Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Card Game Review - Glory to Rome


It is a well-known historical fact that at some point, ancient Rome caught on fire. Also known is that Nero played a fiddle. What is not as well known is that after he finished his violin solo, Nero went out on his patio, saw that the fire was out, and hired a bunch of his buddies to fix the town. That's where you come in.

Glory to Rome is a seriously engaging card game that has the players all acting as Roman patricians attempting to rebuild their burnt home and show the emperor (back then his nickname was 'Crazy Nero') that they love Rome the most. The reward for this loyalty was probably that they got to hear ol' Crazy play his fiddle again, but still, everyone was pretty excited, so they gave it a shot.

The game has a lot in common with games like Puerto Rico or Agricola, with actions that can be taken by everyone, limited resources, and a gradual build-up of power. And yet it feels a lot less like a dry European game than you would expect from a game with so much in common with some of the blandest games ever made. For one thing, there are soldiers who just might stab you, so it's a little more manly. For another thing, the theme for the game plays out a whole lot better than the other two.

Where Puerto Rico (or any of its spin-offs) tends to feel dry and often a little weak in the area of story-telling, Glory to Rome lets you feel like you could be walking down a cobbled road with hot half-naked slaves behind you while you direct the construction of a vomitorium (for those who are curious, a vomitorium is not a place you go to barf. It is a big exit so you can get out of the amphitheater after the gladiator fights and try to find your chariot in the parking lot. Interestingly enough, Julius Caesar once escaped assassination because he went to his room to hurl, and did not actually go to the vomitorium at all).

And the funny thing is that the art for the game contributes so well to the theme. This is funny because the art for Glory to Rome is not good at all. Some of it is decent, but none of it is particularly good. The pictures of ancient Roman buildings, in particular, often look like clip art. And yet despite having relatively amateurish art, the images actually help deliver the idea of a bunch of Roman douchebags building Rome so they can hang out with Nero at the block party-slash-orgy that weekend.

But the real reason Glory to Rome shines is because it is pretty darn intense. There's a sort of race to grab what you can while you have the chance, and if you get too wrapped up in the race, you can trip over your feet and wind up without any way to finish all the projects you've started. There's a huge motivation to want to join in on all the cool actions being taken instead of bolstering your hand with more cards, and yet if you're always jumping on the bandwagon, you'll never have time to build up your own resources.

Another brilliant aspect of Glory to Rome is how many different strategies you can employ. Of course, building houses is the obvious choice, but it's not the only way to win. Because you're a corrupt Roman politician, you can take the marble and stone and wood and stuff that you get from Nero to rebuild, and sell it to private merchants to amass a personal fortune. Sure, Crazy Nero would disapprove, but he'll forget all about it if you throw a wild party and ply him with wine and naked girls.

There are also plenty of different strategies for building stuff. Send laborers out to gather materials and then hire architects to supervise the build, or hire strong-arm legionaries to steal what you need so the craftsmen can lay brick. Hire an army of laborers to steal all the marble, and then sell it all to glad-handing crooks and line your own pockets. Or go balanced and just try to build a bunch of stuff, because the buildings tend to have some pretty serious abilities on their own.

If there is a downside to Glory to Rome (I mean outside the unimpressive illustration and blatant overuse of gradients), it comes from the buildings. A game could be neck-and-neck, with everyone pushing just a little bit at a time, and then one person builds the super-building and hires every laborer in the pool, then runs off with all the stone and wood leaving the rest to figure out what they can build out of pocket lint and dried chewing gum. The rest of the game will be a desperate race for second place, while that one guy goes on to build the Sears Tower and the others all scrabbling to build a wooden outhouse.

But while some people might see this as a balance issue, I wouldn't change one thing (well, not counting the art. There's an Italian version on BGG that looks absolutely amazing, and I would use that art instead). The crazy building powers are part of the game, and whether you stumble onto a particularly impressive collection or have the foresight and planning to make the killer combinations work for you, the buildings add a layer of excitement and tension that makes Glory to Rome hundreds of times more exciting than some dry-as-a-mattress European farming game.

While I would really love it if Cambridge Games Factory released an English-language version of Glory to Rome with the art from the Italian version (and I'm not as excited about the Black Box version, because while it is better than the original, it is not as much fun as the Italian art), I can absolutely tell you that I won't be getting rid of my copy of Glory to Rome unless I learn Italian. It's not often that I get to play a game that I find so compelling and nearly addictive as Glory to Rome. I can tell it was a good game, because after we played, we spent the next four days discussing alternate strategies, different combinations, and most of all, when we could play again.

Summary

2-5 players

Pros:
Intensely well-designed and thoroughly playtested
Smart and tense
Everyone is playing, every turn - no down time
Feels like what it's supposed to be

Cons:
Definitely shows its European roots (only a con if you need blood in your games)
Painfully underwhelming visual presentation
Some balance issues may scare off the crybabies

When you see the price Noble Knight Games has on Glory to Rome, you're going to want a copy. If you like to scheme, plan and hose your friends, you really should get it:
AVE CRAZY NERO

Monday, August 29, 2011

Board Game Review - Field Commander Napoleon


I have the coolest dad ever. Not just because he plays tons of games with me and took me backpacking a lot when I was a kid, and not just because he survived Vietnam and has kick-ass scars all over his body. No, my dad is the coolest because he willingly volunteers to play games I don't want to play, then takes the time to write reviews about them, thereby saving me time and effort and freeing me up for a night whenever I get to post his writing instead of having to do the work myself. So here's a review from my old man, who deserves endless accolades for playing this game so I didn't have to.

Field Commander Napoleon or Napoleon, With One Hand Behind His Back

Let me begin with my conclusion: If you enjoy solitaire games, you’ll probably love Field Commander Napoleon. If you just don’t care for solitaire games, or if you want a simulation rather than a game, then you’ll probably appreciate the components but not get into the game.

The components to Field Commander Napoleon are most definitely exceptional. The counters are thick and laminated, and on top of that they’re beautiful. They’re not overly-cluttered with information, and the most important features are clear and well-placed. The game maps, of which there are several, are perfectly functional for game play. Each map provides for one or more scenarios, so this box allows for a lot of repeated game play. The game boards are a bit austere since they’re just brown illustrations of the game area, but like I just noted, they’re more than fine for game play. Still, they’re of top-notch quality, if not sporting poster-on-your-wall aesthetics. The Battlefield card is very simple – an aerial-like photo of a typical European countryside. The artwork on the battlefield board is attractive with simple aesthetics, but the picture has no bearing on play.

FCN requires these two maps for each game – one fold-out map of the region the campaign occurred in, and a battlefield map on which you fight out the individual battles. The French general directing the battle (you) draws Battle Plans from a healthy assortment, but you’re allowed to choose only two or three (four in a couple of scenarios), and the rest have to be “default” battle plans. But don’t get into a funk over your lack of brilliance in command, because the enemy general is given a kidney punch in his selection of battle plans – you get to draw them from a cup and he’s stuck with what YOU give him (well, it IS a solitaire game, so the enemy general is at your mercy). These battle plans are the heart of the battle portion of the game, and I unhesitatingly agree that they’re a brilliant innovation in design for a solitaire game.

The rulebook is nicely done. Nice illustrations of components and good examples of play. There are several typos that irked me, but these generally didn’t throw off the meaning of the rules. There are places in the rules that I found pretty confusing. For example, when reading about “Shock” on page 12, I had to read it a couple times to figure out if I was rolling against the attacker’s or defender’s combat value.

That said, this is NOT an easy game to master. The rules are only 21 pages, but don’t let that put you into a false sense of complacency. If you’re not familiar with this type of solitaire game, you’ll probably have to read the rules through a couple times, and follow the example of play provided at the end of the rules. On the other hand, if you have vast experience with solitaire games, I suspect this game won’t tax you too badly. Me? Well, I’m not a solitaire gamer. Believe me, folks, I’ve tried. When “Ambush” first came out I snapped it up and rushed right into the scenarios. But the programmed nature of solitaire games just doesn’t do it for me. (In Ambush, one German pops up and fires at your guys, you kill him, move, and then another German shows himself. What kind of an ambush is that?!? “OK, Hans, it’s your turn to die, stand up now.” “Oops, lost Hans pretty quickly. YOU, Helmut, you’re next. Take a shot and die like a man.” The game is obviously very popular, but it’s not anything like a simulation.) FCN, in my own game play, stands in the same company as the rest of the solitaire genre.

Let me say more about this aspect of FCN as a solitaire game. I played the first scenario – Napoleon in Italy, 1796. I marched Napoleon and five of the especially beautiful unit counters into Savona to engage the Piedmont army there. I rolled on the Fog of War table and it said my battle was going to be two turns long. I set up the pieces and quickly discovered that after two turns I’d not even started to lock horns with the enemy. Did I read the rules wrong?? After re-reading the pertinent pages I set up the battle again and pretended I had more scouts than I actually had (as in none) and forced a battle of five turns. That seemed sufficient to annihilate the Piedmonters. I drew two battle plans for the enemy that could have been helpful in some battles, but not so here. So the Piedmonters stayed in column and suffered accordingly. Um, wasn’t it the French who devised the attack in column and didn’t everyone else, especially in 1796, deploy into line to receive the enemy? Well, these Piedmonters were ahead of their time or on hallucinogenics, because they fought the entire battle in column. Poor suckers. But it’s a solitaire game and that means the enemy is stuck with whatever the programmed rules provide for them, whether it sucks and is logically ludicrous and totally outside the realm of historicity, but that’s OK because it’s just a solitaire GAME.

So why did I buy this game? Simple fact, I didn’t. My son got it as a review copy and he doesn’t like solitaire games any more than I do. Since it’s a wargame, I offered to try it out for him. Sad to say, even all the chrome and brilliant design features that have evolved since Ambush still don’t do it for me. I need a living body on the other side of the table so I can feel that rush of adrenaline when I’m rolling to try to knock out that Tiger tank, or get to express that humble gloating of victory when my opponent finally caves in and admits I’ve crushed him – “Well, you had some really bad die rolls . . . .” I’ve never felt that in a solitaire game. Not even sure a solitaire game has ever solicited from me as much as a grin.

So back to my initial comments by way of conclusion. Field Commander is a slick and attractive product. The components are top notch, and it has some innovative concepts. If you enjoy solitaire games, you’ll almost certainly want this one. But if you’re a true grognard looking for a simulation that you can play with another active gamer, I recommend you treat this one as you would any other solitaire game.

Summary

1 player

Pros:
High quality components.
Innovative concepts for solitaire play.
High re-play value.

Cons:
Rules could have been better edited.
The combat system doesn’t simulate historicity.
It’s a solitaire game.

I couldn't find this game at Noble Knight Games, but if you desperately want to pay a C-note for a game you can't play with other people, you can find it here, at the publisher's site:
http://www.dvg.com/.sc/ms/dd/ee/35/Field%20Commander%20Napoleon

Friday, August 26, 2011

Movie Review - Paul


Movies that reference other movies are not exactly rare. We watched Rango, which is cover-to-cover full of references to other movies, and then we watched Paul the next night, which references nearly every big science-fiction movie or TV show made in the last ten years. But there's a big difference between obvious, unoriginal references that damage the continuity of the film, and well-placed references that make everyone chortle with glee because they recognized them. Paul has that second one.

Paul sells itself as a sci-fi romp, but it's really more of an homage to everything sci-fi geeks hold dear. It starts out at ComicCon, and rolls through references to Star Wars, Star Trek, Battlestar Galactica, Aliens and Close Encounters, to hit some of the more obvious highlights. It's full of lines that will have sci-fi nerds giggling uncontrollably and laughing right out loud. I know, because I was giggling uncontrollably and laughing right out loud.

The great thing about Paul is that it works on lots of levels. If you're just looking for a distracting goof with an alien and some vulgar humor, Paul delivers. If you want to feel like part of the in-crowd that knows pop culture the jocks won't get, it's in there. And if you want to see some well-developed characters and an engaging tale, Paul will keep you delightfully entertained.

The title of the film refers to the big-headed alien who gets himself rescued by a couple hapless comic book geeks in an RV. The alien has been on the planet for decades, and has a twisted sense of humor and a love for the finer things in life (by which I mean alcohol and hallucinogens). The choice of Seth Rogen to voice the foul-mouthed space traveler is perfect - when he makes dick jokes or weaves a string of profanities that would blister the paint, he just feels right. I can't imagine any other actor who could delivered his off-color lines as well. Can you imagine Clint Eastwood saying, 'What, am I harvesting farts?'

The two comic nerds are played by Simon Pegg and Nick Frost, the knucklehead geniuses who brought us Shawn of the Dead and Hot Fuzz, and they're just as incredibly fun to watch as they have ever been. Whether they're being routinely mistaken for a gay couple, acting out Star Trek scenes in rubber masks, or running for their lives from redneck bruisers or psychotic Bible-thumpers, Pegg and Frost are hilarious and just plain fun to watch.

Paul is more than just a good story. It's freaking hilarious. But it's my kind of humor, which is to say, it teeters on the edge of being offensive. Then it takes a running start and leaps wildly over the edge, right into awesome. Not like constant penis joke gross, or anything. It's not Your Majesty (which blows goats), just lots of cussing and jokes about probing. This isn't disturbing or anything, just damned funny and peppered with F-bombs.

If you're a particularly religious sort, you may want to give Paul a little thought before you go get the DVD. The movie mercilessly guts the more extreme religious wackadoos, and while I found those parts hilarious (due largely to the fact that I find the Young Earth concepts utterly laughable), if you are sensitive to people poking fun at scientifically ludicrous theories of Christianity, you might find Paul a little uncomfortable. Especially if you watch it with your pastor.

However, I did particularly like the part of the film that expresses amusement at the idea that the planet is only 4,000 years old and yet maintains that disbelieving that particularly silly idea does not preclude the possibility of religious belief. It was like the writers were saying, 'yes, some parts of some religions are stupid, but let's not throw out the baby with the cavemen who rode dinosaurs to their jobs at the quarry.'

Simon Pegg and Nick Frost have made themselves international icons for nerds the world over, and they do a lot more than just deliver boob jokes. Their stories tend to be tightly scripted, magnificently well-timed, and downright amusing. The knuckleheads who brought us Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz continue to deliver seriously entertaining goofery that leaves you with the certain knowledge that these are two guys who you would love to know better. But even better, these guys make you reasonably sure that they would actually enjoy knowing you. Paul is a great example of this - when you finish watching the movie, you'll want to call them up and see if they can make it for next week's barbecue.

They can't, of course. They're going to be at a local convention for people who collect Star Wars memorabilia.

Summary

Pros:
Absolutely hilarious
Some great 'in-crowd' references that will have sci-fi nerds laughing like idiots
Great writing and solid plot with some very likable characters
Nerds in the spotlight - gets me almost every time

Cons:
The humor is not what you might call clean, though it is really funny
Some rather vicious pokes at religious extremists
(Neither of these things bothered me at all, and in fact, were Pros for me)

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Card Game Review - North Pole


Penguins live in the South Pole. Not everyone knows that, but everyone should. So if you're a penguin, and you live at the South Pole, where would you vacation? Warmer climates are pretty much out - you've got more insulating fat on your gut than Dom DeLuise, and there's no way you can drink enough margaritas in Cabo to keep from melting into a pool of fat cells and tiny tuxedo feathers. Seems to me your only option is a place that's just as cold - the North Pole.

So off you go in a refrigerated plane cabin, and then when you get there, you realize that there's even less to do in the Arctic than there was back home. You put your cute little heads together, and come up with an activity sure to delight everyone - a race!

That's what you do in North Pole, anyway. You set up at your base camp, lay out an ice bridge of face-down playing cards, and start sledding, snow-shoeing, or just waddling your way to the big shiny barber's pole that God put at the North Pole so you would know when you could turn around.

This racing game from Cambridge Games lets you all be penguins, which is a dream held by almost nobody whatsoever over the age of six years old. Fortunately, North Pole is a kid's game, and thus the theme works just fine. But it's a good kid's game, the kind that a roomful of adults can play without a child anywhere in sight and still enjoy it. It doesn't have all that strategy and tactical brilliance that you look for when you're trying to play grown-up games, but it's smart enough to keep you occupied while still allowing your tiny spawn to get a kick out of stepping on narwhals at the frozen ass-end of the world.

Playing this game is incredibly simple. You have five cards, and you're trying to drop cards that let you shag it to the North Pole and back. If the card next to you is a walrus with a 3 on his card, you can play a walrus with a 4 and waddle onto that card. If you actually have a 3, you can snow-shoe there and still get to play again. Three of the same number will let you take a sled, which is handy when you want to go diagonally, and three of the same number and color let you dog sled and move twice.

If it was just playing the cards, North Pole would blow goats. There are two things that make this interesting. First, you can only draw two cards on your turn, so if you blow your wad on some killer diagonal sled move, you're going to be standing around for a while. You have to time your big moves or everyone will catch up to you while you gasp for breath (and it's damned hard to breath at the North Pole, unless you happen to be a penguin, which you are). But here's the interesting part - when you draw those two cards, you can take two off the top of the deck, or you can take two from the face-up stock of five. Use those cards well, and you can stack your hand to get where you need to go. It makes for some tough decisions - the hallmark of a good game.

The second thing is even cooler. A bunch of the cards have snowflakes on them, and when you use snowflakes to move, you can wreck the ice. Then the other penguins have to fix the ice before they can get past, which slows them down and diminishes their card supply, allowing you to rest for a moment before hauling ass for the finish line. Ruin the right icy paths, and you'll leave everyone else to curse in frustration and call you names. And that is what a game for children should be all about.

The art on North Pole is cute enough, but it's not going to win any awards. The graphic design is typical of Cambridge Games, which is to say that it's not particularly good. But the game is exceptional in being accessible for children and enjoyable by adults. That makes it a good kid's game in my book, and the kind I don't mind playing one bit.

Summary

2-6 kids or adults, whatever you've got handy

Pros:
Light and smart at the same time
Engaging for kids or grown-ups
Clever decisions that make your kids work for their win
Doesn't patronize

Cons:
Art is mediocre

Noble Knight Games carries some of the games from Cambridge Games Factory, but not all of them. That means I don't actually have a link for you, which is kind of a shame, because North Pole really is a kid's game worth having.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Announcement - Social Media

It has finally happened - I have fallen prey to the siren song of social media. I've had a Facebook page for years, but never really used it because it irritated the hell out of me. I just didn't need to know which of my friends had recently purchased sandwich meat. I don't need regular updates on the after-work plans of people I barely know who live hundreds of miles away. And Facebook is ridiculously difficult to use. Would it kill them to have some kind of navigation menu? The buttons are all over the place!

But a few months ago, Asmodee made me an offer that I didn't really want to refuse (as opposed to one I couldn't refuse, which might have involved a horse's head and extensive kneecap surgery). For the last couple months, I've been writing copy for the Asmodee website, and starting last week, I'm now the official Facebook voice for Jungle Speed.

To complete my descent into social media hell, I also acquired a Jungle Speed Twitter account. I never would have considered a Twitter account until my wife told me how many short, funny jokes she reads on Twitter. I created a Drake's Flames Twitter account, but never said anything. For one thing, I would have been talking to myself, because my Twitter account had exactly zero followers. Then my massage therapist started following me, and so I had one follower, and I didn't really want to tell her dick jokes. Not sure what made her decide to follow me, to be honest.

So then last week I started my Jungle Speed Twitter account, and then Wednesday I attended a Twitter party. For those of you with enough self-respect to not know what that is, a Twitter party is a thing where you have a narrow chat window with a mildly restrictive character limitation and everyone types at the same time, then replies at the same time, and people talk so fast that you get a headache. It was exhausting, but when I was done, I had 44 followers, and now I feel obligated to say something every now and then, just so people know I still care about them. I don't, but it wouldn't be nice to tell them that.

Other than the fact that I'm pulling a paycheck from Asmodee, nothing has changed. I made it clear when I took the job that my reviews were still going to be crassly honest. They still send me review copies, and I still blow holes through the bad ones (though honestly, I think Asmodee has one of the best gold-to-garbage ratios in the industry). The only game I'm promoting is Jungle Speed, aside from writing web blurbs and the odd press release. Everything else is just my unfiltered opinion, and I won't be writing about Jungle Speed here. Mostly because I already did, like three years ago, which is why the Asmodee people wanted me to work for them.

However, now that I know that Twitter is not quite as worthless as I thought it was, I intend to start using my Drake's Flames account. As soon as one or two people are actually listening (I'm not counting the lady at the chiropractor's offices who rubs the kinks out of my back), I'll make sure I tweet something at least once a day. I'll also update you when I write a review, so that you don't have to check in every two hours to see if I've posted an article about some game you're never going to play. Plus I'll write inappropriate and potentially offensive jokes, many of which will have references to body parts, sexually transmitted diseases, or flatulation. I mean, why have a Twitter account if you don't tell fart jokes now and then?

One thing I will not do is update you every time I change my pants. You also cannot use Facebook to friend me, poke me, fan me, like me or ask me for spare change, because I barely use my Facebook page and I turn down or ignore almost every friend request. But if you follow Drake's Flames on Twitter, you can get crude humor and stupid cracks delivered direct to your phone, which to be honest, doesn't seem like much of an upside to me, but far be it from me to judge.

If you want to follow me on Twitter, you can click the button I just added to this site (it says, 'follow me on Twitter', in case you're just not sure) or just start following @drakesflames.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Russian Game Review - Potion-Making Practice


Russian Game Week is coming to a close, and I saved the best of the batch for last. I need a big drum roll and maybe a man dressed up as a dancing bear. This last game requires some fanfare, because it's one of the most entertaining games I've played this year. If I was a lot less lazy and bothered to rank things, this last game could be a contender for Game of the Year. But I don't, so it's just really fun.

The game is called Potion-Making Practice. Before you begin your derisive snorts, keep in mind that the game is made in Russia. It's not like they could hire Hollywood wordsmiths to come up with a sexy name. In Russia, the name is probably some clever play on words that doesn't translate to English. In Russia, 'Potion-Making Practice' probably means 'Free blowjobs,' but in the US, it just means chemistry class.

The name might be a little bland, but the art in this game is beautiful. The card design is lavish and ornate, with more eye candy than an NFL trophy wife. Whether it's a painting of mandrake root or an elaborate design that twists around everything like an insidious magical vine, the graphics for Potion-Making Practice will make you want to play, even if the name sounds like homework.

The premise seems simple enough. You're all combining elements to make potions, and then combining those potions to make elixirs, and then combining the elixirs to make talismans and mythical creatures and taco salads. The more complicated your concoction, the more points you get for making it. You can even use the compounds your opponents cook up, but when you do, they get points for having you steal their stuff.

An interesting element of Potion-Making Practice is that on your turn, you only ever get to play one card (unless it's a spell card that says, 'play another card'). This means you can't make potions with the elements in your hand. The only way to get the base elements is to pick them up off the table, and the only way those elements get there is if people put them there. Since you score a point just for contributing a new element, there's considerable incentive to fill the table with building materials, even if you don't have any way to use them.

It might seem like this is a game where you want to block your opponents by trying to figure out what they want to cook and depriving them of their recipe ingredients. But since the winning combinations come from combining existing potions, and you can use the finished potions your opponents mix up, it's actually in your best interest to let people make whatever they want. Making simple potions is not going to win you the game. For the really big scores, you need to whip up the impressive potions, the magical critters, or the tricky talismans. And to do that, you'll need to take advantage of the concoctions created by the other Hogwarts kids.

At first glance, Potion-Making Practice looks like it's all luck. If you never have the cards you need to build the potions you've drawn, you could just be screwed. But the player counting on luck is going to lose to the player who watches the card play, keeps track of his hand, and uses what he has when he needs it. Patience is the key - it doesn't matter if you make a potion every other turn, because in the end, the player who puts together the killer combinations will win the game, and he can only do that if he manages his cards very carefully.

Some of us were of the opinion that there were too many elements, and to be completely honest, that can be a consideration. The game can be frustrating if the two pieces you need to finish your creation never appear in the middle of the table. But then, you're not going to win the game with simple creations, so the elements on the table are not as important as they seem. It's frequently a good idea to put down the pieces your opponents need, so that after they compose your missing ingredients, you can whip up the extravagant creations you've been holding since the second turn of the game.

Potion-Making Practice isn't an easy game. There is a seriously intimidating number of things to track at once, and winning this game requires timing and patience and cunning. It's not a light game, either, and will demand your attention and intellect. But it is a tremendously fun game, the kind of game that you'll be discussing for hours and dreaming of playing for days after you finish. I'm writing this review right now and mentally salivating over the possibility of playing again tonight. For some people, Potion-Making Practice is going to be work. For people like me, it's a wonderfully complicated puzzle that demands every bit of genius I can bring to the table. Games as good as Potion-Making Practice just don't come along very often.

Summary

2-6 players

Pros:
Smart and tricky
Requires intricate planning, careful patience, and whip-smart timing
Beautiful art
After you play, you'll have a hard time thinking about anything else

Cons:
Dense and potentially intimidating

Potion-Making Practice isn't just the best Russian game I've played. It's one of the best games I've played in a long time. You can get it on eBay, right here:
KICK-ASS RUSSIAN AWESOME

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Russian Game Review - Evolution


Ever since I was old enough to dissect a dead frog that had been soaking in formaldehyde for weeks, I wanted to play a game that would allow me to create an enormously fat fish with a tapeworm. Until now, there just weren't games that would let me manipulate genetic codes that way, but thanks to a brilliant Russian game designer, now I finally have the option to genetically engineer a burrowing wolverine the size of a brontosaurus.

Evolution looks like a simple game on the surface. You just play animals and add traits to help them survive the winter. The problem is, there's rarely enough food to let all the animals eat, so something is going to die out. It will probably be the near-sighted velociraptor.

A really neat element of Evolution (the game, not the process) is that the back of every card shows a little squiggly lizard, and if you play the card face-down, it doesn't matter what the card says, because that's a new animal. Then you can add stuff like swimming and running and sharp vision, which leaves you with a really fast fish wearing prescription sunglasses.

Another fascinating twist is the carnivore trait. Slap this one on your previously meek leaf-eater, and your animal can eat other people's animals. This is particularly amusing if the animal in question used to be an antelope with a poison gland. Of course, predators have to eat more, so they'll be dreadfully inclined to gnaw on your favorite flock of camouflaged crows, which makes the guy with the meat-eater on the table the number one target for extinction.

Much of the game centers around trying to eliminate your opponents' animals while keeping your own alive. It's not easy, either, because sometimes all it takes to kill an animal is to give it a parasite and watch the poor diseased beast wither away when winter comes. Of course, if your genetic super-critter is a carnivore, you can just feed him the other animals you've created. I suggest the tubby weasel, because next turn he'll probably learn how to swim.

We've enjoyed playing this an awful lot, but at some level, Evolution does tend to be a little formulaic. If you can get your animals to cooperate and communicate with each other, then make them poisonous so nobody else wants to eat them, you can feel free to add all kinds of genetic upgrades without having to sweat your impending doom. Many upgrades are far more important, and so your optimal moves are often a little too obvious.

On the other hand, while it may be possible to make a good play based on what you've seen as the best move you could assemble, it's never entirely possible to account for the other players, and that's where Evolution really shines. You're constantly trying to upgrade your animals, while making sure the other critters on the board don't survive long enough to have little baby telepathic lemurs. No matter how solid your strategy from the outset, you have to constantly be wary of everyone else at the table, because if someone manages to make a giant, sharp-eyed carnivore, you better learn how to swim, and fast.

My favorite way to kill other animals, though, isn't an animal at all. Well, OK, I suppose tapeworms are animals. Anyway, when you play a parasite on an opponent's ravenous mountain goat, they have to eat twice as much food or keel over. It can be terribly difficult to feed your animal and still have food left over for his intestinal carry-on luggage, so critters with worms tend to die out. If you do manage to keep your parasite-infected animal alive until the end of the game, he's worth a lot more points, so when you play a worm on an opponent, you're gambling that the winter is lean enough that the poor bloated cave bear starves out before the end of the game.

So it seems the Russians have some pretty serious skills in the art of game design. Evolution is fast-paced and clever, with lots of fun combinations that don't make any sense at all and a continual sense of impending doom at the hands of your fellow gene-splicers. It may have an educational aspect to it, but if there's anything to be learned, it's more about how the process of evolution works (in theory) and not so much about particular animals. Because everyone knows it would be silly to make an animal that eats out of another animal's mouth.

Summary

2-4 players

Pros:
Make a good plan and stick to it - but you still have to be flexible
Mildly educational
You can hedge your bets, but you can never be entirely safe
Translation is better than a lot of native English games

Cons:
Could be too easy to 'solve'
Very basic design and art feels a little dry

If you want to pick up this fun and clever game, here's an eBay seller who has it right now:
AQUATIC BADGERS AWAIT

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Russian Game Review - The Kingdoms of Crusaders


Russian Game Week started off with a bang. Maybe a flop. Maybe the sound a dead fish makes when it slaps onto a cutting board. But the second review - now here's a good game. The Kingdoms of Crusaders is surprisingly good.

I was not looking forward to playing Kingdoms of Crusaders when I got the box. After I read the rules, it looked even worse. It's painfully basic - you've got a hand of five cards, you draw one, and you lay one down. That's it. You don't even have a whole pile of options. You just play a card to one of five 'kingdoms', and your turn is over. It looks like a boring Reiner game - oversimplified, dry and themeless.

A quick comment on the art for The Kingdoms of Crusaders is in order here. There's no reason these cards need art below the top half-inch, so the rest of the cards are filled with art cribbed off Clipart.com, mostly woodcut prints that are supposedly inspired by the crusades. Unfortunately, the drawings are really difficult to make out, so they end up looking like octopus farts. One of the reasons I was hesitant to play the game is because it just looks cluttered and messy, like a PDF book assembled by a high-schooler whose entire budget is the money he makes mowing lawns on the weekend.

Plus the theme is completely pointless. This could have been an abstract, so it's at least something like a Reiner game. According to the garbled translation that serves as the rulebook, you're trying to build armies in five different areas, because it's the crusades and that's what they did. But really, you could replace the theme with colored dots and have the same exact game. That's got Reiner Knizia written all over it.

But when you actually play The Kingdoms of Crusaders, you'll want to write Doctor K and tell him to hang up his lab coat, because the Russians have him beat. The rules for this game are ridiculously simple, and yet there's a staggering amount of tactical and strategic brilliance. Each card has colored symbols on it. There are brown, blue, green, yellow and red, one of each color, only the cards usually only have one or two of those. To win an area, you have to build sets of matching colors, which can be tricky if you're not holding cards with matching colors.

Once you get a couple turns into the game, what looks like a child's game about spotting colors turns into a mind game to rival Sherlock Holmes versus Moriarty. You can only play one card at a time, so you can't sweep in and grab an area with everything you've got. You have to bluff by playing a couple weak cards in one spot, then while your opponent is distracted with the easy kill, sweep in and grab up the areas where he thinks he's winning. Choose a losing area as a dumping ground, and put off showing your power until it's too late for your foe to do anything about it.

One thing that is not obvious from the rules (aside from what the hell they're supposed to actually be saying, because the translation seems to have been performed using Babelfish and a deck of tarot cards) is how crucial it is to hide your intent. It's not hard to beat your enemy in a given area, as long as you know what he's already got there. Commit early, and you either tell him where he's safe, or you telegraph your hits so he knows to save his good cards for another location. You'll be feinting and counterattacking and gambling on the draw. It's enough to make your head swim and your heart beat faster.

If you buy two copies of The Kingdoms of Crusaders, you can even play the game with four people. I assume it would be a different game that way, but I don't really know, because I only got the two-player version. It says that right on the box - "This game set means two players." I assume that means the base game accommodates just two, because it's absurd to believe that "Kingdoms of Crusaders" is Russian for "two people playing a game." My Russian is spotty, but I'm pretty sure that would be wrong. At any rate, if I can convince my new friends across the Atlantic to send me another copy of the game, I'll let you know how the four-player version works.

So ignore the eyesore art. Ignore the theme that was applied with a glue stick and a roll of scotch tape. If you want an abstract game that will make your brain smoke and your adrenaline kick into overdrive, The Kingdoms of Crusaders should be the next game you buy. It's incredibly smart and ridiculously fun. It might just be your next two-player addiction.

Summary

2 players (up to 4 if you buy it twice)

Pros:
Absolutely brilliant
Far more depth than appears on the surface
Compellingly and quite possibly addictive

Cons:
Theme that could be replaced with cats fouling their litterboxes
Questionable art decisions scream 'low budget'
Hilariously bad translation

The only place I can find to buy The Kingdoms of Crusaders is on eBay. The price is right, though, and you'll get your money's worth out of this ugly little gem:
WICKED COOL GAME

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Russian Game Review - The Enigma of Leonardo


Being a child of the 80's, I have fond memories of the Cold War. Sure, we were all going to die in a nuclear holocaust that would fry most of us like marshmallows at a campfire, and the rest of us were going to have all our hair fall out before we were covered in horrible bruises and died barfing our guts onto the floor, but the movies were great. It was a time when "cloak and dagger" had absolutely nothing to do with rogues in elven footwear, and everything to do with spies stealing state secrets from Soviet intelligence agencies. The USSR was a nefarious enemy with closed borders, and many of my favorite stories were about daring night escapes across the Iron Curtain.

That time is well and truly past, though. The Soviet Union doesn't even exist any more, and the Berlin Wall was torn down more than twenty years ago. Citizens of the world can come and go through Russia, and with that freedom comes the possibility to get something we couldn't get when I was growing up - Russian games.

I recently acquired a box of games from Right Games, a Russian publisher with a surprisingly healthy catalog. Four of those games are translated into English - the four I have. So in the spirit of glasnost and perestroika, I'm going to make this week Russian Game week. I'm going to start with the weakest of the four games, and finish up next Friday with the best of the bunch. That means this first review will address The Enigma of Leonardo, a puzzlingly inept game with a relatively ridiculous theme.

If you just look at the art on the cover of the box, The Enigma of Leonardo looks like it has promise. But then you realize that the game was created using a Leonardo da Vinci clip art CD, and the art looks that good because Leonardo da Vinci made it. It's not like the game's designers went and created all these amazing illustrations themselves. If I make a movie and all the music is by Mozart, I can't exactly take credit for the soundtrack.

When you read the theme for the game, it starts to unravel pretty quickly, although I grant you that if you're a fan of tinfoil hats and UFO conspiracies, it might be more palatable. The idea is that da Vinci left secret codes in all his work, and if you just look at it the right way, you can solve the riddles. The purpose behind such an extravagant Easter egg hunt is not entirely clear. If you ask me, he was just trying to remind himself where he left his keys.

So you have a bunch of cards with da Vinci art on them, and several iconic symbols have been extracted from the master's work and stuck in a corner of each card. One card might show a bird and a hot air balloon, another shows a printing press and some guy's head, and yet another might have a cat and a magic wand. And the back of the card has a naked guy with too many arms and legs, which makes you wonder about an artist whose most famous piece of art features a man's hanging dingus.

You build a little grid and put out your cards, and then you try to match three in a row (because Leonardo da Vinci was a fan of tic-tac-toe). This can be tough to achieve, because when you take out one of your own cards and replace it with one from your hand, you have to put the one you took out into the grid of opponent to your left. Every time you set up a potential string, the guy who goes right before you screws up your whole display.

The result is a game that relies heavily on being lucky enough to have the right cards, and does virtually nothing to reward the good player. You put down the cards you have, hoping to build a set, and then right before your next turn, some douchebag takes the card you needed and gives you a paper bag full of burning dog crap. The game drags on from there, until some lucky soul manages to make matches seven times. Then everyone sighs with relief and shoves everything back in the box before checking to see if they could get a good price for the game on eBay.

It's not all bad, though. If you play a lot of games with kids, this could help you find something to do with them. There's a small amount of strategy here, enough to entertain bright children, as long as they haven't grown out of their Dora the Explorer underpants (it is worth noting that if you know kids who still wear Dora underpants when they start high school, they're probably still about the right mental level to play this game). It does look cool, and while it's not intelligent enough to appeal to anyone who can master Blokus, The Enigma of Leonardo could still be an interesting way to spend some time with your kids.

It might not seem fair to start off my Russian Game Week with a review of a game I didn't like, but take heart - the rest of the games are a lot better. And one is downright freaking brilliant.

Summary

2-4 players

Pros:
Great art (because it was created by Leonardo da Vinci)
Could be moderately entertaining for children

Cons:
Not much interesting, and not much fun
Translated Russian is spotty, and a little confusing in a few places

I honestly have no idea how you could get The Enigma of Leonardo if you don't live in Russia. But that's OK. You probably don't want it anyway.

Friday, August 12, 2011

Board Game Review - Conquest of Nerath


I don't know if growing older has jaded me or just made me realize how stupid Dungeons & Dragons really is. Probably both. But either way, I have trouble signing off on a fantasy setting with such a willfully improbable collection of bizarre beings, especially when the ramifications of most of the elements in Dungeons & Dragons are never adequately explored. By way of example, look at your average dungeon. There are hundreds of humanoid bad guys living in a cramped underground space, and somehow, no toilets.

But one of the great things about playing games is that you don't need a plausible setting to have fun. In fact, I would wager that the reason so many people love D&D is because it has so little in common with anything that makes any kind of sense. You might be a tubby loser with no social skills, but play D&D, and suddenly you're a ruggedly handsome scalawag who crashes society parties and makes babies with sexy half-dragon girls.

Conquest of Nerath is a great example of how you can start with a silly setting and create a fun game. Everybody will have a fantasy race, like elves or orcs or dead people, and they'll build armies and try to wipe each other out.

(Quick aside - you can tell this is D&D because 'dead' is actually an ethnic group. Equal Opportunity Employers in D&D have considerably more complicated HR paperwork. The list you have to check to determine if they have their government-mandated diversity goes like this:

Caucasian
Black
Hispanic
Asian
Green-skin
Nice elf
Mean elf
Angst-ridden elf with tortured past
Dwarf
Animal hybrid
Dragon or Dragonkin
Dead, Undead, Dying or Just really sick
Made out of rocks

Check all that apply.)

In Conquest of Nerath, everybody will have different armies, but they'll be made up of essentially the same bunch of dudes. You'll have infantry, which might be footsoldiers or speargoblins or skeletal minions. You'll have heroes and wizards, who can investigate dungeons and score treasures. You'll have monsters like hill giants and tree people to ravage enemy lands. And you'll have dragons, who will fly all over and piss fire on their enemies.

The thing that really makes Conquest of Nerath an interesting departure from other large-scale conquest games is the way you win. To claim first prize, you have to hit a certain number of victory points, which you score by finding treasure and stealing land from your opponents. The reason this is really interesting is because you don't lose victory points even when you lose the land you've stolen, and so more than just about any other big battle game I've played, you absolutely have to be aggressive. In fact, if you take another guy's land and then he takes it back, you can earn victory points by grabbing it a second time. Defense is almost meaningless, because if you hole up, you're just giving your enemies time to raid dungeons and pick away at your kingdoms.

Many of the other elements of Conquest of Nerath are common in this kind of game. Different unit types fight better or worse than others. Buying new soldiers is dependent on income. Castles can be built to reinforce strategic areas, and you can steal them from your opponents. In many respects, Nerath doesn't offer many new strategic options, but the differences are what makes the game fun.

For instance, you're probably used to games that reward the player who is willing to advance with caution. Try that in Conquest of Nerath, though, and you'll wind up watching your nation get eaten like a bundt cake at an office party. Defensive planning can keep you from losing too much to your foes, but it is far more important to go for blood and conquest than it is to reinforce your castles and hide behind the walls.

Also important to the game is using your assets where they'll do the most good. Infantry is mostly just useful for dying, while your monsters are best used to rampage through empty land, laying waste to entire towns and eating all the cheese. Boats can fight at sea, but they are most effective as public transportation to carry your people to work so they don't get stuck on the 405. If you really want to rumble in the ocean, bring out a storm elemental. They just fly around tipping stuff over, like a tabby on a catnip bender.

One interesting element of Conquest of Nerath is that you can play it in teams. In fact, since you have to set up every faction at the beginning of the game, if you have less than four players, you have to play teams. It's an interesting twist, but at the same time, it means the game isn't very flexible, and is probably going to be virtually the same thing every time you play.

Conquest of Nerath might not reinvent world conquest games, but what it does, it does well. Battles are brutal, but easy enough to play. Movement is smooth and not overly complicated. We were lucky to play at an office with a photocopier, though, because every player will want a copy of the back of the rulebook, so that they know how much more expensive it is to buy a siege engine than a grunt.

If you only play world conquest games once or twice a year, you don't need Conquest of Nerath. This is a game for people who really like big war games with lots of plastic warriors. There are dozens of games in this vein that are better, so the reason you'll play this one is because it's something new. Of course, you might also be playing because you want to fight giant purple tapeworms and find the beach sandal of abdominal discomfort, but that just means you're playing D&D.

Summary

2-4 players

Pros:
Buckets of cool plastic
An interesting twist that favors aggression and punishes the overly cautious
Plays easily, and everyone will be up to speed within two or three turns

Cons:
A few new interesting concepts, but otherwise, it's a lot of what you've seen before
Same setup every time you play means lower replay value

This is an expensive game, but if you like to play a lot of epic-scale blood bath games, it's worth owning. You can save a pretty darn impressive amount of money if you buy it from Noble Knight Games:
WHOLE LOTTA D&D

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Word Game Review - Flashwordz


Tonight I will review a game called Flashwordz. It is a spelling game. If you were sitting near me as I type this, you would hear me saying, 'Wow, a spelling game with a misspelled title. That does not seem like a good idea.' Of course, that's assuming I talk to myself while I type, which I generally do not do unless I am very angry about something. And frankly, a 'z' at the end of a word where there should be an 's' is mildly irritating at best. So I guess you would not hear me after all.

The game itself is cute. Each player has a curved tray where they stick cards with letters on them. Then you take turns going around the table and spelling words using three of your letters and one of someone else's. If you can't spell a word, it's a free-for-all, and the first person to holler a word gets to spell it. You keep the cards you used to spell your word, and then when all the cards are used up, you count and see who has the most points. It plays pretty fast, which is probably why they called it Flashwrrdzz.

FLSHwrdz is published by the U.S. Game Systems company, which sadly does not make anything else that is awesome, unless you need forty-seven decks of tarot cards. I do not. Their lack of actual game publishing experience can be seen in the quality of the art, which all appears to have been created by a high-school kid who just learned how to use Illustrator. The graphics get the job done, and they definitely do not get in the way of playing the game, but they are not particularly enticing. Which is fine, because this is a game about spelling words, and thus does not need to be particularly pretty.

And whether or not Fl4shwdzz looks like a million bucks, it is entertaining. We all enjoyed it. It's long on flaws and short on strategy, but it is a fun exercise in looking for words and spelling them really fast. It's not particularly challenging, but it still makes for a tense and exciting game that will break down in giggles when someone spells 'fart'. I suspect that the ideal age bracket for this game is about ten years old, but I played with a bunch of grownups, and we all had fun. I do have to admit that some of the four-letter words we spelled were not exactly kid-friendly.

It's actually a little tough to discuss Fl45hW0rrzzz in any depth, because there's really not much depth to discuss. I would like to make this a very long review where I discuss all the brilliant subtlety and tactical genius of the game, but since all you do is spell words you see on playing cards, that's not going to happen. But if you have a kid who really likes words, or if you're just trying to trick your children into using their brains for something besides Call of Duty, Flashwordz is a good pick. Never mind that they deliberately misspelled the name of a game about spelling.

Summary

2-4 players

Pros:
Fast-paced and tense
Fun and light
Semi-educational without being patronizing

Cons:
Not really all that attractive

I was going to link you to Noble Knight Games so you could buy this game, but it's not there. Then I was going to link you to the publisher, but they also don't have the game. So I don't have the foggiest notion where you could get Flashwordz. Maybe the publisher should have set up their website to accept preorders before they sent out review copies.

Monday, August 8, 2011

Board Game Review - Ikusa


A long time ago (well, a long time ago in Internet years) I reviewed Shogun, the old 1984 Gamemaster Series game where everyone sets out to conquer feudal Japan using samurai soldiers and peasants carrying antique firearms. The summary was that I liked it, but couldn't describe the ending because I was never able to finish a game. I even took it to GenCon and set up for a marathon 5-player game, and then one of my pinhead friends spilled a rum and coke on it. We got it cleaned up, but we didn't try to play again, probably so that I didn't throttle my friend or try to stab him with the little plastic swords.

Happily, Wizards of the Coast decided I needed another excuse to try it again, and so they reprinted the game again. (This is the second reprint. The first reprint was called Samurai Swords, and happened about 15 years ago.) They made it even more gorgeous than the first one, but used the same rules. Hey, if it ain't broke, don't fix it, I guess.

In order to differentiate the new, incredibly-gorgeous version of the game from the old, somewhat-less-gorgeous version, they renamed it Ikusa. They chose the name primarily so it would be confused with a Swedish furniture manufacturer, and it worked. When I first opened the game, I expected to see language-independent instructions and a box full of pressboard and metal screws. I was happy to see a game inside, though I still need a stylish and trendy way to store Hustler back issues.

The rules for Ikusa are pretty easy, although there will be enough of them to make you spend half an hour explaining them, and even then someone at the table will still try to assassinate your general on his first turn. If you've played any number of what the Fortress AT guys call 'dudes on a map' games, all the movement and battling and what-not will be pretty easy to follow. So if you're trying to figure out if you should buy Ikusa, then what you need to know is what makes it different from any other world conquest game.

The biggest difference between Ikusa and other land-grab battle games is that the map is very linear. Understanding how the map affects tactics and strategy is painfully important to doing well at this game, because it can be more important to hole up at either end of the map than to try and hold territories you can't reinforce. If you're stuck in the middle, you'll be fighting a two-front war, and that's rarely a very good idea. Ask the Germans how it worked out for them.

Another thing that sets Ikusa apart from the masses is the fact that you really only get three armies. You can have provincial forces, but these can be, at most, five guys, and a solid army will plow them under like a fall harvest. That means that you have to really consider defense and offense at the same time, unlike many games where the best defense is a good kick in the family jewels (in fact, you may be surprised at how often that's a good defense. Try it the next time your boss asks why you're late to work. Bet he doesn't ask that one again!). When you only have three serious threats, determining how to use them is critically important. Waste them or put them in the wrong place, and you'll be setting yourself up to fail. Or maybe get one of those nut kick defenses.

You've also got ronin, which are surprise forces that can be deployed anywhere, secretly, but only stick around for the turn you hire them. That makes it tricky to use them properly, but they can seriously turn the tide when you're worried about an opponent's aggressive stance. Throw in a ninja who can spy on your enemies or kill their generals, and you've got an exciting, old-fashioned mud-stomp of a board game.

Of course, since Ikusa is a large-scale war game, there's no way you'll finish in an hour. You might finish in three, if you're fast and someone runs away with an early lead, but you really should plan on being there a while once you set up. Everybody needs to remember to use the bathroom before the game starts, for example, and don't start if you're hungry. Under no circumstances should you allow rum and coke at the table, unless you're prepared to stab someone with an actual samurai sword. Especially if the creator of the game signed your copy less than an hour before the drink-spilling incident, and it's a 25-year-old classic collectible that is going to smell like cane sugar and booze until ants carry it out of your office so they can have a party in the box lid.

Everything about Ikusa is a visual improvement on the original Shogun, with two notable exceptions. First, the old game used to include a big styrofoam bin for storing the coins and castles and samurai and stuff. The new ones has a cardboard box. That's not as cool. Second, and this is important, there are no swords.

The original Shogun had players bidding for turn order, and if you won, you collected the first-player sword. Other players would get other swords, and the sword you had told people when you would go. There were these little stands that held the sword out in front of you. It was completely unnecessary, but totally awesome. And the new game does not have swords. It has cardboard diamonds with numbers on them. That is not as cool. In fact, I would go so far as to say that it is not cool at all.

If you have the original Shogun, or the reprint called Samurai Swords, there's not much reason to get Ikusa, outside the fact that it is incredibly easy on the eyes. The art is just plain fantastic, and the components are higher in quality than the original, but there are no differences in the rules, and the game will play exactly the same. However, if you're having trouble finding an older version of this great classic game, or if you don't mind the missing swords, then this reprint could be exactly what you need. If you want to stomp around a big map, hiring armies and spilling the blood of tiny plastic soldiers, Ikusa is one hell of a fun way to get it done.

Summary

2-5 players

Pros:
Lots of innovative additions to one of my favorite kinds of game
Just plain gorgeous
Brilliant and strategic, with all the stuff you love about war

Cons:
Linear map can punish the unlucky or unwise
I wish it still had those bitchin' swords

Need a good deal on this awesome game? I just happen to know where you can find one - Noble Knight Games!
BUY THIS AWESOME GAME

Friday, August 5, 2011

Stupid Game Review - Awkward Family Photos


Party games are the catch-all dumping ground of gaming ideas. For a long time, most of them seem to start with Apples to Apples, change two things, and publish. Seriously, how many variations of 'guess who said what' do we need?

Apparently, we need at least one more. So a bunch of guys without any good ideas got together, licensed a silly-but-entertaining website and made the Awkward Family Photos game. In this game, you'll look at pictures that are mildly amusing and then ask each other meaningful questions like, 'how can you relate to the people in this picture?' or 'what life lesson can you learn from this photo?' or 'why on Earth would you be playing this game?' (That last question is not in the game, per se, but it is implied.)

The object of Awkward Family Photos is to A) make one person laugh, and 2) guess who came up with the answers to the questions. It's a formula that has proven successful in party game after party game. It was then proven to be wearing out its welcome in several more party games. It was then beaten into the ground like a tent stake in a whole bunch more games. And now, as Awkward Family Photos employs it yet again, that formula has been shown to be stale, boring, unoriginal and not the least bit entertaining.

Now, in all fairness, there could be some fun to be had playing Awkward Family Photos. In order to actually enjoy this game, each player will need to consume a minimum of five shots of hard liquor. More may be necessary, depending on your tolerance. Once everyone is thoroughly inebriated, simply look at the cards and laugh at the confused child watching the copulating pigs. Never mind with the questions. If you can read them, you're not drunk enough, anyway.

The interesting thing about Awkward Family Photos is that the website is actually pretty entertaining. I regularly check in to that site to laugh at the photos and say, 'Ha! I used to have hair like that!' (Only on the site, those crazy 80s haircuts are worn by hillbilly grandmothers toting long-barrel six-shooters.) But a funny website does not make a good game, especially when an absolute minimum of effort went into designing it.

I can be tolerant of games that show some effort. I am OK with a person pouring hours into a game and then failing to make it awesome. I mean, I'll still say the game sucks, but I won't be as embarrassed to have it in my house. But the people who made Awkward Family Photos should be ashamed of themselves. This game is just plain dreadful. It offers absolutely no reason to exist, and worse, betrays a complete lack of originality and a shameful level of laziness. If I were involved in the production of the Awkward Family Photos game, I would change my name and move to a country without extradition treaties.

I simply cannot stress enough how thoroughly any sane human being should avoid the Awkward Family Photos game. If you want to be amused at funny pictures, go to the website. The only reason I can imagine to own a copy of this absolutely horrible game would be if you lack Internet access and just want to have these odd photographs handy. You know, just in case you find yourself very drunk.

Summary

4 to 6 drunks

Pros:
There are some fairly funny pictures in the box
The 20-sided die that comes in the box is good for tracking hit points on evil robots
Golf pencils included

Cons:
Insipid and boring
Chock full of stupid questions
Desperately unoriginal
Shows virtually no effort whatsoever

Don't buy Awkward Family Photos. Just visit the site:
http://awkwardfamilyphotos.com/

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Horrible Game Review - The Greatest Day Ever


Kids are not stupid. OK, that's not exactly right. Kids are stupid. But a kid's stupidity is generally related to things like riding his bike off the roof or lighting the curtains on fire, as opposed to not having the mental capacity to recognize when a game is blatantly lame.

Unfortunately, the people who made The Greatest Day Ever think your children are mostly brain-dead. They believe that your kids will be amused by a game that offers no interesting decisions and elects a winner based entirely on luck. This bland eyesore gives you four friends and four presents and five cards, then lets you roll dice to move in circles and see if you can land on the spaces that let you swap out your cards. If you can match your five cards to the friends and presents you've been assigned, you win! And then you can steal the gigantic die to use in a different game before you box it up and decide whether it's recyclable, or if you just have to use it to fill a dumpster.

The theme is likewise thoroughly ridiculous. The idea is that you're all enjoying a day out, meeting people and extorting them into giving you things like bicycles and lollipop monsters (in case you're wondering, a lollipop monster is a green, booger-shaped creature that offers you candy if you'll get in his car). I don't understand how that makes it the greatest day ever, because when I was young enough to be close to the target market for this game, my greatest day ever involved being a space explorer who solved mysteries and put out fires with my magical powers. It was not walking in circles while I talked to strangers.

The Greatest Day Ever has a mighty impressive claim on the side of the box. It states unequivocally that the game was designed by parents. That might seem like it would be a great idea, until you consider that you could say the same thing about any game designed by someone with children. How much do you want to bet me that someone at the design team at Rockstar Games has kids? Because if at least two of them do, then we could also point out that Grand Theft Auto was designed by parents. I don't really know, because I don't pay any attention to whether game designers have children. It's one of those things that is none of my business (at least, that's what the cops told me when they caught me outside Reiner's house with binoculars and a video camera).

I do enjoy a good game made for kids. Just last week I reviewed Connect 4 Launchers, and I loved it. Sorry Sliders is one of my favorites. I don't have any patience for Chutes & Ladders or Battleship, but I hated those games when I was eight years old. Because I wasn't stupid. Well, OK, I did get stuck in a sewer drain with a towel pinned to my back and underwear on my head, but I was able to determine that a game's outcome should have some relation to decisions I make during the game. When the only winning factor is whether you get lucky enough to beat everyone else to having the right collection of five cards, even a person prone to eating mud can see that there's not much reason to play.

I wish I could say the art was at least likable, but sadly, even there, the parents who designed this game failed completely. Kids may not be capable of determining for themselves whether they should hide candy in their sock drawers until ants overrun their homes, but they're still smart enough to recognize cool art when they see it. Transforming giant robots - cool. Superheroes in futuristic cars - cool. Dorky line art depicting overweight pizza chefs - not even remotely cool.

At this point, The Greatest Day Ever is simply a bad game made by people who should know better. If I gave games numbers in a vain attempt to quantify how much fun I have playing them, this would score very low. Like, I would need a decimal point at the beginning of the number. But the parental units who created The Greatest Day Ever wanted to drive the score into negative numbers, so one of the presents that you can get from the dubiously motivated strangers is a copy of a party game by the same publisher. I'm sure Ozzie and Harriet thought it was very educational to try to sell youngsters more of their games.

Your kids might be drooling potato-heads who can't count past ten without taking off their shoes. They might have all the common sense of a ferret with a learning disorder. But they're still not going to enjoy The Greatest Day Ever, because when it comes right down to it, the game isn't fun for anyone at the table. It's pure luck, with dorky art and a random theme. If you play this with your child, you are virtually guaranteed not to have a great day at all.

Summary

2-4 players

Pros:
The humongous die that comes in the box works great for tracking the hit points of evil robots

Cons:
Weak art
All luck with no decisions that have any real affect
Ridiculous theme
Patronizing to any kid not in a coma

Even these kids know that this is not a fun game. And they're stupid.
DUMB KIDS

Monday, August 1, 2011

Expansion Review - Thornwood Siege (Thunderstone)


It's time once again for a review from my old man. I could go into a belabored explanation about how I don't like Thunderstone, and he does, and how when he was at my house on vacation a year ago I gave him my copy of the game. And then I could explain how whenever Alderac sends me Thunderstone expansions, I box them up and mail them to my dad, so that he can write about them, because it saves me the trouble of playing a game I don't like, plus it gets me out of writing a review every now and then. I could explain all that, but it just seems like too much trouble. So I'm going to forget about that entire explanation and turn you over to my favorite (and only) guest reviewer - my dad!

The first thing I noticed as I was taking the wrappers off the cards to Thornwood Siege was the exceptional artwork. It is, in my opinion, the best yet. Dragonspire was a great step up in the Thunderstone series, but as I noted in my review of that game, it had some really awful art. (I’m still not over the green hand holding the burning seaweed that passes for a torch.) But in Thornwood’s case the artwork has reached a higher plane – there isn’t one card that makes me shudder the way Dragonspire’s torch does. The hero “Thornwood” has a picture of an archer that is inspiring – a gaming nut could want this as a poster on his wall. I could go on and on about the awesome art, but since you get the idea I’ll just leave it at that.

As I began to read the cards I noticed that in Thornwood there are a lot more cards that promote interaction among players. Well, we could say cards that promote harming, bashing, or stabbing your fellow gamers in the back. In the village you can take the Scroll of Chaos and make everyone discard a card, you take your choice of the cards, and the others get one back randomly. Yeah, pretty chaotic for those who have honed the perfect deck. (Actually, I kind of like this card – chaos in a game can be a good thing if designed well.) With the Stalking Spell you can force everyone else to enter the dungeon in their turn, which we all know could be onerous. On the other hand, The Guiding Light allows you go give everyone +1 light for one turn, so the cards aren’t all mean-spirited. I really like the greater player interaction the cards provide.

In the same vein, Thronwood cards are meant to complement one another, especially in the disease realm. If you have monsters in the dungeon that give disease – and there are more of them now – you’ll really want the Herbalist as an available hero. He’s allowed me to take some nasty cards with his advantage.

There are some really cool monsters introduced in Thronwood (and some I don’t appreciate, but more on that next paragraph). There are Verminfolk – basically rats – that give you disease when you go into the dungeon, so for those of you who like that effect, you’ll love these cards. And btw, the artwork on these guys is truly some of the best yet. One new monster feature is “Raid.” The monsters are really just guys who are taking advantage of the siege on Thornwood to take spoils from the village. When you reveal a Raider card, you have to destroy cards in the village, always either from the least expensive stack or the most expensive. If all ten of these guys come into play in a game, 32 village cards in all will be destroyed. And if the siege engines Doomsday Bombard or Stonepitcher breach, that’s four more cards, for a total of 36 cards that can just disappear. Folks, THAT’S A LOT! From my own play experience, we had several village stacks exhausted before the end of the game. (In one game we had six empty village spaces before the game finally ended.) The other feature new to the game is “Stalk”. All stalk monsters are centaurs, and they give you grief when revealed. (I’m not a fan of the centaurs, but some guys love to see the damage they bestow.) And then there’s the Abyssal Malformed. These guys could cause you some real trouble when you take them on, since you could possibly take more than one disease when you fight them. Disease can be rough in this expansion – in one game I took THREE disease in one trip into the dungeon.

But then on the other hand, I just really don’t like the siege engines, which is sad since they’re the heart of the title of this expansion. Once you get past oohing and ahhing over the artwork and start to read the cards, you just may notice one quirk they present. I don’t think they play out the theme all that well. You still have the dungeon that goes deeper and deeper into the earth, and you still need sufficient light to take on the monsters, but the siege engines somehow manage to do their damage while still in the deep dungeon. And the damage they cause is also not in keeping with the theme, as I see it. As siege engines, they should all breach to cause their damage, and the damage should be tailored to the engine on the card. The catapult is OK, IMO, but the Siege Tower causes damage only when a player goes INTO the dungeon. WHAT!?! The Siege Tower is protecting the dungeon?!? Maybe if they’d breach to cause damage they’d pass inspection, but no, these things are still in the bowels of the earth and besieging Thornwood all the same. (But the artwork is really good.) If you’re trying to see the game as a bit of a dungeon crawl, you may choke on the siege engines. If you’re just into playing a card game, this won’t bother you at all. To help understand my meaning, I jotted down the dialogue made by two guys who were playing Thornwood for the first time, and if you listen in you can grasp the problem.

(The following dialogue may be apocryphal.)

OK, so you’ve played Dominion, right?

Yeah.

Well, Thunderstone plays almost exactly like Dominion, but this game has a theme. It’s a deck-building game, but here you have a purpose. Here you play a guy who’s hiring heroes and arming them to go into a dungeon and kill these monsters that are guarding a Thunderstone – a really powerful artifact that’s been hidden for millennia. You have to go into this deep dungeon and the deeper you go the darker it gets, so you need more light. Got it?

Yeah, I got it. Let’s play.

(About 15 minutes later.)

So, I’m going into the dungeon to take on this Spike Lasher. Got the light, have enough attack points, so I take’im out. (cards shifted in dungeon) OK, a Dynamos moves into rank three.

Here, take this token so you’ll remember to discard a card beginning next turn.

Whadayamean discard a card next turn! Let me read that!

He’s stalking you, so you have to discard a card next turn.

Stalking me? He’s in the pit of the dungeon! How the hell’s he stalking me?

C’mon! It’s a deck-building game, and that’s what this card does.

Yeah, well you gave me the wrong token. This is a different centaur.

Well, the artwork is for another centaur, but the card’s effect goes to the one in the dungeon.

How do ya’ know that?? Maybe I’m supposed to get the token for the centaur on the card.

They screwed up printing the tokens, OK. Just take the damn token.

You told me this game had a theme. Well, the theme’s not working very well – how the hell is a centaur, in the pit of the dungeon, stalking anything?? This morphed cantaur’d be bangin’ his head on the ceiling just groping around.

Look here, it says in the rules, “The heroes are gathered in Wulfburg at the border of the forest,” so this expansion takes place in the forest.

So do I still need to have light to get into the higher ranks?

YES!! That’s just part of the game – you HAVE TO HAVE LIGHT, OK!

So it’s still a dungeon, any way you look at it.

Dammit! It’s just a deck-building game. Don’t get too carried away with the theme. So, I’m goin’ after the Swipepaw in rank one. Hand me a disease card, will ya’? (cards shifted in dungeon) Cool! A catapult moves into rank three.

AH, FOR CRYIN’ OUT LOUD!! So the centaur stumbles into rank two with a bleeding head and now you tell me a catapult’s in the deepest depths of the dungeon!?! What kind of a game is this!! Is it a dungeon or not!!

I keep tellin’ ya’ it’s just a deck-building game! It’s Thornwood SIEGE, OK!! So the game has to have some siege in it!

But it hasn’t even breached! You tellin’ me it’s hurlin’ crap into the village from THE DEEPEST PIT OF THE DUNGEON!?!

IT’S A DECK-BULDING GAME!! OK!! Now, I’m goin’ after the centaur! Here’s two light points and there’s the attack points. I’m taking the token.

The token with the wrong picture.

YES!! And now the next monster comin’ into the dungeon is . . . a siege tower.

(Sound of cards being slammed on the table.) AH FOR . . . WHAT!?! Are they building the siege tower in the deepest pit and then gonna push it out the mouth of the dungeon? THIS IS LUDICROUS!!

(Sound of a punch landing on human flesh.) IT’S A DECK-BULDING GAME, DAMMIT!!

Hopefully you get the idea on how some players, who appreciate theme, might react to some of the siege engines.

Enough about monsters. Some great heroes are introduced in Thornwood. The “Herbalist” actually gains attack points when facing a monster that give disease. A very clever mechanic! I especially like “Thornwood Ranger,” and not only because of his awesome art. He gets more attack points for the deeper you go into the dungeon – I like a lot of these in my deck. And I think I should give honorable mention to “Krell Warrior to become Warmaster” – since militia play prominently in this game, these guys can really kick butt.

Not a lot to say about the village cards. Of notable mention are “Village Mob,” which does some really weird stuff, but mostly I like the concept – pretty cool. My favorite village card, which elicited a guffaw when I first saw it, is “Unicorn Steaks”. A fairly powerful card – much more so than Iron Rations – and helps explain the extinction of the unicorn.

Now for one complaint that some might find a bit silly, but I think Thunderstone expansions are past the need for the full-size box to hold 284 cards. There are a lot of other card games that have over 100 cards and come in a compact box. When you open Thornwood, the first thing that should strike you is how empty the box is, unless you count all the foam dividers. Hey, AEG! Everyone who buys Thornwood, or any other expansions to follow, already owns either Thunderstone or Dragonspire or both! You say right in the Overview that it requires one of those two games. No one needs yet ANOTHER box to clutter their closet, OK? I agree that the price for the game is reasonable, but if you packaged it in a simple box holding the cards, couldn’t you cut the price by a couple dollars?

Summary

Pros:
Exceptional art; the best yet – kudos to all of you on the art team!
Some great new concepts.
Greater player interaction.
Inspired deck-building options – they integrate well together.

Cons:
The siege cards don’t actually fit the theme all that well. Not a problem if you don’t care about the theme.
Enough over-sized boxes for expansions, already. They’re not necessary.

Apart from my negative comments, this is a great addition to Thunderstone, and if you own the base game, you’ll love this expansion. (You don’t have to use the siege engines, but then it wouldn’t be Thornwood SIEGE, would it?)

You can get Thornwood Siege at Noble Knight Games:

THORNWOOD SIEGE