Preface – High Stakes Gaming
Stop me when this sounds familiar. (Or you can skip this and get on with the reviews. I can’t tell you how to live your life.)
Between me and my girlfriend Bridget, I’m the one who is more enthusiastic about the board game hobby.
Bridget is supportive of my interest in the sense that she’s willing to play games with me, but I’m still the one who’s suggesting setting up a game and spending our limited time together playing with increasingly complex pieces of cardboard. Even though she tells me she enjoys playing, sometimes I wonder if what she is really saying is, “I know how much you enjoy this.”
Still, It’s my hope that one day Bridget will be just as passionate about gaming as me.
I’m guessing this is sounding familiar to at least a few people. At the very least, it has become clear to me while browsing reddit.com/r/boardgames that I’m not alone in this relationship dynamic.
It seems like every day someone is asking for suggestions for a great game to introduce their S.O. to the hobby, or for the best two player game to play with their S.O. who, notably, “is not a gamer.”
And based on my own experiences, I can tell why these are such important questions to ask.
The stakes are high.
I mean what board gamer wouldn’t want their S.O. to love games and want to play all the time. On the other hand, what if they have a terrible first few experiences, and then are less likely to want to play in the future.
Ultimately, this means that when Bridget and I play a game, I’m not just hoping to have fun myself, but hoping that she will come away from the game with a more positive perspective of the hobby in general.
Perhaps, this is an unfair expectation to put on a game, but it’s there.
With this in mind, I’m going to recount my experience playing three games (Five Tribes, Legendary Encounters: Alien, and Dead of Winter) with Bridget over Valentines Day weekend. I’ll give my opinion on whether each game will help that special person in your life realize their own passion for board games or run the risk of putting them off board games forever!
Friday Before Valentines Day – Five Tribes
When Bridget asked me what I wanted to play on her first night in town, I jumped at the opportunity to pull out Five Tribes.
Because my roommate was watching a movie in our living room, we busted it out on the bedroom floor. Where there’s a will (to play), there’s a way.
I was feeling bad for this one-armed merchant until I remembered he’s a slave trader.
As I discussed in my review of all the games I played in January, I’m a huge fan of this game. It is definitely my favorite two player game in my small but growing collection. The two player variant works great, and it adds a zesty twist by allowing each player to go twice each round.
This opens up the opportunity for crazy high scoring combo plays by skillfully positioning yourself through the (sexy) turn order bidding mechanic to go up to four times in a row. I’ve found this has the tendency to bump up scoring by about 100 points, i.e. 50% (sexier) more scoring.
This was our third play of Five Tribes, splitting the previous two. I ended up winning this time in a game that felt competitive throughout. Even though I ultimately won by a healthy margin, the game does a great job of obscuring just enough information to make it really hard to know exactly how the scores will shake out, before the final tally. This keeps players invested and the game exciting.
This particular play was pretty fun, – brace yourself, the “but” is coming – but there were a couple of times when Bridget had to ask me for advice on what to do. Now this may seem incredibly nit-picky, and I was happy to point out the move I thought was the best available. However, I know from experience that this means Bridget is getting a tiny bit frustrated.
I don’t blame her for needing some help or getting frustrated. Five Tribes, at times, has the tendency to make a person just feel dumb.
It’s the kind of game where you can find yourself looking at the board for five minutes and then realize you forgot what you were trying to accomplish in the first place, and now you’ve wasted five minutes of everyone’s time and are back to square one. I know this from experience.
Bridget is the type who wants to win by virtue of her own smarts alone, so asking for advice feels almost like a concession. Understandably this is frustrating. Looking at the board and failing to find the move that she needs is also frustrating. It’s a catch-22 of sorts.
I’m in a tough dilemma here because Five Tribes is so, so good. If your S.O. is already an experienced gamer, then by all means play this game together!
Unfortunately, Five Tribes is probably not the best choice for introducing your S.O. to the amazing world of games for a couple of reasons:
- It’s too open. The game just gives you too many options from the start without any kind of road map or natural progression. This is one of the things I love about the game, but it also functionally means all players must know all of the rules at the beginning of the game. Learning the rules as you go doesn’t really work because everything you can do at the end of the game, you can do on turn one.
- Difficult to understand choices. In Bridget’s first play, she told me afterwards that she didn’t really understand why she was doing various things. This in effect takes away all the interesting, hard decisions you have to make through out of the game. Instead, you are just doing things randomly because you can, which in reality is a lot less romantic than it sounds.
- It’s frustrating having to ask for advice all the time. If you do play this one with a less experienced gamer, then they should be warned upfront that they will have no chance of winning and the first game should be viewed as a strictly learning experience.
- It can make you feel dumb! Self explanatory.
It’s a great game, but there is just no getting around the fact that it’s a tough one.
Speaking of which…
The Day Before Valentines Day – Legendary Encounters: Alien
♪ On the day before Valentines Day,
My true love sent to me,
Twelve grunts a grunting
Eleven hunters hunting
Ten monsters creeping
Nine barracks buying
Eight sergeants sharing
Seven attack a scanning
Six cards not helping
Fiiiiive haaaatching eggs
Four face huggers
Two chest bursters
And we’re dead so start sorting! ♪
Now that I’ve set the mood, let’s dim the lights because it’s time for the Chicken Fryd Pop Quiz of the Week™.
What do you do, when you want to play a game, but your girlfriend doesn’t want to get out of bed?
You pull out your copy of Legendary Encounters: An Alien Bed Playing Game. Wait… that’s not quite right.
Believe it or not, I have played a game on a table before.
I’m not going to do a deep dive into my overall thoughts about the game because I’ll be covering in my end of the month blitz review anyways, but I will say this.
It’s pretty good — pretty, pretty good.
However, when Bridget saw me haul over this gigantic box, unwrap the play mat with its thirty-ish different zones, and then fish through the box for the umpteen different decks we’d need to begin playing, let’s just say it wasn’t love at first sight.
I could see her skepticism was growing by the minute, so I had to make a snap judgement call. Either I begin a lengthy rules explanation, or we just dive right in to the game.
I went with the latter option and (enter hubris) promised everything would be fine.
“Don’t worry babe,” Captain Frydman said in his sure, confident manner of speaking. “We’ll check out this little S.O.S., then it’s nothing but smooth sailing all the way back home sweet home.”
“After all,” he added, “nothing ever goes wrong in space.”
That was about the time we started playing the game, and to my surprise, I was absolutely right.
Okay sure, we died horribly, but diving right into the game really worked well for teaching how to play.
Unlike Five Tribes where new players can be overwhelmed by the multitude of choices, in Legendary Alien you are limited in what you can do in any given turn by the resources you have available.
On the first few turns you’ll only be able scan one or two things and maybe choose between a couple of characters in the barracks. It takes a couple minutes to explain these choices, but just like that you are playing the game, making meaningful choices.
Soon you’ll be fighting off aliens, adding awesome cards to your deck, and before you know it, you’re dead. It’s great.
I really didn’t know how Bridget would respond to this game because it’s so different from anything else we’d played before, but she loved it. When we did end up dying off, we were able to figure out some mistakes we’d made that probably cost us the game.
We immediately set it back up to played round two, and we won in an incredibly exciting game that came down to Bridget alone, winning the turn before she would have taken a final, deadly strike.
If it isn’t obvious by now, I would highly recommend Legendary Encounters: Alien for the purpose of introducing your S.O. to board gaming.
- Learning as you go makes teaching the game a breeze. One problem new players face when learning rules, is trying to visualize how a rule learned in the abstract will work within the systems of the game. No need to worry about that here.
- It’s cooperative. I think starting introducing your S.O. to gaming with a cooperative game is a good idea in general. Rather than being at each others throats the whole time, your working together for a shared goal. You’re killing aliens together and, honestly, what could be more romantic than that?
- It’s cooperative, but it’s not solitaire. I’ve played my fair share of cooperative games where it feels like just one person is running the show. (in all honesty, I have the tendency to do this, but I’m working on it!) Legendary Encounters: Alien deals with the alpha gamer or quarterbacking issue in the best way I’ve yet, wait for it, encountered. (Nailed it.) In this game you are building your own deck and dealing yourself a hand each turn from that. As a result, even if players are trying to tell you what to do, you can only do those things because of the deck you’ve built. This gives each player ownership over their actions, even if they were decided as a group.
- It tells a story. This isn’t as important to me, but Bridget loved this about the game, so I’m including it.
So there you have it. Honestly, I was surprised how well this worked for us. I wasn’t surprised, however, when Bridget ranked Legendary Encounters: Alien number one out of all the games she’s played so far. I could tell how much fun she was having while playing, and that is the best thing I can say about a game in this context.
Needless to say, this one will definitely be hitting the table (or bed) many times again in the future.
If you do choose to use this as an intro game, then maybe just set it up ahead of time. Also, you’ll probably want to make sure the theme isn’t off putting for your S.O.
Speaking of which…
Valentines Day – Dead of Winter
Yeah, you are definitely going to want to set this up ahead of time (oh, and well you’re at it learn the rules), instead of what I did, which was ask Bridget to learn how to play it with me.
Some of you are probably groaning right now (or laughing) at my foolishness.
In my defense Bridget had previously told me that she really liked Splendor because we learned it together, so I thought (yes, foolishly) that it would be a fun experience to learn the game together as well.
This was my first mistake. Folks, this is not Splendor.
Bridget making a racket.
Before playing I had read and watched many reviews hailing Dead of Winter as a great narrative game, a game that creates a story as it goes. This aspect of the game had Bridget and I really excited to try it out.
After playing I can see how it has the potential to tell a great story (more on this later), but that doesn’t mean it’s not also a heavy, complex board game — much more so than I was expecting.
Now some people might say that the game really isn’t all that heavy or complicated, so allow me to explain.
Like Five Tribes this game gives players a ton of options, in the form of actions they can do on their turn. Unlike Five Tribes, however, these actions aren’t intuitive — some actions are free, some require dice, some require dice compared to certain stats on a card, some require you to roll a certain dice done, some you can only do from certain locations, some you can do once per turn, some you can do multiple times, etc.
On top of this, the rulebook is pretty, pretty terrible. We found that it isn’t always clear and damn near impossible to find what you are looking for in a reasonable amount of time.
So yes, once you play a few games it really isn’t that complicated, but it sure gives off that impression on the first play.
Prior to playing, while I was punching out the beautiful little zombies and characters (pretty, pretty beautiful), I had Bridget watch a how to play video that I had watched previously.
Here is where I made my second mistake. I told Bridget that she could be our rules expert.
So we get down to playing the game and things begin going downhill immediately.
Bridget, our rules expert, has the first play because she has more leadership stat points, and decides to move her character to the school to start killing zombies. She has to roll the hateful, but awesome twelve-sided movement die to see if she makes it safely.
Of course she rolls the tooth and dies instantly, a one in twelve chance. We knew this was a brutal game going in, so it wasn’t a deal breaker for us. It was just one of her three characters after all. I still think it’s worth pointing out because I can easily see how your best fighter/favorite character/dog dying on the first play of the game could be a turn off to some players.
The problem for us was what happened next. Bridget went to draw a new character from the deck, but I was pretty sure that wasn’t the rule, so I suggested we look it up in the rules.
Eventually, we found the passage where it said that you don’t get a new character until you lose all your survivors, but here I am already correcting our rules expert in the first turn of the game. This would happen several more times in the first round, where I wasn’t sure about something, and insisted we look it up.
Bridget was getting extremely frustrated to the point where she suggested, essentially, that I always thought she was wrong and should just shut up about it.
We were not off to a good start.
Bridget’s frustration was completely justified. I had put her in a position to learn all the rules of this very complex game, take ownership of them, and then I was second guessing her each time she explained something based on a video I had watched a few days before.
When we looked in the rule and it turned out, more often than not, that we were messing something up, it wasn’t because she did a bad job learning the rules, or I had done a better job watching the same video, it was just because the rules are complicated, nuanced, and in many cases unintuitive to boot.
I mean who wouldn’t get frustrated in that situation.
Halfway through the game, after a considerable bit more frustration, I suggested, deflated, that we just put the game up and maybe try another time.
Bridget wanted to finish it out, so we did, losing badly — to be expected for a first game. We also tried the harder version of the objective because we were playing fully cooperative, but this was a very bad idea.
Damn you hubris!
I was surprised, based on how our first game went, but Bridget wanted to give it a second try. We selected an easy mode objective this time and began again.
The second game did go a lot better and we were even having fun at times. One thing in particular that I enjoyed was the hateful movement die from before. It adds a ton of drama to an area which is mundane in so many other games, moving.
Ultimately, we lost again, and realized it was because we were making yet another stupid rules mistake by playing each “food” card for a single can of food without realizing that some can be worth two or even three cans.
Damn you food cans!
Overall, the experience left a lot to be desired. To be perfectly honest, I still wasn’t sure we were playing parts of the game right at the end of the second game, which was particularly frustrating considering the hell we’d been through to figure them out.
Is this a terrible game then?
It’s ranked 21 on BoardGameGeek.com for a reason, and I’m looking forward to trying this again with a larger group and a better understanding of the rules.
Still, based on my experience with the game so far, I must strongly recommend that you do not play this with your S.O. who’s new to board gaming. Moreover, I don’t recommend you playing it with your hardcore gamer S.O. either.
- The fully cooperative variant leaves out so much content. It leaves out secret player agendas and the potential for a betrayer plus all the sub game that comes with it — suspicion, secrecy, back stabbing, exiling players, exile objectives. To play without all of this just feels like you are missing out on a big part of the Dead of Winter experience. I have read that the betrayer variant works better with two, and I’ll try it if I ever feel the desire to play at two again. (Maybe someone in the comments can convince me.) Regardless, this isn’t really an option when you are first learning the game or playing with a new player anyways.
- I also think the crossroads mechanic is broken with two players. Maybe we just got incredibly lucky/unlucky, but, in our two full games, we didn’t trigger a single “crossroads” card. This is because so many of the requirements to trigger the events are based on certain characters. With only two players, the vast majority of characters aren’t in play at any given time. On top of this you, only get the opportunity for two to potentially trigger each round. The lack of these narrative events really left the story telling part of the game lacking. Even ignoring the problems we had learning the rules, the crossroads issue combined with the missing elements in cooperative play left me feeling like this game is really not meant to be played at two, despite what it says on the box.
- Steep learning curve for new players. The unintuitive nature of the mechanics, even with the player aids, combined with the multitude of actions you have from the start of the game will probably give even the most experienced players pause.
Clearly, I made a big time mistake by not learning the game very well myself before playing it with Bridget. This is teaching board games 101 and it isn’t the fault of Dead of Winter that I blew it. However, for all the reasons listed above and how many other great games are out there, I just think you can do better at the two player count, whether you and your partner are experienced gamers or not.
Having said all that, as I write this review I’m organizing a four or five player, full betrayal variant game of Dead of Winter for tonight. I haven’t given up on this game at all, and I’m looking forward to giving it a more holistic review at in the February review roundup.
Five Tribes — I do not recommend for playing with your S.O. who is new to gaming, but I highly recommend playing with your S.O. if you are both experienced gamers.
Legendary Encounters: Alien — I highly recommend using this game as an introduction to gaming for your S.O. or anyone else in your life. I also think you would have fun with this at two players even if you are both experienced gamers.
Dead of Winter — For the love of god, don’t play this with your S.O. who is new to gaming if you ever want them to play another game with you, and probably don’t play this with your experienced gamer S.O. at two players either.
After reading a draft of this article, Bridget felt that it was necessary to leave some recommendations for games we do enjoy playing together because apparently offering up just one good option isn’t a very good list.
Without further ado, here are the three games that Bridget recommends. (Maybe y’all can bug her into offering up explanations in the comments.)
- Five Tribes
So maybe do play Five Tribes as an intro game. What the hell do I know?
Anyways, thank you so much for reading.
I’ll end on Bridget’s advice to the ladies and gentleman out there who find themselves on the other side of a relationship with a board game addict.
Remember it’s just a game and a new thing you can do with the person you love.
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All the best,