Caesar!: Sieze Rome in 20 Minutes!
I finally got my hands on the first of my Most Anticipated Games of 2022. The moment I heard that Caesar was the spiritual sibling to Paolo Mori’s Blitzkrieg, I’ve since awaited its release like a hungry hawk ready to swoop in on its prey.
Swooping predators is actually quite an accurate way to describe the game of Caesar itself! The game board is littered with yellow bonus tokens across regions of Rome that are waiting to be claimed by the cleverest player—Caesar or Pompey. In a scrumptious hybrid of gameplay between Blitzkrieg and Samurai, players take turns positioning their tiles on the borders of each region.
Much like Samurai, the object of the game is to surround contested regions with tiles that add up to a higher sum than your opponent. Only in Caesar’s case, every tile has two numbers that will affect the two divided regions that it sits between. The highest power tiles go up to six, but those sixes are accompanied with a zero on the other side of the border. And like Blitzkrieg, Caesar’s tile spaces have a specific suit designated to them, and only a tile of a matching suit (or a wild) can be placed on them. Furthermore, Caesar borrows from its older sibling in offering juicy bonuses as an extra incentive to claim a spot. While the strongest player in a closed area gets to control that region (and thereby progress toward victory), the player who actually closes the region by placing the last border tile is the one who claims the bonus token.
The bonuses here are impactful, plentiful, and varied (especially once you add in the included expansions designed by David Turczi), yet they still don’t reach the variety nor provide the same ramp-up in power as Blitzkrieg. That’s not to say they that Caesar’s tactical opportunities aren’t exciting, they absolutely are, yet that difference might play a small part in why I feel that Blitzkrieg still has the slight edge between the two. Add in the fact that Caesar’s first printing for the North American version has several production issues, and that doesn’t help its case either.
My understanding is that publisher PSC Games has used different manufacturers to produce Caesar, depending on the distribution region. For the North American units, these were made by a US-based manufacturer and the results have been… less than ideal. The main issue stems from the cardboard punch outs. These punchboards were among the worst quality I have ever seen in a board game, and that unfortunately took its toll on my solo tiles.
Fortunately, I have no intention of playing Caesar solo, but even with my best efforts to do it properly, every tile that needed to be punched out felt like pushing down on an old land mine and waiting for the deadly outcome. The production headache didn’t stop there, sadly.
Another difference in the North American version is found on the player control tiles—where both sides of the tile have the exact same icon. This becomes a grating problem when combined with the fact that one bonus token, Might, instructs the player to flip an opponent’s control tile face down to indicate that it is no longer active. So you have both the rulebook and the player screens instructing players to flip a token face down that has no face down direction. Yikes.
Only those who are savvy or resourceful enough to overcome this issue (either by figuring it out or looking it up in the BGG forums) would discover that the best solution is to simply cover the control marker with the Might token to indicate the same effect. The only problem with this fix is that it negatively affects the readability of the board; covering a control marker with a bonus token simply makes the space look like a bonus ready to be claimed rather than a space covered and nullified.
How did this happen in one regional version of the game and not another? Apparently someone thought last-minute it was a good idea to make the control markers and influence tiles easier to separate by giving them different backs, unfortunately they opted for a solution that made matters worse by both conflicting with the instructions and reducing board readability. I’m not sure why this was change was needed in the first place when it is already easy to keep these tokens separated from setup, into gameplay, all the way through tear-down and storage.
But alas, nobody is perfect, including publishers, and the key to life is learning from and fixing our mistakes. In the case of these North American punchboard problems, PSC Games has already set up a form for customers to request new punchboards. Hopefully these replacement parts will arrive swiftly and mend my wounded game.
The only other nitpick I had with our experience was found in the rulebook itself. The first few pages detail the components and setup, yet no images are provided for all the components or a full setup. Aside from showing players a couple different spaces on the board and an image of the influence token, there are zero visual cues as to what the bonus tokens look like, what the control markers look like, and most annoyingly, which tokens are part of the expansions. Those who try to setup the game before reading through the entire manual will quickly find themselves confused as to which tokens should and shouldn’t be included in their first play and what tokens the setup section is even talking about.
The combination of all these gripes is certainly a disappointing way to dive into a brand new game, but I try not to let this kind of thing influence my enjoyment of it (as long as the problems don’t affect the actual gameplay). In this case, Caesar is historically known to be a resilient one, and the design managed to survive its own production’s betrayals. While I haven’t found the tactical decisions here to be quite as tense as Blitzkrieg, I have to credit designers Paolo Mori and David Turczi for cramming another juicy strategy game into a bite-sized 20-minute experience. Caesar is absolutely a keeper in my collection and a solid companion design to Blitzkrieg.
Current Rating: 8/10
Kemet: Blood & Sand — Book of the Dead Expansion
I’ve been fortunate to find myself a group of local Kemet fans and recently decided to spring on them the Book of the Dead expansion. Aside from being mythologically historical, this expansion has a rocky publishing history all on its own. When publisher Matagot first revealed this exciting new expansion featuring a new color of emerald power tiles, they wrapped it in a Cthulhu package to the outrage and dismay of many hardcore Kemet fans. None of them wanted to see their pure Egyptian mythology game muddied with controversial Cthulhu lore. Ultimately, Matagot decided to appease both sides of the debate by converting the expansion back to Egyptian mythology while offering some extra Cthulhu minis and tiles.
Besides offering a different flavor of power tiles, this expansion comes with another board to go beside the main game board (as if it wasn’t enough of a table hog already). This side board is where you’ll dispose of your units whenever you sacrifice them to the Gods for useful benefits. And if you want to retrieve your units back from the underworld, it’ll cost you extra precious prayer points. Sacrificing your units also sends your honor point token tumbling down the honor track where you’ll eventually lose one to two victory points if you go too far. While it hurts to lose any point when you’re trying to cross the 10-point victory threshold, the rulebook assures us that emerald tiles are the most powerful in the game. The key is that you need to leverage your dishonorable methods to your advantage.
A player with less honor points (and thus less victory points) is also a player with a stronger putrefaction level. Those of you who understand the definition of putrefaction (the process of decay or rotting in a body) would understandably interpret a “stronger putrefaction level” to be a bad thing. But in Kemet, that is not so. You see putrefied armies are like the marine corps of ancient Egypt. The only problem is that there are only five emerald tiles that leverage your putrefaction level to your advantage, so if multiple players are gunning for the weird and wonky green strategy, then one or more of them may be left high and dry with all the dishonor and none of the benefits.
While the red, blue, and diamond power tiles are much more straightforward, it seems the emerald tiles require a very deliberate and crafty player to formulate a winning strategy. I find that the most exciting part of this expansion is the addition of super creatures known as divinities. Like all the other glorious creatures in Kemet, divinities are tied to and purchased with a power tile. The thing that makes them special is that they function as their own troop of 4 or 6 strength with 1-3 more units of strength (worshippers) attached. Where other creatures merely follow around and integrate into a regular band of soldiers, divinities are an army unto themselves.
Normally, Kemet allows each player 12 units that they can divide up into 2 or 3 roaming troops. There are a couple tiles that grant you 3 more troops, but otherwise you’ll rarely be commanding more than 2 troops at once. Divinities are a game changer. Suddenly, you can bring your troop total to 3 or 4 with the acquisition of Thoth or Apophis. Better yet, you’ll summon them directly onto a free desert space where you can spring them in next to an opponent before immediately moving in for the attack. Controlling temples and opponents’ pyramids can often be the key to victory, and divinities make this an even more viable strategy.
I went all-in on emerald tiles with my first play while my two opponents avoided them due to fear of the unknown. While they both caught an early lead on me, I found that I quickly closed the gap on victory points with the help of Thoth and Apophis. What resulted was an extremely competitive game, but I ultimately fell in defeat to another who had a more stable strategy. After seeing how emerald all came together, I would certainly give it another go, and hopefully I’ll have learned a thing or two about how to better combine these powers with the other colors.
Current Rating: 7.5/10
In many ways, So Clover is like the spiritual sibling to popular 2018 release, Just One: both are crowd-pleasing, chill, cooperative word/party games from publisher Repos Production.
In So Clover, each player gets their own dry-erase clover board where they’ll randomly slot 4 square word cards into the 4 clover spaces. Each square card has four words on it, but the only ones that matter are the words around the outer border (next to the dry erase spaces of your clover board). Well, that’s not exactly true… just like Codenames, all the words on display matter, because some of them may distract from the ones that you actually want players to guess.
You’ll secretly write 4 one-word clues around the outside of your clover board that connect to the two adjacent words. Finally, you’ll pull your cards back off the board and shuffle them with a fifth card before putting everything on display. The nice thing about So Clover compared to many other word games is that all players are doing these steps at the same time with their personal clover board and set of cards.
Once all players are ready, you’ll go through each person’s board and cards one at a time. That person will sit back and writhe in pain while everyone else collectively and clumsily tries to recreate the exact arrangement of cards on their board that the player originally had.
Because you are lining up two sides of a card into a corner, you’ll have easy card placements just as often as you’ll have tricky ones. Matching cards to corners can be tricky, but writing the clues can be even trickier. “Princess” and “Saber” on two adjacent cards might make for an easy clue of “Leia”, but what kind of clue do you write for “Ramp” and “Bracelet?” How about “Autumn” and “Lock?”
Just like all the best word games in the business, from Decrypto to Wavelength, So Clover captures that fun challenge of getting into your teammate’s mind and following gut feelings on clues. It’s a design that is instantly engaging and effortlessly approachable. While 2021 was understandably a slow year for party games, So Clover manages to hit the sweet spot as a great game for 3-6 players.
Current Rating: 8/10
If games like Family Inc. were as popular and widespread as Phase 10, Uno, and Go Fish—honestly, if Family Inc. simply replaced those games—then the world would be a much better place. That’s because despite its oodles of luck and bare-bones simplicity, Family Inc. offers meaningful, tense decisions.
Family Inc. is another Knizia game that doesn’t currently exist in English—only German, Hungarian, Slovak, and Czech. But the rules are simple and the components are just numbers, so that didn’t stop us from playing it.
The game comes with over 100 large chips numbered 1-10. On your turn, you’ll simply flip one chip at a time until you decide to stop or are forced to stop via a bust. You’ll bust if you flip a matching number that is already among your spoils, otherwise you can stop and steal all the matching numbers you’ve revealed that are currently in front of your opponents.
After that, you simply need to wait until the start of your next turn to score all of the chips that remain in front of you. When the thievery is compounding, there is a stronger incentive to keep revealing chips until you find the number that matches the lucrative pile of tokens that another player is waiting to score. Yet pushing further means you’ll run the risk of matching your own tiles instead and having to dump them all in the box.
Family Inc. even has an exciting mechanism to mitigate bad luck. When a player matches their 1st or 2nd flipped chip with a 2nd or 3rd reveal, then their turn is over, but they get a diamond as a pity reward. Earn three diamonds, and you’ll cash them in for 50 points! That’s a huge payday when the first player to 100 wins the game.
Family Inc. balances speed, luck, and drama with effortless ease in a game that is guaranteed to please any casual crowd. In our five plays, we saw a diverse range of paths to victory including the slow and steady low risk point collector, the big scoring thievery of piles of tokens, and the surprise double diamond cash-in.
It’s not something that I would want to play all the time. But as a light filler with a casual group of friends or family, it really hits the spot. The main thing that holds it back is the currently limited regional release and a box that is disgustingly oversized.
Current Rating: 6.5/10
Whenever I think back on all the games I’ve ever tried and all the plays I’ve ever had, the memories that stand out best are either the cream of the crop or the crap of the crowd. My absolute best and worst moments of gaming are tied to strong emotions and poignant interactions, and thus these are most easy to remember.
So it is with genuine surprise that I look back on all those memories and I can’t recall a time where I was more agonizingly bored with a game than the two hours I spent playing Coloma.
I’m aware that there are oodles of games out there that many others enjoy, yet these games are not for me due to one reason or another. Somehow, Coloma managed to aggressively recruit many of those reasons and assemble them into one design.
Have you ever had a soup where the individual chunky ingredients were pureed into a thick liquid—essentially becoming the texture of watery applesauce? Coloma is like the board game version of that. Perhaps the mechanical ingredients were chunky and interesting to start out, but they have ultimately been blended and liquified into a far less interesting meal.
Players each get their own deck of cards, and at the start of the game you must cherry pick several of them into your starting hand before shuffling the rest into your own draw pile. For newcomers, this is instantly an overwhelming decision thanks to all the possible bonuses and conversions these cards provide. This would perhaps be forgivable if the cards were meaningfully diverse and interesting, but I quickly found that my entire deck of cards (…and the whole game board… and the complete game) offered nothing but superficial variety in the decision options.
Spend your workers and coins to play a card. Play this card so you can earn some coins. Play this card so you can earn some workers. Play this card so you can discard some cards and earn some more coins or workers. It gives the feeling of a dog chasing its tail in circles. This feeling is exacerbated by the fact that literally all the cards have the same cost to play and provide the exact same amount points. Apparently, even the creators understand that the cards have no difference in value or variety or flavor; Thus, the costs and rewards have no need to be different or bring balance to the bland, uniform abilities.
The worker placement spaces are equally mind-numbing. This spot triggers your card abilities which earn you stuff. This spot lets you wagon around to different areas which also earns you the same kind of stuff. Building rivers and bridges is just a vanilla way to spend your stuff for points. Or you can dump your workers here to take on the bandits and earn—you guessed it—points.
I’m somewhat reminded of the ‘Taco Bell menu’ of action options that Witchstone provides where everything you do results in bonus actions and bonus points. This shallow, point salad style of game has proven to be one of my least favorite genres, but at least Witchstone grafts it on to an intriguing action selection mechanism of arranging combo clusters with hexagonal domino tiles.
The most interesting aspect of Coloma is a spinning wheel made up of magnetic wedges which cover action spaces as they shift from one round to the next. Yet even this part is undermined by the shoe-horned ‘player interaction’.
You see, players simultaneously select an action space to send their single worker each turn. If one space ends up with more workers than any other, then that space gets the ‘bust’ wedge placed over it—meaning the action becomes half as good as it usually is because there are currently too many people there. But for a game where all the action spaces are a samey mush that accomplish the same thing (unless you squint really hard…maybe), this bust mechanism essentially becomes Random Russian Roulette where half of the players get shot for picking the same spot. These are the kind of bad-luck bombs that should not be found in a Euro game, especially one that can take 2 hours to play.
To make matters worse, Coloma allows up to 6 players to play, and our game proved that even 5 was too many. The benefits of simultaneous action selection have their legs cut off by an absolute slog of action resolutions that are 99% solitaire but just interactive enough that players can’t resolve them at the same time. Instead, our playing time was doubled (and downtime was relentlessly unending) as each individual player in sequence had to trigger everything in their tableau or along their path or on their barrels. It’s a not-so-merry merry-go-round that could even agitate sloths.
In other words, I drew no joy from Coloma. It buried me in suffocating monotony from start to finish and overstayed its welcome for what felt like years. But at least it has magnets in the cardboard wheel. That’s not nothing.
Current Rating: 2/10
With a quick glance at the box cover and title, one might guess that Sheepy Time is potentially a throwaway filler of a product that a big publisher like AEG used to pad their release schedule. Yet it would be a shame to dismiss this one so easily, as Sheepy Time successfully provides an amusing push your luck experience in a charming production.
The game plays with the sleeping theme of counting sheep as well as the terrors that loom behind the closed eyelids of deep slumber. Here and there you’ll be catching winks to race up the track to victory as you place and spend Zzzs that activate powerful dream tokens. But the main objective is to race around the circular track with your sheep figure, trying to jump the fence as much as possible, as you avoid the terror the marches ever onward.
The problem is you don’t know exactly how or when the nightmare can strike. Its cards are shuffled into the draw pile, just waiting to spring out at any moment. All you know is what those nightmare cards could be and how that might affect you. If the terror catches your sheep figure when it is stopped between your turns, then you’ll be on the verge of defeat and one more scare away from busting in the round. Or if the nightmare makes it all the way around the board and back to the fence, then it’s an instant K.O. for everyone who didn’t call it quits yet.
Any time you jump the fence and score more winks (points), you can call it a night and remove your figure from the board, thereby securing the points you’ve earned for the round. The catch is that just like in real life, any shut-eye you catch in a single night is completely erased by the exhausting events of the next day. Your only victory is that catching more winks than others moves your pillow further down the point track than them. In a future round, all you need to do is cross your climbing wink token with your descending pillow to win.
So pushing your luck to be the best sheep of each round is rewarding in the sense that it lowers the bar for you to personally obtain a victory. Yet hitting a bust in a round doesn’t mean you are out of the game either. As you progress through each round, players will have the opportunity to add more dream tiles to the board. With the use of your Zzz tokens on these dream tiles, there are plenty of opportunities for massive combos that can help a player race back into the lead or even straight to an immediate win.
The nice thing about Sheepy Time is that it comes with a few unique nightmares that you can choose from to use for a specific game as well as a huge stack of dream tiles to mix up your experience. For a quick filler game with amusing push your luck moments, you can’t ask for much more than that.
My biggest gripe is that this game will rarely hit the table for us because I’m not inclined to play it at 2 players and it only goes up to 4. Understandably, adding in more than 4 players would simply mean that you have less control and predictability over the experience, so I’m not saying it should play with more. But I generally find that push your luck games often have a “the more, the merrier” vibe to them that we can’t fully embrace with Sheepy Time. I suppose the best way to counteract that is to simply play with one or more people who bring a lot of heart and noise to the table.
Current Rating: 7/10
Merv: The Heart of the Silk Road
Merv follows the tried and true recipe for modern Euros by offering a novel action selection mechanism bolstered by an assortment of tracks, actions, and bonuses in a tangled web of resource efficiency and point maximization. For folks who live and breathe this style of game, there is plenty to enjoy here and honestly no reason why you shouldn’t welcome The Heart of the Silk Road into your heart and onto your table. As for the rest of us, the question becomes whether or not Merv does enough to stand out and justify the investment to learn and play repeatedly.
To be frank, those who prefer their Euros fast-paced or easy to teach could do much better looking elsewhere. Merv requires a hearty rules-dump right up front, and the tactical turns demand methodical crunching. But what it lacks in elegance it makes up for in juicy payoffs and a crisp presentation from veterans Fabio Lopiano (designer of Calimala) Ian O’Toole (artist behind Lacerda’s heavy hitters) and Osprey Games (publisher of Undaunted, Brian Boru, and Cryptid).
Merv immediately gives off a confident aura from the big colorful box all the way down to the small wooden camels. The design is packed with enough mechanisms that the efficiency puzzle here is firmly in control of the challenge cockpit while the competition between players is more of a back-seat driver. Players are quickly tossed into a plethora of possible actions as they must decide which row to move their worker to, which tile to activate in that row, and how to best utilize the action on that tile. The long-term implications of each turn are more layered than that, because selecting a virgin tile lets you throw your own building down on it, and matching buildings in the same row can help you accumulate even more valuable resources.
Things aren’t all silky-smooth in the silky city of Merv, as the Mongols threaten to erase your precious buildings and weaken your presence at the end of rounds two and three. Players are encouraged to protect each other’s buildings with walls and soldiers in order to gain more influence and privileges.
Not every path is essential, as our play proved that the winner could completely ignore one action and still claim a comfortable victory. It’s also rare to feel that a turn is wasted, as there are plenty of different opportunities to earn resources and score points. You can draft cards from the caravansary and get points by collecting sets of spices, you can trade at the marketplace and score big from fulfilled contracts, you can cruise up the mosque track and rake in bonuses along the way, and you can milk the points from a specialized strategy with the help of your purposefully positioned palace courtiers.
There’s more than enough here for your brain to ricochet between to keep you min-maxing through to the finish line. It particularly feels good to spend each turn of the final round scooping up a dozen points here and another dozen there. Players hungrily scour the board for the best way to squeeze the most points out of their final cubes and camels. Yet while the score markers gain momentum, the pacing slows to a crawl as each turn gets bogged down with more combos, bonuses, and importance. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, it’s simply a trade-off that one must embrace to fully appreciate the experience that Merv provides.
While I’m proud of what I was able to pull off in Merv, I don’t find myself craving another go of it. I could certainly come back another time and pursue a different strategy, but the quest to squeeze a few more resource cubes or bonus points out of the system is less exciting to me than the more old-school Euro experience that emphasizes opponents over puzzles.
Current Rating: 6.5/10
You know, it’s funny. After my first play of Ark Nova, I thought to myself, “This feels like Zoo Tycoon the board game for folks who enjoy sandboxy, long, sprawling games like A Feast for Odin.” Several days later, Shut Up and Sit Down took the words right out of my mouth and made the exact same comparisons in their video review of Ark Nova. Honestly, the comparisons are spot on. The only thing that’s missing from Ark Nova is the ability to delete fences so you can watch your zoo predators escape their enclosures and terrorize your guests. And I wish the box would play that catchy Zoo Tycoon theme song as I open it, of course.
I spent many childhood hours playing Zoo Tycoon, Zoo Tycoon 2, and Zoo Tycoon: Dinosaur Digs. Indeed, the joy of the game was simply in sculpting and managing the ultimate zoo (and cleaning up all that poop so your animals stayed happy). Ark Nova captures that same sandbox joy in tabletop form to the point where it could practically follow Zoo Tycoon’s product line with future expansions including Marine Mania and Dinosaur Digs.
Many folks have also compared Ark Nova to Terraforming Mars and Wingspan. Like those games, you are building a huge tableau from a towering deck of unique cards in a relatively low-interaction experience. The core ingredients are similar between all these games, but the resulting flavor varies widely thanks to different cooking design methods, mechanical spices, and thematic dressings.
Everyone is going to have their preferences for which tableau building meal they like best—perhaps Wingspan for its approachability and presentation, or Terraforming Mars for its sci-fi engine building focus and expandability—but I’m firmly on team Ark Nova for having the most appealing theme and sandboxy vibe. These elements are what keep Ark Nova interesting for me despite the game being largely a heads-down affair.
That’s precisely why I also compare it to A Feast for Odin, which has so many worker placement spaces and strategies that it’s more about exploring the possibilities and less about outwitting your opponents. It’s harder to become bored with a mostly solitaire design when that game offers you seemingly dozens of exciting new paths to explore—either by loads of player boards, dozens of action spaces, or mountains of cards.
Yet, the variety isn’t the only thing that keeps Ark Nova engaging. The core mechanisms at play are the wings upon which the game can really soar. Selecting one of five cycling action cards that become more powerful as you wait longer to use them is a system that just hits the spot. It offers a perfect blend of tough tactics and challenging planning. The opportunity to upgrade these action cards to their stronger side is likewise thrilling.
The game is all about orchestrating a symphony of actions that are composed of building enclosures into your zoo, acquiring animals, gaining sponsors, claiming cards, and establishing associations. These tasks take you on a tabletop journey through economic juggling and spatial arrangement, tantalizing bonus hunting, market drafting and hand management, and desperate point snatching. You’ll also have the freedom to specialize in one point track or a mix of both—zoo appeal and animal conservation—as you try to make your two point markers cross first and furthest.
Indeed, the joy is in the journey of how you craft your zoo engine and which animals (and their abilities) you pursue. This sandbox entertainment helps to muffle the irritating noises that Ark Nova can’t help but emit including occasional luck of the draw, a long play time, and a fairly lonely competition. This is admittedly one that I’m not keen to teach to newcomers (due to the hefty rules dump) or play at higher counts (thanks to the lengthy playtime) or break out at precious game nights with friends (because of the low interaction), yet it fills a cozy niche of being a game (one of the few heavy ones, notably) that my wife and I will happily enjoy playing together on a fairly regular basis when the mood is right.
Current Rating: 8.5/10
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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 Trailblazers by Ryan Courtney. He hopes you’ll join Bitewing Games in their quest to create and share experiences that, much like a bitewing x-ray, provide a unique perspective and refreshing interaction.