Tag Archives: board games

The Game’s Afoot, Watson! Mr. Jack Pocket Reviewed

Mr. Jack Pocket Contents

Mr. Jack Pocket Contents

When you read a detective story, have you already figured out whodunnit by page 49? Are you one step ahead of the Scotland Yard CID inspectors, the Swedish police, or the Parisian Préfecture whenever you watch Masterpiece Mystery! on PBS? In that case, you should give consideration to Mr. Jack Pocket from Swiss games publisher Hurrican.

Mr. Jack Pocket is, as its name suggests, a pocket edition of the original Mr. Jack. There are substantial differences between the two games in their mechanics, but I won’t get into a side-by-side comparison here. Suffice to say that the pocket game is just that: a version cleverly made miniature, designed for two players, and which can be played in about 15 minutes.

In Mr. Jack Pocket, two players face off: one is Mr. Jack, and the other represents the combined forces of Sherlock Holmes, Dr. Watson, and their dog Toby. It’s difficult for me to really get behind the idea of a pug as a super-sleuth police dog, but what do I know? The object of the game is asymmetrical: Mr. Jack wishes to escape from the detective forces, while they wish to pin him down and identify him.

Only Three Suspects Left!

Only Three Suspects Left!

The game board is composed of nine double-sided cardboard tiles, each of which shows a configuration of empty streets on one side, and the same configuration plus a character on the other. The nine tiles are randomly placed, character side up, in a three-by-three pattern. The round counters representing Holmes, Watson, and Toby are placed beside the top-left, top-right, and middle-bottom tile, respectively. The player representing Jack draws an Alibi card, notes which of the nine characters’ identities he will be assuming as his disguise, and places it face-down before him.  

Mr. Jack Pocket is a line-of-sight game, so the detectives are trying to “see” suspects by creating a line-of-sight, while Mr. Jack is trying to evade their gaze. If the detectives can see a suspect (because no walls block their view), Mr. Jack must tell them whether he can be seen.  If he can be seen, then any tiles with suspect side up that are not in the line of sight of one of the detectives are turned to their empty side.

If Mr. Jack tells the investigators that he cannot be seen, however, any area tiles with the suspect side up that are in the line of sight of any detective are turned over to their empty side.

One of the four Action tokens, showing both sides

One of the four Action tokens, showing both sides

It is the four double-sided Action tokens that drive the game. These are tossed randomly at the start of each game to determine which actions will be available during the turns.  On odd-numbered turns, the Investigator starts, choosing one of the tokens and performing its action; Mr. Jack then chooses two of the remaining three actions and carries them out. The Investigator then performs the remaining action.  On even-numbered turns, the four tokens are first turned over, and then Mr. Jack chooses his first action, followed by the Investigator choosing two actions, with Mr. Jack playing the final remaining action.

The game ends when:  either only one suspect remains on the board (since it must be Mr. Jack!), so the investigators have been victorious; or when Mr. Jack has managed to achieve at least six hourglasses, indicating that too much time has passed for the investigators to be successful (and so Mr. Jack escapes once more!)

This is a surprisingly deep and interesting little strategic puzzle with lots of replayability.  Its small footprint makes Mr. Jack Pocket a terrific game to tuck into a carry-on bag for travel.  My rating: a solid 8.5 out of 10.

Mr. Jack Pocket

Designers: Bruno Cathala, Ludovic Maublanc

Publisher: Hurrican Editions SA

Players: 2

Ages: 14+

Duration of play: approximately 15 minutes


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If At First You Don’t Succeed, Try Some Secret Practice Time

Small World

Small World

I’ve been playing a lot of Small World from publisher Days of Wonder recently. Here at the store, customers expect us to be able to give a reasonably concise and lucid explanation of any particular game, including optimum number of players, age and experience levels, and duration of game. We also need to know, however, what the game is really like.  How does it work? Does it play like any other board or card games (how many straight roll-and-move games do you need, after all?)

One of the best ways to learn something, of course, is through practice. And one of the best ways to get that practice time in (I’m not aiming for Malcolm Gladwell’s 10 000 hours, just familiarity) is to make it fun. Any eight-year-old video-game Jedi Master could tell you that. But you can’t always get people together at the drop of a hat to play a game — at your convenience — just so that you can get your skills up. What to do?

Enter the app. Board game companies have profited hugely, both monetarily and in terms of brand recognition, by creating or licensing versions of their products for use on portable devices, on computers, and on Steam (more on that in a moment). I learned to play Days of Wonder’s Ticket to Ride by buying and using the iOS app on my phone.  It gave me the ability to get a game going (with robot opponents) anywhere, anytime. I could make lots of dumb mistakes and there was no one to see (or hoot with laughter). And, because playing against bots tends to produce speedy games (robots don’t need to spend a lot of time thinking about their next move), these games also gave me the chance to try out many different strategies.

Small World was another game we stocked that — to be honest — I really didn’t understand very well. The back of the box was uncommunicative, telling me only that the game was “fun” and “zany”, and that players “vie for control of a board … simply too small to accommodate them all”. Not much help there. The game mechanic is hinted at: “players must know when to push their over-extended civilization into decline to ride a new one to victory!”  Huh?  I read a bunch of reviews (not much help).  I watched the relevant episode of TableTop (you can watch it here: Wil Wheaton and friends appeared to be having a good time, but I still didn’t really understand what was going on). I resigned myself to memorizing some sort of canned spiel about Small World in order to wow customers.

Small World Splash Screen

Small World Splash Screen

Then, two things happened almost at once. We finally received a play copy of the original Small World board game (we have to buy them, and somehow we just hadn’t got round to ordering one till then), and I purchased an online copy at Steam for myself. What is Steam, you ask? Here’s the answer, courtesy of Wikipedia: “Steam is a digital distributiondigital rights managementmultiplayer, and communications platform developed by Valve Corporation. It is used to distribute games and related media online, from small independent developers to larger software houses.” What this means is that these games are all totally legitimate: sold (or given — some games are available at no cost) by their developers to the users, who then own a digital copy that they are able to play on any device that is supported by the game’s software, and that can connect to the Steam server. 

Turn One of New Game

Turn One of New Game

Here’s a screen shot of the very first turn of a new game of Small World on Steam. I am Player One and have just placed my Underworld Humans onto the map, “conquering” four regions and obtaining one bonus point, for a grand total of five points that turn (awful). I confidently expect to get my clock cleaned by my robot opponents:  the game consists of some 14 different races (Humans, Trolls, Wizards, and so on), each of whom have particular strengths and weaknesses; and 20 Special Powers (from Alchemist to Wealthy). Races and Powers are randomly combined, so that there are always six sets available to the the players. With so many different combinations, only lots of practice will help a player identify the best available pairings. So far, my choices have not been the greatest. (Note: I finished fourth, out of four, in the game above. Sigh.)

So, do electronic games mean the death of old-fashioned board games? I think not. If anything, I believe that electronic versions of board games encourage people to get out there and play, to practice and to learn. Electronic versions let us while away some down time, while simultaneously honing our skills on our favourite games.

So now I’m using Steam to learn how to play Magic: the Gathering. And according to Mr. Gladwell, I only have 9996 hours of practice to go until I’m a champ!


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Going Postal: Thurn and Taxis at Games Night


Thurn and Taxis Box

Box and Contents

Thurn and Taxis is a surprisingly engrossing game in which players compete to build a postal system across provinces of the Kingdoms of Germany and Bohemia, the Archduchy of Austria, the Swiss Confederation, and Poland. The game is named after the Thurn und Taxis family, whose ancestor Lamoral von Taxis was in 1615 named hereditary Postmaster General by the Holy Roman Emperor.

The Map

The Map

The game has a distinctly early-nineteenth or late-eighteenth century feel by virtue of the illustrations, which resemble old engraved maps, and the characters and goals.

The game mechanic is straightforward: on his turn, a player

  1. must add a city card to his hand;
  2. must play a city card to a route; and
  3. may close and score a route.

Routes are built by laying down city cards on the table before the player. The routes must be composed of cities (represented by cards) that are connected directly to one another. Cities may be added to either end of a route, but never inserted between two existing cities.  If a player is unable to add a city card to an existing route, and cannot score the route, the route must be discarded and a new one begun by placing a city card.

Pretty straightforward so far, right?

Scoring of routes is also reasonably easy to figure out. Routes containing at least 3 city cards may be closed and scored. The player

  1. Places houses (post offices?)
  2. Collects bonus tiles (if any)
  3. Collects a new carriage card if one has been earned
  4. Discards the city cards on his route and in his hand.

I did find the rules for placement of houses to be a little confusing. When closing a route, the player may opt either to place one house in one city in each province of the route; or may in one province, place one house in each city of the route. The number and location of houses is important both during game play, when players can acquire bonus victory point tiles by placing houses on all cities of a province (or all cities of a grouped pair of provinces), and at the game’s end, when unplaced houses are subtracted from the player’s total victory points.

On his turn, a player may also  seek support from one of a quartet of Postal Officials.  The Postmaster allows the player to take two cards rather than one from the face-up supply or the face-down deck; the Administrator allows the player to exchange all the cards in the face-up supply for a new batch; the Postal Carrier allows the player to place two cities in his route rather than one; and the Cartwright allows the player, when scoring a route, to acquire the next higher carriage even if his route is one or two cities short.  Only one of these special abilities may be used per turn.

The game ends when one player acquires a level seven carriage, or places his final house. Each subsequent player has one final turn, before scoring starts.

Our first three games played fairly briskly, even with a good deal of rule-checking (and patient reiteration of house-placement guidelines. We finally evolved a sort of Three Musketeers mnemonic to help us remember when it came time to score routes: “All in one, or one in each (province).)  Thurn and Taxis is not directly confrontational, in that players do not compete to cut one another off from desirable routes or resources. Instead, each player races to acquire valuable points bonuses and to deploy his houses — there is a definite merit to speed and efficiency in this game.

Thurn and Taxis is definitely growing on me. I like the array of options open to the player on every turn, and that the game is an interesting mixture of luck and skill. It’s easy to learn, even for non-gamers. The fact that you can easily get in one or two games in an evening makes it even more appealing to me. (I get up early, and late nights make me cranky.)

Note: According to the Rio Grande Games website, Thurn and Taxis is currently out-of-print. If you can find a German copy (publisher: Hans im Glück), you can certainly still play it, as the game is relatively language-independent.  Here’s a link to a PDF file of the Thurn and Taxis Rules — in English — just in case.

  • Thurn and Taxis (Rio Grande Games). Currently out-of-print in English.
  • Spiel des Jahres Winner 2006
  • Karen & Andreas Seyfarth (designers)
  • 2-4 players
  • Ages 10 and up
  • My rating: 8 out of 10



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Super sized checkers replacement.

A brilliant, low-cost fix for a common problem. Next time we’re asked at the store about replacement checkers for these oversize sets, I’ll know what to suggest!

Around the World in Eighty Games


I would like say thank you to the reader who sent this photo. When some of the checkers for this oversized checker board went missing, they replaced them with painted apple sauce containers. A very creative idea.

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All It Takes Is Some Cardboard and Some Dice …

And a great idea (that part is pretty key, actually). Oh, and you have to live in the United States (blog readers from elsewhere in the world, like here in Canada, for example — you’re out of luck on this one. Sorry.)

NYGICThe U.S. National Young Game Inventors Contest has put out a call for, well, game inventors between the ages of 5 and 12 to submit entries.  They are looking for board games, fully constructed in prototype by kids, and including all relevant pieces (i.e. markers, dice, and so on — you can’t just send them rules to something you’ve thought up).

The winner will receive a US$10,000 Savings Bond, a trip to San Francisco, and the possibility of seeing his or her brainchild be produced by University Games as part of their 2014 games line-up.  Runners-up will receive a games library from University Games.  The five finalists will also receive a US$200 gift card from Toys R Us.

Here’s the link to the official contest page, where you can find all the rules and FAQs. Remember, though, the contest is open only to U.S. residents.

And don’t wait around — the contest closes October 1, 2013.

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