Friday, December 30, 2005

Four (or five) game reviews with non-gamers

Over the course of this holiday, I've had the opportunity to introduce a number of games to folks outside my normal game group.

We brought Apples to Apples as a default party game for people aged over twenty-five. Like most game geeks, I enjoy introducing new games to people, particularly if the players usually play nothing more exotic than mixing various editions of Trivial Pursuit. I'd say that the three separate groups of people enjoyed it immensely. Personally, I enjoy the game a great deal, and enjoy more watching players eagerly wanting to keep the game going after I step out. To me, that indicates that individuals enjoyed the game in and of itself, rather than just catering to me personally to play a given game.

If you don't know it, here's a brief rundown: Everyone gets seven Red Apple cards, which are things (Golf Ball Sized Hail, Japan, Hot Lava, Charging Rhinos, Cigarettes, Olive Oil, My First Kiss). The judge draws a Green Apple Card, which is an adjective (Sappy, Luscious, Temperamental, Nasty, Horrifying, Phony, Patriotic). Everyone lays down a card that they think the judge will decide is most like the Green Apple card. Whoever wins gets the Green Apple card and a point, then everyone draws a card and the next player is the judge. It's a good high-energy game that often turns hilarious and silly.

I like Apples to Apples. As a game, it works on many levels: virtually no set-up time, extremely accessible to non-gamers, strategically light, massive replay value, and it encourages and relies on player interaction. I know a few people who don't like it, mostly those who don't prefer party games, but I don't know anyone who hates the game.

None of the under-six crowd could play, though Out of the Box makes a Junior version for ages seven and up. I stepped out so the big kids could play and stepped into a two-player game of Operation with a five-year-old. Someone gave the child the game as a Christmas gift.

If you don't know it, here's a brief rundown: Everyone plays a doctor performing operations on a bedridden man. Like many mainstream American games, neither the art nor the gameplay has changed since the sixties. The game board consists of some thirteen holes into which little plastic bits (Water on the Knee, Bread Basket, Butterflies in the Stomach) fit into. Players must remove them depending on a random card draw. If successful, you get a dollar amount. This is a dexterity game, though- your little doctor tweezers complete a circuit when you touch the edge, causing a buzzer to sound and the man's red light bulb of a nose to light up. When this happens, someone has been dealt a random specialist card, and they then get a chance to perform the operation for double the money.

I last played this game a score or more in the past, so I particularly appreciated looking at this game with adult eyes. As a game, it pretty much sucks. Too much randomness combined with zero strategy (other dexterity games have some modicum of strategy, so I don't want to hear it), numbers too large and pieces too small for a child, and seemingly arbitrary scoring conditions equal not much fun. Most notably, it went on too long for two players, and we quickly abandoned the cards and money and just took turns performing operations. From a production standpoint, the production value particularly torqued me off- the "deck" of twenty-six cards includes two extra DO NOT USE cards as a printer's leftover. The cards and money both consisted of thin cardstock and paper, and didn't seem likely to stand up to the rigors of play.

Later in the week, we played the CSI board game, based off the popular TV show. Cat's parents had received it as a gift. Boy, am I glad they didn't pay for this stinker.

If you don't know it, here's a brief rundown: Up to eight players take on the role of the characters from the Crime Scene Investigation television show- the first one, set in Las Vegas. The game comes with eight mystery stories to play (yes, they sell an expansion pack with more stories), each consisting of some 27 cards (on extremely cheap cardstock- almost paper) and a few pages in the manual. The game (such as it is) consists of the players racing around the board (using a single d6 for random movement), reaching each of a number of departments for clues in three levels. Individual players must read all of the clues in each level before moving on to the next. Landing on another player lets you sneak a peek at one of the cards they've already seen. Various Disclosure spaces on the board lets you draw from the Disclosure deck for different effects- usually show players one of the evidence cards you've seen or look at one that another player has seen. In this mystery game, you must prove Motive, Means, and Opportunity for one of three suspects.

With four players, it took us about an hour to make it through Level one, playing by the rules. We quickly got sick of the lack of excitement, the frustration of random movement, the dragging sense of play, and lack of real competition. I think the dissatisfaction generally stemmed of the requirement that players must get all of the Level one and Level two clues before even attempting to guess the truth. Mid-game, we changed the rules to more cooperative play and started to have more fun- even so, I felt we had more of a chore than a game. At one point near the end, we had all guessed most of the crime, but decorum dictated that we continue through the motions and get everything before attempting the win. I don't think the mystery story itself had any inherent failings- one suggestion on Board Game Geek for recouping some fun from this game dispenses with the board completely, playing only with the cards. Do not get this game, even for a die-hard CSI fan.

A day trip to a Monterey game store (yes, there's a beach in the city, too) yielded a number of other purchases. For purposes of this post, I picked up the Party Crate edition of Apples to Apples and Dragon Delta. Mmmm, gift cards.

The Party Crate edition has more than a thousand cards and comes in a nifty wooden case. I'm glad we got this- The sturdy crate, card shoe, and the extra cards really are worth it.

Dragon Delta is a game I've wanted to lay hands on for some time now. I last played it more about three or four years ago, ostensibly as part of game research for developing a MMORPG for a startup.

If you don't know it, here's a brief rundown: Two to six players are competing in a race across a river by building bridges across the many small islands in its middle. Unlike many other race games, this has no random element. Each player has identical cards representing the various potential orders (move one or two, lay one or two stones to support planks, lay one or two planks, pick up a stone or a plank, hop over another player) plus dragon cards to cancel other players' actions. Each lays down five orders, then each card in turn is revealed simultaneously. Yes, you can use other players' bridges, and the start and end positions are designed such that players are virtually certain to cross paths. First player across the river to their goal island wins.

This went over well, thankfully. Strategy-wise, I'd rate this as medium-heavy, leaning towards light. I like the non-randomness, I like the player interaction, and I like the fact that when another player plays against you, you're more set back than screwed. A player almost always has choice and options, a very good thing says I. I really look forward to getting in a six-player game of this once we return to Austin.


Marc Majcher said...

I am totally down for a game of Dragon Delta any time. Give a holler when you get back into town...

cora6771 said...

Hi Mysh,

That "five year old" (who is now a big six) still talks about "that nice guy who played with me" everytime we open up the Operation game at home........