Xenon Profiteer, review

Grabbed it on sale from Eagle Griffin cause we like clever deck builders here. This one is even more clever, to the point it plays more like a card builder (like Mottainai) than a proper Deck Builder.

Xenon at work
Xenon at work

The premise of the game is you want to ‘isolate’ xenon in your hand by removing all other cards, then use it gain victory points. This is done primarily by a once a turn ‘distilling’ step where you remove from your deck all the cards of the most common gas in your hand (so all nitrogens if you have nitrogen, all oxygens if you have no nitrogen, etc). The catch of the game is that to get xenon cards into your deck you also must take a nitrogen, oxygen, and krypton, then you spend all your effort on removing those cards.

The non-gas cards are divided into 3 types: power ups, pipelines that increase your hand size, and contracts that convert xenon to points. Power ups can be used like in a deck builder (once per shuffle), or can be installed at a cost to go off every round. This means that it’s possible to play and win this deck-builder without ever buying a card to your deck. You would still need to take air in, but that’s done as a separate action from buying.

So the one half of the game is the above, a multiplayer solitaire to get the most points possible out of the objects you buy, about when to switch to ‘overtime production’ which allows you to distill twice, at the cost of not getting any new cards, and when to buy what. The player to player interaction comes through the process of bidding.

Xenon Profiteer to go
Xenon Profiteer to go, at Tea N More

Bidding is placing your player token on a card available for purchase. It lowers the price of the card for you buy 1 (including going into negatives, meaning the card can pay you to purchase it), but perhaps more importantly it means that whoever buys that card will also have to pay you on top of the normal price.

This leads to the primary interaction with other players: trying to block their purchases and convert what they need into a slowdown for them and acceleration for you.

A playthrough is about I’d say 20m per player, and has a similarity to Mottainai in that the two main strategies are either to go slow and get as many points as possible, or to go as fast as you can in order to get the game to end quickly before the slower decks manage to ramp up their engines. In our experience this can go either way.

It’s a great game for us, not very heavy but interesting in a puzzle solve-y way, while still including a bit of player interaction without making it too aggressive. Recommended if those things sound appealing to you. The unique play style and theme also helps. Wish it was just a hair quicker cause it’s just barely too long for work lunches with our usual 3-4 people.

TIS-100, ranty review

I just ‘finished’ the puzzle game TIS-100, meaning I wrote a code that solves the final task of the game and saw all of the plot (other than the hidden puzzle. I’m not ready to tackle that mentally), so please listen to me rant why this is probably my favorite puzzle game of the 2010s, if not of all time.

First of all: what is it? It’s a game that tells you that you inherited a weird old time-y computer from your missing uncle and are trying to run some debuggers on it to figure out what it is. It comes with an ancient looking manual and very little else. If it sounds like a mystery game, it’s cause it is.

(Throughout this post, feel free to click to embiggen the images)

Blank TIS-100 screen
Blank TIS-100 screen

The game is really about designing algorithms in the mathematical sense: converting inputs into outputs. To do so you’re given a pretty simple assembly language architecture with one feature, and one huge caveat. The feature is that you have access to multiple chips that all run in parallel and can talk to each other. The caveat is that each only has a single register that can do storage, math, and logic, and a second register that can only be used as long term storage.

Got it? Ok, so let’s go over a solution to a puzzle, or more precisely my thought process of solving one. Spoiler warning obviously, if you want to solve each one yourself, don’t read this.

The TIS-100 in later levels includes a ‘graphics’ module that allows you to display pixel data that is being sent to the output. The format is a string of integers formed as

( Starting X coordinate, Starting Y coordinate, <series of integers representing colors to draw 1 square of>, -1 )

In this task we are given a length of a line, then a color to use for it. We have to figure out how to wrap at the edge of the screen if the line is longer than the screen width. Here’s what the tasks look like, along with my initial solution:

Parts of the screen
Parts of the screen

So how does a guy who loves nothing more than clean logical order and Object Orientation handle this? Simple, by creating treating each node as a make-shift object. Let me walk you through the code above.

First, we got to keep track of where we are on the screen:

The column and row trackers

The upper circled node iterates from 0 to 30 (screen width), then sends that data to the right. It also sends either 0 or -1 down to the node that keeps track of rows. The row tracking node (circled below) returns it’s stored value, and whenever it receives a -1 it increments the stored value. So now we got a steady generator that spits out

(0,0), (0,1), (0,2) ... (29,0), (30,0), (0,1), (1,1) ...

etc etc.

Now we have to keep track of what color we’re on. We got a third node for that:

The color tracker

This one stores the length of a color and the value of the color, then by swapping those in and out of the long term register it decrements the length and constructs a little quad packet like (0, 0, 2, -1). That particular packet would draw a grey square in top left for instance. The node then passes this packet down into the chain of helper passing nodes and off they go to the output off the bottom row.

I make this sound trivial, but in reality it took the better part of an hour to come up with this solution, and then a better part of a second hour debugging a bunch of silly deadlocks and memory corruption mistakes (having two nodes get out of sync and wait for input from each other so that they hang indefinitely, forgetting to swap memory contents before displaying, stuff like that).

So what kind of performance do we get on that? Well, this:

Initial score

Not great compared to the average other user. So now we get to the second part of TIS-100. Optimizing to compete with the ‘others’ of the internet. So how can we optimize this?

Well, first thing that jumps out at me is that the bottom right node seems to be sending stuff pointlessly far. Look:

A regular Marco Polo this guy
A regular Marco Polo this guy

It really doesn’t have to go that far. What if instead of going all the way around, it just goes right? Now the top right packet constructor will only do 3 of the numbers, and the node below him will just plug in the row number from the left as we go. That should skim off a cycle or two, no? And skim them off the innermost loops too. Always good.

More to the point, this route
More to the point, this route

So now we’re just going straight right, though we needed to add a tiny bit of logic to the right to build the packet. 3 cycles less per each loop. Nice.

We can do better though, can’t we. I mean, what if we reärrange the nodes so that instead of the top right node acting as a packet constructor the packet gets constructed “as needed” and only in the last moment. A Just-In-Time packet, if you forgive the borderline archaic term. It would require moving the two “storage” nodes to below the input and then setting up an assembly line to the right of them. And oh look, the output is already set up exactly in the perfect spot for it. Hm. It’s like the designers knew this.

It's so beautiful
It’s so beautiful

So at time A the packet is (?, ?, Color, ?).

At B we get (X, ?, Color, ?)

And only at C do we get (X, Y, Color, -1)

Now, how much of an improvement do we get?

A whole freaking lot it turns out
Quite a bit, it turns out

Down from 7684 to 4898, so 36%. Not too shabby considering all we did was move some nodes around. Now, if we really wanted to make this mother fly, we would use that feature that lets us create longer packets. I mean, why send

(0,0,1,-1), (1,0,1,-1), (2,0,1,-1), (3,0,1,-1), ...

When we can send

(0,0,1,1,1,1 ... 1,1,-1)

I mean, it can’t be that difficult can it?

And before you know it, you’ve sunk another few hours into TIS.


Stone Garden, review

So before we start, this is about the Japanese only version of the game, technically named ??? or Karesansui, and called Stone Garden on Board Game Geek. This is not the American game Zen Garden and/or Karesansui from Eagle-Gryphon. All clear on this point? Ok.

Stone Garden midway. Player boards on outskirts, rock store in middle, cheat sheet between
Stone Garden midway. Player boards on outskirts, rock store in middle, translation cheat sheet between

Got to play this thanks to Tomo who ordered it from Japan for our work lunchtime plays (thank you Tomo). The game is conceptually a strange Carcassonne with more player interaction, more complicated scoring, and amazing quality pieces. Each turn you pick up a tile, decide whether you’ll play it (possibly having it stolen), gift it, store it, or discard it. Gifting earns you virtue, discarding loses it, and stealing loses even more. You then can move your assistant (the little pawn), have him buy and place a stone, or have him meditate to gain virtue.

The first level of complexity lies in the virtue management and the associated risk balancing. You might hold off on placing a critical tile until your opponents don’t have enough virtue to steal it, but then you give up your only storage spot, possibly wasting a great tile later. Buying stones moves your virtue to zero, which means that for one turn you can’t discard. Drawing a terrible tile then can mess up a whole arrangement.

The second level complexity of the game lies in the scoring and choosing between going slower for maximum points, or rushing with sub-optimal tiles, but hopefully finishing first and forcing your opponents into suboptimal gardens (the game speeds up once the first garden is finished). You get positive points for pleasing patterns of sand and moss, negative points for unmatched edges, big bonus points for your hidden objective, and then you get to the rock rules. Various rock patterns count for points, while other rocks simply score points by being present in the right place.

What’s nice is the game is genuinely rooted in the art of stone garden design, so you do learn a tiny bit from gameplay. You won’t be an expert by any means, but you’ll learn why certain rocks are placed where they are, and what they are symbolically meant to signify (famous islands, ships, etc).

Stone Garden box
Stone Garden box. Each rock in a custom spot.

What made the game a such a word of mouth hit is the quality of the pieces though. Cause of how good the rocks look, while working on your fake stone garden you genuinely create what looks like a really pretty little stone garden. There’s a genuinely joy in seeing everything come together as the game runs, which then leads to people tweeting photos of their gardens, and the game then spreads from there.

Like this: a game winning garden in the making (3 more stones coming)
Like this: a nice, though game losing garden (poor stone placement). Symmetry in middle row though.

The high quality also leads to a scarcity: the publisher simply can’t make the games very fast, so the game is difficult to find most places. And even once acquired you still probably need to get a good translation sheet for the rules, gardeners, and scoring patterns.

Having said that, I definitely think it’s worth it. The gameplay is genuinely interesting, and the components are just incredible. I genuinely hope it manages to come to the US without loss of quality because it’s a fantastic and unique take on euro-gaming, with a beautiful theme on top.

Fairy Tale, review

Tomo did a shopping order to Japan and I on a whim I ordered a Japanese micro that seemed be one with the least language requirements: Fairy Tale.

Fairy Tale, final scoring. Mass combos on my side

(Turns out it has an English version through Z-Man. Heh)

So this is a drafter, in the vein of Sushi Go or even more like Tides Of Time if you’re familiar with that one. You draft 5 cards in each of the 4 turns, after which you will play 3 of them and discard 2. Which if nothing else is very mathematically pleasing: 5 4 3 2.

The cards are used in 2 ways, the first being complicated scoring methods, just like other drafting games. This includes normal linear cards (“2 points”), exponential cards (“1 if 1, 4 if 2, 9 if 3”), conditional cards (“9 points if you have most dragons”), and ‘friend’ cards (“3 points for each bard you own”). The game is nicely balanced in these, but that’s not super groundbreaking.

The other layer to this game is that as cards are ‘played’, meaning added to your side, they have effects that fire. This includes flipping other cards face up or face down, or possibly intercepting cards before they hit the table and disable their powers early. This adds an element of combat to the game as players will often draft cards that they don’t intend to play just to make sure others can’t use those cards against them. Remember, you get to discard 2.

For example, in the game above I drafted every single demon card that flips human cards face down to avoid losing my combo cards. Two demons would have cost me two homesteaders and about 12 points, a third of my score.

As a bonus, I was pleasantly surprised to learn the cards used English words for “you” and “all” which made things easier, and came with a translated instruction manual to boot. Also, the design has that Japanese doujin-game style to it, which has it’s own unique charm. The only downside is unfortunately the paper it was printed on was kinda flimsy, but nothing a bit of penny sleeves can’t fix.

It’s a good game fun lightweight and a steady entry in our medley of “lunchtime at work” games, as it can easily be ran through in 45 mins. We’re fans of it here.

Tsuro mini-review and strategy tips

Tsuro strategy tips? Surely you’re joking. Nope, not at all. First though, a mini review.

Tsuro. Green wins

The players have 3 tiles in hand and have to place one in front of their stone. This makes a path. If you connect to a different path, you have to travel along it. If you crash into someone, you both are eliminated, if you go off the board, you are eliminated. It plays in about 5 minutes, is pretty fun and easy to teach people, and you already know all this. Cool? Cool.

So here we go, Tsuro Strategy Tips, or “how to win against your family on that one day a year where you all hang out together”.

3 basic ideas, all of which amount to “maximize your options, minimize others’ options”:

  1. Play bad tiles as early as possible
  2. Stay in the center
  3. Force opponents to the outside

Play bad tiles as early as possible

First, let’s explain what makes a tile good or bad since a lot of people treat them equally. Each tile has 4 sides, meaning it can be played 4 ways for your stone. Each of the paths on the tile links your stone to one of 7 possible result spots. The quality of the tile is how varied the different locations it points to are. A good tile has 4 unique directions it can end up sending you to, one for each side. A bad tile has the same result 4 times. 2s are poor, 3s are ok.

Think about it, you always want options. If you end up in a situation where going straight will kill you, and the only tile you have is one where every side sends you forward, you lose. On the other hand one where 1 U-turns, 1 turns left, 1 turns right, and 1 goes forward could save you here.

So rule 1: play your bad tiles as soon as you can, save your good tiles for when you need them to survive.

Stay in the center

Again, we’re talking about maximizing your options. If you’re heading towards the empty center, all your exits are safe. If your in the corner, at least 4 of your exits are automatically death. So rule here is simple: stay towards the center.

Force opponents to the outside

Since you can’t force opponents to play good tiles directly, your only aggressive action (other than just sending people directly off the map) is to minimize their choices. Whenever possible, always steer your opponents towards edges, or corners (corners preferred). Even if they survive, they will have to use better tiles to get back, getting you a bit of advantage.


So there you go. Some simple tips to get you a tiny bit of an edge in Tsuro. Now go out there and crush your little cousin.

Cthulhu Wars, review

David brought over the colossal box that is Cthulhu Wars, so I finally got to try it.

Early game, the King in Yellow spreading the good word
First things first, the miniatures really are all that. They’re genuinely fantastic, interesting, well made, and huge. See the photo above? the little human guys with books are the size of your average miniature. There’s not even in any elder gods in that photo, the big things are just regular monsters.

Second things second, this is not a generic miniature cash-in, which I was rather worried about that from seeing photos. The game does involve area control and there is dice based combat, but the game plays much more about power building and give-and-go of gate control vs “throw all your people into all his people and whoever rolls better wins”.

Tactical view. Nyarlothotep (blue) off to a great start
Let me expound more on that cause it’s pretty key to whether you’ll like this game or not. Every faction has very different units with very different powers, but they all share the same winning condition which is “Control gates and keep your old ones alive, then spend power points to double each turn’s winnings”. The differences are in how the factions go about keeping their gates controlled, monsters resummoned, and power points growing, and the differences are significant enough to keep the game interesting. Each faction starts with a bunch of cultists, one gate, and one power. Throughout the game you will achieve conditions that will unlock new powers, sort of like victory points in Twilight Imperium, or (as the manual says) Xbox achievements.

The powers tend to be pretty interesting and there’s actual strategy to what order you need to come out. For example, I played Hastur. My special ability is as a faction I can desecrate areas which will then give me power points as long as I keep a unit there (units from multiple factions can coëxist without fighting). One of the early power I chose was whenever I lost a cultist, I gain a power point. It’s a faction that doesn’t gain much from fighting and is actually kind of powered by avoiding conflict. Some other examples were Nyarlothotep moving twice as fast as anyone else, Cthulhu being able to resurrect for bargain prices, and Shub-Niggurath bypassing the 1 summon per action limit.

So the game isn’t much Cthulhu Risk as much as it’s a weird asymmetric Nexus Ops (or a very minimalist Twilight Imperium if you’re not familiar with Nexus Ops). There wasn’t much combat in our game, actually. Maybe 3 or so actual fights total (4 players), and a few more cultists getting kidnapped and sacrificed, which happens without die rolls.

It also plays pretty quick: we finished under 2 hours and that was with mostly new players.

Let’s be honest, the real reason why any of us played this game. Look at those things.
Keeping it real, there’s really one reason you’re going to play this game: the giant honking minis. And that in itself is enough to check it out, I’m just letting you know that they managed to make a pretty good area-control game underneath all that, once you actually get those giant things on the board.

Pandemic: Contagion review

The rest of the world might be playing Pandemic: Legacy, we’re just catching up to Contagion, the one where you play as the disease.

The game is neat inverse of the original Pandemic. You have stats that determine your diseases strengths, you have cards that you use to either infect cities or improve your disease, and each turn a new event card is flipped that you have to deal with.

Pandemic: Contagion. The Pandemic for those of us who prefer the eschaton
Pandemic: Contagion. The Pandemic for those of us who prefer the eschaton

The depth of the game comes from the powers on the cities that trigger for the player who finishes them (usually card draw, so tempo basically), from the fact that you can use double the cards to account for ones you’re missing (also tempo), and from the details of the event which add a bit of helpful randomness and favor those who think ahead to prepare.

We played the 2 player variant which includes rules for a ‘bot’ who plays along with the players. I’m not embarrassed to say that the bot managed to beat me by 10 points, though Angelica crushed it. Well, maybe somewhat embarrassed I suppose.

If it’s not obvious, this is not a deep game, though decently clever for a 30 minute play. It’s fun, but I do want to say that it comes with one caveat: the manual is not super great. We ended up with a false-start game based on us misunderstanding rules, and then finished the game with a laptop open to the “FAQ and Errata” page. After you get the details though, the game flows pretty easily afterwards, it’s just learning that first time that’s a bit of a challenge.

Also, the little petri dishes are very cute.