Stonehenge is perhaps the world's first anthology board game. Titanic Games (rapidly becoming the new-kids-to-watch in the board game world) created a numbered board, numbered and coloured cards, coloured disks, coloured rods, little coloured druids and a couple of only-slightly-goofy plastic trilithons, and gave them to five designers to play with. Five WORLD FAMOUS GAME DESIGNERS(TM), that is.
Which in itself is a good thing. It's taken the rest of the world a long time to crawl out of the dark days of Milton Bradley and Parker Brothers and catch on to the German idea of lauding the designer, not the publisher of the board game. Days of Wonder were nice enough to stick their game designers' names on their box, one of the first non-European companies to do so. Now Titanic has made a game which is all about name recognition, and that can only be a good thing for the game design world.
Of course, apart from Bruon Faidutti, the European legends are missing from the line up: no Reiner Knizia, no Klaus Teuber, but the rest of the world is well-represented, as we shall see. Moreover, Mr Knizia already made his Stonehenge game in 1994, which just goes to prove what an awesome concept this is. Stonehenge makes a pretty good theme for an abstract boardgame, and why keep re-releasing entire boardgames when you can just use the same bundle of pieces to design different kinds of abstract board games? This captues the brilliant use-your-game-cupboard-to-its-fullest idea of James Ernest's Cheapass Games, without the bodgy quality pieces. I suspect it is no accident that Titanic Games also recently re-published Ernest's flagship Cheapass game Kill Doctor Lucky, only with decidedly non-cheap production values.
Speaking of production values, the game is quite lovely. The board is a simple black and green with a series of concentric circles making it resemble a dart board: easy to read and easy to use. It lacks some of the startling beauty of games such as Ticket to Ride or Lord of the Rings, but then, it is an abstract board game. Indeed, the one nod it has to feel are the huge plastic trilithons, which are fun to play with but actually tend to detract from the game because they are so large, and so non-abstract. The plastic druids, stones and rods are much more suited to the abstract game, and feel lovely to handle. If there were just five more rods of a colour, I'd be using them for the roads in Settlers of Catan.
The rulebook is a simple affair, with a brief introduction explaining the components, then each game taking up one double-page spread each. Overall, the rules suffer from this compactness, lacking examples or clarifications, making some of the rules tricky to grasp on the first run. However, a second read fixed these problems and each game is simple enough to know well after just that first run – but complex enough to make strategy still a mystery.
First off the ranks is Bruno Faidutti's effort. Bruno is a French gamer most famous for Citadels and Mystery in the Abbery; he likes a good game of bidding, bluffing and card control. Bruno's game, The High Druid, is the most abstract. The ostensible setting is druids trying to get elected in several colleges, but it's really just about winning sets. The dart-board ring is divided into groups separated by the oblong bar pieces, and on each turn players may place their coloured disks into a college, or – and here's where your brain starts to explode – move the limits of the colleges one space left or right. When all the colleges fill up, the player with the most in a college wins that college, and the player who wins the most colleges wins the game. An extra twist is that tying players are excluded, so often coming second is no problem at all. This game will keep you guessing till the last moment. It is possibly too random with five players, but with three or four this is great for those who crave graphical control games with vast amounts of look-ahead thinkiness. In terms of flavour and fun, however, it left me a little cold.
More fun but only slightly less abstract is Arthurian Ghosts, by Richard Borg, most famous for Memoir '44 and its fantasy successor, Battlelore. Borg's game is about the ghosts of Arthurian knights competing for glory. Much like The High Druid, this is done by winning trilithons by having the most disks of your colour under each. To put disks on these spots you must play cards of your colour. If you can't, you may pass or play someone else's colour. This helps them (but not necessarily a lot, if you have a good lead on the trilithon in question) and you gain a glory point for doing it, and also gain a sword. When the randomly slotted wild cards are drawn, “battle” begins. In these special rounds, for each sword earned, players may place their own colour again, or take others' disks AWAY. As with the High Druid, this requires an eagle eye and a lot of look-ahead to make sure you win enough groups to stay in the game but without becoming a target for others to peg back. Weighing up helping others to get swords and helping yourself is also quite tricky. The only weak point in this game is your moves are heavily limited by the cards in your hand. Although this does force alliances, it often also lets luck take too large a role. I'd suggest increasing this number so there are more interesting choices.
Also about disk-counting is James “Cheapass” Ernest. In true Ernest style, Auction Blocks has the funniest theme: it's the dark ages, nobody cares about druids anymore and the stone blocks need to be auctioned off to the highest bidder so the land can be ploughed under for fields. Despite the gorgeously irreverent theme, this is probably the weakest game of the pack. As has been remarked before, Ernest is better at theme than design, and this especially shows in such an abstract realm as Stonehenge requires. The disks are placed randomly around the dartboard circle, and players bid cards each round to collect them. When each disk is taken, players score the amount of points for the total number of disks they already have of that colour. Again, you are limited by the card values in your hand, however, and with more than five players predicting when to go high or low is almost impossible. The game also lacks the subtle trade-offs of Arthurian Ghosts or the multiple axes of attack of the High Druid which means it is ultimately dull and unsatisfying.
But the best is yet to come. Richard “Magic: The Gathering” Garfield comes out swinging with a game about positioning apprentices to cast spells in order to prove yourself the most beardy of all the great druids. The fun theme doesn't impact much on the mechanics but the mechanics themselves are elegant and thrilling, using card juggling and bluffing with the same deft touch that made Netrunner so awesome. Players bid each round for the highest place on the dartboard (numbered 1 to 30). The highest card played allows the player to put one of their apprentices on the spot marked with that number. Those who don't win must move an apprentice already on the board downwards the number of spots equal to the card they bid. So while a 29 will usually win the hand, if someone plays a 30 your apprentice on 24 will be knocked clean off the board. There are also trump mechanics and timing issues, providing all sorts of options and strategies, but with a hearty dose of luck and risk management as well, so that sometimes even the best-laid plans can end in shouts of dismay and disbelief as you can't believe your opponent has won on such a low-valued card. This has a high replay value and balances strategy with fun and full involvement, and is definitely worth the entry price on its own.
By far the most fun game of all is Mike Selinker's alien chariot race. Here each druid marker represents a chariot racing to get around the board from 1 to 30 before everybody else. Each turn players may split their power crystals (disks) into blocking or driving. Each driving crystal allows you to move forward one space; each blocking crystal allows you to place bars of your colour on the board. These require force to smash through for everyone but you, thus slowing down your opponents, driving them onto the slower lane or, occassionally, making them crash. As the game goes on, you get more and more crystals, allowing each chariot to move faster and faster, and more and more walls get constructed near the finish line. The result is a mad-cap race of dodges, turns and explosions which is always close and always exciting. Plus, while the fun of careening chariots is paramout, strategy isn't absent here, as finding the right balance of blocking and running can be tricky, especially as these numbers also determine who moves first (and thus, often, has the burden of knocking down the barriers). Strategy-fans will thus still be intrigued even amongst the zooming and pew-pew-pews. The game also varies substantially with the number of players, and their styles, and is highly replayable.
Those who are mad-keen on deep tactical play may find the last two games involve a bit too much randomness for their tastes, but those types will thrive on the clever checks and balances of the first two. Which is the whole point really. None of these games, in isolation, would be quite worth the asking price on the box. But two of them together definitely are, by far, and there's bound to be at least two of these games you'll thoroughly enjoy. Plus, as an added bonus, you also get three more games to try and examine and enjoy in some, perhaps, reduced fashion. (Not to mention another three more on top of that if you pick up the relatively cheap new expansion, Nocturne.)
So all in all, this is a very sound and enjoyable gaming purchase, with plenty of variety for all types of gamers, from casual families used to scrabble, right up to hard-core Euro-heads. That is also works as a showpiece for game designers, allowing players to experiment with a wide range of artists so that they may then pick their favourites and pursue their work elsewhere, and thus furthers the boardgame design world as a whole, and through that, the entire hobby – is just a bonus. Which is why it's so clever really. It looks like just five clever little games in one box, but it may be so very much more.