13 Plays (2 Players)
Review copy provided by the publisher.
Your island WILL be unique. So the box prophecy says, and so it must be fulfilled.
My Island is the hotly anticipated sequel to Reiner Knizia’s My City — an approachable, spatial puzzle legacy game about filling your board with tiles by following bingo style card flips. My City offered the most satisfying use of polyominoes I’ve ever encountered, and I was excited to see what the hexagonal pivot to My Island would bring.
More than any other element, the core change from square-based polyominoes to hexagonal-based shapes is far and away what sets these two games apart. Rather than having the My City freedom to place a tile adjacent to any other tile, My Island forces you to always link one hex to another matching hex type as you spread your tiles across the island. This added restriction is compensated by the fact that you only have 4 different shapes to deal with (at least in the early episodes), which is noticeably far less than the 8 starting shapes of My City.
While it is still a tile laying spatial puzzle at its core, the tiles of My Island make it feel like a very different beast. The puzzle is much less about fitting different shapes together perfectly and efficiently — rather, it is more about building clusters or lines or barriers of symbols of a matching type. Each tile has two, three, for four different symbols on it — house, field, path, and wall. The aim is to link paths together that create a route or cluster houses together to form a village or connect fields together to form a farm. As your tiles sprawl across the island, your options for how to finish these groups dwindle.
Fundamentally, the amount of long-term planning required seems generally less than what My City demanded. The fact that the shapes of My Island are so similar means that you can usually adapt on the fly and find multiple different tiles to meet your goals. So the puzzle is perhaps a bit more loose and forgiving in that sense. But you still certainly need to plan and map out your tile arrangements as the open spaces shrink. It’s common for players to position their yet unused tiles in intentional areas around the outside of the board as they simply wait for the matching card to be flipped so they can insert the tile precisely in its planned location.
But as per usual, Reiner finds plenty of ways to push you outside your routines through the use of evolving legacy rules. Sometimes he changes the way you score points, other times he layers on yet another objective with a tempting reward when achieved or a devastating consequence when neglected. What once was your highest priority strategy can quickly become a fading memory.
This ebb and flow of objectives, this evolution of board and tile features, this unveiling of new adventures within a sound and satisfying puzzle is precisely what makes this line of games so great. As far as I can tell, My Island is no better or worse than its progenitors. Unless you have a personal vendetta against polyominoes or hexes, I suppose. At any rate, it simply continues the tried and true recipe of engaging episodes and competitive chapters, all while offering its own twist on the formula.
True, My Island doesn’t quite feel as thrillingly novel or refreshingly unique as My City did when we dove into it 3 years ago. But it’s still mighty impressive for us to now be 50 plays into this line of games and still hungry to explore the next episodes and chapters. Shoot, we even just opened the thick Chapter 5 envelope and encountered a feature that I was not expecting at all. Even after all these plays, it seems that this My ____ series still has more tricks up its sleeve.
Galaxy Cat Extension
2 Plays (3 Players)
From the far reaches of outer space — or more accurately, Japan — comes a Knizia card game so light, fluffy, and silly that I can’t imagine anything fitting this presentation better than stretchy cats.
When you pair zany animals with light Knizia card designs, you get games like LAMA which baffle some hobbyists with their simplicity yet manage to sell gangbusters and delight thousands of people across the globe. Although it doesn’t seem likely to reach such sales heights (especially if it isn’t translated to other languages), Galaxy Cat Extension is very much a LAMA-esque game in spirit.
This blazingly quick filler has players flipping a card from the deck and deciding which player to place it in front of. Each player has 3 slots for cards. Once everybody has their slots filled, then the end of the round is triggered — where you’ll usually collect the cards in front of you (storing them safely into your facedown pile). Although you can stick an opponent with a card that you reveal, none of the cards in the deck are necessarily bad. It all depends on context.
The objective is to collect pairs of cards of the same color that form the head and feet of a cat. These complete sets are the only thing that will score at the end of the game (1 point per card). But of course, after you’ve stashed away a proper pair, you will happily accept more body cards of the same color — these cards allow you to stretch a completed cat on into theoretical eternity, gaining you one additional point each.
There are really only two main types of cards (head/tail and body) with 4 different colors, so clearly the head/tail cards are generally the most desirable ones because you are allowed to score multiple completed cats of the same color. The catch is that these head/tail cards also display 1-3 UFO symbols as well. UFOs are very bad for your cat extension ambitions.
Each time a round ends, players will compare the number of UFOs across their 3 face-up cards. The player(s) with the most UFOs will have all 3 of their cards abducted away to the discard pile, and then everyone else gets to stash their cards into their safe scoring pile. So when you reveal a valuable card from the deck, do you keep it for yourself in hopes of collecting it, or do you pawn it off onto an opponent in hopes of putting an alien target on their back?
This decision is further complicated by another wrinkle — the fearless blue cat meeple. Any time a player receives a card in front of them with a blue cat icon on it, that player claims the blue cat meeple. This guardian of the galaxy cats will help you avoid an abduction by letting you stash 1 card straight into your scoring pile before the end of round UFO abduction, and you’re likely to stash your card that displays the most UFO icons in order to put the target on somebody else’s back.
There are a few other moments of cleverness like when a player draws a bipedal cat — a card that is useless for scoring but instantly earns its receiver the blue cat meeple. This card is somehow both painful to receive (clogging up your slots) and comforting to gain (earning you the blue cat meeple). Or when a cat god card emerges — forcing all players to rotate their face-up cards one player to the left… suddenly those garbage cards that you put in front of your righthand neighbor become your own lot. Or when a player is able to place a completed cat in front of themself (using only their face-up cards), they can instantly stash the cat with delight and clear up their slots for more cards.
In other words, it’s simple dumb fun. But few, if any, designers do it as well as Knizia. This isn’t the type of game you break out to impress your friends with novel mechanisms or thinky strategy. It’s the type of game you whip out to have a good quick laugh as you bask in each other’s fortune and misfortune.
Pick a Pen Trilogy
9 Plays (3 plays per game, 2 Players)
Pick a Pen: Crypten, Riffen, and Tuinen (aka Crypts, Reefs, and Gardens) is a brand new trilogy of roll & write games by Dr. Knizia and publisher 999 Games. While the games provide an English rulebook, I still had to order them from overseas and wait a while for them to arrive. The big twist of this series is the fact that the objects you roll are colored pencils, not dice. Each flat surface of a pencil displays a unique symbol or value which applies to that pencil when you pick it up and use it. Meaning that when you select a pencil, you are not only selecting its color but you are also selecting its rolled result.
I’ve never seen this kind of novelty of pencil rolling and drafting used in a game, which makes for a solid way to stand out in the roll & write genre. Is it enough to break through the genre’s trappings? No, it is not. At the end of the day, all three of these games end up feeling like just about any other roll & write, for better or worse. But I would at least call them well designed and engaging enough, especially for folks who can’t get enough of that rolling and writing.
Crypten (Crypts) is the most straightforward of the bunch. Fill in the next empty space in the shape row that was rolled. Try to get a run of 2 or 3 adjacent colors or fit all 5 colors into a row or column to score points. That’s pretty much it. Due to its relative simplicity, this is also the least interesting of the 3 games. Fortunately, the third sheet has enough added considerations that things finally start to feel satisfying (all 3 games have 3 unique sheets that ramp up in complexity). But even in its final form, it’s not one that begs to be played over an over again — although the same could be said of this entire trilogy.
Riffen (Reefs) is certainly a step up from its sibling thanks a slightly more thematic vibe with more strategic considerations. Rather than rolling shapes, you are rolling lengths of lines — some that must be straight and others that can zig-zag. With five different colored divers, you are aiming to send your divers zig zagging toward their matching colored objectives and picking up treasures along the way. There are also some actual competitive objectives here which help to raise the stakes and enhance the hate drafting. Players who plan the most efficient routes while keeping valuable pencil rolls away from their opponents will do the best.
Tuinen (Gardens) is probably the strongest of the trilogy (at least it’s the most popular for both my wife and I). This one feels more like a classic spatial puzzle where you are starting anywhere on the map and expanding outward with adjacent clusters of colors. The goal is to fill each enclosed garden space with only one color, or fill a garden with all 5 colors, for points. Keeping things evenly balanced across the colors will gain the most points, as each new set of gardens (having 1 garden of each color) ramps up your score. The pencil rolls simply tell you an exact number of hexes you have to fill in, and there is even a negative point row you can resort to if you can’t fit a pencil result in anywhere. Tuinen rewards you for planning your gardens wisely, balancing your color focus, and trying to leave as many good options available as possible. Once more, there is plenty of opportunity for hate drafting as you take what your rivals most desire and reach the competitive bonuses first.
Overall, I could see the Pick a Pen line doing very well in the market… if it had released 6 years ago. Nowadays, even with the novelty of rolling and drafting colored pencils, I don’t see these designs capturing the hearts of any but the most devout roll & write fans. We are unfortunately on the tail end of the X & write craze where these designs now have be absolutely fantastic in order to steal any of the industry spotlight.
1 Play (4 players)
A 2016, big box Knizia auction game that never reached North America or was even published in English? You have my attention.
Although it shares the setting and name with Reiner’s more revered, Yellow & Yangtze, the similarities end there. In reality, Yangtze has much more in common with something like Medici thanks to its point-spending auctions and set collection majorities.
The central board features a river of boat tiles containing goods of various types and colors. Players are aiming to buy up those goods — collecting bundles that match in either color or type — until they are ready to cash their bundles in for more money (aka points). The larger your bundle grows, the more money it’ll earn you when you cash it in. The problem is that you are spending each turn buying up another goods tile from a sliding market while frequently being interrupted by tempting (but expensive) auctions for business branch tokens.
Any time you buy a tile from the river, you’ll end your turn by drawing a replacement from the bag and adding it to the river’s end, pushing all the other tiles down to cheaper prices in the process. But frequently, you’ll find yourself pulling a different kind of tile from the bag that triggers an auction or an event.
When a branch token is reveal, players go around bidding for it until everyone but the highest bidder passes. These tokens usually fetch a high price because they earn you loads of points for collecting one of each type as well as loads of points for having the most (or second most) of one type.
Some players will quickly find their starting supply of 30 coins depleted, especially if they haven’t sold any bundles of goods yet. Fortunately, everybody starts with an identical supply of six powerful one-time-use cards that can bail you out of tight spots. Three of these cards are liquidity cards — where you will sacrifice 30 end-game-points in favor of 20 or 15 or 10 immediate coins/points. These can be activated at any time during the game, even mid-auction. The other three cards do things like let you sell bundles (outside of your turn), let you buy a goods tile for free, or let you buy two goods tiles in one turn. Figuring out when to use each special card (if at all) is easily one of my favorite aspects of Yangtze.
The other thing that spices this game up comes in the form of events called ruler tokens — the other surprise that can emerge from the draw bag when you are simply looking to replace a purchased good on the river. The rulers do things like cause all players to be taxed (lose a bit of money), earn players a bit of money (for their branch tokens), cause all players to discard a stashed good (to really nail the greedy hoarders at your table), allow players to exchange one owned good with another from the board (great for if you bought a useless token for cheap in a previous turn), and more. The 12 rulers also represent the countdown clock of the game. When the last ruler comes out of the bag, the game is over.
All in all, I generally enjoyed my time with Yangtze. The problem is that this one comes in a far-too-huge box (including plenty of publisher Piatnik’s trademarked air) with Reiner Knizia’s name on it. It promises an epic auction adventure and then provides little more than a basic economic set collection game. The general value of each branch token feels far too easy to math out — leading to bids that feel less gutsy and dramatic and more mechanical and mathematic.
It’s a solid little game that left me feeling underwhelmed and uninspired. I suspect that if the game were a hair shorter and a quarter the box size, then I’d feel much more enthusiastic about this one. But even so, the auctions were probably the weakest part of this auction game.
Sunrise Lane (And Rondo)
Rondo — 1 Play (3 Players)
Sunrise Lane — 3 Plays (2,3, & 4 Players)
Back in March, at Dice Tower West, I got the chance to try out Reiner Knizia’s Rondo. Not long after that, I wrote up my first impressions of the game. But it just so happened that I put off publishing my impressions long enough for publisher Horrible Guild to announce a new version of the design titled Sunrise Lane. So I figured, why not put off my Rondo impressions even longer until I can try both versions? Well, after several more months, we’re finally here and ready to dive in.
First, my thoughts on Rondo:
If anybody is the King of light, easily teachable, clever, addictive, family-weight board games, it’s Reiner Knizia. I’m talking about games like Ingenious, Quest for El Dorado, Lost Cities: The Board Game, Treasures of Nakbe, Blue Lagoon, Whale Riders, Indigo, and so many more. Along those same lines, Rondo is an easy addition to this list.
With its massive yet simple board and its big draw bag of clackity colored tiles which are slotted into your player rack, Rondo gives a nod of appreciation to casual family games like Sequence and Rummikub. Turns are dead simple: draw two tiles or play as many tiles as you want and then draw one back. These tiles can be five unique colors: red, yellow, blue, green, and purple. And you can place your tiles in a line starting from the center of the board or adjacent to any tiles that are already out. Players will be snaking their tiles outward along a wheel of numbers which range from 1 to 5 and match the five colors of tiles. While you’re allowed to place any tile facedown on a given space, you can only place a tile face up and score the displayed number of points beneath if the colors between tile and space match. Most satisfying of all, you are allowed to plop down multiple tiles onto an open matching-colored space and score its points multiple times in the same turn. That feels particularly good when the space is a 3, 4, or 5.
Rondo has a buttery smooth ebb and flow of building your hand over multiple turns, then spreading tiles over the “rondo” and raking in the big points, then starting over again by accumulating more tiles from the bag. Finding and claiming the most opportunistic locations based on your bag draw may not be as strategic as Knizia’s greatest hits, but there is something quite addictive and satisfying about it all. The decision of whether to keep drawing or commit your hand early is zesty enough to feel meaningful and impactful, yet none of it gets bogged down by over-analysis or overexertion.
Rondo is a game that warmly invites you to sit down with family or friends and enjoy a casual competition while you catch up with each other. For most non-gamers, that’s all they really want anyway. For myself, it’s certainly one that I wouldn’t be disappointed to play again. It’s hard to dislike a game that is this pure, smart, and quick.
And now, on to Sunrise Lane:
I was impressed enough by my one play of Rondo that part of me was tempted to track down an old copy in the used market. But there were also just enough factors that kept me from pulling the trigger (aside from the fact that it is a bit tricky to get ahold of): The box is huge (and I’m getting increasingly tired of big boxes), the presentation is completely abstract (making it even harder to get to the table), and the gameplay is purely tactical (there is basically no forward planning, you simply react to the current state of each turn).
Kudos to Horrible Guild then, for managing to address every single obstacle that was keeping me from getting a copy of this game: They released it worldwide with a beautiful new coat of paint via a city building setting in a much smaller box with a newly added layer of strategic gameplay. Much like several other great Knizia releases this year, it’s a smart and focused reimplementation that takes the strong bones of a dusty old Knizia design and rebuilds it into an even better experience.
The most noticeable change (aside from the theme and presentation) is the fact that players now have ownership over the tokens they are placing onto the board. This is done by replacing the tiles of Rondo with gorgeous cards in Sunrise Lane. Playing a card lets you place one of your charming building pieces onto a matching color space on the board, and your buildings can be stacked on top of each other.
The introduction of piece ownership allows Horrible Guild (in collaboration with Reiner Knizia) to introduce new strategic rules for end-game points. Now the board is divided into two types of quadrants. The blue quadrants will grant first, second, and third place points to the tallest buildings, while the red quadrants will grant first, second, and third place points to the players who build on the most spaces. Plus there is another competition for the longest chain of buildings on the board.
This new strategic layer of end-game competitions is a perfect fit for the design. It’s the precise evolution that Rondo needed that transforms it from a good family game into a great family game. Now, I’m not just looking for the single spot on the board that will score me the most points in the current turn — I’m also weighing that against the overarching competition between building colors. Instead of hoping that my opponents stop setting up the leader for huge turns, I can simply go after the leader myself by weakening their end-game position. Players can cut each other off from extending their lines further while outcompeting each other to cover more spaces or build taller buildings.
Despite the warm title, Sunrise Lane can be subversively cold-blooded. Yet it’s still quick and casual enough to be a great fit for any gaming group. Some folks have identified it as a solid Ticket to Ride competitor due to their similar features of drawing and playing cards to put out pieces along set routes. I can get on board with that.
Amun-Re: The Card Game
1 Play (3 Players)
For being a distilled, simplified spinoff of a board game, Amun-Re: The Card Game is a surprisingly complicated design from Dr. Knizia. I suppose that’s appropriate, as Amun-Re (the board game) is one of his more complicated big box titles. The reason for this is that both designs proceed through several different phases which make up one of multiple ages. Each phase demands strategic decisions which affect the opportunities of future phases, and some of them are even divided up into smaller rounds. A few poor choices can have detrimental consequences later on.
Unlike many other Knizia card game spinoffs, Amun-Re TCG does not jettison the auctions of its board game sibling. Bidding actually remains quite similar here. Each mini round, players are presented with province cards equal to the number of players. These provinces contain a mix of pre-built pyramids, lucrative fields, important ankh symbols, and possibly camel caravans. Some of the provinces are clearly more valuable than others (by straight up have more stuff on them), while others are less clear in their relative value (by presenting a unique blend of features).
The core idea of the game is to build up sets of pyramids to score points, but these pyramids can also be purchased by building up an economy with fields and camels. The ankh symbols can win you tiebreakers and gain or lose you points (if you have the most or least of them, respectively).
Each age starts with players publicly selecting their bidding card options. This decision is restricted by how much leftover money you saved for yourself in the previous round. If I have 16 Egyptian bucks to work with, I may draft an 8-value card (the strongest bidding card in the game) plus a 5, 3, and a zero. But because you see what I’ve chosen, you can counter with a 6 (which beats most of my hand), plus a 4, 3, 2, 1, and zero. By having lots of low value cards which your opponents lack, you can later bid low on a province to force an opponent to waste a high value card to outbid you or let you have it for cheap. This concept of drafting your bidding options and reacting to what other players draft and bid is far and away the most compelling aspect of Amun-Re The Card Game. It serves as clear and easy proof that the master of auction games still has new tricks up his sleeve.
The actual bidding is fairly similar to Amun-Re — a player may place a single card on any open province or on a province with a lower value bid. If you outbid another player, they get their card back and will have to bid again on their turn. Notably, you are allowed to go right back to the province you were just bumped from in this version of Amun-Re (assuming you can outbid the new card there). After 3 rounds of bidding for provinces, play proceeds to the offering phase. This phase is basically exactly the same as the board game — players do a simultaneous bid to please the gods which collectively determines the flood level for this age. A bigger offering results in more flooding which leads to bigger payouts for your fields.
Earning money is vital to success in Amun-Re, as you’ll need to it build extra pyramids for points and to fuel your bidding potential in the next age. Between the economic considerations and the tense bidding, many players have found their favorite Knizia game to be Amun-Re the board game. The spirit of that design is expertly preserved in this newer, smaller, and faster card game. Perhaps best of all, The Card Game manages to function much better than its inspiration at lower player counts (although the Officials Variant found in the new Amun-Re: 20th Anniversary Edition makes this a mute point).
Thematically, this spinoff doesn’t do much at all besides play as dry as its desert setting. But for those who appreciate a clever blend of mechanisms, this one is surprisingly juicy.
4 Plays (5 & 9 Players)
You know those obscure little games with wacky titles and even wackier art that we all tend to judge by their cover? I imagine it’s a primal instinct for us hobbyists — a defense mechanism — when we cross paths with such box and just assume it is a hot garbage gameplay experience. If a cheap game is trying this hard to stand out, surely there is nothing worthwhile to be found within the actual design, right? I get the feeling that Karate Tomate fits squarely into this prejudiced category, particularly after seeing the souls of fellow gamers depart from their bodies when I pulled it out of my bag as a suggested activity.
True, the cards are littered with illustrations of various anthropomorphic kung fu vegetables supplemented by cheap clipart of knives and trophies. True, the game claims it can scale from 3 all the way… up beyond the clouds… into 10 player territory. True, I had to lasso some hesitant players in among our 9-person community game night. Despite all of that, Karate Tomate managed to defy expectations. That’s because this vegetable was planted in fertile soil and cultivated by the master gardener of all board games, Dr. Reiner Knizia.
The fertile soil I speak of, that solid foundation that Karate Tomate grows from, is none other than Taj Mahal. In Taj Mahal, players proceed through a series of game-of-chicken auction rounds where players must decide whether to pass conservatively early, to pass regrettably late, or to fight to the bitter end. Once you commit to bidding with a particular card color in a round, you are limited to bidding only that color for the rest of the round. And you may find in any given round that other players have more ammunition in their hand than you do in yours. If you’re not careful, then you might find all of the cards that you bid go to waste as your opponents continue on without you. And thus the game of chicken ensues.
All of this is likewise true for Karate Tomate. The difference is that instead of Taj Mahal’s clockwise bidding, Karate Tomate cleverly goes the simultaneous bidding route, which is why it works surprisingly well all the way up to 10 players. Each “heat” players pick a card from their hand, commit it to the table, and reveal it. They are competing for the round’s trophy cards on display. Once enough players bow out of a round (by revealing their tomato card), then the remaining players divide up the spoils with the highest bidder (the highest sum of card values) picking a trophy card first.
It is ever tempting to give up on a round and whip out your tomato, because that allows you to draw two more cards into your hand to strengthen your bidding power in a future round. The design even lets you mitigate a bit of that deck drawing luck by discarding two cards and drawing four — allowing you to filter out those weak low-value cards or solo cards of a color in your hand. Any player who takes a trophy card isn’t getting that same opportunity to replenish their hand (unless they take a trophy card with tomatoes on it which grants less end-game points but still lets you draw a card for each tomato).
The decision of which trophy card to take from the display isn’t always easy, either. That’s because Reiner throws one last twist into the endgame scoring — the player with the most trophies wins, but before that, the player(s) with the least knives are automatically eliminated. That end-game elimination, akin to High Society and Art Robbery and even Zoo Vadis, is really what seals the deal. Like a master chef, Reiner is plain smart about taking yesterday’s yummy design leftovers, whipping it together with a few fresh idea ingredients and a clear culinary vision, and providing us with yet another solid gaming stew.
Despite their initial assumption of a rotten experience, my 9-player group went from fearing Karate Tomate’s existence to demanding an instant replay, twice. It may look a little too corny at first glance, but this one packs a punch. It’s just a shame that publisher Amigo played their tomato card so early and chickened out on a wider publishing release beyond Germany.
2 Plays (4 Players)
Palazzo is another old Knizia game that was released nearly 20 years ago. And while it absolutely looks the part of a generic, beige Eurogame from that time period, it manages to play twice as clever as its competitors in half the time and rules. After wading through so many toothless, point salady Eurogames that require 30 minutes to teach yet offer nothing new after all of that learning effort, Palazzo is a breath of fresh air.
The object of the game is to build palaces that are “higher, bigger, and more lovely!” What more could you want in a palace? The way that players construct these is by purchasing or bidding for various levels made of three possible building materials or colors. You must construct your palaces in ascending order (level 1 goes beneath level 2 goes beneath level 3, and so on), but you are allowed to skip levels. Each level is worth points equal to the windows or doors displayed on it (1-3), but only if you construct that palace high enough. A palace that is one level high costs you a whopping negative 5 points, a two-level palace is worth nothing at all, and a three level palace finally starts scoring you window and door points. If you can manage to get your palace even taller and/or build it all with the same color, then you’ll get even more juicy bonus points.
That’s all good and fine — but actually the risk of starting a new palace that may cost you 5 points is particularly scrumptious, especially where the end of the game can sneak up on you (it happened to me in our first play and cost me the game!). And the building restrictions make it so you have to burn an entire turn to slot a new building tile beneath or between others in your existing palace if you can’t simply stack it on top when you acquire the new tile. These rules really tee the game up for interesting turn-by-turn actions.
You can choose to do one of the following on your turn:
- Reveal money cards from the deck, draft two, and let everyone else draft one
- Reveal two more palace tiles — place one into the central warehouse and the other onto one of the four outer quarries — then decide whether to start an auction in the next quarry or buy tiles from the central warehouse
- Relocate a building tile — spend a card to pull the tile out of a building, slot it into a building, or remove it from your palaces entirely
The money cards make for some refreshing bidding and buying rules that take inspiration from the likes of Taj Mahal and others: Once you play a certain color of commodity, you can only add more cards of that color for that particular auction or purchase. The twist here is that you have wiggle room in the ability to play wild cards as well as complete sets of cards (3 of a kind where each card is a unique color) that always become 15 in value. So if I save one 4 of each commodity type, I can play these three 4s as a wild set with a value of 15 rather than 12. This transforms luck of the draw into a far more interesting secondary strategy of forming triplets to create powerful sets.
Unlike Taj Mahal, Beowulf: the Legend, Karate Tomate, and the like, Palazzo is far more forgiving with its auctions in that you don’t lose your reveal cards when you pass out of an auction. No doubt, that’s because there is only ever one reward to be gained by the highest bidder in a Palazzo auction — the tiles in the active quarry.
So you still have the engaging hand management auctioning system, but in a lighter, faster, and more forgiving game. Not worry, though, as there are still plenty of opportunities to shoot yourself in the foot here. Particularly when most players blow their hands on bids and purchases and leave a juicy auction to be won for cheap by another player who still has a large hand. Or when you tempt fate by acquiring a single building tile and waiting one or more turns (during the final round) to hopefully slot it into a palace before the game ends. Much like the three dragons in Ethnos (aka the three monkey statues in Archeos Society), the game of Palazzo ends the moment the fifth endgame tile comes out of the final stack.
I think if this game were longer or more rules-heavy it would lose much of its luster. In reality, Dr Knizia has crafted a perfect little experience that provides just the right blend of mechanisms to feel tight and refreshing. Palazzo is an easy pick for the table and an absolute keeper on the shelf.
1 Play (3 Players)
Silver Screen is one of those lost unicorn Knizias (much like Medici: Reformation by Grail Games) that was nearly published but didn’t quite make it to print. In the case of Silver Screen, the artwork was even 99% finished, which makes its non-existence all the more painful. For 11 years, it has existed in limbo on the Board Game Geek database, teasing and tormenting poor Kniziaphiles with its mysterious and untapped potential. And the big reason why so many in the know have wanted to try this game is because it is a card game version of Nightmare Productions (aka Dream Factory aka Hollywood Blockbuster aka Traumfabrik). Yet something quite magical and unexpected happened only a few short months ago… somebody who was originally involved in the project ended up releasing the art files and rules file online for the public to discover and experience. And there, finally, was our opportunity for Kniziaphiles to pounce (Kudos to my friend Scott who put together a home-brewed copy for us to try).
The first thing that surprised me about Silver Screen was just how similar it is to its board game sibling. Reiner preserved the closed auction bidding on various movie elements where the winner claims a handful of features while their bid is split among the other players. Furthermore, you’re still making a variety of movies with different star rankings (based on how strong your combined movie elements are) that grant points on their own but are also competing for the same end of round and end of game awards (movie of the year, worst overall movie, best movie of each genre, best directors, etc.). Really the only noticeable difference to Silver Screen is that all the components are cards and the movie strips are gone — but therein lies the gameplay changes.
Because Silver Screen does not have film strips to slot your various movie features, players are no longer restricted to collecting specific symbols in order to complete a movie. Here, all you need is a director plus at least 2 more cards (these could be a star, supporting actors, a musician, a cameraperson, or a special effects person). The catch is that the cards come in 3 colors/genres (comedy, drama, horror) plus wilds, and you can only use one color/genre to make each movie — this is 20th Century film-making after all, before hybrid movies were a thing. But the mere fact that your movie can range from 3 up to 7 cards means that there are temptations to both making quick and cheap movies as well as saving up for ambitious blockbusters.
The hard thing here is that you can’t simply put out a movie any time you want. You either have to win an auction or wait for one of three party events, in either case you can only make one movie at such an event. So if you choose to hold your cards for later as your try to save up for a big blockbuster, you may end up with worthless cards still in your hand at the end of the game because you didn’t take advantage of earlier opportunities to make films. I found the flexibility of these decisions to be a welcome change from Nightmare Productions, where the restrictions of the film strips can sometimes strangle your ability to do much of anything until the right symbol shows up and you are actually able to win the auction for it.
Fortunately, for Silver Screen it still matters what specific features you choose to include in your film. You still claim a movie that equals the total value of your features, but if you managed to use production cards corresponding to all of the icons on the title, then it is considered a masterpiece and you’ll earn a bonus card worth 2 additional points. On top of that, whichever player earns the most masterpiece cards will also earn the “most historical” award for some extra points. This little extra wrinkle tempts players to wait to make a movie, or even hold back some production cards of that color, so they can nail the perfect title with the matching icons.
Ultimately, Silver Screen provides the same experience as Nightmare Productions but with a faster playtime, in a theoretically smaller and cheaper package, and with more flexibility in the decisions and paths to victory. I’m surprised to say it, but Silver Screen is my preferred game between the two. It’s a shame that this one never made it to print.
Sushizock im Gockelwok / Geharrewar in de Sushibar / Sushi Bar
3 Plays (3 & 4 Players)
Maybe I’m just not cut out to be a sushi guy. Perhaps I just can’t get past the whole raw fish schtick. I couldn’t manage to eat it last time I ordered some, and I couldn’t find an abiding love for this game any time I played it.
Sushizock is essentially a spiritual sibling design to Pickomino — another Knizia dice chucking, domino claiming game that I do quite enjoy. Although instead of rolling 8 dice where the value-6 face is replaced by a worm, in Sushizock you are chucking 5 custom dice that display blue sushi, red bones, or red or blue chopsticks. And instead of locking in one unique value of dice each roll and rerolling the remaining, in Sushizock you get up to 3 rolls where you simply most lock in at least one die each roll.
You’re guaranteed to get one domino in each turn of Sushizock, for better or worse. The domino you get to claim all depends on your dice results. If you roll exactly two sushis, then you may take the second sushi domino in the sushi row. If you roll exactly four bones, then you may take the fourth bone domino in the bone row. If you roll three chopsticks of the same color, then you may steal the top domino of that color from another player’s stack. If you roll four or five chopsticks, then you may steal any domino of that color from another player’s stack (hopefully you remember which one was the best, because you are not allowed to peek).
Despite my dubious feelings towards sushi and Sushizock, there are plenty of clever twists here. While the bone dominos are all negative points, you must claim them in order to score any of your positive sushi dominos. At the end of your game, you’ll compare your two stacks of bones and sushi and any sushi that stacks higher than your bones is removed from your final score. So the objective is to maximize your positive sushi points and minimize your negative bone points while keeping the stacks as even as possible. There are also brilliant little moments of pushing your luck for a golden domino sandwiched between two stinkers in a row, or deciding to take a stinker tile just to cover up a golden tile in your stack (making it harder for others to steal that juicy tile). I have no qualms with these great moments.
My main issue is simply with the dice part of the game. I’ve now played over 10 Knizia Games where dice were a core mechanism and even more of his games that featured push your luck — and unfortunately for Sushizock, its type of dice chucking and luck pushing ranks near the bottom for me. I believe it has something to do with how painfully specific and restrictive the turns are… In surveying the table, it can be easy to spot exactly what you need on a given turn. But so often you are trying to thread the needle that overshooting or undershooting your dice results feels woefully inevitable. Sure, you can elect to follow your initial dice rolls to the safest and most probable option, and often times you do, but neither that option nor aiming for something more ambitious and completely missing the mark are all that fun for me. “Whoops, you needed exactly three bones and you instead rolled four bones. Here is your garbage domino as a reward, dummy.”
I’m finding that I much prefer dice or push-your-luck games that aren’t so restrictive in their requirements. In games like Gang of Dice, High Score, or Pickomino, you’re adding the sum of your dice values together. Maybe you didn’t roll exactly a 5, but you can often still work with a 3 or 4. The narrow misses aren’t nearly as punishing, yet the bullseye rolls are just as satisfying.
At the very least, there’s enough clever nuance to Sushizock that I still get some enjoyment out of it (even it I would rarely play it over many other Knizia dice or push your luck games on my shelf). I’m not sure the same silver lining can be found in this next one…
Age of War / Risk Express
1 Play (4 Players)
Gather all my complaints about Sushizock, strip away the compliments, then crank it up a few more notches, and you essentially have my feelings toward Age of War (also known as Risk Express).
In Age of War, players are seeking to conquer the castle cards in the center of the table by rolling dice and matching the symbols of each battle line. You’ll be trying to roll infantry (katanas), archery, cavalry, and daimyos. Each time you roll the dice (starting with seven of them), you must either fill a battle line or lose a die if you cannot. Then you reroll and do it again until you either fill all the battle lines on a castle card or lose your last die.
The castles that you are competing for feature varying combinations of battle line requirements and point rewards. Obviously, the most valuable cards are the hardest ones to claim. Whenever you do manage to successfully conquer a castle, you then reposition the card in front of yourself. You’ll score that many points if the card is still in front of you at the end of the game, but that’s a big if. You see, in Age of War, earning a card merely means that you’ve made it slightly more difficult for players to steal away from you. If somebody wants to, they can conquer your castle by filling the battle lines on the card, just as you did, but they must roll and fill an additional daimyo. It’s trickier, but it’s still very doable.
The only way to truly lock-in your castles is to claim all the castles of a color, collectively called a clan, so you can flip those cards facedown and forever keep them (even earning yourself an extra point by doing so). So once a player gains one card of a color, they are incentivized to keep snatching up that color (whether it’s in the middle or in front of another player). And that is indeed where the fun is found in Age of War — the constant battling and clashing ambitions between rival daimyos. A player’s foolish attempt to take on a mighty fortress, and the hilarious failure or thrilling victory that results. But I can find this sort of interaction and drama in so many other games that don’t also carry Age of War’s baggage…
Let me paint the picture for you: The most common scene that you see in Age of War is a turn that starts with hope and ambition and slowly fizzles away into disappointment and embarrassment. After the first roll, a player must commit to a card on the table. Oftentimes the player will combine their best dice results into filling a difficult battle line, and then they’ll collect up the remaining dice and set out to fill the other battle lines of that card. That’s what you have to do, actually. Once you’ve committed to a battle, you are stuck with that castle to the bitter end. But so often, the player’s remaining rolls would simply see their dice evaporate away until it was impossible for them to fill the remaining battle lines of the card.
Never have I seen a game so effortlessly replicate that sinking feeling of inevitable failure more consistently than Age of War. A battle line feels achievable with 5 dice, but you don’t roll it so now you are down to 4 dice. Ok, 4 dice still feels pretty good, right? Nope, still didn’t get it. Ok, well at least I’ve got another roll with these 3 dice, although 3 dice feels like a much worse chance than 4 or 5 dice, but here it goes…. HARD no. Kiss your third die goodbye, you’ve now got one last roll and you basically need snake eyes. Good luck pal, I’m sure it’ll work this time… and… of course it didn’t work. Do you realize how unlikely it was that you’d get these two exact symbols with only 2 dice? Annnnnnnnd now your turn is over. Now go sit in the corner and bask in shame for embarrassing your ancestors.
And that’s Age of War! For the occasional highs that it provides, it certainly wasn’t worth wading through all of those lows. Especially when you see your hard-earned castle get snatch away only moments later. And doubly so when the game drags on as players continue to steal from each other rather than trigger the end by claiming the last castles from the center.
I just don’t see any scenario where I would elect to put myself through Age of War again when so many other games, even Knizia designs, do dice rolling and risk taking and player clashing with far more thrills and far less suffering.
For One Series
32 Total Plays (1 Player)
For One: Number Up (7 Plays)
For One: Galaktix (15 Plays)
For One: Schwarze Rosen (6 Plays)
For One: Kniffel (4 Plays)
The other day, I was reading a cool Knizia interview in a recent issue of the excellent Senet board game magazine, and one particular comment from Reiner stood out to me. He shared how he was excited about a line of solo games that he has been working on (the For One series, published by Schmidt Spiele). Dr. Knizia expressed how he has wanted to do something like this for a very long time — create a solitaire game that still feels like a multiplayer experience in the sense that are you competing against challenges and pushing your luck. That was all I needed to hear to jump on Amazon.de and track down these For One games (yes, I am so easily swayed by the good doctor and his ideas).
I don’t even play solo games all that often, to be honest. The primary driver of my enthusiasm in this hobby is the opportunity to interact with other people — friends, family, and strangers — and compete or cooperate together through a shared challenge. I wouldn’t call myself an extrovert, but somehow I find it much easier to muster the energy and motivation for a multiplayer board game night versus a solitaire board game night. But even so, I have found myself dipping my toes in the solitaire waters from time to time. It is particularly easy to be persuaded when a solo game is approachable, quick, and widely acclaimed (like Sprawlopolis and Under Falling Skies), and even more so when it comes from one of my favorite designers or design teams (like Resist by David Thompson, Trevor Benjamin, and Roger Tankersley or Trailblazers by Ryan Courtney). So it was intriguing to hear that my favorite designer, Reiner Knizia, was taking his best crack at solo gaming with this new line of titles… Even for someone who doesn’t really consider himself a solo gamer.
I will always avoid a solo mode if it feels like a last-minute afterthought tacked on to a multiplayer game. I much prefer solitaire modes or games that build their experience from the ground up rather than struggle to fit a square game into a round hole. But I get that some folks love having a solo option for every game, especially when recruiting more gamers to the table isn’t feasible. I completely get it, but hopefully this gives context to where I am coming from as I discuss the For One series.
Truthfully, I didn’t come into this series with super high expectations. Just look above at what I said about the Pick a Pen trilogy. I’ve played plenty of Knizia designs that didn’t blow me away, and these For One titles gave me no reason to get mega hyped for them. On the outside, they are merely simple, humble, small-box games with functional but low-budget artwork. Yet Reiner’s comments on this design series (and the fact that they are new Knizias) were enough to convince me to track down these boxes online, order them from Germany, and go to the trouble of Google Translating the rulebooks to English. What came next honestly kinda blew me away.
Each little box in this For One line contains a unique game with a few punchboard tokens and perhaps a handful of dice or some cards as well as two rulebooks. One rulebook explains the core concept of the design — this is where you’ll learn how to play a fairly basic, unassuming game. The other rulebook contains 20 levels that you’ll progress through as you record your best scores and try to hit the Gold tier (or at least the Silver or Bronze tier) of each challenge — this is where the magic happens.
The general rules encourage you to not move on to the next level until you hit the Gold tier in points. This is how I’ve decided to approach the For One series… embracing the prideful perfectionist within. Level 1 simply eases you into the core gameplay — giving you nothing but the standard rules to play with and a point threshold to clear. But very quickly, as you march onward into Level 2 and 3 and beyond, you begin to feel Reiner tightening the noose. Suddenly, the point threshold is higher, and the gameplay restrictions are tighter, and new obstacles and requirements are cropping up all over. What starts out as a slow and simple juggling act rapidly turns into a daredevil performance. And right when you think that things can’t possibly get any tighter, you flip the page to the next set of 5 levels and Reiner completely flips the script on you — introducing a new board or a different core objective or a new set of components to deal with.
I am reminded of my experience with Reiner Knizia’s My City series in a lot of ways. Like My City, For One doesn’t give off a thrilling initial impression, but it expertly sinks its hooks into you… getting you to bring the game back to the table much sooner than expected and then stay at the table far longer than planned to play yet another round and explore the next challenge. It is shockingly easy to blitz through four or seven or twelve plays in one sitting when each play only lasts about ten minutes, each level offers a unique challenge, and you are so close to a gold victory that you can practically taste it.
I’m not sure which is more surprising: the fact that I’m addicted to the evolving levels of For One, or the fact that I’ve thoroughly enjoyed all four games in this series thus far.
Number Up is the most simple of the bunch — flip a number card from the deck and add it to your grid of 5×5 or 6×6 cards (spreading out from the center). With each row and column, you are trying to reach a point threshold that will earn you a checkmark worth 10 victory points. One level might have you add together all the cards of your best color in each line. Another level forces you to put these matching colored cards adjacent to each other in order to score them. Another throws diagonal line scoring into the mix. Another only rewards you for your second strongest color in each row or column. And then, right when you’re feeling like a color arranging expert, the next page of levels throws colors right out the windows. Those don’t matter any more, now we only care about matching numbers together. It’s Reiner riffing on a simple but engaging concept with all kinds of different feeling challenges. This continues with the other For One titles…
Kniffel is basically Yahtzee on steroids. The game comes with 18 dice and a large scoring board. Each turn you roll 5 dice and decide where to commit them on your board. Do you commit your fours to a full house, a set of fours, a small and large straight, or something else? You must commit each die to some part of your scoring board, otherwise you lose that die for the rest of the game if you don’t have a viable place you can assign it. That’ll really start to hurt you over time, because once you decide to score out a row/section, you’ll get those dice back into your pool. If you can’t roll exactly 5 dice in a turn, then its game over. But you are allowed to give up on a section and score a fat zero there just to get those dice back into your supply. I have fond memories of playing Yahtzee with family members in the past, but I’m willing to admit that the game isn’t all that interesting. For One: Kniffel, on the other hand, is a blast thanks to the cornucopia of dice management decisions and temptations.
Schwarze Rosen is a bit of a domino spatial puzzle featuring flower tiles on a simple square grid garden board. Flip a domino from the facedown stack and decide where to connect it to another flower on the board (either along the edge or next to another domino). Aim to get three matching flowers in a straight connected line in order to score points. This evolving challenge slowly gets spiced up by negative point tokens that you try to purge yourself of by completing additional objectives on top of the core scoring criteria. The game has four boards and additional tiles across its 20 levels that introduce new wrinkles to enjoy.
Galaktix might currently be my favorite of the bunch. …or maybe it’s my least favorite… call it a love-hate relationship. At any rate, I sat down to play a couple sessions and ended up glued to my seat for a whopping 15 plays as I banged my head against those first few addictingly sadistic levels. Galaktix gives you five space dice, a space board with columns that match each dice symbol, and a pile of rocket ship tokens. Each turn you must either place out or discard a rocket ship token, and you only get one roll and one reroll to figure out where and how far up that token goes. If you roll three blue symbols, then you can pick that symbol and place a rocket ship on the third space up the blue track. Next time you pick blue symbols for rocket placement, you’ll add another rocket ship on the same track but your starting point will be the last space that your rocket token was placed in that column. Essentially, you are climbing up 5 different ladders as quickly as you can (before you run out of rocket ship tokens) to rake in more points. But these ladders are each unique and tricky in their own way. Some spaces along the tracks have black holes that you can’t stop on, you have to completely leapfrog them with multiple dice symbols to advance upward. Other spaces tempt you to stop on them exactly for a requirement or a bonus — Cascadero tracks, anyone? 😉 And rolling pairs of wrenches will earn you handy rocket component tiles which can be dropped off on spaces you overshoot (to still earn you the bonus there) or combined to earn you another rocket ship token (aka another turn before game over).
If my 32 plays (all in 4 days) wasn’t indication enough, then let me tell you right here: this For One series is a banger. I’ve never been so easily sucked in to solitaire gaming, and that is largely thanks to the bite-sized levels propelled by evolving rulesets built upon solid core games. I hate to encourage my fellow American and/or English gamers to rush out and snatch up these titles right now when the investment is steep (paying overseas shipping for German copies that require a fairly sizable Google Translate effort). But I would absolutely recommend that you add these titles to your radar. Hopefully we’ll see this new line of games make its way across the globe and into other languages soon with the help of partner publishers.
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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 critically acclaimed Trailblazers by Ryan Courtney and newly released Zoo Vadis by Reiner Knizia. He hopes you’ll join Bitewing Games in their quest to create and share classy board games with a bite.
Disclaimer: When Bitewing Games finds a designer or artist or publisher that we like, we sometimes try to collaborate with these creators on our own publishing projects. We work with these folks because we like their work, and it is natural and predictable that we will continue to praise and enjoy their work. Any opinions shared are subject to biases including business relationships, personal acquaintances, gaming preferences, and more. That said, our intent is to help grow the hobby, share our gaming experiences, and find folks with similar tastes. Please take any and all of our opinions with a hearty grain of salt as you partake in this tabletop hobby feast.