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, the Tribond is DOOOOOOM! Whether it’s your tower falling, your island sinking, or, well, your game crashing and burning, today’s entries are just one step away from total collapse.
What is it?
Bandu is a bit like Jenga, but instead of uniform blocks, all of the pieces are different shapes and sizes (as you can see above), and each player has their own separate tower. There’s also a simple auction mechanic to distribute blocks. It’s the English version of a German game released in 1987 called Bausack, a name I can’t say without giggling, because I am eight years old.
How do you play?
Each player starts with the base Bandu block (see above) and three beans. Players take turns choosing pieces from the pile of irregular blocks. Once a player has chosen a block, they start one of two types of actions, bid to win (the highest bean bid gets to place the block) or to reject (anyone who doesn’t want to take the block has to pay a bean), with the player who chose going last in the bidding. Whoever gets the block places it on their tower. The player with the last tower standing wins the game.
So is it good or what?
Not bad. The game is simple enough to grasp instantly, but that doesn’t stop it from being fun. Every game like this lives and dies on the quality of its components, and Bandu‘s are very nice. They’re solid wood, with lots of interesting shapes that look impossible to fit anywhere but end up having subtle formations allowing them to interact well with one another. My favorite was the ball and cup, but there were lots of neat (and less obvious) pairings throughout. The creativity involved in finding places for a piece you got stuck with is rewarding to think through, and it’s fun to see other people work through the problems, too. The bean system is a little too minimal for my taste (once you run out of beans, anybody can basically force you to take the most difficult blocks), but the game lends itself to multiple overall strategies. Do I build my tower for stability, versatility, or to minimize height? And then there’s the physical skill of placing without knocking it over. Overall, Bandu hits some interesting notes.
It’s hard to review games like this because they occupy such a strange space–regular blog readers will know that I’m more used to evaluating and analyzing something from a narrative or intellectual perspective rather than from an emotional one. Many board games are stories or conceptual experiences and those are the ones I tend to gravitate towards and appreciate the most. But one of the things that makes “games” such a broad and unique medium is that it can also incorporate this kind of experience, one that involves the enjoyment of tactile and other experiences not normally present in other media. You get the same sort of feeling sometimes with architecture–interesting passageways and staircases and other elements you can interact with. I suppose that’s what I’m trying to get at, interaction. Instead of interacting with other players or a ruleset (although Bandu contains both of those, too), the focus is on interacting with interesting physical objects in space, using them in different ways. So talking about a game like Bandu is oddly personal and human. It’s not just about what I think you might find entertaining or gratifying as an experience but what you may find fulfilling or worthwhile as an activity. Recommending that you play with these weird blocks is like recommending that you visit this interesting creek or try this new dance. In the end, I don’t know that you’ll like it. I only know that it’s something new, that I liked it, and that it’s worth trying if you can.
What is it?
Forbidden Island is a cooperative game from designer Matt Leacock, whose most well-known game is the venerable co-op Pandemic (look at me, trying to learn some new designers). Players are explorers working together to find treasure on an ancient island and then escape while the island sinks beneath them. It’s very similar to Leacock’s spiritual sequel, Forbidden Desert, which most people prefer (but not me, ’cause I’m contrary like that). I’ll review Forbidden Desert eventually, but today we’ll talk about Island.
How do you play?
First, players build the island by laying out a series of tiles (pictured above) corresponding to different locations and geographic features. Some of the tiles picture the treasures you need in order to win (4 treasures, 2 tiles per treasure). To collect a treasure, you have to be standing on one of its tiles and then turn in 4 of the associated Treasure Cards. So the bulk of the game is moving from tile to tile, trading cards with people and collecting treasures. This wouldn’t be very exciting if it weren’t for the clock: every turn, you draw Flood Cards, each depicting a particular location. The corresponding tile is either flipped over to its Flooded side, or, if already flooded, is simply removed from play, making it harder to move around and, if the treasure tiles get flooded, harder to win. After the group has collected all four treasures, all players must make it back to Fool’s Landing (the starting space) and discard a Helicopter card in order to escape the island.
So is it good or what?
I liked this game a lot. The look of the flooded tiles makes the game, in my opinion–they’re colorful on one side, turn over to be monochrome blue when flooded, and then get removed entirely. It’s a thrilling and immediate visual warning that really makes you feel like the island is sinking around you. The treasure pieces are likewise more interesting and well-crafted objects than they have to be, so that you really do want to get them. Rarely do games this simple and refined give off a real narrative experience, and so Forbidden Island deserves all the praise it’s gotten.
The gameplay itself is well balanced, which I define in cooperative games as, “You win most of the time but never by much more than the skin of your teeth.” (Now, that judgment could be complete bullshit, since like with most of the games reviewed here at The Loaded Die, I’m going off of one playthrough. I tend to assume that whatever outcome I get is the most statistically likely one, though. Sometimes that’s confirmed in later replays and sometimes it isn’t.) Some people prefer the exact opposite–you lose most of the time, but winning is still possible. I tend to feel let down by a co-op loss unless we clearly made bad decisions or the game is clearly stacked against us in a big way. It’s a matter of narrative. I don’t expect, say, a firefighting team to necessarily be able to beat any fire, because fires are difficult and unpredictable in real life (see my future review of Flash Point). Forbidden Island, on the other hand, draws from the tradition of adventure pulp, where I expect any team of intrepid treasure hunters to get in over their head but somehow pull it off in the end. And you really do feel like a team here. Some co-op games suffer from “Napoleon syndrome,” a phrase I just made up referring to when the group decision-making process gets dominated by one person because all players have the same information and skills; Island skirts this by putting all players in danger of being trapped or drowned as the island sinks beneath them, so that the team feeling comes not from group decisions but group responsibility for getting everyone home safe (and hopefully laden with treasure). Overall, Forbidden Island is a tense, fun experience that’s easy to pick up, quick to play, and rewarding to win.
Dungeoneer: Dragons of the Forsaken Desert
What is it?
Dungeoneer: Dragons of the Forsaken Desert is the fifth set of cards in the Dungeoneer series of games. The series is designed by Thomas Denmark, a California video game artist who does these games in his spare time and sounds like a really nice person, so I feel bad that I’m about to say mean things about his game. This is why I shouldn’t learn designers’ names. Anyway, the game is your standard DnD-esque dungeon crawler, played here entirely through cards. There are a few mechanical twists I’ll get into below, but otherwise it is what it says on the box. There are indeed dragons and that desert is pretty goddamn forsaken, I tell you what.
How do you play?
Like any dungeon crawler, Dungeoneer focuses primarily on the genre’s core competencies: going places and hurting things. As you can see above, the game is played entirely with cards (and dice for combat). Players move from one card to the next, exploring the area and drawing new map cards to enter. Once at a location, they can fight monsters, complete quests, find peril and win glory. The first player to complete 3 quests wins.
So is it good or what?
Almost entirely not. The game does have one really cool mechanic, though, the Glory/Peril system. The way it works is that each map card has either a Glory number, a Peril number, or both, which you earn upon entering. You can also earn them through combat. Glory and Peril are then used to play good or bad cards from your hand, respectively–but the neat part is that you spend your Glory to play good cards on yourself, but spend another player’s Peril to play bad cards on her. So as you go around the map, accumulating Peril, you’re making yourself more vulnerable to other players. It’s a really cool idea that adds a lot more interactivity than is usual for the genre.
That mechanic is the one bright spot, though, in game that’s bad for very common reasons. The rules are too complicated, with many different player options and tasks each turn (say what you will about the Pathfinder card game, and I certainly did, but at least it boiled your turn down to Move, Draw a Card, Do Stuff With the Card). The game’s UI is a mess, too. Most games fall into one of two camps, if it has a lot of information that needs to be expressed to players during the game. One type of game tends to be very symbol-heavy, which makes localization easier; if the symbols aren’t really well designed (clearly differentiated and preferably intuitive), your first time through the game can be like participating in a game show where you answer trivia questions written in Egyptian hieroglyphics. The other type of game is very text-heavy, which avoids the hieroglyphics but often forces players to spend inordinate amounts of time picking up everyone else’s cards and reading them to be sure of any game possibilities. Dungeoneer‘s solution to this Gordian Knot is to tie some more string around it–it’s text-heavy and symbol-heavy, with way too much information on any individual card and symbols that are visually indistinct and graphically unintuitive. Threat is kind of an eye-looking thing, Glory is a thumbs up, a Pit is a shadowy square but a Wall is half an octagon (??), Banes are crossbones, okay, but why is a Boon represented by Da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man? Combat is equally overcomplicated, with a confusing attack/counter-attack system that doesn’t do the UI any favors. It’s as if the designer took all the complexities of a big dungeon board game and recreated them on tiny cards, but instead of simplifying or cutting anything he just crammed it all in there. The result is a game that’s far too difficult and complicated to learn and play than it’s worth, especially in a crowded genre that offers many other, better options for the same basic experience. I only played the 5th set of this series, but I definitely won’t be playing the others. I’m forsaking this desert and never coming back.
That’s it for this week! Tune in two weeks from now for more board game action.