The Loaded Die: Crows, Tzolk’in: The Mayan Calendar, City of Horror

In All, Board Games by Kyu

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.

It’s a dark and troubled week here at The Loaded Die. Today we’ll be dealing with such grim topics as human sacrifice, the zombie apocalypse, and crows. Oh, yes. Crows are evil and it’s time everyone acknowledged that. If they were just a little smarter, you’d be speaking crow right now. Caw! Cacaw! That would be you.

Look at their dead eyes and despair


What is it?

Crows is a tile placement game by known crowlover Tyler Sigman. He has designed several other games, but Crows is his most famous, as it is the only one that purports to make entertainment out of mankind’s greatest and most devious foes.

How do you play?

In order to simulate an experience of the bleak future in which only crows rule, two to four humans begin by laying out a series of starting tiles in a diamond pattern, tiles connecting only at the corners. Most tiles depict the crow’s natural habitat, a dead, leafless tree on a stony hill. If the tree has crows in it, wooden crows are added to that tile. In turns, each player adds one tile to the existing structure, then chooses a tile on which to place a “shiny thing,” for that is the only thing that the black heart of a crow desires more than the rending of human flesh. Any wooden crows on the board flock to the shiny thing, the sound of their tenebrous wings filling the air, and are scored to that player as points. Other mechanics only add to the terror–graveyards, where deathless crows go to mock the mortal, are worth double points, whereas shiny thimbles act as distraction (mankind, take note of their one weakness!). The player with the most points when the tiles run out wins, but in the end, we all lose. Only the crows will remain.

So is it good or what?

Begrudgingly, I must admit that this terrifying vision of a dark, crow-filled world is actually quite entertaining. There’s something pleasing about being the one who manipulates and profits off the crows, rather than running in fear from them. The particular way a crow moves in this game is arguably the heart of the game, and it works well: crows head for a shiny thing as far as they can in a row or column, stopping if they hit a gap or a trash pile and splitting if two targets are equidistant from a group of crows, and if enough of them build up in a “murder”, they redistribute themselves in an outward spiral. It’s just the right balance between complex enough to be interesting and simple enough to be easy to remember and predict. In fact, the whole game could be described that way, as it smoothly integrates balancing mechanics and other elements that add to the game rather than detracting from it.

Crows is not a very ambitious game; “small” and “unassuming” are probably better descriptors for it. But it’s quietly very good at what it sets out to do. The art is simple but eerie, the wooden crows simple but recognizable silhouettes (although they’re difficult to keep upright), and the rules allow for a surprising amount of strategic depth once you start thinking about not only maximizing your turn’s point value but also leaving your opponents in a bad position. Aiding the latter are the special tiles, given out in exchange for less valuable shiny thing placement (trees with no crows in them). They do various things that may help you or hurt your opponent (for example, one prevents another player from using the graveyard tile’s double points effect during one turn) and add interest to the game, particularly towards the end, when the map has grown gnarly and more difficult to work with. The way all of the tiles build and block one another over the course of the game gives Crows a strong sense of progression, helping to make the game a memorable experience that effectively balances theme and mechanics. The game may not be well-known, but I encourage you to seek out a copy and train yourself for that terrible day in the future when the crows finally make their move. Always remember: the path to hell is shortest as the crow flies.

Rating: 2d12

Tzolk’in: The Mayan Calendar

What is it?

Tzolk’in (which my brain keeps telling me should be spelled “T’Zolkin” for some reason) is not quite the most Euro game that ever Euro’d (for one thing, it’s set in the pre-Columbian Americas, not pre-revolution France), but it is a particularly complex and rewarding example of the worker placement genre. It was designed by a pair of Italian game designers whose other work I am totally unfamiliar with (they seem particularly proud of a game called Sheepland). Tzolk’in is extremely highly rated and regarded and is by far their most popular game to date.

How do you play?

Tzolk’in‘s chief innovation when it comes to worker placement are the gears attached to the board. Each of the smaller gears is in the center of a segmented ring of worker effects, and each has notches where workers go. The trick is that you get the effect when you pull the worker off the board, not when you put them down–and that the big wheel in the center keeps all the gears turning. The result is that you play the game by placing workers, waiting a certain number of turns as they progress up the ring of effects, and then pulling them off when they hit the desired spot. (Cleverly, the higher you place your worker on the wheel–and thus the closer to the better spaces it starts at–the more the move costs you in terms of resources. It looks like a restriction until you realize the mechanic gives you the costly but valuable option to accelerate a worker’s progress when you really need to.) The actual game you’re accessing via this mechanism is a complex system of earning corn, wood, and other resources to build monuments, acquire upgrades, and earn the favor of the gods. It’s a victory points game, but it’s best to follow a distinct strategy throughout (going for nothing but crystal skulls, for instance, or focusing on the temples) rather than trying to do everything.

So is it good or what?

Yes! I am sometimes a contrarian when it comes to board games (I’ve mentioned here before my preference for Forbidden Island over Forbidden Desert, an opinion nobody else on Earth seems to share), but not in this instance. I don’t typically enjoy Euros, but that’s generally for three reasons that don’t at all apply to Tzolk’in: I find their themes boring, their gameplay mechanics too simple, and their level of player interaction too minimal. Admittedly, Tzolk’in is kind of weak on theme (sadly, there isn’t actually any human sacrifice involved). But the game is fiendishly complex (it can easily take 45 minutes just to explain all the rules) and features a huge amount of player interaction, since players can block each other from accessing wheels, burn communal resources, or even speed up time itself. It is probably in my top five for Euro games, and definitely one of the best worker placements I’ve played.

Tzolk’in‘s flaws are pretty minor. (The crystal skull track is a little overpowered; if you get blocked early from getting corn, it’s pretty hard to come back; the requirement of feeding your workers is a little less important than the game makes it out to be.) Mostly it is a very strong example of a type of game many people simply aren’t interested in playing. It takes a long time commitment to learn (and several hours to play), encourages people to spend time during their turn thinking four turns ahead, and is not overtly exciting in the way that some other games (or even other Euros) can be. But if you’re willing to give it enough time and thought, you can have a unique and deeply satisfying experience.

Rating: 3d20

City of Horror

What is it?

City of Horror is a zombie game wait don’t go come back it’s different! There’s an absolute glut of zombie board games, I know, particularly since the rise of Kickstarter. Nothing seems to excite nerds more than the slavering, flesh-eating undead. Like any other overplayed, crowded genre, this has led to some real crap seeing the light of day, including my pick for one of the worst board games ever made, ZPocalypse. I had hopes that City of Horror would be different, and it is, but not really in the way I was hoping it would be. It’s designed by Nicolas Normandon, and is a sequel or redesign of his only other game, Mall of Horror. He also works at Ubisoft, which is cool. I like Ubisoft.

How do you play?

Most zombie games are about the long, slow process of scrounging for supplies and fighting off zombies after the world ends. City of Horror gains a lot of respect from me simply by making a game that isn’t a simulation, that is restricted in time and space to a few buildings over four “hours” (rounds), and that focuses on player wheeling and dealing instead of on looking for a +2 shotgun. Here’s how it works: each player controls a handful of characters, each with a limited-use special ability and each worth a different number of points at the end of the game. Each turn, players choose secretly a location on the board; everyone reveals simultaneously; then in turn order, players move one of their characters to that location. (Locations have limited space.) Then a random card draw determines the number and placement of additional zombies and supplies for that round. Finally, each location is resolved one a time. First, players with characters in that location vote (one vote per character) to determine who will distribute the supplies that just spawned there; then, if the zombies outside that location have hit critical mass, players hold another vote to determine which character will get eaten. Finally, at the end of the fourth round, the rescue helicopter arrives to take away any surviving characters–provided they’ve been given the zombie antidote shot somewhere along the way. Whichever player’s character points add up to the most when rescued wins the game.

So is it good or what?

City of Horror isn’t a bad game, but it’s not the game I wanted it to be. What I wanted was a game that centered on the social microcosm of a group under pressure–in other words, all the dramatic, non-zombie scenes in a classic Romero zombie movie. In theory, a game like that would involve arguing that your character’s life was more valuable than the other characters’–“My police officer character has the skills the group needs to survive” versus “My pregnant character needs to be protected for society to have a future”–and then someone would get sacrificed and the game would continue. (Hey, somebody go make that! Or if it exists, please let me know in the comments.) Instead, City of Horror is really a weird descendant of that old friendship-killer, Diplomacy. Like that game, City of Horror has (partially) simultaneous resolution, conflicts over territories and resources, and quickly shifting alliances where backstabbing is inevitable. Unlike that game, City of Horror has a lot of additional elements that make it less simple but far more palatable, from the hard time limit to the asymmetrical character abilities.

As an example of that kind of game, City of Horror is decent but not great. (Probably not great enough for it to clear the anti-zombie game bias my game group has learned to hold.) It’s at a level of quality difficult to properly review–the game doesn’t have obvious flaws, but simply doesn’t reach the same heights as other games that are more fun or more cleverly designed. There are lots of little things I like, and the art style is engaging, in a cartoony sort of way. It all functions well enough and doesn’t overstay its welcome. But ultimately the player interactions are too short-term to really be interesting–you don’t really get game-length alliances, you get small deals (“I’ll vote next to kill player C if you give me the medicine now”). Likewise, the game’s fiction and presentation are too facile to really be meaningful. This genre is so played out at this point that I need something truly new to make it worth playing in a world with zombies yet again, and although City of Horror is one of the better games I’ve played in the field, it’s just not enough different, deep, or good to last.

Rating: 1d10

That’s it for this week! Tune in next time for more board game action.