Blokus – Choose Your Own Adventure!

The final entry in my analog game blog posts will cover the game Blokus, which I played with my nephew. Blokus is defined as an “abstract strategy game” on BoardGameGeek.com and that description fits very well. Each player chooses a different colour of 21 differently shaped transparent plastic pieces of various sizes. The pieces are shaped a bit like various Tetris pieces and the challenge is to fit them all together corner to corner without allowing any edge of your piece to line up with another of your pieces. You are free to line up with other people’s pieces in this manner, however, enabling you to block them from expanding (hence the name!).

The winner is normally determined via a point system. You count up the number of squares in each piece you have not placed on the board. This number is subtracted from the total. Any player who has placed all of their pieces earns an extra 15 points and five additional points if they managed to place the smallest one square piece last. Whoever ends with the highest total of points wins. I say this is the way it is normally played because I was playing with a six year-old who found this process to be thoroughly uninteresting. As such, we altered the game to just be a challenge of who can place the most pieces on the board before there is nowhere else to put a piece.

This is a fine example of how rules can be altered to better accommodate certain audiences. I would highly recommend that the library maintain paper copies of alternative rules to games that they can include with their board game collections. This allows diversity of play and also allows the games to be better targeted towards certain audiences. Even better, a library could have a fun creative exercise in challenging a variety of players to take games and come up with variations on the rules. Encourage radical alterations and see what sort of things can be developed by your patrons! This method allows the game to act as a choose your own adventure rather than a standard novel, if we think of the games as text.

My nephew enjoyed our play session. He was fascinated by my method of sorting the pieces into different piles based on the number of squares they consisted of and he mirrored the practice. This allowed us both to try to figure out the biggest pieces we could place on the board while there was the maximum amount of space available. Since there was only the two of us space was at less of a premium than it can be with four players. We compensated for this by aggressively trying to block each other in to each other’s mutual amusement.

The game is an interesting one and it challenges a form of spatial thinking I don’t feel particularly proficient with. My nephew seems to be a natural at it, however, and over the course of a number of games we had a definite back and forth. The game won quite a few awards, including the Mensa Select. Since there is something inherently brain puzzley about the game this makes a lot of sense to me. I would recommend it to anyone looking for a bit of a brain teaser. The more players the better though, with a little alteration, it can be fun no matter what!

For more information on Blokus, see the following: https://boardgamegeek.com/boardgame/2453/blokus

For a step by step guide on how to play, see below: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bEvS5A6TCr8

Having a Splendid Time with Splendor at the Adventurer’s Guild

As the term begins to wind down, the time has come for another game in my analog game series. Today’s game is Splendor, an economic Renaissance card game. Renaissance you say? That’s not the samey medieval theme found in dozens of analog game titles! Refreshingly, Splendor looks to let you channel your inner Medici and strive to become the most prestigious Renaissance merchant of your playgroup. It combines savvy mechanics with a pleasing tactile experience to create an extremely compelling and enjoyable game that would be at home in any library analog game collection.

In order to play Splendor I went to a board game cafe. I had actually never been to such a location and I really enjoyed the experience. The idea is essentially that you pay a small fee (generally around $5) and you get to play as many board games as you want for the day. The location also offers food and drinks and the employees offer to help you learn or select games appropriate to the number of people that you came with. In particular I went to the Adventurer’s Guild in Kitchener and I would recommend anyone in the area to check it out. The food is delicious and they have an amazing selection of games.

It is a testament to how much I enjoyed today’s game that although I spent hours at the Adventurer’s Guild I only played Splendor. My partner and I were able to pick up the rules pretty quickly and then just wanted to keep playing. The game revolves around three decks of cards arrayed in front of the players. These are shuffled and three cards from each are put face up beside the decks to form a kind of game board. Players then take turns purchasing these cards and gradually building up prestige points from them until the first person gets to fifteen prestige and wins the game.

These cards are purchased with gems that are represented by pleasingly weighty poker chip like game pieces. It is odd to say but the weight and clinking noise these objects made really added to the game for me and that’s why I emphasize that Splendor is a fun tactile game. It is nice to be able to clink about your pile of riches as you decide how you want to proceed with your turn. This really emphasized to me the amount of difference the physical element of an analog game can make. If the currency had been represented by other cards or small coins I think the game would have been worse for it.

Beyond this tactile element, I love Splendor for its smart simplicity. Each player only has a single action each turn. They can pick up two gems of the same kind from the bank piles (though only if there are at least four of that type of gem which adds a delicious element of strategy to gem selection), pick up three gems of different kinds, reserve a card, or purchase/build a property. Reserving a card allows you to pick it up from the play area and keep it in your hand. This allows you to ensure you will be the one who builds it but also gives you a “gold” gem which acts as a wild chip that can stand in for any other type of gem. Reserving a property your opponent was clearly planning to build is a delicious moment in the game.

Each deck of cards has increasingly decadent (but more expensive) purchases for players to choose from. If you can get a card from the third deck you will probably score yourself quite a few victory points but be prepared to pay through the nose. To offset this, the first deck of cards are cheap but rarely offer victory points. Each card has a gem in the top left corner, however, and these represent a continuous supply of that type of gem. In the future, all your purchases have that type of gem discounted from it.

As such, it is possible to buy very extensively from the first deck and make things extremely cheap. There is something very satisfying about being able to select a card for free because you have secured so many discounts from your other cards. I won a few games by having a preposterous number of first deck cards that enabled me to cheaply buy massively expensive third deck cards. It makes all the cards feel worthwhile and when patrons are considered (discussed below) it adds an element of strategy as you decide what property makes the most sense to acquire.

The final crowning jewel to Splendor’s excellent design is the inclusion of three noble patrons in each game. These are randomly selected and they each have a different gem expectation. When you have acquired properties that match the noble’s gem expectation, they will become your patron and grant you a number of victory points printed on their tile. This means you get to strategize not merely about how to afford expensive property but also how to block your opponent from getting patrons and securing them for yourself.

I cannot recommend this game enough to any players or to libraries. There is a historical element to the game making it a potential programming tool for Renaissance historical exploration. Even more than that, however, I would say it makes a fantastic game for free play in the library. It is fun, easy to learn, and keeps people engaged for long periods of time. It is a fine example of how streamlined and smart an analog game can be!

For more information on the Adventurer’s Guild refer to the following: http://www.adventurersguildcafe.com/#about

For the BoardGameGeek breakdown of Splendor check out the following: https://boardgamegeek.com/boardgame/148228/splendor

For a step by step guide on how to play Splendor, see below: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rue8-jvbc9I