Board Game Review: Pandemic

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Maria here again! Today’s post is the last of my “Top 5 Games” series. I hemmed and hawed over whether I would do it, too. If you haven’t noticed, the game Pandemic pulled a Jumanji and now we’re living it. But I decided that I would be remiss if I did not include it, as it was the first modern board game and it really reignited my love for board games.

If you’re curious, the other four games in the series are:

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In my first blog post for Brandon, I talked the games that formed my childhood. What I didn’t discuss was the fact that I also played a lot of videogames as a kid.

Sure, I still don’t consider myself a “gamer” in the video realm. But I knew my way around our Nintendo 64 back in the day!

The reason I bring this up is because it was one of the ways that I hung out with my brother. From kids in the basement to “adults” in college – we would always play co-operative video games, regardless of where we lived. Despite the hefty price tag, I forked over $50 a year for Xbox Live so I could play Halo with my brother and even Call of Duty with a friend stationed in South Korea.  I LOVE co-operative games.

To me, Pandemic was the first time I was getting to have that videogame co-op experience without a screen. And that, my friends, is why I decided to still talk about this game.

Sadly, I do not know when I will actually be able to play the game without it feeling “too soon.” Even still, it would have almost been disrespectful to the game creators to not include it in my Top 5 games.

Objective

The same thing we do every game. Try to take over the world! Oh wait, that’s something else. No, the objective is actually to try to SAVE the world by curing 4 diseases. You have to do this before either running out of city player cards, having more 8 or more outbreaks, or running out of disease cubes for a specific color.

Gameplay Overview

I’m going to do my best to describe the game play as succinctly as possible, but if you want to read the 8 page rulebook, you can read it here.

The general idea of the game is that each player has a character role that has a unique skillset. Players work together moving from city to city trying to both clear infection cubes and collect enough city cards of specific colors to cure that color infection. Players get these city cards at the end of each turn where they draw cards. What also happens every turn (well, almost every turn) is the Infection Stage where city cards are drawn that are now considered newly infected.

A city can only hold 3 infection cubes of the same color at the same time, so if another infection of that color occurs in that city, then it causes an outbreak where any surrounding city with a connecting line to the infected one will get the same infection.

This is what we would call a “game over” situation.

Take the above picture as an example. If any one of those cities with 3 cubes of the same color gets drawn again, it will set off a chain reaction of outbreaks. If Karachi gets pulled, then it would cause an outbreak into Tehran, Delhi, Mumbai, Riyadh, and Baghdad. But, as you can see, The first three of those also have 3 black cubes, which means they also would have an outbreak. And it’s then just a vicious never-ending cycle.

While we are looking at the picture, let’s go ahead and look at Jakarta & Bangkok. See how they have black cubes instead of red? That’s because Chennai had an Outbreak which spread the black cubes into a red region. If this wasn’t such a disaster game setup, technically Jakarta and Bangkok could each have up to 3 red cubes as well as the black cube without an outbreak. Because remember – the outbreak only occurs if you have more than 3 of the same colored cube.

Why are outbreaks (and especially chain reaction outbreaks) so bad? Because each outbreak counts against your team, and if you hit 8 outbreaks in a game then you lose. And believe me, 8 can arrive before you even know it.

There is a bit more to the game, including hail mary cards and trading cards with your team members, but that’s why there is the rulebook (and YouTube)!

What I love

Co-Operation

To start off, this was my first co-operative board game which practically gave it an approved stamp in my book from the get go. Then, coupled with a shot of nostalgia and a vial of communication, this game got the MAP stamp of approval! Co-operative games aren’t for everyone (“but how do I win??” -My Dad), but I love the fact that they are a growing segment of the boardgame market.

Well Researched and Represented

If Michael Crichton were to create a board game, it would be this. Holy Tamole, this game is eerily accurate. I’m almost upset as to how accurate the game is because now I can’t play it!

I love the fact that players start in Atlanta, where the actual headquarters of the CDC is located.

The specific cities chosen to include on the board are beyond creepily accurate. I remember Brandon saying a few years ago “well, if there ever was a pandemic, these would be the cities that would get hit, and probably the direction it would travel”. Flash forward to this trash fire of a year and Matt Leacock was right. Probably the first time someone didn’t actually want to be right either. 

I also am digging the diversity represented in the game! It is a game that represents the entire world, and I think that the game developers did a great job in representing that in the role cards. As a woman, I loved seeing the Scientist, Researcher, AND Quarantine Specialist roles are all female characters.

Not to mention that the lead character on the box is a woman! The diversity in cultures represented also was so refreshing while making sense in the context of the game. And can we just talk about how the Medic is an army medic? And dreamy too. Don’t tell Brandon I said that. 

Replayability

My fear of playing the game set aside, this game has incredible replayability. Just like deck-building games, or even Settlers of Catan in a way, the fact that the board game is never the same is the perfect foundation for a multi-dimensional game. 

Another contributing element to the game’s replayability is the range in difficulties. I like that you can choose to have 4-6 epidemic cards in the game depending on the desired difficulty level (not going to lie, I’ve played with 3. Sometimes I just want to feel good about myself.)

Lastly, and somewhat tied to the second point, is the changing team members. There are 7 different roles, but you can only have up to 4 players play. Meaning, if you randomly select your roles then the game has even more changing variables.

Could Use Improvement

Game Setup

This is kind of a dumb thing to say that needs improvement, but I guess call me Custer. The game setup takes a hot minute, and the ability to lose takes way less time, so it is a real buzzkill to set the entire game up, lose within 5 moves, and then have to set the whole thing up again. Not even sure how this could be solved since the setup is part of what makes the game so replayable, but it is what it is. I never said I was rational!

Rulebook

Maybe it is the fact that I’m not a hobby gamer, but while this rulebook is better than the Terraforming Mars one, it still isn’t great. The fact that I was cheating for well over a year of playing the game, and didn’t find out how fully until another year after that (thanks app!) kind of proves that the rulebook needs some retuning.

I will admit, this linked rulebook is better than the one that came in my game. So, well done Z-Man Games, well done.

Preferred Game Mechanics
  • Dynamic character roles
  • Great art or colors
  • Incorporates a clicking noise
  • Tactile, but not needlessly fidgety 

BoardGameGeek: 7.6 out of 10

Victory! All Posts Have Been Made!

Congratulations! You have made it to the end of this post and have now officially read about my top 5 favorite games. I’ve got a few other board games that I really love and enjoy, but they don’t quite make the “favorite” tier.

Again, my name is Maria and this is the last post in a 5 post series where I break down my 5 favorite games as a non-gamer-who-likes-games. The other four games/post in the series are: Marrying Mr. Darcy, Terraforming Mars, Exit: The Game, and  Five Crowns. In this series, I also shared with everyone the games that formed my childhood, which you can read here.

I hope you enjoyed today’s post, and the series as a whole. If you liked it, great! I’ll probably be back again sometime with more post ideas to share in the future.

But for now? I think Brandon wants his blog back 😬


Board Games, Seen By a Non-Gamer is written by Maria Polcari, Brandon’s wife. The series is meant to both make you think about games in a different way, and to give Brandon a much needed break!

This is the sixth and final post in what was originally a five-part series!





Board Game Review: Five Crowns

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Happy Monday to all! Can you believe that we are in NOVEMBER? I sure can’t. But with November comes Thanksgiving, Christmas/Hannukah, and New Years, so in my family that means the season of family games.

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This year will look a lot different than prior years, which is no surprise to anyone. But I still want to share with you all one of my family’s “new” favorite card games. After all, memories don’t have to social distance!

As previously mentioned in my Growing Up With Board Games post, I grew up on card games. Gin, Rummikub, Cribbage, Spades, Uno – all awesome classics. Well, one of my biggest gamer-influencers influenced me again in my 20’s by showing me Five Crowns. And if you’ve been following along with this guest series, then you probably guessed who it was – my grandma.

My Introduction to Five Crowns

About 7 or 8 years ago I was visiting Grandma up in the DC area and she suggested we play this card game called Five Crowns. I will go into more detail later as to how to play, but basically, it is a card game like Rummy but with a rotating wild card. I am good at Rummikub and I like card games. At the time I was a cocky 23-year-old, so I was thinking that I was about to school that old crone at her own game.

First few rounds go by, all is good. Then we’re on, say the 5th or 6th round, and she starts being all “what’s the wild card again?” as she peers under her eyeglasses, clutching a tissue in one hand. She makes a few misses here and there. “Aww, sweet Grandma, she’s not used to playing a youngin like me.”

She was lulling me into a false sense of security is what she was doing. Because yup, you guessed it. She clobbered me.

Absolutely clobbered me.

Never play Grandma in Five Crowns.

Fast forward a few months and Grandma comes to visit and brings along her cutesy little deck with her and says excitedly to my dad, “Oh! We should play this fun new game your sister and I have been playing!” I warn my family that the game is not as easy as it is cute. Did they listen? Of course not.

My whole family gathers round the kitchen table and we play a few practice rounds. Based on the gleams in my dad and brothers’ eyes, they were ready for the real game to begin and take down Grandma. So we start up a fresh new game. Grandma starts pulling all the same tricks she did with me. She pretended she didn’t know where her glasses were. She acted like she forgot what the wildcard for the round was. Allll that same nonsense.

I warned them. I warned my family before the game and I warned them during the game. Do you think they listened?

She won.

Yup.

So anyways, all that to say that we now play Five Crowns at every single family gathering. If Grandma isn’t there, we are sharpening our skills. If Grandma is there, then it’s war.

How to Play

Objective

It’s just like golf in that the lowest score wins after all the rounds have been played. I guess a more appropriate reference would be Uno, but where’s the fun in that?

Video of Rules
Basics

There are the 4 traditional card suits, plus a 5th suit (Stars!). The game lasts a total of 11 rounds, where the first round is 3 cards, second round is 4 cards, and so on until you have 13 cards in your hands. Lastly, there is a rotating wild card (in addition to jokers) that changes every hand. On the first round with 3 cards, the number 3 is wild. On the round with 4 cards, the number 4 card is wild. When you have 11 cards, the Jack card is wild. Get it?

How a Round Plays

During the first round, deal 3 cards to each person playing. Place the deck in the middle and flip the top card over and lay it next to the stack. The person to the left of the dealer goes first and can either choose to take the flipped over card or take the top card from the deck.

After selecting a card, the player must decide to either keep that new card and discard one already in their hand, or they can just discard the newly drawn card.

That’s a really longwinded way of saying that if the round has 3 cards then the player must still only have 3 cards when they complete their turn. Then it is the next person’s turn! You continue playing until someone puts all the cards in their hands into some type of grouping. See the next section!

A Book or Group consists of multiples of the same card (five 3’s, three Kings, etc.). A sequence of numbers such as 4/5/6 is called a Run. You must have at least three cards in a Group or Run, but you can have far more.

How a Round Ends

How do you know if you want to take the discarded card or the top from the deck? You are wanting to get your cards into little groups (at least 3) of either the same number (suits don’t matter) or a run of sequential cards (same suit). Once you get all cards grouped up and you’re still able to discard a card, then you can lay all of your cards down.

Making sure you can still discard is a key part! Also, keep in mind that if the number of cards allows then you can have a mix and match. For example, the round with 6 cards – you can have both a group of the same number and a run, you just can’t have 1 card be split between the groups.

Once someone has laid the cards down, each person has 1 remaining turn to try and get their hands into as many little groups as possible. What’s nice is that the points scored against you are only the cards in your hand that are not able to be grouped. For instance, you had a group of Kings, and a 3/4/5 straight but you still have a random 9 and Queen; luckily, only the 9 and Q will count against your score because you were able to group everything else.

Scoring

It’s pretty simple! A card’s value is a card’s value. Meaning, a 9 is a 9, a Jack is 11, a King is 13. The only “fancy” ones would be Jokers (50 points!) and Wild Cards (20). Anything you are able to group and play has zero points since the “perfect game” would be a score of 0 by the end of the entire game. So in the example mentioned previously, if a person had a 9 and a Q, then their score would be 9 + 12 = 21! You could certainly have some fun with house rules on scoring to make things more interesting.

What I Love

First off, this is just a fantastic spin on Rummy. I absolutely LOVE the rotating wild card aspect.

The theme is simple but also carried through well.

The art is bright, ties beautifully with the theme, and has a pleasant amount of diversity in the face cards! Sure, there is always room for improvement, but considering this game has been out for a while it is a pleasant surprise to see more than just the typical white-washed figures.

As for what makes the game truly great is that not only can it still play well with 2 people (scales very well the more people playing) but the game really isn’t over “Until the Kings Go Wild” because this is a game practically designed for the comeback kid. There was one game where I had zeroes the entire game until the Jack round, and I got destroyed with a huge point-heavy hand. I ended up losing the entire game because of 1 round.

Lastly, the game can have great pace. Rummikub is supposed to be “fast paced” but in my house it never is. Five Crowns on the other hand? It actually is! The game is also a bit snappier than Phase 10 and plays better with smaller audiences than Skip-Bo.

(Wait a minute. There is a solo mode???)

What Could Be Improved

It is honestly kind of hard to find areas that need improvement in this game.

Constantly shuffling such a large deck can be a pain (since there is a 5th suit there are a LOT of cards), but in my family we just won’t shuffle until all the cards have been used, which adds a sort of card counting element to the game.

And it can be frustrating to play a fantastic game and then lose because of 1 single round. Luck is important to the game, which makes it that much more exciting.

Otherwise, all I can come up with are ways to enhance the current game experience:

From an art perspective, rereleasing the cards with different cultures would be beautiful and inclusive.

From an accessibility perspective, they already have symbols and numbers to resolve any color blindness challenges, so they could go one step further and release a braille set.

As for extras, it would be a nice for the game company to sell a branded card shuffler, and a card holder for kids, or even a tray to put the cards in to make it more travel friendly (such as playing on an airplane or in an RV).

So as you can see from the above, I had to really stretch to come up with ways to improve the game It has so many fantastic elements already considered!

Preferred Game Mechanics

  • Great Art & Colors
  • Tactile, but not needlessly fidgety 

BoardGameGeek: 6 out of 10

Final Thoughts: The Kings Have Gone Wild

All in all, Five Crowns will always be a go-to-game for me to have on hand. It travels well, is easy to explain, and plays well with small groups and large groups alike. Plus, ANYONE can be the comeback kid.

I would highly recommend this game to anyone who enjoys card games or numbers. Oh, and if the card box is still too big for you, they just released a Travel-Sized version that is for shorter rounds and can fit in your pocket. I’m definitely asking Santa to leave that in my stocking this year!

Have you ever played Five Crowns? I’d love to hear if you have any “house rules”!


Board Games, Seen By a Non-Gamer is written by Maria Polcari, Brandon’s wife. The series is meant to both make you think about games in a different way, and to give Brandon a much needed break!

This is the fifth in a ???-part series!

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Board Game Review: Exit Games

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Maria here again! A few years ago I picked up some copies of Exit: The Game at the store because I absolutely love Exit Rooms. Like, LOVE Exit rooms. When I saw that there was a board game version, I promptly grabbed a few for us to try out.

Fast forward a year and we still hadn’t played one. It wasn’t until after I was recovering from an injury where we finally decided to bust one out for a date night. It took us almost 4 hours to complete and was absolutely a great opportunity for communication for an engaged couple. Ha!

Seriously though, we have bought so many more of the games and they have been an absolute God-Send during the pandemic.

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Exit: The Game (And I don’t just mean exiting my house)

Objective

To solve all the puzzles in the game and “escape.” You can choose to complete the game within a certain time frame, only use a certain number of hints, or just try and finish it. It can be as intense or chill as you want!

Gameplay Overview

These are like classic Escape rooms, but you need to use your imagination a little bit more.

Inside the box you will find:

  • A decoder disc
  • Rule book
  • Another booklet (this contains the “Rooms” and other riddles)
  • 3 stacks of cards (Riddle Cards with the Alphabet on them
  • Help Cards with shapes on them, and Answer Cards with numbers on them)
  • Other “specialty items” that will be used later in the game

Read the rulebook first, every time, because it will tell you what to take out when you first start.

Gameplay

Once you are set up, you follow the directions diligently and work your way through the “room” which is often a certain page in the booklet with a room printed on it. There are clues and riddles everywhere. The riddles will result in a sequence of shapes that you put into the decoder cipher that gives you a number. You then go to that number card in numbered stack to see if you are right and get to keep moving through the room.

If you are wrong, or if you might be right and you have to check another card. Doesn’t that already sound exciting? I know I’m wanting to play a game just writing about it!

If you are stuck, you can choose to select a hint based on the shape of whatever you are trying to solve. But be careful! If you want to go by the game’s scoring, hints can dock your score at the end.

Cut, draw, fold, and think your way through each page of the booklet until you either escape this imaginary room or you suffer the consequences…of…failure!

Image c/o MeepleMountain

What I Love About Exit Games

As I’ve already stated, I love Escape rooms. So my first and foremost favorite thing about the Exit: The Game by Thames & Kosmos is that they exist; plain and simple. They are completely immersive, so even if we can’t physically leave our homes it feels like you’re transported to another time and place.

I also love that the games are not too expensive (typically $15 each, with larger ones at $25) but the quality is outstanding. The Thames & Kosmos team clearly takes pride in their work because everything from the materials to the riddle clues are of the highest standard!

Let’s first look at the materials. The cards are linen; the game box could easily be decorated/reused as gift box; and the art in the booklets is top notch. Oh, did I mention that the cards are LINEN. And you *literally* cut up the cards. It’s CRAZY! I remember the first time I went to cut a card it was thrilling, like I was being some reckless rebel.

Each game also includes a few “extras” that vary from game to game, but some of these are more than just cardboard punch outs. One game, and I won’t say which, included a candle, rope, and 3 fake gems. When I say that these can get impressively elaborate, I’m not kidding.

Gameplay

Now that we’ve talked about the material quality, I want to talk about the actual riddles. There is a wide variety of difficulty levels to be inclusive of families with teenagers or even middle grade kids. But there are also ones that are straight up hard.

In case you haven’t noticed this yet, but Brandon is really smart. And I like to think of myself as an intelligent individual. Well, these games will often take us 2 hours to complete. (Granted, I’m stubborn and never want to use the hint cards).

We even had my mom join us one time and she was stumped by several of the riddles. (And she thinks that Sudokus are fun!) These are not simple riddles, but complex tricks of the eye, ciphers, math problems, you name it!

Image c/o Thames & Kosmos YouTube

What Could Use Improvement

This is going to sound weird, but a “could use improvement” is possibly decreasing the quality of some of the materials. The linen cards are fabulous and really hit those tactile boxes for me, but once a card is cut….it’s cut. It isn’t going back together again. I almost wonder if there is a recyclable material that could be used or even a more biodegradable version, so it doesn’t feel like I’m just putting more plastic-like materials into the trash.

In a similar vein to the above, is the fact that when the game is over it goes in the trash. There is literally no way to regift the Exit games. I would love to regift them to my parents or friends for them to use as a date night activity, but the cards are cut, the booklets are drawn on; it’s impossible to regift.

Fortunately, the Thames & Kosmos team did come out with a new line of games called Adventure Games which apparently are replayable or regiftable.

Lastly, I think that there need to be a few more options in the 4-star difficulty range. I realize that these are supposed to be family-friendly, but I do wish that there was a wider selection of harder games. The first game we played was The Secret Lab one and the reason it was so hard wasn’t entirely because we sucked, but because the difficulty level still is one of the highest we have ever played.  

Preferred Game Mechanics

In my blog post Growing Up with Board Games: The Power of Nostalgia, I discovered that there were 4 main game mechanic themes tying my favorite childhood games that have also impacted my favorite games as an adult. The Exit Games manages to tick off every single item!

A Dynamic Theme

Every Exit Game takes “theme” to a whole new level. The only way that the theme of each game could be even further enhanced is if the rule book itself were written in theme. Otherwise, every element to the game is clearly chosen and designed to match that Exit Game’s theme.

Great Art and Colors

Similar to the theme, the artists responsible for the room designs in the booklets are talented individuals. Sometimes the colors are a little too saturated and hard to see (specifically dark colors), but the fact that my complaint is that the art is too good should tell you something.

Incorporates a Clicking Noise

We’ve played probably 4 or 5 of these games and each one does have some form of clicking noise. And that is outside of me tapping my pencil on the table as I try to solve a riddle.

Tactile, but not needlessly fidgety

If the game doesn’t have a clear clicking noise, then there are other tactile elements to the game that are great. Since you are having to extend your imagination in order for these games to work, you cannot actually pull open drawers or touch the walls of the room you are trying to get out of. But you get to fold, tear, cut, fan, flip, string, draw, and more.

The only “fidgety” part of the game is initial setup of separating the cards (DON’T SHUFFLE THEM!) and then sometimes the construction pieces get a little finicky.

You’ve Escaped!

Congratulations! You have made it through my blog post on the Exit: The Game by Thames & Kosmos. I hope you learned something, and I really hope you give a game a try! These games are great to keep on hand for birthdays, family gatherings, and rainy days at the lake. I know there are boardgame version of Escape Rooms, but I have yet to try those out. Let me know which one is better if you have played both!


Board Games, Seen By a Non-Gamer is written by Maria Polcari, Brandon’s wife. The series is meant to both make you think about games in a different way, and to give Brandon a much needed break!

This is the fourth in a five-part series (maybe more)!

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