Board Game Capsule Reviews: Fillers

My board game reviews have rarely looked at any “fillers”. These are the simple ten-to-twenty minute games you might play as friends start to trickle in for game night, or when you’ve finished your longer game and are waiting for another group to finish theirs. Almost by definition, fillers are rarely as satisfying and replayable as the longer, more complex games. Even so, there is an art to making good ones. Here are reviews of four fillers I’ve gotten in the past couple years.

Felix: The Cat in the Sack box

Felix: The Cat in the Sack

Felix: The Cat in the Sack

Like many fillers, Friedemann Friese’s Felix: The Cat in the Sack isolates a single mechanism that might have been part of a more complex game. Sometimes this works well, and other times it doesn’t. In this case, the auction system of Felix is clever, but on its own, it usually gets old even during the short length of one game.

Each round, players bid on a set of cards, which are worth a mix of positive and negative points. It works like a standard auction in which each person in turn must either raise their bid or drop out. The first player to drop out receives some money in compensation, and the last player to fold gets a lot. However, all the cards being bid on start out face down. Every time a player drops, one more card is turned up. Since the cards have widely different values, sometimes dropping out is the best move and sometimes the winner of the auction gets a great deal. Also, each person sees one of the face-down cards before the auction starts, so you can plan using your knowledge or try to guess what the other cards are based on the way your opponents act.

It’s a cool system, but even the nine rounds of the game feel like a couple too long. There’s no logical progression to the play, with every round working the same as every other one. As long as no one foolishly runs out of money, the events of one round won’t impact the others. As clever as Friese’s auction system is, the defining part of Felix is just that it’s too quick for anyone to really mind it.

Grade: C+

Scrabble Slam! box

Scrabble Slam!

Scrabble Slam!

A cheap cash-in on the Scrabble name, Scrabble Slam! is just a deck of cards with letters on them, packaged with probably the first set of rules anyone could think of. (The designer, Joe Wetherell, is not credited anywhere in the box and has apparently not made any other games.) You begin the game by choosing any four-letter word to make in the middle of the table, and then the goal is to get rid of your cards by playing new letters on top of existing ones. It happens in real-time, so everyone races to play their letters before someone changes the word and forces all players to look for ways to change the new word.

First of all, a game that uses four-letter words and nothing else just doesn’t feel like Scrabble at all. If you enjoy Scrabble, whatever the reason, you won’t find that element you love here. (Unless the thing you love is holding up the game to dispute words.) Even more importantly, though, is that this doesn’t work as its own game, and it doesn’t seem to have been tested at all. You can play any letter as long as it changes the current word to another valid word, which means that the best way to play fast without pausing to think is just to jump back and forth between two words. (“I change FATE to HATE to FATE and then back to HATE!”) Also, with everyone playing at once, it will be common for two people to try to play simultaneously. If they play to the same letter, it will be easy to tell which one put their card down first. but if they play to different ones, you have a problem. (I change FATE to HATE at the same time you change it to FETE. That creates “HETE”, which isn’t a word. Whoever played last needs to withdraw their card, but we can’t agree who that is.)

There are better word games and better real-time games out there. It’s difficult to find it offensive when it’s this quick and fast-paced, but Scrabble Slam! just fundamentally doesn’t work as a game. Also, it feels so obviously rushed out to market that I can’t help but feel insulted.

Grade: D-

Sneaks & Snitches box

Sneaks & Snitches

Sneaks & Snitches

This is my favorite one here. Like Felix, Vlaada Chvátil’s Sneaks & Snitches is distilled down to one simple mechanism. However, this game also has the feeling of progression that Felix lacks. Most of the scoring comes from winning majorities in various categories, which gives players a constantly-changing set of goals to work towards.

Each round, a series of cards with different values are dealt out on the table. Each player secretly chooses to send a thief (“Sneak”) to steal one of them. They also send a guard (“Snitch”) to protect one of the others. Your goal is to send your Sneak to a location where no one else played either character, so you can win the card. If multiple Sneaks show up in one place, without any Snitches, then each one earns a lesser consolation prize. And if any Snitches are blocking the location of your Sneak, you get nothing at all.

I enjoy simultaneous choice games a lot. Should you try to take the most valuable item, given that someone will probably block it with their Snitch? But if everyone assumes that someone else is going to block it, maybe no one will. And since points are won by being the best in various categories, most cards will be more interesting to some players than others. And also, cards are discarded if no one sent either character there, but stay on the table for the next round if they were protected by a Snitch! So if you really want a certain card off the table, you will have to leave it alone at some point.

Sneaks & Snitches is a fast-playing game, in which you feel like you have actual information with which to out-guess your opponents. The actual result often feels a little chaotic and frustrating, but the game rushes to the end much more quickly than I always expect. Unlike Felix, which gets old a couple minutes before it ends, this one always feels like it should have lasted a couple more. That makes a huge difference.

Grade: B

Travel Blog box

Travel Blog

Travel Blog

Travel Blog, also by Chvátil, is a real-time game about geography. Fortunately, speed and quick thinking matter more than geographic knowledge. The idea is that you want to plan a trip (for your commercial blog) as inexpensively as possible, so you must choose the one that crosses the fewest lines on the map. For example, everyone may be “starting” in Utah, and will have seven other US states to choose from. Montana, a two-hop trip, is a better choice than Minnesota, which takes three. (A one-hop trip, such as Nevada, is too “boring” for your readers and so incurs an extra penalty.) After a couple rounds like that, you’ll move on to trips with three destinations and then four, increasing the potential payout or penalty for your choices. Oh, and you’re doing this by placing tokens on cards. You don’t get to look at the map until your choice is made. If you’re playing with someone who has memorized the United States map, you can use the European one instead. Does anyone at the table remember whether Moldova borders Belarus?

Between Galaxy Trucker and Space Alert, Chvátil has a lot of experience with elegant real-time mechanics, and so this doesn’t have the tossed-off feel that Scrabble Slam! does. He’s carefully considered rules to encourage speed and make each result clear (if two people choose the same location, their tokens will end up piled on top of each other, and the later one pays an extra cost), and this also rewards quick estimations more than geographic expertise. Additionally, simple rules about how everyone holds their tokens ensure that the dealer isn’t left behind. It works the way it’s designed, and whether you know geography or not, it’s funny to look at the guesses everyone makes.

The fun only lasts for a few games, though. The sweet spot of “geography game that doesn’t require geographic knowledge” is amusing, but also makes the results feel a little arbitrary. There’s also one serious hole in the otherwise good real-time rules, as the only reason to hurry is to try to choose your spot before other people do. Once only one player is left, they can stop to think as long as they want, even doing full calculations if they’re familiar with the maps. That needs to be fixed.

Grade: C+

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