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 we’re hitting all the internet’s favorite things: ghosts, pirates, and of course, ancient variations on Chess. The internet likes that stuff, right? To look at it another way, though, everything in today’s post is about experiencing the past, whether it’s a game that was first played before the invention of the windmill, one invoking no small amount of childhood nostalgia, or one in which the dead returned to haunt the living and make ’em draw too many cards and stuff. Step into my Wayback Machine…
What is it?
Chaturanga is a precursor to Chess, hailing from India. Or at least that’s what the edition I played was called (pictured above); Wikipedia tells me the version I played is actually called Chaturaji. Whatever you call it, the game is at least 1000 years old. Kind of fascinating to think about. Which of today’s games will be around in a millennium? Chess, probably. But Monoply? Catan? Something that hasn’t been invented yet? Something we wouldn’t even recognize as a game?
How do you play?
Okay, it’s like Chess, but… No, that’s not fair.
In Chaturanga, you play with either two players or four, controlling two or one armies respectively. Each army consists of eight pieces and starts in a corner of the board, as shown above. Unlike Chess (dammit) you don’t have the freedom to move any piece you want; you roll the two sticks (which are basically d4s) and then choose to divide the results how you want. (In that sense movement is more like Backgammon, I guess.) Pawns and kings move like you’d expect, while the ships, elephants, and horses are roughly equivalent to bishops, rooks, and knights, respectively. You’re playing to capture pieces and defeat the opposing armies, not to checkmate.
So is it good or what?
That’s not really a fair question, Mr. Question That Gets Asked At This Point in Every Loaded Die Post. Which is to say that although I found Chaturanga (or Chaturaji or whatever) fun and interesting enough to bring up here, I don’t feel remotely qualified to talk intelligently about whether or not it is a good game. I’ve been playing “modern” board games (a period which can be easily, if somewhat inaccurately, pegged to the release of Settlers of Catan in 1995) for about 7 years now, and I believe myself capable of “getting” a game after only a few playthroughs (or one, or even just reading the rules). This does not really apply to ancient games, though. I believe you can’t truly understand Chess until you’re a grandmaster, and although I’ve played and enjoyed Chess at my level (quite average, generally), I’m not really engaging in an intellectual sense with its full depths. I’m like an octopus playing with legos: it may be fun for me, but I’m not really capable of using the product as intended.
But, okay: on my completely pedestrian, layman, “hang out and do this on a rainy afternoon” level, I did have fun. The game has a very different feel compared to Chess, not only because of the random aspect–which is less disruptive than you’d think, and offers a more nuanced style of play, because you can leave a figure vulnerable temporarily if you gamble that you’ll roll it again before your opponent rolls the one he needs to take it–but it’s also a different feel because of the way the armies move. When playing with two players (as I did), the players take alternating armies (yellow and green versus red and black, for example). Pieces can only move forwards, not backwards, so all four armies end up converging on the center of the board, different colors allied and protecting and attacking one another in a kind of chaotic spiral advance. Less elegant than Chess, but less sterile, too–the game seemed very much alive and dynamic, messy and colorful. It is possible to get bored even with the perfection of black and white. So while I may be incapable of parsing the strategic implications of the ruleset, I can tell you that it was a fun and interesting experience, like craning your neck to look up at a redwood that predates Copernicus. And then you think about all the people who have stood where you’ve stood and looked up at the redwood, people who lived in a very different world than you–and yet not so different, if those worlds share the same tree, the same set of rules and pieces. 1000 years from now, the world will be incomprehensibly strange to us, full of amusements so alien to our own that we could hardly imagine them. But someone, somewhere will still be curious enough to draw a board and throw the sticks and ponder the same choices I pondered during my game. And somewhere they’ll still be arguing about the proper use of Free Parking.
Rating: 2d4 (but not dice–they must be sticks carved from the petrified wood of a Jujube Tree discovered wrapped in fine cloth in the dark in the back of the cellar of a Raja’s palace that has stood abandoned for 500 years; otherwise assume no rating)
What is it?
More confusion of titles–Pirateology: The Game is not about the study of pirates and should have been called “Piratical” or something. (Or if it was made in the 80s, “Piradical, Dude!”) The confusion arises because the game is apparently based on a series of children’s nonfiction books. Those books are sort-of interactive textbooks about piracy, featuring informative articles and toy compasses and things. They sound like a great gift for an 8-year-old kid, actually. The game carries through the series’ tradition of sweet pirate loot by including miniature ship models, a skull, and other goodies I’ll go into later. These are used to play an old-school, “travel around the map and draw cards” kind of board game that most closely resembles Candyland, if Candyland were non-linear, included combat, and was about murdering, thieving outlaws instead of gumdrops and chocolate.
How do you play?
This is mostly the oldest of old schools, as you can see from the board there. You know you’re playing a very old or very kiddy game if the board A) has spaces and B) the spaces have pictures on them of what happens when you land there. In this case the pictures are things like typhoons, giant squid monsters, skulls and dubloons, which are all things that can happen to you when your dice roll brings you to that part of the sea. The goal of of the game is to gather all the treasure by traveling around the board and whomping your opponents. Players can upgrade from a pirate figure to a ship, which lets you travel faster and enables the whomping. They can bury some treasure on the X (marks the) spots and come back for it later (or watch in horror while some other pirate digs it up), which is usually a good idea because if you run out of treasure, you’re eliminated from the game. You can also steal a horde of gold out of the skull if you get enough of the right cards.
So is it good or what?
Oh, man, so good! The skull is super awesome and filled with nicely crafted gold coins:
The artwork is excellent, and the ship models are intricate and really nice looking:
Also, these are the most gorgeous thematic dice I’ve ever seen:
So overall, the production value is really impressive, and everything inside would make great additions to a shelf, mantel, or bookcase.
Oh, you meant is it good as a game? No, the game is terrible. It’s like a greatest hits compilation of all the ways in which games sucked and caused arguments when you were a kid. You’ve got randomized movement, so the dice can fuck you. You’ve got the Monopoly-style “gather all the resources” win condition, which not only leads to hard feelings but takes forever. And you’ve got the ship mechanic, where if you find the upgrade card randomly in the deck, you get to use a ship, which lets you travel twice as fast and engage in combat–this wildly unbalances the game against pirates on foot, because they can’t fight back and they can’t run away. Even if you have all the treasure (for example, you manage to raid the skull) you have no hope of winning if you haven’t drawn the exact card you need to upgrade.
While this game did take me back to the board games of my youth, it’s a place I didn’t really want to go. There’s a reason we’ve moved on beyond Monopoly, Battleship, and Risk–those were bad games. We know more now about how to design games that give players a balanced, controlled experience that combines player freedom with carefully tested rules that ensure the game never becomes too unfair or too long or too rage-inducing. Pirateology is gorgeous, but it’s like slapping a new coat of paint on a Model T and selling it in 20-goddamn-14. Are you really nostalgic for 40 mph top speed, 20 horsepower, no seatbelts or airbags, and an environmental impact that rivals Three Mile Island? It may look cool, but instead of air conditioning and power steering, you get a crank starter and casual racism. No thanks, Pirateology.
Rating: 1d2 (doubloons only)
What is it?
Ghooost! is a card game by Richard Garfield. Garfield is one of the three game designers I can name off the top of my head (Knizia we talked about last week; Steve Jackson will come up sooner or later). Garfield is famous for creating Magic: The Gathering, in addition to other games and CCGs (his Netrunner is truly excellent, too). Ghooost! has nowhere near the complexity of most of his other work, and feels like something short and small tossed off in between larger projects. It’s an Uno-like game where players compete to rid themselves of their hands and decks in two distinct game phases.
How do you play?
Players have a deck of cards and a hand of four cards to start with. They take turns playing a card to the central pile if they can; the card must be of an equal to or higher number than the current top of the pile. If they can’t, they pick up the pile and add it to their hand. If they can, they draw back up to four from the central deck. Once the central deck runs out, any player with an empty hand plays the top card off their personal deck instead (playing blindly). When your personal deck runs out, you win. Most of the cards are just numbers, but a few of them have special abilities; they may allow you to discard the central pile, restrict what the next player can play, skip a turn, or carry out other effects. Also, playing two, three, or four cards of the same number lets you take another turn, and playing four of the same number also clears the central pile.
So is it good or what?
Eh. It’s slight, is the problem. It compares favorably to similar games like Uno and Skipbo, because the art style is neat, it’s guaranteed to be fast, and there’s a little more strategy involved. But the operative word there is “little.” The real problem with the game is the second half, where players play blindly from their personal decks. That’s when Ghooost! loses almost all of its strategy and becomes purely luck-based most of the time. Also, while the central mechanic is decent, I’m not a big fan of the way you end up picking up the entire central pile when you can’t play a card–this just results in the same giant hand getting passed around the table. It’s unwieldy and repetitive. So although it’s fun to navigate this game’s rules once, I doubt I would seek it out to play again or show other people. Unlike Garfield’s more famous games, this just doesn’t have the strategic depth necessary to keep me coming back.
I don’t want you to think that I’m just down on kid’s games, or that I’m expecting too much from them. There are kid-friendly games out there that I really love, and I’ll be reviewing some of them in the coming weeks and months of this feature. But I’m convinced that a great kid game needs to be like a Pixar movie: accessible and interesting to kids and adults, while putting the adults on some kind of parity with the kids. This often means focusing on simple, clear strategic choices; it can also mean game mechanics built around mechanical skills rather than mental ones. Too often kids games have oversimplified rules, obvious strategies, or meaningless player choices–or they devolve into the kinds of luck-based systems that you could get a robot to play. (Although there’s something aesthetically pleasing about Skipbo to me, I’m not sure it actually requires human intention.) It’s a trickier space to navigate than adult games in many ways, but it can also lead to very rewarding and unique game experiences. Ghooost! isn’t a bad game, but it doesn’t hit that sweet spot, either. Little kids (8 and younger) will probably enjoy it, but parents and older siblings will probably be bored.
That’s it for this week! Tune in next Thursday for more board game action.