Game Night: Betrayal at House on the Hill, Munchkin Panic, and Catan: Explorers & Pirates

At some point I may backtrack to our Fourth of July Game Night, in which we played the Rick and Morty Total Rickall Card Game for the first time, but as yesterday is fresher in my memory, and will give me a chance to bash two games for a change—one that I generally like but has become monotonous, and another that I have always disliked despite my general appreciation of its theme mash-ups—I’m jumping on that game night first.

This was our first long game night in a few weeks, and we were able to get in a good game selection that included Betrayal at House on the Hill, Munchkin Panic and Catan: Explorers & Pirates. We hosted for a change, and made a huge pot of potato soup with vegan cheese sauce to drizzle on top, as well as homemade rolls, and our friends brought their recent crop of homemade cider and a vegan cake. Our house isn’t as cool, so to complete the backdrop, you have to imagine the constant sound of two wall air conditioners and all of our celing fans.

First we played Betrayal at House on the Hill, which we have found enchanting since we started playing it late last year. Now that we’ve played it about eight times, the spell is starting to wear off on me, and while I still enjoy it, I’m beginning to find the placing of black tiles unrelenting, the haunt too easy to defeat, and, most importantly, it’s a co op game that doesn’t inspire co op play until the Haunt forces it. That it’s a co-op game which doesn’t inspire co-op play should be obvious to anyone else that has left a fellow player writhing in webs in order to open a different door and hopefully find an item. This happens every time the Webs Event Card is drawn in our gaming group. Many of the RPG games that Betrayal at House on the Hill is based upon (e.g. D&D and Call of Cthulhu) get criticism online for creating a style of game play humorously referred to as “murder hobo,” the definition of which you can find by clicking the preceding hyperlink, and Betrayal at House on the Hill seems to have found a more alienating formula of co op play, as even “murder hobos” work together as a group to kill the monster and grab the loot, while Betrayal encourages the group not only to split up, but to ignore the needs of the others. Betrayal at House on the Hill may have been a better game if it kept what was excised from its RPG simulation: a game master, to encourage the cohesion of the group. This may be why every time we play this game, I think of playing Chaosium’s Call of Cthulhu RPG.

There’s also been an unpleasant sense of deja vu that I have played something like it before, and I realized yesterday that Betrayal is just a more intelligent version of the Dungeon boardgame. Dungeon also destroyed the strongest aspect of RPGs like D&D by removing the game master from the game and requiring a style of play in which everyone is out for themselves. While in Betrayal acting independently isn’t required, but only strongly encouraged by the game dynamics, in both Dungeon and Betrayal I see a strong parallel, in that the effects of removing the game master from a RPG are similar in both. Do I find it slightly existential that in removing the authority from a RPG, there is no reason for players to be good or to act as a group? Yes, I do, but I’ll save that for another essay on the intersections of what I call Amoral RPGs (RPGs without a GM) and Existentialism.

All this said, in the face of my growing consciousness of the repetition of black tiles and the unsatisfying co op element, I did enjoy this game, and it did surprise me for once by having the Haunt (#42) win for the first time. An unlucky Haunt roll no doubt contributed to this win, as we were only 45 minutes into the game before a player rolled a 5 on eight Betrayal dice when the Haunt score was at 6. As the Haunt was revealed early in the game, we had few items and almost no useful Omens to battle the traitor, who found us easy pickings. This was gratifying to me, because after an unbroken seven-game winning record against the Haunt, I was beginning to wonder if the game was weighted too much in favor of the players.

Generally, our gaming group is pretty agreeable, and we play things that we all like, which may give you the impression that I am too nice in my Game Night summaries. The truth is, however, that I am like everybody else in the fact that I have negative opinions about some things, including a few games that we have played. This can be awkward when the game is a gift from our game-playing friends, and my wife thinks it is wonderful, so my ongoing strategy to conceal my shameful loathing of this generous gift has been to make suggestions to play better games. In fact, the best implied criticism of this game that I can make is that there are SO MANY better games that this has been successful for about seven months. Yesterday the eventual train wreck finally happened, and I found myself staring at the most underwhelming theme mash-up in recent tabletop history, Munchkin Panic. It was on my table like a vile, poisonous, beast, and as I didn’t feel Panic, but Dread at the amount of my life that it would suck away, I suggest renaming it the more apt Munchkin Dread. And, in the spirit of critical honesty, I’m going to call it Munchkin Dread not only for the rest of this review but for the rest of my life.

Why the contempt for Munchkin Dread? Basically, I consider it a crime to underwhelm, and I can’t find enough of the splendidly over-the-top hilarity of Munchkin in Munchkin Dread. Where’s the Munchkin in Munchkin Dread? I can’t find it. There’s Munchkin art crammed onto the cards, but as the card text is dull and humorless, they’re not anything like Munchkin cards. A mash-up should be a natural fusion of two games’ themes, and not a superficial dressing up of crammed content.

Additionally, I am a big fan of co-op games, the best of which create a sense of drama by making the game board mutable and untrustworthy (Forbidden Desert, Forbidden Island), or by having cascading events (Pandemic). Compared to these great co op games, there is no drama and lots of tedium in the sliding of 39 monsters, and a half-dozen curses, towards your castle walls, and the presence of a Huge Rock in the bag of baddies makes me think of the myth of Sisyphus and wonder when the game will end.

These are pretty acidic criticisms, and just to be clear that Steve Jackson Games have given me some happiness in my life, from Car Wars as a teen to Gurps in college to Munchkin, Star Munchkin, and Adventure Time Munchkin in recent years. But Steve Jackson himself could not sell me on Munchkin Dread. Which is not to say that I won’t play it again, as it has three fans in our gaming group.

While in our first game, it was obvious that the honeymoon was over, and the second game was one for which I have never had any illusions at all, our third game of the night, Catan: Explorers and Pirates, already my favorite way to play Catan-the game I love to hate and hate for loving it—was such a refreshing change of pace that I felt a wave of relief. Even as I felt the wave of relief, I knew it for the cliche that it was, but that did not stop the cleanness and purity of the feeling that I was happy to be playing a seventeen point game of Catan.

Yes, we picked the longest scenario in the box, so we were using the all three of the leader boards: Pirates, Fish, and Spices. Due to time constraints and wanting to play other games, we have only played this scenario one time before this. I forgot how much space it takes up on our table. The last scenario in E&P is so immense that I don’t think it would fit on our friends’ game table without us going without drinks and snacks, and we’d have to use an end table for the game resource bank.


I went gung-ho into this game with off-board play, which I’ve mentioned before at length. To reiterate, in every version of Catan you can score points both on the board in the forms of settlements and cities or harbor settlements, and off the board in the form of other scoring opportunities, which in basic Catan are Longest Road, Longest Army, and Victory Point cards, and in Catan: Explorers and Pirates are the one to three points you can get on the Pirate, Fish, and Spice leader boards, plus the one point bonuses you can get from the Best Fisher, Best Spice Merchant, and Greatest Pirate Scourge cards. Catan: Explorers and Pirates makes it even easier to focus on off-board scoring, because you don’t have to worry so much about creating more resource-producing settlements due to the fact that when your numbers aren’t rolled you get gold.

Given an opportunity of three sidebars to focus upon, I focused on Spices, as each Spice obtained comes with an in-game bonus, and then I focused secondarily on Fish. I entered one Pirate battle just to get 1 VP off of that leader board, although from watching the other players go at them I realized just how much faster a player can climb up that board than the other leader boards. It takes six spices or six fish to get to the top of the Spice or Fish leader boards, but if you’re lucky or a good planner, you can get to the top of the Pirate board with only three battles. I may implement more Pirate raids in another game, but I will have a hard time prying myself away from the more immediate advantages of the Spices.

The most important Spice hexes to reach are the ones that give you +1 Move, as when you have both of these hexes locked down, you have a 6 Move instead of a 4, which then makes it easier for your ships to get other Spices, more Fish, and drop off crew to battle Pirates. Some players might not see that there’s much of a difference between a 4 and a 6 move, but over time it adds up so that it’s the difference between moving your ships 36 hexes over six turns instead of only 24. After those two, it’s good to have at least one of the hexes that allow you to trade a resource for a gold once a turn. As I only used three bricks in the entire game (one road, one settlement, and one settler), I used that throughout the game for the alchemical trick of changing brick into gold.

Fish require some careful planning to capitalize upon, as you have to keep an empty ship somewhere equidistant from as many Fish-producing hexes as possible in order to do well on that leader board. As two of the players rarely sent out empty ships, that meant there were only two players on the Fish board for most of the game, although another player managed to get one in on their last turn.

I won the 17 point Catan: Explorers & Pirates scenario with 9 points on the board and 8 points off the board: three harbor settlements, three settlements, three points on the Spice board, two points on the Fish board, the Best Fisher card, and the Best Spice Merchant card. For most of the game, I had only five points on the board, two harbor settlements and one settlement, as I wanted to ensure that I was getting as much gold as possible. So my weak production funneled into my strategy. Gold is more versatile and can’t be taken by the robber/pirate ship, and if I needed a resource, I simply bought one.

Overall, it was an enjoyable game night. While I had the most fun playing Catan: Explorers and Pirates, playing the other two games added to my understanding. For instance, my avoidance of Munchkin Dread had become something like a superstition in that I no longer remembered why I didn’t want to play it, and playing it yesterday made me a lot more conscious of the good reasons why I dreaded it. Additionally, heckling something distasteful can be a way of enjoying it and redeeming the wasted time. In a way, I found the game I hate a more profitable experience than the one that I love, which is no doubt a common feeling among critics. My usual tendency is to write about things that I like, but as the format of my Game Night recaps forces me to talk about all the games that we play, even the ones that I don’t like, I’m finding that I enjoy just as much writing about the bad games as the good ones. That said, I’m still a game player, not just a game reviewer, and I look forward to playing more games that I like.

Catan: Explorers & Pirates Expansion 5th Edition

Munchkin Panic

Betrayal At House On The Hill – 2nd Edition


Enchanted With Simplicity and Authority: A Review of Gamewright’s Dragonwood (2015)

Unfortunately, many adults learn late in life not to be content snobs, after discovering for themselves that a lot of what is labelled “Mature” is anything but, and much of what is labelled “All-Ages” perfectly occupies the area of the mind that enjoys and creates wonder. Because Dragonwood has a recommended age of 8+, and is marketed as an “all-ages” family game, it is fairly likely that many owners of this game will be children, or families with children. You only have to look at Dragonwood‘s box to realize its intended target, as like most Gamewright products, it eschews an ostentatious big box format and stuffs its goodies into a package that hands of all sizes will enjoy.

Many of the adults that play it will initially think they are humoring their kids, only to be equally captivated by the fantasy world theme and card art, as well as its card based combat system, which is enchanted with both simplicity and authority.  It is almost as if someone took the most famous card war games, the more serious Dominion and the parody game Munchkin, and said “take rulers to these combat systems, and make them straight.” Instead of piling up abstract levels under your adventurer like you do in Munchkin, in Dragonwood you pile up your points concretely, as measured by your stack of monster cards. Unlike Dominion, however, which makes you pile up your active cards with your victory point cards in an indiscriminate mess, Dragonwood keeps your battle cards separate from your monsters.

In my description of Dragonwood’s rules of play that follows, I’ve decided to follow the format used in the rules and capitalize the names of cards and in-game actions.  So you’ll see Capture instead of capture, Reload instead of reload, and so forth.

To play Dragonwood, you first prepare two decks of cards, the Dragonwood deck and the Adventurer cards. To prepare the Adventurer cards, you simply shuffle and deal each player five cards. Readying the Dragonwood card deck depends on the player count: 4 players use 34 Dragonwood cards; 3 players use 32; and, 2 players use 30 cards. As you’re downsizing the 42 card Dragonwood deck, don’t remove the Orange and Blue Dragon cards , but hold them separate for the next step: after shuffling the Dragonwood cards selected for play, mix the dragons into the bottom half of that deck. Five cards are then drawn from the top of the Dragonwood deck to form the Landscape, and the rest are kept nearby in a draw pile, along with the Adventurer card deck, the six dice, and the two turn summary cards.

Whoever last hiked in the woods gets to go first, and play goes clockwise. Each player can either Reload by drawing one Adventurer card, or they can try to Capture a Creature or an Enhancement by Strike (playing cards in a numerical row), Stomp (playing cards of the same number), or Scream (playing cards of the same color). Each card played corresponds to one die until a maximum of six dice are rolled. So, if I play the following cards…

…I get to roll 3 dice in a Strike against this monster:


I only need a 9 or better, so if I came up into the world of tabletop games through the Dungeons & Dragons trapdoor, I might think I have a pretty good chance. However, Dragonwood‘s dice, while having six sides, only generate numbers of 1 through 4 with the average being 2.5. Here are the sides of a Dragonwood die: one, two, two, three, three, and four. This means that I need a pretty good roll to defeat the Grumpy Troll, as three dice will average 7.5 in this game, and not 10.5 as it would in most rolls of ordinary six sided dice. What happens if I fail to Capture a Creature? I get a wound, which in game terms means that I must give up a card from my hand. What’s nice is it doesn’t have to be one of the ones I played, so that I can try to play that sequence, or add to it, later. If I roll a lucky number and Capture the Grumpy Troll, then I put it face down in my monster pile and it is worth 4 victory points at the end of the game.

Enhancements are captured like Creatures, except that they are not worth victory points, and when you capture them you place them face up. Once you have captured an Enhancement, you can use that card’s bonus at any time, and unless it says it is only one-use, you can use it over and over again. Enhancements cannot be used to capture other enhancements, so this means that some of the enhancements can be as hard to get as the tougher monsters. This means that if you’re determined to get one of these powerful items, you could waste several rounds trying to pick one up while your more prudent competitors are scoring all the wimpy monsters that you’re passing up.

When an Enhancement or a Creature is captured, another Dragonwood card is drawn to fill the Landscape. Eventually, the dragons will be drawn, and when they are defeated, the game is over. Alternatively, if the Adventure deck has been played through twice, each player gets one more turn, and then the game is over. In either event, the players count their victory points from their captured Creature cards, and the player with the most Creature cards adds 3 victory points to their total. High score wins, with ties being decided by who has the most Creature cards.

Dragonwood plays extremely quickly, and when you are done with your first game, you will want to play again. Successive games are sufficiently different, due to the varying terrain of the game Landscape, so that Dragonwood has a lot of replay value. Additionally, the game designer Darren Kisgen was thoughtful enough to provide five variant game scenarios: Dragon Spell, Shorter Game, Longer Game, Simple Setup, and Advanced. The first and last in that series of scenarios are going to be favored by veteran tabletop players.

Dragon Spell simply gives you another way to fight Dragons: if you collect three Adventurer cards of the same color and number, you can fight the dragon with only two dice, and if you roll a 6 or better, you beat the dragon. If I’m calculating the odds right, that’s 13/36 chance (c.36.11%) of beating the dragon, which is a substantial gamble that could give a lucky player game-deciding points. Only the dragons can be defeated in this way. Also, if your Dragon Spell fails, the wound that results requires you to give up two cards from your hand instead of one.

Advanced play adds an eurogame feel to Dragonwood, as it uses a familiar mechanic borrowed from games like Puerto Rico or Ticket to Ride: instead of always reloading from the face down Adventurer deck, the game begins with two face up Adventurer cards that a player can choose instead. If you take one of the face up cards, it is replenished from the Adventurer deck.

I’m still a raw recruit to the army of woodland heroes that’s clearing out Dragonwood, so I don’t have a lot of strategy tips yet for this game. That said, I lost my first game of Dragonwood by investing too heavily in capturing Enhancements. I got a Magical Unicorn easy-peasy, but I failed in three attempts to get the Cloak of Darkness, only to see a Quicksand card replace the previous Landscape with 5 new cards and remove that item forever from my reach. If I had gone after Crazy Bats or Spooky Spiders instead, I would have had a few more victory points. Even if I had got that Cloak of Darkness after three attempts, it wouldn’t have added any victory points to my final total. So it seems that Dragonwood’s main strategy could be called the ABC strategy: Always Bag Creatures.

Dragonwood is an excellent game that can entertain a variety of different audiences.  Not only is it a good quick game for your dedicated gaming group to squeeze in between Puerto Rico and Power Grid, it is also a wonderful game to play with your kids, or for your gaming group’s kids to play with while you’re playing more Catan. And, Dragonwood is easy to teach and to learn, and just about everyone will understand this on just one play.  Games are like languages in that each has its own rules that govern thought during play, and Dragonwood casts a charm on you during your first game so that you learn the language of Dragonwood fluently and instantly.  In terms of “love at first sight” as it’s applied to tabletop games, the only other quick games that worked its magic on me so immediately were Splendor and Tsuro.  While this is more a statement on my typical indifference to quick filler games as opposed to long form strategy games, there is no doubt in this case that I was very impressed with Dragonwood.

Buy Dragonwood on Amazon

Cross-posted on  A review copy of Dragonwood was provided by Gamewright.  Board of Life uses affiliate links.

Here are my reviews of Broom Service, Batman Fluxx, and Splendor.


The Munchkin Alphabet Coloring Book Announced for August

In a move that seems to be partially the by-product of Andrew Hackard’s reflections on how Steve Jackson Games could keep marketing to younger demographics, SJG has announced The Munchkin Alphabet Coloring Book for August.

What are the most important letters to a munchkin? L-O-O-T.

Perfect for children (or the young at heart), The Munchkin Alphabet Coloring Book is a wonderful introduction to the world of Munchkin. With drawings by John Kovalic and 26 alphabet verses written by Steve Jackson himself, this is the ultimate crayon canvas. And of course, you’ll get 10 promo Munchkin cards! You’ll be a modern day Michelangelo. Or maybe Spyke-elangelo.

With its addition of 10 unique promo Munchkin cards to appeal to Munchkin collectors that want all things Munchkin, this item will no doubt appeal to its entrenched demographics as well.  But I can think of at least one family (ahem!) that will give this coloring book to their kids, one of which already plays and loves original Munchkin and Adventure Time Munchkin.


At the same time, they are releasing traditional playing cards with a Munchkin theme, and I wonder if this was a decision based on their recognition that their 45-54 demo is larger than their 18-24 demo, as the former group is more likely to be playing traditional card games and less likely to be playing video games than the latter.

Shuffle up and deal!

Munchkin Playing Cards give players a whole new way to enjoy the artwork of Munchkin! Ian McGinty, illustrator of Munchkin Guest Artist Edition and Munchkin Knights, is back with a set of 54 classic playing cards with traditional suits. Take a break from your game of epicMunchkin with a quick round of poker, or a munchkin’s true favorite: 52 card pickup.

These are standard playing cards; a copy of Munchkin is not required to play.

While You’re Waiting for The Munchkin Coloring Book, Here’s a Great All-Ages Munchkin

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