10 Great Lunch Games

Post by: Grant Rodiek

The majority of my gaming occurs at lunch, usually 4 days per week at work. Anywhere from 3-6 of us play games, which means we have a great regular group of known quantity, but also, we’re constantly diving deep into our favorite games AND looking for new games that play up to 5 (the most common quantity) in an hour or less.

I wanted to begin the week on a bright, cheery note. Discussing 10 great games seems like a fun way to do just that. Therefore, and in no order (because I find the debate on whether an item should be #9 versus #6 and so forth tedious), here are 10 great lunch games.

Oh, one more thing. Every game on this list plays with 4 or 5 players in an hour or less. That’s how it fits into this lunch group list. If your lunch is only 30 minutes long, I’m sorry. Some of these games will exceed that half hour.

Oh, one more thing one more thing. These are lunch games for people who play games. I don’t think most of these should be flopped down in front of co-workers who don’t game at least occasionally.

Let’s get 3 out of the way real quick. These first three games are layups. They should be so non-contentious that I just want to get them out of the way quickly. Each of them plays quickly and is packed with strategy. They are games that are 10s for many people.

Dominion: Few games pack so much strategy and replayability into a single box. If you have a few of the expansions, as my co-workers do, you can play this game hundreds of times. Once you know what you’re doing, you can knock out a game in 20 minutes, making this one a 2-3 games per lunch kinda game. It’s also great in that it takes up very little table space. When it’s not your turn? The downtime lets you take a bite of your sandwich and ponder your next play.

Downsides? Doesn’t really work well with 5 or more. Might get a little samey for some without expansions. Definitely appeals to certain mindsets more than others.

7 Wonders (for drafting, see also Fairy Tale): I love this game for the pacing, strategy, ability to eat while playing (at least for me, as a quick decider), and plenty of time to trash talk. We have 7 Wonders weeks where we just play it four of five times in a single week. Dave is super good, by the way, and a pain to beat when he’s “on.” Especially once every knows how to play, the speed of the game is near unrivaled. Toss in the Wonder Pack to really up the variety.

Downsides? A pain to teach to new players, especially in the lunch setting. The slow down to count at the end is a bummer, no matter the setting. Leaders expansion is good, but probably best saved for game night.

Race for the Galaxy (plus Gathering Storm expansion for up to 5): Wow! This game. I just learned it last month and after a handful of plays I think it’s a favorite. There are so many decisions to be made and it’s slightly interactive in a way that’s particularly fun with a lunch group. Ugh! You DIDN’T pick the action we all needed? It’s a great light-hearted (yet deeply strategic) mid-day gas. Once you know what you’re doing, you can easily knock out two games in the hour.

Downsides? Requires an expansion to play with 5. Big learning curve with all the iconography and depth of experience. The game keeps you fully engaged with a lot of moving parts. It’s difficult to hold a side conversation or get too involved in a platter of food. This game pairs best with an easy-to-eat sandwich and container of grapes.

And now for the less-obvious selections. 

One Night Ultimate Werewolf: This is not only one of the best games I’ve ever played, but a brilliant lunch selection. The game is basically a conversation with rules, which makes it perfect to sit back and chew when you’re the werewolf trying to stay under the radar. If you’re playing with the timer, you should finish in under 10 minutes, which means you’ll knock out a good 4-5 games in the lunch hour. There’s definitely some good thinking, but mostly, this game is about laughing and pondering things that are infinitely more fun than what’s awaiting you back at your desk. This game feels good to win OR lose and I think it’s such a good midday de-stresser.

Downsides? You should get a big enough room to let people sit comfortable around the table AND one that’s sound proof when everyone yells “WHAT?!”

Chinatown: This is a pure, simple game of negotiation and trading that plays wonderfully with 3-5. It’s so simple. Each round, every player is dealt properties, of which they choose a subset, and a few business tiles. Business tiles will specify a number, say, 4, which means the number of adjacent spaces that must have that tile to be complete. For example, a Laundromat requires 4, so you need 4 adjacent spaces with a Laundromat. You’re trading the property spaces, the business tiles, and money to ultimately end with the most money after a set number of rounds. It’s great, social, and perfect for lunch.

Downsides? If you don’t like trading or interacting…don’t play this. I don’t really know many downsides. It’s such a simple, quick-playing game with nice depth.

Lords of Waterdeep: I’m both surprised to find this game in the top 100 (around 50, I believe) of BGG, but also, in the ire list of so many gamers. While Lords of Waterdeep doesn’t bring much new to the world of mid-weight worker placement, it DOES do it incredibly well and smoothly. If you bypass the expansion and keep it to 4-5 players, it fits easily in a lunch hour, which means you can have some thinkin’ with your puddin’.

But Tzol’kin (or however you spell it) is better, you shout, as you shake your fist, dislodging lunch meats with every to and fro. Maybe, but it doesn’t fit over lunch.

Downsides? Your more AP co-workers might drag this one over the lunch hour. It might also not work for your lunch group, especially if you don’t work at a game company like me. It is a strategy game with many moving pieces.

Side note for Waterdeep: Can we stop calling this game thematic? It has great art and pieces. But, you’re collecting orange cubes to spend them because the card will give you points for spending the orange cubes you collected. This should not be our poster child for thematic euros, lads and laddesses!

Libertalia: This is a desert island game for me and it’s shameful I don’t own it yet. I need to rectify that. Like 7 Wonders, the game benefits from simultaneous action selection. There’s great fun in double and triple guessing what your opponents will play to go after cards as, initially, you all have the same cards. This is where it gets brilliant. By the third round, everyone will have a few nasty cards they’ve kept since the first round, leading to shouts of “why do you still have the monkey noooo!” followed by “shhhh!” and such. I love it.

Downsides? The pirate ship names are really awkward. The Slackey Jack? Eesh.

Ra: This is a brilliant design. It is just layers of bidding and point salad and interaction and timing. The key element are the suns, which have a numerical value of 1-16. You spend these to win auctions of tiles, worth points. The key, is that you trade the tile you spent to win for the one that was last used — often a lower value sun. Do you really want that tile set? Enough that you’ll cripple yourself in future auctions? But, are you really crippled?

Downsides? The game isn’t really thematic at all and has quite a few tiles. They are all simple, but it’ll take a few games before everyone stops asking “what are the Nile tiles worth?” I’m reaching here. It’s so good.

Ginkgopolis: This gorgeous and highly interactive euro combines area control, drafting, and resource management. You’re building a city, or stack of tiles, whatever. It has simultaneous drafting, but then turn-based execution, which gives you a moment to munch and explain “you jerk!” when someone builds on top of your building and cuts your points in half. It has a lot of pieces and a bit of setup time, but it still manages to fit within that hour, assuming everyone takes their turn and gets moving.

Downsides? Not great with 5, as the game reaches the end a smidge too quickly. But, boy does it sing with 3-4. The game can also be a tinge confusing at first for some mindsets as it has a bunch of numbers, letters, and isn’t terribly thematic.

Last Will: This one just barely squeaks in under the time limit, but squeak it does. This is arguably the heaviest game on the list, yet it’s full quick, yet meaty decisions that let it fit within the lunch hour. The game will definitely scratch an itch for those who want to think at lunch, yet provide plenty of interaction in its worker placement phases to jab one at your co-worker who just sent that rather obnoxious email.

Downsides? You may want to play this one outside of lunch the first time for the learning game. The AP prone will definitely send this one into that 1 pm meeting, so keep folks deciding and moving. There are quite a few bits, so it may not work for the sticky fingered card fetishist.

The Appendix

Games that I desperately wish fit within the lunch hour but often fall just a smidge outside of it: Princes of Florence, Legacy: The Testament of Duke de Crecy, Ascending Empires, 1775 or 1812.

Anything jump out at you on this list, for better or worse? What are some of your favorites I forgot? Chime in and turn this top 10 into a top “much larger number.”

Review: Leacock Co-Op Trilogy

Review by: Grant Rodiek

You can read my review policy here.

Quick Notes: I’m reviewing three cooperative games, all designed by Matt Leacock, so stick with me and follow along.

Forbidden Island is a game for 2-4 players (though you could solo two characters) for which you should set aside 30 minutes to play. I’ve played it with every player variable a combined total of 8 times.

Pandemic is a game for 2-4 players (though you could solo two characters) for which you should set aside an hour to play, though honestly, you might fail far more quickly. In that case, get ready to play again to make the most of that hour! I’ve played it with every player variable a combined total of 10 times.

Forbidden Desert is a game for 2-5 players (though you could solo two characters) for which you should set aside 30 minutes to play. I’ve played it with every player variable a combined total of 6 times.

Something you might not know is that the designer, Matt Leacock, is an interface designer for his day job. He is a master of how people interact with devices, software, and each other, so it should come as no surprise that his rules are masterfully written. The game’s are beautifully easy to learn, but tough to master. Pandemic’s rules are especially inspirational to me as a designer. His diagrams leave nothing unclear. I’d really love to know how much of that was his influence and how much the publisher’s.

Clean, easy to read rules.

All three games scale incredibly well, though as a general rule, with only 2 players they are a smidge easy, and with 4 or 5 players a smidge difficult. The sweet spot is in that 3-4 player zone. What I love is that all come with pre-defined difficulty levels and even then, the games are beautifully tuned such that you will always barely win or lose quite dramatically. It adds a great deal of tension. Think of Leacock’s experiences as Indiana Jones just barely sliding under the door to grab his hat. It’s a close call every time.

The Review (in 3 parts)

Note: I left my copy of Forbidden Island at my house in Napa, so I’m borrowing pictures for it. Sorry!

Forbidden IslandOne must learn to walk before they run, and run you shall do, because the island is sinking, the world is coated in a layer of schmegle and disease, and the desert twisters are a twistin’. 

Forbidden Island is the simplest of the three games and the cheapest at a mere $15, so it makes sense that this is our first port of call. But oh, what a lousy port! At the start, our heroes find themselves on an island that is sinking. That’s bad. But, there’s treasure! That’s good.

On their turns, players will optimize their actions to do things like move through the island, trade cards with nearby teammates, shore up the island to offset its perpetual sinking nature, and if you have the right cards, pick up the treasure. There are four different ones you must obtain and they are lovely. Gamewright does NOT mess around.

Then, you draw treasure cards. These are used to trade and pick up the treasures, though you must hold them within a strict hand limit. Gah! Do I discard the red to focus on yellow? Choices, choices. You might also get some sandbags, which let you shore up an island tile for free or a helicopter, which can whisk you around the island quickly.

The game in progress.

You might also draw a card that forces the water to rise. We’ll get to that in a second.

Unfortunately, after every delightful jaunt through the island, you must take your medicine. Your medicine in this case is the salty froth of the ocean. Based on the current water level, you draw a number of cards that dictate which island tiles flip to their flooded sign, or if already flooded, be removed from the board entirely.

This is not good. This is also part of the genius of the game. Remember the water rising card? These force you to draw more cards every turn, which means more of the island floods every turn. You must also reshuffle the already played cards to the top of the deck, which means the most flooded part of the island will get more flooded. Flooderer? The floodest.

When it rains on the island, it pours. Well, it seems rather sunny to be honest, but the waves are dreadful. Luckily, every player has a special character card which grants them a single game-breaking ability. Using these with your friends is key to winning the game. If you manage to capture all four treasures and get to the helicopter pad without dying, you win.

Goodbye island! So long! Enjoy your treasures, lads and lasses! Our adventurers will return in Forbidden Desert’s review.

PandemicI’d caution you to not beat up on Forbidden Island too much. One, because bullying is bad, but two, he has a much bigger brother who spends a lot of time at the gym. It seems this exposure to unclean metal and sweaty seats has made the brother sick. Bring hand sanitizer!

In Pandemic, you are a team of emergency specialists trying to save the world from killer diseases. You are the heroes of the CDC, Doctors without Borders, and other organizations that heal.

If you like Forbidden Island, you’ll love Pandemic. The two games are very similar in that you are leveraging your characters’ abilities, carefully choosing which actions, like traveling around the world, curing illness (instead of preventing sinking), and trading cards to ultimately cure the diseases.

Again, like Forbidden Island, you will draw cards that dictate where new diseases are added and when things get much worse. Over time there will be more cubes, you’ll pull more cards, and best of all, there’s a really clever chain reaction mechanic. Let’s say Paris is full of disease, and why wouldn’t it be? If a new disease cube must be added, every city connected to Paris takes on a “bonus” disease cube. And if those new cities are also full? Another chain reaction. Every time a chain reaction occurs, you move one step closer to failure and global obliteration.

Paris is about to chain react…

I have the first edition of the game, which in my opinion has an absolutely beautiful aesthetic and feel. Wooden cubes and a variety of soft colors really give it a classic aesthetic that I love. The newest printing BLUE is fine, BLUE, but I feel it’s a bit BLUE monochromatic. But, if you want to go deeper down the trail of disease, you’ll need this new version to play expansions, as the 1st edition and new expansions aren’t compatible without a compatibility kit. Lame! Also, BLUE.

So blue.

You can find Pandemic in Target, Toys ‘R Us, Barnes and Noble, or online for a very fair price.

Blue? Blue.

Forbidden Desert: When we last saw them, our adventurers were flying in a helicopter towards, I presume, a museum, with their four priceless treasures aboard. Unfortunately, they didn’t learn the lessons of the Carter administration and flew over a desert with a helicopter (Killer Carter Administration slam!). It seems our fair crew has crashed and must now escape the desert with their lives.


The site of the crash.

Where Forbidden Island and Pandemic come from the same parents, Forbidden Desert is the roguish cousin that arrives at the reunion 2 hours late, with a big tattoo, on a *gasp* motorcycle. He’s from that side of the family.

The game at setup.

I imagine Forbidden Island sold like the hottest of cakes, because Forbidden Desert is more unique, more difficult, a little more complex, and the production values are turned to a very sandy 11. You can tell its intended for an army of fans who have graduated and want more.  I just hope I create a game one day with the production values seen here.

Completed airship.

Your goal is to find all 4 parts to an ancient airship, construct it, and fly it out of the desert to safety (or to crash in the next Gamewright title?). You must do this before the storm becomes too great, the sand dunes overwhelm you, or one of you dies of thirst.


Not water.

Whereas the island disappears, in the desert, sand piles up, which prevents you from accessing the delightful parts beneath the surface until you clean enough sand. You can now excavate and flip over tiles to reveal powerful gadgets, like the jetpack, sun shield, or dustblower, tunnels, that protect you from the sun and help you travel quickly, water to refill your canteens, or the tiles that tell you where to find the airship parts.

Steampunk gadgetry.

You see, it’s not a matter of simply flipping over a tile that says “here’s the propeller!” No, you need to find the tiles that tell you the vertical and horizontal coordinates of the propeller. Then, you need to clear the space of sand and excavate the part. And one more thing — the desert is alive. The island sinks out from under you, but the desert tiles are constantly moving. That’s right! They move, shift, change the surface, all the while adding more sand.

Notice how the red piece (bottom right) was located by the vertical and horizontal arrow tiles.

This. Is. Awesome. It’s brilliant, so easy to understand, and adds more life to the game than its predecessors. Forbidden Desert is Matt Leacock’s best cooperative work. The fact that it plays up to 5 really packs an additional challenge into the experience.

We draw a card that tells us to move 2 tiles downwards…

…so we shifted 2 tiles downwards towards the center and added sand.

Forbidden Desert also stands out for tossing aside the set collection mechanic and putting a greater emphasis on the tools you find. When do you use it? Now? Or later. These elements really freshen the experience and help it stand out.

Considering the awesome bits that come inside the box, it’s a steal at the price.

Conclusion: I love all three of these games and have no reason to push them out of my collection ever. All three are fantastic gateway games to share with non-gamers or family members. All three provide a ridiculous value for the price and have simply outstanding components.

In all three, you, the players, get to go toe-to-toe against the unthinking, unfeeling cardboard robot Mr. Leacock has ingeniously devised. They present a puzzle-like quandary that is surprising, tense, and thrilling, and quite frankly, evil.

If I had to pick one as a starting point, I first need to ask what you want from the experience. If you’re new to games or just want to dip your toes into the cooperative pools, I heartily recommend Forbidden Island. It’s $15! You can set it up, teach it, and play a game in well under 40 minutes.

Character cards. Notice the canteen level on the left.

However, if you are a little more experienced (not much more, really), I have to recommend Forbidden Desert. The game is so reasonably priced for its gorgeous components and just so unique and special. I feel the mechanics allow for greater replayability than the other titles, and the addition of a fifth player means more can enjoy this sometimes brutal game. Hey, if you’re gonna die, die together, right?

Really, you can’t go wrong here. All three get a resounding thumbs up from me.

What do you think? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

Posted in Reviews | Tagged , co-op, forbidden desert, forbidden island, hand management, matt leacock, pandemic, , set collection | Leave a reply

Looking Back on ’13, a Primer

Post by: Grant Rodiek

Throughout the year, as is warranted, I like to host community group posts. Today, I was thinking back on my 2013, what’s left of it, and what’s in my near future. I was curious how others’ year went. No, the year doesn’t end until midnight on December 31, but the Essen releases are about to be on shelves and things are winding down.

So, the question is, How was your 2013? If you recall, as a community we wrote this 2013 Design Community Preview, filled with our hopes and dreams. Now, I want you to fill us all in on the results. Whether you contributed to the preview linked above or not, I want to hear from you. Share your story with the community.

I’d like to post this article in a week or so, which means I’d love to have your submission in my inbox by Sunday, October 27. But, I’m super flexible. If submissions are still coming in, I’ll wait. My typical rule is to post it when it seems folks are good and ready.

A few had questions on what their entry should entail, so here goes. First, click the 2013 preview and give it a quick scan for reference. I’m going to reference my entry, which is at the very bottom. Go on, I’ll wait.

I’m going to write about York, which may or may not be published. I’ll briefly discuss its year and its variable future. I’ll talk about those terrible other prototypes I mentioned and their fates, as well as the fates of my other failures. These won’t be long notes, but I’ll try to note why they died and what I learned.

Then I’m going to write a little about Blockade/Mars Rising, which has just grown into something really special. And I’ll write about Flipped, which just thrills me.

To summarize: If you contributed to the original article, write about how things went.

  • Reminds us of your preview content (write this post as if people haven’t read the prequel)
  • Did you finish those games?
  • Were they published (or signed)?
  • What surprised you and came about during the year?
  • What are you working on now? What’s next?

In general, try to be succinct. Where things are interesting, feel free to elaborate. If you’re too long, I’ll work with you, so don’t worry too much. Feel free to provide prototype pictures or a web link if you have a blog to share.

If you DIDN’T contribute to the blog, fill us in on where you started and update us. More or less, act as if you did write, just fill in the blanks for us.

Does this all make sense? Email me entries at grant at hyperbolegames dot com. Send me the images and be sure to include links. If you’re running late, feel free to email me (I’ll wait!) or feel free to join the article after it’s posted. Email any questions to the same address.

Enjoy memory lane!

Book Review: The Martian General’s Daughter

Review by: Grant Rodiek

You can read my review policy here. 

I’ve been reading a great deal of fiction lately, much of it quite excellent. The books I read typically have a huge influence on my designs. This past weekend I finished The Martian General’s Daughter by Theodore Judson and it left me rather disappointed. So much so, that I thought I’d review it.

Based a few hundred years into the future of our world, most of the world is under the control of the Pan-Polarian Empire. The Imperial capital is Garden City, which seems to be modern day Mexico City.The fringes of the empire near China and India are constantly rebelling, which keeps the army busy. Meanwhile, Garden City is largely a corrupt high society of yes-men and political and economic profiteers.

There are three very important things about the world you must know:

  • The emperor dies very early and his sociopath son, the Concerned One, becomes the ruler of Pan-Polaria.
  • There is a metal plague that is never explained (and doesn’t need to be). This plague destroys metal and is essentially disintegrating modern technology, such as planes and computers. Yet it seems to leave guns, swords, and coins alone… Basically, it’s a device to drive the decay of the physical world (alongside the moral world).
  • The entire world, society, and characters parallel the decline of Ancient Rome.

The story is narrated by Justa Black, the bastard daughter of General Peter Black. He commands an army on the frontier. Justa’s narration bounces between two settings: General Black with his soldiers on the frontier and General Black recalled to Garden City by the emperor. The characters are very briefly on Mars, for no apparent reason other than (I think?) the title of the book. They could have replaced Mars with Wyoming and it wouldn’t have altered the story.

When the General is with his army, you basically learn that he is a tough, but fair soldier of the old guard. He is very black and white and very much the sergeant he used to be.

When the General is in Garden City, the author paints, then re-paints, then paints once again just how much of a sociopath the new Emperor is and how low society has fallen. The Emperor, who demands he be called the Concerned One, fills his days with acts of sexual deviance, by slaughtering exotic animals and gladiators in an arena, and by murdering anyone he deems a political rival.

General Black’s role is that he’s a simpleton obsessed with doing his duty, even for the wrong cause. The Emperor repeatedly summons him to help with a small task, which Black carries out successfully, then returns to the frontier.


The Martian General’s Daughter just failed to deliver in so many ways. None of the characters show any development, breadth, or shades of gray. The Concerned One (the Emperor) is a pure sociopath who is clearly insane and deviant. He has no redeeming qualities. Every time the emperor enters a scene it is to:

  • Slaughter creatures in a coliseum
  • Be sexually deviant
  • Talk like a narcissistic and insane person

On this last point, at one point the emperor becomes obsessed with the story of Huck Finn. The tie-in was so bizarre and disconnected that it really hindered the story.

Justa is barely a character, so I’m not sure why she’s needed as a narrator. She doesn’t modify or influence the story in any way, which to me really felt like a missed opportunity. Many of my favorite stories really leverage the personality of the storyteller, so using a human that is essentially a mouthpiece just falls flat. General Black is the old soldier doing his duty. The schemers are schemers and generally people are good or just there or just awful.

Furthermore, nothing really happens in the book. Well, let me re-phrase that. Nothing new happens in the book. The author is clearly fascinated by the decline of Ancient Rome, which I admit is a premise worthy of exploration. But, when the emperors all have Roman names, with the coliseum, and the orgies, and the rebelling entities on the frontier, and so forth, the author is just rehashing well-worn ground. I know what happened in Rome, which meant I knew what would happen in this book. Nothing new was revealed to me.

The metal plague is an interesting, though inconsistently applied device, that I would have liked to have seen more of. It’s a very creative, very science-fiction notion that was basically used to repeatedly say “hey, the world is falling apart!” I’d happily read a book about a colony on Mars, stricken with a plague that is destroying the equipment that keeps them alive. That would be an amazing story that would also match the title.

Frankly, I found the parallels to ancient Rome so heavy handed that I couldn’t really enjoy the historical influence. If you know me, you know how hard that was for me to write. At some point in the book I expected a character to say aloud, “you would have thought we’d have learned from ancient Rome, yet here we are, repeating the mistakes 2500 years later in an identical fashion.” Rome should have influenced the story, not be the story.

Finally, alternating chapters of the book bounce tween the “present” of the story and past events. I’m not exactly sure why the author does this, as there are no interesting twists applied to take advantage of the dual time-perspective and frankly, any surprises he could have wielded are precluded by the fact you know the General lives and succeeds.

Here’s an example: There’s a meeting between the General and our deranged emperor. The author seems to want you to worry about whether the emperor will murder the General, much like his two other victims mere pages before.  The problem is, as the meeting is in the past, I know the general will get by just fine. All tension is removed.

In Conclusion: If you’re not clear about my opinion of the book, let me rectify that here. Pass on The Martian General’s Daughter. The story isn’t exciting, the characters lack depth, and the historical influence is stifling.

This was my first book review. Thoughts? 

Posted in Reviews | Tagged alt-future, ancient rome, book, fiction, martian general's daughter, , rome, | 2 Replies

Review: Mice and Mystics

Me playing solo.

Review by: Grant Rodiek

You can read my review policy here.

Quick Notes: Mice and Mystics is a game for 1-4 (arguably 5) players for which you should set aside 2 hours to play. You may not need that much time, but the play length is highly variable based on the scenario played and the way things proceed. This is a game to sit back and enjoy. It’s not one to rush! I’ve played the game solo, with 2, and 5 players a combined total of 7 times. I have completed Chapters 1-4 (out of 11) in the base game.

The game’s rules are well written, but they are quite broad and you should set aside some time to parse them. There’s a great tutorial video provided by Plaid Hat Games, so they really do their best (and succeed) at teaching the game.

I think the gameplay is identical regardless of player count, but I think this game is better with more people playing. It’s an experience for friends to enjoy. The more people who participate, the more silliness and ridiculousness. Once, I played with 5, where I acted as the keeper of the rules, storyteller, and the enemy AI, while my other 4 friends played the heroic mice. It was great. Truly, one of a kind. One of them even played as the rogue and did his own thing while we desperately fought the rats. He was a jerk, in character, and it was hilarious.

The Review: Mice and Mystics is a cooperative dungeon crawling game with a heavy focus on designed scenario gameplay (as opposed to random events) and a story driven campaign. The base game ships with 15 meaty chapters, 4 of which I’ve played. They aren’t simple and they aren’t brief — there’s a lot of game to be found here. The story always progresses with significance.

Two of my favorite characters.

At the start of a scenario you select (typically but not always) 4 characters from the standard fantasy archetypes: warrior, archer, rogue, magician, healer, and leader. Each begins with pre-defined gear. Characters have 4 stats that dictate movement speed, the number of attack dice to roll, defense dice to roll, and dice to roll for special lore events. They also tend to have unique passive abilities that are simple but really tend to be meaningful.

Following the scenario instructions is quite simple.

Scenarios specify a level layout of (typically) 3 or 4 double sided square tiles. This system is fantastic and a brilliant piece of design. For example, one tile is the tunnels under the kitchen on one side and the kitchen on the other. There’s a way to climb up from the tunnels, at which point you remove your guys, flip the board, and place them on the newly flipped side. With only a handful of double sided tiles there are so many creative combinations of levels. It’s really delightful and simple to understand.

From the arrow my mice and “climb up” to the other side of the board.

The beginning of a scenario comes with a story for a narrator to read to the group. I recommend you bring forth your best (see also: worst) British accent and bold, narratory Jazz hands.

The game revolves primarily around combat. Either due to specified enemy spawns or well-tuned random spawns (based on a drawn card), every room involves some number of enemies. Until you best them, you cannot proceed, but once you best them, if you linger you’ll be slowly penalized. Players take turns in order using a simple and effective initiative mechanic with the enemy taking turns as appropriate.

To segue briefly, I strongly dislike “AI players” in board games. This was a worry of mine and I’m glad to say it’s not a problem in the game. Let’s say you have 4 enemy rats, which share a turn. On their turn, you first roll a die and move them the appropriate spaces. You always move them towards the closest player character — in the case of a tie, choose (this doesn’t happen often, surprisingly). If they are in range to attack, they do so. You check their attack number, roll the indicated dice, and they deal damage. They don’t have special powers to manage or complex routines. They are trying to stop you, so like the guards in every movie ever created they charge forth and try to stop you. It’s simple, easy to understand, and it works.

Turns typically revolve around the following choices:

  • Where do I go to put myself in the best position? If you’re a ranged mouse, you may want to get out of the fray. Or there may be a certain enemy you want to defeat first, how do you get to them in the best way?
  • Who do I attack first? And do I use my default weapon or a special ability?

Every character begins with 1 class-based special ability of your choice (fun!) and these have a big impact on the game. You can also gain more throughout the game. Abilities are activated by spending cheese, which is the game’s version of mana. A side of the combat die is cheese, so when this side is rolled, you gain a token. There is a downside! When the enemies roll cheese in combat, you add these to the center board. When 6 are dded, a surge occurs! This pushes the game one step closer to an untimely end (which happens when bad events occur) AND adds new, more powerful enemies to the board. It’s the thematic equivalent of a guard shouting for backup and the backup arriving before you manage to escape. It’s great and really adds tension.

Attacking isn’t all you do, however. You can also search for items, which involves a lucky die roll (which some characters can mitigate), after which you draw a card from the item deck. I love the items. You may draw new armor or weapons, which increase your combat effectiveness. You may draw one-time-use items, which sometimes seem useless, except they aren’t. As an example, I drew a levitate card, which lets me climb on bookshelves and chairs (remember, you’re a mouse) without penalty. “Okay,” I thought. “I guess this is neat.” Then, I entered the final room with 5 elite rat archers on a bookshelf and only 2 melee mice left to fight them. I used levitate, sprinted atop the bookshelf, and eeked (squeaked?) out a win. It was great!

I also love that items are relatively easy to trade among the mice in your party. I often have Lilly, the archer, hang back, take opportune shots, and use her ability to search more effectively. When the gang’s all settled, she’s like “hey guys, I found some new stuff!”

Were this just combat and item optimization I think Mice and Mystics would fall flat. Luckily, after only 4 chapters I think it’s an absolute showpiece for good scenario design. The designer cleverly uses neat map setups, configurations of bad guys, forces you to use (or not use) certain mice, and even introduces silly and fun mini-games to vary the experience. At one point I happened upon a posse of “off duty” rats playing a dice game for cheese. I just so happened to have a disguise (items are awesome) to infiltrate their game. I ended up winning a pile of cheese and scared them off without fighting once. Had I screwed up, I would have had to fight it out. This was great.

Just playing dice with rats.

I should also note the scenarios sometimes have alternate paths and side-quests. I really appreciate this small detail.

Combat and resolution throughout the game is solved through dice. It’s a well implemented, consistent use of the dice. There is some luck, for sure, but I find the tuning is such that it never feels plodding. You will sometimes get screwed, just like you’ll sometimes have incredible rolls. But, the course of the experience is one of great tuning and enjoyable outcomes. This isn’t a “play 2 hours to get hosed by bad luck” type game. If you’re okay with some luck, you’ll have fun. If you’re not, lighten up! And why did you buy a co-op game with mice on the cover in the first place?

Mice and Mystics isn’t a cheap game, but if you look inside the box you’ll understand why. The game is full of beautifully detailed miniature sculpts.The boards and cards are jam packed with unique illustrations beautifully crafted by John Ariosa. There are tons of tokens, some for just a few uses, and nothing was spared. I think it’s a good value, especially considering I have about 15 hours of gaming in already and am only 25% through the campaign. I don’t want every game to have this price tag, but when a special one comes along, I’ll buy it and do so with a smile.

This is a co-op game, so I feel I need to bring up the point of “dominant players.” This isn’t a really deep strategy game (though there is strategy). It isn’t like Pandemic where you’re weighing probability and optimal choices. Here’s my suggestion: Don’t play this with people you don’t like. Get some beers, some pizza, and take over a huge table with all the cool stuff in the box. Set aside a few hours on the weekend and play a few chapters. If you complain about the dominant player problem here, it’s maybe because you need better friends? To quote Viper in Top Gun, call me. I’ll fly with you.

The Conclusion: I really enjoy Mice and Mystics, but I also think for the price, time commitment, and style of game, you need to enjoy this type of game. It’s not just a well-woven set of mechanics, but a story and experience that need to be read aloud and with gusto to be enjoyed to the fullest. If you want brain-burn, or competition, or super elegant euro-stylings, you should look elsewhere.

I don’t think Mice and Mystics is trashy, because all of its components serve a purpose and are distilled, clean, and well-designed. But, the game is full of content, often to support the variety in scenarios, and you may find yourself checking the rules even 4 games in to find out what the grape or fish hook do, for example.

As a side note, I’d love for Plaid Hat Games to release an expansion full of short stories, small, 60 minutes or less stories for those of us who want to game at lunch, because it would be a blast for my lunch crew. Regardless, I’ve already pre-ordered Heart of Glorm and will hasten my play through the base game so I can enjoy it!

Here’s how the story ends: Mice and Mystics is really delightful. If co-operative storytelling with awesome mice miniatures and combat is your thing, consider a purchase.

What do you think of this review?

Review: Ginkgopolis

Review by: Grant Rodiek

You can read my review policy here.

Quick Notes: Ginkgopolis is a game for 1-5 players for which you should set aside 60 minutes to play and setup. The setup isn’t quick, but it isn’t arduous by any means. I’ve played the game with 2-5 players a total of 5 times. The other members of my group have played it without me 3 more times.

The game’s rules are relatively short and well presented with a handy quick reference guide on the back. Plus, they’re full of examples.

The green sections are step by step examples.

The game ships with an official single-player variant in the rules, but I haven’t tried it. The game is best with 3 or 4. With 5 it is a bit more volatile and ends a bit too quickly. With 2, the drafting just isn’t as exciting, though it does have a more predictable feel (for those who like that).

Setup for 3 players

The Review: Ginkgopolis is a sharp, well-paced game where every player is a city planner building a futuristic, granola, sorta Dr. Seussian metropolis. The game has two end conditions, each an exhaustion of resources, and the player with the most points is the victor.

The game’s primary mechanics are drafting and area control, two personal favorites. Players will draft one of the four cards in their hand and place it face down to use in one of three ways. The cards are delightfully simple and essentially dictate which tile will be affected by the action. Actions execute in player order. The actions are:

  • Play a card to gain resources. This is the “lame” action. More skilled players mitigate how often this action is necessary.
  • Play a card and tile to expand the city outwards. This gains you a one-time resource bonus, plus you are controlling a piece of the city.
  • Play a card and tile to expand the city upwards. This is expensive, but crucial for controlling the city. You also get a permanent passive bonus.

Look to the pictures throughout this article for more details on how to play.

Blue gives tiles, red gives the building currency, yellow gives points.

The game’s 3 resources are points (for winning), tiles (for building), and a currency (to pay for building and denote control/contribution). Points are earned throughout the game, from end-game bonuses (these are some of the permanent passive bonuses above), and from winning districts.

There are 3 colors of tiles. A district is formed when 2 or more tiles of the same color are adjacent to each other. As players place tiles upwards and outwards, they place tokens to mark their contribution. The player with the most of these in a district will win many points.

The starting grid. Notice there is a red district in the top left, a yellow district in the top middle, and a big blue district in the bottom right.

Ginkgopolis feels dynamic and perfectly volatile. It’s because the drafting feeds into the  shared tile laying/area control mechanic. Unlike 7 Wonders, which often feels like a solitary affair (I know it isn’t), in Ginkgopolis you’re vying for control over districts and carving out the portion of the city that is yours. When you build upwards you can maintain the tile’s current color (ex: blue on blue), OR you can pay a penalty to change the color (ex: blue to red). It is the city-building equivalent of punching a hole in your enemy’s front lines.

Many a final round sees one player thinking he controls a blue district, only for another to place a red tile in the center of it. This cuts the blue district in half and, depending on the distribution of tokens, may completely shift ownership. It’s a real delight for those who like to mess with others, but don’t care for punishing aggression. Plus, as every player only takes on action per turn, the board evolves in a manner that is very reasonable.

I really enjoy Ginkgopolis’ strategic heft, in that it is not very strategic. The game is highly tactical, but clever, devious players can hold onto a great tile (resources are kept secret) and use these tactical choices to meander towards a fluffy, strategic vision of sorts. For example, midway through the game I can see that my high number blue tile would really help me cement control over a really valuable district. I can spend a few turns building towards its placement.

The game relies more upon gut checks than solving an equation. That makes the game easy to consume, relatively easy to learn, and really exciting when your hunch pays off. It isn’t mathy and it’s never entirely predictable. Sometimes, you just don’t have the cards or the tile, so do what you can and stay in the game. This uncertainty leads to great tension and I feel the game often rewards the better Ginkgopolis player, not the resident statistician.

One of my favorite hunch-having elements is the discard hand mechanic.  Twice per game, every player is able to discard his entire hand, at a cost, in hopes of drawing 4 new cards that present better options. One of the reasons I win frequently is that I know when to do this. People will ask “You sure you want to do that?” A 10 point swing later, hell yes I’m sure.

The top of the card dictates the part of the board your action will affect.

Some Euros present a slew of symbols and complex hieroglyphics you need to learn. Ginkgopolis’ skips the cuneiform and instead uses a number/color system that  throws much of that away. The end result is that players focus on making choices towards building the city. You aren’t learning the game’s language, but the game’s strategy. The passive bonuses DO use some symbols, but there are only a handful and many times my friends just figured them out without look up.

If I were to play the yellow 2 card, I’d affect the yellow 2 tile.

The key takeaway is that the majority of the game is: This card does something to that tile. What do YOU want to do to it?

This starting set of passive bonuses gives me +1 Point and +1 currency when building outwards or +1 tile when building upwards.

Were the game just tactical hunches it would grow old quickly, but the game has several layers that really add variability and depth. At the beginning, every player is given 3 character cards at random which determine starting resources and initial passive bonuses. These bonuses tend to sync up, which means every game you tend to pursue a different strategy. This works much like the Civilization boards in 7 Wonders or character cards in Tokaido. Essentially, it’s most of the fun of asymmetric factions without the burdensome learning curve.

Really discerning, advanced players will begin to think about cards not only in how they will affect the current board, but how gaining that card’s passive bonus will help them sprint to the ultimate victory. It’s a very good layer that can be skipped your first few plays.

I also find it’s easier to draft defensively in Ginkgopolis than 7 Wonders. By this, I mean I choose to take a card more to hinder an opponent’s efforts than help my own. There is less information to parse in Ginkgopolis and you don’t need to look at your opponents’ personal boards. Everyone is affecting the center tiles, which lets you focus your mind and eyes there. It’s simple and deep, which is where I love my games to lie on the axis.

I love the presentation of Ginkgopolis and it would be a disservice not to call attention to it. I grabbed the game off the shelf purely because of the art and, knowing nothing about it, merely did a quick sanity check on Board Game Geek to ensure it wasn’t terrible. The box is full of wooden components, playful colors, and beautiful cards and tiles adorned with the game’s goofy, futuristic style. It reminds me a great deal of Dr. Seuss and that is the highest compliment I can give. Many pass on euros for a lack of theme or boring presentation. For me, Ginkgopolis is a visual treat with effective player communication.

The Conclusion: Ginkgopolis hits so many right notes for me. It features simultaneous drafting, which means every turn comes with a fun choice and there is practically zero downtime. It plays in an hour or less, which is my ideal play length. It’s interactive, but not in a mean way, which means I need to not only pick the right choices, but outwit my opponents. I like playing against people, not the game itself.

The game is dynamic and ever-changing, which makes it difficult to solve. It’s beautiful, which shows that extra dose of love and craftsmanship to what could simply be another game about medieval castles.

We’ve played the game about 8 times in just the past month. It’s the type of game where if I don’t bring it into the office my co-workers yell at me. I consider this the finest addition to my collection in quite some time and if you like drafting, area control, fuzzy strategy, and good tactics, this could very well be a “must buy” for you.

This is my first review. Tell me what you think!