While at CES 2009 last January, Sean and I had an appointment with EA Casual in the Kids@Play section of the show to take a look at some of their upcoming titles that were designed for families and kids. After checking out the Sims 3, Sims Animal Crossing and Pictureka!, I stumbled onto a kiosk that was showing off the Xbox Live Arcade version of Hasbro Family Game Night (HFGN.) After spending about 20 minutes playing demos of Battleship and Connect Four, we actually headed back the next day to spend some more time with the other titles. That was my first experience with the game (didn’t play it on the PS2 or Wii) and I was taken aback at how well the board games were transferred to a digital medium.
Originally released to XBLA on March 18th, 2009, the main hub featured four of the seven announced titles ready for download. These included Scrabble, Yahtzee, Connect Four and Battleship. Since then, the remainder of the originally announced lineup (adding Boggle, Sorry and Sorry Sliders to the mix) has become available. Every game comes with its allotment of achievements, but they are all grouped together under one main list within the hub. The pricing structure is pretty straight forward, with the main (HFGN) hub being free, and each individual title listed for 800 MS points (currently). Also, I went online and priced all physical board games and it is a toss up, as some (Yahtzee, Connect Four and Scrabble) are cheaper with the board version, while others (Sorry Sliders, Boggle and BattleShip) are either the same or more expensive than the Hasbro Family Game Night version.
After firing up the game and making your initial player options (local, Xbox Live, etc), you step off the elevator into your penthouse gaming room, where you can see that the room is segmented into three alcoves that house what I can only describe as the master game board, the game play area and a trophy wall. As you move into the room, you are greeted by the one and only Mr. Potato Head. The dude is prepared to show you everything and anything, as he is decked out in his jetpack outfit, complete with goggles and helmet. He will also be with you every step of the way, providing some simply priceless moments when he starts gasping, hanging his head in shame or jumping for joy while you are playing opponents. However, he first ushers you to the master game board, which houses all of the games, options and activities you can do while in the Hasbro Family Game Night application. The room also is (or soon will be) filled with unlockable items from each game as you win and meet goals, including pictures, slippers, chairs and coffee mugs. The game also comes initially with two themes (the base and a Spy version), but several more are free to download, including Boys room, Girls room and Jungle versions. As you change the themes, the entire room decoration (even the view out the window by the game play area) change to reflect you new choice.
I suggest the first thing you do is choose the option to check out the room and everything in it as it can almost be described as a room-sized version of Sony’s Home application sans the idiots trying to seduce the women avatars in the courtyard. The main hub has such a robust feel to it without even getting into the games themselves. However, it really dawns on you that this isn’t your 1980’s board game when you fire up any one of the seven available titles and realize that there are no missing pieces and no choking hazards for the little ones or pets that will be scouring the carpet for something to put in their mouths. As for the games, they seem to offer up the original board version, as well as a bit more challenging version with lots of play and finally a super-charged or tweaked version full of cool power-ups or twists on the original game rules. There is also a custom function that lets you mix and match the game rules to suit your own tastes.
One interesting development choice was that the single vs local multiplayer functionality was built into the main hub and not the individual games. If you want to switch from single to multiplayer or back, you have to actually back all the way out past your room or into the main lobby to accomplish this. I found this to be a bit annoying, as there were times when I wanted to switch on the fly at the end of several games, but had to back all the way out to do this.
The Hasbro Family Game Night hub also includes a ‘Party’ mode, which essentially is a collection of mini-games created out of the available (full version) titles from Hasbro Family Game Night that are selected. One example is Connect Four, where a game called “Blitz!” has you using bomb chips and alternate trying to take out more of your opponents chips than your own. Another mini-game for is called “One Shot”, where you try to take out the entire board in one move in only 5 seconds of decision making time. A third is called “Match the Pattern!”, where you keep dropping chips into color coded slots until someone makes a mistake. The Party mode has choices of short, medium or long rounds. At the end of the rounds of play, the winner is the person with the highest score. So basically, it follows standard party game format, just using the individual titles as a way to concoct a new way to play. It’s a nice diversion from the normal rules of the game, but if you aren’t a party game person, just go ahead and avoid it. As for the rest of the originally released titles, let’s take a look:
Connect Four was easily the most engaging of the titles for the entire family, as both my wife and daughter were having a blast playing each other and myself in round robin play. When I first downloaded the game, the three of us spent over an hour (without even realizing it) playing against each other. The competitiveness was great, yet the fun in seeing my 7-year old learn the game and its strategies was cool. It’s always nice to tell your kid to rub it in the face of your spouse when they finally beat them. Yup, teach them good sportsmanship young.
The game is very straightforward and easy to control, and we did not come across any quirkiness (like chips dropping prematurely) that could ruin the fun. Some of the gameplay options are the ability to change the AI difficulty, choose whether column drop and the drop clock are on, how many rounds to play, what the score and time limits can be. Of course, Mr. Potato head is right there to encourage you at every drop of the chip, showing his trademark reactions, although I never got any angry eyes or evil grins.
As far as gameplay modes, you can choose form the Original, Advanced and Power Chips. There isn’t much I can say about the Original mode except that it is Connect Four in its purest, albeit digital form. The gameplay mimics the original board game, and the same basic rules and strategies apply. Of course, you can always alter the above mentioned settings in order to strengthen the competition. However, the game is great for kids as it teaches them the core fundamentals as they are learning and understanding the strategies and awareness that is needed to be a consistent winner.
Advanced mode is a bit of a twist on the Original game mode, as it adds in the wrinkles of a constant three-minutes of score as many as you can per round gameplay. Essentially, you keep dropping chips until a winner is declared at the end of each round and then the game. Where this is a step up from the base original gameplay, when a row of four is connected, it disappears, and all stacks involved move down the appropriate spots of the row that is now gone. Think of how Bejeweled works when a row is matched, and you know what can possibly happen based on the other stacks and rows.
The Power Chips mode is similar to Advanced, but adds the dimension of chips containing power-ups and decreases the three all-you-can-score per round to two minutes. Some of the power-ups include the ability to crush a whole stack of ships, block a chip from your opponent being stacked and even knocking the last chip out of the bottom of the stack. This is a real nifty way to play and adds a whole new dynamic way of strategic thinking to your gameplay. I quickly have come to enjoy this mode more than the others, as you have to constantly be aware of all aspects of the board, because you can win, o lose, in the drop of a chip. This is probably the mode than anyone that loves a good challenge while playing strategic puzzlers should play.
One thing I don’t like is that you cannot change the game mode at the end of a Connect Four game. Although the option exists to “play again”, it is only in the current mode. If you want to switch it up with another mode such as Power Chips, you are forced to end the current game and go back to the main room and start a new game with a different mode. It’s not much of an issue, but definitely would be on my wish list if there is a title update in the future. Overall, Connect Four has been digitally transformed into a great game for individuals, groups and families. The multiple modes offer something for everyone and should keep the interest and replay level high.
GamingNexus grade for Connect Four: A
When I was a kid, playing Battleship meant digging out the mangled, duct-taped box that contained enough red, white and gray plastic pieces to be recycled into one of those gaudy looking spoilers that the wannabees put on their Hondas. Now, it’s simply a matter of firing up the trusty (well, trusty #3) Xbox 360 and having a digital version of the game ready to go in less time than it took to get the board game set up. As an added bonus, all the pieces are there without any teeth marks or having the pegs snapped off.
The first thing that struck me after starting a Battleship game was how cool the graphics, animations and audio are. Back in the day, you were stuck with a full compliment (hopefully) of those dull plastic pieces and if you were lucky, the bomb dropping whistle found only on Electronic Battleship. Now, you get Hi-Def graphics, full impact and burning animations and digital audio that thunders across the room when a ship is hit.
The game modes on Battleship are the Original, Salvo and Super Weapons. In Original mode, you either manually or auto set your pieces around the board and take turns with alternating shots. Like the original board game, this is fun in its own right and especially if you are playing with a child that is learning. One thing that cannot be avoided is the making sure that the ships are set fairly with no peaking. There are always those people that just cannot help themselves and have to look, but more than often this usually won’t be a problem. If it is, then simply use the auto-set function and it will place ships without anyone seeing. This is only a disadvantage in the Super Weapons mode, where you could accidentally torpedo your own ship because you don’t know their location. Otherwise, there is no practical reason to have to know where they are at.
The Salvo mode changes the firing option to include as many shots as you have ships still floating. One of the cool things about having so many shots, is you get to strategize how to deploy them. Once you find a ship, do you carpet bomb the four corners of the area and pinpoint its location, or do you continue to scatter shots around the board trying to pinpoint as many ships as possible. The trick is that as your ships get sunk, you lose your shots, so sometimes its better to go fishing for ships than trying to land that original target. To me, the Salvo play is more fun than the original, as it speeds up the game and adds a layer of strategic intrigue other than the single-shot crap-shoot that the Original mode offers.
In Super Weapons, it takes the Original game and adds the possibility of hitting a power up if you miss a ship. These power ups include Torpedo (which flows down a row until it hits a ship, including your own), Heavy Shot, which hits an area in an ‘X’ like the five on the side of a pair of dice, Decoy (which is a fake hit) and Reinforcements (adds a small boat to your fleet) are some of the weapons at your disposal. The decoy is especially devastating in a close match, as you waste another shot going after something that isn’t there. My favorite was the torpedo, as you can clear a whole row or figure out positioning really quickly when you launch one of your fish.
Much like Connect Four, the extra game modes keep Battleship fresh and tap into that dark recess of your brain that holds your evil and strategy brainwaves. Well, maybe just the strategic stuff. Overall, Battleship is an absolutely fabulous take on the original board game and a must have for anyone that loves a good play. About the only negative thing I could write for Battleship is that online connectivity is hard, much like most games not called Halo or Call of Duty. This is a theme I came across for all the Hasbro Family Game Night titles. Much like where the roots of these titles lie, they are best played locally with a friend or family member.
GamingNexus grade for Battleship: A-
Long before Kenny Mayne belted out “Yahtzee” while practicing catch phrases in a “This is Sportscenter” commercial, people were clustered around the family table with dice, scoring pads and pens yelling it out when they hit all the dice on the same number. I remember playing against my mom and grandmother as a kid where we would actually play a game by filling out the complete six-column score sheet as a single game instead of just a single column. This added more fun and allowed for greater flexibility in how you played. Well, looks like Yahtzee included in Hasbro Family Game Night is also jazzing up the classic dice game.
The game plays pretty simple, you press the ‘X’ button to roll, the left analog stick to scroll through the dice from left to right and the ‘A’ button is used to choose to keep a dice or throw it back into the bin to be rolled again. Oh yeah, the rumble is working in the controller while the dice are being shaken. I played through quite a few games, and even managed to score a 412 including two Yahtzees in one game.
Advanced mode is the original Yahtzee rules, only with the inclusion of Wild Dice that can be changed to any number you want. As you can imagine, this actually makes the game a touch easier, especially when you desperately need four of anything in order to keep your bonus on the top section. Unfortunately, the dispersion of the wild dice wasn’t always on equal footing, especially when playing against the computer. Not saying the AI needs to cheat or anything, but even after getting a 2 to 1 advantage over me in Wild Dice, I still kicked its butt.
In Block Out, the object is to score in a category before you opponent does and “block out’ them from scoring. You can also steal a score in the non-fixed categories (i.e. the top half of the score sheet) by scoring more than your opponent used t block you out. Much like the other titles in HFGN, this extra bit of rule tweaks add a new and cool dimension to the game. This was the one mode that left me a little bitter. Every time I played against the AI, I seemed to lose the ability to go first and then the AI would literally get all the good dice. Most of the time I would be down by 60 points in a matter of four rolls, which kind of stunk and made me not want to play it again. However, once I played against a warm body, the mode was much better, as the dice seemed to come up a little more even to both parties.
Two other game modes (found under the custom menu) are “Half-Card” (play only using the bottom half of the scorecard) and “Reverse” (where the lower score wins, but you opponent places your score in a category for you.) These add another dimension to the original Yahtzee rules if you like to keep things challenging.
Yahtzee is a game you either get or you don’t, you either love it or you don’t. It isn’t for everyone, and it’s a lot like trying to teach someone how to play Euchre that isn’t card savvy. Regardless, those that enjoy the game, even if it was 20 years ago at the kitchen table on vacation, will want to pick this up.
GamingNexus grade for Yahtzee: B+
It has been a long time since I sat down with anyone to play a game of Scrabble, so who was my first competition in 20+ years? Myself. That’s right; I played a solo game to get the feel for how the mechanics and gameplay work. And yes, I did win. Much like the other HFGN titles, the controls are simple, easily learned and hints (for the most part) remind you if you get stuck. This is especially helpful when trying to teach a youngster or neophyte how to play without the instructions that came stashed in the box and probably was lost many moons ago. One nice touch is the ability to leave the auto-dictionary on. This surrounds the word as it is being built on the board with a red (non-word) or a green (good word) outline to indicate your progress. This is really helpful when you are just trying to create anything to get some new tiles without just passing your turn.
The top level game modes for Scrabble are Original, Tournament and Bridge Builders. The original version allows from 1-4 individuals (with player vs. CPU allowed), but both Tournament and Bridge Builders requires at least two people to compete (and up to four), whether you are local or playing on Xbox Live. As far as the Original, it is Scrabble the way it was meant to be played, just on your TV instead of the kitchen table. The board and play area look great and it is very easy to pick up and play for the most part. The prompts, hints and familiar rules allow anyone that can spell to jump in and start playing. While I’m not a huge fan of the game, I enjoyed the time I played against both the CPU and some family members. Unfortunately, it also reminded me how poor my vocabulary has become as it disallowed several words that it didn’t recognize.
In Tournament, it is an all-out war, as each player has 25 minutes of play time (alternating turns) to score as many points as possible before the time, or tiles, run out. The key to this mode is to make quick decisions and use your opponent’s time on the clock to plot your next move. While this plays like the original Scrabble rules, the alternating time clock keeps you on your toes and forces you to make hasty decisions that a traditional game wouldn’t. This is a great mode to play that Scrabble person that likes to take forever to place words on the board. Talk about evening the playing field. One issue I had is that when the clock runs out on a player, they are still able to pull chips and score points. While they eventually lose points because there is no time, if they are hopelessly behind, the game should be called instead of suffering through a full 50 minutes of pain.
In Bridge Builders, the object is to spell words to try and stretch across the board to the other side. The first player that does this gets an extra 10 points. The premium squares are different places than a standard board, so just making it to the other side won’t do the trick. There is a good chance that the 10 bonus points wont be enough to cover your score if you are hell bent on using ‘cat’, baby’ or ‘the’ to win the race. Once someone reaches the other side, your score is the total points of al the tiles that make the quickest path to the other side. So basically, any letter that is on the board, but not part of the path isn’t counted for score.
One additional game mode found under the custom menu is “Hot Letters”, where players shake a bag to heat up letters. Tiles that are on fire are worth triple, hot letters double and burnt letter worth nothing. The letters don’t stay heated for long, so you better be quick with your word choice, or shaking the bag will be for naught. Also, to shake the bag, use the left analog stick, as these are one of those instructions that have to be figure out by luck.
Overall, Scrabble and its various modes were exactly what I expected. It played very easy, the game looked great and was enjoyable within your daily intake of Scrabble tolerance. However, unlike the other three games it had a few minor issues that knocked it down another half a letter grade. These seem to be rooted in a lack of on-screen instruction, so players are left to fend for themselves to figure it out. After sitting through lots of hint screens throughout the other games, having to figure stuff out by luck and trial & error felt like a bit of a let down. Still, it is Scrabble, and if you enjoy the game you will enjoy this digital version.
GamingNexus grade for Scrabble: B+
The Hasbro Family Game Night Hub and its underlying titles are great games to share with friends, family and even strangers over Xbox Live (especially once the achievement hounds have had their fill.) While it will not appeal to certain segments of the video gaming population, there should be plenty of people that grew up playing the classic board versions of these games to always find someone to play with. If not, there is always the game AI, which can be as good or as sorry as you want it to be.
However, the best thing about HFGN (and those with small children will really understand this) is that there are no pieces to pick up or get lost or choke on. Consider that the four board games reviewed above have a total of 419 plastic pieces, chips, dice and disks that can go missing and spoil the fun. With a digital copy, the game is there in its entirety, each and every time. To me, this is priceless, as I cannot count how many games that we have simply thrown away over the years because the children (and even myself back in the 70’s and 80’s) would lose so many pieces it then became unplayable. Although Hasbro Family Game Night isn’t quite as portable as its boxed cousins, the price point across all the available titles averages about what a new boxed version would cost without ever having to worry about losing pieces. Simply put, if you enjoy these games and have kids or pets than Hasbro Family Game Night and its titles are a smart investment on anyone’s part.
Hasbro Family Game Night Hub: A-
Connect Four: A
Hasbro Family Game Night is one of the best family titles to hit the XBLA service this year due to the amount of fun it brings without the hassle of keeping the pieces of the game and box in one piece. In addition, the cost of the four individual games ($10 / 800 MS Points) in relation to the purchase of any of their physically boxed brethren is almost a wash. Although there were a few minor annoyances with switching between game modes, the quick setup, lack of lost pieces and addition of high end graphics and audio make Hasbro Family Game Night a must have for anyone that enjoys these classic board games and interacting with their family.