Monday, February 11, 2019

Game Night: "Through the Desert", "Photosynthesis" and "5 Minute Dungeon"

Hey folks! I'm introducing a new series here called "Game Night" which will feature super-brief reviews of the games we play on our, well, you guessed it, weekly game night.

Last week we kicked things off with Through the Desert.

This venerable Reiner Knizia classic sees players staking claims across a vast desert using their five caravan leaders. Turns consist of taking two camels of any color from the common supply and then placing them on the board to expand your caravan trail, picking up points whenever you reach a water hole or an oasis. Bonus points can be earned for walling off large tracts of desert space and having the longest caravan in each of the five colors.

The game is deceptively deep. Since rival camels of the same color can't be placed next to each other it's pretty easy to get up in each other's grill. Recognizing immediate threats and expanding early to "draw a line in the sand", so to speak, is critical to success. Successful players will always be studying the board, looking for a few choice colors to specialize in since "longest caravan" end-game points can really effect the scores.

The game isn't perfect, though. The pastel, candy-colored camels might be adorable but a full board of them results in visual anarchy. Fiddly tweaks and rules based on number of players and first turn placements can easily be overlooked. Poor allocation of your caravan leaders can result in players quickly getting hemmed in, but, honestly, this just makes me want to play it again to apply what I've learned.

For being vibrant, charming and deceptively tactical, Through the Desert scores four pips out of six with a slight tilt down to the burning sands of the Sahara!

Next up: Photosynthesis!

In this one, players attempt to expand their species of tree in a highly-competitive forest. After starting out with few small saplings, players cast off seeds to expand their growth. A "sun" tile constantly moves around the board, tracking turn cycles and giving trees the solar energy required to grow from sapling to Ent!

Even though I liked Photosynthesis, he rules aren't particularly intuitive and, without any quick-reference guide to refer to, we all seemed to be asking the same questions over and over again. There's just something vague, nebulous and slightly unpolished about the game, making it feel kinda clunky. There also not a lot of different options to pursue, making each turn feel kinda "samey". Finally, some of the game's elements are thematically baffling. For example, the biggest victory points come from mulching your oldest trees; an action that seems to be at odds with the game's otherwise environmentally-friendly message!

On the plus side, competing for space in this increasingly-crowded arena is pretty intense and forward-thinking players will try to set up their trees to gather as much sun as possible, regardless of its position. There's also something supremely satisfying about growing the tallest tree in a clearing to net mondo radiant points while casting shade on your frustrated rivals! Also, let's face it, this has to be one of the prettiest games on the market right now.

For being pretty but kinda dim, Photosynthesis rates three pips outta six with a tilt up toward the top of dat dere redwood!

Finally we played several games of 5 Minute Dungeon.

As someone who typically hates these frantic, stressful, real-time games with the fire of a million suns, I actually didn't feel compelled to bite down on a cyanide capsule while playing this one.

After selecting a fantasy archetype to play (Barbarian, Thief, Wizard, Valkyrie...etc, etc) and arming yourself with your character's customized deck of cards, players choose a boss monster to fight, which dictates the game's difficulty level, I.E. the number of dungeon cards you have to clear through and how tough the final boss is. A five-minute timer is started and players now must work together to blow through all of the dungeon cards, which represent various events, traps, and adversaries.

In order to overcome these obstacles, players must table the requisite number and type of cards. For example, to get past the "Miniature T-Rex", the group has to come up with two melee, two ranged and two defense cards in order to kill it and move on. Fortunately, every character has a cool special ability that players can leverage to break the regular rules of the game and mitigate misfortune. The players win if they can maneuver their way through the dungeon deck and destroy the boss monster before time runs out.

Unlike the annoying Escape: The Curse of the Temple and the "barely qualifies as a game" Camelot by the usually-solid Tom Jolly, this one isn't a miserable exercise in anarchy. Whereas it it's super-easy to fudge and / or screw something up in those two aforementioned games, 5 Minute Dungeon, forces you to play all of your cards communally in the middle of the table. Not only does this prevent  oversights it also ensures that crusty ol' rules lawyers like myself feel reasonably appeased.

The game's customized decks are well thought out, with fighter types having more swords and shields and wizards equipped with an abundance of scrolls. This rewards players for picking a nice variety of different character types. The official timing ap also adds a lot to the game's appeal since it features a charming variety of narrator accents and /or  temperaments. A lot of interaction and table talk is required, which usually results in participants becoming increasingly monosyllabic as they scramble for specific solves. As expected, the art design is goofy as hell and, even though I'm not a fan, I will concede that it matches the game's ridiculous tone. 

The bottom line is that no-one had to twist my arm to get me to play the game several times. I found myself keen to try out new characters and take on new boss monsters. Dare I say it? Yes, I dare...5 Minute Dungeon is most likely the high water mark for this concept. The fact that I'm willing to play it again is arguably the highest possible praise I can give to it.

For being fun, frantic and not overstaying its welcome, 5 Minute Dungeon scores four pips outta six with a slight tip up to the surface world!

Awrite, guys...thanks for reading and expect a back-log of these to show up over the next little while.
Until then, take care and game on!


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