2 Plays (5 & 6 Players)
The hotly anticipated reimagining of the mega-popular title, Ethnos, is finally here. Ethnos was only released in 2017, but fans have been clamoring for a new look for years. So now that it has finally dropped in the form of Archeos Society, fans like myself were surprised to hear that the underlying gameplay was reworked and reimagined.
Gone are the area majority competitions, these are replaced with track advancement. Gone are the various fantasy races, these are replaced with archeological specialists. Gone is the infamous map of Slovakia, this is replaced with exotic sites. Gone are the stackable plastic tokens, these are replaced with tiny wooden vehicles.
In his design diary, Paolo Mori cites the desire for variability and a more thematic feel as the main reasons behind the pivot from competitive area majorities to solitaire track advancement. Because there are now tracks, he is able to play with the advancement requirements and point rewards to make them unique on each board. This also significantly improves the experience at lower player counts. Where Ethnos was seen as a game best at 4-6 players, Archeos Society appears to work well at any count from 2-6.
Some fans have bemoaned the loss of area majorities in this new version, even going so far as to claim that the game is ruined for them. But I’m inclined to disagree with this sentiment, because area majority was never the beating heart of this game. Rather, the life of Ethnos and Archeos Society is found within the card drafting, hand management, card powers, and set collection. On top of that, in a high player count game of Ethnos (5 or 6 players), the area majority strategy always played second fiddle to the more lucrative and easier set collection points.
In both games, the turns whip around the table with lightning speed as players either draw a card (from the display or from the deck) or play a set of cards of the same color or type. Playing a set of cards will usually grant you an advancement on the central board as well as the power of the top card in your set. At the end of the round, you’ll score additional points for your played sets (with bigger sets scoring more points). The big, juicy wrinkle to all of this is the fact that after you play a set of cards in front of you, you must discard the rest of your hand to the face up display (for everybody else to pick from).
The addictive core loop of this design is the competing incentives of wanting to add just on more card to your set before your play it, yet not wanting to draw useless cards into your hand that will end up feeding your opponents. If you hold out for one more turn, you might get lucky and draw the card you need from the top of the deck, or better yet, an opponent will plop it right into the face-up display for you.
This element of push-your-luck is further spiced by the manner in which each of the three rounds ends. In the bottom half of the deck there are 3 countdown cards. These could be far apart, close together, near the bottom of the deck, or much further up. But in any case, the moment that third card comes out is the moment the round is over (and your huge hand of cards that you were waiting to play is wasted). You only have yourself (and the shuffler) to blame if the end of the round sneaks up on you too quickly.
So despite the major changes (described above) that have been brought to this design in Archeos Society, the game still very much feels like Ethnos at its core. There are even a few welcome improvements:
- The set collection strategy isn’t nearly dominant as it used to be, but it is still strong enough to be worthwhile.
- When the display completely runs out of cards, then players draw 2 cards from the deck instead of 1. This certainly improves the psychology of top decking to something that feels more powerful and welcome.
- The box insert is a million times better at keeping your cards and components well organized — even speeding up the setup.
- The artwork is certainly more welcoming to better serve the family-friendly game this is.
Sure, perhaps there is a small element of area majority competition that is now missing from the experience. But there is still plenty of competition and interaction from drafting and gifting cards within the card market. Your decisions and success will certainly be influenced by what other players are gunning for and what they are ignoring. And the diverse, double sided track boards provide noticeably more variety than what the Ethnos setup used to feature.
Some are guaranteed to hate this core change, but to me the new tracks are interesting enough to keep me entertained. On the other hand, the original game had a sharper focus, simplicity, and clarity to it (both in the gameplay and in the graphic design) that part of me misses. Ultimately, Archeos Society feels like more of lateral move than anything. But I count this one as a win, because a still great game is back on shelves.
2 Plays (5 Players)
I recently declared that I was waiting for a domino game to supplant Renature as the greatest domino game of all time. Sadly, Judge Domino is not the Usurper. But at least it’s mildly amusing for a couple plays.
In this competitive game of deceptive domino positioning, you and your rivals will take turns selecting a domino from the supply and standing it somewhere along a growing line of dominos. The objective is to make others believe that the line of dominos won’t successfully and completely topple if pushed. So you’ll find yourself positioning your domino in a precarious position, particularly if you are feeling a little dangerous.
The dominos aren’t all the same shape or size. Some are squat and square, others are tall and skinny. You are allowed to stand them on their horizontal or vertical edge. You are allowed to create a winding path. You simply cannot create branches or a loop. Notably, the dominos are also numbered. This matters when a player declares “Judge!” after somebody else’s turn.
You’ll hear such a declaration if somebody believes that they are no longer looking at a promising line. A declaration of “Judge” leads to a secret vote where each player simultaneously reveals whether they believe the line will be successful or not (if toppled). The person who just placed the last domino must vote success, but everyone else can vote either way (including the person who demanded the vote). If even one person votes failure, then the line of dominos has met its end. The active player must gently knock over the lower numbered domino on either end and test the line to see if it all topples.
Players of course hope for whichever result they voted for. And the correct voters will receive one point for every incorrect vote. This constitutes one round of the game, and after three full rounds of assembling a line until a vote and topple, the player with the most points wins.
For many, a game as basic as this will understandably be far too uninteresting to be worth a revisit. Perhaps the turns will feel too dull or the votes will feel too obvious, or both. The dominoes don’t exactly spark one’s imagination… there are only a few different types, after all. But we found far more enjoyment in the game once we started to push the boundaries of what toppling dominos are capable of. An askew rectangle here, a distant square there… positioning these orange slabs right on the fence between plausibility and doubt… daring each other to call for judgement and uncover the truth.
It proved to be an amusing way to the pass the time. But mild amusement is a tough space for a game to reside in when us gamers are spoiled with far more flashy or cerebral options.
1 Play (4 Players)
Once you’ve played enough auction games, you’ll probably start to notice that the secret to a good auction system is its fuzziness. The values of the rewards you are bidding on or the total amount you’ll have to burn to get the desired result is just blurry enough to sow a bit of doubt in the mind. Is this prize really worth a whopping seven of your hard-earned coins? Probably. Maybe.
Most often, this fuzziness comes from a relative reward system such as Medici’s shipped goods or from a variable round length such as Ra’s sun track or High Society’s randomized deck. In the case of Stick Collection, this fuzziness comes in a very unique way, namely different lengths of sticks that you can only squint and crane at from a short distance.
Each round, a stick is randomly drawn from the box and stood upright in the center of the table. Players must keep their own collected sticks at a minimum distance, but they can hold up their own collection to get a rough idea of how this displayed stick compares to their sticks. Thus the squinting and craning.
If you feel like this new stick might be worth the trouble, then you can bid for it. The maximum bid allowed is 10, so if you really want that stick then you can just lunge for it when it is your turn to bid, but it’ll cost you a whopping one-fifth of your total cash. That money isn’t coming back, and eventually you’ll start spending straight up points once you get below 22 (because you score points for leftover money below 22 at the end of the game).
The objective is to build a large, unbroken run of sticks that are exactly 5mm apart from each other in length (there are 9 possible lengths) to score more points, or to get four sticks of the exact same length to instantly win the game (this one is much harder). But you’re never quite sure exactly how long the stick up for auction is until you actually pay for it and add it to your hand. Therein lies the fuzziness of this particular auction game.
It’s unique, for sure, and plenty small and quick (usually 20 minutes). But it’s not necessarily the most exciting twist on auctions. True, the game absolutely differentiates itself from the crowded field of auction fillers with its core premise of collecting sticks and judging auction candidates at a distance. But if I’m looking for a filler game in this genre, I generally prefer a little bit more drama to the proceedings or a tad more nuance to the tactics and strategies.
After one play, I don’t feel the urge to collect more sticks, but at least it was enjoyable enough.
4 Plays (3 & 5 Players)
Ninja Master is a game that understands exactly what it is trying to be and nails its target with the precision of a thrown shuriken.
Out of a wonderfully compact box comes many chunky wood tokens including 5 different colored ninja meeples, a large katana sword, a ninja star, a bunch of custom dice, and some easy to assemble walls that form a pentagon to help contain the thrown dice.
Players also receive their own score board to setup up their tracker on the 3 space. The objective is to be first player that reaches 20 points.
One player takes a turn picking up the large handful of dice while everyone else assumes the ninja pose (finger swords out and ready). The dice are thrown and the chaos ensues.
Players race to score points by snatching up the best wooden tokens. You can grab up to two items — one for each hand. If you’re too slow, then the best items will be long gone. If you’re too fast, then you may recklessly pick up items that will actually lose you points.
The dice can display many features:
- 1, 2 or 3 ninjas of a single color (you’ll score points for grabbing the matching ninja equal to the ninjas that the dice display). Sometimes a ninja will score you merely one or two points. Other times it can score you six or more. But it’s important to be wary of a vanish symbol.
- A vanish symbol of a color turns its matching ninjas into negative points. But two vanish symbols of the same color turns it back to positive! It’s hilarious to have a player see 5 symbols of a color and instantly snatch up that ninja meeple, only to later discover that those points are negative due to a sneaky vanish symbol of the same color.
- Any rolled shurikens will score the dice roller of the round 1 point each — a nice potential boon of good luck. And a friendly reminder that this is a light, silly game at its core.
- The rolled shurikens also matter relative to the rolled katanas. If, and only if, there are more katanas rolled than shurikens rolled, then you absolutely want to snatch up the katana token. This katana always sits in front of the player who has the most points, and they’ll be wise to defend it from potential attackers. Whoever takes the katana will get to steal half of the owner’s points, unless it is the owner who snatches it up (for a net effect of zero points gained or lost). But if somebody mistakenly takes the katana when its dice symbols are equal to or less than shurikens, then they will lose 3 points. This creates a clever catchup mechanism (even if points are never stolen) by forcing the leader to remain preoccupied with constant worry while everyone else can simply focus on raking in the most points.
While this lightening quick dice scanning and token snatching is all taking place, one or more players are usually racing to end the round (and thus halt the token snatching). A round is ended the moment somebody calls out a number, and hopefully for them that number is equal to the total ninjas that were rolled. If they are correct, they gain 1 point. If incorrect, they lose 3 points.
I’m typically not a fan of games that reward the player with the fastest reflexes. But between Ninja Master and SWAT, Dr. Knizia has proven to me that he knows how to get the most out of this genre. Rather than testing your speed, he tests your patience and self-restraint. In the case of SWAT, he lets you agonize over when to SWAT a growing supply of juicy cards before your opponents claim it first. In the case of Ninja Master, he forces you to make split second decisions, often before you have processed all the dice results on display. Sometimes it’s gloriously triumphant, other times it’s a hilarious disaster.
As a 10 or 15 minute romp with a shockingly great production, Ninja Master is indeed a masterpiece of the microgame genre.
4 Plays (3 & 4 Players)
Speaking of killer Knizia microgames, Ninja Master isn’t the only Funbrick title to be a hit at our table. Viking See-Saw presents one of the most magnificent little experiences I’ve seen in ages.
In the center of the table resides a long Viking ship, leaning to one side like a teeter totter. This ship also contains several chest blocks in the center section of the ship. Before each player sits a supply of odd tokens of various weights, shapes, and sizes, all contained within an elastic hair band. Some silver cubes, some gold cubes, a metal ball, a plastic ball, a wonky gem, and a Viking Meeple.
The challenge is (seemingly) simple: get rid of all your tokens first… and don’t rock the boat. Players take turns selecting one item from their supply and adding it to the high end of the boat. If you successfully place an item without teetering the boat, then you can breathe a sigh of relief because your turn is over. If you happen to add too much weight to this side, causing the boat to pivot with it, then you must begrudgingly take a chest token from the cargo space into your supply. But there are far worse fates to suffer…
As players pile more and more of their junk onto the Viking ship, it becomes harder to assess the competing weights and stack another item on top of these leaning piles without causing a disaster. Any items that you knock out of the boat on your turn must be added to your supply while the rest of the group laughs at your clumsy misfortune.
It’s simple, dumb, and pure dexterity fun. But the thing that really takes Viking See-Saw up a notch is the perfectly crafted production combined with a refreshing physics challenge. The various items have dramatically different weights, frictions, and shapes to them.
The Viking meeples are blessedly lightweight, with plenty of little nooks and crannies to help stack a leaning item on top and keep it from sliding off. The gems are also wonderfully lightweight, but a nightmare to stack on other items and (delightfully) an even bigger nightmare for later players to stack items on top of.
The metal cubes and balls are deceptively heavy, weighing down the low end of the ship more than you expect while filling your soul with terror when you need to add one to the higher end.
Beneath the wacky antics you’ll find a delicious subtlety to the strategic stacking… when to add to the center of the ship vs the end… when to add to a leaning tower vs seek out a more stable foundation… when to cover a flat spot with a wonky gem and set your neighbor up for failure… when to put out a heavy token to conserve your light tokens… where tokens are likely to slide off and where they are likely to grip better.
I am reminded of Kabuto Sumo, another physics based dexterity challenge where the satisfaction is found in the subtlety. For many players, that subtlety will merely lead to a shrugging of the shoulders and a response of, “What’s all the fuss about here?” It’s certainly an experience of what you put into it is what you get out of it. If you just frivolously push a Kabuto Sumo disc or casually stack a Viking See-Saw piece, then it’ll all end up as a big whoop. Conversely, if you invest some thought and heart into the action, then you might find yourself pleasantly surprised by the results.
Nothing about this game or its experience is revelatory or bombastic. Yet everything about it is just so charming and… dare I say it… perfectly balanced. It’s these humble yet focused games like Viking See-Saw and Ninja Master that make me hopeful to see many more weird little designs from Reiner Knizia that explore the unexpected genres of this hobby.
That’s Not A Hat
3 Plays (5 & 6 Players)
I recently had a run-in with the Boogeyman of board games. No, not roll-to-move, the other Boogeyman. I’m referring to a memory game.
That’s Not a Hat unearths every hobbyist gamer’s worst nightmare and lays it bare on the table for all to see and squirm at. Here, you must confront the terror of looking at an abject on a card, flipping it facedown, and then keeping track of what that card is and where it is at. Not so bad when it’s just one card rotating positions between players. Much harder when it is mixed in with 5 or 6 other rotating cards.
But That’s Not a Hat isn’t simply seeking to reward the player with the best memory and shame everyone else. No, it’s out to test your nerves. And give you plenty of opportunities to laugh at your friends. You see, you don’t necessarily have to remember exactly what all these hidden objects are and where they are located. You just have to convince your neighbor that you know what is on the card you are sliding their way (and hope that they don’t know better).
Each player starts the game with a face-up object card sitting in front of them. One player draws an extra card from the face-up draw pile (the “gift store”), shows the object to all, and then flips this card facedown and gifts it to their lefthand or righthand neighbor (depending on which way the arrows on the back of the card are pointing). As they slide this gift in front of their neighbor they’ll say “Here, please accept this ____” (whatever the object was…. A cone, a cookie, a dog, a globe, a rolling pin, etc.). The receiver of the gift can either accept it (implying that they agree that the gift is in fact what the giver claims it to be) or they can reject it by sliding it back and saying “That’s not a ____.”
If the receiver accepts the gift, then they take the older gift sitting in front of them (flipping it face-down if it isn’t yet) and gift that one away. Things can move quickly as players give and accept gifts, sending objects circulating around the table like a Christmas conveyer belt. This is where your attention and memory are really put to the test as you try to keep track of all these objects (all while trying to catch when a player makes an error and incorrectly identifies a card).
If a receiver ever rejects a gift, then the card is flipped face up and whoever was incorrect (between giver and receiver) must keep the card in their score pile of shame as a penalty point. That player then draws another card from the deck and continues the chaos of gifting and regifting until one player ends up with 3 penalty points and the players with the least penalties win the game.
Where the memory mechanism is typically a monster in the closet for many of us hobbyist gamers, That’s Not a Hat seems to be the funny Mike Wazowski style of monster… The kind you absolutely want showing up at your table to liven the mood. What starts out seemingly frivolous and simple quickly becomes challenging and hilarious in all the right ways as players bluff their convictions. This is one Boogeyman that is absolutely welcome at our game nights.
2 Plays (6 Players)
Challengers! is the freshly crowned winner of the Kennerspiel des Jahres 2023 (or in other words, Germany’s choice for the Connoisseur’s Game of the Year). After two plays, I can see why Challengers won, but I also admit that it might be an odd duck to add to anyone’s collection (perhaps that’s why there is a big duck on the cover).
I had the chance to introduce this game to two very different groups — one made up of nearly all gamers and another made up of nearly all non-gamers. Somehow the game both worked and didn’t work for both groups.
The premise of Challengers is simple: over 7 rounds, go head-to-head against one other person in a war-style game. On your turn, you’ll simply flip cards from the top of your deck to attack the face-up cards from the other player’s deck. Once you have matched or exceeded their power, you steal the flag token and send their defeated cards to their bench. You can win the match either by filling their bench beyond maximum capacity or by depleting their supply of cards entirely. Notably, cards that are exactly the same can fill up the same slot in your bench (so it’s always great to have duplicates in your deck).
Between rounds, you’ll draw 5 cards from a supply pile and select one or two to add to your deck. You can even reject your first draw of cards and replace it with a second, in case you don’t like your options. Then you are allowed to trash as many cards as you’d like from your deck. This is where the most important decisions come into play. The key is to strike a fine balance between having enough cards to not run out before your opponent, but not have too many different types of cards that clutter up your bench. Balance should be your first priority, and synergy should be your second. Many cards play off of each other well, and specializing your deck can go a long ways to making you competitive across the 7 rounds of play.
Players are each given a unique tournament card at the beginning which dictates where they will battle each round. This results in you facing off against every other person one or two times (at least in a 6-player game). The winner of each bout will claim a trophy (these trophies grant increasingly more points over time), and after 7 rounds the top 2 scorers will face-off in one final epic battle.
There’s a lot to love about Challengers: The refreshing tournament style play that lets you test your carefully crafted deck against a variety of opponents and their decks. The nostalgic, dramatic, and simple war-style card reveals that lead to plenty of cheers and groans (depending on if your cards come out the way you want them to). The tense battles when two evenly matched decks fight to the bitter end and one player narrowly escapes with the victory. The built-in opportunities to learn from your mistakes, shore up your deck’s weaknesses, and acquire exciting new cards that increasingly grow stronger as the tournament proceeds on.
But there’s also (potentially) a lot to hate about Challengers: The battle phases that feature very few decisions (aside from a few card powers) and a whole lot of luck (the order that these cards come out). Or when one or two players start off poorly with their deck crafting and fall behind the competition to then suffer loss after loss after loss. Or the text heavy cards with enough edge case rules to initially overwhelm newcomers (especially non-gamers). Or the fact that you have to get up from your seat and play musical chairs with the group every 5 minutes. Or the notably extensive set-up and clean-up phases that bookend the entire session because cards must be properly separated and organized. Or the feeling of having your most impactful decisions made for you simply by drawing a hand of 2 great cards and 3 ill-fitting cards.
In other words, Challengers is very much a mixed bag… and the kind of pleasure that a given player draws from this game bag depends both on their control preferences and on how lucky and successful their experience is. I’m not in the camp who believes this game is entirely luck-driven. In my two plays of the game, I had the most points out of everyone after the 7 rounds were over. I then won the first final battle and lost the second one. But that’s still first and second place in two different groups of six, which means I’m either suspiciously lucky or that the game rewards some amount of skill and experience.
No, I believe this game has a nice mix of luck and skill, although the luck absolutely overshadows the skill from most perspectives. And I definitely enjoyed both of my plays — enough that I would happily play this one much more. The only problem is that my opinion feels like the least popular one between myself and the 10 other people I played it with.
With both groups, it appears that 1 person publicly hated the game, 1 person publicly loved the game (myself), and everyone else seemed to offer mild compliments at best (did they actually enjoy it or where they just being polite?… probably a mix of both). The problem with having a game that one person outwardly hates is that it becomes much harder to get to the table, you have to play it when they aren’t around. Challengers makes this even more…. Challenging… by forcing people to include a bot in the game for odd-numbered groups. I’m too stubborn to force people to play against a bot during 1 or 2 of their 7 rounds, so this essentially becomes an even-player game only (2, 4, 6, or 8) that I can’t play with the haters.
To make matters worse, it’s just complicated enough (as mentioned above) that it’s not necessarily easy to teach everyone. My non-gamer group struggled to retain the up-front information until after a round or two of play. And there’s enough critical yet foreign terminology on the cards that it helps to have several translators in the group.
At the end of it all, I’m forced to judge this game in a way that I have never judged one before. For my personal experience, Challengers hovers somewhere between good and excellent. But the prospect of me actually getting it to the table again and fully entertaining a group with it seems much more precarious, which certainly hurts its prognosis in my collection.
Fresh Out of the Oven
Zoo Vadis and Gussy Gorillas are available on our webstore! Now you can finally try the hottest new negotiation games on the block.
Ending Soon On Kickstarter
Bitewing Games is currently running a Kickstarter campaign for two exciting new games! Don’t miss out on this chance to pick up the critically acclaimed Trailblazers, it’s new Sasquatch Expansion, as well as the next game from the creators of Trailblazers — Spectral. Thanks for supporting our efforts to create and share classy board games that bite!
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 critically acclaimed Trailblazers by Ryan Courtney and newly released 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.
Disclaimer: When Bitewing Games finds a designer or artist or publisher that we like, we sometimes try to collaborate with these creators on our own publishing projects. We work with these folks because we like their work, and it is natural and predictable that we will continue to praise and enjoy their work. Any opinions shared are subject to biases including business relationships, personal acquaintances, gaming preferences, and more. That said, our intent is to help grow the hobby, share our gaming experiences, and find folks with similar tastes. Please take any and all of our opinions with a hearty grain of salt as you partake in this tabletop hobby feast.