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.
Today’s secret word is “cooperation”. Not all of this week’s games are co-op, exactly, but they’re all about the difficulty of partnership. Whether you and your partner are married, marooned on a desert island, or just making fireworks together, working with one another rather than at cross-purposes is the only way to win. Communication is key, because if you get too far off track, you’ll find everything you strived for slipping right through your fingers.
Ladies and Gentlemen
What is it?
Ladies and Gentlemen is a satirical board game about marriage, status, and the division between the sexes. Published in 2013 and designed by French designer Loïc Lamy (also responsible for Fantasy Flight’s Deadwood, which I haven’t played), the game enjoyed a brief period in the limelight of board game circles thanks to positive reviews. (One of the weird things about board games, I digress, is that the community is small enough and coherent enough that a good review from one or more of the most popular board game reviewers, such as Shut Up & Sit Down or Tom Vasel’s Dice Tower podcast, can be enough to cause immediate shortages for a game.) I first heard of Ladies and Gentlemen through Penny Arcade’s hilarious comic on the subject.
How do you play?
Ladies and Gentlemen is actually two games in one. It’s played in teams of two, each featuring one Lady and one Gentleman. All the Ladies are playing one game in which they stock shops with clothing and accessories and then make purchases from each other’s stores; meanwhile, their Gentlemen play a fast-paced stock market game in order to earn money. At the end of the round, each Lady presents her Gentleman with the purchases she’d like to make, and depending on how the market was that day, her Gentleman will either make her happy or make excuses. Although both games run on numbers (each piece of clothing has a number of stars that will determine elegance, and the market game results in a handful of countable cash), both sides are forbidden from speaking specifically about the details of their plays. This encourages a lot of roleplay–“Darling, I simply must have this dress.” “Dear, I should warn you, it was a very rough day at the office.” Gentlemen can accept or reject their Ladies’ purchases, and then a new round begins. At the end of the 6th round, whichever couple’s Lady is the most elegant at the ball wins the game.
So is it good or what?
To be honest, Ladies and Gentlemen is one of my favorite games. It’s not without its flaws–the game is a little too complicated and fiddly for its own good, and it doesn’t help that the rules could use a few minor clarifications–but the experience of playing is one of the most fun I’ve ever had with a board game. My group gets very into the whole thing, dressing up in nothing but the fanciest outfits and roleplaying in only the most posh of accents. We create characters and build up a comical fictional backstory for them; I think my favorite was when one Lady complained that if her Gentleman couldn’t give her a child, the least he could do is give her this skirt. The game itself is a combination of absurdly frantic (for the Gents) and intensely competitive (on the Ladies’ side) in a way that’s incredibly fun for both.
The only real problem with the game is that most of the strategic decisions are made by the Ladies, which is nicely on-theme but more often than not leads to the Gents finishing their turns before the Ladies have. This is especially true because the game’s variants are all about adding mechanics to the already overburdened Ladies’ side. One variant that I haven’t even played yet (but really want to) adds a set of Gossip cards to the game, which are negative points that have be delivered from one Lady to another with an accompanying insult. The other accommodates an odd number of players by adding a Gentleman-less Courtesan who gives her purchases to everyone else’s Gentlemen (with end of game penalties for denying her). This leads to amusing hysterics from the Ladies over their cheating husbands, complete with the Courtesan solemnly commiserating with the jilted Ladies over their spouse’s secret dalliances with that trollop, whomever she is. With Ladies and Gentlemen, the satire comes from you, and if you have the right group, you’ll understand why L&G is one of my favorites.
What is it?
Hanabi is a cooperative puzzle game about making fireworks. It’s designed by Antoine Bauza, one of the best working designers. So far I’ve only reviewed this game and his Tokaido, but I’m sure at some point I’ll get to his Takenoko, Ghost Stories, 7 Wonders, and others. Hanabi is one of his least complicated efforts, but that doesn’t mean it’s not a great game.
How do you play?
The game is remarkably simple. Players draw from a single deck of cards; each card has a number (1-5) and a suit (different colors). The goal of the game is to play a set of 1 through 5 in order for each suit. Here’s where the difficulty, the puzzle, and the fun come in: all players hold their hands facing out, so that each player knows what everybody else has but not what cards she’s holding. On their turn, players can play or discard cards out of their hands, or give another player a clue about that player’s cards by pointing to a specific card or cards and giving either the number (“You have one 4”) or the color (“You have three reds”). Using these clues, the group must work together to deduce what cards are in their own hand and which is the right one to play next. Get it right and the fireworks show will be great; get it wrong and it’ll all blow up in your face.
So is it good or what?
In keeping with the discussion of Ladies and Gentlemen, here’s a question: is the quality of a board game determined by the facts (art, theme, design complexity, ease of play, depth of strategy, number of typos in the rulebook) or is it more about the entertainment value of the experience of playing? Because Hanabi scores pretty low on the former (there’s just not that much to it) but high on the latter. So what do we want out of our games? As somebody currently writing his 29th board game review, you’d think I’d have an answer for that, but I’m not sure I do. In other art forms (film especially) I try and separate some of my own personal experience with a film out from a supposedly objective view of the film’s merits (a comedy isn’t funnier just because I watched it with an audience, even though I might laugh more than if I’d watched it alone). But the key word there is “supposedly”; the idea of objectivity in a review is really little more than a fig leaf, no matter what Rotten Tomatoes might try and tell you.
Objectively, this is a small game, and even then not perfect (the way you pay for clues with tokens and recover tokens with discards is just plain awkward, even if it’s probably necessary to make the game work). Subjectively, though, it’s a lot of fun. The rules system is designed to create this sense of tension, forcing you to limit communication while psychically screaming at your friends, “Yes, that card! THAT ONE!” No part of the game is more intense than watching another player decide to discard the one card you all desperately needed–unless it’s realizing that one player is giving another the wrong clue. In a weird way, it’s not the mistakes that are memorable, though, but the successes. It’s almost spooky the way the game helps you knit together a groupmind, three or four brains with one purpose, all bent on thinking about what everyone else knows and what they are thinking about. As far as my life goes, it’s a totally unique experience, the cooperative (and silent) equivalent of the seven-layers-deep mental competition you go through in a game of Resistance. Many games are predicated on players trying to outthink their opponents, but only Hanabi asks you to think with them. As a game, Hanabi is okay. As a way to bridge that ineffable gap between minds, it’s great.
Rating: Tell me, what number of which dice am I thinking of right now?
Robinson Crusoe: Adventure on the Cursed Island
What is it?
Robinson Crusoe: Adventure on the Cursed Island is a 2002 cooperative survival game by Polish designer Ignacy Trzewiczek, who has designed about a dozen other games I have never heard of. At least in form, Crusoe seems unlike anything he’s done before. The game gets its name, of course, from Daniel Defoe’s classic tale of a man marooned. That book’s usually called Robinson Crusoe, but its full (and spoiler-ful) title is The Life and Strange Surprizing Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, Of York, Mariner: Who lived Eight and Twenty Years, all alone in an un-inhabited Island on the Coast of America, near the Mouth of the Great River of Oroonoque; Having been cast on Shore by Shipwreck, wherein all the Men perished but himself. With An Account how he was at last as strangely deliver’d by Pyrates. Kinda gives it all away, doesn’t it?
How do you play?
My favorite moment of the novel Crusoe is a bit of illogic (or writerly misdirection), in which the protagonist strips naked, swims out to his sunken vessel, and then fills his pockets with supplies. This game is much more rigid and sensible than that, marrying a downbeat adventure narrative generation machine to a brutally difficult, fiendishly complex cooperative survival system. Players work together to hunt or fish for food, invent tools, and endure calamities ranging from disease to weather to wild animal attacks–all while exploring the island and fulfilling the objectives of one of many distinct scenarios.
So is it good or what?
As a game, it’s probably too complex, with too high a difficulty. As a story generating device? Judge for yourself, based on this hastily scrawled account of a shipwreck found in a bottle that washed up near the Kraken:
There were only three of us left after the shipwreck–me (the surliest Cook on the ocean), a Soldier without her guns, and the Explorer who’d got us into this mess. We were on the island we’d been looking for, the one whose ancient ruins were said to hold treasures unimaginable. We had plans of loading up our ship with enough gold and jewels to put the Queen to shame, but we hadn’t counted on the storm. Now we had no ship at all, no hopes of carrying away any riches even if we found them, and to top it all off, the first thing we noticed after spitting out saltwater and crawling up off the beach was the biggest volcano we’d ever seen, an’ with smoke pouring out the spout like steam from a whistling kettle. We knew we didn’t have much time.As our adventure got underway, opinions were divided on how to proceed. Some of us tried exploring–and learned the hard way that luck wasn’t always on our side–while others focused on building tools to help us survive our stay. The wreck left us with next to no supplies, so we had to scrounge for whatever we could in the jungle around–some fish, a parrot. We learned about hunger the first night, and the chill of sleeping outdoors. Morale went down and I felt it more than most–nobody gets bitched at in a company like the Cook, in my experience. Just seemed to make me sick. We built a shelter, but didn’t bother to shore up the roof, so when the rains came we got even sicker. All this time the Explorer’s hounding us, “We’ve got to explore, we’ve got to find what’s in these ruins!” More often than not we found nothing but spiders and plague. Once I found a whole box full of gold, a ragged scrawl of parchment right on top with a simple note from whatever pirate or adventurer had found it last: “CAN’T BE ET.” But bugger ‘im, it’s my gold. Mine! No food left anyway, and no pot to cook it in–the Explorer had an idea on how to make one from a hollow stone, but he gave up on it for some reason. The Soldier’s off in the brush, hunting game–game, ha! Last night she came back with nothing but a couple of little birds. I didn’t cook mine long enough. Too hungry. Gotta eat, gotta stay strong so we can build the jerry boat and get off the island and spend my gold. That’s what this is all about.The air is choked with ash now. It’s getting harder to move the camp from place to place. The lava is flowing, oh, yes. The beach where we first landed is black and impassible, the heat of Hell shimmering all around. We used to know a shortcut past it to the berry bushes, but the Explorer says he forgot it. Last night it snowed, but in my bundle of rags it only felt like rain. How long have we been here? Not much island left. Ruins buried. How do we build the boat? Even if we had the wood, the rules (?) are unclear. (???) I don’t know what I meant by
(later) Gonna leave this diary here. Not much point in going on with it. We won’t get off the island. No more food. I’m so hungry. No one will ever read this. All will be ash as it began. I thought I saw a tiger in the brush today. The Soldier went after it with a spear and didn’t come back. I listened for her all afternoon instead of going to the river for water. All I heard was the volcano roaring, lava swallowing all but our last little patch of land, and the Explorer, who won’t stop raving. Feverish. He can’t get out of bed, the one we made out of sticks and soft leaves. He calls to old friends and people who are dead. Or he relives that night at the bar in Calcutta that brought us here, a drunken conversation with a jaundiced German who sold him a map. X marks the spot. I think I’ll take a bit of charcoal and make an X on the Explorer’s side where the kidneys are. On the chest where the lungs are. Dashed lines for cuts, sweetmeats, good muscle, a little fat. “CAN’T BE ET.” Bugger ‘im. I can cook anything.
Any one would think that in this state of complicated good fortune I was past running any more hazards—and so, indeed, I had been, if other circumstances had concurred; …yet I could not keep that country out of my head, and had a great mind to be upon the wing again; especially I could not resist the strong inclination I had to see my island, and to know if the poor Spaniards were in being there.
–Robinson Crusoe, Daniel Defoe
That’s it for this week! Tune in next time for more board game action.