It’s a tale as old as time. Party game gives one person at a time the spotlight. This chosen one must stretch their mind to connect a random combination of words and/or images to each other. Or perhaps they merely toss out a topic or clue and await the input of everyone else to provide them with things that relate. Either way, the rest of the group then must attempt to read this person’s mind or predict their psychology as they analyze and discuss the words, images, or topics on display.
The throne to this age-old formula has been claimed by the one and only Decrypto, the number one party game on Board Game Geek, long live the queen. But to be honest with you, this trend really caught fire with the legendary Codenames and its many spinoffs. Although some would claim they prefer the cooperative version of this formula that released in the same year… yes, I’m talking about Mysterium. Yet we mustn’t forget that Mysterium only reached such lofty heights from standing on the shoulders of Dixit. Admittedly, Dixit is simply an evolved version of Apples to Apples… which was also rehashed by the inhumane cards which must not be named. Although at this point, we’ve climbed so far up the family tree that it’s hard to see how these oldest of branches relate to the freshest of fruit known as Rorschach. Plus I failed to recognize Wavelength along this genealogy of party games, and that’s like failing to mention Novak Djokovic when discussing the greatest tennis players of all time. Shame on me.
What I’m saying is that Rorschach is a design that slots itself right into this very genre. Snug as a bug on a party game rug. It attempts nothing flashy, dramatic, or revolutionary with its ruleset and components. It shows no urge to rewrite the script or reroute the flow of traffic. The differences in the recipe here—and the payoff in flavor—are much more subtle and nuanced.
The core hook of this party game is found within the title and on the box cover itself. That means it’s a good box cover and title. The visuals at the heart of Rorschach are inkblot images which originated from the game’s namesake, Swiss psychiatrist Hermann Rorschach. Supposedly, the way that the human mind interprets and gives life to an abstract image can say a lot about the state of that mind. But rather than use these images to diagnose a friend with seasonal depression or uncover a family member’s phobia, the challenge of this game is merely to see each inkblot image from the eyes of the test subject of the round.
In Rorschach, players are divided into two teams, and each team takes turns offering up a test subject who must connect three words to three inkblot images. This is performed by placing tokens facedown onto the image cards that match the tokens which designate each topic card. Then the group must guess which images the test subject connected to which words.
At first, the inkblot images all look roughly the same. Merely a symmetrical smudge of black ink with some corners here or some squiggles there. But thanks to the three face-up word cards which players are forced to use, the mind begins to fill in the blanks with details and silhouettes and settings that transform an incoherent mess into a tangible topic. And it is within the cycle of these inkblot images starting out seemingly meaningless, irrelevant, and unrelated, but slowly coming to life with the help of one’s imagination that we find the magic of Rorschach.
Of course, you can also get this kind of creative sensation from the likes of the previously mentioned classics (Codenames, Decrypto, Mysterium, etc.). So besides the thematic variation of the inkblot images themselves, what makes Rorschach stand out? To be honest with you… I’m not sure. I love Wavelength for its juicy conversations, Decrypto for its crafty outfoxing, Codenames for its high stakes successes and failures, Mysterium for its rich setting, and so on. Where does Rorschach carve its special niche in this crowded genre? Perhaps nowhere. Yet where does Rorschach fail as a modern party game? Also nowhere. I had a delightful time with this game and the people who joined me at the table to play it. The challenge was ever present, the laughs were frequently had, the discussions were consistently lively, it was solid entertainment all around.
But that’s the benefit of being a solid game that pivots the spotlight from itself back onto the players. It doesn’t have to be innovative, mind-blowing, the best in its class, balanced on a knife’s edge, or jam-packed with content to keep me happily engaged. I’m simply content to psychoanalyze the interesting people around me. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that I’m challenged to do it better than the opposing team across the table. I am a shameless competitor, after all.
Current Rating: 6.5/10
Regicide manages to pull off a trick that few other designs have accomplished. Specifically, it gets me excited about a game that only uses a standard deck of cards. In fact, I would go so far as to say that Regicide is the best game I have ever played that uses a standard deck of cards.
And despite my preference toward competitive games, this one gives me vibes similar to my all-time favorite cooperative game: The Crew. This is because it features limited communication, crunchy decisions, and challenging gameplay that is quick and addictive. The bang for your buck is maximized in this production with a pretty deck of cards packed into a small, affordable tuck-box (if you purchase the official version). Of course, you could also simply use any old deck of cards lying around at your home and easily download the rules here and even supplement these with the free app here.
Speaking of the rulebook, that is my only minor compliant with this entire experience. The way that combos, animals, and abilities are explained leave too much open to interpretation. The rules are missing some key clarifications which we initially struggled over, and we eventually filled in the blanks with our own rules that felt the most natural, fair, and intuitive. But this gripe was easier for me to forgive considering the staggering amount of creativity on display within such a limited design space.
Before I felt a moment of frustration during our first few plays of unanswered questions, I actually felt enormous ecstasy from the thrilling gameplay concept after my initial read-through of the rules. Players are up against a series of 12 bosses going from minor Jacks all the way up to imposing Kings. They use the rest of the deck (aces through 10s in each of the standard suits) to attack these bosses using the value of each card played until the boss’s health is depleted. At the end of an active player’s turn, if the current boss is still alive, then they will attack that player who must then discard a value of cards equal to or exceeding the boss’s attack value. If the wounded player cannot discard the full amount of damage taken, then everyone loses the game.
Beyond the interesting core concept of Regicide, my first dose of excitement came when I learned about the suits. Each suit has a special ability when played: Hearts replenish your draw pile known as the tavern, Diamonds replenish everyone’s hands with more cards from the tavern, Spades shield all players from boss attacks, and Clubs deal double damage. Designers Paul Abrahams, Luke Badger, and Andy Richdale could have left it at that, and this would have been plenty exciting on its own. But they instead added in another interesting wrinkle: the suit of the current boss nullifies the matching suit ability from the cards that players use during that battle. Oooo, now that’s spicy.
But what of low value cards such as 2s, 3s, 4s, and 5s? These are always the worst cards in any game that uses a standard deck, including this one, right? Well, not necessarily. You see, a hand cluttered with multiple low cards of the same value is actually a juicy opportunity for combos. Low value cards of the same number can be played together in sets as long as their combined value doesn’t exceed 10. Additionally, you receive the benefit of all suits used in that set (assuming the boss doesn’t currently have a matching suit). So I could play 3s of diamonds, spades, and clubs and thereby draw 9 cards into our hands, gain us 9 defense, and deal 18 damage to the boss. That’s what I call a good combo.
It’s tremendously satisfying to take down each boss, but the designers even took that challenge a step further. If your group can manage to deal damage equal to the enemy’s exact health value (20 for Jacks, 30 for Queens, 40 for Kings), then instead of discarding the defeated enemy, you place it straight on top of the tavern draw pile! As these cards have the best attack values in the game (10, 15, and 20 respectively), earning some royalty into your army can be huge boon as the bosses become increasingly difficult to beat.
All of these juicy mechanical interactions are further supplemented by ace combos (adorably referred to as animals) and jester abilities. And the icing on the cake is just how difficult yet rewarding the overall experience is as you fail and fail again but uncover intricate strategies and gain useful experience along the way. I’m always impressed when a big box game such as Coffee Traders or Oath comes together into a coherent sprawling sandbox of play. But what Regicide manages to pull off with the most basic, generic, and standard of components is likewise remarkable and enchanting.
Current Rating: 9/10
Fort: Cats & Dogs Expansion
The Fort: Cats & Dogs Expansion is going to be a tough one to discuss because my enjoyment of the base game has been on the decline right as we’ve tried out this new expansion.
The theme, presentation, and novel concepts here still delight me, but after eight plays of the game, I find myself growing weary of Fort for three main reasons:
1) The game is always a pain to teach newcomers. The rules come with baggage in the form of excess icons and exceptions. It ends up making this one of the most meddlesome small box games in my collection for teaching.
2) Fort is hardly ever as short as it wants to be. Doesn’t matter how experienced my opponents are, the turns are slow and the playtime far exceeds the 20-40 minute range. I know that’s not true for everyone, but 20-40 minutes feels optimistic for most groups.
3) Decisions are too frequently obvious. This is the one that really takes the wind out of Fort for me. Usually, my hand of five cards contains 1 obvious play, so I do it. Occasionally, when I actually have more than one decent option, the differences are as poignant as getting one extra point here or a couple extra resources there. I’m an addict to gameplay tension, and I find myself too frequently experiencing withdrawals during Fort.
That said, the expansion here is a fine addition to the game. The most charming aspect being the strong thematic integration of cats, dogs, and their behaviors. Cats are as unwieldy as always—they’ll ditch you at their leisure if another player’s yard catches their eye—but they are nice to have when they’re around. As long as you have an attracted cat in front of you, it’ll grant you a repeating benefit. The hard part is remembering to take advantage of it while it is hanging around.
Meanwhile, the dogs are added into players’ starting decks and they’ll only leave you if you neglect them. Like kids, they end up in your yard if you don’t use them on your turn, but at the start of your next turn, they’ll wander off to your neighbor’s discard pile. You can instead use them for their suit, like a regular kid card, but the real object of the dog cards is to take advantage of their abilities and add them to your doghouse. Once can fulfill a dog’s requirements, simply play it from your hand instead of kid. Dogs offer powerful one-time abilities and 7 points to the player with the most dogs in their doghouse at the end of the game.
Both the dogs and cats are modular additions to the game, meaning you can add one or both to your session of Fort. We chose to dive into the full expansion and added both to our play. They certainly open up the decision space a little more, as cats make you want to leave specific cards in your yard while dogs pressure you into using them or losing them. It’s a solid addition for sure. Unfortunately, regarding my feelings towards Fort as a whole, it’s too little, too late.
Current Rating: The expansion is good, 7/10. The overall game has dropped to 6/10 for me.
Let’s step away from the latest hotness for a moment to take a quick peek at 2017’s Calimala. Despite it being a more recent Euro, this production presents itself as aggressively dull on all accounts. We’re talking cloth mercantilism in old Europe featuring wood, brick, cubes, and beige.
So why on earth did I venture to try to such a game? This is a question that increasingly nags at me with each such game session. Don’t you people ever grow tired of these generic resource efficiency games?!? 😂 Haven’t we gained and spent enough wood already? Perhaps we should use all that wood to build ourselves a box big enough to hold these games so we can toss them all in, forget about the box, and finally allow ourselves the freedom to think outside of it.
Ok, rant over. Beyond my growing prejudice toward all games that rehash this generic concept using the same hand-me-down dressings, I quite enjoyed the feature mechanisms at play here. You get a novel worker placement mechanism that undoubtedly was the genesis for this game paired with pacey sequential scoring. That’s where Calimala hides the good stuff.
Place your worker disc on a space between two actions and do both of those actions. On top of that (no pun intended), any discs under the one you just added to the stack are reactivated, meaning even more actions for the owners of those discs! As for the fourth disc at the bottom of the stack, instead of activation it is sent to the next scoring tile where another chance at points is resolved. Furthermore, that disc which ends up on the scoring tile counts toward tiebreakers in the area majority competitions. It’s clean, brilliant, and poignant.
Oddly enough, this is the third worker placement game I’ve tried this year where you place your workers in-between the actions instead of directly on top of them (the other two being the colorful Cryo and somehow even more sapless Spyrium). Despite the overlap, all three games have approached this concept in a different manner. Cryo is more about blocking and boxing out others from valuable actions. Spyrium’s surrounding workers determine the costs and payouts of action options for everyone. Calimala’s discs trigger positive player interactions.
Since you can activate a particular action by placing your disc on up to four possible sides of it, it becomes important to pay attention to which other players you are helping by reactivating their own discs. It’s best to avoid helping those who are in the lead on the scoreboard or directly competing with you in certain areas. On top of that, you’ll frequently have the agency to determine whether or not a scoring phase is triggered by adding your disc to a full stack or not. You can rush the scoring of an area before competitors can weasel their cubes in there or you can play the long game and increasingly clog up the spaces in an area that will score much later in the game to deter others from any hope of out-competing you.
There are many opportunities for swinging the momentum of an area in your favor. This is particularly true thanks to the action cards. Any time your activated disc cannot do one of the two actions next to it, you instead draw an action card. This is essentially your opportunity to bank an action for later, where you can play as many cards as you want before or after each board action you take. While luck of the draw will determine what specific actions end up in your hand, you can usually implement these into your plans and use them to your advantage as long as you aren’t near the very end of the game.
Within Calimala, we find a modern Euro with streamlined rules, bitey gameplay, and novel action selection mechanisms—all of which keep to a reasonable game length. Is it really fair to ask for anything more from today’s Euros? Many folks will happily gobble up such an offering. You know who you are, and it is to you that I fully recommend this solid design. For those of you who need far more spice and pizazz to go along with your crunch, this one will likely taste as bland as it looks. Currently, I find myself somewhere in-between. I appreciate all the working cogs within this system, I just wish Calimala had done more than the bare minimum in its theme, setting, and presentation.
Current Rating: 7/10
Witchstone is perhaps the least Knizian Knizia of all the Knizias I’ve ever played. In fact, I’ve played many non-Knizias that are more Knizian than this. Perhaps that’s because this game is only half Knizia, although it feels maybe a quarter Knizian at best. Confused yet? Me too.
What I’m saying is that Witchstone was codesigned by Martino Chiacchiera and Reiner Knizia. As I understand it, Martino came up with a combo-y concept for a Euro game that was inspired by Knizia’s Ingenious, he approached Reiner about the design, and they decided to work on it together.
The DNA shared between Witchstone and Ingenious can be found in the hexagonal domino tiles and the objective of placing and arranging together matching symbols with these tiles on a hexagonal grid. The similarities stop there. Ingenious plays fast and loose as it sees you scoring in straight lines outward from your tile along rows of matching symbols. Witchstone sees you activating actions with these symbols on a large game board where you get to do each action as many times as the size of the cluster you’ve added your tile to. Ingenious features a shared hexagonal grid board where you can anticipate and cut off opponents from critical scoring opportunities. Witchstone provides personal player boards where nobody else can interfere with your tile arrangements and combos. Come to think of it… I lied. These games share one more thing in common: I believe they are both best played at 2-players… although for very different reasons.
Ingenious is best at 2 because it allows for the most strategy, planning, and anticipation against your competition. Witchstone seems best at 2 simply because adding a third or fourth player seems to add no benefit to the experience and merely extends the game length. While players are building routes and snatching up bonuses from opponents across the shared board of Witchstone, the game still manages to feel mostly solitaire, which is the first element that feels un-Knizian. The real meat of the gameplay lies in your own personal player board where you must assess your five tile options and determine which one can be placed in the best spot for the best immediate combo. It is of course wise to position your tiles in a way that you leave room for future combos; so this challenge of arranging, sequencing, and combo-ing your tiles is probably the most engaging aspect of the game.
There are several tile symbols that activate different action options including:
-Claiming routes with your energy tokens that score points and allow you to move witches around the board
-Placing witches at your tower and transporting them along your routes or other player’s routes to score points and claim a bonus action token
-Moving your owl around a rondel to earn every point token and bonus action token you pass along the way
-Clearing crystals off your board to earn bonus actions and make space for more tile clusters
-Moving up the wand track to earn points or bonus actions
-Claiming a scroll card that provides private objective points or bonus actions
Forgive my use of the Taco Bell analogy on yet another game this year… But essentially, Witchstone is your classic Taco Bell menu of action options. The few core ingredients of beef, cheese, and tortillas (or in Witchstone’s case: points and bonus actions which earn you more points and more bonus actions) are renamed and rearranged into a wide menu of options that appear to be different but roughly taste and feel the same upon ingestion and digestion. Somehow it’s both exciting and repetitive to explore these different menu options. And I especially worry that this repetitiveness will quickly overtake the excitement with further plays. And here we find another un-Knizian trait in Witchstone: it’s fundamentally a point salad game where every action and every strategy results in roughly the same effect.
Where anything can result in more points and/or more actions, it’s as though everything you do in the game feels good. But when everything feels good, there is a noticeable lack of tension and drama to the experience. I’m used to Knizia games giving me painful decisions and unfolding dynamics, but Witchstone merely provides increasingly larger combos. It trades potency for pleasantries. So of course, with the right crowd, Witchstone will really hit the spot. As for myself, I find that I quickly grow tired of ‘pleasant’ games. Give me that raw, stinking potency, baby.
Current Rating: 6.5/10
I went into Riftforce expecting a Schotten Totten / Battle Line style of game, but I was surprised to find that this one is much more of a dueling design than anything else. While there are elements of hand management and attacking or defending sections of the rift, these features are overshadowed by the asymmetric abilities and damage dealing.
Similar to other dueling games I’ve played in recent years such as Summoner Wars and Unmatched, you’ll be chipping away at the health of your opponent’s units until you’ve wiped them out. You’ll score a point for each enemy card eliminated, and the first to twelve points after an equal number of turns wins (if you get there on the same turn, then you keep playing rounds until someone breaks the tie). Depending on your four chosen guilds, you may have ways to protect your damaged cards from certain death such as healing or moving them to a safer position. But eliminating cards is only half the battle.
The other way to score points is with the “Check and Draw” action of drawing your hand back up to 7 cards and scoring a point for every rift space where your cards are unopposed by enemy cards. You won’t be allowed to select and milk this action every turn, as you can only take it if you have less than 7 cards. So you’ll often have to choose one of the other two action options: 1) play up to 3 cards of the same number or guild type into the same rift space or into 3 adjacent spaces, 2) Discard a card and activate the powers of up to 3 cards that match its number or guild type.
Your deck consists of 4 unique guilds that you and your opponent drafted at the start of the game. Each guild has 5’s, 6’s, and 7’s with more 5’s than 6’s and more 6’s than 7’s. I rarely had problems playing or activating three cards in a single turn, as I often found many cards of the same number or type in my hand. If you plan your actions well, you’ll be able chart multiple turns in advance. That way you’ll get the most value out of hand before needing or wanting to draw more cards. You’ll often find yourself stretching your hand out because usually your opponent will try to patch up any holes along the rift to prevent you from getting easy points when you Check and Draw.
There’s some interesting combo potential within the power activation action. It’s even possible to avoid the death of your card, strengthen your rift defenses, and eliminate an opponent’s card all in the same action. The plant guild lets you open holes in the rift by moving enemy cards to different spots while doing damage to them. The water guild can attack, move, and attack again. The lightning guild can chain two attacks across multiple enemies if the first blow is deadly. The shadow guild teleports around the rift and deals minimal damage, but it scores an extra point if that damage is the final blow. With 10 possible guilds and an endless amount of combinations, there is an exciting amount of variety to explore here.
This design has really nailed down the elegant, turn-by-turn tactics of a dueling game. Each action option has weight and each card has purpose. Yet the overall experience fell flat for us, much more than I was expecting. While the game is made up of solid ingredients, the resulting meal failed to fully satisfy. After giving it some thought, the main issue I can identify is one of a flat game arc.
Over time I’ve found that the most satisfying games, whether they are dead simple or overwhelmingly complicated, always feature a dynamic arc. What that means is that the overall experience and feeling of the game morphs, evolves, or changes over time. Essentially the first turns feel different from the last, even if they don’t look different. The game is broken up into first, second, and third acts by vibe and aura. This is a topic I’ve explored in another article, and it explains why Ice Cream Pints and A Feast for Odin capture my heart far more than Bananas and Raiders of the North Sea.
Unfortunately with Riftforce, I found that my many actions and turns all blurred together into a tactical cycle without any change in mood. Where Schotten Totten / Battle Line features a tentative 1st act, a risk-taking 2nd act, and a brutal 3rd act, Riftforce simply gives you Actions A, B, and C to wash, rinse, and repeat as you march your token up the point track.
In the deepest pits of dental school, where the first and second year students toil away by drilling on plastic teeth attached to mannequin heads, one learns the important difference between “errors” and “critical errors”. Perfection in dental procedures such as fillings and crowns is much like a fable—even the student prodigies rarely capture such unicorns. Usually, some aspect of a tooth preparation will at least be a half-millimeter too wide here or a couple degrees too acute there. It’s ok to have minor errors as long as the overall work is sound. The important thing is that you avoid critical errors that result in an automatic failure. Errors such as drilling into the wrong tooth, burrowing all the way to the pulp of the tooth, obliterating a restoration’s chances of lasting any reasonable amount of time—those kinds of things.
Critical errors in board games are much more subjective than those found in dentistry. A game could be considered successful even if it only ever brought enjoyment to one person. Yet these many years of gaming and analyzing have helped me to discover my personal critical errors in tabletop gaming. One of these is undoubtedly the lack of a compelling game arc. Riftforce is a prime example of a game that does absolutely everything else right, yet its one critical error undermines the experience for me.
Current Rating: 6/10
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.