Thursday, November 09, 2006

Session Report, in which I review four games from On the Spot Games

The latest session report for the Jerusalem Strategy Gaming Club is up here. Games played: Kotsuku x 4, Letter Hold 'Em x 2, Trendsetters, Zero In, Caylus, Cities and Knights of Catan, Cosmic Encounter x 2.

On the Spot Games was kind enough to send me four of their games for review. I warned them that the games are not my usual style of games, but they were ok with that.

I wanted to be first to review the games, as they are not reviewed elsewhere on the net, but I see that Mikko has beat me to it by a few hours.

The upshot: Dirt simple rules, inexpensive stocking stuffers. Cost: $10 retail, $8 at FunAgain. The verdict: mixed.

Kotsuku - This game is easily created as a pen and paper game, and the rules are very easy. The game comes with a few dozen wipeable cards and a dry-erase marker. Each board contains a grid and the letters of the alphabet on the bottom. Some of the letters are already in the grid, and these letters are crossed out on the bottom of the card.

On each player's turn, they add an unused letter to the grid, crossing it out on the bottom of the card. The first player to form a three-letter word wins. The game is allegedly for 2 players, but can be played with 3 just as well.

This was the most poorly received of the games. Nadine in particular didn't think it was fun at all. She said that in Scrabble, even if you're losing, at least you have the fun of forming words; in this game, you are not forming anything, just avoiding forming words.

From my perspective, I thought the game had some severe problems. Every game is essentially the same, with players placing Q, Z, X, etc. until one player is forced to place a letter that unavoidably forms a word. Ho hum, and way too repetitive.

While I thought the game was poor, it could be instructive and even enjoyable for younger children.

Update: As a later thought, perhaps the game night be improved if the game doesn't end once the first person forms a word. Continue the game, giving points to players each time the form a word, with bonuses for multiple words in the same move.

(You could play a fantastic game in the same category called Maven. Each player has their own five by five grid. Players call out letters in turn and place them within the grid. After twenty-five letters are called, each player receives 1, 2, or 4 points for three, four, or five letter words formed.)

Letter Hold 'Em - This game is simply a standard deck of cards with two jokers. Each card has a fixed letter on the card. The intention of the game is to play Texas Hold 'Em, where you can only form poker hands if chosen from a group of cards that also form a word. We didn't play Texas Hold 'Em; instead we played Five Card Stud. Maybe that wasn't the right choice.

It appears that the net effect of the game is simply to disallow certain poker hands. For instance, the four aces have letters that form a word, so you can get four aces. But the four kings (or queens, or whatever) don't, so you can't get four queens unless there is another card lying around that can be used to complete the word.

For Five Card Stud, however, there was a more subtle effect. Rather than simply toss out any cards I didn't need and hope for better ones, I decided to keep them because they formed a word I needed. I may have gotten better poker cards back but have been unable to play them owing to not being able to form a word.

If you like Poker and word games, this seems like a reasonable pick up. At the very least, you have a deck of cards.

Three more things:

One, the game would be MUCH more interesting if the letters associated with the cards change from game to game. The fact that they are static greatly turns this into a simple poker variant, rather than a fresh game each time.

Two, only one card with the map of cards to letters is included. There should be one for each player (says Nadine).

Three, it seems to me that the cards should be able to be used to add complexity to other games, as well. I haven't thought this through, yet.

Trendsetters - Now we come to the two party games. In this game, each card has four possible questions, of which you are supposed to ask one. The questions are things like "Would you prefer ... A, B, C, D, E, F", or "Who is the most ..." where each player is assigned a letter.

The game comes with four double-sided dial disk cards. Turning the disk on one side of the card reveals letters A through F, and on the other the numbers 0 through 5. The first side you use to set your choice each round. The second side is used to keep score.

The rules of the game, and it's greatest failing, is that you are not supposed to select your choice, but the choice you think everyone else will select. Only players who choose the same choice as at least one other player earn points (or avoid losing points, actually). Now think this through. Nobody is choosing what they would choose; everyone is choosing only what others would choose - but the others are not choosing what they would choose. This doesn't really make any sense. My thinking was that everyone would always choose option A every time, because they know that I will.

It seems to me that you could instead play the game as follows: the active player chooses what he or she really thinks, and every other player has to choose what they think the active player would choose. It's more like Apples to Apples, but it seems to make more sense as a game.

The dial disk cards are cute looking but poorly constructed. The dials are not tight enough, and more often than not my disks slipped out of their position whenever I placed the card or picked it up. Also, the game seems like it would work better with more than four players, maybe eight or so. But only four disks are included. I see from the comment on Mikko's blog that they are willing to ship you more disks, if you ask (but, since the cards are labeled A through D, and disk choices only go up to F anyway, I don't see how this helps).

The verdict is eh.

Zero In - This is a more solid and traditional party game. Each card has four things on it, maybe an actor, a singer, an author, or a character. Each thing has five hints. One player reads the hints, and each other player has to guess the thing; the earlier they successfully guess, the more points they receive.

That seems like a straightforward party game in compact form. My only quibbles here would be a) the game is pretty much done once you've gone through all the cards, and b) since there are four questions on each card, you'll have looked at the things on the cards four times faster than you actually played them.

So, that's my reviews. I feel bad that I couldn't give them all glowing reviews, but I hope I gave enough info so that people with different tastes than mine are able to see whether or not they would like the games even if I didn't.



A transcript of the IRC discussion on Games and Art.

The Million Minute Family Challenge hopes to encourage at least 1,000 families in each of the 50 states to play a board game together for 20 minutes or more this September through December.