Monday, February 13, 2006

"Torres" by Rio Grande Games

(Originally published in the Missoulian of Missoula, MT on 2/05/06)

In the fall of 2002, my partner Annie and I found ourselves in Paris, France. We were weeks away from finally returning to the states after our Peace Corps Guinea services, and we had taken the long way home.

To put it mildly, we were a little different. I carried around a green metal trunk whose handles had broken off. We said ‘hello’ to just about everyone, and often asked how people were doing three or four times in a conversation. To top it off, in the heart of the culinary capital of the world, we found the only Guinean restaurant and ate there once a day. We were hopeless.

Eventually, we realized we wouldn’t catch up so easily to the developed world. Since we couldn’t go back to Guinea and we couldn’t hack it in Paris, we decided to take an average of sorts. What we settled upon was the medieval town of Carcassonne, France.

Carcassonne is home to a large fortress built during the Middle Ages. It rests on a hill overlooking the town, and its many towers are even now a formidable appearance.

Let me spare you the suspense. There is indeed a game called Carcassonne, and while it’s a great game, it’s played on a flat surface. Maybe I’m being a little picky, but shouldn’t a game about a castle have at least something to do with building up?

For those of you nodding your heads, there is such a game. Its name is "Torres."

Designed by Michael Kiesling and Wolfgang Kramer and distributed by Rio Grande Games, "Torres" is a pure strategy game which involves building three-dimensional castles to impress an aging king.

Set in the Middle Ages, "Torres" tells the story of a kingdom ravaged by war. The old king, eager to choose a successor, charges his knights to rebuild his kingdom. By building tall castles and manning them, the knights win favor (points), and he or she who wins the most by the third year of reconstruction wins the throne.

Two to four valiant knights set out to impress the king. Winning favor can be done in two ways: 1) being in a castle and 2) being in the king’s castle. The latter has a flat reward, so the players’ maneuvering within the first goal becomes the central strategy of the game.

The basic rules are as follows. Within a turn, you may use up to five action points. You may place an additional knight (two points), move an existing knight (one point), add a castle square (one point), draw a card (one point), play a card drawn from another turn (zero points), or move your point marker a single square (one point). There are a host of minor rules which govern each action, but don’t let that fool you. The rules are meant to be read once, while the game is meant to be played a lot.

"Torres" is remarkable in that it gracefully combines its theme with its game play. At the end of a session, you’ll find a board filled with castles, knights, and an aging king with a tough decision. While the crown is justly passed to the most industrious and clever knight, all players can appreciate the final landscape of the kingdom and the struggle of wits needed to get there.

Annie and I finally made it back to the states, but our hearts never caught the flight. We’re forever stuck wanting a slower life, with simple food and long conversations. Until we next set foot on the dusty roads of Guinea, we’ll have to content ourselves with our in-between place - the castles of the Middle Ages, the age of kings and knights, and the simple, comforting contours of "Torres."

Cost: $44.95
Players: 2 to 4
Age: 12 and up
Time to play: 60 minutes
Rating (1 to 10, 10 being the best): 9
Additional Comments: This game is great with any number of players. The mechanics are very clever and make winning very satisfying.

Sunday, January 08, 2006

"Jambo" by Rio Grande Games

(Originally published in the Missoulian of Missoula, MT on 1/8/06)

I lived in Guinea, West Africa, for two years as a Peace Corps education volunteer and taught English at the high school level. For those of you interested in joining the Peace Corps, I urge you not to take the following as definitive.

Some of my classes were as small as six students (heaven), and others were as large as one hundred (the opposite). Just like the school system in the states, student behavior and classroom management were at the forefront of my responsibilities. I learned one truth early on - teaching is never easy.

However, my job only filled a fraction of my time. Talking with friends (or trying to talk, depending on my proficiency), exploring my new town, washing clothes, lugging water, and eating usually filled up the bulk of my days.

I especially enjoyed going to the market. I was able to use whatever new words I had picked up and was usually on a mission to make the best pasta sauce I could with the given market ingredients. I loved haggling with the market women for the right price, and my blubbering through the local language often caused an uproar of laughter, from the women as well as from me. I would often leave the market in a better mood than I had arrived with.

Until recently, I hadn’t had cause to think too much about those marketplace memories. But as luck would have it, I received a game for Christmas whose theme was about just that. The game was "Jambo."

Created by Rüdiger Dorn and distributed by Rio Grande Games, "Jambo" is a marketplace strategy game in which a player’s timing and skill outweigh lady luck.

"Jambo" is Swahili for "hello." As any Africa Peace Corps volunteer will tell you, the opening salutation is perhaps the most important conversational chunk there is (cutting to the chase is considered rude). Players of "Jambo" might also want to start the game with this friendly exchange, but I’m afraid that’s where the pleasantries will have to end. To win, you must be anything but friendly.

Two players are each dealt a free marketplace card, twenty gold, and five cards from the deck. During each turn, a player may choose up to five actions, like drawing a card or cards, using any cards in hand or on the table, or buying and selling wares. The goal is to have the most gold at the end of the game.

A bank of ware cards is set up next to the gaming area consisting of silk, salt, fruit, tea, animal hides, and trinkets. The careful buying and selling of these wares can lead a player to victory.

The supply deck consists of benign cards, like extra markets and ware cards, and of several more potent utility, people, and animal cards. The latter group usually gives a player the power to do something out of the ordinary like buy a ware, destroy a utility card, or draw an extra card.

Players are required to balance the cards they play, the wares they buy and sell, and the gold they earn. The first few games are often used getting familiar with the cards and their abilities and how each of the above categories interacts with one another. After that, it’s pure fun.

"Jambo" is a match of wits and a game of patience. It is amazingly simple yet lends itself to great possibilities. It’s hard to find good two-player games which are both new and dynamic, and "Jambo" delivers these qualities with style.

My time in Guinea seems so far from me and my day-to-day life. I miss my friends and my nene (mom). I miss the laughter of the market. Perhaps you’re wondering if "Jambo" captures the feeling of being in the marketplaces of Africa. Not really, but for me, it was enough to be reminded.

Cost: $22.95
Players: 2
Age: 12 and up
Time to play: 45 to 60 minutes
Rating (1 to 10, 10 being the best): 8
Additional Comments: While the game is simple and uses some "Magic: The Gathering" variations in the cards, there is a lot of depth to the timing. This comes out after a few rounds, so don't give up!

"Gulo Gulo" by Rio Grande Games

(Originally published in the Missoulian of Missoula, MT on 12/11/05)

This past Thanksgiving, my partner Annie and I visited family in Fort Worth, Texas. My parents, brothers, sister, and their families came from all over to celebrate both Turkey Day and my grandmother’s 90th birthday.

Traditionally in the Read family, little to no energy goes into planning. It is a small miracle that we made it to Fort Worth at all. After a lifetime of invisible itineraries, no one comes to expect anything. It is in this regard that Annie and I took the family completely by surprise.

We, of course, brought games. We brought so many games that at one point during packing I wondered where my clothes would fit. Thankfully, our efforts were rewarded.

Finding a game that will work well with kids is a difficult task, though. On top of that, we were playing in a crowd that was composed mainly of adults. Annie and I introduced several games to this crowd of unlikely participants, and we hit the jackpot with a game we’d never played in a large group before. The surprise favorite was "Gulo Gulo."

Designed by Wolfgang Kramer, Jurgen P. K. Grunau, and Hans Raggan and distributed by Rio Grande Games, "Gulo Gulo" is a simple dexterity game involving luck, skill, and a baby gulo.

In this brightly colored game, a baby gulo, or wolverine, is eating all the eggs. It’s up to the adult gulos to retrieve him. Two to six players assume the roles of the adult gulos and must follow a path of stepping stones to reach the baby.

The path consists of tiles which are laid face down, forming a long trail. Off to the side, a small wooden nest is filled with eggs of all colors, and an egg alarm (a top-heavy stick) is placed upright in the nest, supported by the surrounding eggs.

In order to move forward, players must choose a tile, flip it over, match the color on the tile to an egg in the nest, and remove that egg without toppling the egg alarm. Once an egg is safely removed, the successful player moves to the flipped tile. Be careful! If the egg alarm falls for any reason or if the wrong egg comes out of the nest, players are penalized by having to move backward to a tile of the same color. And this could be a long way back.

Once you reach the end, you must find the baby gulo amidst a stack of other colored tiles and extract a special purple egg from the nest to win the game.

Kids and adults rallied behind "Gulo Gulo." Sideline players waited with anticipation to see whether the egg alarm would fall. Every round was filled with healthy tension. It was also funny to see adults and their big hands flounder in the egg nest while little kids succeeded with their tiny fingers. In many cases, parents and grandparents teamed up with their kids or grandkids for the added fun and extra competitive edge.

It was nice to have the family, all four generations of us, together in one place for the first time in about ten years. It was nice to see my grandmother so healthy and strong. I also consider myself fortunate that Annie was part of this family get together, quite possibly the last of its kind. And of course, it didn’t hurt having a little bit of that Texas heat.

But perhaps what was nicest of all was what my grandmother saw: a large group of her children, some of them small and many of them grown-up, laughing, talking, and playing together in her home. I could see it in her face. She was happy.

Cost: $37.95
Players: 2 to 6
Age: 5 and up
Time to play: 30 to 45 minutes
Rating (1 to 10, 10 being the best): 8
Additional Comments: The "physical challenge" of this game keeps everyone interested. Young children can get especially enthralled with it. Thumbs up.

Monday, November 14, 2005

"BuyWord" by Face2Face Games

(Originally published in the Missoulian of Missoula, MT on 11/13/05)

When I was five or six, I used to play Scrabble with my parents and siblings. To make things a little easier on me, I was given free reign over the dictionary, a huge, blue monster of a tome which weighed at least a quarter of what I did.

I pored over its entries during other people’s play. When it was my turn, I casually laid down an alien word which no one could challenge because it had come from the mysterious depths of an unabridged dictionary. I was untouchable.

Gradually, I started putting the dictionary aside and playing the game as any normal player would - with my mind. To my surprise, the appeal of anagramming letters and finding a magical combination remained, and I eventually left the dictionary for good. It was the easiest fifteen pounds I ever dropped.

What also remained was a healthy love for word games. Scrabble is an uncontested giant in the genre, yet new word games are being published all the time. Last year, GAMES magazine endorsed BuyWord as its game of the year, and that was enough for me to check it out.

Created by gaming legend Sid Sackson and published by Face2Face Games, BuyWord is a refreshing and ingenious twist to anagramming.

As the name suggests, BuyWord introduces a time-tested economic principle: buy low, sell high. Players must buy letters from the bank to form words, then sell the words back to the bank at a profit. The player with the most money at the end of the game wins.

At the roll of a die, a certain amount of letters is randomly pulled out of a bag and placed before each player (for example, if a four is rolled, four tiles are placed in front of each player). The players must then decide whether to buy the tiles.

Every letter tile in BuyWord has a pip, or dot, indicating its point value. The value of a set of tiles depends upon the combined letter value squared. That is, if a W, E, A, and T are showing (worth 3, 1, 1, and 1 respectively), then you can buy the letters for 36 dollars (3+1+1+1 = 6; then 6x6 = 36). When you have formed a word, you may sell it to the bank in the same manner, by counting the pips and squaring them for the word’s value.

Now you might be wondering the same thing I was when I first read the instructions: If you buy and sell in the same way, how do you make money?

Imagine you just bought the above set of letters (W, E, A, T). The next die roll is a 5, and out comes the group of S, P, H, O, and WILD (worth 1, 2, 2, 1, and 1 respectively). The cost is 49, and you buy the set. Now you’re 85 dollars in the hole (36+49), but have found the word SWEATSHOP, using the WILD as an S. This new word is worth all the letter values combined and squared, or 169. You sell the word to the bank and net 84 dollars (169-85 = 84).

In BuyWord, longer words often make more money, but players have the added strategy of declining to buy their letters if it’s not to their advantage. There is also a list of variations included in the instructions which deepen the strategy. One noteworthy variation is called "Tile Drafts," in which players pool their letters, draft them one by one, then buy them.

BuyWord is the perfect addition to any word lover’s library. Its capitalistic slant is a breath of fresh air amidst so many games in which word knowledge is the sole determining factor. Kids may still need a dictionary to compete with adults, but it’s a small price to pay. Besides, the return will be even greater.

Cost: $29.95
Players: 1 to 4
Age: 8 and up
Time to play: 45 minutes
Rating (1 to 10, 10 being the best): 9
Additional Comments: A great challenge for adults who view themselves as anagram champs. Also great for kids, as the game combines math and english skills.

Wednesday, October 19, 2005

"Niagara" by Rio Grande Games

(Originally published in the Missoulian of Missoula, MT on 10/16/05)

I have long been fascinated with bad words. Short ones, long ones, combinations - they have all made a home in my consciousness. I don’t like using them, mind you, but they do in a pinch.

This interest started during elementary school, possibly as early as second grade. Like most little kids, I had the curiosity just to know the words, never to use them. It wasn’t until later that I noticed that using them was reserved for middle school.

For some reason, I couldn’t grow tired of language’s forbidden fruit. In high school I started picking up foreign ones as well. I learned some bad words in French, Spanish, and German, and even a couple in Farci (never say "coo-nee" in Persia).

Over time, I came to realize that my fascination with bad words both native and foreign was at heart a love of languages. I still remember learning in 11th grade that "defenestration" meant "to throw someone out of a window." I loved finding out that "safari" was originally a word in Swahili meaning "to go on a trip." Even chess employs German words like "zugzwang" denoting a situation in which every move is harmful, as well as the French term "en passant" for a pawn move meaning "in passing." There are always new words to learn.

Recently, I was introduced to a powerful German phrase in the gaming world: "Spiel des Jahres" or "Game of the Year." Since the late 1970s, a group of German game critics have endorsed one outstanding game per year. I wasn’t sure I had ever played a game that had won this prestigious award and was rightly curious about the current crowned king.

It wasn’t hard to find. Sitting on the counter at World Games of Montana was a huge stack of the 2005 Spiel des Jahres, "Niagara." Created by first-time game inventor Thomas Liesching and distributed by Rio Grande Games, "Niagara" takes players on an exciting river trip to the edge of a waterfall.

The goal of "Niagara" is deceptively simple: to obtain various jewels (white, yellow, purple, blue, and pink) found along the river. A player wins by collecting four of any one jewel, one of each of the jewels, or seven of any kind and depositing them at the starting point upriver. Jewels can be stolen, and getting back home around both your opponents and the river is a trick.

Two to five players hit the river with two canoes and a set of seven cards apiece. Six cards are numbered; the seventh card is a cloud. The number cards affect canoe movement and a player’s ability to pick up and drop off jewels, and the cloud card affects the weather.

At the end of every round, the river must be reckoned with.

The "Niagara" river is the game’s crowning achievement. The river consists of several clear circles, representing water. Every turn, a certain number of circles must move downstream and over the waterfall, based on the weather and the lowest numbered card played between all players. Canoes, which are placed on the circles, travel downstream with the current. The movement of the river is filled with suspense, and it’s not uncommon for at least one unhappy paddler to go over the waterfall.

"Niagara" is the gaming world’s version of a thriller. The strategy, jewel-collecting, and river’s movement make for a truly unique and exciting gaming experience.

I suppose my own trek through words has been a kind of upriver battle. Nowadays though, I don’t go looking for words which push me over the waterfall. I am content to learn a phrase like "Spiel des Jahres" and go wherever it may take me, usually somewhere upriver where the waters are calm, with just enough time to play a game.

Cost: $44.95
Players: 2 to 5
Age: 8 and up
Time to play: 30 to 45
Rating (1 to 10, 10 being the best): 10
Additional Comments: This game is great for kids and adults alike. I can't say it enough: the waterfall aspect of this game is simply fantastic.

Tuesday, September 20, 2005

"Cloud 9" by Out of the Box Games

I come from a long line of Southern Baptists. My father, preceded by my grandmother, and so on, all preached a strong-armed interpretation of the Bible’s scriptures.

In practical terms, this meant that men were bread-winners, women raised the children and cooked meals, and there was absolutely no work to be on Sundays by anybody. There were other little things, too, like no dancing. To this day, I have yet to see my father dance outside of the one time with my sister on her wedding day.

Imagine my surprise when my father agreed to hit the racetracks. It was about as strange as the Pope licking an ice cream cone at mass. Furthermore, he admitted that he had gone to a track fifty years prior when he was in the army. I guess one gambling venture every twenty-five years falls just short of being sinful.

About an hour into the races, I realized that my dad was good at this. He kept guessing the winning horse. The way he handled our racing catalog, you would have thought this was a religious experience.

His expertise opened some big questions for me. I imagined that he had spent much of his youth on the brink of financial collapse, perhaps meeting my mother who convinced him of a better life. But all he knew was horses, knew how they moved and grunted, knew the winners by the way they twitched their tails. His past, once clear to me, became cloudy and full of intrigue.

But his performance at the racetrack did help explain one thing to me: his uncanny ability to win a game called Cloud 9.

Invented by Aaron Weissblum and published by Out of the Box Games, Cloud 9 is a gambling man’s game, played not with money or horses, but with balloons and a killer instinct.

The object of Cloud 9 is to earn the most points. Points are earned by riding the hot air balloon toward various cloud levels on the game board, the higher the cloud the greater the point value.
Once a player has garnered more than fifty points, the hot air balloon finishes its journey, and the player with the most points wins.

At the beginning of the game, three to six players are dealt six cards apiece. The cards are made up of different colored air balloons (purple, green, red, yellow, and wild). The cards are the only means with which to ascend the cloud levels.

This is where the gambling comes in. The balloon captain must roll dice each turn. The dice have four sides, each with a different colored balloon (which match up to the cards), and two blank sides. Once the dice are rolled, players must decide if that balloon captain has the cards which match up to the dice (a blank side on the dice requires nothing; a single wild card can be discarded in lieu of any amount of cards). If he does, he must discard them, and the balloon keeps going up. If he doesn’t, the balloon crashes down (and starts over). Players may stay in and hope to go up; they may also jump out and collect whatever points are allotted for that cloud. The balloon keeps going up and down until a player passes fifty points.

Great for any age and any mix of players, Cloud 9 is a wonderfully simple family game that delivers a caravan of hoots and hollers again and again. It relies on a system of guesswork and deduction and rewards those courageous enough to go with their guts.

No wonder my dad was so good at it. While playing Cloud 9, he was effectively in "the zone," making his guesses while watching the other players. However, in this arena, we were all in the fun, bluffing a little here, gambling a little there. It was hard to feel bad about losing to my dad when I was having such a good time.

As far as my dad’s past goes, I haven’t come any closer to figuring him out. Maybe it’s just something that’s got to stay between him and the horses. And between him and Him.

Cost: $14.99
Players: 3 to 6
Age: 8 and up
Time to play: 30 minutes
Rating (1 to 10, 10 being the best): 7
Additional Comments: A great game for any household. Best with 5 or 6 players.

"Saint Petersburg" by Rio Grande Games

(Originally published in the Missoulian of Missoula, MT on 9/18/05)

When I was a child, my family inherited a see-saw. My parents placed it outside our home, right next to the drive-way. All the little kids in my family were thrilled.

Prior to the see-saw, we had played on the trunk of a mesquite tree that had grown sideways before growing toward the sky. The excitement for the see-saw, you see, was well merited.

This see-saw was huge, at least a few feet longer than the normal ones. It was faded red, the paint chipping and cracking all over it, but did we go high. Again and again, we pushed the limits of the see-saw, bouncing sometimes if our partner hit the ground too hard. The see-saw felt like a limo compared to the tree.

Like all good times, though, it had to come to an end. One day, my cousin David and I were playing on that overly long see-saw. To picture it just right, let your mind’s eye go up and down with mine.

David told me that he was going to jump off while I was at the see-saw’s peak. Naturally, I said that I was going to jump off before him. For a few moments, we continued to go up and down.

We didn’t know it at the time, but by threatening to jump off the see-saw, we were about to undermine the very principle that made playing on the see-saw fun: balance.

Balance ruled everything from our toys to our nutrition. More than anything, balance came into play during our games of Monopoly. How else can you play a game for a full day and not finish?

Of course, you don’t have to be on the edge of a see-saw to know what I’m talking about. Well-balanced games make you feel like you’ve got a decent shot at victory, no matter how good or bad a player you are. And of all the games I’ve played recently, none have nailed this as successfully as Saint Petersburg.

Designed by Michael Tummelhofer and distributed by Rio Grande Games, Saint Petersburg is a simple yet thoroughly enjoyable economy-based game. Its two major components are money and points, and like the see-saw, players must find a fine balance between the two to win.

Set in Russia during the early 18th century, Saint Petersburg mimics the historical development made in Russia by Czar Peter the Great. Two to four players compete to build the city and fill it with powerful aristocrats, buildings, and manual laborers, all represented by cards. Certain cards award points, and the player with the most points at the end wins.

Game play is divided into rounds, which consist of four phases: laborer, building, aristocrat, and wild card. During each phase, up to eight cards are laid out for players to buy. Once all players pass, the phase ends, and bonuses on already-purchased cards are awarded to their respective owners.

To win, a player must set up a well-balanced economy of laborers (which earn money), buildings (which earn points), and aristocrats (which earn both money and points). A player must carefully invest his or her money to yield higher returns than those of his or her opponents.

The game is highly contagious, and though there are a variety of special rules and cards, the basic instructions are magically simple. By the end of a session, I can see how early moves have had profound repercussions throughout the game. My record of wins vs. losses has had just as many ups as downs, and I’m still learning the intricacies of the game’s balance.

Speaking of balancing acts, I suppose you’re still wondering about the see-saw, my cousin David, and our precarious position. Twenty years have passed, mind you. I’m a different person now. I help old ladies cross the street and rescue birds with broken wings. I make sure not to step on any ants. But on that one day, my better judgment had thumbed a ride to Vegas.

I jumped off the see-saw.

I could go on about the aftermath of that terrible decision, but I’ll sum it up like this. My cousin David and I continued to play together, only we opted for Monopoly full-time instead of the see-saw and he had to start rolling the dice with his left hand.

It was an altogether balanced decision.

Cost: $27.95
Players: 2 to 4
Age: 10 and up
Time to play: 60 to 75 minutes
Rating (1 to 10, 10 being the best): 10
Additional Comments: A thoroughly satisfying strategy game. Play on-line as well at the German gaming site:

Tuesday, August 23, 2005

"Shadows over Camelot" by Days of Wonder

As a child, I enjoyed reading Edith Hamilton’s books about mythology. I read about Hercules, Jason and the Argonauts, and Odysseus. I read about their incredible deeds as well as the wickedness of man and gods alike.

One interesting myth was of Cassandra, the daughter of King Priam and Hecuba of Troy. She was given the gift of prophesy by Apollo, yet she was cursed never to be believed.

Cassandra predicted the Trojan War and the eventual sack of Troy. As a result, she was locked in a tower by her father, but her prophesies were nonetheless soon realized.

As a result of this myth, I have long held the fear that there would come a day when I had something to say and that, for whatever reason, people would not believe me.

That day has finally come. It started when I opened a game entitled "Shadows over Camelot."

Designed by Serge Laget and Bruno Cathala and produced by Days of Wonder, "Shadows over Camelot" takes you back to the days of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table. Three to seven players assume the roles of knights and work cooperatively to defend Camelot from the omnipresent evil of outside invaders.

The object of the game is to fill the famous Round Table with twelve swords, awarded from various quests around the board. White swords are won from successful quests; black swords are added when a quest is failed. At the end of the game, if there is a majority of white swords, the knights win.

During the game, knights must take one evil action and one heroic action per turn.

Evil actions may be: paying one life point, playing one evil black card (the stack of black cards contain a variety of evil actions), or placing a siege engine or catapult outside of Camelot. Over the course of the game, these evil actions add up, and Camelot runs the risk of being conquered.

Heroic actions consist of: drawing white cards (the stack of white cards contain a variety of helpful cards), moving to a quest, playing a card or spell, battling a siege engine, or discarding three like cards for life. Each knight has a special ability which he or she may use each turn for free.

Up to this point, the game sounds fairly simple, right? As long as the good guys finish enough quests before all of the forced evil actions topple Camelot, then the game is won.

Ah, if only it were so easy.

Among the knights is a traitor who works covertly against the throne. The existence of a traitor creates an atmosphere of distrust among the knights.

The game is further complicated by the ability to accuse someone of being the traitor. During the game, one knight has a one-time-per-game ability to accuse another of treason and may do so as his or her heroic action. The accused then reveals his or her identity. If the accused is innocent, a white sword on the Round Table is exchanged for a black one, and he or she loses one life point (this rule seems counter-intuitive, but it makes perfect sense during game play). If the accused is, in fact, the traitor, a white sword is added to the Round Table, he or she reveals her identity card, and the traitor continues to take turns, this time being overtly evil.

"Shadows over Camelot" is an amazing psychological study, as well as an extremely fun and satisfying game. It is so well-balanced that the game’s outcome is uncertain up until its final moments.

However, its true triumph is what I like to call the Cassandra complex. All players have his or her own truth to tell, and no one is there to believe them. It is a cruel and mean trick of the gods to encourage feuding between knights sworn to brotherhood.

On the other hand, I swear by my sword that I have loved every minute of it.

Cost: $49.95
Players: 3 to 7
Age: 10 and up
Time to play: 2 to 3 hours
Rating (1 to 10, 10 being the best): 9
Additional Comments: A truly incredible psychological game. Best with 7 players.

Monday, August 22, 2005

"Cathedral" by Family Games Inc.

(originally published in the Missoulian of Missoula, MT on 08/21/05)

A year ago, a fellow PEAS farm volunteer sat me down and explained the ancient game of Go using a paper grid and two kinds of beans, some white and some black. The object of the game, he said, was to capture as much territory as you could by encircling different areas with your pieces. I was already interested in Go, having learned that it was the world’s oldest game, much older than checkers and chess, possibly dating back as far as a 1000 years before the birth of Christ.

My mentor and I played a short game, and I quickly realized why Go has flourished for so long. A lifetime would not be enough to learn all its intricacies. However the idea of getting better at Go kept nagging me.

Days after that first game, my partner Annie caught me drooling in my sleep, mumbling, "world’s oldest game, 1000 years before Christ," and so on. I decided to give Go another go and attended the regular Friday Go meeting at World Games of Montana.

Let me tell you something about Go players. They are extremely nice, patient, and helpful, but over the board they are animals. They are ruthless. They delight in squeezing the life’s blood from you and your pieces, and in a game of Go, this could last up to two hours.

Just as I was about to pass out from the brutal beating I was receiving, something happened. The manager pointed out a different game, one that played like Go, was filled with tons of strategy and fun, yet lasted only minutes.

This game was Cathedral, invented by Bob Moore of New Zealand and published by Family Games Inc.

Cathedral is a beautiful, three-dimensional, wooden game. It simulates the planning of a medieval village with two conflicting sides vying for space, one represented by light buildings and the other dark buildings. The object of the game is to place all of your pieces on the 10 x 10 village while preventing your opponent from doing the same.

Like Go, Cathedral is about capturing and filling space with your pieces. You do so by forming a bubble of space completely surrounded by your buildings and/or the edge of the village. This space then belongs to you for the remainder of the game, and your opponent may not play there. If one opponent’s piece is within your boundaries when you section it off, that piece is removed from the board and given back to your opponent. If two or more pieces are within your space when you section it off, then they are considered "alive," and the rest of the space is still up for grabs.

The pieces come in all shapes and sizes. The trick is placing your larger pieces first, then letting your little ones squeeze in the cracks. Once all the shared space is taken, then you resort to filling in space that you’ve sectioned off. The final result is reminiscent of a jigsaw puzzle.

What I like about Cathedral is its re-playability. It only takes a few games to be completely enthralled with its strategy and game play. A couple of friends and I whiled away five hours playing Cathedral, and it felt like less than half that had passed. The game is that good.

And while I don’t want to discourage the Go youth of today from being the Go masters of tomorrow, I do want to instill in you the idea of Cathedral as a game on par with checkers, chess, and Go. Though it is extremely young compared to these giants of antiquity, I predict that Cathedral will be around for a long, long time.

Cost: $40.00
Players: 2
Age: 8 and up
Time to play: 5 to 10 minutes
Rating (1 to 10, 10 being the best): 10
Additional Comments: You will find it nearly impossible to find a thinking person's game which plays this quickly. Great for young and old.