We got a bunch of board games for Christmas this year. Here's my quick rundown and roundup of the games. I'll give each game my own, personal, first-impression rating and an inferred rating from Heather and Corinne based on my interpretation of how much they enjoyed the game.
Exploding Kittens (2015)
Kyle's Rating: 2/5 (simple and highly random)
Girls' Rating: 5/5 (silliness, and EXPLODING KITTENS!)
Fairly simple competitive, player-elimination card game. Every turn you draw a card from the deck, if it's an exploding kitten, you're out. Last player unexploded wins. You have a hand of cards which allows you to modify the game flow and potentially defuse a kitten. It's short, it's easy, the instructions are clear. The girls like it. We played it several times inside the air fort. The girls played it with friends that came over and taught it without assistance.
Happy Little Dinosaurs (2021)
Kyle's Rating: 1/5 (terrible instructions, probably higher rated if taught by someone else so you don't have to deal with the instructions)
Girls' Rating: 3/5 (cute and a bit silly)
You're a stressed out dinosaur trying to survive the ongoing apocalypse around you. You'll face various calamities and do your best to stay alive. This is also a competitive, player-elimination card game, but slightly more involved than Exploding Kittens. You have a hand of cards that may enable you to better survive (or throw your fellow dinosaurs under the proverbial bus). Be the last dinosaur alive to win (or be first to escape the apocalypse by moving to the end of the track).
The game is pretty straightforward, and the artwork is adorable, but the instructions are absolutely abysmal. Some of the worst I've ever seen. I think the clearest way to describe their failure is that they seem to describe the game from a detached observers view--like an anthropologist describing what's happening but not understanding why its happening. So when you read them you can understand the "appearance" of the game, but not any of the motivation for why you're doing things. Once you get past that, the rules are actually quite simple.
Perhaps it was the pain suffered from attempting to decipher the instructions, but we were not particularly impressed with this one after a few play-throughs.
Camel Up (2nd edition, 2018)
Kyle's Rating: 4/5 (clear rules, analyzing probabilities provides some depth)
Girls' Rating: 4/5 (wacky camels and light hearted)
You're in Egypt gambling on the camel races, but this race is a little....different. The camels climb on top of each other and move in stacks and a couple of camels are running the wrong way around the track.
The instructions are well written and easy to follow to get set up and playing. You take turns either making bets or moving the camels (by dropping a die out of the pyramid). Once the race is over the player with the most money wins. I think Jess is a little annoyed playing with me since I'm able to analyze the probabilities fairly readily and made good bets. The girls have liked it and Corinne, after insisting she didn't want to play, loves it.
It's silly, a bit whacky, very much non-serious, and fairly quick to play.
Paint the Roses (2022)
Kyle's Rating: 4/5 (going to especially appeal to logic players)
Girls Rating: n/a (haven't played with the girls yet)
You're gardeners for the capricious and violent Queen of Hearts. She's given each of you different instructions on how she wants her garden arranged. You must work together and use deductive reasoning to figure out what the Queen has commanded your fellow gardeners to do while they do the same for you. Keep up with the ever-changing whims of the Queen or it'll be "Off with your head!"
You place new plants in the garden to communicate to the other players what instructions you've been given and/or learn about what instructions they've been given. We lost on the very last turn when the Queen caught us and chopped our head off.
Very nice artwork with detailed figurines for the Queen, the gardeners, and the White Rabbit.
Jurassic Park: Danger! (2018)
Kyle's Rating: 3/5 (dinosaurs are too smart, should be hobbled somehow)
Girls' Rating: 3/5
Jurassic Park is frightening in the dark
All the dinosaurs are running wild
Someone shut the fence off in the rain
One player controls the dinosaurs, hunting down the humans on Isla Nublar for sport. The other players are those humans desperately trying to get the park operating well enough to call for help and escape.
I played the dinosaurs and I think the biggest flaw in this game is that the dinosaurs are too smart. Since the dinosaurs know the objectives of the humans they can make strategic decisions to deny access to key parts of the board. This seems to be required to keep the game balanced as designed, but it also means the dinosaurs are unnatural and it takes away from the atmosphere.
I'm thinking about playing around with rule modifications to force the dinosaurs to make more "mistakes" and feel more natural to the humans. Even something as simple as "roll a die to determine which of your 3 cards you use this turn" would help.
I like the theme and board design should make for good replayability.
My Little Pony: Adventures in Equestria (2022)
Kyle's Rating: 3/5 (mechanics feel a little clunky)
Girls' Rating: n/a (haven't played through a complete game with them yet)
There's trouble in Ponyville and you need the magic of friendship to set things right. In this cooperative game you'll play as one of Pinkie Pie, Rarity, Twilight Sparkle, Applejack, Rainbow Dash, or Fluttershy and work to acquire the necessary resources to clear some hurdles and complete the final challenge.
I think this game struggles a bit on what it's trying to be. It bills itself as a deck-builder, but you don't have time to do as much deck building as in most other deck-builder games. There's a strict time pressure (not wall-clock time, but per-turn events) pushing you towards defeat. The result is that you don't have a lot of time to build-up your deck--if you try you'll lose. Instead you need to use a fairly aggressive play style to stay on top of things to win, which isn't my preference. I usually play more casually, but you will definitely lose this game if you do that.
There's a somewhat awkward "move" mechanic in the game where you need to expend resources to move your standee from one place to another. I feel like this could have been dropped entirely without losing anything related to the core game mechanic.
The Night Cage (2021)
Kyle's Rating: 5/5 (unique mechanics and well executed theme)
Girls' Rating: 3/5 (felt maybe a little too creepy)
You awake in an endless labyrinth with nothing but a flickering candle to light your way. Working with the other prisoners you must find a key for each person, find a gate, and meet there to use your keys to unlock the gate and escape. But beware, only the light of your candle keeps these walls stable. Any time a passage is not being illuminated by a candle it disappears and will change when next seen.
I heard about this game while looking for good Halloweeny games to play. I bought Horrified last October and put this on the wish list. Horrified is campy and light-hearted. The Night Cage is dark and creepy.
The constantly evolving board is well executed. And the candle theme is effectively integrated throughout the game. A little out of place in early January, but I look forward to playing it in October. The instructions are well written and the turn actions are clear. There's also an "advanced" game mode which we haven't tried.
Kyle's Rating: 5/5 (super chill, beautiful artwork, clear mechanics)
Girls' Rating: 5/5
Develop an ecosystem to support a variety of birds in your wildlife preserve. Manage food, eggs, and space to grow your population.
Players earn points for the different types of birds, number of eggs, and other specific goals. The player with the most points at the end of 4 stages wins. There's a lot going on, but the core game loop is easy enough. The complexity comes from how the base mechanics interact with each other as you try to expand your preserve.
I always find simple mechanics that combine to produce emergent complexity to be very satisfying. Too many games add complications to make a game seem more complex, but if not executed well it feels clunky (I think that describes My Little Pony, above).
Jess learned how to play and taught this one to the rest of us, so I can't comment on the instructions directly, but it also came with a learning tool in which it tells each player exactly what to do for their first 4 rounds to help you figure out what's happening. That feature was very nice. By the end of your 4th turn you have at least a vague idea of why you'd take each of the actions available to you and you're ready to fly solo.
The artwork is beautiful and the gameplay is very chill. Ostensibly you're playing against each other, but you're mainly just doing your own little thing collecting birds and reaching goals and then you compare scores at the end (though you could be aggressive about monitoring what everyone is doing and work to hinder them).
Kyle's Rating: 4/5 (logical analysis and engine building, but also fairly shallow)
Girls' Rating: 3/5
You're a renaissance-era aristocrat looking to expand your influence and power. Acquire resources and grow your empire while gaining the attention and loyalty of local nobles.
This game feels like what you'd get if you boiled down 7 Wonders to a single core mechanic: Acquire low-level resources which will enable you to acquire higher-level resources until you've accumulated enough points to win. Conversely, 7 Wonders would be what you get if you built on this core mechanic to produce more depth and (somewhat counter-intuitively) speed up the game.
Jess also took on learning this one. It seemed to go well, the rules are straight-forward (since it's built around a single mechanic). Easy to learn, easy to play. I always enjoy a game where you get to watch your power build and the engine-building in this scratched that itch well.
There are several expansions that, presumably, increase the depth and complexity.