Axio / Ingenious
2 Plays / 3 Plays (2 players)
Ingenious is probably Reiner’s best selling abstract strategy game. It’s one of his most basic and family-friendly tile placement games, yet it offers a compelling competition. Additionally, it’s fantastic at 2 players where couples, family, or friends can go head to head as they take turns throwing down domino tiles, racking up color points, and blocking their rival from similar scoring opportunities.
In both Ingenious and Axio, players draw domino tiles from a shared bag to refill their hand of 5, and each turn they select one tile to position onto empty spaces of the board. That placed tile immediately scores points for adjacent matching colors, and that scoring extends in a straight line in all directions until the chain of matching colors is broken up by a different color or an empty space. So placing a blue tile next to a line of 3 blue symbols will score you 3 blue points.
It’s a dead simple premise, but the Tigris & Euphrates victory twist is what really makes it shine: your final score is equal to whatever color you have the least points in. Rather than being a game of meaningless competition and frivolous points, every turn carries weight as you strive to raise your lowest color’s point total. Because scores are open information but hands are not, players face a constant pressure to block off colors that their opponents need while simultaneously scoring colors that they need before the opportunity is lost. You don’t always ignore your highest scoring colors either, because if a score marker reaches the end of it’s row then you get a extra turn; and two turns in a row can be a huge advantage.
All the gameplay I’ve described up to this point is shared between both Ingenious and Axio. They’re so similar that I struggle to see why one is superior to the other, or why anyone would need to own both. Yet they do offer a few unique qualities. The most prominent difference is the fact that Ingenious uses hexagonal domino tiles and spaces while Axio uses classic rectangular dominos and square spaces. This means that the basic turn-by-turn scoring in Ingenious a bit more exciting (or clunky, depending on your perspective) because you can score more points in more directions.
Personally, I find that it feels good to be able to score more points in more directions with the hexes of Ingenious. But Axio has a different trick up its sleeve to keep things interesting—the pyramid tokens. In Ingenious, if a single empty space gets completely surrounded by tiles then it becomes a useless space (a domino tile needs two adjacent empty spaces in order to fit on the board). Meanwhile, if you get an enclosed empty space in Axio, the player who enclosed that space gets to place a pyramid on it. That pyramid triggers an immediate scoring of each adjacent symbol for the player. It’s thrilling to score pyramid points in colors that don’t even match the domino you just placed; and it’s even more satisfying to divide up 4 or 5 adjacent empty spaces into 2 or 3 empty solo spaces to create and score 2 or 3 pyramids—all with the placement of a single tile.
So with Ingenious, you need to be careful to not let an opponent score tons of points in a ton of directions with a single tile. With Axio, you need to be careful to not let an opponent create one or more pyramids by enclosing solo spaces. In either case, I come away satisfied by a light abstract game with just enough bite to keep decisions impactful.
4 Plays (2 Players)
Lately it seems that every year, one logic deduction game shines above the rest and captures the hearts of gamers abroad. The notable examples that come to mind for me are Cryptid (2018), The Search for Planet X (2020), and Mind MGMT (2021). As for 2022, Turing Machine appears to have risen to the top of the genre (although Paint the Roses at least deserves an honorable mention here).
Straightaway, one can quickly deduce what made Turing Machine such a hot title among last year’s releases: namely, the analog computer system made up of never-before-seen perforated cards. In essence, a very smart person came up with a way to generate millions of puzzly problems that can all be answered with merely a few decks of cards.
The object of the game is to deduce a 3-digit code, those digits can each range from 1-5. You select a problem (either from a page of the rulebook or from an endless supply of possibilities online), lay out the specified criteria cards for that problem, and then get to deducing. Each round players will write down a 3-digit code — a theory, if you will — and test their code against up to 3 of the criteria cards. These criteria will reveal info such as “the blue number is greater than 3” or “the yellow number is less than the purple number” or “the sum of the three numbers is even” and so on.
So after testing a few theoretical numbers against a handful of criteria cards, you’ll quickly whittle down what each number could and couldn’t be. Calling back to the magic of the production, you actually test your theory by grabbing three perforated cards, lining them up with each other so only one hole remains, and then seeing whether the hole gives you a green check mark or a red x (indicating whether your theoretical number fits the true criteria or not).
There’s enough logic layers here that some players may struggle to grasp how the game works at first. I remember that I was confused through the first few pages of the rulebook until I reached the extremely helpful full-round example that walks you through how you would play a round and what you can deduce from the information gained. Once it clicks, it flows very smoothly from there. And admirably, the player sheets are perfect at giving you exactly what you need in order to work through the information and record your deduction progress.
Turing Machine does a great job at avoiding many of the common pitfalls of the logic deduction genre. Some games (Loot of Lima, for example) leave players hanging with vague rulebooks when it comes how to best use their player sheet to work through the puzzle. Many games (Cryptid and again Loot of Lima) are fragile in that they have players giving each other critical pieces of information, and if one player slips up (by offering up incorrect information) then they’ll break the game for everyone. Yet further games (Alchemists and, you guessed it, Loot of Lima) outstay their welcome as they go far beyond 45 minutes or even 1 hour. Thankfully, Turing Machine provides a very clear rulebook, non-fragile deduction, and (perhaps best of all) a 15-20 minute playtime.
Despite its design victories, Turing Machine still doesn’t manage to escape the two most common genre weaknesses of all: Theme and player interaction. In fact, Turing Machine doesn’t even try to address these weaknesses. You might as well be handing out the same sudoku sheet to everyone and saying “First person to fill in their sheet wins.” That’s genuinely as thematic and interactive as things get here.
It seems that most players have caught on to this fact because 75% of Board Game Geek users claim this one is best at 1-player (with the recommendation percentages plummeting at higher player counts). 2-players isn’t bad per se, but it’s not all that satisfying of a conclusion when one player suddenly looks up and claims they cracked the code, leaving their opponent with an un-finished and now irrelevant puzzle. The inverse isn’t satisfying either, when one player eliminates themself with an incorrect guess and the other player receives the unearned victory by default.
What I’m saying is that Turing Machine is less a competitive game and more an abstract solitaire puzzle. It’s a really well executed puzzle, mind you, and many folks will find great satisfaction in sitting down for a daily solo brain-burner. As for me, I’m far more interested in sitting down for a collective experience with family or friends, be it a cooperative journey or a competitive struggle.
While The Search For Planet X isn’t exactly the world’s most interactive board game either, I feel that it provides a much more satisfying deduction competition via the end-game scoring. Furthermore, the presence of an astronomy theme goes a long way in helping the deduction feel less like math homework. This undesirable feeling is something that Turing Machine itself is entirely unable to avoid. So while it started out exciting thanks to the novel production, this one has rapidly lost its luster for me.
2 Plays (2 Players)
So you like polyominoes, do you? How about cube-advancement tracks, where each polyomino you place advances two different cubes and those advancements can reach further points and bonuses? That’ll make for a unique gameplay dish. But why stop there? Maybe you could also explore some asymmetric player boards? And compete for randomized public objectives? Variety is the spice of life, as they say. But what good is a well-seasoned entree without a hearty dessert? Surely you’d like some unlockable tech abilities to go along with all that? As well as draftable bonus cards? Now we’ve got ourselves a real feast of a game. Hopefully you saved some room for event cards…
Planet Unknown takes the kitchen-sink approach to game design. Much like a Mexican cafe that also sells burgers and fries or the Chinese restaurant that for some reason includes pizza in its lineup. Why stop at 2 mechanisms when you can have 20? Despite this erratic approach to game design, Planet Unknown largely works (although I would recommend you steer clear of the optional event cards… those might give you food poisoning).
If we’re continuing with the food theme here, then the production of Planet Unknown likewise reminds me of a hit-or-miss buffet. You have the amazing self-serve soft ice cream machine that comes in the form of a lazy Susan which spins the next polyomino tile options your way and is secretly the favorite reason why patrons return for another session. Of course, those double-sided recessed player board pastries aren’t bad either. But the egg rolls (card quality) and sanitary practices (artwork) leave much to be desired. The salad bar (combinations of planets and asymmetric boards) seems particularly hit or miss — I’m skeptical that this much variety is well balanced.
Balance is a more prominent issue here because each individual planet is largely isolated from neighboring planets… you can feel the lightyears of distance between the game you are playing and the game your opponents are playing. You may look up from your own area to peek at what other players are doing maybe 4 or 5 times during the entire game. That’s all thanks to the public objectives which encourage you to arrange your polyominoes in a certain way or draft more of one type of terrain than another. But for the most part, your brain will have all hands on deck for the tangled web of mechanisms splayed across your personal board, resource tracks, and tech abilities.
Despite the Tetris-like polyominoes that sit upon a spinning throne, this is likely not the type of game that is suited for casual gamers. Planet Unknown asks its participants to juggle 100 considerations at once — including the positioning of a new tile shape onto your planet, advancing the 2 matching resource cubes up their respective tracks, triggering bonuses and combos along those tracks, remembering to apply the freshly unlocked tech abilities, and playing to the strategies of your asymmetric setup. For hobbyist gamers, it’s like tearing open a box of catnip. I just wish the box didn’t take up so much space on my shelf — but one doesn’t cram a luxurious Game-Trayz branded lazy Susan into a box without sacrificing shelf-space.
Yet how is the polyomino experience itself? And how would Planet Unknown fare if I resurrected the Battle of the Polyominoes? I wonder… I can at least say that there are some playful tile placement considerations to encounter here. The core objective is to fill your rows and columns completely with tiles, leaving no empty spaces or messy meteorites along them that would reduce your score. Your unknown planet also inexplicably starts with some life pods which will be tragically destroyed if you cover them up with polyominoes before sending out a rover to rescue them (the rover can get smooshed by a tile too if you’re careless). Each planet contains ice spaces or other unique features that encourage you to cover them with specific terrain types or leave them uncovered entirely. Finally there are loads of possible objective cards that tempt players to fill their border spaces with certain features or connect together (or keep separate) clusters of terrain.
There’s certainly enough variety crammed into the box that anyone with a phobia of non-replayability should be able to breathe easy. The package oozes with that feeling of achieved stretch goals, unrestrained design ideas, and a firehose approach to cards, modules, and modes. For better or worse, you can have it all in Planet Unknown. Just like the boundless potential of outer space itself, the opportunities here are overwhelmingly endless.
Despite my mixed feelings, Planet Unknown successfully manages to scratch that polyomino-arranging, engine-building, asymmetry-exploring, track-advancing, Susan-spinning itch that so many of us gamers have. It may not be the carefully crafted meal of My City or Patchwork, but sometimes nothing satisfies the hunger quite like a buffet.
Horrified: American Monsters
1 Play (5 Players)
Have you ever had a random play session or a spinoff game leave such a bad taste in you mouth that it ruins the entire game or series for you? That has unfortunately happened to me a few times now. My run-in with Dice Throne Adventures forever spoiled Dice Throne (causing me to purge all things Dice Throne from our collection). And now Horrified: American Monsters has me thinking I no longer need to own Horrified.
Back in 2019 when I first encountered the original Horrified, I found that it was a nice surprise of a Pandemic knockoff with a clever monster movie thematic integration. We enjoyed our few plays of it as a crowd-pleasing, cooperative gateway game. Despite our pleasant experience with it, the game has sat on our shelf and collected dust in the years since.
When some friends brought over Horrified: American Monsters, I was happy to revisit the system and check out some of the new creatures in this sequel game. Sadly, my enthusiasm was spooked away pretty quickly. The rulebook and components immediately presented some issues including similar looking colors, unclear explanations, and sloppy editing. That was only the beginning of this nightmarish session.
Most players were new to the game, so we setup the two recommended monsters for beginners: Chupacabra and Banshee of the Badlands (a.k.a. Incredibly Bland Goat Eater and Relentlessly Annoying Crazy Woman, respectively). The Chupacabra simply requires players to pickup six goat tokens from the board and deliver them to the farm space, then give the creature a good whollop with a couple weapon items and call it a day. My memory of the original Horrified monsters is admittedly fuzzy, but I don’t remember any of them being this dull. I wish Chupacabra was the worse of the two.
Banshee requires players to enter her space, spend an item on her to roll one or two dice, and maybe (if the dice behave) move one player’s violin token backward along a music track thingy per successful roll… Don’t think about the theme too hard here… The problem is that sliding one or two violins closer to the safe zone eats up most of your turn, and you need to get all players’ violins into the safe zone in order to take her out with some weapons. So most often, a player who is trying to set everything up for the finishing blow will end their turn on the Banshee’s space (or very close by her), giving her a chance to perform the most annoying effect in all of board gaming: slide all players’ violins backward one space anytime her power is activated by the dice. So this monster is effectively the world’s most tedious tug-of-war consisting of one step forward, five steps back.
This issue is amplified by the fact that Horrified makes absolutely no effort to scale the game according to player count — well, aside from the fact that your group gains an extra perk card at the start of the game for each player. Big whoop. The player scaling, particularly the 5-player experience, is without a doubt my worst grievance of all.
I don’t know what it is about Pandemic spinoffs, but for some reason they keep stealing the whole playbook except for the part where the game should only go up to 4 players. And on top of that, for some reason I keep ending up in large-group play sessions that push these games far beyond their limits. This problem reared its ugly head in my 6-player game of Flash Point: Fire Rescue, and now it makes a triumphant return in my 5-player game of Horrified. In both cases, the downtime becomes painfully long and every individual’s impact on the game is reduced relative to the objectives. Setting yourself up for your next turn feels like a waste of time when 4 other player turns and event cards are going to completely change the board state anyway.
In Horrified’s 5-player case, it’s plenty likely that one player will have a creature immediately approach them after their turn and wail on them for 4 turns in a row before they have a chance to react and take more actions. In fact, that seemed to be the case for more than half of our entire game. Just because you can put a 5 on the box, doesn’t mean you should.
Now, does Horrified: American Monster’s mistakes mean that Horrified is horrible altogether? No. There’s certainly a decent gateway game to be found in this system (for 4 players or less), and I sincerely hope that the other American monsters are much more inspired than Chupacabra and Banshee. But at this point, I have no desire to revisit Horrified further. The best Pandemic-like game is undoubtedly still Pandemic itself (I’m partial to Pandemic: Iberia, actually). In addition to Pandemic, there are plenty of other cooperative games out there that are much more thoughtfully crafted, carefully balanced, and genuinely engaging including Siege of Runedar, Regicide, Switch & Signal, The Crew, and more.
Heat: Pedal to the Metal
5 Plays (4 & 5 Players)
Looking back, the vast majority of racing board games I’ve played over the years have paired racing with betting. You have the horse (or camel, or car) racing and raucous betting of Winner’s Circle, Ready Set Bet, Long Shot: The Dice Game, Camel Up, and Downforce. You also have games like Treasures of Nakbe which streamline out the placing bets part and simply give players a secret card with pre-determined bets. It makes sense why these games work so well — nobody likes falling behind into last place, where all hope feels lost long before the race is even finished… Betting provides a way for players to diversify their portfolio and focus their hopes on whichever of their bets proves to be the strongest contender. It also creates opportunities for team-ups and targeting where the interaction feels both more cooperative and less personal.
If racing is not paired with betting, then it’s often paired with another major mechanism to keep things interesting. One of the finest examples has to be the deck building race of The Quest for El Dorado, where purchasing and culling cards from your deck is central to reaching the finish line first. But there are other great hybrid designs out there including the finger-flicking challenge of PitchCar or the dice-chucking push-your-luck bonanza of Cubitos.
In general, I also tend to appreciate any game where the victory objective is a race to complete something rather than a scramble to collect the most points. I’m thinking of games like New York Zoo where players strive to fill their zoo board first, or Orongo where the winner is the first player to erect all of their Moai statues, or The Great Zimbabwe where players cook their brains to reach their Victory Requirement marker before others. Racing tends to make for a thrilling climax compared the classic board game tradition of tallying up points after a set number of rounds.
Yet of all the tabletop games which evoke that racing feeling, very few of them are as pure as Heat: Pedal to the Metal. In Heat, all you have is your tiny race car figure, a large race track game board, and a personal pile of cycling cards. There’s a touch of familiarity here, as Heat comes from Flamme Rouge designer Asger Harding Granerud and co-designer Daniel Skjold Pedersen. Flamme Rouge is deservingly popular thanks to its streamlined gameplay, charming presentation, and thematic touches. Only, if I’m being honest, Flamme Rouge missed the mark for me by feeling too simple, subtle, and restrictive. Most crucially, Flamme Rouge lacked the excitement that I hunger for in a good race.
Heat, on the other hand, is everything that I wanted Flamme Rouge to be, and more. It offers players more flexibility and control from one turn to the next. It provides the possibility for thrilling comebacks. It generously grants the short-term tantalizing tactics of boosting via slipstreams and burning through sharp corners while balancing that against the long-term succulent strategies of weather conditions, upgrade card drafting, and heat management. The tasty tension isn’t just piled on at the finish line where the victor is determined after a long repetitive session of pushing your cars around — rather it is also sprinkled throughout the track at each sharp corner with a push-your-luck speed limit.
Heat puts you into the driver’s seat of old-school, rickety race cars built to do one thing and one thing only: rocket you across the finish line first. Here, you’ll not only be pushing the pedal to the metal, but you’ll be pushing your car to its physical limits. It doesn’t matter if half the vehicle’s body is strewn out in scraps behind you and the engine is on the verge of erupting in flames. The only thing that matters is that sweet, sweet trophy at the end of it all.
Your player deck comes with speed cards ranging from 1 to 4 (i.e. how many spaces you advance along the track). You’ll also start with 6 heat cards on your engine space plus some stress and upgrade cards mixed into your deck. Heat cards can be spent from off your engine space and into your discard pile to help you gain an extra boost, quickly shift up or down, or burn through sharp corners. The problem with spent heat is that it eventually clutters up your hand, taking the place of valuable speed cards, until you can manage to cooldown and place it back on your engine space (either by shifting down or playing upgrade cards with cooldown abilities).
Atop your player board sits a little stick shift piece, where gears labeled 1-4 will determine how many cards you can play on a turn (more cards obviously results in a higher sum of speed and thus a further distanced traveled on your turn). But you can’t simply camp in 4th gear the entire race, because you’ll eventually come into a sharp corner too hot and spin out for not slowing down. Spinning out not only resets your car at the point of the turn, but it also adds more clutter to your deck via depleted heat and added stress cards.
Stress cards thematically represent a lapse in concentration. Like Heat cards, they cannot simply be discarded from your hand. The only way to get rid of a stress card is to play it, and that’s basically the equivalent of saying “Jesus take the wheel” as you reveal cards from your draw pile until a speed card comes out — could be a 1, could be a 4, could be good, could be very, very bad. Stress cards are especially risky to play when a sharp turn is coming up, as your hopes to stop your car right in front of the corner might instead be a disastrous surprise of blowing past it and spinning out. “But how risky can it be?” You ask. “I’ve already played two of my three 4-speed cards, surely the next speed card in my draw pile is something safe and low.” Famous last words.
But even when a racer embarrasses themself in a catastrophic spinout, all is not lost. Heat features several brilliant mechanisms which allow for epic (and crucially, earned) comebacks. The first is that of slipstreaming. If a player pulls way ahead of the pack, then there will be nobody around them to slipstream off of. Meanwhile, everyone else who is further behind (yet closer to each other) can leapfrog opponent cars from one turn to the next by stopping precisely next to or behind other vehicles and triggering bonus slipstream movement. In the words of Marvin Gaye, “How sweet it is to slipstream past you.”
But if you end up left in the dust, then you’ll likewise have nobody else to slipstream off of. Fortunately, Heat has another trick up its sleeve: adrenaline. Any time a player starts their turn in last place (or second to last place in a 5-6 player game), they receive a bonus cooldown and optional +1 speed. It may not seem like much, but I’ve already witnessed multiple occasions where myself or another player seemed hopelessly far behind in one moment only to come roaring back into contention several turns later. It’s nothing like the chaotic rubber banding that is seen in Mario Kart or the like — where blue shells and bullet bills reign supreme. Rather, it requires an added measure of clear focus and smart strategy from the underdog player… a pinch of luck and some timely mistakes from opponents help as well.
Best of all, Heat tends to finish with a thrilling climax. Of course the player who crosses the finish line first wins, but when multiple players cross in the same round, then whoever makes it further beyond the finish line is the racer who wins by a split second. In that final turn, when multiple players have their sights on the finish line (and slipstreaming is no longer allowed beyond it), it all comes down to who prepared best for this moment. Which player gave themself the advantage by starting several spaces ahead of the pack? Which player managed to save the most high cards and flush out the most junk cards leading up to this turn? Which players still have some heat available to spend on an added boost? And which speed cards will come out of your draw pile for your played stress cards and boost? All of these factors blend together to determine the winner in an electric finish when multiple players cross the finish line.
Some might say that a lucky 4 coming out during an opponent’s boost or an unlucky 1 coming out of their own stress card is what lost them the game. But as noted above, there is so much more that goes into a victory in Heat. Even on my 4th play (and my 8th lap of racing) I found myself uncovering deeper layers to the strategies and tactics of managing one’s hand. And while luck gets a bad rap in our hobby, and often the disdain is deserved for how it wrenches control from the players, I feel that it can also be underappreciated.
Luck helps to even the playing field between skilled, experienced players and unskilled newcomers. Luck can transform a bland blowout between mismatched opponents into a competitive climax between family or friends. Luck provides a gentle way out for fragile egos and a ray of light in for weak wills and untrained minds. It can replace determinism with drama and cold calculation with hot emotion. Luck is a powerful weapon for entertainment and must be carefully wielded by a wise game designer. Designers Asger and Daniel prove that they are master swordsmen of this blade across every aspect of Heat.
Yet the creators didn’t just stop at crafting a finely tuned base game. Days of Wonder made the gutsy call — and I’d argue it was the right one — to cram this box full of 4 race tracks and multiple expansion-like modules. While one rulebook focuses solely on the base game, and it makes for a perfectly solid standalone experience, there’s a world of exhilarating opportunities to be found in that second rulebook. Draftable upgrade cards, scalable bots, tangy weather and road condition tiles, and an epic Championship system all beg to be explored and enjoyed. All of the advanced content and setup variety I’ve tried thus far has been rock solid at maintaining the purity of the base game while spicing things up in interesting ways.
I would be remiss to not give a nod to the production and presentation as a whole. The game board designs are lush and crisp. The cards evoke feelings of speed and suspense. The personal boards are thoughtfully laid out for smooth teaching and play. The insert is wonderfully organized and even teases some empty compartments for further expansions. The plastic cars are adorably small yet charmingly detailed. This might just be Days of Wonder’s best production, ever, with a big thanks owed to the stunning artwork by Vincent Dutrait.
While I’ve yet to explore the enticing Championship module, I’ve seen enough to feel confident in nominating Heat for best of its class. Every cardboard pore within the contents of this box exudes fun — and that’s what gaming is all about.
Coming to Kickstarter NEXT WEEK
Be sure to visit the page and click to be notified the moment it launches. Thanks for supporting Bitewing Games in our quest to create and share classy board games that bite!
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.