Summoner Wars (Second Edition)
Summoner Wars honestly reminds me a whole lot of Unmatched, and to a lesser extent, Dice Throne. I realize that the original Summoner Wars technically came before either of them (unless you count the predecessor to Unmatched), but just bear with me here.
The reason I find these games comparable is that all feature 1v1 asymmetric dueling combat using hand management and/or dice combat. Both Summoner Wars and Unmatched also feature board movement, although Summoner Wars is more of a chess-like grid movement while Unmatched features unique maps with various paths and zones. Chess-like is a commonly used and apt description to give to Summoner Wars, as the objective is to keep your ‘king’ (the Summoner) alive while taking out the opponent’s with the help of other units.
The thing that differentiates Summoner Wars from Unmatched and Dice Throne is the wider strategic flexibility and potential. You’ll still be victim to your deck draw and dice rolls, but unlike Unmatched and Dice Throne, you’ll always feel like you control the steering wheel of your destiny. That’s because the dice results of Summoner Wars are merely variations of attrition rather than Dice Throne’s all-or-nothing tendencies. And the card draws of Summoner Wars will certainly keep you on your toes, but there’s no such thing as the kind of bad hand that can frequently emerge in Unmatched.
Thanks to the more substantial gameplay here, Summoner Wars is the dueling game I most want to play. It maintains a low complexity yet provides a higher satisfaction. The biggest downside to this game within its genre is the longer playtime, which is almost twice as long as its competitors. It’s certainly one of those designs that opens itself up to potential drawn-out, inevitable defeats as one Summoner fights to keep its head above water.
We still have plenty more of the base-game decks to explore, and the asymmetry here feels genuinely distinct and interesting. I certainly enjoyed the unique opportunities and challenges that each card presented.
Now that I think of it, there is one other game in our collection that shares some key similarities with Summoner Wars. That game is Undaunted (Normandy and North Africa). Once again, both are hand-management dueling games that use dice combat to eliminate opponent cards. But while Summoner Wars leans into Chess for much of its DNA, Undaunted traces its ancestry to deck building games like Dominion. The appeal of either game comes down to your preferences: Summoner Wars is likely the more strategic and less luck-influenced competition, but Undaunted provides me with more tense decisions and dramatic moments.
At any rate, I believe Summoner Wars is a solid experience that certainly deserved a second edition! I couldn’t care less for the deck constructing possibilities. I’m just glad they made it streamlined and easy for me to dive into the war.
Current Rating: 8/10
Ra: The Dice Game
Ra: The Dice Game is Reiner Knizia’s take on Yahtzee. And of course, being designed by Reiner Knizia, it is MUCH better than Yahtzee.
The elements this design carries over from its parent game, Ra, include the push-your-luck tension of each round and the various methods of scoring. Gone are the tense auctions and actions of Ra. Here they are replaced with Yahtzee style dice rolling, but it’s still a quick and enjoyable romp.
I’d put this one right up there among the best Yahtzee games in the industry, including Under Falling Skies, King of Tokyo, and That’s Pretty Clever. The aspect where Ra: The Dice Game triumphs above the rest is in its increased strategy, flexibility, and competitive interactions.
As this game is hopelessly out-of-print and waiting to be further overshadowed by next year’s latest edition of Ra, there’s not much else worth saying here besides the fact that it’s worth a play if the opportunity ever lands in your lap.
Current Rating: 7/10
Tajuto by designer Reiner Knizia and publisher Super Meeple is one that has seemingly flown under the radar since its 2019 release. This game has a novel enough twist that it understandably is going to be more polarizing than your standard Knizia design.
Similar to the smash hit bag builder, Quacks of Quedlinburg, you’ll be reaching into a large bag hoping you draw out the right piece. The key difference here is that you can improve your odds of success by feeling around the bag for your desired size of pagoda piece.
The production does a nice job of making the sizes just different enough yet trickily similar that you’ll hesitate to pull a piece for fear of it being barely one size off. Yet the game consistently strokes your ego whenever your hand emerges from the bag with a lucrative piece that you were digging for.
The tactile challenge of bag pulling with a healthy dollop of luck embedded in the color variety is a refreshing and engaging activity, particularly with the right group of players. What groups are wrong for Tajuto? Most likely it’ll be folks who get frustrated that their strategy game requires careful, deliberate probing with fingers for optimal probabilities that are still vulnerable to Lady Luck’s wrath. Likewise, it’ll be wrong for those who can’t tolerate the frequently slower pacing due to regularly required calculations and overly-cautious bag digging.
The element that makes it work for me, despite these downsides, is the characteristically Knizian interactions and emergent play that elevate the game into a collective experience. The bonus tiles claimed and the offerings placed and the pagoda pieces drawn all have a significant effect on my strategies. So despite Tajuto having a slower pace and a longer playtime than I would prefer, I find myself enjoying the competition.
Current Rating: 7.5/10
Coffee Traders is a game that likely boasts more rules and pieces than any other game in my entire collection. Considering the fact that I own Oath, Eclipse: Second Dawn for the Galaxy, Sidereal Confluence, and several other big meaty games, that’s quite the accomplishment. It’s as if the designers were a little too caffeinated when they concocted this mammoth of a creation and crammed more into it than any reasonable person would.
Fortunately, it seems they were still able to think clearly despite their over-abundance of design energy, as Coffee Traders turned out to be a solid and enjoyable game for me. While it’s the most messy and complicated game I own, it never even approached the brain-breaking potential of other heavy games I’ve bounced off of including Food Chain Magnate and Spirit Island. Coffee Traders features a massive rules-dump up front, but after that it flows surprisingly smoothly.
To be honest, my only gripe with the stunning production is the rulebook. The rules definitely could have benefited from more polishing, testing, and visual examples. There are certain sections that require multiple re-reads or even clarifications on Internet forums to really comprehend. And none of the aspects of the game are overly complex, they’re just made so by poor explanations. If you really want things to stick, this is one game you’ll likely have to watch a How to Play video on after struggling through a muddy rulebook. Fortunately, there are some really solid videos out there to get you ready for your first play.
After that, all you need to find is a massive table and a few other people willing to sit through a four-hour gaming session (teach included) so you all can get to later plays that only take two or three hours. With all the real estate this game takes up, you’ll have plenty to keep you engaged during those few hours.
The game spans over merely 3 rounds, but each round consists of 6 phases, and half of those phases feature multiple turns per player, so if you multiply those together, then you’re actually looking at a whole boatload of rounds.
The layout of each player board is perhaps one of the greatest graphic design feats in all of board gaming. Once you understand what it all means, you’ll almost never need to look at the rulebook again. You can simply march through the phases from left to right on your board until it’s time to tally the points.
You’ll spend each round building out plantations to increase the coffee production and fight for majority rule in each of the five regions. You’ll also stress over how to fill your plantations with workers and sometimes hope that an opponent steps in and helps out, thereby earning themself a bonus and saving you from a penalty. You’ll have to decide where to assign your precious traders and contractors, as they’re the grease in your strategy that brings in the lucrative coffee or sends out the useful buildings. Once the coffee has come in, you’ll need to determine the best place to deliver it between contract opportunities and coffee bar options.
Perhaps my favorite aspect of Coffee Traders involves the shared incentives and cooperative competition involved in many of the systems. While building plantations in the same region makes enemies for the massive area majority scoring, it also creates more coffee of that type for anyone to try and claim. When I send out a trader to gain me coffee or hire a contractor to construct a building, my opponents can piggy-back off of my initiative and save themselves the coins and a turn. I’ll get the best bonuses from that action, but they’ll get the nearly free ride.
Fulfilling a contract rewards a player with more than just bland points or coins. Each contract dangles its own unique blend of carrots thanks to the designated space it sits on. There’s just enough flexibility in the game that you can exchange or spend or strain for the last coffee or two that stand between you and a fulfilled contract.
While most things you do will nudge you up more points, the competition between rival companies is ever present and engaging. And unlike another heavy, interactive Euro, Barrage, where things can often be too punishing, Coffee Traders provides players with the flexibility to overcome significant obstacles. Finding the perfect combination of fulfilling a contract, earning immediate actions, and milking those tasty rewards is a supremely satisfying regularity in Coffee Traders.
I think the most interesting question here is: What makes Coffee Traders soar where other recent comparable games sink, such as Crystal Palace and Rococo: Deluxe Edition. Crystal Palace lacks the thematic substance and mechanical cohesion that Coffee Traders provides. Meanwhile, Rococo struggles to provide the type of engaging arc that keeps me interested in Coffee Traders from start to finish. All-in-all, the complete package of Coffee Traders makes for a compelling heavy gaming experience that I’m thirsty for more of.
Current Rating: 8/10
Kabuto Sumo is the best dexterity game I’ve played since Crokinole and Klask, and one of the best releases of 2021. The art in this game possesses the greatest bug illustrations I’ve ever seen thanks to Kwanchai Moriya’s masterful touch. The components are on-point, which is essential in a game that relies on the physics of token sizes and shapes. And the gameplay is a delight! Inspired by coin-pushing arcade games, players see themselves pushing discs into a ring in hopes of forcing other tokens out of the ring and into their inventory.
This game practically has this sub-genre of “dexterity pushing” all to itself within the realm of tabletop gaming, yet I’d be shocked to see any other game find a way to do it better. If the only objective here was to simply push off your opponent’s wrestler beetle, then this design would likely fall flat due to the crawling progress. Mind you, that is the main victory objective here. But secondary to that is the element of maintaining a token inventory for both a strategic advantage and mandatory survival. You regularly need to be pushing tokens off the ring to help restock your inventory, otherwise you’ll automatically lose the moment you start your turn with no pieces to use.
And it’s not as easy as it looks! If you mindlessly pick a spot to insert your wooden disc, it’s plenty likely that nothing will come of your turn—the token will simply squeeze its way onto the board between a couple other pieces, and the only thing you’ll have accomplished is to crowd the ring even more to make your opponent’s turn all the easier. As you start to experiment and analyze the board, you’ll discover that proper aiming and direction can mean the difference between victory and defeat. You’ll notice that smaller or lighter discs react differently to pushing forces compared to wider or heavier discs. Over time, you’ll see a significant improvement in your pushing prowess.
Of course, it helps to interpret the rules for disc pushing correctly. I know for myself and others, the rulebook led us down the wrong path regarding where you can position your pushing finger and how it should be used. The rules state that you should “push from the rear of the piece,” and offer no visuals or clarification for legal finger positioning. Interpreted literally, one would plainly assume that only the rear vertical surface of the piece can be touched. This is how we were initially playing, and we found that the piece will nearly always turn to the left or right of your finger as you push, making it nearly impossible to follow the other rule of pushing in a “straight line.”
Fortunately, publisher Board Game Tables offered some video clarification on this rule to demonstrate that you should position your finger on top of the piece near the rear side. Thus, you’ll apply downward pressure to the piece as you push it forward, resulting in controlled and intentional pushing every time. Hopefully they add a simple, properly positioned finger to their rulebook visuals for future print runs, otherwise I fear there will be far too many people who interpret and play Kabuto Sumo in an incorrect and inferior way. This game really shines when played as intended.
The final layer that really brings it all together is the asymmetric abilities and specialty pieces. The box and its expansion is loaded with a deck of gorgeous cards and bags of unique shapes to keep things fresh and interesting. Cactus Jacked, the Desert Ironclad Beetle, has the ability to acquire a massive, life-saving token when it is teetering on the edge of the ring. Kimarite, the Rhinoceros Beetle, lets you slowly stack a terrifying supply of small discs on its back that you can unleash all at once in a single turn. Mighty Jaw Mike, the Giant Stag Beetle, comes with wide pinchers that grant an instant knock-out if you can manage to lock its jaws around an enemy beetle. Sisyphus, the Dung Beetle, does exactly what you would hope by transforming two medium discs into a giant turd disc. All of these abilities feel powerful and exciting, yet they are equally costly and/or challenging to execute.
While the game touts a 15-20 minute runtime, a single play can last far longer if participants are playing defensively and thereby turn the competition into an attritional tug-of-war. Yet even that kind of session can get tight, as one player can frequently find themself struggling for survival as they fight to maintain an inventory of only one or two pieces. On the other hand, things can quickly go sideways when two beetles are butting heads and your pitiful attempts to push the opponent out ends up backfiring and moving your own piece closer to the edge thanks to traitorous physics.
All this is to say that I can’t wait to play another round of Kabuto Sumo. My fullest Kabuto kudos goes out to designer Tony Miller, artist Kwanchai Moriya, developers John Brieger and Michael Dunsmore, and the entire publishing team at Board Game Tables Dot Com for crafting one of the most refreshing tabletop experiences in years.
Current Rating: 8.5/10
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. 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.