General Orders: World War II
2 Plays (2 Players)
Much like Reiner Knizia, David Thompson and Trevor Benjamin are quickly becoming two of the most reliable designers in the industry for me. They put out my favorite game from last year, Undaunted: Stalingrad, and that’s only the tip of the iceberg. Individually, together, and/or with other co-designers, everything that they’ve put out which has ended up on my table has been a winner: the Undaunted series, Resist, Switch & Signal, Mandala, and more. I’m sure if I dug deep enough, I’d eventually find something that didn’t fit my tastes. But that’s still a heck of a list of hits. Add General Orders to that growing list.
The premise here is familiar (for those who have explored the designers’ ludography) — offering a streamlined, abstract 2-player war game — yet it introduces a refreshing twist of worker placement to the system. Players take turns claiming and resolving action spaces either on the map or on the side board.
On the map, each region of land offers a worker placement space for nearby forces to move in and either take over the neutral territory or attack the defending troops. The defending player has a clear advantage, because they get to roll a die and hopefully take out one or two enemy units before simultaneous attrition wipes out both players until one (or none) remains in the region. As the attacker, you at least want to make your opponent lose control of the region, and ideally you still have some survivors left to take over, so it’s best to attack with a larger force than the defender. But you can also reinforce your army with more troops or fire some barrage shots and weaken the enemy before executing your big assault.
The worker placement foundation creates some nice restrictions for players to plan around. If I enter a space with my troops, you cannot enter that same space until next round (after we have pulled back our “worker” tokens to start anew). If I’ve already reinforced my troops this turn (dividing my fresh recruits among the spaces I control) then my opponent can take advantage of the fact that I can’t reinforce again until next round. Players each have five “workers” (known as commanders) that they take turns placing out during a round. After four rounds, the player who controls the most valuable areas (each worth some amount of points) wins. Or you can lunge for the early victory by wiping out the enemy in their distant HQ area.
I love when a game (especially a 2-player game) offers multiple paths to victory and forces its participants to juggle those objectives. Focusing too hard on one can make you weak in the other, and thus the dance ensues.
There’s not many negatives that I can say about General Orders: World War II. I suppose your intentions are more telegraphed… like when your opponent barrages your troops in a certain region and builds up their next-door force over multiple turns. The invasion is obvious and inevitable. But part of the fun is deciding where to invest your own efforts — whether to spend precious actions defending the space or to focus your attention elsewhere. Plus it isn’t entirely predictable. The defense rolls conjure occasional surprises, and the deck of operation cards (acquired through the plan action) can lend you a surprise boost or needed reroll.
The box also offers two maps (one symmetric, one asymmetric) with unique features, and some of the regions will offer unique bonuses to the player who controls them (these bonuses are randomly determined during setup). There is plenty to sink your teeth into here, assuming you have an eager opponent willing to dive deep into the challenges and strategies on offer.
It may not reach the same heights or tension as Thompson and Benjamin’s gargantuan Undaunted Series, but that was never the intention. For a thirty-minute, compact, smooth war game, you’ll be hard-pressed to find a better offering than General Orders: World War II.
1 Play (4 Players)
Earlier this year, there was a dark period of time where I encountered multiple old Knizia designs that I really didn’t enjoy. At that time, I had newly acquired a bunch of his more obscure designs and was generally enjoying my exploration of his of ludography. But then, in the span of roughly a week, I found my fandom tested as I trudged through four of some of my least favorite titles of his. Loot was one of those titles.
I can forgive Reiner for creating a game that doesn’t quite hit the spot for me, particularly when he spent that same year (1992) putting out absolute bangers such as Modern Art and Quo Vadis. Yet of all of his games that I’ve tried, Loot feels like one that especially hasn’t aged well, despite its success in the market.
On your turn, you’ll either draw a card or play a card. Players are competing to earn the most gold by capturing merchants ships with your piratey hand of cards. If you play a merchant ship in front of you, then you’ll hope it lasts an entire round of turns so that you can safely tuck it away as points at the start of your next turn. Odds are, your merchant ship will have a run in with opponent pirates.
Most of the deck consists of pirate ship cards, which you will use to attack the merchant ships sitting in front of opponents. Interestingly, the combat here is not unlike Taj Mahal’s game of chicken. Once you play a certain color of pirate ship into a battle, you are only allowed to add that color of ship as the bidding escalates between you and other challengers. You are allowed to defend your own merchant ships with pirates as well. And notably, once a specific color is played into a battle, nobody else can play that color in that battle. If at the start of your turn you happen to be winning in any particular battle, then you claim those merchant ships into your facedown score pile.
While the theme here is fitting and fun, my experience with the gameplay was more frustrating than anything. I found myself quite unlucky in my card draws, where any time I tried to strengthen my hand with more pirates, I kept drawing stinking merchant ships. This was made even worse by the rule that any unplayed merchant ships in your hand are converted into negative points at the end of the game. So my choices were either to make myself an easy target for my opponents, or shoot myself in the foot at the end of the game. Furthermore, it didn’t help that other players had little problem regularly sneaking merchant ships through a round without a single challenge (especially the winning player), while nearly every merchant ship I played invited pirates from opponents.
At this point, it seems that the only thing that can salvage Loot for me is the partnership variant, which might just be the true secret ingredient of this game. If that’s the case, then it’s a shame that this mode isn’t front and center in the rulebook.
Sea Salt & Paper
2 Plays (2 Players)
After seeing that Sea Salt & Paper boasts charming origami art across its pure deck of cards, I certainly hoped that it offered a breezy, simple experience with a few sharp edges (much like it’s art form of choice). To my delight, I’m pleased to discover that this game absolutely meets my expectations. The only real disappointment here is found in the quality of the card material which feels particularly cheap and off-putting.
Setup and turns are as simple as can be: shuffle the deck, fill the two discard piles with one card each, and begin. Players can either draw two cards from the deck and discard one into a discard pile, or they take the top card from a discard pile. Round and round the turns go, gaining one card at a time into your hand.
Before too long, you’ll find yourself building sets of cards — sets are how you get points. Duo cards will give you one point, and you can play them at the end of your turn to also gain a bonus like drawing one extra card from the draw pile, digging through a discard pile to claim a long-gone card, or stealing a random card from your opponent’s hand.
Duos are nice for the bonus action, but the big points are found with other sets like shells, penguins, octopi, and more. So far this game sounds like just about any other card game that has even been invented. But the real secret sauce lies within the round ending condition and scoring. I’ll be honest, it’s a bit more convoluted than I’d like it to be, but it’s a necessary evil that makes the experience far more interesting than your generic set collection game.
Once a player has reached seven or more points (between the cards hidden in their hand and the duos played out in front of them), they may then trigger the end of the round to close out their turn. But they can end the round in one of two ways: play it safe and call out “Stop” (players then score their cards like normal), or push-their-luck and call out “Last-chance” and grant their opponents one more turn to try and surpass their current score. In the Last Chance scenario, the player who ended the round will either score big points and shrink their opponents’ end-round scores, or it’ll blow up in their face and their opponents will rejoice at the reversal of scoring fortunes.
Some rounds, if you are feeling confident but worried that your opponents are gaining on you, you might try to trigger the end as quickly as possible to keep yourself ahead of the pack. But you’ll be playing multiple rounds where players are racing to a total point threshold. So other rounds you might be perfectly fine with letting hands build up and points grow bigger in hopes of reaching the ultimate victory before the opposition. That’s how our first session played out with me gaining a lead in our total scores and then happily letting a particular round drag on as I built up some massive scoring sets that I knew my rival couldn’t beat — all so I could take a massive leap to the finish line.
Sadly for me, our second session played out very differently. You see, the big deck of cards contains four mysterious mermaids which, on their own, grant you points for your largest colors. But if one player happens to get lucky enough to acquire all four mermaid cards into their hand, then they straight up win the game… the entire game. Doesn’t matter if you are multiple rounds of accumulated points into your play of Sea Salt & Paper — four mermaids is an auto-victory, haha. I made the grave mistake of discarding one, just one, mermaid to a discard pile (having no idea that my opponent already had the other three mermaids in her hand). She snatched it up with glee (along with my hopes and dreams). It was a rather funny ending to our second play — one that probably would have been more painful had it not been our first round of the game.
In another game, this wacky mermaid rule would probably be a major sticking point for me. But here, where the game is already so light and breezy, and because I have myself to blame (I could have kept the mermaid or ended the round earlier), I’m perfectly fine with this rule. It merely adds to the charm of the game.
While it does play up to 4, I’m quite content with the 2-player experience where gameplay is zippy and the opposition is easy to track. I can see this one hitting the table fairly frequently when my wife and I are in the mood for something soothing yet sharp.
3 Plays (2 & 4 Players)
Every year, as a rabid follower of Knizia games, you always gotta expect some stealth releases. You know, those titles that spring out the woodworks with an unceremonious yet unexpected reveal and suddenly release within a few quick months of their unveiling. It’s like walking or driving around outside only for a hot air balloon to suddenly emerge at a clearing high in the sky. Nothing beats that sudden shock of joy and wonder at a good surprise.
For 2023, Havalandi is no doubt my happy surprise of the year. Only several weeks ago, I could look in both directions for miles and it seemed like Cascadero was the only new tile placement strategy game that Reiner had recently designed. Not so, dear friends. Not so.
Havalandi just barely entered the fray with an Essen release, and it will soon make its way to North America. I was lucky enough to have a friend who traveled to Essen and brought me back a precious copy of the game (thanks Jared!). Beyond the fact that its a new Knizia tile layer, I was instantly intrigued to hear about the mix of mechanisms here: roll a die to move an airship around the border of a triangle-shaped hexagonal grid, wherever the airship stops it points to two possible straight lines where you can place a hot air balloon tile on the grid. Essentially, this roaming airship severely restricts your options for where you can place a tile. But does that even allow for a satisfying strategic experience?
Enter the various scoring objectives of the game:
- Build out a group of tiles within a single region type to start scoring for your growing group
- Spread out a group of tiles across multiple region types to score big points when you launch those balloon tiles (flip them over). Each tile can only ever be scored this way one time… so do you flip early to guarantee the points or hope to grow this fleet and score even bigger before you run out of time or space?
- Position your balloons next to different viewing pavilions to score quick and easy points, and bonus points for hitting all of the pavilions of a color!
- Compete over the two end-game objective cards (which are randomly pulled from a pool of seven cards each game)
In other words, you want to cluster up in the same regions, spread out across multiple regions, gravitate to the pavilions, and gun for the objective cards. These four scoring opportunities provide the perfect amount of flexibility for players to almost always find a satisfying decision for their turn which is dictated by the whims of the dice-driven airship. On top of that, you are not simply limited to dropping a tile along the two lines that the airship gives you… you can also snake, spread, and branch out from your groups of tiles that intersect with these lines — the important restriction here is that you have to stay in the same region type when spreading out from your tiles.
Havalandi provides an amazing arc of gameplay as the board starts out wide open and free, but then things rapidly constrict as you build up huge scoring opportunities and become hungrier to hit those self-appointed goals. The spaces quickly vanish as you and your opponents snatch them up, and then you find yourself taking bigger and bigger risks. I’ve placed a new tile next to my spread out group… I really should launch this fleet worth 16 points before it’s too late… but if I just get one more tile right here then I can get four more points out of this fleet. Surely I’ll have a chance to claim that space on a future turn, right?
You’ll often procrastinate the opportunity to launch a fleet or claim a space, only to find yourself sweating bullets several minutes later as the game suddenly nears its end and you still haven’t taken care of that vital task. Come on you rascal D6, line me up with this space right here… please?!?
Havalandi grants its participants the range of freedom to play high risk, high reward or slow, steady, and reliable. Naturally, I’m the type who can’t resist the ultimate heist of points that all hinges on these spaces remaining open for me to claim and this exact space lining up with the airship during one of my last few turns. Sometimes you hit the jackpot and see your scoring token soar above the clouds. Other times your plans will go up in flames like an ill-advised hydrogen balloon.
Importantly, the game gives you three precious tokens: Three special balloons that let you burst through the confines of the rules and secure a space that you so desperately need. One lets you ignore the airship and simply place this balloon on any empty space of the board. Another lets you share a space that is already occupied by another player — unblocking a single spot in a tight board game that is otherwise ripe with dastardly blocking. The third lets you place out an additional, adjacent tile in the same turn — helping you stretch further than normal and secure a valuable connection.
The layout of the spaces and their region types across this double sided board is simply brilliant. The more you sink your teeth into the various strategies of the game, the more you come to appreciate just how well balanced yet flexible it is. There is a work of genius hidden under the surface of a game that presents itself as rather light and fast-paced. It’s the assured craftsmanship of a mathematician who has devoted his life to engaging the minds and entertaining the hearts of people gathered at tables across the world.
Havalandi could very well go down as yet another abstract Knizia design that is too clever for its own good. Some may look at the restriction of the dice driven airship, try the game once, barely scratch the surface, and declare that it is nothing more than a light, shallow strategy game. But that would be like riding a hot air balloon high into the sky and dismissing the experience because it wasn’t as fast as an airplane or rumbling as a rocket ship.
Soak in the moment, embrace the sensations, appreciate the grandeur, bask in the journey, and you’ll likely come away more than impressed.
1 Play (2 Players)
Review copy provided by the publisher
Dragonkeepers is a brand new rummy style card game from publisher Kosmos. The dragon artwork on the tarot sized cards is extremely charming, yet the experience itself is about as themeless as it gets. You’ll draw cards from a face-up display that instantly replenishes itself, then play down a set of dragons of the same type according to the whims of the deck display, all in an effort to earn segments of a relic (worth points) and possibly other bonuses. There’s no real thematic thread here that ties it all together. But that hasn’t stopped plenty of abstract games from sprucing up their presentation.
The cards are split into two decks, designated by their backs which connect together to form a spell book. This spell book is perhaps the most unique feature of the game. One side displays a number and reward, the other side displays one of four dragon types. So if the two cards on top of the deck show a 2 and a green dragon, then you must play exactly 2 green dragons to earn the reward displayed beneath the 2. The catch is that every time you draw another card (1 to 3 total on your turn), you’ll likely change the number requirement (and reward) or the dragon type when the top card comes off that deck.
Obviously, this mechanism funnels the experience into very tactical turns. But you are not entirely without control. Each turn, you are allowed to return one or two cards to the top of their decks and change the scoring requirement of the moment. In reality, you can play down any set of dragons you want to on your turn, provided you have the right criteria cards to return to the deck and you are ok with parting with them.
So Dragonkeepers is not just about tactically pivoting to the best available opportunities. It’s also about being efficient with the multiple ways in which you can use each card. There is no hand limit here. The only risk to holding back your hand too long is when another player can end the game by completing the last relic, leaving you with a hand of unscored dragons. But that is nothing more than a fleeting spark in a game that largely left us cold.
For a box that revolves around fire-breathing dragons, Dragonkeepers surprisingly lacks that teeth or heat that I prefer in a short card game. The influence you can have on opponents is faint and distant. The tension of when to pull the trigger on playing out a rummy set is mild. The focus is on milking your turns for maximum points rather than outwitting your rivals. This one is as harmless as the adorable creatures on the cards. Carebear gamers will be right at home.
Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy my share of Carebear games. But Dragonkeepers also comes with more downtime than I prefer to see, especially in a game where you can never plan out your next turn due to the ever-changing spellbook requirements. Clearly that is a big reason why it lets everyone lay down a rummy set every time a player finishes their turn. But even then, this is not one I would ever want to try at higher player counts. There’s no benefit to it. Two players feels like the sweet spot.
I definitely think there is an audience for this perfectly fine, family-weight card game. Sadly, it merely appears that I was not destined to be a Dragonkeeper. Perhaps I should consider dragon riding instead… Or maybe I’ll just stick to Sea Salt & Paper.
Thunder Road: Vendetta
2 Plays (4 Players)
Thunder Road take me home
To the place I belong
That could be the theme song for every Restoration Games title, to be honest. This is a publisher that not only knows how to capitalize on nostalgia with their project selection and marketing, but they also know how to justify the hype with intensive re-development. Most often, you’ll see them dig up an old relic whose gameplay hasn’t aged well, and they’ll gut the design while preserving its spirit and fans.
Thunder Road is the ultimate board game take on Mad Max. Cars, collisions, and chaos. You’re not just trying to race ahead of the pack, but you’re also trying to wipe out the competition. Dole out your dents and dings to the opposition while doing your best to fly under the radar.
There’s a nice balance of trade-offs throughout the design. Large vehicles are better at ramming the opposition, but easier targets for shooting. The edge routes possess less hazards along their paths, but you risk getting knocked off the racetrack entirely. Six-value dice are amazing for covering a lot of ground fast, but they are also the only value that will repair your vehicles. Ramming an enemy is ever so tempting, but it might backfire if your vehicle bounces off of theirs and into a danger zone.
Thunder Road is another example of how the infamous roll & move mechanism isn’t always a bad gameplay feature. Players roll their four dice and then take turns assigning each die to one vehicle (or a special action) at a time. True, it’s possible and common for some players to have incredibly good rolls and others to have truly horrendous rolls. High numbers are generally best. But it ain’t called Vendetta for nothing. Straight from round one, players will have plenty of opportunities to gang up on each other, especially the lucky leader. Sometimes a clear lead is both a gift and a curse.
The most intoxicating aspect of Thunder Road is the cornucopia of chaos that awaits every action and reaction. Driving over a hazard token can uncover nothing at all or your worst nightmare. Colliding with another racer can result in instant death or a simple repositioning for either vehicle. Damaging an opponent can blast their vehicle or a piece of shrapnel in the direction of an unlucky bystander. The game makes it easy to stomach and even embrace this level of wacky luck because everybody starts with three cars. What’s the harm in seeing one go up in flames?
The experience follows an interesting arc where players trade blows and target whoever has a perceived lead, until one player sees their fleet running on fumes. Rather than leaving this poor hapless victim alone, you’ll often see the leaders pounce on them, like sharks smelling blood, to wipe this player completely off the map. This is all thanks to the end game condition: the finish line doesn’t appear until one player is eliminated from the game. So whoever is leading the pack will obviously want to wrap things up quickly before they potentially lose their lead.
Despite that nice arc, after only two plays in, I find myself already growing a tad weary of the base game and eager to move on to expansion content. Thunder Road seems to be a game that thrives on crazy and unexpected actions and reactions. After a couple sessions, you’ll quickly see just about everything the base game has to offer. Knowing that a Maximum Chrome edition exists out there, ripe with bounteous expansion content (also available separately), only serves to amplify the feeling that the base game has limited mileage, especially for hobbyist gamers like myself.
I feel optimistic about the expansion content in that it will possibly propel this game to one of my favorite releases of 2023. But for now I can only share my experience and excitement with the basic box. And I’m already reluctant to get this one back to the table until we have new content to explore. Off the shelf, it clearly doesn’t provide the same amount of mileage as comparable hot racers such as Heat: Pedal to the Metal. But the fact that I’m hungry to explore the expansions of Thunder Road is absolutely a good sign.
Amun-Re: 20th Anniversary Edition
2 Plays (3 & 4 Players; Plus 1 Play of Original Amun-Re)
It warms my heart to witness the Reinerssance with games like Ra, Quo Vadis, Samurai: The Card Game, and Amun-Re, making their triumphant return as Ra (Ian O’Toole style), Zoo Vadis, Pollen, and Amun-Re: 20th Anniversary Edition… and those are all 2023 releases! Not only are these notable classics being brought back into print as they deserve, but they’ve all received a welcome makeover! Some have simply gained a more functional production and welcoming presentation, while others have received a thorough remodeling. Amun-Re is on the latter end of the spectrum with Alley Cat’s new edition.
I first played classic Amun-Re only two years ago. Not long after that, it was announced that the game would be receiving a 20th Anniversary Edition with new content and gorgeous Vincent Dutrait artwork. This reveal admittedly deterred me from playing my then current copy any further, as I knew in the back of my mind there was an apparently better edition on the way. Plus I had plenty of other Knizia auction games to explore and enjoy while I patiently awaited its release.
Well the wait is finally over, and I’ve returned to world of Amun-Re once more. Everything that I remember about the game is still here. The zesty auction mechanism of jostling for provinces across the bidding cards. The one-two punch of scoring an era and clearing the board, but leaving behind the precious pyramids and stones for an even spicier second era. The wrestle with finances as you underspend on auctions and overspend on market items and underspend on offerings to Amun-Re, regretting yet enjoying nearly every decision along the way.
Indeed, it’s the same Amun-Re you know and love. Warts and all. Warts such as a long playtime, procedural round structure, and swingy favor card draw. Well, those are at least warts to some. Others consider them beauty marks. They look like warts to me, especially when I draw three cards and see nothing but situationally hot garbage, but I can still appreciate this wise old sage for its distinct and striking features.
Despite the familiarity, there is plenty new to explore in Amun-Re: 20th Anniversary Edition. From the vivid illustrations by Vincent Dutrait to the minor balancing tweaks to the oodles of modules included in the box. Those who pledged for the game during the crowdfunding campaign got it all: one variant and three expansions. There is so much content, artwork, and components crammed into this box and onto the game board that it almost threatens to overwhelm the eye and drown out the user interface. I’ve heard some people comment that this dampens their experience, but overall it has still been plenty playable for us.
The 2-3 player “Officials” variant is by far the biggest improvement to Amun-Re. What once was a game that was overwhelmingly avoided at lower player counts is now a game that offers a compelling 2-3 player experience. This variant gives you twice as many scribes to bid with and twice as many provinces to bid on in a round. The catch is that you will only gain control of one of the provinces that you bid on. The other bid will grant you a one-time bonus from the officials card that was displayed on the province. After auctioning for two spots, you get to decide which spot gives you which benefit.
Officials bring out the best of Amun-Re’s bidding, despite the fact that there are only two or three people competing with each other. Players have more dangling carrots to consider, and an extra set of teeth to bite for them. The Pharaoh Mini Expansion is another welcome addition, but for any player count. This one entices players to outbid each other near the end of an auction, rather than settle for the cheapest lot on the block. The last person to outbid somebody else will gain an extra gift in the form of a favor card, farmer, or brick.
The other two expansions are fine as well, but not nearly as easy or essential. Statues bring player powers onto the board, daring participants to spend big and win big. The Afterlife introduces a fourth market item that becomes its own mini game of building a pyramid of tiles for bonuses and points — a seemingly mandatory pursuit when included in the session.
All-in-all, Amun-Re 20th Anniversary Edition promises to please a wider spectrum of gamers thanks to its increased flexibility and modularity. That’s a win for fans of Knizia games and medium-weight auction games in general.
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 critically acclaimed titles Trailblazers by Ryan Courtney and 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.