Posted in Board Games

Giving Thanks in 2020

I didn’t think our Worm Month would actually last a month, but here I am, returning 35 days later. There’s no new ways to comment on a global pandemic, and the warping effect it has on time, energy, and life. We’ve seen a substantial amount of change here at the Hex. The latest change is nicknaming us “the Hex” in the last sentence. We always knew our regular board game meet-ups kept us close. During this ongoing pandemic, those (virtual) gatherings have kept us sane. I’m thankful in the time we gained with each other this year.

As a result of playing more games, I found myself diving deeper into the hobby. There was an abundant expression of support as the pandemic began and conventions were canceled. Many creators believed it to be their duty to work harder to produce content that would help support the community. I am grateful for their energy and generosity that helped make those first uncertain months feel engaging.

Afte we added the endless Tabletop Simulator shelves to our virtual collection, we learned a LOT more games, sometimes three or more a week. I don’t think this would have been feasible without Watch it Played, Jon Gets Games, GameNight, and the many other content creators who serve the community with their tutorials, insights, and game play. I’m thankful that they make games more inviting by helping to explain rules.

Once you know the rules, there’s still the matter of getting the game to the table, and sharing that table with others. I think most people want to believe that everyone is welcome at table, but the longevity and durability of systemic racism show a more complicated reality. As a black woman in a hobby filled with white men, this is the reason I’ve remained wary of identifying myself. Just like in my day-to-day life, I was concerned my voice or legitimacy as a member of the community would be diminished by my race.

Black Lives Matter was not a new movement, but it reached a new level of awareness and impact this summer in America. More broadly than I can remember, I noticed companies and community leaving no doubt or ambiguity on the matter of equality. Sometimes this was expressed as a single statement, and other times it was declared an ongoing commitment. As for the board gaming hobby, I am so thankful for how the community responded.

I am thankful for Board Game Geek, who made a public statement in support of Black Lives Matter on their website, and fiercely moderated the comments that followed. As a major hub for the community, their diligence is supportive and encouraging.

I am thankful for Shut Up and Sit Down for their history of denouncing racism and sexism in our hobby. Collectively, they have a significant voice in the community, and they have routinely advocated for inclusion and historical education in board gaming. This summer, they donated the revenue from a month of their Twitch streams to support equality charities such as the Stephen Lawrence Charitable Trust.

I am thankful for Richard “Rahdo” Ham, who continues to wear his Black Lives Matter shirts in his videos. His commitment is a loving reminder that systemic racism is not solved with one post or comment – it’s ongoing work that requires consistency.

I am thankful for The Dice Tower for reinforcing through their choice of contributors and through their words that everyone is welcome at the gaming table. Welcoming diverse views helps to grow and sustain our hobby, and the Dice Tower includes and supports a range of voices.

I am thankful for Our Family Plays Games, who have willingly stepped forward to advocate for representation in our hobby. Starla and Miklos “Mik” Fitch have candidly spoke about bringing their own games to conventions, in the event that no one wanted to play with them. By sharing their story, they are helping others understand how they can be better stewards of inclusion in their own gaming circles. I am grateful that Our Family Plays Games encourages all of us to see those we share the gaming table with as family, and to embrace the entire gaming community as extended family.

As for my immediate gaming family, we’re a core group of four: a married couple and a couple of friends. Each one of us has navigated significant life changes this year. Because we started playing virtually (and pandemic life freed up our schedules) we were able to play more than ever, which meant talking more frequently. We went from meeting once a week to meeting as often as three times a week. Sometimes we’re playing games, but most recently we’ve just been talking about work, swapping Instant Pot recipes, discussing news, and sharing reviews of what we’ve watched. I’m thankful that during this pandemic, we’ve grown closer though we’ve been apart.

And finally, I’m thankful for you. Thank you for taking the time visit our blog. I hope that some of these words have resonated with you, or at least inspired you to think about what you’re thankful for in your life. We’re so close to the end of a year that was so unexpected, and many people are feeling completely worn-out. Taking some time to reflect on gratitude has given me a renewed energy, and I hope it does the same for you.

With Gratitude,


Kellye of Variant Hex in front of board game shelf, wearing an Our Family Plays Games hoodie designed by Beth Sobel
Posted in Board Games

10×10(x5) Challenge, Part Two

When I started this challenge, I was playing the games in any random order. These were the ones that were furthest along when I decided to start writing about my progress. That’s also why Part One has 9 games, and this post has 11. For the last three parts of the challenge, the games will be grouped a bit better in sets of 10 games each.

Here are the next batch of games I’ve completed:

In Part One, I described Metro as “a better Tsuro”.  I stand behind the statement, and also believe that the Tsuro app is better than the Tsuro physical game. While Tsuro is one of my favorite games to introduce to co-workers and new-to-gaming friends, it doesn’t ever get to the table at Variant Hex GameDays. The app includes a “longest path” and “most loops” game variants, which give much-needed variety to the base game.

I don’t have a physical copy of Roll For It!, but it’s another great introductory game. Playing against the AI is a bit dull, since it’s a basic dice-rolling game. This one is better as a pass-and-play, and would be a great choice to play with a friend while waiting for a table at a restaurant. If your waiting on a table and waiting for your friends to show up, Onirim is a well-designed one player card game. While there is a bit of strategy, the gameplay will depend heavily on the shuffles of the deck. There is a LOT of shuffling in this game, so the app is a bit more convenient than the physical game. 

Splendor and Kingdom Builder are two games that seem to get more shade than I think is earned. The additional challenges in Splendor give the app plenty of value for the price. I also think playing these challenges can improve your skill for standard, physical plays of the game. There aren’t extra challenges in Kingdom Builder, but the AI is decent and the already variable board and goal setup gives a good amount of variety. This is also one of the first games I’ve mentioned that you can load up with AI opponents and play way faster than in person. And, because the scripting will show you all available moves when using bonus titles, I think it can help improve your strategy.

“Just one more round” is what I’m often saying after finishing a game of Jaipur or Ganz Schön Clever. Jaipur is a two-player only card game, with different AI levels and game length options. Ganz Schön Clever is a roll and write that can play with many or just one. The design of Jaipur is well done and goes with the theme of the physical game. Ganz Schön Clever… is kind of just a spreadsheet? The advantage of the Jaipur app is having an AI opponent to play any time, while the advantage of Ganz Schön Clever is not having to do the math yourself at the end.

Maybe I should have compared Jaipur to Patchwork? Both and well-rated two-player only games. But, I’ll be comparing Patchwork to Cat Lady instead. Though the games are not very similar, I like the use of themes not often seen in board games. And, they are two games I think I could get my mom to play (but I’d suggest Calico to her first, which combines these themes).  Cat Lady isn’t too difficult, and the app has a room full of achievements for you to attain as you play. Patchwork has a fiendishly difficult “Uwe” mode that I’ve never beaten.

I’ve left my least favorite apps for last. Kings and Assassins and Dream Home were both a bit tedious. I think I feel about Dream Home the way Quinns of SUSD feels about Wingspan: I have experience in the topic, and something about the game themeing just isn’t enjoyable for me. (For the record, I think Quinns could not be more wrong about Wingspan, and I’m sure someone feels the same way about my opinion on Dream Home). Kings and Assassins is a perfectly fine grid movement strategy game, but it just leaves me wanting to play Fire Emblem instead.

  • Best of the lot: Splendor
  • Best quick game: Onirim
  • Most likely to delete: Dream Home

Posted in Board Games

10×10(x5) Challenge, Part One

I have a habit of buying board game apps whenever I see them on sale. The financial commitment is so much lower than buying physical boxes, and there’s no resulting organizational challenge to get them on a shelf. However, they’ve started stacking up all the same, in a digitally housed folder of shame.

I set a challenge for myself to help curb spending and make sure I was getting value from my purchases. I decided that before buying another app, I would complete a 500 game challenge: I would choose 50 game apps, and play them 10 times each. 10×10 challenges are somewhat common. I went with 5x this level, both because apps can be solo and much faster. And, I was sort of stunned that I had over 50 apps…

I’ve been tracking my progress using a Google sheet. I originally had a “wins” column as well, but as someone with a low “need to win” motivation, I kept forgetting to log wins. As of this writing, I’ve played 22 different games for a total of 132 plays. Here are the games I’ve played 10 times so far:

I didn’t own a physical copy of any of these games. Maybe that’s why I was swayed to complete 10 plays of these first. 6 Takes!, Exploding Kittens, Metro, Mille Bornes, Tides of Time, and Treasure Hunter were mostly played on my phone. Galaxy Trucker, Onitama, and Raiders were played on my tablet.

I think of Metro as “better Tsuro”. There’s a bit more strategy to consider, and a little less luck. Exploding Kittens was mostly boring for me. I imagine the “take that” mechanic that runs this game would be more engaging in person. Mille Bornes is also a “take that” game, but I found it easier to enjoy. 6 Takes! is a great back pocket game: easy to teach and play just about anywhere.

Galaxy Trucker can involve some (a lot of?) luck, but Onitama is pure strategy. Galaxy Trucker has the most content, in the form of a campaign mode. Tides of Times is beautifully animated, but relies too much on hate-drafting for me to enjoy it.

Treasure Hunter would be interesting to play in person. I’ve played at different AI levels, but I wonder if people would play the same as a computer. Raiders was one that I played the app, then got my friends to play, then bought a physical copy. That sort of undermined the financial intent of the challenge, but it’s also one I think I’ll play the most. The app has a short campaign mode, the AI provides a decent challenge, and is designed to bring depth and life to the game board.

  • Best of the lot: Raiders of the North Sea
  • Best quick game: 6 Takes!
  • Most likely to delete: Exploding Kittens

Posted in Board Games, Reviews

Avian Zen with Wingspan Beta

Getting into the Wingspan Beta was as easy as providing an email address. A couple days later I was provided with a Steam code to give the app a try for 3 days. I impatiently loaded the game on a Friday afternoon, and listened to the calming, nature-infused soundtrack while finishing up my workday.

I glided into the weekend by starting a game against the Automa. In a physical copy of the game, the Automa is a set of rules and cards that allow you to mimic the essence of playing with other people, without all the detail. You can get a sense for how well the Automa is doing as it scores dynamically as the game progresses. While I think this better than a score attack solo mode, one could argue that there’s no need to include it in an app that has AI programmed to play against you. That said, I’m glad to see it was included because I genuinely enjoy the Automa version. I also felt like it would be a good way to get a feel for the app.

Wingspan_Beta (5)Instead of merely providing a digitized version of the existing game content, the individual player mats are transformed into distinct, fully illustrated habitats. My scroll wheel flew me from forest, to field, and to coastline with relevant information for each settling into view as I traveled. I thought that I would miss the top-down feel of seeing all my birds at once, but after getting familiar with the controls, I forgot that I was even using them. The gentle, storybook animations have a soothing simplicity, without neglecting detail – like the distant clouds that can be seen over the trees from the wetlands with silhouettes of birds flying by. When viewing opponent habitats, their backgrounds featured different artwork than my own.

TWingspan_Beta (9)his immersion into a vivid storybook landscape is not without significant UI effort. In each place, and with each decision, the UI neatly presented the information I needed. A single click played a bird from my hand into the appropriate habitat, with the correct food pre-selected. Birds in my hand would rise slightly when I was viewing their habitat. When I played against AI opponents, their turns didn’t distract with unnecessary animations, and provided word bubble summaries of their actions. By showing you exactly what you need, at exactly the time you need to see it, the app removes any need to manage the game, and just lets you play it. 

Wingspan_Beta (20)There is one area of the app that does not shy away from showing more than I needed. When I visited my bird collection, I saw large illustration tiles ordered in a grid of all the birds I had played during my games. Clicking on a bird would cause it to chirp out its call, and showed the full information from the card. Just before returning to a new game, I noticed a small filter icon in the corner. This revealed another neatly arranged set of icons representing filter options. Lots of filter options. I could include or exclude, and sort by any metric. I recently learned that Elizabeth Hargrave, the game’s designer, manually ensures that all the percentages shown on the goal cards remain consistent as new expansions are added. These filter tools feel like the what she herself would use to classify and analyze different bird groupings.

Factual information, delightful artwork, and great game play are a rare triad. So often games only have a couple of the three, and the two can easily be separated. In Wingspan, they depend on and enrich one another. We’ve been playing tons of new games as a way to make the most of our now digital play sessions. Churning though all of these titles has made the great ones shine more; Wingspan is one of the greats.

Being a beta game, it wasn’t without some flaws. The UI strives to be clean and minimal, but that requires dynamic interfaces and tool tips hovers that can get a bit messy. A few times, the entire app crashed without warning. The shock of the forest disappearing and dropping me back into my desktop highlighted just how rich and evocative the game environment was. That’s much like how the beta ended a couple days later. It was just… gone. When the next Friday rolled around, I didn’t have that same avian zen to fly me into my weekend, and I can genuinely say that I’ve missed it. I guess I’ll just… go outside and listen to birds?