Friday, July 29, 2011

Preview - Masked Surrogate (for Omen)


Last April, I reviewed a card game called Omen: A Reign of War. It was not only the best game from Small Box Games that I've ever played, it was also one of the best games I played last April. It's fast and smart, balanced and tense, and has some seriously kick-ass art. Just look at that picture up there. That's seriously kick-ass art.

That seriously kick-ass art is not from Omen, though. It's from Shattered Aegis, which is the first expansion for Omen. Shattered Aegis comes from a Greek word that means, 'broken clavicle', an injury usually sustained by the ancient Greeks while they were skating empty pools. These predecessors of the X Games probably should not have been skating bare naked. Helmets, at least.

Shattered Aegis adds a bunch of new units, all illustrated by the same seriously kick-ass artist who did the first game. You can use them in the normal rules that come with Omen, but there are also three variant games you can play if you're feeling adventurous. If you're really feeling adventurous, you can trying skating a pool naked. I don't recommend it, though apparently the Greeks thought it was entertaining enough that they came up with a word for what happened when you bailed at the top of a frontside alley-oop.

The first new game mode is called Grand Melee, and allows four players to draft their decks of ten units to play against everyone else. You play until someone wins twice. Then there's pure deck building, where each player build his deck to play against an opponent who also builds a deck. If you want to do that, you need two copies of Omen and Shattered Collarbone. The last mode is Test of Skill, which gives each player an identical deck of 40 units.

There's also a new status effect in Shattered Aegis, called Enrage, which happens when the other player bails an axle stall on the diving board and then you nail it. It turns non-beast units into beast units because they're so infuriated at your prodigious skating ability. Those Greeks were serious about their skating.

Shattered Aegis is not out yet. Preorders for the game will open up in a few days, at the first of August. This is just a preview, and I expect to be giving the game an actual review in a few weeks. In the meantime, if you want to get on the preorder bandwagon, keep an eye on the Small Box site:

http://smallboxgames.com/

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Card Game Review - Sentinels of the Multiverse


Theme-lovin' gamers have it pretty good. Think of a cool theme, and you can probably find a game that does it well. If you want world war, we've got it (frequently with robots or aliens). Zombies? We've got it. Swords and sorcery? Holy crap, have we got it.

But what seems to be missing - and what should be a pretty obvious hole in gaming history - is a good game about comic book heroes. That's not to say that nobody has tried, but no game I've played is able to really bring to life the feel of comic book supers throwing each other through windows, pounding each other with heavy machinery, or blasting away with laser eyes or bursts of arcane power. Sure, the games are there, and some are even fun, but so far, none really brings home the battle for the future of planet Earth against a mad genius with unparalleled power.

But now, thanks to one tiny game company with a whole lot of balls, we can finally blast the evil right into space. Sentinels of the Multiverse might be a low-budget production, but what it lacks in plastic widgets and cardboard mats, it makes up in pure story-inspired enthusiasm. The game pits a team of players against a seriously dangerous villain in all manner of crazy comic-book locales, like moon bases and lost worlds full of dinosaurs. It's cooperative, so it has lots of hurdles to overcome, but it manages to deliver an exciting story full of smackdowns and last-minute saves.

Everything in Sentinels of the Multiverse is done with cards. The box comes with hundreds of 'em, so the first thing you'll want to do when you open the game is put the various decks into some sort of storage, like tuckboxes or card dividers or sandwich baggies tied up like heroin balloons. If you don't organize the cards, they'll slide around in the box, and every time you play you'll have to separate all the decks again. And since there are more than twenty different decks in here, you could be at it for a while.

Each hero is represented by a deck of cards, as is the villain. What's especially interesting is that your combat zone is also a deck of cards, and every turn, you'll run afoul of crumbling ancient traps (if you're battling in Atlantis) or dinosaurs (if you're fighting in the lost world) or bikini slippage (if you're wrestling in a kiddie pool full of olive oil and grape Jello).

Play is pretty easy, though there are lots of elements to track. The bad guy goes first, summoning minions or deploying weapons or whatever other nefarious badness is on the card he plays. Then the heroes each get a turn, and they can play their cards to blast the hero with ice rays or encourage their comrades to fight harder or rest up and try to recover from the recent ass-whipping the villain has handed out.

The final round, and the thing that grounds the battle and makes it feel like you're somewhere doing something instead of battling in some nebulous gray zone, is when the environment plays. The villain may have his base on Mars, but that doesn't mean Mars works for him. The self-destruct sequence might begin counting down, and even Baron Blade will be in trouble if the whole place blows up. Or the red dust could get into everything and gum up the works in your gyro-salad shooter. Or the Baron might reprogram his Rhoomba to shoot anything it bumps into, which seems like a good idea until he blows up his sofa and puts a hole right through his big-screen TV.

Now, everybody knows that no comic book villain is ever defeated after just one beatdown, and when a really tough bad guy takes a serious beating, he's going to have to step up his game. He'll jump into his power armor or transform into his more deadly form or put on some inspirational 80s music and strap a headband around his forehead, and then come out to kick some serious hero ass. This is simulated by a ridiculously easy mechanic - after the first beating, you flip over the villain's card.

Sentinels of the Multiverse enthusiastically embraces its comic book roots by giving you ten different heroes, four different villains and four places to duke it out, but it also embraces its small press origins by having a lot of things that will bother you. That's how you know it's small press, because a big company would have spent the extra money to fix those problems. For instance, you have to track hits for your heroes and villains and minions and mobile weapons platforms and attacking velociraptors, and the game recommends you keep pen and paper handy. So do I, because you're going to be doing a lot of adding and subtracting and it's going to get impossible to remember how everyone is feeling. A board with numerical tracks for heroes and villains would have been super nice, though you can use dice for evil robots, because they're usually really easy to knock down.

Another problem is how many things there are to remember. You'll want a conductor to run the game for you, so that he can run down every step and make sure you don't forget to advance the clock on the self-destruct sequence, or give Ra his damage for overloading his fire-blasting skills, or get distracted by Wonder Woman if she forgets that her plane is invisible when she's changing her super bra. You'll have to count the cards in Baron Blade's discard pile and keep track of how many environment cards are all acting at the same time. Basically, there's a lot to follow, and it can get confusing.

The most exciting part of the game, whacking things, is sadly also encumbered by the need to remember every modifier to your punch. Imagine this exchange:

"Evil Overlord, I will hit you with my power fist! It will do six points of damage!
"But Bunker, I am wearing a personal force field, so you only do four points!"
"Aha, Overlord, you forgot that I have had Legacy telling me how good I look in cotton trousers, and so my added self-esteem does you one extra!"
"Blast, Bunker, I forgot about Legacy's motivational tapes!"
"So did I, until just now! I can't figure out why I keep ending every sentence with an exclamation point!"
"Because it's a comic book, you self-righteous asshat!"

I won't pretend that the foibles present in Sentinels of the Multiverse did not bother us as we played, but I can tell you that we unequivocally had a very good time in spite of them. I stole some dice out of some very bad games to track hits for minions, kept the rulebook handy to remember the turn order, and frequently wound time backward to remember to fix whatever I had forgotten before. We got past it, and enjoyed the romping story of a team of super-powered warriors throwing a beating on evil and saving the world.

It's not a slick game, by any measure that matters, but Sentinels of the Multiverse is very entertaining. The art is very cool, with a style that resembles modern superhero cartoons and some engaging graphic design. For instance, each hero gets a card for his hero that tells him how many hits he has and what powers he can wield every turn, and these cards look like comic book covers, including having the hits look like the issue number. It's clever and fun and cooperatively entertaining, and more than any other superhero game I've played, actually feels like a comic book battle. There's a lot to be said for a game that brings home the bacon when it comes to the theme, and if you've been looking for a good supers game, you could do a hell of a lot worse than Sentinels of the Multiverse.

Summary

2-5 players

Pros:
Story plays out naturally, doesn't feel forced, and is a blast to experience
Easy to play, without too many complicated rules
Great art really enhances the theme
Delivers the feel of a comic book battle extraordinaire
With a wide selection of heroes, villains and environments, provides tons of replayability

Cons:
Lots of irritating little things to remember
Hit tracking feels sloppy
Overall lack of polish
Doesn't scale - 2 players will get their asses kicked, 5 will clean up before lunch is ready

Sentinels of the Multiverse goes for forty clams at the publisher's site, which might seem steep until you see the hundreds of cards in the box. You can pick up a copy here, and start kicking some villain ass:
http://www.sentinelsofthemultiverse.com/store

Monday, July 25, 2011

Kids Game Review - Connect 4 Launchers


I like games designed for kids. There is often a simple and grin-inducing pleasure in playing a game meant to entertain people who eat paste in art class. Not only that, but when I was a kid, Connect 4 was one of my favorites. It was smart without being complicated, yet simple without being condescending. It helped that I won a lot.

This year, Hasbro is breaking out a new version of Connect 4. This one doesn't have the old vertical board where you drop checkers down from above. In this version, you shoot your checkers like a carnival game, only if you win, you don't get the giant stuffed panda. There are a bunch of checker-sized buckets, and your goal is to shoot your checkers into the buckets with plastic launchers. It's a little like tic-tac-toe, but you can put out somebody's eye. So I'm in.

Of course, as soon as I got Connect 4 Launchers (they went with an obvious name, so as not to confuse children who still can't spell their own names), I took it out and spent an hour honing my checker-launching skills. I had pets to feed, dinner to cook, laundry to wash and paying work to do, but I still blew an hour of my night firing checkers into plastic buckets. I almost said I wasted that time, but that would be wrong. I loved every minute of it.

It gets even better if you're playing against someone else, because then it's a frantic free-for-all. You need to keep your nerves calm, or you'll fall prey to the panic that builds up when your opponent is landing shot after shot and all of yours keep zooming off the table. You need to steady yourself, take careful aim, and shoot your opponent in the nose. See how good his aim is when he's snorting a plastic checker!

If you can't stand the pressure of constantly firing plastic discs into the air as fast as you can while your eight-year-old laughs at your completely lack of coordination and self-control, you can always try out the advanced rules. In these only-slightly-more-intelligent rules, you take turns shooting your plastic hoops. That alone is not inherently more clever, because all it means is that you've slowed down the game (which is a good idea if your advanced years have given your children an unfair edge).

What makes the advanced rules a little more clever is that some of the checkers now have special powers. If you use a special power checker, you might be able to take another turn, or clear out a big piece of the board, or take your opponent's checkers out of their buckets and stymie his four-in-a-row. This is also nice to do if your children are talking too much smack, which they probably are if they are anything like my kids.

Any way you play it, Connect 4 Launchers is a fun little game. It's not a cerebral thinking-man's exercise, and you won't be managing any resources or employing the cunning tactics that you have to use every day so your children keep thinking you're smarter than they are (this will become essential when they become teenagers, as they will undoubtedly assume they are smarter than you are until you beat them mercilessly in a battle of wits). It is, however, a riotous, action-packed good time that will have you laughing and firing plastic doodads as fast as you can reload and aim. Blind-firing won't do you any good, so you'll have to have some wits about you, but it's still a great excuse to let your mind regress to when you thought it was still a good idea to make fake pies out of schoolyard mud.

Summary

2 players, or 4 if you decide to play in teams

Pros:
Dexterity games are supposed to be this much fun
Easy to set up, easy to store, easy to play
Your kids will play with this for at least 15 minutes, which is three times as long as you got out of the last GI Joe action figure you bought

Cons:
Good luck finding all those checkers after your spasmodic pre-teen shoots them all over the kitchen

It should probably be pretty obvious that Noble Knight Games isn't carrying this game. But you can get it from Toys-R-Us real cheap:
http://www.toysrus.com/product/index.jsp?productId=11825651

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Book Series Review - Song of Ice and Fire

I was going to write this review last night, but I was busy. Then I was going to write it today, and I was busy again. So I'm finally getting to it, and I have to confess what I was doing when I was so busy - I was reading a book.

For those of you who have not managed to hear all the hubbub about A Song of Ice and Fire, possibly because you live in the hills of Kentucky and only have Internet access when you vacation in a town with more people than pigs, this is a fantasy series that has gotten so much critical acclaim that HBO decided to turn it into a TV show. It's a fictional land with fictional people and an absolutely ludicrous amount of killing, maiming and sexual deviancy. So it's pretty entertaining.

My wife bought me the first book, A Game of Thrones, for Christmas a few years ago. I had never even heard of it, but two weeks later I was out buying the next two. Then I had to wait for the fourth book, and then I had to wait five years for the fifth, because George RR Martin was off somewhere doing lines of cocaine off the backsides of Thai hookers. He had enough time to work on the TV show, apparently, but not enough to write the damned book.

The thing about the Song of Ice and Fire series is that it's not fantasy the way you're used to it. You're used to elves and orcs and fireball-tossing wizards, and that's not in here (I should note that there are dwarfs, but they prefer to be called 'little people'). What is in here is a huge, well-developed world with an enormous history and just enough magic that when you see it, you'll end up telling yourself there's a logical explanation for it. The tale spins out more like a deeply engrossing history than you expect in a novel.

What it means to follow a fantastical history is that all the elements you expect to see in a novel are gone. There's great story-telling, sure, but there are no bad guys getting their just rewards or happy endings that tie up everything with a neat little bow. There are no characters with plot protection, and nobody gets killed just to ramp up the tension. Just as history doesn't care if you were really attached to Abe Lincoln, George Martin writes a story that is intensely believable because anyone can die at any time for any reason. A little like real life.

In fact, as you progress from A Game of Thrones to A Clash of Kings and into A Storm of Swords and A Feast for Crows, you'll begin to really realize that the heroes can die, the villains can win, and a happy ending for most of the characters would be to survive until the book is over. If you're constantly waiting for justice to prevail and good to overcome evil, go read those Harry Potter books again. This is not a story for kids.

It's especially not a child's bedtime story because apart from all the death and war and what-not, A Song of Ice and Fire includes an amount of nearly pornographic material that borders on the illegal. There are 14-year-old girls getting knocked up by grown men, brothers sleeping with sisters, and more than one description of a very ugly penis (although Martin always calls it a 'member', like the pecker was in a rotary club).

One big-shot book reviewer said that Martin is the American Tolkien. If that's true, then America should be a little embarrassed. These books are fantastic, and I find them exceptionally enjoyable, and I dare say I'm hooked. I've read each of them at least twice (except for the one I'm reading now), and they're some of the best fantasy I've ever read. I'm wishing I was done with this review so I could go back and read more.

But they're not Tolkien. For one thing, Tolkien was far more original. Since the Middle Earth saga, every fantasy tale starts with Tolkien and goes from there. Tolkien is the gold standard for fantasy, because his creations were so compelling, so exciting, so imaginative that nobody has been able to top them. Martin obviously starts with Tolkien and goes from there. Before Martin and every other fantasy writer, there was Tolkien. Before Tolkien, all we had was The Brothers Grimm.

For another thing, Tolkien wrote stories that came alive as you read, and he never once had to describe a man's junk to make you interested in the story. There are no salacious tales of lesbian love affairs or underage rapes. Honestly, as I read Martin's books, I tend to believe that he's a pretty twisted old man. It's one thing to have a barbarian warrior deflower a maiden who should still be in junior high. It's another to describe the scene in so much detail that trashy romance novels look like Goosebumps books. There's a reason that HBO made it a TV show, and not, say, the Disney Channel.

I could keep going, but my point is, Martin's books are good, but they are nowhere near as universally accessible as Tolkien, and calling Martin the American Tolkien is either a big nut-kick to America or one hell of a slight to Tolkien. However, while I would not recommend A Song of Ice and Fire to anyone with a weak stomach or sensitivity to explicit sex, I still think they're pretty damned awesome. They're full of political intrigue and thrilling swordplay, exciting chases and mighty battles. From time to time, we even see some actual supernatural phenomena, and it's all the more fascinating because it is so rare.

I could keep talking about how much I love A Song of Ice and Fire, but the fifth book is waiting for me and I can no longer resist. If you want to know how awesome these books really are, you'll have to just go get the first one and see for yourself.

Summary

Pros:
Exceptionally readable and tough to put down
Incredibly believable
Anyone can die. Anyone. Seriously, anyone.

Cons:
Adult to the point of being pornographic
Five books in, and he's still not done

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Board Game Review - Mansions of Madness


There are lots of kinds of games. There are pure mental challenges with bright colors and chunky wooden pieces, but no story at all. There are athletic games that require you to be coordinated and hopefully not very fat. There are cooperative games and card games and dice games. But my favorite games are the ones that tell a story, which is why I have fallen hopelessly in love with Mansions of Madness.

The ironic thing is that I don't really care for the Cthulhu stuff. Lovecraft was a hack. He was imaginative, but he had all the readability of a high school geography textbook, and he made up names for his bad guys by randomly combining consonants and vowels. I can picture these super-villainous denizens of bizarre worlds rising up from their summoning rituals and saying, 'Now feel the wrath of shub… shoobagoober… sheber… well, me!'

But I love a good story, and even more, I love being part of that good story, and that's where Mansions of Madness rocks my face off. A group of gritty investigators will go into a haunted mansion and discover all manner of badness, and one player will be the bad guy who attacks them with zombies and cultists and monsters that look like they were built out of gummy worms. The investigators will go from room to room, exploring and looking for clues, while the bad guy player will use all the powers at his disposal to trap them in the house or eat them or turn them into gibbering lunatics by making them watch hour after hour of Hannah Montana reruns.

When you read the rules for Mansions of Madness, it will at first remind you of Descent or Doom. The bad guy gets threat tokens every turn that he can spend on his nefarious plans, and there are several pages describing combat. Fortunately, however, this is not Descent. For one thing, you don't have to stop every five minutes to figure out what a monster's special power means. For another, there is a lot more for the investigators to do than shoot things.

The funny thing about Mansions of Madness is that while there are 25 pages of rather dense rules and a set-up time that can take 45 minutes, the game is really quite easy to play. Most of the rules describe special cases, like how to defeat the lock on the mysterious suitcase or how to turn on the lights after a monster uses the wires as dental floss. Investigators can block doors to keep monsters on the other side, or use the axe to smash the lock on a door, or sprint madly for the safety of the walk-in refrigerator (where they will unfortunately be eaten by leftover Spam, which as we all know, is made from the meat that the packing plant decides can't be put into hot dogs, and Cthulhu loves to animate tongue meat).

Part of the beauty of the game comes from the meticulous manner in which stories are built. There's enough flavor text in here to choke Gordon Ramsey. Cards describe events as they occur in the house, and those descriptions often provide clues telling the investigators where to search next. Time is not on their side - the bad guy will just keep throwing badness at the heroes, and there's a built-in timer that will eventually result in a loss for everyone playing the game. Heroes will have to hustle to find keys, unlock puzzle boxes, and explore dank basements before the clock strikes two and the house collapses under the weight of its own evilness. Monsters are obstacles that the villain uses to slow and disable the investigators, as opposed to many dungeon-crawl style games, where killing the monsters is why the heroes got out of bed.

A series of cards placed before the game begin will allow the tale to unfold. The heroes might be investigating a missing businessman in his very creepy house, or they might be searching a monastery that has been taken over by a cult. As time progresses, events get more dire, and if the heroes can't uncover the clues that tell them how they win the game, they might just find themselves staying for dinner - as the main course.


The evil keeper is full of dirty tricks, too. He has a deck of trauma cards that he can use to make bad things worse, so when a dog shaped like a tapeworm manages to bite the hero on the leg, the keeper can play a card that maims the investigator and makes him move really slow for a while. The bad guy also gets a deck of mythos cards, and these are even more fun and delightfully nasty. Whenever he has a few extra threat tokens, he can make the lights turn off or make paintings fly off the wall to smack the heroes in the side of the head like a scene from Scooby Doo. These mythos cards are hilariously fun to use, though the investigators might not be as excited about them when the two-gun gumshoe goes raving mad from sheer terror as unseen voices call his name and remind him that he forgot to turn off the iron.

Plus all kinds of dark secrets are hidden in the house. As the investigators hunt for clues, they'll uncover bodies that rise up and chase them, journal entries penned by madmen, and dark rituals that will turn them against each other. Their ultimate goal is to uncover enough clues to figure out what they need to do to defeat the evil that lurks in the darkness, but along the way they might take the time out to search empty rooms for weapons or spells or collectible Hot Wheels cars. Waste too much time, though, and the keeper will have time to ramp up, and you might find yourself facing more grief than you can handle.

Mansions of Madness is so much fun, I wish I didn't have any complaints. Unfortunately, it's a Fantasy Flight game, and that means there are problems. I'm beginning to think Fantasy Flight is practicing branding to identify themselves with a handful of very specific errors. For one thing, there are approximately 725,000 tiny pieces of cardboard in the box (once you finish punching them all out, which will take you slightly less than one lunar year). That's a pain in the ass. Here's a suggestion for future game designers - more pieces does not mean a better game. Sometimes it just means there's a lot more to clean up.

I can get past a whole mess of pieces, but I really do wish Fantasy Flight didn't absolutely require an updated FAQ every time they release a game. Sometimes these FAQs come out before the game even hits stores, because it takes almost no time to start finding all the mistakes and oversights in the rules. In this case, there's a little piece of paper right in the box that describes a number of errors they made before they sent the rules to print. There are even updated cards that replace cards they got wrong the first time. And now they're on a second printing, and they fixed the mistakes from the first version. The second version, however, has all new mistakes.

So if you like story games that aren't hard to play, here's what you need to do:

1) Schedule a day off work that you can spend punching the game, organizing the pieces and learning the rules.
2) Read up on the FAQ and find out what mistakes other people have made, so that when you play, you can make completely different mistakes.

It's a pain in the ass to keep up with Fantasy Flight's miserable quality control, but when you play Mansions of Madness, it will be totally worth the effort. This game is capital F U N fun. It's equal parts competitive free-for-all and story-telling experience, and when you're done, you'll look over the gigantic pile of miniatures and room tiles and cards and teeny tiny cardboard bits and say, 'now, which of you unlucky bastards has to put this away?'

Summary

2-5 players

Pros:
Exciting story-telling experience
Easy to play in spite of the 25-page rulebook
An amazing amount of theme and flavor
Simply remarkable components

Cons:
Mistakes will send you to the Internet to see what you're doing wrong
Rules will consume a couple hours of your life
Humongous number of little cardboard pieces

I can't wait to play Mansions of Madness again. This could be the template for all manner of great story-telling games. You really should run over to Noble Knight Games and pick up a copy:
GO CRAZY

Monday, July 18, 2011

Board Game Review - Astra Titanus


Last week, I reviewed the ridiculously fun Battleship Galaxies. So it's almost fitting that this week, I should review Astra Titanus, another space battle game. And it's a great time for it because it allows me to compare and contrast the Hasbro big box space extravaganza with the Victory Point plastic bag full of cardstock.

The biggest elephant in the room, of course, is that Astra Titanus comes in an oversized sandwich bag, and thus does not have space for actual model spaceships. Model spaceships would have made the game a heck of a lot more awesome, but they would not have fit in the bag unless they were very, very small, and that would effectively eliminate their cool factor. The spaceships in Astra Titanus are printed on cardboard sheets so you can punch them out and have square ships. Not as awesome as it sounds. And I doubt it sounds awesome.

Battleship Galaxies is a two-player game of asymmetrical but balanced enemy forces. Astra Titanus is a one-player game where you control a huge fleet of space ships as they head out to fight the Titan, a super-huge world-killer ship that will blow up your guys left and right as it heads toward your moon bases. It's not balanced at all, but it's not supposed to be, so that's OK.

The Titan ships (they're different, depending on the scenario you choose) are controlled by a deck of cards, so every turn that they move, you draw one and figure out where the bad guy goes. Then you can move your ships in and try to blast the big bastard, and then if he's still alive (and he will be alive, because he's a freaking monster), he will blow up a bunch of your ships. It's the classic quantity versus quality scenario.

There are a few things that make this a pretty decent solo game. For starters, when you move your ships, you won't be able to use them that turn, because they're all in hyperspace or portable wormholes or Narnia. They can't be shot, they can't fire, and they can't do anything until they climb back out of the wardrobe. So you have to plan pretty well, because if you keep having to move your ships, you'll never be able to shoot the bad guy.

Another thing that makes this interesting is the ability to combine fire. You'll have to balance your willingness to make a lot of separate attacks with your ability to make just one or two strong attacks. Since even the weakest titan is going to require dozens of hits before it takes a dirt nap, you'll need to hit it fast. It advances every turn (slowing down as you blow up its interstellar space engines), so it helps to place your ships so that the maximum number of ships will have a shot at it. Of course, since the titan moves before you can shoot, you have to place your ships very carefully and hope the titan doesn't make a crazy zig-zag and run right into your heavy carrier, which will smash it to pieces without making a dent in the big bruiser.

If Astra Titanus were a big-box board game, and if it came with plastic spaceships and a big sturdy hex map, I think it would sell pretty damned well. It's a little unfortunate that you can only play it solo, because it could be fun against an opponent, but it's still a very interesting game. There's not much planning or long-term strategy, but your tactical decisions have a profound impact on your ability to destroy the titan before he blows up your moon base and Obi Wan feels a disturbance in the force.

Sadly, Astra Titanus does not come with a sturdy board or plastic spaceships. It comes with cardboard squares and circles and a hex map printed on a sheet of cardstock, so that I had to put the map under glass if I wanted to move my ships around, because the cardstock kept flipping up and making all my destroyers slide into the battle cruisers. I also got my chocolate into my peanut butter. It was a mess.

I played several scenarios of Astra Titanus when I was testing it, and while I didn't win them all, I did enjoy the game. I don't think I'm likely to play it again, though. It's not that it's a complete dud, exactly. It's more the fact that I've got Battleship Galaxies, and it's way more fun, and I can play with two players, and it actually does have plastic spaceships and a sturdy space map. I don't play solo games very often, because I have a television and a Netflix account.

So, in summary, Astra Titanus is not Battleship Galaxies, and will not be replacing it any time soon. It isn't bad, if you want to play a game all by yourself using ugly cardboard squares on a flimsy map. I don't, though.

Summary

1 player who does not have a television or Netflix account

Pros:
Clever tactical options
Plays fast and makes sense
Intuitive and exciting
Challenging, which is impressive in a solo game

Cons:
Solo only
Cardboard squares and a flimsy map

If you are a shut-in with no access to actual entertainment, you can go here and get a copy of Astra Titanus:
I'M SORRY YOU DON'T HAVE ANY FRIENDS

Friday, July 15, 2011

A Brief and Inaccurate History of Games

Since time began, people have played games. Initially, these games were very simple, and mostly involved two men hitting each other on the head with clubs. The winner of this game was pretty obvious, because the loser got to bleed out on the floor of the cave and the winner got to drag a woman by her hair. Happily, we have better games than that now. Otherwise my wife would kill me for trying to drag her by her hair.

Some time passed, and someone invented chess, which was such an impressive game that people all over the globe learned to play it and wrote complicated books about it and high-school kids joined chess clubs so that they could have their underwear yanked up over their heads and get thrown into trash bins. Chess was such a big deal that it spawned several spin-offs and expansions. For instance, in India and China, they play it completely different, and at Hogwarts, you can get killed playing it (this variant is not all that popular with PTA groups).

Along the way, we also wound up with playing cards and checkers and marbles, which were very slick components that ran the gamut from being cheap to over-produced. There were also dominoes, but nobody really understood what to do with dominoes outside standing them all up on one end and then knocking them over. Dominoes were very educational, because they let us understand why the US had to go into Vietnam.

Many early board games were boring, often trite roll-and-move games. The boards were often overly complicated, but the rulesets were elegant and the mechanics were easy enough to understand. You would roll dice or spin a spinner and move ahead a certain number of spaces. These games were often indicative of the popular misconceptions of their time. For instance, a spot on the board might say, 'Your wife does not have dinner ready. Beat her for her disobedience and then smoke a cigarette in your living room, because they are good for you.'

Many games were also used as propaganda. Games made in Germany during the early part of the 20th century would reward kids extra points for blowing up parts of England, while some games taught poor black kids how important it was that they have their own water fountains. Sit at the Back of the Bus was offered up on a Kickstarter promotion in 1963, but Rosa Parks burned her copy along with her bra and then marched on Washington, which was very bad press, and the game ultimately failed, although it made a brief resurgence when Doctor King said, 'I have a very bad board game!'

About the same time, however, grown men began to play with army men. Miniature soldiers would be pushed around maps and various mechanics would be employed to manage conflict resolution. Often these mechanics involved spring-loaded cannons that would fire tiny ballistic weapons. These weapons were quickly outlawed because they were deemed unsafe for children under 17. They were later brought back, but the bullets were replaced with orange foam, the weapons were made from bright yellow plastic, and players were encouraged to wear bicycle helmets and protective eyewear. These updated games sold poorly, and were discontinued when junior-high kids began to modify them to shoot firecrackers into public toilets.

It was not until the sixties that we began to see the first games played with cardboard squares and bland maps covered in hexagonal lines. Initially, these games were thought to be boring and overly complex, but it was quickly discovered that grown men would spend hours in their basements drinking cheap liquor and pretending to reenact famous battles using these cardboard squares. Many years later, European game designers discovered that initial reports had been correct, and these games actually were boring and overly complex.

The 1970s brought us roleplaying games, and suddenly, young boys who had previously just been scrawny and socially awkward were able to truly explore just how nerdy they could be. Where they were previously only able to express their geekery by reading comic books and dreaming about talking with girls, they were now able to lock themselves away for weeks at a time and pretend that they actually had any physical capabilities whatsoever. But at least they weren't in chess club.

On top of being a powerful force for retaining virginity among teenage boys, roleplaying games also lead to the greatest development in gaming history - the dungeon crawler. This was about all there was to play during the 1980s, and so it became a very popular pastime. People could now play games about killing goblins and saving kingdoms without having to talk with an affected British accent, and so dozens of young men were saved from having to learn to use 'methinks' properly in a sentence. Unfortunately for many others, it was too late, and they were already greeting each other with the silly phrase, 'well met.'

The 90s kind of sucked. Nothing much happened. Games Workshop sued somebody, but nobody was surprised.

But then, after the turn of the century, a glorious event occurred - Reiner Knizia made some games! At last, games were no longer about killing things or rolling and moving. Now they were boring math exercises, and thousands of gamers rose up from obscurity to carry Reiner games around and tell everyone how much smarter they were. Mensa members came into their own when their meetings changed. Instead of simply trying to outdo each other by comparing their recent reading lists ('Yes, I did like Voltaire when I was in grade school, but now I find that reading Plato in the original Greek is the only thing that interests me'), Mensa nerds played Reiner games to prove their mental superiority. The rest of the world did not care, and continued to steal their lunch money.

Eventually, the gamers who enjoyed killing things began a war against the gamers who liked doing math. The blood-thirsty gamers decided that they were true Americans, and the math geeks associated themselves with Europe, especially Germany, which was mostly because the Germans were so ashamed about losing World War Two that they made it illegal to create fun games. The battle lines were drawn, though many people who just liked playing games were left to wonder why anyone would bother fighting about something as asinine as what to do with their spare time.

Since that time, the Gamer Dweeb Wars have simmered considerably. The European killjoys retreated to the Internet, which was mostly where nerds wound up sooner or later anyway. The American warmongers also retreated to the Internet, but they went to a different part. Both took turns complaining about the other camp, often saying horrible things because the other people were too far away to hit them.

The future is full of promise, as we are currently enjoying the historical pinnacle of gaming. At this point, a game is created every forty-seven seconds, and game clubs meet many times a week to attempt to play everything that came out in the last two days. They are usually unsuccessful and completely unable to enjoy anything, since they have to spend most of their time reading lengthy rulebooks and arguing on the Internet about FAQs and errata. Then nobody can remember how to play the games they were playing last week, which isn't really that important, anyway, because they already own so many games that they have to use online web databases to figure out what they have, and nobody has times to play anything twice.

Ten years from now, we won't play games on boards at all. All gaming will take place on our phones, and we will all go blind and get brain tumors from the radiation. We won't care, though, because we'll have the games wired directly into our brains so that we can play when we sleep. I can't wait. I hear Apple is working on a skull-clubbing app you can get through iTunes.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Board Game Review - Castle Panic


Sometimes I get this weird vibe where everyone else loves a game and argues over whether it is awesome or just bitchin', and then I play it and wonder what I missed. It mostly happens with really popular games - for example, I would rather take a nap than play Puerto Rico (I always wonder about people who are extreme in their 'would rather' examples, like when someone says, 'I would rather shove razor blades into my buttcheeks than play that game'. There is no game I would not play if it meant I avoided painful scarring on my ass, unless the game actually involved sticking razor blades in your buttocks). I have heard a lot of people who said how much fun it was to play Castle Panic, and then I played it, and thought, 'why do people like this?' Just to make sure, I played it again, but it didn't get any better.

It seems like it should be fun. It's a cooperative game where a bunch of monsters attack a castle and you team up with your friends to kill them. Body count plus cooperative - usually a winner for me. But I would rather cook dinner and watch reruns of Battlestar Galactica than play Castle Panic (in all fairness, I really like Battlestar Galactica).

The mechanics are simple and easy enough to understand. The monsters start at the outside ring, in either the blue, red or green wedges. As they move, they have to go through the archer ring, then the knight ring, then the swordsman ring. If you have cards that match the wedge and ring where the monsters are hiding out, you can whack them with something sharp. So if there's a goblin in the blue knight area, you can play a blue knight card and the invader will come down with a bad case of sword poisoning.

If the monsters get to your walls in the middle of the circle, they will eat them. These are very hungry orcs, you see, but walls are not good for you, so eating walls will hurt the monsters. Behind the wall are your towers, and the monsters will eat those, too, and they will get very bad stomach cramps and have to take a Midol. But if enough monsters eat enough of your towers, you all lose and have to find something you would rather do, like rearrange the living room furniture and sweep up the cat hair under the sofa.

The problem is that the game feels programmed. If you have the cards you need to kill the monsters, they will die and you will win. If you don't get the right cards, the monsters will eat your towers and then you will lose. You can trade with other players, but no matter how many people you have around the table, there's going to come a time when you just don't have the cards you need to stop the onslaught. Or you will have the cards, and then you win, which I just said.

The art is nice. The goblins and trolls and orcs in Castle Panic all look very much intent on smashing your walls and eating them. The cards are a little cheap, but the art on those is nice, too. The creators put a good amount of work into making the game look good, but sadly, it's not much more fun than say, walking your dog when it's kind of hot outside.

The reason I don't think Castle Panic is fun is because it doesn't feel like much of the game is up to me. The right move is generally abundantly obvious, and requires very little arguing over which card to play. If you have the right card, you play it. If you don't, the monster will eat your wall and then have a very uncomfortable bathroom visit. When your choice comes down to 'do something' or 'do nothing', it's not a particularly compelling game.

I know that a lot of people like Castle Panic. I don't, but I know someone does. Hell, they can have mine. I would rather fold the laundry and put up the dishes. I don't hate it, which is why I chose rather pedestrian chores as my 'would rather' comparisons. If it came down to a choice between playing Castle Panic and cutting my butt with sharp blades, I would choose the game every time. Until it does get that dire, however, I think I'll pass.

Summary

1-4 players

Pros:
Nice art
Not hard to play at all
Not very fun, but at least it ends quick

Cons:
Choices are not hard - if you have the right card, you'll play it
Not all that much fun

Maybe I'm just used to games that actually make me feel like I did something. Maybe you'll love Castle Panic. Lots of other people do. You can find it here, at Noble Knight Games:
NOT AS FUN AS WEEDING THE GARDEN

Monday, July 11, 2011

Board Game Review - Battleship Galaxies


Vapor's Fate dropped out of orbit just outside Saturn's orbit, right on top of the ISN Everest. Captain Skiles of the Intergalactic Space Navy raised the alert and began mustering his forces, but the Wretch battleship was already launching ship after ship from the bowels of its nightmarish hull. The enemy ships closed for battle, firing cannons and missiles and lasers as fighters circled like hungry vultures and flame began to erupt from ships on both sides. The Wretch fleet hammered at the Everest, blasting the ISN battleship's shields to ribbons and blasting huge pieces from its hull. The Everest gave as well as it got, and the Wretch destroyer So Bwa Tet tore into pieces with a powerful explosion.

Then the Wretch fired its powerful primary weapon right at the heart of the Everest. The Wretch captain called out, 'E5!'

'Dammit', said Skiles. 'You sunk my battleship.'

I would be lying if I said I was a space combat aficionado. I haven't played a whole lot of space games, mostly because every time I look at one, it looks like a ton of accounting and petty rules. I have played a few that I enjoyed, but to say I was familiar with the sub-sub-genre of space battle games would be a lie.

But I do love the space battles in Star Wars, so I consider myself an expert in nerd awesome, and I can definitively say that Battleship Galaxies is a pretty awesome game. It's got all the stuff a great space combat game should have, in my opinion. Really cool model spaceships - check. Fast turns and huge amounts of tactical options - check. Opportunity to make laser sounds with your mouth - check.

I don't see much reason to describe all the rules for Battleship Galaxies in a review. For one thing, other reviewers have already done that. For another, it bores the pee-pee out of me to read those reviews that summarize the rulebook. For yet one more, this is a review, not a rules summary. So I'll just hit the high points.

Battleship Galaxies sets two opposing intergalactic forces against each other. In the red trunks, we've got the very unfriendly Wretcheridians. They're mighty angry because someone gave them a pretty silly name. In the blue trunks, the Intergalactic Space Navy. They're just kind of giggly because they came up with the silly name. Both have a bunch of spaceships with guns all over them, and they're just itching to blow each other to pieces.

You'll have a box full of tiny plastic spaceships mounted on plastic stands that let your ships look like they're banking. Why you need to bank in space is not entirely clear to me, but they still look cool on the board. The ships are uniformly bitchin' in appearance, and fun to put on the board just so you can imagine all the screaming engines and roaring cannons that you couldn't actually hear in space.

You have energy, which you have to spend to do stuff with your ships, like launch them and add nukes to them and move them around to shoot other ships. You also have cards that you can use to mix it up and surprise your enemies, stuff like heinous boarding parties and Tom-Cruise-caliber flying maneuvers. Many of the cards are specific to various ships, and since you get to customize your deck for each fight, you won't want to include cards that let you fire your vecton fields if you haven't included your red fuvus. Everyone knows that only fuvus have vectons.

There's even a really good reminder that Battleship Galaxies is the great-grand-stepchild of the original boring game called just Battleship. When you shoot at an enemy ship, you roll two dice with letters on one and numbers on the other, and then you tell your foe what you rolled. He'll check the grid with the picture of his ship, and if it's in the gray part of the grid, he'll take damage. If not, he'll grin and go, 'Ha! You missed!' and then you'll play the card that lets you re-roll misses, and then you'll hit, and he'll say, 'Well, crap.'

There's a bunch of stuff in the box you get. There are two big space maps (quick aside - there is almost nothing less interesting than a game map of space. Terrain? Yeah, not in space. In space, there's... well, a lot of space. Otherwise it would be called something else, like clutter or stuff or something. Literally - it could be called 'something'. But then your giant spaceships would probably run into trees or barns or outhouses, and you would feel stupid.). You also get asteroids and alien artifacts and space debris, which you'll put on the space maps to make them slightly less boring. Let's face it, naval battles have rarely been fascinating for their exotic locales. If there was land around, you wouldn't need the navy, would you?

Anyway, with all the stuff in the box, there are lots of interesting things you can do to enjoy Battleship Galaxies. You can have scenarios with asteroids in the way. You can have games where there's debris in the way. You can put alien artifacts in the way. And then you can still do the same thing you would do anyway - blast each other and make 'pew pew pew' noises.

The tactical options available to you are not immediately apparent when you flip through the rules. You'll launch your ships and then shoot at anything close enough to kill. But by the time you finish your second turn, you'll realize that every single thing you do is both a gamble and a really tough decision. Every action you take means another dozen you can't. Moving into position might let you blast your opponent before he can react - but it could also leave you a sitting duck without any support. Adding an upgraded cannon means you won't be able to get your destroyer out of range of the enemy nukes. Spend all your resources on a desperate assault, and you won't be able to save up for a devastating surprise attack.

Another thing you won't get from the rules is what an exciting story you'll be telling with the game. That first paragraph was almost a blow-by-blow transcript of the first few turns of the first game I played, including the ridiculously lucky shot that let me blast the ISN Everest into metal toothpicks. Other stories include daring boarding party raids that crippled the enemy fleet, or the failure to act that caused my fighters to be destroyed in the bellies of my destroyers because I failed to launch them in time. Desperate battles, last-minute saves, and unbelievable twists of fate make Battleship Galaxies almost as much a story as it is a game.

This is a big box full of fun, but unfortunately, there's not enough in the box. There are rules that let you customize your fleet, but not enough in the box to have much variety in the ships you pick. If you want a swarm fleet with lots of small ships, you're out of luck. If you want to send a handful of powerhouse tanks into battle, too bad, because they're not in the box. It's been a long time since I played a game that needs an expansion this badly. If Hasbro has any sense, they'll have the first expansion within weeks. They'll need it, too, because right now, there's just not enough variety to keep people addicted to Battleship Galaxies once they play it a dozen times.

However, Battleship Galaxies also reminds me a lot of HeroScape, and that's good. I foresee a big online community that will band together to find cool spaceship miniatures at affordable prices and create reams of custom ships. In the absence of the greater variety I already crave, I think fans will start making all manner of homebrew ways to love this game.

There is one more drawback to Battleship Galaxies that I noticed every time I played (and I've played five times since Friday night). This game is not for clumsy people. You keep track of shields and hull damage by putting colored pegs into the ship bases. The problem is, all these ships are kind of small, and so are the bases, and so are the pegs. We tried to put the pegs into the bases without moving the ships, and made a mess. Then we picked up the ships to put in the pegs, and couldn't always remember where they were. I love that the accounting is right there on the board in front of you, but I did get tired of hearing myself ask, 'so where was this guy?'

That one little drawback isn't a big deal, honestly. We just sucked it up and got over it. If you ever played Squad Leader, this sounds like a petty little whine, because in that game, you actually kind of do need tweezers. Compared to a lot of big-battle-on-a-map games, Battleship Galaxies is downright user friendly. Put my complaints up against how much fun I've had playing and Battleship Galaxies comes out far, far ahead in the win column.

Battleship Galaxies is the space-combat version of HeroScape, which means that in six months, there will be a huge online fan base, and two years from now, they'll make the board look like sparkly water and the original sets will be going for $200 on eBay. If you liked HeroScape, you'll like Battleship Galaxies. As long as they don't make a sixth general and add D&D monsters to it, Battleship Galaxies is going to have a nice long run. I can't wait.

Summary

2-4 players (more than 2, though, and you'll be in teams)

Pros:
Fast play
Strategic and tactical depth that will leave you in awe
Really cool plastic spaceships
Comes with a full-length comic book that actually does not suck at all

Cons:
Considerable luck factor - sometimes the dice just hate you
Tiny bits will make you wish you could hire a small child to move the pieces for you
Needs an expansion, and I mean right now

If you ever wanted to play those big space fights from Star Wars, or you just like making whooshing noises and space explosions, you should get Battleship Galaxies. It's very fun. And you can save a bundle off retail, right here from Noble Knight Games:
SPACE MOUTH NOISES AWAIT

Friday, July 8, 2011

Weird Game Review - Dixit Odyssey


It's tough to categorize Dixit Odyssey as a particular kind of game. There's a little scoring board in the middle of the table, but that's about as much board as you get. There are cards, and they're pretty important to the game, but the game isn't about the cards, it's about the ideas they represent. Maybe instead of 'Weird Game Review', I should call this one 'Stoner Game Review.'

But that's pretty limiting, too, because Dixit Odyssey is absolutely not just for people who are under the influence of mind-altering substances. It's great for little kids with too much energy or old men who fart in their sleep. It's perfect for bored housewives banging their pool boys or college kids tanked on Jello shooters and Goldschl├Ąger. And none of those people needs to know the first thing about rolling dice or claiming trumps or resource management or anything else. They just have to be able to use their imaginations.

In all honesty, Dixit Odyssey is not really an entirely original game. I mean, the game is fantastically original, but this is the third release. The first one is just called Dixit. It won some huge gaming award last year in Germany, so you know it must be great. You can trust the Germans.

The idea behind Dixit (and by extension, Dixit Odyssey) is that everybody has a bunch of cards with crazy pictures on them, like wolf puppeteers with sheep puppets or metal birds hatching clockwork eggs. One person picks one of his cards and says something random, like 'Envy' or 'Curtain call' or 'Does this smell off to you?' Then everyone else picks one of their cards that looks like it might match what the first guy said, and then everybody has to try to pick the one that the first guy selected.

It's not as easy as it sounds, either, because these pictures are straight-up twisted. But good twisted. They look like they were pulled right out of the dreams of young children. They're very surreal and delightfully bizarre, and in many cases, you could say almost anything and it would fit.

Dixit Odyssey uses the same rules as the original, but this time they spent a little more time thinking about how you play this game with a dozen people. The board has places where you put the cards so that you can easily assign numbers, and everybody has little scoring tablets with holes in them where you can vote with your plastic doodads. It's considerably more efficient than the original, though for my money, it's not as charming. The original had little bunny rabbits moving around a track. This one has a linear scoring track (but still bunnies, so that's something).

Unfortunately, the voting boards don't work as well as they should. There are pegs to stick through the holes and indicate your vote, but if you put your board flat on the table when you vote, your peg will fall out because the boards aren't deep enough. But if you want to play Dixit with twelve people, just hold the damned board in your hand and quit your complaining. It's still an enchantingly original and delightfully fun game.

In all honesty, it's very difficult to explain Dixit in any form well enough that you know how to play. This is a very visual game, and one that you have to see to understand. Trippy, surreal art and a pretty basic guessing game might sound like something only young children would enjoy, but it's actually incredibly engaging and a hell of a lot of fun. I don't often just resort to 'trust me' as a reason to play a game, but with Dixit, it's so unlike anything else that until you give it a try, you just won't get it.

I can't think of anybody who wouldn't like Dixit. I mean, I am certain there are people who hate it, but I can't describe the kind of gamer who would avoid this one. If you like games about farming and family planning, there's no reason you can't also enjoy Dixit. If you're a fan of war and bloodshed, so what, you can still get a kick out of Dixit. You can enjoy it if you like short games, and you can have fun if you only like long games. It's not like other games, so there's no one group of players who will just hate it. I love it, and look for excuses to play it.

Give Dixit it a shot. Trippy or not, it's a heck of a lot of fun.

Summary

Pros:
Imaginative and engaging
Beautiful and surreal
Now play it with up to twelve
Even if you already have the original, there are a bunch of new pictures to play with

Cons:
Less flat-out charming than the first one (but only by a little bit)

I held this review for a week, hoping this game would be out by now, but it appears you'll have to wait a little while to pick up Dixit Odyssey. It should be out pretty soon.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Board Game Review - Fortress America


I don't generally refer to the big pile of games in my office as my collection. That seems a little silly to me. It's like if I looked at the shirts hanging in my closet and called them my collection. I don't collect button-down dress shirts. I just own a bunch, because I work in an office. They're not a collection, because I only buy them so I can wear them to work. I don't collect cotton-poly blends, and I don't collect games.

There is one exception, though. I decided to collect all of the old Gamemaster series from the 80s after I scored a copy of Shogun several years ago (my copy is so old, it's from before they renamed it Samurai Swords). They're not exactly rare games, or anything, but they were so damned much fun, and they remind me of all the games I loved when I was in high school and spent hours drinking sodas and playing games with friends when I should have been out at parties drinking beer and sleeping with cheerleaders. Come to think of it, I never did get to sleep with a cheerleader.

My most recent blast-from-the-past game acquisition was Fortress America, a huge game that comes in a box about three times larger than it needs to be. It takes up an absolutely retarded amount of shelf space, but that's fine, because it's exactly the same size as the other games in my grasping-at-my-youth collection of Gamemaster games.

The premise of Fortress America occurs in a future imagined through the eyes of Ronald Reagan and Chuck Norris. The US of A manages to put lasers on satellites so they can shoot down nukes, and man, is the rest of the world pissed. We strut around with our pants down, showing everyone how large we are, and then everybody in the world gets angry and invades. South America teams up with Mexico and they come up through Texas and California, while every nation in Southeast Asia puts in troops to blast the West Coast. All of Europe goes full-on commie and teams up with the USSR (not Russia - remember, this is the 80s, and Russians were still scheming supervillains who rubbed their hands together and said, 'vere is moose and squirrel?'), and these combined forces come in from Florida. For some reason, they don't land in New England. They must be intimidated by Boston baked beans and very flat pizzas.

Fortress America is one of those kinds of games that you don't start playing if you don't have some time. It's a long game when it finishes fast, and it can be a total marathon if the red-blooded Americans manage to survive long enough to outlive their invaders. The bad guys (and clearly, the invaders are the bad guys - everybody knows the USA is composed of 100% God-fearing patriots, and everyone else is pagan commie bastards) win the game if they can take 18 cities. The Americans win if the bad guys give up.

The best way to play Fortress America is with four players, where one beleaguered chump plays America, and the rest each assume one of the invading forces. That way, once the US is defeated, the others can fight among themselves to see who gets the best cut off the US prime rib. And this infighting means that the invaders won't be cooperating, which can make life a lot easier for the defenders.

The US starts off in a bad way. There are 30 cities to defend, and only two troops in each spot. Every turn, though, the enterprising citizens of truth and justice will construct another laser array, and these laser arrays will tear the piss right out of the invaders. At first, the lasers are unimpressive, but after eight or nine turns, if the invaders aren't just about to win, they're probably pretty well screwed.

It doesn't help that every redneck with a pickup truck living in a Kentucky holler joins the American underground. Before long, if the invaders don't sweep in and grab what they need to win, all those patriots start cropping up all over the country, cutting off supply lines and recapturing cities. The US will have reinforcements every turn, but once the invaders run out of people to throw into the fight, they're done. No more Guatemalans will sign up for the draft once their buddies all come home in bags, so all the US has to do is make the invaders decide that they would rather just go ahead and let the evil Americans have their laser satellites.

The result of all this mayhem is a game that's all about momentum. The Soviets and their angry buddies have to make the most of their initially overwhelming forces and cut a swath through the heartland, and the US builds up slowly and gathers speed. At first, the defending forces are going to get slaughtered, but if they can just hold off a couple more turns, they'll have the power to bring a pile of pain back down on the upstart third-worlders and send them back to their poverty-stricken countries and child labor factories.

Of course, as with any game with this much carnage (at least, any of them that are really fun), there are a lot of dice. Different troops use different dice, so you'll need to maximize your odds whenever you can. And even if you stack all the odds in your favor, the dice can still jump up and kick you in the privates like an angry ex-girlfriend. But honestly, that's what makes it fun. No matter how well you plan, nothing ever goes quite as well as you were hoping.

Obviously, there have been lots of very similar games made since Fortress America was introduced, and there was already a metric assload before. It's not original in being a massive combat game, but it is a blast to look back and remember when we all thought we were going to wind up raiding Cuban convoys and painting 'Wolverines' on everything we could find. Of the Gamemaster games, I still prefer Shogun (and haven't played Conquest of the Empire, since I don't have it yet), but Fortress America is a hoot even if you're too young to remember how much we hated the Soviet Union. The gradual momentum swing is fun as hell to play out, and when the US is hanging on by one city and three Dodge Darts full of gun-toting auto mechanics, you'll feel your heart racing every time you roll the dice.

And if you're like me, you'll roll a bunch of garbage and the wrench jockeys will shoot the unholy crap out of your Eurotrash socialists and you'll wind up leaving most of your soldiers to rot in American concentration camps. And that's when you'll know you just played a really fun game.

Summary

2-4 players

Pros:
Really cool mass combat game about shifting momentum
Exciting and reasonably fast-paced, with lots of good American bloodshed
A hilariously fun trip to the paranoia and fear of the 1980s

Cons:
Pretty darn hard to get

I wish I could tell you where you could find a copy of Fortress America. Sadly, Noble Knight Games is all sold out. But if you can find it, and you like big, epic war games, you should see if eBay has one you can borrow.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Podcast Review - We're Alive


I had a game all reviewed and ready to go. It was a good one, too. It's classic nerd excellence. But I changed my mind about running it tonight, because I just wasn't feeling it. And I wasn't feeling it because I found something way better, and I feel like everyone should know about it, right now.

Let's say you're a zombie. OK, that's not very likely, so instead, let's say you're a fan of zombie entertainment. I know I am, so when I heard about this wacky Internet radio show called We're Alive, I was intrigued. It's an ongoing story about a zombie apocalypse, available in 15-25 minute segments, and going back more than a year. As a weak-willed drone who will check out nearly anything zombie-related, I was practically obligated to check it out.

I was skeptical, to be honest. A radio show? That sounds awesome - if it was 1943. But ever since this wild new invention called television, people just don't really produce radio shows with any serious regularity. Probably because television is inherently better. You can tell me all about how classic radio shows were the pinnacle of entertainment, but I would call you a dope and then hand you a remote, because you've obviously never seen any TV.

But then I remembered that I have a pretty crappy commute to and from the soul-eating horror of my workplace, so I thought, 'hey, I can listen to this almost-certainly-boring podcast on my crappy commute to my soul-sucking workplace.' I downloaded the first couple episodes and gave it a spin on the way to work. And then I was hooked.

It turns out, We're Alive is just freaking brilliant. The story takes about two minutes before it grabs you by your nostrils and forces you to listen to every word. The characters are believable, the story is intense, and the acting is... well, OK, the acting often blows.

The main character, Micheal, is pretty good. He's easy to believe and authentic, whether he's calm and collected or irate and irrational. Lizzie is great, too, and I may have a crush on the girl who voices the tough chef-turned-master-at-arms named Riley.

But for every excellent actor in the cast, there's one who needs to go back to tenth-grade drama class. My favorite guy, the US Army dufus named Saul, is voice-acted by a man who apparently forgets his lines whenever he has more than three words in a row. It's a shame, because Saul's my favorite - I love his silly half-Mexican accent, and the character himself is hilarious and tough as brass nails. If only he wouldn't pause every three lines to see if he can pick up where he lost his place. And Burt, the trigger-happy old man, is voiced by a guy who is doing his worst Clint Eastwood impression during the whole show. He's supposed to sound old and tough, but he actually sounds like a fourteen-year-old kid who won't quit saying, 'Go ahead, make my day.'

So the acting is a little weak in places, but it says something about the quality of the story when the poor acting doesn't put me off at all. Like, ever. I'm not saying I hope they find more bad actors, or anything, but I am saying that I am wildly entertained and actually disappointed when I get home from work (it goes without saying that I am disappointed when I arrive at the office).

It's not just the continuing saga that has me glued to my noise-canceling earphones, either. The characters develop and grow. The story feels like it has a goal, like it's going somewhere, like there's an ultimate plan to the whole thing. As an added bonus, it doesn't fall into that stupid, worn-out cliche where they try to tell us that we're the real monsters. In We're Alive, the monsters are the real monsters, and the show focuses on the people as they triumph and fail in the face of overwhelmingly impossible odds. It's fun and exciting and incredibly entertaining. It's better than 90% of the boring retreads that make it to television.

I'm not even a third of the way through the episodes they've recorded so far, and I can't wait to see how it all winds up. I just hope they take a really long time getting there, because unless they pull a Zombie jumping over a shark, I don't see how this show could go wrong (though I sure hope they don't kill Saul. He really is very entertaining).

But there's a problem. And the problem is, this show should be making tons of money, and from what I've heard, they have fewer hits a day than I do. Let me tell you something, when a show this spectacular has less traffic than my hole-in-the-wall, game-review-black-hole, cobwebbed corner of the Internet, the universe is obviously badly damaged. We need to repair it, right away.

You can help. Go to the We're Alive website and check out a couple episodes. If you don't have the patience to download every episode, one at a time, you can buy the entire first season on CD for less than you would pay for even a low-rent board game. There are roughly 23 hours of rock-solid entertainment out there right now, and so if you're a fan of quality entertainment, you should hustle over there and check it out.

Besides, television might be better than radio, but can you drag your 42-inch plasma on the bus? No, you can't. Where would you plug it in? And how are you going to watch it if you're holding it? Do you think that smelly bum will hold it for you? Because he will, but he won't give it back when your show is over. He will sell it and buy some Boone's Farm. He would love to watch some shows, but his refrigerator box doesn't get cable.

I would keep raving about We're Alive, but as I'm writing this, the final episode just downloaded to my phone. I'm going to go downstairs, plug in the earphones, and listen to We're Alive until it's time to go to bed. And then, probably just one more show after that.

Seriously, get over to this site right now:
http://www.zombiepodcast.com/The_Zombie_Podcast/WereAliveMain.html

Friday, July 1, 2011

Very Small Board Game Review - Mr Jack Pocket


This is a review of Mr. Jack Pocket, which is not to be confused with Mr. Jack's pocket, which is where the school janitor keeps his tobacco, as long as the janitor is named Jack and you live in Texas, where for no reason I can completely understand, it's OK to call a man by his first name as long as you put a 'Mister' in front of it, even if you're six. Maybe I'm just not used to it because my old man was a Baptist preacher, and if I had ever referred to an adult by his or her first name, I would have been taste-testing a bar of Irish Spring.

No, this is a review of Mr. Jack Pocket. It's a game. It's like the board game version of Mr. Jack, but small enough to put in your pocket. So the name is a great case of truth in advertising. What may come as a surprise is there's a pretty damned solid amount of game in the box, despite being about the size of a hair brush.

The premise of Mr. Jack Pocket is a lot like the original. One guy plays the fun-loving ne'er-do-well who goes by the name Jack (and apparently he's in Texas, which is why they call him 'Mister'). He's on an evening jaunt through the streets of Whitechapel (which, incidentally, are not in Texas) and, through a series of hilarious and madcap hijinks, manages to kill a bunch of women. Tough break, Jack!

The other guy plays the investigators who are hot on Jack's trail. In a classic mix-up of reality and fiction, the investigators are Sherlock Holmes, Watson and a dog (not only am I surprised to find out that Holmes hunted Jack the Ripper, I was a little bit confused by the presence of the bulldog. I don't remember reading about him). They can't actually go into Whitechapel, probably because the walls keep spinning around, but they can look down the alleys and try to spot Gentleman Jack before he can get to a dry cleaner and do something about all the bloodstains.

Every turn, you'll have four actions to choose from. First the Holmes Gang will pick one, then Jack will pick a couple, then Holmes will pick one more. Then they all flip over, and you use the ones on the back, but this time Jack picks first.

The object of all these flippy actions is either to narrow down the suspects running around the streets until only one is left, or to stay hidden long enough to dump the murder weapon and call a cab. Every tile starts off with a picture of a suspect, but as Holmes and his crew manage to eliminate suspects (not by killing them - that's Jack's gig), they flip upside down. When only one is left, that's your killer. If the game goes long enough and there's still more than one suspect, Jack makes like a tree and leaves.

The actions are interesting enough, especially considering that the entire game would fit into a jacket pocket. Some of them move the crime fighters around the outside of the area, either trying to block their view of suspects (if you're Jack) or peeking around corners to spot as many suspects as possible (if you're the Scooby Gang). Some actions actually change the streets of Whitechapel by turning the streets to block or allow line-of-sight to the denizens, or by physically swapping a couple places on the map.

(It is worth noting here that in real life, Jack the Ripper did not escape by physically altering the landscape. If he had been able to do that, he probably would have killed a lot more people. Because, you know, he would have been a total bad-ass capable of rearranging entire city blocks with the power of his mind. That would have been pretty awesome, actually, though it would also have been very scary. Instead of Holmes and Watson, we would have needed James Bond.)

The result of all this moving and dodging and hiding and what-not is a very interesting game of cat-and-mouse. Just like in the original game, you have to choose your actions based not only on what you can do with them, but also on what your opponent can do with what he has left. This is the most challenging and fun part of the game, and it is also the reason that my daughter beats the pants off me at this game. Apparently, I am getting dumber as I get older, because no matter which side she plays, she always wins. Since she is a teenager with no respect for her elders, I personally find this very disheartening.

Mr. Jack Pocket is an incredibly good adaptation of Mr. Jack, and is worth owning even if you already have the original. The basic idea and intellectual prowess needed to win the game have not changed. What has changed is the way the game is played, and it's fun to engage in a battle of wits even if you have grown bored of the original game.

I'm not usually a fan of pocket games, because they usually have to cut out too much of what makes a game fun. But in the case of Mr. Jack Pocket, I'm actually pretty pleased. I can toss it in an overnight bag to take on a weekend trip with the family, and have a surprisingly deep and tense game that both of us enjoy (unless my daughter decides to rub it in). I can have just as much fun with any version of Mr. Jack, because while they are all very similar, each has enough variations and twists to make them memorable. So long story short, I am impressed and pleased with Mr. Jack Pocket, especially because it is not full of chewing tobacco.

Summary

2 players

Pros:
Everything that I like about Mr. Jack, but with new ideas that keep it interesting
The similarities will draw you in. The differences will keep you there.
Very portable

Cons:
If you don't like Mr. Jack, you won't like his pockets, either

If you're looking for a fun two-player game, Mr. Jack Pocket is a great pick. It helps that it's portable, but honestly, it doesn't have to be - you can have fun playing it at home. And you can get it for less than fifteen bucks, right here from Noble Knight Games:
SEARCH JACK'S POCKETS