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.

Friday, August 19, 2005

"Mississippi Queen" by Rio Grande Games

Why do teenagers feel the need to drive so recklessly? Is it a form of disobedience? Freedom of expression? Pure lunacy? I have no idea, but I do know that I was among the crazy.

I was wild. I inherited my mom’s ‘88 Honda Civic, and to this day, I do not know how I survived the next few years. I mean that literally.

This particular Honda was a hatchback, and everybody called it that. The hatchback got the best gas mileage, and this feature made it the most popular vehicle to ride in. At my peak of recklessness, I managed to fit nine people into it, cramming one small friend into the trunk space.

I used to play chicken with parked cars. I also found a small stretch of road where I could go 95 mph without fear of being pulled over by the police. I used to cut across fields just to win a race other drivers. I did this all in a car which hovered two inches off the ground.

My luck ran out eventually, as it always does. I fell asleep going 80 mph on a Texas highway. Although nothing serious happened, the reckless days came to an abrupt end.

Then one day I found Mississippi Queen, and the cycle started all over again. Mississippi Queen was created by Werner Hodel and is produced by Rio Grande Games. Believe it or not, recklessness is encouraged.

Mississippi Queen is a steamboat race. The goal is to reach the final docks with at least two passengers (shaped like southern belles). It doesn’t matter how pretty or ugly your journey is, just so long as you finish first.

You start off navigating a steamboat with two dials, one representing speed (set to 1) and the other representing surplus coal reserves (set to 6). Each turn, you may increase your speed by one for free before you move. You may also have one free turn at any point during your movement. Any extra speed and/or turns must be paid for using your coal reserves. It’s a good idea to hold on to your coal until well past the middle of the game.

Your boat is placed at one end of a long winding river composed of hexagons. There is an element of randomness in the formation of the river, as players in the lead must roll a die to determine the placement of the next river segment. Hanging back to see which way the river goes (left, right, or straight ahead) is a good idea.

Passengers can be found at various islands along the river route. You must approach their docks and slow down to 1 speed to pick them up. This process can get a little tricky, and it definitely makes the game interesting.

However, the most fun aspect of Mississippi Queen by far is the bumping. If there is a steamboat in your path, you may bump them if you are going fast enough. In my last game of Mississippi Queen, one player spent all of his turns bumping other players. Sure, he didn’t win, but he had a great time losing.

The outrageous speeds and wild maneuvering in Mississippi Queen reminded me of that crazy time in my life as a teenage driver. I thought that time had long since passed, but Mississippi Queen reminded me that a little spirit of those days lives on, if only over the board.

Cost: $39.95
Players: 3 to 5
Age: 10 and up
Time to play: 30 to 45 minutes
Rating (1 to 10, 10 being the best): 7
Additional Comments: The mechanics in this game are very unique. Best with 4 or 5 players.

Tuesday, August 16, 2005

"Gobblet!" by Blue Orange Games

(originally published in the Missoulian of Missoula, MT on 07/24/05)

In my elementary school, I studied reading, writing, math, and history. I played at recess and ran laps during P.E. Everything I learned was well documented, everything but one.

Games. Lots and lots of games. The back of the class was my home away from home. I learned quickly that when the teacher speaks you have to be quiet. However, you don’t necessarily have to listen. This little loophole encouraged the girls to pass notes and the boys to play games. Quietly.

The very first strategy game I learned in school was Tic-Tac-Toe. All you needed was a pencil and a piece of paper, and if you didn’t have the paper, then the top of the desk did just fine. This game was especially good after tests and during announcements, and it was a godsend during history lessons - if you could get away with it.

Tic-Tac-Toe was gradually replaced with the Dots-and-Boxes game, namely for its longevity. You could literally squander an entire academic school year playing the Dots-and-Boxes game, and for that, I was eternally grateful. There was something extremely gratifying about seeing a grid filled mostly with my initials, and it ranked up there with making the honor roll.

Then came Connect-Four, a game the teachers let us play on special occasions. Connect-Four was for the mental elite. I’ll never forget that one tournament in which I was one victory shy of the Connect-Four championship title. Glory, honor, and dignity were stripped away from me that day. I threw in the towel, like George Foreman after his jungle fight with Muhammed Ali. I was finished.

That is, until I learned Gobblet!

Gobblet! is the creative masterpiece of Blue Orange Games. It is the next step in the evolution of simple kids’ games. It takes literally seconds to learn and is the kind of game that both adults and kids like to play again and again.

Gobblet! is a two-player game with the simple goal of making four-in-a-row. The game board is composed of sixteen squares, four to a side, and each player has twelve pieces with which to win.
Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?

What makes Gobblet! different is the pieces. There are four sizes of pieces which fit into each other like Russian matryoshka dolls. The bigger pieces have the ability to "gobble" any smaller piece on the board, thus interfering with traditional gaming ideas. You’d be surprised by how many layers of pieces can be on the board at one time.

You can also move around pieces already on the board. However, you must make sure you remember what’s under them before doing so. If not, you risk helping out your opponent! This is the heart of Gobblet!, and within it, you will find a wealth of strategy and fun.

Annie and I have played an insane number of games since receiving a copy, and like Foreman’s return, I’ve won all of our matches. I don’t feel bad about it either. I’m making up for lost time. The shame of that Connect-Four defeat all those years ago stunted what would surely have been the greatest gaming sensation the world has ever known.

So comebacks do happen. My Gobblet! record is flawless, and my spirits are high. All I need now is a house full of boys named Smatt and some barbecue commercials.

I hope Annie’s ok with that.

Cost: $29.95
Players: 2
Age: 7 and up
Time to play: 5 to 10 minutes
Rating (1 to 10, 10 being the best): 8
Additional Comments: Great game for younger players. Also a great coffee table game.

"Clans" by Venice Connection

(originally published in the Missoulian of Missoula, MT on 06/26/05)

The day before my last birthday, a wrapped present with my name on the tag appeared in the living room. I took a stab at the mystery of what I would receive - but not in any conventional way. I didn’t shake the box or ask any sly questions. I didn’t root through the garbage for receipts. I’m not proud of what I did, but I have to be honest (kids, close your eyes).

I lied.

I figured that Annie had purchased something from World Games of Montana. Not being entirely sure, I invented a scenario in which I had visited the store alone and chatted with resident game specialist Daniel Nairn. Once I had the basic story in my head, I proceeded to tell Annie about it, emphasizing certain details to get a reaction (like "Daniel told me you came in the other day." and "He told me everything.").

It worked. She hemmed and hawed. She denied everything. Though Annie soon figured out I was lying, I had already solved the mystery behind the gift: Miss Annie Lou in the game store with the debit card. Still, one question remained. Which game was it?

The next day I attacked the box, which was wrapped beneath layer after layer of paper and deceit, and found "Clans," a wonderful brain twist from Leo Colovini. I couldn’t have been more pleased.

"Clans" takes us back to a time when small nomadic tribes first started to band together to form villages. Insert Tim Allen’s primitive ‘Arrooo?’ for the full effect.

The game board is broken up into dozens of small territories (forests, mountains, steppes, and grasslands), each occupied by a single tribe. Red, yellow, blue, green, and black tribes are distributed equally and randomly across the board. Players then pick a tribal color at random and keep their colors secret throughout the game.

Game play, amazingly enough, involves no dice or cards - that is, no luck factors. Players move a tribe or tribes from one territory into an adjacent territory containing at least one tribe. When a group of tribes resides in a territory surrounded by empty territories, they form a village. The players whose tribes are represented in the village score points, and the player who formed the village receives one token. Points are marked on a fifty-point track on the side of the board, and tokens are redeemed at the end of the game for additional points.

There are also five different epochs, each being favorable to one kind of territory and unfavorable to another. When a village is founded, there is a bonus if it’s during a favorable period or a penalty if during an unfavorable period. Because of this, tribal secrecy becomes paramount. A player should avoid making moves which overtly benefit his or her tribe until well into the game.

The game is over when no more villages can be formed or all the tokens have been claimed. At this point, players reveal their colors and cash in their tokens. The player furthest along the fifty-point track wins.

"Clans" is a game of finesse and deception. I recommend it to anyone interested in a quiet, underhanded strategy game.

I couldn’t have known it at the time, but my ruse with Annie actually gave me a head start in strategy. I don’t mean to glorify lying, but an old man once told me, "All’s fair in love and war."

I think his name was Leo.

Cost: $25.95
Players: 2 to 4
Age: 10 and up
Time to play: 30 to 45 minutes
Rating (1 to 10, 10 being the best): 8
Additional Comments: The strategy in this game is a little tricky to grasp in the beginning, but it's a worthwhile endeavor. Great game for older players.

"Lost in a Jigsaw" by Buffalo Games, Inc.

(originally published in the Missoulian of Missoula, MT on 05/29/05)

As a child, I visited my grandmother for two weeks every summer. She lived alone in Fort Worth, Texas, having lost my grandfather some years before. She was sixty years my senior, yet she always managed to do everything for me, which included making homemade meals three times a day, doing laundry, and when I was really little, cleaning the dirt between my toes during my baths.

My grandmother knew I liked games, so every summer, we’d go to the store and pick out a jigsaw puzzle with pictures of the countryside. We’d spend hours putting those puzzles together. While I was fast at finding matches, my grandmother kept up with me without a problem.

Jigsaw puzzles of the grandmother-grandchild variety are still around. But if you look carefully, you’ll notice that others have sprung up. Puzzle creators have altered the number of pieces since the beginning, but variations on the images and piece shapes have kept jigsaw enthusiasts on their toes. Nowadays, you’ll find no less than a dozen distinct variations of the jigsaw puzzle, from the handcrafted sets of Wentworth to the more recent three-dimensional puzzles.

For months now, I’ve seen a puzzle called "Lost in a Jigsaw: The Diagonal Maze Puzzle," and I finally decided to try it out. Don Scott Associates, Inc. came up with this 515 piece jigsaw puzzle which creates a maze that can only be solved when assembled correctly. In addition, the jigsaw uses only three kinds of pieces: the corners, the edges, and the interior pieces.

From the very beginning the challenge is evident. How do you construct a jigsaw puzzle when the shape of each interior piece is irrelevant? During those summers with my grandmother, we had used a combination of color matching and shape matching. With "Lost in a Jigsaw," I realized how stiff my mind had become with the normal method of puzzle making.

For example, the easiest part of the jigsaw puzzle for me had always been the edges. In "Lost in a Jigsaw," even the edges took me two to three times the normal amount of time. I basically spent the first couple of days getting used to the puzzle. It took me a week to complete it, and there was still the maze to figure out.

There’s nothing to fear, though. Included in the box is a list of hints and strategies to help you out. The picture on the back of the box portrays the puzzle "assembled incorrectly," but even so, it is a tremendous help. I love a good challenge, and that’s exactly what "Lost in a Jigsaw" gave me.

My grandmother turns 90 in a few months. She’s still as active as she’s ever been, cooking, cleaning, and driving for herself. She recently told me that I was the only grandchild in our family to stay with her so long after she retired. She also reminded me about the puzzles. "You sure did like those jigsaws," she told me.

My mind was filled with the memories of our days together, our jigsaw puzzles, her home-cooked food, her high-pitched giggle. I smiled and replied, "Yes. Yes, I did."

Cost: $12.00
Players: 1 and up
Age: For puzzle enthusiasts young and old
Time to play: Differs
Rating (1 to 10, 10 being the best): 10
Additional Comments: I loved this jigsaw. So hard and so rewarding.

"Snorta!" by Out of the Box Games

(originally published in the Missoulian of Missoula, MT on 05/01/05)

Parties aren’t the best place to try out a new game. No one knows the rules, the game could be terrible, and even if it is a good game, it might not be a good fit for the festive atmosphere.
Well, I’d like to say that I took these things into account when Annie and I went over to my co-worker Lynn’s place for Easter Sunday. We brought two games, and I’d like to say that we thought long and hard about which games would be appropriate for a family of five.


I am sorry to report that, while we did consider one game, we also grabbed one we hadn’t even opened. To our surprise, however, the game we thought would be great was not (it wasn’t a party game), and the game we knew absolutely nothing about stole the show. The hit was called Snorta!

Snorta! is the product of Chris Childs and Tony Richardson at Out-of-the-Box Games and is a true original . While it might take a while getting comfortable with the name, Snorta! takes virtually no time to learn. Each player receives a certain amount of animal cards. Then he picks an animal figurine (a rooster, a cow, a cat, a pig, etc.) and makes the appropriate animal sound, so that everyone else can hear. Once the players hide their animals behind their mini-barns, the fun begins.

One player starts the game by flipping over a card. The next player does the same, and this continues until there is a match. A speed battle ensues, and the first player to shout out the opponent’s animal sound (not the sound of the matched animal cards) wins the stand-off. Cards are given to the loser, and the first player to run out of cards wins.

Annie and I played a few games with Lynn’s kids Anderson, Randall, and Bailey, as well as a few games including Lynn. I wanted to know what the kids thought, so I set up a time to speak with them.

Bailey, a second grader at Lewis and Clark Elementary, had nothing but good things to say about Snorta! When asked what he liked best, Bailey said, "I like that ... you have to be fast and good at remembering." When pressed for anything he didn’t like, he said, "I like all of it." On a scale of 1 to 10 (10 being the best), Bailey gave Snorta! a 10.

Anderson, a seventh grader at Washington Middle School, liked "the little [figurines] of animals." She had a problem with the special "SWAP" card which forces players to change animals mid-game and felt that it made the game "easier." A tougher critic than her little brother, she gave Snorta! a 7.

Randall could not be reached for comment.

Lynn had a few things to add as well. "I liked that we could all play it," she said, "It wasn’t exclusive. The ability level is the same for everybody." She gave Snorta! a 9.

Anyone listening that Easter evening would have heard a variety of animal sounds (Moo! Baa! Quack!) followed by uncontrolled laughter. Sure, there was a certain level of risk involved in bringing a brand new game to the party, but I’ve never been more glad I did.

Cost: $19.99
Players: 4 to 8
Age: 8 and up
Time to play: 30 minutes
Rating (1 to 10, 10 being the best): 7
Additional Comments: This game is the great equalizer. It's an awesome game for a big family or a big group of friends. Best for younger crowds.

"Cartagena" by Venice Connection

(originally published in the Missoulian of Missoula, MT on 04/03/05)

There is something nasty going around.

I’m not talking about J-Lo’s germs (although you never know) or rumors about Brad and Jen. I’m talking about this terrible sickness that’s plaguing homes across America.

Well, thanks to my brother Charlie, the strain struck this household and knocked me and Annie off our feet. If you can believe it, we have been sick for over two weeks.

Now, I don’t want to give the impression that we have been on the verge of death for two weeks. On the contrary, this illness has had a particularly odd ebb and flow. It hit Annie hard, waited, then hit me. There’s no rhyme or reason to any of it, but Annie and I made sure to take full advantage of the downtime between peak activity.

We read books to each other (whoever was less sick got to read). We watched movies together (whoever was more sick set the volume). And, of course, we played games.

Our most recent gaming expedition led us to Cartagena by Leo Colovini. This game is based on a 1672 pirate escape from the fortress city of Cartagena in northwestern Colombia. Just imagine it: the midnight hour, a long empty corridor, silence blanketing it all, and the getaway boat just around the corner. You get the idea.

How some thirty pirates escaped unnoticed from a major hub in Spain’s South American empire is beyond me. No doubt they had a healthy dose of skill, timing, cunning, and luck. Players of Cartagena will have to possess the same.

Two to five players arrange six tiles to form the game board. Each player is allotted six pirate pieces which are placed at one end of the board; this is the starting point. A boat is placed at the opposite end and serves as the finishing point. The goal in Cartagena is to transport your six pirates through the corridor and onto the boat before any of your opponents can do the same.

Movement is possible with the playing of cards. At the start of the game, each player is dealt six cards. On the cards are pictures of pirate icons (pistol, hat, skull and bones, bottle, key, dagger). These same icons appear on the game board. Match a card to the first unoccupied symbol of the same along the corridor and move a pirate there. However, the only way to draw more cards is to move backward. As my mom would say, it’s tricky-dicky.

Cartagena will mainly appeal to older kids and adults interested in a quiet, strategical struggle. It truly challenges you to think in a different way, and the winner always has something to be proud of.

Annie and I have played Cartagena several times. I’m currently holding the World Championship Title (that’s what I tell her anyway), and only my fever has saved me from an impending rematch. I suppose that I’ll eventually have to accept her challenge, but for these few days, I’m the only captain over these high seas.

Cost: $27.95
Players: 2 to 5
Age: 8 and up
Time to play: 45 to 60 minutes
Rating (1 to 10, 10 being the best): 8
Additional Comments: Great for older players.

"The Legend of Landlock" by Gamewright Games

(originally published in the Missoulian of Missoula, MT on 03/20/05)

A few weeks ago, I spoke with a woman whose son plays a lot of video games. She said she noticed a gaming trend which moved away from family games and toward more independent playing. For her, this trend had become a terrible thing with the introduction of hyper-violent games.

Her comments made me reflect upon my own past, one filled with regular Nintendo, an Apple IIe, and a tremendous amount of time spent at the local arcade. I was into it all. I loved the tension of the fighting games, the adventure of the quest games, and the simplicity of computer games. The graphics were great (at the time), the story-lines interesting and new. I can remember skipping meals - not going to sleep even - to play more.

But it wasn’t satisfying. Little did I know that you can never satisfy the hunger imposed by video games. If you could, arcades would go out of business.

Family games, on the other hand, are usually extremely satisfying. This is mainly because the enjoyment exists outside of the actual game. The interplay between family members - be it competition, teamwork, or conversation - reaffirms the family togetherness. You just won’t get this from a session of Halo or Grand Theft Auto.

Enter The Legend of Landlock by Edith Schlichting and the gang at Gamewright. This is a simple tile-based game with the perfect blend of skill and luck. And no guns either.

Since I got The Legend of Landlock, it has become one of my household’s most-played games. The premise is simple: two players build a map. Each takes turns connecting square tiles depicting either a river, some land, a bridge, or a tussock. Players keep going until they have made a square map (6 tiles by 6 tiles). The final layout is always a beautiful, unique creation.

At the beginning of the game, each player is assigned the role of land or water. If a player is represented by land, then his or her objective is to touch all four sides of the final map with a continuous stretch of land (worth several points), while preventing his or her opponent - in this case, water - from doing the same. But be careful! There are side objectives which, because of their point values, can undermine the importance of touching all the sides.

When I brought home The Legend of Landlock, my partner Annie was apprehensive. She’s not great at spatial reasoning, and our first game was a little rough.

Then she got it. Boy, did she get it. Not long after, she whooped me 21 to 5. I really had to suck it up that day, but this is what family games are all about. The championship title travels from person to person, and everyone eventually gets their day in the sun.

If you have a kid hooked on video games, I assure you that it’s not a terrible thing. But if you want more time with your child, get The Legend of Landlock and invite him - better yet, challenge him - to play with you. I think you’ll both see the difference.

Cost: $12.00
Players: 2 or teams
Age: 8 and up
Time to play: 30 to 45 minutes
Rating (1 to 10, 10 being the best): 9
Additional Comments: Great thinking game for younger kids.

"FBI" by Phalanx Games

(originally published in the Missoulian of Missoula, MT on 02/20/05)

The other day, my partner Annie and I strolled into World Games of Montana looking for a new game.

This is not as easy as it seems. If you’ve ever been to World Games, you know that they have hundreds to choose from with virtually any theme you can think of. I immediately ran over to the mini-hockey rink to let loose my primitive instincts to wield a stick and hit something. Annie, the more sophisticated between us, reviewed various games around the store.

At the end of our time, however, we both had nothing to show for it.

Then I spied a small black box with the letters FBI written in red. I instantly evolved from caveman to cop. The urge to hit was replaced with the urge to arrest. We were on to something, and we got it.

FBI is a strategy card game by Wolfgang Kramer and Horst-Rainer Rösner. True to its name, it’s all about catching crooks and putting them behind bars. Each player is the leader of a team of FBI agents (represented by six agent cards). Criminal cards and innocent bystander cards are placed face up between all of the players (a set number is laid out each turn). The goal is to apprehend as many criminals as you can (each represented by a card with a positive value) and to avoid arresting innocent people (represented by cards with a negative value). Each player adds his/her card values together at the end of the game, and the player with the most points wins.

You can play with as many as five players, but it’s also extremely fun for two. Strategy emerges from two game aspects: 1) a player may only choose two agents with which to arrest people per round, and 2) each round, players make arrests in a predetermined order (the order is determined by a bidding phase). Both depend on what you think your opponent is going to do. If there’s a high-valued criminal, the hard truth is that only one player’s going to get him. There have been many upsets between Annie and me in the past few games of FBI with lots of victory dances and gloating from both sides. In short, it’s been a blast.

A word of warning: the instructions are less than wonderful. Have a patient member of the family read through them AND play out the practice game in the instruction booklet long before anyone sits down to play. The instructions are dense, even though the game play is quite simple. But instructions aside, this game is a real crowd pleaser.

Cost: $12.95
Players: 2 to 5
Age: 10 and up
Time to play: 20 to 30 minutes
Rating (1 to 10, 10 being the best): 7
Additional Comments: Great card game for older players.