2 Plays (2 Players)
What makes a great 2-player game? Obviously one must start with a solid foundation. If the core gameplay loop isn’t interesting, then there is no real point to any of it. Splendor Duel has no issue there, as it builds off the tried and true groundwork laid by the evergreen engine builder, Splendor.
Collect gems to purchase cards that make it easier to purchase more (and better) cards. That sense of starting at a snail’s pace — scraping by and saving up to get the most measly of rewards — and snowballing in strength and efficiency to claim the meatiest of prizes is what landed the dead-simple Splendor in board game legend. That experience is wisely preserved in Splendor Duel.
So how did designers Bruno Cathala and Marc Andre take the good 2-player experience of Splendor and make it a great one in Splendor Duel? The answer is found across all of the gameplay changes.
The gem chips are laid out in a grid where players must identify drafting opportunities to claim a run of the right colors. Chips are quickly snatched off the board, and rivals feel both tempted and reluctant to refill the gem grid because both players benefit in different ways. In fact, doing anything on the shared board that helps yourself too much grants your opponent privilege which can be spent as a bonus gem draft from the grid.
Thanks to the privilege mechanism, you’re constantly wrestling with tough decisions. Should I make a sub-optimal move because it only helps me? Do I execute my plan later than preferred or earlier than expected simply to avoid giving my opponent bonuses?
The cards in this version of Splendor also give you more to consider than simply “Which card is the most easily affordable for me?” You must also consider the bonus effects from cards that grant an extra turn or an additional gem or a wild resource.
But the best improvement of all is undoubtedly the three-pronged path to victory. No longer is the game simply about slapping together an engine and then seeing who can crank out the most points. The dynamics increase tremendously by offering players 3 possible ways to win:
- Reach 20 points total
- Gain 10 crowns
- Reach 10 points with one color of card
Splendor Duel follows a much more engaging arc by starting as a classic engine builder but finishing as a mad scramble to cross the closest finish line. By providing multiple paths to victory, the competition becomes 3-dimensional and bitey.
Where some 2-player games can so easily devolve into a flat, repetitive, zero-sum tug-of-war, and others take the coward’s way out by removing the interactive competition altogether, Splendor Duel expertly demonstrates what makes a great 2-player game. The best dueling games understand how to divide one opponent into multiple threats.
Guards of Atlantis II
1 Play (6 Players)
Despite having decades of experience playing hundreds upon hundreds of different games—both digital and tabletop—I have never played a MOBA until very recently. I suppose I’ve gotten close with real-time strategy video games like Starcraft, Warcraft II, and Rise of Nations, but the difference is that MOBA games don’t feature things like building construction, resource collection, and army raising.
So my first foray into the MOBA genre was actually a recent play of a hot new board game in the form of 2022’s Guards of Atlantis II. Although the “online” part of “Multiplayer Online Battle Arena” doesn’t really apply… I’d honestly say it’s more accurate to call it a MABO: Movement Always, Battle Occasionally. Allow me to get back to that in a minute.
Guards of Atlantis II reminds me of Gloomhaven in a lot of ways. Each player controls a character with a unique deck. Your cards possess stats such as initiative, movement, defense, attack, range, and text effects. Players simultaneously choose and reveal a card from their hand to play each turn, and these cards are resolved in initiative order. You’ll be using your cards to maneuver around a hex-based map to dodge, chase, and beat up on bad guys. The thing that makes Guards of Atlantis quite different from Gloomhaven is the fact that the bad guys are controlled by an opposing team of human players.
The fact that the game comes with 22 different characters which can be mixed together to form a virtually infinite combination of teams is pretty neat. The character decks are wildly different as well, with each one encouraging a certain style of play. Each round you’ll only play through 4 of the 5 cards in your hand (unless you burn even more of them defending against enemy players), but another satisfying feature comes in the form of upgrading your hand. You’ll earn money as you wipe out enemy figures (characters and/or minions) and be able to spend that money on card upgrades at the end of each round. These upgraded cards are significant boosts that help you to feel more powerful and adapt your strategy as the game marches onward.
The other standout aspect of Guards of Atlantis II is the victory conditions. Your team can win in 3 possible ways:
-Win enough battles in a row and force the battlefield back into the enemy’s corner
-Defeat enemy Heroes enough times (eliminate all their life counters)
-Win the final battle if it comes down to a fifth-battle tiebreaker
The fact that your team has multiple avenues for winning means that you can adapt your strategy to play to your team’s strengths while working to shore up your weaknesses. It also helps to keep the later rounds from feeling too similar to the earlier rounds.
I can see why folks are raving about this game, as there is a lot to love. As for myself, I get the strong impression that MOBAs are not for me. Like I hinted at above, my experience was much more of a MABO – Movement Always, Battle Occasionally. While most of your cards have a “secondary” action of movement, I would argue that this is deceptively the primary action of the game.
At the beginning of the game, each team starts out in their corner of the map. Your first turn always consists of “fast movement” (basically spending a card to teleport into the next zone over) because the first battle takes place 2 zones away—in the middle. For most Heroes, your second turn will be yet another movement—this time moving roughly 1-4 spaces to get in close to the enemy minions or characters. Finally, on turn 3, you’re usually ready to start using the effects or attacks on your remaining cards. But a single attack, if successfully dealt, immediately kills the target; and so the odds are that you’ll need to move yet again to be within range of another target.
After a battle is fought to the bitter end, the battlefield moves over to an adjacent zone where the minions respawn, but all the heroes have to spend 1 or more turns trekking across the now dead zone to get to the new hot region. Even worse, if the enemy manages to take down your hero, you’ll lose your current turn (if you haven’t taken it yet) and then spend the next 1-3 turns getting back into position because you had to respawn at your corner of the board.
So, my experience with Guards of Atlantis was 2/3s trudging around (and waiting several minutes between each monotonous movement) and 1/3 wack-a-mole of anything that wasn’t my team’s color. There was even an uninterrupted stretch of 40 minutes of our 3-hour 6-player game where I did nothing but move due to a combination of dying, respawning, and realizing to my dismay that moving around (to avoid a threatening enemy or to reposition for the next battle) was the optimal thing to do. At some point I have to wonder if MOBA style gameplay is better suited for the real-time digital medium where the action is continuous and downtime doesn’t exist.
While I can appreciate the love, care, and passion that went into Guards of Atlantis II, and I understand why fans rave about it, I’ve learned that it isn’t my type of game. I just can’t savor the sporadicly occasionally payoff of a good attack or a well-coordinated combo when it is surrounded by so much tedium. I must say, nudging a figure around on a map just to get from point A to point B is about as fun as watching a loading bar reach 100%.
2 Plays (2 Players)
For a moment there, I thought it had finally happened. After searching for months, years even, I thought I had finally found a big box Knizia design that I disliked. Some have been just fine, most have been great, several have been phenomenal, but after my first play of it, Qin seemed like it would be the one that wouldn’t do it for me.
Predictably, my problem with Qin wasn’t that it was too bloated or broken or careless—I’ve never seen Reiner make those kinds of errors. Rather, after one play I found Qin to be too simple, basic, and redundant for my tastes. Mind you, I’ve enjoyed plenty of Knizia games that are simple and subtle, but I’m accustomed to such games having a clever twist that makes them special. With Qin, it felt as though that secret ingredient was missing.
In Qin, players are racing to put out all their pagodas first. Your hand contains 3 domino tiles, and each tile is made up of a combination of colors (red, yellow, or blue). Players spend their zippy turns placing out one tile and replenishing their hand. Whenever your tile establishes a new province (two or more connected squares of a single color), then you’ll place your pagoda on this province to claim it.
One player can overtake another player’s province of a matching color by connecting them together and having the bigger province (like a highly distilled version of a Tigris & Euphrates war). Provinces can also overtake a neutral city space (letting you put out another pagoda) by surrounding them with majority pagodas (like a simplified version of Samurai). You can also earn a double pagoda (stacking one on top of another) if your province becomes large enough, but this also eliminates the vulnerability of this province (nobody else can overtake your double pagoda).
In essence, Qin takes a few of the general concepts of Knizia’s classic tile layers and presents them in the most basic possible manner. It’s a perfectly functional game with some meaningful decision-making, but it doesn’t quite evoke the tension, drama, or emotion of its predecessors. To be fair, I’m comparing poor Qin to stone-cold classics, and almost any game is going to struggle in that kind of matchup. This unfair comparison would be much more forgivable if Qin only brought something unique to the table. As is, the only thing it offers is a quick playtime and simple rules, and I can get that from plenty of other more interesting Knizia designs.
Yet I’ve created a golden rule for myself when it comes to Knizia Games: Even if I don’t like it on the first play, it deserves a second chance. Nobody is better at hiding deeper layers under a simple premise than Reiner Knizia. Often it takes more than one play to uncover those layers.
We returned to Qin several days after our first go—this time playing on the back side of the board. The map changes here are minor but welcome: the starting area is off to one side rather than the middle (forcing players to collide sooner), and some of the spaces are blocked out by water (creating more boundaries throughout the middle of the board). We also entered with a better understanding of how to play well, and it showed. This play was much more competitive, with moments of sly gambles, payoffs, ruses, and blocking. It was engaging enough to make me second guess my initial impressions and interested to see how things play at 3 or 4 players.
It’s certainly possible to sand down all the rough edges and sharp corners of a game only to be left with a dull experience. Qin flirts with that line enough to make me unsure of its staying power. Yet after spending more time with it, I’m realizing that I don’t dislike it. The lingering issue is that I haven’t yet found a reason for why I would play this over the dozens of other Knizias on my shelf.
Manhattan Project: Energy Empire
1 Play (4 Players)
As sure as the sun rises in the east, there will always be another efficiency Euro that I somehow end up playing and writing about. And like the many others that have come and gone, this one is… fine.
In Manhattan Project: Energy Empire, you’ll build tableaus and position workers to gain and convert resources as you feed your insatiable appetite for points. Speaking of points, this one feels quite point salady, as nearly everything you do (buying a card, buying a die, rolling dice, resetting your worker supply, etc.) gains or loses you points.
What it sets out to do, it does well. It just doesn’t set out to do anything all that unique or special. Place your worker on a space, spend more energy if the space is already occupied. From that space, collect your resources or buy the card and add it to your tableau. Then pay more energy to run tableau cards which match your worker placement space. Once you are satisfied and/or out of workers, collect them all from the board and roll your dice to see how much energy you produce. Rinse and repeat. Do it more efficiently than your opponents and you’ll win. Huzzah for efficiency puzzles!
The most unique aspect is related to the energy dice and pollution on your board. If you are producing anything but clean energy, then you’ll often be penalized by adding more pollution to your board which will cost you points on several occasions. But as our session proved, even the player with the most pollution can win the game if they put all their extra energy production to good use. When one peels back the thematic curtain, this mechanism is simply your common balancing act of penalizing players for having bigger engines.
To be fair, this game is now 6 years old which is like 40 board game years. But even in 2016, there were plenty of games already doing this kind of thing with much more flair and pizzazz. For my tastes, the same designers released a much tighter, faster, and more unique efficiency Euro in 2021’s Cryo (and the production blows Manhattan Project out of the water). If I’m in the mood for this style of game, Cryo is going to win the head-to-head every time.
1 Play (4 Players)
Man, I’ve been playing a ton of trick takers lately. It seems like every other month there is yet another zesty trick taker that catches my eye.
Just in the past year, I’ve enjoyed The Crew: Mission Deep Sea, Brian Boru, Ghosts of Christmas, Marshmallow Test, Cat in the Box, and now most recently 9 Lives. While 9 Lives is among the best looking games of this bunch, it saddens me to also admit that it might be among the weakest games of this lot.
If there are two things I’ve learned from this genre, they are thus:
- The design needs to be wonky to stand out
- Planning is paramount to strategic satisfaction
Unfortunately for 9 Lives, it leans so hard into Lesson 1 that it largely sacrifices Lesson 2.
The features that initially drew me into 9 Lives were of course its stylish presentation and wonky twist on trick taking. The twist is a triple-header:
- Players bid on the tricks they’ll win using a shared board with restricted options
- The backs of the cards show their suit, so you always know what arrangement of suits players have in their hands.
- The winner of a trick takes one card they won in the trick (besides their own) and puts it back into their hand for future use. The round ends when a player runs out of cards.
It’s interesting in theory and novel to explore, yet that last twist proves to undermine much of what makes trick taking a satisfying experience.
Bidding in trick taking is based on the fundamental idea that you understand the layout of the deck and work to control the tempo of the tricks with the hand you were dealt. But this all feels so much more slippery when players are constantly adding spent cards back into their hand. You can no longer count on opponents running out of a suit when someone else can feed them that suit through a won trick.
The decision of bidding on a projected number of won tricks feels much more arbitrary here. We enjoyed laying our cats out in the rug, but getting the number of tricks you win to conform to your bet is like trying to give a cat commands. Perhaps they’ll fulfill your wishes eventually, but it’ll often feel like a coincidence at best rather than disciplined obedience.
When you miss the mark of your bid, you’ll end up getting penalized 1-3 points for your failure. But rather than feel like a minor setback in a larger session of multiple hands, it feels like an instant K.O. The game only lasts 3 or 4 hands, and odds are that someone else hasn’t had a dud round, meaning there is almost no chance of you catching back up to them.
Where Marshmallow Test has a more satisfying arc, Cat in the Box and Ghosts of Christmas have more interesting twists, and The Crew provides a tighter experience, it seems that 9 Lives are too few to keep this one alive in my collection.
1 Play (2 Players)
Review copy provided by publisher
The Wolves is a brand new release from publisher Pandasaurus Games that brings together area control and action planning within a fitting theme of territorial wolf packs. Players spend the game following their wild canine noses to the must pungent point and bonus opportunities across multiple types of terrain.
One thing that quickly stands out is how the design takes inspiration from the likes of Hansa Teutonica. Players work to free up more of their pieces from their board — their actions grow in power and extra points spill out as they do so. You’ll do things like howl at lone wolves (either neutral tokens on the board or opponent stragglers) to convert them to your team. You’ll also frequently maneuver your alpha wolves around — as they are the beasts which help you build out dens and lairs.
The region tiles will award different values of points at different intervals during the game, and thus players are incentivized to roam around the map and not stay put for too long. This is where perhaps the two most unique features of The Wolves are heavily involved. Off to the side of the map is a calendar board which functions as a countdown to the next scoring phase which only triggers scoring in a handful of regions. This board gradually fills up with pieces as players replace lone wolves and supplant dens with their own pieces. So it behooves the players to try and contribute to this calendar at the ideal time when they are best positioned for the next scoring.
The other standout element of The Wolves comes in the form of the action economy. Players are limited to taking any 2 actions on their turn (plus any bonus action tokens they spend), but you can only affect a space (move to it, build on it, howl at it, etc.) if you have enough matching terrain tiles to spend on your board. And the more powerful actions require more tiles. Each time you spend a tile, it is simply flipped to its opposite side to display a different terrain type.
The combination of a fluid shared map of competitive area majorities and a rigid action restriction puzzle means that it’s hard to plan out your turn until it actually is your turn. And once it’s time to get planning, it may take a while to reconcile what you want to do with what you actually can do.
The game doesn’t lend itself well to those who are AP prone, that’s for sure. It also throws a lot of numbers at players and expects them to juggle everything. Your brain will frequently chart this type of course “I need to spend 1 forest tile so I can move 3 wolves up to 4 spaces to these 2 forest spots, thereby bringing my region control up to 5 strength and barely winning over my opponent who also has 5 strength but loses the tiebreaker because I have 2 alpha wolves and they only have 1. Buuuuut, I don’t currently have a forest tile, so I first should spend these 2 tundra tiles to howl at a lone wolf which is on a tundra space and within my howling range of 3 spaces — thereby freeing up my forest tile…. Wait, what was I going to use this forest tile for again?”
It’s not the cleanest system, and some of that messy scruff can be found in other aspects of the experience as well. The hierarchy of player pieces — what can and can’t coexist together on a single space (pack wolves, alpha wolves, dens, lairs, enemy pieces, etc.) — is notably muddy within the rulebook. The calendar board instructs players that “Any piece that is removed from the map is placed here” when in reality it means “any piece except region scoring tokens… and prey tokens… those actually go to the players, not here.” And I’ve intentionally avoided trying this one at higher player counts, as I hear reports of 4th and 5th players getting burned by early turn order advantages (not to mention the sheer downtime and board chaos that would come with 5 players, woof).
But for those who don’t mind a scruffy game and want to take on a multi-turn action efficiency puzzle while they compete for area majorities, The Wolves has some neat things to offer. It certainly captures the restless, roaming spirit of hungry hounds ever on the prowl.
Ready Set Bet
2 Plays (4 & 7 Players)
How many horse betting/racing games does the world need? Ready Set Bet is out to prove that it needs one more. One more beyond the timeless classic Knizia design, Winner’s Circle. One more beyond this year’s earlier and genre defying roll & write, Long Shot: The Dice Game. Heck, one more beyond the excellent party game featuring the horse’s cousin, Camel Up. In an already crowded genre full of legends, Ready Set Bet faces an uphill battle to justify its existence.
But despite the delicious dice decisions and beautiful bluffing bets that Winner’s Circle provides, despite the unconventional interaction and wide possibilities that Long Shot features, despite the boisterous drama and addictive sessions that Camel Up brings, Ready Set Bet has one trick up its sleeve that helps it stand out from the rest: Real time racing and betting.
Over the course of 4 races, one player acts as the “House”: a dice roller, race manager, sports announcer… all of the above. They simply roll 2 dice and move the indicated horse one space. Roll, move, roll, move, roll, move — that sounds far too reductive, but I suppose it can be that basic (depending on their personality). This role warmly invites you to get into the spirit of the race by channeling your inner sports commentator. Bonus movement also serves to spice things up — where a number that is less likely to be rolled triggers a larger burst of speed for its horse when rolled twice in a row. The House is not entirely out of the competition either, as they can bet on horses before the race starts to also feel invested in the stakes. Our preferred way to play is to rotate the House role each race, but you can even download a solid, free app that will handle all of this for you (as long as you’re ok with a robot controlling your life… ;P
For everyone else, you’ll possess a handful of betting tokens that you’ll be slapping down onto the large betting board in real-time as the race progresses. The board is jam-packed with gambling opportunities as you predict which horses will Win, Place, or Show (I.e. reach 1st place or the top 2 or the top 3, respectively). The moment three horses cross the red betting line (near the end) is when bets are no longer allowed, and the race will end the moment a horse reaches the finish line.
You can toss your betting tokens into the large, general area in hopes of nailing simple multipliers. The first person to bet on a winning horse gets the highest multiplier space (there can only be one betting token per space), and hopefully they placed their strongest betting token there. After all, the point is to win the most money. The board smartly features penalties on many spaces as well, where a bad bet can end up costing you. This introduces just the right amount of hesitation to the real-time betting (aside from the fact that you only have 5 precious betting tokens to work with).
Throw out your betting tokens too quickly, and you’ll wish you had held some back when you watch an overlooked horse make a late-stage comeback. Hold your betting tokens for too long, and you’ll look down to discover that all the best spaces have already been claimed by your pesky opponents. The pressure is on from the moment the House announces, “And they’re off!” Well… assuming you have enough players at the table.
My one gripe with this game is the simple fact that the board feels too loose and the experience too quiet at lower player counts. Our first play was at 4 players with one player acting as the House. Meaning there were only three players fully invested in the betting and a far too generous gambling board for them to work with. Ready Set Bet was only mildly amusing at best at this player count. The races felt slower and the betting felt trivial when the obvious strategy was to wait as long as possible to see the race play out before quickly slapping down all your tokens last-second; all to squeeze merely a few more points out of the race compared to your opponents who could just as easily make nearly equivalent bets.
But I can’t fault the game too much for this issue. Ready Set Bet is, at its heart, a party game meant for large and loud crowds. It really sung during our 7 player session where the board felt immensely smaller. The game board tightness also forced those of us who had played before outside of our comfort zones and into the more zesty betting opportunities.
Besides the fact that each race plays out surprisingly differently (that’s how dice work…. go figure), the betting board is different every round as well. Along the top and bottom of the board, you’ll find Prop Bet Cards and Exotic Finish Cards. These feature bets such as “Horse 4 will finish ahead of horse 8” or “The top three horses will finish within a short distance of each other” and so on. Furthermore, players will gain a unique VIP card between each race that grants excitingly powerful benefits and abilities. There is just the right blend of board variety and asymmetric powers to satisfy our spoiled hobbyist appetites from one play to the next.
Against all odds, Ready Set Bet manages to keep pace with the best racing horses of its genre and justify a place in my collection. I daresay it’s the top party game of 2022. But make no mistake, it truly requires a party to shine. At 3-5 players, I have no interest in playing this one over the much tighter Winner’s Circle. Meanwhile, Camel Up and Long Shot: The Dice Game maintain a much more consistent quality from their lowest to their highest player counts. Perhaps if Ready Set Bet had included a second side to its game board — one more condensed for 2-5 players — I’d feel much differently… It seems like a simple enough solution, and practically cost-free to create (aside from the extra development work). But at any rate, I’m plenty happy to save this one for when 6-9 players are gathered for a riotous time of gambling, groans, and glee.
COMING TO KICKSTARTER IN JANUARY…
Two wildly clever games of trading and negotiation — Zoo Vadis and Gussy Gorillas. The Kickstarter pre-launch page is now live! Be sure to visit the page and click to be notified the moment it launches. Thanks for supporting Bitewing Games in our quest to create and share classy board games that bite!
Prognosis: a forecast of how the game will likely fare in my collection, and perhaps yours as well.
Excellent– Among the best in its genre. This game will never leave my collection.
Good– A very solid game and a keeper on the shelf.
Fair– It’s fine. It’s enjoyable. But I’m not likely to seek it out or keep it around.
Poor– Really doesn’t fit my tastes; not one I want to revisit… but hey, that’s just me.
Hopeless– Never again. Run & hide. Demon be gone.
Article written by Nick Murray. Outside of practicing dentistry part-time, Nick has devoted his remaining work-time to collaborating with the world’s best designers, illustrators, and creators in producing classy board games that bite, including the upcoming Zoo Vadis by Reiner Knizia. He hopes you’ll join Bitewing Games in their quest to create and share classy board games with a bite.