Darter

Reviewer Reviewed On Publisher Designer Published In Rating
March 6, 2006 Future Magic Games Dove Byrne and Jason Conkey 2004 8.5
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I'm used to getting games from independent publishers in anything from a plastic bag to a video case to a plastic snap box. Darter (Future Magic Games, 2004 - no designer credited) was of a different breed, coming in a large cardboard container, with extremely high quality bits. When the company contacted me about the game, I had watched the flash demos of it on the net (http://www.dartergame.com) and was impressed but was thinking that I would be getting a few cardboard tiles, not the chunky wooden bits included with the game.

I give Darter two thumbs way up; it's one of the most enjoyable games I've played in the last several months. It's simple, easy, yet rewards logic; it's almost the reverse of Robo Rally and is of tremendous high quality. Add in a pile of small variations to gameplay, and you have a two-player game that's worth keeping. I've played the game almost twenty times since receiving it and expect that number to continue to rise over the year.

A large checkerboard is placed on the table, with four "darter" pieces placed on four squares in the corners of the second innermost ring - each darter facing one other in a clockwise pattern. Each player places their base on any open spot on the board and then draw four tiles - with the forty-two tiles remaining placed in piles near the board. The object of the game is to get a darter to hit, thus destroying the enemy's base. One player is chosen as the first player, and the game begins.

On each turn, the two players each place a tile on the board. The four darters are then all moved forward one square, which may be affected by the tiles placed. Any tiles destroyed by the darters are removed, and players draw another tile, preparing for the next turn. One should note that the board "wraps" around, so that darters move off one side and onto the other and can be affected by tiles that are "adjacent" on the other edge of the board.

There are six "impact" tiles. These tiles are activated when a darter moves onto them from one of their "active" squares - shown on a player aid. If a darter moves onto them from any other direction, the impact tile is destroyed. These tiles are:
- A wall, which reverses the direction of the darter hitting it from any direction. After this, the wall is always destroyed.
- A 180 degree mirror, which reverses the direction of the darter hitting it from two directions.
- A ninety degree mirror, which turns the darter ninety degrees when it gets hit from two different directions.
- A three-way funnel, which takes the darter from three directions, shooting it out the fourth direction.
- A two-way funnel, which is similar to the one above, except it only accepts darters from two directions.
- An accelerator, which shoots a darter forward an extra space when hit from two different directions.

There are five "proximity" tiles. These tiles are activated when a darter moves into one of the "active" squares and have an effect on them. If two or more proximity tiles both are pulling on the same darter, a simple formula is used to see in which direction it goes. Proximity tiles are destroyed if a darter ever hits them. The tiles are:

- A one way magnet - This pulls the darter that hits one of its two active squares one space towards the magnet. A darter that is pulled into the magnet destroys it.
- An all-way magnet - This is the same as above but has eight active squares, two in each direction.
- A spring - This pushes the darter one space away from the spring when the darter enters its single active square.
- A quarter crank - This rotates a darter ninety degrees around it.
- A half crank - This rotates a darter 180 degrees around it.

Finally, there is a special tile, the bomb that can only be placed in the same square as a darter. It destroys itself and the four tiles that are adjacent to the darter. All these tiles are removed before the darters move.

There are a few more rules, such as dealing with an infinite loop, or what happens when the tiles run out; but games usually end quickly with one player's base being destroyed, giving the victory to the other player!

Some comments on the game…

1.) Comments: Usually, I'm not pleased when a game comes packaged in a tube, because it's often used as a gimmick. In this case, I think it's a great choice; the huge cardboard tube is incredibly sturdy and holds the components better than I would have imagined. The large checkerboard is on a very nice, huge vinyl mat that rolls up well and takes a lot of damage. The tiles themselves are large, thick wooden tiles that have a side length of 1 1/2 inches. These, the wooden darters, and the wooden pyramids that are the bases certainly drive up the price, but they definitely give an A+ quality to the game and make it more fun to play.

2.) Rules: The rules are on nine pages and include variants, examples, and full color illustrations. Two two-sided player aids are included, showing examples as to how the tiles affect the darters. This, plus the rules, plus the online examples make rule snags very rare, and I've had little to no trouble in explaining the game. Sometimes it takes a couple of real life moves for a few players to "get it", but even people who are turned off by the sheer logic orientation of similar games (Ricochet Robot, etc.) find the game fairly simple.

3.) Logic: The simplicity is a sham, however, as the game actually has some depth in it. Everything is straight-forward, with the only luck being in the tiles that are drawn. The game can end in only a few moves, so players have to be careful about every tile they place. I've seen many games end quickly because players misjudge a tile that an opponent has placed, thinking they are safe, not realizing that another tile that can be placed (next turn) will devastate them. Even worse, players (myself included) have often lost games because of tiles that THEY'VE placed. Of course, since the games aren't too long, everyone has a big laugh about this, and it starts over again. Still, I think it's great how the game rewards clever placement and punishes poor placement without being too evil, since games are short. Complicated setups involving five or more tiles are possible, and it's just neat to see how they all work together.

4.) Variants: There are many variants listed in the back of the book - some of them significantly interesting enough for me to mention here.
- Multi-player - One can go online and order a four-player expansion for the game, which might interest some people. I'm perfectly happy with it as a two-player game.
- Ultimate - This splits the tiles between the two players, who then choose any of their twenty-four tiles. This eliminates luck from the game and is my favorite way to play, as long as my opponent doesn't have analysis paralysis. Sometimes it is simply critical that a player get a bomb tile, and this way the player always will.
- Preparations - This allows players to put four tiles on the board before a game starts - kind of like a "quick start".
- Choices…Choices… - This allows a player to move only one darter per player, instead of all four.
There are seven other variants - all of which are fairly interesting and keep the game moving.

5.) Time: Because the game ends as soon as one darter reaches a base, and there are four darters moving at once, a game can end as quickly as two turns. I found this refreshing; it's almost as if we are playing a board game equivalent to fencing - with a few quick key moves, and then victory. Some games can last longer, taking even up to a half hour; but most are short, deadly affairs. Because of the speedy playing time, Darter can be played several times in a row and makes for an interesting spectator game.

6.) Fun Factor: The speed of gameplay is alluring, but I simply like the "machine" and logic aspects of the game. It's great fun to maneuver the tiles towards the opponent's base, and winning is very satisfactory. I said earlier that the game is the opposite of Robo Rally - instead of controlling robots in an unchanging factory, the factory changes around darters that don't. Darter has a simplicity about it that is refreshing and makes for a tremendous abstract strategy game.

If you are willing to pay the slightly higher price for the game (and the components are definitely worth it!), then I can't recommend Darter highly enough. It's fast, is of supreme quality, and will appeal to people who love logic, and those who just like to move the darters around. It's an ideal teaching game and even works as a "filler" between heavier games - something I don't often characterize an abstract strategy game as. While not as good as the classic RoboRally, it has a nice charm about it and will hit my table many more times this year!

Tom Vasel
"Real men play board games"