Exploding Kittens

Exploding Kittens is the only Kickstarter project that I have backed. With two real games designers behind the game and Matthew Inman of The Oatmeal providing the artwork, it looked like a pretty safe bet, and it was. The game duly turned up and, rather embarrassingly, I never actually got around to playing it.

That changed at the weekend when Macsen found the box and asked about it. So he, me and the twins set about reading the rules and dealing the cards. And I will say upfront that we had a lot of fun with this game.

The game is essentially a version of Russian Roulette, in which players draw cards until someone draws an exploding kitten card and, if that player doesn’t have a defuse card then he or she is blown out of the game with a Kaboom!

The other cards in the deck allow you to do things like peek ahead, force other players to draw extra cards or end your turn without drawing a card. Of course, not drawing a card drastically reduces your chance of ending up as a feline fireball.

The last player to survive wins the game.

Exploding Kittens is not a very complex game and nor is there a lot of strategy involved — avoid drawing cards as far as possible and hang onto your defuse cards — but it is a lot of fun. And a large part of this fun comes down to the cards themselves.

If you have ever read The Oatmeal, you will recognise the often juvenile sense of humour behind the Rainbow-Ralphing Cat, the puntastic Jackanope and — a household favourite — the Transdimensional Litter Box. I enjoy this sort of silliness and the boys are still repeating some of the jokes three days later.

Exploding Kittens is a quick, simple and very funny game. We have a bag of portable games that we take on trips for emergency entertainment. This game is going in the bag.

Hive

As board games go, Hive is a bit of an oddity in that it doesn’t have an actual board. What you do have is two sets of tiles (white and black), each marked with an insect (or spider) symbol.

Each player takes it in turn to place a tile until the queen bee is placed (which has to happen by the fourth turn). Once a player has placed their queen bee tile, they can then decide to either place a tile or move a tile that is already on the table. The spider moves exactly three spaces, the grasshopper can jump over any number of tiles but always in a straight line, the queen beetle moves one space at a time but can climb on top of other tiles (thus preventing them from moving), the ant can go pretty much anywhere and the queen bee can only move one space at a time.

The aim of the game is to surround your opponents queen bee.

There are a couple of other rules: the pieces in play must be linked at all times (no piece can be left stranded and you can’t split the hive in two) and when you place a piece after the first turn it must be touching one of your pieces and not touching any of your opponents pieces. And finally, pieces move by sliding — if a piece is surrounded to the extent that it cannot physically slide out of its space, it can’t be moved (this doesn’t apply to grasshoppers and queen beetles).

And that’s it. Yet, from these few simple rules, fascinatingly complex games can emerge as you focus on the layout of the pieces, what can be moved, what can’t and how close to being trapped is your queen bee. And with a ‘board’ that is constantly changing as pieces are added and moved, you really do have to think about how things are moving and which pieces are about to become trapped.

It can be easy to forget about the playing pieces and how much they add to (or distract from) the game. In the case of Hive, though, the pieces are gorgeous. The tiles are quite deep and have a nicely chunky feel to them, giving the whole game a nicely solid feel. The artwork is also very well done with clear and colourful symbols indicating which piece is which.

Uniquely, once you’ve opened the box, you can get rid of it as the game also includes a zippered bag to hold the tiles. This makes it a very portable game and one that can be played pretty much anywhere.

Overall, Hive is a game that is easy to learn but one that sucks you into its mechanics and which can keep you engrossed for hours. There are a number of expansions (providing more insects) that I can certainly see us buying in the future but even without these the base game is incredibly playable on its own.

Jengabot

This is cool. Researchers at MIT have developed a robot that can play Jenga.

At first glance, it doesn’t sound like much — computers can play chess, go and a variety of other games. What sets this apart, though, is that Jenga is a game that requires physically moving blocks around. And while this is relatively easy for humans, teaching a robot to move stacked blocks without collapsing the tower requires a collection of physical skills that has not — until now — been attempted with robots.

Combining interactive perception and manipulation – whereby the robot would touch the tower to learn how and when to move blocks – is extremely difficult to simulate and therefore the robot has to learn in the real world.

So the researchers placed a two-pronged industrial robot arm with a force sensor in its wrist by the Jenga tower and allowed it to explore rather than using traditional machine-learning techniques that could require data from tens of thousands of block-extraction attempts in order to capture every possible scenario.

It’s an impressive sight

Game Night

Yesterday evening was spent mainly playing board games (and a card game). Specifically, Quoridor, Hive, Onitama and Sushi Go. I have talked about Quoridor in the past and keep meaning to post something about the other games at some point, but for now all I have is an observation about the type of games I enjoy most: Abstract strategy games.

These are games that, in general, have no — or very little — theme. They are also games for which the rules are tend to be very simple allowing for complexity to emerge from the gameplay itself.

The perfect example of this is probably Go, a game that can be summed up with about four rules and one that remains fiendishly to get to grips with. This is a game I started playing about 18 months ago, and I’m still rubbish.

Games with a strong theme can be fun, but for me the emphasis on the theme can get in the way of the gameplay. These games often come with thick, comprehensive rulebooks that attempt to make the theme come to life but which also require you to keep checking the rules. Complex rules can also give rise to ambiguities and, in the worst case, rules-lawyering.

Abstract games avoid many of these problems. A simple and clear set of rules removes ambiguity and, once understood, never need to be looked at again. This allows me to focus purely on the gameplay and become fully absorbed in the complexity that emerges from the game.

These types of games also tend to either remove or minimise luck as a part of the gameplay. When I lose, I can usually see exactly when and why I lost — if not immediately, then eventually. This gives me a clear route towards thinking about strategies and towards improving my game — whatever game that might be.

I’m not particularly exclusive in my game-playing and will try pretty much anything at least once. But over time, I have developed a clear preference for abstract games that allow me to focus entirely on how to beat (or not lose too badly to) my opponent.

Bad idea of the day: The Monopoly Movie

Den of Geek reports that Kevin Hart is set to star in the long-mooted Monopoly movie. I had to check and it’s true — according to the IMDb, someone really does think that a film version of Monopoly is a good idea.

Monopoly.

I know a lot of board gamers dislike Monopoly, but I have to admit that we still bring it out reasonably often. It is true that randomly moving around the board gives makes the gameplay very reliant on luck — especially in the early stages — and games can drag on if you’re not careful.

On the other hand, if you emphasise negotiation and deal-making when building (and building on) your sets, you have a reasonably tactical game in which an unlucky roll can throw all of your strategies awry (and how you respond to seeing your plans torn up in front of you is a big part of the game).

As for the length, much of this tends to be caused by house rules. Rules like putting fines into a pool to collected by whoever lands on the Free Parking square, not auctioning properties or not allowing trades until everyone has been around the board all serve to slow down the game. And if all else fails, there is nothing wrong with stopping the game and declaring a winner and/or a draw.

Monopoly, as it’s name suggests, is a game of unfettered capitalism. If you want to enjoy it, you have to embrace the brutality. But I don’t see how this is going to translate into any sort of watchable film, and the storyline sounds awful:

A trio of kids from Baltic Avenue discover that Charles Darrow, the inventor of Monopoly, hid a coded secret in the game that we’ve all been playing with for generations, setting them off on an adventure through the streets of Atlantic City, racing through forgotten underground railroads, the Boardwalk and more as they’re pursued by a near-bankrupt casino owner also competing to find Darrow’s hidden fortune.

Cue wacky escapades.

Kevin Hart played Fridge in the Jumanji sequel, Welcome to the Jungle, I film that I quite liked. The point here is that in the Jumanji films, the game is both fictional and would be terrible to play — but it’s great to watch.

With Monopoly, as with previous game to film adaptations, we’re going to end up with something that everyone sees (because everyone will recognise the name) but no-one enjoys.

But what do I know. Someone released a Jumaji board game.

Mandarin

One game that came out over Christmas was Mandarin, a game I haven’t seen before and one that appears to now be out of print, but it’s quite a nice little game (that comes in a rather large box).

Up to five people can play, each of whom gets a coloured mandarin playing piece that travels around a circular board. Depending on where the piece lands, the player can either draw some money or use the dispenser.

The dispenser dispenses tiles and the aim of the game is to collect tiles — either one tile of each of the 12 animals representing the signs of the Chinese zodiac, or all six tiles of a single animal. Tiles are ejected randomly from the dispenser either face up or face down — and this is where the fun begins.

The first tile is free and the player can choose to keep it or risk it. If they keep it (and this is the only option if the tile comes out face up), they take the tile and their turn ends. If the tile comes out face down, the player can choose to risk it and eject another tile, and can keep on ejecting tiles until either they decide to stop and take what’s been ejected or a tile comes out face up.

If a tile comes out face up, all players can start bidding for the ejected tiles.

Of course, when the bidding starts, you know the colour and animal of one tile, so it is necessary to try to figure out which animals are on the face down tiles. This is helped by the use of collection cards of which each player has one, and which have a place for every tile. These allow every player to see both how close each of the other players are to completing a set and exactly what tiles have been dispensed so far.

Early on, this doesn’t matter so much, but as the games progressed judging which collection of tiles are worth bidding for, and how high you are willing to bid, is what makes the difference between winning and losing.

I only had one real quibble with the game, and that was with keeping track of who controlled which animal. When someone gains three or more tiles for a single animal, they are deemed to be in control of the three spaces on the board associated with that animal and can charge a tax when other players land on those spaces. The problem is that, with nothing on the board to indicate ownership, it is easy to miss that you owe taxes when you land in the sector. We resolved this a couple of times by simply abandoning the control and tax rule but a visual marker of some type would have been nice.

All in all, Mandarin proved to be a surprisingly fun bidding game and one that the kids came back to several times. If it wasn’t for the fact that it appears to be no longer in print, I would certainly be adding it to our family games collection.

Someone made a strategy game just for me

I love Mars Attacks, the film. It’s not an objectively great film by any measure, instead relying on broadly drawn caricatures running around in increasingly outrageous situations. In many ways it reminds me of the Road-Runner cartoons in that the gags are cheap, obvious and consistently laugh-out-loud funny.

It turns out that someone turned this into a game and I am kicking myself that it wasn’t until just after Christmas that I saw it. So now I have to find some other excuse to import the mayhem into the house, because this looks like a huge dollop of fun.

The Lightly Seared Board Game of the Year is: Forbidden Island

Looking back at the games we have played over the past year, one game stands out in terms of both popularity and playability.

Forbidden Island is a game for two to six players, played on a board randomly generated from 24 tiles. This board represents a slowly sinking island which the players must traverse in order to retrieve four hidden treasures. This is a co-operative game, however, so the players are not against each other. Instead, they must work together in order to retrieve the treasures and escape the island before it is lost beneath the waves.

It’s not only the co-operative nature of the game but also it’s openness that makes Forbidden Island stand out. All of the cards are kept face up so that everyone knows exactly who has what and who is best placed to deal with whatever event arises. This makes it very much a game about teamwork and negotiation.

The only thing that we have to watch out for, somewhat, is when the older of our three boys starts directing his brothers.

The rules themselves are very straightforward. There is very little to remember and most of this is written on the cards, all of which makes it a very easy game in which to involve newer and younger players. This focus on the playability combined with the rising water / sinking island mechanic makes for a game that is quick to play and, often, genuinely exciting.

Forbidden Island is a quick, easy to follow game that encourages discussion and which keeps all the players engaged all of the time. It is certainly the most played of our games this year, and the most enjoyable.

Latice

Latice is a shape- and colour- matching game, similar to Qwirkle but without the scoring. Instead, the aim is to be the first player to get rid of all of your tiles.

The tiles are placed on a 9×9 board. The first player puts a tile in the centre of the board and for every subsequent turn, the player must place a tile next to an existing tile so that it matches either the colour or the shape of every neighbouring tile.

There are also wind tiles, that let you blow other tiles out of the way (this is especially useful near the end of the game) and stones that you can earn and spend to gain various advantages.

This is the sort of game that I love. The rules are simple enough that anyone can pick them up without much effort yet the design of the game ensures a depth that keeps you coming back to play again. And again.

We played several rounds of Latice this weekend and I can see the game being played many more times in the run up to Christmas and beyond.

Forbidden Island

As someone who spent his formative years playing far too many role-playing games, it should probably come as no surprise that I have long found the idea of co-operative games to be very appealing. What is surprising is that it has taken me so long to actually give one of these things a try. But, based on a recommendation, I finally acquired a copy of Forbidden Island a few of months ago — and have been playing it almost obsessively ever since.

Just to be clear here, Forbidden Island is a tabletop game. While I don’t object to digital games, and have even been known to play a few, these come nowhere near to recreating the atmosphere and excitement that can be generated when everyone is in the same room.

The game is played by two to six players on a board randomly generated from 24 tiles and involves trying to retrieve four treasures from a sinking island. If the players manage to retrieve all four treasures and escape before the island sinks, everyone wins. If the island sinks first or the players find themselves trapped, everyone loses.

The board is randomly generated using a set of 24 tiles and the flood cards determine which tiles flood, then sink. The rate of this flooding and sinking increases as the game progresses and it is this that provides the tension and much of the excitement of the game.

Each of the players takes an adventurer card which gives them a role, such as Navigator, Engineer or Pilot and each of these adventurers has a different special ability. And a large part of the challenge is for the players to look at who drew which adventurer and agree how the various abilities can be combined to best find the treasure before the whole party ends up stranded or sunk.

According to the (rather nice, metal) box, Forbidden Island is for 2 to 4 players aged 10 or above. That said, I have played it with the twins (who are aged 7) and they have no problem with fully comprehending and playing the game. This is helped a lot by the fact that the game is both quick to set up and quick to play.

Setting up takes no more than a minute and the sinking island mechanic ensures that no game will last for more than 30 minutes.

This is a great little game and one that really does generate a lot of fun for players of all ages. If you ever have the opportunity to give it a try, I can assure you that you won’t be disappointed.