BrettSpiel is a blog about board game design, written by game designer Brett J. Gilbert.

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‘Masquerade’ is 30!

Within the pages of this book there is a story told
Of love, adventures, fortunes lost, and a jewel of solid gold…

So begins Kit Williams’ really rather remarkable book Masquerade which, for those either too young to remember or too distant from British shores to have taken an interest, was a story book, art gallery and treasure hunt all in one. Published in 1979 the book was a literary sensation in Britain, and remains a cultural reference point fondly remembered by a entire generation, me included.

Today’s Times and Guardian both carried articles reporting on the anniversary of its publication, and the recent reuniting of the author with the book’s buried treasure: a gem-encrusted gold amulet in the shape of a hare that Kit himself originally crafted. I still have the well-loved copy of the book my family bought in 1979 and vividly recall both the phenomenal amount of excitement its publication generated, and the tantalising words of encouragement printed on the back cover:

The treasure is as likely to be found by a bright child of ten with an understanding of language, simple mathematics and astronomy as it is to be found by an Oxford don.

I was eight in 1979, and by the time the amulet was eventually unearthed some 2½ years later was indeed that ‘bright child of ten’ of which the book spoke. Not that I, or anyone in my family, got close to solving any part of the book’s multi-layered mystery, although the pages of delightfully detailed, devilish and sometimes dark paintings were extremely well-thumbed.

If you have never heard of Masquerade, nor of the scandal that followed, then Wikipedia does a good job of explaining some of the finer points. The story of the book is, after all, just as fascinating as the book’s story, if you get my meaning.

Kit was unprepared for the book’s notoriety; and perhaps even wished he had never had his — quite literally! — harebrained idea. But the world would be a poorer place without such endeavours, and the fact that the Guardian chose to feature the article on their front page is a testament to the remarkable and lasting impact of the author’s vision. In the autumn the BBC is to screen a new documentary on the book and its legacy; catch it if you can!

My undimmed nostalgia for the book may be gilt-edged by idyllic memories of my own bucolic childhood, but it warms my heart to see the book remembered, and to read how Kit Williams was finally reunited, and perhaps reconciled, with the golden hare he buried 30 years ago.

The best of men is only a man at best,
And a hare, as everyone knows, is only a hare.

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In Other News: 52 iPhones for $25

No, not actual iPhones, obviously. But this neat offer probably includes two Jokers. And there’s no contract required. Except while playing bridge.* The deck is apparently made out of 100% PVC and is ‘completely washable’: what a boon to the average card player! [Meninos via Craziest Gadgets via Boing Boing Gadgets]

* Yes, I know. Sorry. But that was the best iPhone-related card-gaming pun I could come up with.

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Cir*Kis (or Penrose Tiles: The Game!)

Have you heard of Cir*Kis, or possibly CirKis, or maybe just Cirkis? (Adding an intercap and an asterisk to your product name seems a little crazy to me.) Anyway, I hadn’t seen anything about this game until I spotted it on the internet today.

Image: The plastic board and pieces of Cir*Kis. Each player has a set of 20 coloured tiles, and keeps score with a peg moved on the individual scoring tracks around the edge of the board.

It’s a new ‘family abstract’ from Winning Moves USA/Hasbro (I’m guessing the name you’ll see on the box will depend on your territory). The American Winning Moves site has some details, and it’s listed on Amazon.com. Here’s the blurb:

Cir*Kis is the newest, and best, piece-placing game. You’ll score by completing circles and stars on the eye-catching game board. Plan ahead and you could earn a free turn to place another piece an score big!

Hmmmm… I like the way they use the adjective ‘piece-placing’ as if it’s common parlance. And what other well-known so-called ‘piece-placing’ game could they possibly be taking aim at, mewonders? (Let’s face it, it’s this one.)

Now, as interesting as new games always are, this one wouldn’t be anything like as interesting if it weren’t for the very obvious fact that it uses the famous Penrose tiling, a geometrical curiosity originally discovered in the 1970s by the British mathematician, physicist, author and all-round polymath Roger Penrose. If you’ve never heard of Mr Dr Sir Roger Penrose before, let alone his tiling, then Wikipedia has some information, as does Wolfram MathWorld. The Cir*Kis tiles themselves are fixed combinations of the ‘kite’ and ‘dart’ Penrose tiles, and the board has a raised pattern of ridges which corresponds to a particular tiling of these shapes.

For the keen-minded reader, desperate for more detail, here is the demonstration YouTube video (posted just a couple of days ago) which, provided you can endure its somewhat cheerless nature, does give a good introduction to the game.

The players place tiles in turn, with the aim of completing ‘circles’ and ‘stars’ on the board. Crucially each new tile has to be placed adjacent (edge-to-edge or corner-to-corner) to the previously placed one. The rather Eurogame scoring twist is this: the player completing the feature gets 5 points, but the player whose tiles make up the majority of the completed feature’s area gets 10 points, which is actually kind of interesting given the rule that restricts where each new tile can be placed. The first player to 40 points is the winner. (Note that since points are only scored in units of 5, this is really a game played to 8 points, but no matter.)

The last thing I have to say is that I hope Winning Moves and Hasbro have all their ducks in a row here, since the MathWorld article highlights that Penrose sued Kimberley Clark in 1997 over their use of his tiling pattern on, of all things, quilted toilet paper. There has to be a pun in there someplace, but I can’t think of it.

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BrettSpiel Board Game Reviews

In which I do a little bit of housekeeping, and create a homepage for my board game and card game reviews. Hence this is a sort of metapost which will hopefully prove its usefulness in the fullness of time.

I have so far been writing new game reviews — and posting them simultaneously on BoardGameGeek — at the rate of about one a month* and my aim in each is to look at the quality of a game’s presentation and components, and consider (some of) the most important aspects of its gameplay.

Clearly these topics can be highly subjective, so the reader is advised to seek out as many opinions as possible before doing anything rash, such as dashing out to your local store and buying a box based purely on my recommendation.**

My wider hope on these pages is to talk usefully about game design, and for me the discipline of writing about a game is a good way to explore, with a more analytical and technical eye, the mechanisms, tricks and personal touches that a designer has chosen to build into any particular design. With luck some of this insight will show through and be of interest to game players and other designers alike.***

* Past performance does not guarantee future results. Rates may go down as well as up.
** Precisely the opposite advice is also offered: that is, don’t not buy something just because I didn’t seem to like it much.
*** If not, never mind; perhaps the pictures will at least add to the gaiety of nations.

Pickomino

Designer

Reiner Knizia

Publisher

Rio Grande Games

Published

2005

Players

2–7, age 8+

Length

20 minutes

Pickomino is a simple and fast family dice game in which the players take turns to roll the dice to match the values on the 16 tiles and then stack the tiles they collect. Each tile is worth 1, 2, 3 or 4 worms, and the player with the most worms when all the available tiles have been taken is the winner! Continue reading…

Archaeology: The Card Game

Designer

Phil Harding

Publisher

Z-Man Games

Published

2007

Players

2–4, age 8+

Length

20 minutes

Archaeology: The Card Game is a quick and simple set-collecting game. The players are archaeologists digging for treasure in a somewhat windswept Egyptian desert, each hoping to collect and display the most valuable sets of artifacts. Continue reading…

Carpe Astra

Designer

Ted Cheatham & Jackson Pope

Publisher

Reiver Games

Published

2008

Players

2–4, age 10+

Length

60 minutes

Carpe Astra is a middle-weight tactical game that combines a pleasing mix of tile laying, card play, resource management and area control mechanisms in an attractive, well-produced package. Continue reading…

Ingenious

Designer

Reiner Knizia

Publisher

Kosmos

Published

2004

Players

2–4, age 10+

Length

45 minutes

Ingenious is one of Reiner Knizia’s most successful and well-known designs, and is something of a modern classic. The elegant gameplay and clean, colourful visuals makes this abstract tile-laying game ideal for both children and adults. But don’t let the apparent simplicity fool you! Continue reading…

Metro

Designer

Dirk Henn

Publisher

Queen Games

Published

1997

Players

2–6, age 8+

Length

45 minutes

Metro is a moderately light, moderately quick tile-laying game. In it each player is charged with building the longest underground train network from their stations at the edge of the board, all the while attempting to thwart the similar ambitions of the their opponents. Continue reading…

Atlas & Zeus

Designer

Bruno Cathala

Publisher

Eurogames

Published

2004

Players

2, age 10+

Length

30 minutes

Atlas & Zeus is a light, quick battle of wits in which the players fight to be the last man standing as the islands of a doomed Atlantean archipelago fall into the depths. Continue reading…

Dominion

Designer

Donald X. Vaccarino

Publisher

Rio Grande Games

Published

2008

Players

2–4, age 10+

Length

30 minutes

Dominion has been a smash-hit amongst Eurogamers since its publication last year, rising quickly to its current position at number 6 in BGG’s rankings; an impressive debut for Donald! Continue reading…

Marrakech

Designer

Dominique Ehrhard

Publisher

Gigamic

Published

2007

Players

2–4, age 6+

Length

30 minutes

Marrakech is a quick and light game of dice rolling and carpet laying in which you attempt to manoeuvre Assam the carpet merchant around the local souk, laying your own coloured carpets as you go, and hoping to gain payouts should your opponents have the misfortune to land on them. Continue reading…

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Game Review #007: Archaeology: The Card Game

Archaeology: The Card Game by Phil Harding, published by Z-Man Games, is a quick and simple set-collecting game for 2–4 players, aged 8 and up. The players are archaeologists digging for treasure in a somewhat windswept Egyptian desert, each hoping to collect and display the most valuable sets of artifacts.

I got a chance to try out the game a couple of weeks ago when Martin and Lucy, who previously introduced me to Dominion, came to town on their holidays. Martin brought the game with him on the off-chance that it would get some table-time; and in this case the table in question was one in the lobby of the local Travelodge where they were staying — an unlikely, if perfectly servicable venue for some serious gaming!

I feel compelled to point out, as I did in my review of Dominion, that I won the game, but for reasons that I shall herewith seek to expound, I hardly felt victorious.

See more: Game Reviews…

The game comes in a compact, sturdy and easily portable box that contains the 87 playing cards and a full-colour rulesheet. The graphic design and production values of the cards, rules and packaging are excellent and represent good value for money, especially since in the UK the game currently sells for the very reasonable price of just £8.99.

The Z-Man edition is a republication of Phil Harding’s original edition, self-published under his own Adventureland Games imprint, which in turn was a reimplementation of his earlier game, simply called Archaeology. That game included, in addition to a deck of cards, a board that was used to organize some of the cards during play, along with some money tokens. Although helpful and decorative, the board added nothing meaningful to the gameplay, so rationalizing the game’s presentation to create a pure card game with no ancillary components seems a wise decision.

However, it’s important to point out that differences between Archaeology and Archaeology: The Card Game are not purely stylistic. The game also underwent substantive gameplay changes, including the introduction of ‘sandstorm’ cards, of which more later.

At the beginning of the game the players must spend a little time sorting the cards and setting up the deck. First the hazard cards (thieves and sandstorms), the maps and the single pyramid card are set aside; then all the remaining treasure cards are shuffled. From this deck the pyramid’s treasure hoards are dealt (face-down piles of 3, 5 and 7 treasure cards) and 5 treasure cards are dealt face-up in the centre of the play area to create the initial marketplace. Finally, after adjusting the number of sandstorms in the game based on the number of players, all the remaining cards (including the hazards and maps) are shuffled together and a starting hand of 4 cards dealt to each player. The game is now ready to go!

Image: Examples of the game’s treasure cards, each showing a different archaeological artifact. Each has a face value (for example the Talisman is worth 3) and has a series of sale values for different multiples along the bottom (1, 2, 3 or 4 Pharaoh’s Masks are worth 4, 12, 26 or 50 respectively).

Dig for victory!

Gameplay is straightforward. At the beginning of each turn you ‘dig up’ a single card from the top of the deck: treasures are simply added to your hand; if you draw a thief or sandstorm you must show it to the other players and act on it immediately. A thief lets you randomly take a single card from another player’s hand; a sandstorm is bad news for everyone and forces all players to discard half the cards in their hands (thankfully rounded down!) to the marketplace. Ouch.

During your turn you can trade freely with the cards currently in the marketplace, exchanging cards based on the individual face values of the artifacts, and at the end of your turn you have the option to ‘sell’ a set of matching treasures to the museum, locking in their value until the end of the game. The player with the highest value of these sold artifacts at the end wins.

And that, more or less, is it, with the exception that at any point in the game 1, 2 or 3 maps can be exchanged for the hoard of 3, 5 or 7 cards stashed at the pyramid. It probably sounds rather simple, and indeed we all found it rather too simple. It’s clear that the game is only intended to be a light, breezy affair, but that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t aim to deliver a little tension and drama, or to provide the possibility of some interesting tactical decisions.

Sadly, for us, these experiences failed to materialize. Was our ‘group think’ at fault? It’s possible. Perhaps our collective expectations of the game were simply out of kilter with the experience that the game was designed to provide, in which case: no harm, no foul. From the ratings and comments on BoardGameGeek it’s clear that there are plenty of other people who have found the game entertaining and enjoyable, and you might well be one of those people!

Shop flaw

The game gives the impression of being a market-driven one. All the cards have individual face values, along with a range of differently scaled values for different multiples of each type of treasure. By trading in the marketplace you can aim to improve the collective value of your cards; but at what cost? Perhaps the cards you place there will benefit your opponents more than the exchange benefited you? Doesn’t that make choosing the best time to make trades a tricky proposition?

Not for us it didn’t. The big problem seemed to be that players only draw a single card per turn. The face value of each card (which is the ‘exchange’ value when interacting with the marketplace) is in the range 1 to 4, which makes some cards four times as valuable as others. The cards are the only resource players have, so any player picking up even a little less than their fair share of the high-value cards has almost no chance of victory. Their opponents can simply outspend them.

Image: In addition to all the artifacts, the deck includes a single pyramid card, plus sandstorms, maps and thieves. When the sandstorms and thieves are turned up they are laid out at the side of the play area so all the players can see how many of them are left in the deck at any time.

Ill winds

Now, admittedly, the thieves and sandstorms can mix things up a bit, but relying on crime and natural disasters to bridge the gap between rich and poor doesn’t seem terribly egalitarian to me. And while a spot of petty crime might just allow the lower classes to gang up and preferentially grab the crumbs from the tables of their financial superiors, those pesky sandstorms really are the illest of winds, blowing nobody any good.

The only way to win against a richer opponent would be to get lucky and hope to collect larger sets of a few types of treasure, thereby exponentially improving their resale value. Unfortunately the sandstorms are just too common, too unforeseeable and too devastating to take that risk. It seemed to us that the only strategy that made any sense at all was a drastically more conservative one, and we simply ‘banked’ smaller sets as soon as we acquired them, without even considering the notion of holding out for the larger payouts.

Pyramid scheme

Finding your way to the pyramid (courtesy of the limited number of maps) was an equally capricious enterprise. Lucy didn’t dig up or thieve a single map for the entire game, so the collective stash of 15 treasure cards at the pyramid was completely out of her grasp. Martin and I were therefore lucky enough to carve this up between us, massively unbalancing the split of resources available in the game.

Each map has a face value of 3 and cannot be sold for more than that even in combination with other maps. Trading your maps at the pyramid is therefore a no-brainer since you gain 3, 5 or 7 artifacts for 1, 2 or 3 maps. The same logic means that it would be madness for any player to use a map as payment at the marketplace; far better to simply hoard it until the end of the game and hope that it doesn’t get stolen.

By my calculation the average face value of a single artifact stashed at the pyramid is around 1¾. So at the top end, 3 maps (face value 9) can be directly exchanged for 7 treasures with a likely face value of at least 12, possibly much more. The very worst you could do is gain treasures with a face value of 7, but the increased number of cards collected in these exchanges massively offsets any risk, since the low-value artifacts can be worth a lot more than their face value when sold in larger sets.

Here’s the thing

I think we all really wanted to like and enjoy Archaeology: The Card Game; that we didn’t and that other people do is of course all part of life’s rich pageant. For us the whole thing seemed too scripted, with too few decisions and too much blind luck. And the unavoidably one-sided maths behind most choices simply seemed to strip them of any genuine tension or meaning.

The final spread of our three scores was broad, something like 90-50-30 (in my favour), but I didn’t feel that I had really done much to deserve victory, which left me, and my compatriots, dissatisfied. As I said at the top of the review, the game is a well-produced and reasonably priced package that may yet reveal its gaming value to us. I do wonder, however, given the enormous selection of games in our combined library, whether we’re likely to ever give it much of a second chance.

As a consumer and game player I can reflect on any disappointment engendered by trying out a new game as a necessary part of the hobby; there’s no pleasing everybody all at the same time, after all. And no game, not even the very best, will scratch everyone’s itch. This is, of course, just as it should be.

But as a designer I feel bound by a different covenant. The only reason I can even have an opinion about the game is because Phil worked hard to design and create something personal and important to him, and had the determination to see it published. His endeavours are therefore to be loudly and thoroughly applauded, and I wish him well with Adventureland Games, with Archaeology: The Card Game, and with his latest game Cannonball Colony.

Bravo, Phil, and good luck!

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