Wallets of Galloping Star Pioneers

This is getting too easy. I can predict my verdicts from these covers alone.

Button Shy is at it again. They’ve cornered a particular niche, games squeezed into plastic wallets approximately one-fifth the size of the leather brick I actually lug around. They’re tiny, consist of fewer than twenty cards, and most of them are rather pretty to look at. Good games, though? Let’s break down the most recent trio to find out.

I learned that phrase from a Dave Letterman interview. Everything I know about horse racing.

And down the stretch they come!

Mint Julep

A mint julep is a cocktail of bourbon whiskey poured over the rocks and garnished with a sprig of mint. It’s associated with Southern cuisine and the Kentucky Derby in particular. And I’m standing by that unless it comes to light that some Wikipedia prankster made an uncommonly down-to-earth joke edit.

Dan Letzring’s Mint Julep, on the other hand, is about horse betting, some blink-and-you’ll-miss-it card drafting, and the magic of a mint-tinged cocktail spurring horses into superequine feats of strength and speed.

At the outset of each race, the five contenders are clumped together and everyone picks which animal they’re backing. The remaining cards are then passed around and gradually claimed, sporting options that break up clumps, make lead horses sprint forward or fall behind, or, well, that’s pretty much it. It’s a minigame.

Very quickly, that starting clump breaks apart like a clod of dirt chucked at a wall. The movement rules are under-explained in the game’s tiny pamphlet, but easy enough to figure out — horses split into different groups, always with one rider at the lead, but can’t break apart so completely that they leave a gap. After a single round of drafting and horse-shuffling, the process repeats a second and third time, with players able to adjust their bets for a penalty to their final score.

I had mint lemonade once. It was the opposite of refreshing.

Ah, a second thing I don’t understand the appeal of!

The one real twist here is the mint julep card. This baby lets you enact a leading horse’s ability, potentially sending another rider galloping to the front of their group, shuffling a group, or swapping two groups entirely. The mint julep is such a potent card that passing it on during the draft represents borderline insanity, and therefore doesn’t do much to expand the game’s decision space, but at least it makes for some dramatic moments where your horse’s fortunes change in a heartbeat.

When it comes to the decisions you’ll be making the rest of the time, some of them aren’t half-bad. Switching your bet mid-stream can be the difference between backing a loser and walking away with the grand jubilee banana (or whatever you win from horse racing), and while each drafting round will only put two or three cards in your hand, there are some tough decisions to be made about whether to press your chosen horse into an opening or hold onto a card for later on.

Or at least these decisions are tough in step with Mint Julep’s diminutive stature. While the game is functional and has some good thoughts about how to get players invested in a miniature horse race, it still lacks the necessary heft. Too often, your drafted cards feel like they’re moving the same horses back and forth rather than breaking away from the troop. There are clever plays to be found here, albeit rarely.

Final Verdict: As Fun As Sipping Mint Juleps At A Horse Race In the Rain

Why play a game like Flip Ships when you can just flip this ship?

Literally a Flip Ship.

That Snow Moon

Just in case you didn’t get it, the wallet for Dave Chalker’s That Snow Moon comes in that ascending-text style where the S connects to the next letter, as even someone who doesn’t know anything about Star Wars would recognize as originating from Star Wars. The rules pamphlet and card titles are similarly loaded with references, expounding (briefly) on the galactic struggle between the evil Dynasty and the plucky Liberation, smugglers of the scruffy variety and princesses with peculiar hairdos, and galaxies “too far away or too long ago.”

I’ll spill this right now: your appreciation for this one may be directly proportionate to how much you enjoy Star Wars references. While one member of our group laughed his Bothan ass off, the rest of us stared in blank numbness as we discovered that this is a game about throwing cards across the table.

To give credit where it’s due, at least That Snow Moon is trying something different with its card-throwing formula. One team, the Liberation, is trying to toss their cards face-down onto the table, clustering the Snow Moon plans into a single archipelago, then sending a pilot to land upon the Snow Moon and put an end the Dynasty. From the bad guys’ perspective, they’re flipping their cards over to pin the Liberation cards, gradually revealing and then crushing their enemies.

Yes, I've seen a Star War. Try not to faint.

That was one in a million!

The best part of the whole thing is its devotion to asymmetry. Not only are the Liberation and Dynasty each chasing after their own goals, but their methods of getting cards onto the table are also distinct. While the Liberation tosses its cards into clumps in order to scrape together those plans, the Dynasty must hold their doomsday weapons and evil armadas above the table, then flip them onto its surface, with anything other than a full rotation becoming lost. As you might expect, this usually sends them fluttering under the couch.

It’s not a bad notion, and even manages to one-up certain larger card-throwing games by at least being interesting. Then again, that interest quickly wanes as you realize that there isn’t enough to That Snow Moon to keep you coming back.

Final Verdict: Star Wars Pun

It's like my grocery list.

Yep. Pretty Western.

Circle the Wagons

With microgames, there’s always a tendency to be lenient. These are games more about their portability and footprint than their table appeal, and it would be nuts to argue otherwise. These aren’t even fillers. They’re the games you slip into a day bag because they’ll fit, they can be played on a park bench, and if they fall into a pond then you haven’t lost anything too significant.

Circle the Wagons might be the exception that disproves the rule. It’s seriously good.

Here’s the notion. From the game’s pool of eighteen cards, you take three and flip them onto their backside. These are your goals. The other fifteen get laid out in a wagon wheel, or just in a line if you don’t have the space for that. Then, one at a time, you and your cow-tipping train-robbing swill-swilling rival set to picking which card you’ll add to your holdings.

Right away there are two cool goings-on that legitimize Circle the Wagons as a force to be reckoned with. The first is that your pick needs to be the next card in the wagon wheel — unless you’re willing to skip a card or two, which will gift them to your opponent. This isn’t always a terrible idea, but it is one that always bears some consideration, possibly nabbing an excellent card by handing something not quite as valuable to your friend.

Okay, 90% accurate. Every household owns more guns, bottles, cows, wagons, and pickaxes than shown. It's a MINIgame, you know.

100% accurate portrait of what the American West is like.

With your chosen card in hand, you stitch it onto your growing quilt of territories and symbols, whether setting it alongside your cards or layering it over something. Depending on the goals you drew during setup, both are considerable options. Sometimes points will be awarded based on the broad layout of your map, like owning totally enclosed cards or the fewest possible tiles. Other times you’ll want symbols aligned in specific arrangements, like groups of forts, lines of wagon trains, cows far away from snow terrain, or as few beer bottles as possible. No matter what you drew, contiguous terrain will also be worth something, so even if you can’t manage to fulfill a particular goal, at least you can create pleasant plots of land.

It’s as compelling as it is straightforward, scratching the portion of our brains that loves putting symbols into their proper place. The fact that you’re always chasing after multiple goals also provides a sequence of tough trade-offs, where a particular swath of farmland might be worth a lot of points if joined over here, but you need its fort and cattle over there. All that brain-burning for a fraction of a larger game’s real estate.

Final Verdict: Legitimately Good

Posted on March 2, 2018, in Board Game and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. I almost backed circle the wagons at the PNP level, but held off for some reason. Now I’m wishing I had backed it again!

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