A look at Out of the Box Games

by Frances Moritz
aided by Debbie Ginsberg & Nancy Schultz

Once upon a DragonCon, I was wandering through the Dealer's Room with some friends. If I had been wandering alone, I probably would have kept walking; I don't normally play chess. It's missing one of the key features I rely on in games - luck. But Bosworth takes the strategy of chess and adds an element of luck to it.

Little did I know that I was starting two addictions that day. When we finished, none of us bought the game, even though we all agreed we liked it. But the same booth housed the artist for the game, who was selling the first issue of a comic that featured the same characters as the game. In another rare move for me, I bought it without really looking at it, because my friends were buying it. It was only a couple dollars, I figured it wouldn't hurt.

Boy, was I wrong. I think I hurt my sides laughing so much when I got home and read it. I immediately started recommending it to friends, kept an eye out for future issues, and watched for other things by that John Kovalic guy. And sure enough, the following year, Out Of The Box Publishing released another exciting game: Apples to Apples. Forget your chess-oriented gamers; Apples to Apples can be taught to just about anybody, to the point where a non-gamer coworker commented that he owned it when I brought it into work a couple years ago. I sent a copy to my parents1 and the Junior version to my niece2 a few years ago.

The concept is simple: everybody is dealt a hand of nouns and try to match one of those nouns to the adjective played by the judge. OK, ideally that's how it works. The gamer method is to try to play the noun you think the judge is most likely to pick for that adjective. And since the judge rotates, you have the opportunity to try and think like every other person there.

But Shipwrecked is when I started getting to know the people at Out Of The Box Publishing. At GenCon 2000, the first year I was able to attend for all four days, and my first year appearing as Gilly the Perky Goth, I went back to their booth every day to play Shipwrecked. I had to - I lost the first couple times I played, and I had to keep trying until I won. I've found that while Shipwrecked is harder to teach to people, mainly due to the bidding system, once they get the hang of it, everybody I've shared it with has liked it.

It has become harder to keep up over the years, as they're now producing multiple new games every year, instead of just one. But I'll keep trying. And it's not just me - some of the other Lady Gamers are playing their games as well. Debbie recently tried Easy Come, Easy Go, "the dicey game of Changing Fortunes" released last December. This is her take on it.

Anyone who has ever gambled, from smoky Vegas casinos to beer-laden weekend poker games, knows that even the largest pile of winnings have all the life expectancy of Schrödinger's cat. That pile of chips (or quarters) might double -- or might completely evaporate -- in a single, dramatic hand. Out of the Box's Easy Come, Easy Go distills gambling to its essence: players roll dice to win exciting prizes, then almost instantly lose their hard-won prizes to luckier players.

The best thing about Easy Come was its simplicity. The game took just a few moments to set up and learn. We quite enjoyed stealing prizes from one another. Game play was surprisingly quick; each round took maybe five to ten minutes to complete. It may have helped that all of us were pretty familiar with Yahtzee.

That said, we felt familiarity with Yahtzee hurt the game, too. "This is fun," one of us remarked, "but it's not Yahtzee." And because it doesn't require much strategy to play, Easy Come may be a little too easy for experienced gamers.

Bottom line: The game was cute, fun, and easy to learn. We could see using Easy Come as a diversion between playing longer games, but it wasn't something we wanted to play all night. Apples to Apples, on the other hand....

Nancy also took a swing at one of their newer releases: Tutankhamen, which was released this March.

As an Armchair Egyptologist, the name alone was enough to get my attention. The Armchair Archaeologist in me loved the concept: Collect artifacts and pay tribute to King Tut. First person to give all their tribute wins, nice and simple. So simple, in fact, that despite the age being 8+, I was able, with a slight modification to "victory conditions", to play and enjoy it with my (then) four-year-old daughter.

The game consists of a small, hollow plastic pyramid, six wooden tokens, more than the stated 90 tribute coins, one tile representing the king, and seventy artifact tiles. The tiles are made of a nice, sturdy cardboard, and none of the ones in the set I played came stuck together. The tiles are nice and colorful, and still very evocative of the desert. The tokens aren't your typical bright colors either, all being painted or stained firmly in the "earth tones" category.

Game play is simple, and yet has a lot of strategy to it. After setting up the 70 treasure tiles in a random, snaking path leading to the pyramid and everyone taking a set amount of tribute coins, players take turns moving their pieces (starting with the youngest player) as far along the path as they choose, stopping on a chosen artifact and adding it to their pile. When all of the artifacts of a given set are collected, the artifact is scored, with the player who has the most of the set giving a number of coins equal to the value of the set as tribute into the slot on the pyramid, and the player with the second most of the set giving half that. Any other players with artifacts from the set score zero. So the question becomes do you go quickly after the low scoring, but easy to collect sets, or the longer, higher scoring sets that you may not get as many of? Of course, there are special tiles hat affect this too, but the strategy is simple enough that any child who has grasped the idea of "having more" can play, though I recommend removing the special tiles to make things simpler for them. There is a bonus for getting to the pyramid first, but once there, you can't collect any more artifacts, only score them as they are completed. Still, getting to the pyramid first can be a nice alternate victory condition for younger children who don't quite get the "have more" idea, or don't stop to think about it.

I had a lot of fun playing this with both my daughter and my Sunday School class, and though I never did get around to playing this with a "mature" competitor, I can easily see where this game can be called fun for the whole family.

As much as I love almost3 all of their games, I have to say my all-time party favorite is Snorta. At the beginning of the game, everybody randomly picks an animal figure, shows it to the other players, then hides it in a plastic barn. You're supposed to remember what animal each person has. The cards are dealt out to all the players evenly and you go around clockwise flipping up a single card onto a stack in front of you. If the card you flip matches one another player has face up in front of them, you have to make that player's animal noise (the one in the barn, not the card that's flipped up!) before they make yours. The player that loses this speed and memory match acquires the discard stack in front of the other player.

Now, if everybody has a good memory and you're on the first game of Snorta , this would just be a mildly entertaining game. But let's be honest... how many of us have that good a memory? And when you've played two or three games, and you're all on your third or fourth animal for the day (because there is a Swap card that forces you to change animals during the game)... well, that's when it gets hectically entertaining. One of the more entertaining strategies is to make all of the animal noises as fast as you can, on the principle that you may beat the other player who's relying on their memory to get your animal sounds. And there's nothing quite like
to throw the other player off their memory attempts.

That's just a few of the addictive games from Out of the Box Publishing. All of their games adhere to the basic concept that everything you need is in the box you're buying, they can all be learned in a matter of minutes, and played (in some cases, multiple times) in less than an hour. Take a look at their website; you're bound to find something that appeals to you.

1: Noting that I'm not making any claims at them being normal; they did produce me after all.

2: Gamer! Gamer! She's progressed from Pokemon to demanding requesting Killer Bunnies for her birthday.

3: I'm terrible at word games like Qwitch or My Word!. Or Scrabble, so it's not just the newer word games.

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