Tabletop Archive

SmashUp earns a Narragansett Shandy

Posted April 23, 2015 By Jeff

SmashUp, put out by AEG and designed by Paul Peterson, is one of those cross-over games that gets hobby gamers and casual players together for a good time. The theme and simple rules appeal to folks used to mass-market games and the strategic depth of some of the factions will keep the thinkers engaged.

There are any number of expansions and additions, but we’re going to focus here on the original SmashUp and its eight factions (supporting up to four players).

Gameplay Overview

To start, there is a simple drafting process where players take turn choosing factions. After each player has two faction decks, they Smash them Up (i.e. they shuffle the decks together) and this becomes the player deck. Unlike a deck-builder, this deck won’t grow or shrink, but the card order and such can be manipulated by playing cards. If you want to keep the game short and simple, don’t choose the Wizards or Zombies, since both of those decks involve lots of extra actions, searching through piles of cards, etc.

A number of bases are then drawn based on the number of players and players take turns adding minions to control (and eventually receive points from) the bases. Most of the minions have special actions or modifiers and each deck also contains action cards that can impact the game. Once a base has accumulated the right amount of minions, players earn their points and the base is replaced by another. They all vary in amount of minion power required to score it, the number of points awarded to each player, and what the special rule for that base is. First player to fifteen points wins!

Graphic Design for the Win

We’ve played SmashUp with both adults and kids. Getting off the ground with this game, even with non-gamer types, is easy as pie. Everything you need to know about a card is right there in front of you, organized for quick access. There is an icon for the faction (important when you’re piling up minions from multiple players), a box for the special actions or modifiers, a power level in the upper corner, and some art to round out the card.

Overkill with the Ongoing

While most of the consequences of playing an action or a minion are immediate, a number of the cards (and most of the bases) have effects labeled as “ongoing.” When you’ve got two players running against three bases, keeping track of the various ongoing effects and optional actions can be a bit daunting, but it is doable. Up the player count (and hence the number of bases) by one, though, and it can become too difficult. Stuff falls through the cracks and you’re better off just focusing your attention on subsets of bases to ensure you can keep track of it all.

Beer Rating

This game is light and pleasant, just like a Shandy, and we can’t imagine many people disliking it (though ambivalence might be on the table).

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I understand that Smash Up is expandable, but it is still disappointing to open up a new box and find it mostly empty. I’d much rather buy a tuck box and then a nicer card box if I decide to obtain more decks.

Forbidden Island rates a Scorpion Bowl

Posted January 7, 2015 By Jeff

Forbidden Island, designed by Matt Leacock of Pandemic fame, is the first purely cooperative game we have tried out. The first pass went very easily, even though we started on one of the more difficult levels, and we wondered if maybe it was targeted more at kids than adults. Afterwards, I realized we were doing it wrong. Turns out, following the rules actually has a big impact on how you perceive a game. Who knew?

Basic Gameplay

You’re a bunch of crazy archaeologists who have decided to go treasure hunting on a sinking island and won’t leave without all four treasures, even if that means everyone dies. Don’t worry, it’ll be fun.

Each player controls one character on the board, which is made of randomly laid tiles. At the end of each turn, some of those tiles will flood or sink (determined by draws from a deck). Every once in a while, someone will draw a card that says the water level rises, which means more tiles get drawn each turn and the tile cards that have already been drawn are shuffled and put back on the TOP of the deck to be drawn again real soon (that TOP part is crucial to making the game challenging). If any of the four treasures sink before they have been claimed, you lose. If all the players drown, you lose. If the water level rises above everyone’s heads, you lose.  If the helicopter pad sinks before you escape, you lose. You get the idea?

Pure Cooperation

There are lots of types of games where players do not compete head-to-head and even more where there are only limited direct interactions. Many deck builders and euro-games work this way. I’ve sometimes read them described as group solitaire, with each player trying to rack up the best score on their own and comparing against other players at the end. Forbidden Island is adamantly not this way. The players win or lose as a group without any first-among-equals status to identify a winner or leader among the players. There are no hidden agendas or points or secondary objectives. It’s all or nothing.

For this to work well, the game itself must be the players’ only foil. I was doubtful at first that you could pull this off without any agency on behalf of the game, but Leacock’s tile and card system works well when you actually follow all the instructions. There is a simple mechanism for determining starting difficulty (how many tiles get flooded at the end of each turn when you start; the number steadily increases as the game goes forward) and the controlled randomness of the tile deck is fiendish.

Can you win?

A game like this is in danger of quickly losing its appeal if the players can figure out a winning strategy, since the game cannot adapt. I still found it enjoyable after half a dozen plays through, but even though we didn’t always win, it did feel a bit stagnant towards the end. Yes, you can increase the difficulty level by starting with a higher water level, but that makes it harder without making it any different. You do have a different island layout each time, due to the randomly shuffled tiles, but that only takes the game so far. A game like Betrayal at the House on the Hill never gets old because “the game” is given agency by the Traitor halfway through. Even if everyone knows the rules, the Traitor can play them differently each time. Not so with Forbidden Island, though from the looks of things, Leacock may have addressed some of those issues in the follow-on Forbidden Desert by adding more variety to the ways in which the game acts against the players.

Beer Rating

Forbidden Island is a scorpion bowl from your favorite inauthentic Asian restaurant. You certainly can finish it by yourself, but it is better with friends.

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Pairs by Cheapass Games

Posted November 18, 2014 By Andrew Bradley

If you have a Kickstarter account, and you are reading this blog, then it’s likely that you backed Pairs by Cheapass Games in February or March of 2014. It’s one of those projects that got ever so slightly overfunded to the tune of 2700% of its goal. It had some things going for it to get there, mostly its impressive pedigree including James Ernest (whose twitter handle makes us all wish our name was James) and Pat Rothfuss (not linking his twitter because I’m still not sure which is really him) among those involved, directly or indirectly, in its marketing and creation. These are impressive people so it’s no wonder that the project overfunded.

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Love Letter: A Fun, Quick Game for All Ages

Posted October 30, 2014 By Jeff

Love Letter, designed by Seiji Kanai and published by AEG, was all the rage in 2012 and 2013, so of course, we ignored it until the summer of 2014. It turns out that our aversion to the hip and happening served us poorly in this case, and Love Letter is an enjoyable microgame.

Gameplay Summary

Draw one, play one. Do what it says on the card. If you run out of cards in the draw pile and still have people in the game, person with the highest card wins. It really is that simple.

The first wrinkle is the size of the deck: there are only sixteen cards and you burn one before starting each round. That means that counting cards is a viable strategy, even for novices (especially since every player gets a list of how many of each card there are, for reference), but there will always be an element of uncertainty due to the burned card.

The second wrinkle is the ‘do what it says on the card’ portion: since you only ever have two cards in your hand, the choices are limited and often lead to a no-win situation. The card instructions are well designed in this regard, often leading to tough choices and only occasionally leaving the player with no options but to do as he is told.

Like a trick-taking game, Love Letter goes a number of rounds before anyone is declared the winner, with the number of rounds required going down with the number of players. Since each round only takes a few minutes at most, it’s easy to pick up as a quick filler or settle into serious tournament mode, depending on your mood.


The game is set in AEG’s Tempest setting. Other than providing a back-story in the booklet and inspiring the art, the theme didn’t have any impact on us whatsoever. Perhaps if you’re more involved in the over-arching storyline, it would be a nice bonus, but with only a couple of minutes spent on each round, there isn’t really the time to get immersed in anything.

Final Thoughts

Love Letter has gotten a lot of play around here due to its simplicity and low time commitment. Those qualities aren’t sufficient for a stellar game, but they do lead to something that gets played over and over. In Love Letter’s case (as opposed to Candy Land, for instance) this repetition does not lead to boredom, but to time pleasantly spent with others. We’ve played it in groups of adults, adults with kids, and our kids enjoy playing with the game by themselves (though claiming that they play the game as designed would be a stretch).

In closing, we’re giving Love Letter a beer rating of a Merlot: easy to drink, not too complicated, can be enjoyed by many. We leave figuring out what it means that we’re using a wine in the beer rating as an exercise to the reader.

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Fast Setup Deckbuilders: LotR and DC Comics

Posted August 28, 2014 By Jeff

We recently played two games I would classify as fast-setup deck builders: The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring Deck Building Game (isn’t that a mouthful?) and DC Comics Deck Building Game. Now, you know a game mechanic has made the big time when big franchises come out using the mechanic AND feel the need to put it in the title of the game. We don’t usually review or play mass-market games, but these were on sale and we’ve been wanting to learn more about deck builders, so we gave them a try.


Both games have a really fast setup (small starting deck, small villains deck, everything else essentially goes in a big pile). This seems to be the emerging standard for deck builders of less-than-intricate complexity. We like that you can jump in and get playing quickly, but it means you are playing the same game each time, unlike Dominion or Trains where the mix of cards available for purchase can change how the game unfolds.

There was an attempt at theme tie-in in each game, but it was aimed more at the casually interested than at hard-core fans of the properties. For instance, it really irked me that I could sometimes play Pippin multiple times in a single hand; he’s a unique character.

Locations cards are a welcome addition to deck-builders and they worked about the same in DC and LotR. That bit of predictability in your resources and actions is a great boon sometimes, but there wasn’t a lot of strategy involved in whether or not to pick them up (the answer was almost always yes). Star Realms does a better job designing location cards (bases and outposts in SR-speak) that you need to be strategic about acquiring. Part of that may be due to their relative abundance as compared to LotR and DC Comics.

The biggest flaw in both games was a runaway leader effect when it came to conquering the special villains. These cards are difficult to obtain and have effects much more powerful than the other cards in the game. As such, only a strong player can get them and they make that player’s hand even stronger. Especially in two player games, this positive feedback effect is unbalancing.

The end game was the same as most deck builders: count up your victory points. Unlike more traditional deck builders, there are no VP-specific cards; anything can be worth victory points and that becomes part of the decision in purchasing (you can optimize by buying useful actions with high point values). We’re really glad that games like Star Realms are trying to figure ways around this part of the game. Embedding the VPs into the decks makes it extremely difficult to determine who is ahead and it adds substantial lag to the end of the game (which could be better used for setting up another game).

DC Comics

The differentiating mechanic in DC Comics is that each player’s hero confers a different and ongoing bonus. This is especially helpful to new players, as it gives them something to focus on instead of buying cards purely at random until you learn the breadth of possibilities.

Lord of the Rings

Each player in the LotR deck builder also chooses a special hero, but all that does is give you a particular card to put in your deck (and the cards thus conferred aren’t particularly interesting). There is also a little more structure to the building of the villain deck, but otherwise no major differences outside of the artwork.

The Beer Rating

Both of these games rate an American Lager. They start from a decent tradition, but the publisher (Cryptozoic Entertainment) has commoditized deck building games: despite the differences in theme, they are all similar and have a watered-down aspect that won’t please the true fan of either the mechanic or the thematic inspiration.

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So, a while ago, we sat down at an open gaming session with another fellow who brought out a game neither of us was familiar with (Trains, for those keeping track at home). He said “Don’t worry, it’s a lot like dominion.” Deuce then replied with something along the lines of “Got it” and I kept my mouth shut, because I had never heard of Dominion or any other deck builders. Turns out, no experience was necessary to enjoy the game and I had a great time. We’d previously focused mostly on casual games or hardcore strategy games, with not much in that middle ground where deck builders seem to fit so nicely.

Weeks later, I asked Deuce how Trains differed from Dominion, but he had no idea. He’d been bluffing just like me. We decided to rectify the situation with a trip to JP Comics & Games (one of our FLGSs) and purchased Dominion: Intrigue. Now, playing Dominion after playing a few different successors is going to color our review somewhat. I’ll try to compensate for that by imagining what it would be like had I played Dominion first.


It’s important to have a coherent theme, since it ties the art and the text and the overall gameplay together. The theme here, of trying to rule and expand your kingdom, is coherent, but it’s not much more than that. The cards all had appropriate names and art, which helped distinguish them from each other and naturally guided you towards the type of game you want to play. For example, picking up lots of saboteur and torturer cards would imply that you’re focusing on hurting your opponents. There was nothing in the theme, though, that really stood out as memorable. There isn’t a relevant back story and the deck building mechanic itself isn’t strongly tied to running a kingdom.


Obviously, the novel (at the time) deck building mechanic is what draws most people to Dominion. It’s most commonly referred to as the founding deck builder, and for that Vaccarino deserves a lot of credit. It is just the right blend of determinism and randomness that you want for a strategic game to be accessible and not always dominated by the more experienced players. There is a high replay factor from both the selection of which cards are available in each game and the diverse strategies players can pursue.


Dominion is a solid experience, but I can’t say that it was exciting. There are a few restrictions (like only buying one card per turn) that didn’t seem necessary for a good game. We couldn’t quite agree on how we felt about purchasing victory point cards separately from other cards. More recent deck builders usually have victory points integrated into the other card types, sometimes with the option to purchase special victory point only cards, sometimes not. Only earning victory points through special purchase makes it a bit easier to keep track of who’s leading and it also makes an explicit trade-off between victory points and utility of your current hand (since victory point cards don’t do anything else for you). On the downside, this gives you less flexibility in how you’d like to win the game. Regardless of how you choose to build up the purchasing power in your deck, eventually everyone just has to switch to buying victory points in order to stay competitive.

The Beer Rating

Dominion: Intrigue is an American Pale Ale. You’ve got the foundation down and can take it a number of different ways, but the true fan of the style will quickly move beyond the basics and into the derivative works. And if you’re already a fan of more complicated styles, and those which have built off of this base, you’ll feel it’s lacking something.

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Gothic Doctor Game Review

Posted June 26, 2014 By Jeff

We recently got a chance to play an advance copy of Gothic Doctor from Meltdown Games (we received a copy of the game, no other compensation). Their kickstarter will go live on July 1st. Follow this link to their Kickstarter preview page and you can get notified as soon as they launch.

One Sentence Review

The Gothic Doctor is a hand-management/set-collection card game with an engaging theme for those times when you want something you can sink your teeth into (HA!), but that won’t take all night.

Game Summary

The first thing that will hit you about Gothic Doctor is the whole monster doctor theme. Everything is well tied in with nineteenth century monsters and related villains (e.g. vampires, werewolves, and mad scientists) and feasible treatments for their “ailments” (laudanum, holy water, and the like). Each doctor gets paid for curing patients, with more money rewarded for patients who require more simultaneous treatments (treatment cost ranges from two to four cards per patient). The doctor with the most money after 11 rounds wins. The game is played entirely with cards:

A snapshot from the early stages of a Gothic Doctor game.

A snapshot from the early stages of a Gothic Doctor game.

There are a number of gameplay videos on the Kickstarter page if you want to see Gothic Doctor in action. The basics are that each player has a hand of up to seven cards, mostly treatments and possibly a couple action cards. Each turn, you can try to treat one patient from the waiting room with a combination of cards from your hand. You then redraw to fill your hand back up, with doctors who did not treat a patient in the current round getting extra draws and discarding back down.

The Details

The Gothic theme is nicely woven throughout the game. While most of the patients are generic stereotypes, there are a number of legendary patients (e.g. Count Dracula and Frankenstein’s monster) based on the literature of the period. We had to look up Bertha Mason (the name didn’t register, but ‘crazy lady from Jayne Eyre’ likely would have worked) and the demon Ornias, since the game piqued our curiosity and we recognized the others. The treatments are woven in nicely, with some truly considered treatments at one time, like realigning the humours, and others being unique to the monster-curing specialty, like fang removal. The treatment card artwork is a bit more cartoonish, though still fitting with the theme, while the patient art is a bit more gruesome. The suggested age of 12+ is appropriate.

One of the tensions in the draw phase of each turn is whether to fill up on treatment cards or also grab an action card. We found the action cards came out in force about midway through the game and we focused on the “take that” cards that knocked our opponents down, rather than the ones that helped out or randomized the gameplay. This is a great dynamic that we enjoyed; it added a bit more thought to the draw phase and it also acted to keep the leader in check through direct action (rather than trying to guess which patient someone is aiming to treat on their next turn and grabbing it first).

An element that isn’t often found in similar games is a time limit in the number of turns, rather than waiting for decks to run out or someone to pass a threshold. This makes the decision of whether to treat now or pass and hope to treat for more money the next turn really crucial. The first time through, this didn’t fully register until we approached the end game, but you do need to keep that limit in mind starting from the beginning if you want to make a good showing against experienced players.

While most of the mechanics are straightforward and easy to follow, there are two that were not intuitive to us. A small one is the way specialty bonuses are chosen. For each game, two specialty bonuses are determined by the first two patient cards turned over (a specialty bonus is when you treat 3+ patients of the same type you get some extra cash). Since the cards required for those bonuses may not show up after that first draw, this felt a bit off to us, but wasn’t a huge issue and the generalist bonus (treat at least one of each type of patient) made a lot of sense.

The second aspect that caused us some difficulty throughout the game was determining how many cards each person should draw/have. We like the idea that a doctor who doesn’t treat this round gets to take a few extra cards and discard back down to his limit, but the details were a bit tough to follow. Most draw actions only cost one draw, but some cost two. The result is that you need to calculate how many draws you are allowed this turn and take whatever series of actions you like that use up those points. Most of the time, you’ll wind up with a hand size of seven (the original hand), but sometimes you’ll have fewer. This means that any time you have one of those “Wait, did I draw at the end of my last turn?” moments, you cannot tell just by looking at your hand. We’re not sure of the best way around this, since we like the extra options you get when drawing more cards when you didn’t get to treat someone this turn. It is important enough to keep in the game as-is if necessary, but since the complication is in the accounting, and not the strategy, we’d like to see it a bit more streamlined.

The Beer Scale

Gothic Doctor rates a Fuller’s London Porter. It’s got a heavy emphasis on style and theme with a broad appeal to both novices and the more experienced.

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Tabletop Game Preview: Yardmaster

Posted April 24, 2014 By Andrew Bradley
The cargo cards from Yardmaster.

We were recently given the opportunity to preview Yardmaster, a card-based strategy game by Steven Aramini and published by Crash Gamescoming soon to a Kickstarter near you It’s currently live on Kickstarter, and here’s what we think.

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Betrayal at the House on the Hill (a.k.a The Haunt in our gaming circle after the game’s second phase) was originally published by Avalon Hill and WotC released a second edition in 2010 . Since this is a Throwback Thursday post, and since we see no reason to buy a new edition of a game when the copy we have is still in great shape, this is a review of the first edition. Also, we hope this makes you gamer geeks out there jealous. We actually have two copies of the first edition, just in case something happens to one of them.

Basic Gameplay

First off, this really is a game for 3+ players, you cannot skimp and have much fun with fewer. For a truly exciting two hours, we strongly recommend you find at least a fourth. This usually leads to a more interesting house layout as well as giving the non-traitors plenty of collaboration. The Haunt plays on a tile-based map, with tiles added as players move about the house. In the second phase of the game, one of the players becomes the Traitor and tries to do away with the rest of the group. Either the Traitor wins, or everyone else does. The Us vs Them setup allows for heroic self-sacrifice, something rare in non-RPG tabletops.

Exploration Phase

You start The Haunt on a single game tile representing the foyer of the spooky haunted house you have foolishly decided to explore. Each player chooses one character based on their preferred style of gameplay (the smart one, the strong one, the fast one, etc.) and you take turns moving the characters around the house, discovering rooms as you progress. Every time you walk through an unconnected doorway, draw a tile from the stack and place it on the table. Usually, something gruesome will happen to you next and, if you survive, you may pick up a useful item. Every time someone discovers an Omen (think nifty artifact with powerful, but not necessarily beneficial, effect), some special dice are rolled. The more Omens in play, the more likely that dice roll is to bring The Haunt!

The Haunt

In addition to the tiles, player figures, cards for tracking character stats, and a whole bunch of useful tokens, The Haunt comes with a number of rulebooks. The first set determines which Haunt scenario you get to play through. Based on a number of game-specific events (e.g. which Omen discovery triggered The Haunt), a particular scenario is chosen and one player is labeled Traitor (this selection rule varies by scenario). Each team (Traitor and Everyone Else) looks up the scenario in their corresponding rulebook and begins strategizing. The strategy phase usually lasts five or ten minutes, but sometimes longer. The scenario rules are not always clear, so a Traitor-EE conference is sometimes convened to hammer out the differences, without revealing too many secrets.

When play resumes, each team has some definite goals they need to achieve, and it isn’t always known what the other side is trying to accomplish or if the other side knows how to thwart your schemes. This is where The Haunt truly shines. There are over four dozen different scenarios that can occur, but even if you play the same one twice in a row, the house is going to have a completely different arrangement, which can have a drastic impact on the difficulty of accomplishing a particular goal. Add to the variety the strong element of chance, where the most powerful effects often can have serious adverse side effects or blowback, and you’ve got a game that really feels new and exciting even the second or third time around in a single day.

Why We Still Play

It is rare that we can get enough people together for long enough to have a good, solid Haunt. Lately, we’ve tended more towards casual, low-playercount games that we fit in around other responsibilities (like launching a Kickstarter). Playing The Haunt feels like a real treat. It is also a game that is easy to learn and yields very little advantage to those who have played it many times. Unless you are one who either reads the “secret” rulebooks in advance, or memorizes all the different Haunt combinations, each Haunt puts all the players on the same level once they’ve learned the general mechanics. Plus, the Haunts are great stereotypes of all sorts of horror genres, which is always amusing.

Beer Rating

Anyone who follows us on Twitter (@strangelandgame) knows that we were recently at Boston’s Extreme Beer Fest. Among the many fine beers we can remember trying, one was a hybrid, where they pitched the lager yeast first, fermented it for a while, then warmed it up and pitched the ale yeast (doppelbock and dubbel, in this particular case). The Haunt is like that, but in a growler, cause you need to consume it with plenty of friends.

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