Posts Tagged ‘ Stefan Feld ’

Bora Bora (Game Review)

Bora Bora box

Bora Bora

Bora Bora is another complex game from Stefan Feld. If you’re familiar with Trajan and Castles of Burgundy, you have an idea what that means: A “point salad” game with more ways to score than any one person can handle. The different strategies are well balanced, and the winner will be the player who sees the best mix of opportunities based on the way the dice landed or cards came out. The central mechanic is some sort of creative action selection, and, of course, the theme has nothing to do with the gameplay.

Speaking as a huge fan of Feld, I think that this is his best game yet. It’s an especially tight version of his “too little time to do what you need” approach, with a lot more player interaction than most games that are this balanced and strategic. That interaction also helps the game to grow with your group as you get more experienced. In the early games, struggling to do your best is challenge enough. Once the basic strategies are under control, and players start looking around for opportunities to block each other, then the game grows new dimensions. And even the very first game is fairly accessible considering how much is going on. Everyone has their own “task tiles” and must complete one every round, so newbies have goals to direct them through the many choices they have to make.

Bora Bora play

The easiest way to describe this is “Trajan meets Macao with a new take on worker placement”. It’s like Trajan in that there are several actions to select, and they refer to areas of the board where you can score or gain resources in different ways. But the different areas here are more tightly interrelated than Trajan’s are. You’ll focus on one or two areas per game, but need to put some effort into all of them.

I’m reminded of Macao because that game has cards that keep piling up to be completed. Bora Bora’s task tiles are a more refined version of that, partly because they require you to accomplish things instead of just collecting resources. But also, you must “complete” one every round, possibly for zero points if you haven’t met the requirement. And the challenge scales well as you gain in strength throughout the game: Everyone starts with two standard tasks and one simple one. The simple one is like to be the only one possible to score in one round. You’ll start working towards the others right away, and choose new tasks that synergize with what you already have. By late in the game, that may finally start to get easy. But you’ll end the game with three tasks still in front of you, and you get one last chance to score all of them if possible! It’s a constant race to stay one step ahead of the game’s clock.

The new take on worker placement is very clever, and ages much better than Trajan’s central action. Your “workers” are dice that get rolled each round. Each action can be taken multiple times, but the die placed must have a lower value than any already on the action. High numbers can do more powerful actions, if you can get them out on time. Worker placement is typically about figuring out which actions need to be taken right away, and which are safe to leave until later. This is even more nerve-wracking, since playing an action isn’t always the same as blocking others. Also, you only have three dice per round in which to prepare for four end-of-round evaluations, including that task tile. There’s no way to to do it all.

The dice-based action selection and task tiles are both excellent mechanics, and the variety of things to do is among Feld’s best. I do think this has a little more randomness than his other complex games, since a couple sets of tiles are mixed up at the start of the game, and a few more (very important) sets are drawn before each round. But that still feels fair, and the game definitely rewards skill and planning. While I fully expect Feld to keep improving, Bora Bora currently stands as his masterpiece.

Grade: A


Reviewing Games on Boîte à Jeux – Previously Reviewed Ones

Boite a Jeux logoI’ve been playing a lot of board games recently on the web. I discussed these in general a couple months back, but I should start talking about the specific games as well. It actually seems a little tricky to review: How do I tell if my opinion is based on the game itself, or the way it plays on the site? So I’m going to start by looking at games that I had already played in person and reviewed before I played them online. Today, I’ll look at four on Boîte à Jeux, and next week I’ll talk about ones on Yucata.

My reviews for these games are focused mainly on why they work, or don’t, online. I’ve already covered the mechanics in earlier articles. My grades here do account for whether or not I enjoy the games in general, but also how they work in a turn-based system and how well they were implemented.

It turns out that the games I already knew are some of the best ones on Boîte, so the reviews here are very positive in three of the four cases. Strangely, the Yucata games I have reviewed already are some of the more disappointing ones there. Don’t think the extremes in these reviews represent the whole sites, though. As you’ll see when I get around to reviewing other ones in a month or two, both sites have their good and bad games.

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New Game Watch: Essen 2013

Though Origins is my annual gaming highlight, last weekend was Essen Spiel, the biggest event for the world in general. Given that, I thought I’d take a look at what new and upcoming games are the most interesting right now.

This is definitely not a thorough list. It’s just the games that I have my eye on after skimming through various news sites and blogs. And since most of those sites were mainly posting pictures and discussing the new convention hall, I turned to the two community ratings charts: BGG Geekbuzz and Fairplay. You can see the Fairplay results at Opinionated Gamers, but I’m not sure if you can find a history on the GeekBuzz page, or just see the latest convention’s results. So for posterity, here are the top ten in each:

GeekBuzz Fairplay
1. Amerigo Russian Railroads
2. Bruxelles 1893 Concordia
3. Tash-Kalar: Arena of Legends Glass Road
4. Twin Tin Bots Bruxelles 1893
5. Romolo o Remo? Kashgar
6. Love Letter Rokoko
7. Serpent’s Tongue Spyrium
8. Hanabi Madeira
9. Steam Park Love Letter
10. Glass Road UGO!

It’s a little frustrating to try to make sense of this list from the other side of the world. It’s dominated by worker placement games, and I can find very little information about most of them online. (The rules are often available, but it can be difficult to get much from those alone, especially when you’re trying to catch up on so many.) I haven’t found much in the way of reviews or commentary to tell me how one new worker placement game differs from the next. But as I already mentioned, everyone is talking at length about the Essen convention hall set-up.

I’m sure that a year from now, I’ll have opinions about most of these games. But for now, all I can do is make a note of the most popular ones and try to guess at the best ones.

My initial guesses are below.

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Bruges (Game Review)

Bruges box


Stefan Feld’s board games have been growing more complex lately, and Bruges is his attempt to design a simpler one in his distinctive style. In that regard, I think the game is a mixed success. It’s definitely not the brainburner that Trajan and Castles of Burgundy are, but I don’t know that a fan of light games would find this one any easier to learn. And though it’s still a fun game, it’s not nearly as good as his other recent efforts. I wonder if this “simplification” just doesn’t come naturally to him any more.

As with most recent Feld games, Bruges involves action selection every turn, with looming deadlines and threats of disaster. In this case, the action selection is with colored cards. You can choose any of the six actions, but for five of them, the color of the card you play determines how the action is used. For example, you can take worker tokens of the given color, or earn money equal to the number currently showing on that colored die. Each card also has a “person” with a unique power, and the sixth action is to recruit them. People are worth points and give you new abilities.

There are always several options available to you, and you’ll get the feeling (common in Feld’s games) that you simply can’t find time to do everything you’d like. You’ll need to earn money to recruit a person, and also first build a house (spending workers) for them. Afterwards, the ability they give you usually requires more workers. The actions you spend earning all those things requires you to play cards, which means discarding people. And you can’t focus all the time on getting more people: Disaster tiles come out randomly every round, and you need to get rid of them before three matching ones appear. You can spend money every round to advance on a “prestige” track for points, and also build canals to score further.

There are some clever mechanics. A dice roll at the start of each round determines disasters and prices for everyone, keeping the luck from playing too wild a role. I also like the fact that there are two draw decks, since the back of each card shows the color. This gives players some control over what they’ll draw into their hand.

However, the game has flaws as well. It feels like it’s been modeled after Feld’s other “point salad” games, with several balanced paths to victory. Only the people you recruit are very significant, though; Unless you have a lot of luck or the right abilities, canals and the prestige track are just going to waste your time. Also, drawing the right person at the right time can be worth a lot of points. Despite the other mechanics keeping luck in check, all those random people passing through your hands turn out to be a major uncontrollable factor. There is definitely skill in Bruges, but I’ve finished games in both first and last place and not felt like I did anything different to earn the credit in one or the blame in the other.

Bruges is a decent game, offering a lot of choice while keeping the strategy light. My familiarity with Feld’s style is both good and bad here: I appreciate the tweaks on his typical design decisions, but also feel like it promises a game with different balance and victory paths than it actually has. If you aren’t familiar with his games, just think of this as an opportunity for a fun sort of frustration, because you’ll always have lots of things to do and just a few actions to do them in. But despite that, the winner will be the one who drew the best cards. That should give you an idea of whether you’ll enjoy this.

Grade: B-


Revisiting Trajan and Castles of Burgundy

As a general rule, I don’t change grades once they’re posted. Reviews are supposed to reflect my opinion once I’ve first gotten familiar with something. If things that I’d known for years were graded alongside new items, it wouldn’t be fair. But on the other hand, if something that turns out to be a real classic after I’ve gotten to know it better, I don’t want to ignore that. So, half a year after initially discussing Castles of Burgundy and Trajan, I’m revisiting the reviews.

Trajan box


My B+ grade for Trajan holds firm. It’s a clever, fascinating system with a lot of well-balanced aspects. As I said initially, its action selection system requires you to plan several moves in advance, while the amount of activity means you’ll often have to look for ways to change mid-plan. This is best with the full four players, since that makes it a lot more interesting to try to stay on top of the chaos. Depending on how you count, there are five or six ways to earn lots of points in the game. You’ll need to focus on a few of them each time. But they all take focus, and it’s really common for half of them to be impossible for you by mid-game. With poor planning, you can end up with no real opportunities for a long stretch of time.

In short, I’ve gotten used to it now. The initial overwhelming feeling is gone, with no new depths to replace it. However, it remains innovative and well-balanced after a lot of plays, and it continues to be fun.

Castles of BurgundyCastles of Burgundy really surprised me with further plays, though. In some senses, it does feel generic – You play a bunch of tiles that score in different ways, like a parody of Euro games circa 2012. It’s a perfect implementation of that “generic Euro”, though, with everything still feeling balanced after a couple dozen games. I’ve seen every major strategy succeed and fail, always for fair reasons. While Trajan has a limited number of ways to score big points, Burgundy always provides multiple opportunities. The trick is to recognize which ones will pay off the best, as well as figuring out how many different directions you can afford to go in at one time.

In contrast to Trajan, I find Burgundy most interesting as a two-player game. You can pay close attention to each other’s boards, and it’s a zero-sum fight to earn the most points.

Even after all this time, Burgundy is more interesting than it was when I wrote the initial review. One initial complaint still holds, in that there can be a lot of downtime simply while waiting for opponents to figure out how to allocate their two dice. It is well worth playing, though, and I now consider this to be one of the classics of the past few years. I’m raising its official Cult of the New grade to an A.

Origins 2013: The New Games

To follow up on my general impressions of Origins 2013, here are the specifics about the games I played. I didn’t feel like I got a good handle on which games had “buzz” this year. Maybe it’s because I was running around from game to game so quickly, or maybe it’s because there were so many new, big releases that the board gamer buzz tied closely to what the community already knew to look for. Either way, I don’t think I can sort my games by buzz-level this year like I normally do. Instead, I’m splitting them up by how new they are. So many of them were brand new that if I just separate the Origins debuts from the ones that came out a few months ago, that divides my list pretty neatly in two. So today I’m going to cover the Origins debuts and upcoming games, and in a couple days I’ll look at the “older” titles.

I’m only looking at games’ US availability here. They almost all come out in Europe sooner, but I’m a US gamer, Origins is a US conference, and I think it’s fair to look at them that way. Also, as usual, I don’t want to give “formal” reviews for a game that I played once in a convention atmosphere. Instead of my usual letter grades, I’m using a 1-10 rating.

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Two Feld Games: Trajan and The Castles of Burgundy

Trajan box


Castles of Burgundy

The Castles of Burgundy

Stefan Feld is a prolific game designer, with at least three new releases scheduled for this year. As two of his recent designs show, though, he manages to keep the quality high. The Castles of Burgundy and Trajan may obviously come from the same design approach, but they feel very distinct from each other.

What is the same? Well, both offer a unique way for players to choose among several available actions each turn. The actions generally involve taking items from a common pool or racing to a goal, which provide the player interaction for the game. Additionally, many actions involve giving you another action of a different type. This isn’t over-powered, as spending an action to gain an action doesn’t automatically give you much, but a well-planned combination will provide big rewards. And while these two games have little of the engine- or empire-building common today, they instead have an open-ended nature that overwhelms the players with choice. The actions provide points or new abilities in different ways, and the game’s internal clock moves too fast to let players take advantage of every opportunity. The different paths are well-balanced, with no one strategy being dominant every time, so each game becomes a matter of finding the best opportunities in the current set-up.

The Trajan player board.

The Trajan player board.

When comparing the action-selection mechanisms, Trajan definitely comes out ahead. Each player has a personal board with twelve markers spread over a ring of six spaces, and they move these pieces around as in a game of Mancala. Each space represents a different action, and the one that you end in determines the action you can take. Further, those markers in the Mancala board come in six colors. Sometimes, you’ll get to place a special tile by one space. If you later trigger that space’s action while two markers of specific colors are present, then you earn a bonus. This means that you’ll need to plan ahead a few turns to make sure you can do the needed actions in the needed order, but you have some ability to shift suddenly if the situation on the board changes. As a simple example, perhaps you planned to use the “Shipping” action next turn, and that would set thing up for you to next take the “Senate” action. If an opponent first plays cards to claim the Shipping points that you wanted, then you may want to wait until that bonus is available again later. But do you have a different way to lead up to the “Senate” action you still really want to play?

In contrast, The Castles of Burgundy’s action-selection is simply done by rolling two dice. Most of the game involves claiming tiles from a central area in one action and then adding them to your “princedom” on a later action. Specific numbers are required in each case, and not always the same for each of the two actions. (For example, you may want to claim the City tile that’s in the “4” area, but the space you’ll later play it to is marked “1”.) Despite some ways for players to tweak dice, this feels more arbitrary than Trajan’s deterministic system, and dice just usually aren’t that interesting. More troublesome, this game can have a surprising amount of downtime as players consider the different options they have for their two actions each turn. (Trajan also takes some thinking, but it’s usually more interesting to watch, and you have more to plan yourself while waiting.)

Two player boards and the central area of Burgundy visible.

Two player boards and the central area of Burgundy visible.

The defense of Burgundy would be that it has the more interesting actions. Though neither has a strong sense of empire-building, Trajan has none at all. That game’s actions are just sources of points with a pasted-on theme. Burgundy at least has the feel of putting together an abstract fiefdom. The board has a pre-determined plan for what types of buildings can go where (with many different boards to choose from, and a typical game filling up at least two-thirds of the spaces), with rewards for completing areas or being the first player to finish off a tile type. Of course, the tiles give different types of bonuses when played, from points to the chance to perform another specific action (not limited by numbers). One tile type provides new “technologies” that give players different abilities or ways to score.

I find Trajan’s actions interesting in a different way, though. Despite the lack of theme, there is an interesting interaction between them. Many resources can be gained from more than one action, and some actions provide benefits to others. Because the Mancala movement lets you skip over actions, it’s possible to play an entire game without using all six action types, and realistically, your strategy will lead to using one or two of them very rarely.

The full Trajan board

The full Trajan board

Regardless of the differences, both games are put together excellently. If you want a balanced game of moderate player-interaction, rewarding the most efficient tactical choice out of many possibilities, then you will enjoy either. I give the edge to Trajan, which most perfectly fits the “default” Feld style explained at the start of this article. It features interesting decisions in which your current move determines what choices will be available in the next one. Even so, it definitely doesn’t make The Castles of Burgundy obsolete. These are both different enough to be worth playing.

Trajan: B+

Castles of Burgundy: B A (I have updated my opinion)

(Trajan images taken by me, while the (better) pictures of The Castles of Burgundy are from Board Game Geek. Follow the links for the originals and photographer credits.)

Origins 2012 Wrap-Up

Another Origins Game Fair has come and gone. For me, it will be remembered as the first one I didn’t get to attend completely. Due to various issues back home (over two hours away), I left, came back, and then left early again. I only got to spend two and a half days at the convention, instead of my usual four and a half. Really, though, that made me realize what a big deal this is for me. Like a holiday, I had to make it back for that partial Saturday, not due to considerations of whether it would be fun enough, but because I simply had to have a complete event. Origins punctuates my gaming year.

It’s too bad I was gone, because in some ways the times I was there were my best ever. It never once took me more than a few minutes to find a game to play. The crowds at the Board Room are open and friendly, the people in the Rio Grande room proactively suggest things to me, and even my trips through the Dealer Hall ended up with more demos than normal.

Maybe this is because Origins happened a month early this year. I don’t know whether the attendance was really as low as it seems – every time, people compare their memories of last year’s busy Saturday to this year’s quiet Thursday – but I’m sure it was down. It’s too bad, because this is the first time in my six years of attending that Origins didn’t have to share downtown Columbus with another large event. It was great not to have rush hour traffic at 2:00 AM for once.

However, I definitely noticed a lack of exciting new games. There are plenty of exciting Summer and Fall releases lined up, but apparently the earlier schedule made Origins miss out on them. I’m not sure whether to blame the convention organizers for shifting the schedule, or the game publishers for not planning around something that had a full year’s notice. Either way, though, the only game with real buzz was Mage Wars, an upcoming constructible deck game that had the largest promotional push I’ve ever seen at Origins. I saw several groups discovering Lords of Waterdeep for the first time (which I’d played a few weeks before), and several more talking about Sentinels of the Multiverse (which I never got around to trying), but most years I’d end up putting those two in the “light buzz” category. This year, I have to abandon my pattern of sorting games by the buzz-factor, because there just wasn’t any.

Seriously, on Saturday afternoon I asked several people flat out “What should I buy?” I was leaving early, I still had a few hundred dollars in my pockets that I’d expected to spend on great new games, and I wanted to find something cool. But after asking almost ten people I trust, with a wide variety of tastes, no one could suggest anything. It’s not that there aren’t good games out there, but there really wasn’t anything new and exciting.

Instead, the buzz mostly centered around special guests Wil Wheaton and Felicia Day. Origins has celebrity guests every year, but this is the first time I’ve heard people truly excited about them, and also the first time that it sounded like the guests stayed to enjoy the convention instead of just cashing their check. My Twitter feed was filled with people talking to and about them, and it sounds like they hung out to try lots of games and actually visit people. The celebrities aren’t why I go to Origins, but I think this is an encouraging sign. Next year, it will be back to its more popular late-June date, and the organizers now know a new trick.

So with all that said, it’s time to look at the new games I learned. They are ordered from the best to the worst, at least as well as I can do for first impressions of such a variety of games.

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