Portal - title

Portal is one of the best and most successful video games ever made. In the current climate of table top board game manufacturers trying to license every property that they can possibly get a hold of, I guess it only makes sense that there would have been a board game based on the Portal video game. But what could a board game designer possibly do with the physics and gravity-bending environmental puzzle-solving concepts of the 2 Portal video games? Cryptozoic's answer was to not even really try. While they did manage to come up with a unique and novel board game design, it's a design that I don't feel really does justice to the title's namesake.

You will be tested, and then there will be cake

Portal: The Uncooperative Cake-Acquisition Game is based around a modular, evolving board concept. 15 tiles are placed on the table in three rows of 5. At the end of each player's turn, one tile is removed from the right edge of the board (the "Old Edge"), flipped over, and moved to the left edge of the board (the "New Edge"). If a player controls a majority of the test subject pieces in the removed tile, he or she is given a set of rewards printed on the tile. This may include being able to place additional test subjects in order to establish more control over the board, being able to place or move a turret or Companion Cube figurine, or placing a victory point token on the board (which takes the form of a plastic slice of cake).

Any player piece(s) on the removed tile are also destroyed. Test subjects are returned to the respective player's supply, but any cake slices (which are victory points) are placed in the "Incinerator", and are removed from the game permanently. The objective of the game, thus, is to place as much cake on the board as you can, while also trying to keep that cake away from the old edge of the board so that it does not become incinerated. What makes this a somewhat challenging puzzle to solve is that the conveyor belt nature of the board is constantly pushing everything towards incineration.

Tiles move from one end of the board to the other, like a conveyor belt.

Each players' test subject tokens can pick up a piece of cake (belonging to any player) and carry the cake with it when the test subject moves. This is how players protect their own cake from the incinerator, but it also allows other players to pick up a rival's cake and move it closer to being incinerated. Thus, the competitive and subversive element is introduced. Players must try to maximize their own resources, while simultaneously trying to minimize their opponents' resources.

Oh, and there's also a couple of portal tokens which allow test subjects to move long distances across the board (and potentially take cake with them). And there's also a GladOS cardboard cutout, which does absolutely nothing except to mark which test chamber tile is being incinerated and recycled. The actual portals in the game's namesake, and the primary villain of the games, thus feel under-utilized. The portals just provide an extra opportunity for long-distance movement, but the game is completely playable without including them at all. They aren't even remotely necessary -- let alone fundamental -- to the board game's design, the way they are in the video game.

Turret and Companion Cube are nice 3-D plastic models,
but GladOS is just a cardboard cutout.

It's also a shame that the GladOS token is not a 3-D plastic model. The turret and Companion Cube are both plastic models and look really nice, so it's a shame that GladOS didn't get the same treatment. If she had, I could easily see this game's pieces becoming part of a nice little display diorama on a shelf somewhere when they are not in use for actual play.

In general, the board game lacks the spatial puzzle-solving element of the video game. The board is constantly in flux, and so a large focus of the game is on manipulating the physical space of the game board, and there is a certain degree of spatial-puzzle-solving present. But from my experience, most of that manipulation feels pretty rote and predictable. While there are certainly the occasional opportunities for really creative plays (especially when ability cards are used to modify various game rules or give the player extra powerful actions), the bulk of the game is pretty straight-forward.

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Crusader Kings: Lead Your Dynasty to Triumph

I wasn't very surprised to see a game like Sid Meier's Civilization adapted to a board game. Civ (the computer game) was always heavily inspired by board games to begin it, and so it's mechanics translated easily back into board game formats without losing much other than the broader scope of the PC game.

Paradox's Crusader Kings, on the other hand, is a totally different beast of a PC game. It is an insanely complicated, system-based blend of grand strategy game, RPG, and social sim. It simulates thousands of individual characters across hundreds of countries and duchies through dozens of generations. The possibility space is vast. As such, I would never have expected to see anyone attempt to try to boil down this deep historical simulation into a tabletop board game. Well, I guess I shouldn't say "never". In this age of every media property being adapted to board game formats, I suppose it was inevitable for someone to try.

And someone did try. In 2019, a year before the release of the Crusader Kings III PC game, Swedish board game manufacturer Fria Ligen ("Free League Publishing") released a board game version licensed by Paradox. I received the game as a gift last fall (during the height of social distancing during the COVID-19 pandemic), and so didn't get to start playing the game until well into 2021, when we finally felt a little more comfortable meeting up with friends.

As much a story-generator as a board game

For any PC players coming to the board game, there is something very important that you should know about Crusader Kings: the Board Game: it's focus is largely on the story-telling aspect of the Crusader Kings experience. If you play the Crusader Kings PC game as a hardcore strategy game, then you will probably find the board game lacking in that respect. The Crusader Kings board game is as much a story generator as it is a strategy game -- perhaps moreso.

As a story generator, my friends and I have found Crusader Kings to be very entertaining. It's certainly one of the better story-telling games that I've ever played.

Each action card will include a random event that is either disruptive to the current player,
or which benefits another player.

The way that Crusader Kings creates its little stories is through the random events of each player's action cards, and through the resolution of events by drawing trait tokens. Each turn, a player plays a pre-selected card from their hand. You perform your chosen action, and then you resolve a random event on the card. All cards, except for the "Crusade" action cards, will have a random event that is either harmful to the active player, or which provides a benefit to another player (usually the next player in the turn order).

Many actions and card events will also require that the player draw traits from a bag (similar to a die roll in most other games). Each player character starts with a pre-determined set of traits at the start of the game, and can acquire new traits through marriages, succession, or other events. All your traits go into a bag, and you draw one or more blindly from the bag to resolve a given trait check and determine the outcome of an event.

Player actions, card events, and trait draws, thus combine together to create emergent stories in both the short and long term. Sometimes these little stories can play out over the course of a few actions or turns. Other times, game-long narratives can form.

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Planet - title

I think I'm becoming a fan of Blue Orange's line of family-friendly games. I bought Photosynthesis for my daughter several years back, and it has proven to be a hit with many of my adult friends for its fun and simple gameplay, and its lovely aesthetics! We've since bought a couple more of Blue Orange's games in the hopes of finding similarly fun and educational games that players young and old can enjoy. One such game is Planet, which is much simpler and quicker to play than Photosynthesis, but doesn't quite live up to Photosynthesis' production quality and educational value.

The core premise of Planet is that each player receives a magnetic dodecahedron that represents their barren "planet core". Each round, players select one of five possible "continents" to place on one of the surfaces of their "planet". Each continent tile is divided up into 5 parts, each with a terrain, and every continent tile has at least 2 different types of terrain on the tile.

Starting with the third round, randomly-drawn animal cards will be given to the player who has the planet that best meets each card's animal's respective habitat requirements, and each animal is worth points at the end of the game. In addition, each player is given a secret objective card that provides them bonus points at the end for covering as much of their planet as possible with a specific type of terrain.

Terrain types include green forests and jungles, brown mountains, yellow deserts, white ice, and blue ocean. Each animal has a preference for one specific type of terrain, as well as a secondary preference for adjacent terrain. By arranging your continent tiles on your planet in specific and varied configurations, your planet can hopefully attract the most animals.

Each player starts with a blank dodecahedron "planet", and builds a life-sustaining world continent by continent.

Abstract edutainment

Planet is an "edutainment" product that seems intended to teach children a little bit about animal habitats, how the relationships between different ecosystems drive animal evolution, and how biodiversity creates a healthier planet. Unfortunately, the game might be a bit too abstract in its educational endeavors, especially for a game intended for children under 12 years old.

There are a handful of animals that I don't recognize.
It would be nice if the game taught me about them.

The biggest failing (and missed opportunity) in the game, in my opinion, is that the animal cards lack any information about the animals themselves. Each card has a picture of the animal, and a graphic representing its preferred terrain types, as well as a colored border representing the animal's natural habitat. That's it. The cards don't even have the name of the animal printed on them. At bare minimum, these cards really should have had the name of each animal (and maybe also its scientific nomenclature as an added bonus for older players). As an adult, I recognize most of the animals by their picture, but there are a handful that I don't recognize. I'm guessing that a lot of young kids also have no clue what many of these animals are.

Had I designed the game, I also would have tried to print one or more little factoid(s) about each animal on their cards. Since the game puts a focus on the habitats of each animal, I think the factoids should probably emphasize the animal's niche within that particular habitat -- where it lies on the food chain, how it promotes the growth or health of the rest of its ecosystem, that sort of thing. But nope. We get nothing but a picture and the bare essentials of gameplay requirements.

For such a short, simple game, there's not a whole lot going on in terms of strategy, so it's a real missed opportunity that the game doesn't play up its educational elements more strongly.

That being said, the artwork on the cards is all very pretty. The animal images clearly depict the animal and a backdrop of its natural habitat, and a lot of them are really cute. The colors that represent each terrain type are vibrant and distinct, so that there should be no confusion about which terrain is which (barring extenuating circumstances like major color-blindness).

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I was planning on writing reviews for X-Wing's second edition epic ships and "Epic Battles" expansion packs (which released in the winter). But real-life happened. The COVID-19 pandemic put me and my gaming friends into lockdown. Having elderly relatives and other relatives with underlying health conditions, we took the lockdown advisory pretty seriously and didn't have in-person interactions with anybody other than limited in-person interactions with our immediate neighbors -- none of whom are board gamers (bummer). So I didn't get to play much X-Wing other than a couple rounds with my partner, and we didn't play any of the epic content because she's still learning 2nd edition and I didn't want to overwhelm her with new rules. So my thoughts on those expansions will have to wait until at least this fall, depending on how much game-playing I can do when the lockdowns are lifted during the summer, and assuming that there isn't a second lockdown this coming fall or winter.

In the meantime, Fantasy Flight was kind enough to not leave me completely high and dry. In early June, my loving partner sent me a link to the solo rules, and I decided to try them out. These rules were released at the end of May, in the waning days of the official lockdowns. I'm not sure if Fantasy Flight has this planned all along, or if they wrote it up quickly as a reaction to the pandemic. In either case, it's a considerate (albeit opportunistic) gesture from Fantasy Flight. It's just too bad these rules weren't published a month earlier. It would've given me more to do during the most boring stretches of the lockdown. Ah well. We have these rules for the next pandemic, I guess.

It's important to note that what I'm reviewing here is technically considered a "alpha test" of the rules. These rules are not finalized, and they may be subject to extensive changes as a result of player feedback before they officially release. If the rules change substantially for the official release, I may add an addendum to this review, or write a separate review. As of the time of this writing, the solo rules are freely available for download at Fantasy Flight's website. I do not know if Fantasy Flight is planning on eventually selling this as an actual expansion, or if the finalized version will remain free. So, you know, download it now. Just in case.

Fantasy Flight released official rules for playing X-Wing solo.

Best of all, these rules would probably work just fine in first edition as well. Players who haven't bought into second edition can still join in on the fun. You'll just have to improvise with regard to the hyperspace tokens, since those are the only components that are required for solo play, but which aren't in the first edition sets.

Dice for brains

The rules refer to the non-player ships as "solo ships", which I think is kind of confusing, since it sounds like the label refers to the solo player's ship(s). So call the non-player ships "NPC" ships (or "NPS" for "non-player ship", or "A.I." ships, or whatever you want to call them). In any case, the core conceit of the solo mode is that the player rolls a defense and attack die for each NPC ship when it activates, and then looks up the result in a behavior table to determine how each given NPC ship will behave. It's a simple enough concept that I'm surprised hasn't been in the rules earlier.

Roll dice, then look up the result in a table of possible moves.

The defense die is the principle determinant of the NPC ship's "attitude" (how it will behave). On an "evade" result, the ship will behave defensively or evasively. On a "focus" result, it will have a more balanced or passive posture. And on a "blank" result, it will behave more aggressively or boldly. This will largely determine the NPC ship's movement and action for the turn. The result of the red die will further modify the NPC ship's movement.

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Photosynthesis - title

Blue Orange is a company that has released a series of very successful board games that are geared towards children, and which feature educational themes. My girlfriend and I came across some of their games in a kids' hobby store while on a family road trip last year. The game that stood out the most on the shelf was a new release called Photosynthesis, a game about players competing to grow a small forest. The box art and pictures on the back made the game look very pretty, and its educational theme about the life cycle of plants intrigued us. So we bought a copy and held onto it until our kid's birthday in the fall.

The game is recommended for ages eight and older, and is easy to dismiss as just a "kids' game", especially given its status as "edutainment". However, this game is more complicated than your standard kids' fare. There actually is some strategy involved, and the game runs for about 90-minutes. It's not a random dial-flicker or dice-roller like Chutes and Ladders, Candyland, or other such Milton Bradley / Hasbro / Parker Bros. games that make up a kid's board game shelf. It also has deeper strategy than the children's version of Carcassone (which our kid also has). This game (along with most of Blue Orange's catalog) is definitely geared towards family night, in which people of all ages are playing.

The game board is very pretty once multiple trees of different colors are placed.

A vibrant forest

This game's components certainly are pretty. The trees (and everything else) are simple cardboard cutouts, but they are printed on some thick and sturdy cardstock. Production quality is pretty high for a kid's game, and that high quality is always important when you're playing a game with kids, as it means the game will last longer before falling apart. All the colors are vibrant and attractive, and they all mix together very well when the trees are all clumped together on the board. I'm not particularly keen on the blue evergreens, which look very unnatural and kind of out of place. Maybe Blue Orange could have gone with more of a blue-green color? Or maybe red, as in "redwood"? Ah well, it's not a big deal. Maybe the blue trees are an homage to the company's name. The game looks very pretty, in any case.

The gameplay is pretty simple and elegant. Each turn, sunlight comes from a particular direction on the board, and any trees that are not blocked by an adjacent tree (e.g. the tree is not "in the shadow" of another tree) collects sunlight points for the owning player. Each player then spends their sunlight points to plant new seeds on the board, or to grow existing seeds into small trees, to grow an existing tree from small to medium or medium to large, or to let a large tree die. When a large tree dies, it creates new soil, which is awarded to the owning player as victory points. Trees in spaces further from the edges of the board score more points.

The sun moves across the board each turn, providing sunlight and shade to different trees.

Each round the sun moves around the board, casting different trees in the shadows of other trees. Medium and large trees also collect more sunlight, cast longer shadows, and can collect sunlight if partially-obstructed by smaller trees. So where you put the trees, and how tall you let them grow, will determine whether they will get sunlight, or if they will block other players' trees. You also have trade offs between planting more trees or growing your existing trees. Your own trees can also block your other trees, so you have to keep that in mind when you are placing or growing your trees.

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Welcome to Mega Bears Fan's blog, and thanks for visiting! This blog is mostly dedicated to game reviews, strategies, and analysis of my favorite games. I also talk about my other interests, like football, science and technology, movies, and so on. Feel free to read more about the blog.

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