Dexterity Games Triple Feature (Menara, Meeple Circus, Flip Ships)
Why do you play board games? I’m sure we all have our individual reasons, and frankly, that’s one of the things that makes board gaming such a terrific hobby. You can play to escape to a land of medieval fantasy after a long week at work. You can play a one on one battle of wits with your friend, moving pieces around an abstract canvas until one player reigns supreme. You can play to test your efficiency against your fellow gamers, seeing who can best run a small farming village. Or you can play to just have fun, flinging milk dud shaped coconuts across a table with a plastic monkey. And when it comes to pure fun, joy, and a lighthearted and silly time at the table—nothing can top a great dexterity game.
Dexterity games come in all shapes and sizes. You’ve got stacking games like Junk Art, Animal Upon Animal, and Dylan’s treasured Rhino Hero. Then you have flicking games like Flick ‘Em Up, Catacombs, and Ice Cool. And you have a genre of games that I’ll loosely call “Pub Games”—head to head dexterity battles that are often times more sport than board game - Carrom, Klask, and Crokinole. Whatever the flavor of dexterity game, I’ve rarely if ever had a bad experience sitting down at a table to play one. Dexterity games sometimes feel like a black sheep in the board gaming world—that they aren’t real games or don’t deserve the same reverence or respect of a heavy economic game or thematic Ameritrash dice chucker. But the good ones can provide amazing joy and fun for groups and families, often in a small time commitment, and at an accessible price point and game weight. Today I’m going to look at three games I’ve acquired in the last few months that have been hitting my table evoking fun and joy over and over again, both with friends and family.
Menara (2018, Oliver Richtberg)
While stacking games are nothing new to the hobby, you’ll often find yourself rooting against the other players at the table, or trying to put them in increasingly difficult situations for their next block, animal, or card placement. Menara is unique in that it has you playing cooperatively with your table mates to build a constantly evolving and sometimes wobbly tower. And if you collapse any part of it? Game over. The stakes are high and cooperation is important if you want to successfully complete the tower of Menara.
Depending on your difficulty level (a welcome inclusion to make this game accessible for different ages and skill levels) each player will have a collection of colored chunky wooden pillars at their disposal. A communal “camp” area is available to trade out your colored pillars prior to your turn. On your turn, you’ll flip your choice of a card of different difficulty levels, and this card will instruct you to do a variety of tasks: from simple things like placing 1, 2, or 3 pillars, or moving an entire floor of the structure to another level, while maintaining the currently placed pillars and the integrity of the tower. If you complete the task - great, it’s onto the next player. But if you fail, you flip the card upside down, and increase the number of floors necessary for a win at the end of the game.
Anytime you fill up a floor, that is, you’ve played the correct colored pillars in each of their available spaces, you’ll pull a new random floor and have to place it on top of those recently placed pillars. The tower will grow, leaning off in certain directions, and getting increasingly unstable at the top. The game doesn’t end until you’ve met one of several end game conditions: collapsed the tower, gone through the entire bag of pillars, placed every available floor, or completed every card. At that point, you’ll check and see if you’ve met the required number of vertical floors. Each game, if you’re successful, will result in a different tower and a different height depending on your performance during the game.
Sure, it’s just placing wooden bits atop cardboard bits, but it is tense, fun, and strategic. There is no bailout—you pull a card and then you’ve got to complete it to the best of your ability. Playing with my 6 year and 9 year old, they were nervous about putting a new floor on the structure, worried that they would be the one to knock down the tower. But they had to go for it! And every time they tried, they succeeded. It was a great experience for my kids, to conquer that fear and hesitation, and it made for a great gaming experience.
With seasoned gamers you’ll have to crank the difficulty up pretty high to give yourself a good challenge, because teamwork, future planning, and smart decisions can lead you to build a fairly solid structure. However, the randomness of both the blind bag pillar draws and the upcoming floors will keep you on your toes, and at times leave you in an almost un-winnable situation. It never quite gets unfair, as you can continue adding to your floor requirement, and work to stabilize the tower as you climb higher and higher.
If you’re looking for a great family board game to replace a mainstream game like Jenga, this is a terrific fit. The fact that you are all working together instead of against each other is just another positive point for Menara as a family game. But don’t dismiss it as only a family game; it’s a fun and light filler experience for my game group as well—something fun and simple to bring our brains down after a particularly crunchy game evening.
Meeple Circus (2017, Cedric Millet)
Where Menara’s stacking is a fairly low pressure, strategic system, simply setting up chunky wooden pillars, Meeple Circus is a game that cranks up the tension, anxiety, and goofiness and has you fiddling tiny wooden bits with your giant sausage fingers as the timer constantly taunts you.
Meeple Circus is exactly what it’s name sounds like - you’ve got a large collection of standard size meeples in a variety of colors and abilities, as well as elephants, horses, barrels, balls, and beams. 2-5 players will take turns gathering components in a mini draft, keeping an eye on 4 public objective cards. What does the audience want to see? They may like the idea of a beam on a horse with a meeple on top. Or a meeple standing on a barrell holding another meeple sideways. Using this information you will gather the components that best give you a chance to fulfill the public’s demands.
Using a dedicated phone app or web browser, you’ll crank up the circus music and begin simultaneously assembling your act. If it falls, no biggie, just stack it back up again before the timer runs out. It’s a fun and silly exercise trying to get these little bits exactly how you want them, and there’s some push your luck involved. Red acrobats are the star of the show and will score more points the higher they are at the end of the act. After going through scoring you proceed to round 2.
You’ll draft a couple more components, this time adding in special guest stars who all have variable abilities for scoring you points, and specially shaped meeples with which to build. There’s Tarzan, who usually wants to be involved with animals. There’s the clown, who at the conclusion of the act must be flicked off the act and down to the table to score you points. You’ll build simultaneously again, score points for the public objectives, and go to the final round.
In the final round, things get silly. You’ll grab more components, making your circus bigger and bigger each round, and tempting you do grow it higher and higher. In round 3 you’ll be building by yourself under the watchful eyes of your friends and fellow circus competitors. You’ll also grab a special performance tile that will see you do any one of several difficult things to throw a wrench in your plans: cover one eye and build with one hand, have a special music track that forces you to stand up and take a bow whenever there is applause, name each component and give them a backstory as you place them. The forced creativity in round 3 may not be for everyone, but it has always been a lot of fun at the table for my groups.
Meeple Circus has been a hit for me in several different situations. My game group had a good time with it, both with and without the addition of adult beverages to add to the silliness and difficulty. And I recently got it to the table with my two young kids, and they had an amazing time (and both kicked my butt as well!). It’s a very accessible game with an incredibly simple premise. Who doesn’t love stacking things up? Like most dexterity games, the strategy is incredibly low. The only interaction is the draft phase. It’s a straight forward, nonsense heavy game about stacking people, animals, and props to score points.
I do wish it had a higher player count. 5 players is fairly low for what is essentially a party game, and expanding it to more would simply require a couple more meeples and component draft cards. The price tag is also a bit high for what is in the box. You do get a healthy collection of nice wooden meeples, but the cards and cardboard are of below average quality, and are quite limited in supply. Still, I would recommend Meeple Circus as a silly filler for your game nights, family game nights, or taking to family get togethers. An expansion is headed to the states soon that promises more goal cards, more animals, and more meeples.
Flip Ships (2017, Kane Klenko)
Flip Ships does something a lot of games seem to try to do lately in the hobby - transform a video game experience from digital to tangible. If you’ve ever played the classic 80s video games Space Invaders or Galaga, Flip Ships’ premise will be immediately recognizable and nostalgic to you - invasion! We’re under attack, and the little alien ships just keep spawning, climbing ever closer to us, and it’s up to us to shoot them down out of the sky and take down the mothership before they take us down.
In Flip Ships, you’ll work cooperatively with your fellow players and do this by taking small cardboard discs, placing them either on the edge of your table or on a provided wooden launchpad, and flicking them out into the tableau of alien cards, trying to destroy them. Players take turn launching their ships and distributing damage, and then the aliens make their offensive. Each card indicates how fast the ships will move towards our planet, and how much damage they’ll do should they make it to the surface. More alien ships spawn, and rinse and repeat. As we take damage, we’ll unlock more and more of our ships, which obviously increases our productivity.
There are three levels of ships, and each comes with a special player ability. You may be able to target adjacent cards instead of the one you land on (especially helpful getting around pesky forcefield protected alien cards), or use a laser (in the form of a small card) to extend your reach with this ship and hit an enemy that you may have come up short on. Or in one of the higher level powers you can take the spot where your ship landed, put the launchpad in that spot, and take a nice easy short shot at the mothership.
Ah the mothership. The boss level of Flip Ships. She’s there all game, taunting you, tempting you to take that long shot (about 3 feet away) rather than deal with the army of small ships bearing down on you. And you have to—someone has to deal with her. Because if you’re successful destroying all of the alien ships, you’ve still got to finish off the mothership. And if you run out of health, or kill all the ships and can’t take down the mothership in the final boss round, you’re dead.
There’s a sliding difficulty scale for how many ships you’ll be spawning from the deck for this game, and how much health the mothership will have. As someone who played a lot of paper football in school, they really nailed the difficulty on this game. It is tough to land those mothership shots! I’ve only won 1 of the 4 games I’ve played, and it was our first one on the easiest difficulty. But man, what a feeling when you nail that shot! My kids and I finished off the mothership and went running around the house celebrating like we were Will Smith at the end of Independence Day.
Flip Ships is not a game for a lazy day at the board gaming table. You’ll be constantly shuffling in and out of one chair, as there is just one primary spot to shoot from towards the alien hoard. I spent more time walking around the table (sometimes picking up errant shots that made it to the floor) than I did sitting during these 45 minute sessions with this game. I’ve only played this one so far with my family, and my kids love it—they haven’t turned down a game session yet. If you’ve got young kids and find it tough to keep them seated at the table, Flip Ships is a great option, since you’re constantly up and moving.
Flip Ships is a hit. It’s fast, fun, and rewarding. You’re constantly blowing up small ships which keeps you feeling good about your performance. The strategy is there from turn to turn, deciding which alien ships would be best to take out. Execution of course, is another matter. It’s been a huge family hit, and is a great escape from a usual head down at the table board game night as you’ll be up and active in this one.