Blog: Games

Most of these posts were originally posted somewhere else and link to the originals. While this blog is not set up for comments, the original locations generally are, and I welcome comments there. Sorry for the inconvenience.

First looks at three new games

Last month a friend brought over a copy of Flamecraft, which I recognized from our Origins A-list but it was sold out before we could register. The game is set in a town with a collection of shops, each of which natively has one good type that you can acquire there. You can play cards to expand a shop. If you gather the right combinations of goods, you can enchant shops to make them even better (and earn points). Shops have capacity limits, and as they fill up new shops come out so there's always stuff to do. It's a cute game with (mostly) good production values, and I'm glad we got to play it. One thing that I found suboptimal is that the layout is long and skinny, so no matter where you sit, you can't see everything without getting up and looming over the table. Maybe some people don't have that problem, but several of us did.

At Pennsic our camp has a gameroom (look, have you met us?), and somebody brought a copy of Equinox. This is a card game with betting and attempting to manipulate the outcome. There are eight magical creatures, one of which will be eliminated each round. You can place betting tokens on creatures; earlier bets pay off more, but if a creature you bet on gets eliminated before the end, you get nothing for that bet. For each creature there are cards numbered 0 through 9, plus there are chameleon cards (also 0 through 9) that can be played anywhere. On your turn you play a card from your hand into the corresponding "slot" for the current round. You can play over existing cards -- so if someone played an 8 on that creature you want to eliminate, you can play a "0" there. Turns continue until every creature has something for that round (so at least eight turns but it could be a lot more), and then the lowest-valued creature is eliminated and you go to the next round. Each creature also has a special power, which you can use if you play on it and you're the majority better. I played this a few times throughout the week and enjoyed it. I expect we'll buy a copy.

Yesterday two friends joined us for games and food and we played Point City, which they had just gotten from Kickstarter. (General release is next month.) This is from the same folks who made Point Salad and the style is similar, though Point City has more strategy. Two-sided cards are dealt out into a market; one side shows one of five resources (or a wildcard) and the other side shows a building. Buildings require specified resources and produce some value -- usually they give you permanent resources, but they might also give you victory points or "civics" points, which are variable scoring rewards. In a manner similar to Splendor, you're trying to build up permanent resources so that you can build other cards without first needing to get and spend the one-shot resource cards. On your turn you take two adjacent cards from the market, and if you take a building you must be able to build it immediately (you do not have a hand of cards). If you don't have a valid play, you draw two resources from the deck.

We played this a few times and liked it -- it's a nice, tight game that doesn't take a long time to play (though I disbelieve the claimed lower bound of 15 minutes, even for experienced players). We plan to buy this when it's available.

Origins 2023

We went to Origins Game Fair for the first time since before the pandemic. We played games.


  • Empire Builder "pot luck": this was a general sign-up, specific groups and games to be sorted out on arrival. We ended up in a four-player game of Eurorails, which I enjoyed. It took longer than usual; part of that was one player, but I think part of it was also some unfortunate card draws. (Fortunately, this was the only thing we signed up for Wednesday evening.) The game has gotten some usability upgrades since last I saw it: the goods chits are now colored with corresponding color-coding on the contract cards, and we played on a dry-erase map (single sheet). I asked about the map: that's something the folks running this did, not commercially available "but maybe later". (The organizers had a large art portfolio with all the maps.)


  • Hamburg: Nominally a city-building game (the veneer is kind of thin), the idea is that you have cards that can be used for different purposes: building (two stages), getting workers (needed for buildings), averting catastrophes, building walls, and (if I recall correctly) getting money. In each of eight rounds, the player with the most advanced position in each of five categories gets to check off an accomplishment (if not already met) for end-game points. There's not a lot of interaction among players. It was ok.

  • Fortune and Famine: You're playing leaders in a fantasy setting and your goal is to maximize the grain you have stored by the end of the game. Each round you can bid on new workers: the two fundamental ones are the farmer (pay coins, get grain) and the merchant (pay grain, get coins), and there are several others. In later phases there are upgraded versions of workers, like more lucrative merchants. There are also wizards who perform one-time actions, some of which are attacks on other players, and there are thieves. Sometimes when you draw workers you get famine cards instead and all players lose half their unprotected grain. You can protect (store) grain, so it's safe but no longer available for spending. Each leader has a special ability; mine was being able to protect three grain and/or coins without storing, another was being able to ignore famine effects three times during the game, and I forget what the others were. It's a pretty light, fast game -- I'm going to guess 45 minutes once you know the rules. I enjoyed it enough to buy a copy.

  • Familiars and Foes: A cooperative game in which you're playing low-powered familiars trying to rescue your witches and wizards from monsters. The session was led by the game designers, one of whom also played. It felt a little juvenile; I don't know how much of that was the game itself and how much was this particular session. (We were all adults, to be clear.) I felt it was trying too hard to be cute.

  • Wingspan: I've been hearing good things about this game, and it did not disappoint! (We bought a copy on the way home.) Your goal is to attract birds to your habitat; each bird type contributes to your score and might have special powers that help either the game engine or your final score. Birds can lay eggs (usually needed to get more birds), and birds require the right food to be brought into play. On your turn you can draw bird cards into your hand, play birds, lay eggs, or collect food. Each round has an additional goal (like "birds in trees" or "eggs in box nests") that awards extra points. The game is well-designed (except for storage), well-made, pretty, and fun.

Having two "F-something and F-something" games on the same day was tripping us up all day.


  • La Familia Hort: Players are competing to inherit granny's farm by building the most profitable plot. Each turn you can buy crops or farm animals, water and fertilize (limited options so you have to choose), and -- when a crop is ready -- either sell it or use it to feed livestock for income. There are also some tools that help you enhance the value of other tiles. You can only have six tiles at a time, though, so you're giving up substantial space to play a tool. The game was light, cute, and pretty forgettable, and did not consume more than half of its two-hour slot.

  • Final Strike: Players are gladiators competing for glory points by killing monsters and their sidekicks. You have a hand of weapons (everyone starts with the same hand), which deal varying amounts of damage and can be upgraded for better weapons that sometimes have special powers. You're trying to deal damage but not so much that someone else can "scoop" you for the kill; the killing shot brings a lot more glory. This game was run by the designer.

  • Gempire: Zarmund's Demands The novelty of this game is simultaneous play with actions recorded on dry-erase boards for simultaneous reveal. The boards were laid out well so you could easily see what your options are. I am now out of positive things to say about this game.

  • New York Pizza Delivery Lightweight resource-allocation game. You're building pizzerias in different NYC neighborhoods to meet delivery orders and collect victory points and maybe tips. Ingredient cards in your hand can be used to match delivery orders, or you can use them to add permanent ingredients to one of your pizzerias (can satisfy an order without more cards), or you can discard them to improve your range. There is a "marketplace" of ingredient cards that, in our game, grew quite large and unmanageable. There are also event cards and other special abilities. I came away thinking "meh", though possibly with a better playing space and fewer players it could be fun.


Origins has activities other than board games too. Saturday morning we went to a lecture called something like "why you don't want too much realism in your game". This was put on by a wargaming group, so this realism was about battle plans and stuff. The presenter was an Army logistics officer who talked a lot about the stuff that needs to go onto the map that isn't "pieces shooting or blowing things up" -- stuff that's essential to an army actually functioning, but not very much fun for most people to play out. I wasn't the target audience but I still found it interesting. Apparently it was immediately followed by a presentation about making games more realistic (drawing from experience in Desert Storm, it sounded like), but we had somewhere else to be.

  • Mistwind (not published; that's a Kickstarter link): Players are competing to deliver goods to places where they're in demand, using flying whales (if there's a reference here I missed it) to navigate from place to place and building outposts to reduce costs. On each round you will play four of your five numbered tokens, discarding one at the beginning of each round. Each token can, in turn, be played in one of four places: a row of options that give you resources in different combinations, a row of cards that let you build outposts in specific locations, a row of action options (like building whales and outposts or taking the first-player position), and a row of cards giving special abilities or end-game scoring. The trick here is that each of these four areas has five numbered positions, and you have to play your corresponding numbered token. So you can only play one "3" position, for instance, among those four choices. That all sounds complicated and there was definitely a learning curve, but I was getting it by the end of the game and the next one would be smoother. We were playing a prototype and the session was run by the designer, who was taking detailed notes and asked us for feedback. I like what I saw and expect to back the Kickstarter when it goes live.

  • Railways of the World: Rail-building and goods delivery. We've played this successor to Steam twice at past Origins conventions and had one good and one terrible experience (which seemed to be players not the game itself). This time was a good experience; the map for the six-player game is huge and the convention gave them a big round table, which leads to visibility problems for me. The bad experience (last time) was other players basically saying "you'll have to cope"; this time, in contrast, the other players were willing to move the map toward an edge and let me choose my seat to maximize what I could see, at the cost of others having to work harder, and people were happy to help with reading things I couldn't see, and it was all very friendly and positive. With six players there's a lot of contention for routes; each player also has a secret goal that encourages building in different places, which helps mitigate that. You have to look at where the goods come out at the beginning of the game and think ahead to where you might be able to deliver them and what track you'll need to build to do that. It's more forgiving than Steam and we now own a copy (which we will not play on a big round table).

  • Obelisk: Cooperative puzzle-style game. You have a 5x5 grid of tiles, each with an exit arrow on one side, one of which is the monster-spewing portal. During the players' phase you can rotate tiles to build a path (one rotation per tile ever), build towers at intersections to capture monsters from the adjacent four tiles, mine resources needed to upgrade towers, and do those upgrades. During the monsters' phase, a random assortment of monsters (three different types, varying in speed and strength) emerge on the portal and start to move along the path. If you have a strong-enough tower when a monster passes by, you can capture it (one capture per tower per phase). If a monster escapes the board or visits a tile for a second time, the players lose. It's a quick game, maybe 20 minutes; we lost our first game, declared the second layout untenable from the start, and won a third game with effort. We bought a copy. This game, too, was run by the designer.


We had more gaps in our schedule than in past years, some by design and some by games running short. We planned for some of that and got a hotel room across the street from the convention center. That location turned out to be noisy, but the convenience of being able to go back to the room for an hour instead of finding a place in the convention center to sit and read was a big win. And the hotel room didn't have annoying fluorescent lights.

In the past there have been some "general game-store" vendors, but this year we didn't see that -- general vendors for trading-card games and lots of individual publishers, along with the usual assortment of auxiliary vendors (dice, art, t-shirts, special-purpose gaming tables, costumes, etc), but no general stores for board games. Fortunately, we have a local game store we can support, and they even had Wingspan in stock so we didn't have to wait.

We were on the fence about True Dungeons this year, and then learned they wouldn't be there -- dilemma solved. :-)

Attendance was a lot lower than what I remember from 2019 (and some vendors commented on this too). I'm guessing half?

Magic: The Gathering card prices?

Dear Brain Trust,

I played a lot of Magic: The Gathering when the game was new, and through the first several expansion sets, before eventually drifting away for various reasons. At one point I sold a few valuable cards individually on eBay, and gave most of the rest away to young friends who were just getting into the game. I held back a few cards that I had a nagging feeling were or would be valuable, or that I just had sentimental attachment to, and that weren't going to make a difference to my friends anyway.

I got email from Origins (a gaming convention we'll be attending next month) that, among things, highlighted a dealer specializing in collectible card games (CCGs) who will have buyers at the con -- so, the email says, bring your cards if you're interested in selling, either individual cards or collections.

So hey, I said to myself, what are these cards actually worth? I looked up some of them on that dealer's site -- that is, what they are currently selling these cards for -- and my jaw dropped a little. But that's sale pricing.

What is a typical range for the difference between buying and selling prices? What should one reasonably expect a dealer to pay, as a fraction of the selling price?

I would have thought this would be something I could answer with a web search, but either it's not or, more likely, I'm not formulating my queries well, this not being the sort of thing I generally do.

Anybody have any advice that will help me evaluate price offers from a dealer?

(I know about grading as a concept, but I think that's orthogonal. Dealers sell cards that are near-mint and cards that are well-played and everything in between. The buy/sell ratios would be about the same across the board, wouldn't they?)

New game: Guild of Merchant Explorers

We had friends over Saturday afternoon/evening and one of the games they brought, unopened, was The Guild of Merchant Explorers. Players (up to four) have individual copies of a map for exploration. You start in a central city and explore from there. When you explore all of the hexes of the same terrain type in a cluster, you get to establish a settlement there. In future rounds, you can explore from the city or from any of your settlements. Some hexes contain riches (coins), and some of the sea hexes contain ruins (shipwrecks) that hold treasure. There are three randomly-chosen objectives that score extra points; these are things like "have settlements on three continents" or "explore three ruins at the edges of the map". In the remote corners of the map there are towers that you get more points for exploring.

The game mechanic is interesting: in each of four rounds players simultaneously take the same actions (plus one per), which are known in advance but come out in a random order. Actions are things like "explore two grassland spaces" or "explore three sea hexes but they have to be in a straight line". In-progress explorers are cleared at the end of each round, so one of your goals is to complete exploring regions so you can build the settlement. You know what's coming, so you can look ahead and see that you'll be able to fill those last two desert hexes or whatever -- but sometimes you're not yet in position when the card comes out, so you have to plan for that. I can see how you could get mired in analysis paralysis, but it's not a long, complex game -- box says 45 minutes, which feels about right after you learn it. (I didn't time our first game, but I know it was longer than that.)

There's one unpredictable element in each round: a special card that means you draw two cards with more powerful actions, keep one, and use it. You then keep that card for the rest of the game, so the one you chose in round 1 will come out again at least two more times. (In the fourth round, instead of drawing a new card you choose one of your existing ones to use again.) These cards usually let you explore more spaces or more kinds of spaces, like "explore one grassland and all the hexes around it" or "explore one of each type plus two sea" or "explore five contiguous desert hexes".

There are several ways to earn victory points that are always available. The three special goals add more. And the treasures you find can award victory points based on conditions, like "one per mountain settlement". You don't have enough actions to do everything, of course, so you'll choose which paths to pursue based on all of those and perhaps by what your special action cards enable you (alone) to do. The game comes with four maps, some of which have special rules we haven't explored yet, so there is additional variability. I assume this means there will be expansion sets in the future.

The game is not very interactive; what you do does not affect other players and vice versa, aside from the races to the special goals (first person to do it gets more points) and competition for treasures. This won't be enough interaction for some, but it works for me.

We all liked the game a lot. After we'd played twice one of them asked "do you like this game?" and we both said "yes, very much". He then asked "would you like this copy?" -- turns out they'd both been at the same playtesting or preview event and thus each got a copy of the game, so they were happy to pass along a gift. Nice!

On Sunday we got together with different friends to play games and took this along. We played a few times with different people throughout the day, and everyone we introduced it to liked it a lot too.

True Dungeon

Both last year and this year at Origins we played True Dungeon adventures (one each year). I don't want to spoil either of the adventures we played (which they continue to offer), so I'll speak here in generalities.

True Dungeon is something like D&D adapted for physical sets. An adventure consists of a story played out in a series of seven rooms. You play one of a dozen or so character classes and each has some special rules and abilities. Spellcasters usually have to memorize things (cleric: identify this prayer bead to successfully cast your spell, etc). To disarm traps, rogues have to manipulate a gadget that is akin to playing the old board game Operation (move a pointer through a maze without touching any walls). Combat is done on shuffleboards; monster hit areas, including vulnerabilities, are drawn on one end, and you slide disks from the other to attack. (I'm not sure if monster damage is pre-determined or randomized; I didn't get a good look at what the GMs were doing.)

Before the session starts, the players get together to choose classes (no duplication allowed) and equip characters. Equipment comes in the form of tokens; each time you play you get a bag of ten (most common, a couple uncommon, one rare -- this should sound familiar to anyone who's played collectible card games like Magic). Naturally, you can buy specific tokens from them. Both times we played, the assortment we got for that session was not, by itself, particularly useful (I don't think my bag included a weapon, for instance), so you're relying on the experienced players who show up with their vast collections who can say "sure, you can borrow this sword" or "hey cleric, here are some healing scrolls, just in case". At the end of an adventure you get a few more random tokens. "Equipping" consists of laying out the tokens you're going to use (armor, weapons, cloaks, rings, etc) for a GM who records your final stats on a sheet that is carried through the adventure and given to each GM. You can then put most of them away, aside from weapons and any expendables you want to have on hand. Read more…

New games

These all came today. I think we need to tip our mail carrier. (I never expected some of these to be as heavy as they are!)

stack: Endeavor, Auztralia, Skylands, Railroad Revolution

Origins game con

We played a bunch of games at Origins Game Fair, most of which we liked. Here's my summary of them, in order of play: Read more…

Bards, simplified

At an upcoming gaming convention we'll be playing in a session of True Dungeons. This is, sort of, RPGs meet LARP -- you go through a series of (actual, physical) rooms and face challenges (monsters and puzzles). But instead of actually fighting with weapons like in LARP or rolling dice like in RPGs, the combat system uses something like shuffleboards, and each round you slide a disk (representing your weapon) down the board and where it lands determines what happens. One of the advantages of taking a fighter class is that you get to practice with this shuffleboard first. Mental abilities including spellcasting are implemented through a system of symbols that you have to memorize -- to successfully cast this spell, tell us the name of this rune (or whatever). I've only played once and we didn't have a spellcaster in our small group, so I haven't seen that part in action. In each room, there is a (human) GM who manages the events in the room and adjudicates as needed.

One of the classes you can play is bard. One of the bard's abilities is "bard-song": everybody else gets a combat advantage while you're singing.

I have questions. :-)

Does the song need to be topical -- for example, do you get better bonuses if you sing a song about fighting a dragon while fighting a dragon? Does the song need to be of a particular type, like inspirational battle songs or ballads about heroes? Does the song need to be in English? Does the song need to have actual words or do fa-la-las and niggunim count? The character description is silent on these important matters. (In the back of my mind I wondered if I could just prepare "Horsetamer's Daughter" or "Maddy Groves" and be good for the whole two-hour game -- just pick up where I left off in the previous battle. :-) )

Last night I found the detailed rules and looked it up. Most bards sing, they say, but you can play an instrument (not a loud one!), recite poetry, or even dance. And then, it says, there is no actual requirement that the player really perform; you can just say you're invoking bard-song.

How disappointing. Fighters need to actually aim. Spellcasters need to actually remember stuff. Rogues (I didn't mention this before) need real dexterity to manipulate certain puzzles. But bards don't need to sing, even if they accept any song at all? Huh. Perhaps this is defense against people who sing badly off-key -- "no no it's ok, we believe you, here's your bonus"?

I won't know what class I'm playing until I get there; it depends on available equipment (each player gets a bag of tokens) and party balance (each class can only be represented once). But bard is on my short list because it sounds like fun, and I will ignore the nerfing and sing actual songs if I do it. They might be 13th-century French songs or 15th-century Italian songs because, hey, why not? But there will be actual singing.

Origins game con

As we did last year, Dani dug through the vast list of games that are being offered for playing and extracted a much shorter list of games that sounded interesting to him and that he thought I'd like. I then sorted that list into four piles: really want to play, want to play, would play, and would rather not. He will put this together with his own preferences, work the jigsaw magic of the schedule, and come up with something that works.

Fairly often, games we want to play aren't available in timeslots that work, or sell out before we can register (more a problem with GenCon, I understand). So you need to go in with more options than you'll need, so there's wiggle room. That all makes sense.

After I gave him my list, I noticed that I had 27 hours of "really want", 47 hours of "want", and 67 hours (what's with the 7s?) of "would play". The convention is (effectively) four days long. I do insist on sleeping.

So, yeah. I'll be interested in seeing what subset actually works. :-)

(This was out of a list of about 60 games. We mostly aim for shorter games -- for me it's damage-mitigation, in case something turns out to suck -- but our list did include both Advanced Civilization and History of the World.)

More new games

A couple months ago I listed some games we played at Origins. We've now played a few more new-to-us games, some that a friend brought back from GenCon and some that coworkers introduced me to.

Orleans is is a worker-placement game with decent interaction. A novel feature is that workers are not generic; there are seven different types, and at the start of your turn you draw a designated number of workers from your bag. What shows up is what you have to work with that turn. Different assignments require different combinations of workers. As with games of this type, there is always more to do than you have time and resources to do. You can recruit workers, and each type of recruitment has a beneficial game effect like giving you resources (farmer) or advancing you on the knowledge (scoring) track (scholars) or increasing the number of workers you draw (knights). You can travel from town to town, building guild halls, which act as score multipliers. You can go after "citizen" tokens on various tracks, which are also score multipliers. You can focus on income or goods production, which add to victory points. You can permanently send some of your workers away to work on communal projects for various dividends. Every turn an event is announced at the beginning and enacted at the end -- taxes, plague, income, and more. When you've enacted the last of the 14 events, the game ends. I think a four-player game works best, though a two-player game is possible.

Istanbul (the dice game, not the card game) is a dice-allocation game. The goal is to collect six rubies. Rubies are available on several tracks; on each track the price increases with each one taken. On four tracks you buy rubies with resources of one of four types; on one track you buy them with combinations of resources; on one you buy them with coins; and on one you get them (for free) when you build five mosques. On your turn you roll a set of customized dice that give you resources, coins, or card draws. (Cards usually give you either resources or money, but not always.) After you roll you can take two actions based on the die rolls (take resources, take money, etc). After that you can buy rubies (as I described) or mosques, tiles that have prices and game effects. For example, one mosque might cost one resource of each color and give you an extra die. Another might cost three red resources and give you a red resource whenever you use the "take coins" action. One might cost three green and give you an extra action. You can also buy re-roll tokens to use when you really don't like some or all of your dice. A friend brought this over and said it works well for two players.

Trainmaker is a quick "push your luck" dice game. There are city cards; each city produces one of six types of goods and requires some combination of railroad cars to get there and get the goods. You are trying to collect cities, and win if either you collect all the goods types or you satisfy a secret victory condition. (Mine, for example, was to collect three corn or three coal.) On your turn you roll a bunch of dice that have, on their faces: locomotive x2, the three car types, and a caboose. (I didn't notice how many dice there are -- 7 or 8?) To start you must play a locomotive and at least one car; you then reroll the remaining dice and must play another car. Iterate until you play a caboose to end your train or run out of dice/rolls without doing so and derail. If you don't derail and the cars you played match one of the three visible cities, take it. If you're feeling lucky, you can start all that by playing two locomotives, which means that after you finish your first train, you get to go again -- but, of course, this means you took a die out of circulation for that first train. With learning, this was maybe 20 minutes -- a good filler game when one group has finished a game and is waiting for another group to finish theirs so we can shuffle players around.

I described First Class in my Origins post. We've played it a few times with two and three players and like it. Thus far we have only played modules A and B, the ones they recommend for new players. We'll explore some of the other three, though one of them sounds wholly uninteresting to me so maybe not that one.

Magical Treehouse is a card-drafting, engine-building game with a speed element. In each of four rounds you draft five cards, one of which you will use to bid for turn order and four of which you can play in ascending order within "suits" to build one or more treehouses. Some cards let you place "familiars" on a board to collect resources; some levels of your treehouses require resources as inputs. There's an extra score-influencing reward for finishing quickly. After four rounds of this you score -- visible cards have points, plus things you can actually make based on the resources you've claimed score points, plus there are some "have the most of resource X" points. Meh; I don't expect to play again.

Shards of Infinity is a deck-building slugathon for up to four players. The mechanic is similar to Dominion: draw cards from your deck, optionally buy cards that are for sale, play cards from your hand, deal damage to other players or their champions (cards) based on the cards you played, discard and draw a new hand. One thing I like about this game over Dominion is that card "affinities" are easier to see; there are four colors of cards and many of them give enhancements within color -- e.g. playing two green cards gets you something that playing one doesn't. (For one color, there are some enhancements if you play all three other colors.) I suspect that, like Dominion, this game will generate gazillions of expansions, none of which we'll buy.