Wednesday, August 29, 2018

Spy Club (Foxtrot Games)

When I think of famous characters in children's literature, I think of such names as Nancy Drew, The Hardy Boys, The Bobbsey Twins, Encyclopedia Brown, The Boxcar Children, and The Baby-Sitters Club just to name a few. What do all these names have in common? They are all detectives. Yes, when you think about it, mystery series are a staple of children's literature (and adult literature too)! Drawing on this popular genre, Foxtrot Games developed the game Spy ClubSpy Club is a cooperative game for 2-4 players, ages 10+.  It takes approximately 45 minutes to play and retails for $45. In this game, you and your fellow detectives will work together to unlock the five clues necessary to solve the case. Let's learn how to play!
1. Situate the Board and Supply - Assemble the puzzle pieces to form the Central Board. Determine the difficulty level you want (standard or advanced), and flip the Central Board to that side. Place the Escape Marker on the bottom space of the escape track of the Central Board. Place all 18 Idea Tokens (light bulbs) within reach of all players.
2. Create the Movement Deck - Take the 25 Movement Cards and divide them into 3 stacks (daytime, sunset, and nighttime). Shuffle each stack and remove one card from each stack. Form a single deck in the proper order of daytime, sunset, and nighttime and place this deck in its spot on the Central Board.
3. Create the Clue Deck - Shuffle the 54 Clue Cards, making sure to cut and flip the cards to create a thorough shuffle. Place this deck in the card tray, and place the tray next to the Central Board. Then, deal out a number of clue cards to the right of the tray, based on the number of players. These are now known as incoming clues. Place a Placard over each incoming clue according to the table in the rule book.
4. Prepare the Player Areas - Give each player two puzzle pieces to form their Player Board. Randomly determine a starting player (I usually go with the youngest!), and deal one card from the top of the clue deck over each empty slot on the players' boards, starting with the first player. This forms a player's hand. Each player places one Focus Token (magnifying glass) on their Player Board below their rightmost card. Each player also receives one Idea Token.
5. Position the Suspect - Place the Suspect Pawn over the rightmost card of the starting player.
6. Select and Name Characters - Have each player select one of the eight Character Cards. Take a blank sticker, writing the name you created for your character on it, and affix it to the lower part of the Character Card.
7. Case 1 Only - Reveal cards 3 and 4 from the Campaign Deck and set them aside. You will flip them when the instructions on the card tell you to do so.
Game Play - The game is played over a series of player turns, until an end game condition is met. On a player's turn, they will perform the following three steps:
1. Use Actions - There are four actions you can take. You may perform up to three, including the same one multiple times.
a. Investigate - Flip any of your Clue Cards (one at a time) in any order. You decide after each flip, whether you want to keep flipping or not.
b. Shift Focus - Move your Focus Token to one of your other Clue Cards. Gain one Idea Token for each Clue Card that is the same aspect (color) of your new Focus Card.
c. Confirm - Move one Clue Card from your hand to the center row. (Note: Doing this will require you to spend Focus Tokens. )
d. Scout - Draw one Clue Card from the incoming clues. (Note: Doing this will require you to spend Idea Tokens.)
*Teamwork Bonus - You may also do bonus activities such as trading cards or taking Idea Tokens from other players.
2. Refill - Fill any empty slots in your hand. Then, fill any empty slots for the incoming clues.
3. Move the Suspect - Reveal the top card of the Movement Deck, and place it face-up on the movement discard track to the right of the previous card.
a. Advance the Escape Marker - If the revealed card has an escape icon, move the escape marker one space. If the marker reaches the "Escaped" space, the case ends immediately!
b. Move the Suspect Pawn - Determine what number on the previous card is connected to the suspect icon and move the Suspect Pawn that number of spaces. An event is then triggered depending on the color of card that the Suspect Pawn ends their movement on.

You will solve aspects of the case by having five cards of the same color in the center row. Of these five cards, the solution card is identified by the symbol in the center of the most recent Movement Card. The game will end in one of five ways with only one resulting in a win. The end game possibilities are : 1 Succeed by solving all five aspects of the case. 2. The Escape Marker reaches the "Escaped" space. 3. You do not have enough ideas to remove from the game when required to do so. 4. You do not have a movement card to draw at the end of player's turn. 5. You do not have enough incoming clues to fill all players' hands.

Note: There are campaign rules where you will be required to solve five cases to win. This adds a newer wrinkle in difficulty and creates a fun way to unlock new rules, change the way you play, add story that will carry forward from one case to the next, and create a wealth of replay value!

Foxtrot Games isn't a publisher that cranks out 20 games a year. Instead, they take their time focusing on one to two games a year, and making those games excellent. This started with Relic Expedition, moved on to Lanterns, World's Fair 1893, Sundae SplitThe Fox in the Forest, and has ultimately led us to Spy Club, arguably their best game to date. Each game is thoughtfully and meticulously crafted in terms of art and game play, making the games visually appealing on your table and welcoming for players of all experience levels. I don't just dole out this praise lightly either, as I own the majority of their catalog, it is well-deserved. However, let's focus primarily on Spy Club.

Spy Club on the surface is a box of colorful double-sided cards that you are trying to match into a five of a kind set in order to solve an aspect of a case. It sounds simple enough, but you are having to manage resources to make these matches happen and also going against a timer in the form of a deck of cards that is going to frustrate you to no end your first couple of plays until you and your group get used to the various actions and bonus actions you can take to match the cards and solve the case. If you master the art of a single game, you can play five separate games to make up a game, and this is where the game really shines.

The campaign mode of Spy Club elevates this game to an 11 out 10 ranking. Yes, you read that correctly. Starting with Case 2, you will unlock new content based on which aspect of Case 1 that you recorded. This will then instruct you which card (from two giant decks of cards) to reveal, read, and alter the way you play the game. I won't go into details how, but it added new challenges to an already great game. What I like best about the campaign mode is that it is not a legacy style format, meaning that nothing you do during the campaign will destroy any cards or components. Instead, it is called a "mosaic" game, meaning that rules and elements of each case will change each time you play. There are 40 different modules and each you only use 4 each game. That means, at a minimum, it will take you 10 games to discover all the modules. In reality, it will take you more as sometimes you will face the same module more than once. That's a lot of replay and value for $45!

This is my #1 family game of the year and a game that I believe belongs on everyone's shelves. There are a lot of cooperative games out there, but they generally fall into one of two camps - 1. Very childlike with no real depth or 2. Doom, gloom, and the end of the world. Spy Club breaks the mold by creating a light and captivating theme. Once you have finished a game, you are then encouraged to make a story out of the five aspects of the case to further immerse yourself in the experience. This help foster imagination in your younger players and gives you a satisfying end to a job well done. I can think of no family game currently that offers the depth and replay that this game does for this price. And while I have not been through every module in this game, I look forward to experiencing them all and hope that there will be an expansion down the line that adds even more modules for us to unlock. Can't recommend this game enough!

Monday, August 27, 2018

First Beginnings and Mysteries of the Old Testament (Angelico Press)

Venerable Anne Catherine Emmerich was an Augustinian nun who lived from 1774 to 1824. In addition to being a nun, she was also a stigmatic and ecstatic. Like a lot of saints, she grew up in a poor family. However, she was always very close to God and showed great love for Him and those of His Church, often giving everything she had, leaving her without anything for herself. What was extraordinary about Emmerich is that from an early age, she experienced visions of Old and New Testament scenes. Angelico Press has made it their mission to publish English translations that have been supplemented and revised with material never translated before. Today, I would like to tell you about two of the volumes - First Beginnings and Mysteries of the Old Testament.

First Beginnings starts by talking about angels and the fallen angels. This was equal parts intriguing and terrifying. On the one hand, we see one set of angels choosing God and another set of angels choose self. We then see Hell being created. It isn't overly descriptive, merely described as a dark disc rising from below. Some of the fallen angels remained there, and others still roam trying to lead man to eternal damnation. After this vision, we are walked through the Creation story, Paradise, Adam and Eve, the Fall, and the death of Abel. A brief section is dedicated to the name of Golgotha. This leads to Cain's descendants, Enoch, Noah,, and the construction of the ark. Other figures discussed were Nimrod, Derketo, Semiramis, Melchizedek, and Job.
Mysteries of the Old Testament begins with Joseph being sold into slavery. It talks of the jealousy of his brothers, a description of his coat of many colors, and mention of a special gift Jacob gave to Joseph, some of the bones of Adam. There is then much attention given to Asenath, Joseph's future wife. From the Old Testament, we know very little about her, but here we are given a physical description of her, learn that she is a prophetess, and also are given examples of her great intelligence. The next section details Moses, specifically the burning bush. We see the prefigurement of Mary and the Incarnation in this area. Also included are Elijah (a personal favorite), Elisha, Ezra, and Malachi. Lastly, there is a lengthy passage on the Ark of the Covenant as it related to Abraham, Moses, Mary, and Jesus. This was a truly fascinating section and worth the price of the book alone!

Publishing these volumes was no doubt a monumental effort for Angelico Press, but you can tell it was truly a labor of love. I thoroughly enjoyed reading through the Old Testament writings, as I find the people and history of the Old Testament to be fascinating. The level of detail and the illustrations provided make these two books a must read for any student of the Old Testament. I also appreciated the copious amounts of footnotes that were provided, as this gives us better understanding of the visions and the illustrations as well. In addition to these two volumes of the Old Testament, there are ten other volumes in this series that cover the life of the Virgin Mary, people of the New Testament, Venerable Anne Catherine Emmerich's own life, and other themes. I am going to have to investigate and read these when I have the chance to get a fuller and more complete picture of the visions Anne experienced and the remarkable life she lived.

Thursday, August 16, 2018

Faith and Politics (Ignatius Press)

To say Joseph Ratzinger (Pope Benedict XVI) is one of the greatest theologians of our generation is an understatement. He should be classified as one of the most brilliant minds of our generation. Experiencing Hitler's Nazi Germany shaped the way he thought, especially in relation to faith and politics. He wrote a great deal on how these two ideas intersect and interact with each other and Ignatius Press has recently compiled some of these works together in the appropriately named Faith and Politics.

The book begins with a sobering comparison Johann Sebastian Bach's Passion of Christ and Krzysztof Penderecki's Passion. The former details Jesus' Passion and stops before the Resurrection, whereas the latter addresses the sufferings of the people of Auschwitz. This comparison is further built upon, while also discussing the seriousness of man's sinfulness and affliction. This leads us to a section on Jesus and Pilate. In this chapter, we see the hypocrisy of the Jewish people claiming to observe ritual purity, but at the same time lacking purity in their hearts. Pilate, by choosing not to release Jesus though he found him innocent, chose political stability over truth. We then see Augustine in opposition with the politics of Rome and Christians when faced with a totalitarian regime. Ratzinger argues that Christianity killed the notion of a "divine state," and that Christian morality and good must be present in a society. The next and longest section deals with a pluralistic society and the freedom, conscience, and values of the people and the society they are living in. The book ends with a transcript of a debate between Ratzinger and Paolo Flores d'Arcais (an atheist) on the existence of God. In my opinion, the book is worth buying for that transcript alone.

Drawing on Scripture and Church Tradition, Ratzinger shows us how politics and faith intersect and intertwine. More importantly, he demonstrates that without a grounding in faith, politics and society can lose their meaning and their way. As Christians, we are called to live in this world, but not be of this world. Therefore, we must use our faith to help shape our society and not let our society shape our faith. This was a very interesting, enlightening, and sometimes challenging read by Ratzinger, like all of his works. If you are involved in politics or studying politics at school, this will be of more benefit to you than the casual reader.

Tuesday, August 14, 2018

Villainous (Wonder Forge)

Wonder Forge is a game company known for making great, branded family games. From Richard Scarry to Dr. Seuss to different Disney IP's such as Frozen and The Lion Guard, there is a great variety of games that your children will love! Recently, Wonder Forge released another Disney branded game called Villainous, and with this game, they made a giant splash in the family-friendly strategy level gaming world. Villainous is a game for 2-6 players, ages 10+. It takes just under an hour to play and retails for $40. In the game, you take on the role of an iconic Disney villain (Captain Hook, Jafar, Maleficent Prince John, Queen of Hearts, or Ursula) and attempt to rewrite those "Happily Ever After" endings to something more your liking. For example, Captain Hook would finally get his revenge on the boy who gave him the hook - Peter Pan! Let's learn how to play.
1. Have each player choose a Villain. Then give them their corresponding Board, Pawn, Villain Deck, Fate Deck, and Villain Guide. This is now your Realm.
2. Open your Board, and place your Pawn on the left-most location of the four locations.
3. Check to see if the right-most location has a lock-symbol in the corner, and if it does, place a Lock Token on it.
4. Shuffle your Villain Deck, and place it to the left of your board. Then, draw four cards, keeping them secret from the other Villains.
5. Shuffle your Fate Deck, and place it to the right of your board.
6. Fill the Cauldron with Power Tokens.
7. Finally, pick a starting player and distribute Power Tokens. Player One receives 0. Player Two receives 1. Players Three and Four each receive 2. Players Five and Six each receive 3.
Game Play - On your turn, you will do the following three actions:
1. Move your Villain - Move to a different location on your Board that does not have a Lock Token on it.
2. Perform Actions - Each location on your board has different actions that can be performed. You may perform any visible actions in any order you wish. (Note: All actions are optional) The various actions are:
a. Gain Power - Take Power Tokens from the Cauldron equal to the number on the symbol
b. Play a Card - Play one Card from your hand, paying the cost in Power Tokens.
c. Activate - Choose an Item or Ally in your Realm, and pay the Activation cost to perform it's ability.
d. Fate - Choose an opponent and reveal two Cards from the top of their Fate Deck. Play one and discard the other face-up.
e. Move an Item or Ally - Move one Item or one Ally to an adjacent, non-locked location.
f. Move a Hero - Move one Hero to an adjacent, non-locked location.
g. Vanquish - Defeat one Hero at any location, using Allies at that same location. Once vanquished, both the Hero and Allies are discarded to their appropriate decks.
h. Discard Cards - Discard any number of cards in your hand, you do not wish to keep.
3. Draw Cards - After performing all the Actions you can, draw back up to four Villain Cards in your hand.

Play will pass to the next person and continue going until a Villain completes their Objective on their turn. Evil has won!
Where do I start with the review portion of this post, except WOW! A lot of thought and love went into this game. Let's start with the components. It would have been easy to do cardboard standees or trendy to do miniatures, but they made gorgeous chunky pawns in shapes representative of your evil. Those pieces alone give the game a good table presence. The box is a wicked green and black that lets you know that this isn't your ordinary Disney game of good winning. On a slightly negative note, I will ask Wonder Forge to start shrink-wrapping their games and stop using those horrible stickers that leave a residue upon removal.

The art in this game is custom artwork of famous characters, items, and scenes from your favorite Disney film. Every card you draw will take you back to your childhood and watching these iconic films...or in my case last Saturday with the wife and kid. :)

With all the eye candy this game offers, where it really shines is in the game play. Though each character essentially plays the same, there are different objectives to complete in order to win. Each player has two decks of cards that are unique from any other player's deck. This adds a little bit of asymmetry to the game and makes you learn not only the character you are playing, but the other characters as well. How you move around in your realm and play your Villain cards will only get you so far in this game. You also need to be able to control your Fate and steer the Fate of others as well.

The theme comes through very well in this game. Yes, what it boils down to is your gathering power to play certain cards to win the game, but it feels like so much more. It feels like you are actually trying to rewrite the script to the movie. I think that is what I like best about this game. It would have been so easy (and lazy) to make this a game about "misunderstood" villains who aren't actually evil. No, this game you are evil and you are trying to succeed in your plot.

It may feel weird to play that role, but it is actually a blast if you let yourself relax and have fun with it. With the ability to play six players, and there being an equal number of male and female characters, this is a game that is great for anyone and everyone. I would go so far as to say that this is in my Top 2 family games of the year and belongs on every family game shelf! I will play this game anytime and anywhere, and I hope that there is a future expansion which unlocks some more villains like Cruella de Vil, Scar, Gaston, Shere Khan, etc.

Wednesday, August 8, 2018

Kings, Queens, and Giants (Blue Orange Games)

One of my biggest passions is tabletop games, more casually known as "board games." I hesitate to use the term "board games," because when you say that people think Monopoly, Clue, Scrabble, etc. And while these were fine games for their time, there are thousands of better games out there now. All you have to do is walk into a Target, and you'll see "modern classics" like 7 Wonders, Ticket to Ride, Catan, and Carcassonne. Even these modern classics have been improved upon, and now there is so much selection, I guarantee that there is a game out there for you. Lately, I've been trying to get my son to play better games. Yes, I know that sounds snobby, but you can only Pop the Pig so many times. I've tried a couple of different games with him, and the one that has been the biggest hit is KingdominoKingdomino is a game for 2-4 players, ages 8+. It takes 15 minutes to play and retails for $20. In this game, you are a royal trying to expand your kingdom into  new lands. The object of the game is to have the highest scoring 5 x 5 grid.
1. Give each player a starting square tile, a 3-D castle and a king (pawn) of matching color. (Note: If playing with two players, you get two pawns.)
2. Shuffle the 48 dominoes, putting them back in the box so that the numbered sides are facing you.
3. Draw the first four dominoes, arranging them in numerical order, and then flip them face-up.
4. Initial player order is determined by randomly drawing the kings from a player's hand. In turn order, each player will place their king on a domino.
5. Four more dominoes are then drawn and again arranged in numerical order and flipped face-up.
Game Play - Players will always take two actions.
1. Add the previously selected domino to their kingdom. (Note: When placing a domino, you must stay within a 5 x 5 grid, and at least one of the two terrains on the domino must match one of the two terrains of another domino already in your kingdom.)
2. Select a new domino from the new line of four. After all dominoes are selected, you draw four new dominoes, arrange in numerical order, and flip face-up.

The game ends when the dominoes run out. Take each territory, count the number of connecting terrain squares and multiply that number by the total number of crowns in that territory. The highest score is the winner.
Playing through this game was an absolute delight. I wasn't sure what to expect, but despite this game being a bit light, it still has a fair bit of strategy as well. What I like best about the game is the art. Each domino is bold and vibrant in color with unique little pictures on each one. This creates a unique-looking kingdom each time you play and just creates a wonderful image to behold when you are done. The quality of the components is also very high with them using very thick cardboard, so you know the game will gold up to multiple plays. I'm not surprised this game won the Spiel des Jahres (Game of the Year) in 2017. It's is quick, fun, beautiful, and even my 5 year old son can play it and win!

With that said, no modern game would be complete without an expansion and a stand-alone expansion. Let's start with the expansion called Kingdomino: Age of Giants. With this expansion, you are now able to play Kingdomino with five people. However, it comes with a catch! There are now twelve tiles that picture Giants and Giant Footsteps. If you take a tile with a Giant on it, you are given a large wooden giant to place into your kingdom and cover one of your crowns. If you take a tile with Giant Footsteps, you remove a wooden giant from your kingdom and give it to someone else to place in their kingdom. This adds a level of interaction that a lot of people (my wife) don't like, as it means you win by sabotaging someone and not on your own merits. I didn't mind it so much, as the game plays quickly, but if this were a longer game I would agree with her.

The other feature added is Challenge Tiles. There are 17 tiles total, and each game you will pick two. These serve as end-game bonuses to aim for (complete 5x5 grid, castle in the middle of your grid, etc.) and add more replay value to the game as you'll have to adapt your strategy each game to meet these goals. I love this feature, and while that one is a little tougher for newer or younger gamers, they will get the hang of it after a few plays. I will always play with the challenge tiles, and only sometimes play with the giants!

Queendomino is a "standalone expansion" to Kingdomino. What this means is that it the game can be played by itself, or it can be combined with Kingdomino to either play with more players or allow four players to make a bigger 7 x 7 grid. This game is a step-up in difficulty from Kingdomino. Why? Because women are more complicated than men. Just kidding! In addition to building a normal kingdom, there is the introduction of knights, towers, a dragon, and a queen. There are also taxes to collect, which will aid in your construction of buildings. These buildings give you additional crowns and can score you end game points. At times, I like the extra difficulty, but sometimes nothing beats a classic. I do like that I can combine the game with Kingdomino or Age of Giants, and I am hoping that soon there will be a way to combine all three, but I wager if that is the case there will be a fourth game coming soon...perhaps Jackdomino? Time will tell!

Overall, I am a big fan and proponent of these games. You can play them with almost anyone, combine them, mix-and-match them, and it will give you a fun and rewarding experience every time. If you are looking for great family games, check out this product line and other great titles from Blue Orange Games!

Friday, August 3, 2018

Mary Mother of Jesus and I Went to Mass: What Did I See?

Mary Mother of Jesus is a cute, little board book from Pauline Books and Media. It is written by Sister Marlyn Evangelina Monge and illustrated by Mary Rojas. The book begins by introducing us to Mary and Joseph, telling us about the Annunciation, the Nativity, the Crucifixion, and the Resurrection. It ends by teaching us about the Assumption and Coronation of Mary and reminding us that she is not only Jesus' mother, but also ours. The writing style felt a bit stilted, as the author used the phrase "very much" a lot, but I have to remind myself that this is for children so repetition is good! The art is bright and colorful with pictures that really enforce the core concepts about Mary.  I especially like that the cover has some glitter texture, as younger children like to see and feel. I also liked that the Crucifixion and Resurrection were discussed. These are hard concepts for children, but it's never too early to introduce your children to these truths. The only thing I would change is that I wish it would have talked about Mary's parents, but I believe the aim of the book was still Jesus through the lens of Mary, which is exactly a model for her life!
I Went to Mass: What Did I See? is a lovely, hardcover book from TAN Books.  It is written by Katie Warner and illustrated by Meg Whalen. I would describe the illustrations as pencil sketches with color used sparingly to emphasize importance. The writing style is a pattern of a child saying, I went to Mass. What did I see?" We then receive the answer in the form of a holy water font, incense, the Eucharist, etc. When we are given the answer on each set of pages, that is when the black and white drawings receive their pop of color, i.e., blue for the holy water and gold for the swinging censer. The book has a great rhythm and is subtly educational without your child realizing they are learning at all. This is a beautiful book for Catholic children and one that you should get any new Catholic as it is one they can read to their little one and instill an early love of the Mass. Highly recommended!