We Were Playing It Wrong: Bad Beets

Bad Beets
Bad Beets, by Justin Gary, 2015, Stone Blade Entertainment, illustrated by Liz Nugent, 2-5 Players

The Basics: Bad Beets, designed by Magic: The Gathering champion Justin Gary and adorably illustrated by Liz Nugent, was published by Stone Blade Entertainment in 2015. The game is described by the publisher as, “the fast-paced bluffing game that’s good for you!” Players are given a number of beet tokens at the beginning of the game that they are trying to rid themselves of because the players are…well…crappy little kids who don’t like eating beets.

To accomplish this goal they take turns during which they can feed beets to the dog, share them with a friend, or even eat one their beets if things get desperate. Each action (except for honestly and resignedly eating a beet) has a card associated with it. If you don’t have the card for the action you want to take, you can still take the action, but an opponent may call a player’s bluff. If they call and the player taking the action has the associated card, the calling opponent is penalized, the acting player is bluffing and doesn’t have the card in their possession, then the bluffing player is penalized instead.

On one level, this game owes a debt to Rikki Tahta, because at first blush this game plays an awful lot like a weird, inverted version of Coup. Players lie, set traps, call bluffs, wage economic warfare, the whole deal. The game uses a device, however, that sets it apart. Players pass a card around the table as the begin their turn which they may freely exchange with the card they hold in their hand. Depending on the cards and the players, this device usually has the effect of avoiding moribund game state such as may be found in some games of Coup.

What we did wrong: Early on when a player successfully tattled on another, the player being tattled got their beets from the supply, not the tattling player. This lead to beet counts that were amusingly high and practically impossible to dispose of. On further review of the rulebook, clearly the beets are supposed to go from the tattler to the tattled (nobody likes a tattletale, but they seem to do quite well).

Conclusion: This game is all right. While it probably won’t have the same impact that Coup has had, it’s fun. The best games of Bad Beets happen when the players really throw themselves into the game and start acting like little kids themselves. It seems relatively easy to have unfair games of Bad Beets through the caprices of the deck—high volatility and low card counts go hand in hand—but what was it that your parents used to say when you were a kid? Life’s not fair?

We Were Playing It Wrong: Bad Beets

We Were Playing it Wrong: Mafia de Cuba

Mafia de Cuba, by Phillipe Des Pallieres and Loic Lamy, 2015, 6-12 Players

The Basics: Mafia de Cuba is designed by Phillipe des Pallières and Loic Lamy. Pallières is a veteran designer with credits stretching back to the 90s. He also designed a little game you may have heard of called Werewolves of Miller’s Hollow. Mafia de Cuba is in many ways a follow-up to Werewolves, which is rightfully considered a classic and is one of the primary originators of the hidden-role bluffing type of game that have been so popular for the past few years.

Mafia starts off with a cool little twist: the game box is a component used during gameplay. This is because the game box represents the Mafia Don’s cigar box, from which he gives his favorites one after-dinner cigar. This cigar box also happens to hold the Mafia Don’s collection of diamonds (the Don is not very smart). The Don passes the cigar box to his consigliere and then, although this doesn’t appear to be strictly stated in the rules, should probably just leave the room. The other players then take turns taking stuff out of the box. A player may either take a poker chip that has role printed on it which establishes a victory condition applicable to the player taking it only, or can instead take one or more diamonds. Then after everyone has taken something, the Don comes back and, incensed that his treasure is gone, begins asking questions and demanding his henchmen turn out their pockets. His goal: get all his loot back. The thieves, such as they are, want to not only get away, but to get away with the most stolen diamonds. For this reason being a gangster is tricky: If you think someone has stolen more than you, you probably want to rat them out. On the other hand, they might retaliate…

What we did wrong: Games like Mafia require some variance in order to avoid becoming too routine. In Ultimate One Night Werewolf not every role is given to every player. In The Resistance players don’t know who is on which team. In Mafia de Cuba, the first player to pull stuff out of the cigar box is the Consigliere. The Consigliere may, in addition to taking a role or diamonds, put a role in a special black bag. That role is completely out of the game. When I played Consigliere, I thought a player could also put diamonds in the black bag, but it turns out that it’s just roles. Further, the player who gets to examine the cigar box last doesn’t need to steal anything. Everyone else must take something, either a role or one or more diamonds.

Conclusion: Mafia de Cuba is a fun, quick game. One of the things I like about this game in particular is that it de-emphasizes the semi-cooperative team play in favor of an every-man-for-himself style of play. In the genre of hidden-role bluffing games, that can be very tricky to pull off. And Mafia de Cuba does pull it off, at least in the short term. The chains of information in Mafia are not clean, and sometimes the game can feel a little chaotic. Also, this game is probably best enjoyed in a larger space that can accommodate everyone rifling through a cigar box in relative privacy. Whether or not the game becomes a classic on the same level as The Resistance or One Night Ultimate Werewolf is something that only time can tell, but fans of those games should certainly give this a try.

UPDATE 02/16/2016: Subsequent research on this fine game makes it seem pretty clear that Sr. Lamy was the lead designer of this game, even though my review seems to indicate otherwise. I regret the misunderstanding and want to make sure credit goes where it is due.

We Were Playing it Wrong: Mafia de Cuba

We Were Playing it Wrong: Kingsburg

Kingsburg, by Andrea Chiarvesio and Luca Iennaco, 2007, 2-5 players

The Basics: Kingsburg by Andrea Chiarvesio and Luca Iennaco was first published in 2007 by Stratelibri and ElfinWerks (who published it as their first game ever), and was picked up the following year by FFG where it has remained ever since. Kingsburg, both when it was released and in the years following its release, was honored with several awards, including the prestigious Lucca Games Best in Show award, which has also been won by 7 Wonders and BANG!

Although Kingsburg was followed up by an iPhone app as well as the excellent Kingsburg: to Forge a Realm expansion in 2009 and also by several online scenarios published by FFG at their website, the gaming community has yet to see another game of similar prominence from either Chiarvesio or Iennaco, though word on the cyber-street is that another Kingsburg product is coming sometime in early 2016.

Kingsburg has a deliciously simple mechanic: roll your dice, then take turns spending the dice to buy stuff that increases the strength and prosperity of your little kingdom. The board is marked with many different spaces labeled 2 through 18. The spaces with the lower numbers give less impressive loot, while the higher-numbered spaces offer a lot of stuff but are hard to get to because, and here’s where it gets tricky, players have to pay exactly the amount depicted on the space to use that space. So, if a player gets lucky and rolls three sixes, he or she can use either the 18 space by spending all three dice, the 12 space by spending two of the dice, or the 6 space by spending one die. Players keep what dice they don’t use for later rounds, but here’s where it gets really tricky: only one player can go on one space. That means that players can (and sometimes should) block each other from getting onto the spaces they need.

What we did wrong: On Kingsburg’s BGG page, there’s a helpful errata notice that states, “Only one [+2] token can be used per season by each player (to influence Advisors).” While this errata is supposedly now duly noted in the latest version of the rulebook, older versions of the game such as my copy do not include it and as result I’ve been playing this one wrong for nearly eight years.

Also, after returning to the game after not playing it for a couple of years, I forgot that the King sends additional soldiers to each governor immediately before the battle in phase 8. As you might expect, this made the game significantly harder!

Additionally, I’ve had the opportunity to teach Kingsburg to twenty or so new players over the years, and I’ve noticed that one thing that always seems to come up is the role and function of the King’s envoy, that fancy purple doodad that is given to player with the least buildings at the end of the third productive season each year. Some players think they get to keep it if they never use it, and other players have thought that you don’t need to spend the King’s envoy in order to use it. The King’s advisor is a vital piece in Kingsburg’s suite of catchup mechanics, so it is well worth any rules-explainer’s time to go over what the King’s envoy is, how it is used, and what exactly the player using it gets. The King’s envoy usually only benefits the weakest player, so the player who needs this information the most may also be the player least likely to ask questions or to understand the rules the first time they play the game. This means it’s doubly important to get these details right: while it may or may not impact the game’s result, correctly getting the rules on the King’s envoy will probably enhance the weakest player’s enjoyment of the game and keep that player from falling too far behind.

Conclusion: Kingsburg is a classic euro that follows the best traditions of its genre: it plays quickly, the rules are relatively accessible to new players, the players compete but don’t kill each other, and you spend an hour or so getting to build something. Some of the game’s critics point out a line of play within the game that seems superior to other options, but in my experience these criticisms are overblown and don’t hold up in actual play. The game is greatly enhanced by its expansion just as Terra Mystica was greatly enhanced by its expansion, but by no means is it required to enjoy this excellent game.

We Were Playing it Wrong: Kingsburg

We Were Playing it wrong: The Grizzled

The Grizzled
The Girzzled, by Fabien Riffaud and Juan Rodriguez, 2015, Cool Mini or Not, illustrated by Tignous

The Basics: The Grizzled by Fabien Riffaud and Juan Rodriguez and with excellent illustrations by Tignous, was published in 2015 by Cool Mini or Not (“CMON”). CMON is an interesting company that’s produced a lot of successful and impressive games over the years. The Grizzled marks the latest entry in their expansion away from the miniature-focused games that defined CMON’s earlier successes, games such as 2011’s Super Dungeon Explore and 2012’s Zombicide.

The Grizzled is yet another cooperative game in a year that has seen plenty of high-profile cooperative games such as Mysterium, XCOM, and Pandemic Legacy. Players take it in turns to negotiate the difficulties of life on the western front of the Great War. On a player’s turn, they can either play a card in their hand that has one or more hazards pictured on it, make a speech to hearten his comrades, or withdraw from the mission and play a support tile. Hazards such as snow, rain, darkness, gas attacks, and charges into no man’s land add up very quickly and if a threshold number (initially 3, usually dropping to 2 for at least one type of hazard over the course of play) is reached then the mission is a failure.

Somewhat frustratingly, the rules hearken back to the old days of semi-cooperative design of Shadows over Camelot and forbids players from sharing information with each other. While this is an acceptable design element to protect the guilty in a semi-cooperative game, it seemed to make this game needlessly more difficult. Of course, given The Grizzled’s pacifist themes, this might be an intentional design choice intended to model the frustration of being unable to communicate critical information due to the fog of war. One of the notable things about The Grizzled is how it creates an increasingly tense, pessimistic tone throughout gameplay as the players accrue tics that hamper not only their own survival but the overall success of the game overall. It’s tough to think positive during a game of the Grizzled, usually your choice as a player will be to do whatever sucks the least, and just when you think it can’t get any worse, it does.

What We Did Wrong: Hoo boy. This one is a whopper. I’ve said in the past that in cooperative games it’s more common for players to make mistakes that make the game easier. During our initial play we overlooked a rule that required us, upon failing a mission, to replenish the deck with all the cards we had played during that mission. We just discarded them instead. Naturally this lead to a lot of confusion—what exactly is the consequence for failing a mission? It also led to some moral hazard as players began top-loading hopeless missions with their worst cards so they wouldn’t have to deal with them later. Somewhat shockingly we still lost pretty badly during our first games. So, if you fail a mission, all of the stuff you were trying to avoid will come back to haunt you later.

Conclusion: This game felt more like performance art than a cooperative game. While I appreciated the excellent art direction, which appears to take some cues from Goddamn this War by Jacques Tardi, this game felt like kind of a downer to play. Rather than accomplish some kind of goal, players are basically just trying to survive World War One, which makes perfect sense except it’s just not a whole lot of fun. I’d recommend trying before buying.

We Were Playing it wrong: The Grizzled

We Were Playing it Wrong: Mysterium

Myserium 2
Mysterium, by Oleksandr Nevskiy and Oleg Sidorenko, 2015, Libellud, illustrated by Igor Burlakov and Xavier Collette, 2-7 Players

The Basics: Mysterium is a cooperative deduction and guessing game published by Libellud. It was one of the hottest games out of GenCon 2015. The game combines the whimsical artwork of Libellud’s smash-hit Dixit with nifty 1920s paranormal investigation aesthetic and cooperative gameplay. Mysterium was orginially published in 2013 by Portal Games under the name Tejemnicze Domostwo and had slightly different rules in that printing. The new version presents a high-quality artistic direction at the expense of adding new rules to the game, particularly the end, which are mostly kind of stupid and clunky. Mysterium succeeds despite these needless additions because it’s just that good of game…initially (see conclusion).

What We Did Wrong: Not a whole lot. One of the indicators of good design is that the rules aren’t complex enough for players to get many things wrong. In this, Mysterium is definitely a good design. That said, a couple of misread rules lead to two different mistakes. First, players receive their clairvoyancy tokens at the beginning of turn 4, not the end of turn 4. Second, the ghost may refill his hand between distributing clues to the psychics. Put another way, the ghost always has a hand of seven cards to distribute to the investigators.

As a side note, the second is an interesting mistake in that it makes the game harder. It’s far more common to make a mistake in a cooperative that makes the game easier (adding the wrong number of zombies in Dead of Winter, resolving an epidemic wrong in Pandemic, etc.) As another note, ghosts vary widely in size depending on what country you are in. Different international versions of the game allow the ghost to hold more or less cards in his or her hand, but in all versions that I am aware of the ghost refills his or her hand after distributing a clue to player.

Conclusion: Fine game. Strong game. Game of the year? Not even close. Heck, this isn’t even the best cooperative game that came out this year, let alone the best game overall. Unfortunately, the game just doesn’t hold up all that well under repeated plays. A half-dozen or so plays in with the same group will see cards being continually recycled sometimes serving as an identical marker for the same suspect/location/weapon repeatedly or even consecutively. What this game needs is more cards and lots of them to assure repeat play, or for players to, as the publisher suggests, add even more red herrings to set-up to keep players guessing.

Some other aspects can’t be so easily controlled by buying additional game materials (which in any case isn’t an acceptable design strategy for a great game). Once players begin to catch on that weapons have a different colored back and that you can give, say, cards that are predominantly red then you are already pretty far down the road to perdition with this game. Players may also begin to realize that, hey there’s an awful lot of stone lions, boats, and red bobbins in these cards and plan their ghosting not around what they have but what they are likely to draw.

Like any good mystery, the first experience is the best experience. After that, it’s all downhill unless you keep introducing new players to the game. Still, it’s well worth playing.

We Were Playing it Wrong: Mysterium