Phil Dreizen

November 2013 - Board Game mini-Reviews

This past month I played quite an overwhelming number of games, many of them new to me. The month started with a Halloween board game party, and included quite a bit of civilization games. Here I list some of the notable ones that I remember and some "brief" thoughts on them. I'll expand some of these into longer reviews in the future, but I wanted to get something down now while still fresh.

  • Room 25 - a game themed on the movie Cube. You're working with the other players to find the hidden exit room, but some players are secret traitors. The traitors can continue to work against you after they're revealed. I like it - it's fun to throw people into acid filled rooms, and it's short enough for the kind of game it is.

  • Buffy the Vampire Slayer: The Game - I love this game the more I play it. One player is the Big Bad and minions, and the rest of the players are the Scooby Gang. There are different win conditions based on each of the first 4 seasons of the show. It's one of the more thematic games I've played, as it really feels like a season of Buffy.

  • Werewolf - first time for me in years. I still enjoy the game and prefer it over a game like Avalon. Werewolf is just silly fun with a lot of stupid false accusations. Avalon seems more serious than it should be, given what it is.

  • Advanced Civilization - I've already written a lengthy review on the blog.

  • Tempus - I played this just a week after Adv Civ. It's an underrated game - essentially a eurogame with a Civ theme, which may be the reason for the low ratings on BGG. But many of the elements are there: expanding on a map, building cities, managing a population. There is no tech tree, but each turn you race to get to the new technologies first, which is a neat mechanic.

  • I downloaded Roll through the Ages for iOS, only playing it solo. Impressive theming given it's a dice game. The game has multiple paths to victory - you can score points with techs and or building monuments. You can buy "workers," increasing your dice pool, but you'll need to keep them fed with food. It uses the Yahtzee mechanic well.

  • Darkest Night - I soloed the game to learn it and enjoyed myself, but it fell flat when I broke it out with a friend of mine. The game is heavy on dice. Dice are used to resolve the event cards, which could really use some flavor text, to move the necromancer, to search for items like keys. Since you only get 1 action per turn, and an action might be simply a failed roll to find a key...I do want to try the game again, but will do it with the expansion. It introduces quests, and gives new ways to get items.

  • Race for the Galaxy was popular 2-3 years ago. But its popularity has died down, partly due to how hard it is to teach. I love it, and am on a mission to bring it back. I managed to get in 3 plays of the game in three different venues, so I'm on track. Also, it turns out that a new expansion, Alien Artifacts, is coming out this month and will, I hope, bring some interest back to the game.

  • I did a print-and-play of the original Dawn of the Dead board game, in preparation for my Halloween board game night. This game is the very first zombie game ever, and it's based on the best zombie movie. I played this solo for a bit. You're in the mall, and have to get to 4 "main doors" on opposite ends of the board, closing them to keep the zombies out. The zombies are slow and easy to kill, but they keep coming, and they move toward you automatically just for moving past them. I had a thematic moment when one group of humans, close to getting to a main door to close, had to run back to save the others. I have to comment: this game, which is from 1978, is sexist. Fran is stat-ed to be quicker to panic than Flyboy for no reason I can tell other than "she's a girl."

  • The real gem of the month is Sherlock Holmes Consulting Detective. This has to be the most thematic game I've played. It's a "Choose Your Own Adventure" style game. You play the Baker Street Irregulars, trying to solve a crime. Ostensibly, you're competing with Sherlock, trying to solve the mystery by following as few leads as possible. When you think you've solved the crime, you flip to the back of the book, answer the questions, and get scored. Sherlock will explain the mystery, and how he solved it in 4 or 5 leads as opposed to your 20+ leads, if you managed to solve it at all, given the paltry clues you have. This game isn't REALLY about beating Sherlock but being immersed in the theme. The writing is excellent, and reads like Doyle could have written it. I ended up playing this game 3 days in a row, and played it a 4th time a week later.

  • Lords of Waterdeep - A simple worker placement game with a very thin D&D theme. (Using euro cubes to represent rogues,wizards,fighters,and cleric is just ridiculous). The game has cards that allow for some direct conflict which makes it more "American style". I played the expansion which uses an interesting corruption mechanic which is somewhat difficult to explain. There's a pool of corruption tokens you can take to do very useful actions, but the more players take from the pool, the more each corruption token will hurt any players who have them. So the more you take, the more points you lose at the end game as other players take corruption. Ultimately, I much prefer Alien Frontiers to this, which is also a worker placement game with direct conflict.

  • Battlestar Galactica - The game does Cylons right. The players are trying to keep Battlestar Galactica alive for some number of FTL jumps, but there's a treacherous Cylon skinjob among the players working against the humans. The game consists of a series of events, players secretly use cards to try to succeed at the events, but the Cylon player will try to sabotage by placing cards that won't help the humans. I have mixed feeling about this one. There's a lot more to the game than just the events, which I like (as opposed to the Resistance, which is JUST this one mechanic). But on the other hand, the events are the only really interesting aspect of the game. Also: I was the Cylon this game, and I sucked at it, as I usually suck in these traitor games. But this one goes on for 3+ hours. And being a Cylon is tough for a new player - you can't exactly look at the actions you can take as a revealed Cylon while you're hidden lest you give yourself away. I would play this one again, but I'm not hooked.

  • I've been playing Puerto Rico on iOS quite a bit and think I've improved, given my performance at the IRL game I played this month.

  • I got Star Trek Fleet Captains for my birthday. (Thank you!) It's got a rep as the most thematic Star Trek game. One side takes the role of Klingons, the other as the Federation. You're trying to dominate an unexplored sector of space - going on scientific missions, gaining political influence over sectors of space, and most directly, fighting each other. You score victory points for completely missions of these different types. In the beginning of the game, you randomly draw your ships, which determine which of the 3 ways to win you'll be focusing on. A very neat aspect is you also build a "Command Deck" from sub-decks like "Strange New Worlds" or "Way of the Warrior" which you'll put together based on the kinds of missions you expect to be going on. Fleet Captains is a spiritual successor of sorts to Star Trek: The Adventure Game from 1985, which is also in the running for most thematic Trek game. Fleet Captains benefits from a lot of progress in board game mechanics, but since it focuses on the Federation more than say, an individual ship and crew, it doesn't quite feel like Trek the way Adventure Game does, which switches perspectives throughout the game. (An expansion that did more with Away Teams might fix that). Okay, I have a lot more to say about this game. For now, I'll just say I like it a lot and am looking foreword to playing it again.

Advanced Civilization - A Review

Update: With minor differences, this review has been posted on BoardGameGeek

Advanced Civilization is the 1991 expansion to the original, and father of all Civlization games, Civilization. The base game and expansion are long out of print, the expansion going for hundreds on ebay. It's greatest innovation is the technology tree, a mechanic that has appeared in many games since (I was first introduced to it via the Sid Meir's Civilization which borrowed heavily from this game.) Here is my review.


Being a huge fan of the Sid Meir Civilization computer games, a recent desire to play some epic games, and given this game's reputation (and high price point!) I was very excited to get a chance to play this game. After buying the original Civilization on ebay, printing out the components for Advanced Civilization, and a month or so of planning I finally got to play.

Overview of the game:

I won't go into much detail about how to play - the BGG video tutorial does a very thorough job of that. But here's a very light overview. There are two primary aspects to this game. Managing your ever increasing population, and trading for goods. Each round you spend time moving your population around the map -- trying to either maximize growth, curtail growth and/or create cities. You create cities primarily to gain trading cards, meet requirements on the AST, and oftentimes to move your population off the board into stock. You can initiate conflict in this phase, but the game doesn't reward all out war, so most of the conflicts are small "border skirmishes." Population pressure does lead you into conflict even if you aren't seeking war! Often times you fight just to send your units to their deaths (and into the stocks).

In the trading phase, you're trying to collect sets of goods. Trading is the most important portion of the game. The points you score here are used to buy tech cards, which besides giving your civilization useful bonuses, also provides the points you need to win the game. The game has unique trading rules in which you must trade at least 3 cards, but you only have to guarantee 2 of the cards are what you say they are. Some of the cards you'll be lying about, and receiving, are calamity cards which will cause a lot of grief to your civilization. This is the phase to gain points and screw the other players.

Because of calamities, you'll be spending a lot of time in the game watching your cities getting destroyed, changing hands, and populations getting wiped out. The game is full of what appears to be wild swings. But the quick population growth allows for fast recovery.

After that it's back to population and repeat.


I thought the way that increases of population led to a pressure to have conflict at the borders was really innovative and cool, and I've never seen any other game that did this. It marries game mechanics with a common theory about one of the historical causes for war quite well. In Sid Meir's Civ by comparison, population goes up in individual cities and the only pressure it causes is a need to increase the happiness level.

The tech tree in Advanced Civilization is its greatest innovation. I haven't played enough Civ-type board games to say how it compares to modern versions of the tree. I do like the video game versions better, but I think Adv Civ beats Sid Meir's Civ: The Board Game. The discounts are a pain to keep track of, but it beats the pyramid method (which, admittedly, is much easier to work with).

Conflict resolution is elegant and simple. It also makes war a very unattractive option even when you feel the pressure to do it, which I like a lot. Each side of a battle takes heavy losses regardless of who wins. But there is no character to your units. They're all the same, and there is no feeling that your units are becoming more advanced as your civilization advances. Yes there are tech cards like Metalworking/Engineering/Military that make you better at fighting, but it's bland compared to having different unit types.

A big strike against the game is that cities are so ephemeral, coming and going in and out of existence. My cities never felt like cities - nothing I was ever personally attached to. They only felt like a method of getting more trade cards, and occasionally methods of going up the AST track. No sense of grandeur, which I want an ancient Civilization game to evoke about ancient cities. This is something Sid Meir's Civ games really got right: cities with names, that grow, with their own character and specialties.

Trading in the game was unique, and the cornerstone of the game, but it seems to be the only really important decision to be made in the whole game. Winning the game hangs on the ability to trade well. I don't want that from a Civ game. Trading would, ideally for me, just be one method by which to get ahead in the game. The whole win shouldn't basically hang on it. (Granted, what techs to get is also an important decision, but it seems like there are clear paths to take up that tree, mostly to get points for the civics at the end game. Mining is a clear winner too, to boost the points you get in the trading phase).

I have mixed feelings about calamities. I think they feel much more brutal than they really are. But maybe they feel too brutal to be enjoyable - though it did lead to a lot of table talk, and entertaining moments. I wonder how playing a variant in which you can never be hit by more than 1 calamity at a time would work.


Theme: This captures a lot of the epic feeling you want from a civ game. But cities never felt like anything more than trade card generators. Population growth pressure was an interesting theme I've never seen explored in other games. Trading of calamities is supposed to model cultural influences caused by trading having destabilizing affects, but it never felt like that. It felt like getting screwed, or like bluffing someone else. That said, the trading did feel a bit like being in a bazaar, which might have been intentional.

Mechanics: The population growth and pressue as mentioned is unique and awesome, and I'm more impressed by it than anything else. Trading is also unique and very fun. Of course, the most lasting innovation of the game is the tech tree. War is elegant, but too simple to offer much tactical possibilities.

I should mention that this game is WAY fiddlier than most modern games. And it requires a LOT of counting. Each turn you have to count your population for the census, and count your support for your city two times a turn. You have to do a lot of calculating to determine your discounts for your techs. It does get wearisome after 8+ hours.

Complexity: It's much simpler than one would expect from a game of the era. A modern rule book that didn't read like a legal document would probably do a lot to make the game less intimidating.

Depth: On one game I'm not qualified to say. But my impression is that a person can learn the optimal tech options within a few games. The real skill is in the trading.


1) we were actually playing a variant in which you can but from any trade stack, just not 9. (ie you could buy a level 5 for 10 chits from your treasury.)

2) after more than 10 hours of playing we did not finish the game. We were bumping up against the 1300 point limit in the AST as we decided to end the game. It was essentially clear who was winning. (Not me, if you're curious).


Ultimately I enjoyed the game. It works as much as an "experience" as it does a game. In spite of taking more than 10 hours for us to play, and in a lot of ways getting repetitive, the time mostly flew. (I remember the shock we felt at the 5 hour mark). That said, it surprisingly lacks some of the elements I'm looking for in a Civilization game, given that it is the father of the genre. I *DO* plan to play again. Which says a lot about a 8+ hour game.

Hope reading this didn't take as long as playing Advanced Civilization!

review: up from poppy hill

A pleasant, pretty, and sometimes touching movie. Understated for such a melodramatic plot. But not anywhere near one of Ghibli's best.

Umi has a lot of responsibilities. Though she's only in high school, she needs to take care of her family, and the boarders in her house. Her father died in the Korean War, and her mother is studying in America. With so much responsibility, she doesn't have much time for herself.

In the background is Japan of the 1960s. It's transitioning into a more Western, perhaps more modern country. It's about to host the Olympics - so Japan's officials want to put a particular face forward to the rest of the world.

The "Quartier Latin" isn't something I completely understand. It seems to be semi-officially attached to Isogo High School, the school Umi attends, housing all the school's clubs. Inside, students observe the stars, debate ancient philosophy, publish a newspaper - all manner of scholarly activities. It seems like an awesome place. The film treats its residents kindly - though their interests are portrayed as a bit silly, and ineffective, we like everyone inside. In an American movie, I think they'd be treated as nerds and outcasts, but I don't get the sense the Quartier Latin is looked upon that way. Maybe anti-intellectualism is an American phenomenon.

The building itself is old, and falling apart, and the entirely male student body inside have left the inside in shambles, cluttered with dusty books, and papers. And so, the club house - a relic, and symbol, of a past that Japan is trying to move beyond - is marked for demolition. Trying to save "Quartier Latin" and, symbolically, a piece Japan's past, is one of the two driving forces of the movie

The other is the romance between Umi and Shun, a student who is involved in the Quartier Latin' journalism club. He publishes a secret letter of admiration for Umi in his paper, and she is drawn to him after she reads it. His quest to save the club becomes hers too. We see them subtly growing close to each other, and it's pleasant to see their unstated affection for each other. Their feelings for each other are never stated outright, until Shun makes the discovery that the two of them might be brother and sister. Then, after acknowledging their feelings to each other, they must struggle with what fate seems to have handed them.

The plot is melodramatic, even the characters in the movie know that, but it's played in an understated way.

This is the kind of movie in which things work out well in the end. I found the resolution of both plots touching even though I knew how things would work out. In large part the emotional effectiveness is due to the music, which is reminiscent of the music from earlier Studio Ghibli movies.

review: The NeverEnding Story

Summary: A very good 1980's Dark Fantasy with some very powerful scenes. It may the the best movie of its genre.

The Nothing is devastating the land of Fantasia. It is spreading, destroying everything in its path. It has left the Empress ill, so even she is unable to save Fantasia. But there is hope in Atreyu, a young warrior of the purple buffalo hunting Plains People, who just might be able to stop it. He is, seemingly, their only hope.

This is the inner plot of Neverending Story. A simple plot to rest a movie on - on its own it isn't very special. That said, Atreyu's quest is somewhat unusual in its vagueness - usually a story like this would employ a straightforward MacGuffin for the hero to find, or have to deliver to someone, or have to destroy, that would stop the threat. Atreyu is given a magical artifact - the AURYN - but it doesn't serve as a MacGuffin. It mainly serves to mark Atreyu's importance and as potential phlebotinum.

In fact, the exact purpose of Atreyu's quest isn't revealed until later in the movie, tying the inner plot about Fantasia and the Nothing, to the outer plot about Bastian, who is reading the story we're watching.

Bastian is a boy with a healthy imagination - though it's distracting him from his responsibilities. He shares a house with his pragmatic father, who only has time for a breakfast made in a blender and includes raw eggs, and who reprimands Bastian for spending too much time in his own imagination. On his way to school he's intercepted by some extremely sadistic bullies, the sort that frequents 80's movies, being forced to hide in a strange bookstore managed by a curmudgeon who lambasts Bastian and his generation for not having enough imagination. After learning that Bastian is a fan of classic fantasy novels, the old man baits him into stealing a copy of the Neverending Story. It's through Bastian's reading of Neverending Story that we discover the land of Fantasia and the Nothing which consumes it.

Somehow the overall tone of Atreyu's quest remains surprisingly light in spite of some very dark, powerful scenes. Early in the story, he and his horse, Artex, find themselves in a swamp that consumes any creature overcome by hopelessness. For some reason Artex is very hopeless indeed, and begins slowly sinking into the swamp as Atreyu, who is incapable of stopping it, has no choice but to watch his companion slowly die. It may be the best scene in the movie. Later, he meets a wise old hermit turtle, Morla, who is so gripped by madness from eons of isolation and boredom that she wants to see Fastasia destroyed by the Nothing just for something to happen at all. Another great, sad, scene is of the Rock Biter, who we first meet in the beginning of the film, who couldn't hold on to his friends as they slipped out of his hands and were taken by the Nothing. "They look like big, good, strong hands. Don't they?" he says, before resigning to being taken by the Nothing himself.

Fantasia itself is populated by strange looking, grotesque creatures that look amazing. Everything has substance. The style is ugly, and a little gross (as is typical in the Dark Fantasy movies of the 1980s) Creatures we like are certainly no exception: the Rock Biter, the Snail, the Bat, the Gnomes are all ugly. Even friendly and warm Falcor the luck dragon is ugly. The collection of creatures, the good citizens of Fantasia, waiting for the Empress at the Ivory Tower to save them, are the stuff of nightmares, with bizzare faces and shapes. Mos Eisley is tame by comparison. Fantasia is an amazing, wonderful, creepy place.

Near the end, Fantasia is destroyed by the Nothing. The Nothing, as turns out, is really the lack of imagination, hope, and dreams of a modern humanity that no longer has a place for Fantasia. But though only small fragments of his world remain, Atreyu did not fail in his quest. Ultimately, his purpose was to get the attention of Bastian, the boy reading the story (and by proxy all of us watching the movie). To save Fantasia, Bastian just needs to give the Empress a new name, which takes a certain amount of belief in the realness of the fantasy world he is reading. Reluctant at first, Bastian gives her a new name (Moon Child?? No one watching the movie could have understood what Bastian said), and saves Fantasia, restoring it to its former glory. Atreyu even gets his horse back.

While Bastian's arc lends the movie a cool postmodern twist, as a story it is much weaker than Atreyu's, and as a moral for Bastian it isn't very interesting. Bastian was never one who had to be reminded of the wonders of an imagination, and he never took his father's advice about being more grounded in reality. He changed in no meaningful way - he started as a boy eager to read about fantastic adventures and ended as one. (Or are we to take Falcor flying through a city street more literally, and say Bastian started as a boy eager to read about fantastic adventures and ended as a boy who lives in one? But what kind of moral would that be, that we should literally believe in the existence of the stories we read?) Clearly, the moral is as much for the audience as it is for Bastian, but we're an audience watching a fantasy story, so we probably don't need this lesson either. Maybe the moral is for all the parents whose children dragged them into the movie. It is interesting to note how the moral here is so different than another classic 1980's dark fantasty, Labyrinth, in which Sarah learns to grow up and accept reality as it is.

The story ends. So why is it the Neverending Story exactly? Is it that anyone who picks up the book reads the same story, and becomes intwined in its plot just as Bastian has? Or is it that, while The Neverending Story is read by Bastian, Bastian is in turn being watched by us, and - if we're willing to believe it - our story may be read and watched by someone else? Or is it, as Lionel Hutz says, just a big case of false advertising?

review: Star Trek III: The Search for Spock

Summary: An underratted movie that deserves more praise.

*spoilers* *this post has spoilers*

The general opinion is that, for most of the Star Trek movies, the even numbered movies are very good, and the odd number movies are very bad. (see: Star Trek Movie Curse). I've tended to agree: Wrath of Khan, Voyage Home, Undiscovered Country, and First Contact are all movies I like. I recently rewatched Star Trek III two times in the span of a month - and I liked it more than I thought I would. I think it's evidence that the Curse isn't real.

The movie opens shortly after the previous one ended. The Enterprise is returning to Earth to recover from its recent battle with Khan. Kirk is miserable about Spock's death, and McCoy seems to have coped by going crazy. To make things worse, upon arrival at Earth, they learn the Enterprise is going to be decomissioned - so soon after Spock sacrificed himself to save it.

A surprise visit from Spock's father, Sarek, reveals that Vulcans can dump their memories (or "katra") into nearby living beings before they die. Sarek appears about as angry a Vulcan can be, because he believes Kirk shouldn't have abandoned Spock's body on the Genesis Planet. To see if Spock might have dumped his memory into Kirk, the two mindmeld, and we're treated to a great scene in which Kirk relives Spock's final moments. Kirk's whimpering "No..." as he relives his helplessness is something we never get to see our heroes do in traditional action movies. Usally such pain would be accompanied by anger and frustration - so that the hero appears powerful instead of weak. But between Wrath of Khan and Search for Spock, we get to see Kirk showing the rawest, purest kind of pain, multiple times - and Kirk becomes a more compelling character for it. Shatner is really good at pulling these scenes off - he really deserves more credit as an actor.

It turns out Spock's katra isn't in Kirk at all. Instead McCoy's bizzarre behavior is due to having to keep all of Spock in his head. And so we have our story: to honor their friend's memory and customs, Kirk and McCoy must go to the Genesis Planet to fetch Spock's body and return it to planet Vulcan, along with his katra. Standing in their way is the Federation, who incompetently is restricting access to the Genesis planet to everyone other than a helpless science vessel commanded by a sheepish captain. There's also Kruge, a (rogue?) Klingon captain who wants to learn the secret of the Genesis missile.

Kirk and crew steal the Enterprise to get to the Genesis Planet in a sequence that exemplifies what makes the original movies so much fun to watch. As an audience, we know they'll be successful getting the ship out - so the film chooses to make the escape funny and casual instead of working off of manufactured tension and suspense.

Meanwhile, on Genesis, Saavik and David Marcus (Kirk's son) beam down to investigate an unexpected life sign, and discover Genesis has regenerated Spock, but he's an empty shell - a rapidly aging young clone of Spock with none of his memories. They also learn that the Genesis Planet isn't going to be around much longer. Soon after this discovery, Kruge arrives at the Genesis Planet (before Kirk does), destroying the poor science vessel the Federation left to fend for itself.

Kirk and Kruge face off. Kirk wins. But in the process he loses the Enterprise, and he loses his son. By 2013, blowing up the Enterprise is practically a Star Trek movie tradition. But here, this is the original Enterprise - the one we watched in The Original Series. (NCC one seven O one. No bloody A, B, C, or D*) It's a big deal, and effectively done. And the special effects for the explosion are apporopriately dramatic. Kirk, McCoy, the crew, and the audience watch as the Enterprise crashes into the dying Genesis Planet. And while David was never a character I was attached to, his death is lent power by the way it's filmed and by Shatner's performance. When David dies we hear no music - just the brutal sound of his being stabbed and his dying grunt. There is no music either as Kirk learns David died, and falls to the ground, shattered, crying, and impotently repeating "Klingon bastards, you killed my son."

In the finale, Spock's empty clone - now conveniently the same age as the original Spock was when he died - is returned to Vulcan, and a Vulcan ritual (influenced by the TOS episode Amok Time) is performed that puts Spock back together. The movie ends as Spock is reunited with his fellow crew members, and there's just a lot of love and joy in the reunion.

At the end of all this we end up with Spock, alive, and mostly well. If anything, THIS is the movie's flaw. Bringing Spock back cheapens the impact of his sacrifice in the previous movie, even if the contrivance to get it done was well executed and mostly fit into the Star Trek Universe.

As to the contrivance itself - the Vulcan katra: how is it that humans didn't know about it by the time the movie takes place? Also, why would the Vulcans be interested in retreiving the dead body of Spock - you would think only the katra itself would have mattered..

Finally, it's also worth noting that Search for Spock is responsible for introducing a lot of things into the Star Trek canon. Including:

  • The Excelsior class vessel, which seems to be the workhorse ship of Star Fleet in TNG
  • The Klingon Bird of Prey - the most commonly seen Klingon ship therafter
  • It's the first time we see Earth Space Dock, the model for all other Space Stations
  • While the Klingon language was introduced in "Star Trek: The Motion Picture," this is the first time it gets a formal grammar and a very rich vocabulary.

NOTE: this is the first time I've ever written a movie review. In the future, I don't know that I'd write a synopsis as I did in this one. It's a lot easier to just write a review assuming whoever is reading it knows the movie well, and just jump into it. In fact, I would have spent more time with analysis had I skipped the synopsis, but I exhausted myself....