Review: Wits and Wagers

Publisher: North Star Games

Number of Players:3 – 7, more with teams

Playing Time: 20-30 minutes

Release Year: 2005

Year I got it: 2008 (today)

It’s a cross between: Craps and Trivial Pursuit.

Number of Plays to Obtain Proficiency: About 2.  The game itself is fairly simple to understand but seems daunting at first; after the first game you are no longer daunted and after the second game you are comfortable with strategy.

Replayability: Moderate.  This isn’t a game you’ll want to play over and over but if you throw a party once every few months it’s worth pulling out.

Social Interaction: I’ve only yet played the game in a team situation; when you play teams there is plenty of interaction when moving towards a decision on both answers and wagers.  In a regular game around a table I imagine there would be interaction between rounds but in any betting game it’s generally a good idea to keep things close to the chest and not social it up.

So, I won this game tonight at a trivia competition where we played… this game.  Actually, there were four of us: me, poober, and two of his friends.  We all won this game along with another Northstar makes called Say Anything.  Even though I haven’t played the conventional version, I feel the version we played at the event was representative enough to give a good review.

The makers of the game (the proprietors of North Star Games) are local and put on an event on the first Tuesday of every month at Mayorga Coffee Factory in Silver Spring.  I found out about the event on Meetup, but just assumed it was something that happens all over the place: nope.  It turns out that this is the only place where this type of event is held! And in the city where I live and work!

So, we headed down there and played two games as a team.  We won the first and came in second in the second.  We also played the “bonus” questions almost perfectly.  One was: name the 4 states in the U.S. that are not majority “caucasian” and the second was name the 7 countries who earned more than 10 gold medals in the 2008 Olympics.  We got both of them exactly right!  There was another bonus question about beer where we got 7 out of 10 but I didn’t really help on that one.

Getting those bonus questions right earned us $22 “funny money” and winnin earned us another $25.  I had brought $7 from when I played last month and it turned out this was enough to “win” the two games.  I felt somewhat bad, as though we were gaming the system somehow, but we won fair and square according to the rules.  Hopefully this blog post will sell a few games and earn them some cash back.

Anyway, I’ve spent a great deal of this review talking about our trivia night out rather than what I normally do: describe the mechanics of the game.  Wits and Wagers is a trivia game, but with a few twists that are supposed to help those who maybe aren’t the best at trivia.  All the answers to the questions are numbers, and most of them are difficult to know for sure.  Normally that’s frustrating in a trivia game but here it adds an extra twist:  after everyone has turned in their answer, the numbers guessed are entered on the betting mat.  Each player then gets a chance to wager on which number they think is the closest without going over.  The more extreme (smallest and largest) guesses pay out more.

I don’t know if that wall of text is a good enough description of how the game works.  An example may be in order:  Let’s say the question is:

How many gorillas are there in zoos in the United States?

This is one of the questions asked at tonights trivia game.  Five people who are playing might turn in various guesses: 500, 38, 123, 128, and 247.  These numbers would be arranged on the betting mat like so:

Pays: 4 to 1 3 to 1 2 to 1 3 to 1 4 to 1
Guesses: 38

You get two tokens to bet with, though eventually more tokens are paid out that you can use on future events.  Let’s say you chose 247, and you bet one token on 247 and one on 38.  If the real answer is 300, you get 3 tokens (because you got it right and it pays 3 to one).  You also happen to get 3 more tokens for choosing the correct answer.

It feels fairly complicated even though you get the hang of it after one question.  Hopefully you can see that if you are pretty good at betting, you don’t have to be great at knowing the answers to the questions.

Here are the strategy tips I have discovered:

  • Since the “winning” strategy is like The Price is Right and going over is bad, it’s best to select numbers that are slightly lower than what you think might be the answer.
  • Another strategy straight out of The Price is Right: if the number is going to be very large, go with a number that is slightly above even.  For example, if you think the answer might be around 500, go with 501 or 502 so you can get above someone who chooses the even number.
  • The third strategy that arises from the way the “winner” is selected is to look for the lower end of the biggest gaps.  If there are only 20 possible answers between one set of numbers, and 100 between the next set, it’s much safer to choose the 100.
  • Wait until the last minute to cast your wagers.  This prevents other people from voting with you to try to keep up with you and also keeps you from tipping your hand if you think you know the answer.
  • If the game is nearing the close, and you are winning, choose an arbitrarily and absurdly large number for your answer.  This will prevent people from being able to get an answer with 4 to 1 or 5 to 1 odds, and lower everyone else’s chance of betting big and surpassing you.

Overall, I recommend this game, as I tend to do all the board games I review.

Review: Whoonu

Publisher: Cranium, Inc.

Number of Players: 3-6

Playing Time: 15 minutes

Release Year: 2005

Year I got it: 2005

It’s a cross between: Not really able to think of anything.  It’s a card game where you learn about people.  Maybe Hearts and Have You Ever?

Number of Plays to Obtain Proficiency: 2

Replayability: Always replayable with new people, definitely replayable at least 3 or 4 times with the same people.

Social Interaction: There can be a lot, as people talk about what things they like and dislike, and why. It’s a good way for introverts to introduce themselves to each other a little bit.

The Cranium games are almost uniformly good.  This one is one of the shortest, and it makes use of their trademark picture cards, cards with pictures of all kinds of things you might see in the world, from “Shoes” to “Mountains” to “Birthday Parties.”

Each player, except for one who is “it”, gets four cards.  An envelope is passed around, and you are supposed to select, from your cards, which thing the “it” person will like the best.  Finally, “it” looks at all the cards and orders them according to how much they like them.  Everyone gets points according to how well their card was ranked.  Finally, everyone passes their cards to the right and a new person is “it.”

This is a “getting to know you” type of game.  You learn what people like and dislike.  I’ve played it often with my extended family on trips and vacations and it can be very fun.  I’d also recommend it for get-togethers with old friends.  This is not a hardcore gamers’ game, though.  There really isn’t even very much skill to it, who wins is mostly a combination of luck and randomness.

Even though there isn’t much skill involved, there are a few things you can do to try to obtain a higher score:

  • Since cards are passed to the next player at the end of each turn, if you know a card you have is absolutely one of the favorite things of the next person, and the person to your right is winning, go ahead and play that card on this turn instead of giving it to them, depriving them of even more points.
  • If you know one of the people you are playing with really well, and no one else knows each other very well at all, you will have something of an advantage.  In fact, this is almost cheating, so if you want to win, set up the game to be like this.
  • You can play a variation where you try to give the person things that they hate, rather than that they like.  This is probably a slightly easier version of the game, though I don’t know why.  Maybe it’s just easier to get a sense of what people don’t like from their personality, whereas what they do like is sometimes harder to discern.

Anyway, I would definitely recommend this game.  I don’t think I’ve ever played a Cranium game I didn’t like.  But, if you have hardcore gamers coming over, then get them to play something a little more involved since you have the chance.  This game is a little lighter fare.

Review: Settlers of Catan


Publisher: Mayfair Games

Number of Players: 3-4 (up to 6 with expansion set)

Playing Time: 2 hours

Release Year: 1995

Year I got it: 2002

It’s a cross between: Go Fish and SimCity

Number of Plays to Obtain Proficiency: 1. The game is a little long, but in a fun way. By the end of the first play you pretty much know what needs to be done to win.

Replayability: Enough of a party game that you can replay it as many times as you want, especially when you are with people you like, and especially especially when it’s late and everyone is feeling a little crazy.

Social Interaction: I don’t think they make a game that’s more social than this one. You’re constantly trying to trade your resources with the other players on every turn. Everyone wants to have a say in every trade, and everyone wants to one-up each other. If there is but a single person in the group who likes to ham it up, they will find plenty of opportunity.

“I’ll trade you two sheep for a wheat! Anyone? Okay, I’ll throw in a brick! Two sheep and a brick for one wheat! Come on, it’s just one wheat!”

Settlers of Catan, or Set’lers, as we like to call it, is a game that four players, six with the expansion, or any number if you want to play teams, will have fun with. I first played it in college when my good friend Paul brought it out, and I had to buy it myself not soon after.

The game starts out in the setup. The gameboard is laid out with a number of hexagonal pieces all fitted together to form an island. You are playing as the settlers of this island. The hexagons represent various resources that are supposed to be found in that area of the island, and they are placed randomly on the board so that every game is different. Then, markers are placed on each hexagon indicating how much of each resource will be produced there. These markers correspond to the numbers 2-12. Choosing which resources to play on at the beginning of the game influences the entire rest of the game.

On your turn, you roll two dice. Whatever numbers come up on the dice, the hexagons with those numbers marked on them produce goods for everyone who has a town on them. Then, the trading begins. There are 5 resources that can be traded: Sheep, Wheat (or Grain), Rock (or Ore), Brick and Wood. Once everyone has the resources they want (or are denied them by the other players), the build phase of the turn begins. You can build roads, new settlements, cities, or buy chances at cards with random effects with your resources.

All the phases of the game are fun in their own way, it’s like you’re playing three different games. Rolling the die means people get free stuff! It’s like a bonanza, and everyone is grabbing for the resources they are supposed to be collecting. Trading is the funniest part of the game, with people one-upping each other, offering to trade sheep for sheep, and all sorts of other things. The build phase is happy, especially if you’re like Melissa who likes building games (she likes to play Warcraft II just to build her town, and doesn’t want to actually defend it). It’s like a mini sim-city type game.

There are a couple strategies that can help you do better at settlers if you’re playing for the first time:

  • There’s nothing like a monopoly. Try to build your settlements in places where you will be the one in control of one particular resource. If you do this correctly, people will be begging to trade with you the whole game.
  • This becomes obvious about 10 minutes into the game, but too late to help some newbie players. Play your settlements next to resources that are marked with 6’s or 8’s because these are the numbers which are rolled most often with a pair of dice.
  • Essentially the only way to be competitive (read: mean) in this game is to block off someone’s road by building your road in their way. I recommend you do this and cackle with glee.
  • At the beginning of the game, you mostly need brick and wood, but at the end of the game, you’ll need more wheat and rock. Sheep are mostly worthless. Plan your settlement with this in mind!

Set’lers is a great game. It’s a pity you can only play with 4 players if you don’t have the expansion, but if you have three good friends I recommend getting together with them and cracking this open for some fun. It’s especially a stay-up-late kind of game, and if you are the type to drink (I am not), it might be fun while you’re doing that as well.

Review: Yacht Race

Yacht Race

Publisher: Parker Brothers

Number of Players: 2-6

Playing Time: 40-90 minutes

Release Year:1960

Year I got it: 2006

It’s a cross between: Checkers and Pirate’s Cove

Number of Plays to Obtain Proficiency: 2. At least, I hope so, since I’ve only played it twice. Since the game is so long, there is a good chance you will gain proficiency on your first try, but probably not at the beginning of the game, which may keep you at a disadvantage.

Replayability: Definitely playable more than once, though definitely not in the same sitting. This game is very competitive, being a race, and that can drive some who know how to play to want to play against new challengers. It is a fairly unique game, so it is a useful one to have in your repertoire to show off, especially to other board game aficionados.

Social Interaction: This can be a pretty social party game, but only if everyone involved is a board game nerd. If it isn’t moving quickly, it can get a little boring, sort of like Monopoly, so you want to make sure everyone involved is a quick thinker, and hopefully, a quick wit. If you play with someone like my brother, who makes pirate references and is all-around very silly, you will be doing plenty of laughing.

Yacht Race is an old game, but that doesn’t preclude it from being any fun. Alas, I’m pretty sure it hasn’t been in print for at least 30 years. The only place that I know of that you can get it is eBay. Most of the copies are no longer pristine, including mine which is missing two pieces. So, I guess my copy is only for 2-5 players, not 2-6.

It was introduced to me by my advisor at college, Sam Rebelsky. We played it at a dinner party at his house one day. All of us were CS majors, and I’m pretty sure most of us were geeks. Melissa had to leave early because the game was taking too long! I guess it isn’t that exciting a game to watch, especially when it takes a long time.

The game comes with a beautiful and very large board which is divided into a grid. The board is supposed to represent the location of the yacht race, and there are various islands and land masses to be navigated around. The objective is to get your yacht out of the starting gate, around some buoys, and back to the start before anyone else does.

The difficult part is managing the wind. All the players have to synchronize their movements with a common wind direction. It can be changed by any player on their turn, but only a certain number of times during the game. When your boat is supposed to be going north, and the rest are all supposed to be going south, it can be difficult for you to keep the wind in the right direction.

You also have spinnakers that you can use to double the speed of your boat, but only if you are going directly with the wind. If you try to tack against the wind, your spinnaker will go down and you will lose it. You only get three spinnakers for the whole race.

Yacht Race is best when played with more players, more than 4 makes it really fun, these strategies also work best when the race is crowded:

  • Getting across the grid at the start and finish is the trickiest part of the game. When getting out, try not to stray too far away from the pack, and try to block the other players if you can. When returning, plan your moves ahead at least 3 moves in advance if you can, and watch out for being blocked.
  • If you are in last place, and everyone but you has already rounded a particular buoy, that’s the time to change the wind. Set up the wind so it is against the rest of the players and favors you. This is especially nice when rounding the last buoy, as most of the other players have run out of wind changes.
  • Use your first two spinnakers fairly early, but save the last one for the final rush across the board to the finish. The competition gets fierce and usually the distance between players narrows during this last push and you want to have every advantage available.
  • Don’t forget that not only can you block a player by being in front of where they want to go, but you can also block their wind by being directly upwind. If you really want to prevent someone from moving, move up behind them and then change the wind so that you are blocking it (or ask someone else to do it for you!)

Yacht Race is a very good game, especially for being as old as it is. I recommend it, even though it’s hard to find. If you can’t find a copy, come over to my house and bring a few friends!

Review: Blokus

Hopefully the first in a series of board game reviews:

Blokus Game

Publisher: Educational Insights

Number of Players: 2-4

Playing Time: 10-30 minutes

Release Year: 2000

Year I got it: 2005

It’s a cross between: Tetris and Go.

Number of Plays to Obtain Proficiency: At least 3. The first time is to get the rules. The second time is to develop a strategy. The third time to train your eye to see how to implement your strategy.

Replayability: High. The game is short enough that you can play it multiple times in one night, with each player adapting their strategy iteratively.

Social Interaction: Low, this one sort of plays like chess. You can spend a fair amount of time pondering what move you are going to make, but very few moves are game-changing. When a move is game-changing, it triggers competitive thought from the other player(s) rather than boisterous conversation.

Blokus is a game based on a fairly simple concept. You have tetris-like shaped pieces to play on a grid, some of them very large, some of them very small. On a players turn, one of her pieces is played on the board so that at least one of its corners are diagonally adjacent to another of her pieces. You are not allowed to play a piece if any of the edges push up against an edge of one of your other pieces. The objective is to block your opponent(s) from being able to play their pieces (by blocking any corners that are jutting out from the pieces they have played).

The grid eventually gets very full; there are very few places to play the last few pieces. In this way the game can be like a good game of scrabble – you are restricted not only by what you’ve put on the board, but by the fact that there is very little space to fit your remaining pieces in. There is one piece that is only one block wide – easily played on the board, but if you play this piece last you gain extra points. (it can be your saving grace earlier in the game, allowing a way through a particular crowded section of board).

I have no idea if I’m accurately conveying how the game is played, but I have developed something of a strategy:

  • If you have a choice, play your biggest and most crooked pieces sooner, rather than later. This nets you two benefits: first, you get out onto the board, producing more corners to play off of and getting closer to blocking your opponent. Second, when the time comes later in the game to fit your pieces onto the more crowded board, it will be easier with smaller and straighter pieces.
  • If you see an opposing piece that has an end sticking straight out, try to play a piece that will cover all three of the end-spaces (like making a T). This blocks him from being able to play off of both of his corners, and usually your piece will fit snugly against everything around it, which is usually better.
  • When the game is nearing the end, thinking two or three steps ahead is often necessary if you want to fit all your pieces on the board.
  • As always, point out places for your opponent to play if they are stumped that benefit you! You’d be surprised how often this works.

Blokus is a reasonably good game, easy to learn, and also quick. It’s best with four players, but it can be played with two (which is often important, finding people to play is sometimes the hardest thing). I recommend it.