Through the Desert: Bazaar Expansion

3D box cover

2 Plays (3 & 4 Players)

After 26 years of existing as one of the greatest strategy games of all time, Through the Desert finally gets its first official expansion (unless we’re counting the river side of the game board which was added to later editions). The Bazaar Expansion introduces four modules that you can mix and match however you please (although I don’t recommend playing with all four — that just feels like too many condiments for one game).

Rival Nomads introduces two public goal cards (out of ten possible options) that players compete over for end-game bonus points. In our particular play, these cards granted bonus points to the player who connected to the most oases and to the player who had the most camels along the river. Notably, the oases and river already grant points by connecting to or crossing over them, respectively, so Rival Nomads merely made these two features the obvious/dominant strategy for better or worse. While other players went heavily after enclosing border spaces (and I did very little to stop them), I set up my own caravans all near the river and between oases. By focusing heavily on the objective cards, I was able to earn both of them and end up with a much bigger final score, even when compared to players who had enclosed a ton of spaces. I don’t mind this module for mixing up the incentives, but I ultimately prefer Through the Desert without it because it keeps the various strategies more balanced against one another.

The Djinns module is nothing but sixteen more cards that add some wacky unpredictability and swingy luck to the experience. Every time a player earns oasis points, at the end of their turn they reveal a new Djinn card that forces a new rule upon the entire table until it is replaced by the next Djinn card. These forced rules include things like: “Must place at least 1 red camel” or “Cannot place green camels” or “Place 3 camels” or “Place only 1 camel” or “Cannot place camels on watering hole tokens” or “Cannot place camels on border spaces.” It’s an amusing way to force more adaptation onto the experience… until it isn’t. I enjoyed when the group couldn’t place purple camels out so I took advantage by sneaking my own non-purple caravan around an enemy’s purple caravan that could do nothing but watch me invade their territory. But I mostly felt bad when my friends were barred from finishing their large enclosures during the final turns because we couldn’t use red camels at all. Ultimately, the swingy luck did as it tends to do and randomly favored one player far above the rest (in this case, it was the most experienced player who didn’t need the extra help). After seeing how that first session played out, I’m not inclined to use the Djinns module ever again.

So the cards are definitely the weakest part of the Bazaar expansion, at least for my tastes. But the good news is that the other two modules more than compensate for the Rival Nomad’s and Djinn’s shortcomings. Perhaps the simplest module of this pack is the Special Watering Holes. These tiles replaces some of the basic 1, 2, 3-point tiles with more interesting bonuses: an extra camel or a trade good. An extra camel tile can be spent immediately or during a later turn to put out, you guessed it, an extra camel beyond the standard 2-per-turn. It’s a really nice way of granting players a few big turns during the game where they can lunge to reach a bonus or close off an area. The trade good tiles offer a spicy bit of push-your-luck where the first tile is worth nothing, but a pair of tiles is worth 10 points. This is the type of module that I’m happy to welcome into the fold for basically any plays of Through the Desert.

Last but not least, the titular Bazaar module introduces one additional strategy to consider as you race to claim water holes, reach oases, enclose areas, and build the longest caravans of each color. To put it simply, Bazaar wants you to connect stuff. Along the outer border of this new version of Through the Desert, you’ll spot a new feature on the maps: villages. Villages want to link up with the bazaars in the middle of the map, but they’ll need your caravans to do it. By linking a village to a bazaar, you’ll get to claim the top tile of that bazaar that starts at a whopping 15 points but then reduces to 10, then 5, then 0. You can even claim multiple tiles from the same bazaar by using different caravan connections or by linking one bazaar to multiple villages. This module is a really great way of mixing up the formula and adding urgency to the incentives with racing and blocking. I’m a big fan of that Bazaar module.

Ultimately, one can’t deny that this new expansion to Through the Desert is completely inessential. That’s not a knock against the expansion… the base game is just that good. One could play vanilla Through the Desert a hundred times and not grow tired of it. There is a reason this game has lasted for decades. And it doesn’t help the expansion’s case any that these new cards and tiles don’t fit in the already crowded base game box (unless you are ok with box lift). That said, for only $19, the Bazaar expansion offers some interesting and worthwhile concepts if you do want to mix the game up a bit. My deck of cards may never see the light of day again, but I’m happy to keep the tiles in on rotation.

Prognosis: Good



Innovation Third Edition Cover Art

2 Plays (2 Players)

My exploration of 2-player gaming continues with the revered card game, Innovation, by classic Carl Chudyk. I’ve never played a Chudyk design before, despite his reputation, so it was good to finally give one a try. And while I enjoyed my first play of Innovation, I didn’t expect to be revisiting it any time soon (my main 2-player gaming partner hated it), but fortunately I got a second crack at it with another gaming friend.

Innovation is a game that cares about one thing and one thing only: multi-use cards within a civilization setting. While the gameplay itself is rather streamlined, the uses of these cards stray into the wacky and wild thanks to their unique text abilities. On your turn, you choose two actions from four possible options: draw a card, play a card to your tableau, activate a tableau card’s ability, or claim an achievement card. The game smartly caters to two possible strategies: race to claim a specific number of achievements to win outright, or build up a huge point stash for when the built-in timer runs out.

The star feature of the game is the text abilities, and they fundamentally include another key twist. When the active player triggers a text ability, all other players get to use that ability if they have at least as many of that icon displayed in their tableau as the active player. If the text ability is an attack against others, then other players can nullify this attack if they have at least as many icons of that type in their tableau. So one major influencer of the game is that of icon majorities. You want the majority in as many icons as possible so you can leech off of opponent abilities and defend yourself against opponent attacks. It’s great that each card has multiple reasons why you might wish to play it to your tableau — the unique ability it offers and the displayed icons it provides.

When adding a card to your tableau, it covers the last played card of that color. So you can build 5 stacks of cards with the top ability of each stack being available to you. But another twist here comes in the form of splaying your stacks. Certainly abilities will let you splay your color stacks to expose more icons from older cards.

Innovation provides a tremendous arc of gameplay by starting out in the Stone Age with weak actions and opportunities but quickly ramping up into much more powerful abilities and combos. I can see how Chudyk earned his fans by getting so much use out of deck of cards with a simple system. But all of this gameplay variety and evolution comes at cost, and that cost is tons and tons of card text.

This game may very well be the best of its class for having a streamlined ruleset with massive and chaotic potential, but it is not for everyone. Innovation is less about outwitting your opponent within an open information playing field and more about wacky opportunism. The challenge is to scan your hand, scan your tableau, scan your opponent’s tableau, and then uncover the best possible decision in the moment. It’s about figuring out the best card to play or the best ability to trigger right now, and then doing it. There’s no point in establishing a major long term strategy when a single opponent ability can wipe out your hand or your score pile or your tableau. Yet it is still possible to execute a good plan across multiple turns — just don’t grow too attached to that plan in case you need to pivot. The only thing they can’t touch is your achievement pile.

That means you get plenty of moments of surprise attacks, last-minute scrambles, and tactical lunges. It’s a game that keeps you on your toes from start to finish — the more nimble player will win. But it’s only enjoyable if you are willing to let the craziness sweep you away. It’s only worthwhile if you find endless wordy abilities to be exciting rather than exhausting.  Innovation is sadly not a good fit for my main Player 2, but I enjoyed it nonetheless (and even more on the second play). Even after only two plays, what starts out overwhelming and taxing quickly becomes more familiar and exciting. I can already sense how this one will continue to reward repeat plays.

Despite my partner’s distaste for the game, Innovation is unique and refreshing enough that I’ll happily go out of my way to show it to others who are interested. Just like the achievement rules themselves, nothing can take away from Innovation’s achievements as a robust and thrilling card game.

Prognosis: Excellent


Apiary, Stonemaier Games, 2023 — front cover (image provided by the publisher)

1 Play (3 Players)

I must admit, I was pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed Apiary. Not that I thought it would be a bad game… I just didn’t expect it would be a game for me.

The feature that sent my sirens blaring was the abundance of text and icons across the game board and its components. The problem with splaying out a lot of text heavy tiles and cards across a game board is that anybody sitting on the upside-down end of the table will end up with a headache while everyone comes away with neck and back pain from all of the squinting and reading required of them.

It probably helped that us three players sat on the left and right sides of the board, as close as we could to the items on display. Even so, there were times where I had to stand up and hunch over just to read the tiles on the opposite end of the board. Perhaps this all sounds like an old man shaking his fist at the clouds. I not old, though. I’m just spoiled by too many other games that don’t ask me to crane over them and scan a bunch of text across my table.

At any rate, games with these demands can still be enjoyable to play — as long as you have the energy and the juice is worth the squeeze. In the case of Apiary, I’m happy to have enjoyed the session. The key benefit that this abundance of text brought was seemingly a ton of variety found in the gameplay and opportunities.

A market of planets, cards, and tiles provide a wealth of strategic avenues for players to explore. My starting board and faction set me off to become the resource guy — earning resources for days to then convert them into valuable honey. I doubled down on this strategy by acquiring more options to gain easy resources and by upgrading my honey converter. Based on the many other abilities I saw (those left in the box as well as those that came and went on the game board), it seems that my strategy in a future game would end up feeling very different, which is great.

The core loop of Apiary is found in the use of worker bees that gradually improve in their effectiveness over time until they are ready to hibernate. While there are several worker placement regions you can send your bee off to, you are never blocked from a space. Rather, Apiary has its players bumping each other back home (and leveling up the bumpee in the process). Eventually you’ll max out at a value 4 bee, which becomes a super-powered action when used, before it goes into hibernation (reseting to a 1 and granting you a bonus).

There is a welcome bit of interaction found in how players bump each other out of spaces (effectively saving them the trouble of spending a turn to call back their bees) or how they race to claim certain bonuses first. Kwanchai Moriya’s artwork is great as usual, and the fancy worker bees are fun to handle. The graphic design does its job well to get out of the way and get you playing the game.

Aside from the few little twists mentioned above, Apiary doesn’t stray far from the standard modern Eurogame formula. At the end of the day, it’s another worker placement game that sees players collecting and storing resources, converting those resources into other resources, upgrading their personal tableau/engine, claiming expensive point-scoring items, and refreshing workers as needed. Rather than try to revolutionize or upend the genre, it merely tries to refine it. Fortunately, it does a pretty decent job at that. I enjoyed the general flow and focus, and it didn’t overstay its welcome. Maybe we should let these space bees take over the galaxy, after all. 

Prognosis: Good

Wonder Bowling

Cover art

2 Plays (5 and 6 players)

One of the more recent Funbrick titles from Japanese publisher Itten is Wonder Bowling – a game with tiny bowling pins to set up on top of the box and a mallet to knock them over. 

The premise is very simple: you get up to two attempts to strike the box (not the pins) and knock over one or more pins. Easy, right? The problem is that if you knock over all of the pins (or no pins at all), then you bust. When you bust, you take a penalty by adding another objective tile to your supply, which puts you further away from winning the game.

Objective tiles want you to either knock down a specific number of pins (so that the number of remaining standing pins matches your tile number) or knock down all the pins but the last one (a strike). So there will be times where you want to knock down a ton of pins and times where you only want to knock down one or a few. First person to complete their objectives or last person standing wins. Players will quickly find themselves eliminated if they bust after all the extra objective tiles have been claimed. Total elimination seems to be the most common outcome for this game… either that or our play groups are a bunch of clumsy bowlers.

The strategies that players use to strike the box are amusing to watch. Some strike from above like a hammer and try to trampoline the pins off. Others swing it from the side like a wrecking ball that pushes the box laterally. Others give it a gentle tap in hopes of knocking just one pin over. No matter how you do it, the key to success is in how hard you swing… and while that sounds easy enough to control, in practice I’ve seen a few players struggle. 

Some people seem to only have two power settings when it comes to their bowling technique: (1) hulk smash and (2) imperceptible graze. It hilarious for everyone else to watch them fail miserably, but these players themselves didn’t seem to get any fun out of it. On top of that, the game does require a fair amount of upkeep as players have to reassemble all the pins after each strike or bust (when all the pins are knocked over). There can be some amusement to see how a player sets up the pins for the next person (anywhere on the box goes, as long as the pins don’t touch), but it usually feels more like a chore than anything.

I get a kick out of this game, but so far it feels more like a fleeting novelty than a game that demands to be revisited. It doesn’t quite call to me and hit the spot like other Funbrick games (Viking SeeSaw and Ninja Master) have.

Prognosis: Fair


Skyrise, Roxley, 2024 — front cover, retail edition (image provided by the publisher)

3 Plays (3 and 4 Players)

I feel a personal fondness for projects like Skyrise. Much of that is due to its similarities to our own Crown Jewel Selection of games (Zoo Vadis, Cat Blues: The Big Gig, and more). The concept of such a project is this: find an old hidden gem game, dust it off, preserve its strengths, address its weaknesses, help the design reach its full potential, and reintroduce it to a modern hobbyist audience.

What I didn’t realize (until just barely) is how hard Roxley went on the redevelopment of this game from the original Metropolys (2008) to the newly released Skyrise. They didn’t just spruce up the game with a new production, a new title, and a few gameplay tweaks. They basically gutted everything except for the core hook of the game. 

Some of the most noteworthy changes include:

  • The game is now split into two distinct rounds called “Eras”
  • The first Era ends like Metropolys did when one player places their last building, but the second Era ends differently (after all players have put out their last building)
  • There are now a couple of variable public objectives for players compete over (these cards were private objectives in Metropolys)
  • The buildings are all now unique numbers or bidding powers ranging from 1 to 114ish (in the original game players had the same set of 1-13ish)
  • Players are now restricted in where they can start an auction (either on the small central island or next to an existing building)
  • Wonders have been introduced that are trump bids and come with a chosen unique ability each game
  • The board is now modular — allowing the map to have a unique layout each time
  • The tokens earned from the spaces (called “neighborhoods”) are more dynamic than they used to be (originally they merely granted a few positive or negative points)

That’s a lot of changes to digest, especially if you are not familiar with either game. And although I haven’t played Metropolys, it appears that Skyrise is aiming to increase variety, reduce analysis paralysis, provide a more interesting arc, improve the esthetics, and preserve some of that spice. As far as I can tell, publisher Roxley Games largely succeeded. Our plays of Skyrise have been great.

At its heart, Skyrise takes the auction concept of Ra (bidding with specific value tokens in front of you) and snakes it out across a large city map. Players take turns upping the bid by placing a higher valued building adjacent to the latest bid on an empty space of the board. The winner (after all other players pass) flips their building upside down — officially erecting it on that neighborhood and claiming the token from that space. The other players pull their lost bid building back. The winner then begins the next auction snake. On and on you go until all buildings are out on the map.

Initially, it seems like these bidding snakes are aimless and drawn out. One player bids a 1, another their 5, another their 12, another their 13, another their 18… the players just meander around the wide open city without much purpose or sense. But very quickly things begin to take shape. One player stakes their claim on an island with their tallest building. Another player seems to be gunning for the green neighborhoods more than any others. Another picks up a lettered patron disc and peeks at its value… do they keep going for that value or start avoiding it? You pick up a couple of yellow tokens, and suddenly those yellow neighborhoods are much more valuable for you to claim. The players’ building supplies dwindle… who will trigger the end of Era 1?

The public objectives score out and players see how well they are faring against the competition. The leader gets a target on their back. Era 2 begins. But you don’t just receive a restock of buildings in the second half… you also equip yourself with a powerful wonder and wonder card. Players simultaneously select and reveal a wonder card from their hand to gain an advantage or a scoring opportunity for whenever they play out their wonder. You can’t start an auction with a wonder, but you can finish it.

As the game marches on, you’ll quickly discover that where you lead the auction snake is just as important as what you bid. Sometimes the bids can lead the snake into a corner where a player can automatically win the auction because there is no open neighborhood next to their bid. Other times a player can create isolated neighborhoods by winning an auction — and then they can start the next auction on this “island” with a low building and win it uncontested. 

Another challenge is presented in how quickly you blow your most powerful buildings… or all of your buildings for that matter. If you are the first person to put out all of your buildings, you get a juicy 10-point bonus. But you also watch in agony for the rest of the game as your opponents pick up valuable spaces for easier and cheaper. If you wait too long to spend your best buildings, then you might run out of neighborhoods and tokens that worth claiming. I’ve made both mistakes — they were delightfully painful.

Despite coming in a big box, the game is rather approachable to teach and play. Although the implications of your actions might not be fully realized until after you have made enough tactical mistakes. There’s more layers to this one than one can spot at first, but they are a joy to uncover.

The deluxe “Collector’s Edition” is a luxury that is both lavish and frustrating. Lavish in the massively unique assortment of building miniatures that decorate the table. Frustrating in the way the 3D boards don’t quite fit together perfectly, particularly for the OCD hobbyists among us. Alas, my publisher curiosity got the best of me and I opted for this upgraded version. It’s perfectly playable, if a bit cumbersome at times. As an alternative, the standard “Essentials Edition”, with chunky wood buildings and simple flat boards, seems like a very nice option that I would happily recommend.

The nature of having a large open auctioning board with many considerations to stew over also lends itself to analysis paralysis from those who are most susceptible. Should I let my neighbor win this auction? If not, then where should I outbid them, and how high? The game demands deliberate decision making from its participants, as carelessness can suddenly let a an opponent scoop up a horrifying amount of points when they chain a powerful combo of buildings. Consequently, all of my plays have exceeded 90 minutes thus far which can feel a tad long when you are doing the exact same thing every round.

Fortunately, Skyrise provides a nice arc as the value of neighborhoods and islands takes shape over time. Initially, your bids feel aimless and interchangeable. Later, your bids feel tense and cutthroat. Your focus will narrow down to a handful of spaces that you desperately want to claim. The difficulty lies in guiding the auction snake toward that prized location and bidding high enough to scare off the competition.

On the other hand, the climax is watered down a bit by the overstuffed point salad scoring. Where the mid-game scoring is nothing but 3 objective cards, the end-game scoring has players tallying up about 10 different things. It gives off a “quantity over quality” kind of aftertaste that may not sit well with everyone.

Ultimately, my takeaway is that Skyrise is refreshing, attractive, challenging, approachable, and interactive in ways that so few modern releases are. It may drag on a hair longer than I prefer, especially when players take too long to decide how to bid, and the final scoring feels bloated, but overall the juice is worth the squeeze. This is a reimagined experience that, much like Roxley’s best work, demands to be enjoyed.

Prognosis: Good

London (Second Edition)

London, Osprey Games, 2017 — front cover

1 Play (4 Players)

Engine-building games, and more specifically tableau-building games, are a dime a dozen these days thanks to the popularity of Wingspan and its ilk. But London has been around much longer than Wingspan… long enough that London’s second edition came out two years before Wingspan’s release.

As is common in a Martin Wallace design (same designer as Brass: Birmingham), money is tight, the setting is bleak, and players must tread carefully to avoid the crushing threats of debt and poverty.

The interesting twist of this tableau builder is that you can make your row of cards as big as you wish, but a longer row accrues you more poverty tokens (which translate to negative points at the end of the game). So you’ll have to find that sweet spot of making your engine big enough to get the job done, but not so big that it bleeds you of precious points. Fortunately, you are allowed to play on top of existing cards in your row — upgrading or adapting your engine without increasing your poverty income. 

The three main objectives of the game are generating money, spending money on boroughs (points and other bonuses), and reducing poverty. There is also a satisfying cycle of building your hand of cards, playing them out to update your tableau, and then running your engine of city cards — a cycle that you execute many times throughout the game.

Poverty itself is a fairly interactive dynamic because it only matters relative to your opponents. At the end of the game, the player with the least poverty discards all of it, and the other players discard an equal number of tokens. So if you have a similar quantity to the player with the least, it is not a big deal. If you have significantly more than the player with the least, you are in trouble.

The hand management also introduces a nice feature where in order to play a card to the tableau, you must also discard a matching color card from your hand to the open market where other players can pick it up. Instead of simply playing everything that enters your hand as quickly as possible, you need to be more methodical about which cards you play and which cards you spend.

Overall, London feels like a fresh breath of hard, smokey industrial air in a genre that has been overrun by games that are more soft and bloated. It presents a core loop that is tight, engaging, focused, and a bit more interactive than your usual engine builder fare. And the production from Osprey Games is as solid as ever.

Prognosis: Good

Great Plains

Great Plains, Lookout Games, 2021 — front cover (image provided by the publisher)

3 Plays (2 Players)

With the Trevor Benjamin and Brett J. Gilbert duo being 2 for 2 on 2-player bangers (that’s a lot of 2s), it was only inevitable that I would also try Great Plains. Between this one, Mandala, and Patterns, I’m beginning to see… well, a pattern. The pattern is this: elegant 2-player Euro-abstract strategy games that plays in under 30 minutes and really hit the spot

Great Plains is an area control game where you are racing to take over the light green patches of grass called meadows. The larger the meadow, the more points it is worth. You’ll be spreading out from your starting caves by placing a piece next to one of your caves or next to your pieces that are already out. Like the extending tentacles of two tussling octopi, you’ll quickly spread out across the map in only 20 minutes. 

Much like Through the Desert, there is an urgency to do everything, but this urgency is chained by the painful restriction of only doing one thing per turn. This strategery is given further texture because all of the other lowland spaces (between scoring regions) grant you a bonus ability token in the form of an animal. The horse lets you skip a space (even it is occupied) to drop into a normally out-of-reach hex. The bird lets you extend over an impassible mountain to the other side. And the bear is most spicy of all — it pushes an opposing figure out of the space (usually to its death).

These three simple animal abilities, stored up and spent at the most opportune moments, are what take Great Plains up an entire notch. Decisions are so much juicier when you have to carefully manage these resources and watch for how your rival might use them against you. They really open up the playing space for tactical maneuvers that feel devilish and brilliant.

For a game as clean as this, one might worry about the staying power after too many plays. The thing is, the map is made up of 7 unique tiles that can be flipped and rotated into a million different combinations. Some maps have players fighting over a bunch of small territories. Other maps will feature one or two huge meadow gauntlets where an irresistible amount of points are concentrated. And so much of what you do will be dictated by the telegraphed intentions of your opponent. I don’t ever see this game running out of steam.

I still remember the first time I ever played Through the Desert. It was a 2-player game, and I felt like the experience was too open and loose at that player count. Great Plains, with its narrower corridors and nuanced abilities, has cemented itself as the 2-player go-to when I want to scratch that itch. Considering the fact that Through the Desert is one of my favorite games of all time, that is high praise indeed.

Prognosis: Excellent

Launching on Kickstarter in Late June

Bitewing Games is kicking off our Mythos Collection — 2-player games of strategy and mythology — with two epic new releases from the legendary Reiner Knizia.

Informative posts and publishing projects like these are only made possible through the support of our Kickstarter backers. Iliad and Ichor will launch on Kickstarter in late June — be sure to follow the Kickstarter page so you don’t miss out!

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.

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