Another month, another set of board games to talk about. From deep space to a monster-laden cavern to an abandoned temple, the settings of these games are all over the place. I don’t know which one I like the most. Let’s get to it.
Worker placement games can be a bit intimidating when your first play is with a group that has played the game a few times before, which was the case when I played Alien Frontiers. But, after a few turns I felt like I was picking it up and really enjoyed it. The game board is laid out with space stations around a moon. You start with three dice, which can be increased to six as the game goes on. Your dice double as workers that must be placed in the various stations on each turn. Some stations require pairs of dice, others a straight or just a high roll. How you string together your use of these stations is key. For example, you may use the solar converter to acquire solar energy, which you can then exchange at the orbital market for ore.
The name of the game is colonizing the moon, which you do by placing colonies (duh). You can build a colony by either paying three ore after rolling three of a kind, slowly building a colony turn by turn, or taking the more destructive route and losing a die by rolling a six. The player with the most colonies in a region of the moon gets the bonus card for it’s associated station, like only paying two ore to build a colony through the colony constructor. Each placed colony is worth a point and controlling the most colonies in a region is worth a bonus point. Once a player plays all six of their colonies, the player with the most points wins.
Alien Frontiers is a very back and forth, interactive game. You are constantly budging people out of the way, taking control of a region on the moon, locking them out of a station by playing high dice, stealing resources from them, etc. It may look a bit complex, but it’s really quite simple. All of the rules are spelled out with clear symbols on each portion of the game board, which is surprisingly detailed with a very cool 1980s vibe. I’m not sure when I’ll get to play Alien Frontiers again, but I’m looking forward to it.
A comment I saw on Reddit is what led me to buy Cutthroat Caverns — “what Munchkin should have been.” Munchkin was a staple game in my circle of friends for years but has fallen out of favor lately. Cutthroat Caverns is basically what happens when you take the best ideas from a well-known classic and flat out make them better. Each player starts with 100 hit points and a hand of cards. The game is played over nine rounds, or less if you don’t have the ~90 minutes to play all nine. Each round, the group enters an encounter and must defeat it to move on. But, in typical screw over fashion, only the player who strikes the killing blow on the big bad monster gets any victory points. Rounds are played over multiple turns and the order of initiative is randomized each turn. So, say you are going first and the monster has a ton of life left. You probably don’t want to play your huge 100 damage card because you know you won’t be getting the kill this round. Maybe you play a five damage card, hoping the monster survives until your next turn where you can strike. If the monster is still alive after each player plays their card, the monster attacks, everyone draws a card, and you repeat the process.
It’s not that simple, of course. Cards come in three styles: attacks, interrupts, and potions. In that same example, maybe someone is about to strike the killing blow but you play a card that forces their attack to miss. There are all sorts of counters and modifier cards: deal double damage on your next turn, counter an enemy attack for a chance to get the kill, shunt all taken damage to another player, etc. One important note is that while you don’t want other players getting the points, you also don’t want them to die. Enemies have a max HP and attack in a pattern determined by the number of players who started the game, not by how many players are left. If you start with six players and get to the final encounter with three, it’s going to be pretty tough for anyone to win. You can use potion cards to heal an ally instead of yourself, but players can refuse to be healed by you since you gain victory points when you use a potion on others.
Cutthroat Caverns truly does take the best parts of Munchkin — the “I’ll help you but only to a certain point” mechanic, the counter-to-a-counter-to-a-counter string of plays, the last man standing after a huge battle claiming victory — and wraps it up in a great game. My only complaint is that it takes roughly 90 minutes to play, so you have to commit a bit. But, those are 90 minutes well spent.
The gameplay in Dixit is very simple. On each turn, one player is the storyteller and has to say something to describe one of the cards in their hand. They can say a sentence, a word, sing a song, make a noise, whatever they want to do. That card is put face down on the table. Everyone else has to pick a card from their hand to play, also face down, that closely resembles that card. The cards are shuffled up and flipped over, which is when everyone except for the storyteller votes on who’s card was the storyteller’s.
It’s a fine line the storyteller has to walk, though. If you give too specific of a clue and everyone votes for your card, you get no points but everyone else does. The same is true if you give too vague a clue and nobody votes for your card. You want to be right in the middle, where some but not all players vote for you. This is also why you want to play cards that may throw people off when you aren’t the storyteller — you get points for correctly picking the storyteller’s c ard correctly and for each person that votes for your card.
Dixit is excellent in it’s simplicity. The game comes with a set of beautiful cards, each with a handful of small details you can pick out to focus on when playing one. It’s interesting to see how different people’s minds work while playing cards and voting. Someone will pick something based on a detail you overlooked or didn’t think was remotely applicable. Ease of play, excellent art, and a light feel make me give Dixit two thumbs up.
Escape: The Curse of the Temple
Escape is a chaotic 10-15 minutes of dice rolling against a growing game board and a timer. Everyone starts off in a center room and must find gems throughout the temple before escaping. The final tile is always in the last few of the stack, so you have a general idea of how far you have to go. Certain rooms let you roll to acquire gems for the team by rolling a certain number of a certain symbol. In the room in the bottom right of the above picture, if all players in the room combine to roll four keys you would gain one gem, seven keys is two gems, and 10 keys would be the max of three gems for the room. You need to gather as many gems as possible because to escape the final room you need to roll the correct symbol for the number of gems remaining in the temple plus one.
Cooperation comes into play when you roll a black mask, which locks a die in place. Each player starts with the same number of dice, but when you start losing them things become chaotic. Each golden mask can unlock two locked dice, including other players in the same room as you. If a player is stuck with completely locked down dice, someone is going to have to go back for them because everyone has to escape the final room to win. Oh, and just for the hell of it, twice per game everyone has to retreat back to the center room. The timer app will let you know with audio clues and anyone who doesn’t get back in time permanently loses a die.
Adding a little more fuel to the utter chaos is that everyone rolls all of their dice at the same time. Escape becomes a loud 15 minutes of everyone rolling, evaluating, and looking to/asking for help. It’s a great time. I really hope to play it this weekend.