This will be a short post—my summer school agenda is massively tiring, and I'm easily walking 8-10 miles per day right now. Whew!
But I have not forgotten board games. When I'm on the bus being transported to a site, I still enjoy playing them on my iPad (current faves: Splendor and Carcassonne). Unfortunately, though, my Splendor app is doing something I truly despise: Every so often, I will receive a notification that I've earned an achievement.
I absolutely hate trophies and achievements. They are dangerous for me because I have perfectionistic tendencies that make it very challenging for me to ignore checklists. When I trophy hunt in video games, I end up making myself miserable. It irritates me that this feature is now showing up in my digital board games. Many people enjoy achievements, and some claim that they help to extend gameplay and maximize a player's experience with a game. I disagree. There is nothing fun about "maximizing" gameplay by completing an annoying list of chores.
Fortunately, I've been able to ignore the achievements so far. I haven't looked at the list to see what I've earned and haven't earned, and I'm trying not to. I don't want that knowledge to influence the way I'm playing. I otherwise really enjoy my apps, especially because I don't have access to anything analog right now. Hopefully next weekend I'll be able to visit a board game store, since I have a Saturday off!
Sorry for the slow posting! I'm currently in Rome, getting ready for class and getting over my jet lag. I'm keeping a normal travel blog to document my experiences as a student and tourist in Rome, but you can also expect some posts here about ancient board games, iPad gaming apps, books about gaming, and game stores I visit while in the Eternal City.
I was initially skeptical when Victory Point Games began a Kickstarter campaign for Darkest Night, canceled it 24 hours later, and took some time to start fresh. I worried that their bad planning might be reflective of deeper problems, and that my first foray into Kickstarter had been a mistake.
I am very happy to say that I was wrong.
Not only are the results of Victory Point's previous Kickstarter campaign for Dawn of the Zeds being delivered to happy customers, but Victory Point has made some decisions with its Darkest Night campaign that I deeply appreciate. With 4 days to go, total funding for the campaign has crossed $170,000--an impressive sum, but several thousand dollars short of the stretch goals that would unlock additional cards and add variety to the gameplay.
Rather than issue a less-complete version of the game, Victory Point Games made a different decision: On June 1, the company chose to unlock all gameplay-related stretch goals and to release the best possible version of Darkest Night. What this means is that money that would have gone to a larger retail print run of the game will instead go into producing a truly complete edition of it for the backers on Kickstarter. There will be less profit for Victory Point, but a better product for customers.
So thanks Victory Point Games! I own a couple of VP products already, but now I will be purchasing many more.
I have since updated my review of this game! For my most up-to-date thoughts and format, click here.
This week I spent a lot of time testing out a little deckbuilder that I got myself for my birthday: Valley of the Kings. It's a game set in ancient Egypt, in which all of the players are pharaohs attempting to stock their tombs for the afterlife. As with your typical deckbuilder, all players begin with the same set of basic cards, which are used to acquire newer and fancier cards from the "pyramid."
There are two mechanics that make Valley of the Kings special.The first is that the cards you can acquire are arranged in a pyramid shape, and you can only purchase cards from the bottom row of the pyramid. Every time a card is bought, the pyramid "crumbles" and the cards at the top slowly drift to the bottom. If you want to have a go at cards in the upper rows, you need to use relevant actions on the cards you've already acquired. Pyramid manipulation becomes an important part of the game that can get you what you want, and, in a group, keep coveted items out of the grasp of other players.
The second unique mechanic is "entombment." The game is ultimately won by the victory points you earn from entombing cards, particularly multiple cards from the same set. However, once you place a card in your tomb, it is effectively out of the game and you can no longer use it to perform actions or to purchase other cards. Because you need to both play successful turns and stock your tomb, Valley of the Kings demands planning and tough choices. Even the actions on the starter cards are relatively useful, making it hard to part with your stuff as you stock up for the afterlife.
For me, the attraction of Valley of the Kings is that it offers a 1–4 person game in a tiny box. It's not as deep as a larger deckbuilder, but it is highly satisfying and relatively quick to play. Although there is not always a strong connection between the action printed on the card and the item depicted on it, the art is highly thematic. The cards feature real images of Egyptian artifacts that took me right back to my college days, when I had a part-time job as a museum guard. (Yes, there were mummies, no, they didn't come alive at night!)
As a solo game, Valley of the Kings is fun, but the one-player variant is mainly practice for playing with a group. Solitaire rules are published online and are printed in the expansion, Valley of the Kings: Afterlife. But basically, when you play by yourself, your goal is to achieve a perfect score by entombing one of every card from every set. When playing alone, the game is still fun and challenging, but many of the card actions involve interacting with other players. It can feel like you're missing out when you're by yourself. Playing solo also affects your entombment strategy, because it's easier to just start squirreling away cards with interactive abilities—it's not like you need them, strategically speaking. I don't regret buying Valley of the Kings for solo play because it's quick, amusing, and inexpensive. But if you're looking for a deeper solo deckbuilding experience, I would shell out more money and go for something like Apex Theropod or Legendary: Alien Encounters.
I've also played Valley of the Kings in a group of three, and I had a great time with it. It's a light, relaxing game with just enough strategy to keep things interesting. Although I will primarily play Valley of the Kings on my own, it shines more when it's played in a group. The box is so small that I think I'll take it to Rome with me this summer and see if the other Latin teachers get hooked. If they're like me, they'll be suckers for a quick game with an ancient theme. Valley of the Kings may also be a fun introductory deckbuilding game for my students. I hope to test it out with them next week as we wrap up the last of our state finals.
Finals week is typically a stressful time for both teachers and students, but there is one thing I truly enjoy about it. When I'm not administering state exams, I end up keeping an eye on students who have already finished testing for the day. This gives me a ready-made group of people who will play board games with me!
Many of the kids think that they don't like board games, or that they are only interested in Jenga or Uno. Fortunately, however, some of them are open to new things—and they end up dragging their reluctant friends along with them.
Two of the games that have been smash hits with the students this week have been Splendor and Jaipur. (The students also play a lot of chess, Connect Four, Ivanhoe, and Game of Things.)
Jaipur is a card game in which players vie to become the richest merchants in the market. Although Jaipur is technically for only two people, you often end up with two teams of students, with several kids playing a single hand and trying to out-think their friends. Today, I ended up playing against three students who wanted to outsmart me. (Think again, children!) The best part is watching kids learn from their strategic mistakes. They catch on quickly and they play a smarter game every time.
But the biggest hit of my semester has been Splendor, a game in which you build a gem collection that earns you prestige and possibly the favor of impressed nobles. I first introduced the game to a group of students who are very adventurous, but I noticed that other kids—some of whom hadn't previously wanted much to do with me—were watching us play. Before long, there was a huge line of kids wanting to swap in for the next game. Yesterday, my room was full of players and spectators arguing about the best purchases, blocking each other viciously, and throwing their hands up in delight and/or frustration. Several of the kids wanted to know where to purchase the game themselves, and I directed them to our friendly local gaming store. Who knows? Perhaps I've converted a few of them to the dark side! I can't pinpoint exactly what it is, but there is something about Splendor that is extremely appealing to my students. I might need to get a second copy next year.
There are few things I love more about my job than the chance to play board games with teenagers. When we play, I feel like they show me their best selves—they become inquisitive, strategic, competitive, and focused. At one point today, I looked up and realized that, for once, no one was staring into a smartphone screen like a zombie. It feels amazing after a semester of hard work to just be with my students and appreciate them as vibrant and clever young people. I think that playing games helps the kids appreciate me more, too. All of that friendly competition and ribbing helps us to relax around each other. And when they do finally beat me at a game, their victory gives me great satisfaction: I taught them something this year!
I admit that I am not extremely experienced with Kickstarter. Darkest Night, which will fund on June 11, is the first Kickstarter game that I have ever backed. But many of the games I own were originally funded through KS campaigns, and I love them. Hostage Negotiator, Apex Theropod, or Flash Point: Fire Rescue are all very welcome additions to my game collection.
Now, another Kickstarter game has caught my eye. It's called Sovrano, and it's a two-person abstract strategy game. Even though I usually play solo, this looks like a great game to learn with my boyfriend, with my grandfather, or with my students.
So, what made this game catch my eye above all of the others on Kickstarter? A few things. First of all, just look at that game! It's gorgeous. The developer, Cambium Games, is a father-son team interested in developing games made out of wooden components. They've made it clear in their campaign that they are aiming for a small print run—each game will be handmade, and they are only trying to raise $5,000. The funds will partially go to equipment upgrades to make their work easier and better. I feel like this is an opportunity to acquire a game that supports a cool business and that is also a unique work of art.
Most importantly, the game looks fun. When you see a board with squares and two sets of differently-colored pieces, you automatically think of chess. But Sovrano clearly has its own flavor. Players can move multiple pieces per turn, and while each side has an "Emperor" who must be protected at all costs, there are actually two ways to win the game: Either take the other side's emperor, or control specific spaces on the board to earn victory points. Multiple win conditions, combined with the incentive to compete for dominance over specific areas of the board, promise many hours of strategizing and experimentation.
Cambium also did something else very right with their campaign, and it tipped the balance for me. The current campaign is actually the second attempt to fund Sovrano. Not enough money came in the first time. So Cambium Games thought things through and tried again. This time, on the Sovrano KS page, there are not only playthrough videos, but meaningful endorsements. Ricky Royal recently released a video that shows how to play Sovrano, and his recommendation is what sold me. Getting a deeper look at the game's mechanics made me realize that I truly want to play it. Plus, Royal's videos are some of the best in the business. His sterling reputation made this Kickstarter campaign feel like one I could trust. Being able to see a polished-looking product on video, explained by the guy whose videos have taught me how to play several of my favorite games, made me feel like I knew exactly what I was getting into.
I scroll through Kickstarter regularly, and I see a lot of interesting-looking games. But Sovrano won me over because it looks like a premium product that will offer many hours of enjoyment over a long period of time. I hope the campaign is funded, because I truly want to play this game.
If you think Sovrano might interest you, click here to view the Kickstarter.