The German game publisher Kosmos makes a series of two-player games all
packaged in the same sized box: 8" square by just over an inch deep.
(20 cm x 20 cm x 3 cm.) They actually make other two-player games, most
notably Ta Yü,
but in this article I'm only concerned with those packaged in the boxes
described above. Many of these are published in English, by the way,
largely by Rio Grande
I had originally set out to review (briefly) every game in this
series, but that quickly fell apart. I did manage to review the
first twelve games published in the series, but then they exploded,
my reviewing efforts dwindled, and things just generally fell
So I've now removed the few I had reviewed that I no longer play.
Instead, I will simply review, again: briefly, those games in this
series that I still play and enjoy. Absence from this list does
not necessarily mean I don't enjoy the game. It's possible
I've never gotten to try it yet. On the other hand, I confess
there are a fair few in this series that I don't really like, but
don't feel like covering.
As of this date, these are (with German titles in parentheses, if
significantly different from the English) the games in this series
that I enjoy and expect will continue to play. Order is alphabetical:
Note: I haven't yet added reviews for all these - I will soon.
- Caesar & Cleopatra
- Hera & Zeus (Blitz und Donner)
- Odin's Ravens
Caesar & Cleopatra
Designed by Wolfgang Lüdtke
Caesar & Cleopatra is clearly my favorite among
these games, so I'll review it first. German games tend to have thinly
pasted-on themes over an abstract mechanism, and this runs true for most
of the games in this series. Caesar & Cleopatra,
however, succeeds quite well in having a solid feel to the theme.
This game comes close to evoking the spirit of a political power struggle
in ancient Rome. The story is basically that Caesar and Cleopatra
are trying to influence the Roman Patricians to back their sides in an
upcoming power struggle. To do this, they send the senators, quaestors,
etc., various lackeys, ranging from slaves, gigolos and dancing girls
to astronomers and philosophers. They also use spying, assassination,
and other nefarious tricks of the trade.
The game consists solely of a number of cards. There are Patrician cards:
five kinds of Roman Patricians you are trying to influence. Each of
these is worth one victory point at the end of the game, and more if you
can get a majority of a given type to support you. There are influence
cards, consisting of the slaves, dancers, centurions, etc., you send
to influence the Patricians. These are rated with numbers from 1 to 5,
with Philosophers being outside this numbering scheme. Then there are
action cards - the spying, assassination, veto, etc., abilities you have.
Vote of confidence cards determine which particular set of Patricians
gets resolved at the moment, and finally there are bonus cards, which
tells you which group of Patricians you value the most highly.
The game starts with the Patrician cards face up in the center of the
table, in stacks of three or five, depending on the type. Each player
secretly draws a bonus card so they know which type of Patrician is
the most valuable to them - a majority in that type will give you two
victory points at the end of the game. Each player has 37 influence
cards: seven each of the numbers 1 through 5, and two Philosophers.
Each player starts with one each of the 1-5 in their hand, and another
set of 1-5 distributed as they wish, face down, next to the stacks of
Patricians, one per type of Patrician. This is your initial influence on
a particular group. Each player has 13 action cards, which can either
be shuffled randomly, or set in a given order if the players wish.
Finally, the Vote of Confidence cards are shuffled and set to the side.
Each turn you may play one or two influence cards - if you play one,
it may be placed face down beside one group of Patricians. If you
play two, they must be face up. In addition, you may play one action
card if you have one in your hand. Once you have played your cards,
refill your hand to five cards by drawing from either the influence
deck or your action deck, or some from each - your choice. Finally,
reveal the top Vote of Confidence card. If it shows a type of Patrician,
resolve the struggle right then and there. Influence cards are revealed
for that Patrician type, and whoever has the most influence takes one
of the Patrician cards. The winner then discards her strongest card,
and the loser his weakest. If the Vote of Confidence card is an orgy,
however, the Patricians are too busy to be bothered with politics at
the moment, sorry. It is then the next player's turn.
The game goes on like that until there are no more Patricians left
uninfluenced, or both sides are out of cards. Rules for all the other
cards are included, of course: a Philosopher means the weakest side wins
the Patrician card; spies allow you to look at your opponent's hand
and discard one card, assassinations allow you to remove one face-up
influence card of your opponent, etc.
The game plays very well, at a good pace. For a two-player game, it's
quite involving and has a fair bit of player interaction. We do play with
one house rule: when the third type of Patrician is gone from the table,
remove one of the orgy cards from the deck, but not the reshuffle one.
Likewise, once the fourth Patrician stack is emptied, we remove one
more orgy card, but not the reshuffle one. While three orgy cards out
of eight Vote of Confidence cards is a fine number, three out of five
or four cards is too much luck for our tastes.
The game has a good mixture of luck and skill. Luck definitely plays
a role, but we've found that the more skillful player will usually win.
All in all, I like this game a lot, and recommend it.
Hera & Zeus
Designed by Richard Borg
Hera & Zeus began its life many years ago as a
Stratego card game, or so I've been told. After being
rejected by the Stratego publishers, the designer reworked
it into its own game. And a fine little game it is.
It still has much of Stratego about it: you have hidden
characters, many of whom are rated from 1-9 in value and who can attack
enemy characters directly opposite. There is a zero-point character
that can defeat the largest numbered character if she attacks. You have
"scouts" that can attack from a distance, and cards similar to "bombs"
and "miners" and even a "flag." But much is very different from
Stratego, and much better. There are a lot of new and
interesting special powers that can come into play.
The basic premise is that Hera and Zeus, the leaders of the Greek
Pantheon, are feuding. Each has kidnapped the other's lover and they are
trying to rescue them. They each command an army of various mythological
personae to help them. Each player starts the game with nine cards of
their own deck, then lays three cards facedown on the table in columns.
These three columns are the main battle area, and each side can have up
to four rows of cards on the table at a time. The object is to find
the target card before your opponent finds yours.
Holding your target card in your hand isn't a sure guarantee of safety -
your opponent can send a Pegasus to scout your hand, and if it happens
on the target card, wins the game. It's actually safer on the board,
since you can only scout the front row of any column. However, as front
creatures are defeated, the second and higher rows move up to fill the
gap automatically, so there is no real safety anywhere.
The game doesn't have a lot of long-term planning. You really have to
focus your three actions per turn on optimizing your position, given
what you have, not thinking ahead too far. That's okay, it's still fun,
rewards thought, and carries a fairly high degree of excitement since
some of your choices are quite risky. There is a fair bit of
luck in the game, but it's not too big a deal - both sides have an equal
chance at that luck. Having the target card be the top card in your draw
pile while your opponent's target card is on the bottom of the deck is
an extreme example of luck, but it's happened to me. In such a case,
the game for the player who drew the target card early is one of seeing
how long he can survive. And even that can be entertaining!
Still, the luck factor is the only thing that brings this game down below
my rating for Caesar & Cleopatra. It's an excellent
game that I enjoy playing frequently, and if it had just a bit less luck,
it would rate even more highly.
Designed by Dirk Henn
Rosenkönig was formerly known as Texas,
published by DB Spiele. The theme has been changed to the War of the
Roses, which is almost what the game title means (it actually means
Rose King). The game is quite lovely - a beautiful board with a map
of northern England, wooden tokens with a white rose on one side and a
red rose on the other, and attractive cards. The game is quite good -
if you like cerebral games, that is.
Actually, these comments were all made before I
learned to play the game with different rules. The negative tone
relates strictly to the game-as-written. The way I play it now is
listed in the last paragraph, and I like the game much more than
the tone of this article leads one to believe!
Each player is dealt five power cards, which are placed face up in front
of you. Each power card shows a direction and a distance. The board
is made up of 81 spaces in a 9x9 square. A wooden crown marker starts
on the center square, and the red rose player then plays a power card.
The power card will show one of eight directions - the four orthogonal
directions and the four diagonal directions - and a number from one
to three. The crown marker is moved in the direction shown, the number
of spaces shown. At that point, a power stone is placed with the red
rose showing. It is now the white rose player's turn, who also plays a
power card, moves the crown marker, and places a power stone, but with
the white rose side face up.
Play continues like this, but instead of playing a power card, you may
draw one and add it to your stock of face-up power cards, though you
cannot have more than five cards at a time. Since all power cards for
each player are visible at all times, the game becomes very analytical:
if I play this, he can play that one or that one. From there, I might
then play that one or this one. He'll then counter with ... And so on.
This may not be your cup of tea, and I wouldn't blame you. If it were
to everyone's taste, more people would be playing chess than they do.
While it has luck in the draw of the cards, it otherwise does have a
chesslike feel in the calculating of responses to each particular move.
It's not as deep as chess - you have far fewer possibilities to calculate
each turn! - but it does have some of that feel. If this doesn't
appeal to you, skip this game. I like this type of game occasionally,
though not a steady diet of it, so I'm quite happy to own and play
Rosenkönig now and then.
Each player also has four Hero cards, by the way, which allow you to
land on a power stone of your opponent's and convert it to your color.
Large concentrations of power stones are what win the game, so if you
can join two smaller groups of your tokens together, it's always a good
move ... Provided you don't give your opponent a devastating response,
One of my favorite moves in this game is to offer my opponent a great
place to play one of his Hero cards early in the game. If he takes it,
well and good - I now have more Hero cards than he does, and they are
power in this game. If he doesn't take it, well and good - hopefully
I've moved so that that was really his only decent move.
A good little cerebral game - recommended if this meets your tastes.
Variant: to make the game less cerebral and far more
luck-dependent, play with closed hands rather than open. It's a
much quicker game this way, and much lighter. This is now the only
way I play the game - I can't go back to the slow, analytical
version. It's now a fun, light filler for us.
Designed by Hermann Huber
Elchfest was a minor disappointment to me, but
I have to admit it would be a very good game for children.
But I wanted one for myself! I'm a big fan of Carabande, and
I thought this game would be in the same class. It's not. While
Carabande is a wild and crazy finger-flicking race with
lots of excitement and groans of agony, Elchfest, for adults
vs adults, at least, is a slow and predictable finger-flicking race with
occasional moments of almost fun. I suppose I'm being too harsh on it -
I actually have enjoyed this game, but the mood I was in to enjoy
it is very rare. If I consumed alcohol more than I do it might help
my enjoyment of the game (but wouldn't help me in other ways, so I'll
stick to my current rate of a glass of wine every month or two).
My basic problem with the game is that there are only two free disks at
any time after the first few moves. You're trying to cross a stream
(the table) with your wooden elk, and you have to flick a stone to a
position he can put his feet on without getting them wet. There are only
six disks in the game, and once both elks leave their home shore piece,
that means four of the disks will be used by elks to stand on - one
under the front and one under the back legs of each elk. The other two
disks are available for either player to flick, but it will always be
pretty clear which disk is better for you to choose, and it's usually the
opposite disk that your opponent would choose. Only for a brief period
when the elks are trying to step into the same area is it interesting.
So for most of the game there really isn't anything wild and crazy and
unusual you can do. It's a pretty straightforward flick your stone,
the best flicker wins. The reason that summation doesn't hold up for
Carabande is the number of other players in between your
turns who are causing havoc with your plans by either knocking your piece
or getting in your way, and there are always desperation tactics to try
to enliven the game. Those things just don't happen very often in
Still, it's good with a certain age group of kids, especially if you
have two of them and want to occupy them for a while.
[After writing the above, I received e-mail from Frank Branham:
Elchfest is a little bit better than you describe it. My first couple
of plays pretty much followed as you describe. The strategic trick is to
remember that it takes just one flick to knock a disk far away from your
opponent, but often 2 or 3 flicks for him to get it back into
Thanks, Frank, I'll keep trying! I love the premise, so if this will
help it ...]
And you can bounce stuff off the land counters.
And putting a handful of real pebbles in the stream makes things MUCH
Is still not Carabande, but there is some fun in the box.
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