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.
What time is it? PARTY TIME! This week’s games are perfect party material, although they range from pretty new to very old, from light and accessible to intense and difficult, from cards to tiles to a game that is essentially played with nothing at all. The only thing they really have in common is that they provide a fast, fun, communal experience. Throw away your beer pong ball and stop spinning that bottle, this week’s games are all the party you’ll ever need. (Well, these, and Cards Against Humanity.)
The Resistance: Avalon
What is it?
The Resistance: Avalon is essentially a fantasy reskin of a sci-fi game called The Resistance. At the time of release, Avalon was also something of an expansion, adding new player roles to the existing game; but I believe all of those roles have been ported backwards to the original Resistance, so now both games really are identical, except that one is about cyberpunk spies and the other is about knights and wizards and stuff. The one I happened to play is all knights and wizards, and the only real problem with it is that the bad guys here don’t seem to be “resisting” anything. If not for the strictures of franchising it would have been called Treason or something, I’m sure. Anyway, both games were designed by Don Eskridge. He hasn’t done anything else, but what have you done lately, hm? At least Don has laurels to rest on.
How do you play?
Avalon takes between 5 and 10 players; depending on the players, a certain number of special roles are added to the basic set of good guys and bad guys. The roles are dealt randomly to each player, who looks at their card and tries to refrain from making a face or asking “Which one is red again?” All players close their eyes; bad guys pop up a thumb; bad guys open their eyes, look around, close their eyes; thumbs go down; all players open their eyes. Sometimes this process gets pretty involved, once special roles are added in:
Now the game begins, taking place over a series of rounds. Each round consists of a mission or quest that the knights will attempt, and each round one player is assigned the King’s Crown. The King chooses a certain number of knights (players) to go on the mission (how many depends on what round it is) and then the entire table votes on whether that group of knights should proceed. If the vote comes up negative, the next player is King and proposes a new group of knights; if the vote comes up positive, each knight submits a “pass” or “fail” card. These cards and shuffled and then revealed, and if there is one or more “fail” cards in the pile, the mission fails. If not, it succeeds. Either way a new round starts with a new King and a new mission. The game continues in this fashion until the good guys win by succeeding at 3 out of 5 missions or until the bad guys win by sabotaging 3 out of 5 missions (the bad guys also win if players vote to reject a group 5 times in one round). Special role cards add additional mechanics or change who has information about whom (for example, adding a bad guy whose identity is unknown to his teammates).
So is it good or what?
Oh yes. Avalon is a really excellent game, a great example of “simple but deep.” Its very simplicity makes it one of the best hidden roles game I’ve ever played, because there is no game at all beyond using your scant information to try and deduce which players are not on your side–that, and trying to convince people to make the right (or wrong) decision. It’s 100% mental puzzle solving, and the permutations can make your head spin, especially once you add special roles. There are plenty of hidden role games out there that have real mechanics, ranging from Coup and Masquerade on one end of the simplicity scale all the way to Battlestar Gallactica and Shadows Over Camelot on the other end; and Avalon itself is a bit more complex (mechanically) than Werewolf and Mafia, the grandfathers of the genre. What Avalon adds over the latter pair is the mission system, which helps to make the game significantly faster and shorter. (Instead of just voting one player off at a time until one side has won, Avalon has both sides attempting to influence 3 to 5 rounds of decision-making.)
It’s that combination of simplicity, depth, and speed that makes Avalon such a great party game. Plus, it can take a large number of players, which isn’t the case for most board games, and can be taught to them very quickly. It doesn’t require many of the skills that more complex board games do–only that you can bluff and reason. The game isn’t for everybody, but casual players with the right mindset can absolutely play and have fun, and the game is short enough that you can easily go through multiple playthroughs in one night, giving everybody a chance to play both sides and really get into the fun of accusations, false accusations, logic, illogic, and roleplaying. The strategic and intellectual depth at play isn’t just fun, it makes for a great social dynamic during play. Pull this out at your next party, and it’s all anyone will be talking about the next day.
What is it?
Bananagrams is a word game! That exclamation point is brought to you by the fact that I really like word games. In fact, Bananagrams is one of the more popular efforts in the genre, even inspiring fruit-themed imitators like Appletters and Pairs in Pears. Unlike most games, this one’s a family affair, with the London-based father/daughter team of Rena and Abe Nathanson designing, and presumed additional family members Sandy and Aaron Nathanson taking the artistic duties. Gameplay-wise, Bananagrams is essentially speed Scrabble without the board, which is even more fun than it sounds. (Well, I think it sounds like fun. Maybe you don’t. Maybe you’re weird.)
How do you play?
The game starts with the hardest part: turning all the tiles face-down and mixing them up in a big pile. Everybody grabs a number of tiles (based on the number of players). Then one player says “Split” and everyone turns their tiles face-up and begins making words. As you can see above, words are grouped into a crossword or Scrabble-style grid, albeit one as free-form as you feel like making. If you have a letter you can’t use, you say “dump” and put one back in order to draw three more; if you run out of letters, you say “peel” and everyone grabs a new tile from the pile. The first person to finish when there are no more tiles left says “banana!” and the round stops. Depending on the variant, you can score each person’s grid (taking off points for misspelled words or unused tiles) and play a new a round or simply declare a winner right there.
So is it good or what?
I am an unabashed fan of this game, but I’m probably biased because I’m very good at it. I’ve lost before, but usually only against veteran Scrabble experts. The particular free-form nature of the self-built grids in this game require some skills not apparent in traditional Scrabble; you have to know how to build them out in a way that gives you room to grow and words to build off of. Also, in this game, you can scrap some or all of your words and start over, which can be nervewracking when the round is almost over, but is sometimes necessary in order to progress. All word games have a fundamental shared core, testing your ability to mentally shift letters and access a large vocabulary on the fly, but Bananagrams is a particularly fun, family-friendly variation on the theme.
So what makes this a good party game? Fast-paced rounds, often silent except for the calls of “peel” and “dump.” It’s also highly accessible to all but the very young and the tragically illiterate. The other aspect is unique to Bananagrams, as far as this Loaded Die goes: it’s exceptionally variable. At heart, this is just a banana-shaped bag and a set of letter tiles, which means you can make whatever game you want out of it. There are multiple variants given, and you can come up with your own, too: I’ve played versions where points were given out each round for the best (or funniest) word spelled. There’s even a solo version of the game. With the right group, your party can step beyond the proscribed rules and into designing their own experience, which can be fun all on its own. In the end, games are only suggestions. If you don’t like the one you’ve got, you can always rearrange what you’ve got and try again.
What is it?
Pit is a very, very old card game. Its precursor, Gavitt’s Stock Exchange, was invented by a man named Henry Gavitt in 1903; a year later, the game was altered and updated by Edgar Cayce, the famous spiritualist, and then published by Parker Brothers. There is absolutely nothing I could tell you about this fast-paced stock market game that could be more interesting than reading about Edgar Cayce, so that is what the rest of this review will be about.
How do you play?
Born in Hopkinsville, Kentucky in 1877, Edgar Cayce would eventually become the most famous psychic of his time, and certainly the most famous American psychic of all time. A religious man with a 9th grade education, Cayce claimed from an early age that he could see auras and hear the voices of the dead. In 1901 he contracted a severe case of laryngitis that made it difficult or impossible for him to speak; it was subsequently cured through hypnotism. In an odd turn, it was discovered that while in a trance, Cayce could not only heal his own ailments but those of the hypnotist, or other people in the room. While under these trances, he would sometimes describe the past lives of his subjects–something that actually bothered him while waking, as he didn’t believe in reincarnation. After attempting to stop giving readings entirely, he “read” himself, his trance voice informed him that if he didn’t continue as “a channel,” his life would have no purpose. “Ultimately his trance voice… dialogued with Cayce and finally persuaded him to continue with these kinds of readings.” Nearly every reading he ever gave between 1923 and his death in 1945, tens of thousands of them, are recorded and archived by an organization in Virginia Beach, where he lived at the time. In addition to his readings and healing sessions, Cayce made a number of claims and predictions, including some related to Atlantis, its strange race of red people, and its death ray technology.
So is it good or what?
The turn of the century was a time when science was making fantastic leaps in medicine, industry, and physics, rapidly transforming everyday life in a way that is not dissimilar to today’s whirlwind technological progress; but perversely these advancements seemed also to encourage belief in flights of fancy–hypnosis, mediums, automatic writing, auras, aliens, Atlantis. Of course, psychics and mediums have never gone entirely out of fashion, but it does seem as though after WWII people began to turn their attention to the more concrete problems of geopolitics, racial inequality, and poverty at home and abroad. Atlantis and other forms of weirdness are considered to be crackpot theories at best, the product of obsessive or gullible minds. From this perspective, Cayce’s life and celebrity, all the work he did, wasn’t it a waste?
But Cayce didn’t leave us with nothing, even if you assume he didn’t heal anyone. We’ve still got Pit, a really fun game where players make frantic trades with one another (“Three! Three!” “Three?” “Three!” *trade* “Four! Four!”) as they attempt to be the first to gain an entire set of a particular suit (cornering the market on wheat, for instance). Players shout and scramble, trade and reject trades, searching for the perfect hand that they know is out there, and they can feel connected to the upper class Americans of 100 years ago. They, too, gathered together to trade cards and chase points, using the structured experience of the game to provide a kind of social lubricant and to distract them from the problems of the day. Reading Cayce’s biography, it’s apparent that his design and sale of Pit was merely a footnote, something he tossed off for the money on his way to a destiny that mental illness or some innate personal drive decided he had to fulfill. And yet it’s a really good design, elegant in its construction, frantic in its play, and perfect for a large group of casual gamers to get into at a party. Nobody talks about Edgar Cayce anymore. His predictions didn’t come true and his trances didn’t prove anything about the afterlife or reincarnation or faith healing. But we still play Pit. I think that’s good enough.
That’s it for this week! Tune in next time for more board game action.