Tag Archives: Games Night

“This Hunt is Doomed!”: Playing Nanuk from Steve Jackson Games

Nanuk, from Steve Jackson Games

Nanuk, from Steve Jackson Games

A couple of Fridays ago, at the store’s weekly games night, we played Nanuk from Steve Jackson Games.  I am embarrassed to say that I had never heard of Nanuk before that, having completely overlooked it in the SJ Games catalogue. Nanuk was designed by Brett Myers and Mark Goadrich, and illustrated by Alex Fernandez. (Goadrich is an associate professor of Mathematics and Computer Science at Hendrix College in Arkansas, while Myers is a game designer from Madison, Wisconsin.)

The word Inukshuk means "to act in the capacity of a human."

The word Inukshuk means “to act in the capacity of a human.”

Nanuk is a push-your-luck game with an intriguing twist.  Players are Inuit hunters, and the object of the game is to have a successful hunt.  Each player is dealt a hand of cards depicting seals, deer, birds, fish, and inukshuks.  Players “boast” about the spoils of their upcoming hunt, with each player forced either to up the ante by betting that he will bag more game than the preceding player, or by increasing the duration of the hunt.  The bidding stops when a player calls the bluff by saying that the hunt is doomed to fail.  The player who calls doom becomes the Doom Leader, and the player whose bid was highest at the moment that doom was called becomes the Hunt Leader. At this point, players use a token to simultaneously reveal whether they will be part of the hunt or whether they prefer to remain on the sidelines (believing it to be doomed);  if they believe that the hunt will fail, they must contribute one card (face-down) which is kept before them until the hunt is resolved.

Nanuk Cards

Nanuk Cards (without deer)

The members of the Hunt then contribute cards, face down, to a pool that will represent the animals collected.  The Hunt Leader mixes the cards up, then reveals them one by one. Cards that match the target animal of the Hunt count towards the required total, whatever it is. Non-matching animals have no effect on the total.  Inukshuk cards are used to protect the hunt against Nanuk the Polar Bear.

After the cards are tallied, then one card is taken from the draw pile for each day of the hunt. Any card that bears a small polar bear symbol in the corner represents Nanuk, and if such a card is drawn during this phase the hunt will fail unless the pool of contributed cards contains an Inukshuk.  So, if a hunt requires six deer in five days in order to be successful, the players who join the hunt will first pool their chosen cards, to be revealed by the Hunt Leader. Five cards are then drawn, one for each day of the hunt, whether or not the six deer requirement has already been met in the pooled cards.

Counters used in Nanuk

Counters used in Nanuk

If the Hunt is a success (i.e. Nanuk either did not turn up or there were sufficient Inukshuks in the pool to deal with him), then the members of the Hunt share the spoils, including the face-down cards anted by those players who did not take part.  Cards are shared out with each hunter in turn choosing a card from the pool, until each has received an equal number of cards. Any extras are discarded. The shared-out cards are placed face-up before each player, grouped by kind.  Likewise, if a Hunt fails, the Doomsayers will share out the pooled cards, the drawn cards, and the anted cards in the same way.

Scoring for the game is strategic. Players are trying to collect pairs and sets, with each pair being worth one point and each set of four different animals being worth three. Inukshuks are wild cards.

I really liked this game. It has an interesting combination of bluffing and betting, with the added dimension of being able to join a hunt with the express intention of sabotaging the effort (and thus undermining the game play of the Hunt Leader).  This is a clever game that will stand up to many gaming sessions.  Many thanks to Jared Budd and Jack Schwarz, our local Men in Black from Steve Jackson Games, who brought this game along and taught it (and I’m pretty sure that one of them won each of the games we played, too!)


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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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Love Letter: Deliver De Letter, De Sooner De Better

Here at Scalliwag Toys, we have a weekly Games Night, during which customers can come in and play the featured game, choose from one of our open or demo games, or bring in something from home that they’d like to play.  Next Friday night, given that it will be Valentine’s Day, we’ll be playing a couple of games that, in some fashion, have love as one of their themes.

The Princess

The Princess

One of the games scheduled for 14 February’s Games Night is Love Letter, from publisher Alderac Entertainment Group.  Love Letter is a brilliant little card game for 2 to 4, in which players compete to deliver their love letter into the hands of the Princess, while keeping those of the other players away.

This whole idea sounded very strange to me at first — was this a story-telling game like Once Upon a Time? Were we going to role-play (a game mechanic I’m not overly fond of), each trying to be a more persuasive suitor than the other?

Thankfully, no. Love Letter is a game of bluffing and deduction, played over a series of rounds (how many rounds is kind of up to you). The game mechanic is simplicity itself: draw a card, play a card, do what it says. The highest card or the last card remaining at the end of the round gains a victory point. Simple, no?

The Guard

The Guard

Well, yes. And no. The deck consists of only 16 cards, one of which is discarded face down after the shuffle (so that even proficient card counters can never be quite sure who holds what). The point value, name, distribution, and effect of each card is as follows:

8 – Princess (1): Lose if discarded

7 – Countess (1): Discard if caught with King or Prince

6 – King (1): Trade hands with an opponent

5 – Prince (2): One player discards his or her hand and draws again

4 – Handmaid (2): Protection until one’s next turn

3 – Baron (2): Compare hands with another player; lower hand is out of the round

2 – Priest (2): Look at an opponent’s hand

1 – Guard (5): Guess an opponent’s hand. A successful guess means the opponent is out of the round.

It seems clear to me that Love Letter is a game whose appeal lies largely in the bluffing and deduction required to play. Luck plays a large part — there are so few cards, and each round lasts at most until the draw pile is exhausted — but it’s in what some reviewers have termed its “above-the-table” mechanic that Love Letter shines. As in the Dixit family of games, knowing your opponents can be an invaluable aid to successful bluffing!

Each round takes only a very few minutes to play. AEG suggests that a 2-player game is won when a player accumulates 7 tokens; a 3-player, after 5 tokens; and a 4-player after 4 tokens are won by one player.

Highly recommended. Great little filler game with a surprising amount of crafty fun.

Love Letter, 2-4 players, ages 10+.  CAD$12.99. In stock now.

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Games Night #3 – Alhambra


Alhambra Box Cover Art

Last night marked the third games night that we’ve held at Scalliwags.  We managed to get our wires a bit crossed:  in all our publicity, I was saying that we’d be featuring 7 Wonders, while Richard was broadcasting that we’d be playing Alhambra. We played Alhambra.


The Original Alhambra

The actual Alhambra is a historic palace in Granada, Spain. It was first built in the 9th century by Spain’s Moorish conquerors, and added to by successive Christian rulers. It is considered to be one of the finest examples of Arab-Islamic architecture and gardens, and is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Alhambra, published by Queen Games, is a tile-laying game for 2 to 6 players (there is a special rule-set for the 2-player variant). Players use money cards, in four different colours and values from 1 to 9, to purchase building tiles with which to construct their personal Alhambras.

There are 54 building tiles in the game, divided into 6 types of building, each denoted by its colour: Pavilions; Seraglios; Arcades; Chambers; Gardens; and Towers. Within each group, each tile has a different cost and a different number or configuration of exterior walls.  The object of the game is to score points by having the greatest number of tiles of any colour at one of the three scoring rounds that occur. Points are also awarded at each round for the longest continuous exterior wall.


Alhambra Box Contents

Each player starts with an amount of currency dealt face-up (but randomly) such that the total is not less than 20. Four buildings are drawn at random from the bag and placed upon the building market, each beside a token depicting one currency colour. That will determine which currency will be needed to purchase the building tile placed in that spot. How much currency will be needed is dictated by the number in the bottom-right corner of every building tile.

Certain orientation rules govern tile placement within a player’s Alhambra: buildings may not be placed upside-down or sideways (all the roofs must point upwards, in other words); building tiles must join by at least one side; a tile’s side with a wall may not be joined to a side without a wall; a player may not create an empty area (like an absent tile) within his Alhambra.

The order of game play is quite simple: on his turn, a player may

  1. take money from the face-up four-card draw pile (one card of any value, or a combination not exceeding a value of five), or
  2. buy and place a building tile, or
  3. rearrange his Alhambra tiles

The Game Begins

And that’s pretty much it. (Of course, that’s like saying that climbing Everest is just an 8.8 km walk.)

At each scoring round, the points awarded for having the most buildings increase. In the first round, if you have the most blue buildings you are awarded one measly point — but by the second round, the same situation would net you 8 points, and by the final scoring round, holding the most blue buildings would score you 16! In the first round, only the clear winner on building count scores points, but by the second, the leader and runner-up each get points, and by the final round the winner, runner-up, and third-place for each building colour score points. As you might imagine, the points pile up quickly.

The winner of last night’s game, thanks to his spectacular run of 4 Towers plus the longest continuous wall, was Mario Villano. He very graciously accepted the staggeringly awesome prize package, which consisted of two promotional Munchkin cards and a cup of black coffee on the house 🙂

Our players last night rated Alhambra a 7 out of 10. Three out of the six commented that, since there is no real opportunity to mess with your opponent, they found the gameplay a bit bloodless. Rather like the original Dominion, the focus is on building the best Alhambra that you can, rather than stealing from or sabotaging that of your fellow players. Still, the fact that the game can be played by 2 to 6, and that the games are relatively brisk at 45 minutes to an hour each, make this a keeper. Recommended.

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May We Introduce … Game Nights at Scalliwags!


Photoshop your face onto one of these players. Or better yet, come down and play!

You asked, we listened.

Starting Friday 18 October, we’ll be hosting a weekly Games Night here at Scalliwag Toys. Every week we’ll feature a different game, with a brief introduction and run-through. You can then go on and play that game (if space permits) or, if you prefer, choose another of our demo games and play that instead. You can even bring your own game to play if you want!

Here are the basic ground rules, as far as we’ve thought them out:

  • We’ll be set and ready to go at 7:00 p.m., and we’ll start shutting things down at 9:00 p.m.
  • We reserve the right to limit the number of players to the number of seats we have available.
  • Our supply of games, while large (and growing) is not inexhaustible. If you really want to play the game we’re featuring, call ahead to reserve a seat.
  • Due to time constraints, we will be concentrating on games that can be played in under two hours. We recommend that any games you bring from home fit that time frame.
  • There will be a game-related door prize weekly.
  • Coffee and a selection of teas will be available for a nominal small tiny charge.

And because we know that everyone loves a bargain, the weekly featured game will be 20% off to any player if purchased (or ordered) by closing time Saturday.


Since we’ll be starting just a couple of weeks before Halloween, the game scheduled for 18 October will be the darkly-funny Gloom (Atlas Games, 2004). This innovative card game is all about visiting horrible things upon your own “family” of characters, and good things upon your opponents’ families. (Because, in this case, bad is good and good is bad.  If you follow me.) You can read my capsule review from an earlier blog post here.  Or, if you prefer the slick, Hollywood version of things, you can watch Wil Wheaton and friends play and explain Gloom on this episode of Tabletop. Or do both — but then come down and play!

munchkin zombies

Just a few of the Munchkin Zombies cards. Braaaaiiiinnnns!

On the same night, our friends Jared and Jason, local Men in Black from Steve Jackson Games, will also be on hand if people want to learn — or just to play —Munchkin Zombies. If you’ve never played Munchkin before and you want to get a taste of what it’s like, you can head on over to the Rigged Flash Demo on the Steve Jackson Games website. (Hint: in the flash game, the computer player always wins. It’s a Rigged Demo! But the sheer number of cards in the real games means that almost anything can happen.)

On 25 October, we’ll be playing Munchkin Bites, from Steve Jackson Games, once again with the help of Jason and Jared.  (Since it’s just a few days before Halloween, should we award extra points if you show up in costume?) And on 1 November, we’ll be taking 7 Wonders (Asmodée Games) out for a spin. You can cram before the test by reading my 7 Wonders game review here.

Each week’s featured game will be posted well in advance on the Scalliwag Toys Google Calendar, which you can find here. We’re also more than happy to take suggestions. See you soon!

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