Into the Blue


1 Play

Similar to roll & writes, I’ve recently mentioned how I’ve burnt out a bit on the Yahtzee mechanism used in many modern games.  At least that’s what I had assumed, and it’s why I eventually culled our copy of King of Tokyo, King of New York, Dice Throne, and Ra: The Dice Game.  Despite my burn-out, this mechanism has sentimental ties to my history in the industry.

The first game I ever designed was inspired by King of Tokyo’s dice rolling.  Players would choose an asymmetric mythical creature such as The Kraken, Sasquatch, a Basilisk, or more and utilize Yahtzee dice rolling to determine their actions such as board movement, claiming territory, and performing heroic or villainous actions in an effort to become the most legendary.  The design will always hold a special place in my heart, even if I never take it all the way to publishing.  It was the first creative step in a long journey to what eventually became Bitewing Games.

One problem with the Yahtzee mechanism, both in my design and in the games I’ve more recently culled, is that it gives players nothing to do or think about between their turns.  You’re a victim to whatever your first, and second, and third rolls are, and no amount of pre-planning will do you any good once the dice hit the table.  Of course, some of the above mentioned games provide supplemental mechanisms such as a hand or market of cards to consider, but those never helped much with the downtime in my experience.

For games like these that can last 30-60 minutes, I increasingly find myself impatient with the lack of decisions or a larger strategy to consider during opponent turns.  These games provide a burst of small decisions during your turn—which dice to keep and which to reroll—and the result is either a burst of dopamine in rolling what you wanted or a splash of disappointment in falling short.  There is certainly fun to be had here, but the satisfaction-to-time ratio never quite hit the spot like other games.

So I’m not sure what overcame me when I recently imported a copy of Into the Blue from Europe.  Perhaps it my insatiable hunger for any Knizian content—even culling Knizia’s own Ra: The Dice Game from my collection apparently didn’t deter me.  But I also found the mechanical mixture here to be quite intriguing… The Yahtzee mechanism is back in full force, but rather than being used to target and attack specific players or move up tracks, here it allows you to compete for area majorities.

With Into the Blue, players are diving deep into the ocean board in a quest to claim the most valuable treasures.  The deeper you dive, the greater the rewards.  This is done by rolling six classic D6’s and aiming for a run of numbers.  That said, these aren’t just any old D6’s.  The 6-value face is functionally unchanged—although the “6” has been replace with a treasure chest—and the dice are a luxuriously chunky, translucent blue.  If there’s anything I’ve learned from playing dice games, it’s that the most satisfying rolls come from massive handfuls of dice—either from size or quantity.

Aside from the primitive satisfaction of hurling plastic across the table, Into the Blue offers plenty of juicy considerations and drama within the re-roll decisions—as most Knizia dice games do.  If you don’t want to bust on your turn, then you have to roll and keep a “1.”  Sounds pretty easy, right?  Well what if you happen to roll everything but a 1 on your first roll.  The temptation to lock your lucrative run in is great, but that means you only have two more chances to roll a 1 with a single die, so the risk is high as well.  Mmmm, juicy indeed.  Of course, you can always pivot your strategy and reroll previously locked dice if the second roll doesn’t go as planned.

On top of the need to get a run that starts at 1, it also helps to get a set of numbers at the end of that run.  Suppose I roll 1, 2, 3, 3, 4, 5.  That means I can place my sea shells on any level along that contiguous run (from 1 to 5), but if I choose level 3 then I’ll place two sea shells (a shell for each die that rolled a 3).  Remember, each level is an area majority contest, so do I establish a strong lead in level 3 with multiple shells or do I gun for the bigger payout on level five with a weaker presence of one shell?  The player interaction emerges as you see who is dominating the depths of the ocean and aim for where your shells can do the most damage.  

Another wrinkle comes from the tie-breaker rules.  If you and I have equal shells on level 3, who wins the tie and earns the most points?  To resolve ties, you must look at which player has more shells on the previous level.  Suddenly, dropping a few shells on level 1 or 2 isn’t as bad as it sounds.

Finally, if you can roll a perfect run (1-Treasure chest), then you earn a lucrative chest token (secretly worth 5-8 points) and immediately take another turn.  This reward is alluring enough to tempt players into stretching their dice a little too far—resulting in either a hilarious failure or a triumphant success.

But of course, games like King of Tokya and Ra: The Dice Game also provide some tasty dice drama and interesting re-roll decisions, so what makes Into the Blue a keeper in my collection where the others have gotten the boot?  The answer is simple: Into the Blue condenses its gameplay into a lightning quick 15-20 minutes.  It trims away all of my issues with long, drawn-out Yahtzee games and gets straight to the collective fun without overstaying its welcome.  That’s what I call a great filler.

Current Rating: 8/10

Russian Railroads / Ultimate Railroads

Ultimate Railroads, Cover | © Hans Im Glück, 2021

1 Play

Any tabletop game with “Railroads” in the name is going to immediately set expectations for most hobbyists.  Those expectations would include things like an interactive map for route-building, shared incentive gameplay via mutual stock investment, and an objective of turning a profit across multiple companies.  Perhaps it doesn’t always have to be that specific, but the player interaction and route-building are seemingly the core ingredients that make up all train games.

So you can imagine my dismay upon discovering that Russian/Ultimate Railroads is a “train” game purely on the basis of pushing a bunch of wood tokens up “tracks” on your player board rather than featuring any kind of interactive route building.  I call that a bait and switch 😆.  And while I’ll typically bemoan games that feature pushing stuff up endless tracks, the good news is that Russian/Ultimate Railroads is one of the best in this genre that I’ve tried.  I believe it works for me because of how clean and focused the design that surrounds this concept is as well as how explosive the engine building feels.

Additionally, you still get some good player interaction here on the central worker placement board.  The spaces are first-come, first-serve and your options for extending up tracks are nicely limited, so there’s a good tension in the decision making.  The game also proceeds at a brisk cadence between the individual turns and round scoring.

I suppose the biggest issue for some folks may lie within the “on-the-rails” strategies (see what I did there?).  Once you commit to a certain strategy early on, there seems to be very little incentive or ability to pivot later in the game.  There is still satisfaction to be had in watching your engine blast off like a rocket through the later rounds, and the order of triggering worker placement spaces can be critical to your success.  But if one player gains some early momentum within a less crowded strategic path, then it seems likely you’ll be watching them lap your score marker in the later rounds of the game.

The tracks here are all about increasing your scoring multipliers while unlocking lucrative bonuses as quickly as possible, and they generally succeed at keeping players engaged throughout.  I hear that the game can start to feel stagnant over the course of multiple plays, which is why it’s critical to mix things up with the other boards that are bundled together in the newer version—Ultimate Railroads.  Fans of engine builders and crunchy Euros will find plenty to love within this trackety track game.

Current Rating: 7.5/10

Kingdom Builder

Front Cover (Multilingual Edition)

1 Play

You know, it’s funny.  I always got the impression from the box cover and title of Kingdom Builder that this was a simple gateway game akin to Catan.  It’s certainly simple and family friendly, but I was surprised to find that this game was closer to being a Knizia-style tile-placement strategy game like Tigris & Euphrates, Through the Desert, Babylonia, etc., rather than a Catan-style Euro.

But alas, Kingdom Builder is not designed by Reiner, it is designed by Donald X. Vaccarino, and it possesses some key differences in its tile-placement mechanisms.  You see, where Knizia typically likes to restrict what you place, Kingdom Builder opts to restrict where you can place your stuff.  Where Knizia most often aims to provide replayability from the emergent strategies and dynamic interactions, Kingdom Builder focuses on variety in the board setup and tile abilities.  The similarities in general mechanisms are enough that I can’t resist comparing these games to each other, yet the key differences are what make Kingdom Builder feel much more restrictive and tactical than what I’m used to in a tile-placement game.

In a game of Kingdom Builder, you’ll only ever have one card at a time in your hand.  This card is tied to a specific terrain type—forest, desert, canyon, etc.  On your turn, you’ll discard that card in order to play 3 of your settlements onto 3 spaces of that terrain type, and you must place adjacent to your other settlements on the board, if possible.  These combined limitations force an unusual strategy upon players where they often avoid placing their tokens adjacent to certain terrain types so that they have more freedom to place anywhere on the board later on.  It’s certainly a dynamic that rewards experienced play, but I’m not sure how satisfying this forced strategy is.

At the very least, the restrictive hand of terrain types reminds me much of another light strategy game that I’m fond of—Iwari.  Yet in Iwari, you have a hand of three cards plus the flexibility of spending two similar cards to equal a wild card, and you are not restricted to placing your pieces next to each other.  As a result, Iwari feels more open to competing strategies and clever decision making.

Aside from forcing border-phobia upon its participants, Kingdom Builder also strongly incentivizes players to reach location tiles that are sprinkled throughout the map.  If you place your settlement adjacent to a location tile, then you usually get to claim that location tile and utilize its ability for the rest of the game.  Most of these abilities allow you to place an extra settlement on the board or relocate one that you placed out previously.  I’m used to tile-placement games having a steady pace, smooth flow, and high frequency of player engagement, so it was also jarring to feel Kingdom Builder slow down over time as players acquired more location abilities that they had to fire off every turn.  

In this particular session of Kingdom Builder, I was the obvious newb who didn’t set myself up well to acquire many location abilities.  So my turns remained fairly straightforward throughout.  Most often, I had decided what to do on my next turn merely 10 seconds after drawing another card to conclude my previous turn.  So the increasing downtime certainly becomes noticeable if you’re not one of the players who has a wide array of tile abilities.  The restrictive core mechanisms sort of funneled me into an on-the-rails strategy, which made for a bit of an auto-pilot experience.

Where I already own and enjoy far too many excellent tile-placement games, I can’t say that Kingdom Builder is at the top of my list.  But it’s certainly a fine game, and I can see why it remains a popular evergreen.

Current Rating: 6.5/10

In the middle of a 3 player game


full frame shot of the German edition (Amigo)

1 Play

Santiago is another one of those “hidden gem” German designs that fans of old-school Euros typically speak of with reverence and praise.  If you haven’t noticed yet, those types of games tend to be right up my alley because I crave the elegant rules, bitey interaction, and emergent strategies they provide.  

But even more than that, I will come right out with the truth and admit that when I first learned about Santiago I saw it as a potential business opportunity for Bitewing Games to publish a new version.  This is partially because we are already working with Reiner Knizia on improving some of his classics designs as well as publishing some of his entirely new games.  Santiago sounds exactly like the type of game that could fit right in with the branding we are aiming to establish and the audience we are seeking to attract.

Regarding my current thoughts, now that I’ve played the game, the good news is that I intend to keep Santiago around in my collection, but the bad news is that I’m no longer keen to publish it.  The reason is simple:  Santiago can only reach its full potential in a five player game where all five players are cold-blooded savages.  We ended up playing it with four players who were too sympathetic to each other, which means that our experience was noticeably more dull than what this game is capable of.

While I love any opportunity to rake my friends over the coals in any tabletop game, I’m not saying that every game needs to be mean and crowded to be fun.  But I do feel that this rule applies to Santiago.  And worst of all, I just don’t see an easy solution for how to make this game less niche in its player count and group compatibility.

The first problem comes from the fact that the game is played on a fixed square grid.  You see, players are bidding on the drafting order and placement order of plantation tiles.  Each player will get to place a tile on the board and claim ownership of it every round.  The problem is that your plantation tile will dry up and vanish before the end of the game, leaving you high and dry on points, unless you can extend the canal to it as soon as possible.  So after bidding, drafting, and placement, players proceed to propose a canal route and bribe the canal overseer in an effort to get them to save their new plantations.

The canal overseer is always the player who passed first during the bidding phase of that round.  And this is perhaps the most brilliant twist of the game.  If you pass first, you miss out on lucrative plantation opportunities from the drafting and placement order, but it allows you to hold the fate of everyone else’s plantations that they just blew their money on.  This should be one of the most delicious trade-offs in all of boardgamedom.  The problem is that in anything but a 5 player game of cutthroat opponents, this glorious mechanism loses its luster.

In our 4 player game, there were frequently times where a previously placed canal line still had open spaces next to it.  This meant that the two highest bidders could easily plop their plantation in an already safe spot and had no need to bribe the canal overseer that round.  Basically, the less players you have, and the less creatively cold-blooded they are, the less interesting Santiago becomes.  We even tried to start the game by placing the spring token (the starting point of the canals) on the edge of the board to reduce the supply of convenient watering locations, yet that ultimately didn’t solve the problem.

Another problem with our first play, and this is admittedly more a me problem than a Santiago problem, is that I had heard many folks refer to Santiago as their favorite negotiation game when in reality it is more a pseudo-negotiation game.  I came in expecting another political sandbox romp in the same vein as Quo Vadis or Chinatown when Santiago is actually an on-the-rails bidding and bribing game.  I’m actually planning to put out a list of my Top 10 Negotiation Games of All Time pretty soon here, and I honestly don’t know if Santiago will even crack it. The rulebook itself admits that it is not a negotiation game, although non-binding agreements and table-talk are allowed.  But again, you’ll really only see a bit of that politicking come through if you’re playing with the right group.

In any case, I do hope to eventually have the perfect game night where the stars align and our line-up of players are perfect for Santiago at its best.  But even then, if I’m craving a true negotiation feast, I have several other options I’d reach for first.

Current Rating: 6.5/10

Mid-game of my first play

Sound Box

Sound Box cover

3 Plays

While party games in general have a had a rough few years (thanks, Covid), cooperative party games seem to be the reigning champions of the genre lately.  Games like Just One and So Clover have managed to hit that sweet-spot for many where they are casual enough to get anyone into yet engaging enough to entertain the masses.

So Sound Box, being another cooperative party game, couldn’t have timed it better as far as current trends go. I was excited to dive into this particular game because it comes from the team behind The King’s Dilemma, Railroad Ink, and more.  Sound Box comes with a massive deck of topic cards (featuring 220 topics), a long board to track your progress, some number tokens to correspond with the current display of cards, a draw bag for the tokens, some blinder glasses, and a few other knickknacks such as a sand timer and progress tokens.

Each round one player acts as the Guesser who must wear the blinder glasses, while the rest of the players will be Soundmakers.  Each Soundmaker draws a secret numbered token from the bag which is linked to a topic card in the display.  Then, the 13-second sand timer is flipped and the Soundmakers proceed to simultaneously make noises that relate to their secret topic until the time runs out.  If you’re playing with 6-7 players, then another player will act as the Recorder who also wears glasses and has the hilarious job of blindly parroting everything they heard while the Guesser tries to connect the sounds to the correct topic cards.

If you want even more options for the length and feel of each round, the rulebook provides a QR code to a web app which replaces the sand timer, and it sounds cool in theory from what I’ve read about it.  Unfortunately, the QR link just takes you to an annoying pop-up page that looks more like cheap malware than a service provided by the publisher.  Seriously, check this thing out:

Go ahead, just link it to your phone’s calendar and then click the sketchy flashing subscribe button on the questionable white screen.  Thanks, but no thanks, Horrible Guild.  I’ll just stick with my sand timer.

This bait-and-switch was honestly kind of a pattern that extended beyond the app itself into the rest of our first experience with the game.  Our plays followed a weird roller coaster of excited anticipation followed by sudden disappointment, over and over again.  There were some funny moments mixed in there, for sure, but I honestly don’t know what to make of this game at this point.

Revealing a topic card such as “Avalanche” or “Beach” or “Swimming Pool” sounds like a nice challenge if a player happens to secretly draw those topics, but when all of those cards are in the display at the same time and all the Guesser hears is 13 seconds of “WSHHHH WSHHHHH WSHHHH WSHHHH WSHHHHH.”  …then things can get really tricky 😆.

Likewise, we had another lineup later that included “Castle”, “The Crusades”, “Fighting in The Colosseum”, “Joust”, and “The Knights of the Round”… (the round table right?  Who knows.  This card just said “The Knights of the Round”).  So when one or two people are hollering “CLANG CLANG CLANG” then your odds of guessing the correct card in that kind of lineup are incredibly low.

At another point we also had about 4 different Disney animated movies out on the board along with another card that said “Walt Disney World.”  The problem is that you’re not allowed to sing or hum a recognizable tune, so when you’re trying to make noises that sound like generic Disney then your Guesser is toast.

Many party games such as Codenames and Decrypto take advantage of this type of thing where the lines between topics often blur and the combination of them force players into being more creative with their hints and clues.  The problem we’ve encountered in our initial plays is that Sound Box takes what should be a casual, funny game and frustratingly cranks the difficulty up to 11.  

You think it’s easy to give a clue that differentiates “Niagara Falls” from “Avalanche?”  Or “The Avengers” from “Superhero Fight?” Or “Babysitter” from “Nursery?”  Or “Fighting in a Colosseum” from “The Crusades?”  Or “Snow White” from “The Little Mermaid?”  Or “Cyberhacker” from “The Age of the Internet?”  Or “Captain Morgan and the Pirates” from “Pirate Boarding?”  Good for you.  The only problem is that your hint is limited to making noise, and that noise can’t include recognizable tunes or discernible words, and you only have 13 seconds to make the noise, and your Guesser has to discern it out of the chaos of noisemakers surrounding them, and then your Guesser has to recall each of the individual noises that rapidly fade from their brain as they scramble to find the right topic cards that best match those noises, and the moment your Guesser points to an incorrect topic then the round is immediately over.

Many of our rounds consisted of the Guesser getting blasted with brief, audible chaos before taking off their glasses, pointing to an incorrect topic card, and the round immediately ending with a whimper.  Our first full play consisted of a few absolutely pitiful rounds that plummeted our heart token straight to defeat.  Yet all of us felt the eagerness to try again… we had a taste of what could be.  Our following two attempts were certainly an improvement over the first, yet Sound Box seemed more content with beating our hopes and dreams to a pulp rather than rewarding our successes.

This has to be one of the most frustrating games I’ve played in a long time.  It feels like the concept here is so close to being truly fantastic, yet the execution is a bit of a flop that will require most groups to fix it with their own house rules.  “But Nick,” you say, “nobody follows the actual rules of party games anyway!”  Perhaps that is true, but you know what else nobody does?  Nobody gets a game back to the table when it makes a disappointing first impression.  Only the strongest among us have the willpower to table a game that has flopped once and seems likely to flop again without the help of house rules.  And nobody wants to burn multiple game night opportunities to try and polish a game that should have been polished by the creators.  Why would we do that when we can simply play another game that is smooth as a whistle and consistently satisfying?

Maybe if Sound Box had let its players use discernible tunes, or gave Soundmakers more time to make their noises, or pared down its humongous deck by trimming out the redundant and obscure topics, or provided a legit QR code that didn’t attempt a hostile takeover of your phone, or let the round continue beyond the Guesser’s first failure… maybe if just one of those things had been improved, then Sound Box would have been a hit at our table rather than a sucker-punch to our enthusiasm.

As a publisher and developer, I can see the potential here; I want it to work so badly.  So many decisions feel like obvious missteps that are likely solved with easy fixes.  But I’ve already got a dozen other designs that I’m worried about perfecting with Bitewing Games.  When I sit down to play a published game like Sound Box, I’m there to have fun, and I’m agitated when poor design decisions get in the way of that fun.

Current Rating: 6/10… but maybe there’s an 8 or 9 lurking in here somewhere.  We may never know…

Sound Box Contents


2F-Spiele, 2020, Faiyum, cover of the bilingual first edition

1 Play

Designer Friedemann Friese is well known for his strange themes, green box aura, and titles that begin with the letter F.  Despite being a quirky character and long-time creator in the industry, I’ve never tried a game of his until my recent play of Faiyum.

I’m not quite sure what it was that caught my eye about Faiyum… perhaps it was the combination of grape spaces and crocodile tokens that softened my heart… possibly the general positivity surrounding the game put it on my radar… or maybe I just scrolled past it online and added it to my cart in a moment of weakness.

Regardless, Faiyum has proven to be a pleasant surprise of a gaming experience that comes with one major caveat.  In a lot of ways, this modern Euro reminds me of Concordia, where you’ll be playing, building, and replenishing your hand with a growing stash of cards fed by a sliding market.  The cards drive your ability to take actions, collect resources, and score points.  So most turns will see you playing a single card, but you can instead purchase a card from the market or take an Administrative action to refresh your hand, your finances, and the card market.

On the shared board, you’ll be sending out workers, clearing crocodiles, and developing spaces with roads and buildings.  But the catch is that nobody owns anything on the board (aside from their score marker).  So if I choose to clear crocodiles out of an area to earn money, then that might set you up to develop the space and score points.

So it’s this pairing of dynamic mechanisms that makes Faiyum shine:

  1. There’s a huge (60+) card market that comes out in a random order and allows players to diversify their abilities.
  2. The game board is constantly changing and evolving as all players help to bulid ancient Egypt and seek to earn the coveted favor of the pharaoh.

The other thing that makes Faiyum stand out is the order in which you choose to play your cards.  Unlike Concordia, Faiyum does not give you back your entire discard pile when you take an Administration action.  Only the top 3 cards are free to take back into your hand—the rest of the cards cost a dollar each to retrieve.  This means that you’ll constantly be torn between blowing your cash on a new card versus saving it to be able to reuse the cards you’ve already spent.

While the board presents a constant stream of evolving opportunities, it’s nothing like the game board of Brass where players must lunge and claw for every scrap of food.  Faiyum is much more loose and welcoming with its abundance of options.  As a result, targeting your opponents and their strategies on the shared board is a much more difficult task.  You’re better off snatching up cards from the market that could help them run away with the victory.

Perhaps the hardest thing to swallow about Faiyum is its long playtime of 2-3 hours.  While the rules are approachable and the strategic complexity is merely moderate, the playtime is noticeably above average for a game of this weight.  That means Faiyum will likely see less plays than faster games, but I do intend to get it to the table some more.

Current Rating: 7.5/10

Lord of the Rings: The Confrontation

Lord of the Rings: The Confrontation, Fantasy Flight Games, 2013 (image provided by the publisher)

2 Plays

I can’t resist a good 2 player game… especially one that is based on The Lord of the Rings, can be enjoyed in 30 minutes, is still highly regarded 20 years from its release, and is designed by Dr. Knizia himself.  It was inevitable that I would get my hands on a copy of this game eventually.  And now it’s mine, I tell you.  My own.  My precious…  And though I knew it would corrupt me (my wallet, more specifically), I lunged for it anyway.

Lord of the Rings: The Confrontation is Knizia’s legendary Middle-Earth themed take on the secret unit bluffing genre made popular by Stratego.  Ironically, my memories of playing Stratego as a child stem from a family copy of the game—a version titled Stratego: Lord of the Rings Trilogy Edition.  So I suppose I’ve now come full circle… like the one ring of power… it always calls to me. 

I remember enjoying my plays of Stratego all those years ago; perhaps it was that mysterious element of bluffing as you march your secret units around the board and spring them on your opponent.  Yet looking now at old pictures of the game (coming fresh off another play of The Confrontation), I’m shocked to see that players start a game of Stratego with FORTY units each.  Meanwhile, The Lord of the Rings: The Confrontation features a measly 9 units for each player.  So clearly Stratego is the more epic game, right?  Well, that probably depends on if you prefer a drawn-out game of memory and attrition, or a firecracker game of bluffing and strategy.

It’s no secret at this point that Reiner took Stratego and absolutely murdered it with his own design.  There’s nothing sad about this homicide.  The real tragedy lies in the fact that roughly 26,000 Board Game Geek users own Stratego and it remains readily available to purchase while only 15,000 users own LotR: The Confrontation and it has been out of print for nearly a decade.

For those who want a more thematic game, The Confrontation wins by a landslide.  One player controls the Fellowship of the Ring, and their objective is to get Frodo into Mordor for an automatic victory.  Meanwhile, Team Sauron is controlled by the opponent who either wants to find and defeat Frodo or get 3 characters into the Shire.  These opposing sides feature a wide array of asymmetric strengths and abilities that largely stay true to the theme of the trilogy.  Our most recent play even saw Boromir and the Orcs taking down each other while Gandalf defeated the Balrog and Frodo narrowly escaped the Black Rider.  Who ever said Knizia doesn’t design thematic games? 

Reiner never fails to squeeze every last drop of emergent strategy out of a simple concept.  All you’re doing here is taking turns moving one figure forward (that’s all you can do!).  But which character to start where,  when and where to move them, and when and how to clash with an enemy unit are what make The Confrontation shine.  Furthermore, most spaces can hold two of your characters; so when one (or both) of them have been found out from an earlier encounter, you then have the gleeful opportunity to take both your characters from that space and rearrange them under the table to help sow the seeds of doubt in your opponent’s plans.

Mordor and its allies have much higher base strengths and some serious movement capabilities, so this player can swiftly track down and cut down the Fellowship if they are not careful.  Yet the forces of good have more powerful character abilities to help even the playing field (assuming the player utilizes them well).

Every decision carries the heavy weight of the one ring itself because your figures start at 9 and quickly dwindle from there.  Plus, your characters can never backtrack (aside from the occasional 1-space retreat action).  If an enemy unit happens to slip past your front line, then this means you have one less chance to stop them.

If the game was solely made up of “gotcha” moments from each time two enemies collide and reveal their identity, then The Confrontation would be no better than Stratego.  It turns out that what the concept really needs is another layer of bluffing: the “double gotcha!”  Players reveal their clashing characters and first resolve the character abilities.  All 18 characters feature unique and exciting opportunities for rule-breaking movement, tactical retreats, or strategic advantages.  Sometimes one character can sneak its way out of a conflict, but most the time these collisions are a battle to the death.

In these battles, players select a card from their starting hand to play face down and reveal simultaneously.  These cards either add to your figure’s base strength or apply powerful effects that take place before the battle resolution.  The key here is that you know exactly what cards are left in your opponent’s hand (you have a handy aid as well as their face-up discard pile to study), and you’re constantly aiming to outwit the enemy within a mental house of mirrors and bluffs.

Usually, the craftier person who plays their cards best will come out on top.  But that doesn’t mean your opponent can’t have a thrilling comeback.  In my last play of the game, I managed to harness Gandalf and his ability to wipe out most of Sauron’s forces.  The frustration from my wife rose as her character count plummeted from 9 all the way down to 3 while I maintained a comparatively massive force of 7.  Frodo was safely tucked into my fleet, but Camille still had a couple more tricks up her sleeve.  Fortunately for her, I had not managed to eliminate the Nazgul or Black Rider—both of which can leap across the board in a single movement.

With her Nazgul, Camille selected a random mystery figure in my fellowship to attack and that figure just so happened to be Frodo.  Target acquired.  Fortunately, Frodo is a slippery one (thanks to the help of his invisibility-inducing ring), and he was able to flee the battle to a nearby region.  On my next turn, I tried to hide Frodo by advancing him into Legolas’s region and shuffling them around.  The plan seemed perfect… once I separate Legolas and Frodo, Camille will send her flying Nazgul after them again and she has a 50/50 chance of springing my trap (Legolas’s identity was still unrevealed, and his ability is to instantly kill the Nazgul).

The only problem is that Cami never waited for such a trap.  Instead, she marched her Black Rider across the board straight to Frodo’s region and just so happened to choose Frodo himself to attack first.  Now I was trapped.  Frodo can only retreat sideways, and from this particular region there was no empty space for him to move into.  Despite all of my masterful efforts to cut off Mordor’s legs with the white wizard himself, I suddenly found myself on the brink of defeat against a more powerful enemy.

I had two options: Play my only retreat card (which would let move move backward into a vacant space), or play a high strength card.  Retreat seemed like the obvious move, especially considering the fact that Sauron’s strength cards are even higher than the Fellowship’s.  The only thing is, Sauron also has his fiery eye that sees all of Middle Earth.  This eye takes the form of a card that cancels any non-strength card played by the Fellowship, including Retreat.  So if I played Retreat and Camille played the Eye of Sauron, then she would nullify my escape and snatch victory from my grasp based on pure character strength.  But if she played the Eye of Sauron and I instead played a high strength card, then the underdog Frodo could defeat the Black Rider himself.  But if she guessed my bluff and simply played a strength card against my strength card, then the ring-bearer would make a fool of himself as the Black Rider strikes him down with ease.

In this case, I guessed right! I played a strength card against the Eye of Sauron, and from there the path to Mordor was a victory lap for the triumphant hobbit.  A riveting 2-player game, indeed!  As for my wife… well, she may never want to play Lord of the Rings: The Confrontation again 😆.

Current Rating: 8/10

The light side

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Article written by Nick Murray. Outside of practicing dentistry part-time, Nick has devoted his remaining work-time to collaborating with the world’s best designers, illustrators, and creators in producing classy board games that bite, including the upcoming Trailblazers by Ryan Courtney. He hopes you’ll join Bitewing Games in their quest to create and share experiences that, much like a bitewing x-ray, provide a unique perspective and refreshing interaction.

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