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~Rob Fenimore
Dice Drop Games

I am not a fan of losing. Ricky Bobby hated losing and so should you, the tiny baby Jesus be praised. But if I’m going to lose at anything, especially a board game, I want to feel as though I had a chance to win all the way to the end. Couple this with a game that allows me to create something – a civilization, a space station, or even a few evolving species – and I feel like I accomplished something on game night even when I finished in last place. (‘Cause if you’re not first, you’re last). There are three games that I love to play for these reasons, Evolution, Nations: The Dice Game, and Among The Stars. If you haven’t,  you should check them out.

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1) Evolution – North Star Games, 2-6 Players, 1.5 hours.

Evolution is a card game that allows you to create unique species and throw them out into the food chain to see if they can co-exist peacefully or eat their competitors as carnivores. Bottom line is, the more you eat, the more victory points you score, and the less you eat, the more you go extinct. Everybody secretly throws some food into the watering hole at the beginning of a round. Then you play your cards to add traits to your species, such as Pack Hunting, Horns, Hard Shell, and Long Neck. Each of your species can have three traits at once, creating unique combinations that could have a tree climbing, horned carnivore coexisting with a hard-shelled, long-necked vegetarian with unstable DNA. The traits in Evolution interact both obviously and subtly to produce interesting results at feeding time between the different species. In addition to adding traits to your species you also have to discard cards in order to increase body size and population or to start an additional species. A carnivore can only eat a species with a smaller body size. Certain traits reek havoc on this rule, however, like Pack Hunting and Defensive Herding. Population determines how much you can eat and score per round. After all players play or discard cards, a feeding round ensues. At the end of feeding phase you get more trait cards and start a new turn. You play until the deck is empty and then score victory points.

We have played this game numerous times, and it never ceases to amaze me how the theme is captured so well in Evolution. You get the sense that if you don’t adapt to what other players are doing (evolving) you will find your species starving to death or being eaten. Having a giant carnivore without Climbing try to eat a tiny tree climber is impossible. But if that same carnivore has the Intelligence trait, you can discard a card at feeding time to cancel the tree climbing trait for a moment so you can take a chunk out of the little bugger. Again, the game really shines in this regard. I can imagine my smart carnivore shaking the tree so a few of those smug morsels fall out. The art in the game (both first and second edition) is wonderful and evocative. Also, each player gets a player aid card that shows all the types of traits in the game and their characteristics. Each player aid card also contains a unique list of monikers that allow you to make up funny names for your creations based on their combination of traits. This makes it a little sadder when they go extinct but more glorious when they are fat and well fed at the end of the game. Evolution makes my list here because win or lose, you get the feeling that you created something that had a real place in the world, whether it got eaten right away, or evolved into a total bad-ass victory point eating machine to stand the test of time.

2) Nations:The Dice Game, Asmodee, 1-4 players, 45-60 minutes.

Nations: The Dice Game is a dice rolling civ building game that allows players to take a fledgling nation and develop it over four eras. It is based on a card game called Nations, which is its more time consuming and involved big brother. During each era players will get to roll a number of dice which are used to purchase improvements for their civilization. These improvements are composed of buildings, city states, books for knowledge, leaders with certain bonuses, and wonders of the world. Improvements are your main mechanism for scoring victory points. While it sounds daunting, a game takes only 15 minutes per player, so a full game usually takes an hour or less. Each era players take turns doing one action at a time. This keeps the game moving swiftly and allows players to remain engaged with little downtime. While there is a measure of luck (obviously, it’s a dice game) there is a lot of dice mitigation involved in the mechanics. Every player gets at least one “chit” to let them re-roll dice each era. Some of the bonuses provided by leaders also give you the ability to re-roll dice. Additionally, you can purchase different colored dice to increase your odds of rolling certain resources, like gold, food, swords, books, or stone. And if all else fails, you can spend any two dice to purchase a resource of your choice.

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Nations TDG makes my list because certainly by the end of the second era, each nation begins to take on its own personality. If you find yourself with a bunch of red dice in your pool, you are probably a warring nation rolling swords and scoring victory points based on said swords. If you have a bunch of blue dice, you are rolling books and stone and are pulling away culturally from your opponents. Those with yellow dice are rich and able to buy some bonuses that others cannot. Every time we’ve played it – which is often – there is sufficient smack talk and fake nationalistic rhetoric around the table worthy of FDR and Churchill. And most of the games are tight until the end. There have been some decent come from behind victories as well. But regardless, at the end of the game you should find yourself looking down at the board and feeling a sense of accomplishment. Not everyone can say they have built a flourishing nation in 15 minutes.

3) Among The Stars, Artipia Games, 2-4 players, 1 hour.

Among The Stars takes place in the distant future. A horrible war between the races has been avoided because unknown aliens appeared out of nowhere, destroyed everyone’s ships, and then disappeared just as suddenly. The races are certain these aliens will return to destroy them all, so they form a fragile alliance, agreeing to develop space stations to promote trade and provide defenses to help them survive the aliens’ imminent return. Dislike runs deep still, though, and each race secretly wants to have the most impressive space station. Players take the role of one of the races and take turns drafting cards representing possible locations for their respective stations. There are military, administrative, entertainment, commercial, and scientific type locations in the base game. The game is played over 4 years. Each year consists of players drawing a secret hand of six location cards. Each player chooses a card and passes the rest of their cards to the player on their left in years 1 and 3, and to their right in years 2 and 4. After passing the cards each player reveals the location they want to build and pays money to do so. Most locations score some victory points immediately, while others provide bonuses at the end of the game if certain conditions are met.

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The strategy in Among the Stars is deeper than it appears on the surface. As each player’s station starts to form such that you can see a theme taking shape. This theme usually points to greater bonuses at the end of the game (having the most military locations, fewest power reactors, etc). Once players can see what others are doing, this starts to influence which cards they play, since you have to pass your remaining cards each turn to another player. I often find myself choosing between playing a card I want in my own station or using a card just to keep it from another player.

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Among The Stars is saturated with theme. It is reminiscent of that sterile spacey feel similar to the Mass Effect video games. I can almost hear the groovy synth music as I play ATS. Again, it makes my list because it is quite satisfying, win or lose, to see my completed station taking up a lot of space on the table. During the game there are always little quips and brags about how this player has the most happening, fun, station in the galaxy, with its restaurants and observation deck, while that player is a war mongering, energy wasting scumbag, etc. The games are usually close, or at least they seem so, until that jerk in last place zooms past everyone with her end of game bonuses. All in all, great fun.

So, while Ricky Bobby might not find solace in a well-run, but second place finishing race, these three games provide enough sense of accomplishment for our gaming table so that we keep coming back for more. You should give them a try. Remember to nerd on, and shake-n-bake!

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Rob Fenimore
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