Report on SaltCon 2012

Written by . Posted at 2:14 pm on February 26th, 2012

Last week marked the fourth or fifth annual SaltCon (I don’t know which year they’re officially counting from), two days of tabletop gaming in Salt Lake City, Utah. I attended last year for the Saturday session and while I had an okay time, it left a lot to be desired. My chief complaints were price, lack of space, no Role Playing Games, and poor treatment of vendors. Given the changes for 2012, it seems that I wasn’t the only one with those complaints. The event was moved to a new facility with more space in a motel convention center, so that attendees from out of town could get a room at a discount. Sessions of Pathfinder Societies and Dungeons & Dragons 4th edition were organized and set up (although I would have liked to play quick sessions of games like Shadowrun, The One Ring, Mouse Guard, and/or Dresden Files, similar to playing a lot of board games I’d never played before). Vendors were able to sell games without (to my knowledge) an increased cost to advertise and attend. The price for attendees was the same, but ordering your tickets a few days before and buying the 2-Day Pass cut the door ticket price in half. Another major difference was that because the event was held in a hotel, the gaming went on from about 9 a.m. on Friday, Feb. 17th to 10 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 18th. I did get home for some sleep Friday night (if only 4 hours), so I don’t know how busy things were at 3 a.m., but the fact that we had the option was definitely welcome.

However, the main thing I wanted to talk about here is the games. Most of the games I played were not brand-spanking new, but one was unreleased and most were newer. Some were several years old—something that might be an issue in the video game market, but the beauty of Tabletop Games is that the “graphics” don’t become outdated as quickly and if the rules and game play are solid, with high-quality components, they can last a long time.

Arkham Horror
Dark Horse
Feast & Famine
Masters of Commerce
Nova Fighter
Pizza Theory
The Road to Canterbury
Thunderstone Advance: Towers of Ruin

Arkham Horror (Fantasy Flight)

Arkham Horror was the only title we played at SaltCon that I had already played, in fact I own this one, but the rules are a touch complex so I thought it would be good to sit down at an organized game and re-learn them from someone who knew them inside and out. Unfortunately, the employee from Hastur games that was running the game knew the rules even less than I did, which led to a slightly less than stellar experience.

As for the game itself, I’m a fan of H.P. Lovecraft and the Cthulhu mythos that Arkham Horror is based on. The rules, as I said, are a touch complicated and there are enough game pieces to reduce your sanity by one to two points just trying to set the game up the first time. Once the setup is complete, the fun begins.

The object of Arkham Horror is to save the city of Arkham from being destroyed by powerful creatures from other realms and their minions. The game board represents Arkham City itself, a fictitious location from the Lovecraft mythos (and probably the namesake for the asylum by the same name in DC Comics’ Batman). Players start by choosing characters on printed cards that have different statistics and abilities. Using those characters’ strengths is key to winning the game. Players then take turns “leading” a round. Actions such as moving across the board or drawing location cards can happen simultaneously (and due to the time it can take to play, is encouraged). For sequences that must happen by player order, it starts with the player leading that round. At the end of the round, that player reads an Environment card that can change the rules of the game, opens portals to mysterious and dangerous dimensions, and dictates if monsters come out of those portals and where they move in the city. Players can loose the game by a variety of ways: letting the town get overrun by monsters, letting the “big bad” manifest and not killing it, or by rule changes provided by the Environment cards when drawn each round.

You would expect that the most enjoyable part of the game is beating it, but it does not, it comes instead from the challenge. I highly enjoy this game, but I give it three pawns because it is not perfect. It needs to be played with the right group of people for maximum enjoyment. That “right group of people” enjoys a challenge, doesn’t mind complex rules, and preferably knows the Lovecraft mythos.

Dark Horse (Knight Works)

Dark Horse is a brand new game from Don Lloyd, who was present at SaltCon and taught us the game. It has mechanics similar to two games I’m already familiar with and enjoy (more on that later), and a “Euro game” style, set in the western United States in the late 1800’s. Each player is a “Dark Horse,” a newcomer that no one knows, who is given the job of expanding a city. They then have the challenge of building up resources and expanding their land.

Each player picks a character from a stack of nicely-printed cards. Each character has bonus traits unique to them, for example, my character had a background as a general store owner and as such, I got bonuses on trades and manufacturing raw materials, which I used to my advantage. Other roles can be won in-game, such as Mayor or Sheriff, that gives players certain advantages as well. There are two ways to win: expand until you have built all possible cities and towns, or gain a set amount of prestige points. Towns and cities are built in much the same way as they are in Settlers of Catan, but resources, political prestige, and other benefits are gained in a fashion more similar to Alien Frontiers (another fantastic game we were introduced to at SaltCon 2011). Each player rolls two to three six-sided dice, and then players take turns placing their dice on the board according to which number they got. With this type of dice mechanic, it would be easy for someone to think that the game is more luck than anything else, but the strategy to how those dice are placed combined with the background of your character and taking an additional role in the game are everything. I won the round we played because I had the Sheriff role for most of it, which allowed me to roll a special silver dice that can be flipped. For those who don’t know, the the six-sided traditional dice has existed since Roman times and opposite sides add up to the number seven: 1 and 6, 2 and 5, 3 and 4. So if I want to get the Baron spot this turn, which requires boxcars (double sixes), and I instead roll a 6 and 1, if the 1 is my silver die I can flip it to get a six. This is a rare example, but there were many instances where being able to flip that die were handy.

Overall, our group highly enjoyed this game. My friend Jay picked up an autographed copy, and SaltCon attendees got an additional character card named “Old Salty” for their copy of the game. I gave it four stars because while it was a lot of fun and I would recommend it, but I reserve five-star ratings for truly exceptional games.

Feast & Famine (Shadow Mountain)

Feast & Famine is based on the Biblical story of Joseph and his family in Egypt at the time of the famine. There are seven years of feasting followed by seven years of famine.

Players essentially have seven rounds to try and collect as many resources as possible—not just quantity, but the main objective is to get “Pharaoh’s tokens.” These tokens are then used to help feed family members during the seven rounds of famine. Family members have different points assigned to them, and the player with the most points at the end wins. Players blindly bid on families, based on the colors of their card backs, and then don’t find out who they got until after they won. Depending on the family, other players might be able to guess who the player has “saved” and adjust their strategies accordingly.

We learned to play this game using the iPad version, which was provided by an on-hand rep from Shadow Mountain. This made setting up for the game easier and kept the rules simplified. I gave the game three pawns because while I thought it was fun, the religious subject material seemed to distract from the actual gameplay. I can’t entirely explain why that was, but my friend that played against me was the first one to bring it up, so I know I wasn’t the only one. The iPad experience was fun and I would recommend the app to anyone wanting to kill time in church without feeling like a horrible person. I’m an Android man (I have a Xoom tablet and Android phone), so I won’t be getting the app anytime soon, but I wouldn’t mind trying the game again in the future.

Genoa (Rio Grande Games)

Genoa is a Eurogame that combines elements of strategy and bidding. The background is the city of Genoa, Italy in the Renaissance. Players have cards with certain jobs or goals on them. Completing a job or goal gets you money. The player with the most money at the end of the game wins.

Gameplay goes through several rounds, during which players take turns acting as the “master trader” for the city. They get to decide where the trade path leads. The trade path is a stack of wooden cylinders similar to chess pieces, and the board is divided up into areas. As an example, a player might have a job that requires them to pick up spices from the spice merchant on one side of town, and deliver them to the tavern on the other side of town. Since the game only allows for five moves per merchant round, and the game board is 8×8 squares, fulfilling this order in one turn is literally impossible. Instead, that player might negotiate when the trade route is near the spice merchant to use the action on that tile. A player wanting to get to the villa next to the spice merchant might find this favorable to them and be willing to chip in.

Overall, I found this game to be a lot of fun. Its not one that I would play with anyone, as the mechanics don’t appeal to everyone. One player in our group didn’t enjoy the game much because he hates games that involve bidding. I didn’t mind the bidding aspect as much, because I had my price limits on how much something was worth to me, and I was more about negotiating with others than trying to just win a high bid. The mechanic can also be exploited on the player’s turn to be the head merchant and decide where the trade route will go as well, however, the object of the game is to make the most money so taking bribes to move the trade route is often more lucrative than fulfilling a contract. I give the game four pawns—I liked it, I would definitely play it again, but it just couldn’t make the five-pawn “exceptional” rating.

Hawaii (Rio Grande Games)

Hawaii is a new title that at first glance looks to capitalize on the casual gamer market with a brightly-colored board for people who want to reminisce on a vacation to those tropical islands, or who want to dream about going there. For all its simplistic looks, however, the strategy of the game is a deceptively complex.

Players are each in control of their own tiny island off the main island. Their job is to build villages and supporting resources on those islands. The scoring is complicated, so I won’t even get into it here. Basically, you move a wooden piece representing your chief to different parts of the main island, spending movement tokens (represented by little wooden feet) to do so. On a row, a chief can purchase tiles for his own island. Tiles can be temples, fruit farms, village huts, or something similar. They are purchased with shells, which is the island currency. Once a chief gets back to the beach, he can fish or send canoes out to gain random items, also for a movement cost. There is also the “final” area where a chief can gain bonus points for ending his round early. Once in that area, the player is done until the next round.

Think you understand the concept so far? Good. Now lets throw in fruit tokens. Fruit are generated by fruit farms and can be used to purchase movement or tiles. At the start of each round, each player is given a set amount of movement, shell, and fruit tokens, and then they get additional tokens based on what they have built on their island. Building resource-giving items helps with purchasing more, but doesn’t add much to scoring at the end of the game.

Hopefully that gives you an idea. I’m giving the game four pawns. I want to give it three because despite the Eurogame wooden tokens, the little cardboard “huts” that you keep them in kept falling apart. However, the deceptively deep strategy is clever enough that I can’t deny its genius, and I have to give it four stars. I didn’t enjoy it quite enough for that last star, in fact I didn’t like the game immediately after playing it, but I keep finding myself going back and thinking about strategies I could have used and wanting to play again.

Karnaxis (Opportunity Games)

Karnaxis is The Game of Life on steroids. That’s my simple explanation.

For the more complex, let me describe gameplay. Each player picks a character card (have I said that enough in these reviews yet?) that gives them specific strengths and attributes for starting the game off with. In addition, each character has a “Karnaxis,” a life goal if you want to call it that. For example, my character’s Karnaxis was to gain 20 attributes and 20 business growth, and his ability was a full-ride scholarship, so free college. To my understanding, he didn’t get to attend university (post-grad) for free, so this ability was limited to four rounds.

Each round starts with the starting player (which can be changed through gameplay), and they put a wooden token on their first action they want to do that round. An action might be getting a job, starting a business, working at a job, going to school, collecting unemployment, investing in the stock market, or something similar. After each player has finished declaring their first action, each player then declares their second. Each box on the board has a limited number of tokens that can be placed in it. Example: in a four-player game, only three players can attend college in one round.

The game is won by gaining the most money, and that’s why I’m giving it three pawns. It feels hollow, which may be the moral lesson of the game. Each character has a Karnaxis they are trying to achieve, but achieving your Karnaxis only gets you an additional $100,000. That sounds like a lot, but considering that my character had a job as a consultant (base pay $80,000/year) with a bonus for having worked multiple years ($40,000/year), he grossed more ($120,000/year) just by me selecting that job multiple years than he did by achieving his Karnaxis, which I spent a long time working towards. Granted, gaining more attributes helps to gain more businesses, which in turn helps you with business growth, which in turn leads to a higher yearly income. However, the low yield of fulfilling their character’s Karnaxis gives little incentive to achieving it. House rule? Achieving one’s Karnaxis is worth $1 million. That would make reaching that goal a lot more desirable, and if the name of your game is Karnaxis, you’d better make the in-game Karnaxis important. Would that house rule break the game mechanics? Yes, probably. Let’s be up front, though, if you focus on anything other than business growth, you’re going to lose the game.

That leads me to my three-pawn rating. The game is fun, the design is nice, but the fact that there is one strategy to winning detracts from the overall fun of the game.

Masters of Commerce (Grouper Games)

Masters of Commerce is a newer game that utilizes the bidding mechanic to the extreme. Players take on the roll of either a merchant or land owner. Merchants can be dealing in jewels, cattle, fruit, or mining—it doesn’t really matter because they all pay the same. Land owners start with a set number of tiles for land.

Gameplay commences when a 1-minute timer is set. Players then have 60 seconds to achieve their goals for that round. Merchants want to get the most amount of land for the lowest price possible, land owners want to fill all of their land for the highest price possible. The strategy really comes in with the types of land. Each land card is a certain color, represented on the Market board. The colors range from “safer than Nerf” to “volatile as gunpowder.” As an example, a blue tile ranges in value to the merchant from $20 to $40, so it isn’t worth more than $30. A red tile ranges from having to pay the bank up to $20, up to making $70. Regardless of the outcome, a merchant must pay the landowner what they bid for the tile that round.

The strategy on this game ranges a little and can differ depending on the group you’re playing with. The downside to the game is the fast-paced action that usually involves yelling and merchant tokens being thrown everywhere. The upside is that no one knows who is winning until the last round, because if a merchant puts it all on red and the market takes a dive, they could go bankrupt.

Also at the end of each round, cards of land are randomly drawn and a merchant acts as auctioneer to the land owners to sell them the new parcels of land. Land owners must decide how much that land is going to be worth to them in the long run, and to be careful to not overbid.

Overall, I thought the game was interesting but due to the fast-paced nature it didn’t allow for as much careful strategy as Eurogames can. The design is nice and the pieces were decent. The markers were already drying out on the demo box, so plan to replace those fairly quickly. I would play this game again, but its not towards the top of my list.

Nova Fighter (self-published)

Nova Fighter is a locally-developed, independently-published science fiction-themed card game that was largely copied from a fantasy-themed card game created by the son-in-law of one of the Nova Fighter developers. The concept is interesting, but the mechanics and rules crash harder than an Ewok piloting a Speeder Bike.

The mechanics of the game appear close to Magic: The Gathering, but really aren’t. Players take the role of one of several races: Dwarves, elves, dragonmen, and others. You know, in space. Each race commands an identical set of ships: one main vessel, the Support Ship, and five ships that are ranked as Battleships, Destroyers, Cruisers, Spacecraft Carriers, and Fighters. The official names of the ships are different, but the stats and functionality are all the same, so it doesn’t matter which race you play as. If you’ve always wanted to do prolonged space battles as a generic space gnome, this is your game. The goal of the game is to wipe everyone else out.

To defeat your enemies, players must draw “credits” from their deck and use them to purchase ships and accessories. Several small fighters can be found in the deck with powerful weapons and virtually no defenses, which is probably the best mechanic in the game since it allows for quick bursts of damage. The Dreadnought card, which combines up to five of your ships into one ship, breaks that mechanic in half. There could be some special rule about those small fighters and the Dreadnought card, but if there was I would have no clue because there didn’t seem to be a rulebook.

That, in a nutshell, is why I’m giving this game one pawn. In card-based games like Magic: The Gathering, Dominion, or Thunderstone Advance (more on this one later), the rules for each card are printed plainly on the card. In Nova Fighter, most of the cards require you to know the rules before playing them. Each card is laminated, which was billed as an “extra feature” but really was central to gameplay. Many mechanics of the game relied on using dry-erase markers to write down stats and math on cards. Some were as simple as “I fired one missile this round” and checking a box, but most were more complex and required me to pull out my phone and use its calculator to do everyone’s math.

Example: to destroy a ship, you need to attack it. Your average ship comes equipped with basic lasers (100 damage) and a shield (protects against 125 damage). When a player attacks a ship, a roll on a six-sided die must be made to determine if the shield flares (protects the first 125 but is useless on the next round) or gives out entirely (no longer protects at all). A roll of a six meant that your shield fails entirely, and a one meant that your shield flared.

Okay, so you fire at one ship with three of your basic ships, each with 100 laser damage, plus one ship has an additionally-equipped laser for an extra 100 damage, resulting in 400 damage total. Subtract the first 125 for the shield, so now we’re doing 275 damage. The ship has 4000 total hit points, with a critical hit at 1/2 its total (2000 hit points). Okay, so I attack round after round after round after round until I get the other player’s ship to 2000 hit points, now any damage that ship takes is doubled, so instead of 275-400 (depending on if it still has shields), it now takes 550-800. Oh, and once it gets within 1000 points of being destroyed, the player controlling the ship rolls to figure out how many of its modules/accessories (ranging from special attack and defense weapons and bonus shields to the basic laser and shield) it has to lose. The player controlling the ship gets to decide which accessories they lose first, starting with cards that are not part of the base.

If it sounds complex, that’s because it is, and imagine how frustrating it is when you’re trying to learn this game using oral instructions and those instructions are only coming out slowly as the game progresses, and seem to be changing depending on the memory of the person giving the rules. Also, if you notice that each ship has a base damage of 100 points, and 4000 hit points to destroy it is on the low end (the larger ships went up to 12,000 hit points if I recall), it makes for an incredibly long game. It took me four and a half hours to wipe out the other players, and my friend and I were done with the game at about the 45 minute mark. We didn’t want to be rude and just leave. I would compare the experience to a film that you keep watching with the hope that it gets better, and at the end you realize it did not.

I want to be able to give this game a higher rating simply because it is a local independent game, but it was too broken and not very fun for me to give it anything higher than one pawn. The theory has a lot of potential, but the attempt at trying to create something “realistic” obviously outweighed the desire for something “fun.”

Pizza Theory (Gryphon Games)

Pizza Theory is a bit of an enigma. It was the Ion award winner for 2011 and is expected to do well. I liked the game okay, but with all of the hype, I wanted to like it a bit more than I did.

In Pizza Theory, three players (you can play with two but its not recommended) take turns putting pizza toppings on the board that match their color. For example, red pizza toppings include pepperoni, red peppers, tomatoes, and awesome bacon. You can’t place a topping down next to one of your own, the only way to get those spaces is by capturing them from other players. Once every player has taken a turn placing one topping on the board, each player then takes a large wooden six-sided die, secretly picks a number between 1 and 6 which determines where he or she is going to cut their pizza, and covers it with their hand with the number they are going to pick facing up. Once all players have picked a number, they reveal the number and put a small wooden stick down along the line indicated by the number they chose. When the three sticks are down, it divides the circular pizza into multiple pieces. If a player has one topping in each piece, they are “safe” and none of their toppings can be removed. If they do not fall into that category, then each piece is awarded to the player who has the most pieces in it. By winning a piece, a player can replace the toppings of the other players with their own. Example: if a piece of pizza has three pieces of bacon (red), two pieces of broccoli (green), and one onion (white), the red player wins that piece that round and gets to replace the green and white toppings with toppings from his own stack.

The concept is simple enough, but the strategy feels a little short of something great. If a player has played the game a few times, they might be able to figure out a best strategy for winning, but it also depends on the strategies of the other players as well.

On the plus side, this is a quick game that can be taught to a variety of ages, since there is no reading involved and the rules are fairly simple, so it is great for families. If a child knows their numbers 1-10 and their colors, they can play this game and would probably enjoy it. I’d like to give the game more than three pawns, and maybe if I played through it more times I would begin to enjoy it more, but I didn’t like it enough to sit through a few more sessions.

Quarriors (WizKids)

For a game that is produced by the WizKids division of Wizards of the Coast, which aims its marketing and ideas at the under-16 years of age group, Quarriors seems to be very popular with adults. To say that Quarriors is “Magic: The Gathering with dice” is close, but combine that with the deck-building mechanic of something like Dominion and swap the “deck” for a bag of dice, and now you’re on par.

In Quarriors, players take the role of a summoner who is trying to defeat his rivals. In Magic: The Gathering (or MtG, also produced by Wizards of the Coast, the company that also does Dungeons & Dragons and is owned by Hasbro), players use cards for a similar purpose. In Quarriors, the mechanic is dice.

In pre-game prep, the dice that will be used is determined at random by selecting cards from a deck. Then you must find the dice that go with each card, which was probably the most frustrating part of the process since some of the dice look similar. However, once we got the hang of what to look for, the process was much simpler and probably would be easy once you get past this initial learning curve.

During gameplay, the player whose turn it is takes six dice at random from a bag and rolls them. The results determine the actions that the player can take that round. Some of the best games are those that are simple to understand but have more and more complex strategies, and this game does well in that category. I had heard a review of it on a tabletop game podcast where the host talked about how there is one strategy to winning Quarriors, so I fully expected that to be the case, but I didn’t find this to be true.

Jay and I tried to tackle this one on our own while waiting for another friend to get back from an errand, and we ended up being taught the rules and gameplay by a nice couple from our hometown. They said they play Quarriors frequently with their own children, which I believe ranged from about 8-16 years old. I felt the game was perfect for that demographic and yet enough strategy to be fun for the entire family. Children under 8 might enjoy it as well, as long as someone is patient with them to explain what different dice do since it requires a higher level of reading than 1st grade. Oh, and the dice are pretty tiny, so it also helps to have someone keeping them out of smaller children’s mouths and noses.

The Road to Canterbury (Gryphon Games)

I’m a fan of medieval history, so the subject material for this game intrigued me right out of the box. The Road to Canterbury puts players in the role of con artists along the path that pilgrims are taking from London to Canterbury. The job of the con artist is to pose as a “Pardoner of Sins.” In order to make money on the pious, however, you must first entice them to do some sinning. Sins are given out in the form of cards that are labeled with the Seven Deadly Sins: Greed, Pride, Gluttony, Wrath, Luxury (replacing Lust for the sake of age rating), Idleness, and Envy. Pardons are also handed out in the form of cards with the name of the sin printed on it.

A typical example of this might go as follows: Player 1 places the sin of Envy on Pilgrim 1. Player 2 also places Envy on Pilgrim 1. Player 3 places the sin of Idleness on Pilgrim 1. When it is Player 1’s turn again, they might pardon the Envy (netting two pardons), or they might put another sin on Pilgirm 1. The risk in putting another Envy on Pilgrim 1 is that the commission for pardoning three sins is greater than two. So if pardoning one sin gains 5 gold, pardoning two might gain 12 gold and pardoning three might be 20, and then it goes up from there. Being patient can result in better gains, but also gives other players more opportunity to cash in on your sins.

In the end, there are cash bonuses for achieving certain goals and the player with the most gold wins. This game is pure Euro-style, because of its high-quality pieces and the fact that all gold is held in bags to keep it from the view of prying players until the very end of the game. While a player might have an idea of how much gold a competitor is holding on to, you may not find out who really won until the final reveal. A pilgrim dies after seven sins have been committed (all that sinning isn’t good for you, apparently), and the game ends when all of the pilgrims have died.

One of the players in our group didn’t enjoy this game, but the other two of us thought the strategy, the quality, and the subject material made for a great game overall and had fun with it. This is one I’ll probably be picking up in the next year.

Thunderstone Advance: Towers of Ruin (AEG)

Chronologically, Thunderstone Advance was the last game we played at SaltCon, and looking back that was good. SaltCon was pretty good overall, but was made greater by ending on a high note.

My friend and I tried to get on Thunderstone Advance the entire time we were at the conference. The reps from AEG were probably tired of people asking, because they came across a touch rude when we tried to ask when we could have a chance to play. It took us being rude and barging in on a game of Tomb to ask if there was someone who could teach us Thunderstone Advance for us to finally get a chance to sit down. To their credit, they were nice enough to comply and they made at least one sale for AEG at that moment.

For those familiar with deck building games, Thunderstone Advance won’t feel foreign in any way, although the rules and mechanics are slightly different than other games of the same genre. The most notable game to market with this mechanic is Dominion, which my wife and I highly enjoy and have introduced several friends to the new styles of tabletop gaming through that title. Don’t assume, however, that if you’ve played Dominion that you don’t need to play Thunderstone Advance.

The original Thunderstone came out roughly one year ago. That title, from what I understand, is pretty solid on its own merits. Thunderstone Advance is a one-up on the original, now including a well laid-out board for the cards and a few tweaks to certain cards and mechanics. To my knowledge, the previous Thunderstone expansions are compatible with the new Thunderstone Advance.

The game itself puts all of the players in charge of their own small militia, starting out with common peasants armed with basic spears, and then building from there to include heroes that read like something from a Role Playing game like Pathfinder or even World of Warcraft, complete with epic weapons. The purpose of building this army is to delve into a dungeon and defeat the monsters inside. The “dungeon” is made up of three monster cards. The spot in which a monster card is placed determines how deep it is in the dungeon. The deeper in the dungeon a monster is, the more light is needed to fight it. A player can send his small militia down to fight a monster with less light than the requirement, but it gives the monsters bonuses. Each monster type has unique abilities ranging from what types of weapons they take damage from, to going kamikaze when they are killed (e.g., “When you defeat this monster, trash one card from those used this round”).

To defeat a monster, a player typically declares that he (or she) is sending his militia down and begins laying out cards. Well-placed strategies with a little luck can be the difference between victory or defeat. Let me give an example, but forgive my use of general terms for cards, I don’t have the actual list handy. I have six cards in my hand: a Dwarven hero, two village warriors, two spears, and a torch. That gives me enough light and six damage, so I’m going to risk going after the first monster. That monster has a toughness of six and an ability that if I don’t defeat it by eight or more, I still kill it but it permanently destroys one of the cards I used to fight it. While the Dwarven hero is one of the few who can wield the large hammer weapon, I don’t have it in my hand. I know its in my deck, and I know I haven’t seen it yet and there are only six cards left before I have to reshuffle, so I’m going to risk it. I could equip the dwarf with one of the spears, but if I equip them to my village warriors instead, I get to draw a card. By drawing two cards, I have a 1 in 3 chance that my hammer weapon I need to defeat the monster solidly. Even if I don’t get the hammer, there might be something I don’t want anyway so its a good way to “cull” your deck, or trash lower-level cards to increase the chance that I’ll draw a higher-level card in the future.

The game can be played with one to five players, meaning that even if you’re home alone on a Thursday night and feel like playing, you can do so. The object of the game is to defeat one big monster at the end of the dungeon, not necessarily defeat another player. The player with the most amount of Honor points, which are obtained through defeating monsters and having certain leveled-up heroes in your deck at the end of the game, is the winner. In the one game we got through, my friend Jay beat up the final “big bad,” but still ended up five honor points less than the guy to his right.

I’m giving this game, and only this game in this set of reviews, five pawns. Why? Because it was exceptional. The mechanics were such that there is a wide variety of strategies that can be used. Like Dominion, the game comes with more sets of cards than are used in a single game, so the level of customization and replay are both high. Unlike Dominion, where the goal is just to get more property points than everyone else, the idea of killing monsters in a dungeon using cleverly-strategized combinations of cards is much more satisfying. I went to my Friendly Local Game Store after work the next week, and pre-ordered it (due out March 2nd or 3rd). Pre-orders of the game that are paid in full get an additional expansion back titled “Avatar,” at least at the store I went to.

Zooleretto (Rio Grande Games)

This is not a new game, nor is it “hot” or “popular,” but I’d heard good things about this game so I was eager to try it out. We had the luck of running into one of the managers of the Friendly Local Game Store closest to my work while at SaltCon, and he said he was looking to teach that game, so we signed up.

In a nutshell, Zooleretto is a simple strategy game where players collect animals in order to build their zoo exhibits. It is aimed at younger children, but makes a great family game because the level of strategy is fun for kids and adults alike. At the beginning of the game, tokens are placed face-down next to plastic “trucks.” On each player’s turn, they flip a tile and place it on the truck. It could be an animal, a vendor cart, or money. At any time a player can chose to ship a truck to their zoo, rather than placing a tile, but once they do, they are done flipping tiles until the next round.

After a player has received a truck, they can place animals they received in pens, put vendor carts in pre-determined spaces around their zoo, or collect the money on the truck from the bank. Money comes in a simple form of an orange wooden token and is used for special moves like changing animals from one pen to another. Animals must be placed in pens with other animals of their exact kind (so tigers go with tigers, camels with camels, but tigers and leopards cannot go together), and some animal tokens have male and female symbols on them. If a male and female are placed in a pen together, they instantly create a baby once in the game. There is also a barn area of the zoo, so if you get a truck with a camel on it but your zoo only had tigers, elephants, and panda bears, the camel has to go in the barn. Animals in barns can be bought by other players.

At the end of the game, there are points for having pens filled or mostly-filled (if you are one animal short of filling a pen, you still get some points). Any animals left in the barn are subtracted from the point total. The player with the most points wins.

Again, simple with easy math and strategies that range from basic to a little complex are why I gave this four pawns. This is another game I’d like to pick up and take to family parties to play with the nephews and nieces who are old enough. The game has several expansions including a stand-alone called Aquaretto, which is a similar concept but in an aquarium environment. All of the expansions and Aquaretto can be added onto Zooloretto to create varying levels of complexity for higher replay value.

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