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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Board Game Review: Terraforming Mars

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Maria here again! If you are new here, my name is Maria, and I am Brandon’s wife! You can read my first post here. Brandon is humoring me with a mini game blog series where I give you MY perspective on board games. Last week, I received Marrying Mr. Darcy. This week, it’s Terraforming Mars. (That’s right – I’ve got range!)

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I’m someone who grew up playing card and board games, but I would not consider myself a hobby gamer. I do have a cabinet of board games, but I didn’t really start accumulating games until after hitching my wagon to Brandon.

One of the very first board games that we received as a couple was Terraforming Mars, which we received from Brandon’s brother during our first Christmas together!

Just call me The Wall-E of Mars

Terraforming Mars has been out for a few years now, and it still stands as one of my favorite games. While the first game was beyond brutal, I have found the ever-evolving landscape to be loads of fun. (The rulebook seriously needs another 10 pages to it for potential scenarios, just saying).

Brandon is one of those gamers that thinks multiple moves ahead and it can be increasingly frustrating to play against him in a game of chess…BUT Terraforming Mars manages to work around that pesky habit of his quite nicely!

Side note: I feel like if we ever played chess, we could tell who’d win after the first two rounds.

Ok, enough chit chat. Let’s roll out and explore Mars!

Terraforming Mars: Board & Deck Building Game

Objective

Terraform Mars, duh. ALSO earn the most points by the end of the game. Per the instructions, “The game ends when there is enough oxygen to breathe (14 %), oceans enough to allow Earth-like weather (9), and the temperature is well above freezing (+8 ˚C). It will then be possible, if not comfortable, to live on the surface of Mars!”

Game Play Overview

One important thing to understand about the game is that we call rounds “generations.” Each Generation consists of four stages.

Setup

First, you select a character (corporation) from a selection where each has its own pros/cons. Each player gets specific startup resources based on their corporation.

Next, you set up the board according to the directions. The temperature and oxygen start as low as they can go. Each player starts with a set number of project cards. Then place character cubes on the starting Terraforming Rating space along the edge (#20).

The game then moves through 4 phases (the first generation doesn’t technically have the first two phases because those are conducted during setup).

Phase 1: Player Order

The Player 1 token circulates clockwise between generations. This is how the game makes sure everyone has a fair shot. For a 2-player game, this part can be difficult to remember to do, but it is important specifically for blue action cards that can only be used once per generation.

Phase 2: Research Phase

Everyone takes turns deciding if they want to “Research.” Research means you have the choice of buying cards. The cards are projects, which act as event cards you can play to get points and try to terraform Mars.

These are the Projects cards that you can purchase during the Research Phase, and choose to play during the Action Phase. Photo c/o Just Push Start
Phase 3: Action Phase – The Longest Phase

After everyone has conducted their “Research Phase” then the gameplay moves to the “Action Phase”. During your turn, you have a specific list of actions to choose from to complete during that turn. You then complete 1 or 2 actions each turn. You could even keep taking 1 or 2 actions until you run out of resources if you wanted to.

Once I realized that we could keep going as long as we wanted (essentially), I found a whole new element to the game that I enjoyed. Maybe this is standard for engine-building games, but it was a new concept to me. (It’s also probably is one of the reasons why I kept accidentally cheating.)

So as for your action options, you can choose to:

  • Play a card from your hand
  • Use a standard project (you pay money to do a project printed on the board)
  • Claim a milestone (a side hustle to get extra points; you basically want to race to complete these first; printed on the bottom left of the game board)
  • Fund an award (I’m still confused on these, but the idea is you are betting on yourself to be the best in whatever the award is; printed on the bottom right of the game board)
  • Use the action on a blue card that you’ve already played (once per generation only)
  • Convert 8 Plants into a Greenery Tile (which increases the oxygen 1% and therefore your Terraform Rating)
  • Convert 8 Heat into a Temperature increase
Phase 4: Production Phase

Once everyone completes all the actions they want to (or, if you’re like me, you run out of money), then the “Action Phase” ends. At that point, the “Production Phase” begins. It is during Production that you get money!! And other resources too, blah blah blah.

Besides getting money, I like this phase because it really sticks to the concept that you are a company. Since I’m a tactile person, I particularly like getting to slide the “Energy” cubes over to the “Heat” section because energy converts to heat. Isn’t that neat?

After everyone has their money (and other resources) then the Player 1 token rotates, and you move to the next generation. I think the Generations are just a way to help keep track of who gets to go first and helps break up the phases/turns.

When just the two of us play, we only halfway remember to adjust the generation. We still try to keep up with the generations, though, because they are also important if you are using an action on one of the blue cards, since those can only be done once per generation.

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What I love about Terraforming Mars

There is a lot to like about this game, so I’ll list them out:

There are just enough tactile elements to keep me interested. I love the different colored cubes and the dual-sided land pieces

Personally, I like the art on the cards. My husband is a bit more into game mechanics and the nitty gritty (can’t you tell I’m pleased I married a game developer? Ha!) and he thinks there are too many irregularities in the stock images and fonts. Honestly, I don’t care; the colors are bright so I’m happy.

I can be the Comeback-Kid! There are times where my husband has been absolutely clobbering me the entire game…until we go to tally up the points at the end of the game. Like Marrying Mr. Darcy, there are multiple ways to earn points. That means that even if you are majorly behind, you can still come back and win. Brandon still beats me a fair amount, but boy do I make him work for it!

True replayability. I feel like there are so many games out there that boast replayability, but don’t deliver. I’ll talk about the Forbidden games in a future post, but I feel like Forbidden Island is a good example of a game that technically can be played over and over again because the board always changes. But besides the changing board, there is not much else that changes.

With Terraforming Mars, however, you have a plethora of company options (each with their own bonuses and challenges) and even a whole second set of rules for added complexity. Brandon and I have been playing this game for years now and we still haven’t hit the tier 2 complexity cards.

Perfect 2-player game. Yup, I said it. I think that this is a perfect 2-player game. It will be interesting to see how it plays with more players, but it is complex enough for 2 people but also not one that requires thinking 12 steps in the future. Sure, you do still need to do some thinking ahead, but I draw the line at taking 20 minutes to plan out your next play. We aren’t all Doctor Strange, ok?

I’m yellow and won. Hence, the photo.

Could Use Improvement

The rule book desperately needs to be expanded. I realize that it can be challenging to write rule books and include every potential scenario, but there are some basic scenarios in the game that are not referenced anywhere in the rule book. Like the animals, ants, microbes, all that stuff. The cards do describe what to do, but there is no single page or section that outlines all the cards that interact with one another.

The first few times we played, I did not understand the relationship between a few of the cards because I only saw Card A and never saw Card B to understand the relationship. Make sense? Goodness, even trying to explain what needs to be improved is difficult…

Additionally, we need more resource cubes. Perhaps discs or some other marker to indicate a higher denomination (when you are producing in the double digits, the only current way to mark that is by stacking cubes)

We need more money cubes, too, but also more of the smaller denominations. If I could really get my way, then I would want the metallic look to not wear off.

Lastly, the game needs a box insert. I realize that there are separate inserts you can buy to put in the box, and we probably will go down that route one of these days. Even still, I wish that there was one developed by the board gamers that would then be able to remain on-theme. Then again, it is nice to help support some small business by buying the inserts from their etsy shops!


Preferred Game Mechanics: Very colorful, Incorporates a clicking noise, Tactile, but not needlessly fidgety (although a bit more fidgety than what I would like)

Board Game Geek Rating: 8.4 out of 10

We terraformed Mars…on to the next game

There you go! I hope you enjoyed my take on Terraforming Mars. If you are a patient person and willing to try something a little heavier than your normal game, then I highly recommend this game. There is a reason why it is so popular.

I’m going to go watch Wall-E now and do some Etsy shopping. I had *no idea* there were so many cute accessories to buy on Etsy for this game.

Next week I think I’m going to talk about a series of games that would be perfect for celebrating Halloween at home! At least, I know it’s what we are going to be doing 😀


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 third in a five-part series (maybe more)!