game feels largely similar to many other Euros I’ve tried, to its detriment. But it still provides a solid engine building experience.

Prognosis: Fair

Kabuto Sumo: Total Mayhem (Expansion)

Kabuto Sumo: Total Mayhem Cover

7 Plays (2 Players)

I recently categorized Kabuto Sumo as a Lover in my recent Revisiting the Best Board Games of 2021 post. The brand new expansion, Total Mayhem, has been a great reminder as to why we love getting this game to the table.

Where the base game offers a wide array of asymmetric characters with delightful names, charming illustrations, and amusing abilities, there was already plenty of variety in the box to keep me happy. Total Mayhem doesn’t just take the setup combinations to infinity and beyond, but it also adds another layer to the gameplay. 

The first expansion — Insect All-Stars — already added 8 new characters to the mix, so Total Mayhem instead focuses on introducing new modules to the experience. This latest expansion comes with 8 double-sided Total Mayhem cards — each having a Match side and an Item side. The match side generally introduces an additional winning objective to the session. You can always still win by knocking out your opponent or forcing them into submission (when they run out of pieces in their inventory). But now with Total Mayhem you can play with some wild goals like:

  • If you push your torch piece to the dead-center of the ring, you win the match
  • If you cause the table to collapse, you win the match (this one features an elevated rectangular block resting on two legs)
  • Knock the guitar off the ring twice to win (each time it gets knocked out by a player, they must push it back into the ring on their next turn)
  • Drop 16 little thorn pieces onto the ring at the start of the game and lose the match if you knock out 4 or more of them

We’ve enjoyed the added dimension these cards bring to the strategies and tactics of this simple dexterity game. You’re constantly scrambling for the easiest path to victory while dancing around the slippery slopes to defeat. But a match card isn’t the only thing you add to a session. True to its title, Total Mayhem also has you lay out an item card to contribute to the chaos.

These items basically act like a shared signature move that any player can utilize. Some items are earned through stacking pieces, others through inventory payments to opponents, and yet others through knocking out enough pieces on your turn or none at all. Kabuto Sumo definitely shines by mixing up the shapes, sizes, weights, and physics of its disc-pushing mechanism — keeping things weird and wacky from one play to the next.

It’s clear that the creators of Kabuto Sumo and its expansions have had a blast with this charming dexterity game. From the unique challenges that each new card offers to the hilariously epic items and illustrations that bring its theme to life. While this expansion certainly ramps up the mayhem and speeds up the game, it’s not likely to change anyone’s mind. If you enjoy Kabuto Sumo like me, then you’ll find more to love in this latest expansion.

Prognosis: Excellent

Carcassonne: The Castle / Zamek

Carcassonne, The Castle: quality scan showing the box art from the English First Edition.

2 Plays (2 Players)

Carcassonne is as classic as board gaming gets and one of the few transcendent titans of the industry that has remained in my collection.  Where Catan was replaced by Concordia and Bohnanza, and Pandemic was replaced by Pandemic Iberia and Siege of Runedar, and Monopoly was replaced by Chinatown and Lords of Vegas, and Jenga was replaced by Crokinole and Men at Work, Carcassonne has remained protected from my culling wrath.  That may change now that I own Carcassonne: The Castle.

My favorite way to play Carcassonne has always been at 2-players. With Carcassonne: The Castle, Reiner Knizia comes in as a guest-star designer and gives the core premise a heightened 2-player focus.  Players are no longer restricted to connecting matching edges (fields to fields, city to city, etc.), instead they are restrained by a surrounding wall which serves as the game boundaries. 

The wall introduces many interesting dynamics to the Carcassonne experience.  For example, it can serve as a boundary to your ambitiously large area—one or more surfaces that you don’t have to worry about enclosing with a different type of terrain.  With the starting tiles printed around it, the wall also allows players to spread inward from multiple areas rather than be stuck in one place.  Finally, the wall serves as a score track with every rook along the wall containing a bonus tile; this bonus tile is awarded to the player who gets their score marker to stop exactly on it (passing over the bonus tile means you don’t get it!).  

Where vanilla Carcassonne sees players lunging for any and all points as quickly as possible, The Castle unveils a tactical layer by encouraging players to score specific amounts of points at specific times along the score track.  Suddenly the perfect tile to enclose a point-scoring area may come at an inconvenient time (when the points don’t line up with the next rook along the score track).

The tiles themselves also feature some twists to the formula.  Roads are still here (and still must connect to other roads or the wall), but having one or more stocks along a road will double its points. Pigsties score 2 points per tile (Pigsties are found in the version I’ve been playing—Zamek).  Houses only score 1 point per tile, so not as good as pigsties on their own, but the player with the largest housing area at the end will score points equal to the largest empty space within the wall.  So if a player knows they won’t win the housing competition, they must try to cut down on their rival’s points by dividing up the empty space before the tiles run out and the game is over.  Scoring the largest empty space is yet another genius use of the enclosing wall.

All of these twists add such a scrumptious tension to the solid Carcassonne formula.  Should I wall in my opponent’s growing pigsty by placing this field tile next door? (remember, you are allowed to mismatch edges here) Should I enclose my house area now to guarantee myself the points and leap frog over the valuable bonus tile in the process?  Should I add a stock to this road and put a big target on it for my opponent to go after?  These considerations and many more are found throughout the game.  

Carcassonne: The Castle is such a brilliant little 2-player game that it makes me wish Dr. Knizia would do more all-star team-ups with other beloved classics.  What would Reiner’s take on Pandemic look like? I wonder…

Prognosis: Excellent   

Recenzja gry Zamek (wydawnictwo Nasza Księgarnia)


Wormholes Box Top

2 Plays (2 & 4 Players)

I can still recall the buzz around Wormholes when it was first announced. The very title of the game eluded to the exciting possibilities: that of a shared board morphed and transformed by players into a tangled web of interconnected wormholes. It simply made sense and tickled the imagination.

So how does Wormholes deliver on that thrilling promise? In many ways, it does exactly what it promises to do. Ships start with the energy to move three measly spaces through an enourmous, hex-based galaxy. But players can drop wormholes around them as they please; and use of those wormholes — blipping from one end to the other — requires no energy at all. Thus, the game contains a nice arc of starting with meager movement turns and ending with elaborate orchestrations of passenger pickup and delivery.

You’ll not only plan and use your own wormholes, but you’ll also integrate opponent wormholes into your navigation. And if your opponent happens to drop a wormhole in a smart spot, then they’ll be raking in the bonus points as every use of a wormhole by an opponent nets the wormhole owner a point. Those bonus points are important to keep in mind, but the meat of your points come from actually transporting passengers to their desired planet.

Based on what cards enter your hand (or the open market), you’ll adjust your tactics to milk the most delivery points out of each turn. As the game progresses onward and the wormholes spread far and wide, what initially seems impossible or inefficient can suddenly become solvable and smart. The advanced side of the space tiles also add satisfying depth to this route-planning puzzle — where an orbit zips you around a planet, nebulae similarly offer a free ride, wild wormholes are free game for anyone, photon cannons launch you in a straight line as far as your heart desires, and black holes teleport you away according to the whims of Lady Luck. 

By harnessing the great anomalies of space along with the man-made wormholes, you’ll be able to weave together some satisfying space-traversing combos. Unfortunately, the creativity and joy of Wormholes both starts and ends at exactly that: movement efficiency. 

For some folks, a streamlined pickup and deliver puzzle is all it needs to be. We showed Wormholes to a very casual gaming couple and they had a blast with it, even stating afterward that they could see themselves buying it (I don’t remember them saying that about any of the other many games we’ve shown them — so kudos to this game). 

For other folks, perhaps those more like myself, Wormholes might feel a bit 1-dimensional after a couple plays. You’re trying to navigate and deliver to 8 or 10 different planets during the game, but those planets might as will be called “Point A,” “Point B,” “Point C,” “Point D,” etc. Each card is simply a 2-point objective telling you “Deliver me to point ___.” You’re not so much explorers of the final frontier, rather Taxi cabs performing repetitive work across a vanilla solar system. Although being a Taxi cab sounds much more interesting, as you’d actually get to meet wildly different and interesting people and be rewarded equal to the distance you transported them. In Wormholes, an inconvenient card that enters your hand is nothing more than a faceless passenger who makes you curse your poor luck of the draw and plan to cast them aside on the very next turn.

I guess what I’m trying to say is that beneath the interesting efficiency puzzle of Wormholes lies a largely flavorless experience where the only thing of substance is the next hit of points. Trash cards, draw cards, move, deliver, deposit points, rinse, repeat. It’s clean and polished, for sure, and precisely as lengthy as it should be.

Wormholes somehow makes the most boring part of space (floating through it) the most exciting part while making the most exciting part of space (the diverse planets and life) the most dull part. And although it provides a shared map that allows players to punch a ton of space/time holes in it, the game surprisingly feels like a solitaire top-decking efficiency puzzle with some incidental interaction rather than a strategic tussle of the galaxy’s greatest minds. Whether that’s a good thing or not will depend entirely on the gaming group.

Prognosis: Fair

The scope is pleasantly large, but it only feels that way for a short while.
Image provided by Space Biff

Space Worm

Box cover

3 Plays (2 Players)

Speaking of worms in space, let’s talk about Space Worm! This relatively new Knizia roll & write (from 2020) saw a limited release by a UK publisher, and I couldn’t help but purchase a copy when I spotted one in the US BGG marketplace. While it certainly is a title within the very genre that I have largely disowned, it is also a design inspired by the retro video game Snake, and that sounded pretty cool.

In Space Worm, 2-6 players take turns drafting a die from a pool of 8 total. These are six-sided dice with the 6th face being replaced by another 1. When you select a die, you must draw a straight line on your dark space paper (using a bright metallic pen) that is equal in length to the value of the die. Each time you choose a new die, you can of course continue in the same direction or take that opportunity to make a left or right turn. And as all good snakes know, you can never crash into your own growing tail.

Each player’s hungry space worm is eager to swallow all the fruits and planets spread out across their paper. The more planets you swallow, the less negative points you’ll be penalized at the end of the game. Meanwhile, the fruits are a light competition between players to swallow all of one type first. The first player to swallow all the strawberries will gain 4 points, the next will get 3, the next will get 2, etc. If you happen to swallow a fruit with a matching color die, then you’ll even gain a bonus point. The game also includes 4 unique maps with different arrangements and neat little additions like super fruits and wormholes.

Finally, each time you are unable to use one of the available dice from the pool (because you would crash into a wall), you lose a 2-point life. Once a player loses all 4 lives (or eats all the fruit) the game is over.

So it’s an interesting mixture of route-charting, objective racing, and dice drafting. One feature of Space Worm that you don’t normally expect from a roll & write is that of brutality. Particularly at lower player counts, it’s easy to keep a trained eye on what your opposition desperately wants from the dice pool and hate draft it away from them. Where the difference between first and second place in fruit claiming is only ever a single point at 2-players, it is fortunate that the focus shifts away from the immediate fruit nabbing and toward the full-round dice planning.

Much like the best moments of Azul, you’ll study your opponent’s objectives, line this information up with the drafting options, and puzzle out the best drafting decisions and plans for your own needs. There’s a zesty back and forth tango to it all. As the drafting options dwindle, players will be relieved when a new round finally starts with all 8 dice being rolled again and the 1st player marker passing clockwise.

Long-term planning is vital to success in Space Worm, because if you corner yourself in a risky area (where your only option is to draft a low number or lose a life) then you might find yourself careening toward a premature game end. In our first game, my wife and I stayed fairly even until she started the round with a new dice roll and (against all odds) didn’t roll a single 1 (the only result that could get her out of a tight corner). Suddenly, all of her carefully executed plans along the way didn’t matter and her full supply of lives quickly vanished.

In fact, that’s sort of how every game has ended thus far. The extra little points we sweated and scraped for along the way ended up not mattering all that much because one player eventually trapped themself and destroyed their score. I’m still not sure whether that kind of conclusion is fully satisfying or not — one person’s worm suddenly combusting into an absolute dumpster fire while the other person looks on in gleeful pity. But I suppose the ending might feel more competitive with more players; and it’s not too big of a deal anyway when the game is so fast.

Space Worm starts out open and free, but over it’s 20 minutes you’ll quickly feel the noose tighten around your slimy neck. The game ever entices you to make a risky turn for just one more point, and your opposition will always be waiting in the shadows for that moment where you slither just a little too far. Because it combines the worn-out roll & write formula with some spicy push-your-luck worm traversal and much-needed bitey drafting interaction, this one has the potential to keep growing on me.

Prognosis: Fair

John Company: Second Edition

Final Box Cover

2 Plays (4 & 5 Players)

I was listening to a recent interview of Cole Wehrle (designer and publisher of John Company: Second Edition) and one thing he said especially stood out to me.  In essence, he stated that many game designers fall into the trap of optimizing their game for the first play rather than for returning players. They work to flatten the mountain when they should instead seek to smooth the ramp. 

This statement rang true for me because I’ve seen it in so many modern publications. Hard lessons are replaced by soulless bonuses, clever complexities are cast aside for wooden approachability, guard rails are thrown up at every dangerous corner, and emergent explorative depth is sacrificed for a carefully controlled agenda. But if there is any game which is optimized for returning players rather than the first play, it’s John Company: Second Edition (and all of Cole Wehrle’s designs, for that matter).

As its title suggests, John Company the board game offers a deep dive into the political workings of the British East India Company — greed, grime, and all. Unlike many of our hobby’s Euros which glaze over the horrors of history and merely use such convenient settings as rose-tinted wallpaper, John Company charges straight into the belly of the beast of imperialism and globalization. Here, players are actually given a peek behind the curtains of careless greed, and they’ll come away with a better understanding of what John Company did to countless victims and how those in power were complicit in enabling its moral crimes.

As a mere essay on history, business, and social science, John Company: Second Edition is a fascinating creature. The fact that a board game can provide such an immersive, enlightening, and introspective experience is proof enough that this hobby is as much an art as it is a form of fun. But John Company manages to conjure two miracles in one by being both historically illuminating and thoroughly entertaining.

As the first page of the rulebook states: “In John Company, players assume the roles of ambitious families attempting to use the British East India Company for personal gain.” It also spends an entire page hammering home the point that this is a negotiation game, through and through. That is a very important point to remember as one gets lost in the weeds this procedural roller coaster.

Of all the Cole Wehrle games I’ve played (Root, Pax Pamir, Oath, and now this one), it certainly seems like John Company required the most effort on my part to learn and understand before the big teaching session.  I spent hours in preparation — reading through the rulebook, watching an entire teach and playthrough, and then reading through the rulebook once more. Being the designated teacher of John Company to a game group is like preparing for a final exam — you better know your stuff or you’re in for a rough one.

Despite the fact the Mr. Wehrle puts all of his optimization eggs in the repeat plays basket, that doesn’t mean that this game isn’t approachable. From the gorgeous game board organization to the carefully crafted cards and aids to the warm welcome sheet to the starting scenario, you can tell that Wehrlegig Games cares as much about constructing a smooth ramp as they care about preserving the mountain of strategic possibilities. And what a freaking mountain this game is.

After only playing the starting scenario a couple of times, yet spending roughly 6 hours exploring its depths, I feel like I’ve only scratched the surface here. There are yet more events in India to face, more British laws to consider, more offices and roles to explore, more cunning strategies to uncover, and that doesn’t even touch on the advanced scenarios featuring deregulation and a completely different side to the player boards. John Company takes the concept of “replayability” and punts it into the next dimension.

On a basic level of gameplay, players proceed through a set number of rigidly structured rounds unless the company fails, triggering an early game end. You’ll spend your energy jockeying for positions of power within the company, often bribing or blackmailing your way into office, just so you can rake in the financial gains and swaddle your family members in point-scoring luxury. The goal is to generate opportunities for retirement and betrothal, all while fueling these opportunities through your wealth and success.

The path to victory is through the various offices and roles of the East India Trading Company. The chairman greases the cogs of the system by allocating finances to the various treasuries. The Director of Trade positions writers and ships and sends special envoys to prepare the company for action. The Manager of Shipping fits, buys, and leases ships to enable trading across various regions of India and Asia. Military Affairs organizes the officers and commanders of each army, who deploy like a tyrannical plague on the map. The Presidencies oversee trade in their areas to help keep the company thriving. The Prime Minister reveals policies and proposals to be considered and voted upon. 

Through both the inner workings of the company and the politics of hiring replacements, all of these offices and roles are deeply intertwined, making for a rich playground of negotiation. The company is far bigger than one person, and its survival hinges upon the cooperation of everyone involved, including Lady Luck. Much of what players will aim to accomplish within their various roles requires “Success Checks” — basically chucking a handful of dice and praying for at least one result of a 1 or 2. The probabilities of success, failure, and catastrophic failure are laid out plainly on each player board, and players must decide how much they are willing to spend to gain extra dice and minimize the risks.

Yet even when dice in hand are seemingly plenty, there is always a chance of failure when dealing with unwieldy India. So much of the game is about rolling with the punches and making the most of the latest mess of company problems. Perhaps your ambitious plans for trade in Bombay turned into an absolute dumpster fire, leaving your aging president destitute of retirement savings, but maybe his close relative, the Prime Minister, can pull a few strings to help him still land a place in his dream retirement home. Sure, maybe the company is sailing full-speed ahead toward a destructive iceberg, but at least you still have time to drape yourself in luxuries as you fall back on your local workshops to get through the impending economic disaster and sinking company ship.

For a game where so much of the overall outcome is out of your hands, players have rarely had so much freedom to collaborate, cooperate, coerce, and conspire. And whatever happens with the company, however the final scores shake out, the real fun will always be the coalitions that were formed, the deals that were struck, the promises that were fulfilled, and the backs that were stabbed along the way.

Prognosis: Excellent

Whether you’re into:

  • Highly interactive games like Ahoy
  • The quick gameplay and vivid Kwanchai Moriya illustrations of Kabuto Sumo
  • The clever decision space of Knizia designs
  • The meaty negotiations of John Company
  • Or all of the above…

Our upcoming Kickstarter project is likely to be right up your alley! And it’s the best way to support Bitewing Games in our efforts to both share and create board games with a bite. In January 2023, we’ll be launching Zoo Vadis (by Reiner Knizia) and Gussy Gorillas (a Bitewing Games original) — two wildly clever games of trading and negotiation. Be sure to head over the pre-launch page and click to be notified the moment it launches. Thanks for your support!

Prognosis: a forecast of how the game will likely fare in my collection, and perhaps yours as well.

Excellent– Among the best in its genre.  This game will never leave my collection.

Good– A very solid game and a keeper on the shelf.

Fair– It’s fine. It’s enjoyable. But I’m not likely to seek it out or keep it around.

Poor– Really doesn’t fit my tastes; not one I want to revisit… but hey, that’s just me.

Hopeless– Never again. Run & hide. Demon be gone.

Article written by Nick Murray. Outside of practicing dentistry part-time, Nick has devoted his remaining work-time to collaborating with the world’s best designers, illustrators, and creators in producing classy board games that bite, including the upcoming Zoo Vadis by Reiner Knizia. He hopes you’ll join Bitewing Games in their quest to create and share classy board games with a bite.

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