Thursday, March 08, 2007

The News in Reviews / Old Puzzler Answer / New Fortnightly Puzzler

At World Games of Montana, I have varied recommendations. I listen to a customer's specific gaming history, and then I recommend something. If you like Munchkin, you may like Killer Bunnies. If you like Puerto Rico, you may like Caylus. And so on.

But more often than not, there's no gaming history, and therefore a huge nebulous question like 'Can you recommend a good game for me or my family?' becomes a matter of luck. In cases like this, I always recommend Aquarius.

Created by Andy Looney and produced by Looney Labs, Aquarius is a simple domino-style card game in which players match like pictures.

To start, players are given a goal card. Goal cards have one of five pictures on them: earth, fire, air, water, and ether. You receive your goal and keep it a secret. The goal in Aquarius is to create a chain or cluster of seven of your goal's picture.

Three cards are dealt to each player. One picture card is flipped face up in the center of the table, and this becomes the starting point. Players on a turn must draw a card and play a card.

There are two types of cards: picture (or domino) cards and action cards.

The majority of cards are picture cards. Picture cards have from one to four pictures on them. To play a picture card, a player simply matches the card orthogonally to another card on the table so that two pictures touch along an edge. It's ok for other pictures not to match as long as one pair does. In this way, the playing area grows out in all directions.

Action cards have one of five actions on them: 'Move a Card,' 'Zap a Card,' 'Trade Hands,' 'Trade Goals,' and 'Shuffle Goals.' In each, you place the card in the discard pile and execute the action. This is a player's entire turn. Each is self-explanatory except 'Zap a Card' which allows a player to take a single table card out of the play area and into his or her hand.

The first player to make a chain or cluster of seven of their current goal wins the game.

Aquarius is admittedly quite simple. But I will just as easily play Aquarius as I will a game of chess or Taj Mahal. As of late, I have tried to figure out why this is.

In no particular order, I have come up with the following:

1) Aquarius is relaxing. You're unlikely to win Aquarius even if you're really trying to. It just doesn't work that way. Aquarius rewards people playing poorly as much as people playing well. That said, it eases the strain that other more strategic and complex games tend to exert upon the players. Aquarius is laid back, and I'm laid back. It's a match!

2) Aquarius is a bluffing game. When people have played it often enough, they invariably realize that bluffing must occur to have even a remote chance of winning. This gives players an opportunity to figure out what other people are up to. I enjoy this kind of investigation, even if the information gets destroyed because of a 'Shuffle Goals.' It's like a puzzle every turn!

3) Aquarius is pretty. Andy Looney did the art as well as the game design. Little details like the peace sign on the van in 'Move a Card' are awesome. I also like how the background to each action card corresponds to a different picture (or element). The attention to detail is a huge plus.

4) Aquarius is easy to learn and can be played by a wide age range. Often, I'm with people who don't know a lot about newer games (family, customers, friends, etc.). With Aquarius, you match pictures, and a game can't get much easier than that. I've had customers say that Aquarius is a hit with the family because it accommodates a five year old, a fifteen year old, and the parents. With so many different people with so many different needs, Aquarius is the perfect fit.

5) Aquarius has a few cool alternative games. The most notable are the following: a) The Aquarius Challenge, b) The Aquachicken Rule, and c) on-line Javaquarius.

The Aquarius Challenge is about making a chain of seven of each of the five pictures within a single table layout. A Nano-fictionary Blanks set contains a single Aquarius Wild Card, though you can use anything in its place. The instructions dictate that the Wild Card should in one play complete each of the chains of five pictures.

The Aquachicken Rule dictates that you don't look at your goal until you absolutely have to. Similar to the game of Chicken with cars, Aquachicken is a lot less likely to end in death, and it's a whole lot more fun. It's fun figuring out what other people have if they've looked. If they haven't looked, then just go with it.

Looney Labs has an on-line version of Aquarius called Javaquarius on their website Just click on the icon of Aquarius, and you'll soon find it. In it, you play computer players who are actually pretty observant. While definitely hard to win, it's a lot of fun trying.

6) Aquarius is cheap. At ten bucks, you'll be hard pressed to find a better alternative.

That's Aquarius in a nutshell. It's in my Top 25 games for entirely different reasons than some of my favorite games (chess, checkers, Yspahan, Power Grid, Coloretto, Goa, Louis XIV, Samurai, etc.). And while I have attempted through the above list to understand my enjoyment of Aquarius, I feel I have only come close to it. My favorite games often lack a strict definition of why I like them.

And that's the News in Reviews!


Old Puzzler

Q: What festive drink can be made from the letters of GONE GAMING? You may use the letters of GONE GAMING as a word bank; that is, no letter can be used more than once unless it has been used more than once within the phrase GONE GAMING. What is the drink?

A: EGGNOG. I also received GIN as an answer from Jonathan Wandke.


New Fortnightly Puzzler

What do long-distance hikers all start out with?

Here's the two-word answer, in code:

5.8, 1.4, 14.1, 11.7 4.2, 7.6, 10.9, 2.3

Crack the code to get the answer.

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