Welcome back to The Loaded Die, a biweekly feature here at the Kraken where your host, Kyu (that’s me!) reviews three new board games in every delicious post.
For each game, I’ll give an overview of what it is, a description of how to play, and my subjective thoughts (typically based on a single play-through). Looking for numerical ratings? Generate your own with our helpful guide! Simply roll the listed number and type of dice to discover your personalized rating. Remember, it’s not a meaningless number if you believe in it.
This week’s games take us on a road trip through space, time, and social class. We begin in the fantasy city of Waterdeep, where we use our power and influence to arrange quests for the city’s heroes. From there, we journey to 1930s New York, maneuvering to entice socialites into our swanky nightclubs. Finally, we go down the road and the social ladder to try our hand at building carnival rides in the American Midwest. Without further ado…
Lords of Waterdeep
What is it?
Lords of Waterdeep is a interesting recent take on the worker placement genre. In most games, players choose from a handful of actions on their turn. In worker placement, those actions are mapped to spaces on a board, and players select actions by placing “workers” (figures, meeples, whatever) on those spaces. This isn’t just a visual trick; it allows for mechanical differences in how the game plays. For example, most worker placement games will limit the number of workers who can be on any given space at a time, so that players compete for the available actions; but there are other changes that can be added to the mix. The vast majority of these games are Euro, a categorization I discussed last week, particularly in terms of having only “light” thematic elements. Lords of Waterdeep‘s chief innovation is in combining the mechanical strength of a Euro game with the strong thematics and greater complexity of a DnD-offshoot American game.
How do you play?
In this game, players are competing to see who can get the most victory points in a set number of rounds. Victory points are accrued by completing quests (among other things), and quests require parties of heroes for success. Heroes of several types (such as warriors, thieves, and wizards) are generated by placing workers on various buildings in town (ie, the board). Players can also build additional buildings (and collect rent on them when other players use them), accomplish hidden objectives revealed at the end (a key Euro mechanic), and use Intrigue cards to advance their interests or attack someone else’s.
So is it good or what?
Yes, with some qualifications. The bottom line is that it’s a better design than it is fun, at least for me. That’s not quite as bad as it sounds, because there are some really excellent design choices present here. Lords manages to mix a lot of mechanics into the base worker placement system without losing balance. It never overwhelms the player with options, or makes them feel too constrained, particularly because you can hold several quests at once, which lets your strategy fluctuate turn to turn based on what other people are doing and what actions are available to you. Can’t build more wizards for one quest? Build more warriors for another, or draw an Intrigue card in the hopes of going after a third. The game gives you great choices over the long run and in the short term.
My main issue with the game is actually the theme. Last week, I mentioned not being a fan of DnD-licensed board games, and that applies here as well. I simply find it bland and lacking personality, which is what happens when a single IP defines generic high fantasy for decades. And Lords of Waterdeep is definitely a game that could have benefitted from personality–although it’s a fun game, it never captured that sense for me that I was a corrupt and powerful Lord, moving idealists around the city at my whim. A game where you truly feel like a manipulative bastard would be really fun, so it’s shame Lords largely leaves that potential untapped. Still, it’s certainly no worse at expressing its theme than most Euro worker placement games, and I found the greater complexity appealing. Overall, I would definitely check this out; many people without my particular idiosyncrasies could (and do) love it. As for me, I certainly wouldn’t mind playing again, but I’m not rushing out to buy it, either.
What is it?
Times Square is a unique game that reminded me of fencing. It’s for two players only, each one playing a nightclub owner attempting to manipulate characters (with names like Saucy Sue and Champagne Charlie, the latter of which is a devious tongue-twister) toward either end of a long board and into their club. It’s by renowned designer Reiner Knizia, who has made hundreds of games, some of them very well regarded. I’ve only played a handful of them, most notably Lord of the Rings, which I found boring and overly difficult but admittedly well adapted from the story, and Blue Moon City, which I’ll review (positively) a few weeks from now. Many of his games are also available on iOS.
How do you play?
Two players sit on either end of a 17 space board. Six figures are arranged as shown above. Your goal is to get either Champagne Charlie (the bottle on the right) or Saucy Sue (middle green figure) to the last two spaces on your side of the board. This is accomplished by playing cards with the different figures on them, which allow you to move the figures in different ways based on their positions. Placement rules (for instance, Sue must always be between her bodyguards, the two gray figures; the red and yellow figures can draw certain others to their space) add constraints to force you to play strategically. Because of the way the cards work, the game often has a back and forth structure, each player tugging the line of figures in their direction only to have them pulled back again on their opponent’s turn, until finally someone manages to pull it off.
So is it good or what?
Yes! I love short little games like this. I think it took about 20 minutes to learn and play, and although the rules were a little confusing in places, once we got it the game flew by. The back and forth fencing of it all was really fun. Every time I drew a new hand of cards, it felt like I was preparing to press my advantage to the fullest. The way the figures move is just complicated enough to give you one or two good moves each turn, and puzzling out the best way to manipulate the system to my advantage on the fly was very entertaining. Even over a short game, it didn’t feel like the randomization of the cards disrupted player strategy–although perhaps my opponent, who lost, would beg to differ. Not much more to say; this is a good system, and a system is all it is.
Now, why was I so much more disappointed in Lords of Waterdeep for its shallow theme when Times Square could easily have been reskinned as a hundred different things? (Two fishermen luring fish, two hunters out foxing, two romantic rivals looking for love, etc.) Partly it may just be about expectations. I’ve come to assume that Knizia games bear little to no relation to the theme–in fact, several of his games have been rereleased with different themes altogether! But Lords of Waterdeep was, I felt, trying and not succeeding at inspiring a sense of fantasy adventure overlaid with competitive skulduggery. Times Square isn’t trying very hard at at its “story” (gawd, those silly alliterative names), so I was free to ignore it. I appreciated both games for their gameplay, but with Times Square‘s two-player configuration, I felt like I was more directly interacting with my opponent, rather than the indirect competition of a worker placement game. In the end, like much of the medium as a whole, it comes down to taste. That said, there are room for both games in anyone’s collection–particularly because fast, rewarding two-player games are relatively rare creatures. Times Square seems like a fun filler game to pull out and run through with a friend in between more in-depth experiences.
What is it?
Carnival I would consider a lighter game than even Times Square. It’s a simple game where players roll dice and try to build sets of cards (the necessary accoutrements for each of 5 carnival rides), the kind of game whose rules fit on the front and back of a single small piece of paper. That’s certainly not a bad thing, though–sometimes the simplest, smallest games are best. It looks like it was originally funded through Kickstarter, which has proved a great resource over the past few years for games just like this.
How do you play?
In Carnival, players compete to be the first to build 4 out of 5 carnival rides by laying down sets of cards. Each turn, you roll three dice and choose two of them; whatever numbers you rolled dictate what actions you get take that turn (in whatever order). These are actions like “steal a card from your opponent” or “Draw one card from the discard pile.” Then you can play cards to try and complete your sets. That’s about it!
So is it good or what?
Not really, unfortunately. I wanted to like Carnival very much–the theme appeals to me, the box drew my eye, and the art is gorgeous, with excellent components and beautiful little touches. (I love those little Admit One tickets, and the photography on the cards, those melancholy rides.) But the game had a couple of rules questions that weren’t answered, which was annoying but not game-breaking. More importantly, though, it just wasn’t that fun. The dice rolling aspect of the game feels like it takes away player agency, making what might have been a much more strategic game less thought-intensive. It reduces your choices down, which is rarely a good thing. And given the vast number of set-building games out there, you have to do something very special with either your gameplay or your presentation to make it worth my time. I don’t think Carnival does that.
The biggest thing holding Carnival back is that, even though the game’s design is quite simple, it’s missing a certain elegance. As a general rule, great design solves problems by removing or combining mechanics, not adding them. Here’s an example: I have no idea if I’m correct about the design process here, but it feels like the designer created the base game and then decided that the dice took away a little bit too much player control, so she added the tickets. You can spend a ticket to cancel another player’s die, reroll all of your own dice, or add or subtract one from one of your rolled dice. Okay, that adds a little more control and player interaction. But tickets still aren’t worth very much, because you get them by completing “natural” sets, sets that have no Wilds in them. Given that you only need 4 sets of 4 cards, it’s typically a better path to victory to use the Wilds rather than forgoing them to get your tickets. So now you have a complicated, possibly unbalanced game economy that’s been implemented (hypothetically speaking) to solve a completely different problem with the game. The game feels like it’s the result of a lot of decisions like that–it lacks the sense that it was easy to create. Great design feels like someone shook a box of jigsaw pieces and poured them out onto the table and they all snapped perfectly into place of their own accord–even if, in reality, someone probably spent years carefully examining and placing each piece. Carnival just doesn’t have it, and coupled with the other problems, it’s not a game I’d seek out again, or recommend. It’s a shame, because I’d like to like it, not least because it comes from an independent developer. I’d be happy to try out their other games if I ran across them, but this one just didn’t do it for me.
That’s it for this entry! Come back in two weeks for more board game action.