Designer: Danny Devine
Published: Renegade Game Studios, Fever Games
Players: 2-4 players
Playtime: 15-30 Minutes
Play Type: Abstract Strategy
It is a bright and sunny day, and a new topiary garden has opened up in town. You plan on visiting the garden, but know it will be crowded on a day like today. You will have to place your visitors carefully to get the best view of the garden, and rearrange the garden so that nothing blocks the spectacular view.
Set up in Topiary is pretty simple. First players will each take a set of visitors in their color, checking to see how many they get based on how many players there are. Then players shuffle the sculpture tiles and create a 5X5 grid in the center of the table, turning the center tile face up. Then deal 3 sculptures from the deck to each player, returning all other sculptures to the box. Set the scoreboard and scoring markers aside, as they will not be used for the time being.
Turns are very simple in Topiary. There are two steps players may do each turn. First, players MUST position a visitor. They do this by placing a visitor so that it has line of sight done a vertical, horizontal, or diagonal row. Only one visitor may be placed on each line of sight. Then the player has the option to rearrange a sculpture by picking up one of the face down tiles in the sight line they picked, and they may then replace it from one in their hand, returning it back to the grid face up. Play continues like this until all players have placed all of their visitors.
Scoring is the most involved part of Topiary. Players will first check all of their line of sight rows and score the points written on the tile for the sculptures they can see. Larger sculptures (determined by the higher numbers) will block line of sight of lower numbers. Then players get points for type bonuses. If a player can see two or more of the same type of tree in a line of sight they can an additional point. Players can gain a type bonus for multiple types of trees in one row. Finally players reveal the card types in their hand. Players will score the face value of their tiles, if they can see at least one of that kind of tree from their lines of sight.
The person with the most points at the end of the three scoring categories is the winner.
Topiary comes with 40 sculpture tiles, 32 wooden meeples, and a scoreboard with 4 colored score markers. Everything about the game is quality, with all pieces being vibrant and sturdy. I was especially impressed with the meeples chosen for Topiary. They come in four different colors, but also in four distinct shapes. One of the shapes also depicts a meeple in a wheelchair. This focus on accessibility made my heart warm as a special education teacher who could potentially use this in a classroom. More functionally, the different shaped meeples also make the game colorblind accessible. The different shapes are also represented on the score tracker, ensuring that the game is completely accessible.
Easy to Teach
Topiary is a deceptively simple abstract game. New players will feel comfortable with their turns quickly, as there are only two steps to them. However, as players go on to master the game it becomes very thinky. Players not only have to consider how they place tiles in their current line of sight, but also how it effects their other line of sights, and how other players might in turn change their line of sights in reaction to the move. Every move will count in this game, which is something that I very much enjoy. Players who are planners like me, will also find enjoyment, as there is some variability based on the facedown tiles, but because of the tiles in hand, players to have the capability to plan ahead.
Players who do not enjoy “take that” may become frustrated with Topiary, because there is the potential for players to purposely mess with one another’s scoring by placing sculptures in their line of sight. While I believe that this adds to the strategy and overall enjoyment of the game, some people may not enjoy that.
If you enjoy abstract games like Azul or Photosynthesis, I would suggest Topiary as well. It has a very similar feel to Photosynthesis in many ways, but it is quicker to set up and easier to explain to new gamers. As a teacher who is concerned with making all of my students feel welcomed, I may include this game in my classroom library due to its focus on colorblind accessibility and depicting meeples who are physically disabled. While that might not mean very much to everyone, knowing how it would effect some of my students makes me happy they included that small detail.
Overall Topiary is a quick thinky game. Despite the fact that the game is a filler game, it provides players with the feeling that they are playing a much more substantial game because of the thought that goes on throughout the game. It makes a great opening game for a game night, or a great quick after dinner game.
Game: Shaky Manor
Designer: Asger Harding Granerud, Daniel Skjold Pedersen
Published: Blue Orange Games
Players: 2-4 players
Playtime: 10-20 Minutes
Play Type: Dexterity
The manor at the top of the hill has a reputation of being haunted. Things seem to move in the night, and not just ghosts either. The house itself seems to move and tilt. However there are treasures to be had in the mansion. Will you be the first person to break the curse, get the treasure and escape the mansion alive?
There are two modes of game play in Shaky Manor, but they both have the same basic concept. The first mode of play is where players are drawing a colored room card and trying to get the meeple and three treasure chests into that colored room before their competitors do. In order to do this, players must shake their mansion until all other elements are out of the room listed. This is considered the “easy” mode, great for young kids because they are always working towards the same goal.
The hard mode is mechanically the same, with players trying to shake their manor to get certain elements in a colored room. However, in this case the elements change based on the card listed. When players draw a room card, the deck will show a new card faced up with various items that can be found in the house. The players must race to get all of those objects in the room, while ensuring that no stray objects end up in there. The first player to do so takes the room card.
Once a player has six room cards they win the game.
Components in Shaky Manor are fairly simple, but are very eye catching. There are the four room boards (two of which will need to be assembled when opened), a variety of different chits that go into the mansions, and a deck of cards. Players should check to see that all players have the same amount and types of chits before starting the game.
One fun thing about Shaky Manor is that players can actually see and “try” the game through the box, as there is a see through area on the box. While it does not actually effect game play, it was still an interesting component decision.
As far as the quality of the components themselves, I would say that they will hold up to the violent shaking that they will be forced to endure. The cardboard is sturdy and the chits are all either wood or strong plastic. My only component complaint is that two of the room tiles are very similar in color and can only be distinguished by a slight change in color and tiny symbols within the room. I would have liked to see the floors be more distinguished (maybe having different types of flooring, or more easily discernible colors)
Shaky Manor is a game that is great for families. It can be taught in under a minute, and has both an easy and hard mode so that the game can grow harder as children seek more of a challenge. Kids will be engaged as soon as they see the box and are able to shake it around and see the objects moving. The fact that it is so short also may be great for busy families looking to spend some time together on the weeknights. Set up and take down is especially fast, because all of the components should be set up after the first play through, meaning all players will need to do is open the box and shuffle the cards.
While Shaky Manor is definitely engaging for children, and provides short term competitive enjoyment for adults, I am not sure that it will provide long term engagement for adults without children. While fun to play with a group of friends for a short period of time, adults may find the simplicity of rules and the amount of luck involved in where items start to be repetitive. It will be enjoyable to play occasionally, but may not see the table as often as other dexterity games that provide more variability and control.
That being said, if you are a fan of dexterity games, this would be an enjoyable addition to your collection. It looks and feels great. It is much quicker to set up than some other dexterity games making it great starting game for a game night. I would suggest it if you enjoy games like Meeple Circus, Ice Cool or Dr. Eureka. It is still very much a dexterity game, however set up and take down is much quicker than these other games so it is great for a busy family.
Game: Maki Stack
Designer: Jeff Lai
Published: Blue Orange Games
Players: 2-6 players
Playtime: 10-20 Minutes
Play Type: Dexterity
It is time to show off your sushi stacking skills. Compete against the other team as you race to have the best presentation in the shortest time. The players that can complete the pattern first will win be the culinary masters.
The game play in Maki Stack is very simple. Players will divide into two teams and compete with those teams to replicate stacks of sushi depicted on cards. There are two kinds of cards: Chopsticks and Blindfold.
When players draw a chopsticks card, they must work with one other teammate to stack the sushi as depicted. Each teammate is only able to use one finger, imitating the idea of using chopsticks to stack the pieces. In blindfold mode one player wears a mask and listens to the directions of their other teammates to complete the task.
In both modes, the goal is to be the first team completed with all the elements in the correct spot. Players may add additional rules to make the game more challenging like only using specific fingers as chopsticks, or using non-dominate hands. The first team to six cards wins the competition.
The game comes with a deck of cards, two foam masks, two player mats, and 10 wooden sushi pieces. The pieces are high quality, and will stand up to being knocked over multiple times. The only thing I am not sure would last over a long time, especially with kids using them are the two masks. If I were to play this game with young kids frequently, I may consider replacing the two masks with sleep masks or another substitute.
As a teacher, a game like Maki Stack stands out to me as a great game for a classroom or family with young children. The game play while very simple, is also addictive and fun. This is especially true when there is a large group playing because the audience adds a lot of energy to those who are competing. It also allows kids to develop crucial fine motor and gross motor skills while having fun. The blindfold modes focuses on direction giving and listening skills which may be frustrating for some people, especially in a loud area. However, it makes for a great ice breaker when working with new people.
That being said, while Maki Stack can be played at two players, I would not suggest it. The game loses a lot of it’s interaction when playing with two players, because all of the modes are simply how quickly can you stack the image. In fact, I would really suggest Maki Stack only for four players or more, as with three players there are not equal teams.
Overall I think that Maki Stack is a lovely addition to my dexterity collection. It provides a interactive experience in which players must pay attention to one another and work together. As an educator, I plan on using Maki Stack in the classroom as an ice breaker early in the year. As an adult, Maki Stack is equally engaging with competitive people. Players will get very focused on how they can win, and may be even more engaged than if playing with children.
I would suggest Maki Stack if you are a teacher or parent. Additionally, I would suggest Maki Stack if you enjoy dexterity games like Ice Cool, Meeple Circus or Rhino Hero or if you enjoy games where you must work as a team like Captain Sonar, Codenames or Pandemic.
Designer: Jake Given, Zach Given, and Jonathan Ritter-Roderick
Published: Lay Waste Games
Players: 2-4 players
Playtime: 45-60 Minutes
Play Type: Area Control/ Take That
Where once lay a pleasant island, filled with peaceful and content dragons has been awakened by a human invasion. Now the four dragon’s instincts have kicked in, and the competition to be the dragon overlord has become fierce. You must fight to dominate the most human civilization and hoard as much gold as possible. As you know, the most powerful dragon is the one with the biggest hoard filled with the most shiney gold.
Dragoon is extremely easy to set up. Each player will take a dragon and all tokens in their color of choosing. Then according to diagrams in the rulebook, players will set up for a 2, 3 or 4 player game by placing their dragon and cave on the board. Then all players will take their dragon skull scorekeeper and place it at the zero on the scoreboard, also making sure to put the human skull there. The human skull represents the amount of treasure the thief has. Finally deal three cards to each player.
Each round in Dragoon is played in a series of three steps. First players will populate the board. Players will roll both the red and black dice to determine the coordinates where humans will choose to create their civilizations. The black die corresponds with the black side of the board, and the red dice with the red side of the board. Players will populate the board the number of players plus one per round. When populating there are three possible outcomes for what might happen:
The next stage is the action stage. This is when the players will take their turn and do any actions they choose to throughout the turn. The player who is currently in last place will go first. Each player will get three action points per turn, and all three of those actions must be used. Players will first draw a card, then do any combination of the following actions:
While all the different actions and values may seem complicated to remember at first glance, it is not as bad as it seems. Mostly because Lay Waste Games included handy player aids that outlines that actions that can be taken as well as the different phases of gameplay.
Finally the tribute phase will occur. This is where all of the dragon’s hard work conquering the humans pays off (well hopefully). There are three things to consider when doing a tribute. First, if any dragon is on another players settlement, that settlement will not produce tribute. Second, if you are standing on a population tile that you own, you will automically be given tribute for that space as if you rolled a 3/4/5 (1 gold for villages and 3 gold for cities). Finally, for all other claimed population tiles the player will roll one die total.The number rolled will apply to all population tiles you have claimed. You will gain money based on what you roll:
Once again it may seem like a lot to remember, but all of the information is on the player aids. Players continue going through rounds until someone has reached 50 gold. Then players will finish the round. If two or more players reach 50 gold, the player with the most gold will win.
The components in Dragoon are what make it stand out from other area control games. Dragoon is released in two different formats, the gold edition and the standard edition. The difference between the two is only that the gold edition comes with metal dragons and tokens, and the standard is in plastic.
I personally own the gold edition and love the look and feel of the metal dragons. It gives a lot of character to the game and a lovely table presence. The dragons are not the only thing adding table presence though. The game comes with a cloth board, high quality linen cards and a scoring board that is also a cloth bag to hold components. In addition, each player recieves their own cloth bag to hold their individual dragon pieces, making set up very quick and easy. The cloth board is especially nice because it holds up to wear and tear better than a traditional cardboard board.
The component quality is honestly hard to beat. However with quality also comes cost. The game could have been significantly cheaper if Lay Waste Games decided to use less quality of materials, and the Gold Edition is rather expensive for a light to medium weight game. If you are looking to spend less and still enjoy much of the same quality I suggest taking a look at the standard edition.
Dragoon is a game that I have now owned for over two years and it still is my favorite choice for area control and take that gameplay. This is mostly because I love how much direct player interaction the game allows for. Players are able to interact with other players in any of the following ways: playing cards, stealing from caves, combat, stealing claimed populations, or even destroying population tiles. Almost every turn players will be engaged because they will want to see what their opponents are doing, as it may have an effect on them. However, with that much player interaction also comes plenty of take that. If you are a player who does not enjoy direct conflict in a game, I would not suggest Dragoon as it is a major part of gameplay.
The mixture of mechanics also provides unique gameplay that is a balence between strategy and luck. Players are able to strategize as they move their dragon, trying to control the most benefical areas and defend their populations from competiting dragons. However, even with great planning if they roll poorly on a tribute phase they may be out of luck. Arguably though, there is a greater focus on strategy than the luck aspect. Players have control over most aspects of the game with only the dice rolls and card draws adding a luck aspect.
Due to the fact that Dragoon is an area control based game, it does play best at four players as it forces the most player interaction. While it is still enjoyable at two and three players, I would suggest picking it up if you frequently play with four players. Additionally if you play up to six players frequently I suggest checking out the Rogue and Barbarian Expansion which allows for play up to six players and adds unique mechanics to gameplay. After trying it once, it has become high on my list to add to my collection!
I would suggest taking a closer look at Dragoon if you enjoy area control games like Blood Rage, Ethnos or Tyrants of the Underdark. Additionally you may enjoy Dragoon if you enjoy games with heavy player interaction/ take that like Cash and Guns, Colt Express, or Imhotep. Finally if you are someone who enjoys games with high component quality or great table presence, I highly suggest taking a look at the Gold Edition.
Game: Pioneer Days
Designer: Matthew Dunstan, Chris Marling
Published: Tasty Minstrel Games
Players: 2-4 players
Playtime: 45-60 Minutes
Play Type: Dice Drafting/ Resource Management
Time to load up your wagon and travel the Oregon Trail. Choose those you travel with carefully, pack smart, and be prepared for the worst. If you plan accordingly you could make it big as a cattle herder or a gold miner, but choose poorly and you might end up with a dead crew and broken wagons.
Pioneer Days is a dice drafting game in which players will be gaining resources dependent on the dice they choose each round. During set-up each player will pick their player mat, each one having different special abilities and starting equipment. If players are not comfortable with asymmetric game play, they also have the option of the standard pioneer which gives each player a set starting equipment and special ability.
Then one player will add sets of five colored dice equal to the number of players plus one to the black bag. Players will select two of the lettered card decks and shuffle them together, setting one card out under each of the symbols at the bottom of the center board. Players will then mix the equipment tiles together and a number of tiles that is equal to the number of players plus one out into the store. Then the players will shuffle the 22 town cards, pick 9 and put the rest in the box. Finally place the two face up. Players will put the circular colored tokens into their respective colored column in the first space. Finally players will put their wagons on the scoreboard on zero.
Players will play four “weeks” of game play. In each week players will have five days. The player with the first player token will draw a number of dice equal to the number of players plus one out of the bag. They then choose a dice from the pool. They check to see if the symbol on the dice matches any of the symbols on their equipment or the townsfolk. If there is a matching symbol, players will either do the action associated with the townsfolk or reference their player board and take the appropriate equipment action.
Once that player has checked for matching symbols, they then have the option to pay three dollars to change the dice face to any one of their choosing. If they choose to pay, they do not get their equipment benefit based on that dice face. They do get to choose to do one of three actions based on that dice face: income, action, or recruit. Income allows players to take silver based on the symbol, action allows players to take an action associated with that symbol or recruit the townsfolk underneath that symbol. Actions are as followed from left to right on the board:
After this player takes the two actions, the next player is able to pick a dice and so on and so forth until one dice is left. The dice that is left is placed on the color tracker beneath the scoreboard. Then the matching disaster track is moved forward one space. If the dice left is black, all tracks move forward one space. If this causes the colored disc to reach the last space, a disaster is triggered. Here is what happens on those disasters:
After this the first player token shifts, and the next player draws dice. This continues until the bag is empty. Once the bag is empty players will go into the end of the week phase. During this phase players will first check to see if they have any townsfolk who have an ability that triggers at the end of the week. Then, players will gain one point per cow they have. Finally, players check the town cards and may fulfill the requirements to gain favor. Favor will give two points per token at the end of the game.
Players will then discard any leftover cards and equipment and replenish the supplies. Then replace the two town cards. After all supplies are replenished, the players will repeat the process three more times. During the final week two things change: there are three town cards, and at the end of the week all four disaster tracks move up.
After the end of the last week and the town phase has been completed the end of game scoring will occur. Players will get one point per gold nugget in their cart, two victory points per favor, the player with the most favor gains an additional five points, players will get points according to their townsfolk, and then players will lose two points for each destroyed token in their wagons. This will give players their final score. If there is a tie, silver is the tie breaker.
Pioneer Days comes with a variety of components, all of which are very high quality. I was especially impressed with the cardboard chits, which were thick and easy to punch. None of them tore even slightly when punching, and they are easy to pick up because they have some thickness to them. Besides the cardboard chits, all the player boards and carts are made from the same cardboard. The custom dice have clear symbols and are easy to read. The game comes with two nice dice bags, to hold the dice and gold. The cards are nice quality and the art style is clean and well done. Finally, there are cow meeples. They are wonderful and stand out on the board, and a great addition overall to the game.
The only thing I would have liked to see was an insert of sort inside the game, or more bags to hold pieces. There are not enough bags included to keep everything separate, and there is no insert included. Additionally, due to the disaster tracks color is very important to determining the outcome. Some people who are color blind may struggle with these tracks.
As someone who was very disappointed by the Oregon Trail Card Game, I was excited and hesitant about Pioneer Days. I loved the idea of the theme but was nervous that it would not be implemented well. I was very pleasantly surprised. Pioneer Days stands out as a game that has great quality, variety of mechanics, and replayability. After playing multiple times, I was happy to find that the game plays just as well at two players as it does at four players. However, with a large family I would have liked to see it be playable at up for five players.
The mechanics of the game are a good balance of strategy with a slight touch of luck. While the dice introduce an aspect of luck, the dice drafting gives players an interesting decision between the benefit of the dice they choose and the consequences of the dice they leave. No matter what dice they players choose, there are strategic benefits to every dice face. Players have plenty of options and may form different strategies in each game due to the dice options. As players form different strategies with the dice and equipment they are able to obtain, they may also choose to develop different strategies with the asymmetric player mats as well. That being said, some of the player mats can cause confusion with when abilities trigger. For instance the Gambler allows players to re-roll dice, but it does not specify whether the rolling happens before players determine equipment benefits or after.
Overall Pioneer Days is a very strong game, and will likely appeal to many eurogamers who are seeking a strong dice drafting game. I would suggest it to players who may have also been disappointed by the Oregon Trail Card Game, who enjoy resource management games like Energy Empire, and Homesteaders or dice drafting games like Sagrada or Grand Austria Hotel.
Game: Jungle Joust
Designer: Adrian Adamescu, Daryl Andrews
Published: IDW Games
Players: 2-6 players
Playtime: 30-45 Minutes
Play Type: Betting/ Wagering
You have arrived in the capital of the kingdom for the spectacle of the year. Strong warriors riding rhinos are ready to compete in the jousting tournament. Only the quick and mighty will prevail, and it is your chance to make it big. Place your bets correctly, and gain riches. Bet carelessly, and fall into a life of debt. Make sure to use your favors carefully and select the right knight to cheer on.
Jungle Joust is a betting game in which players will compete against one another to ensure that their rhino is victorious in the joust. Players will set up with board in the middle of the table, with the fence in the middle and jousters on either side. Then create stock piles of all money, debt and favor tokens. Additionally players will take the betting chits and place them in ten piles with corresponding colors and symbols with the three chit stacked on top of the two. Finally, players will shuffle the joust deck, giving each player two cards and setting two additional cards face up to form the tableau. During the beginning of the game, players will be assigned either a red allegiance or black allegiance. This corresponds to the knight they will be rooting for.
During a player’s turn they will take up to three actions in the following order: play to a tilt, take other actions, draw one or two cards.
Players continue taking these actions until the two clash symbols on the jousters meet. This will trigger a round of scoring. There will be three rounds of scoring, and the person with the most money at the end of those rounds will be victorious. Let’s take a closer look at how players score points:
Players will do three rounds, scoring after each clash. The player with the most coins after the third clash wins the game.
Jungle Joust includes a 3-D jousting board, two 3-D jousting rhino riders, 70 cardboard coins, 46 cardboard markers (allegiance, debt markers, betting chits), 16 wooden favor pieces and 52 cards.
Due to the 3-D nature of the jousting field, the game has a visually interesting table presence. The 3-D components are sturdy, and go together easily, taking only a minute or two to put together. The cardboard makers are made of thick, sturdy cardboard that punches out easily with no rips or tears. The artwork is vibrant, and eye catching with easily distinguishable symbols.
One thing players should be aware of is carefully placing cards on the tilt. If cards get shuffled by movement, it can be difficult to determine which box the rider should be in. The more cards placed, the more difficult this can be to determine. With this exception, the game is easy to set up, and has good components that should hold up against wear and tear.
The first thing that stands out to me about Jungle Joust is it’s theme. There is no doubt in my mind that you will not find another game with a rhino jousting theme on the market. The game components add clearly to the theme. Anybody walking by the table will know that you are playing a game about jousting. The unique pieces will also draw curiosity of other players because of its strong table presence.
In addition to the theme, Jungle Joust does provide an interesting take on the betting or waging mechanics by allowing players to easily manipulate either side of the joust. Players can choose to help or hinder either side of the joust, and sometimes will even be forced to assist the other tilt because of the cards they are dealt. It keeps the game play fresh, as players will have to adjust their turns accordingly to what the other players did. However, much of the game does come down to the randomness of card draws because of that. Players spend a lot of the game hoping that whatever is in their hand will still be useful by the time their turn comes back around again. This is especially true in higher player count games where players may get only a few turns each round. It gives the game an air of randomness that many strategic players may find off putting.
The way the rule book is laid out is difficult to follow, and makes learning the rules difficult. For instance, players may be seeking to find out what the favor tokens printed on the board mean, and would expect to find that information under either favors or maybe under the play to a tilt section, but it is instead listed after the clash section (which leads into scoring). Flipping through the rule book took significantly longer than it should have for a relatively simple game.
However, my main concern is with the scoring of the game. It is very fiddly, and with the poor lay out of the rule book, can be extremely difficult to learn and teach to other players. Players must know when to look at just one tilt, when to look at both tilts, when to only consider the victor and when they need to consider the victor, symbols and tilts. If the scoring was simplified, it could have taken this game from an okay game to strong option for a simple betting/wagering game.
As it stands, Jungle Joust is an okay game, with a interesting theme, strong table presence and a interesting take on the betting mechanic. After a few rounds, players are able to figure out the scoring and the game moves more quickly. Players who enjoying wagering games with some luck and some strategy will likely enjoy Jungle Joust. I would suggest trying it if you enjoy Camel Up but are looking for something slightly more complex, or something that you can more easily manipulate.