Off the Grid reviews some Cheapass Games

Every other week Scott Jon Siegel contributes Off the Grid, a column on gaming away from the television screen or monitor.

As a consumer, my biggest gripe with games like RoboRally and Carcassonne is the price of admission. Non-digital games often depend on the "shiny" factor to get them off of retail shelves, and we the buyers end up paying more for the boards, bits, and boxes than we do for the rules themselves.

Thankfully, game designer James Ernest perceived this problem in 1996 when he founded Cheapass Games, a tiny little non-digital developer which emphasizes design over dazzle, and encourages players to root through their old games for pieces, rather than paying time and again for identical dice, tokens, etc.

In the spirit of minimalism, I'm going to review three of Cheapass's "Hip Pocket Games" -- The Very Clever Pipe Game, The Big Cheese, and Light Speed -- which range in price from $3 USD all the way up to five.

Light Speed is a full-color card game about deep-space battle and asteroid mining. Players place up to ten different ships anywhere on a surface as quickly as possible, and at the same time as all other players. Once one player has placed all ten of his cards, all players stop, and the round is scored. Scoring is accomplished by following the line of sight for each ship's lasers, determining damage to each ship, and noting which ships successfully "mined" from the all-important asteroid.

The gameplay in each round is over in less than a minute, while scoring can often taken up to five minutes to determine. Despite this unbalance, all the fun of the game is in that first fraction of play-time. Light Speed requires players to think on their feet, placing cards quickly but carefully, while making sure not to leave themselves vulnerable to attack or -- even worse -- end up shooting their own ships. Beyond the included cards, the materials required are 15 "damage" tokens for each player, and an additional 12 "rock" counters for the asteroid. Light Speed is quick, but most definitely enjoyable.

Next up is The Big Cheese, a "clever little bidding game" from way back in 1998. 3-6 players compete as vice-presidents of Rat Financial Incorporated, vying for the favor of the company's president. Each round, players bid "flunkies" to work on particular projects, with the player bidding the most flunkies winning the project and earning points upon its completion.

Featuring cute black-and-white illustrations by Carol Monahan, the game relies almost entirely on its central bidding mechanic, which is surprisingly rewarding when played strategically. Still, the turn-based completion of projects combined with the process of bidding does make for a repetitive experience. With no real variance in the procedure and a clear-cut winning condition (first player to 40 points wins), the game plays somewhat flatly, but is still an entertaining satire on big business. Beyond the included cards, players will need ten tokens each, and either a full set of polyhedral dice, or one six-sided die.

Finally, we have The Very Clever Pipe Game, a strategy game for 2-4 players. Similar to Carcassonne (although actually preceding it), The Very Clever Pipe Game challenges players to complete pipes of a particular color. Then, removing the cards involved, players are scored based on the number of cards. Like Carcassonne, players can earn more points by creating pipes involving more cards, but run the risk of another player capitalizing on those cards and making a set of their own first, thereby removing those cards from play and spoiling the opportunity.

Easily the most economic of the three games, The Very Clever Pipe Game needs no additional materials, using only the 48 black-and-white cards included in its ziploc bag. What's more, TVCPG is actually three games in one. The instructions offer two additional ways of playing the game which capitalize on the regions of color printed in between the various pipes. The extra iterations are fun, although the original is clearly the best, built for two players and offering simple rules in a very clever package.

Each of these games can be played in well under an hour, making for short, satisfying experiences that won't burn a hole in your wallet. Over time, I'll be reviewing more Cheapass games, so stay tuned.

Scott Jon Siegel is a fledgling game designer, and fancies himself a bit of a writer on the topic as well. His words and games can be found at numberless, which is almost always a work in progress.

This article was originally published on Joystiq.