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Reviews Tabletop

Review: Sanctum

Designer: Filip Neduk
Artist: Jakub Politzer, František Sedláček
Publisher: Czech Games Edition
Category: Adventure
Players: 2-4
Price: $69.00

Sanctum is the latest release from designer Filip Neduk, who also designed the “first-person shooter” board game Adrenaline. Published by CGE, Sanctum feels like the tabletop equivalent of a fantasy RPG video game, with characters “leveling up” as they venture on their quest to slay the Demon Lord Malghazar.

Content Guide

The theme of good vs. evil permeates the gameplay of Sanctum. Players represent heroes pushing back against the forces of darkness, but some of the imagery – namely demons and hellscapes – may be a bit much for younger players. The game box recommends it for ages 12+, which feels appropriate.

Review

Everything about Sanctum feels big, from its hefty box to its oversized rulebook to its grandiose theme of fighting an endless horde of hellbeasts. This adventure game progresses like an RPG, with players questing through a fantasy land, gaining items and experience, and eventually confronting a big, bad boss monster.

The goal of the game is to fend off the Demon Lord Malghazar’s end-game onslaught, but before players can do that, they have to travel the land in preparation. Sanctum has a number of boards representing its multiple “Acts” (Act I, Act II, etc.). Each Act is rife with challenges from which players can earn items, equipment, and skills.

For the majority of the game, players take turns performing 1 of 3 actions: Move, Fight, or Rest. Movement is done in a leap-frog manner, with the active player simply moving to the front of the line, or moving 1 space ahead if she is already there.

Green moves to the front of the line.

When a player lands on a new space, she must add demons to the main area and choose some to put on her player board – these demons are now pursuing the player. In order to remove them, she must defeat them with a Fight action.

To do this, the player rolls her dice. Each demon has a number of die icons on it, and the player must place matching results on a demon in order to kill it, as shown above.

On their individual boards, players each have a number of stamina and focus tokens (red and blue discs, respectively). Focus can help players to slay demons, by allowing them to modify their die results (say, +/-2 to a roll), while stamina helps players defend against the demons’ counterattacks. If any demons are still alive on a player’s board after she attacks, they will hit back, but stamina can be spent to block some or all of the damage.

When a demon is killed, it rewards the player with bonuses. For starters, defeated demons are flipped over to become item cards, but more importantly, they allow players to level up. In my opinion, the leveling is the coolest part of the whole game.

Player boards have a variety of functions, but the thing that makes Sanctum really unique is its use of a puzzly leveling system.

Each player board has a tableau of cards and tiles with colored gems on them. Defeated demons allow players to move these gems upward on their boards, and if a player ever moves the last gem off of a card/tile, she gains its ability. This creates an interesting spatial aspect, as players must strategize which gems to move – and therefore, which demons to fight – in order to get the most useful abilities. They do not need earn their skills in order, but if they get, say, a Level II skill first, it will make the Level I skill harder to get, since it will have more gems on it.

In order to regain their stamina and focus, players can choose the Rest action. This also allows them to equip items and purchase potions, which can regenerate health/stamina before a fight.

As players traverse the land, their characters will become stronger and stronger. That’s a good thing, too, because they will all the help they can get against Malghazar. When a player reaches the Gates of Sanctum (Act V), the final stages of the game begin.

When a player has defeated all her demons, the Demon Lord appears and all players must face him individually. Now, to keep this review to a reasonable length, I won’t go too deeply into the specifics of how the final battle works, but suffice it to say it is a brutal, multi-stage gauntlet in which Malghazar pulls no punches.

If all players perish in the final battle, the player who made it the furthest wins. Otherwise, if anyone is able to defeat the Demon Lord, the player to do so with the highest remaining health wins.


If I had only four words to describe Sanctum, I would call it “Diabolo: The Board Game.” Playing this game feels like going on a grand adventure. The idea of questing across multiple, scenic boards reminds me of the old Lord of the Rings co-op game from Reiner Knizia, and I’m very happy to see this idea used again.

My favorite aspects of Sanctum are its unbelievable, eye-popping visuals and its innovative leveling system. The graphic design draws players into the game’s world and makes everything seem big and epic. On top of this, it’s really cool how the characters develop, using a sort of spatial-puzzle mini-game.

However, since each of the 4 character tableaus has a prescribed setup, the game is not as customizable as it might have been otherwise. If a player uses the same character in multiple games, there will be no variation in the powers/abilities they can gain. This doesn’t feel significant enough to be a dealbreaker, but it seems like a missed opportunity.

That said, the game has a satisfying arc to it. Early on, the characters’ abilities are limited, but the enemies are fairly easy. As players get stronger, the demons scale up accordingly, and the game builds and builds to an exciting end. Win or lose, the tension should be high as players face off against Malghazar.

Sanctum provides a deeply thematic experience, so I think it will appeal to fans of Amerithrash-style fantasy games. If you enjoy RPG-style experiences like Diabolo, it might be one to check out.

A review copy was provided by Czech Games Edition.

Categories
Reviews Tabletop

Review: Letter Jam

Designer: Ondra Skoupý
Artist: Dávid Jablonovský, František Sedláček, Lukáš Vodička, Michaela Zaoralová
Publisher: Czech Games Edition
Category: Cooperative, Deduction
Players: 2-6

Letter Jam is a cooperative word game from Czech Games Edition, who also publishes popular party games like Codenames, Trapwords, and That’s a Question. This game is yet another interesting, enjoyable word game from them, and is better with more players.

Review

Letter Jam feels like a mix of Hanabi and Scrabble. In this game, each player receives a set of letter cards that spell out a secret word. Players may not look at their own letters, but must instead use clues given by others to figure out their what their letters (and in turn, their words) are.

To begin the game, each player creates a secret word for their neighbor. By default, these words are 5 letters long, but players can modulate their length to make the game easier or harder.

Players mix up their chosen letters and pass them to the player on their right. Everyone then splays out their letters in front of themselves, face-down.

Each player places their leftmost card in a stand, such that everyone except them can see its letter. When this is done, each person will see something like this:

Using the letters they can see, one player gives a clue to the others. (Players are encouraged to first discuss who the clue-giver should be.)

To give a clue, the chosen player uses the letters she can see to form a word. Then, she places numbered poker chips in front of her teammates to indicate where their letters fall in the word. The clue-giver is allowed to “double up” on a letter, using it multiple times, and there is also a “Wild” letter in the middle which is always available to be used.

To continue my above example, suppose this player was chosen to give the clue. She makes the word “SALADS” using the letters she can see. Since the word is six letters long, she distributes tokens #1-6 to her teammates, as shown below:

Each player who received a chip then records information about the clue word on their own sheet of paper. For example, the player with the “A” can see the letters “S,” “D,” and “L,” and he knows that his letter – whatever it is – appears in the second and fourth spots in the word. So on his sheet, he writes:

Using this information, he may either make a guess about what his own letter is and move onto his next one, or if he is unsure, he can keep it for the next round, to try to gain more clues about it.

The flower tableau in the center acts as a game timer. Each time a player gives a clue, they remove a token, and when all tokens are gone, the game ends. (The red and green colors do have significance, but I’m going to gloss over their meaning, because it’s something of a minor detail.)

At the end of the game, players earn points for correctly guessing letters in their secret words. Obviously, the more letters they guess, the higher their scores will be. Letter Jam isn’t win-or-lose, per se, but instead, players aim to get the best overall score they can.


I found Letter Jam to be a pleasant surprise. In general, word games aren’t my thing, but somehow, CGE manages to keep making ones that I enjoy.

This game presents an interesting challenge: all players see a different subset of letters, and they need to collectively figure out who can give 1) a helpful clue, 2) a clue that is unique enough that it will still be apparent with missing letters, and 3) ideally, a clue that uses all other players’ letters. The game timer mechanism keeps the pressure on, providing a sense of urgency to figure out the secret words.

Letter Jam has excellent production, with spot-UV detailing on the cards and sturdy, Splendor-style poker chips. I appreciate that the game includes regular-sized pencils – many games would just use little golf pencils – as well as a sharpener. All in all, it is a great-looking game.

I enjoyed trying out Letter Jam. It is a nice successor to Codenames and Trapwords. Of the three, Trapwords is still my favorite, but each of them has their own merits. Letter Jam will be a great fit for folks who enjoy games like Hanabi or Code 777, where players need to figure out their own information through others’ clues. Fans of party games will also definitely want to check it out.

A review copy was provided by Czech Games Edition.

Categories
Reviews Tabletop

Review: Trapwords

Designer: Jan Březina, Martin Hrabálek, Michal Požárek
Artist: Régis Torres
Publisher: Czech Games Edition
Category: Word Game
Players: 4-8
Price: $19.20 Amazon.com

Trapwords is a party game of clever word-guessing careful clue-giving. Players try to get their teammates to guess secret words, but must be cautious not to use certain terms when giving clues. Following an established, mass-market genre, it feels like a “gamer’s” version of Taboo.

Review

Czech Games Edition has seen immense success with party games over the last few years. From all the iterations of the Spiel des Jahres winning Codenames to That’s a Question to Pictomania, they have excelled at inserting hobby gaming sensibilities into a typically-maligned genre.

Trapwords is a recent addition to the CGE family. This team-based game follows the standard formula of “get your teammates to guess a secret word,” but the twist is that the opposing team gets to discreetly select words that cannot be given as clues.

The game board is created by laying out tiles to form a dungeon. Each room tile has a number on it, which can be thought of as its difficulty rating (higher number = harder room).

At the start of the game, a monster card is chosen and its matching standee placed in the final room of the dungeon. The standees representing the two teams begin at the opposite end of the board.

Throughout the game, the teams will progress through the rooms, and eventually come face-to-face with the monster. If a team defeats it, they win!

To advance on the board, a team must correctly guess their secret word. Trapwords comes with special folded-cardboard “books” that reveal a single word when a card is placed inside.

To start a round, both teams select a card and place it in a book. The revealed words will become the opposing team’s secret words—that is, Team A knows Team B’s word, and vice versa.

The teams then craft a list of the titular trapwords, equal to the number on the opposing team’s tile. For example, if Team A is on the “5” tile, Team B will get to create five traps. Essentially, trapwords are clues that the opposing team’s clue-giver cannot use. Here is how this might look:

Suppose Team A’s word is “Thunder.” All the members of Team B get to know this, so they might create trapwords like “Lightning,” “Storm,” and “Loud,” anticipating that Team A’s clue-giver will want to use these words as hints.

When both teams have written down the trapwords for each other, the clue-giving portion of the round begins. One person from each team is chosen as the clue-giver, and these players receive the books from the opposing team. Then, acting one team at a time, each clue-giver has a single sand-timer’s worth of time to get their side to guess its secret word (and their teammates only get a total of five guesses!).

Herein lies the interesting twist of this game: the clue-givers do not know what the traps are for their word, since the opposing team made them in secret. If a clue-giver uses a trapword as a hint, they fail and their team’s turn ends immediately. Otherwise, if their teammates guess correctly in time without the clue-giver using any trapwords, they succeed and move their team standee to the next room tile.

In the event that both teams fail, the monster is moved one space closer to the team standees.

I realize this may sound a bit confusing, but it boils down to this: clue-givers have to get their teammates to guess a word, but they don’t know which clues they can’t use.

When a team reaches the monster, they must contend with its unique ability. Each monster has a special rule that makes it extra-challenging, such as “Your clue-giver can say no more than 10 words.” If a team defeats the monster, they win!


Trapwords is an interesting idea, and it has the potential to be very fun. Building on existing word games, it instills modern game mechanisms such as increasing difficulty, variable monster powers, and a cool word-randomizer system. Depending upon which set of books the players use (the tan ones or the gray ones), they can customize the word lists to be generic or fantasy-themed.

The clue-giving presents a clever obstacle—since players don’t know which words the other team has trapped, they face a sort of meta, double-bluffing challenge. Players have to think, “Would the other team have trapped this word? Is it a word they would expect me to use as a clue?” This, combined with a ticking timer and a limited number of guesses, makes the experience quite interesting.

However, Trapwords is not perfect. If the clue-giver says even one wrong word, the team’s entire turn is over. This means that the opposing team might spend several minutes coming up with a list of trapwords, only to have the round come to an immediate, anticlimactic end on the first clue.

In addition, the rules for giving hints are very lengthy. I understand that this is probably the result of extensive playtesting, but the amount of clue-giving do’s and don’ts is kind of cumbersome.

That said, though, Trapwords is a nice entry into the word game genre. The notion of “you don’t know what hints you can’t give” is weird and cool, and it challenges the clue-givers to outthink the other team. This game would be a good stepping stone to get non-gamers interested in the hobby since it builds on recognizable classics like Taboo and CatchPhrase. If this sounds like something your group would enjoy, I recommend checking it out.

A review copy was provided by Czech Games Edition.

Categories
Reviews Tabletop

Review: Codenames Duet

Designers: Vlaada Chvátil, Scot Eaton
Artist: Tomáš Kučerovský
Publisher: Czech Games Edition (CGE)
Category: Word Game, Two-Player Game
Player Count: 2
Price: $19.95

When I first moved back to my hometown county for my current job, I had a brand new review copy of Codenames ready to be played, and no one to play it with. Fortunately, I was “found” by a local gaming group just in time to get it played, and we played it over, and over, and over. I think I’ve taught Codenames to at least 70 people at this point, and I’ve only had a single person dislike it. So, I’m quite excited to check out anything Codenames, including Codenames Duet. This game is designed for exactly two players, who work cooperatively using a double-sided key card. Does it maintain the Codenames magic? Let’s find out!

Content Guide

It’s a game about guessing words, and not much more. While the game has “assassins,” they are simply words that make you lose if you guess them. Nothing offensive here. There is a version of Codenames called Deep Undercover with Cards Against Humanity level offensive words, but none of that is present in Duet.

Review

Let me start by telling you the mistake I made with Codenames Duet right off the bat. At a 20-person game night, two players were looking for something to kill time until another bigger game ended, and they had both played Codenames with me several times. I put Codenames Duet in front of them and said, “Just check the differences in the rulebook, it’s not much,” and walked off. What a mistake! I hadn’t played yet, and my first few games reaffirmed that this isn’t your mother’s Codenames. 

Overall, the rules changes are not many, but they are significant. First off, the game is now cooperative, but the real issue is the double-sided key card. Each player sees the clues they want their partner to get, and the opposite side of the key card looks very different. A card might be correct if you guess it, but it could be an assassin if your partner guesses it! There are actually only three overlapping correct cards out of 15, and you only have 9 turns between the two of you to get everything correct. Combine this with the fact that both sides of the key card have three assassins, and this is a much tougher game than usual. It’s a lot more to wrap your head around than I expected. For example, you have to be careful to point the neutral tokens towards the person for which the card is neutral. You can also pull off some clever logical / mathematical play in some cases. For example, in one game, I guessed all three common words early on, so whenever my partner gave a clue, I knew she was not talking about any of the words that were correct on my side. I also had an interesting game where a “problem word” (an assassin word related strongly to my correct words) was actually correct on the other side, so once I guessed it, I immediately used that now-covered word as a clue.

For Codenames fanatics, there’s an incredible amount to dig into here. On top of the game being tough in and of itself, there is also a missions sheet included that sets parameters for not only the number of turns, but the number of neutral guesses allowed (after which you are punished by losing an extra turn). In addition, this game fully integrates with previous Codenames games; you can use the new words with the normal game and vice versa, or even play Duet with the pictures from Codenames Pictures. There’s nearly endless replayability here, and more importantly, you can get it to the table. One of my friends who primarily plays 2-player games with his spouse said, “I wish they had just printed only this and not the original game.” He’s insane, but I get where he’s coming from.

The two main issues with Codenames Duet are its learning curve, and then exactly the thing it set out to explore: the two-player environment. It has an entirely different feel while playing, and that can be both good or bad, depending on your personality. When you give a pretty bad clue in regular Codenames, it can be a little embarrassing, but the crowd reaction and laughter from the other team usually allows for the party-game atmosphere to move the awkwardness off to the side. I could definitely see couples playing this, and after one player gives a bad or misunderstood clue, the other player being like “Seriously? Why would you think that is a good idea?” and even getting into an argument (perhaps I have a pessimistic opinion of other couples). Even if it’s just a subtle “Um, okay, I guess,” there’s no crowd around to defuse the tension of a bad move. That’s exacerbated by the fact that this game is hard, especially because of the three assassins on each side. You really need to be playing with two players who are equally comfortable with that. Fortunately, I’ve not had any issues myself, but in about ten games split between my wife and a gamer buddy, I’ve touched the assassin a lot and I keep waiting for that moment when someone’s like “WHY WOULD YOU THINK THAT!?” These two things are basically symptoms of the more broad issue, which is that I think this game is for two-player gamer couples, who are used to games that are tough both to play and to learn. Casual fan of Codenames may have a tougher time with this.

So, if you know what you’re getting into, and you’re a huge fan of Codenames like me, this is an automatic purchase. At minimum, it’s a bunch of new words for your normal Codenames games. At best, it’s a fantastic way to get your Codenames fix when there’s only two of you around, or to play in a new way with a big group. It’s a deeper, trickier, tougher Codenames, and those are all good things. I still prefer the party game atmosphere of regular Codenames, but I would never turn down a game of this. With the missions included as well, this game is nearly infinitely replayable, and worth far more than the $20 CGE is asking for.

 

Thank you to Czech Games Edition for providing a review copy of Codenames Duet.

Categories
Mobile Reviews Tabletop

Review: Through the Ages (iOS)

Through the Ages icon artDesigner: Vlaada Chivatl
Publisher: CGE Digital
Category: Card Game, Civilization, Economic
Players: 1-4
Price: $9.99 iOS, $9.99 Android

Through the Ages, one of the most acclaimed board games of all time, finally goes digital. This is a digital implementation of the newer Through the Ages: A New Story of Civilization edition of the game.

The board game is designed by Vlaada Chvátil. Chvátil is a well known board game designer who has published many games through Czech Games Edition (CGE). The two, together, have a history of sometimes extremely complex games, coupled with clever jokes throughout the rule book. Vlaada Chvátil has designed Codenames, Galaxy Trucker, Dungeon Petz, Dungeon Lords, Through the Ages: A New Story of Civilization, and many more.

CGE is a board games publisher, originally founded in 2007. CGE has since published over 40 games and expansions, including Adrenaline, Tzolk’in: The Mayan Calendar, Alchemists, Space Alert, Codenames, and many more. CGE Digital is the digital tabletop branch of CGE, who have published a few stickers apps for their games, but also companion apps for Codenames and Alchemists, as well as a digital version of Galaxy Trucker, called Galaxy Trucker Pocket.

Through the Ages main menu

Review

Through the Ages
Early steps of a four-player game.

Through the Ages is finally digital. It bears repeating twice. Through the Ages is known throughout the tabletop hobby as “the greatest game no one wants to play because it’s too long and too huge.” Though I’ve never played the tabletop edition of Through the Ages, I’ve played enough games at this point where our group has finished a night of board gaming and had the common sentiment, “this game was fun, but it would be better as a computer game.” I believe Through the Ages fits this category. Rumor has it, Through the Ages might have a Steam release in the future, but for now this app release will most certainly do.

In Through the Ages, players take command of a brand new civilization and guide it through…well…the ages.

Over the period of three ages, including a brief stint in a pre-historic age, players must wisely choose leaders, governments, technological advances, resource enhancements, wonders, and more. The game is driven by cardplay, and by drafting cards from a common pool, players will spend actions to get bonuses, grow their resource production, and ultimately refine their engine-building techniques to create a well-oiled machine. Players will duel one another by driving political cards into the mix, as well as creating stronger armies using units and specialized tactics cards to increase military power, preying on weaker civilizations to wound them and take their stuff. This continues over three ages with the player who has amassed the most victory points being crowned winner and  the most influential civilization.

Through the Ages
Civ building is the joy of Through the Ages. Deciding which technologies to take and grow is critical to wise empire growth.

For those from a PC gaming background and unfamiliar with the tabletop hobby, this plays somewhat like anything from the Sid Meier’s: Civilization series. The largest difference between the two is outside of empire and resource management, Civilization also encourages exploration, grid movement, and micro-managing units. In Through the Ages, players don’t do anything in the way of moving along a map or exploring, and instead manage resources, construct buildings and wonders, pass policies, research technologies, and basically anything else revolving around macro strategies.

Where other card games try to make an argument for their length, they usually end up as the farceurs of the card game genre. These are drawn out games where too few interesting things happen, story lines remain the same between games, and players realize they’d rather be playing a game with a board. Here, Through the Ages makes an incredible case for long, complex, thematic card games with lots of substance, dozens of viable strategies, and reasons for vested interest of its players the entire way through.

My only experience with Through the Ages is this digital edition, but it should be noted that playing board games digitally is typically never something on my radar. I might play a game once or twice, but the thrill dies fast. I crave the experience of friends around the table, and if I want a digital gaming experience, I’ll play through my Steam library. Not the case with this one. Through the Ages has reinvigorated a desire to pursue and enjoy digital tabletop implementations, and it’s not just because of how great of a game this is, but also because of the effort to replicate it.

Through the Ages
Vlaada is a cheeky fellow. This tutorial is a hoot.

On starting the game, whether one has logged a dozen plays of the board game or is totally new, I recommend playing the tutorial.

Those familiar with CGE and Chvátil’s rule books will quickly feel at home. This is a wisely designed tutorial created to engage players with both humor and mechanics. Many digital tabletop tutorials have been hard to follow for me, but this one is excellent. Vlaada Chvátil acts as a leader card in-game. Players will hire him and he will step players through nearly every possible scenario, teaching common mistakes and powerful opening strategies. Sprinkled into the tutorial are clever jokes and hilarious critiques on the gaming industry that I won’t spoil. In fact, one moment of the tutorial nearly forced me to drop everything to immediately start a rebuttal article against CGE, only to discover the joke a moment later. Joke’s on me.

I played on my iPhone 7 and typically when I play digital tabletop I have issues playing intricate board games because the screen is so small. Not the case with Through the Ages. Creating new workers is as easy as tapping the bag of food. Dragging this tiny worker onto a building to create production doesn’t feel like a chore for someone like myself with big fingers. The game even reminds you of bonus cards in your hand that might make your upgrade cheaper, which is a huge boon for those unfamiliar with the game. Switching to your opponent’s nations is as fast as tapping their icons. Checking out your military strength and tactics is done by a swipe or tap onto the military icons. When rushing to finish a turn, the game displays a reminder that there are either no actions possible, or lets you know you forgot to grab an extra card or spend production.

Through the Ages
This interface is great. It might look a tad jumbled here, but I couldn’t be happier with how it turned out.

Every effort has been taken to simplify and translate the experience of managing an empire, and it shows. The interface is so simple to learn and understand. I don’t dread playing, I look forward to it.

Furthermore, games are played quickly. One can finish an entire session in roughly 30-45 minutes. This is lengthy for a mobile game, but considering the massive size of Through the Ages, I consider this an achievement. I’ve only played against AI, which can be varying degrees of difficulty, so playing with friends will likely increase game length.

Through the Ages also includes a long list of scenarios and challenges to tackle. Some of these are simple games against one or more AI, but others set the player at a disadvantage, giving opponents a slight leg up. Other challenges create odd variants for the player including 20% decrease in cost for all things in the game, a game where players can only choose a single leader, extra cards in the deck, and more. These variants add a lot of replayability to the game and provide extra avenues to enjoy the many joys of civilization building.

I’ve nearly nothing negative to say here. This game is extremely affordable and succeeds at the massive task of simplifying a complicated game. Go on and give it a go. 

Through the Ages

A review key for Through the Ages was provided by CGE Digital.