THE MAGAZINE FOR CREATIVE MINDS AT PLAY

 

2011 Games of the Year and Other Awards

2010 Games of the Year and Other Awards

Past Games of the Year and Other Awards

Selected Game Reviews from Recent Issues

Thurn and Taxis (November 2006)
New Super Mario Bros. (November 2006)
Pünct (April 2006)
Peter Jackson’s King Kong: The Official Game of the Movie (April 2006)

Thurn and Taxis
2006 Spiel des Jahres winner (Germany’s Game of the Year)
Designers: Andreas and Karen Seyfarth
Rio Grande Games, (505) 771-8813; $32.95
Players 2-4 Playing Time 90 min.

In this thrilling game created by Puerto Rico designer Andreas Seyfarth and his wife Karen, you’ll emulate the pioneers who created Germany’s original imperial postal system. There are four officials, only one of whom you can call on for assistance during your turn.

Three cards represent each of the 22 German cities connected by roads that straddle nine provinces. Shuffle the deck and turn six cards faceup. You must start your turn by drawing either a faceup card (which you must replenish) or acard from the deck. You may use the Postmaster privilege of drawing an extra card, and indeed must do so if you start a turn (such as the first) with no cards in hand. Alternatively, before drawing, you can use the Administrator privilege of discarding and replenishing the six faceup cards.

Next, lay one card faceup before you. The second and subsequent cards must be laid to the left or right of your array so that all cards form a route of adjacent cities. In this phase, you may use the Carrier privilege of adding a second card.

You cannot have more than one route in progress, and you may end your turn by closing a route with at least three cards. Your first route, regardless of size, earns a carriage card worth two points. Subsequent routes, if sufficiently long, earn a carriage worth three to 10 points; carriages must be acquired in order of increasing value, and when play ends you score only your most valuable carriage. The Cartwright privilege lets you acquire a carriage if your route is at most two cards short of the amount normally required to obtain that carriage. Discard the cards after placing houses in your color on the route: One house can go in each city of one province, or one house in a city in each province. Earn points for having a house in all the cities of provinces, or sets of provinces; players who fulfill these goals quickly earn more points. A route may contain cards of cities you already occupy, but when it is closed a second house in your color cannot be added to them.

Warning: If you cannot add any of your cards to your route, you must discard all cards without scoring!

Play ends in the round when someone places his last house or earns the most valuable carriage. Highest score triumphs after everyone has deducted one point for each unplaced house.—John J. McCallion

New Super Mario Bros.
Nintendo, www.nintendo.com; DS $35; Rated: E

Mario shot to stardom as a flat sprite hopping and bopping his way through side-scrolling 2D levels. Only later did he leave the two-dimensional platform realm behind to lead the charge into console 3D action/adventure gaming with Mario 64. Since then, with the exception of some retro titles and GameBoy ports, Mario and brother Luigi have led the swashbuckling lives of 3D adventure characters, exploring imaginary lands and taking on daring missions.

With New Super Mario Bros., Mario returns to his roots, and updates them in spectacular fashion. Playing on the dual screens of the Nintendo DS, NSMB is a spectacular, colorful reinvention of the classic 2D side-scroller. The top screen displays a detailed hybrid 2D/3D polygonal view of the gameworld, while the bottom touchscreen is relegated to a linear map of the level, a few stats, and a display of any power-ups you may collect. Unlike many DS titles, this game is played almost entirely with the control pad and buttons, with the touch pad largely relegated to activating power-ups. The classic control scheme means that old hands can slip into the gameplay as they would a well-worn glove.

Aside from the astonishing visuals, there won’t be too many surprises for longtime fans. Mario’s quest is hung on the merest tissue of a plot. (Guess what? Bowser Jr. has kidnapped Peach and She Must Be Rescued! And if even that much plot matters to you, then you’ve picked up the wrong game.) Mario’s move list is mostly confined to the classics: he can run, jump, and ground-pound. Taking a page from the later games, NSMB also allows him to cling to walls and wall-jump in order to reach out-of-the-way areas. More important are the power-ups collected along the way. These give him the ability to shoot fireballs, shrink to mini-Mario in order to access tight quarters, sprout a turtle shell, and (most entertainingly) grow to gargantuan size and simply stomp through all obstacles.

The real joy, however, comes from the quality of the levels. There are eight worlds in all, with Mario journeying on the surface, underground, and in water, desert, and ice worlds. Each is atiny marvel of side-scrolling goodness, and though the game is brief, it’s packed with the kind of quality neo-retro gameplay we just don’t see often enough. A solid multiplayer mode pits Luigi versus Mario in WiFi-connected head-to-head contests, thus stretching the game’s lifespan a bit. Even given its brevity, New Super Mario Bros. is easily one of the best handheld titles of the year, and a must-have for Nintendo DS owners.—Thomas L. McDonald

Pünct
Designer: Kris Burm
Rio Grande Games, (505) 771-8813; $32.95
Players 2 Playing Time 20–40 min.

Simple. Elegant. Phenomenal. Challenging. Addictive. Unique. These words all describe the newest game in Kris Burm’s splendid series of Abstract Strategy games, which began with Gipf in 1998.

Each player has 18 pieces: triangular, boomerang-shaped, or straight. Each piece’s three dots cover three adjacent spaces on the hexagonal board. A highlighted dot on each piece is its “Pünct.”

Choose one of two actions each turn: (1) Place a friendly piece on the board, with the restriction that that the 19 central spaces are prohibited for the first player’s initial move. (2) Move a piece in play. A piece’s Pünct guides its movement—it must travel on one of the six straight lines emanating from the space it occupies. It may jump over other pieces, enemy or friendly, and the other two dots may be rotated, using the Pünct as a pivot, at the end of movement. A piece may land on one or more other pieces, provided its Pünct finishes on a friendly unit and the piece rests on units at the same level. You may stack any number of pieces, but only the one on top can move.
Win by forming a continuous row of your dots between one side and that directly opposite. View the pattern from above to see if all pieces (regardless of their levels) contribute to victory.

In the Advanced Version, no piece can be placed onto the central spaces, but may subsequently move there. If play ends without a connection, whoever occupies the most central spaces wins.

Flexibility and slyness enhance your prospects of victory. It’s fun to mislead your opponent by leaping across the board to reveal your intention to connect in another way—after it’s too late to be thwarted.

—John J. McCallion


Peter Jackson’s King Kong: The Official Game of the Movie
UbiSoft, www.kingkonggame.com, PC/Xbox/PS2/GameCube/360, about $50, Rated: T

Director Peter Jackson does nothing halfway. Anyone who plowed through the extra features on the DVDs for Jackson’s Lord of the Rings films knows that he throws himself into every aspect of a project. For his remake of King Kong, Jackson has extended this commitment to the gaming arena, working closely with French developer Michel Ancel and his team (Beyond Good and Evil, Rayman) to create an utterly unique gaming experience.

King Kong (the game) was developed right along with King Kong (the movie); the game’s creators were given an unprecedented level of access to the talent, art, and design of the film-in-progress, as well as constant input from Jackson and his creative team. The result is a game that mirrors the movie’s look and feel, yet expands upon its key environments, creatures, and moments in a way no film ever could, giving moviegoers a chance to explore a place or a scene from the movie in more depth.

The game roughly follows the plot of the film, but expands upon areas that have lots of gameplay potential. For the first part of the game, you play as Jack, the hero of the movie, from a first-person perspective, fighting giant bugs and a steadily more lethal menagerie of prehistoric creatures. Jack has a few weapons, and there are plenty of opportunities to use them. But the focus is on successfully navigating a hostile environment, rather than simply gunning down an endless sequence of foes.

Once Jack catches up with Kong, the perspective switches to third-person, and you get to play as the King of Skull Island himself. The game changes completely; now Kong is able to make huge leaps, swing through the jungle, grab creatures to use as weapons, and generally pound the heck out of anything in his way. There’s an epic scale to these sections—Kong gives the gamer a sense of almost unbounded power. From here on, you alternate between playing as Jack and Kong, straight through the rest of the narrative until you finally reach the climax on the Empire State Building.

King Kong does all this with an uncannily effective “interfaceless” interface. Your view of the world is simply your view, without any health bars, ammo bars, directional arrows, or any other distractions. Rather, the designers use audiovisual cues to amazing effect to keep you informed about the state of your character. The image begins to redden and darken as you lose health, while your breathing increases in tense circumstances or grows more ragged if you’re injured. Weapons click on empty chambers once ammo is depleted. All these cues combine to make any kind of health/ammo display superfluous, and help maintain the illusion of being completely submerged in the gameworld.

The idea of “playing the movie” has always been a dubious one, since movies are linear by nature, and games chafe against the bonds of linearity. Though Kong works around this by allowing free range within the confines of a larger, more structured narrative, it’s still a linear game, and a short one as well. No movie game in memory, however, does a better job of melding cinema and interaction into a fluid, enjoyable experience.

—Thomas L. McDonald

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