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: www.brettspielwelt.de.