My latest first impressions of new board game releases span from ambitious epics to Knizian comebacks… Let’s jump right into it!
Disclosure: Bitewing Games is publisher of Reiner Knizia (and eventually other designers) games, and any opinions shared on other games are subject to possible personal bias. As with all our content, we do our best to share our honest personal experiences & opinions as fans of the hobby, and we leave the rest for you to decide whether a game is a good fit.
I was hesitant to experience my very first play of Equinox at only 2-players, but it turned out to be far more interesting and aggressive than expected. It turns out that this one works well at any player count.
When I think of betting games, what first comes to mind is loud, bombastic, social activities such as Camel Up. Equinox is none of these things, but what it lacks in noise and showmanship it makes up for in cutthroat cleverness.
Eight creatures, known as “Champions,” are competing to become legends, but only three will avoid fading into oblivion. Players take turns adding one creature card to the current row from their hand, and the moment all the spots are filled in, the creature with the lowest value played into that row is eliminated for the rest of the game. Then play moves down a row, rinse and repeat.
On top of that, you can start your turn by placing one of your five precious betting stones on any space in the current row that does not already contain a stone. The higher up rows will pay out bigger points to the bets on creatures that survive to the end, but big early bets also make for big easy targets. If you place a couple big betting stones high up on a cute little creature, you might as well be putting a giant target on its back and a hefty bounty on its head. So it’s obviously best to save your bets for safer rows, right? Well… not exactly.
Each of the creatures provides a unique special ability to the player who has the biggest bets on them, and that’s typically the player who bet earliest. So every time I play a Funguy the mushroom card, he activates the power of another creature who has been eliminated—powers that are normally lost forever as their poor champion fades into a forgotten limbo. Other creature powers include discarding a card that is currently in competition, claiming a card back into your hand, shifting cards around, pulling back your betting stone… basically all kinds of things to save or sabotage the creatures that you and your opponents have bet your precious stones on.
With only eight of the fourteen creatures and their abilities utilized in a single game, there is loads to explore and agonize over in this colorfully cutthroat playground. I find myself getting so invested in the success of one creature and the downfall of another that I sometimes forget that I still have more betting stones to place. I feel so enticed by the champion’s abilities that I have to remind myself to save some of that creature’s cards for later rounds. I get so greedy with saving the great cards in my hand for the best moment that I put the very safety of my own champions in jeopardy.
All this juicy goodness, and we’ve only scratched the surface of all the brilliant wrinkles in the gameplay including secret bets, wild chameleon cards, impactful tree cards, and more. I could toss out some minor production complaints including the functionally pointless and confusing cloth bags (they’re merely used to identify a player’s color, not for storing the tokens in the box or touching ever during the game…), the far too large and unwieldy cards (this game takes up the whole table and requires thorough shuffling and sorting during setup and teardown), the wordy rulebook with a lack of succinct player aids, etc., but at the end of the day I still love Equinox.
This is a beautiful betting game whose whimsically indulgent production expertly disguises the pile of daggers lurking underneath—meant for plunging into each other’s backs after using them to flay the adorable creatures who just want to be loved. A fine game, indeed.
Current Rating: 8.5/10
Stellar is the tagalong younger sibling of The Search for Planet X in that they both came from publishing parent Renegade Games in the same year and they share a similar theme of astronomy. Yet this quick, 2-player card game is not at all a deduction game and its drafting and set collection gameplay is entirely abstract.
The interesting challenge of Stellar lies within the turn structure where a player drafts a card into their hand and then plays a card from their hand into either their telescope or their notebook, and whatever number they play at one of those two locations determines which other card (from the drafting slots) must be played into the opposite area. So if I play a 5 card onto my telescope, then I must take the card in slot 5 and play that into my notebook.
The notebook and telescope each contain their own restrictions and objectives. The notebook is the more straightforward of the two, where you are simply trying to build a run of each card’s suit. Each run will become a score multiplier for the matching cards that are played out onto your 12-space telescope. Matching suits must be adjacent on the telescope, and the high value cards compete for majority points against your rival while the low value cards grant more star points for your multiplier.
The game becomes a puzzle of which card to play where and when to maximize points. Every turn boils down to a very mathy exercise of sums and multipliers to find the optimal sequence of drafting and playing. While mathing out efficiencies can certainly make for an engaging game, Stellar almost relies on it too heavily in hopes of disguising its dull arc.
The setup starts players on completely different trajectories, where each person has two different suits from their opponent in their notebook and telescope. While I can certainly spend my turn snatching away golden opportunities from you, those types of drafts often accomplish nothing substantial for my own score. The only tangible tension here comes from the majority competition for three separate sections of your telescope where the highest sum of card values in each section wins ten bonus points. Otherwise, you’re simply drafting and playing what’s optimal for you and I’m doing the same for me. Eventually we’ll get to the end and simply find out who had the more optimal options across their turns.
Any competition, tension, and push-your-luck card play here all taste too bland for Stellar to provide a distinct or addictive flavor. Unfortunately, the recycling optimization puzzle of each turn isn’t strong enough on its own merits to keep us hungry for more. We already have plenty of incredible 2-player card games to feast upon, and so I struggle to find a reason why I should reserve room on my plate for Stellar.
Current Rating: 5.5/10
Kemet: Blood & Sand
Kemet: Blood & Sand rounds out my journey through Matagot’s legendary trilogy of “troops on a map” games, and this journey of mine has certainly ended with a bang! My introductory game was Inis, which quickly became my absolute favorite game for many months, and it remains in my top 15 of all time. My next exposure was with Cyclades, which I certainly played and enjoyed a few times but ultimately purged from my collection due to the many other options that do area control or auctions even better. But I was all in on Matagot’s updated version of Kemet when the Blood & Sand kickstarter launched.
With the long wait finally over and the game spread out on our table, we were instantly impressed with their ambitious vision now come to fruition. Large chunky miniatures are complemented by interlocking pyramids, personal reference guides, convenient trays, and useful side boards. As I shared in my Kickstarter Case Study, this campaign had it’s fair share of bumps and bruises along the path to funding. And the final product isn’t without its flaws (significant rulebook errors and unimaginative game board art in particular), but the entire package still comes together extremely well, especially thanks to the juicy experience at its core.
Kemet remains a titan among area control games thanks to its slick, streamlined turns mingled with sprawling power tile possibilities across a relentlessly aggressive sandy canvas. I’m not familiar with all the changes here, but I understand that the Blood & Sand reimplementation improves the end game victory condition, the turn order determination, and countless balancing aspects to make for a tighter gaming package. Plus it includes parts of the original’s expansions, so what’s not to love here?
Unlike the passive-aggressive slow-burn strategery of Inis, Kemet opts for blinding, popping, crackling, and booming conflict like a relentless fireworks show of battles. The fate of conflict isn’t left to mere chance… there’s not even a single dice to be found in this box. Rather, players must outwit their opponents by navigating their identical hands of battle cards most efficiently with the help of purchased tiles, summoned creatures, recruited troops, and drawn divine interventions. Blood & Sand includes a most welcome score board of growing permanent points and shifting temporary points as competitors inch their way to the finish line of 9 or more points.
The massively enticing spread of power tiles is blessedly accompanied by an exciting personal menu where players browse their purchasing options before claiming any of the wonderful abilities that always feel uniquely, terrifyingly overpowered. One tile comes with a giant scorpion who acts as a your personal wrecking ball against other troops. Another comes with the freedom to recruit as many units as you want at no cost—a mind-boggling ability. From extra strength to extra mobility to extra actions to extra discounts, players quickly diverge and specialize into powerful factions bred for Egyptian dominance. This endless array of combinable technologies means that no two games of Kemet will ever feel alike.
In our most recent game, I found myself gunning for a brutally defensive strategy. Early on I acquired a tile that let me look at the battle card my opponent would commit to a battle before deciding which card I would play. This made for a delicious combo with another tile that gave me an invaluable point for winning any battle as the defender—something that’s normally not possible. I also welcomed in a beastly snake to one of my troops that canceled out the powerful abilities of my opponents’ beasts. Finally, I acquired the freedom to recruit as many units as I desired for free whenever I took that action. This strategy meant that I could completely abandon my valuable pyramids and go on a hunt for the easiest points while not worrying about the massive target I was putting on my back. Players would frequently have to throw multiple battalions at one of my troops to break down my defenses, scoring me points for every attack they lost. Furthermore, blasting me off the map just meant that I would be right back on the board with my full force next time I recruited.
This is merely one of the infinite power tile combinations a player can pursue in this aggressively epic game. Every aspect of Kemet: Blood & Sand reeks with proud ambition, yet this arrogance is justified in every regard. Kemet is the ultimate “troops on a map” game that all other flamboyant, miniature-based war games so desperately try to be. It makes its players feel both insanely powerful and dangerously vulnerable with all the grace and ease of a strategic Euro.
Current Rating: 9.5/10
After our first session at two players, Tutankhamun wasn’t quite doing it for me. Fortunately, I was also able to try it at four players, where we found more of the magic within. This new reimplementation of an older design contains a similar core concept as Knizia’s Sumatra and Whale Riders in that it utilizes a one-way track for collecting sets of tokens.
Here, players are cruising along the Nile, picking up artifacts along the way to offer to the deceased Pharaoh’s tomb for points. First person to hit the set number of points wins. Player turns proceed in clockwise order, and you can either move your boat to the tile immediately behind you or as far forward as you’d like, and whatever tile you stop on is the one you’ll claim. The proceedings are precisely as simple as you’d expect from the good Doctor.
Set collection scoring is a contest of majorities, where whoever has the most tiles of a type once the last one comes off the Nile will score the designated number of points, second place scores half, and ties go in favor of whoever is furthest behind along the Nile. While there are three different types of artifacts that contain an 8 on them, this number means that there are 8 of that unique artifact and the majority possessor of each will score 8 points. The same is true for the 6, 4, and 2 value sets. So the big point tiles take longer to trigger their scoring and require more effort to claim majority over.
There are of course some interesting wrinkles here including ring artifacts that only score 1 point each but do so immediately when claimed and grant 5 bonus points to the person with the most. There are also God Idol tiles which trigger an immediate ability when claimed, usually good for manipulating the position of tiles along the Nile or trading or discarding a tile. Also, any tiles that get left behind by all players will end up in the Underworld which can trigger immediate scoring if the last tile of a type leaves the Nile. The game even includes an essential 2-player variant where the Underworld tiles compete with the two players for majority points.
Yet with all these interesting wrinkles, our initial experience with Tutankhamun was sadly too dull, too loose, and too slow. This becomes even more blindingly apparent when contrasted against the similar 2021 release: Whale Riders.
This is going to sound ironic, but Whale Riders maintains a tense tempo and a rapid pace due to the movement restrictions, while Tutankhamun features grinding gameplay and sluggish speed due to its movement freedom. In Whale Riders, I’m not all that worried about which exact tiles my opponents want next because I don’t even know what contracts they are trying to fulfill; rather, I’m simply focused on maximizing my own action efficiency at my current space or the next one while applying a tangible pressure of pace on my rivals. In Tutankhamun, I have to count the number of each tile type that I have, the numbers that my opponents have, and survey the entire river of tiles to determine where the next best spot is for me. This makes Tutankhamun two-to-three times as long while being mechanically more basic than Whale Riders.
That’s not a good look for what is otherwise a very good-looking game. 25th Century Games has done a nice job with the production and table presence, whether you have the basic or deluxe version (although the components do get pointlessly overindulgent in some areas). The use of score markers that slot along the box bottom and circle Tutankhamun’s tomb with the winding river tiles leading up to it make for a delicious table presence. The art is lush and vibrant, yet some of the clarity between different artifact tiles is sacrificed in favor of saturated colors, leading to more time spent surveying and differentiating the tiles. Whether the overall look is worth the extra hassle and cost will depend on one’s personal preference.
Perhaps the biggest surprise to me is how the God Idol tiles have floundered in our plays. The Kickstarter version came with eight different types of God Idol tiles, and in both games they have been largely ignored inconveniences. I label them inconveniences because they offer no visual aids or reminders to their unique and specific functions. Each tile is simply a god’s face, and these faces are also found across two different reference cards, one of them being double-sided. It becomes a hassle to look up the function of a particular God Idol multiple times in a game when it shows up once early on and again much later by scanning three different surfaces of cards and re-reading the paragraph of rules for the matching god. One might wish that the majestic faces of these gods could have been replaced with helpful iconography to circumvent the frequent reference card reading.
But the bigger problem here is how the God Idol tiles have been largely ignored. Perhaps there’s a deeper layer to them lurking beneath our current strategies, but at the moment it seems almost always a better move to simply take an artifact tile that will help you gain more points rather than take a tile that merely causes a minor manipulation of the board state. What results is a growing pile of neglected God Idol tiles in the Underworld of shame.
So I was reluctant to devote more precious tabletop time to Tutankhamun after an underwhelming start. But another opportunity presented itself in the form of a 4-player game with my sister and brother-in-law joining my wife and I. As I should have predicted, there was certainly more here than our maiden voyage presented. We found with four players that tile majorities and boat movement offered far more tense and interesting decisions than at two. Within this play, I could see why 25th Century chose to bring back Tutankhamun as a solid offering in the family game genre, even if it doesn’t click for us at two players..
Despite a pleasantly surprising comeback, the harsh reality is that Tutankhamun and Whale Riders are both family-weight 2021 releases about sailing along a watery route to collect sets of tiles and score points. Whale Riders presents a better tempo, tension, range, polish, and flexibility within a speedier package that makes it difficult for Tutankhamun to compete for attention in our collection. I suppose playing Tutankhamun feels a tad too much like I’m slowly meandering down a river with nothing extremely interesting to look at besides endless piles of sand… but at least it’s warm and sunny!
Current Rating: 6.5/10
Leder Games has removed the leashes from designer Cole Wehrle and artist Kyle Ferrin and let them run amok with the creation of Oath: Chronicles of Empire and Exile. Fortunately, both of these legends of the industry knew exactly what they were doing when they concocted this strange beast of a game.
Oath takes the colorful, cutthroat charm of Root and mixes it with the vast strategic possibilities of Pax Pamir while amping up the narrative volume to eleven. Cole Wehrle stays true to his design philosophy and even doubles down on it here by tossing out the industry playbook of maximizing fairness and fun in favor of broadening the game’s emotional range. Collusion, cooperation, betrayal, kingmaking, savagery, politicking, secrecy, gambling, deflecting, destruction, thievery, prosperity, and more are interwoven with the gorgeous components of Oath.
There are plenty of hurdles to overcome if gamers wish to immerse themselves in this wacky, wonderful world. A steep upfront price, a daunting learning and teaching experience, an astute rules referee, the perfect selection of compatible gaming friends, a clear opportunity for regular plays, and a collective enjoyment of the journey over the destination. It’ll take a lot of sheer willpower for some gamers to find the pot of gold at the end of this rocky rainbow.
But Leder Games is one of the best in the business when it comes to giving broad appeal to a complex game. Rulebooks, walkthroughs, references, and guides galore go a long way in smoothing out this game with intentionally rough edges. Thoughtful, zany, hilarious, and mesmerizing art remind you that it’s ok to have a knife plunged into your back every now and then by those you once thought friends. Screen-printed characters, masterful interlocking metal coins, gorgeous blue books of secrets, and a sprawling kingdom across a breathtaking neoprene mat make every penny spent feel unflinchingly worthwhile.
One can’t possibly pin Oath down to a single core mechanism, especially when every game is unbelievably unique. While one play feels like an auctioning tug-of-war, the next feels like an exploration adventure. The world can be ablaze with battles in one game before pivoting into a passive-aggressive game of chicken in the next. The empire may grow into a seemingly insurmountable power with an endless reach after one session yet be completely obliterated by an exile-concocted apocalypse merely one generation later. There is simply no predicting what will happen next in this game with so many impactful sites, and exciting cards, and devious relics, and tangling victory objectives… and that prospect of a genuine sandbox experience with dynamic ripple effects should make every other board game on this planet tremble in fear.
In Oath, players don’t recreate history, they write it. They don’t follow a pre-planned trail, they pave it. Legacy games hide their faces in shame as Oath provides true consequences for its actions and organic adventures for it participants.
Current Rating: 10/10
You’ve probably noticed that we explore and enjoy a lot of games by the legendary Reiner Knizia here, even if we don’t absolutely love all of them. Yet there are three Knizia designs that we’ve loved so much that we decided to devote our time, energy, and resources to bring them to life for YOU.
Next month, we are launching a Kickstarter project for Reiner Knizia’s Criminal Capers Collection featuring Soda Smugglers, Pumafiosi, and Hot Lead. We hand picked these three 20-minute card games from a treasure trove of fresh, unpublished Knizia designs because we love to play them, and we think you will to. But the only way these delightful games are getting published is with your help!
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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. 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.