I recently bought two new racing games, Powerboats by Cwali and Snow Tails by the Lamont Brothers. I’ve had a chance to play both games twice, Powerboats with 2 and 3 players; Snow Tails with only 2 players. They’ve both left me with a good first impression but which one leaves me wanting more?
Powerboats is, obviously, a game about racing boats around a lake. The board is modular, made up of 6 double-sided pieces that can be combined in a variety of ways, and shows land and water overlaid with a hex grid. This variety is a huge plus, offering so many different race courses that it’s very unlikely that you’ll ever play the same game twice. The board shows recommended spots (marked A, B, and C) to use as the starting/finish line, and the 3 course buoys but I see no reason you can’t just lay out a course in any manner you wish. In fact, I was a little disappointed in the placement of these and would rather choose my own course marker spots.
Movement is determined by special 3-sided dice. These are cool looking and unique but if you enjoy the dance of the dice when you roll them, you’ll be disappointed. This is more like dropping the dice rather than rolling them, but they do offer a method for randomization. On your turn you can add or remove a die from your “speed” track, then choose to roll as many of your dice as you wish. This is a clever way to speed up or slow down and ensures that you can’t slow down too quickly; you can’t step on the gas for a long, straight stretch and then go to a super slow speed to make a corner. Very nice.
This is a quick, light, fun game offering no real tough choices and between the dice and the many small islands you need to maneuver around, it can cause frustration. It’s very likely that you have 3 dice and want to really step on the gas to catch up but instead find yourself putting along at 4 or 5 hexes on your turn. Or you re-roll a 3, hoping for a 2 or a 1 to turn around a spit of land and get…a three. If moving three causes you to crash into land, you take a damage token and lose all of your speed (lose all of your dice). When you get your fourth damage token, your boat is too beat up to continue and you’re out of the current race.
Snow Tails takes you to snowy climes, racing sled dogs. Your weapon of choice this time is cards–a deck for each player with numbers 1-5. On your turn you can play 1, 2, or 3 cards but they must all be the same denomination. These are played on either or both of your dogs or discarded to determine the strength of your braking. Movement is determined by adding together the numbers on your dogs then subtracting the brake number to get your speed, then, if the dogs’ numbers are different, drift the number of lanes that the numbers are different. So… your left dog is pulling at 5, your left dog is pulling at 3 and your brake is set at 2. Your speed is 6 (5 + 3 – 2) and you drift 2 lanes to the left. It’s fairly simple, logical and thematic but it does take time. And you don’t always get to go exactly where you’d like to go because you’re limited by the cards in your hand. If you try to plan this turn and still take into account the cards left in your hand that you’ll have to deal with in the next turn, your brain is likely to ice up.
If you’ve misjudged your speed or drift, you could collide with another sled, which means you don’t get to refill your hand to 5 at the end of your turn, or run off the track, which gives you a “ding” card. The “ding” card counts towards the 5 card hand limit so avoiding them is paramount if you wish to retain control over your sled. If you should have to draw your 5th ding card, you are out of the race, of course, since you have no number cards to play.
The game comes with many double-sided track pieces, some straight, some curved, and two u-turns. If you’ve become proficient at handling your sled, you can throw in a piece of track that narrows down to a single lane or one that you set up trees on so that the first player who hits one takes out the tree and damages his sled.
Snow Tails is different from other race games because the card management is more complex, taking into account several aspects of movement at once. It requires more thinking and planning than Powerboats which means it isn’t as fast a game, but that is precisely the thing that keeps me wanting more. The challenge to manage the cards, to find the right combination of speed and drift, is addictive. And even with a damaged sled, you can still have enough control to win, as evidenced by the second game we played when I had 3 ding cards by the half-way point but still came in first.
I enjoy both games and am glad to have them in my collection but I consider Powerboats to be a lighter game, more likely to be put in the “family game” category. Given a choice, I would rather play the tougher but more interesting Snow Tails.