All posts by Sweet Lemon Publishing

What's a sweet lemon? Good games that don't quite fit the criteria for conventional publishing. We run NiceGameShop and publish Terrible Monster.

Festival International des Jeux 2017

King’s Pouch

I was a little hesitant to pick up Korea Boardgames’ King’s Pouch after last week’s review of Burano.

They’re both fairly weighty worker placement games, and I was worried about covering similar terrain. Do we really need more talk about pushing cubes?

However, King’s Pouch really is quite a different machine – and not just the bag building.

Wait, what’s bag building?

To answer that, we need to travel back to 2014. Dominion was a smashing success, deck building was beginning to show its age, and publishers were looking for the next big variation.

This is the best way to understand King’s Pouch, and why it became so overlooked.

Theme

After the king’s death, our realm has fractured into competing fiefdoms, each ruled by a would-be successor. Like you!

From the rulebook:

You will use your citizens to develop your lands, muster armies and amass wealth. You may even try to secure the goodwill of influential public figures, like the remainders of the royal family.

But never forget to keep the dishonest parts of your society in check: Excessive corruption may lead to your downfall sooner than you think.

It’s stock-standard medieval material: knights, taverns, lots of concern for wheat crops.

However, there’s also an emphasis on corruption, represented by good-for-nothing, layabout officials who stink up your kingdom with their greed. Corrupt officials are lazy so can’t be placed anywhere useful – a big problem in a worker placement game.

I love ordering the city watch (manned by my finest red soldier cubes) to throw them out!

City construction is also satisfying, with a little tableau reflecting each player’s strive for commercial, religious, or military might.

There’s a real sense of accomplishment in placing the Festival Plaza or sending your armies to (extremely abstract) victory. Unfortunately, almost all of this theme is conveyed mechanically.

You’re hiring workers, training them, setting them to work in various businesses – everything makes sense. But the artwork places that action in a generic medieval Europa.

With a little more effort, King’s Pouch could have been its own place in the world.

Mechanics

 So, what’s a bag builder? It’s deck building with a bag.

At the beginning of their turn, players draws five colored workers from their own pouch. These could be generic common citizens, soldiers, merchants or clerics – or despised corrupt officials.

Workers are placed on constructed buildings to generate resources (such as money or military strength), alter workers (such as upgrading common citizens to merchants) and trigger various unique abilities.

For example, the School building requires a cleric to activate, at which point it generates 5 victory points and converts a common citizen into a specialist. Makes sense, right?

Players generally construct a building each turn, and can also use military strength to conquer and re-conquer land representing the wider kingdom.

All drawn workers are set aside and replaced with new workers at the end of the turn. If there aren’t enough in the bag, old workers are returned and randomly re-drawn.

Like I said, deck building with a bag!

For newer players, there can be a strong ‘multiplayer solitaire’ vibe, but over time the strategies and interactions become clearer. The military struggle is particularly tense with two players, and adds some nice take-that to the mix.

Components

King’s Pouch runs with the noble Euro tradition of wooden blocks.

Interestingly, specialist workers are cubes, while common citizens and corrupt officials are hexagonal prisms. This means they can be identified (with a little work) when players are pulling from the bag – allowing for some control and strategy in the draw.

This isn’t something I grok as a design choice, but many players enjoy the mini game, and it certainly leverages the bag building mechanic.

Otherwise, there’s not a lot to say about the components. The graphic design is functional but a little generic, and small cards reduce the overall visual impact on the table.

So King’s Pouch is all about the gameplay. That’s certainly not a bad thing, but it is a missed opportunity.

What do others think?

King’s Pouch  had a fair-to-positive response, and is rated 6.8 on BoardGameGeek.

However, the game was unlucky enough to be released at the same time as the more thematic Hyperborea and Orléans, which dimmed its appeal.

Three completely different games all meshed together to create one experience that just flows really smoothly, really quickly – very quickly.

Rahdo Runs Through

 

There’s a lot of interesting things. It just doesn’t gel together as well as I’d like it to.

Tom Vasel

 

King’s Pouch has some clever ideas and everything just feels well thought out. Well, nearly everything…

Alex Singh

Conclusion

King’s Pouch draws a lot of different elements into a cohesive whole, while building on the (then) novel mechanic of bag building.

Everything flows incredibly smoothly – the listed play time really is much quicker for experienced players – and even when you’re being completely thumped you can see how to do better next time.

If you can look past the vanilla theme, King’s Pouch is definitely a game that deserves more attention.

4 grand banquets out of 5.

Number of Players: 2-4

Playing time: 60 mins

Age: 10+

Country: Korea

By: Korea Boardgames

Price: 24.99€ at NiceGameShop

Burano

After reviewing a few lighter games, I thought it was time for something weightier.

Designed by Yu Chen Tseng and Eros Lin, and released by Taiwan’s EmperorS4 Technology, Burano is that weighty game in every sense.

At 2.3 kilograms, the box includes:

  • 1 rules book
  • 1 action board
  • 48 roof tiles
  • 1 main island board
  • 18 dock houses
  • 4 season markers
  • 120 cube houses
  • 12 lace workshops
  • 6 action color markers
  • 1 round marker
  • 4 merchant ships
  • 33 coins
  • 48 fish cards
  • 16 building cards
  • 4 player boards
  • 16 schedule ring pieces
  • 52 worker tokens
  • 1 starting player marker
  • 4 time wheels
  • 4 fishing boat tokens

So heat up that pizza and pour yourself a tiny cup of strong coffee. We’re going to Italy!

Theme

Burano is a ‘colored island of lace‘ in the Venetian Lagoon.

During the Middle Ages, the city’s men spent long seasons fishing on the outer islands while their wives skillfully repaired nets at home. Those expert fingers turned to making lace, which became famous across Europe.

From the rules:

Making a good living and making Burano become world famous, you have to figure out how to organize family members to their suitable work. It depends on you to earn the glory for your family and lead them to be outstanding from other families.

So the menfolk head to the fish traders and outer islands, while the womenfolk work at the lace factory (with pleasingly higher incomes if they form a union).

In carrying out these actions, the players collectively construct a multicolored and multilevel display of wealth – the city of Burano.

Mechanics

As the above suggests, Burano is a Euro-style worker placement game.

Actions are somewhat-programmed at the beginning of each round using an innovative if slightly baffling ‘cube pyramid’ system. Every turn, only exterior blocks from each player’s pyramid of colored cubes can be added to the city board and thereby trigger events.

This is a difficult moment for those prone to analysis paralysis, so the rules suggest a 60-second timer.

Surrounding this central mechanic is a series of interlocking subsystems, each presenting its own problems and rewards without overshadowing the other parts. The puzzle is constantly in flux: sometimes you’ll need resources, other times area control or even set collection.

Workers are sent from and return to each player’s schedule ring, which rotate throughout the game, constantly shifting the tactical equations being made – sometimes significantly.

Despite a few random elements that could upset the best-laid plans, my hunch is the better player usually wins.

Burano is a hearty meal for serious gamers.

Components

Pictures on a screen don’t reveal just how vibrant Burano looks on the table. With bright colors and acres of cardboard, this is a beautifully welcoming game.

Part of that appeal stems from the 3D elements.

Each player’s cube pyramid is a small monument to their tidiness (or lack thereof, in my case) while the city of Burano rises into the sprawling chaos you’d expect from city planning during the Middle Ages.

Be warned: all that chrome adds to Burano’s set-up and pack time, particularly during the first play. But if popping cardboard is your thing –  which it probably is – opening that box is a joy.

And if the gender stuff seems weird, there’s no mechanical reason you can’t send the women fishing, while the man make lace. They’re literally two sides of the same token.

Same-same!

What do others think?

Burano is rated 6.9 on BoardGameGeek, with positive reviews highlighting the depth behind that colorful facade.

Just a lot of neat things here, and it just feels so meaty and enjoyable. And it’s not meaty for the sake of being meaty – it actually seems to all fit together in a very cohesive whole.

Tom Vasel

 

Burano is a deceptive game; it looks like a happy, colorful, family-friendly romp through a Venetian vacation. It is not. It is a heavy game of clever planning and tactical maneuvering.

Milena Guberinic

 

I loved this game. It was stylish, compelling and engaging in turns.

Angelus Morningstar

Conclusion

Burano is that strange beast – the beautiful Euro.

Don’t be fooled by the bright facade. This is a deep game and it can take a few plays to really understand the strategies.

The raw mechanics, however, are relatively easy to understand, and new players will be up and fishing with a minimum of head-scratching and confusion. For this reason alone I can definitely recommend a ticket to Burano.

4.5 yards of lace out of 5.

Number of players: 2-4

Playing time: 90-120 mins

Age: 12+

Country: Taiwan

By: EmperorS4 Technology

Price: 59.99€ at NiceGameShop

Birdie Fight

A lot of games make their way through the Sweet Lemon office; unfortunately, we can’t try them all.

However, the moment I saw Birdie Fight’s exquisite box art, I knew it had to be one of those lucky games we cracked open.

While the mechanics spring from designer ゆお (Yuo), the immediate star is illustrator ことり寧子 (Kotori Neiko). The pair have worked together on other projects and I’m a big fan of the results.

But is it more than just a charming theme?

That may depend on your tendency to analysis paralysis…

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Theme

Strap yourself in because this gets (moderately) quirky.

There is a place called “mysterious forest” in the depths of the mountain. This is a paradise for small birds. But these small birds don’t get along well!

The players are forest spirits secretly guiding their favored species to victory in the battle of the birds. Also: there’s an owl.

Okay, so there’s not much of a backstory, and this is essentially an abstract game – but the illustrations do carry a charming sense of place.

Because favored species are secret, motivations can seem mysterious and indirect as players delicately nudge the forest in different directions.

If this seems superficial or light… don’t be fooled.

Mechanics

Birds of the mysterious forest come in four species: blue, white, red and green. They’re also ranked in strength from 1-7, making a total of 28 cards.

Ten scoring chips of various values are randomly distributed to form the top and side of an invisible 5X5 grid. These chips represent spoils of war for the bird species that control those columns and rows at the end of the game.

Each turn, players select a card from their hand and play it to the grid. The only exception is the vicious owl, which attacks and replaces a previous card, permanently altering the grid.

The overall visual effect is something like Sudoku, only far prettier.

Play continues until the hands have dwindled to a single card. This final bird determines which species each player scores, revealing and crystallizing motivations for the first time.

Points are carried into the second round, when a final winner is declared.

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Components

28 dainty little birds, each unique and each awash with loving detail, plus the coolest looking owl this side of Twin Peaks?

Yes sir, Birdie Fight sure is beautiful, but there’s a caveat.

Those point chips are horrible: faded colors, bubbled plastic wrap, and random industrial markings stretched across the flip sides.

Okay, they’re literally home made, and such quirks are common for indie games in Japan, but it’s such a shame when everything else is so polished. I mean, the strength values even subtly illustrate life cycles from youth to adulthood and nesting!

It doesn’t ruin the game by any means, but if you have anything else around the house to replace those chips, you’ll want to do it.

What do others think?

Zip. Zilch. Nada. Nothin’.

I haven’t found a single English-language review.

Leave a comment below if you’ve tracked down something elsewhere, otherwise I’ll check periodically to add to this section.

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Conclusion

Let’s be clear: this is a very well designed game.

Birdie Fight takes about a minute to explain and 20 minutes to play. However, a lot of intricacy emerges from these simple rules.

Competitive players will quickly find their brains burning up, while for more casual players it’s a… more casual experience.

This makes Bird Fight a classic couple’s game. The cooperative mode in particular begs for repeated play over the coffee table, rules long-since internalized to the point you barely mention the game itself.

But – every now and then – that high score increases a little.

If only those chips were better!

3.5 red breasted robins out of 5.

Number of players: 1-4

Playing time: 20 mins

Age: 8+

Country: Japan

By: Kocchiya

Price: 24.99€ at NiceGameShop

12 fresh games for a chilled New Year’s Eve

Let’s face it – there’s a lot of pressure for New Year’s Eve to be amazing. The parties, the tequila, the sudden mania as singles hunt for The One in the dying moments of the year.

Ba-humbug.

Why not kick back with your closest buddies, roll a bunch of dice, and greet midnight in style?

Here’s the perfect list to get you started. Just click on the picture if you’d like to read more or maybe even buy a copy – because party games have moved beyond Pictionary, folks.
 

Stage 1: The Children are Still Awake

These games are sure to keep your little ones happy… until the sugar rush wears off and they stumble into bed.

 

2168-cap-3Magi Kitchen

Naughty magic students have bleached all the color from the vegetables for tonight’s dinner! Race to return the colors with your magic powers (which mostly involve slapping cards real quick).

Worth checking out for the tiny, wooden vegetables alone.

 

peter-and-the-grown-ups-2881-pp-2Peter and the Grown Ups

After a group of adults are mysteriously brought back to Neverland, they’ll need to earn the trust of the locals to fit in with Peter Pan and the Lost Boys. Of course, being adults, they’re always tempted to lie…

 

matanga-1794-arc-4_600x600Matanga!

Everyone starts with a sheet of jumbled numbers from 1-60. While sharing a single (weird and wobbly) pencil between the whole table, players roll dice and race to mark off their sheet in order.

It’s crazy, frantic and inexplicably fun.

 

Stage 2: Hidden Identity

Now the little ones are tucked in bed, it’s time to break open a classic of the party game genre. Hidden identities mean lies, laughter and a chance to play detective – just look into their eyes.

 

tofu-kingdom-2245-swa-1Tofu Kingdom

All the Tofu Prince wants to do is propose to the Tofu Princess, but there’s trouble brewing in the Tofu Kingdom.

With rebellious servants (who sometimes lie) and spies from the Fried Tofu Kingdom (who always lie) running amok, the prince will need to ask just the right questions and piece together the truth to save this wedding.

 

monster-my-neighbor-1365-kbg16Monster My Neighbor

There are strange rumors of magic, monsters, and even monster hunters around the village. But who are the hunters? Who is the hunted? Each round, cards are used to spy on, change, swap, and generally mess with each player’s hand – before the big reveal in the final round.

Hidden identity with a big splash of chaos.

 

animals-frightening-night-1955-mzg-10_600x600Animals Frightening Night!

Okay, who let the fox into the chicken coop? Not to mention the wolf… The other farmyard animals will need to be clever to outwit and outrun the predators – but who can they really trust in the chaos?

Clever location and voting mechanisms allow for plenty of bluffing, table talk, and horrible animal impersonations.

 

Stage 3: Let’s Get Physical

It’s time to get the blood pumping with some (usually very weird) physical challenges. Also a great chance to find out which of your buddies has a massive competitive streak.

 

kaiju-2806-lhs-9_600x600Kaiju

When a nuclear disaster wipes out humanity and spreads radioactive waste over the planet, it can only mean one thing: giant monster fights!

This is a super light party game with a fun dice tower made right out of the box.

 

reidemeister-2714-bfp-3_600x600Reidemeister

Remember playing cat’s cradle in school? Reidemeister is essentially a competitive version of that, with players racing to form complex patterns out of string.

Definitely a game that goes from good to great with a few drinks.

 

cha-dango-1968-mzg-11_600x600Cha Dango

Time for some delicious dango and green tea. But wouldn’t you know it? The waiter isn’t paying attention and customers are piling up without their orders.

It’s card slapping time – a very solid speed game with a cute theme.

 

Stage 4: The Main Event

We’re done with fillers and the night is in full swing. Time to bring out the big guns – the main course, the headliner – for the final stretch to midnight.

 

a-fake-artist-goes-to-new-york-1314-og-1581263eedae22_600x600A Fake Artist Goes to New York

Welcome to New York!

Oh, you’re an artist as well? Welcome to the club. Of course… I hear there’s a fake artist somewhere among us. It’s not you, is it? That would be such a tiresome cliche.

 

burano-1667-es4-3_600x600Burano

Okay, maybe your friends don’t like light games. Maybe they want to see in the new year with a heavy Euro – lots of components, weighty decisions, and interlocking mechanics that threaten to melt your brain.

You need Burano in your life.

 

mask-of-anubis-1529-gti-1_600x600Mask of Anubis

Here’s one for the tech-heads, as virtual reality meets cardboard in the deserts of Egypt. Players take turns ‘within’ an ancient temple, describing what they see to the other players who are working together to build a map.

Not as easy as it sounds!

 

Bonus Stage: The Morning After

Everyone’s gone home, but is it really a happy new year? Or is it too soon to tell? Either way, take a moment to relax before tackling the house.

Enjoy a little game just for you.

 

shephy-2054-bou-3_600x600Shephy

The time of humanity has passed; now majestic sheep rule the world. But many perilous dangers remain, and careful leadership is needed to guide them to the promised land.

A relaxing, meditative solo game – check out our full review here.

Whatever you play, we hope you have a great night and a happy new year! Send us your pics via Twitter to spread the tabletop love.

Tokyo Highway

The hotness (noun): a game generating buzz and excitement, capturing the zeitgeist of a convention.

“Do you have the hotness? Shut up and take my money.”

Yes, every convention has a hotness, and at the recent Tokyo Game Market that hotness was (fittingly) Tokyo Highway, an elegantly abstract dexterity game for two players.

Despite having early access to the hall and heading straight to the publisher’s stand, we barely managed to snatch one of the last copies.

Why so popular? Partly because this photogenic little game is social media gold; mostly because it promises a fresh twist on a tired genre – and actually delivers.

Tokyo Highway is bottled lightning for Itten Games.

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Theme

Two rival construction companies compete to build grey, minimalist stretches of highway – like a city skyline refined and reduced to its bones.

Sound dull?

Fortunately, the rulebook provides a Rosetta Stone in beautifully eccentric style:

“Tokyo Metropolitan Expressway was formed conspicuously complicated design with many curves and multiple grade separations. Today, 310 kilometers of highway network has been built and became very unique urban expresway, with no similarities seen in the world.”

Those columns and connecting beams could be anything – trade routes, jungle bridges, whatever – but somehow they are precisely one thing. We’re building Tokyo’s spidery highways!

It all clicks into satisfying place with that description and a moment’s play.

Without a single character or ‘zany’ mechanic, Tokyo Highway pulsates with its own distinct tone and sense of place. It’s elegantly abstract: it cuts to the heart of things.

Mechanics

Players have a bunch of thick grey disks (pillars), thick yellow disks (junctions) and very thin wooden beams (roads). They also have tiny, brightly colored cars for scoring.

Each turn, a single stack of pillars of variable height is placed anywhere on the table, free-form style, so long as a linking road connects it to the rest of the player’s network.

Points are scored each time a road crosses above or below the opponent’s highway. This is where those cars come in handy, and are carefully placed on the beams to keep track.

Tokyo Highway gets tangled and knotty fast, so there’s a penalty for accidentally knocking over your opponent’s highway.

In practice, you’ll pick it up in about a minute. There are a few more rules that force conflict and implement junctions, but Tokyo Highway is basically about spatial awareness and steady hands.

The game finishes when one player runs out of building material (mostly because they keep knocking stuff over) or manages to score all their cars.

That’s it – everything emerges organically from these constraints.

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Components

Despite (or because of) their minimalist design, the components bring Tokyo Highway to life.

Words really cannot convey just how tiny the cars are, or how satisfying it is to place them in just-the-right-place with a pair of tweezers.

That’s right – each player has a set of plastic tweezers that narrow to a fine point and feel medical in their precision. They’re funny at first, but you soon realize they’re vital for tricky plays.

Everything in the box gives an impression of attention to detail, from the restricted color palette to the slightly rough ends of the wooden beams.

Tokyo Highway is not an expensive production, but it is a quality one.

What do others think?

This is fresh from the factory, folks!  I can’t find a single English review of Tokyo Highway anywhere.

Leave a comment below if you’ve tracked one down, otherwise I’ll check periodically to add to this section.

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Conclusion

Personally, nothing scares me away from a game like the word dexterity.

That’s because: (a) this usually means thrashing about the table as quickly as possible, like button-mashing in real life; and (b) I’m really bad at these games.

But Tokyo Highway is a dexterity game like Operation is a dexterity game, which is another thing entirely.

It’s a bento box filled with miniature food – careful, precise and inexplicably satisfying.

5 tiny cars out of 5.

Number of players: 2

Playing time: 30 mins

Age: 8+

Country: Japan

By: Itten Games

39.99€ at NiceGameShop

Shephy

Shephy (pronounced ‘Sheppie’judging by the reimplementation) is quite simply a modern classic.

Released in 2013 by veteran Japanese tabletop / RPG publishers Bouken – also charmingly known as Adventure Planning Service – it was both designed and illustrated by Pawn (ポーン). This light, surreal solitaire balances between whimsy and meaningful choices.

But Shephy isn’t going to drive you insane with agonizing dilemmas.

It’s a meditative exercise. Protect the herd when you can; sacrifice it when you must. I think I’m in love.

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Theme

It’s not often that quoting directly from the rulebook is a good way to convey theme. In this case it’s perfect:

Be fruitful. Multiply. Fill the earth.
Flourish in every part of the land and let the tread of golden hooves resound.
Let calamity be inspiration and have a plan for any purpose.

This poem continues for some time, sketching out a gentle yet fragile post-apocalyptic world. Sheep – the meekest of creatures – have inherited the earth, and are filled with hereditary urges to populate its vast, empty fields.

As both designer and illustrator, Pawn has complete control of this vision.

Every woolly fatality by lightning strike, falling rock or asteroid feels tragic. There’s just something touching about the noble ambitions of these sheep married with their plump, round, woefully impractical biology.

Mechanics

The game’s population is represented by 49 sheep cards of ascending value (1, 3, 10, 30, 100, 300, 1000 – seven of each). These are moved around seven play slots, representing the land available to grow and expand.

You’ll start with one sheep, and from there things can only improve, although that first expansion is never quite explained…

Manage your hand of event cards to guide this flock through the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. Duplicate, subtract, divide and combine your furry citizens in a glorious march to outproduce the game’s timer – the black sheep.

Players win by reaching a population of at least 1000 by the end of three rounds.

Although it’s possible to lose in the first round (even the first hand), there’s usually a path to victory once you understand the different cards. The challenge then becomes beating your previous score.

Choose a card; do the thing. Simple.

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Components

There are no chips, counters or dice here – only cards on nice, premium stock.

But just look at those sheep! Each card has a unique illustration, from the weird acrobatics of population markers to the grim portents of the event cards (what exactly is a Shephion?).

It won’t be to everyone’s taste but clearly I’m a fan.

If there’s one complaint (I’m contractually obligated to have at least one) it’s that Shephy isn’t quite as portable as it feels like it should be. At 72 cards, it’s a fairly substantial deck, and won’t exactly fit in your back pocket.

This is probably the inspiration behind the previously mentioned reimplementation, which is the same game in miniature.

What do others think?

Shephy is rated 6.8 on BoardGameGeek and reviewers generally approve – although rarely with the same enthusiasm I feel.

If you are looking for a light, fast solo game, that won’t burn your brain, Shephy could be just what you baa-gained for.

David Harding

I play this game as a kind of restful, self-imposed exile from other min-maxing, heartier games that my group loves.

Michael C

If the idea of sitting alone on a tea break and indulging in some hot sheep on sheep action while defending your flock from all the worst bits of the bible does it for you, then I urge you to give this a try.

Mike B

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Conclusion

Shephy is a gateway game.

Don’t take that for the insult sometimes suggested. This is a gateway to solitaire play, a field I’ve previously associated with fiddly World War Two simulations and big boxes that you could – technically, if you really wanted to, we suppose – play on your own.

With Shephy, I’m finally able to game over my morning coffee. And doesn’t everyone deserve a moment of zen?

4.5 sheepskin rugs out of 5.

Number of players: 1

Playing time: 15 mins

Age: 12+

Country: Japan

By: Pawn

Price: 19.99€ at NiceGameShop