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 element is… uh… hm. You know, it really might be impossible this week. In fact, the only thing they have in common is that they’re all totally unique in their genre–a word game played vertically, a deck builder about maids, and a sardonic card game about the French Revolution. Here at the Loaded Die, we don’t truck with no fancy “planning” or “grouping” or “making sensible blog posts.” No, we play it as it lies.
What is it?
Konexi is a word game! The exclamation point is… whoah, deja vu. Okay, Konexi is a word game, but definitely not like Scrabble (or Bananagrams) at all. It’s a little more like playing Jenga and Quiddler at the same time, spelling whatever words you can while the whole thing gets increasingly more unstable. The game was designed by something called Forrest-Pruzan Creative, which might just be a company specializing in designing family-friendly games and toys, or might be two people named Forrest and Pruzan stitched together in some horrific Frankensteinian amalgam that was never meant to be, also specializing in designing family-friendly games and toys. I think we can all agree which one of those we’d like to believe.
How do you play?
I don’t know how you actually play Konexi. How I play Konexi is, you arrange all of the weirdly-shaped letters in a big circle. Choose one at random to start, placing it in some configuration (right-side up, upside-down, on its side, etc) in the middle of the circle. The metal square goes where that letter used to be (and will always be placed to indicate the last letter used). Then you roll the dice to give you a number. Count that number of spaces between letters in both directions from the metal square; this will usually give you two results. The letters on either side of the spaces are available for the next player to choose from; usually that means four different letters. Choose one of them, and, only using one hand, carefully place it on the existing structure, such that they connect (konnect?) via one of the notches. If you can spell a word by drawing an uninterrupted line through the letters (including the one you just placed), you score the number of letters you used as points. (They don’t have to be in order, so AWSN counts as SWAN so long as there isn’t something in the middle–AWQSN does not spell SWAN.) Place the metal square in place of the letter you just used, and the next player rolls the dice and counts for their letters. If you knock the tower down, you lose three points and it’s the next player’s turn. First player to 15 wins. Alternatively, if halfway through it seems like you have a good chance of using every single letter in one ridiculous structure, I recommend you do that, it’s super fun.
So is it good or what?
Indeed. This is a game so simple I’ve actually played it between turns of another game (Takenoko); on the other hand, it’s so ridiculous and tense that, as mentioned above, sometimes a competitive game will turn collaborative, as the desire to win is supplanted by the fun in playing with the pieces. The letters themselves are the entire game, essentially, and they’re beautiful works of tactile art. The font must have been devilish to work out, but the result are three-dimensional letters that are instantly readable but covered in notches and serifs that latch onto one another with surprising strength. Each connection looks perilous but is surprisingly stable, with the weight of the entire structure sometimes shifting from left to right or back again as the game continues.
It’s the combination of the kinetic difficulties and the word requirement that makes every turn into a fascinating puzzle. You don’t actually have to spell a word–sometimes it’s impossible–but you do if you want to win, and so many turns you find yourself struggling to balance the need to keep the tower up with the desire to spell a longer word. Sometimes you have to make a decision based on which letters will actually fit the places you need them to; other times you’re happy to screw the next player over with a particularly precarious placement or an especially onerous letter combination. (Unlike many word games, the Q comes without its U, which in my game group has led to much sorrow and rage.) Another thing that sets Konexi apart from other word games is that, without combining multiple sets, you only have one of each letter, which definitely restricts how many different words you can make. But in exchange, Konexi has pleasures that no other game can really match–like adding the S onto somebody else’s word to make a plural and shift the tower’s balance in the wrong direction for the next player, all in one move. Fascinating, engrossing, and all-around strange, Konexi is a toy and a game and a great time all stacked one on top of the other.
What is it?
Tanto Cuore is, like, super gross. Grosser even than Tentacle Bento, which is just Rummy reskinned for shock value. Tanto Cuore is worse, I think, because it doesn’t think it’s bad. It thinks it’s super cute. It’s a Japanese deck building game designed by Masayuki Kudou, who should be ashamed of himself.
How do you play?
Like a lot of deck builders, the gameplay is very similar to the genre’s progenitor, Dominion, with only slight variations in terms of play. So players take turns drawing a hand from their personal decks and spending the hand to buy more cards for their deck, using special actions along the way. Tanto Cuore‘s chief innovation is the use of “private” cards which stick around from turn to turn providing static bonuses or always-accessible special abilities, and of course its theme.
So is it good or what?
Euggggh. Okay, so I don’t like Dominion to start with. I find it dry and mathy, with no real theme to speak of and an overly complicated decision matrix. I’ve found more enjoyment from other deck builders that take Dominion‘s basic idea and add a theme (Arctic Scavengers, Thunderstone), gameplay innovation (Ascension) or other differences (Quarriors, a “dice” builder). As a game very, very similar to Dominion, Tanto Cuore was not likely to appeal to me in the first place. And indeed, the main way it seems to change the Dominion formula as far as gameplay goes is to make things very, very slow. Like Arctic Scavengers (and Thunderstone, I suppose), Tanto features multiple actions/currencies that various cards in your hand can contribute to–you can draw extra cards, buy extra cards, get extra money with which to buy cards, etc. In theory this makes a deck builder more interesting; in Tanto, though, these actions are all the base functions of the game. The result is that your turns spend a lot of time and energy “running in place” compared to an average turn in a different deck building game–you’re doing the same things (drawing, buying), but in Tanto they involve many more steps and calculations. The game was going so poorly that, I admit it, I was not able to finish.
It’s generally considered poor form to review something you didn’t finish, and I won’t even give it one of my joke ratings, but the conversation about the game is interesting enough to warrant giving it part of a Loaded Die post. And besides, I think I’ve got the measure of this one. See, the real problem with the game isn’t the gameplay (although that’s reason enough to drop it in favor of one of the other, better deck builders I mentioned above); it’s the theme. In Dominion you’re sort of running a medieval town, or whatever; in other deck builders you’re fighting monsters or collecting treasure. In Tanto Cuore, you’re spending “love” to attract beautiful anime “maids” to come “work” for you (can I put more scare quotes in there? I think I “can”). As an observer and sometimes consumer of Japanese culture, the sexism and objectification that is rampant in anime, manga, and other Japanese entertainment is very, very troubling and off-putting to me. The mental environment in which women are fetishized and positioned as servants and harem girls and oh-so-kawaii schoolgirls surrounding the male protagonist is not a fun one for me to be in. It’s not something I want to support, either. When I say there are better games than Tanto Cuore out there, I don’t just mean they’re more fun or better designed–I mean they are morally superior. And that’s a judgement I feel absolutely confident in making, even having only gotten halfway through one game.
Rating: N/A (game abandoned)
What is it?
Guillotine is a sardonic card game in which players are executioners in the French Revolution competing to see who can take the most prestigious heads. It was designed by Paul Peterson, who is also responsible for Smash Up, another fun (but less well-balanced) card game. Paul has done a lot of work on the Pathfinder card game series, but I’ll be charitable and assume it was the other guys who made those kinda mediocre.
How do you play?
Guillotine comes with a guillotine (not really necessary to the game, but it’s fun) and two sets of cards. One deck contains Nobles, ie., the people whose heads you will soon be collecting. They have various types, special abilities, and are worth victory points. On each of three Days (rounds), 12 Nobles are lined up in front of the guillotine. The other deck are action cards that players will use to change the order of the Nobles in line (for example, “Move a red Noble up exactly three places in line”). Each turn, a player plays an action card, collects the Noble at the front of the line, and draws to replace the card she played. Whoever has the most victory points after three Days wins the game.
So is it good or what?
Bien sur! Guillotine is super accessible–it’s a game that you can play with just about anybody, regardless of their experience level. (It’s not much more complicated than, say, Uno.) It’s also just a lot of fun. The theme is great and well-executed satire (my favorite aspect is probably that some victims are worth negative victory points because they’re martyrs and heroes rather than members of the aristocracy), aided by the light tone of the illustrations and the amusing action cards. I imagine the real French Revolution bore at least some resemblance to this, with people using bribes and favors to save their friends from the chopping block. Of course, this game is very abstracted from a real historical tragedy, and so you definitely shouldn’t use your little guillotine to chop a grape in half for every Noble you collect. Definitely not.
The theme wouldn’t really matter if the game wasn’t entertaining, but it’s a solid and unique set of mechanics. I can’t really think of another game that’s based around shuffling a linear progression of desirable cards. It’s a neat set-up that inspires some unique strategic ideas, since you know which Nobles are going to go to which players in the future, all else equal. Beyond optimizing your turn, you can make moves that affect other players several turns down the line, or force them to spend their turns reversing your maneuvers. On the other hand, cards that add Nobles to the end of the line, end the Day early, or switch which end of the line is the front can change the entire game. The amount of randomness here works because everyone gets a fair shot at influencing the points and because the game plays fast (so you can always call for a rematch). Guillotine isn’t flawless (for one thing, the drawing economy is such that being forced to discard can screw you over for the rest of the game), but overall it’s head and shoulders above the rest. A cut above, you might say. The game’s mechanics are revolutionary in their– *is dragged off-stage by a vaudeville hook*
That’s it for this week! Tune in next time for more board game action.