Snowbirds (+ expansions)

Title: Snowbirds (Expansions: Storms & Sunset Sky)
Player Count: 1 or 2
Play time: 10/15 minutes

Snowbirds was released in 2017 as part of the Solitaire PNP Contest organised by BGG Yeah you probably see a trend as to where I find my inexpensive or free games at the moment. Tough year to come on top because Black Sonata was part of the candidates (which I late pledged with its expansion only a few days ago and am really excited about. If you are curious there you go: link). However, Snowbirds stil managed to lead the charts in some of the categories that year.

That was enough for me to check it out and let’s be honest, it is mostly the art that motivated me to read more about it too. Nature seems to transcribe particularly well into nice board games int he last few years and birds are very common too (yes Wingspan, we are looking at you) – on a side note, I think bees are close to n°1 this couple of years with a plethora of games using them (Honey Buzz, Queenz, Bees Secret Kingdom, etc.).

Anyway, this all led me to check this game and I was even happier to notice additional content was also available with two expansions on BGG. I therefore switched on my printer to get yet another PNP game. Before delving deeper into Snowbirds, I just wanted to mention that I also checked on Kickstarter and was surprised this had not been picked up by a publisher for a physical release. That said, I saw that the artist and designer Brian Garthwaite has made several games (some equally gorgeous) but most them have remained “only” PNP projects.

What is Snowbirds ?

In Snowbirds, you are guiding your flock of birds on their migration from North to South. This will not be an easy task as you must make sure they survive the trip by controlling their food, exhaustion and their pace. You will be going through the deck of cards to reveal your actions and the locations you are passing by but must remain careful in your choices. Taking the risk not to forage enough food in order to have more actions left might also mean you will not make it and might have your birds die of hunger.

This is the pitch for the base game which plays entirely solo. Mechanics are mainly hand management and push your luck. Set up is easy:
– Draw 9 map locations to form the migration deck, place “South” at the bottom and set up North as your starting point
– Shuffle your action cards and deal 5 to build your starting hand
– Set up your player board with Hunger and Exhaustion on 0 and flock (size) on 5

Basic setup after 3 rounds (exhaustion and Hunger at 1) + a nice player aid on the top-right corner

MAP CARDS – As you can notice from the above picture, they have several pieces of information on them (ie. North, Great Lake, Bird Sanctuary and Wheat Field). You can see the track for your flock token, the top row is the distance; Dice symbols represent Risk and bottom row is Hunger. You can also see that some of them (in this picture all of them) can have a special effect triggered when on them: ranging from extra/less foraging, to bonus actions or higher risk.

ACTION CARDS – Here again, these cards have quite some information them. You can see the flight value, foraging content and also an icon in the middle which can be either the value of a die or a “R” (reroll). The size of your hands always equals the size of your flock – except if stated otherwise by a card of if some of your birds die then you will not discard your cards but not replenish them until you have less cards than the amount of birds in your flock.

PLAY ORDER

  • NEW DAY – Draw a new map card and lay it next to North (or the series already placed)
  • PRE-FLIGHT (Each turn only before birds fly)
    * REST: you can place an action card face down to remove 1 Exhaustion (but will lose VPs at the end of the game)
    * FORAGE: you can play an action card Forage side up to decrease Hunger by the amount shown on it
  • JOURNEY
    * FLIGHT: you play your action card Flight side up to meet or exceed the amount of “Distance” on the two map cards in play (the one you leave from and your destination) – any extra points will be lost
    * VIGOR: roll two dice representing your vigor, if this meets or exceed the value shown on your current location + your destination, you succeed. If not, you will increase your exhaustion by 1
    !! You can place one (or more) of your action cards sideways to play their tenacity value and replace one of your dice (by a value indicated in the middle of the action card or if stating an “R” then preroll one of your dice) !!
  • LANDING
    Move your flock token to the next location. Remember to increase Hunger on the player board by adding up the two values on your starting location and the destination (the hunger you built up during your journey)

Push your luck: to use less card you can always not forage or not use “Tenacity actions” (cards put sideways). However, do not forget that Hunger will have an impact on Distance (the hungrier you are, the longer distances will be as your flock is weaker). Besides, exhaustion will also increase the risk value of future cards. All in all, this will make your trip more difficult and if you Exhaustion level passes 2, you will lose a bird and same thing will happen if you ever go over a value of 4 in Hunger.

Migration will end once your flock reaches South, of at least what remains of your initial flock depending on how adventurous or cautions/smart you have been throughout the game. Scoring is easy (but note that minus VPs are possible):
– Earn points for: any distance on unspent action cards + value of your flock
– Lose points for: final value of Hunger; any face down rest cards and final value of exhaustion (- 2 VPs for each point)

Expansions: Sunset Sky (left) & Storms (right)

Expansions offer rules to play with two players. Sunset Sky is adding a lot of new map cards for more variety and also some new effects. Storms is intruding a new system which will branch out locations tempting you into risking even more in order to potentially get some interesting rewards but also with negative effects lurking if you do not manager to go through these stormy cards.

How does it play?

First of all, I am not sure my pictures do justice to the game but I want to emphasise the fact that it is absolutely gorgeous, and whilst I have some reservations (namely when it comes to some location cards from Sunset Sky which I find sometime difficult to read), I was very impressed with how clear, clean and just plainly beautiful these cards are. The colourful locations and well as the simple iconography makes it a real pleasure to browse through this game.

Another aspect of the game I really enjoy is that the narrative makes sense. How exhaustion or hunger are affected by your movements and the effect they have on risk and perception of distance just tie in nicely with the overall storyline. As a player, I really felt like I was controlling my flock and guiding them through these various locations and pondering whether I should take some risks and potentially lose some of my birds. All in all, actions work well, are not too complicated and form overall a nice and pleasant game.

However, I also have some rather major concerns with this game. First of all, I think it is just too easy and this will affect my interest in replaying it rather quickly… I found that it is difficult to lose some of you birds as you can always mitigate risks if you are careful enough. Therefore, this will be mainly about your VPs and not about your flock going through the migration process or not. After quite some games, I never lost any bird and whilst my final score varied greatly, I am not sure this is enough to make me go back many times again to Snowbirds.

Another element is that I do not have any issue with luck and randomness especially when it ties in nicely with the story of the game but in this case I found myself losing interest as I found strategy is rather limited. Bottom line is that the main decision is whether or not you wills sacrifice some hunger and risk just to save some cards. This will most likely be the case every two turns, or you can just figure out by looking at the cards in front of you.

I was really happy with Sunset Sky which adds some nice effects and increases massively the replay value of the game with a lot more location cards. Storms is indeed an interesting concept but for me this ended up increasing the “push your luck” mechanic which I find rather frustrating in this game. These cards will therefore most likely stay aside from the rest of the game. Finally, two-player mode is okay and at least means I can share this with my wife but at heart, Snowbirds remain a deeply solo experience.

Verdict: 6/10 (was probably higher after a couple of plays but wearing out rather quickly for me)

Railroad Ink (Blue Edition)

Title: Railroad Ink
Player count: 1 to 6 (per box)
Play Time: +/- 30 minutes

A very hyped genre is definitely roll and write. In the last couple of years they have been pretty much everywhere. Whilst it’s a very crowded type of games, some of them still manage to surprise me either with their form/genre or with their mechanics. And we are pretty hooked on them with my wife, so get ready as you will read about some of them on this blog. But is Railroad Ink part of these good surprises? Let’s find out.

What is Railroad Ink ?

This is a pocket-sized game which was release in 2018 in 2 editions: blue and red. No changes at all in terms of the base game but these offer different expansions (two in each box). In each of them you will find 6 boards, 6 dry erase markers, 4 dice for the base game and 2 set of 2 dice which would each be used to play one of the expansions available in each box.

Railroad Ink plays over 7 identical rounds where you will roll the four dice and then draw the various tracks/roads on your map. Bearing in mind of course that roads and tracks must be drawn starting from the exits (red crosses) and always be in some way connected to one (e.g. cannot drew one in the middle of the map. Just remember that you must draw all four dice whether convenient or not. Just to help you out, you also get joker tiles (cf. top of the map, six white squares). You can draw one per round but are limited to 3 over the whole game.

Okay right, simple enough but how to you earn points in this game? At the end, you will go over specific elements to count them (symbolised again on the top part of the map):
– How many exits each of your network counts – careful that stations (black squares do not interrupt tracks and roads) – for each network look on the tab to see how many points they are worth: e.g., network of 2 is 4 points; 6 is 20; etc.
– Longest road and track: imagine you are driving on these, what is the longest path (1 point per square)
– 1 point per filled square pithing the orange line at the centre of the map (max. 9)
– Lose one point for each track or road not connected or at the edge of the map without an exit
– Star symbol is used fo extensions, which we will cover right away!

A (for once) non messy and rather great result – 53 points without any expansion

After playing dozens of games and without ever looking at the expansions, this blog was the perfect excuse to try them out too. As explained before, you find two expansions in each edition of the game. For instance, the “Deep Blue” version we own contains the “Rivers” and “Lakes” expansions, which are basically an additional couple of dice for each of them. Without a lot of expectations, we tried them out with my wife this afternoon. Before detailing these a bit more, I just want to add that for each expansion, the game now plays in 6 rounds and you can choose each time whether or not to use any extra die when you roll al the dice (six in total now, i.e. 4 base game and 2 for expansion).

Lakes: these can be drawn anywhere if they do not contain any stations, otherwise have to be linked to a track itself linked to an exit. They will connect to tracks and roads if these are themselves linked to a station on the same lake. On top of this, at the end of the game you will score 1 point for each square contained in your smallest lake.

Rivers: same overall rules for placement but this time, any unfinished river will count as a -1 at the end of the game. Rivers cannot be crossed by roads or tracks, only bridges can (represented on the extra set of dice). At the end of the game, count all the minuses and in terms of points, selected one river and count 1 point per square it contains + a bonus of 3 points if the river is connected on both sides to the edge of the map (these cannot be exits, i.e. red arrows).

Games with both expansions: rivers (left) and lakes (right) – still trying to be as clear as possible

How does it play?

Railroad Ink is a fun roll and write which is easy to teach and has a nice small table presence. I found the art rather appealing and the games flow nicely, which is a feat in itself as filling up 30 minutes can be tough for small table games. I appreciate the push your luck element of the game whilst going down one route (/track) and hoping some dice will come out on the next round. The addition of the joker tiles which can be used in a limited fashion per game makes it even more strategic. This has become one of our casual games at home with my wife when we are sipping a cup of tea or when having lunch on our terrace. Easy to set up, not many rules and great fun altogether.

Small improvements could be to have an idea of how many times each face depicted on the map appears on the set of dice as they are not distributed evenly but I never really bothered counting them. Apart from that, I heard (and read from) a lot of people that the theme was not present enough and that it felt quite bland but this is is not the case for us and we like building up our networks in our small city.

As far as the expansions are concerned, they are a welcome addition and do tweak the game quite a bit without overhauling it completely. This means you can add them up easily without having to remember many rules and as they are included in the base game anyway, let’s say that I did not expect too much from them. One small annoyance is that they can slow down the overall game (especially if you try to make nice drawings like my wife). I found the lake expansion to be rather forgettable and lazy as it did not to bring anything special to the base game. Whilst we really enjoyed the river one which is basically adding one kind of route and intertwines nicely with the rest of the constructions.

Verdict: 7.5/10 (6.5 with the Lakes expansion; and 8/10 with the Rivers expansion)

Psssst! If you are interested, there will be a Kickstarter launching on May 12th with two new versions of Railroad Ink as well as a solo board. More info can be found here (link). Definitely looking great and on my agenda to back!

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