To Boldly Go… pear-shaped – A Space Cadets review

Picture by Stephen Buonocore

Georgios: Strange as it may seem, my gaming group nowadays has very peculiar names.
Ben: Funny names?
Georgios: Nicknames, nicknames. Now, on Space Cadets we have Who’s on weapons, What’s on sensors, I Don’t Know is on helm–
Ben: That’s what I want to find out. I want you to tell me the names of your friends playing Space Cadets.
Georgios: I’m telling you. Who’s on weapons, What’s on sensors, I Don’t Know is on helm–
Ben: You know the players’ names?
Georgios: Yes.
Ben: Well, then who’s on weapons?
Georgios: Yes.
Ben: I mean the guy’s name flicking the disk.
Georgios: Who.
Ben: The guy puzzling together the torpedos.
Georgios: Who.
Ben: The guy flicking the disc into the enemy ships’ range.
Georgios: Who is on weapons.
Ben: Well, what are you askin’ me for?
Georgios: I’m not asking you–I’m telling you. Who is on weapons.
Ben: I’m asking you–who’s on weapons?
Georgios: That’s the man’s name.
Ben: That’s who’s name?
Georgios: Yes.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Space Cadets can be confusing at first. There are a lot of rules. In fact, each of the eight stations in the game plays by its own rules. Although most of them will be familiar to you. Weapons play a bit like Ubongo and Crokinole. Helm is a simplified game of RoboRally. The player on Shield duty has to put together poker-style hands out of a random selection of numbered tokens. Sensors needs to pick the one cardboard piece out of a bag, that matches a randomly drawn card, going only by sense of touch. Using the tractor beam is basically playing Memory, and the hyperjump – which ends the game – is Yahtzee with a few special abilities thrown in. And so on.

Picture by Geoffrey Engelstein

The station’s rules are familiar, but there’s a sand timer (or an app, if you’re so inclined) running each turn making the seemingly trivial minigames something of a stress-inducing challenge. Doubly so if the success of the entire group this turn depends on you. Being a team of space cadets is a cooperative project, that can be hard and stressful, but also very rewarding.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Ben: When the Engineer allocates energy each round, who puts together the torpedos for the firing range?
Georgios: Every last bit of them. And why not, the man’s good at it.
Ben: Who is?
Georgios: Yes.
Ben: So who does it?
Georgios: Why shouldn’t he? Sometimes, when damage triggers a shift change and we have to swap stations, his wife jumps in to do it.
Ben: Who’s wife?
Georgios: Yes. After all, they’re both great at it.
Ben: Who is?
Georgios: Absolutely.
Ben: Well, all I’m trying to find out is what’s the guy’s name on weapons?
Georgios: Oh, no, no. What is on sensors.
Ben: I’m not asking you who’s on sensors.
Georgios: Who’s on weapons!

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

While that’s all well and good, there are a great number of cooperative games out there. Why should Space Cadets stand out? And the answer is as surprising as it is obvious, once you’ve played it. This is a game that encourages teamwork and not mere coordination. Games like Pandemic or even Space Alert are all about communication. Whether it’s negotiating consent, or refining efficiency and clarity under pressure, the games’ designs drive people to arrange their individual actions in such way that they result in victory.

Picture by Geoffrey Engelstein

Space Cadets takes a different route. By giving everybody a fundamentally different task to do, and a time limit in which to accomplish it, play is less about learning to be more efficient and more about the group’s success becoming more than the sum of its parts. This is a game in which each victory truly feels like a team effort. Moreso than in any other cooperative game out there. Not only because there is little room for bad players devolving into alpha gamers, but because each player’s objective is clear and its value to the overall success is immediately apparent. If the helmsman fails to position the ship just right, it causes ripples throughout the rest of the round, if not the game. If the engineer doesn’t get the energy that the weapons officer needs, the ship won’t be able to defend itself. And so on…

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Ben: Your Space Cadets have got a good hyperjump officer?
Georgios: Oh, absolutely
Ben: That player’s name?
Georgios: Why.
Ben: I don’t know, I just thought I’d ask
Georgios: Well, I just thought I’d tell you.
Ben: Then tell me who’s rolling the dice for the hyperjump?
Georgios: Who’s manning weapons.
Ben: Stay out of core crew! The hyperjump officer’s name?
Georgios: Why.
Ben: Because.
Georgios: Oh, he’s our Engineer.
Ben: Wait a minute. You got a Captain on this team?
Georgios: Wouldn’t this be a fine team without a Captain?
Ben: Tell me the Captain’s name.
Georgios: Tomorrow.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

But all those achievements in designing a truly team-based board game come at a price. Space Cadets is unweildy for the unintiated. Actually, it is unweildy for the seasoned, experienced player as well. While the individual stations are fairly easy to wrap your head around, the various markers, movement rules and enemy special abilities, that you need to handle outside of the timed phases of each turn, are just overwhelming. You can often see what each rule adds to the experience, but getting the game to flow naturally will take quite a few plays. If you are the one introducing this game to your group, you practically have to memorize the entire rulebook. If the game slows down, or even halts during play, all momentum is lost and the scaffolding that holds up an otherwise hilarious, engaging and fun experience becomes painfully apparent.

Picture by Geoffrey Engelstein

Space Cadets is a gamer’s cooperative game. This isn’t what you put on the table to ease non-gamers into the hobby, because the lack of cut-throat competition will lead to a more inclusive experience. Space Cadets is difficult to handle, and when you start playing, it’s also not particularly easy to succeed at.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Ben: Now, when an enemy ship comes chasing after us – me being a good Captain – I want to get clear shot at the aliens, so I arrange my speed and maneuvers just right and then who opens fire?
Georgios: Now, that’s he first thing you’ve said right.
Georgios: Don’t get excited. Take it easy.
Ben: Who flicks the disk at the enemy, what had a sensor lock from picking up the right shapes out of a bag by touch. The ship has been moved into range by I don’t know. And this will all be arranged by tomorrow. A perfectly played turn.
Georgios: Yeah, it could be.
Ben: But the enemy ship gets to fire back and cause damage.
Georgios: Because.
Ben: Why? I don’t know. And I don’t care.
Georgios: What was that?
Ben: I said, I DON’T CARE!
Georgios: Oh, she’s manning Shields!

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Intentionally or not, Space Cadets locks players into a strong sense of group identity and shared purpose. Which is not a pretentious way to say it is thematic – although I might use it at some later point to say just that. It is a cooperative game, which you will remember for the social experience it provided and not the challenge that its missions threw at you.

This is a game about playing together.




Perfect Information Spotlight – Vast: The Crystal Caverns

Diving in Deep with David Somerville

Designer David Somerville speaks to Ben about Vast: The Crystal Caverns and delves into the game’s history, its unique features and its (and his own) future.

Trying to Ice Skate Uphill – A Vampire Radar review

photo by W. Eric Martin

It’s the great debate.

Nature vs Nurture.

A question that has dogged science since Francis Galton coined the term in 1869 (I assume as he was standing opposite a looking glass and wondering where his liking for luxurious sideburns came from).

Are my predilections, peccadilloes and perversions the product of some haphazardly thrown together genetic gruel, or is my ever present tumescence a result of my environment, conditioning me to be turned on by oxygen molecules?

It is not a question that I will ever find the answer to, because I’m stupid, but as far as I know science is yet to fall down on one side of the fence or the other. It’s probably a bit of both, but with neuroscience casting doubt on whether we even have free will, one of the great incontestables of human identity, it seems to me that this “question of questions” will be struggled over for many years to come.

That’s why I’m not going to try and reason out the cause of my hatred of hidden movement games, but suffice it to say, I hate hidden movement games.

These are games that are specifically designed to provide untold pleasure for one person, and stultifying ennui for the rest of the poor, unsuspecting saps that find themselves huddled around the table, jabbing knitting needles into the fleshy parts of their bodies to keep themselves awake.

The player whose movement is hidden is ensconced in their own cocoon of excitement. Every utterance of the other players either sends them scattering for new strategies to prevent themselves from being revealed or, sitting back, glowing in silent self satisfaction, in appreciation of a clever strategy, perfectly executed. All this time, the other players point at the board and say “here?” repeatedly while anticipation becomes frustration becomes boredom.

None of these games provide any of the communality of experience that is the fundamental beauty of board games (I was tempted to say USP but then I remembered, that I wasn’t a marketing twat). These games offer a hugely lopsided play experience, but being the sun-filled optimist that I am, I’m always willing to be converted.

This is why I bought Vampire Radar, the pared back hidden movement game from designer Yuki Kaneko and publisher Japon Brand.

It seemed that Vampire Radar went some way to solving one of the biggest problems of hidden movement games: the length. This is a game that promised to play in forty five minutes, which, hopefully, in turn would limit the possibility of this game turning into a journey that started at Anticipation and terminated at Pissedoffville.

This is a game that promised to be stripped back to the core essence of the mechanic, not force fed extraneous bolt-ons and unwieldy combat systems until it wobbled around, unable to support itself under the weight of so much stuff (I’m looking at you, Fury of Dracula).

photo by Yuki Kaneko

This is a game that promised me things that I can happily report that it delivered.

In Vampire Radar one player is the blood drinker and the other players control four hunters each, that are seeking to bring its terror to an end (by killing it, of course, not sending it to a Corpuscle Anonymous meeting).

In a unique twist to the lore, this vampire is vulnerable to bullets and so must eat all of the hunter’s pawns, before they riddle his cold body with holes.

The map is assembled using numbered tiles. Some have walls that restrict movement and block bullets. Some have extra ammo for the hunters or healing points for the vampire, and some carry the radars, whose spelling is so maliciously mangled on the front of the box, that give a hint to the hunters as to the whereabouts of their foe.

Hunters move and shoot, and the vampire munches his way through the heroes until one side wins.

This game succeeds due to its simplicity. There are few rules and they are easy and intuitive to grasp. The map is small and the vampire has to reveal itself when it eats, and it eats often, so there are never endless turns without reward.

There is never a feeling of total mastery on the vampire’s part and never a feeling of hopelessness on the part of the hunters. The players are thrust straight into the action and expelled before they have a chance to get bored.

This game follows in the tradition of many Japon Brand games, that explore the profundity and beauty of simplicity, and it does it with consummate skill.

This is why games are constantly surprising and constantly invigorating, as they provide a platform for expectations to be subverted at every turn.

This game hasn’t cured me of my dislike for hidden movement games, but it has provided me with an example of one, that I would be happy to play at any time.

I suppose the moral of this story is that whatever you think you like, or don’t like, or whatever reason you ascribe to those preferences, there is always the option to be surprised and Vampire Radar certainly did that for me.


Perfect Information Podcast Episode 25 – Poly Ticking

A Year of Living Dangerously

Wine, cheese, people… what do those things have in common? That’s right, they need to mature before we can fully appreciate them. After a year of toiling heedlessly and often inappropriately, we have turned a corner and matured, like a fine slice of Brie.

That does not only mean we have a sponsor that we are happy to shill for in this episode, we also put on our big boy pants and talk about things that we deem to matter. Namely: politics. In boardgames. Or maybe of boardgames. Either way.. let’s talk about the good stuff!

T.C. has once again graced us with his presence and invites us to a new lecture in his “School for Rules Writers Who Can’t Write Good and Want to Do Other Stuff Good Too” series at 00:31:15.

We stroll back into the Guild and speak about overproduction. Yours, specifically. Seriously… what is up with all those replies? It’s like you want to have your opinions heard and mentioned on the show. (00:46:21)

A few words from our sponsor Yolo-Games await you at 01:08:13.

At 01:12:36 the esteemed Nick Mariner accosts your eardrums in full mono as he sets the record straight on Kickstarter – what it is, what it isn’t and how we shouldn’t kid ourselves about it.

Finally, this week’s review is a live broadcast of The Networks (1:26:06) by Gil Hova of Formal Ferret Games. (For certain definitions of live.)

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Hit & Run – A review of Shinobi and SCAPE

Shinobi (Assassins)


In the far away land of Fantasy Ninjadom, there are dojos and ninja clans. These clans plot against one another – as is custom – to determine the best and most powerful clan of them all. You take control of a clan each, choose three of your four possible attacks to play and play them face down in front of your three neighbouring opponents to the left. But since you are honourable, you also announce what kind of attacks you’ve ordered. When all attacks are dealt, each player in turn order flips over two of the three cards in front of them.

If the two cards show the same attack, the dojo has been hit! If they show different attacks, then nothing happens. Thankfully since your fellow players are honest and trustworthy people, you can just go by what they’ve told you and will never lose, since you will always pick two different attacks. But in the extemely unlikely and purely hypothetical case in which the honourable head of a ninja clan might have lied to you, you have a way of escalating the proceedings. Flip over two different attacks, and you can accuse the involved players of conspiring against you. Clearly, this is hugely dishonourable and nobody would ever dare do such a thing. Not in a peaceful and harmonious game such as this one. You then turn over the third card, if it shows the same type of attack as the other two cards, you have unmasked those dojos’ sinister motives, and thus deal damage to them. Last player standing wins.

In a far more amusing twist, though, there is also a way to double down on your successful defense against an attack, i.e. flipping over two cards with different attack types on them, and that involves accusing the involved clans of incompetence. If you then flip over the third card, and show an attack that doesnt match the other two, you have shown your opponents to be too incompetent to anticipate each other’s plans. The image of standing up and denouncing your opponents’ incompetence is without a doubt the highlight of the first couple of plays in this game.

pic2719754Now this sounds like an amusing little diversion. A small bluffing game with some clever silliness thrown in. But there are sadly two stumbling blocks here, which given the tiny size of the game, amount to debilitating blows. First, the game does not let you choose who to attack. Merely which of the four cards – which everybody has – you use. This in turn hobbles the metalevel of this game needlessly. While it does streamline and speed up play, it leaves the bluffing element of Shinobi gutted. You are locked into continuously sending your ninjas up against the same three players, until they or you are eliminated.

Admittedly, this problem is easily solved with a house rule. Yet, even with such a house rule, the game also feels solvable and mathematical, in that it is fairly easy to figure out the odds for any card in front of you, after the first has been flipped over.

So instead of Shinobi being this amusing, card-based bluffing game about getting into the head of other players, you end up doing simple math. It’s a bluffing game where you pay less attention to the player trying to bluff you, than you are counting cards and playing the odds. A looser play structure, and more variance in the attacks you can play, would have done wonders for this game. As it stands, its concept is exciting, but the execution too constraining to make it land.

SCAPEpic2529617You know what’s fun? World War II.

And you know what’s even more fun? A POW camp during WWII.

Why not make a game about that? There are after all a lot of really fun films about that. Like The Great Escape, which also happens to be where this little card game takes its visual inspiration from.

pic2601138Depending on player count, you play with hidden allegiances in a team-vs-team or team-vs-team-vs-Nazi game. As either members of the Royal Air Force, or the United States Air Force, you are working together to dig a tunnel out of your prison camp and into freedom. You play cards face down into the middle of the table into five seperate piles sorted by the letter printed on the back of your card. Those letters end up forming the word “SCAPE”. (NB Scape is derived from the English word “Escape” meaning to flee. Learn more fun facts about the English language here.)

Alternatively you can play the cards face-up and not into any piles to trigger their printed special ability, which go from looking at another player’s allegiance, to moving hands around, or discarding the top card of a pile, etc.

pic2601128Why would you want to discard that top card? Because even though you want to escape the clutches of Nazi imprisonment you also don’t want “that limey prick”/”that yankee wanker” to get the glory for successfully escaping. Each card features insignia of either the USAF, RAF or the SS. At the end of the game the team that has more of its signs on the cards revealed, will have won.
But if you reach the end of the game and the tunnel, i.e. the word SCAPE is not completed, you fail. Even worse, if you end up revealing an Nazi insignia (a skull, not a swastika, in case you were wondering), “ze German” has won. Your bickering has led to the Nazis discovering and subsequently destroying your only plan to escape.

Like Shinobi, the game’s concept is solid. Its rules outline suggests a playable and entertaining game. And it is. Playable, at least. But the entertainment level quickly plummets once you realise that the game only ends, if all cards have been played. Which means a large number of card effects will be triggered during the game, making play more erratic and random as it goes on. Clever play, deduction or even subterfuge becomes increasingly worthless, as it all comes down to which players get to play the last couple of cards in the game.

If card games had not gone through a second renaissance with the arrival of the microgame, this would have been fine. But today, small card games need to bring more to the table than some randomness and unusual theming. SCAPE sadly doesn’t.


Kickstarter Preview – Mars 4:45

Mars 4:45 – to back or not to back?

We return, once more, to our apparently annual custom of previewing a hot item on Kickstarter. This time our merciless gaze falls upon Mars 4:45 by the guys from TGIK.

A quick, real-time card game for up to four players, that has you build modules to establish a colony on Mars. Is it worthy your moneys? We have the answer to that question in this week’s slice.

Mars 4:45 will go live on Kickstarter on September 15, and conclude its campaign on October 14. Pledges start at 20$.

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The guts, gore and BRAAIIINS of stories – A City of Horror review

We’re in it for the stories. Wherever the stories exist. We gulp down stories. We devour the stories of others and invent our own so there’s no pause in the gorging. In every facet of our lives we cajole, we mould and wrangle random events into the shape of narrative. We apportion meaning where there is none. We cram things into story shaped boxes and slice off the bits that don’t fit. From the moment we haul open our crusted eyelids in the morning until the second we slam them shut again at night, we’re inhaling stories, embodying stories, accepting and rejecting stories…Like I said, we’re in it for the stories.

Board games offer a different form of narrative than the ones we are used to from films, books and TV (at least the ones that succeed do). Games offer narrative scaffolding; the story, a potentiality. It is incumbent on the player to concoct large parts of the story for themselves. To fashion events using the tools that come in the box.

There are those that prescribe narrative. Those games with blocks of text on cards. Those games that bog down play with the constant interruption of tasteless flavour. They try to thrust their stories onto the players. They offer no wiggle room, no invention. They are neither games nor books. They waddle between the two forms of delivery but fail at both.

The best game narratives are not prescribed but hinted at. These games gently prod the player into building their own story onto the scaffolding provided but never forget their primary purpose. To be a game.

cohboxThere are few games that do this as well as City of Horror. A wonderfully rendered Repos Production from 2012. A negotiation games that recognises the golden rule about any zombie narrative, it’s about the people.

The dead have risen and engulfed the earth but the living have fought back. One city remains under the sway of the dead. In this City of Horror a few survivors cling onto life and the meagre supplies that still remain. Every second is filled with danger. Danger from the zombies that threaten to consume them and danger from the other survivors who want to take what they have. But there is hope. If they can survive until four o’clock and if they can find the small supplies of antidote that have been airdropped onto the city then they can be flown to safety, when the army arrive… If they can survive.

City of Horror is rules light but these rules effortlessly support the telling of a story. The job of the rules in this game is to encourage table-talk and negotiation. Simple, rapid phases flow into each other, drawing out tension and hilarity. This is not a game for those that deplore direct player interaction. This game is as sharp and brutal as a bloodied axe.

cohboardThe board is set up around locations. The hospital, the bank, the church. Each location has a limited number of spaces and if a player character tries to enter a location when it’s full? Well, then they will have to try to survive in the crossroads, out in to open, where they could be feasted on at any moment.

Players control numerous characters and must move one in each round. Movement is decided on simultaneously but resolved in turn order so it could be that that comfortable nook in the corner of the bank has already been occupied someone else, leaving your character abandoned and at the mercy of the dead that surround them.

Then the dead pour into the city. Each location has a limit of zombies that can be congregated there before it is attacked. If this limit is exceeded they will eat someone. Action cards can be used to thin their numbers but sooner or later they will overrun the location and one of the characters will be on the menu.

The one to be eaten is determined by vote, with one vote each going to the characters in the location. If you have more characters in a location than anyone else then you have more votes than anyone else. These votes can be bargained for. You can swap votes for cards, for the promise of later favours or for a vial of the precious antidote that periodically pops up on the board.

It is from these negotiations that the story comes. As any promises that are made are not binding so there is an unpredictability and tension that is baked into the game. There is a real and present danger of being betrayed and betrayal can, and often does, result on being eaten.

Negotiation shoulders the burden of the game and, as a result, the onus is put directly on the players and any kind of back stabbing cannot be blamed on the vagaries of chance.

City of Horror simulates a world in which survival is the only consideration. There are no cumbersome combat mechanics or line of sight rules. There is only the moral fibre of those around you and that makes for some wonderful stories.

We’re in it for the stories and with City of Horror the stories leap out from every decision. Yours could be a story of survival against the odds or a fatal betrayal. The dynamics above the table directly affect the events on it. If you are looking for a game that tells a story and still remains a game, then City of Horror might just be for you.

– Ben

Perfect Information Podcast Episode 24 – Board Games’ Age of Pygmalion

Quo vadis Bling?

In this week’s magnanimous episode your esteemed hosts review the newest release of Artipia Games/Stronghold Games, aptly named The Pursuit of Happiness (1:17:32).

But before we get there, Nick Mariner invites us to a brief sojourn in the realm of ludological solitude as he pontificates on solo games (1:04:15).

Which you will hear just after our quick stop at the guild (40:48), where we not only get to the latest update on the musical prodigy that is Tension & Release (and mouth harp), but we also address our listeners’ (that means you, yes, you reading this right now) insightful contributions to the question of gaming masterpieces.

But do not skip ahead just yet, for you will miss a dazzling lecture on the How of Writing Rules by design luminary T.C. Petty III (28:31). Yes, he of Flowing Hair Championship fame 2004, 2007 and 2012. He also casually threw out games like Xenon Profiteer. But that hair… oh my.. that hair!

And you will get to all that, just after you’ve listened to the opening topic of this week’s episode: the beautification of boardgames. A sign of things to come? And will they herald a new age of playful joy (yes!) or a devolution into childishness (boo!)?

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