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Next Station: Tokyo (Saturday Review)

Release Date: 2023Players: 1-4
Designer: Matthew DunstanLength: 30-45 minutes
Artist: Maxime MorinAge: 8+
Publisher: Blue OrangeComplexity: 1.5 / 5
Plastic (by weight): <1%Air (by volume): <10%

We were on our way to the city’s main station to board the bullet train to Kyoto. Travelling on the Asakusa underground line towards Ikebukuro, we had just passed through Kasumigaseki and arrived at Ginza station. We were nearly there. It was Next Station: Tokyo by Matthew Dunstan from Blue Orange.

The Same but Different

Just like London buses, underground networks also come in twos. After the success of Next Station: London, there is now another game in this wonderful flip-and-write series. Next Station: Tokyo is very similar to its predecessor, which is to be expected. You have the usual pad of tube maps, with stations represented by one of the four different shapes and pre-printed dotted lines that you follow to draw your network. The Tokyo map also has the familiar districts which are outlined by yellow borders. The gameplay is also very similar. You shuffle the deck of cards, flip over the top one and then draw a line between the relevant stops.

Of course, both games are not exactly the same. Not only is the layout of the stations and districts different, but in Next Station: Tokyo, there is a whole tube line preprinted. This green circle line is an interesting addition. It already connects certain stations and counts towards the bonus points of having stations connected by multiple lines. Additionally, when a certain card is flipped over, you are allowed to continue your current line in parallel to the green circle line, provided one of the ends of your current line is on the circle.

There is more though. The way interchange stations score has also changed. You no longer get points for stations serviced by two different coloured lines. The minimum is three, which is easier because of the existing green circle line. Additionally, if you can create an interchange station with at least two different coloured lines in one of the outer districts, you can score additional points. The game is trying to incentivise you to make the suburbs better connected, which is a lot harder to achieve than you might imagine.

Tokyo is Busy

Finally, the river has gone. That might be a little surprising, because Tokyo does have waterways, but maybe the map would have been too busy if they had all been added. In fact, Next Station: Tokyo has enough going on without having to worry about crossing rivers as well.

So even though, on the face of it, there isn’t actually that much difference between Tokyo and London, the devil is in the details. I was really surprised at how much you have to think about when you play the latest game in the series. While playing London usually feels quite intuitive, without having to worry too much about which direction to take, Tokyo does make your brain explode.

a close-up of the Next Station: Tokyo map and two of the colouring pencils
check out the green circle line pre-printed on the map (Photo courtesy of Blue Orange)

You want to have interchange stations in the outer districts, but unless you can bring three different lines to the same stop, you don’t get additional points for the interchange itself. If you focus on connecting to the green circle, you get the interchange bonuses, but not the outer district ones. You also want to be on the green circle line, so you can run your track in parallel, but of course, the right card never comes up when you need it. Oh, and I forgot to mention, any station on the green line that you don’t connect up with a second colour will give you negative points. So, yes, you definitely want to be in the centre, but also on the outskirts, even though you don’t necessarily need to get right into the corners, but if you do, you could score lots of points, but then you might lose points for the green circle line and… and… wow!

There really is a lot to think about. Every time a new card is flipped over, you need to consider your options and decide if you need to abandon your plans and try and minimise your losses or if you can still risk it to get a large bonus.

Tokyo to London

Now while I love both games, I do so for different reasons. If you want a lighter experience with family on a lazy Sunday afternoon, London is probably your safer bet. If you fancy a bit of a brain burner that will take a little longer to play and might see you cursing your decision two turns ago, then Tokyo is the perfect fit. Some people might say that if you have one of the two games in the series, you don’t need the other. However, I feel you want both. That way you can choose the right one depending on what state your brain is in.

Also, here is a little secret tip for you. If you want to try out London or Tokyo, the maps and rulebook are available to download from the publisher’s website. So you can give them both a go and see how you fare. Maybe one of the two is the better option for you. Maybe you find they both scratch different itches. Whatever you find though, both games are a wonderful way of rediscovering your inner child and having fun with all the family.

So, off to your Next Station: Tokyo you go!

Useful Links

Transparency Facts

I feel that this review reflects my own, independent and honest opinion, but the facts below allow you to decide whether you think that I was influenced in any way.

  • I played a friend’s copy of the game.
  • At the time of writing, neither the designers, nor the publisher, nor anyone linked to the game supported me financially or by payment in kind.

Audio Version

Intro Music: Bomber (Sting) by Riot (https://www.youtube.com/audiolibrary/)

Sound Effects: bbc.co.uk – © copyright 2024 BBC

Music: I Feel It (instrumental) by Sascha Ende
Website: https://filmmusic.io/song/422-i-feel-it-instrumental
Licensed under CC BY 4.0: https://filmmusic.io/standard-license

Playlist

These are the songs I listened to while I was writing this review:

In All Seriousness – board games with sensitive topics (Topic Discussion)

I know that many of us play board games to have fun. Whether we enjoy lighter or heavier games, it’s all about spending time, either alone or with friends or family, getting away from the day-to-day worries and immersing yourself in another world for an hour or two or three. Yet, there are games that are set against the background of a very serious topic. These games want us, the players, to engage with the topic in a safe environment. They will never be perfect representations of the reality they portray, but hopefully, they will make us want to engage with the topic further.

I think most people immediately think of war games, when they think of games with a serious topic. Of course, games about a war or other historical conflict fit the bill. However, I do not want to talk about these types of games in this article. I want to look at other serious games that take a topic, other than war, from the past or the present for their setting.

There are now quite a few games like this in our hobby, such as The Cost, Doubt is our Product or Holding On: The Troubled Life of Billy Kerr. I’m sure that you can come up with other examples too. None of these games are war games, at least not in the sense that they portray a historical conflict.

The Importance of Serious Games

So, let me come right out with it: I truly believe that serious games are valuable to our hobby. The messages these games try to share with us, the players, are important.

While many of us will agree that books and films about serious topics are a good way for us to grapple with often difficult issues, board games are often not seen to be capable of doing so. After all, like I said at the beginning, board games are about having fun and not having to deal with day-to-day worries. Board games are supposed to be a form of escapism.

Yet in my mind, board games are very similar to books or films. While some books allow you to escape, others challenge you to think about more serious issues. The same is true for films, so I don’t see why board games can’t do both too. In fact, I think board games are more immersive than books and films, because they are interactive. It’s very common in historical games that the players can rewrite the past and create a different outcome than is documented in literature. A serious game can force you, the player, to make tough decisions that actually feel hard when you make them. Ideally, players will come away wanting to learn more about the topic or at least the game will have made them more aware of it.

I understand that it’s not everyone’s cup of tea to play a game about the greed of large corporations that exploit their workers and knowingly expose them to deadly asbestos, Serious games can definitely trigger people and I understand that. But that doesn’t mean we should not have serious games. Let’s have fiction and non-fiction board games. Let’s give people a choice.

a player board in The Cost showing coffins for worker meeples
the player boards in The Cost depict coffins for your worker meeples

Serious Topics Treated Thoughtfully

Of course, games that deal with serious topics need to do it right. It is always going to be hard for any game to reproduce what actually went on in detail. Games are always going to be more abstract because otherwise, the rules would become too cumbersome. Yet, if a game does it well, it will be interesting and flow well, while also conveying an important message.

The Cost, for example, is a very competitive game with a lot of strategy. It also doesn’t mince its mechanisms, so to speak. If you want to win, you have to accept that your workers will die. You have to place your meeples on grave spaces to indicate this. You really feel ruthless as you reduce costs and increase profit. It’s intentionally not done subtly to remind you of your actions.

Doubt is our Product emulates the struggle between tobacco companies that sell their carcinogenic products to as many people as possible and the movement that tries to establish legislation and regulations so tobacco is sold with huge warning labels or banned outright. In the game, one of the two players represents the tobacco industry, which isn’t an easy part to take on. It definitely confronts both players with a serious topic and will hopefully give them a better understanding of what went on.

Thinking about death or even end-of-life is never easy. Yet, that’s exactly what Holding On: The Troubled Life of Billy Kerr portrays. The game handles this topic very sensitively. While a lot of the players’ actions are about making their patient comfortable, they also try to find out more about the person they’re treating. The game is almost a celebration of this fictional character’s life.

Room for Both

As I say, there is, of course, room for all types of games: serious or otherwise. Yet, even though many of us will want to entertain ourselves when we play board games, at least most of the time, some of us will also want to challenge ourselves with serious topics, at least some of the time. I think that’s important and as a community, we should not shun these types of games. If done right, they will be educational or at least they will stimulate interest in important issues. Maybe these games will make us read books or watch films. Maybe these games will allow us to change what actually happened and show ourselves that there are other options. Whatever these games have to offer, I think we should allow space for them in our hobby.

What About You?

So now I’m wondering what you think of serious games. Do you think they have a place in the board game hobby? Have you ever tried to tackle a game with a serious topic? If so, what was it and how did it make you feel? Or do you never want to play a serious game? As always, please share your thoughts in the comments below. There is no right or wrong here. Every opinion counts.

Useful Links

Audio Version

Intro Music: Bomber (Sting) by Riot (https://www.youtube.com/audiolibrary/)

Music: Sonnengruß by Sascha Ende
Website: https://filmmusic.io/song/83-sonnengruss
Licensed under CC BY 4.0: https://filmmusic.io/standard-license

Playlist

These are the songs I listened to while I was writing this topic discussion article:

Single-Use Games – the board game hobby’s throw-away attitude (Topic Discussion)

Let’s be honest. Most of us in the hobby buy games that we play once or twice or in rare cases, three or four times. In fact, the term “shelf of shame” is a thing, describing games that people have bought but not yet played. The thing is, these games sit there unplayed for months on end and may never see the welcome sight of a table, let alone a board game table. So in this article, I want to look at this a bit further and investigate why we don’t play the same games more than a handful of times.

New and Shiny

Using “throw-away” in the headline is probably a bit attention-grabbing, maybe even click-baity. I was trying to highlight the fact that most of the games we own don’t get to the table much. Of course, it’s rare that any of us actually throw away any games. Chances are we sell or pass them on. At least that’s the case in my experience. So please share in the comments below, if you see this differently.

Still, the fact remains that many of us play our games maybe a handful of times. Often this is due to the fact that we’re attracted by the next new (to us) game. I mean, it’s nice to get a brand new game in the post, take off the shrink-wrap, punch out the tokens, organize everything into baggies and settle down to read the rulebook. It’s part of the fun of the hobby for many of us. The smell of fresh cardboard is alluring. The potential experiences a new game offers are exciting.

Yet, the harsh light of the board game table seems to make everything fade into grey. As wooden tokens hit cardboard player mats, what was new and exciting when we first opened the box, becomes done and dusted. Maybe we need to play it a second time, just to make sure we got the rules right. A third game will settle who the better player is, but very quickly, the latest crowdfunding alert on our mobile phone diverts our attention.

coloured, wooden cubes and cardboard coins and tokens from Lords of Waterdeep

Repeated Review Play

I can really understand all of what I have described so far. I am also often attracted to the next game, especially if it seems to offer something new. Maybe a new mechanism or a new twist on something. As a reviewer, I have to think about what game I want to cover next. At the same time, I have to play games often enough so that I can talk about them with enough authority to write a critical stance on my and my game group’s experience with the game. Even so, I play many games no more than half a dozen times, especially if they are longer, heavier ones.

There are very few games I have played 10 times or more when compared to the total number of games I have played. Out of the almost 300 games I have recorded plays for on the BG Stats app, only around 45 have 10 or more plays logged against them. That’s only 15% and many of these games are quite short and quick.

Yet, I’ve made a point of trying to play games more often for the last few years. I have tried to hit the 10×10 board game challenge of playing at least 10 games at least 10 times in a year. I’ve made it easier for me by not deciding in advance which games I want to play that often. Even so, my h-index for 2023 is 8, meaning I played at least 8 games 8 times. That’s not bad, but it’s also not good.

So while I have the excuse that I have set myself the goal of reviewing around 50 games a year, that is one a week, except over Christmas and New Year’s, for many of us in the hobby, that excuse isn’t there. The question remains therefore why people have shelves of shame and keep talking about the next game, when they have played their current game maybe once or twice.

Collected Games

To be honest, I think a lot of it has to do with a good number of people in our hobby being collectors, if not completionists. The fact that hobbyists swear by Ikea‘s Kallax shelves as the perfect board game storage solution just shows that we love collecting games. So while the smallest Kallax offers four compartments, allowing room for three to four average-sized game boxes, many people in the hobby have bigger versions of these shelves and often multiples of them.

People are proud to post their shelfies on Instagram. We love sharing on social media the latest board game haul. We want to tell everyone about this amazing game we found or that we are going to back in an upcoming crowdfunding campaign. While we kid ourselves that we will play these games at some point in the future, the reality is, and deep down we all know it, we won’t get them to the table. Owning games and having their gorgeous box art on display is really what it is about for many of us. We just don’t want to publicly admit that.

There is nothing wrong with collecting and you never know – maybe if we keep our games in mint condition, they will be worth a lot of money some time in the future. After all, if it worked for the Rocket Launcher Boba Fett that we should have kept but that our parents threw out after having kept it in the loft for decades, maybe it’ll also work for our deluxe edition of this amazing 3kg large box of wooden cubes, custom meeples, metal coins, linen-finished cards, dual-layer cardboard player boards and beautifully illustrated quadruple-fold game board.

the plastic vertical grid with tiles in My Shelfie

Throw-Away – I Think Not

So while I still think we should all play the games we’ve got more and get rid of those that we don’t, I do understand the appeal of collecting games. I have decided it’s not for me though. I’m slowly getting rid of games that I won’t play in person. The advent of online gaming and in a small way by my hand being forced because our games group has moved online, doing so is easier. I know I can still play these games with my friends, even if it’s on a digital platform.

I want to get to a point where I mostly own games that I know will get to the table a lot. That means I’ll still have a game collection and that collection will change over time, but I am going to be harsher and get rid of games if they’re not getting played. All right, I’m allowing a few exceptions. I do keep some games purely for nostalgic reasons, even when I know they probably will never get played again and that’s fine.

So, yes, there we are. Whatever you decide for yourself, as long as our hobby makes us happy and brings us together, it’s all right.

What About You?

So what have you decided for yourself? Are you proud of your shelf of shame? Do you love just collecting games or do you still kid yourself that you’ll actually play them one day? Have you come to the conclusion that it’s time to reduce your collection and only keep games that get played? Or do you simply throw games away once you’re done with them? As always, please share your thoughts in the comments below. I’d love to hear from you.

Useful Links

Audio Version

Intro Music: Bomber (Sting) by Riot (https://www.youtube.com/audiolibrary/)

Music: “Pleasure” by AShamaluevMusic.
Website: https://www.ashamaluevmusic.com

Music: “Walking” by AShamaluevMusic.
Website: https://www.ashamaluevmusic.com

Playlist

These are the songs I listened to while I was writing this topic discussion article:

Stop Toying With Me – when gimmicks in board games have a purpose (Topic Discussion)

Some might argue that board games are basically just toys. Some games add to that argument when they play on the toy factor by including one or more components that are basically just a gimmick. These components could easily be replaced by something else without affecting gameplay. Yet, some games are accused of capitalising on the attraction of gimmicks when these playful components are actually an integral part without which the game wouldn’t function. In this article, I want to look at this a bit more closely.

Vital Gimmicks

I have previously talked about the toy factor in board games, but I wanted to revisit the topic after playing I C E by Bragou and Samson F. Perret from This Way !. If you don’t know this game, it is about digging into an ice field to find ancient artefacts. During setup, you create five layers of overlapping hexagonal tiles. As you play, you remove tiles to slowly work your way deeper into the ice field.

You could argue that this is just a gimmick to draw people in and yes, it’s what attracted me to I C E in the first instance. However, when you play the game, you realize that the overlapping layers are integral to the gameplay. Maybe there is another way of implementing this mechanism, but it probably would have made the game a lot harder to play.

In a similar way, the messy pile of cards in Gold n’ Grog by Jake A Smith from Next Adventure Games creates a similar experience. In this push-your-luck game, you draw cards in the hope of finding treasure. If you don’t stop in time, you risk losing everything. However, instead of a simple draw deck, the cards in Gold n’ Grog are spread out on the table, to create a mini pirate treasure island. You can take any card you like, even digging into the pile to get to the card you want.

you're literally digging for treasure among the pile of cards
you’re literally digging for treasure among the pile of cards

Gimmicky Gameplay Experience

Now while it probably feels very gimmicky to have the layers in I C E or the spread-out cards in Gold n’ Grog, it hugely changes the gameplay experience. Every time you “dig up” a hex tile in I C E, you wonder what the tile itself has to offer and what you reveal underneath. What is usually a simple act of taking a new tile turns into a magical and exciting moment. Similarly, when you choose which card to take in Gold n’ Grog, you feel like you’re in charge of your own destiny. Not only that, you feel like a real pirate digging for treasure. The experience is completely transformed. Instead of simply drawing another card from a deck, you are in charge.

Saying that, the effect on the gameplay experience is what most gimmicks have in common. They enhance what players feel when they play the game. Whether it’s drawing marbles from Potion Explosion‘s dispenser, enhancing your dice in Dice Forge or sleeving cards in Mystic Vale, what seems like a superfluous gimmick that could have been replaced with something simpler and probably made the game less expensive in the process, is actually really satisfying when you play the game. Sure, I’m glossing over the pain of unsleeving cards after playing Mystic Vale, but you get the idea.

Making your favourite game even more fun to play is probably what we all secretly wish for. After all, the large aftermarket of upgraded components speaks for itself. Metal coins or poker chips instead of cardboard or paper money is my favourite example. Luxurious cards with linen finish are a lot more fun to play with than those that are cheap and from low-quality card stock.

Gimmicks at the Core

There are also games that really focus on the toy factor. While in all of the games I have mentioned so far, the gimmick at their core could probably be replaced by something simpler and more cost-effective, even if that makes the game harder to play, in Viking See-Saw you really cannot remove the core component: the see-sawing Viking ship. Maybe it could be simpler, but without some sort of component that tips one way or the other as it’s loaded with more items, the game wouldn’t be what it is.

Additionally, the components that you place on the ship as you play the game were chosen quite intentionally. Again, having plastic jewels and weighty golden cubes wouldn’t have been necessary and choosing standard wooden components in their place may have reduced the cost of the game. However, having items that are all roughly the same size, but weigh quite dramatically differently, while also being quite different in shape, is what makes this game so interesting and fun.

The toy factor of Viking See-Saw takes me back to popular family games from my childhood, like Mouse Trap or Game of Life. However, while those childhood games didn’t actually need those gimmicks, removing the ship from Viking See-Saw would break the game. Yet, all of these games are attractive and playful because of the gimmicky components.

a hand trying to place golden cube onto the Viking See-Saw
as items are stacked on top of each other, Viking See-Saw gets even more difficult

How About You?

Now I wonder what you think of board game components that seem like mere toys and don’t actually feel like they add anything to the gameplay experience. Can you think of any games where you thought the gimmick was superfluous? Are there any games you played where the gimmick actually really enhanced the enjoyment of the game? As always, please share your thoughts in the comments below. It would be great to hear what you have to say.

Useful Links

Audio Version

Intro Music: Bomber (Sting) by Riot (https://www.youtube.com/audiolibrary/)

Music: “Shade” by AShamaluevMusic.
Website: https://www.ashamaluevmusic.com

Playlist

These are the songs I listened to while I was writing this topic discussion article:

Top 5 Games of (and I reviewed in) 2023 (Saturday Review)

Announcing the annual Top Table Award is always a pleasure and an honour at the same time. Choosing and deciding the order of the top 5 games I reviewed in 2023 is never easy. There usually isn’t much between the games and they are all great for their own reasons. So, irrespective of which one won the coveted award, all of the games are worth a closer look. Here goes…

Actually, not quite. Rather than launching straight into the top 5 games, listed in reverse order, as is now tradition, I wanted to point out some other superlatives from 2023 that you might be interested in.

Blog Stats

So let’s start with the most-viewed article from last year. Unsurprisingly, it will be an article from earlier in the year and the honour goes to my review of Mycelia by J. J. Neville from Split Stone Games. With over 2,640 views it leads the roster, closely followed by my thought piece Opening Gambit – where to begin in the modern hobby with some tips on where you might want to start with board games. That article reached 2,370 views in 2023.

Overall, the blog has received over 139,000 views and nearly 60,000 visitors. That’s an average of nearly 11,600 monthly views and 5,000 monthly visitors. As a daily average, that’s over 380 views and over 160 visitors. That’s pretty huge. I mean, that’s a good-sized room filled with people every day. Thank you so much to all of you.

Most of you seem to access the site from a search engine. That’s not a huge surprise and means I’m getting quite a lot of so-called “organic” traffic. The second-most views come in via the WordPress app, which is interesting. I guess it makes sense. The blog is a WordPress site, after all, so reading it via the app is probably a good way. Next, I get a good chunk of people visiting the site from Facebook and Twitter, which is to be expected.

When it comes to referrals from other board game websites, Beyond Solitaire and Cardboard Edison lead the table. I’m really chuffed that those two sites either link to me or people visit Tabletop Games Blog after visiting those sites. So a quick shout out to Liz Davidson and Chris and Suzanne Zinsli. Thank you so much!

Top 5 Games

Right then, now it’s time to reveal my favourite five games of 2023. As you will know by now, the list isn’t restricted to games released in 2023. Instead, the games were selected from those I reviewed and therefore played in 2023. I think that’s a good way to give games released towards the end of the year a good chance to get to the table and get a thorough appreciation. If you’re looking for a list of games published in 2023 only, you’re in the wrong place. Sorry.

So, here finally goes…

5. Next Station: London

Let’s start with a game that lost out on the coveted Spiel des Jahres award this year. The designer of this game, the wonderful Matthew Dunstan, was very gracious when he congratulated the winners at the ceremony in Berlin last year. So while this game didn’t get the Spiel des Jahres award, to me, Next Station: London is the best something-and-write game I played in 2023. It creates a lot of depth with very simple rules. It makes you think just hard enough to keep you focussed and engaged, without being so overwhelming that it creates analysis paralysis. It’s cleanly designed without any fancy extras or pointless bells and whistles. It is the perfect game for the whole family to while away half an hour or so while leaning into your inner child and drawing on a piece of paper with colouring pencils.

one of the player sheets in Next Station: London and a blue colouring pencil
one of the player sheets in Next Station: London

4. Taiwan Night Market

Seeing a publisher from East Asia release a game by an East Asian designer is very exciting. A game about a culture that is not familiar to me and that is made by someone who knows what they’re talking about, is still very rare in our very Western-centric hobby. So when Taiwan Night Market came to Kickstarter, I knew I had to support it and get myself a copy. As it turns out, the game really delivered. It is a mix of bidding and area control which is very accessible to a wide age range. The cute, comic-style illustrations are very attractive and the overall graphic design is very clean. The rules are pretty straightforward and the gameplay is pretty quick. As an economic simulation of sorts, this game really appealed to me. So it was wonderful when our neighbours enjoyed it too. It’s certainly a game that will stay in my collection. I think it appeals to players of all kinds. Whether you just want to build your own food chain or are a hardened gamer who is very competitive, there is something here for everyone.

different illustrations for the same stall type in Taiwan Night Market
varied illustrations for the same type of stall make Taiwan Night Market a pleasure to look at

3. Akropolis

I think 2023 was the year of visual puzzle and tile-laying games. I love the challenge of trying to select the right tile and find the perfect place and orientation for it to score a lot of points. Whether these are polyominoes, hexes, squares or some other shape, I just love these sorts of games. So when a game adds a third dimension into the mix, it’s absolutely amazing – and Akropolis is that game. Not only do you have to find the right piece, but you also have to select the right place and orientation and even keep an eye on going up into the third dimension. The higher you can stack your tiles, the higher the point potential. At the same time, you need to try and get cubes to give you a wider choice of tiles to take from the market. The game really offers everything, without becoming overwhelming. The rules overhead is really low, even though it can take a little while to get used to the way different districts score. It’s a really clean design and a lot of game to fit into about half an hour to an hour. I just love it.

some of the tiles, layered on top of each other, and three wooden cubes representing the stone resource in Akropolis
some of the tiles, layered on top of each other, and three wooden cubes representing the stone resource in Akropolis

2. Sea Salt & Paper

2023 wasn’t only the year of puzzly games, but card games also featured heavily for me. Set collection games are probably some of the simplest card games to learn, even though many aren’t easy to master. Sea Salt & Paper is no different. The rules are pretty light, even though you might take a little while to understand the bonus actions some cards give you. Yet, the game that emerges from these simple rules is much deeper than you’d think. Sure, there is a lot of luck, like there is in many card games, but there are also many decisions you have to make. You certainly can, to some degree at least, improve your chances, and as the game is played over several rounds, the luck should even out. Even if you do have a game that goes totally against you, it only takes about 30 minutes before you start another one. It’s the perfect family game, in my view.

some of the cards in Sea Salt & Paper, all in an origami style - in the picture: a mermaid, penguin and crab
some of the cards in Sea Salt & Paper, all in an origami style

1. Enemy Anemone (Top Table Award 2023)

Top Table Award by Tabletop Games Blog

OK, you have already seen which game has won the coveted Top Table Award for 2023. If you know me, you won’t be surprised. As a lover of trick-taking games who has been unable to share his passion with his family and friends, finally finding a game that is easy to learn and quick to play is amazing. It allowed me to teach some of the more complex concepts of trick-taking games to people who have never played these types of games before. Not only that, it meant I was able to bring another trick-taker to the table, which would have otherwise been harder to teach. Additionally, a friend of mine bought this game to teach his family. So this single game is really spreading a genre that I absolutely adore – and that is amazing.

Yes, it’s Enemy Anemone by Daniel Newman, who has done an outstanding job of creating a trick-taking game that twists things around in such a way as to create a really distilled representative of this genre. The gorgeous illustrations by Rob Turpin just add to the joy of playing the game. It isn’t only a pleasure to teach, but it’s also a huge pleasure to play. I’m so glad Daniel showed me the game and played it with me. It’s a real jewel and it has become my foundation trick-taking game, from which I can build up a giant monument of trick-taking games.

So, yes, Enemy Anemone truly deserves to win the Top Table Award. Congratulations!

a hand of cards in Enemy Anemone
a hand of cards in Enemy Anemone

So that’s it for another year. I hope my choice of top 5 games for 2023 was insightful and has given you inspiration to check out some of these games for yourself. Thank you again for reading this blog or listening to the audio versions of my articles. Here is to many more amazing games in 2024!

Useful Links

Audio Version

Intro Music: Bomber (Sting) by Riot (https://www.youtube.com/audiolibrary/)

Sound Effects: bbc.co.uk – © copyright 2024 BBC

Music: “Corporate Documentary” by AShamaluevMusic.
Website: https://www.ashamaluevmusic.com

Music: “Corporate Motivation” by AShamaluevMusic.
Website: https://www.ashamaluevmusic.com

Music: “Corporate Ambient” by AShamaluevMusic.
Website: https://www.ashamaluevmusic.com

Music: “Corporation” by AShamaluevMusic.
Website: https://www.ashamaluevmusic.com

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These are the songs I listened to while I was writing this review:

Chop Stacks (Saturday Review) – Tabletop Games Blog

Release Date: 2023Players: 1-8
Designer: Dax GazawayLength: 30-60 minutes
Artist: n/aAge: 10+
Publisher: Red Flag Game StudioComplexity: 1.0 / 5
Plastic (by weight): 45%Air (by volume): 45%

Using chopsticks isn’t easy. A lot of people are uncomfortable with or have no experience using them. However, like so many things in life, it’s all a matter of practice. So rather than embarrassing yourself in front of a restaurant full of people who seemingly have no problem picking up their food with two wooden sticks and transporting it to their mouths, you could just learn how to use them in the comfort of your own home with family or friends who might also want to master them. To answer the challenge and make it a fun experience, here is Chop Stacks by Dax Gazaway from Red Flag Game Studio.

Yes, it’s pretty much as simple as that. The game designer literally just wanted to provide a game that allows you to practice using chopsticks, while having fun with other people. As you get better at picking up the small tokens, beads, mini erasers or other items and placing them on the tiny table, you will soon be ready to show off your skills and become creative.

Pick Up and Stack

There isn’t really a lot to say about Chop Stacks. The gameplay really is as simple as taking turns picking out one piece from the wonderful mix of items that comes in the game box, grabbing it with your chopsticks, lifting it out of the box, carrying it over to the tiny table that loosely sits on a tiny plinth and placing it carefully on top without dropping it in the process or knocking anything off.

Anything that does land on your board game table instead of staying on the Chop Stacks table goes in front of you and basically counts as minus points. Once someone has at least five items in front of them, the round ends. Everyone counts the items they have in front and adds them to a tally. Repeat the whole thing once per player. After the final round, whoever has the smallest tally, meaning whoever dropped the least number of items, wins.

That literally is all there is to it. No fancy rules. No timers. Nothing but simplicity. After all, learning how to use chopsticks is the tricky bit and the thing that the game wants you to focus on. It’s good that there are no other distractions.

Yet, while the rules of the game are simple, a lot of attention has been paid to the components. Of course, the game comes with two pairs of chopsticks. Passing these around is easy enough, even if you play at the maximum player count of 8 people. However, if you prefer, you can happily add your own sets of chopsticks. It’s up to you.

That’s not what I’m talking about though. It’s the mix of items that you pick up and place on the tiny table and it’s the tiny table as well.

a box full of small plastic beads, plastic gems, small erasers and similar and a pair chopsticks
the many different components make playing Chop Sticks a lot of fun

Attention to Detail

Let’s start with the table. It’s simply a small plinth and a round disc, printed with a tablecloth and some sort of place setting. You place the disc on top of the plinth. They don’t snap together though. It’s stable enough as it is, but of course, it does create a slight imbalance that ensures the game won’t last forever and eventually pieces will tumble.

The pieces themselves are also really varied and interesting. Some items are really easy to pick up and place on the table, such as the small beads or mini cubes. The cubes are also great for stacking. However, there are also mini erasers in the shape of fruit or cupcakes. These are slightly trickier to handle, but still doable. I reckon the plastic gems are a step up from the other items, but the hardest to pick up and place are the small plastic balls. With some practice, you will be able to manage them eventually. Actually, there is one item that’s even trickier than the balls. There is a tiny red gem in the box that is going to be your ultimate challenge.

The components have been chosen quite carefully to offer options for someone just learning to use chopsticks to be able to succeed, while also offering a few more challenging pieces for the advanced or expert chopstick users.

Player Interaction

Once everyone has reached a certain level of chopstick skill, the game continues to challenge you. Now it’s going to be a matter of players placing items in the most awkward position to make it hard, if not impossible, for the next player to place theirs. Players might also start to challenge each other to pick up a specific item and place it in a specific place.

In the games we played, we enjoyed placing the thin tubes into the long beads, making them look like straws in drinks glasses. We also challenged each other to build the highest stack of pieces. So even though this is technically a competitive game about dropping the least amount of items, Chop Sticks soon becomes a game of daring and challenging each other to carry out the trickiest feats or set the most beautiful table.

I think that’s really the core of the game and is what makes it so much fun. Focussing on learning how to use your chopsticks is how you’ll start, but eventually, you get to a point where you just want to show off the most impossible move. That’s exactly what the designer wanted to achieve and Chop Stacks achieves it perfectly.

Chop Stacks

If that isn’t enough to convince you to give the game a go, then I don’t know. For half an hour to an hour of mad chop stacking, Chop Stacks is the perfect game. We certainly laughed a lot and had a great time with all the family. It’s a game that will come out very regularly and will stay in my collection for a long time to come.

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Transparency Facts

I feel that this review reflects my own, independent and honest opinion, but the facts below allow you to decide whether you think that I was influenced in any way.

  • I was sent a free review copy of this game by the publisher.
  • At the time of writing, neither the designers, nor the publisher, nor anyone linked to the game supported me financially or by payment in kind.

Audio Version

Intro Music: Bomber (Sting) by Riot (https://www.youtube.com/audiolibrary/)

Music: bensound.com
License code: OWQUYIMY3KHKT3KE

Music: bensound.com
License code: IHTSJO2J48CR4I4U

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Working Hard – a look at worker placement mechanisms (Topic Discussion)

The genre of worker placement games is quite large and has evolved a lot over the years. Traditionally, worker placement was all about certain actions being unavailable to other players as soon as someone placed their worker there. At some point, games introduced shared worker place spots. Some games allowed players to kick workers out, returning them to another player who would effectively get another go. In this article, I want to look at the genre and pick out different implementations and variations on the theme.

All the Workers

Let me start with an angle that not everyone will necessarily have considered: the number of workers in a game. Traditionally, players had a fixed number of workers that they could use. The number of workers used to set the number of turns players had in a round. You would place one of your workers on your turn, carry out the action, then the next player would do the same and so on until nobody had any workers left.

Later on, some games gave players additional workers during the game. Lords of Waterdeep is a classic example, where everyone got an additional worker in the fifth round. From then on, everyone got an extra turn and the game started to speed up.

Other games did something similar or maybe allowed players to take a turn to buy more workers. The choice was between increasing the number of actions you had in future rounds versus doing another important action now before someone else did.

While having more actions available is usually a good thing, having more workers isn’t necessarily an advantage. Uwe Rosenberg‘s Agricola is famous for making players regret that they have extra workers, because they have to feed them all at certain points in the game. So “all your worker are belong to us” isn’t always the best strategy.

Kicking Workers

So instead of giving players more workers, some games introduced the concept of kicking workers out of their spots. If you desperately needed to carry out a certain action, but someone else had already taken it, you could kick their worker out and place yours there instead. The downside was that the worker would go back to the other player who would be able to take an extra turn and therefore carry out an extra action.

Raiders of the North Sea took this concept of kicking out workers to another level. On your turn, you place a worker in an available space, carry out that space’s action, then take a worker back from a different space and carry out its action as well. So you get to take two actions on your turn and you always only have a single worker. It’s a really clever mechanism and I love this game a lot for it. It seems really simple, but creates a lot of interesting interactions between players.

Viticulture solved this problem another way. Instead of kicking out a worker, you can place a special one, the so-called grande worker, on a space that’s already occupied by another worker. That way you wouldn’t give another player an extra turn, but still get to do what you needed to do. Of course, everyone only gets one grande worker to avoid it all getting out of hand.

There is one more variant on the idea of kicking out workers, or rather not kicking them. Instead, different workers can do the same action, but it’s cheaper or gives a bigger benefit for the first worker versus the second or third. Genotype is one example here, but there are many more.

the townsfolk cards, offering tiles and other components from Raiders of the North Sea
nobody owns workers in Raiders of the North Sea (Photo courtesy of Garphill Games)

Special Workers

How workers actually function has also changed over time. As mentioned, traditionally each player would have workers for their own exclusive use. However, more recently, the concept of shared workers came about. Raiders of the North Sea does this, in that nobody actually owns any workers. Players just place whichever one they have in their hand and then take a different one back from the board.

I C E implements neutral workers in the form of archaeologists. Players can take them along with an expedition leader meeple that’s exclusive to them, but the archaeologists themselves don’t belong to anyone. My expedition leader can use whatever archaeologists are at my location.

In Hegemony, two players own meeples, but have little say in how they are employed. They get benefits from their meeples, but so do other players. That’s a really interesting way of using workers.

However, the workers in I C E and Hegemony aren’t workers in the traditional sense. You don’t place them on action spaces. The workers are needed to carry out actions, but it is their presence rather than their placement that is important.

Last, but not least, the next evolution in worker placement is the use of dice, instead of meeple. The pip value now forms part of a worker’s function. Some games have added certain requirements to action spaces, forcing players to place dice with certain pip values there before they can carry out the action. My favourite game here is probably Pingyao: First Chinese Banks. You have different types of dice and you roll them at the start of the round, but you can change their pip value in certain ways. It’s a really clever way of introducing some randomness while still allowing for plenty of strategy and tactics.

What Workers Do You Know?

Well, I’m sure there a more ways in which workers are used in games and how they actually work. However, that’s all from me for this article. Now I want to know if you have any experience with worker placement games. Are there any clever twists on this ancient mechanism you can think of? What games do worker placement best in your view? As always, please share your thoughts in the comments below. Let’s work together on compiling a list of interesting worker placement variations.

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Audio Version

Intro Music: Bomber (Sting) by Riot (https://www.youtube.com/audiolibrary/)

Music: Bensound
License code: 4Z99RQPZCN8LR59B

Music by Bensound.com
License code: EUUQE9AJCKFYWYYA

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These are the songs I listened to while I was writing this topic discussion article:

Gingerbread Towers (Saturday Review) – Tabletop Games Blog

Release Date: 2023Players: 2-4
Designer: Jessica MetheringhamLength: 15-30 minutes
Artist: Jessica MetheringhamAge: 6+
Publisher: Dissent GamesComplexity: 1.0 / 5
Plastic (by weight): <1%Air (by volume): 0%

The house smelled of cinnamon, golden syrup and ginger. It was no surprise, because our oven was full of gingerbread rectangles on two trays. It wasn’t long until they were done and needed to come out of the oven to cool down. We had small bowls full of sweets and a piping bag ready to decorate them. Suddenly, I had an idea. Rather than building a traditional house, we could instead make Gingerbread Towers by Jessica Metheringham from Dissent Games.

Family Fun

The wonderful people at Dissent Games have done it again. Here is another game for all the family. This time our job is to stack cards as high as possible and collect points along the way. It’s pretty simple. Everyone starts the game by choosing one of the six different types of sweets. On your turn, you add one of the cards, which look like rectangular gingerbreads decorated with sweets, to the growing tower. You want to choose a card that has your sweets on it to score points. You also have to make sure you don’t knock any cards off the tower, as that will lose you points. Finally, cards on the same level mustn’t touch.

However, despite the simple rules, the gameplay can become very tactical very quickly. After all, if you place your card in such a way as to make it awkward for the next player to place theirs, you’re increasing the chances that they knock cards off and lose points. At the same time, placing cards in an awkward position is sometimes easier said than done. You can easily end up knocking cards out of the tower and losing points yourself.

Depending on how competitive you and your game group are, Gingerbread Towers can be a fun job of building the highest tower or it can turn into a matter of trying to outdo each other and creating a highly unstable tower of cards that is threatening to tumble at any moment.

Folding Cards

One thing I haven’t mentioned yet is how you stack the cards. Gingerbread Towers is basically a standard-size deck of cards, which were beautifully illustrated by the very talented Jessica Metheringham and which are made from a thick card stock with a gorgeous linen finish. So you might expect to build your tower as you would with traditional playing cards: by leaning two cards against each other to create an A-frame, doing that several times, then laying other cards flat on top of the row of A-frames and building up from there. That would be what most of us would probably think. However, Gingerbread Towers is doing things differently.

Trigger Warning: maltreatment of board game components

The game’s designer has decided to force players to take a pristine deck of lovely cards and fold some of them in half and others into thirds. That’s absolute sacrilege! It goes against everything everyone in our hobby is willing to do. It makes people shudder and rebel. Nobody can bring themselves to maltreat these wonderful thick cards like that.

When I played the game for the first time, it was me who had to do the folding. Nobody wanted anything to do with it. In fact, some people left the room, so that they didn’t have to witness this cruelty to innocent board game components. I must say, even I didn’t find it easy to treat the cards like this.

Once it is done though, it is easier the second time round. So after you flattened the cards to put them back in the box and then play Gingerbread Towers again, it feels less cruel to bend the cards back into shape.

some of the folded and flat cards stacked into a small Gingerbread Tower
stacking the cards like this isn’t strictly allowed by the rules of Gingerbread Tower

Vertical Stacking

So, if you’ve made it this far in the review, you might still not be sure how the stacking of cards works in Gingerbread Towers. Well, some cards are flat, some folded in half, thereby forming a V shape and the rest are folded into thirds, creating a sort of bracket shape. The flat cards will always be placed flat on top of the tower. The V and bracket-shaped cards have to be placed upright, which means they create pillars for the next level.

The rules don’t really let you, but we decided to allow people to place the folded cards either with their short or their long edges upright, which created different levels. It made the game a bit harder, but also allowed players to be more creative. At the end of the day, Gingerbread Towers is supposed to be a light, fun family game. So we thought it’d be fair to deviate from the rules a little bit. After all, the designer made us deviate a long way from the commonly agreed norms when it comes to treating board game components.

The game is a lot of fun when you play competitively, as players egg each other on to go higher and higher. You can also play it cooperatively, of course, trying to build the tallest tower together. Either way, it is a lot of fun to play. The rules are so simple, the game length is short and it doesn’t take up much table space. Combined with the gorgeous art, it’s the perfect stocking filler to be played with the whole family on Christmas or Boxing Day.

I’d say you should check it out now and have a little taster. I can already smell the spices and hear the laughter of everyone around the table, as we build our giant Gingerbread Towers.

Useful Links

Videos

Transparency Facts

I feel that this review reflects my own, independent and honest opinion, but the facts below allow you to decide whether you think that I was influenced in any way.

  • I was sent a free review copy of this game by the publisher.
  • At the time of writing, neither the designers, nor the publisher, nor anyone linked to the game supported me financially or by payment in kind.

Audio Version

Intro Music: Bomber (Sting) by Riot (https://www.youtube.com/audiolibrary/)

Sound Effects: bbc.co.uk – © copyright 2023 BBC

Music I Use: Bensound.com/royalty-free-music
License code: OYMRKT3QNAKFPEZS

Music I Use: https://www.bensound.com/free-music-for-videos
License code: IVZ5VKBI1DMXGVRV

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The Representation of Bees – the latest buzz in the board game hobby (Topic Discussion)

Here is another article inspired by the wonderful Bez from Stuff by Bez. She suggested I talk about the representation of bees. There wasn’t any particular angle she wanted me to take, but the title alone gave me some inspiration. So in this article, I want to look at board games that feature bees in some way.

I think the topic of bees really only represents one of the many more fresh subjects that modern board games cover. We’ve had plenty of games exploring human history in more or often less successful ways, often glossing over critical historical facts and redrawing the past with the quill of the Westerner and their very skewed views of what actually went on. Board games have also explored many science-fiction, fantasy and other fictional settings, and I don’t think I have to mention the vast genre of train games.

So seeing some more unusual topics, such as bees, making it into our hobby is wonderful. In fact, a lot of nature themes have made their way into our hobby. There are not only bees, but also mushrooms, trees, birds and probably many others that I just can’t think of.

I think that bee-themed board games have been steadily on the rise, because of the growing ecological awareness and interest in environmental conservation. These games have succeeded in captivating players by offering a fresh perspective on the natural world and by making connections between gameplay and real-life issues, such as the importance of bee populations to our food supply.

Bees Emerge

One of the earliest bee-themed board games that I can think of is Hive. The game doesn’t feature just bees, but many other insects too. It is a two-player abstract strategy game, where players place hexagonal tiles that mimic a beehive and have to outmaneuver each other’s insects. A wonderful touch, which was possibly just a coincidence, is that the six-sided tiles reflect the natural hexagonal shape of the cells in a honeycomb.

Another game that puts bees at the centre and also uses the hex shape is The Bears and the Bees. Players are working outwards from the queen bee in the centre to increase the colony and be the first to get rid of all of their cards. The game also features honey-eating bears, not of the Pooh variety, but real-life ones.

The wonderful Applejack also features bees, even though the focus is on apples, not bees. In fact, rather than bees, it’s more the hives that play a role in this fun game, which also has hex tiles in it. As we know, apple trees won’t produce fruit unless they are pollinated and bees are one of the biggest pollinators.

The recent Apiary does make bees the centre of attention, but it takes the topic and combines it with a futuristic science-fiction setting. Apparently, the absence of humans on Earth in some distant future has allowed another sentient species to take their place. Yes, it’s the humble honeybee.

Of course, none of these games is particularly educational, even though the first three could potentially work as a way to teach about bees in some small way.

a beautiful illustration on your player board sowing a man carrying a box towards a wheelbarrow
there are bee hives in Applejack

Bee Educated

One of the few modern board games that features bees and that is of educational value is Ecogon. The game focuses on the interaction of animals and plants and tries to illustrate how there is a whole web of dependencies. The role of the player is to create sustainable environments with a variety of animals and plants. So even though bees are only one of many of the animals featured in the game, they are still there.

However, that’s the only game I can think of that actually teaches people through play and features bees. I think that is a reflection on how niche the topic of bees actually is in our hobby. Sure, if you try and get a list of all games published so far that have the word “bee” in it, you will probably get a couple of hundred titles. At the same time, that number is minuscule when you compare it to games with a different topic.

While bee-themed board games have the potential to educate players about the vital role bees play in the environment and to teach about pollination, biodiversity and the ecological impact of declining bee populations, there currently don’t seem to be many games that do so. That might be a reflection of how few games we have in our hobby that have some educational value, but it also shows how much more there is to explore in the space.

Bee-themed board games could easily be made in partnership with environmental organizations and include informative materials about bee conservation efforts. These games would not just be about play but also about raising funds and awareness for important conservation initiatives.

I’ll Be Off

Given everything I said so far, I think the topic of bees has a lot of potential. It highlights how we still have a lot more to explore in our hobby. Seeing more nature-themed games enter the market is really encouraging, even if many of them are there to entertain rather than educate us. Even so, play allows us to get to know about a topic we may have otherwise never thought about. Just playing a game about bees can encourage us to find out more for ourselves – and it doesn’t just have to be about bees, of course.

So, what do you think? Do you like bee-themed games? What is your favourite? Do you know any bee-themed games that have an educational value? Have you seen any games about bees that were made in partnership with an environmental organisation? As always, please be so kind and share your thoughts. It’s the hive mind that we need.

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Audio Version

Intro Music: Bomber (Sting) by Riot (https://www.youtube.com/audiolibrary/)

Music: Sunny Morning by MusicLFiles
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Music: Falling Tears by MusicLFiles
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Playlist

These are the songs I listened to while I was writing this topic discussion article: