Mille Fiori, a relatively abstract game of glass manufacturing and trade, is the next combotastic, point-salady Euro to come from the good Dr. Knizia. It’s as if Witchstone was the start of a new design trend from Reiner where he’s taken a liking to the dopamine-inducing combos that are prevalent in modern gaming. So where does Mille Fiori stand in this crowded genre, and how does it compare with Witchstone?
There’s no point in beating around the bush here so I’m just gonna come right out with it: Mille Fiori is much, much better than Witchstone, and arguably the best medium-light point salad Euro to hit the market since Babylonia. But mechanically, Mille Fiori has much more in common with Witchstone, so I think it’ll be enlightening to compare them here.
First, I think it’ll be helpful to revisit my thoughts on Witchstone. After playing it twice, I said the following:
“[Witchstone is] fundamentally a point salad game where every action and every strategy results in roughly the same effect. Where anything can result in more points and/or more actions, it’s as though everything you do in the game feels good. But when everything feels good, there is a noticeable lack of tension and drama to the experience.
“I’m used to Knizia games giving me painful decisions and unfolding dynamics, but Witchstone merely provides increasingly larger combos. It trades potency for pleasantries. So of course, with the right crowd, Witchstone will really hit the spot. As for myself, I find that I quickly grow tired of ‘pleasant’ games. Give me that raw, stinking potency, baby.”
While the point salady nature of the game brought the experience down for me, I still feel that the strongest aspect of Witchstone—the part that made it mildly enjoyable—was the action selection mechanism of arranging clusters of domino tiles in your cauldron to trigger increasingly bigger combos. In a fascinating flip-flop of table turning, Mille Fiori manages to be a stronger design with an insanely generic action selection mechanism that supports a much more exciting and thoughtful game board of endless points and combos.
Mille Fiori comes with a large deck of 110 playing cards where each card represents a space on the board. It’s not exactly that precise, as many card types can be played on multiple different spaces within its matching section, but you get the idea. Each round players are dealt 5 cards where you’ll draft one from your hand, play the card to claim the space on the board, and pass your hand to the left to do it again. The last card of every round does not end up getting played or discarded, but it actually ends up in the face-up market for players to potentially claim later on with bonus actions.
That’s all there is to Mille Fiori: pick a card, play it to claim the spot, and pass your hand clockwise. This is what makes the game surprisingly approachable even for casual gamers. Yet it’s the tough decision of which card to play and the result of what that claimed space triggers that propels Mille Fiori above nearly every other point salad game I’ve tried.
The game board is divided into five general sections that match the various colors of the cards. The workshop region is all about creating growing clusters of your diamond tiles to score increasingly more points on them. The citizens area has players building pyramids with their diamonds where the higher up tiles score more points, but the lower tiles get scored again for everyone supporting the new addition. The trade area contains another type of positive player interaction where adding your diamond to a column scores that column a larger number of points for everyone already there. These friendly areas contrast nicely with the brutal housing row where one player can build up a nice chain of points that gets reset the moment somebody else throws their diamond in the row. Meanwhile, adding to the harbor moves your ship along the water for bonuses, but it also represents an investment in later points based on what occurs in the trade rows. Finally, every section presents a competition to complete a unique objective, and the first players to do so will claim the most end-game bonus points.
All this mechanical explanation, and yet nothing here sounds remotely more unique or interesting than what Witchstone or plenty of other similar point salad games have to offer. So where’s the potency in Mille Fiori? What is the secret sauce that makes this one a cut above the rest? Honestly, I’d say it all has to do with the elevated importance of timing, variety, and interaction. In games such as Witchstone and the like, it’s nearly always a good time to do anything, and everything you do amounts to roughly the same result. It’s a good time to clear the gems off your cauldron, to spread your energy network and get more witches on the board, to race around the circular track, to get more bonus cards, and so on… and all these things net you a similar amount of points plus a similar style of bonuses.
Meanwhile in Mille Fiori, there are constant traps where you can set up your opponents for big plays if you’re not careful. Likewise, there are opportunities for golden combos that are gone the moment someone claims them. Your hand will tempt you with one option to execute a killer combo for yourself versus another option to hurt an opponent who is about to score big.
Witchstone lets everyone set up neat chain reactions for themselves in a monotonous, self-congratulatory kind of way. Mille Fiori tosses these enticing combos into the center of the table like it’s the start of the Hunger Games, and then it sits back and lets players lunge and claw for them across many quick rounds of card drafting and space claiming.
One important thing to note is that Witchstone is still the better option if you are only considering these games for 2-player sessions. Mille Fiori claims it can hold up at 2-players, but the general consensus among folks is that you should only play it with 3 or 4. Despite that, the reason Witchstone quickly left my collection while Mille Fiori is here to stay is because the latter brings meaningful timing and impactful interactions to the forefront of the experience. The fact that it also comes in a pleasant production as a quick, approachable design is icing on the cake. Now we just need to get a North American publisher to sign on with Schmidt Spiel and bring it over to this side of the world so folks don’t have to order it from Germany like I did.
Current Rating: 8/10
Pipeline: Emerging Markets (expansion)
Emerging Markets is probably one of the most subtle expansions that I own. I suppose I’m used expansions giving me an entirely new game board or fresh asymmetric characters and factions. But when you layout the randomized action tiles and market tiles on top of Pipelines’s board, and when you mix in the new valuations and technologies, the changes don’t hit you until the gears start grinding.
Suddenly, you feel the impact of there being only one (expensive) option for grey crude market oil. Next, you feel the effects of having all eight action spaces jumbled around and paired together in wonky ways. Sprinkle in a new technology or more, a strange valuation or two, and before too long, you realize that these five modules really shake things up.
For fans of Pipeline who have come to know and love the game after several plays, Emerging Markets aims to shove them out of their comfort zone with a wildly randomized market setup. It also dangles carrots over strategic paths that one may never have considered up to this point. The new techs offer exciting possibilities for those willing to invest such as oil specialization, tech traversal, and crude oil crusading.
There’s not much else to say about Emerging Markets. Its box is as slim as it is subtle, and the modules inside are both easily integrated and sneakily impactful.
Current Rating: 9/10
I had an interesting experience with our home furnace recently. Essentially, it decided to go on strike. No matter how hard our thermostat told it to get going and warm up the house, it stubbornly refused to comply. I think our home got down to 58 degrees Fahrenheit one night before the sun rose and started filling the freezing void that our rebellious appliance left behind. That’s the kind of day where you wear a hoodie inside with the hood on, always.
What does this all have to do with Furnace, the board game? Absolutely nothing…
Furnace is a slim, focused combination of lucrative auctions, careful tableau building, and generic resource conversion. Over the course of its 4 short rounds, players cycle back and forth between the auctioning phase and the furnacing phase. The thing that elevates Furnace above its rehashed premise is the novel twist on auctions.
Players each receive their own set of discs valued one through four. Each round, several furnacy cards are laid out in a row and put up for auction. One at a time, players commit a disc to a card—the only restriction is that no card can have multiple of the same value or player color. So you might bid your big bad four on a valuable card, but I can swoop in with my little two and place it on the same card. How do you like them apples? While it seems like a pointless underbid, it’s not so pointless when you consider the consolation prize. Everybody loves a good consolation prize.
Furnace is all about using your discs to their fullest potential: acquiring the best cards to slot into your tableau, milking consolation prizes from cards that others really want, converting some coal into some iron or some iron into some coal or some coal and iron into oil and to ultimately convert your final product into points. There’s also the chance to put your resources toward upgrades, get some of your cards flipped to their stronger side, and really heat up that furnace of yours.
Aside from the novel auctioning mechanism, perhaps the best thing about Furnace is that it knows exactly how long it should be: which is blazingly fast and blessedly short. It hangs around just long enough for you to explore the interesting tension of where to place your auctioning discs and enjoy the satisfying arc of building an engine, and then it’s over as quickly as it began. Any longer and it would be overstaying its welcome.
But not everyone will be able to overlook the comparatively cold and lonely production phase where cubes are pushed and friends are forgotten. Not all folks will see the interesting auctioning phase as strong enough to carry the rest of experience on its back. And not all gamers will find enough reasons to keep coming back for more. I find myself trending toward this last of groups.
I’ve enjoyed both of my plays of Furnace, but it feels as though further plays will merely offer slight variations to my first two sessions. Whenever I get to December and revisit the best and most popular games of the previous year—with a more seasoned perspective on the hotness of yesteryear—I like to categorize some games as “Flingers.” Flingers are those games that were fun to try one or more times but that I ultimately don’t need to own. These are the games that made for a fun ‘one night stand’, yet it won’t fill me with regret if I never play them again. Furnace feels like it’s a strong contender for that category. Although perhaps if the game box wasn’t so unnecessarily large I’d be able to talk myself into keeping it around longer.
Current Rating: 7/10
Merchants of the Dark Road
Based on what little I knew about the design, I went into this play anticipating that Merchants of the Dark Road would not be my type of game. The good news is that I ended up enjoying it more than I expected, but I suppose that’s faint praise considering the fact that I thought I was going to hate it. Indeed, I was surprised to find myself carefully crafting elaborate strategies and executing thoughtful tactics throughout our first play of the game. There was certainly a satisfying payoff to my competitive efforts, yet Merchants of the Dark Road remains the type of game that I’m not keen to play more of—especially if it includes teaching more newcomers.
The onboarding process for this game features a roughly 40-minute rules teach that equates to throwing a bunch of mechanisms in a blender, forgetting to put the lid on, and cranking the blender up to full blast. Within the blink of an eye, there’s suddenly a mess of mechanisms flung out in every direction. Resource gathering and contract fulfillment are dripping from the ceiling, polyominoes and dice are scattered across the floor, rondel actions and event cards are clinging to your hair and blinding your eyes, money tokens and tableau drafting are slopped on the walls, and worker placement considerations are embedded in every imaginable crevice.
The current Board Game Geek stats for Merchants of the Dark Road are a bit comical, if you ask me. This one currently sits at a 2.98 complexity rating (Medium weight) with a 60-120 minute estimated playtime. Our 40 minute teach plus 3 more hours of play (at 4 players) would suggest otherwise. This is really where Merchants suffers the most, in my opinion. It’s an unequivocal pain to teach and learn, it lasts too long, and it suffers from too much downtime. To be fair, I’m sure that experienced players could shave off a bit of time, but even 2 hours for a 4-player session still feels like far too generous of an estimate here.
Being an Elf Creek Games production, Merchants at least knows how to be lavish (particularly for the fully deluxe Kickstarter version that our group tried). The tokens are intricately designed, and the art is elaborate and evocative (as one would expect from the reliable Andrew Bosley). The only part of the production that stumbles is in the graphic design that struggles to differentiate certain spaces on the board or similar looking resources.
Overall, fans of crunchy Euros and premium productions will have plenty to sink their teeth into here. The best parts of the experience come from planning your actions with your worker dice, tailoring your resource economy to the tactical scoring opportunities, and chasing the two types of points (money and prestige) where your lower of the two will end up being your final score. Yet one can’t help but feel that perhaps a slimmer, trimmer version of this game could have existed and still provided a similar level of satisfaction. There were several board actions, entire animal tableaus, excessive bonus options, and tertiary resource tokens that were virtually ignored and untouched by our entire group. I’m certainly the type who typically prefers a much cleaner design—one that doesn’t start with a messy explosion of rules requiring hours of playtime to scrub through.
Current Rating: 5.5/10
The Crew: Mission Deep Sea
I’ve already written loads about The Crew from my review of The Crew: The Quest for Planet Nine. Everything I said there applies to Mission Deep Sea, the standalone sequel, so there really isn’t much more to add here. The only difference is the objective cards—which are mind-bogglingly better than the original game in every conceivable way (and I already considered the original a masterpiece of a card game).
Rather than simply say that this player must win this exact card, and this player must win these cards in this order, Mission Deep Sea throws out the entire concept and replaces it with a massive deck of very specific requirements. These objectives include things like “I must never lead a trick with blue, yellow, or pink” or “I must win the exact same amount of tricks as this player” or “I must not win any 9s” or “I must win the same amount of pink and yellow cards.” The possibilities are limitless here, and the way these objectives randomly combine together from one round to the next is what keeps the game fresh and exciting.
Much more than The Quest for Planet Nine, Mission Deep Sea feels like a game I can endlessly revisit (even after beating all the missions) because I’ll never see the same combination of objective cards. Essentially, you can astutely consider Mission Deep Sea the Toy Story 2, the Spider-man 2, or the Shrek 2 of card games. It takes a bona-fide classic and does it even better.
Current Rating: 10/10
Unlike 2019’s L.A.M.A, the newer ‘Dice’ version of this light game from Reiner Knizia is one that I got off on the right foot with. I introduced L.A.M.A. Dice to a couple different groups of 3 and 4 friends who don’t turn their noses up at a simple game of llamas, rainbows, and push-you-luck. I still intend to introduce them to L.A.M.A. the card game (where I can really give the design a fair chance outside of my non-ideal 2-player experience), but I couldn’t resist showing them the dice game first because it was a recent arrival at our household.
Sadly, L.A.M.A. Dice is one that publisher Amigo has not officially brought to North America (although the rumor is that it’s coming this year, or you can acquire it right now from some online retailers, if you know where to look). With the acquisition of a German copy and a simple download of the English rules, we were off to the races.
While L.A.M.A. Dice plays out similarly to L.A.M.A. the card game, it also has some key differences that make it the more lively, loud, and laugh-inducing game of the two. Where the card game is more about quiet, subtle, and private hand management, the dice game is about clackety rolls, foolish decisions, public humiliations, and occasionally glorious triumphs.
Each player is dealt six small cards that they’ll display face-up in front of themselves. These are worth their value in negative points (with llamas being worth a whopping negative 10 points), and your objective is to discard them from your tableau. On your turn, you’ll either quit the round and eat the remaining negative points left in front of you, or you’ll roll three 6-sided dice in hopes of matching some of your leftover cards so you can get rid of them. If nothing matches, you’ll have to take a matching card from the center market, but as the round goes on, these central cards dwindle and your risk of ‘blowing it’ ever increase. Basically, if your roll matches nothing in your tableau and nothing in the central market, then you’ve ended the round for everyone and you get nailed with your cards plus the leftover cards in the market.
While there is of course a big old dollop of luck to the game of L.A.M.A., the dice game transforms that luck into a collective experience of laughs, groans, and cheers. And because it comes in at a breezy 20 minutes, that means that you can get in, have a colorful little riot, get out, and be on to the next game in the blink of an eye. And who knows, maybe if you let the game stick around long enough, you’ll discover some sneaky strategies lurking beneath all the crazy chaos. It is a Knizia design, after all.
Current Rating: 7.5/10
Llamas Unleashed (Unstable Unicorns)
Oh boy… Speaking of llamas, L.A.M.A Dice is not the only llama game I’ve tried recently. Llamas Unleashed (which is basically a reskin of Unstable Unicorns) is a game most akin to Cover Your Assets, Exploding Kittens, Munchkin, or the like. Simple rules, cheap gags, copious take-that, the works. It’s one of those games that somebody suddenly whips out and blindsides you with as you feel your heart drop to the pit of your stomach, crash through the bottom of your pelvis, and continue burrowing deep into the earth in an endless flee. There’s nothing wrong with other folks enjoying these experiences, but I loathe these moments when I find myself sitting down to game that aggressively tries to commit every imaginable sin in the game design book. A gathering for social entertainment suddenly transforms into a fight for survival as the game repeatedly bludgeons you over the head with a club as you desperately beg for a swift ending.
Of course, everyone has their own personal unwritten booklet of design sins. In the world of hobbyist gaming, one gamer’s trash is another gamer’s treasure. But to give you an idea of why Llamas Unleashed was a big miss for me, allow me to share the sins committed in my book:
- Use roughly 6 pt font on all cards and cram them with as much gameplay text and flavor text as possible
- Start players’ turns by drawing a card so they must then spend a minute or more reading the new card, internalizing the information, reanalyzing and rereading their entire hand, and then deciding to play one card or draw another card to end their turn.
- Cram the deck with broken take-that cards such as this: For the rest of the game, half of the animals in the deck are now useless to you—you can’t use them anymore (playing seven animals into your tableau is how you win the game). Have fun drawing garbage!
- Widen the player count as much as humanly possible so that the “30-45 minute” game can actually last hours at higher counts
- Devote the bulk of one’s design efforts into coming up with silly puns
- Confuse players by putting pictures of animals on non-animal cards and make them figure out an animal card type by reading the smallest text rather than using a simple icon.
- Use different shades of blue rather than unique icons to designate the differences between cards
- Needlessly put a bland game logo on the back of the cards rather than utilize any of the semi-decent art
- Make the experience feel like climbing up a merciless slip-and-slide where your progress is constantly wiped out by another person’s random gotcha card
- Make strategizing feel so worthless that ending the game becomes more appealing than winning the game
As one who tries to be a champion of the hobby, I just can’t condone designs like this that tend repel and deter folks from board gaming for a cornucopia of reasons. Of course, I say that with big rotten egg on my face, because Unstable Unicorns and its spinoff boxes have made millions of dollars on Kickstarter and beyond. Meanwhile, L.A.M.A. Dice can’t even manage to earn itself a timely North American version. Sometimes, the world is just a sick joke, but at least it has llamas in it.
Current Rating: 1/10
Brian Boru: High King of Ireland
I have an interesting history with games that graft trick taking onto a larger board game. My first experience with such a combination was Tricky Tides by Steven Aramini (one of the designers of Sprawlopolis). I enjoyed how Tricky Tides mixed trick taking with a pick-up-and-deliver objective of transporting goods on your merchant ship. The main hang-up I had with the experience is that it was longer and slower-paced than I would prefer.
Despite that reservation, I still used Tricky Tides as the initial inspiration for a design that I began working on several years ago called Balloon Jockeys. I settled on trick taking as the best way to recreate the feeling of piloting a hot air balloon where the restrictions of the cards in your hand and the lead suit of the trick would simulate the restrictions of being a floating balloon that is victim to the wind. The concept was exciting but, wouldn’t you know it, the main issue with that first design was that it was slow-paced.
Trick taking games are meant to be quick, snappy, and breezy, and bogging them down with supplemental mechanisms can suck the juices out of the fruit. I eventually found a way to speed up the proceedings of Balloon Jockeys, and the result was a big improvement. Perhaps eventually I’ll get around to actually finishing the design instead of taking thrilling detours publishing outside designs from folks like Reiner Knizia and Ryan Courtney, but that’s a matter for another time.
The reason I start with this long prologue is that I was well aware that Brian Boru was a trick taking game blended with card drafting and good old area majorities. Part of me worried that Brian Boru would have the same sluggish pace as Tricky Tides and Balloon Jockeys 1.0 because of the ambitious way it was attaching a quick card-playing mechanism onto a full-blown board game. After spending some quality time with the game, I’m both relieved and delighted to find that Brian Boru handles this mechanical mixture extremely well.
Each round proceeds through a phase of drafting cards into your hand followed by a phase of playing tricks to claim towns, forge alliances through marriages, garner favor with the Church, and tussle with invading vikings. If you lead a trick, you must decide which open town is in contention. As most trick takers go, the player with the highest number of the lead color wins the trick and in this case claims the town. Thereafter, they start the next trick in a new town of their choice.
The first wrinkle here is that nobody is forced to follow suit, but there are plenty of trick taking games with this wrinkle. The wrinkliest wrinkle of them all is that each card has a winning effect and one or two losing effects. So there is much more here than simply managing your hand to save the high value cards for the right moments. The main horse you’ll be strapping your brain to is the one that gallops through all the card effects as you decide which one you need right then and there.
In Brian Boru, it’s common to find yourself aiming to lose tricks because winning costs money you don’t have or want to spent and losing grants bonuses you desperately need. This is especially true when the chosen town of conflict lies in a region where points are pitiful or an opponent already has a commanding majority lead. Yet the fact that the winner of each trick gets to choose the next focal point of the map means that this person can have a major influence on region competition and hand management decisions.
The game starts out open and opaque… which cards should I draft? Which bonus do I need next? What regions should I gun for? In rounds one and two, the answers to these questions are more slippery and wispy. Yet as more discs go out on to the board and players start marching up the point track, things really start to come to a point. This is especially true when one remembers that coming in second or third place in a region amounts to absolutely nothing.
All the card effects are wonderfully alluring, yet you’ll have to prioritize them against each other because they all have their own form of majority competition. Only the most earnest suitor will gain the benefits of a glorious marriage, only the most aggressive viking combatant will earn renown and determine where the next dastardly viking token goes, only the most faithful Church followers can double their influence in a town with a coveted monastery. There are still plenty of incentives to pursue these tracks even if you can’t snag first place, but decisively exploiting the weaknesses of your opponents in the right tricks, rounds, tracks, and regions is what will ultimately determine who gets crowned the High King of Ireland.
From both Brian Boru and The King is Dead, the thing that I’ve come to appreciate about designer Peer Sylvester is that he can create a dynamic, shared experience between players where the strategies aren’t immediately obvious and the best decisions depend heavily on your opponents’ moves. Much like the legendary Dr. Reiner Knizia, Mr. Sylvester comes from the classically German game design school of thought that complexity should emerge from the collision of simple mechanisms and unique minds. For gamers like myself, this philosophy of ludology results in consistent satisfaction at the table. No amount of smoke and mirrors resource crunching will ever supplant the purity and potency of a player-driven design like Brian Boru.
Current Rating: 9/10
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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.