Tag Archives: Strategy Games

Coming Soon: Five Tribes from Days of Wonder


U.S. games publisher Days of Wonder has just announced a new game from designer Bruno Cathala, whose game Mr. Jack Pocket was reviewed here.

Game Contents

Game Contents

Five Tribes will be an Arabian Nights-inspired game of worker placement on a 30-tile board. Here’s a quote from the Days of Wonder blog post:

Designed by Bruno Cathala, Five Tribes builds on a long tradition of German-style games that feature wooden meeples. Here, in a unique twist on the now-standard “worker placement” genre, the game begins with the meeples already in place – and players must cleverly maneuver them over the villages, markets, oasis and sacred places tiles that make up Naqala.  How, when, and where you dis-place these Five Tribes of Assassins, Elders, Builders, Merchants, and Viziers determine your victory or failure.

As befitting a Days of Wonder game, the rules are straightforward and easy to learn. But… devising a winning strategy will take a more calculated approach than our standard fare. You need to carefully consider what moves can score you well and put your opponents at a disadvantage. You need to weigh many different pathways to victory, including the summoning of powerful Djinns that may help your cause as you attempt to control this legendary Sultanate.

Palm Trees! Camels!

Palm Trees! Camels!

The components look beautiful and the game’s premise is intriguing. Five Tribes is scheduled to launch at GenCon Indy in August, and to be available for us to order for September. The tentative suggested retail is US$60, so it is likely to be somewhat higher here, depending upon the Canadian/U.S. dollar exchange rate at the launch.  We’ll keep you posted as we hear more from the publisher.


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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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“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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All About … Mancala

Mancala, as it is commonly known in North America, is a game derived from a whole family of games described as “count-and-capture” games.  The word mancala is thought to have come from the Arabic word naqala, meaning “changed” or “relocated”.  The earliest known version of such a count-and-capture game is represented by a board found in what had been a 4th-century Roman fortress in eastern Egypt, while other, more fragmentary, versions have been dated to the 6th and 7th century AD.

The variant of Mancala most often played in North America was originally known as Kalah, and was introduced around 1940 by a man named William Julius Champion. Champion was born in Colorado in 1905 and attended Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut. According to Champion family legend, Willie was a colourful character, who put himself through university (no mean feat even in 1905) by working odd jobs, including a summer job stint with the Barnum & Bailey Circus, and is said to have walked from his home in Michigan to New Haven, a distance of about 1,370 km.

A Folding Mancala Board

A Folding Mancala Board

Champion conceived and marketed Kalah as an educational game, and there is no doubt that it does reinforce basic skills of counting and strategy.  At first glance, the game appears simple.  Forty-eight pebbles are distributed equally amongst twelve pits in the board. Each player “owns” the six pits directly in front of him, as well as the larger “store” to his right.  On his turn, a player takes all the stones from one of the pits on his side of the board, and distributes them anti-clockwise around the board (including dropping one into his own store). If he manages to drop the last stone from his handful into his store, then he may play once more.  If he drops his last stone into a previously empty pit on his own side, then he may take all the stones (if any) from the opponent’s pit directly opposite, and add them to his own store.  A player never drops a stone into his opponent’s store, but rather skips over it.

Ethiopian Pitted Stone Board

Ethiopian Pitted Stone Board

And that’s it. A surprising amount of strategy is required — there is no luck involved whatsoever. Mancala is an extremely enjoyable game that can be played over and over by children and adults alike.  You don’t even really need a board to play any of the Mancala family of games:  it has been suggested that, since this version can easily be played by scraping twelve holes into the ground and finding 48 beads, seeds, nuts, or stones, the count-and-capture game may be far, far older than 1,500 years — but these early versions would leave no archaeological traces.



Finally, here’s a super-low-cost version you can try at home.  You can use any small objects for the counters: buttons, beads, coins, marbles, or candies. (Bear in mind that small objects do pose a safety hazard for children under the age of four.)

Got Eggs?

Got Eggs?

And now you know. So get cracking!


2 players, ages 5+, 10 minutes. In stock ($14.99).

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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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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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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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