Category Archives: Board Games

A review of Kodama: The Tree Spirits

Introduction

In 2014, Daniel Solis released another of his POD card games. I’d been looking forward to this one for a while. It had the aesthetic feel I like, both in game design and actual graphic design. In this game, you are all using cards to create little ink drawings of trees and scoring points based on the flowers, dragonflies, and the like that inhabit the various branches.

It’s called Kigi.

So, when I heard that Action Phase Games was planning on redeveloping Kigi into a new game, I was intrigued. I won’t lie; I was debating what my interest level was. Did I really need a mere variant of Kigi if I already owned Kigi?

But then, as I saw the game art, I realized that my daughter Hope (who turns 7 today!) would love it. And as I heard about the changes that Action Phase made to the gameplay, I became more interested. So I backed the Kickstarter for Kodama.

I’m really glad that I did.

Gameplay

In Kodama, you’re trying to grow the best tree for the little tree spirits to inhabit. You each start with a trunk with one of six features on it: a caterpillar, a star, a cloud, a mushroom, a firefly, or a flower. Then, on your turn, you take a branch card from a display of four cards and adding it to your tree. The end of the branch must touch the bark on a previous card, and you can only touch one other card. However, to be clear, you do not have to play on a grid or anything. So your tree tends to grow in semi-organic ways.

These branches have one or more of the same features that are on the trunks, and those control how you score points. For each feature on the branch you just played, score one point for each matching feature in a contiguous line down the branch until you reach a branch without that feature or you reach the trunk. You’re not allowed to play a branch card that scores more than ten points, which also encourages you to diversify your branches, spreading out in a few directions. This might sound complicated, but it’s actually pretty simple once you see it. Again, Hope has this figured out, so it can’t be that tricky.

Four turns comprises a season, of which there are three in a game. (There’s no winter, because trees don’t grow in winter. Savvy?) At the end of each season, each player plays one of the four Kodama cards that they were dealt at the beginning of the game. These represent the tree spirits judging your work and are essentially special scoring cards, such as “Score two points for each feature on branch cards that touch your trunk card” or “Score four points for each branch card with your trunk’s feature that is within two cards of your trunk card” or “Score two points for each cloud or flower on your tree, whichever is fewer”.

Oh yes, there are also the Decrees. These are special laws dictated by the spirits for the duration of a season. Each season has its own deck of Decrees. In the basic game, each season has five possible Decrees, of which you’ll only use one per game. (That’s 125 possible combinations, for those keeping track.) My deluxe Kickstarter version actually includes nine of each, which is 729 possible combinations. These are little effects like “After placing a branch card that touches your trunk card, gain three points”, “At the end of this season, choose an end branch card on your tree and score it again”, or “Score one point when placing a branch card with a firefly or a star on it”. These provide additional opportunities to be considered while playing the game while keeping gameplay fresh.

After three seasons (aka 12 turns) the game is over. Whoever has the most points wins!

Some Clever Marketing

Here I must discuss briefly the genius of the winner card. I don’t know if the winner card exists in the base game, but it was certainly included in my Kickstarter edition. Here’s how this works: whoever wins gets the winner card. That means they get to decorate their finished tree with the little cardboard Kodama that came with the game. Then, you’re supposed to take a picture of the winner with the winning tree and post it on social media with the hashtag #kodama.

In other words, this game provides a built-in victory ceremony which naturally turns into free advertising for the game.

As I say: genius. Really, I tip my hat to Action Phase Games for coming up with this idea. It feels like such a natural part of the game while improving the marketing of the game at the same time. Everyone wins!

Playing with Hope

Daniel Solis, the designer of Kodama, has commented that he has stumbled into designing a number of games that gamer parents can play with their children. Kodama is no exception. As I mentioned, I primarily backed Kodama to have a game to play especially with Hope, and that seems to have worked out well.

There are a few reasons for this. The graphic design and basic gameplay certainly help. There’s something satisfying about growing a little tree, even if you don’t win. Also, the math that the game requires is essentially just counting, which makes it easier for Hope to engage with. The Decrees are also pretty simple to get, and in our last game Hope was considering the bonuses from Decrees and reminding me to score them.

The only area that could be difficult is the actual Kodama cards. And this is where Action Phase Games had their other stroke of genius in developing the game. They included three sets of special Kodama cards called Sprouts which are specifically intended to be used by children. Each set is comprised of three little Kodama, each labeled for the season they are intended for. Taken together, each set of Sprouts essentially rewards collecting two features. For example, one set has these scoring conditions: “Score five points for each branch card with a firefly or flower on it that touches your trunk” for Spring, “Score 3 points for each branch card on your tree with a firefly or flower on it” for Summer, and “Score 1 point for each firefly or flower on your tree” for Fall. So, when Hope has this set of Sprouts, all she needs to focus on is collecting lots of fireflies and flowers. That’s a much simpler initial heuristic than trying to understand a hand of Kodama cards.

Oh, and last game, she scored about 20 points per Kodama card, which gave her the game in a five-player game.

In essence, the Sprouts represent an elegant handicapping system allowing young children to play Kodama with older children or parents and actually be competitive. I won’t lie; this might be my favorite part of the game.

Differences from Kigi

For those of you curious, here are some of the ways that Kigi is different from Kodama.

First, in Kigi, you can play on anyone’s tree to score points, not just your own. In addition, instead of there being a rule against branch placements that score more than ten points, in Kigi this triggers a pruning that cuts that entire branch back to the trunk, thus resetting that scoring opportunity.

Also, In Kigi, the bonus scoring cards are shuffled into the deck with the branch cards and must be chosen from the display instead of taking a branch card. These bonus cards (called Commissions) represent end game goals that can now be scored by anyone, like “have the fewest flowers on your tree” or “have the most pruned cards” or the like. At the end of the game, each Commission is worth ten points to the player who fulfills it. If you took the action to choose the Commission, you win ties. If the display ever fills up with Commissions, then it clears and refills from the deck. So, it’s not a given that any particular Commission with end up in play. Unless, you know, you make sure that it enters play.

These factors aren’t the only differences, but they are probably the most significant. They make Kigi a potentially more confrontational game, as players can sabotage other players’ trees through triggering pruning or by adjusting feature count to skew Commission scoring.

Conclusion

I was really happy with Kigi when it came out. It slotted into a neat place in my collection, being able to play with a wide range of players, including relatively young players like Hope.

But I can’t lie. I think that Kodama has fired Kigi. Here’s why.

First, removing the competitive card play and, therefore, the pruning, allows the game to be about building up. At the end of a game of Kigi, you’d frequently have several players with only stumps of trees, due to particularly brutal pruning. Kodama fulfills the promise of Kigi by giving each player a beautiful, unique tree at the end of each game. Win or lose, you walk away being able to feel proud of yourself for having accomplished something, which also fits the comtemplative feel that Kigi presented but didn’t necessarily provide.

Also, being dealt a hand of Kodama at the beginning of the game provides strategic direction beyond merely lining up the most features. Ideally, you want to consider your hand of Kodama at the beginning of the game and plan which one will be played in which season–and therefore which one will not be played–and grow your tree accordingly. Kigi was purely tactical, but Kodama actually introduces strategy into the gameplay.

The Decrees are another pleasant addition that further diversify gameplay, which should help keep the game fresh for many plays.

And, I have to admit, the Kodama are all so darned cute!

Kodama should be available from your local gaming store starting April 24. Pick yourself up a copy!

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Horus Heresy

Recently, I made the comment that I might be going through a midlife crisis. I am judging this purely on my recent reattachment to the world of Warhammer 40,000. I used to play games set in this universe a lot when I was younger. In fact, my Internet handle (Great Wolf) is drawn from the background of this universe. Of late, there seems to have been a revival in games set in the 40k universe. Or maybe I’ve just been noticing more. And so, today, I’d like to talk for a moment about the new edition of Horus Heresy from Fantasy Flight Games.

And, for those of you who aren’t gamers, there’s still a bit of classic “Dark and Quiet Room” introspection at the end of this article. Stick with it!

First, here’s a thumbnail sketch of the Horus Heresy, for those of you who don’t know.

Once, the Emperor of Man walked among his people, having created the twenty Primarchs and their Space Marine Legions from his own geneseed. They had embarked on a Great Crusade to conquer the galaxy for the good of mankind. And the Imperium spread, and all was good.

But trouble came. The Warmaster Horus, the greatest of the Primarchs and beloved of the Emperor, fell to the corrupting influence of Chaos and turned against the Imperium. Fully half of the Space Marine Legions rallied to his banner, and the Imperium was split by civil war.

Horus knew that the ultimate success of his rebellion required the death of the Emperor. So, he diverted a number of the loyalist Space Marine Legions and then, in a bold gambit, struck with the bulk of his forces directly at Terra, the capital of the Imperium.

Initially, the traitor forces swept aside the loyalist defenders, who were also betrayed by Chaos sympathizers within their own ranks. The Imperial Palace itself was breached, and bitter house-to-house fighting filled the compound with bodies. Massive armies collided, and the dead were everywhere. Time and again, the traitor Marines hurled themselves at the defenders, and each time they were repulsed. And yet, slowly but surely, the loyalists were pushed back. They were running out of time.

Interestingly, so was Horus. Word reached him that the other loyalist Marines had defeated the troops he had sent to pin them, and now an armada was en route to Terra. If he could not kill the Emperor in time, he would be overwhelmed by reinforcements. So, he dropped the void shields on his flagship, hoping that the Emperor would beam aboard.

He did.

The fate of Terra was sealed in single combat between the Emperor and the Warmaster. In the end, the Emperor was victorious, killing Horus while suffering a mortal wound himself. And so the Emperor ascended to the Golden Throne, where he is kept in perpetual life support so that his powerful psychic mind can continue to protect his people.

The siege of Terra is the single most important event in the history of the 40k universe, and it is the setting for the wargame Horus Heresy. One side plays the loyalist defenders, and the other side plays the attacking traitors. Like other wargames, part of the joy of the game is seeing if you can outperform the historical (or, in this case, “historical”) outcome. Can you actually succeed where Horus failed? Or can you preserve the Imperium with fewer losses than the Emperor?

Yeah, this sort of thing totally works for me. Some have noted that the universe of Warhammer 40K is a fascist one, and I’m hard-pressed to argue with them. However, that’s not the appeal of the setting for me. Instead, it’s the overwrought heavy metal opera-ness of it all. You know, massive heroes in massive armor doing massive battle with each other. (For a sense of this, check out the intros to the Warhammer 40K computer games Dawn of War and Dawn of War II.)

And the siege of Terra particularly works for me, because it’s such an epic battle. You know, not just treachery, but vile treachery!!!. Not just heroism, but desperate heroism!!!. Not just combat, but grim combat!!!. And yeah, those exclamation points are definitely appropriate. But there’s more.

Horus Heresy does a fine job of depicting the siege of Terra as it’s described in all the stories: a grim, grinding, desperate battle. Combat isn’t about slashing maneuvers as much as it’s about feeding troops into the meat grinder and hoping they survive just a little longer than the enemy. The scale is so vast that the armies feel more like lumbering behemoths crashing into each other. And both sides feel the hot breath of bitter defeat on their necks.

As the loyalist defender, you are constantly surrounded by forces that seem more mobile and responsive than yours. The besieging ships barrage the ground from orbit, killing your few defending troops. Drop pods land everywhere, disgorging traitor Marines at your weakest points. You are betrayed by your own units who join the enemy, rather than standing strong by your side.

But the traitor player is no better. There never seems to be enough forces in place or enough maneuverability to get the job done. The defenders have vast adamantium fortresses which shelter them from your onslaught. Loyalist Marines slaughter your troops as soon as they land, scattering the survivors to the four winds. And time is not on your side. The game has a built-in timing mechanism and all the Imperium has to do is hold on long enough for relief to arrive. Wait too long to muster your forces, and you may not have enough time to use them.

And so, both generals feel the pressure, the sinking feeling that it’s all about to come apart, that defeat will claim you. I’ve found that it’s a common occurrence for both players to feel like they are losing at the same time.

And this led to a conversation I had with my wife. I was commenting on this aspect of the game, and she said that she actually didn’t like that part of the game. Well, kinda. Because then she launched into a passionate description of the desperate last stand. You know, the kind of story where the defenders are outmanned, outgunned, and surrounded. The kind of story that ends either with a hard-won victory for the defenders, earned at great cost, or their finally being overrun and slain. And we agreed that the important part of these stories is that the defender doesn’t let go. The point isn’t that they won or lost. The point is that they refused to give up. That, whether victorious or defeated, their will was not broken, and they stood tall against the onslaught.

Even if they died. All of them.

We respect that kind of story. Those are the virtues that we celebrate, which just goes to show that we were made for each other. I’m not as interested in a conquering hero as much as a desperate man, surrounded on all sides, who refuses to yield because his cause is righteous and just. Victory is irrelevant, because, really, he has already won. He fought the battle against his fear, and he emerged victorious.

That’s why the siege of Terra and Horus Heresy speak to me.

But, if these are the sorts of stories that I celebrate, what does this say about me? I often find that I discover qualities in myself through gameplay that I can then apply to life. What can I be learning about myself from this?

Could it be that God made me to fight this sort of fight? Not a grand and glorious push to achieve some noble goal, but something darker? A grim resistance, perhaps, surrounded on all sides but refusing to yield, having already won the battle against myself because I know that the cause is righteous and just.

And, if that is the case, should I be surprised if I sometimes feel tired and surrounded and alone? After all, for some bizarre reason, I consider that to be a position of honor. Maybe I need to see it as such and learn to shoulder that burden. Maybe…just maybe…God is actually seeking to honor me in this way. So maybe…just maybe…I need to learn how to honor Him in those times. Incomplete thoughts, I know, but there you are.

So, a big thanks to Jeff Tidball for designing Horus Heresy. I enjoy the game, and I’m looking forward to playing it more.


I wrote a game!

Crystal came to me the other day and asked me to make a math game for my kids to help them learn their math problems. Here’s what I came up with:

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Untitled Math Game

Make two decks of cards. One of them (the “student deck”) is made up on the different math problems to be learned. (e.g. “5+2”, “4+1”, and the like). The other deck of cards (the “teacher deck”) is made up of cards with the answers for the problems in the student deck (e.g. “7”, “5”, and so on). In addition, the teacher deck has an “I Win!” card that is put at the bottom of the deck.

The student starts by drawing 7 cards from his deck. When he is ready, he tells the teacher to start. The teacher will then flop cards from his deck onto the table. This should be at a regular pace (every 3-5 seconds). The student then attempts to match the cards in his hand with the cards that the teacher is flopping onto the table. Each matched pair is pulled off the table. The student may draw more cards from his deck whenever he desires.

The teacher wins if he flops his “I Win!” card or if he has more cards on the table than the student has cards in hand.

The student wins if he manages to get rid of his cards before the teacher flops the “I Win!” card.

The student’s score is equal to the number of matches he has made. So, even if the student loses, he can still measure his progress.

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This has not yet been playtested; I’ll report back when I know more. But, in the meantime, any thoughts?


Further thoughts on Android

At last! Last Saturday, I had the chance to play Android again. I’ve written about this game before, and I have some additional thoughts as a result of our Saturday game.

Let’s see. I was playing as Louis Blaine, Gabrielle played Caprice, and Crystal played Floyd. Yep, I was the only real human in the game. The final scores were as follows: Crystal 51, Gabrielle 38, Seth 27. 15 of my points were from a surprise murder solve on my part. There were only two suspects left in the game; had the other suspect been responsible, Crystal would have lost 5 points (her innocent hunch would have been wrong), and Gabrielle would have gained 15 points for her guilty hunch. In other words, my solving the murder cost Gabrielle the game.

Actually, that leaves me to my first collection of thoughts about Android

Solving the murder in Android

Some folks on the Internet have been thoroughly distressed that solving the murder doesn’t automatically win you the game. After all, the game is a murder mystery, right? Shouldn’t you win by solving the murder?

Well, see, it’s actually not a murder mystery. It’s a SF neo-noir game. The goal of a protagonist in a noir is discovering the truth, not solving the crime. This may sound like I’m splitting hairs, but I’m not. Our Saturday game actually gives an excellent example of what I mean.

Twenty of Crystal’s fifty-one points were from conspiracy markers, and another 6-9 were from Haas and Jinteki tokens. Sure, Louis eventually collared the murderer, but she was just the flunkie who took the fall. Floyd got the dirt on the real villains, who were from the movers and shakers in New Angeles. I can envision a meeting between Floyd and a couple of powerful men, when he hands them a folder with incriminating evidence and tells them how it’s going to be, in his calm, logical way.

Rather than destroying the theme of the game, this feature of the game actually reinforces the theme.

That being said, solving the murder is still important. After all, having the right hunch is worth 20 points (15 for your guilty hunch plus 5 for your innocent hunch). As I’ve already mentioned above, if Gabrielle had solved the murder instead of me, the swing in points would have vaulted her into first place.

One last point: just because a suspect has the most evidence doesn’t necessarily mean that the suspect will be the most guilty. This seems really obvious, but we were all caught off-guard by the murderer in our game, because the other suspect had many, many more pieces of evidence on her. So, keep it in mind.

Major locations

One weird thing about Android is that the board is filled with buildings that will be rarely used, if ever, in a given game. This is weird from a Eurogame perspective. Why would you have all these abilities on the board if they can’t be used? And the cost of some of those abilities…. They just don’t seem worth it.

Humanity Labor is probably the best example of this. 3 Time to get there, because it’s restricted. Then it costs 2 Time, 2 twilight cards, and one of each favor, all that to get one hit. Who would ever spend that much for just one hit?

I did, during this game, and it cost Crystal 15 points.

Our case was “Last Call at Roxie’s”, which meant that a suspect would be killed with only two hits. Crystal was pushing Eve pretty hard as the murderer, so something obviously had to be done. Eve already had one hit on her from some other source. So I went to Humanity Labor and paid for the other hit.

And, you know, I could see the scene play out, too? Louis is standing outside Humanity Labor. In voiceover he muses, “Eve hadn’t murdered Roxy. I knew that. But she was guilty of something.” He sighs. “Whatever lets me sleep at night.” Then he enters the building.

Perfectly thematic.

The major locations are specialized tools, and, quite frankly, they simply aren’t useful at every time or each case. The toolset is broader than you will need in a given game. But, the tools are available, should the situation warrant, and their presence adds additional nuance to the setting.

Twilight cards

Another “brilliant” insight from our last game: dark cards are a big deal in the game. Fairly early in the game, I played a Louis light card (“Is that all you’ve got?”) that required that the next dark card be played on him. Gabrielle and Crystal then proceeded to ignore the dark cards while still inflicting various pain on me through other means. What I had managed to do was lock myself out of the dark cards altogether.

Don’t do this.

Also, at the end of the game, we realized that all three of us had come very close to burning through our light decks. Had the dark cards not been locked out by yours truly, we probably would have seen even more card play. This seems to sync up with past experience. So, at this point, I consider it to be highly likely that an effective player will see his entire light deck over the course of the game. Again, something to keep in mind.

Miscellaneous

Just a couple of final thoughts. Among other things, this is a game of efficiency. So make use of the various features of the game to set your moves up in advance. Get several leads lined up just across the district border so that you can sweep through several locations quickly. Plot your moves out a couple turns in advance. Try to avoid unnecessary moves, if at all possible.

True, dark card play will affect this, but the uncertainty of the future shouldn’t stop you from laying plans. I mean, you do that in the real world, right?

Also, we used the plot overlays that I found on Boardgamegeek. We would actually place them on top of the corresponding dark deck. This made it a lot easier to remember how to spike an opponent’s current plot, which has been my major concern with trying to track the gamestate as a player. I recommend them.

In Closing

It’s all still true. I know that I won’t be able to get this game to the table often. It’s a long one, and the target audience is narrow. But, when this game can hit the table, it will. And when it does, I want to be playing.


A hook in my mind

Okay, if you’re reading this blog, you probably already know my taste in board games. I’ve been co-opted by the Euro invasion. Give me a good Knizia, maybe 2 hours long max, with streamlined rules with some clever mechanics that twist my brain in happy ways, and with a gamestate that will eventually end.

Simple, right?

So, why do I love Android so much?

I shouldn’t, you know. The game has a 48-page rulebook (PDF). Mmm…full-color…. But that’s not the point! The rules are good enough, but they have significant amounts of chrome. Little fiddly bits that add just a bit more complexity to tracking an already huge game. And the time to play….I’m guessing that experienced players could wrap one of these up in four hours, but with new players, you’re looking at five or six hours.

But it’s such a beautiful game. I mean, look at the trailer. (Yes, the game has a trailer.) Isn’t it pretty?

But that doesn’t really explain why this game has a hook in my mind.

Maybe it’s because I’m a sucker for crime stories these days, and this game is about a murder investigation.

Maybe it’s because I enjoy detective noir, and this game is definitely a detective noir.

Maybe it’s because I have this ongoing love affair with cyberpunk, and this is certainly a cyberpunk game.

Maybe it’s because I love Blade Runner, and this is essentially the Blade Runner board game.

Maybe it’s because Android is the first adventure board game that I’ve played that I actually enjoyed.

Maybe it’s because all the rules and flavor text and pretty pictures actually succeed in doing what the designer intended: transporting the players to another world, where you pilot flying cars across a polluted cityscape, struggling to investigate a crime that is too big for you while trying to avoid failing at life more than you already have.

That’s a place where I could happily go again and again.

It’s strange to call a board game “immersive”, yet, to some degree, that’s what I’m trying to say. Once you grasp the game, you suddenly see that all the mechanics conspire together to create a rich imagined environment. Even the ways that you score victory points are really just ways to bribe the players into doing cool thematic stuff. Like giving the down-on-his-luck PI bad flashbacks about the war, or playing out the growing sentience of your robotic cop.

So, yeah, I know that I won’t be able to get Android to the table much. But, when it hits the table, I want to be playing.


Revisiting a former addiction

Yesterday, I bought some Magic: The Gathering cards.


Zombie Cinema

Because I didn’t stick around for Sunday, I didn’t have a chance to contribute to One Cool Thing I Saw at GenCon 2008. But it’s okay, because Josh Roby covered it for me: Zombie Cinema.

This was the first thing that I saw at the con that actually blew me away. Essentially, Eero Tuovinen took a simplified version of Tim Kleinert’s The Mountain Witch resolution rules and crossed them with the corruption track rules from Reiner Knizia’s The Lord of the Rings cooperative game to create a snappy zombie story boardgame. The mechanics are simple enough to be taught quickly, making it a natural gateway game into These Games Of Ours; however, there seems to be enough depth to be a lot of fun for veterans as well. Even better, the rules are delivered with boardgame-style rigor, leaving nothing to handwaving.

And the kicker. Eero is planning on releasing additional board overlays, allowing the same basic mechanic to be used in other genres as well. Then he said, “Heist game” and I was sold.

I have yet to play, and so it’s possible that the luster might be rubbed off after stepping through a story with these rules. And yet, I don’t think so. In terms of overall coolness, this has my vote for Best New Hotness from GenCon 2008.


Stupid Go humor

Even if you don’t know Go, these are funny.

You’ll need to read the text box on the side to get a sense of what’s going on, though.


Go Lesson One

Go Lesson Two


Do you like Ingenious?

Then go here right now to download and install the Ingenious PC game. Apparently, you have to install it today or it won’t work.


Gaming koans

I’m pretty sure that I’ve linked to this before, but I happened upon this article again, and I think that it’s great.

Gaming Koans

My favorites:

An aspiring game designer came to see Knizia to learn how to design games. Knizia brought out a blank deck of cards, some plain wooden cubes, and a pair of faceless dice. The designer waited, but nothing else happened. “Why are you not teaching me how to design a game?” asked the designer. Answered Knizia, “I have given you everything you need to design the game. I cannot also give you the game.”

Olotka was once singing to himself in a field when it began to rain. One his students ran up to him and said that he should come inside before he got wet. Olotka looked at the water dripping off of the head of his student and replied, “I am not wet. I am playing Cosmic Encounter. You are wet.”