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Eight great board games we played at PAX Unplugged

Welcome to Ars Cardboard, our weekend look at tabletop games! Check out our complete board gaming coverage at cardboard.arstechnica.com.

PAX Unplugged, the tabletop board gaming conference that emerged from the PAX video game conference empire, took place in Philadelphia last week. It was bigger and better than last year’s inaugural event, with more space allocated to the exhibit floor and an amazing “first look” section of games, many of which are not yet out in North America.

It was impossible to play even a fraction of the new material available, but I did my best, spending three straight days at the con and playing plenty of “new hotness” along with a few older games (hello, Roll Player). Here, I want to run down a few of the most interesting that might appeal to the Ars crowd—even if not all held my attention equally in the end.

Crown of Emara

Benjamin Schwer, 1-4 players, 45-75 minutes, ages 12+

Holy medieval empire building, Batman! Crown of Emara features a meaty double rondel that sprawls across two central boards. Your player marker on each board can only move clockwise around that board’s four spaces, taking whatever resources or actions are available in the space on which it lands. How far can the marker move? That’s controlled by three empty slots per round, which you fill with three of the nine cards from your hand. (Cards provide resources or actions together with movement.)

The resulting rush of options nearly melted my brain—after the 25-minute rules explanation was over. There is a lot going on in Crown of Emara, and you only have 18 card plays in the full game (moving through your deck twice). That means you can’t afford to waste moves, which (combined with the sheer range of options to gain points) can induce paralysis. Still, after mucking our way through a couple of rounds, the massive decision space started to feel more manageable. The big selling point is that, though extremely crunchy, Crown of Emara can be played in under an hour. That’s a difficult goal to achieve, and I certainly want to try this one again.

The Estates

Klaus Zoch, 2-5 players, 45-60 minutes, ages 10+

A deliciously nasty auction game about building urban apartment towers. You bid for cubes, which can be added to the street map or placed atop already existing cubes. The trick, though, is that each tower belongs only to the color on the top level of the building, so you want to swoop in, buy up the right piece at the right time, and drop it right on top of your opponent’s tallest tower—and then cap it with a roof.

But your opponent, knowing you may do this, can respond by lengthening or shortening the street on which your tower sits, preventing you from filling the street—or filling it too early. (The game ends when two of three streets are completed; the uncompleted street scores negative points.) Adding the mayor to a street doubles the value of every building on that street, but this applies to negative scores as well.

In short, it’s very possible to think you’re winning the game, only to find that an opponent has lengthened your most lucrative street, doubled its score, shortened another street, and then completed the game, leaving your massive tower on the incomplete street to cost you huge points.

Mean, mean, mean. And wonderful. Had a great time with this one—and got my butt kicked.

Word Slam (and Word Slam Family)

Inka and Markus Brand, 3-99 players, 45 minutes, ages 12+ (or 10+)

German design gurus Inka and Markus Brand love to jump genres—from escape rooms (Exit) to roll-and-writes (Noch Mal) to legacy games (Rise of Queensdale) to traditional eurogames (Rajas of the Ganges). So, naturally, why not a word game for parties?

Word Slam is their marriage of Concept and card games. Two teams each have a clue-giver trying to get teammates to guess a shared single word first, but no gestures or speech can be used. Instead, the word can only be described by playing cards that contain nouns, verbs, adjectives, and relations. Clues for “hot dog” might include “eat,” “animal,” “brown” and “hot.” (Each team has an identical deck of these clue cards.) Sound easy? Wait until you try to get your team to describe “enlightenment.” The first team to guess the word correctly takes the card and scores a point.

I played this once at PAX Unplugged and multiple times with my family, who enjoy guessing the words as a single team rather than as a competition. (The cheaper family version also has some easier clues.) The idea for the game is a good one, though I’d like to play it in larger groups before coming to any final judgments. The game appears to hum along nicely when the clue-giver is regularly tossing out new cards to guide guessing; it stalls, though, when a clue-giver sits for thirty seconds, riffling through a deck in search of something new, or when all relevant words are played and no one seems close to getting the answer. The clue cards are limited in what they describe, so serious creativity is called for here, especially with more difficult clues. Fortunately, the word cards are color-coded by difficulty, making it easy to dial this one into the right level for your group.

Mesozooic

Florian Fay, 2-6 players, 20 minutes, ages 8+

You don’t often find a game that combines “dinosaur park management” with “those plastic slide-y number puzzles where only one space is open”—but Mesozooic fits the bill, and I was curious to try it out. Each player drafts cards for a dinosaur park, arranges them in a grid (that has one empty space), and turns over a timer. Then it’s a mad scramble to slide your cards around into the highest-scoring formation, linking park monorail lines or completing enclosures. When the timer runs out, you score your park. That’s… pretty much it. Even with some more advanced cards, this one felt too limited to me. On the plus side, the price is right (MSRP is just twenty bucks), it’s about dinosaurs, and the art is lovely.

Orbis

Tim Armstrong, 2-4 players, 45 minutes, ages 10+

A new puzzler from the makers of Splendor, Orbis has you drawing 15 tiles over the course of 15 rounds to form a pyramidal tableau on the table before you. Taking each tile alters the number of “worshippers” spread across the central pool of tiles, and you’ll need to manage your collection of these worshippers, because they are needed to purchase new tiles. Placement rules require that, as you build your pyramid higher, you have to match one of the colors of the two pieces below the current piece. As each row shrinks in length, certain colors thus become unusable for each player.

Building this pyramid and topping it with a bonus “god” tile is a relatively rules-light (and themeless) experience that should appeal to fans of abstract puzzlers. I played it with my 12-year old daughter and we both enjoyed it, though it lacks the “instant magic” of something like Splendor. Still, another solid entry from publisher Space Cowboys.

Gingerbread House

Phil Walker-Harding, 2-4 players, 30-45 minutes, 8+

Well, here’s a happy little fairy tale game about… using treats to lure magical creatures to your gingerbread house, where you shackle them in the yard and feast on their sweet, sweet points. The latest from Phil Walker-Harding, designer of Sushi Go, Imhotep, and Bärenpark, Gingerbread House‘s innovation is that its tile placement is three dimensional. Build your house up many layers high, taking actions based on the symbols you cover up, until you have enough pieces of tasty gingerbread to lure Prince Charming (8 points!) into your trap.

Dark if you think too hard about it, but the game is easy to teach and fun to play. If you own other tile-layers like Barenpark, you may not need to add this one to the collection, but it’s certainly a fun holiday treat that plays quickly and smoothly. Recommended.

Roll Player

Keith Matejka, 1-4 players, 60-90 minutes, ages 10+

Tom Vasel of The Dice Tower taught Roll Player to a roomful of people on Saturday night—which was terrific, because there is quite a bit going on in Roll Player and the thought of reading another game manual at that point in the con made me physically ill. In Roll Player, which first appeared in 2016, players create a character for use in a role-playing game, complete with an alignment, a back story, and stats like Charisma and Strength. This happens by bidding each round on available dice, which come in various colors. These are then slotted into holes in your character board with the goal of achieving certain stats targets or altering your alignment or getting certain dice colors into certain locations. Along the way, players can also buy a huge variety of items to outfit their characters in weapons, armor, and bonuses.

Ars’ own Aaron Zimmerman has recommended Roll Player for some time, but this was my first chance to play. It certainly lived up to the hype. I would compare it to the slightly more complex Sagrada; both games involve the placement of colored dice and offer strong, midweight puzzles to solve. Sagrada can slow down with four players, but Roll Player seemed to move along admirably. In the end, my chaotic neutral Elf with the incomplete chain mail armor lost, badly. But I loved the experience, and the game is on my “to buy”  list.

Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs: A Gemstone Mining Game

Sérgio Halaban, Scott Morris, and Andrew Wolf, 3-7 players, 45-60 minutes, ages 8+

I was not expecting to like a 1) licensed game 2) about Snow White, but this was a surprise hit of the show for me. New from USAopoly, Snow White is an updated re-theming of the older gem-mining game Quartz. It’s a press-your-luck exercise in how many times you will draw gemstones from a bag before you bust by drawing too many black obsidians. Gems score more points based on rarity, but certain combinations (such as three gems of any one color) will provide a bonus to some other color.

Staying in the mine longer leads to more end-of-round bonuses, but the risks are higher, and Snow White herself will reward you with “pie points” for being first to exit the mine with whatever collection of gems she wants that round. The game is mean, with a collection of cards that let you steal another player’s gem, or archive gems safely for later use, or draw seven gems from the bag at once.

Winning this one may have colored my impression, but I enjoyed it a lot. Turns are quick, tension is high, gems are chunky—and how many games let you play as Dopey?

Azul: Stained Glass of Sintra

Michael Kiesling, 2-4 players, 30 minutes, ages 10+

It’s enough like the original mega-hit Azul (read our review) that Sintra feels more like a reimagining than a true sequel. Glass pieces are still pulled from “factories” in the center of the table and applied to one’s player board—though here each column of the player board is modular and double-sided. Fill in an column and it scores, then flips over. Fill it again and that column is complete for the game. Sounds simple, though Sintra allows you only to fill columns to the right of any column in which you last placed a piece of glass. This pushes you further and further toward your board’s right-most edge until you use up a turn resetting your player marker to its initial spot in the far left. Throw in a scoring system that rewards you for filling columns to the left of already completed columns, and bonus points for finishing adjacent columns, and you have a serious puzzle on your hands.

I enjoyed my play quite a bit, though Sintra lacks the smooth-as-butter elegance of the original game. Its production quality, to my eye at least, is also lower than the original Azul with its chunky bakelite tiles; the new glass pieces look like cheap plastic candies. Solid game, but not sure I need to add it to my collection.

ARS T

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