I recently traveled to Ottawa, our nation’s capitol, for a few days, and wanted to share some travel tips with fellow voyagers traveling on a budget.
How to Get There
If you have a car, drive. But if you don’t, plan ahead, and get a discounted ticket from VIA Rail. It cost me a little over $100 in economy class to go from London to Ottawa each way, which I’ve been told is about the same cost as a Greyhound bus ticket. Beware connections though: VIA trains are notoriously behind schedule, so it’s best if you have at least a 45 minute window to make a connection.
Where to Stay
You can do the regular internet thing and try websites like hotels.com or tripadvisor.com to get a regular hotel room. But I’d advise hunting down either a bed-and-breakfast (for $100 or less), or using the summer residence “hotels” at either the University of Ottawa (you can bus or walk downtown from there) or Saint Paul University (where I stayed). U of O has “prison cell” rooms for at low as $40 a night, with no private bath or much more than a bed. They also have larger rooms for $80-90 a night. But I opted for Saint Paul, which is more out of the way, though had a room sale for $80 a night for a full suite consisting of two bedrooms, a central kitchenette with a fridge, and a bathroom and shower. The AC was a bit tricky to work, but once it was going, the room went from blistering hot to sub-arctic conditions.
Saint Paul isn’t as convenient as other locations. It’s really too far away to walk downtown. But right in front of it is the terminus of the #16 OC Transpo bus, which will take you right downtown to either the Mackenzie-King stop (where half the buses in Ottawa go) or within a couple of blocks of the Parliament buildings. The #5 bus also heads up Main Street, where St. Paul is located. To get to the summer hotel residence, you have to go through the doors on the right side of the college, then head to the brown building on the right.
Note that in this year – 2016 – it seems like the entire city of Ottawa is clogged up with construction. This is especially noticeable on the transit routes, since as far as I could tell, the transitways were all closed. These are bus-only routes that provide quick travel times to key points in the city via routes with numbers in the 90s. Note that the #92 and #96 buses go from the VIA station to the Mackenzie-Shopping Center.
What to See
I’ll refer to summer events, though the indoor things should also be available in winter too. Ottawa is full of museums. It’s also full of long walking and bike paths. From Saint Paul U you can walk or bike along the east side of Rideau Canal all the way to Parliament. This path is a bit dull after a mile or so, since the canal is dark and seaweed-infested, but it might be more charming in the winter. Warning: Ottawa can get VERY hot in the summer – when I visited in August, it was 30C feeling like 38C for a couple of days.
A can’t miss, in my book, is the War Museum. In a brand new building on the north-west edge of central Ottawa, it’s not as easy to get to as some of the other museums, though if you consult the “travel planner” on the OC Transpo website, you can work out a reasonable route. It costs $15 for an adult ticket, and can fill up most of your day, closing weekdays at 6PM. Don’t miss the LeBreton Gallery at the end of the historically-themed exhibits: it’s full of tanks, guns, and other vehicles, mainly from the World Wars. If it’s a nice day, you can exit the back of the War Museum and walk along the Ottawa River path to the Parliament Building, which takes about 25 minutes if you’re fast.
Second, I would recommend the Parliamentary light show, which starts at 9:30 in the summer, and last about a half hour. It’s free. You can also go across the street from Parliament to the tourist office and pick up tickets for a tour of Parliament, either outside or inside (though the inside tours get snapped up quick). They’re free too, though there was construction going on in summer 2016 that prevented access to all the grounds.
Third, I would recommend the Canadian Museum of Nature, on McLeod and Metcalfe in the south-east corner of downtown, walkable from Saint Paul. It’s a Victorian mansion with four floors of exhibits, including this summer a special dinosaur exhibit (which cost $10 more). This museum is free Thursday nights 5-8, as are some of the other “lesser” museums.
Fourth, though I didn’t visit it this time, there’s the National Gallery, in the north-east corner of downtown, just north of the Byward Market (a nice place to have a meal). It’s worth seeing if you like fine art, and has a good collection of Canadian art. Another museum I’d recommend, though like the National Gallery I skipped it this time, is the Aviation and Space Museum at Rockliffe Airport. This is way to the east of downtown, and is directly accessed by bus only twice per day, so you really need to drive or cab there. It has a great collection of vintage aircraft.
Lastly, over on the Quebec side of the river is the Museum of History, which is worth visiting, and like the Nature museum, free Thursday nights. There is a foot bridge you can walk across, which apparently takes about 25 minutes from the Ottawa side.
As far as victuals go, there is the usual assortments of chain restaurants and cafes downtown as you move from Wellington Street (Parliament) up to the Sparks Street Mall (no cars!) and Albert and Slater Streets (east-west streets on which the buses run). For greater variety, head east over the canal to the Byward Market, which has a few dozen small eateries with a variety of cuisines. There’s also a number of bars with outdoor patios within two blocks.
Lastly but not least, Ottawa actually has four beaches, the largest (according to the city’s web site) being Britannia Bay, a large bay west of the city, at the end of the #16 bus route. It’s a long bus ride, though you can cut your time down by using an express route before getting on the #16. The beach itself is roped off, with a lifeguard. Beside it is a medium-sized building with change rooms, some sort of community center, and a beachfront restaurant with burgers and other snacks that are reasonable and tasty. The water was pretty clear the day I went, and there are benches and picnic tables scattered around a small park. Worth a visit.
On September 26, 1960 American politics changed forever. Vice President Richard Nixon, the Republican nominee for President, debated the slightly younger and substantially more charismatic Democrat John F. Kennedy on live TV. Nixon, who inexplicably eschewed makeup, appearing pale, sweaty and dodgy alongside the tanned, hale and hearty Kennedy. Pundits claimed that Nixon won the radio debate, but lost the real one – the one about image. A paradigm silently shifted.
Seven years later French Situationist theorist Guy Debord published a taught little book called The Society of the Spectacle that recognized this shift. Modern society, said Debord, wasn’t about philosophical ideas or political debates, but about images, about the spectacles provided by the cinema, television, and advertising. “The spectacle is not a collection of images,” Debord stated, “but a social relation between people mediated by images,” a relation dominated by appearances and pseudo-events. It is the guardian of a society that wants to sleep, to leave the real behind.
Debord’s claim seemed to become doubly true with the rise of social media and the Web 2.0 in the new millennium. Now millions spent much over their day hunched like zombies over the screens of their computers and smart phones staring at videos and pictures, communicating in Newspeak-like abbreviated texts. And the politics of the image marched arm-in-arm with digital culture, with even the most conservative politicians tweeting their daily manoeuvrings to the often indifferent masses (unless a Weiner-style scandal strikes).
Fast forward 56 years to the current US election. In some ways, the image politics paradigm still seems dominant. Most major candidates perform their personae to TV cameras and Internet feeds, their hair perfect, their policies hidden under empty rhetoric massaged by spin doctors. But then there’s Bernie on the left, and the Donald on the right. Trump fits the image politics model only superficially, while Saunders doesn’t fit it at all.
The battle in the Democratic camp isn’t so much an ideological one as a surprising struggle between postmodern and early modern ways of doing politics. In one corner stands Hillary, heir to the Clinton family dynasty, backed by Wall Street, practitioner of the football-coach “we’re gonna win!” style speechmaking. Despite her call to identity politics as potentially the “first female President,” many American women are looking below the veil, finding a policy chameleon. And voting for Bernie.
Saunders, a senior citizen with a shock of mad scientist hair, is hardly the ideal candidate for screen culture. He actually talks about policy and ideology. He points an accusing finger at Wall Street and at the establishment politicians in Washington who are paid $200,000 for speaking engagements while refusing to raise the minimum wage of their constituents, not to mention the corrupt systems of lobbyists that maintains them in power. He even commits the cardinal sin of admitting to being a social democrat, which is only one step away from socialism proper, the ninth circle of Hell for American conservatives.
Second Wave feminists might argue that Saunders is yet another old white man trying to reclaim the power of patriarchy over American politics, his ideology making him only slightly more palatable than Trump. Yet watching street interviews on the major networks indicates that a lot of women – especially young women – are fed up with politics as usual, and back Bernie’s explicitly leftist policies over Hillary’s indebtedness to big business.
On the GOP side things aren’t so clear. Among the fallen is the vapid Marco Rubio, young and handsome, but who Chris Christie exposed in a February debate as having been programmed by his handlers into becoming a bundle of sound bytes approved by party elites. Ted Cruz is older and increasingly irascible, but still able to present a nice image on TV screens, yet he struggles to reconcile his religion and family values with the realities of mass politics.
And then there’s Donald. On the surface, he seems to fit the Debordian archetype, his speeches punctuated by outrageous demands like the one for a Great Wall along the Rio Grande that are sure to get YouTubed and repeated endlessly on the nightly news. Isn’t he living evidence of the power of the society of the spectacle?
In a word, no. Even Saudners-style social democrats have to admit that Trump is putting forth policies, as crazy or horrific as they may sound: the Mexican wall, “rebuilding” the military, an end to Muslim immigration, and the use of torture on terrorist suspects. Admittedly, his sound bytes are quite entertaining, more so the scripted quips of a Rubio or Clinton. Yet a lot of what he says comes across as raw and unscripted, anathema to spin doctors used to the rules of post-Kennedy image politics.
His rally speeches are notoriously long and rambling, and not covered a by mass media which has to shoehorn short media clips in between commercials. Conservative Americans have responded. On April 26, 8 days after his potentially disastrous “7-11” gaffe, Trump steamrolled his way through five more primary states with victories. Saunders won’t win, though he’s still clawing away delegates from Clinton.
Most of us north of the border have long viewed American politics as one huge spectacle, one paid for by corporations who expect to get fair return on their investments from politicians they help send to Congress and the White House. What’s different this time around is that two major candidates have rejected the tightly controlled, money-driven image politics that ruled the roost for a half century. It’s a clash of paradigms, a return to dialectic. Richard Nixon would smile his grinch smile at this decline of the image.
Epic Card Game is a fantasy card game from designers Robert Dougherty and Darwin Kastle, the team responsible for the very good Star Realms, and White Wizard Games. The 2015 production had a lot of hype connected to it. Let’s see if it measures up to this hype.
Epic consists of a deck of 128 standard-sized cards. Eight of these are double-sided “tokens” (minions) that various cards bring into play: humans, demons, zombies and wolves. The rest of the deck consists of one-sided collections of champions (heroes) and events. The champions are divided into four classes: Good (yellow), Evil (red), Wild (green) and Sage (blue). These four classes of cards parallel the four factions in Star Realms, though they don’t have as great an effect on play as the Star Realms factions do.
Two things make Epic epic. First, every single card has a beautiful painting on it, with repeats found only on the four types of token cards. Many of these, if blown up about ten times, would be suitable for postering or screen savering, if not framing. Unfortunately, the artistic medium isn’t the message. Second, the things pictured on these cards are a wild miss-mash of decades of fantasy gaming: human heroes, fairies, vampires, flying horses, dragons and dinosaurs make an appearance, among other creatures. In this sense, the game is thematically a somewhat more serious version of Smash Up. Fun seems to be promised.
However, the rules and game mechanics don’t measure up to the visual presentation of the game. The rule-book is a tiny card-sized booklet with Mage Knight-style typesetting – you’re strongly advised to either print off the rules on full-sized sheets of paper (download them from BGG) or to order a Sherlock Holmes commemorative magnifying glass from the BBC website before reading them. Second, the rules themselves are poorly organized, full of jargon, and require several readings before they “stick.” To solve this, I’ve rewritten the rules from scratch: see my Epic Revisited post on BGG.
One problem is that the jargon isn’t natural English, and echoes (I’m taking this on faith since I’m not an aficionado) Magic the Gathering, assuming that all players of Epic know its venerable parent game. Instead of “kill” and “apply” we get “break” and “tribute”; then we get a series of terms such as “ambush,” “banish,” “blitz,” “loyalty 2”, “righteous,” and “untargetable” that require players to pull out their electron microscope and refer to the rule-book to understand them. This use of a lot of special jargon might be justified in a monster like Arkham Horror, but not in a small card game like Epic.
Here’s how it plays. Each player starts with a hand of 30 cards and 30 Health (though there’s no tracker provided). You can “mulligan” away some cards in exchange for Health. Champions have attack and defence values, a gold cost of 0 or 1, and various special powers. You get 1 gold each turn (not provided – use poker chips): the most powerful cards cost 1 gold, so you can only put one of these into play each turn.
You start your turn by rebooting your gold supply, “preparing” you champions, drawing a card, then playing cards, using powers or attacking “as much as you like”.
In the Battle Phase, the attacker chooses which champions will attack, the defender plays powers/events and chooses blockers, and then the attacker responds with powers/events. Each side deals out damage based on their attack values (though no tokens are provided); to “break” a champion, you have to match their defence value. This is followed by “triggered abilities” and an End Phase where you discard down to seven cards and remove damage.
The main problem with the mechanics of Epic lies in the phrase “as much as you like.” Other than the one-gold restriction, players typically wind up tossing down a bunch of champions and events without much strategy or structure. This is accentuated by the fact that attack values range from 0 for the High King to 18 for the Burrowing Wurm, a much larger range than the 0-8 one seen in Star Realms ships and bases (I’m excluding late-game faction-matching power-ups).
That means that a rampaging dinosaur can wipe out a small party of petty humans with a swing of its tail. In addition, there are a few super-powered event cards like “banish all champions” that make planning pointless. There’s little subtlety in the game: it’s more like WWF wresting than a cagey boxing match. Or like a petulant child at Wal-Mart who cries “mommy mommy… I want all those toys!”
The tight gold restriction limits this WWF factor a bit, though this has its own problem: it’s pretty easy to wind up with a handful of powerful 1-gold cards that you can’t play on a given turn. You eventually just have to discard these if you get too many. Since there’s no shuffling of the discard pile in Epic as far as I can tell, they’re lost unless you can recall them with an event card, which probably costs 1 more gold.
I find the way gold is used in Star Realms much more satisfying: you start with a deck of eight Scouts (which provide 1 gold) and two Vipers (1 attack), and use the gold provided by these Scouts to buy ships with higher gold and attack values, placing these into your discard pile when you buy them, shuffling the discards with your player deck runs out.
This deck-building aspect of Star Realms wouldn’t have to be integrated into Epic to fix the latter game, yet the way the gold works should be revised. One possibility is to create a market of five cards, giving each player a set amount of gold for the entire game (say 20): they could use this gold to buy new cards along with playing the 1-gold cards, but only one such card per turn.
In short, there’s no sense of the engine-building found in Eurogames like Terra Mystica or in most deck-builders. Things just happen, somewhat randomly. And bloodily.
Another problem with the game is that there are three “positions” for champions: prepared, expended and flipped, which interact with a series of special powers with an “extend” cost indicated by a turn-left arrow. This adds needless complexity: I suggest revising it to include just “active” and “tired” champions, with both attacking and blocking tiring a champion. Once again, too much jargon.
Then there’s what’s missing from the game but required to play it effectively: gold and damage tokens, a health tracker, and a player aid that summarizes both the sequence of play and the arcane terminology found on the cards. Epic is in reality a small-box game like Incan Gold that has cheaped out on essential components to fit into a box about the size of two decks of cards stacked on top of each other. It calls for a “deluxe” second edition with lots of shiny new baubles included.
Lastly, the game has no sensible meta-narrative. In Star Realms, you’re fighting to reduce the authority of other star empires, to crumble their political structures with military might. Here you’re fighting to reduce health. Whose health? That of a god? Who is this god? And why would he care if a random zombie or wolf gets killed? And where did he get that flying horse from?
In conclusion, Epic looks great. But it doesn’t play great. Here are my ratings out of 6:
Strategy: 2 Cool (too many wild mood swings)
Luck: 4 Warm (your life depends on your card draws)
Complexity: 4 Warm (too much for a card game)
Aesthetics: 5 Very Good (6 Excellent for the paintings)
Player Interaction: 3 Moderate
Level of Conflict: 5 Hot (it’s a slug-fest after all)
Depth of Theme: 2 Cool (a demon can ride Pegasus into battle against a Triceratops! How freaking awesome is tha…. wait… that makes no sense!)
Overall: 2 Mediocre (back to the wizardly work bench fellows!)
Now that board gaming has become more and more popular throughout the Western world, a wide number of videographers of the hobby have sprung up with their own web sites or on YouTube. Many are amateurish, working without scripts and failing to give their viewers a clear view of the game being reviewed (either in terms of rules or camera focus).
Yet there are at least half a dozen stables of game reviewers whose producers know what they’re doing, their video reviews emerging like prancing ponies from their virtual paddocks with clever scripts, lively graphics and solid explanations of the core mechanics of the games being reviewed. Here’s a quick overview of the best board game reviewers along with a few videos from each on games either we’ve played in the club or should play because they are just that good.
1. The Dice Tower
A Monster Mash in Blood Rage
This is really about a dozen different reviewers who are sponsored by games stores like Cool Stuff Inc. The core group, out of Miami Florida, is made up of Tom Vasel and his sidekicks Sam Healey and Zee Garcia, who have done dozens of “Top Ten” lists of specific genres of games that are quite fun if you know anything about the games they’re reviewing. They don’t explain the rules of the games they review in these lists, but engage in lots of witty banter and story telling.
Tom also does his own solo game reviews, and reviews solo games with Sam under the moniker “Miami Dice.” Added to this core are solo reviews by Ryan Metzler and the Game Boy Geek, and reviews of war games by the much more laid back “HAMTAG” trio, who aren’t as slick as Tom’s crew.
The Dice Tower’s reviews are good at giving an overview of a game or game genre, though in most cases of no use in learning a new game. Their reviews tend to be a bit soft though usually fair, approving most of what comes to their table (though they are willing to slag off games they don’t like, including their Eurogame nemesis Agricola).
So for the critical theory of gaming, they get three dice out of five. For rules explanations, only two dice. For humour, they get four chuckles out of five, especially for their Top Tens videos. No one matches the Dice Tower for raw numbers of videos or breadth of coverage. They’re the big box store of board game reviewers, closer to Zellers than Wal-Mart.
Here are their Top Ten lists for Exploration games, games with Great Theming, and Games Every Gamer Should Own, along with the Miami Dice review of Blood Rage. Though I usually agree with Sam in their respective Top Ten lists, the Exploration list is one of the few where I enthusiastically agree with Zee, where he champions the three titanic tees of archaeological games Tikal, Thebes and Tobago.
Starlit Citadel is a games store, both real and online, in Vancouver. Most of their videos are short reviews of specific games that rarely top ten minutes in length, shot at a table in the back of their games store (as opposed to Tom’s basement in many of the Dice Tower videos). They’re hosted by the store manager Kaja Sadowski, who is a bit stiff though the better games critic, and the livelier Joanna Gaskell, a local actress and games enthusiast.
Kaja and Joanna’s videos are more tightly scripted than those made by the Dice Tower, and contain little fluff – though are largely humourless. They do two things very well. First, they show you all the components of the game laid out (instead of just dropping the components on the table in slow motion like Tom Vasel), explaining the basics of the game like the publisher, genre, length, number of players and likely demographic.
Second, and this is where they really excel, they take about five minutes explaining in detail the rules of the game. The problem is that they do this so quickly that you have to hit the pause button several times to take it all in. Yet if you’ve already played the game in question, their rule overviews are excellent ways of jogging your memory.
One problem with their reviews is that they love almost everything they review, though Kaja will often explain how the game is only good for a certain type of group, while Joanna explains rules flaws. The camera work becomes considerably better in their Season 3 and 4 reviews, with sharper images and fewer static two-shots.
So three dice for their critical theory, four for their rules explanations, and only one very restrained chuckle for their humour. Here are reviews from their first, second and fourth seasons on The Resistance, Smash Up and Evolution.
This video series is hosted by Rodney Smith on YouTube, who I was surprised to find out recently is fellow Canadian hailing from the opposite side of the country from the Starlit Citadel ladies, Prince Edward Island. Though he may come across as a bit Mr. Rogerish at first, Rodney does an excellent job at explaining rules for games, taking around a half hour to go over a rules set in detail. You can play most games after watching one of his videos. His camera work is impeccable, offering lots of clear close ups of a game’s components as he explains game play.
Rodney has done over a hundred “how to play” videos since starting in 2011. As this series isn’t about reviewing games, he doesn’t say much about a game’s flaws. So Rodney gets only one die for critical theory, but five out of five for rules explanations, and two chuckles for his affable manner.
Here are his overviews of three excellent games: the richly themed hybrid brawls Kemet and Blood Rage, and what is arguably the new king of the hill in fantasy card games, Ashes. Contrast his bubbly factual style in these videos with the very different styles in the Dice Tower and Shut Up & Sit Down videos on the same games.
This is really a collection of reviewers in different locations, though the best are done by the Italian gamer couple Giancarlo and Felicia, though judging by the Team Canada jersey seen in their review of Concept, they appear to be once again located in the True North. In their reviews they do a very good job of explaining rules and of offering a critical overview of the game, though not in as much detail as Rodney, with some corny jokes thrown in.
For the handful of reviews done by Giancarlo and Felicia, four dice for critical theory, four for rules explanations, and two embarrassed chuckles for their sense of humour. Here are their reviews of Tobago and Star Realms: you can learn to play the game in the first, while in the second Giancarlo has the cajones to criticize a fan favourite as “not all that original.”
These promotional videos for their own games have the professional polish of big studio movie trailers with dramatic music and voiceovers by deep-voiced British actors positively oozing gravitas.
Some are short overviews, some are more detailed rules explanations, and some are “behind the scenes” videos about how the game in question was made.
Fantasy Flight gets only one die for critical theory and one chuckle for humour, but four dice for their longer rules explanations, and one Oscar for Best Special Effects in a Board Game Video.
Here are examples of their three basic types of videos: a short speechless ad for Descent 2.0 (which always makes me want to get the trolls and ogres out), a much longer tutorial for A Game of Thrones, and a “behind the curtains” look at The Fury of Dracula.
Last but not least is the top-notch game journalism offered by the British website Shut Up & Sit Down, run by Quintin “Quinns” Smith and Paul “Paul” Dean, with assists from time-warped eighties hipster Matt Lees, Irish immigrant Brendan Caldwell, and a few of their other friends and lovers. The SU&SD crew have been mashing up board game reviews with the dry surreal British sketch comedy of Monty Python, Big Train and The Mighty Boosh since 2011, shooting their videos in the kitchens, dining and laundry rooms of their squalid flats and in the historic streets of old London.
They also do blog-style reviews and podcasts, both with a free-flowing sense of humour. Though British, they tend to be somewhat sceptical of Eurogames, usually reserving their enthusiasm for the most solid Ameritrash.
The video reviews by the frenetic Quinns involve such hijinks as dressing as a character in Incan Gold, roaming about a park looking for lost gems like Splendor, wandering through crowds on the Tube with Paul at his side explaining the pros and cons of a new release. Paul’s reviews are somewhat dryer, but also use some theme-connected sketch comedy, and are more thoughtful in tone than Quinns’ mad rushing-abouts.
SU&SD’s reviews are funnier than most big-budget American sitcoms (yes, I’m thinking of you Charlie Sheen). Their cinematography is low-budget cinema verité, though they get the most out of their micro-budget, using quick cuts and odd camera angles to add some Adam-West-era-Batman-style entertainment value to the comic core of their reviews. SU&SD do not take a lot of time explaining rules, so marks off here, but are willing to trash sacred cows like Arkham Horror if they see fit (I won’t be throwing out my copy quite yet).
So for the completely different approach from old Blightly, two dice for rules explanations, four for the critical theory of gaming, and five big chuckles for their wacky sense of humour. Here are Quinns’ review of Kemet, Paul’s of Ashes, and Matt’s opening combo of Coup and a recipe for sweet potato fries (both equally tasty):
And for its combination of critical theory and board gaming sitcomedy, here’s Paul’s overview of Specter Ops, which ends with him getting drunk and agonizing over a lost hidden movement love, the then-out-of-print Fury of Dracula:
I’d like to mention a couple of runners-up, both of whom post on YouTube: the Rahdo Runs Through It series of reviews/game plays by Richard Ham and the Drive Thru series of reviews hosted by Joel Eddy.
I prefer the Drive Thru series as a more reliable match for my own taste for rambunctious games married to strong themes. For example, he gushes over Ashes and Blood Rage. However, both Ham and Eddy are both quite thorough in dissecting the games that they review. Ham has the annoying habit of constantly referring to aspects of games that his wife “Jen” either likes or dislikes without her actually being present (at least in the episodes that I’ve watched), and he rejects the brilliant design of Kemet, so points off from me for his otherwise strong series of reviews.
In addition, Ham makes it clear (for instance, when guest starring on Tom Vasel’s Top Ten series on The Dice Tower) that he only plays and reviews two-player games. That’s a bit like a movie reviewer who only reviews Hollywood film.
Both Rahdo and Drive Thru do straight-up game reviews without any comic banter or sketch comedy.
Also worth mentioning is the series with the slickest production values on the Web, Table Top, which features Hollywood types playing full games with some rules explanations and the occasional direct-to-camera musings over strategy by the individual players. It’s hosted by former Star Fleet junior officer Wil Wheaton and co-produced by Wil and Felicia Day, who also appears in a few episodes.
These can be quite entertaining, though not as much as Shut Up & Sit Down, and aren’t useful for either rules explanations or game reviews. For those who fondly remember The Next Generation, you get to hear Ensign Crusher whining yet again, this time about losing yet another board game. Also annoying is the fact that there is usually one celebrity who has no idea how to play the game (examples include the otherwise admirable Alan Tudyk and Karen Gillan)—if they can learn lines, they can learn a few game rules! I especially recommend their playthroughs of Cards Against Humanity (not for the kiddies!) and Sheriff of Nottingham.
8. The Judgement
The Duke and the Scorpion Visit Westeros
So if you want a short overview before buying a game or a rules refresher, visit the Starlit Citadel. If you want to learn how to play a new game, go to Rodney Smith. If you want an amusing and mildly critical overview of a specific game or game genre, the Dice Tower is your wisest destination.
But if you want a little of everything and some belly laughs, then your top pick is Shut Up & Sit Down, in my view the best board game videographers on the World Wide Web.
Freeze frame on Kemet’s scorpion staring down the Duke from Coup, then fade to black to the sound of slowly intensifying kettle drumming.
According to Homer, Odysseus took ten years to get home from the Trojan War. Though playing all the elements of Matagot’s Cyclades series of games and expansions won’t take you that long, it’s sufficiently confusing to require a steady hand on the tiller to navigate one’s way through all its complexities.
In this article I’ll outline the components and core rules of each of these elements, offering bouquets or brickbats to each according to their merits. Instead following the chronological order in which they were published, I’ll follow the logical order in which the smart gamer will want to buy them: Cyclades, Titans, Hades, and then the minor add-ons.
1. The Trojan Horse: CYCLADES
In 2009 Matagot published the core game in the system, Cyclades. It’s distributed by Asmodee in North America. Designed by Bruno Cathala and Ludovic Maublanc, Cyclades centers on an abstract version of the Cyclades archipelago, where each player controls one of five ancient Greek city states who make offerings to the gods in order to conquer islands, build fortresses, ports, temples and universities, and build up their economy in order to construct two metropolises.
Thus Cyclades is in part a worker-placement game, in part a wargame; in part diplomatic manoeuvring, in part a paean to Greek polytheism.
Like all the games in their XL line (e.g. Utopia and Kemet), Matagot has pulled out the stops to provide us with great board game art, both in the two-dimensional cardboard components provided – the reversible maps, “god board,” god tiles, cards, and money counters – along with in the plastic miniatures of troops, ships, and monsters.
You get two double-sided maps with “thin” and “thick” selections of sea and island circles that can be combined in four distinct ways for 2, 3, 4 or 5-player games. Most of the map is water, so sea power is key. You also get five large monster miniatures – the centaur Chiron, the Cyclops Polyphemus, the Minotaur, Medusa, and the Kraken – modelled in hard marble-coloured plastic, along with five sets of troops and ships, each in their own colour and individual sculpts in malleable, glossy plastic.
The goal of the game is to control two metropolises. You can do this by combining four distinct types of buildings (forts, ports, temples and universities), collecting four Philosopher cards, or stealing someone else’s metropolis.
Players start with two troops, two ships, and two isles.
In the opening phase of each turn players do three things. First, a new card is drawn from the beautifully illustrated Mythological Creature deck, moving old cards down a track on the god board from a cost of 4, 3 then 2 gold. These represent various creatures such as Pegasus, a Siren, a giant, a griffin and a sphinx that you can buy along with a god to give you a one-turn special power.
Then large tiles representing the four main gods in the game – Zeus, Ares, Poseidon and Athena – are randomly placed on the god board (a separate board you lay alongside the map) on top of Apollo, whose last position is fixed. There are four spots in a full 5-player game; these spots are reduced for 2, 3 or 4 players (some gods take a holiday, but come back next turn).
Finally, players collect their income in “GPs” (which I’ll call gold from now on) based on how many cornucopia symbols they control on the map. Unlike their other possessions, their gold is hidden behind beautifully illustrated cardboard screens which have on their reverse side densely packed summaries of all the iconography in the game (which most players promptly ignore after trying to decipher them).
In the offering phase each player in turn bids one or more gold for the favours of one of these gods. Other players can outbid them – if they do, then the first player must bid on a new god. This is when the game really shines, as players jockey for position based on their future plans and how much gold they can afford to pay. If you bid too much, you won’t have any money left over to buy troops, ships or buildings.
The god you wind up with determines what you can do during the action phase:
Zeus gives you a Priest card, which gives you a discount of 1 gold on future god bids (you always have to pay at least 1 gold). You can buy a second Priest for 4 gold. Zeus also lets you build a temple for 2 gold, which gives you 1 off the cost of mythological creature cards. Finally, he also gives you the right to pay 1 gold to replace a current creature card with a new one.
Ares is the god of war: he gives you 1 free troop and the right to buy 3 more. He also gives you the right to buy a fortress for 2 gold (giving you +1 to isle defense rolls). With Ares, you can move a group of troops on the same island for 1 gold each move – this includes using friendly ships to transport troops across adjacent sea zones.
Poseidon is the god of the sea: he mirrors Ares in giving you 1 free fleet, the right to buy up to 3 more, and the ability to buy a port for 2 gold (giving you +1 to adjoining sea battles). He also gives you the ability to move a group of fleets in the same zone up to 3 sea zones.
Athena is the goddess of wisdom: she gives you one free philosopher and the chance to build a second for 4 gold. If you get Athena two turns in a row, you could in theory spend 8 gold to buy 4 philosophers, which are automatically converted into a metropolis: you’re half way to winning the standard game. You can also build a university for 2 gold: this has no special power, other than emanating the faint shimmer of knowledge from its walls.
Apollo is the consolation prize: he gives you a turn off from the hustle and bustle of city-state squabbling. He’s free, and gives the first player who picks him (several players can choose him) a new cornucopia, and everyone 1 gold. If you’re down to one isle, he gives you 4 gold instead. So Apollo is a catch-up mechanism for players who have been crushed by an enemy.
Someone who only knows the original game will wonder “hey, where are the other seven Olympian deities? Where are Hermes and Aphrodite?” The answer is given by Hades.
A note on strategy here: unlike in Titans, in Cyclades you need to set up the old Poseidon-Ares two-step to conquer an isle (move a fleet, then move troops), which might be difficult if others know you’re trying to do it. So using Athena to buy philosophers becomes a much more viable winning strategy. If the two-step is hard for you, it’s probably hard for everyone else too, so you can exist in splendid isolation on most isles.
The Mythological Creatures can be bought by all the gods but Apollo. Their cost is determined by the position on the creature track, ranging from 2-4 gold (-1 for each temple you control). Their powers also vary greatly: the Griffon can steal half of another player’s gold, the Siren can steal a ship, while Pegasus can fly your troops across the board. This latter power should be house-ruled as a prohibited way of winning the game: in theory you could pick up a large army and fly across the map with your super-horse to take poorly defended metropolis from a poorly defended player.
In addition to the twelve creatures represented only by cards are five who have their own miniatures. They work in the same way as the cards-only creatures, disappearing after one turn like stars on a cheesy Hollywood chat show. The Kraken is by far the most powerful: it destroys all fleets in one sea zone, and can be moved by paying 1 gold per zone. The rest are underpowered, especially Chiron, whose only function is to protect against Pegasus, Giants and Harpies. Since none of these might be in play, he could be literally useless.
This is one weakness of Cyclades. The idea of including mythological monsters is great, but they disappear after one turn. I’ve tried to solve this problem with regards to the monster miniatures in my article Powering Up the Monsters in Cyclades. As for the rest, the Priestess cards in the Hades expansion allow players to pay to keep a monster in play. A third option is to house rule a simple system where you can keep a monster for an extra turn by paying either a Priest card or gold on a scale starting at 2 and increasing 1 per turn (but don’t allow this for the Kraken: it’s dangerous enough as it is).
The other disappointment here is that many of the card-only monsters call out for their own miniatures: the Sphinx, Pegasus, the Griffon and the Siren at minimum.
If you enter an isle with your troops or a sea zone with your fleets, there’s a battle. The mechanics of this are simple: add up your troops/ships, add in fortresss or port bonuses, and then roll one reduced-luck die (with faces of 0-1-1-2-2-3): the highest total wins. The loser loses one troop/fleet, and has the option to retreat. If there’s a tie, both players lose a unit. If the defender chooses to stay, players roll for round two of the battle. And so on.
Players can leave an isle empty but still control it: they can place a control marker on it. A nice balancing rule in Cyclades is the one which protects players with only one isle from being eliminated: you can’t attack such a player unless you can prove that by doing so you can win the game. If you finish a turn with two metropolises, you win.
The brilliance of Cylades comes from integrating its several disparate elements without getting bogged down by rules (the rules booklet is only eight pages, including two pages of setup diagrams). First, the theme of Greek mythology comes through strongly in what is mechanically a Eurogame-Ameritrash hybrid. This is aided by second pillar of the game’s brilliance: the map and board art and the miniature sculpts, which makes you feel as though you’re really moving triremes and hoplites across the Greek islands as you pray to Ares and Poseidon and avoid perils like Medusa’s snaky coiffure and the Kraken’s bloody maw. The third pillar is the strong bidding mechanic tied to the gold shortages created by the topography of the map and overly hubristic leaders. In Cyclades, as Mr. Jagger once put it, you can’t always get what you want. Though with enough gold and careful bidding, you might get what you need.
In short, Cyclades is the Trojan Horse that gets you into the system nicely. It’s got its flaws, notably under-powered and evanescent monsters. But when you voyage further into the system to visit the nymph Calypso, you’ll be very pleased with her boon: Cyclades Titans.
Ratings out of 6 for the basic game:
Complexity: 3 Moderate
Strategy: 5 Hot
Luck: 3 Moderate
Aesthetics: 6 Excellent
The Three Continua
Player Interaction: 6 Blazing (the bidding mechanic clinches this)
Level of Conflict: 4 Warm (muted when you get Zeus, Athena or Apollo)
Depth of Theme: 5 Hot (needs more gods and some heroes)
Overall: 5.2 Very Good
2. Visiting Calypso: The TITANS Expansion
In 2014 Matagot released its second major expansion, Cyclades Titans, from the same design team. This is more of a substantial re-imagining of the game than a simple series of tweaks. It’s also the system’s crowning achievement, its Empire Strikes Back to the base game’s Star Wars: A New Hope. It turns the game’s volume up to 11.
The basic mechanics of the game are the same: collecting resources, bidding for gods, and then using their powers to build buildings and move pieces on the map. There are three major and three lesser additions to the core game that really make it shine. First, the major additions:
There is a new two-sided non-modular map. On one side is a single large multi-territory island surrounded by two smaller islands and many sea zones, with cornucopia sprinkled liberally across the board (with five on the small islands and seven on the sea zones). This is used in the 3- or 4-player variants. On the back is a map with two large islands, once against surrounded by two small fertile islands and sea zones that are home to a total of 19 cornucopia between them. The four-page rulebook redefines the “isles” of the base game as “territories,” so players can now march to victory without the aid of the sea god.
To make things even more exciting, enter Kronos and his Titans. The new god board can now handle six gods. Kronos is randomly placed and bid for like the other mobile gods: he gives you one free building from one of the god tiles above him on the god board, along with the opportunity to buy a Titan for 2 gold. If Kronos is at the top of the board, he gives you a Titan instead of a building, so for 2 gold you get two Titans. The Titans are like portable command centers: they only count as 1 troop in battle, but can be moved regardless of what god you bid on (except Apollo). One Titan move costs 1 gold, 2 costs 2, 3 costs 3, etc. One might also add that the Titan pieces, coming in six colours and three individual sculpts, tower over the relatively tiny troop miniatures.
The game can now be played by up to six players. With three or five, it’s still a competitive game. With four players, you can choose to play it as a team game; with six players, you must. Teams need three metropolises total to win. In my view the Cyclades-Titans six-player team game is the apex of the system, its Parthenon.
There are three more new elements in Titans that aren’t game changers like those above:
Free Positioning: Players now get 7 gold before the game to bid on the gods in the standard manner in a special placement phase, getting a free troop, fleet, Titan, Priest, Philosopher or cornucopia, depending on the god chosen. They also get for free a building associated with that god (except for Apollo), and use the order of this pre-game god board to set up their troops on two adjacent territories and their fleets on two adjacent sea zones. Before all of this, one of each type of building is randomly placed on set territories on the map. These new rules get the game off to a roaring start, since up to nine buildings may already be in place on the first turn.
Divine Artefacts: These are represented on cards mixed into the Mythological Creatures deck along with by white marble columns that you can place on the board and move with your troops. The Winged Sandals allow you to fly across an island, Zeus’ Lightning to siphon a gold from a player who outbids you, the Large Cornucopia to double the gold produced in that territory, the Caduceus to heal a dead soldier, and the Cap of Invisibility to move through enemy troops and fleets. These could be a game changer since possession of all five give you and immediate victory – but this is very hard to do, even in the team game, with others watching. They can change the game’s military strategy considerably: for instance, the sandals allow you to paradrop troops deep into enemy territory.
Special Metropolises: Though largely harmless, these are the only dispensable part of this expansion. There are five cards for the five types of metropolises: military, religious, cultural, commercial and seaside. Each gives a bonus according to its theme e.g. the religious one gives you a discount of 2 gold off creature buys, the commercial 2 extra gold during the revenues phase. You randomly choose two per game, with the first two metropolis builders getting dibs on them.
With the new map the value of sea-power and thus of Poseidon are decreased, since most of the time you’ll be fighting battles on a single island. However, the sea god still has a strong economic function: on the big map, there are 14 floating cornucopias to go fishing for. It’s actually easier to create a naval empire in Titans if other players fixate on Ares and Kronos. The three-cornucopia isle in the strait between the two major islands is sure to be a bone of contention, the game’s Alsace-Lorraine.
Titans has just a tad more tension associated with the bidding round, since Kronos is now in play, and those Titans and free buildings are awfully tasty. The major change to the feel of the game, however, is brought by the Titans themselves, who can always move as long as you have some cash in hand, bringing along any regular troops in their territory. Everyone now has to look over their shoulders as they bid for an Athena-style victory or decide to go fishing with Poseidon – you can’t just turtle on a couple of isles and buy a victory.
The team play nicely ties all the new elements together, especially with six players playing on the big two-island map. It forces either a one-two player split on each island, or for each team of three to dominate one island each. This makes for some tough choices. Having six different gods to chose between, some players will inevitably play an aggressive Ares-Kronos strategy, grabbing whatever land they can, with others choosing a more economic Athena-Apollo-Poseidon one. A good team requires at least one player playing on each side of this fence. A third option is to carefully collect all five divine artefacts, fighting just enough to keep the other team off balance.
There’s another advantage of team play: now an individual player who has been successfully attacked can’t feel picked on, as his or her mates should be ready to serve up the cold dish of revenge to their mutual enemies.
In summary, team Titans is an excellent multi-faceted reboot of Cyclades that increases the level of conflict without adding a ton of complexity, though softening that conflict in the team variant with back-slapping “we happy few” camaraderie.
But where are those missing gods? More durable creatures? Homer’s heroes? We’ll have to journey to the underworld to find them.
Ratings out of 6 for Titans:
Complexity: 4 Warm
Strategy: 5 Hot
Luck: 3 Moderate
Aesthetics: 6 Excellent
The Three Continua
Player Interaction: 6 Blazing
Level of Conflict: 5 Hot (it’s not just a war game)
Depth of Theme: 5 Hot (still a few mythical things missing)
Overall: 5.5 Very Good+ (competitive game), 6 Excellent (team game)
3. Cerberus Barks – Should We Stay Away? The HADES Expansion
Published in 2011, Hades is first expansion to the core game. It’s very different from Titans: it doesn’t come with a map or reboot the game, but provides a series of four rules modules (only three of which have pieces and cards associated with them). One or more of these can be “plugged into” imaginary slots in the core game to expand its coverage of Greek mythology while at the same time upping its complexity.
In this sense, it’s a potpourri of new rules, miniatures, cards and tiles which players can pick and choose between as they see fit.
Hades makes use of all the main rules in the core game. Here are the modules it adds:
#1. Pre-Game Free Placement: This is simply the free positioning rules replicated in Titans, though without the bonus starting buildings (remember, Hades was designed for the sparser map of the original game). Both versions work well with the maps they were designed for, so no further comment is needed.
#2. Hades and his Undead: The lord of the underworld arrives periodically with an army of up to 5 troops and a navy of up to 5 fleets. He is also provided with his own standard-sized god tile, a grey column, and a Necropolis tile.
#3. Heroes and New Creatures: Six heroes enter the fray: Achilles, Hector, Odysseus, Perseus, Midas and Penthesilea the Amazon. From the nether regions come Cererbus (who has his own sculpted miniature), Charon, Empusa and the Furies (they have cards only).
#4. Divine Favours: This module adds eight “minor” gods missing from the core game. Hera, Aphrodite, Artemis, Demeter and Hestia give their controller a Priestess card and a unique Divine Favour, while Hermes, Dionysus and Hephaestus give a Favour and a Magic Item card (there are ten of these).
Skipping the free placement rules, I’ll review these in the order I think they should be added to the Cyclades-Titans combined game.
 First, there’s no problem adding the new god Hades and his army of the undead. His tile has a threat track on which you roll one die during each opening phase: when it hits 9, his tile replaces the lowest of the other gods on the god board. If you control him, you get a free troop OR fleet, and can buy up to four more troops or fleets, both of which can be mixed with your own units. Hades is basically Ares and Poseidon combined: you can pay 1 gold to move either his troops or fleets. The trick is that after one turn, the undead all go back to Hades! So you might wind up paying a lot of gold for nothing.
In addition, if you control Hades you can build a Necropolis for 2 gold. If you do, each time a troop or fleet dies, you add 1 gold to it. Whoever controls the Necropolis during the next income phase gets this gold.
Some might think that Hades’ presence unbalances the game. I haven’t found this to be a problem: since everyone is freaked out when he arrives, they tend to push up the bidding for his favours, thus exhausting their gold supply. He is good for one or two solid attacks.
 Second, if Hades is already in the game, have no fear in adding his friends Cererbus, Charon, Empusa and the Furies. These denizens of the underworld make thematic sense, and only add complexity when a player has to look up their powers for the first time. In my view, combining Cyclades, Titans, and these two elements of Hades provide a rich, playable game that won’t get too bogged down with rule lawyering.
 Third, and I think this is more of a judgement call, add Module #4 Divine Favours if you want the full Olympian pantheon on the board. This module adds eight minor gods to the mix: each turn one is randomly chosen and placed alongside the lowest core god’s tile (not counting Apollo) on the god board as a bonus tile. So you might get Zeus and Hera with the same bid.
If you get this last core god, you also get the unique favour offered by the minor god along with either a Priestess card or a Magic Item. The Priestess cards, which come with the minor goddesses, are the best part of this module: you can spend one of these to keep either a hero or monster miniature on the map for one more turn. Some of the unique powers are thematic, some not so much: Aphrodite allows you to double troop numbers for 2 gold, Dionysus can build a theatre (a wild card building) for the same cost, while Demeter gives you a bonus gold for each isle/territory you control. This last bonus can be hefty in Titans, though for the most part, the minor gods’ powers integrate well.
The trio of minor male gods give you one of ten Magic Items cards such as Apollo’s Arrows, Poseidon’s Trident or Pandora’s Box. Some of these seem like variations on themes already seen in the Mythological Creatures deck, though they are largely thematic. You can hold onto an item for one turn.
One problem with the Divine Favours and Magic Items in this module is that if you add them to the Heroes and Creatures module, Hades introduces 28 new special powers to the Cyclades system, not counting Hades, his Necropolis, and Priestess cards. That’s 31 new rule blurbs to research during the game.
In contrast, Cyclades has 5 gods, 17 creatures, 5 buildings and 2 card types one has to know, for a total of 29 total blurbs – though everything but the creature powers become intuitive after a single game. Titans adds 1 god, 6 buildings, and 5 artifacts to the mix, for a total of 12 new blurbs (with the powers of the 3 unused special metropolises being of no concern). So Cyclades-Titans has a total of 38 unique game elements with special rules in play in any one game; Hades adds all by itself another 31 new elements with special rules.
So if you want to add the minor gods and their favours and items, make sure you have a good reference card printed off from Board Game Geek. They slow down what is otherwise a sleek game system. Yet the Priestess cards are a good fix for the problem of the disappearing monster miniatures from the base game. If you don’t want more complexity, simply place a Priestess card on the last god on the god board as a bonus and ignore the rest of this module. But if you love the theme of Greek mythology, add the minor gods.
 Lastly, the Heroes from Module #3 don’t integrate well into Titans and should not be added in their original form. These are recruited from the Mythological Creatures deck, and can be kept around in future turns at a cost of either 2 gold or a Priestess card.
They each have a military power (Achilles counts as two troops, Midas can pay to re-roll battle dice) and a sacrificial power (you remove their piece from the board to gain this). The idea of including these heroes makes a lot of thematic sense, enriching the game’s mythos, although Penthesilia is the Pete Best of the band. Their miniatures are nice to look at.
But their sacrificial powers are just too great: Achilles can be sacrificed to build a metropolis if you have four isles/territories (you can get these in one move in Titans); Perseus can move troops to any other isle/territory not protected by another hero (he’s a super-Pegasus); Penthesilia can build a metropolis on a secret Amazon island that can’t be attacked; while Midas can just buy a metropolis with 15 gold. You could in theory win a game with just a couple of hero sacrifices, and not much else.
Solution: allow the heroes in the game, but strip them of their sacrificial powers. Without these, the heros are a nice addition, and considerably simpler than the minor gods with all their special powers and Magic Items.
 With Hades we come to the end of our Odyssey through the main elements of the Cyclades system. If you like both the core game and Titans, Hades is a worthy though non-essential addition to your collection. My recommendation, if you have 4+ players, is to use all of Cyclades and Titans, then add Hades and his undead, the four new creatures, the Priestess cards and maybe the stripped-down heroes from the Hades expansion. If players are comfortable with the system and love Greek myths, add in the minor gods also. If they want to emphasize playability, just add Hades and his minions and the four new creatures.
To start, I’ll rate each module separately, out of 6:
#2 Hades and his Undead: 5.5 Very Good+
#3 Heroes: 3 Fair (as written), 4.5 Good+ (if you strip them of their sacrificial powers)
#3 New Creatures: 5 Very Good (though hardly necessary)
#4 Minor Gods/Divine Favours/Magic Items: 4.5 Good+
#4 Priestess Cards (by themselves): 6 Excellent (a much needed fix)
Here are my ratings for Cyclades-Titans with all of Hades added / then with “Hades-light” added (Hades and his undead, the four new creatures and the Priestess cards). Hades-light emphasizes playability, whereas full Hades adds complexity and theme.
Complexity: 5 Hot / 4 Warm (adding all of Hades ups this considerably)
Strategy: 5 Hot (it’s a brain burner either way)
Luck: 3.5/3 Moderate (a bit higher with all those minor gods added)
Aesthetics: 6 Excellent (the art is top flight once again)
The Three Continua
Player Interaction: 5 Hot /6 Blazing (checking the rules constantly reduces player interaction in full Hades a bit)
Level of Conflict: 5 Hot (it slows down the game so reduces this a bit)
Depth of Theme: 6 Blazing /5 Hot (using all of Hades does fill in the “missing” gods and heroes)
Overall Rating for the Hades expansion: 4.7 Good+
4. Avoiding the Sirens: The C3K CROSSOVER and Other Minor Add-Ons
As the friendly shores of Ithaca beckon us home, we still have a few other minor expansions to review before finishing our Odyssey through the Cyclades system. Like the heroes module in Hades, these add-ons are like Sirens for the less-than-wealthy who like their games playable: they’re hard to resist, but of little navigational aid.
 The C3K Creatures Crossover Mini-Expansion (2013) attempts to integrate the monster miniatures from Cyclades into Kemet and vice versa. It costs about $15 in Canada, but consists of only six power tiles (for Kemet), seven cards (for Cyclades), and a thin rules booklet. With it you can use the scarab beetle, scorpion, mummy, sphinx, snake, elephant and Phoenix from Kemet in Cyclades as troops with special attack powers. Leaving aside the small addition to the complexity of the game the module adds, the addition of these Egyptian monsters to the glory that was Greece is wildly anti-thematic on the level of Hollywood scripts re-written by committees of hacks and overly-protective producers. And for the same price you can get a full card game like Star Realms. My rating: 2/6.
 In 2011 Matagot gave away two freebees. First was a creature card for the Manticore, which eliminates heroes, given away in Plato magazine. Second was the more substantial Hecate add-on, an Essen freebee that can be bought on the Matagot web site for 5 Euros plus 8 Euros for shipping (it also comes with the Manticore card). It includes the Hecate minor god tile, two plastic columns, and six colour-coded cloth bags for your plastic pieces. Hecate has the interesting power of being able to dig an underground tunnel between two territories. For a brief time in the summer of 2016, the Hecate add-on could also be bought with six small silk bags for your armies and navies from the Board Game Geek store. My rating: 4/6 (5 if the shipping were cheaper).
 Matagot promises a new mini-expansion called Monuments for 2016. This will contain ten monuments and their associated cards, presumably each with their own special power. On aesthetics alone it should rate a 6.
This completes our ludic Odyssey through Cyclades and its expansions. I hope Penelope has made lunch, I’m hungry!
Over a year ago I succumbed to popular opinion and skyrocketing online ratings and bought a copy of what is now the reigning champion of Eurogames – standing #3 overall on the Board Game Geek – Terra Mystica. Since then it’s remained a brooding curiosity at the bottom of a pile of more frequently played games, unappreciated and underplayed.
Its big piles of wooden pieces and many colourful components occasionally called out like a siren’s song, beckoning me to take it out and learn it. Yet whenever I approached I heard a fearful witches’ cackle, its complex iconography seeming to point to an equally complex set of game mechanics. A sense of rules vertigo kept me away.
So over a holiday weekend I decided to ignore this cackle and heed the siren’s call, watching several introductory YouTube videos then giving it a whirl in a series of 2- and 3-player solitaire sessions. What I found was that although its reputation for strategic complexity is well deserved, its rules aren’t any harder to learn than my favourites Kemet or Fury of Dracula. Further, it’s a richly engaging game, a real brain buster, even given its paucity of theme. Though the witches weren’t entirely wrong, I should have listened to the sirens all long.
I’ve since played it with others, which confirms my conclusions here.
It’s easiest to think of Terra Mystica as a mashup of Ticket to Ride (borrowing the idea of the longest route), Small World (sharing the idea of asymmetrical races), and Lords of Waterdeep (a fantasy-themed game where you place wooden pieces on a map).
Here are the basics. Terra Mystica, designed by Helge Ostertag and Jens Drögenmüller and published in North America by Z-Man Games in 2013, is a worker-placement game for 2-5 players that clocks in, according to the box, at 30 minutes per player, though with experienced players I would imagine this would drop to 20 minutes per. You could make it into a crowded 6-player game just by buying a set of twenty small purple cubes from the dollar store – the rest of the components needed are already there.
The first thing you notice upon cracking open its heavy box are large bags of wooden pieces representing five types of structures (buildings) in seven colours each, along with smaller bags of plain wood cubes (workers) and small purple wafers (power). Also in the box are eight turn-based scoring tiles of which you randomly choose six and place them on the board (they also function as a turn record), nine long thin bonus tiles, 28 oval-shaped favour tiles, and a collection of hexagonal town and action markers.
Yet the center of the game is a map covered with large hexes colour-coded as seven different types of terrain: lakes, swamps, mountains, plains, forests, wastelands and deserts, along with normally unpassable river hexes. Players build structures on this map to gain resources and victory points, the latter being, in the Euro tradition, the goal of the game.
In addition, there is a Cult Board with four vertical columns of rectangles numbered 0-10 representing control of the Fire, Water, Earth and Air cults, which gain players both power and victory points. Each player has an initially daunting-looking player board geared to the race of beings they’ve chose to play – e.g. Giants or Witches, Halflings or Dwarves. There are seven boards in seven colours keyed to the seven batches of wooden pieces that come with the game. Each board has two sides, thus giving players a wide variety of 14 races to choose between. Since each race’s starting resources, building costs and special powers are different, the game has plenty of replayability.
The main resources used early in the game are workers and gold. Later, magical power and priests are added to this mix.
Most players start with two “dwellings”: like all structures, they must be placed on your race’s native terrain. To pick an easy-to-play starting race to use an example, the native terrain of the Witches is forests. To increase your mystical empire, you must terraform hexes adjacent to those you already control before placing new dwellings on them. Your player board has a mystic roundel of terrain types that indicate how many “shovels” you have to buy to convert such a hex to friendly terrain. For instance, at the start of the game the Witches have to buy one shovel (costing three workers) to convert a lake hex, two for a swamp, three for a desert. So a key tactic in your initial placement is choosing local terrain that’s friendly to your race.
In addition, each player board has three power “bowls.” To spend one or more of your starting twelve power wafers, you need to first move all the tokens from Bowl 1 to Bowl 2, then move some from 2 to 3, from which you can spend them (returning the used tokens to Bowl 1).
The game consists of six rounds, the core of each made up of multiple single-action player turns which continue until everyone has run out of resources and passes. Each round consists of three phases:
Income Phase: Players collect workers, gold, priests and power from uncovered parts of their player board and from bonus and favour tiles. This phase is easy to do once you get a handle on the game’s iconography: an open hand means “here’s some income for you.” The two initial dwellings get you one worker each; to get money and power, you’ll have to build trading houses; for priests, you’ll need temples. The trick here is that once you upgrade one structure to another, you place the original structure back on your board, covering up last turn’s income type. So a key element of the game is balancing your supply of workers (easy to get), gold (you start with some, but it soon runs out) and power (you’ll need upgrades for this).
Action Phase: This is the meat of the game. Players take turns choosing one of eight actions, the starting player decided by whoever passed first in the previous round.
Cleanup Phase: Players now score cult bonuses listed on the scoring tiles along the left side of the board (these change every game, and are public knowledge), get their action markers back, and add one gold to unchosen bonus tiles, like the buildings in Lords of Waterdeep.
After placing their starting dwellings, collecting starting resources (which varies by race), and choosing a bonus tile, players take their income and prepare for the first round’s Action Phase. There are four actions players are likely to use throughout the game, four others that are rare until mid-game. Here are the early-game gambits:
1. Terraform and Build a Dwelling: Players can convert one adjacent hex to their native terrain, then (if they can afford it) place a dwelling on it. For instance, on their first turn the Witches could pay three workers to terraform a lake hex, then one worker and two gold to build the dwelling, leaving them only one worker.
2. Upgrade Spades Track: To cut down on the number of workers it costs to terraform terrain, you can upgrade this track twice. It would cost the Witches two workers, five gold and a priest to upgrade this one level, reducing terraforming costs to two shovels per terrain level while also giving them a bonus of six victory points.
3. Upgrade a Structure: Players can convert dwellings to trading houses (power level 2), which give them gold and power instead of workers. From there, they can upgrade “politically” to strongholds (power level 3), which give them power and a special ability, or “religiously” first to temples (level 2) then to a sanctuary (level 3), which give them priests and favours (presumably from the gods of this mystical land). The stronghold and sanctuary upgrades are costly but important. The favour tiles give their owners a one-time boost of 1-3 levels on a specific cult track plus ongoing income or victory point bonuses.
4. Pass: If you choose this first, you get dibs on available bonus tiles (always important) and get to move first in the next round. Once everyone passes, the round ends and the remaining bonus tiles are divvied up.
The game incorporates a weird synergy: if you build a trading house next to an opponent’s structure, your gold cost is halved; but your opponent has the option of trading victory points (all start with twenty) for power at a -1 discount if you build any structure next to them them by adding up the power levels of their adjacent structures.
If a player accumulates four structures totaling seven or more power levels in a single settlement, they immediately place a town on a hex of their choice, giving them a hefty victory point bonus of 6-9 along with an influx of either power, gold, workers, a priest, or a +1 on all cult tracks.
Though each game is different, these actions don’t tend to pop up until rounds 3 or 4:
5. Upgrade Shipping Track: Since river hexes interrupt hexes being adjacent for the purpose of building and end-game scoring, you can add 1-3 points of ships that allow you to skip over this number of river hexes.
6. Power Actions: At the bottom of the main map are six fixed power actions that can be chosen only once per round. They cost 3-6 power tokens from taken from Bowl 3, and give their choosers either a priest, two workers, seven money, a bridge, or one or two shovels. Later in the game, as players accumulate more and more magical power, these are key stopgaps to fill up on much-needed resources. At the same time you can “convert” power to priests, workers or gold, though the exchange rates are not good (e.g. a priest costs 5 power). You can also permanently trash power wafers from Bowl 2 to move an equivalent number to Bowl 3, or down-convert a priest to a worker or a worker to a gold coin.
7. Climb Cult Tracks: You can permanently assign a priest to one of four empty spaces at the bottom of each cult track to move your cult marker up 3 (first priest) or 2 (later priests) spaces. You can also “visit” a cult with your priest, getting only +1 on that track, then returning him to your supply. There are a lot of victory points tied up in the cult board, 32 total if one player dominates all four cults. Each track also distributes up to 8 power to whomever can climb to the top of the stairway to mystical heaven. A warning to all acolytes: ignore the cult board at your peril!
8. Special Actions: Lastly, there is a variety of gold-coloured special action hexes on bonus tiles, favour tiles and uncovered stronghold spaces on player boards. These provide either resources, victory points or a special building ability. For instance, the Witches get to place a free dwelling on any forest hex once their stronghold has been built.
At the end of the game the players with the three largest contiguous set of structures get 18, 12 and 6 points respectively; the players with the three highest ratings on each of the four cult tracks get 8, 4 and 2 points per cult. So in a three-player game a player who dominates two cults would get 20 points (8+8+2+2), roughly matching the obsessive builder. There are thus multiple paths to victory in Terra Mystica.
This leads to one of two main critiques: given the many paths to resources and victory points the game offers, analysis-paralysis looms large – at least until your resources run dry. Like chess, if your opponents start thinking three or four turns in advance, you’re in for a long night.
Second, though the art is quite nice and the rules play up differences between the races, the theme is quite thin: the mystic land could easily be converted into a horrible dungeon or alien solar system. Admittedly, the special powers of most races do make sense: the Fakirs have flying carpets, the Dwarves tunnels, the Engineers bridges, the Giants reduced terraforming costs. The same can be said of the mythic synergy found in the choice of most races’ native terrains (e.g. mermaids like lakes).
The three-dimensionality of all those differently shaped wooden pieces, not to mention the riot of colours in the pieces, on the map and on the player boards certainly liven up proceedings. Having said this, its depth of theme is only a fraction of that seen in The Fury of Dracula or A Game of Thrones. It’s a Eurogame, albeit a rich one. What theme there is seems more like thick paint covering a huge clanking mechanical engine than living, breathing ludic theatre.
Third, a minor quibble: the names of some of the structures were lost in the translation from German to English. To start with, why not call them “buildings”? Why not call the basic structure a “house” rather than the more nebulous “dwelling”, which sounds like we’re in graduate seminar on Heidegger? Why not call the stronghold a “castle”? What is a “stronghold” anyway? Calling the basic religious building a “temple” is fine, but why is the superior structure called a “sanctuary” instead of, say, a “cathedral”? To my mind a sanctuary is a small seedy house run by social workers or some poles and perches where wild birds can get a free meal.
Terra Mystica is the worker-placement and resource-management game turned up to 11. It’s a thinker’s game. No scorpion riding or leaving rats in your wake to distract vampire hunters: it’s all about figuring out how to convert a variety of resources into victory points. One can almost see the steam coming out of players’ ears as they gaze at their player boards, a puzzled frown on their faces. Ambrosial steam, that is.
The player interaction is minimal: no trading, no bidding, no real negotiation. It’s a good example of what I have called elsewhere on this site a semi-solitaire repressed conflict game: you will compete for dominance on the cult track or to be the first one to grab a key power action or bonus tile, but you can’t attack anyone, or even play an annoying mandatory quest to temporarily block the leading player’s future worker placements. So unless all the other players ignore their own interests and pile on, an experienced player should be able to milk enough victory points out of the Mystica cow to beat most rookies.
On the plus side, it’s a pure strategy game with only the negligible luck generated by the choice of special scoring tiles at the start of the game. And unlike say Stone Age, there aren’t obvious moves like going to the love shack or tiling the field. Within the Euro canon, it’s easy to understand why it’s at or near the top of most “best of” lists, though if I had my druthers, I would rather play a Euro like Tikal with a stronger theme and cleaner mechanics. But its siren’s song still calls to me from its mounds of coloured wood and complex tactics like some long-lost Teutonic banshee.
Here are my ratings of the game out of 6:
Complexity: 4 Warm (actual rules), 5 Hot (player choices)
Strategy: 6 Blazing (as much as any Euro I’ve played)
Luck: 1 Frigid
Aesthetics: 4 Good
Player Interaction: 2 Cool
Level of Conflict: 2 Cool
Strength of Theme: 2 Cool (unless you have a big imagination)
Overall: 5 Very Good
Summary: If you love semi-dense Euros, this is a must have. If you’re into frothy party games, skip it. If you are a theme junkie, you would probably prefer to spend your money at the Matagot or Fantasy Flight stores, though you might want to visit these mystic lands on someone else’s wagon to sniff all that ambrosial brain steam.
Appendix: The Races, Home Terrains and Special Powers of Terra Mystica
Green (Forests): Witches (get 5 bonus VP for a town) and Auren (no basic special power).
Blue (Lakes): Mermaids (can skip 1 river space when building) and Swarmlings (start with 8 workers and 20 gold, get 3 bonus workers for a town, but have increased building costs).
Black (Swamps): Alchemists (may trade 1 VP for 1 gold or 2 gold for 1 VP) and Darklings (need to use priests to terraform, but get lots of these with level 3 structures)
Brown (Plains): Halflings (get 1 VP for every shovel bought and have cheap shovel-track upgrade costs) and Cultists (if your neighbours take power when you build next to them, you get +1 on one cult track)
Grey (Mountains): Dwarves (can tunnel under any hex for +2 workers, get 4 VP for doing so) and Engineers (can build a bridge for 2 workers, dwellings cost only 1 worker + 1 gold).
Red (Wastelands): Giants (all terraforming costs 2 shovels) and Chaos Magicians (start with only one dwelling, but have cheap stronghold costs)
Yellow (Desert): Nomads (start with 3 dwellings) and Fakirs (can use a priest and a “magic carpet” to skip one terrain space when building).
Recommended races for new players, in rough order of ease of play: Nomads, Engineers, Halflings, Witches, Mermaids.
Avoid the Auren, Chaos Magicians and Darklings until you learn the game. Beware the Giants – they pay two shovels for all terra-forming, so it’s easy for them to fall behind early in the game.
A Game of Thrones 2nd Edition (2011), from Fantasy Flight Games, is a game of political intrigue and military conquest based on George R. R. Martin’s Westeros novels. It’s a 3-6 player game that takes 2-3 hours, depending on the number of players and how quickly the event cards are resolved and each player decides on their order tokens. It takes about ten minutes to setup.
In a nutshell, A Game of Thrones is a mashup of Risk, Diplomacy, and chess, with just a hint of Kemet-style combat. Each player plays one of the noble houses of Westeros – Stark, Lannister, Baratheon, Greyjoy, Tyrell and Martell (the last two are excluded in a four-player game) – who use political intrigue and military force to attempt to dominate the continent. It’s set in the time frame of the War of the Five Kings, Seasons Two and Three of the TV show.
Each turn is divided into three main phases. In the Westeros Phase, cards are drawn from three decks. A wide range of events could ensue – players could muster new troops, vote on the three Influence Tracks, or defend against a Wilding invasion. This is followed by a Planning Phase, during which orders are secretly given, then an Action Phase, when these orders are carried out.
A Game of Thrones is an area-control game with land provinces and sea zones, castles, strongholds and ports on which players maneuver their footmen, knights, ships and siege engines. The point of the game is to control seven castles or strongholds: barring this, it goes ten turns, and the player with the most castles and strongholds wins. The map is asymmetrical: about two-thirds of the castles, strongholds and supply sources are in the rich south, while the Starks and Greyjoys fight over the other third in the more barren north.
Each turn each house assigns a secret order token to each of their units during the Planning Phase: defend, support, march, raid or consolidate power. These are resolved one at a time in the order determined by the Iron Throne track. Defenders get a 1 or 2-point bonus for defending, while supporters can support forces in adjacent provinces (armies) or sea zones (ships only), including those of allied powers. Marchers can enter empty areas or attack adjacent enemy forces. Raiders can cancel other raids, support orders or power consolidations. The “consolidate power” order gets you those vital Power tokens that you can use to control empty provinces, fight off the Wildings, and bid on the three influence tracks, with certain areas giving bonuses (e.g. King’s Landing gives consolidators a total of 3 Power).
Battles are easy once you get the hang of it: footmen and ships are worth 1 combat point, knights 2, and siege engines 4 against castles or strongholds only. To these totals each player adds any support garnered from troops in adjacent areas, including those of allies, along with any attack or defence bonuses printed on their order tokens. Third, each side chooses a House Card representing which leader will lead the troops, adding this to their total: these ratings range from 0-4, with many having a special ability. Then the owner of the Valyrian Steel Blade can add +1 to his or her total. The highest total wins, with the loser retreating, with sword icons on House Cards killing losing units unless countered by castles icons. Losing units are routed, of no combat value until next turn. No dice or magical victories for much weaker forces. And no dragons, though one can sense Dany’s presence emanating across the sea from Essos.
The theme of Martin’s novels and of the TV show comes out nicely in a variety of ways. On the battlefield, the Lannisters and Starks can slug it out at Harrenhall with Tywin Lannister and Ned Stark leading their forces. Yet the Thones theme comes out the strongest at the start of each turn but the first when three Westeros (event) cards are drawn.
It could be something as dull as a supply update, when players count the number of supply barrels (representing fertile fields and fisheries) in their empire to determine their new supply rating, which determines how many armies of 2, 3 or 4 units they can have. It could also be mustering new troops, when players add new forces to their castles (1 mustering point) and strongholds (2 points). Footmen and ships cost 1, knights and siege engines 2.
But it could also be a Wilding attack, when players secretly bid power tokens to defend the realms of men. If you lose, everyone loses something, with the lowest bidder being punished the most harshly. Things get even more exciting when players are asked to secretly bid on the three influence tracks. The Iron Throne track determines turn order, with the King (the highest bidder) breaking all non-battle ties. The Valyrian Blade (or Fiefdoms) track breaks battle ties and gives the top dog a +1 in one battle per turn. The Raven (or King’s Court) track determines the number of starred “special” orders one can use each turn (a key factor in many battles) along with allowing the winner to change one order each turn after seeing what everyone else has done.
So what do I think of it? Standing at #50 in the Board Game Geek’s overall standings, it should be no surprise that I think it’s an excellent game, with a few caveats. It has the typical Fantasy Flight polish in its components: a beautiful map and art on the House Cards, marbled plastic game pieces and extra-thick cardboard counters, though the siege engines should have been bigger and uglier so they stand out better. It is in essence a game of pure strategy once you know a bit about your opponents’ resources, so kudos for that. It even has a bit of Eurogame-style resource management. And the rules are not too hard to understand once you get the hang of the rulebook, though I would strongly recommend watching Fantasy Flight’s slick video tutorial first.
My caveats are twofold. First, its length: you need someone who is paying attention and who knows the rules to handle the events decks, which can be complex events (e.g. a Wilding attack or mustering) that take up to ten minutes to resolve, or can be nothing (“last days of summer”), allowing the players to move on to orders. And there’s a tendency for players to engage in analysis-paralysis when playing order tokens, e.g. agonizing over whether to raid the Lannisters or attack the Greyjoys. On top of these issues is the problem of new players having to absorb fairly unique rules concepts. I think that if played with a core of veteran players, you can easily cut a half hour off its playing time, and seriously increase the game’s playability.
Second, players tend to forget that it’s only half a military game. The other half is politics. The game is clearly designed to make players negotiate alliances and offer support on the battlefield. The latter didn’t happen even once in the first six-player game I played after buying the game. The support mechanic is a key one, since that way two declining powers can team up against an ascendant one. The Tyrells may be ravaging the Dornish Marches and the Reach, but if the Baratheons and Martells make a blood oath to fight as one, they can be stopped. Indeed, the political maneuvering is what makes A Game of Thrones so fascinating as a story, and the game reflects this to some degree (though sadly without any dragons).
So here are my ratings, out of 6 (see the explanation of my ratings system in my Tikal review):
Complexity: 5 Hot (new players), 4 Warm (veterans)
Strategy: 6 Blazing
Luck: 1 Frigid (except when the Wildings attack)
Aesthetics: 5 Very Good (a point off for those boring siege engines)
Player Interaction: 5 Hot
Level of Conflict: 5 Hot
Strength of Theme: 6 Blazing
Main Meta-Themes: Military Conflict, Political Intrigue (with a bit of Economics)
Overall: 6 Excellent (with decisive players), 5 Very Good (with slowpokes)
Summary: A must have for fans of A Game of Thrones, a strong optional buy for those who enjoy middle-level complexity strategy games with lots of player interaction, a probable miss for those who don’t like games that last more than twenty minutes or are afraid of Wildings.
And yes, winter is coming.
Appendix One: A Game of Thrones for More than Six Players
If for some strange reason you have more than six players wanting in on a game, pair up the least experienced excess players in teams of two. One player plays the “prime minister” of the House in question, the other the “general”. The former is the political leader, the latter the military leader. Play all six houses with all standard game rules.
The General places all orders during the Planning Phase and carries out all raid, march and support orders during the Action Phase, including battles. But nothing else.
The Prime Minister does everything else, including handling all events related to the Westeros cards – bidding on the Influence tracks, on Wilding defenses, and making mustering decisions. The PM also does all negotiation with other Houses, so should be a good talker.
Appendix Two: Blinging Up the Siege Engines
One minor issue with the components of A Game of Thrones is that the siege engines don’t exactly stand out on the board. To avoid this, go to your local dollar store and buy a small craft glue gun and a package of small gems or crystals that are flat on one side. Glue a gem or crystal to the top of each siege engine. Et voila, you’ve got diamond-studded catapults!