From the game room: Step up your game

An assortment of colorful gemstones on a white background similar to the ones we got to upgrade our Splendor game

An occasional post from Robert

Boring board game components got you down? There’s a cure for that – step up your game!

There is a large market full of ways to upgrade your board games, from deluxe versions of games offered by the original manufacturer to third-party add-ons, deluxe game components, box inserts, and playmats. You can, and some people do, end up spending more on the upgrades than on the original game. Now, I don’t advocate going that far, but some cool upgrades are available that can bring new life to a favorite game.  

A common upgrade for many gamers is to sleeve their cards. Thin plastic sleeves that envelop the cards used in board games will protect and prolong the life of your cards. Sleeves make a stack of cards thicker, which can cause problems packing them back in the box. And while sleeves can make the cards more difficult to shuffle, they will reduce the wear and tear on the cards, extending the life of your games. 

Several companies offer board game box inserts made of wood, cardboard or foam core to help you organize and store game components, reducing the time needed to set up the game and pack it back up at the end of the game. A well-designed insert may allow you to store the components of both a base game and its expansion(s) in the same box. (Or to store your sleeved cards.)

Then there are upgrades for the components themselves. For example, we recently upgraded some of the components for our copies of Splendor and Wingspan. For Splendor, we purchased a set of glass “gems” to replace the poker chip gem tokens that come with the game. These glass pieces are even colored and shaped like the gems depicted in the game. The set also came with heavy-weight “gold” coins to replace the gold coin poker chip tokens.

For Wingspan, we upgraded to wooden food pieces to replace the cardboard food tokens and wooden bird-shaped pieces to replace the wood action cubes. We also got wooden trays to replace the cardboard bonus point tracker and the plastic card tray. There are similar options available to upgrade the components for many other games. 

Another upgrade to consider is a mat printed on neoprene or other materials that help organize the playing area or replace the board (often upgrading the graphics or increasing the size of the board.) Playmats for individual players to organize their pieces, cards, tokens or components are available for some games. 

Lastly, many companies sell their games through Kickstarter or other crowdfunding platforms, which has allowed game publishers to offer multiple versions of a game, including a base version of the game and a deluxe version. The deluxe version often will include ornate miniature figurines (a.k.a. “mini figs” or simply “minis”) to replace the simpler pieces or tokens that come with the base game. Some people will buy the deluxe version of a game just to get the minis, even if they aren’t interested in the game itself. They want the minis to play tabletop wargames that use minis. These crowdfunded deluxe versions may include components, additional scenarios or expansions that may not be available in retail stores, so these types of upgrades may need to be purchased upfront or at a premium on the secondary market later on. 

Regardless of the degree of your involvement in the board game hobby, there is a range of options available for you to step up your game to a new level. Incorporating some deluxe components can significantly improve a game’s aesthetic table presence and enhance your gaming experience. 

From the Game Room: Asynchronous play

A green and black hummingbird in flight

An occasional post from Robert

It can be hard to find time to sit down to play a board game, particularly if a game takes an hour or more to play. But if you have a place where you can leave a game set up, you don’t have to play a complete game in one sitting, or even with all the players gathered at the same time. 

The history of asynchronous play
Asynchronous board game play has been around for a long time – two or more people playing a game, not at the same time and not all in one sitting. Asynchronous chess has been a tradition for decades, with enthusiasts even playing games across long distances by mail, email, or by message board post. This involves two players each having a chess board set up at their place and taking turns sending each other their moves using a naming convention for the pieces and squares on the board. 

Asynchronous online and mobile games
In recent years, the term “asynchronous game” has become most strongly associated with online and mobile games. Many online or mobile app games are designed to play asynchronously (such as Words with Friends). There are also many app adaptations of board games that can be played asynchronously. However, many physical board games can be played asynchronously as well. 

Many modern board games are ideal for asynchronous play
Many modern “euro” board games (and some thematic games and board wargames) don’t involve much player interaction and are thus well suited for asynchronous play. These games are often described as multiplayer solitaire, so it follows that one player can take their turn without other players present. And if a game includes some mechanisms whereby one player’s actions affect other players, setting up a system to communicate these effects can be straightforward. 

In our house, we have played countless games of Splendor, Azul, The Builders, and other similar board games asynchronously over the last couple of years. These games do not involve player interaction, other than which cards, chips, or tiles one player takes on their turn restricts the resources available for the other players. We usually have at least two different board games going at once and take a turn whenever we are taking a break. Sometimes, especially if we know that the game is coming to an end, we’ll sit down together and play several turns together in synchronous mode. It’s an exciting way to finish the game. 

Other games may need special agreements to play asynchronously
We’ve also figured out how to play a few games asynchronously that do include some player interaction, including Wingspan. Most of the bird powers in Wingspan only affect the player who activates them, but a small set of bird cards have pink powers that activate when other players take actions, and some other cards provide a benefit to all players. With a game like this, it’s important to agree on an etiquette and communication system before playing to handle such situations. For example, with Wingspan, agreeing that players will let each other know when they have pink power cards and how they trigger, or that when a player activates an “all players” power, they will let the other player(s) know that they also receive that benefit. 

Solutions to these types of issues will vary from game to game. It also helps if all players are familiar with the game and have played it at least once synchronously, but that’s not necessary. We have played a few board games asynchronously that were new to us. 

Asynchronous roleplaying games?
There is also a long history of play-by-email or play-by-forum with role play games such as Dungeons and Dragons. These gained new adherents during the COVID pandemic, using online forums such as Discord. This is a very different experience than playing in person, or synchronously online, but it may be a good fit for you if you do not have long chunks of time available for gaming. 

Photo by AARN GIRI on Unsplash

From the Game Room: Learning a New Board Game

swimming pool with stainless steel ladder

Learning how to play a new board game can be intimidating, but there are a variety of ways to learn: from the rulebook, from another person, or from online sources. 

Learning from the rulebook and other game materials

Learning how to play a board game via the rulebook and other materials included with the game is a straightforward way to learn. Learning by reading the rulebook can be enhanced by breaking out the game’s components and trying out the rules in simulated play while you read. 

Many games include other materials to assist in the learning of the game, including player aids, tutorials, playbooks, quick start guides, or programmed instruction. Player aids are cards or sheets which list the key rules and/or the sequence of play, designed to be a quick reference at the table during game play. Some games have information printed on the board itself as a player aid. 

Tutorials and playbooks walk you through a practice game (or part of a game) to teach you the rules as you go. Quick start guides similarly get you into the game quickly without having to read through the whole rulebook beforehand. 

Games that include programmed instruction include a sequence of scenarios or modes of play in which you play a simplified version of the game first, then add rules each time you move through the sequence, learning the full rules in several steps. That way, a complex game is learned in manageable chunks over a series of plays, rather than all at once. 

Lastly, some board games have companion apps (produced by the publisher or by third parties) to augment the game play, and these may include a tutorial or may otherwise be used to help learn the game. 

Learning from another person

Learning from the rulebook and game materials is not everyone’s idea of fun. One of the best ways to learn is to have someone who knows the game well teach you, and even better, play it with you. This could be a friend or family member, a member of your game group, or staff at a board game café or friendly local game store. 

Whoever teaches you can answer questions you may have in real time as you learn, and/or point you to where you can find the answer in the rulebook. If they play the game with you, they may also help you with some tips or strategies that are not included in the rulebook or other game materials. 

Learning from online sources

In these days of physical distancing, you may not be able to learn from another person face-to-face. Luckily, there is a wide range of board game resources to be found online, including how-to-play and playthrough videos, reference sites such as Board Game Geek, videos explaining board game terminology and principles, and blogs and videos explaining tips and strategies.

How-to-play and playthrough videos

A how-to-play video explains the rules of a game, as an audiovisual version of the rulebook. It’s the closest equivalent to having a friend teach you the game. A playthrough video depicts a person or group of people playing the game, usually explaining what they are doing as they go, but not necessarily explaining the rules in detail. 

In our game room, one of our favorite games is Splendor. Even before buying the game, we watched short videos on Splendor from The Rules Girl and 3 Minute Board Games to get a quick overview of what the game is about and the gist of the rules. Then, we watched Rodney Smith of Watch It Played explain in depth how to play the game. In my opinion, Rodney’s the best in the business in explaining how to play a game: he’s very thorough and speaks clearly. Jon Gets Games also posts board game tutorials, typically also with a playthrough, so you get to learn the rules as he plays through a game. Our Family Plays Games also posts playthroughs of games in a fun and friendly way that can help you learn how to play. 

Board Game Geek is a great resource

Another key resource for learning about games and how to play them is Board Game Geek, which is the IMDb of board games: a database of board games, with game specifications such as the number of players, the playing time, and the recommended age for players. It includes written reviews, photos of the game components, links to videos, lists of favorite games, forums, rules clarifications, and more to be explored. This is a great place to go if you are curious about a game and want to find out more about it. The BGG page for Splendor, for example, lists several written reviews, links to review and how-to-play videos, other games that fans of Splendor may also like, and much more. 

Learning board game terminology from Kidsplaining

Many of the reviews and how-to videos you will find on the Internet use jargon that may be unfamiliar for people new to board gaming. If you are new to modern board games, I highly recommend the Kidsplaining YouTube channel for their series on board game basics, walking you through board game terminology and principles. 

Tips and strategies

Once you have learned the basics of how to play a game, you may want to up your game from videos with tips and strategies. For most modern board games, you can find written posts or video tips to playing well or specific strategies to aid in your success. My Board Game Guides posted a blog and video covering strategy for Splendor. Another example comes from the Board Game Strategy blog. 

Happy gaming! 

From the Game Room: Ironsworn

Playing the roleplaying game Ironsworn.

An occasional post from Robert

Roleplaying games (RPGs) are having a renaissance – led by the massive surge in popularity of Dungeons and Dragons over the last several years, which has created the space for independent game designers to flourish.

Ironsworn stands out from the crowd of recent roleplaying games in that it can be played in three modes: guided, co-op, or solo. The guided mode is the traditional way of playing an RPG, with one person acting as a facilitator, setting the world and challenges for the other players to overcome with their characters. In co-op mode, no one person fills that role, with every participant playing a character, and sharing the world-building and facilitation duties. In solo mode, a single person plays a character, overcoming challenges of their own creation within a world they have developed to their tastes. Regardless of the mode you play, Ironsworn provides tools to assist in world building and challenge creation, in addition to its wide variety of character options. Last, but not least, the game designer, Shawn Tomkin, offers the PDF of the full core rulebook and related files for free at

What is the game about?
It’s about completing journeys and quests in a gritty, low-fantasy frontier world. Characters swear vows on iron to take a journey or to complete a task, driving the action and the story, hence the name, Ironsworn. The default setting is iron age fantasy that is Viking-inspired, with worldbuilding tools to adjust to your taste. For example, you (or you and your group) can decide whether or not to include magic, firstborn (elves, giants, etc.), or supernatural horrors, and how prevalent these elements are if you are including them. The system is quite flexible in terms of the setting. There is an active online community of Ironsworn players. Some of them have adapted the Ironsworn system to settings inspired by the cultures of Japan, Africa, and South America and to different genres, such as the wild west and cyberpunk. 

How do you play the game?
The core mechanics of the game include rows of checkboxes to track your character’s progress toward completing their journeys and vows, moves (actions your character can take with mechanical benefits and consequences for successes and failures), many tables to help flesh out details of the world and its inhabitants, and dice rolling (naturally) to determine degrees of success and to use on the tables. 

The main dice rolling mechanic is to roll one standard six-sided die as an “action die,” to which you add your character’s relevant stat and any situational modifiers to determine an “action score.” You also roll two ten-sided “challenge dice” and compare the action score to the value of each challenge die. An action score that is higher than both challenge dice earns a full success, called a “strong hit.” An action score that is higher than only one challenge die is a “weak hit,” denoting a partial success or success with a cost. An action score that does not exceed either challenge die results in a “miss,” or failure, although this can be interpreted as a success with a significant cost. 

Regardless of the outcome of a die roll, something always happens to move the story forward. The description of the particular move attempted provides direction for where to take your story. For example, when your character makes the move to “Gather Information,” a strong hit means that “you discover something helpful and specific’” whereas a weak hit means “the information complicates your quest or introduces a new danger,” and a miss means “your investigation unearths a dire threat or reveals an unwelcome truth that undermines your quest.”

Want to see or hear an example of how Ironsworn is played?
Want to see or hear an example of how Ironsworn is played? I highly recommend watching the second season of voice actor Trevor Duvall’s Me, Myself, and Die YouTube channel, in which he used Ironsworn as the game system. The game’s designer, Shawn Tomkin, and his son, Matt Click ran a short podcast series showcasing Ironsworn and Delve, an Ironsworn supplement (not free, although there is a free preview available). The podcast is called Ask the Oracle, which can be found on PodBean and on other major podcatchers such as Apple Podcasts. 

Finally, if, like me, you are more interested in science fiction than in fantasy, you are in luck! Shawn Tomkin recently Kickstarted Ironsworn: Starforged, evolving the Ironsworn system and placing it in a gritty, sci-fi setting (think the outer rim of Star Wars, or Firefly, perhaps even Alien). Learn more here on the Ironsworn website where you can sign up to be notified by email when the pledge manager is available for late backers. Otherwise, it should be available for retail sale in spring 2022. While the game is in the late stages of development, a preview version of the game is available to Kickstarter backers. For an excellent example of how the preview version of Starforged plays, check out The Bad Spot on YouTube.

From the Game Room: Catan

The Catan Board game

An occasional post from Robert

First published in 1995, Catan was the game that drew me (and millions of other people) back into boardgaming. It was so different from the classic family board games of my childhood, such as Pachesi, Sorry!, Clue, or Monopoly. Yet it was not as complex or as long of a game as the Avalon Hill board games I played as a teenager. Catan ushered in a new era of modern boardgaming. Due to its popularity, multiple editions, variants, scenarios, expansions, and spin-offs have been released, including an excellent phone/tablet app. See all the options at There’s even a Catan novel!

The game’s modular board of hexagonal tiles means that even the setup of the game varies from game to game, yet the system to set it up is simple and relatively quick. On each turn, the current player rolls two dice, which determines which resources are produced that turn. Since resources are gained by all players at those locations, and since trading resources is a big part of the game, even when it is not your turn, you are still engaged in the game. You are not just sitting there idly waiting for your turn to come around again. 

As dice rolling is a core mechanic in the game, there is a bit of randomness/luck involved, yet there are various strategies to follow and multiple paths to victory. It’s a game that is suitable for family game night, yet also holds rewards for strategic or even cutthroat gamers. 

Because trading is such a key aspect of the game, the base game of Catan does not work well for fewer than three players. For a 2-player Catan experience that also adds exploration and other challenges, try the Catan: Explorers & Pirates expansion (base game required), or Rivals for Catan, a 2-player card game based on the same concepts as the original Catan, but designed for two. Because of the way resources are generated for all players at the same time, no version of Catan is really suited for asynchronous play. 

Catan board games

From the Game Room –The Builders: Middle Ages

The Builders: Middle Ages card game

The Builders: Middle Ages is a clever little card game for 2-4 people of all ages that can be played in about 30 minutes, or asynchronously. The theme is literally what it says on the tin (the game comes in a small “tin” box.) It’s a game about constructing buildings in the European Middle Ages. Players take on the role of a general contractor, recruiting workers of various skill levels to send out to work on small to large construction projects, providing coins and victory points that vary according to the type of building. The game rewards good decisions in the choices players make among the available buildings and workers, finding efficiencies and synergies between the cards, or doing the best one can with sub-optimal card combinations. 

Dad vs. Daughter – The Builders: Middle Ages how to play video

The front of a building card depicts a building under construction and shows the number and type of resources (stone, wood, knowledge, and tile) needed to complete the building, as well as the victory points and number of coins you will gain by completing it. The back of a building card depicts the completed building and its victory points. 

The worker cards depict apprentices, laborers, craftsmen, and masters, each of which provides a different combination of resources to be applied to buildings. Apprentices, the cheapest type of worker, cost two coins to send to a construction site and supply two resources. At the other end of the scale, master workers cost five coins to put to work and supply five resources. 

How to play

Each turn, a player can take up to three free actions to do any combination of the following: start construction by selecting a building from a line of five available building cards, recruit a worker from a line of five available worker cards, send a worker to work on a building they have previously selected, or take coins (one coin for one action, three coins for two actions, and six coins for three actions). After taking three free actions, players can pay five coins for each additional action they’d like to take during that same turn.

A few of the building cards depict machines that you can build just like any other building, but which offer the player ongoing resources after they are constructed. For example, a tile oven that provides tile resources, or a crane that provides stone. A player won’t earn any coins when completing the construction of a machine but completed machines can be sent to a construction site for no cost in coins. So, there’s a tradeoff. 

Game design

The design of the cards is very pleasing, as the building cards show the necessary resources on the right side, while the worker cards show the provided resources on the left side, so that they line up when laid side-by-side. And the art on the cards is done in a light-hearted aesthetic. The only downside is that all the workers appear to be white males. For a game published just a few years ago, one would expect more diversity here. The worker cards are two-sided, so having each card have the same image on both sides of the card seems like a wasted opportunity. 

A lot in a small package

For a small game (only 42 building cards and 42 worker cards), The Builders has more variety and depth of strategy than you might expect. Do you go for several small buildings that you can quickly build for 2-3 victory points and a modest number of coins each, or one large building that will take several turns (and more coins) to build but earns you 6-8 victory points and more coins? Do you pay five extra coins to take an extra action this turn or wait until the next turn to take that action? Do you build a machine, which will cost you coins now but save you coins later? Since the game is so short and so replayable, you can try out different strategies each time you play.

From the Game Room: Splendor

Splendor set up for four players.

Splendor is a modern classic board game for 2-4 players, who assume the role of Renaissance gem merchants, building up their wealth in gemstones, gem mines, hiring artisans, and building shops, seeking to attract the notice of the nobility. Players acquire single-use gemstone tokens, then trade sets of those tokens for cards that represent gem mines, artisans, and shops, which are used as permanent gems. The higher cost cards also confer “prestige” (victory) points. Collecting sets of the same color cards enable one to purchase the higher cost cards and attract the attention of nobles, which also provide prestige points. The goal of the game is to gain at least 15 prestige points. 

How to Play Splendor by Watch It Played

This is a lightweight, fun family game that has broad appeal. There is little to no conflict between players as one player’s actions do not directly affect the other players, other than the availability of specific gemstone tokens, cards, or nobles. This also enables you to play the game asynchronously, a turn at a time, rather than at a single sitting. All you need is something, such as a token or index card, to indicate whose turn it is. 

There is an expansion, Cities of Splendor, which offers additional cards and twists on the rules, and a retheming of the game, Splendor Marvel, which also adds some new rules. There’s also an excellent Splendor app for phones and tablets, that can be played solo against a selection of AI opponents, pass-and-play, and online (if you have an account). The app contains a nice tutorial and challenges to help you improve your game. For more info, see this iOS app review or Android/Chromebook app review.

Any way you play it, Splendor is a worthy addition to your game library.