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Monday, May 16, 2011

Little Box Contest: Zodiac

I would apologize for the long stretch without any posts, but since no one actually reads this blog, I doubt it caused anyone much distress.

Last month, I submitted several games to a print-and-play design contest called the Little Box Contest.  The challenge of the contest was to create a game that would fit inside a small box--roughly two-thirds the size of a paperback book, I would say.

The first three submissions were mine, and all three were pretty terrible.  I will freely admit that.  I did learn a lot from designing them, though, so I don't feel like my time was wasted.  (The time of anyone who actually printed out and tried any of the games, though, may have been wasted.  Sorry.)

The contest has closed for submissions, and is now in a voting period.  Anyone who wishes can print out any of the game submissions, cut the components (the majority of the games are card-based), play them, and vote for their favorites.

If I was a dishonest or a prideful man, I would vote for my own games, but I can plainly see that they are the worst of all the submissions.  So that option is out.

I have tried several of the other games, though, and the one that got my vote is called Zodiac.

Zodiac is a game about trying to influence the twelve signs of the Zodiac in a race to build up enough power to gain control of the different planets in the heavens.  It is for two- to four-players and takes anywhere from twenty minutes to an hour to play, depending on the number and experience of the players.  According to the designer, John Burnson, the idea was to create a game like Dominion, but without shuffling.  I think he was successful, and I find the game to be very enjoyable.

The way the game works is this:  There are twelve cards arranged in a ring, each card representing one of the twelve signs of the Zodiac.  Each card has its own ability.  For example, Crab allows you to claim an additional card during your turn, rather than the usual one.  Twin allows you to activate a sign twice.  Bull allows you to gain 1 sway token.

Within the ring of twelve signs are five planet cards, each one worth a different number of points--3, 5, 7, 9, and 11.  A player must be able to pay sway tokens equal to the number of points on the planet in order to claim it.  The game ends when all five planets have been claimed.  Since each planet can only be claimed by one player, the player with the highest number of points wins.  In order to build up enough sway tokens to gain a planet, the players must claim signs and use their abilities.

Only six of the twelve signs are "visible" each turn.  The visible signs are marked with a moon counter in the corner, and they are the only signs that can be claimed or activated.  Each turn, the sky advances by one sign, so players must plan ahead when deciding which signs to claim and which abilities to activate.

Signs can be claimed by as many as three players.  However, each player must pay double the previous price in order to claim the sign.  So the first player must only pay one sway token, which he or she places on the 1 circle of that sign.  The second player must pay 2 tokens in order to claim the same sign.  One of those two tokens is place on the 2 circle of that sign, while the other goes away.  The third player must pay a whopping four sway tokens in order to claim the sign, one of which is placed on the 4 circle, while the other three go away.

Any player who has claim on a visible sign can activate it once during his or her turn.  For example, if Jimmy has claimed rank 1 of Waterbearer, he can activate it's ability during his turn, "Gain 2 sway.  Each other player gains 1 sway."

A turn goes like this:  First, the player must "advance the sky."  This means moving the moon counter from the last sign in the sky counterclockwise and placing it on the next available sign clockwise.  Thus, the sky moves around the circle of signs, constantly changing which abilities are available and what cards can be claimed or affected.

Second, the player gains one sway token automatically.  This really isn't a lot.  It's very important to use the signs to gain additional sway each turn.

Third, the player is allowed to use any or all sway available to him or her to claim a card.  This can be either a sign or a planet, but the player must be able to afford the price in sway, and he or she is only allowed to do this once.

Fourth and finally, the player is then allowed to activate any visible signs over which he or she has claim.  Each sign can only be activated once per turn.  This tends to be the most interesting phase, particularly late in the game.  A player might activate Twins so he can use Maiden twice and gain a total of six sway tokens, then activate Ram to advance the sky, thus making Crab visible, allowing them to use their newly-gained sway to claim a planet.

I was able to play the game last night with my wife and a couple of friends.  My wife ended up winning, which is probably a good thing.  She doesn't normally care for the more strategic games that require a lot of analyzing and concentration, but I think she had fun, and clearly our two friends did, as well.

Because the placement of the twelve different signs is always randomized, and because only six of them are ever visible at any given time, the game can be a real mind-bending puzzle at times.  The positions of different signs in relation to others can be extremely important.  For example, the Twins + Maiden combination (activating a sign twice + gaining one sway for each other visible sign besides Maiden that you control) can be exceptionally powerful, but it's difficult to pull off more than once or twice a game if they are on opposite sides of the sky.

If that sounds even remotely interesting to you, I highly recommend checking the game out here.  You can also find the Little Box Contest here.


  1. Hey, I read your blog! :) Also, this sounds like a rather awesome game. I may have to give it a whirl sometime.

  2. It is fun. And there's already an expansion for it, which is cool. I've got the base game printed out already, though. You should come over and play it sometime.