Tuesday, 25 October 2016


EXPLODING KITTENS, Self-Published, 2015

7+, 15 minutes, 2-5 players, Competitive

Have you ever wanted to play Russian roulette? Of course you have. Secretly, deep down inside, you and everyone else want to face the void of your own non-existence and see what stares back. You just choose not to, you choose to suppress these feelings because of a deep-seating and false conviction that your life is meaningful and that your continuation on this ball of water-covered rock is somehow relevant to the universe. You incorrectly have convinced yourself that you have too much to lose. And so you don't. You continue your dull nine-to-five life, eat food to give you energy to essentially repeat your daily activities, you contribute to global species extinction and then you die anyway and ultimately rot to become worm food and then, in a final indignity, worm poop. And on your deathbed, you like many others will realise that, in fact, Russian roulette might have actually been a good idea. 

But guess what? Here's a game that basically allows you to play Russian roulette but without the risk of putting a bullet in your brain. And you laugh while you play it. So, basically, it's not really like Russian roulette, even though the game designers say it is. But it is a game of chance, and this is why thousands of people round the world hate this game. They think that each player may as well roll a die and the winner is the person with the highest number. On Boardgamegeek (the other BGG that's like this one in that it talks about games but is more popular despite being demonstrably less funny), it rates only as 5.8 out of 10, meaning it's seen by the public as a very average game. This despite it being the most popular Kickstarter of all time, raising $8,782,571 from 219,382 backers. So... is it that average? Let's have a look.

The game play is extremely simple. Each player starts with four randomly drawn cards and takes a turn playing whichever cards they want, and then to finish their turn they draw a face-down card from the pile. Playing is really very simple - for example, See The Future allows a player to see the top three cards of the deck. Shuffle allows them to... can you guess? You genius. Harvard awaits. If you draw an Exploding Kitten card, you blow up, unless you can play a Defuse card. Then you get to place the Exploding Kitten anywhere you want in the deck. Do you put it on the top for your next opponent? Or do you think that they've got a Skip card so it goes to the next opponent? And thus the game is on. Yes, sometimes you draw the Exploding Kitten first turn, you spend your Defuse and then you're vulnerable for the rest of the game. And that's what happens when you have a game of chance. Because that it ultimately what life is like. You can make plans but the best laid schemes o' mice an' men gang aft a-gley. And if you don't know what that means, Harvard sent the invitation letter to you by accident. But, so what if you're subject to chance? At least you have fun! And you have fun because the cards are funny... genuinely funny. There's a NSFW version that I didn't buy but the normal game has you attacking people with thousand-year back hair. That's funny. There's a Tacocat which is amused by being a palindrome. There's a Rainbow-Ralphing Cat, which is exactly what you think it is. 

Who are the most successful people in life? Those who realise that shit happens by chance and there are only two things that you can do about that - plan for it as best you can, and then laugh when it happens. And that's exactly what this game does. You can plan ahead, and then your opponent can put down three of the same cards and steal your Defuse card the moment before you draw an Exploding Kitten. So then you keep your Nope card which allows you to Nope that play by them... if you're lucky enough to draw a Nope card. So, sure there's an element of chance, but if you know the cards (and there are only eight different action cards, as well as the sets of cat cards) then you can actually plan ahead, learn what your opponent has and take calculated risks. And if it all goes wrong and you don't have the right cards, you just have a laugh because it's the end of the game evening, you've already played two hours of a serious brain-bending game and you just need something light and fun. Honestly, I think that the people who don't like this game are asking too much of it. It's not like rolling dice. It's a quick, fun game of chance with a really good dose of humour and card design. Is it Fury of Dracula or Dead of Winter? No. Is it the kind of game you'll play after that kind of game for a bit of fun to round off the evening, especially after you've all had a few drinks? Yes, it's totally perfect for that.

  • Very easy to learn
  • Quick and portable
  • Funny card design
  • The box literally meows when you open it
  • Perfect game when you've got a little time left at the end of a game evening

  • If you lose, you're out
  • Very heavy chance element
  • TSA agents really don't like this in your luggage. I'm not kidding. Having a box with wires inside that has the word "Exploding" written on the cover? They don't think that's funny. Trust me - I'm speaking from real personal experience here.
It's time to give this game some points....

Accessibility: 5/5 - I play this game with my kids. When they started playing it, they were 3 and 5. The rules are ridiculously simple.
Design: 4/5 - For a game of chance, this is very well designed because there are some strategic options that you can explore in the hope of reducing your risk of chance. Yes, your starting hand, which is drawn by chance, strongly affects the rest of the game, but if you can last a few rounds, it's your choices that really make the difference.
Depth: 2/5 - It's not just rolling dice. There are strategic choices, just not very many.
Replayability: 3/5 - I have played this game at least fifty times. I took it on a weekend away with a group of teenagers and they loved it. It was a fun, bonding experience.
Availability: 5/5 - Easily available online and in gaming stores.

Summary: Yes, there's a chance element and yes, if you're out you're out, but that's like Russian roulette so when you pick up this game, you know what you're getting into. And if you have even a modicum of a sense of humour, you'll laugh when you're out and then you'll watch your friends play the rest of the game and make noises that encourage players or add to the tension or, if you're particularly anti-social, you'll go and do something else. To my surprise, I have found that I have some special Force-like ability that often helps me know when the Exploding Kitten is coming. Maybe this is basically Force training. I imagine that on the down-time when Luke wasn't schlepping Yoda across the swamps of Dagobah that they pulled out Exploding Womp Rats (the Star Wars version that probably should exist now that I think about it) and played it. 

Final Score: I rate games according to what they're trying to achieve as well as in comparison to others. This isn't trying to be a super complex strategic game. It's funny, it's silly, and so it earns a totally fair 71%.

BUT WAIT!!!! There's MORE!!!!!

IMPLODING KITTENS, Self-Published, 2016

7+, 15 minutes, 2-6 players, Competitive

They only went and made an expansion!!! Why would they do such a thing? Well, money, obviously. You get how the world works, right? Of course you do - that's why secretly you want to play Russian roulette, because the call of the void is only marginally quieter than the vacuous machinations of global society. 

The biggest criticism of Exploding Kittens was the element of chance, but Imploding Kittens minimises that with some new cards. Where Exploding Kittens had See The Future where you got to see the top three cards of the draw pile, now you can Alter The Future by seeing and rearranging the top three cards of the draw pile. That's a huge change. Moreover, if you Alter the Future, you might then choose to play Reverse, which switches the order of play, adding another dynamic play level to the game and thus force a card on a player who just spent their Defuse or Skip card getting themselves out of trouble. Or you could Draw From the Bottom if there's the Imploding Kitten card staring at you from the top of the deck. Ah, Imploding Kitten, how you open your maw to swallow the Earth, thereby reminding us of the futility of human existence. Not only does the game minimise the chance element through specific cards, but by starting you now with 6 cards instead of 4, you have more options and you're less likely to lose straight away due to a freak random draw. In other words, Imploding Kittens addresses exactly the problem that those who didn't like Exploding Kittens had. And, once again, it does it in a really funny way. One of the cards is a shark who hurts with words instead of teeth, another is a self-aware toilet. And there's also a surprise. I won't say what the surprise it, but there's a reason that the box for the expansion is much, much longer than the original, and all I'll say is that there's a clue in the above picture.

Imploding Kittens takes a game of chance and gives us more tools to mitigate against it. Now, instead of us battling the odds, we're really battling each other, and isn't that really life anyway? The constant battle for gene supremacy? The subtle competition of rich against poor, the struggle to be better, richer, faster, stronger than the other? Sure, I understand that that's not really what life should be about, but it's what life often ends up being for most of us. With Exploding Kittens, you were playing Russian roulette. With Imploding Kittens, you're smacking each other in the face with the guns while trying to take out the bullet in your gun and putting it in someone else's. And that makes it more fun because, despite the call of the void, Russian roulette is actually most fun when you win and get to return to your meaningless life, just now with the image of your opponent's last second of existence etched on your memory.

  • Very easy to learn
  • Quick and portable
  • Funny card design
  • The box literally meows when you open it
  • Perfect game when you've got a little time left at the end of a game evening
  • Much less of a chance element than the original game
  • The surprise in this box. And no, it's not kitty litter. 

  • If you lose, you're still out
  • TSA agents still don't like this in your luggage. They really don't have much of a sense of humour about things like this.
So... how does this expansion change the points?

Accessibility: 5/5 - As before
Design: 4/5 - As before
Depth: 3/5 - Oooh, an extra point on depth. Now you're really thinking about strategy.
Replayability: 4/5 - I think this makes the original game even more playable.
Availability: 5/5 - As before.

Summary: If you play games often, ask yourself how many of them actually make you laugh out loud? I mean, properly laugh. Ultimately, that's what this game does. To me, that makes it an invaluable item on any gamer's shelf.

Final Score: I'm going high on this one. I think this expansion keeps the game simple and fun while removing the worst element of the original. It's a game that anyone can pick up and play easily, it's now even more fun because you're able to plan ahead much more. This is an expansion that seriously improves on an already fun game, while remaining as simple and funny as the original. With that in mind, I'm going to award this an impressive 80%.

Saturday, 15 October 2016


DINOSAUR ESCAPE, Peaceable Kingdom, 2015

4+, 10 minutes, 2-4 players, Co-operative

Imagine the scene. Your two young children play a board game together. Imagine it's something competitive, like Candy Land. Imagine that by the end of playing Candy Land, the children somehow haven't lost the will to live and one of them actually wins the game. What happens next? If they're like most young children, there are tears from the player who lost. You now have two choices. You can either teach the child who lost that life is actually like that, that sometimes you win and sometimes you lose, and that they should toughen up before life crushes them asunder. Or, you can teach the kids that winning doesn't have to be at the expense of someone else and that they could instead play a game where they're part of a team against the game. Now, I'm not judging you as a person if you choose the first option, merely as a parent. But let's imagine you took the second option - this is where you pull out a cooperative game for children which, statistically speaking, is likely to be by Peaceable Kingdom, creators of Hoot Owl Hoot, Race to the Treasure, Engineering Ants, and more. But you grab Dinosaur Escape because it says "Dinosaurs Included" on the box and that's as good a reason to grab a child's game as any.

The rules for Dinosaur Escape are so unbelievably simple that instead of just explaining them, I'm going to show them to you. 

Did you notice it? The extra customer care bit they did? Children lose pieces to games. They break games. Peaceable Kingdom will replace them for you for free. That's really good.

The board itself is colourful, simple and well-designed, with differing zones, a place for the volcano and an island to escape to.

I imagine that when the asteroid came that wiped out the
dinosaurs that earth actually looked rather a lot like this.
The pictures on the tokens are well drawn, surprisingly well considering that it's a children's game. There's something different about this as compared with, say, Hoot Owl Hoot, and it's mainly in the artwork. Where Hoot Owl Hoot has extremely simple cards with colours on them to show which square to move to (which reminds us of.... shudder.... Candy Land), the artwork on these tokens is actually rather impressive, with shading and more than one colour. You can actually use these tokens to have a discussion about something prehistoric with the children. And that's where this game does really well. Your three dinosaurs are herbivores, and they have to avoid the carnivorous T-Rex. You've got the start of an educational discussion right there. Then you can take the models, which are high quality plastic models, and use them to start talking about why Stegosaurus had plates, why Triceratops had horns, why Brachiosaurus had a long neck, etc. This game begs to be turned into an educational opportunity.

Part of what makes this game so good is that it's a combination of a few differing game elements:
1) A memory game
2)  A building game
3) Light strategy choices
Players have to remember what's under each fern, they have to reluctantly build up the volcano and they have to choose which way to send their dinosaurs in order to make their escape. In other words, they have to learn to play the odds. Yes, it's possible to lose the game in the first ten turns, and I've actually seen that happen thanks to incredibly unlucky dice rolls. Normally, though, that doesn't happen.

Triceratops, I have freed you. You may now go and eat ferns
somewhere else that is unlikely to be destroyed by a volcano
but nevertheless still faces a grave flood risk.

"All my life I've suffered your noxious gases, only to be
ironically killed by different noxious gases." 

Having the volcano at the centre of the game, and as the main threat, is excellent game design for children. They literally watch the threat build up - indeed, they actually have to build the threat up themselves. They do so reluctantly but joyfully, because it's great to build a volcano. Other children's games usually have the threat measured on some kind of meter or track, but here it's real and dominant and exciting. It looms over the game. And it's an extremely simply 3-D puzzle. 

Yes, he had survived. But the loneliness and ennui
that set in afterwards made Triceratops wish
he had perished along with his friends.

So, what makes this game so profoundly different to something like Candy Land, which we have already reviewed? There are a number of very profound differences, actually. Firstly, obviously, it's a co-op game so there's very little chance of tears afterwards and, moreover, it builds communication and teamwork. Secondly, the randomness is mitigated by strategic choices by the players, and their own ability to remember game elements makes them actively involved in the game. Thirdly, there's a giant bloody volcano that builds up during the game! Fourthly, the artwork and models are excellent. Finally, there's no going back - there's no real punishment. Yes, the T-Rex makes you go back to a square, but once you draw the T-Rex, if you draw it again then it's your fault, not a random game element the likes of which you can find in Candy Land.

Did I mention there's a bloody awesome giant volcano in this game?
Thought so.
Okay, but the big question is, will adults want to play it? For me, the answer is a resounding yes. If during play I ever starting to think, "I wish I were playing Fury of Dracula right now" then I just throw in a dinosaur-related fact to the kids to prove my adulthood once more. And the kids love this game and watching them love it and work together is joyous.
The strangest thing for me is the rating. Our 3-year old plays this with no issue, and moreover, this game can be played solo. That's right, a solo child's game that works. I'm also not sure what a 4th player would do, considering there are only three dinosaurs. Maybe build the volcano? That doesn't seem fair. I'm also not convinced about the timing - probably closer to 15 minutes as an average. So, really, this should be rated 3+, 1-3 players, 15 minutes.

Let's get some numbers on this game.
Accessibility: 5/5 - A 3-year old can understand it. Enough said.
Design: 5/5 - For a children's game, I think this is simply excellent design. It promotes cooperation, the models are great, the board is great, the artwork is great, and... that's right... there's a bloody great volcano!
Depth: 2/5 - This is not going to tax your brain like Siege of Jerusalem, and for good reason - because it's a kids' game! But it's more complex than just roll and move and involves memory and light strategic choices. 
Replayability: 3/5 - I've seen this game be played by two children at least twenty times, probably closer to thirty. At 15 minutes a game, that's a lot of time you could be doing the ironing, or the kitchen or... oh crap, I was meant to tidy the kitchen tonight. Kids enjoy working as a team, they enjoy this kind of game and they want to play it again and again.
Availability: 5/5 - Easily available online and in gaming stores, for less than $20.

Summary: As young children's co-op games go, I think this is possibly the best one. It far exceeds any others I know in terms of game design and artistic content. The strategic choices aren't as complicated as some of the others, like Race to the Treasure, and the 3-D models and volcano are just what children of this age range want. 

Final Score: Well done, Peaceable Kingdom, through this game, you've turned our kids into cooperative gamers. Mainly for excellent game design in terms of what it sets out to achieve, I'm awarding this game a very respectable 73%.

Saturday, 8 October 2016


FLASH POINT: FIRE RESCUE, Indie Boards and Games, 2011
10+, 45 minutes, 1-6 players, Co-operative

The call comes in... "911, what is your emergency?" On the other end is a panicked response of "I need a simple yet fun cooperative game!" Moments later you grab the box and rush to the table for a fun game....

The essence of a cooperative game is that it's you (the players) against the game. In this particular game, you are firemen trying to rescue innocent civilians from a conflagration that keeps burning in a building that continually veers towards collapse. If you win, everyone wins, but if not, everyone loses. I had never heard of cooperative games until last year and I'm totally enthralled by them. Not all gamers are married to gamers, so marital bliss isn't often enhanced by the suggestion of whipping out a quick board game. I've even seen a married couple engage in a blazing row, including full board flip, over a game of Monopoly, although to be fair that might be because Monopoly is such a dreadful game. And yes, in case you're wondering, the phrase "blazing row" was deliberate here. But what if two loving partners with nothing better to do with their time were to engage on a fun bit of role-playing together? Not that kind, pervert. And that's what a game like this is - a bit of fun where people work together. I've even seen non-gaming spouses (spice?) converted to gaming by Flash Point. 

While waiting to be called to their next blaze, the firefighters
re-enact a scene from The Breakfast Club.
The game play is very simple. In the basic game, you place victim, fire and door markers in locations as shown on the starting map. All doors start closed. Each player takes a nice firefighter model (all of which have been very well colour-coordinated so as to not confuse colourblind people) and places their firefighter outside the building near one of the external doors. The game then continues in three phases:
1) Take Actions
2) Advance Fire
3) Replenish POI markers

Each firefighter gets 4 actions per turn. To move to an adjacent square costs 1 action, if it's on fire it costs 2 and to carry a victim costs 2. Opening a door costs 1, removing smoke from an adjacent square costs 1, turning fire into smoke costs 1 and removing fire entirely costs 2 (which makes sense because fire to smoke costs 1 and then removing smoke entirely costs another 1). Turning fire into smoke and leaving it is risky, though, because smoke can easily reignite and then you've just wasted actions. Certain situations demand chopping down walls, although you don't want to do that too often because the entire building collapses when all the wall damage markers (black cubes) are exhausted. Placing one damage marker on a wall costs 2AP, placing a second costs 4. Once there are two damage markers on a wall, you can freely move through it, but so can fire. If you don't use up all your actions in one turn, you can store them for the next turn. And here's where the game designers missed a trick, frankly. The tokens for this game are absolutely fine. The fire markers clearly look like fire, flip them over and they clearly look like smoke. The ambulance looks like an ambulance, and so on. 

Phase 2 is advancing the fire. This is where things go wrong for you. The game comes with two dice - one six-sided and one eight-sided. At this point, you roll both dice and place a smoke marker on the corresponding grid square. If the square is empty and adjacent squares are empty or smoke-filled, nothing happens, other than more smoke filling the board. If the square is already smoke, it becomes fire. If an adjacent square is fire, then your smoke immediately becomes fire. If it's placed on an existing fire, then all hell breaks loose because you've got an explosion where walls and doors can be damaged, people can be injured and fire spreads like crazy. You also have to check for flashovers, which is where squares that have just started burning (e.g. as a result of an explosion) that might be adjacent to smoke markers will turn them all to fire as well. In the pictures below, for example, the yellow firefighter is dealing with a small blaze in one room while the blue firefighter has decided to turn fire into smoke wherever he goes, instead of putting it out. Silly blue firefighter. The dice are rolled and, with alarming accuracy, a fire token is placed right in the middle of the blue firefighter's room. That happens a lot, actually - the so-long-as-it-doesn't-set-that-particular-square-on-fire risk that goes wrong far more frequently that you would expect statistically. Every smoke token next to a fire token turns to fire, even going out of the door of the room. 

Yellow: "Blue! Put out that smoke!"
Blue: "Nah, it's okay, I've got it."
Yellow: "Blue! There's a fire starting in your room!"
Blue: "Yeah, it's okay. I've got it."

Blue: "Crap."
The third phase is replenishing POIs - persons of interest. The point of the game is to rescue these people from the building before it collapses. If you've rescued one by taking them outside the building, this is the phase where you add another. You always add them face-down because you don't know if they're going to be a real person, a pet, or a blank marker. In the photos below, orange firefighter has bravely chopped her way through the wall to rescue the trapped POI.

"Through dangers untold and hardship outnumbered, I have fought my way here to rescue you..."
She rushes forward and flips the POI marker...

"A CAT?!? Seriously?!?"
(This game revealed to me the depths of my hatred for cats, by the way)

The game ends when one of three things happens:
i) The building collapses
ii) 7 POIs have been rescued (or 10 for the perfect game)
iii) 4 of the 10 POIs die (thereby making it impossible to get 7 out safely).

The more experienced game starts with explosions already in the building, as well as hazmats (hazardous material). Vehicles can be used, including a fire engine which drenches an entire quarter of the board. Instead of generic 4AP firefighters, players can also choose from a range of characters and cleverly using their combined skills you can save the day and still allow cats to crisp. 

Before we get onto the rating, a quick word about the cat thing. If you've been reading this review and you've got upset about the cat thing, I'm sorry. For you. I've lost good firefighters trying to save a cat. If you rescue a dog (also possible in this game) then at least you know it's going to be happy to see you. Rescue a cat and it would probably claw you for picking it up. Or complain because you were removing it from the heat. Or go back into the flames in the hope that you might follow it and thus end up back in danger yourself, just because.

So, what do we say about this game?

Accessibility: 5/5 - This is an incredibly easy game to learn and not only is it a co-op game but it can also be played solo very easily.
Design: 3/5 - I rather like the models in this game - they're simple, brightly coloured and stand out against the flat game. The markers are particularly clear, and although it's a shame there aren't any carry-over action markers, that's not the worst thing. The board initially seems cluttered with dice pictures on each square, but you quickly get used to it. In terms of game balance, this is excellent - not too hard and not too easy.
Depth: 2/5 - There's not that much depth to this game. It's an ever-evolving puzzle so you have to keep your wits about you and balance certain risks and strategies ("No, you go for the victim and I'll put out the fire here before it spreads...").
Replayability: 3/5 - This game is fairly well written in terms of progression. First, there's the basic game and then there are three levels of experienced game - Recruit, Veteran, and Heroic. Moreover, because there are Specialists, there are many ways that you and your fellow gamers can approach even the same scenario. That said, there are only so many times you can go into the same board and put out the fires and rescue people (an issue which later expansions resolve).
Availability: 5/5 - Easily available online and in gaming stores, usually for a very fair price of $25-$30.

"Hey, lady, you weren't in here when I checked the room before!"
"Yes, I was, I was here watching Oprah."
"No, you weren't. I cleared this room five minutes ago and you definitely weren't here."
"I was."
"No, you weren't. It's like you've just appeared randomly according to some dice rolls of something. Let's go."
"Can I just finish watching this episode of Oprah?"
"Your TV melted twenty minutes ago."
"Fair point. Will you carry me?"
Summary: I like this game. I don't love it, but I like it. Reviewing it has made me want to play it again. It's a perfect intro game for non-gamers, for young gamers and also for those wishing to learn co-op games. More experienced gamers will find themselves challenged by more advanced scenarios, as well, so there's something here for everyone. There is a random element throughout the game, as with many games, but it seems totally thematic here in the sense of a chaotic fire suddenly bursting into flames in one room and another. Some co-op games are all but impossible to win (I'm looking at you, Ghost Stories!) but this one is perfectly beatable with good teamwork, unless you're really unlucky. It can be frustrating to flip over a POI tile only to find it's blank, but I guess that reflects the hectic nature of fire rescue in that you think you see someone and go to investigate. Aiming for the perfect game makes it harder and while it can be exciting to get everyone out of the building with only moments to spare, you're not going to be left with the same narrative and stories to tell as you might with other games... except for the time that I sacrificed my own firefighter so that my wife could get the last victim out just as the building collapsed, but that's because I'm hero all over. I wouldn't say that this is excellent but it's certainly a good, solid game. It's not too long, it's easy to learn, it's well priced, and there are a ridiculous number of expansions (to be reviewed separately another time). Most importantly, it gets you talking to others around the table, planning, howling when you roll badly and the fire spreads like... well, wildfire. Some games will be extremely cerebral and quiet but this is not that kind of game. It's sociable, vocal and fun. It can also be played solo. You can even balance out the most common problem of co-op games, which is the dominating player, by making one of the quieter players the Fire Captain (thereby giving them the Command ability to move other players).

Final Score: Easy to learn, fun, increasing complexity, a strong sociable component, increasing complexity and a good basis for some excellent expansions affords Flash Point a very respectable 76%.