Bollocks and Ladders – Block Tech Blocks ‘n’ Ladders

bnlI must confess to being biased against this product from the outset. I have a thing against Lego knock-offs. Half the price, a tenth of the fun; the pieces never stay together properly. When my son brought ‘BnL’ downstairs to play, my heart sank. I was holding out for another round of City of Zombies. BnL was a gift from a friend at my 6 year old’s birthday party. It’s horrible choosing gifts for these occasions; I never know what to buy.  From the outside this looks a pretty good bet. Snakes and Ladders, only you build stuff as you go. Brilliant!

If only.

The board doesn’t lay flat, since it’s only a (thin) cardboard square, this is inexcusable. The pieces are in non-resealable bags. The idea of the game is to build and rebuild the specified models each play, so something to keep the pieces from being mixed up between games would have been nice. Some of the pieces are poorly moulded and it would transpire later that they weren’t all there. Then there’s the minifigures. Their faces are very badly painted on; some of them are truly terrifying. They look like ‘Good Cop, Bad Cop’ after a trip to President Business’s beauty salon.

Despite my reservations we settled down to play. The first thing that caught my eye was the casual sexism. There are four characters, three male and one female. Their roles. SWAT team Policeman, Fireman, Dinosaur Ranger and… Fashion Model *sigh*. They each have their special squares where they can use unique abilities: Catch Criminals!, Extinguish Fires!, Follow tracks!, and…er… answer the phone… *double sigh*.

Only a fashionista can take that call...

Only a fashionista can take that call…

The game itself is straightforward snakes and ladders. You roll the die, move, then follow the instructions on the square you land on. These are normally ‘Take X pieces.’ The game says it’s for 5+ but my six year old who can manipulate Lego with no problem, really struggled. The pieces don’t fit together well and so he had to keep reattaching them. To his credit it took him the entire game before he lost his temper. The instructions for all four models are one double sided piece of paper. They are tiny and only one person can use them at once. You can cut the paper in half (which we ended up doing), but because they are double sided, it still means only two people can build.

These issues are exacerbated by the fact it doesn’t actually take very long to roll a dice.  Everybody has to either sit around whilst each person builds or just keep going collecting more and more pieces, getting further and further behind with their build. Each build has a wildly different number of pieces, which might be unfair, if it weren’t for the fact we’d all collected all our pieces around the half way mark. Three of us hadn’t built our models because we couldn’t see the instructions. We just had small heaps of Flego (Fake Lego) in front of us, but pressed on up the board as fast as we could in order to end the pain. By the end of the game my 6 year old finally managed to put his helicopter together, only for us to discover that his minifigure didn’t sit in properly. At that point he had a tantrum, and who can blame him?

This is a terrible game, devoid of thought or care. It is bound to end in misery for any family that tries to play it. Had this game been made by Lego it would surely have cost three times the price, but then I would only have to play it three times to get the same value for money.

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Feed them brains – City of Zombies by

cofzThis is pretty much my first game review, so bear with me if I don’t pitch the level of detail right. If you get bored, skip to the end to find the glowing summary. 

Just before Christmas, my son had his sixth birthday.  Knowing we were a game loving family, his godfather went into Eclectic Games in Reading (UK) and asked what they’d recommend. He came out with City of Zombies. (It later transpired that Eclectic Games is thanked for their support in the credits. Fair play to them, they back a good horse).

So, what’s the aim of the game?

Like most good games the premise of City of Zombies can be summed up in a single phrase. ‘Stop the zombies from reaching the barricades’.

How do you do that then?

With that little known anti-zombie agent, Maths.

Maths? Really?

The beauty of this game is that it becomes so involving for the players they don’t notice they are carrying out some fairly complex maths operations. It’s teaching by stealth. Better still, it’s a cooperative game, where you all help each other, so the older (or better at Maths) child isn’t always going to trounce his younger siblings. It’s even possible to play solo.

So how does it work?

The game consists of a number of zombie cards, descending towards your defensive barricade. Surviving zombies move down the board each turn, and new zombies arrive at the start of every turn. If the Zombies overrun the barricades you lose. Games are a set number of turns; 15, 10, or 5, depending how long you want to play/attention span of your players. Turns count down to 1, and the closer to the end of the game you are, the nearer the zombies start to your defenders. If you reach the end of turn one without being overrun, you win the game.

Right I get it, I have to kill the zombies, How do I do that? 

Each Zombie card has a number on it. A player rolls three dice (D6) and then can combine those dice rolls to exterminate as many zombies as possible.

Great! Err, what does that mean?

If you rolled 3, 4 and 5 and there were 5 zombie cards in play with the numbers 2, 3, 4, 5 and 12 on them, you have a number of possibilities. You could just use the roll values to kill zombies, 3, 4 & 5 or you could do something a little more clever, like 5-3 = 2 and use the remaining 4 to kill zombies 2 and 4. Alternatively, you could have 3*4 and use the 5, to kill zombies 12 and 5. The only condition that exists for this stage of the game is that you must use ALL of the dice. Not a problem in the example given, but it can often be awkward and that’s where the creative maths starts to creep in. In the basic game there are only simple numbers, but you can feed in other cards, to bring in 25, 36 and even prime numbers like 19 and 29.

cofz2The extra cards make the game brilliantly scalable. Not only do they have more complicated numbers on them, but some of them have (optional) special powers, like you must use all three dice to kill a particular zombie, which suddenly starts to soak up your firepower.

My boys (6 & 9) unsurprisingly have markedly different mathematical abilities. We play that the special abilities apply for myself and my oldest but not my 6 year old, who is free to use the dice how he feels. It gives him much greater power than us in the game and means he is using simpler maths. Another important point is that whilst the other players can give suggestions, it’s the player who rolled the dice  who gets the final say. So, if my youngest is unimpressed by his older brother’s mathematical jiggery-pokery he can completely ignore it. It can be difficult not to let the older ones run the show, but, with a bit of patience shown by all, it is possible!

So if our team survives we win, is there any more to it than that?

A little. There are a few non-zombie ‘event’ cards that are shuffled into the zombie assault. Some of these work in the player’s favour, whilst others hasten the onslaught. These can mess up your defence, or sometimes sweep the streets clean, saving your necks.

Each player also chooses a character card that represents them behind the barricades. Each character has a special power, but their use is restricted, so choose your moment wisely.

There are also other survivors who are hiding on your side of the barricade. If you survive they survive too. Extra survivors are gained if you clear out all the zombies on a given turn. This gives a method of scoring the game. If you save 72 people, then you have done brilliantly, if nobody else escapes, then you’ve won, but only just. You can use the number of survivors to judge how difficult or easy the game has been for your players, which can help you decide which cards and rules to use in next time. It also gives a ‘Hi-Score’ for your budding zombie-slayers to beat.

‘Nobody else escapes’? What’s happened to them?

They’ve been eaten. By zombies.

Eaten?, this game says its 5+. Is it at all suitable?

Clearly this is a judgement call for you to make. You know your children best. The basic cards have very cartoony zombies on them, which aren’t (I don’t think) scary at all. There are some more realistic cards, but they have the really big numbers on them, so they are for older children. The rules do say that survivors can just be ‘Frightened away’ if you prefer that to eaten. In reality It’s a lot like Pokemon; the rules might say ‘knocked out’ but it’scofzsimple rules very hard not to say ‘killed’…

Does the game play straight out of the box?

Yes. There are some quick set up rules included which explain the basic rules. There is also a full rules sheet, which explain variants and simple ways to ramp up the difficulty. The full rules are still only a few pages long. The game is exceptionally intuitive and one you’ve played it a few times, you’ll know exactly what you’re doing.

What about the first time?

Hmmm, it isn’t that tricky, particularly if you regularly play games that are slightly beyond the norm. Having said that, trying to play anything the first time with eager children jammering at you, is never easy. If you have time and opportunity, I think things will run more smoothly if you have a read through and a practice go on your own. This is doubly true if you don’t have much dice rolling experience beyond a Christmas game of Cluedo.

So this game is good then?

To be honest I don’t think I’ve ever played a better conceived children’s game. The concept is simple and engaging. The rules are simple and engaging. It’s a great family game, with enough danger in it to switch on young attention spans. It teaches them maths, without them noticing and encourages fast mental calculations. I should also mention the production values are second to none. It’s a beautiful product. It really is a fabulous game.

Is that it?

We’ve not used them yet, but the City of Zombies website has printable blank cards for you to make your own zombies and at end of the rules there is a mention of the Times Square expansion deck coming early 2015. This is to have a twelve sided dice and zombies up to 144! I can’t wait!

To buy from Amazon, click here

City of Zombies was designed by Matthew Tidbury and created by Thinknoodle games and has its own website, where there is all sorts of information and fun stuff about the game. @cityofzombies and @thinknoodle can both be found on Twitter 

Three Square Meals? – Minecraft Recipes for Dummies

recipes-for-dummiesFirstly let’s clear up a mistake the dummy reviewing this book made. Just above the title of this book are the words ‘Portable Edition’. Being a bit of an old duffer, I conflated ‘portable edition’ with ‘pocket edition’. Pocket Edition as any nine year old will tell you is Minecraft on a phone or tablet. Portable edition refers to these slimmer narrower Dummies guides. The information in this book is not just for Minecraft PE. Realising this earlier would have saved me lots of conversations with my son that went something like,

‘What about Prismarine?’
*sigh* ‘not in the pocket edition Dad…’
‘Granite?’
*sigh* ‘not in the pocket edition Dad…’

So I gleefully noted lots of errors and omissions, ready to unleash a toxic review on this piece of misleading filth. Thankfully the pocket/portable thing dawned on me early enough. I’d lost some time but I still had my face.

It wasn’t time entirely wasted. There was some good father-son bonding, even with the sighing and poking around on Minecraft wikis I learned more about what my children spend a great deal of their lives doing, namely building stuff out of cubes. In my day this was called Lego and hurt a lot more if you trod on it.

So the book then.

Firstly, it has recipes from various platforms (PC, PE, Raspberry Pi and console) in it, which is certainly a good thing. It’s a Dummies guide, so a no-frills how to do it. These books are never style over substance, (again a good thing) but it is at least full colour. My son has read until broken the Scholastic Minecraft primers. I can’t really recommend these enough. If you’re looking for a way into Minecraft for your child, you’ll struggle to find anything better. This however is for a different crowd, it sort of assumes that you know the basics of how to play, and are into making as many different things as possible. It’s more akin to Scholastic’s latest blockbuster (get it!) the Blockopedia; a book I haven’t bought, because what would be the point?

Which leads me onto the rub with this book. It’s very nice. If you want a book with all the Minecraft recipes in, it does the job well. I’ve had the information checked a verified by a independent expert and he tells me it’s good. He was vaguely interested in Prismarine, which is something he hadn’t encountered before, but other than me asking him to take a look a few times, he has never picked it up. Why? Because he uses Minecraft an awful lot. He talks about it seemingly endlessly with his friends. They know all this stuff back to front. They pick it up by osmosis. If I’d paid for this book, I’d have wasted my money.

It’s possible, of course, you have dropped into Minecraft in isolation, haven’t really played it before and don’t have anybody to talk to about it.  In which case you’re probably an adult. Then you might want the book as a handy reference guide. Even then, you’re on a computer, Google what you want to know. It’s all there, catalogued by lifeforms far more geeky than you can possibly imagine. I can see the appeal of the Blockopedia for adults. It looks nice, wonderfully tactile and best of all it’s a cube! It is, essentially, a coffee table book for people whose caffeine comes in Coke cans. The Dummies guide? It’s functional, but it has a function you don’t really need.

In any case isn’t it cheating? To my mind the interesting bit of Minecraft, if you’re playing Survival mode, is working out what you can and can’t build. If you’re going to copy it out of a book, you might as well just play in Creative. Finally, the game will evolve and the book won’t; another thing not in its favour. With a cover price that comes in under the price of some of the unofficial magazines I’ve bought, this is a decent quality product, but with all the information already out there already, you have to ask yourself do I really need it?

I was sent a copy of this book through the Amazon Vine Programme.