1 Play (2 Players) + 1 Watch (3 Players)
With most of its small box games, publisher Allplay (formerly known as BoardGameTables.com) has been catering to the filler crowd with a rather solid lineup of well-produced titles. Some are lightning quick and dead simple like the area control competition of Sequoia. Others are a bit meatier and twistier like the wonky trick taker Ghosts of Christmas. Across the board, it’s hard to argue with their value proposition when these games are so charming and minimalist.
Dandelions is one of Allplay’s more recent small box offerings that welcomes you in with its calming colors and oodles of dice. In the short span of 10 or 15 minutes, 2-3 players take turns sending their pawn around a rondel of scoring areas. You’ll start the game by rolling all of your dice, then each turn you’ll decide which one to activate. Your dice act like the fuzzy seeds of a dandelion — sending your pawn floating around the rondel to eventually land on a tile where that activated die will be planted. For example, if I select a 5 value dice, I will move my pawn 5 spaces and plant my die on the tile where my pawn stopped. You want your dice on the most valuable tiles (which naturally have less pawn spaces), as each die will score you the value of the tile, but you also want to have majority dice in a region to score the value of your pips.
The interplay between opponent pawns and dice are where things get really interesting. If my pawn stops on a space that contains an opponent pawn, then I’ll move the value of my die again (effectively doubling my distance traveled). If I plant a die on a tile that already contains that value from an opponent’s planted die, then those matching valued dice are gusted over onto an adjacent tile. So there are plenty of interesting opportunities for bumping dice and leapfrogging pawns… at least in a 3 player game.
I had the chance to watch a 3-player game and later play a 2-player game, and the difference was significant. In our 2-player game, the competitive interaction was minimal to the point of almost being non-existent. There was only ever 1 or 2 occurrences of gusting (bumping dice) as well as leapfrogging pawns. Conversely, from the 3-player game I watched, there were all kinds of juicy maneuvers to be had as the dice were more plentiful across the tiles and the pawn spaces were more crowded. Every decision players made — which dice to activate next, which opponents to gust and where — appeared to carry much more weight. My big takeaway was that Dandelion clearly shines at 3 players and 3 players only. But as far as 3-player lightning fillers go, Dandelions is a low-key winner.
2 Plays (4 Players)
A review copy was provided by the publisher
I’ve heard several Kniziaphiles compare High Score, Reiner Knizia’s latest dice chucker, to his print & play Decathlon featuring an array of athletic-themed dice challenges. In looking at Decathlon, I can certainly see the similarities, but there are also some significant differences. Most notably, Dr. Knizia and publisher Kosmos have tossed out the charming original theme and streamlined the dice challenges down to a language-independent deck of cards that cleverly mix up the rules of each challenge while keeping the user interface rather simple. The competition between players is also more focused, with 1st, 2nd, and 3rd place points being given out each round and the winner being the player with the most points after 7 rounds.
While High Score reminds some folks of Decathlon, it reminds me even more of Gang of Dice (by Korean publisher Mandoo Games), another recent Knizia dice game that I own and love. Each round a new card sets the stage, and the winner of the previous round goes first. In chucking and rerolling the dice until the person lands (or falls flat) on a final result, this first player sets the bar for everyone else who will follow. Then, in clockwise order, the remaining players take turns trying to exceed and raise that bar. On both accounts, I’ve very much enjoyed this format for a dice game. There are many benefits to it, including the eliminated risk of a game overstaying its welcome. With many of Knizia’s best dice games, there is often a feature of stealing from or nailing opponents (rather than furthering the game’s progress) which can draw out the endgame as players trade blows. In these newer titles, you only get so many rolls and so many rounds to come out on top, and there is never a chance of it going longer. The worst thing that a filler game can do is overstay its welcome, and High Score and Gang of Dice show their maturity in avoiding this potential problem entirely.
Beyond that is where Gang of Dice and High Score begin to diverge. Where Gang of Dice is about wrestling with your ego as you put your own precious dice on the line and hope it doesn’t blow up in your face, High Score is more mild and forgiving in that players have nothing to lose by simply competing for 1st, 2nd, or 3rd. Where a catastrophic failure can “feed the beast” of the winning player in Gang of Dice, a failure in High Score simply opens the door for an opponent to get one or two or three more points than you in a round.
Although the dice in both games are structured similarly — D6s where the 6 face is replaced by a symbol — how they are used is drastically different. Gang of Dice uses its boss face as a safe, valueless, tie-breaking opportunity. High Score uses its vortex face as whatever each card feels like calling it. Sometimes it’s a positive 10. Sometimes it’s a 0. Sometimes it’s a negative 10. Sometimes it’s a wild number (choose anything between 0 and 6)… whatever makes the challenge card most interesting.
Gang of Dice has the unchanging objective of rolling the highest sum without exceeding the bomb/explosion threshold in up to 3 Yahtzee-style rolls — tempting you to get as close as possible to the cliff’s edge without tumbling off. High Score, on the other hand, has much more variety in how you are able to reroll dice and what you are trying to accomplish with them (depending on the round):
- Roll all of the dice up to 4 times, but you have to reroll all of the dice if you reroll
- Roll up to 3 times (classic Yahtzee style)
- Roll as many times as you want, but you have to lock in at least one die each roll
- Roll the highest sum to win
- Roll pairs or triplets and subtract the remaining dice values
- Roll a run of numbers
- Roll sets that add up to 10 and subtract the rest of the dice
- The list goes on
For both games, the experience stays fresh and dynamic throughout because of how each card changes up the rules. In Gang of Dice, the shifting probabilities can make risking even 2 dice feel dangerous on one turn and risking 5 dice feel safe on the next. For High Score, the various challenges and restrictions will make 17 (the sum of the dice, minus the penalty rolls) feel like a strong showing on one card only for the next card to let somebody blow past 30. The combination of variety and brevity make both of these titles great options as filler games, but they certainly do have advantages and disadvantages when compared to one another.
Gang of Dice is certainly the more dramatic, bombastic, and thrilling designs of the two thanks to the risk of exploding and the freedom to wager as many dice as your ego urges. High Score is the less punishing option, and it is much more accessible thanks to a US retail release and wider range of 2-5 players (vs. Gang of Dice’s 2-4). You can still push-your-luck too far in High Score by choosing to re-roll dice and regretting it later (by ending with worse results), so it certainly has a bit of a kick. But it doesn’t quite provide for an epic comeback like I’ve seen in Gang of Dice when a player shoots for the moon and rakes in a huge pile of dice that were all wagered that round — at the end of the day, you can still only win 3 points at most in a round of High Score.
So while High Score and its plays haven’t been nearly as poignant or spicy or memorable as Gang of Dice, they’ve certainly been an enjoyable way to pass the time. For a $15 filler game that comes in a tiny box, it’s another solid offering from Dr. Knizia. Considering how quick and simple it is, I wouldn’t ever turn down another go of it.
3 Plays (3 Players)
Turncoats is a delightful little game made all the more charming by understanding its origins: the components are homemade and the game is designed by a dental student, Matilda Simonsson. On top of that, Matilda is a huge fan of Pax Pamir, one of my favorite games, which is what inspired the design of Turncoats. Already we’re off to a great start 😉
Speaking of its similarity to Pax Pamir, Turncoats reminds me even more of The King is Dead. Three factions are competing for control within different areas of the board, and players are pulling the strings that determine which faction comes out on top. Meanwhile, players are deciding which faction to gain influence in, because the player who has the most influence in the winning faction will win the game. The benefit that Turncoats has over The King of Dead is the fact that it is even simpler, faster, and more approachable.
Players each start out with a handful of 8 stones hidden in their hand — a random assortment of red, blue, and black — but their supplies will quickly dwindle because nearly every action you take in the game costs you a stone. The tricky part is that you need to retain stones in your hand to have a shot at winning the game! If the blue faction is dominating the board when the game ends, and I have more blue stones in my hand than anyone else, then I’ll secure the victory. But there’s no hope of blue sweeping the competition without my careful spending of a few blues and probably some blue support from my opponents (without letting them realize that they are helping me more than themselves).
On your turn, you can take one of four possible actions:
- Reinforce: Add a stone from your hand to an area
- Battle: Add a stone to the battle circle and select a region where that color eliminates another color
- March: Add a stone to the march circle and a select a region where that color moves to a new area
- Negotiate: Draw a stone from the bag into your hand, then show players a stone from your hand and discard it to the bag
Once all players consecutively negotiate, the game ends immediately. Then it’s time to determine which color wins the land and which player still holds the most stones of that color. But in a game where supplies are so limited, there are many tiebreakers that come into play. For region control, if 2 or 3 colors are tied for area majority, then the tiebreaker goes to whichever color has the most stones in the battle circle. If there is still a tie, then it goes to whichever color has the most stones in the march circle. Otherwise, there is no winner for that region. For the winning player, if 2 or more people are tied for the most stones of the winning color, then the tiebreaker goes to whichever player has the least stones of the losing color. If there is still a tie, then whoever was next in turn order would take it.
This squeaky clean, interconnected system of incentives, influence, and tiebreakers is what makes Turncoats so compelling. By furthering the cause of a faction (putting out a stone), you must weaken your own influence within that faction (remove the stone from your hand). Of course, you can try to weaken the other factions by making them battle or move against each other, but by doing so you are strengthening that faction’s ability to win ties against your own favored color.
In both The King is Dead and Turncoats, there can sometimes be a feeling of lucking into or out of the victory because so much of the outcome is unpredictable and steered by your opponents. But in Turncoats, that sensation is especially minimized thanks to a blazingly quick playtime. As a breezy yet tight filler where the game “board” ties itself up into a portable rucksack to hold and transport all the components, Turncoats is a triumph. What more proof do you need that dentists make good tabletop games? ;P
Paint the Roses
1 Play (4 Players)
Alongside Turing Machine, Paint the Roses seems to be one of the standout deduction games of 2022. With a charming production and a cooperative premise, I was keen to see what this one has to offer.
Paint the Roses is all about satisfying the whims (and avoiding the wrath) of the Queen of Hearts. As royal gardeners, you and your crew must race to stay ahead of the relentless approaching Queen on the score track by solving each other’s secret whim cards. If you can survive until the garden board is completely full, then you will all win the game.
The garden board is slowly filled by hexagonal tiles that each contain two features: a color and a suit. The whims of the Queen (your secret cards) each indicate two types of tiles that want to be adjacent to each other: either a color by a color, a suit by a suit, or a color by a suit. If I draw from the hard whims deck, then my card could be any of those three options, making for a wider range of possibilities. If I draw from the easy whims deck, then my card can only be a color to color option, making it easier and faster for my teammates to solve. There’s also a medium deck which only has color to color or suit to suit.
Depending on what type of card your righthand neighbor draws, you’ll be retrieving a deduction sheet that contains all of those possibilities and slowly crossing out some boxes while circling others until you can manage to correctly guess their card. Once you correctly guess their card, they’ll simply reveal it, score your team the points on it, discard it, and then draw a new one. Each turn, one player puts out a new tile (from the greenhouse display of 4 options), all players may place one or more cubes on that new tile if it meets their whim card’s criteria, everyone takes notes based on what clues their neighbor gave, then players must guess at least one whim card, and finally the Queen advances forward. You are allowed to discuss each other’s cubes and whim cards, but you cannot reveal any information about your own card.
Every time you solve a whim card, the gardener figure moves along the score track, and if the card was harder then it moves further. Every time you make a wrong guess, the Queen moves double! Her pace will also increase as the game progresses — starting at 1 movement per turn and eventually making her way up to 5 movements per turn (or double that whenever you flub a whim card guess). The late game certainly gains a sense of urgency when one bad round can help the Queen close the gap in an instant; if she catches the gardener then it’s game over. But aside from that slowly growing threat, Paint the Roses struggles to provide any kind of dynamic or evolving game arc.
Our experience was a very cyclical one of drawing new whim cards, putting out tiles and cubes, solving each other’s whim cards, clearing the cubes, and doing it all over again. Any time a board game traps players in a repetitive loop, it also instantly feels too long and drawn out. The problem is not that players are following the same procedure on every turn (that’s how most games work anyway) — the problem is that the early turns feel the exact same as the middle turns which feel the exact same as the late turns. There’s no discernible expansion and contraction of the game state or interaction. It’s simply place a tile, add some clue cubes, cross out or circle some boxes, make a guess, rinse, repeat.
Perhaps this issue is mitigated by the included modules in the Escape the Castle expansion. But it’s hard to feel motivated to try those when our experience presented an even bigger problem — the core gameplay lacks genuine deduction, particularly with 4 players. In my mind, there is a clear difference between discovery and deduction; often times a game will be called a “logic deduction puzzle” when in reality it offers very few tools to deduce anything beyond the information that is spoon-fed to its players.
True deduction requires players to take the information presented, connect the dots between what is known and what is unknown, and narrow down the possibilities to uncover an answer that is not immediately apparent. This is a far cry from the procedure of discovering new information and simply crossing out or circling what it tells you; there is no logic or deduction involved in this at all; it’s nothing more than mechanically maintaining a spreadsheet of data.
If there is any deduction to be had in Paint the Roses — why did that player pick that tile from the greenhouse instead of the other ones, and why did they position the tile there? — it’s watered down by a lot of factors. Both the greenhouse tiles and the spaces on the board are limited — it’s feasible (and common) that the player simply didn’t have any good options and they chose the least worst move. On top of that, this player may not be telling you anything at all about their own whim card; they might simply be trying to gain more information on another player’s card. With 4 players, the focus of the game isn’t tight enough to allow for this kind of negative space deduction.
I will note that, after watching some gameplay online, the 2-player experience is more focused and the opportunity for real deduction is more feasible. It also seems less essential to maintain a studious note sheet when you are only trying to deduce the 1 whim card in player 2’s hand; this appears to be a more appealing player count for those reasons, although it also completely removes the social dynamic of discussing possibilities with teammates because your one and only teammate can’t say anything about their own card.
So even if the added modules mix up the experience and break it out of its repetitive loop, it’s harder to enjoy this deduction game when it largely doesn’t give me the ability or satisfaction of actually deducing things. True, there are still some clever moments of picking the perfect tile and positioning it in the perfect spot that reveals the exact information your team needs. But the practice of observing and recording data has a pretty limited satisfaction ceiling for me.
1 Play (4 Players)
Cascadia ís the type game that I was only willing to try if the opportunity landed right in my lap. I knew enough about its style of play to understand that it clearly wasn’t a good match for me, but the sheer cornucopia of awards, acclaim, and success it has earned certainly had me curious. Lo and behold, the chance to try this 2021 darling indeed landed square in my lap during my recent visit to Dice Tower West. I was cleaning up a table after another thrilling session of Zoo Vadis when some friendly gamers sat down at the other end of the table with a copy of Cascadia in one hand and a “players wanted” sign in the other. How could I say no?
None of us knew how to play, so I whipped out my phone and pulled up Kyle’s How to Play video https://youtu.be/tXIlRg0RwGE (thanks Kyle!) and we learned the rules in a flash. Before long, we were deep in the wilderness of Cascadia spreading out habitats and claiming wildlife. Much like its spiritual sibling, Calico, Cascadia features pure drafting mixed with thinky tile arrangement. Only here, you aren’t tying your plans into as many knots because you can spread your hexes in any direction (and the scoring is more forgiving). Cascadia is all about building large habitats and connecting wildlife according to the dictates of the scoring cards.
The smooth pace and serene setting of Cascadia is undoubtedly its standout offering: draft a pairing of tile and animal and then add them to your player area. This style of play has been aptly titled the “Take & Make” genre by fellow gamer and blogger, Qwertymartin, in his Cascadia review “Anatomy of a Modern Hit.” https://boardgamegeek.com/blogpost/130608/cascadia-anatomy-modern-hit It’s hard to find a more welcoming type of gaming than one where players gently claim stuff from a market and then puzzle it together in their own protected area. But it’s hard to solve one problem without creating another, and in this case it seems that depth and drama are sacrificed at the throne of mass appeal.
In an industry landscape where so many hobbyists follow the cult of the new — trying a game once… maybeeee twice… before abandoning it to an eternal bookshelf purgatory — approachability and novelty tend to reign supreme. Gone are the days where most gamers would dive deep into the same title across multiple plays with the same group. This current landscape is one where hot new games like Cascadia manage to thrive and even reign supreme with the top rating of all abstract games on Board Game Geek. Meanwhile, proven classics like Tigris & Euphrates, Jaipur, or Pandemic end up being knocked lower and lower down the ladder with every passing year.
There’s nothing wrong with new games standing on the shoulders of giants or surpassing the classics. But this caffeinated consumerist trend has noticeably incentivized creators to prioritize novelty and approachability over depth or replayability. Meanwhile, the x-factor that makes me hungry to return to any given game is its hidden depth, its nuanced interactions, its unfolding layers, its unexpected surprises, and its rewarding of experience and experimentation. I get plenty hyped about new games just like everyone else, but novelty and hype are nothing more than a brief sugar rush in comparison to the protein and nutrients that replaying a deep game provides. It’s my favorite games — those old reliables — that keep my passion for this hobby healthy and thriving. That’s why designers like Cole Wehrle, Reiner Knizia, and Paolo Mori have such a strong presence in my Top 50 Games of all time https://bitewinggames.com/top-50-board-games-of-all-time-2022-edition-games-50-26/ — they design for depth and nuance rather than fads or friendly first plays.
Ultimately, I can look at Cascadia and appreciate it for the solid product it is… Yet, I’ll simultaneously shrug my shoulders and move on to more compelling experiences.
1 Play (4 Players)
Lookout! The SWAT is coming!! No, not that kind of S.W.A.T. I’m referring to the bug squishing kind.
SWAT! Is what happens when you combine Slapjack with Ra. Seriously. Each round one player acts as the card revealer — the one who slowly (or quickly) adds more cards to a growing spread until another player swats the bug mat to lay claim on all the face-up cards. These claimed cards go into one of three facedown piles that each player can collect. The cards are a mix of good and bad scoring potential that offer points in various ways (set collection, majority competition, etc.). Once you have collected 3 piles of cards, you are out for the rest of the round. The player who swats their bounty in one round will be the deck flipper in the next.
I’ve never been a huge fan of games like Slapjack, Spot It, etc., where the fastest hand wins. But to be honest, SWAT is probably as good as this genre gets. That’s because you are not simply racing to match patterns and react with faster reflexes than your opponents. Rather, you are resisting the urge to claim a juicy array of growing cards before your opponents crack and claim it first. SWAT the bugs too quickly, and you’ll likely end up with less cards (and thus less points) than your opponents. SWAT too recklessly, and you’ll end up with a lot of bad bugs (negative points) in your supply. SWAT too slowly, and you may find yourself scraping by with meager leftovers as the deck diminishes and your rivals bask in their many spoils.
In other words, it’s Ra, but the clever tense auctions are replaced by chaotic real-time table slapping. Most of you will hate the sound of that. Heck, even plenty of Kniziaphiles are likely to flee from this one. But for the very select few of you who don’t cringe away in disgust, there might be something of an amusing and energetic little filler to enjoy here.
1 Play (5 Players)
Along the same lines as SWAT! (minus the Knizia), Nana is a light card game that works surprisingly well within a taboo genre: it’s a memory game sprinkled with a bit of Go Fish. Players are dealt a hand of cards, and the remaining few cards are spread out facedown in the center of the table. The object of the game is to seek out and assemble trios of cards. The winner will be the player who can assemble a trio of 7s ,or three trios total, or two trios that add up or subtract down to 7.
Your turns have a hint of push-your-luck in that you can choose to flip up a center card or demand an opponent display their highest or lowest card. You’ll keep doing this until you bust (reveal a card that doesn’t match the other cards) or form a trio (possibly adding the remaining matching card or cards from your hand). If you bust, everything gets reset (the cards return into hiding face down in the center or back into opponent hands), and then it is up to you to commit all of this revealed information to memory.
Most gamers (myself included) agree that games which feature unintentional memory challenges are blasphemous. A competition that accidentally and significantly favors sharpened memories tends to lose its clout in this hobby. In Nana’s case, memory is the entire point of the game, and the system that surrounds it is clean, quick, and clever enough to make the entire experience unexpectedly delightful.
Players will laugh when someone confidently reveals the wrong card from the center because they forgot its location. You’ll feel like an absolute mastermind when you wring out the perfect trio of cards from your opponents. And in a flash, it’ll be over just as quickly as it began.
If there is one thing I’m learning from all of these recent Japanese games I’ve been trying, it is that sometimes the most enthralling games are the small and simple ones.
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.