Reflections on play: Pasion de las Pasiones

I was recently lucky enough to get to play Pasion de las Pasiones by Brandon Leon-Gambetta. Pasion is a (currently ashcan-only) PBTA game based on telenovelas. If you haven’t come across telenovelas, my totally uninformed layperson’s summary is: overwrought, over-the-top Latin American soap operas. Now you might be thinking “why would I play a game about that when I know nothing about telenovelas”, and that is what I thought too. I couldn’t have been more wrong.

Pasion is brilliantly designed to reinforce the themes of a telenovela even for a complete novice to the genre. The core mechanics and the playbooks point you in the right direction, probably more effectively than any other game I’ve seen. You cannot really go wrong simply noticing the things that will give you a mechanical benefit and doing them – and if you do, you’ll naturally get both a fun experience and an on-genre experience.

Before I talk any more about how it does this, let’s just look at some things that happened in our game to give you an idea what I’m talking about:

  • Ernesto, the eyepatch-wearing drugs kingpin, fed his lover Maria’s sister to a pair of jaguars for refusing to do his bidding.
  • Ernestino, Ernesto’s twin brother who everyone thought was dead, makes love to Marcela (who is under the impression she is making love to Ernesto) against a marble statue of aphrodite.
  • In a single scene, Maria reveals that she has been posing as a nun to sooth the pain of a wealthy landowner (and inveigle herself into the landowner’s inheritance), and then agrees to run off with Ernesto, ripping off her habit to reveal a slinky dress underneath.
  • The police descend on the (deceased) landowner’s mansion at the reading of her will, to try and wipe out Ernesto’s drug empire, forcing Ernestino and Marcela to smash through window to a waiting limousine, while Ernesto and Maria shoot their way to Ernesto’s helicopter.

In other words, think of a Western soap opera, then imagine that all concerns about suspension of disbelief and overacting have been not merely removed, but destroyed with a flamethrower, and you get some idea of what you’re in for.

So how does Pasion do it? Start with the playbooks. Each one has a set of props which you can choose from to help add flavour to your character. This simple decision makes it easy to see what the character is about. My character Ernesto was essentially built from those props: an eyepatch, a scarily large knife and a huge mansion. More standard for PBTA are the moves and the relationships – though these are very good, and further reinforce the character type and the themes of the game. Most fun of all is your character’s question; as long as you can answer yes to it, you get +1 to all your rolls. Examples are “are you taking control of this situation?” and “are you the centre of attention?”. Wonderful stuff.

Then there’s the basic moves, which are glorious in at least two ways. The first is the obvious, usual way that a well-crafted PBTA game does it, which is simply to point each move at the things you want the game to be about, in this case things like declaring your love for someone, accusing someone of lying, processing your feelings out loud and other such excellent stuff. But the one I’d like to dwell on is the way that stats work in Pasion. The way it works is: there aren’t any. Instead, each move has two questions attached. For each one you can answer yes to, you get +1 to the roll (plus of course your playbook question, which can add a further +1). The questions are things like “are you doing this for love?”, “are you doing this for vengeance?”, and suchlike. So not only are the moves themselves pointing you at the right sort of drama, you’re incentivised each and every roll to conduct that drama, and even shape your character’s motivations, in an in-genre way.

I’ll also mention flashbacks – only briefly, because we didn’t actually use them all that much, though I think they have a lot of potential. Pasion has a flashback move similar to what’s used in Leverage and Blades in the Dark. You can use it, just like in those games, to retroactively declare you have stuff set up to be prepared for whatever situation you’re in. But more interestingly, you can use it to reveal secrets about other characters, and have it be true, right in the middle of a scene. I wish I’d noticed this mechanic earlier on in the game because I’m sure this would be a lot of fun.

Finally there’s a wonderful little mechanic reminiscent of World-Wide Wrestling where – during other characters’ scenes – you get to play the audience watching the show at home, and during your own scenes you earn XP from their reactions. It’s a lot of fun.

I was super-impressed with Pasion de las Pasiones. If soap opera drama on steroids appeals to you then I’d seriously recommend it. You can buy it here.

Review: Dead of Winter


Dead of Winter is a semi-cooperative zombie survival-themed game of resource scarcity. Players each control a band of survivors and take turns to move their survivors around, fight zombies, scavenge resources, and contribute to dealing with crises that affect the “colony” (the group of player-controlled characters and helpless survivors) as a whole as well as ensuring the colony has enough food to stave of starvation. The ultimate aim is determined by an objective card chosen at the start of the game, but this must be achieved within a fixed number of turns, and without colony morale being reduced to zero; and there are several competing problems to tackle at any given time, all of which threaten to reduce morale.


The focus of the action is moving your survivors around the board to fight zombies and search for resource cards. I’ll elaborate on this a bit below, but suffice to say there’s not much to these individual actions – instead, the cumulative effect of small decisions is what decides whether you win the game. Mostly this is a matter of how much effort the group as a whole puts into pursuing each of the various competing challenges. On which subject…

As mentioned in the introductory paragraph, DoW is about resource scarcity. This is because multiple and competing pressures require you to burn through (a) the limited number of actions you can take on your go and (b) the limited resource cards available to you. These pressures include:
Zombies. If you don’t kill the zombies, they will kill your survivors. If a survivor dies, you lose morale. Plus you’ve still got a ton of zombies that will likely kill other survivors in future.
Food. If you don’t produce enough food (one type of resource card) to feed the colony, it starves. Starvation loses you morale. Plus starvation is like a wound, it sticks around and sucks away morale over time.
Waste. Every time you use a card it goes in the waste pile. If the waste pile gets too big, you lose morale. You can expend actions to reduce the waste pile, but it’s slow going.
Every turn there’s a randomly drawn crisis which you must feed resource cards to avoid negative effects. Negative effects generally means morale loss or the kind of things that can cause morale loss, like more zombies.
When a survivor is wounded, you can use resources to remove those wounds, which you hope will reduce the chance of their dying and… you guessed it, reducing morale. You can get wounded fighting zombies, but also merely moving locations exposes you to the risk of injury or death.
And finally, there’s always the temptation to use your resource cards to boost your actions, leaving you with less to feed the colony and/or fight the current crisis.

All this is made worse by the semi-cooperative nature of the game. The group have a shared objective chosen at the start, but everyone also has a personal (secret) objective drawn at random. Most players need to meet both objectives to win the game, though there may be a BETRAYER who needs only to meet their personal objective. All this means that there is additional pressure on resources from (a) people deliberately using their resource cards inefficiently because it helps their personal objective or (b) worse, people actively working against the group. Beating a crisis potentially means putting in more resource cards than are actually required to combat possible traitors in your midst.

On top of all this there are some random factors which can further hinder you. As mentioned before, fighting zombies and even movement carry a risk of injury. This is mediated through rolling an injury die, which can wound you, give you frostbite (which is a wound that continues to wound you every turn until you die) or 1 time in 12, instantly kills you and potentially others in your location too as the zombie plague rages out of control. Further, on every players’ turn there is a Crossroads card drawn which, based on a secret trigger, may unleash some unknown effect. The effects can be positive – we once had the chance to eat a horse we found lying around, for instance – but some of them are very negative indeed; one player in our game had two characters instantly killed by Crossroads cards. The Crossroads cards always give you a choice between two options, but sometimes one of the options won’t be available and you just have to suck up whatever nastiness the remaining option gives you.

So, you can gather from the above that DoW is a pretty bleak game. There’s a lot of factors going against you, and not much in your favour. I don’t yet have a sense of what that general sense of the world being against you translates to in terms of win/loss ratio. It did not feel as challenging on the first play as, say, Pandemic. But maybe we got lucky.

It’s worth a quick discussion of how this game relates to Battlestar Galactica. The two games have a lot in common, and I would be astonished if the designers hadn’t consciously built DoW on the foundation provided by BSG. In both games you have people who have their own secret objectives that cut across or go against the group’s objective; you have regular crises that require everyone to contribute cards to meet an objective, but during which it’s possible to secretly work against the group; you have the constant external threat (zombies or cylons) and you have the fight to avoid running out of resources. The two games are similar, but there are also major differences. In BSG the main focus is the crisis cards; they happen once every player-turn and throw in a random factor that makes it harder to meet the target number and easier for a traitor to cover their tracks. In DoW the crisis cards are less frequent and there’s no random factor, so you always know if a traitor has worked against you and, assuming there isn’t, you always know if you’ve beat the target. In DoW you have to work to get the resource cards to beat the crisis and feed the colony, so there’s a constant downward pressure on resources, while in BSG your cards regularly refresh so the focus is more on whether you can make it through the turn without running out. DoW is more deadly, but you get more than one character and if all a players’ characters die then they get a free replacement. In BSG it’s harder to detect a traitor and also harder to neutralise them, while in DoW there may not even be a traitor, but everyone has objectives that cut against the group slightly, while an exiled traitor (or an unjustly exiled innocent) is less disadvantaged and maintains a more constant play experience. Bottom line: if you liked one, you may well like the other, but don’t expect them to be that similar.

Overall I was impressed with DoW. I’m a big fan of BSG and I found DoW to be very similar, but refreshingly different. If you like cooperative play with a soupcon of player vs player paranoia, DoW is worth a look.

Reward rules

I’m currently wading my way through Tenra Bansho Zero (the English translation thereof), which I received as a Christmas gift from the ‘rents.

TBZ appears at first glance to be a very trad game indeed. The things that are normally regarded as core mechanics – conflict resolution – are based around a tediously bog-standard attribute and skill combo to generate a dice pool which in turn yields successes to beat a difficulty number (or perhaps someone else’s roll). Combat is based on taking turns each round in order of Agility. The central premise is that you’re all hyper-powerful individuals with kewl powerz who spend much of their time beating up on villains.

However, there is much that is novel and interesting (to me at least) in TBZ. It contains specific advice on organising the logistics of a game session, and advises that players (not just the GM) should read it, as it is considered part of the rules. It has player characters rolling on a D&D-style reaction table to determine how they feel about important NPCs (and other PCs) when they first meet them. It has a damage system that allows the target of an attack to decide how the attack affects them, and forbids a PC to die unless its player has chosen to allow it. So there’s lots to write about here, and I may come back to some of it.

The thing I’m interested in today is the reward rules. TBZ uses a fate point-style system of reward, which is to say, both the GM and the players can award other characters chits which give them in-game advantages. The said chits are also the primary means of character improvement, i.e. they can also be used as XP. The chits can also be spent on vaguely GM-like stuff – altering a character’s rolled reaction to an NPC, or giving another character a few Fate (see below for more on Fates).

What is unique about it, as far as I know, is that there are no limitations placed on how many chits a player can award or be awarded. That is to say, every player is given unlimited power to reward other players, giving them immediate in-game power and the capacity to improve their character. I’ve occasionally considered such a system myself, but always concluded that without some kind of incentive not to award, the system would be open to abuse, with players giving excessive and increasing XP rather like the old monty haul style of D&D treasure acquisition. I shall be intrigued to see how it works in practice; I suppose like most systems it will stand or fall with the good intentions of the players using it.

The intention behind the TBZ reward system is that a player receives exactly one Aiki chit (as they are called) every time they do something strongly in accordance with their Fates (a sort of collection of player-authored goals, beliefs and emotional ties), do something entertaining or awesome without breaking character, or otherwise roleplay “well”. It doesn’t matter who awards the chit, and if multiple people reach for a chit at the same time only one is given.

One brake the TBZ system puts on power acquisition is that the Aiki chits must be exchanged for Kiai points to get maximum use out of them. (Aiki chits are useful on their own, but much less powerful.) In turn, Kiai points can be most efficiently gained by spending aiki chits during intermissions between scenes. Finally, expenditure of Kiai points generates Karma, which has a hard limit before your character goes insane and becomes an NPC. The only way to reduce Karma is to discard one or more of your Fates or change them to reflect changing game circumstances. So e.g. I could give up on my ambition to overthrow the evil empire, or conclude that instead I should attempt to subvert it from within. Or maybe my initial hate for a particular NPC grows to grudging admiration.

Kiai points are immensely powerful. Some fights can only be won through their use. Any opponent can be defeated if you have enough of them (and sufficient Karma headroom to allow you to spend them).

Pretty cool stuff. A system that rewards strong in-character roleplaying without the need for GM fiat, which gives you virtually unlimited power if you use it correctly, and which only enables to use it to its maximum benefit if you change and grow your character. It is described in the book as the “core” of the game, and I think that’s a fair assessment. Contrast it with other systems out there, which reward you for killing powerful monsters, for achieving arbitrary goals set by the GM, or for straightforwardly rolling your stats successfully, and this one stands out, in a good way.

I’m looking forward to giving it a try, though there are other aspects of the game I’m dreading slightly. Let’s hope the good stuff outweighs the bad.


Rating: ***

Type: RPG / world creation

# Players: 3-5

Recommended # Players: 4-5

Time to play: 2 hours or more

Summary: Microscope is a collaborative world-building game. More accurately, it’s a history-building game (in the sense of building a fictional history of a fictional world). Players take turns to create elements of the game history at any point in the game’s timeline, potentially changing the context and meaning of events further down the timeline. It’s badged as a GMless roleplaying game, but roleplaying makes up a relatively small proportion of the game unless you deliberately focus on it.

Gameplay: At the start of the game, players set broad parameters for the history they’re creating, deciding what the scope of the history will be (e.g. the rise of technology from fire to the singularity) and setting a short list of things that are banned from the story or definitely included in it. This is the phase in which everyone can discuss the vision for the history at a high level and make sure that everyone’s happy with it – which is important, because discussion is banned at certain points in the game.

Play proceeds round the table and on their go each player gets to create a single element of history – an era of time, an event within an existing era or a scene within an existing event.  Importantly, nobody is allowed to discuss, cajole or otherwise attempt to influence another player’s creation. In this sense, the game isn’t collaborative at all – the collaboration sort of emerges from individual isolated decisions. The selling point is that the world you create is genuinely an emergent property of all the players, never dominated by one mouthey player.

The history-elements are written on index cards and placed in a big timeline. You can create new elements anywhere on the existing timeline, which means that as you create new elements they add context and colour to the the bits of the timeline that follow them. So, for example, I could create the assassination of a major politician in one turn, only to have you create a scene preceding it which makes it clear the politician was actually an undercover agent working for another country. Again, the timeline emerges from the players as a group.

I said play proceeds round the table, but that was oversimplifying in two important ways. First, every round one of the players gets to be the lens. That means s/he decides what the focus of play will be for that turn (e.g. the invention of the wheel) and everyone else’s turns must relate to that focus. It also means s/he gets two goes, one at the beginning of the round and one at the end, and on each go s/he gets to create not just one history element but two, provided the two are nested (i.e. an era and an event inside that era, or an event and a scene inside that event). Being the lens is enormously powerful.

The second thing I omitted before was the “legacy” phase, which happens at the end of each go round the table. One player gets to create a “legacy”, a thing which will persist from round to round, and then create a history element relating to it or another legacy. In my view, this phase is a little under-used – the legacies could help to create a more cohesive history but because they can only be used once per round, they have a limited effect.

The scenes ought to be the most interesting bit of the game. In a scene, actual roleplaying happens(!) in contrast to the rest of the game. The player who creates the scene sets a question to be answered through it, a situation and some characters to be present in that situation. The players collectively answer the question by roleplaying out the scene. Maybe it was just my group, though, but the game as a whole put us in a mode where we were more interested in creating eras and events, and not so keen on relinquishing the creative control that our turn gave us to the other players. As a result, Microscope feels more like a world creation game than a roleplaying game. If you like the sound of that, I strongly recommend Microscope to you.

Components: An 81-page rulebook, with a simple cover and no internal art. You’ll also need index cards and something to write on them with, and enough space to spread yourself out a bit.

The Trouble with Rose (a walkthrough)

The Trouble with Rose is a GMless, prepless, indie roleplaying game by Todd Zircher. It is in the style of a parlour game and falls in a similar category as Fiasco and Durance as games which divide the control of the narratives between all the players.

I first found it via the Story Games Forum and found the idea and Shakesperian flavour very hard to resist.  As I said, it is a similar style game to Fiasco but without the explicit car crash atmosphere, and so is better suited to my tastes.

The premise is short and sweet.  There is a person called Rose, they are in trouble.  You are playing their friends and family and your job is to build up a story about Rose; why s/he/it is in trouble and what happens next.   The simplicity of the scenario means it is easily adaptable to different genres and styles (there are a large number of playsets supporting the basic system). Rose could be a Fairy Princess, an AI deep in the Net, a schoolgirl, a pirate ship or as Todd suggests, Plutonium Rose, a rock star on the run from his groupies and the Mob.


The system is fairly simple, once a scenario has been agreed the players choose a character each, writing down six character attributes, 2 of which are in some way negative.  Some of our attributes were “own’s most of MadeUpShire” and the servant girl’s “total belief in the class system” but you might want to go for something simpler like “crack shot” or “very agile”. You then randomly choose 5 dominoes.  Each domino has 2 sides with 2 numbers on it (blank – 6), you take it in turns to direct a scene with your character in and choose a domino to represent the character attributes you will be displaying in the scene.  Blanks are wildcards and automatic failures, a double blank is played in the last round and always means that character will be removed completely from the action e.g. death.   You go round the table directing scenes 5 times. Lastly everyone draws a playing card which represents your character’s hidden agenda.

Things that worked well

The dominoes provided a good amount of story scaffolding and we made good use of a reflection period after each directed scene to tie up loose ends, discuss where the story was going and evaluate our progress.  Because of this there weren’t too many awkward moments where people go dry and the flow of the narrative fails.


Things that worked less well

We all felt a little pressured to bring in large amounts of other characters and NPCs into each scene.  This was to ensure we were giving each other enough to do.  However this meant we occasionally tied the plot in knots and strained the story. In future I would make more use of cut scenes, short flashbacks and internal monologues to flesh out characters and individual relationships, rather than making sure each person is talking in each scene.

Things we did differently

In the original game there is a means to judge each other’s role-playing prowess and award points on how well you brought your character attributes into the scene.  The person with the most points got to narrate the Epilogue. We agreed at the start that we didn’t feel this added anything to the game and that there were better ways to encourage and reward the same behaviour.  We ditched this aspect and I felt that was the right decision.

Secondly, whilst the game was GMless I feel (in all these types of game) that someone must take mental responsibility for managing the game and making sure things happen.  I made sure we had dominoes and copies of the system.  I guided everyone through character generation and actively facilitated the session, providing suggesting and prompts and encouraging others to do the same.  I’ll write more on managing GMless games later though – that is a whole topic on its own.


You may be wondering who our Rose was…she was the Scarlet Primrose, rakish hero to the French Aristocracy having rescued many of them from the Guillotine in the years after the French Revolution.  Half our characters were her family who believed her to be a ditzy dilletante, the other half were from her network of undercover contacts – much amusement and drama ensued when her two worlds collided.

I really enjoyed this game, it was great fun and we created a story which was engaging and interesting.  I still love the idea of entirely prepless games and GMless games and I think the Trouble with Rose is more the style of GMless game I want to play.  Best of all it has inspired me to write my own version of a GMless game.  So a big thank you and thumbs up to Todd Z.

Oh, I didn’t mention the best bit…it is free…go here to get your copy.

Qwirkle (Mindware)

Rating: ***

Type: Strategy

# Players: 2-4

Recommended # Players: 3-4

Time to play: Up to 1 hour

Summary: Qwirkle is a spatial strategy game. Players take turns to try and make rows and columns of tiles that either match colours or match symbols. It’s sort of like Scrabble but without any vocabulary requirements or pesky triple word scores. This is its strength: it is also its weakness. Qwirkle is incredibly easy to learn and master, and quick to play. As such it is well-suited to families and casual gamers. The dedicated strategy gamer may become frustrated by the limited strategic options and strong role of luck.

Gameplay: Players draw six tiles from a bag, and take turns to place them on the table. Tiles must be placed to form a continuous row or column, though existing tiles on the table can be incorporated. No row or column may contain tiles that do not match on colour or symbol, and no row or column may contain tiles that match on both colour and symbol. Since there are six colours and six symbols it follows that you can only ever make a column or row that is at most six long, and you are often prevented from doing this by other nearby tiles.

A point is scored for each tile in your row or column (including those which were already on the table) and, like Scrabble, it is possible to score more points by placing tiles to simultaneously create multiple rows/columns. Play frequently revolves around cunningly placing your tiles to maximise this effect. At the same time, completing a row or column of six tiles (called a Qwirkle) earns you a six-point bonus. This bonus is just enough that it is nearly always a good idea to go for a Qwirkle if you can, and nearly always a good idea not to put a five-tile row in play if you can help it.

Qwirkle is intensely easy to learn due to its simplicity. This makes it very attractive for families and casual gamers who may not want something too demanding. While it initially seems equally simple to play and, indeed, chiefly a game of luck, there are in fact some moderately complex strategies that can be deployed to maximise point-scoring if you are so inclined. Because of the six-point Qwirkle bonus mentioned earlier, the game remains competitive even when players of quite disaparate skill levels play together.

Nevertheless the strategies available are quite limited and if you’re looking for strategic depth you should probably look elsewhere. The game can get fairly repetitive but retains interest despite that if, like me, you are obsessive about maximising your score.

Components: 108 chunky black tiles with brightly coloured symbols on, with a large drawstring canvas bag. The tiles are designed to stand up – so you can hide your “hand” from your fellow players without needing a special rack as in Scrabble. One complaint is that the red and orange symbols (and to a much lesser extent, the green and blue symbols) are quite similar in hue, so unless you have good light this can be confusing. The instructions are clear, simple and well laid out.

Mwahahaha! (White Wolf)

Rating: * *

Type: Resource building/card game

#Players: 2-5

Recommended # players: 3+

Play time: 3-4 hours

Summary: Mwahahaha! puts the players in the role of super-villains attempting to build a secret weapon with which to threaten the world. The players collect four kinds of resource to construct their weapon, and to deploy various supporting cards, including minions which can be used to try and steal resources from the other super-villains. The players must progress through four stages, starting with threatening a city and ending in successfully threatening the world (the game’s victory condition). As the game’s name and concept suggests, the various super-villain characters, secret weapons and support cards are “humorous”. In fact, getting into the wacky spirit of the game is a minimum requirement to enjoy this game, which lacks much in the way of interesting gameplay.

Gameplay: The objective of Mwahahaha! is to collect enough resource tokens, from four types, to activate a secret weapon and thereby intimidate increasingly large sections of the world into submission.

Each player chooses a super-villain and receives a small number of secret weapons to choose from. These vary only in the number and type of resources favoured – and, of course, the variety of amusing theme played to – something I’ll come back to later. Players are then dealt resource cards which can be exchanged for resource tokens. Resource tokens can be used to buy empire cards (permanently improving the level of resources you can collect), or minion cards (used to steal other player’s resources and empire cards, and to defend against same), or to activate your secret weapon.

The chief point of gameplay is to build up the correct number and type of resources, which in turn is dependent on the resource cards you draw. You can sidestep the need to draw the right resources by collecting empire cards or by attacking other super-villains with your minions – or by trading with other players. Finally, there are also dirty trick cards which act as one-shot effects to enhance your actions or disrupt others.

Eventually someone will get enough resources to threaten their first city. This is resolved with the roll of some (usually a lot of) dice, with a pretty high probability that the city will cave in and offer you tribute in the form of more resources. Once you’ve done that you need to put still more resources into your secret weapon, so you can threaten a state, then a country, and finally the world. As you get closer to threatening the world, chances are the other players will try to dog-pile you with their minions and dirty trick cards, so you’ll need to put more time into defending yourself.

Strategically, Mwahahaha! is pretty lacklustre. There are plenty of choices to make but none of them really seem to make much difference to the fundamentals of the game, which is grinding out those resources. Maybe we at Black Armada were missing something, but this felt tedious and long-winded, with the slow build-up from threatening a city to threatening the world only serving to draw the game out.

The main element of the game that promised to be fun is the amusement factor: every card represents some comic or movie trope, and the super-villains offer the opportunity to do slightly racist accents (Doctor Hitler vants a banana, dumbkopf!). In turn your choices may at least partly revolve around what will be funny. Care to threaten the world with a giant robot? Or perhaps you’d prefer an army of dinosaurs? As you can imagine, this is fun at first, but the underlying lack of gameplay interest meant that it wasn’t long before even the humour left us cold.

Components: Mwahahaha! is a great-looking game. The box contains high-quality components with unique artwork on most of the 271 cards and on the 10 mad scientist cards. It also contains 20 doomsday devices, which are made of the same sturdy cardboard as the mad scientist cards and designed to slot into them (although we found it was occasionally a bit of a tight fit). Finally, it has 230 colourful tokens and as well as a large number of really spiffing luminous green and purple dice. (The contents claim “all the dice you need to play” – we make it 20 dice.)

Small World (Days of Wonder)

Rating: ****

Type: Strategy/warfare/resource management

# Players: 2-5

Recommended # players: 2-5

Play time: 1-2 hours

Summary: Small world is a game of conquering empires, but with a twist; every empire must eventually fall and be replaced. Players choose from a set of races and a separate set of special powers to create a unique army with which to conquer the game map. Players score victory points by capturing and holding areas of the map. It’s a nice little wargame with a good mix of special abilities so no two games are quite the same. Plus, berserker skeletons… what’s not to love?

Gameplay: At the start of the game, the players are presented with an unoccupied map divided into territories, and a stack of potential armies* to choose from. The armies are made by combining a race card (randomly selected from the deck) and a special power card (ditto). Players choose from a stack of five available armies, adding new ones to the stack to replace the ones they pick. Each race and power has a number on it – add them together and you get the number of tokens that make up the resulting army.

Once the armies have been picked, players take turns to use their armies to conquer territories on the board. At the end of each player’s turn they are awarded victory points according to how many territories they hold. There is no element of chance to conquest, for the most part – a fixed number of tokens can be used to capture a given territory – but if you have an odd number of unused tokens at the end of a turn you can attempt one final conquest with the roll of a special die. It takes more tokens to conquer a territory than it does to hold them, so there is a tendency for each army to get progressively more thinly stretched. Further, there is only so much territory to go around, so eventually players end up attacking each other, destroying each others tokens in the process.

The killer mechanic in the game is the ability to send your army into decline. When this happens you miss a turn (bad) but you get to pick an entirely new race and special power, with a full set of tokens as if you had started the game afresh (good). Further, all the territories you captured with your last army stay captured, and you continue to score points for them (amazing). So it isn’t too many turns before you start wondering whether you would gain more points by retiring your current army, and indeed it is possible to keep starting new armies over and over if you wish. The management of when to go into decline is a key part of the game, and introduces a resource-management feel to what is otherwise a sort of light wargame.

The strategy and tactics of the game comes from the mix of special powers and races available. Each army gets two special abilities, one of which comes from its race card and one from its special power card. There are 14 races and 20 special powers meaning there are 280 possible combinations of abilities that can come up. Abilities vary from relatively pedestrian, e.g. bonuses to attack particular types of terrain, to wildly game-changing ones such as the dragonmaster power which allows a single territory per turn to be conquered with a single token irrespective of how well defended it is. To the untrained eye, many of the powers appear absurdly overpowered (though in play they are reasonably balanced, and various mechanisms are present to avoid a runaway victor). The chaos which can result from the shrewd application of these abilities make the game fairly unpredictable, and adds a lot of enjoyment to picking your army.

There is the usual effect associated with such games that if one player appears to be doing very well, s/he will often get dogpiled. The game tries to compensate for this by keeping everyone’s current victory point total a secret, but you can’t quite get away from the fact that runner-up players can be kingmakers. This is about the only gripe though and overall the game is a lot of fun and quick to play to boot.

*Note, the game rules don’t include the term “army”. Races are used to refer to both the types of creature you can choose from and also the collections of tokens which are used to conquer the map. I have used the term “army” to refer to the latter to avoid confusion.

Components: Small World comes with two game boards (for different numbers of players), a special die, 14 race cards and 20 special power cards, and over 300 tokens. The box is almost ridiculously well designed, so that the tokens for each race can be placed in separate compartments that are exactly the right size for them, for example. It’s a very nice-looking game, with cute illustrations, and the components are pretty sturdy too. The rules book is well-designed, and each card comes with a symbolic summary of its abilities on it which, once you’ve learned what the symbols means, reduces rules look-up a fair bit.

Blokus (Mattel)

Rating: *****

Type: Strategy

# Players: 2-4

Recommended # Players: 2-4

Time To Play: Up to 1 hour

Summary: Blokus is a simple strategy game that resembles a sort of competitive jigsaw puzzle. Players take turn to place pieces on a grid according to simple rules, with the key mechanic being that the pieces can block each other (hence the name). The object of the game is to be left with as few pieces as possible unplayed at the end of the game. The game is incredibly simple to learn and play, fast, and yet the tactics are complex enough to retain interest over many games. The game comes in 2 player and 2-4 player versions.

Gameplay: Each player in Blokus starts with an identical set of 21 plastic pieces in four colours. The pieces are made up of a varying number of squares arranged in a shape (see illustration). Each piece within a set is unique. Players take turns to place these pieces on a grid, starting in the corners (in the 2-4 player variant), and the continues to place each turn according to a simple set of rules: you must play each piece touching corners with another one of your pieces, and you may not play a piece touching edges with another one of your pieces.

Gameplay revolves around trying to exploit the gaps left in the board by other people’s plays, while blocking other players from doing the same. Each player ends the game when they are unable to put any more pieces down; the game ends when all players have reached that point or run out of pieces. The winner is the player who has the smallest number of squares worth of pieces left over (there is a bonus for putting all your pieces down, and a further bonus if your last piece played is the one-square piece – harder than it sounds, since this piece is extremely useful for getting out of a tight spot).

The above isn’t so much a review as a complete description of the rules. It really is that simple, which means you can pick up Blokus and start playing it inside of 5 minutes if you read fast. Play is fast, but despite the game’s simplicity the tactics have an enjoyable complexity. There is something rather devilish about (effectively) trying to complete a complex jigsaw puzzle while other people build their own jigsaw puzzles around you.

Components: Four sets of 21 plastic pieces and a plastic game board. Simple and sturdy. The game rules are simple and easy to learn. There is also a smaller 2-player version which is portable enough to be used as a travel game to rival travel Scrabble, travel chess and so on.

Condottiere (Fantasy Flight Games)

Rating: * * * * *

Type: Card game/strategy/bluffing

# Players: 2-5

Recommended # players: 3+

Play time: 1-2 hours

Summary: Condottiere is a strategic card game. Players fight battles to capture provinces in renaissance Italy. Condottiere is fast-paced, easy to pick up, and plays well. Games don’t usually take too long (provided careful players don’t take forever to contemplate each move – always a risk with games of bluff!), and the game retains interest over multiple plays, and regardless of whether you’ve been dealt a strong hand or a weak one. It is complex enough to be an interesting strategy game but simple and elegant enough to avoid bamboozling new players or requiring constant rules look-up.



Gameplay: In Condottiere, players take turns to play numbered Mercenary cards representing the forces they deploy in battle. The player with the highest total wins each battle; win enough battles and you win the game. So far, so simple. What makes the game fun – and replayable – is the other cards in the deck which interplay with the mercenaries in a variety of ways, transforming a simple slug-fest into a game of bluff and cunning.


Most of the other cards modify mercenary cards in some way. These cards consist of the Drummer, the Bishop, Spring and Winter. They make mercenaries stronger or weaker, remove them from play altogether, or allow you to withdraw them to your hand. The effect of these cards on play can be dramatic, taking a player from clear loser to clear winner in seconds, or allowing a player to withdraw and keep their powder dry for a future battle.


Other cards can have equally dramatic effects. The Surrender card, perhaps the most feared card in the game, ends a battle where it stands, with whoever happens to be in front declared the winner. The Maiden provides a powerful mercenary-like card but which is immune to all the special cards mentioned earlier. The Courtesan allows players to fight to control where the next battle will be fought.


Because of all this, every move in Condottiere is a calculated risk. Cards like the Bishop and the Surrender card can totally change the outcome of a battle, and players will be keen to assess whether their opponents might possess either card. Battles can turn on a dime, and in turn the tide of the war can shift through clever play, enabling even players dealt a weaker hand to potentially win. Equally, cunning players can bluff their way through a battle, keeping their opponents from knowing their true strength right until the end. And even if you think you’re winning the current battle it is always worth trying to convince your opponents to extend themselves so that you can go on to win more.

Components: Condottiere comes with 110 glossy playing-card size cards, with pleasant enough illustrations. The small game board showing the map the players are competing to dominate has the slight drawback that it never seems to want to completely unfold, so it tends not to sit completely flush with the playing surface – a minor irritation. Players’ conquests are marked using small coloured wooden counters. The game rulebook is a small 20-page booklet. Like most of FFG’s game rulebooks, it’s quite pretty but uncharacteristically, it’s reasonably well-structured so you don’t have to hunt around for rules as with some of FFG’s other products.
Condottiere components