Scout is an interesting mix of Bohnanza’s locked hand of cards and a ladder-climbing mechanism similar to Tichu. The new version comes at us from publisher Oink Games who fittingly crams it into their classic tiny box with a colorful, minimalist makeover. The only concession that seems to have been made here is the unusually thin/flimsy cards that were likely selected to ensure that everything could still fit in the box.
In Scout, you play as many rounds as there are players as you try to accumulate the most points by the game end. Each round, the entire deck is dealt out, and immediately one of the most important decisions you will make is whether or not to flip your entire hand upside down. The top of each card will feature a different number from the bottom of each card, with these numbers ranging from 1-10. So the first thing you’ll have to evaluate is which orientation has the most potential.
Just like Bohnanza, you are not allowed to flip or reorder individual cards in your hand. So once you commit to one of your two options, you’ll have to deal with what you’ve got. The thing to look for is sets of the same number or runs of consecutive numbers that are either ascending or descending. Sometimes you get unbelievably lucky with one or more sets of 3 or even 4 cards perfectly lined up together, other times you start a round with hot garbage, and this is undoubtedly the weakest link in Scout’s design.
Fortunately, there are a fair amount of clever plays you can make, regardless of the hand you are dealt. And typically, consistent cleverness can really pay off over the course of multiple rounds.
While your first ever round or two might feel a little too rote, with some experience, some of the more subtle short-term tactics and long-term strategies start to reveal themselves. On your turn, you may either Show or Scout. Performing a show means that you must play a better set of cards than what is currently active from a previous player. A set or run of two cards always beats a single card, three cards always beat two, and so on, while higher values beat out sets and runs of the same quantity. You know, typical ladder card-play.
When you play a show, you claim the active set that you just one-upped and place it in your stash of points. If the next player can’t beat your show, then they’ll instead have to Scout a card from your set, stealing one card from either end of the set and slotting it into their hand wherever and however they please. Scouting is essential to improving your starting hand, yet it’s just as important as deciding when to play certain sets from your hand. The nice thing about players scouting your own show is that you earn a point each time they take a card. Better yet, if all of your opponents end up scouting from your show, this counts as consecutive passing which immediately triggers the end of the round.
Usually the round ends when one player empties their hand, but either way you always want to be the one who ends the round either with a grand finale of a circus show or with a show so good that nobody else can one-up it. Either way, you’ll get zero negative points while everyone else takes 1 negative point for each card remaining in their hand.
The pacing and tempo of Scout is brilliant, because as the round progresses it becomes increasingly risky to save your best cards for a big play. The round might end before you get the chance to play your big run of four cards, and now you have to swallow each one as a penalty point. On the other hand, if the opponents after you get down to only one or a few cards in their hand, then you can force them to scout by putting on a show which contains one more card than they can possibly play.
The final wrinkle that really makes Scout shine is the precious scout & show token that each player gets at the start of each round. You get one shot to both scout and show in the same turn, yet even you save it for what feels like a special occasion, there is inevitably a later turn that makes you regret spending it so soon. This token is often critical to turning the tide of a round in your favor.
Overall, I find that Scout makes for a solid addition to upper tier of Oink Games offerings. I’ll slot this one alongside my favorites—Insider, Startups, Fake Artist, and Durian.
Current Rating: 7.5/10
As a Capstone train game that appears to be a hybrid between Brass Birmingham and Age of Steam, I was certainly intrigued by 2021’s Imperial Steam. This one is a game that describes itself as a “highly strategic yet accessible economic and logistics game” of making “difficult decisions” amid “fierce competition”—at least that’s how the publisher puts it.
The problem with calling your game “accessible” is that this term kinda sets expectations for the entire experience. Last time I checked, those expectations do not include a box crammed with 900 components that take 20-30 minutes to setup and a rulebook where the first 10 pages cover setup and the following 20 cover gameplay. If this is what folks are calling “accessible” these days, then I’d like to nominate that word for public execution.
But alas, I’ve found joy in other designs that at first seem like board game vomit in a box… A Feast for Odin, Oath, Eclipse, and Coffee Traders all come to mind. And speaking of joy, Brass and Age of Steam are currently in my top 10 games of all time, so surely their love child, Imperial Steam, is still destined for greatness, right?
Well, with my first play of Imperial Steam, I learned a valuable lesson. It’s not enough to simply combine certain aspects of two things you love and expect something just as good or better. With this game, I was hoping for a banana split, but I feel like I was instead served a banana peel swimming in melted ice cream and sprinkled with peanut shells.
Imperial Steam tries to wink at Brass and Age of Steam fans (such as myself) with things like orange iron cubes, black coal cubs, railway route building, goods pickup and delivery, crushing economics, and more. The problem is that everything I love most about those two Martin Wallace classics is entirely missing from this mirage of a design.
Gone are the dynamic shared incentives and highly interactive gameplay. Absent are the clean rules and focused options. These things are all replaced by a grating mess of mechanisms across a nauseating spread of boards and tokens and cards.
Imperial Steam, like many of today’s heavy Euros, is a design that desperately tries to compensate for its glaring lack of emergent player interaction with a firehose of variability in the setup and mechanics in the rules. If players are too busy trying to avoid drowning as this firehose sprays them in the face, then perhaps they’ll never notice that they are merely standing in a shallow wading pool of a tabletop playground.
For a production that offers so much across its icons, tracks, pieces, and actions, I have rarely felt so restricted in my possibilities. Would you like to build some railroad track? Sure thing! But, actually, you can only build up to two tracks per round… and you’ll need to buy some more workers to be able to reach those spots… but you can only buy workers from these locations, not those ones… and once you have them, you’ll have to leave them alone for a round or two before they’ll actually be worth using… But in the meantime you can stock up on the resources you’ll need for the track! But, you can only buy two resources this round because this tile arbitrarily says so, even though you’ll need three resources to build more track… and once you purchase them, you aren’t allowed to use those resources this round, you have to wait until next round… and although you own these resources, and you’ve literally placed them on your train car tiles, you can’t actually deliver these ones to a location, these ones are just for spending on more track. You see, you need to send a worker out onto the board in order to make some cubes that you can actually transport. It’s simple, really.
The theme and graphic design here offer little assistance in making any sense of what you are doing and why you are doing it. It’s largely a senseless, soulless Euro parading around in a train game husk. While the majority of my top 10 games are also categorized as fairly heavy, it’s needlessly complex designs like Imperial Steam that put me through an existential crisis… What kind of gamer am I? Do I even like board games? Do you remember the taste of strawberries, Mr. Frodo?
Current Rating: 3/10
Keyflower has been around for nearly a decade now, and it still retains a solid ranking in the top 100 board games on BGG, so it does feel like I’m preaching to the choir with anything I have to say about this game. But it wouldn’t be the first time I gave a choir-directed sermon…
The biggest question that I find myself continually asking about new-to-me resource conversion Euros is this: What makes this game stand out among the thousands of other options? Is this game truly exceptional, and if not, why would I keep and play it over the dozens of similar yet superior dry strategy games?
Keyflower, being a bone-dry worker placement auctioning engine builder about settling your village, is another such design that must face my burning question. Fortunately, Keyflower is the first game I’ve tried in months that manages to come up with a decent answer.
This game stands out most by the interesting combination of bidding and and worker placement that takes place during each of its 4 rounds. New tiles are displayed at the start of each round. Then, it is open season for players to take turns either bidding for a tile by placing workers around the border or gaining a tile’s benefit by placing workers directly on top. Once a certain tile has a color committed on or around it, then other players can only bid on or activate that tile with the same color for the rest of the round. Your red, yellow, and blue workers are hidden behind your screen, so you only have a faint idea of what others can bid based on the new workers they earn from a boat at the end of each round.
I found this hybridization of auctioning and worker-placement in Keyflower to be quite the treat. You can activate any tiles on the table—your own, the central market, or the tiles in other players’ villages—but the catch is that the owner (or new owner) of that tile will earn the workers on it at the end of the round. You’re allowed to activate a tile that has already been activated, but it will cost you extra workers. The decision space and considerations to make with each turn are broad and consequential.
While the rest of the game is rather generic in its ideas—earn, transport, and spend resources to upgrade your village tiles for points; compete to claim bonus scoring tiles; etc.—it doesn’t necessarily need to be anything more flashy and complicated. The scoring objectives and secondary mechanisms are simply the oil that keeps this compelling core smooth and slick. And even with us 3 newcomers, the game proved to be surprisingly fast-paced.
I do find it rather odd and slightly amusing that the creators have leaned so heavily into this “Key” branding of their games. There appears to be about 9 games in this Key series with roughly that many expansions to some of those games. From my amateur perspective, they all appear to be a tangled mess of roughly the same art style and theme with roughly the same ideas where I’m better off sticking to the cream of the crop (Keyflower) and ignoring the rest. I fully realize that this is a barbaric oversimplification of this series, and I’m sure that it has a solid following of fans, but I can’t help but feel that the branding does more harm than good regarding attraction and approachability for the uninitiated.
But alas, there I go again, letting the cold-blooded businessman within me get lost on an irrelevant tangent. What’s most important here is that Keyflower remains a compelling offering in this over-crowded genre. Perhaps the one feature of this game that has aged the worst is its dense rulebook, and even that is mitigated by a Watch It Played rules explanation video from the legendary, jovial (and 8 years younger) Rodney Smith.
Current Rating: 7.5/10
Ankh: Gods of Egypt
Believe it or not, Ankh is the first game by legendary designer Eric M. Lang that I have ever played. Based on the look and style of his games, I never would have predicted Ankh to be a streamlined, non-random, pure strategy game, but that’s exactly what it is!
The three pillars of Ankh are the following:
- A buttery smooth action selection board
- An event track that sets the game’s tempo
- Battling for control of areas with your God, warriors, and guardians
On your turn, you can choose up to two different actions on the board, and they must be executed in descending order. These actions are to move figures three spaces each, summon a figure to the game board, gain followers (the economy of the game), or spend followers to unlock an ankh power. This action board is the spinning gears behind the posturing and positioning that players will take as they strive to earn the most points at each upcoming conflict event.
Any time a player selects an action, they’ll move the action marker down its row until it hits the last space of the track. This space immediately ends your turn (meaning you may not get a second action), but it also triggers the next event, and everybody wants to trigger those juicy events for themselves. Most events allow players to gain control of a monument, and monuments are central to how you score points. But the two other possible events include splitting an area in two by drawing new boundaries with camels, or triggering a conflict.
Conflict is beautifully simple and wonderfully tense in Ankh. Battles are resolved one region at a time. Players add up their figures in that region to determine a base power, apply any unlocked ankh abilities, and secretly select a single card from their hand to hopefully sway the battle in their favor. All players start with the same hand of cards that will be spent and recycled throughout the game. While this mechanism is a shameless rehash of another Egyptian area control game (Kemet), it’s a system that never fails to provide tense decisions. The conflict cards of Ankh even provide more opportunities for bluffing and point-mongering beyond the contest for a region victory.
You can score points simply by having your figures on the right spaces and in the right regions, even if you lose every battle, yet dominating regions also comes with its own batch of scoring opportunities. Players will be scrambling up the point track in a quest to not only win, but also to avoid merging with another god or even suffer a late-game elimination.
The controversial merge mechanic of Ankh happens roughly two-thirds through the game and sees the last and second-to-last place players melting into a single faction that shares resources, actions, and objectives. Some folks see this as one player essentially getting eliminated from the game because they lose all their figures and monuments from the board. To me, it functions more like a late mechanical pivot where two players begin to play a cooperative game with significant advantages to help them make a come-back.
While each of the merged players becomes limited to one action per turn, this actually allows them more strategic flexibility for their faction. They also have access to both players’ god powers, guardians, and followers. Where this merge event is as guaranteed as the rising of the sun (no pun intended), and the game state is perfectly readable and non-random, it becomes important to anticipate, plan for, and even embrace the merge. I’ve been anxious to take a test drive in team-merger myself, but I’ve found myself instead taking the early lead and putting a massive target on my back while my opponents merged with each other in both of our plays.
For a game where all information is open and readable, the victories in Ankh can certainly sneak up on you. Thanks to various ankh abilities, cards, and dividing regions, scoring points has a snowball effect throughout the game where one player can suddenly hit the top of the point track to claim the instant win. Our second play of the game with four players saw everyone ganging up on me, the runaway leader, while overlooking the second-place faction. Through crafty upgrades and cardplay, she flew under the radar long enough to quickly shoot up the point track and snatch victory from my grasp, even while the merged players were making a significant comeback of their own.
While I resent her stealing my thunder, I’m even more grateful that she and her husband own Ankh—kickstarter goodies and all—so I don’t have to. No matter how you slice it, Ankh is a costly game to dive into. The retail version comes in at a whopping $100 MSRP, and that one doesn’t even come with plastic monuments and tokens that make the game board much more readable. The Kickstarter all-in pledge provided a glorious amount of plastic, expansions, and content, but it also costed folks who pledged for it two limbs and a whole bookshelf.
I’m lucky to be the moochy friend who shows up and sits down to a table already set up after somebody else painstakingly wheelbarrowed all the boxes into one room and fetched a hundred components from a thousand locations. So perhaps my pampered experience should be taken with a grain of salt. I’ve been known to condemn plenty of other games to exile simply for how bloated they are (see Gloomhaven: JotL, Catacombs, Sleeping Gods, Pandemic Legacy, etc.). But I can’t deny that Ankh is one of my favorite surprises of the past year.
Current Rating: 8.5/10
Rialto is one of many Stefan Feld designs that sit in the shadows of his most popular work (The Castles of Burgundy, Trajan, Bora Bora, Bruges, etc.). Despite this, I found Rialto to be a stand-out game for a few reasons:
- It’s more poignantly interactive with area majorities and auctions galore.
- It can be played with up to 5 people where many other Felds cannot.
- It is being reimplemented this year by Queen Games as New York City.
In Rialto, players are drafting cards into their hand to put toward auctions for various benefits, bonuses, and of course points. The central focus of the game is to place your council members into six districts of Venice to score area majority points. Everything else ties back to the area competition and/or auctions.
This design actually reminds me a bit of the classic Knizia Euro, Taj Mahal. In both games, each round takes place in a new district where players commit cards from their hands and hope to bid the most. Yet where Taj Mahal is a tense game of chicken, Rialto is more focused on efficient drafting and engine building. That’s not to say that Rialto isn’t tense.
In Rialto, it’s always beneficial to bid cards from your hand, but the winner of each auction gets a significant bonus. One auction has players scrambling for the favor of turn order and tiebreakers, another provides tantalizing building abilities, but those building abilities are only useful if you are also bidding for money, yet none of those things will win you the game if you aren’t also bidding to influence the game board of contested districts.
I found that all six types of auctions were alluring at one point or another during the six rounds of the game. The key to success is to know which ones are most important (and most easily winnable) during which rounds. It helps to observe which cards other players draft so you can plan and execute your bids accordingly.
Despite being an increasingly jaded gamer—especially toward generic looking Euros such as this one—I found Rialto to be a surprisingly enjoyable experience. Time will tell if next year’s New York City will improve upon this formula… it seems to be a more streamlined and balanced design at first glance. But it also tosses out the fifth player option and a whole handful of core mechanisms from Rialto; so it could be one step forward, two steps back just as easily as it could be a fully realized design.
Current Rating: 7/10
MicroMacro: Crime City
MicroMacro is what happens when Where’s Waldo meets homicide detective. In other words, it’s a blast.
I remember when MicroMacro was first announced. I was actually put off by the concept initially. I didn’t love the sound of hunching over a massive colorless map with tiny drawings that required players to crowd together for excess squinting. While my first impression wasn’t too far off from what you actually do in this game, I underestimated how fun it could be.
After hearing great things about MicroMacro from other gamers, I decided it was worth trying together with my wife, Camille. Rather than spread the map out on our table, we decided to get extra fancy and hang it on our wall. The game does come with a cheap little magnifying glass, but we haven’t needed it at all.
The thing that makes this game map special is that it is not just a still image of a single point in time. Rather, it’s tangled spaghetti of timelines where each individual noodle tracks the movement and actions of a unique character throughout their day. So if you spot a woman with a pointy nose and small handbag who is walking down the street, then you might look further down the street in the direction she is headed and spot her boarding a bus, or you can look in the direction she came from and see her lounging on her porch earlier in the day.
So, this map is essentially a stalker’s cocaine. But more accurately, it’s a playground for investigators. Many horrors can be found littered across this deceptively playful map of illustrations including fresh corpses, vengeful killers, poison shops, and dangerous jealousies. While Where’s Waldo is unquestionably a kid-friendly activity, MicroMacro dives right into the deep end of adult themes ripe with murder and seasoned with infidelity, sabotage, thievery, and more.
But such is the life of a criminal investigation game. Those who have dabbled in other games of this genre such as Chronicles of Crime, Detective: A Modern Crime Board Game, or Sherlock Holmes Consulting Detective will feel right at home here. I’ve tried some of these including Chronicles of Crime in the past, yet MicroMacro instantly and easily becomes my favorite of the bunch for one simple reason: It’s all fun and no fuss.
In MicroMacro, there is no fiddling with antisocial phone apps and endless QR codes, there is no mandatory recitation of exhausting paragraphs of poorly written dialogue that require you to read between the lines, and there is no heaping of components that players must dig through to setup and play the game. This one only requires a few case cards, a map, and your natural detective sensibilities.
Each case begins with a new crime: “Mr. Cabbage was found shot in the back alley behind the pharmacy!” And a starting prompt: “Find the scene of the crime!” From there, you can continue to follow the prompt cards as you complete one after another. Once you find the crime scene, the next card will say something like: “What was Mr. Cabbage doing before he was shot?” As you scan the perimeter of the pharmacy, you may spot Mr. Cabbage across the street buying himself a tasty sausage at the sausage stand (yes, the game does have a sausage stand, and yes, the game is made by Germans).
Each prompt card will point you in the direction of where to look next on the front while confirming the answer to the prompt on the back. For each case, you are supposed to hand all the cards to one player who spoils the answer for themself after the group makes their guess and either confirms the correct answer or tells everyone else to try again. This system works well, as the back of each card only offers a minor spoiler for the current plot thread that you are following, and the lead detective can still participate in each step until the group settles on their answer.
But I didn’t spend my childhood watching hours of Psych and Monk—training in the ways of a detective—just to have prompt cards hold my hand through criminal investigations. Nay, I’ve been preparing my whole life to take on the advanced mode of MicroMacro: Crime City. You see, in the advanced mode, the prompt cards are cast aside and ignored. For each session, you simply look at the first card to discover your next case, and then you get to work combing over the map for clues. This is where things get really fun.
What starts out as the scene of a rabbit-man crushed beneath a piano quickly unravels into full-blown investigation: Who was this rabbit-man victim? Where did he live? What were his hobbies? Who came in contact with him on the day of his death? Where did the piano come from? Was this a coincidental accident, or something more sinister? (Spoiler: It’s never a coincidence. This is Crime City we’re talking about, after all.).
Formulating these questions and uncovering the answers—completely unaided by prompts—is where MicroMacro is at its best, especially as a two-player game. With two players, you can put your heads together, bounce ideas off each other, and bask in dramatic discoveries. The box says MicroMacro plays up to four, but you’ll spend most of your time scanning one small section of the map, meaning that the third and fourth person will likely be crowded out and too far away to see the area of interest. Personally, I find it to be an engaging cooperative game that is perfect for couples.
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, 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.