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Board game review: 'Garden Gnomes' and 'Autokrator'

By Cody Carlson

For the Deseret News

Published: Friday, Dec. 14 2012 2:00 p.m. MST

Two new family-friendly games have hit the shelves in time for the holidays: "Those Pesky Garden Gnomes," a card game, and "Autokrator," a light war game.

"Those Pesky Garden Gnomes"

"Those Pesky Garden Gnomes" is a new three- to five-player trick-taking card game from Rio Grande Games. Similar in some respects to Hearts, Garden Gnomes offers several innovative twists.

A seemingly standard trick-taking round is played, with most cards having point values. At the end of the round players add up the number of their points and see how far away from their goal number they are. Differences, either negative or positive, are added to your overall score and the player with the lowest score after one player has hit 30 is the winner.

It's not quite that simple, however, as several twists are thrown into the works.

Rather than everyone playing with the same objective, players' goal cards can significantly alter how each hand is played — and how to win. Numbers don't always matter, as goals can deal with certain color cards or no cards at all. A bid token is also chosen randomly at the beginning of each hand and added to your card score, and has to be kept in mind when deciding which cards to play.

"Garden Gnomes" is a fun and unique card game that really takes a lot of thought and tactical planning to win. Each hand offers exciting possibilities and new avenues to success, and one must always be weary of an opponent's seemingly poor showing — it could be a ruse to meet a unique goal. The individual victory conditions for each hand and the bid tokens add to an intense and fast-paced game.

The garden gnome theme is not terribly strong here, but the artwork is a lot of fun. If you like trick-taking games you should really enjoy "Those Pesky Garden Gnomes."

"Those Pesky Garden Gnomes" is recommended for ages 13 and up.

"Autokrator"

Autokrator (which is Greek for "emperor") is the title of a new light war game from Greece-based Diachron Games. This historical two- to four-player war game pits four factions — the Byzantine Empire, the Franks/Holy Roman Empire, the Moors and the Saracens — against each other in a storm of medieval combat.

The beautifully rendered game board depicts Europe, North Africa and the Holy Land in the Early Middle Ages. The game is basic area control, where each faction attempts to gain more territory. Each player has three military units — a king, a general and an admiral — which can attack neighboring factions or neutral territories. Additionally, garrisons may be placed around the board for defense.

Combat is card driven and involves many factors, such as terrain, veteran status and number of troops committed. Additionally, players may sponsor raids from neutral territories against their enemies, robbing them of victory points, and strategic alliances may be formed. After five rounds the player with the most victory points is the winner.

This is a simple yet engaging game that is a lot of fun. The theme effectively pulls players back into the chaos of the dark ages, and historical notes add to the atmosphere. Combat is a lot of fun and generally intense, though assigning which cards go to which units at the beginning of each round can occasionally be somewhat tedious. There are also several paths to victory in this game, making sure that no two games will ever play out the same way twice. This is a game that will definitely see a lot of playtime among certain gaming groups.

I always appreciate history-themed games that actually teach me something and still manage to be fun and playable, and "Autokrator" manages both wonderfully.

"Autokrator" is recommended for ages 12 and up.

Cody K. Carlson holds a master's degree in history from the University of Utah and currently teaches at Salt Lake Community College. He is also the co-developer of the popular History Challenge iPhone/iPad apps. Email: ckcarlson76@gmail.com

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