Posts by: Kelsey Rinella

Review: Matchstick Memories

I'm a sucker for a theme that isn't terrifically depressing.

This puzzle was more fun when I was matching swords.

My first thought, upon hearing the pitch for Matchstick Memories, was that it had great potential to remedy a serious problem with classic interactive fiction: as I read most IF games, I’m basically playing Spock (Leonard Nimoy style, not the new-fangled, emotional Zachary Quinto version). I might have some investment in the story, but I always have as much time as I like to rationally evaluate my options. Even worse, the authors know this, so they have to write their choices so as not to make the better option so obvious that the distinctive freedom the book offers effectively disappears. So, not only do I feel like that bizarre abstraction, Economic Model Man, but the story also ends up feeling contrived for maximum uncertainty.

Matchstick Memories (henceforth MM) offers interactive fiction in which your performance on a variety of puzzles determines your choices. You’re still the ruthlessly efficient Economic Model Man, but now there’s some gameplay standing between you and your decisions. It’s well-suited to players who’ve ever imagined that successful life choices might hinge on the thousands upon thousands of hours of games you’ve played (which, as a man with a gig reviewing games for a website, I have).

Continue reading…

Review: Province

Owen Faraday and the Rondels will be opening for Pink Floyd on their next tour.

I like rondels. They may be hard to theme, but they offer interesting decisions and they sound like 50s backup singers.

Province is a two-player micro-euro board game for iOS with a familiar lineage: basically, Agricola and Le Havre had a baby (though it does have Imperial‘s nose. Le Havre is sure that’s just an anomaly). A lot of people saw a euro playable in under five minutes as quite a promising niche, with over 6,000 backers on the Kickstarter campaign* together raising almost ten times the asking price. Most of the games I know which are reliably playable in that time frame seem unable to accommodate strategy of any kind. Enter Province, with a bit of swagger.

The basic gameplay cycle is to move workers one place clockwise on a pie chart that lists a sequence of actions — this is known in board gaming argot as a rondel. Actions generate labor or money, then use these resources to build buildings which make resource generation more efficient or flexible (and give you one or two victory points, if you build them before your opponent). Each game includes a stack of five goals selected randomly from nine options, which also offer a victory point bounty. The game ends when this stack is exhausted, a player builds seven buildings, or there are no more victory points to be gained from building. It’s simple, meaningful, small, and feels like a knock-down, drag-out fight in the backseat of a car. Or as we call it in my family, “driving to grandma’s house”. Continue reading…

Review: The Manhattan Project

I think I can hack together a workable prototype using the coffee roaster building from Puerto Rico.

I understand why plutonium and uranium are crucial fuels for a nuclear weapons program, but shouldn’t there be a third column for coffee?

The Manhattan Project bought tickets to the prom before asking anyone, got rejected, then went stag. That is, development on the digital adaptation of the highly-regarded tabletop game was already quite advanced by the time the Kickstarter campaign to fund it launched. Said campaign came up quite short, which left developer Domowicz Creative Group with strong feedback that polishing the app to their satisfaction was unlikely to pay off. In the face of that disappointing reality, they’ve taken pity on those fans of the game who saw the functional prototype in the pitch videos and have tidied up their existing work enough to make it available to the public, albeit in a less ambitious state than they had hoped.

If you’re familiar with Agricola or Lords of Waterdeep, you’ve seen the worker placement mechanic at the core of this game. It’s been a hot mechanic in modern boardgame design for a few years, in part because forcing players to compete for jobs produces subtle but constant player interaction while allowing conflict-averse players to focus on building their own engines of points.

The Manhattan Project innovates on this model substantially. This isn’t the bucolic live-and-let-live world of Agricola; as befits the theme of a high-stakes race to build nuclear weapons, you can deliver your opponents’ nuclear programs a fiery setback with bomber airstrikes, or steal their secrets with spies. You also have a level of control over the allocation of your workers which would make Oppenheimer (or Sammereza Sulphontis) envious. What you don’t have, sadly, is a polished app.

Continue reading…

Android Ascension

If wargaming has taught us anything, surely it's the value of initiative.

“All good things come to those who wait” is the default fake wisdom for these occasions. Utter hogwash.

imagePlaydek and Stone Blade have announced that Ascension for Android is live on Google Play. Android is now a legitimate smartphone platform.

Playdek are celebrating with a sale on their greatest hits and expansions, if you don’t already have them. Full details straight from the press release after the jump.

Continue reading…

Review: Catchup

Weirdly reminiscent of my old Assault on Hoth board.

Catchup often ends up looking like octopi making out. Hey, now–nobody think sinful thoughts.

Nick Bentley designed a well-regarded print-and-play abstract boardgame in 2010. The game so impressed Martin Grider (developer of the very well-executed For the Win, which I reviewed here way back in 2012) that he took on an iOS adaptation largely as a passion project, with help from contractors. Two years on, Mr. Bentley seems almost guilty at having occasioned so much work, with such a polished product released into the viciously unforgiving App Store, that he’s written a moving plea and a wonderfully detailed designer diary. As someone who has written about games for years, I am not amused that some yahoo can waltz in and make what I do look easy and sound like a caring, brilliant guy at the same time.

Catchup is a very simple matter of creating a larger connected structure than your opponent. Each turn, you take two hexes. There are only two exceptions: the very first turn only gets one hex, and when the catchup mechanism is invoked. Whenever you pull ahead or extend your lead, your opponent gets a half-turn bonus. In this game, that means they claim three hexes on their next turn, rather than two, but the idea could be applied to any game which maintains a score and which allows an even number of actions on a player’s turn. Catchup is probably the most accessible possible use of this mechanic, but it has some quite interesting properties, so I hope to see it again. The other wrinkle is that, if there’s a tie for the size of the largest connected structure, the tie is broken by the size of the next largest structure for each player, and this is applied recursively until a winner is found (which must happen, due to the odd number of hexes on the board).

Continue reading…

Review: Rules

Oh, right--"Watch out for a red bull".

It’s a good thing there’s a phone on the unicorn–if a unicorn were on the phone, I wouldn’t know what to say.

I have an extremely strong bias toward following rules. When Eric Westervelt punched me in the stomach at my locker after school one seventh-grade afternoon, I took it and just turned around because fighting was against the rules (also, I’d have lost). I’m not claiming that drive is universal in anything like the extreme form I had it at the time, but Coding Monkeys seem to think a less severe case is widespread, because Rules taps that compulsion like a speed-crazed Vermont sugarmaker when the sap starts flowing.

In hindsight, an analogy involving beer and some famously hard-drinking group might have been more relatable. Anyway, if the idea of a game about following rules doesn’t immediately grab you, try this: Coding Monkeys. Carcassonne. Lost Cities. Yeah, those Coding Monkeys. Purveyors of absolutely brilliant tabletop adaptations since before there was a Pocket Tactics to sing their praises.

Now they’re offering a finely-crafted game in the ever-popular “toilet” genre of brief, highly replayable, easily-grasped games which have appeal even to those who wouldn’t list games as a hobby if you paid them. Like the best examples of the genre, there is some emergent complexity and strategies which aren’t immediately obvious, but, at its heart, it’s Simon. A very well-executed Simon, with quite satisfying feedback, and the usual attention to detail that accompanies the Coding Monkeys’ more complex outings.

Continue reading…

Review: Blood Bowl

Of course, given the breadth of sexual euphemism, it would be hard to rule out anything.

“Touchdown” sounds a bit like a sexual euphemism, which explains the sporran. Also, the New York Jets.

It is widely agreed that the 1980s were a very strange decade. Neon legwarmers, obviously, but also Games Workshop and its hobby games casting a shadow greater than any other between TSR and Wizards of the Coast.

Their games were often forbidding investments of time and money, but offered both strategic depth and incomparable (if deeply silly) aesthetics once your hand-painted miniatures graced a well-laid table. Blood Bowl is the silliest of the lot: not only does it incorporate the exaggerated character design and overwrought world of Warhammer, it’s fantasy football the way many readers of Pocket Tactics will have imagined it when they heard the phrase. Sure, daytime sporting events between vampires and halflings don’t make any sense, but if you’re worried about plausibility in your Games Workshop games, I invite you to figure out Chainsaw Warrior.

The sport Blood Bowl simulates is actually quite light on rules–there are no downs or field goals or eligible receivers, and all manner of ultra-violence is perfectly legal so long as you don’t stomp on a prone opponent in a deliberate attempt to put them out of the game. Even then, officials aren’t that attentive and possess a FIFA-like open-mindedness about bribery.

Blood Bowl’s rules are poorly presented and have a few too many complex embellishments with too little return. In addition, there are roughly a hundred different skills with special rules and additional rules governing campaigns and skill development. While it’s wonderful to have the enforcement of these rules taken off your hands so you can focus on the intriguing strategic game underneath, Cyanide Studio’s iOS version is an awful tutor and you end up forced to do a great deal of tedious record-keeping, anyway.

Continue reading…

Review: Bicolor

SPOILER: Pull that 4 left, left, up, right, and you can erase everything by moving each 3 horizontally in a really satisfying motion.

That 4, crucially, lets you draw in white. Bicolor is basically just a puzzle version of white crayon apologetics.

There was a period during which I hated Bicolor. It’s a simple puzzle game, involving drawing and erasing lines on a grid. While the concept won’t raise your heart rate, it’s not quite like anything I’ve played before, and it gratifyingly forces you to break the glass to use cognitive tools you rarely have to employ elsewhere.

But it commits one of the cardinal sins of the puzzle genre: massive difficulty spikes. For two days, I was completely stuck on a level which prior experience had left me entirely unprepared to solve. Indeed, it almost seems as though part of the problem is that there’s so little to learn–beyond the basic insight that squares with only one connection are bad, every level presents a new challenge, and most of them are over quickly and leave you feeling like there were probably lots of other options.

Those concerns are real, and genuinely frustrating. However, the very freedom Bicolor provides allows it to subtly offer beautiful solutions to levels which can be completed with less holistically elegant bumbling about. Discovering one of these solutions feels like earning an achievement, but without the manipulative increase in a meaningless number. It’s just a wink from the level designer, which is strangely satisfying in a world so full of explicit rewards. It also so thoroughly engaged me on one evening that I didn’t notice the time until after three in the morning.

Continue reading…