Magic Maze – Strategy Tips

Having just posted the review of this game I wanted to post up some short strategy tips to go with it. Again, there’s no variation in the set up here so it’s all about the “in play”.

Before reading on – consider that you may want to discover these tricks for yourself as solving the puzzle of the co-operative is a big part of the “game” of it.

During The Game:

Explore the whole map; There is a temptation to get drawn to the lightly themed objectives early in the game – focusing on searching with each character for their own weapon. There’s the even worse temptation to complete the weapon search before finding the exits. Resist these and open up the whole map before you begin collecting the weapons. The first reason for this is the change in the teleports (see below) but the second reason is the frantic nature of the time once you complete each stage. Stepping into the final challenge before you know where you’re going will make it almost impossible.

Use the teleports (while you can!); Once you have found all the weapons (and put thee right character on each) then you have completed that section of the game and the teleports are closed. Up until this point in the game you can shift your characters across the map to (a) speed up the move to a new exploration point, (b) prepare for the weapon grab (c) break a deadlock when people aren’t moving the character you want. This last one is key. Breaking the deadlock and shifting the focus can be very powerful when you can’t otherwise say which character you feels need to move.

Move a man near a timer; If you see the timer is running low and you have the opportunity to move a man near the timer do it. It’s a practical point but you may be busy when the timer is even closer. No need to take the last step but make sure that someone is there. When you need them to move it – it’s time to use the big red reminder…

Use the big red reminder; Yes it’s obvious to say you should use it to prompt an action, but think what more it might mean to place it on a particular side of the person when they have to actions. Think what it might mean to place the big red reminder next to the timer?! These different options of when and how to use the reminder will become a custom to your group – don’t forget when playing with new players that it will take time to establish customs.

Work on one/two at a time and not four; There are four characters, four weapons and four exits. If you were able to pat your head and rub your stomach (in the simple experiment) then now try to hop on one leg and nod as well – concentrating on four things is exponentially harder than two. So keep it simple move one or two individuals as a team to their next step and then change focus. How to agree….

Talk when you can; Agreeing on anything mid game requires you to use the short moments (when the elf explores / when the timer is turned). You can talk at these times to simply agree which characters you will move and where they are headed. Try to agree a simple order – you don’t want to find that once you complete the objective you need to talk again.

As I type that the timer is running down and there is no more sand timer turns available I will leave it there…

Magic Maze – Review

Type: Abstract / Co-operative

Time to play: < 0.5 hr (Teaching: 5 minutes)

Best played with: 4-6 players (good at each of these levels)

The 2017 Spiel de Jahres (or Game of the Year) finds it’s self in the illustrious company of T.I.M.E. Stories, Stone Age Junior and Pandemic Legacy – to look back only two years! So what makes this game so special and so different that it has managed to be nominated for the coveted award? Simple – it takes every precondition of a board game and throws it out the window.

You need a board right? Wrong. You need a player that only you play as in the game? Wrong. You will be able to do multiple things in your turn? Not only is that wrong, but in Magic Maze you don’t even have a turn!

So what do you have? Well a simple set of four characters drawn of the archetypes of the RPG world – a dwarf, an elf, a sorcerer and a barbarian. With those four characters you will go exploring a dungeon crawl style expanding map but this time you won’t find any bad guys… instead you will search out your weapons which are also cast into the shopping mall you find yourself in.

The limitations; firstly each player can only move the characters in a limited direction / with limited actions. Secondly you will find limits that only certain characters can help the group move past. After all, it seems in this undetermined shopping mall each area can only be opened by the correct fantasy character. Now if that sounds confusing – it is. The one problem with this game is that the theme is weak and that makes explaining what you are doing in the game quite a bit tougher. After all, why can you each only do one action but you can do it with any character?

So suspending disbelief (which in fairness all games require), you now have your four characters, you each have your unique actions and you know that somewhere in the expanding maze are your weapons. Find them and then find the exits; that’s right there’s a second part – once you found your weapons you need to get out. Oh and if you want to really play the game in a way that tests you – you do all this in silence.

Last rule of importance – your doing all this against the clock. Sure there are sandtimers on the board which allow you to turn the timer, but that’s it and if the sand runs out it’s game over. There’s a number of other small rules about the dwarf moving through certain low arches, the wizard seeing the future tiles, and the barbarian smashing TV cameras – but these are pasted on for complexity and a smidgen more theme. They neither make or break the game.

It’s a pretty neat little game really, it takes next to know time to set up and about 5-10 minutes for a play through. You can vary the difficulty with the number of tiles in the maze that you are exploring and during the game the tension is incredible. The tension builds from that moment where you move the Barbarian North, but now the puzzle dictates he must go West before you can move him. In a cruel twist of fate you don’t have the West action, but you know who does. This is the point in the game where you take the large red piece that was spare and bang it uncomfortably down next to that player. Why? To remind him to look across the board and help you out. Just as he does though, the sand timer drips down and it looks like no-one is in a position to turn it! Oh no – GAME OVER! … Less than 2 minutes and you’re off again and you won’t make that mistake again!

As you can probably tell, I think this game creates incredible little moments and the fact that its so quick to set up and reset is key to making a frustrating event a funny and fast pace thrill. So for a games award that rewards family friendly games and laughter this is definitely a good choice.

The downside; much like any game which is co-operative this is a puzzle. Once you solve the puzzle you can move on to harder pastures, but the reality is that this is a puzzle that feels quite similar each time you play it no matter the level of difficulty – adding 5 tiles just doesn’t add much more. I am currently playing Onirim and whilst I think I will have the same view on that in two weeks, these repetitive simple structures have great appeal at first and then lose there shine quickly

Secondly, this game is good as a group / for a filler but it is not good with a small number. Below 4 players the puzzle is a little bit too easy. Lastly, the box…it’s just a bit bigger than it needs to be. This is a compact little game hiding in a shell twice the size it needed to be. It’s a small issue, but when it’s only the filler game it needs to be able to fit that slot in the rucksack – at least in my opinion.

Last notes:

  • If you play frantic, fast paced and co-operative games, this is a fantastic game for your group
  • If you want to learn the tricks of a game and build your engine in interesting and clever new ways, or fall deep into the complex and rich theme of a game – this is definitely not for you
  • If you win at this game then you have co-operated well and used the rules to your advantage – if you lost, then it’s time to work out how you single that the time is nearly up!

Onitama – Strategy Tips

The set up for Onitama is random and uniform so there is no strategy to be played until your first move – so I will jump right in:

During The Game:

Control the line in front; This is a game about blocking off your opponent’s next move and keeping your master safe. The brilliance of this game is that all the moves are on the cards in front of you and are all public information. If you can see where your opponent can move, you can restrict those options and force the move. In other words, look to the four or so spaces the opponent can move and take the move that allows for the capture of any piece that moves there.

The other way of looking at this tactic is to control the line in front of you – those 5 spaces that offer the best vantage for attack. If you have control of these spaces then it’s more difficult for your opponent to launch an attack. You can use this too push forward (see below).

Identify the unique card & keep it; Generally of the five cards there is one really distinct card – perhaps the one that has a diagonal move in both directions forward or the one that allows you to jump two spaces forward. These distinct cards offer a unique vantage. If you trade them, they will likely be the opportunity your opponent needs. Try to hold on to this card as long as you can and use them to gain the upper hand. These cards are often linked to the first strategy and allow you to control the line whilst preventing your opponent.

Push forward for the “way of the stream”; Pushing forward was part of the first tactic – it’s important because the opponent’s master can always move, but their castle cannot. Taking the way of the stream and capturing their base is a positive way of playing the game. Putting your opponent on defence may also help you to create the opportunity to take the master. Just be careful that your advances don’t backfire!

Don’t be afraid to use your master; Even whilst being careful, using the master is key. You won’t win this fight with one piece tied behind your back and that means you need the master on the front foot. You can keep him supporting or allowing the counter take to any advance by your opponent, but if you can get your master into the front line then you can more nimbly launch that attack for the opponents base when the opportunity arises.

Remember to jump; Some cards allow you to move further than your adjacent square. In this game each piece acts like the knight and jumps (rather than passing through spaces as the bishop would). Taking advantage of this can help you launch surprise attacks. Even using your own pieces as a false shield or allowing the counter-take (after an opponent captures your piece) from this jump move, can trick your opponent into a simple mistake that gives you the upper hand.

Force your opponent to one side; Last but not least – push your opponent to one side. Typically the cards are asymmetric, and your opponent may be commonly using a card that is driving their pieces to one side of the board. It’s okay for a while, but suddenly they can’t move further left/right and that card has limited value, nonetheless you pass it to them and they might have to release the card they have been holding back or slip into a position that is easier for you to dominate / control the line.

With that – all the best, and let me know your tips and thoughts!

Onitama – Review

Type: Abstract

Time to play: < 0.5 hr (Teaching: 5 minutes)

Best played with: 2 players

Onitama is a short chess like game – so this will be quite a short review and I will post up a few strategy tips from my plays so far soon!

The game is distinct in two key ways – how to win and how to move. Firstly there are two ways to win – domination and capture the flag (yes there are more thematic names for these but this is how I remember it). Domination is the simple play to take the king, or master as this game designates the large piece that starts in the middle of your board set up. The piece can be taken by any opponent piece – more on that to come in the movement. Capturing the flag is not obvious from any picture, but once the master/king reaches the starting place of the opponents master/king then they win the game.

These two methods of winning drive the game to clever positional play across a 5×5 grid. Movement is controlled by the cards that accompany this game and this is where variety is brought to each game. Of the 16 cards that come with the game you will only use 5 in each game – that’s 4,368 different combinations in the base game! Each player has two cards and the fifth card is the one you will exchange for the action card you use in your turn. In other words, you will have two possible actions to choose from and once you choose an action you lose that card and gain the neutral card. The card you lost is the new neutral and the very same card your opponent will pick up after their turn.

So you are effectively trading cards on delay with your opponent based on your own movement, all the time trying to trick them into exposing their master or giving you a path to their base. Unlike chess or chequers there is limited attrition here even for new players because there are only 5 pieces on a side. An opening loss of a piece is not game ending but it quickly sharpens the mind.

Such a simple and neat game needs little to be said about it. However, this is well worth looking into because this game is very quick to learn, very quick to play and incredibly engaging. Turns move quickly – you can only do so many things which reduces analysis paralysis. The downside to this game – well the biggest one is the box which is probably 3 times the size it needs to be. The redeeming feature of the large box is that it has been designed to hold a playmat made of the same material as your standard mouse pad – i.e. quite damage resistant and good for setting up in an airport / bar or on the go!

Last notes:

  • If you play two player games at all then this is definitely worth looking into – simply a great game with huge replayability
  • If you can’t stand chess then perhaps give this a pass
  • If you win at this game then you have played well but there is still much to try from various combinations of cards!

Catan – Strategy Tips

So you have decided to play Catan, perhaps you have even had a couple of games already, but now you are looking for what other players do. I found that my competitive nature makes me look through reviews for the tactics that other players use to get the best start – as I couldn’t always find strategies, I thought I would add the tips and tactics that I use in game.

Catan is a classic board game, heavier in luck than many modern board games, but a great game for those new to modern board games. The game requires you to get to 10 points to win – 1 point for a town, 2 points for a city, and 2 points for either the longest road or largest army. Throughout the game you draw resources based on where your towns/cities are built and what dice are rolled. You use the resources to build the towns/cities/roads or draw cards.

Starting Tactics:

5-9; The dice rolling should create a relatively normal distribution however its common that the game doesn’t last long enough for this to pan out. Staying on the tiles marked with a 5-9 dice means that you will get a relatively normal distribution. During the game you will need to stray outside this, but doing so early will likely curtail your potential to build out.

Build to the coast; The towns that you place at the start of the game will have a free road next to them. Trying to build at the start is tricky – you want to get places on the board that allow you to build out quickly and to worthwhile location. However, so is everyone else and they will likely block you off! The tactic that I find works the best is to build such that there is a two road gap to the coast – filled by your free road and the first one you build. It’s very rare for a starting town to be placed on the coast and this means you should have a good run on the second town you want. Second tip to this though is that this coast city should ideally be between two tiles and not on the edge of one. This strategy also gives you a two road gap to another coast edge between two tiles.

Don’t focus on Wood or Bricks; It’s so tempting to focus on building roads and towns and they need wood and brick. However, getting drawn to this is not a good start. Wheat, for example, is present in towns, cards and cities making it much more important! However, this isn’t a perfect rule; if wood or brick are in short supply then you can extract their value from trade.

During The Game:

Get Cards!; When you play this game it’s a simple bit of maths to tell you that getting 4 cities and two towns is the shortest way to get to 10 points from just your buildings – and that’s too many! So you will need cards during this game. Either because they provide a victory point you can hide (and this is good because people target the leader), or because you get the biggest army, or because you build free roads to go for longest road. Don’t worry about getting too many knights, in the long run this is helpful.

Getting to 10 points; So you want to win and cities might not be the way to do it. Perhaps the longest road – with your two free roads, three additional roads will get you to the extra two points (assuming no-one else does). However, if you built to the coast it may be hard to link your starting cities. So perhaps focus on drawing cards – after all the cards will get you one off hidden victory points and knights – 3 knights are 2 points. Generally if you are going for cards don’t worry about roads. So that’s 3 cities, two towns and a 2 point bonus… that’s the most likely way I have found (subject to how much stone there is).

Working The Robber; Perhaps the key advice to this game. The group should use the robber generally to hold back the leader but don’t give everyone an obvious target! To do that you should avoid being the obvious leader and you should definitely avoid putting too many cities & towns around one tile while others are left with just one. A balanced board is one where the robber will move between many locations. An unbalanced board will see the robber move back to the same location time and time again – and if that’s you then you won’t be getting any resources! Also, building next to other players can make (a) a harder decision for those players to rob that tile and (b) encourage the other player to use their knight cards to help you! Last tip – when placing the robber do look at whether the player has knight cards. If the game is balanced, place the robber somewhere it won’t be sent back against you! If everyone has cards then play it to the player to your right – the player who will take longest before getting a turn!

So that’s it – if you use these please let me know if you find them helpful and what else you do to add to these! Good luck gaming!

Galaxy Trucker – Review

Type: Euro with a Race feature

Time to play: < 1.5 hr (Teaching: 15 minutes)

Best played with: 4 players 

Galaxy Trucker was one of those games I had heard a lot about before I played – it seems to be incredibly popular for a game that’s ranked 115 on Board Game Geek. However, I can completely see why those who like it, love it. The relative small size of the game, and old style small rule book should not deceive – this is a game with lots of replay-ability and that can provide hours of fun.

The game is split into three rounds – each round is functionally the same except that the ship you build gets bigger and the challenges you face are harder / greater in number. In each round you have a fixed amount of the time at the start to dive through the tiles like hunting through a space version of Scrapheap Challenge to build your own ship. It’s not that simple either because you need some of almost every type of tile and yet the connectors and the ability to only place pieces which already connect to your ship makes the building frantic for all players. New players might feel overwhelmed, but the more times you play the more intuitive the system feels. Plus the game doesn’t punish (or reward) small vehicles that much and so new players will tend to make it through ok – it’s not one of those games where you feel out played by the mechanics.

So you have filtered through the piles of cannons, engines, batteries and the other assortment of tiles – you even figured out the ratio of batteries to double tiles that you need – then what happens?! This is the best part of the game; you pull out a series of cards which tell the tale of the journey your ships all go on. In mechanical terms this is just a series of short challenge notices – most people scores / if you have enough cannons you don’t suffer damage… But it’s also a great story telling tool where you meet pirates and drive through hazardous asteroid belts. Oh and asteroid belts are frustrating but when the dice rolls and you work out what part of your ship it hit, if you can block it or what damage that did, then you really get the most from the game.

So you can score points in this game for gaining goods, defeating nasty space pirates, building a “well built” ship and for racing back to base first! All these different mechanics really effect the types of ships you will build, but whatever you go for there is a great satisfaction in making it back. Then you total up the points and see who is winning – as you do have two more rounds after the first time!

Each new round has more adventure cards, which you play more of, and a bigger ship for you to build. So each round is likely worth more than the last. If your a Great British Bake off fan then this is somewhat equivalent to doing well in the first round but failing the technical challenge – you still have time to recoup it all in the showstopper.

So, what’s wrong with the game? Well I am not sure I understand the strategy with the aliens and whilst I like the three different ship-shapes that are provided I feel like the base game could offer more variety. If it feels like I am being “picky” it’s because it’s genuinely hard to flaw this game. It’s quick, it’s fun and it will make you compete whilst enjoying the challenge of getting round the board. It’s like having an engine builder where you are just proud you made a good show of it. If there is one major flaw to the game is that it’s truly over within the starting egg timer – the rest, relatively speaking, plays itself out.

You could really enjoy this game if you … are just about anyone. I think this is a good gateway game, may be even an introductory game.

Last notes:

  • If you like reasonably fast games, with a light theme and a challenge just to score points then you should definitely pick up a copy of this
  • If you can’t stand real time dashes or just want a solid 4 hr war game then perhaps you wouldn’t pick this out of the cupboard as often.
  • If you win at this game you will have chosen a good strategy and built well. If you lost, perhaps the dice really fell hard against you, or perhaps you need to work on your shipbuilding.

Onward to Venus – Review

Type: Area Control (some Euro mechanics)

Time to play: < 2 hr (Teaching: 20-25 minutes)

Best played with: 4 players (good with 3 or 5)

Onward to Venus is a tight area control game from the designer of Brass (Martin Wallace). This matters because it contains a variant on my favourite part of Brass – the reset part way through. Onward to Venus is a battle across seven planets or moons from Mercury to the Kuiper Belt. The game is played across three rounds where each round is marked by the addition of new game tiles that drastically effect the possible outcomes on a planet – from crisis to somewhat of an industrial revolution. Players race for factories and mines; when that isn’t enough a war might break out!

Onward to Venus is a close game as the planets are adjacent only to two planets with the exception of the Earth & Moon which are adjacent to Mars, Venus and each other. This, plus an allowance to only move two planets in one turn, drives players to a lot of tough choices and makes the game interaction tense. Squeezed into these planets are the means for production and war.

At the start of each round draw tiles to the planets based on the planets and the number of players. These tiles will allow you to draw cards, gain victory points or gain income. It’s income that will drive the victory point allocation at the end. On each planet, the player with the highest income gains the highest reward – other players with lower incomes can receive lower victory points. Victory at the end will require a mix of income on various planets.

So one part race, one part war game – Onward to Venus drives players to seek income across planets with limited reward to having excess income on a single planet. It’s a race, because once the factories / mines are taken it’s hard to take them back. Not only do you need to overcome player defence, you must wait for a TENSION tile to appear on the planet at the start of a game round. Attacking another player’s asset uses the tension on the planet – and selecting when to use this, against who is key. It also means that players will be frustrated by betrayals with potentially limited ability to strike back.

Hopefully all of the above sounds quite exciting, and when you add to that tiles which bring about impending crisis on each planet – crisis that could make all players lose! However, all this good stuff is balanced out and the low ranking on BGG has some considerations. Firstly, the Brass reset is an interesting comparison. In Brass the infrastructure changes but you can predict exactly how and when. In Onward to Venus the changes are random draws from a bag and happen when a round ends. Round ends are determined by picking up pass cubes during your turn. The picking up of pass cubes is a great mechanism to frustrate opponents but the staggered timing / random tiles combination can make the game feel very arbitrary at times.

Secondly, the game is won or lost at the margins. By that, I mean it’s that one factory on Ganymede or the Moon that tips the balance. Why is that bad? The tension tiles are some people’s favourite component because it limits the warfare, but their importance cannot be understated. Where they come up and when they come up is key to having the chance to re-balance the game. If the dominant player is on three planets that don’t have a tension tile then you can’t remove them. If the tension tiles come up in pairs, then its likely you will have a war with the advantage to the second player.

So unbalanced warfare and random game tiles limit how much I like this game. Nonetheless, I did really enjoy it. If you are willing to put friendships to the side and play a ruthless game in 90-120 minutes you could really enjoy it.

Last notes:

  • If you like war games where you race to capture strategic objectives, and have a few tight but important battles with other players then this is for you
  • If you hate randomness and the risk that you can be powerless to change the outcome of the game in the final third, then give this a pass
  • If you win this game, well played. If you lose, don’t feel too bad as the circumstances matter and vary a lot game to game.