4 Plays (2 Players)
Publisher Allplay managed to put out a whopping 10 small box games in 2023. Nearly as impressive as that is the fact that I managed to play all of them. Within this mega mini lineup of visually dazzling boxes, one of them rises above as my favorite of the bunch — Sail. Where half of these games can loosely be called trick takers, Sail is easily the most unique as a 2-player cooperative trick taker of sailing a boat across treacherous seas.
Your hands are made up of three possible suits, a range of numbers, and a handful of action icons. The combination of your played icons is what usually triggers an action (sailing forward, firing at the kraken, etc.), but you are restricted to must-follow rules and shrinking hand options.
Like most great trick takers, your success will hinge upon management of your own hand and tracking/prediction of your fellow player’s hand. And like most great cooperative games, there are plenty of ways to lose. But the challenge boils down to reaching the finish line while defending against the kraken before time runs up.
Sail is easily one that is best played with the same partner over multiple sessions where you can grow in your experience while taking on more challenging maps. There’s a noticeable learning curve to the game as you grow accustomed to the action options and figure out how to best captain them.
Even learning the cadence and balance of who should win a trick is necessary for success. If the wins are too lopsided, then the round will end prematurely with wasted potential still remaining in your hands. Indeed, Sail offers plenty of depth beneath its rippling surface. But the vivid colors and illustrations from Weberson Santiago go a long way to welcome you in to this challenging adventure.
Patterns: A Mandala Game
5 Plays (2 Players)
Mandala was (and still is) a surprise hit at our table when it first released in 2019. This abstract 2-player card game with only a big square deck of six card colors and a cloth board proved to be shockingly deep and richly rewarding across repeat plays.
I still don’t understand what kind of voodoo magic Trevor Benjamin and Brett J. Gilbert used to conjure such a brilliant design out of so few components. But luckily for me, I don’t have to understand how it got to my table. I merely have to enjoy and embrace it.
As bafflingly impressive as Mandala is, I’m even more surprised and impressed to see that Trevor and Brett have captured lighting in a bottle yet again with 2023’s Patterns (a sibling design to Mandala). They’ve swapped the mechanisms out with something entirely new… Instead of drawing cards, bidding with your hand, and drafting rewards from the two fluctuating card markets, you are now swapping and flipping tiles as you establish and expand your tile color groups. Yet even with an entirely different system, this game still feels like “A Mandala Game” both in general vibe and in quality of gameplay. How in the world did they pull that off?!?
I’m not upset. I’m merely impressed and, frankly, intimidated. It’s the kind of intimidation you would feel if Jet Li threatened you with nothing but a paper clip. His weapon of choice may look simple and harmless, but somehow he can wield it to bring you a world of pain.
Within minutes of digging in to a first play of Patterns, one can sense that there are deeper layers of strategy just waiting to be unearthed. How can you block or even trap your opponent? How can they do the same to you? Which color tile should you swap into your supply to set yourself up for an even bigger play? The decisions of this game are mesmerizing, satisfying, and smooth in ways that so few abstracts capture.
In playing Patterns, I am also reminded of another top-tier abstract strategy game — Through the Desert. Both games see players spreading out their color groups across a grid of spaces. Players can never let their matching color groups touch, as they must remain distinct groups. But this restriction allows players to block each other intentionally. All the while, you’ll constantly feel yourself pressured to accomplish multiple things at once but painfully restricted in your action limitations each turn.
In a year where 2-player gaming was one of the most hotly contested genres (in terms of quantity and quality), Patterns plants itself as one of the very best.
Undaunted: Battle of Britain
1 Play (2 Players)
After dropping a bombshell of a legacy/campaign game in 2022 (Undaunted: Stalingrad, which was my favorite game of the year), the Undaunted team has wisely begun to branch out from the core system with arial combat in 2023 (Undaunted: Battle of Britain) and sci-fi battles in 2024 (Undaunted 2200: Callisto). Better to differentiate the next games than to try and one-up the epic undertaking that was Stalingrad.
So I finally got around to trying Battle of Britain, taking a break from our ongoing (and drawn out) campaign of Stalingrad, to see what Undaunted in the skies is all about. Not surprisingly, the core deck building system of Undaunted works well here, despite the many changes to rules and game flow.
Here you are mostly controlling airplanes with your cards, and every plane card played must be used to move (these aren’t helicopters, after all) and possibly do one other action (such as attack or maneuver). Your planes will fly and shoot in a straight line, so lining the enemy up with your sights is key to success. Getting behind the enemy gives you an even greater advantage (an extra die to roll for the attack).
This fundamental change brings a few key tradeoffs. The fact that you are forced to move the plane every time you play its card means that you must constantly be thinking about where your nose is pointed and where you want to end up several movements from now. Yet the fact that you have to line up with your target perfectly means that you’ll spend more turns maneuvering and looping back around and less turns in the thick of the action.
For some folks, that simulation of arial combat will be a joy… enhanced in no small part by the solid core deck building decisions and initiative jostling found in the Undaunted series. For other folks, that might make Battle of Britain feel more tedious when other Undaunted games aren’t nearly as persnickety about movement and aiming. The rules are also a tad more fiddly for newcomers in the sense that you must move before you can change direction (at least with your bread and butter planes) and you can only change direction by one degree per movement.
After playing the first scenario, one thing I immediately miss is the tradeoffs you constantly face with your basic units. In other Undaunted games, you are frequently agonizing over whether to move or control or attack with your riflemen and whether to scout or conceal or recon or attack with your scouts. Likewise, there’s usually a competing core strategy of rushing for the objective before your units are easily wiped out or building up a stronger deck before pushing forward and hoping you are not too late.
In scenario 1 of Battle of Britain, this tension of decisions is dampened because you are always moving and only ever deciding whether to attack or maneuver. The only objective is to shoot each other’s planes down, so the overall strategy feels one-dimensional. To be fair, I presume the campaign immediately becomes more interesting in scenario 2 and beyond with more nuanced objectives like bombing naval ships or retreating across the map. But even so, I do miss having multiple options for how to utilize my basic units.
Overall, it appears that Undaunted: Battle of Britain is yet another good game which offers some key differences thanks to the new theater of operations. It’s one that I wouldn’t mind playing again, especially to dig deeper into the scenarios. But the reality at my table is that I would much rather go back to Stalingrad and enjoy further plays of that all the way until 2200: Callisto releases. With a growing wealth of Undaunted options at my disposal, and because of my preferences, I just don’t see myself revisiting Battle of Britain any time soon. But for those who are interested in arial combat, I think you are in for a treat.
Pies, Lunar, Mori, & Bacon
1 Play Each (4 Players)
Within the span of a couple weeks I’ve had the chance to venture through the entirety of Allplay’s latest releases: the four small-box trick takers — Pies, Lunar, Mori, & Bacon.Since I’ve only been able to play them once each, my impressions should absolutely be taken with a grain of salt. But when card games like these have you play through multiple hands, it’s still a good chance to explore a lot of what they have to offer. And I can’t exactly sense a high skill ceiling or hidden depths for any of these titles, except for perhaps Lunar. But let’s do a quick sprint through these four games, shall we?
Lunar is the first of these games that I got to the table. And straight away this title sets the visual tone for the entire collection by displaying gorgeous box and card art. Publisher Allplay is never one to shy away from a killer presentation.
This particular game is really intended to be a 4-player experience (even if that box also says 2). The neat thing about Lunar is that you play in partnerships as if you and your partner are each playing half of a card — one of you plays the value and the other plays the suit. By combining your cards together, you put up a fight against the rival team who also plays a suit and a value. Just like in most trick taking games, the suit is must-follow and the highest value (or trump suit) wins the trick.
For Lunar, I enjoy the twist that this one offers of combining your team’s cards into one whole while navigating the tight scoring. Either your team wants to win very few tricks (0-3), or you want to win most but not too many tricks (7 or 8 of the 12 tricks in a round). Each time you win a trick, you’ll push your team marker up the track and into or out of scoring range. There are also a few cards in the deck that tempt you to win the trick regardless of your position on the track, simply because they grant bonus points if you claim them.
Lunar is one that will for sure stick around in my collection, although I’m not sure how often it’ll get played. I own way too many games that are best at 4-players, and many of them (both large and small) call to me far more than Lunar. Perhaps the biggest thing holding Lunar back for me is that I find it hard to know how to play well and communicate strategy to my opponent — it mostly felt like we were hoping we were on the same page for the bulk of each round. But I imagine that some further experience would improve our synergy.
Mori was the next one we broke out a few nights later. It boasts some of my favorite Beth Sobel art ever with the combination of vivid skulls and lush flowers. Sadly, that presentation is undermined a bit by the small and difficult-to-see numbers which forced us to state the value of our cards as we played them to the table. But that didn’t hinder our gameplay experience in any way.
This one aims to be the weirdest trick taker of this Kickstarter bundle by cramming several unique features into the rules. The trump suit works via a rock-paper-scissors format where winter beats fall, fall beats summer, summer beats spring, and spring beats winter. Players must follow suit, but there are plenty of loopholes that Mori pokes in that traditional rule. Whenever you feel like it, you can simply play an X card (which never wins a trick) or a die instead (which can sometimes win a trick if your die is the only trump suit played).
There are so many exceptions here, that the game can get a bit tangled up in its own vines. You don’t want to win the most X’s because you’ll lose a point per X, but you do want the second most X’s because you’ll gain a point per X. You do have to follow lead suit except if you decide to play an X or die. You can’t win with a X card unless you lead with an X and everyone else plays X’s. You do want to win tricks because the leaves on cards are each worth a point, except you don’t want to win tricks because the skulls on cards are each worth a negative point. The cards you win are kept face down, except your X’s should remain visible to all players (this rule is omitted from the rulebook but reinforced by the deluxe tokens).
You eventually get the hang of Mori after enough tricks. And that fiddlyness doesn’t bother me nearly as much as the general incentives of the game. The only viable strategy that I could figure out for this one was to try and avoid playing your best scoring cards (because your unplayed cards get added to your score anyway), and you should only try to win a trick after seeing what most everyone else has played.
The nicest part about winning a trick in Mori is that you get to claim a die from the center supply into your hand that you can use later. But even then, we mostly found that we would rather just lose tricks.
The problem with leading with a high value card in Mori is that your opponents have so many ways out of following suit (playing an X card or die instead of feeding you their last valuable card of that suit). And when they are out of the led card suit, then they will gleefully feed you a negative point card of another suit. So having high cards in your hand (which themselves are negative point cards) feels more like a curse than a blessing.
Flipping that convention on its head (where high cards are typically good) is fine for Mori to do. But I didn’t really stumble across a satisfying way to manage my hand. There’s no chance to really make your move and execute a brilliant play, at least not that I can spot. For us it was mainly just a lot of hoping that you got to play last in the trick and that the cards up for grabs were a net positive points that you could claim. This was how the one player in our group managed to crush us with his end game score, he simply had the most chances to pounce on a good point pool.
It’s painful to admit that my favorite looking game of this bunch is also my least favorite one to play. Still, it’s a relatively quick card game that ambitiously tries to do a lot of unconventional things in this over-trodden genre, so I still had a decent time with it.
Bacon is perhaps the most surprising offering here because I knew it was the most basic and conventional experience in this line. But after trying so many trick takers that abandon their core values in a desperate need for attention, some classic comfort food card play really hit the spot.
This one isn’t exactly a trick taker of one player leading with a suit and watching the other players follow or break from suit. Rather, Bacon is a ladder-climbing game where one player leads with a “combo” (a specific type of set or run of cards) and the other players must follow with a similar but slightly better combo — alternatively they can blow it away with a “special” (basically a super combo).
Players have a menu of options (their player aid) sitting in front of them which very clearly lays out what you are allowed to play (combos like “a run of 3,” “a run of 4,” “a run of 5,” “a set of 3,” and so on). Veterans of popular ladder-climbing games like Tichu will probably see this streamlined experience as a downgrade. But for anyone who is in the mood for a casual card game with some interesting decisions, Bacon hits the spot.
You’ll still have plenty of wiggle room to adapt and strategize thanks to the two bacon (wild) cards that are dealt out to each player for each hand. And at even player counts (4 and 6) you’ll be paired into teams where you and your partner(s) want to go out first in order to score maximum points.
The other nice wrinkle to the gameplay is that each time you win a trick (by forcing all other players to consecutively pass), then you get to decide which player on your team leads the next trick. This is a huge advantage if one of you has a beautiful run in your hand and you desperately don’t want somebody else to lead with an ill-fitting set.
I should have known that Bacon would be reliably solid, just like its namesake. Although I do worry how it will fare against the likes of Scout.
Pies was the last card game to make it to the table (despite my undying love for the dessert). This one features no suits, but rather three decks of cards that range from 1-25. Each round you deal out one of these decks, and then players venture through a series of tricks deciding whether to play low or high with their dwindling supply of numbers.
The weird thing about this trick taker is that your relative value against each other determines the drafting order, where you then take turns claiming a card that was just played into this trick. Only, the cards don’t re-enter your hand. Rather, they stay on display in your face-up tableau where you hope nobody steals them away before you can form them into fruit mixes and score points.
Drafting order is the commanding focus of Pies, especially when the special actions are up for grabs. Some cards display a unique feature like a recipe (which you’ll use to concoct fruit mixtures from your tableau and score points) or a steal (swiping a tableau card from another player) or a dog (a loyal companion that protects your tableau from thievery) or three pies (tokens which increase the drafting value of your played card by 3.14 each).
Much like Mori, there is a major advantage here for the last player to throw down a card in a trick (so you can see what is up for grabs and what card is best spent on drafting order). The problem is that if your right hand neighbor keeps winning the tricks, then they’ll keep leading the tricks and you’ll constantly be hosed by turn order. Much of the competition hinges on you playing the right card at the right time, so luck of the deal combined with luck of the turn order has the risk of leaving some players feeling salty.
It’s not all bad being the lowest card of the trick, because you earn a bonus plum card along with whatever garbage was left out in the middle by your opponents. But that just means the being second-to-last is usually the true worst position because the best cards have all been taken and you get no compensation for it. Yet not even that can measure up to the pain that comes from having your tableau picked clean by opponents with thieving abilities. It’s a strange dichotomy to play a rather pleasant-looking game of fruit collecting and pie assembling that is packed with pits of take-that.
These features don’t bother me much. And the gameplay is surprisingly fast and breezy — the fastest of this entire collection. But I find that Pies suffers the most in how it reminds me of similar yet spicier games. The protective loyal dog and take-that stealing is also found in Art Robbery, yet that game does a better job of setting expectations and embracing the chaos of thievery. The hand management and bidding for drafting is also found in For Sale and Hot Lead, yet those games feature more excitement and drama.
I didn’t dislike the recipe churned out by Pies, but I suppose I’m still searching for that key ingredient that makes it stand out in my collection.
Ironically, the strongest trick taker that Allplay released this year wasn’t even among this big Kickstarter bundle. It was actually Sail. But I at least enjoyed sampling these four latest card games.
2 Plays (1 Player)
The talented team behind 2022’s brilliant solo game, Resist!, is back with a follow-up featuring the same style of deck deconstruction and mission survival. Instead of acting as resistance fighters in the post Spanish Civil War era, you are controlling a helpful coven of witches seeking to defend the village and prove their innocence.
Witchcraft has enough similarities to Resist that if you’ve played one then you’ll feel right at home with the other. In fact, you could simply read my original thoughts on Resist and that would pretty closely mimic my feelings on Witchcraft. That said, it isn’t simply a reskin either.
While Witchcraft features a comparable gameplay experience, it introduces a wealth of changes under the hood. Your main cards (witches) are now part of families which combo well off of each other if they happen to be in your hand at the same time.
The most important decisions you make in the game might just be the initial draft when you separate the entire deck into coven cards (your draw pile) and recruit cards (a pile that you can occasionally recruit new witches from) — splitting them up two cards at a time. If you craft a deck that doesn’t synergize well, then you can quickly see your chance of success plummet as you begin to take on various challenges. That was the case in my first play of the game where I arrogantly skipped the suggested beginner setup and dove straight into the card drafting setup. Fortunately, my pitiful defeat came with a reward of lessons learned which set me up for a much more successful second play.
The other notable change to Witchcraft is found in the victory objective. In Resist, the object of the game is simply to reach specific point thresholds — the higher you go, the more resounding your victory. With Witchcraft, the objective has been pivoted to a more thrilling and dramatic win/loss scenario where you are trying to sway the 3 jurors to your side through enough good deeds. The problem is that you don’t always know exactly how stubborn these jurors are — how far up the track do you need to push their conviction cube to sway them to your side?
From the randomized combination of jurors there springs an entire tree of setup variability. The extra mission cards and events that are shuffled into your session are linked to a specific juror, meaning you’ll be able to enjoy a huge variety of plays thanks to these endless combinations. The box also comes with a full campaign of 9 scenarios — these offer their own added challenges and objectives to the mix if you really want to change things up from the standard mode.
While I probably give Witchcraft a slight edge over Resist due to its gameplay changes in how a victory is achieved, I’d ultimately say that you can’t go wrong either way. Pick whichever one strikes your fancy and start there. Then, if you find yourself hungry for even more gaming goodness within this system, check out the other. They are both really solid.
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 critically acclaimed titles Trailblazers by Ryan Courtney and 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.