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 common factor is straight up excellence. After four editions of this column, we finally have three games I would recommend without hesitation to anybody interested in beauty or fun. One’s about fighting fires, one’s about a journey in Japan, and one is about revitalizing a lost society, but they’re all great.
Flash Point: Fire Rescue
What is it?
Flash Point: Fire Rescue is a game about a crazy man named Flash with a gas mask who goes around murdering people. It’s your job as players to point to Flash in order to rescue—okay, this is actually a co-operative firefighting game. It’s designed by Kevin Lanzing, and this seems to be his only claim to fame. It’s published by 999 Games, a Dutch company that puts out a lot of popular Euro games.
How do you play?
Players take on the roles of a firefighting team, using their special abilities to enter a burning building and rescue the civilians inside. The game’s centerpiece is its fire system; each turn, after players use their 4 action points (to fight fires, move, carry civilians, chop down walls, or activate special abilities), they roll dice determining the random grid segment where new smoke will appear. When smoke meets smoke, fire blooms and spreads, making the team’s task that much more difficult. The goal is to save the civilians, not the building—in fact, if the walls take too much damage (either from explosions or your trusty axe), the whole thing will collapse, killing everyone. Which is bad. The full game (and tons of expansions) offer new challenges (like hazardous waste canisters to evacuate), new team roles (like the loveable firehouse dog), and new tools (like the fire hose, which can spray an entire sector of the board). I’ve even heard of people grafting campaign rules onto the game.
So is it good or what?
Flash Point is one of the best co-operative games out there, hands down. Its unique theme harkens back to the simple play of childhood, the simulation of danger and heroism evoking a sense of wholesome role play and adventure without cynicism. Cooperative games offer, I think, the widest range of emotions of any genre—perhaps because it’s a broad category, perhaps because cooperation can often be a richer experience than competition—and Fire Rescue does not disappoint on that score. It’s tense, but you never feel powerless against the onrushing flames. The game takes care to always give you options (even allowing you to “bank” a couple of action points for later should they not be useful this turn), and unlike cooperative horror games like Arkham Horror, the randomized conflict progression system is relatively more likely to give you a pass (ie., when the fire dice rolls spawn smoke somewhere that won’t cause a massive explosion, or in a room whose civilian you’ve already rescued). The game’s flow is orderly, not frantic, with the game giving you a God’s eye view of the building’s floor plan. Sometimes you’re rushing from crisis to crisis, but most of the time you’re acting like a real firefighting crew, planning your approach, choosing your paths through the building, and carefully judging how to spend time, your most precious resource.
As suggested in the “How do you play?” section above, this is a very malleable game, and a lot of work has gone into developing new mechanics and additional complexities that make the game more fun without unbalancing the game or overloading the players with too many new rules to keep track of. The introductory game, which is easier (for example, you only have to take civilians out of the building, not get them to the ambulance) and teaches you the fire system, could very well stand alone. So it’s gratifying that the designers have managed to take a very good game and make it great via these finely tuned advanced mechanics and expansions. It’s strange, in a way, for this to be one of my favorite cooperative games. As a player I’m usually bored by realism, and much more interested in games about outer space exploration, or Lovecraftian monsters, or wizards duking it out. But as Flash Point shows, a compelling game can be just that: so good, you can’t help but enjoy yourself.
What is it?
In Japan’s Edo period (around the 17th through 19th centuries), there were five important highways connecting Edo, the country’s capital (and modern day Tokyo) and its provinces. The most important of these was Tōkaidō, the East Sea Road. This is Tōkaidō, an exquisitely beautiful board game about being a tourist on that road in the land of the Rising Sun. The game, surprisingly, is not actually Japanese; it was designed in 2012 by Antoine Bauza, a French designer. Bauza is responsible for a number of very excellent games, including 7 Wonders, Hanabi, and Ghost Stories.
How do you play?
The game’s elements include: a refined “linear path” board (distant cousin to children’s games like Candyland), a “point salad” Euro game about jockeying to advance against your opponents, and a stunningly gorgeous visual design. The basic experience is that of a tourist on a too-crowded road, trying to have the best vacation. Players head from one end of the line to another, stopping along the way at souvenir shops, farms, inns, and scenic vistas, collecting items from each worth victory points at the end of the game. The trick is that only one person may occupy a space at a time, and the player last in line always goes next, so you have to move carefully to ensure you’ll get to the places you need in each segment of the road. At the end, the points are counted, along with bonuses for players who specialized the most in each area and for those who charitably donated money at temples along the way.
So is it good or what?
By rights, this review shouldn’t even be words. I should just post a bunch of pictures of the board and game elements for you to salivate over. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a good game, but by far the best part of the experience is simply looking at the game’s art style and refined visual sense. When this is coupled with Tōkaidō’s simple but engaging rule-set, the overall result is a game which may not have ambitions as large as some of the other games I’ve reviewed or played, but which provides a virtually flawless version of the experience it’s aiming for.
How important is visual design in a board game, anyway? Certainly not every game needs it. Games like Escape From the Aliens in Outer Space need little more than black and white hexes to establish a viable game space, and plenty of simpler games, like Can’t Stop, Pit, or even Tic-Tac-Toe seem fine without expensive art or even dedicated boards. Chess pieces have seen lots of variation over the years, and the endless Monopoly reskins prove that some games can look like anything and still play the same. But other games seem like they couldn’t work at all without looking the way they do, from Gloom’s misery-laden UI to Bruxelles 1893’s Art Nouveau-inspired boards to the pulp adventurism of Eldritch Horror. The best games use visual design to make their rules and states clear, intuitive, and appealing, marrying the way the game looks to the way the game plays in a union whose offspring is theme and emotion. And Tōkaidō is no different. It is, in the end, a game of (and for) aesthetics, where you are playing a beautiful game in the explicit role of a character seeking beauty in a country known for its artistic elegance and appealing scenery. It’s the kind of game where, as you complete your collection of scenic view cards, you realize that laid in a row they make up a single, beautifully drawn panorama. This is what you take away from the journey you’ve made; this is what makes it worth going in the first place.
Blue Moon City
What is it?
Blue Moon City is another Reiner Knizia game (I previously reviewed his Times Square). This time it’s a full, complex Euro economics game, but instead of being themed on, say, the boring agrarian economy of pre-unification Germany or whatever the hell Euro games are usually about, Blue Moon City is based on a rich, original fantasy world. Knizia first developed this world for Blue Moon, an LCG I haven’t played. City is out of print and fairly expensive as a result, so my friends and I were lucky that GameHäus had a copy.
How do you play?
I say it’s an economics game, even though it’s not actually about money, because to me the game ‘loop’ feels like building and exchanging currency more than it is just points. Here’s how it works. The titular city is composed of a number of tiles, each one a building or area of the city that has been abandoned and since fallen into decrepit ruin. Players draw colored cards, which they play in sets in order to place their personal cubes onto these tiles (which require specific colors of cards). When enough cubes have filled up the tile, the tile flips over and the building or area is rejuvenated. Any player whose cubes contributed receives the tile’s crystals and dragon scales, and the player who contributed the most gets a bonus. In addition, there’s a geographic element to the game—players move their pawns from tile to tile, contributing to adjacent tiles, and every completed tile gives a bonus whenever an adjacent tile is completed. So you’re manipulating the cards in your hand and your position on the board in order to get the most crystals and scales (which can be exchanged for crystals periodically). Finally, the first player to spend a certain number of crystals at the Obelisk in the center of the city wins the game.
So is it good or what?
Honestly, this is one of the best Euro-style economics games I’ve played. It reminds me of T’zolkin in terms of complexity, but with more direct conflict between players as everyone competes to fill up the tiles. The card system is complex—I was definitely struggling at times to remember all the different abilities that special colored and numbered cards give you—but offers a rewarding mix between random chance and player ability. The second currency adds just enough variation to keep the points aspect of the game interesting. And because you can only interact with the tiles around you (and also because you don’t know what you’ll draw next turn), the game restricts your choices to the here and now, preventing the “analysis paralysis” that can turn Euro games into slogfests.
More than the (excellent) ruleset, what makes Blue Moon City such a great time is the strong thematic experience. This is what it has over other Euro games. Like Forbidden Island, the use of modified tiles creates a strong visual sense of progression. Although each of us were competing for the favor of the gods, we were also in a way collaborating on the emotionally charged task of bringing this lost city back to life. The gorgeous art (particularly the well-drawn cards, which all depict various fantastic denizens of the city) brings this home as well. Plus, who doesn’t like dragons? Overall, this is an extremely strong, well put together game. I hope it gets a new printing someday. Like its own lost necropolis, Blue Moon City is just waiting for someone to come along and rediscover it.
That’s it for this week! Tune in two weeks from now for more board game action.