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Svarog's Den - Board Games

Games Played at Gen Con 2023 IV: SpellBook, Zero to 100, Nertz, Cartagena, and Borderlands: Mister Torgue’s Arena of Badassery

by W. Eric Martin

Let’s continue with coverage of Gen Con 2023, an event so large that it takes three weeks to absorb it all.

SpellBook is a Phil Walker-Harding design that feels like a cousin to Marc André‘s Splendor, which might not be a surprise given that both games were developed and published by Space Cowboys.

Each player has, wait for it, a book of spells in front of them at the start of play. The game includes multiple spells of the same color, and you can use specific sets of cards or mix things up. Each player starts with two random materia — tokens that come in the seven colors of the spells with one of three symbols on them: circle, triangle, or square — and five materia are placed on a central altar.

On a turn, you take a morning action, a midday action, and an evening action. Initially the only morning action is to either draw two materia from the bag or choose one materia from the altar, storing those in your pool, which is limited to nine materia. And similarly at midday, you start with only one action: Place a materia from your pool on the lowest space on your familiar. (You score points at game’s end equal to the lowest uncovered space.)

In the evening you again have only one action, but the evening is where the magic happens, so to speak. You can spend three, four, or five materia of a color to learn a spell. The more materia you spend, the more points you score from that spell at game’s end and the more spells you have available to you.

The red and purple spells give you additional options in the morning. You can still draw two random materia or a specific one from the altar, but if you have the lowest level red spell, you can instead discard a circle materia from your pool to draw four random materia from the bag. If you have the second level red spell, you can discard a triangle for the same effect, or you can choose the lower level spell instead, discarding a circle. As you might expect, the highest level red lets you discard a square for four materia.

Starting set of spells for your first game

The green and black spells give you additional midday actions; the white and blue give evening actions; and the yellow spells have an instant or permanent effect or improve your endgame scoring.

Once you learn a spell, it’s stuck at that level — except for a white spell that lets you boost a learned spell — so you have the standard game tension of acting now or waiting for something better later. You’re sometimes getting materia at random, trying to make the best of whatever ends up in your lap and dumping loser colors onto your familiar, but you can also pick from the altar to go for a specific goal. (One materia is added to the altar at the end of each turn, and once ten materia are on it, the altar clears and resets to five random materia from the bag, which both delights and frustrates players.)

Once someone has learned all seven spells or has filled their familiar, you finish the round, then tally points.

• Zero to 100 is a trivia game from Antonin Boccara and Scorpion Masqué in which having an approximate idea of an answer can be just as good as knowing the exact answer.

To start, divide up into two or three teams. Each team takes six question cards without looking at the backs; the back side of each card has a numerical answer from 0 to 100 for the question on the front. Place the 50 card in the middle of the table.

On a turn, each team chooses one of their question cards that they think has an answer that’s close to the number on display, which is 50 on the first turn. Once everyone has decided, teams flip their answer over. Whoever is farthest away from the answer places their number in the center of the table — creating the target for next round — and draws a replacement question card from the deck; each other team discards their question card, moving them closer to victory.

Each team has three special cards that they can use once during the game. One card adds or subtracts 50 from your answer, another adds or subtracts 20, and the third is a “spot on” card that you can play with a guess; if your guess is closest to the target and within five of that number, you discard an additional question card from your hand.

Whichever team first has only one question card in hand wins.

I played Zero to 100 twice with three teams at Gen Con 2023, then again on a review copy with two teams at home. As with many trivia games, you end up with a mix of questions you think you know and questions that are a mystery…but not necessarily a complete mystery because you can make inferences based on the subject matter.

In the image above, for example, you might not know the recorded age of the oldest person to become a father, but 83 seems like a not unreasonable target, so better to play this card now than when the number is lower. The same is true for the card at right, although precise knowledge of either answer would be ideal since you could then “spot on” and ditch a card about which you know nothing.

Cartagena: Escape Diaries is the newest edition of Leo Colovini‘s Cartagena, which debuted in 2000, and publisher Pretzel Games expects to have it for sale at SPIEL ’23 ahead of a Q4 2023 retail release.

The basic game remains as good as ever: Each player has six pirates that they must move to the boat at the end of the path. This path is made from modular tiles that each feature six symbols in some order. You start with some cards in hand, with each card showing one of these six symbols.

On a turn, you can take up to three actions. For each action you either (1) discard a card from your hand, then move a pirate of your choice along the path to the next visible symbol matching what’s on the card or (2) move one of your pirates backward on the path to a space with one or two pirates on it (and skipping those with three pirates), then drawing one or two cards accordingly.

Thus, to get fuel to move your pirates forward, you must move backward. The challenge is to move backward as little as possible, while moving forward in great leaps, ideally by playing several of the same symbol cards on a turn and leapfrogging far down the path. As you can see in my hand above, I am preparing to do that, ideally once someone else lands on a captain’s hat first so that I can mooch on their work. Mooching is a huge part of this design, as is backing up onto just the right spaces, both to draw cards and to keep a symbol occupied so that you can leapfrog it later.

I played with Candice Harris, who had never played before, and Isabelle from Pretzel Games, and I promised — in a manner more in-your-face than I normally am — that I would kick both their asses, then I proceeded to do just that. I’ve played Cartagena dozens of times in person and hundreds of times online, and you can definitely get better at the game despite the randomness of the card draw — or the non-randomness when you play with a card market of face-up cards and see what everyone picks up.

Cartagena: Escape Diaries features additional play variants, such as one in which you place a captain hat on one of your pirates and use the powers of this leader, but in all likelihood I’ll never touch them as I prefer my Colovini neat.

• While walking the ICC near the end of Gen Con 2023, I was still discovering booths that I hadn’t visited yet, such as the Bicycle booth that was selling a new version of the public domain game Nertz, a game I had not previously encountered.

The short description of Nertz is “speed solitaire”. In the game, each player has their own 52-card deck with a back of different color than all the others. Shuffle the deck, deal a “nertz” stack of 13 cards, deal four cards face up as the first cards in your columns, then flip up the top card of your stack to start play.

At the same time, everyone flips through the remaining cards in their deck, three cards at a time as in Klondike solitaire, placing cards in columns when possible (7 on an 8, queen on a king, alternating red and black cards), and most importantly placing aces in the center of play, then play 2s on aces, 3s on 2s, etc. When you reach the end of your deck, pick it up and do it again.

The round ends when someone has emptied their nertz stack, at which point everyone scores 1 point for each card played into the center and -2 points for each card remaining in their nertz stack. Play multiple rounds until someone reaches a pre-determined point threshold.

Dutch Blitz was published after Nertz was already being played, and Ligretto was published after Dutch Blitz, and they’re all basically the same thing.

I played one round with the demo person, thanked them for their time, then kept walking. That’s what current Eric does. Young Eric would have played against his brother constantly every single day — just as we did with Skip-Bo and other games, roping the parents in sometimes but mostly playing on our own.

• We’ll close with my worst gaming experience at Gen Con 2023, which was the fault of no one but me.

I made an effort to sign up for multiple game demos in order to have more concrete experiences to write about in this space, something more than “Here’s a picture followed by one sentence”, and one of the games I signed up for was Borderlands: Mister Torgue’s Arena of Badassery, a design from John Cadice, John Kovaleski, and Monster Fight Club.

Dan Arndt, who writes for Polygon, had also signed up for the demo, and just as we were getting started, two other people came up and said, Hey, can we jump in? We both said of course, then the demo person opened with, “I assume all of you are familiar with Borderlands?” The other three people said, “Yes”, and I said, “No”, then the demo person carried on as if he hadn’t heard me, talking about how we’re set up with an easy level, and your characters are in front of you along with starting weapons, and the dice come in three flavors, and you’re going to draw from the gear deck, and weapons specify ideal and okay ranges, and on and on.

Confusion overload

And I realized that I had no idea what the demo person was talking about, as in I couldn’t comprehend how any of this fit together or what you were supposed to do in the game, whereas the other three were like, Oh, yeah, that’s rad and I’m glad I got [character name] and other things that demonstrated their full-on understanding and enthusiasm.

The demo person had the player to my left start, and he dove in with clear plans for what to do, where to move, and who to shoot. The next two players did the same. Then my turn came up, and I froze.

Then said, “I have no idea what to do.”

And thankfully the demo person said, No problem, let’s have you move here, then you’re going to… He carried on in my stead, which had to happen as all four characters are used in the game no matter how many players are at the table. Then he ended the demo, saying, And you’d carry on from here, with these creatures spawning and these explosive rabbits being a key pick-up, etc. Everyone else said, That was great! and took off. I did the same, but much slower, still baffled as to what I experienced and why I was so lost.

Then I looked up info about the game and discovered that Borderlands: Mister Torgue’s Arena of Badassery is based on the Borderlands video game series and not on, as I had assumed, the 1982 Borderlands board game from Eon by Bill Eberle, Jack Kittredge, and Peter Olotka.


Apparently I need a “This tabletop game is based on a video game” warning sticker on such releases in the future as I have no background in video games and cannot speak that lingo. Now, where’d I leave my newspaper? I’d like to have some reading material to accompany my sarsaparilla and tomato aspic, then maybe we can get in a game of Skip-Bo before my afternoon nap.


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