Monday, December 31, 2007

Board Game Review - Tannhäuser

The marketing guy at Fantasy Flight has been really hard to reach since the middle of December. Last week, I had to actually break down and buy a game. Well, technically, my wife said I could buy Tannhäuser if I would recaulk the tub and replace the kitchen sink. And since I was going to have to replace the sink and caulk the tub anyway, I figured what the heck, I would get something out of it.

Tannhäuser is not an American game, but it sure does feel like it. It fits all the criteria for being American - it's ridiculously violent and has a ludicrous amount of luck. It has as much theme and backstory as something like Last Night on Earth or Descent, which is typical of an American game, but it's actually created by French people. And apparently, these French people are still a little sore about that last big war, because the Germans in Tannhäuser are real douchebags.

The story of Tannhäuser is that World War I never ended, because the Germans found some arcane artifacts and used them to make some of their troopers super-powered. Then the Allies (later known as the Union) found some artifacts at Area 57, and so they had some gnarly dudes, too. And then demons started corrupting Nazis, at which point one entire group of Reich troopers acquired demon taints. They probably should have washed more often (yes, that was a crude joke, and no, I won't explain it to you).

Tannhäuser is like many of my favorite games in that it is not so much a game as it is a box of toys with rules. There are ten pre-painted plastic miniatures and a beautifully-illustrated, double-sided game board. The art in the game is fantastic, like it had just jumped out of a really screwed-up comic book. There are apocalyptic demonic bodyguards, monstrous shock troopers, and lots of heroic good guys. And then, because I intend to bring this up as often as possible, there are the troopers with demon taints. The trooper in the game with the demon taint has one glowing red hand, probably from scratching his demon taint.

Tannhäuser uses a crazy movement and LOS scheme called the Pathfinder system. They called it that because there's a path, and you find it, and the guys that made the game are great at coming up with scary Nazis and cool stories, and completely unoriginal when it comes to naming what amounts to a bunch of well-placed colored circles. If your figure is on a red circle, he can see every other figure standing on a red circle, and if he's on a circle with half red and half green, he can see both red and green paths. Typically, that guy will be standing in a doorway or something, rather than having been ripped in half and placed on two different circles (probably by someone who was testy from having a very itchy demon taint).

Combat in Tannhäuser is a dicey affair, and when I say it's dicey, that's because you're going to roll a whole lot of dice. The attacker (probably one of those damned Nazis) fires his gun at a noble and brave Union trooper by rolling a number of dice equal to his combat score. Every die that's at least as high as the trooper's stamina score is a hit. Then the trooper rolls his shock roll to try to blow off the damage - he rolls as many dice as his stamina, and has to beat the Nazi's combat score. Every success cancels one hit.

This combat mechanic is fun, and highly cinematic, but it is wildly unpredictable. Attacks could generate five wounds, and then have every one of them canceled. Then the next attack will generate three wounds, and the defender won't block a single one. The defender will often be rolling more dice that the attacker and have a lower target number, meaning that the odds of defending are actually higher than the odds of successfully attacking. That, in my opinion, is an oversight in game design, and removes a great deal of strategy from the game by reducing much of the battle to luck. It's still fun, but it's not really a contest of wits as much as a fun way to shoot Nazis.

To improve your odds of actually killing a Nazi bastard, every character in the game has a bunch of different special tokens. These tokens give the character anything from super-powerful machine guns to evil mind-bending powers. There's even one token that gives the demon-touched troopers their demon taint (yeah, I had to work it in again). You can customize your characters by swapping out their tokens, so you could give the dynamite nut a knife instead of a first aid kit.

Tannhäuser comes with four different game types. You've got the most basic deathmatch mode, where you equip your soldiers and just do your best to shoot holes in the other team. The story mode has you maneuvering around the board, trying to fulfill objectives like stealing plans and sending secret telegrams. The capture-the-flag mode and the domination mode are very similar, and both place more importance on positioning and maneuvering than flat-out shooting.

There are tons of pieces in a box of Tannhäuser. There are ten figures, which I mentioned before, and while the paint jobs could be better, they're still really awesome figures. There are ten character cards to go with the figures, plus more than a half dozen cardboard circles for every character. There are a dozen or so crates, a few dozen objectives, eight flags, and ten victory point counters. The upside is that FFG knows there are a lot of pieces to keep straight, so they include a bunch of little plastic bags to hold all those different parts. Of course, I still ended up using a dozen sandwich bags on top of the ones in the box.

I end up saying this about a lot of games - Tannhäuser is not for everyone. It is not a game that you play to see who has more skill at tactical maneuvering. You don't get to gloat after a game of Tannhäuser, because there is a very good chance that your dice did all the work. If you want a game where the skilled player beats the rookie most of the time, go play Othello. Tannhäuser is not that game.

On the other hand, if you want to tell a story, Tannhäuser might be just the thing. If you like playing games like HeroQuest and Last Night on Earth, this might be just the thing for you. The final resolution of the game is less important than the game that gets you there. You can almost hear the machine-gun chatter and screams in frantic German, the commando leader shouting, 'Go! Go! Go!' as he vaults over a pile of rubble and unloads his experimental machine gun at the mutant bodyguard covered in pulsing, glowing, unholy tattoos. When I play a game where I can almost smell the gunpowder and feel the sickly chill of the opening portal to Hell, I don't care if I win. I just want to play again, because I want to use the freaky metal skull to light another hero of the Union on fire from the inside, then cackle madly as I run away into a cloud of smoke.

I have heard from a lot of people who really don't like Tannhäuser. I don't want to make you want this game if you don't know what you're getting. I love Tannhäuser, and can't wait to play it again, but I caution anyone thinking of buying this game to keep in mind that there's not much contest here. You play so you can live out a thrilling battle in a crazy alternate past, look at the killer miniatures and fantastic art, and scream, 'Die, Nazi bastard!'

And look out for the guy with the demon taint. No standard bottle of topical cream is going to take care of that problem.


Fantastic theme
Great art
Cool prepainted minis
Fast game play
Fun rules
Different game modes

A whole lot of luck
Not really a contest

Tannhäuser is a blast if you like story games. If you want a copy, go get it here:

Saturday, December 29, 2007

Board Game Review - Ringgz

Abstract games are like Reiner games, but honest. See, in a Reiner game, you have a nifty mechanic that (often) works really well, and a generic theme that is usually so weak you could replace it with glue-sniffing monkeys. Abstract games, on the other hand, have absolutely no theme at all - they live and die by their mechanic. If a Reiner game is boring, it can sell because a publisher puts a bunch of pretty art on it. If an abstract game is boring, it just sucks.

This no-frills approach to game design makes reviewing abstract games a lot easier, unless you take a particular delight in making jokes about the games, in which case there's really not much to work with. I can't point and laugh at bad art or goofy characters if there are no characters or art. I'm not even sure what to mock, because Ringgz isn't even German. The publisher is French, but has made a game with no luck and no killing, so I can't make fun of that. If the game designer had been Italian, I might find some joke about spaghetti bolognese and drinking too much, but I'm not even sure how that would relate. Honestly, the only thing that's mockable about Ringgz is the name, and that's too easy. So do me a favor and laugh like I just told a joke about retarded prostitutes and hillbilly narcotics, and I'll talk about the game.

Ringgz is thoroughly abstract. There's a blue board with white dots on it, and each player gets a handful of rings and discs. There are four different sizes of rings, plus a big disc, and each player gets three of each in their color. The object of the game is to grab spots on the board and block your opponents from getting them.

So how this plays out is that you put down a colored ring, and then your opponents can each put down a ring. Since there are four sizes of rings, you could actually each place a ring on the same dot. But if you do, nobody can score that spot, because the point for the spot goes to the player with the most rings there. You have to have a majority or nobody gets it.

The trick to Ringgz is blocking your opponents. The game starts off by putting a disc down that has each of the four colors, and from then on, you can only put a ring or disc onto a dot if you have one of your colors adjacent to that dot. So if you put down a colored disc, it fills the whole dot, and nobody can score that dot. And better yet, you're the only one who can place rings past that dot, because now you're the only one who can match the color.

You have to be a little careful when you place those blockers. You can't put a blocker disc next to another blocker disc, and you only get three, so it can be tough to completely block out your opponents. Sooner or later you're going to run out, and while you've been building walls, those tricky bastards have been placing rings, and now they're behind your little barricade and they have all the points covered. And since you've been hiding in the back, all the juicy spots in the middle of the board are taken, and you're stuck trying to get just one more ring when your opponents are all drinking champagne and laughing about your misfortune.

Games of Ringgz tend to be pretty close. It's not unusual to have them end in ties. You'll see the final score in a four-player game end up 4 to 4 to 3 to 3. Not a wide spread. I don't usually think that's very good, but it is rather typical in an abstract game.

One neat thing about Ringgz is that the board and rings are all cut from wood and painted in bright colors. And the company that makes the game, Blue Orange Games, plants two trees every time one is used to make the game. Now, unless you're a real tree-hugger, that's not a good reason to buy a game, but for those of us who are addicted to breathing, it is nice that someone is paying attention. Of course, those crazy game-publishing hippies are probably clearing acreage to grow weed, but the thought is nice anyway. Maybe it's all medicinal.

Ringgz is a decent game, if you like abstracts. You can play in ten minutes, and it's great for your non-gaming family, because the rules are simple and the pieces are nice. Plus no theme means no possible reason for your Bible-thumping cousin to ask you if you know what's going to happen to you when you die. I'm not about to plan parties just to break it out, but I still play it every now and then.


Extremely nice pieces
Easy game to learn and play
Clever strategy with lots of options

Short games leave you wishing there was just a little more depth
Every game is close, because there just aren't that many ways to win

Ringgz is a decent game, especially if you like abstracts. If you want it, you can get it here:

Friday, December 28, 2007

Board Game Review - Dungeon Twister

It's funny how much you can tell about a country by its board games. Take America, for instance - our games are usually intensely violent, and they usually take place someplace really silly, like in a future overrun by monsters or a fake planet ruled by evil dragons. Or take Germany, where the games are almost completely non-violent and often rather dull. You can almost picture the German game designers wearing a lot of drab colors and complaining about their mothers. And then you've got the French.

French people are just plain weird. Their games are all over the map when it comes to violence and game play - some games are so bloody, they make Risk look like Chutes & Ladders. Some games have so much luck, you might as well roll the dice, compare results, declare a winner and play something else. Some games are so completely twisted you wonder why French children don't decorate their bedrooms with human ears.

Dungeon Twister is a weird damned game. The premise is that you're locked with a team of dungeon crawlers in a dungeon created by the Archmage. The Archmage gets a kick out of watching you try to get out. So far, this is practically a Hollywood movie. Except that your opponent's team is made up of the same exact people. And the dungeon is made up of a bunch of rooms that were designed by a hamster architect that had been injecting absinthe directly into its little brain. And the freaking rooms spin.

You can also tell that Dungeon Twister is French because there's no randomizing element anywhere. You each get a deck of cards, but you can choose when to play them. This would make it a Euro game, but since the theme of the game is to kill the bejeezus out of a bunch of other people, it has to be French. No German ever would have thought of this. Any more, German people only think of games with lots of math and no killing. German exports tend to be exciting recreations of farming or delivering mail.

Speaking of cards, Dungeon Twister has a painfully cool card mechanic. On your turn, to determine how many times you can act, you play one of four cards - 2, 3, 4 or 5. You get that many actions. If you want your troll to move three times then club a goblin in the face, you'll need four actions. If you just want your fighter to pick up a shield and walk away with it, you only need two. Once you've played one of those number cards, you can't get it back until you've played all four, so you have to really think ahead. Can you get by with just spinning a tile right now, to make sure you've got enough to make a cannonball run later? Or do you need to strike now, killing two or three foes with a collection of fireballs, blades and traps, then be hamstrung when your opponent makes his counterattack?

Combat is another exercise in card management. Every character has a fight value, and when two dungeon-crawlers fight, you compare those values, and the higher value wins. You can each add one combat card to the fight, which will get you anywhere from 1 to 6 extra points of whoop-ass. But you lose that card for the rest of the game, so you may want to gamble that your opponent is going low, or if you think you're going to lose anyway, play your +0, which comes back to your hand after you play it.

There are lots of little rules to Dungeon Twister, mainly associated with the characters and items in the game. The thief can cross a pit trap by getting all acrobatic, and the mage can fly over the top of it, but the cleric needs a rope. The thief can also unlock a gate, while the fighter can just bash it open. The wall-walker can step right through walls, which can save lots of time, but the goblin can go the long way around and still beat her, especially if he drinks a speed potion. And for your dose of French bizarre, there's an orc mechanic who can spin tiles the wrong way, because God knows you can't have a fantasy game without a demihuman with an engineering degree.

The end result of all these minute factors is that Dungeon Twister can result in very lengthy turns, where you spend like five minutes planning a turn that will take you thirty seconds to execute. Your thought patterns will sound a little like this:

"OK, I could run the goblin up to the treasure chest, block with the troll and then spin the back room. I need five actions for all that... let's see if I can do just three actions, and forget the spinning. Wait, I know, for three I could move the cleric next to the wizard, but I can't heal... Maybe I'll just move the orc to here and spin that room backwards, which will let the wallwalker get past the pit trap - but the rope is only one more action away, so maybe I'll play the four... "

Meanwhile, your opponent's thought process sounds like this:


Until it's his turn, and then he sounds like this:

"Hmmm, with my mage dead, I don't need the fireball wand, so I could play the three and get... "

If you like to plan a strategy about five turns in advance, and if you like to try to guess what your opponent will do, Dungeon Twister should be right up your alley. The art is really fun, and the theme is thicker than a French man's body odor. On the other hand, if you want your games to move really fast, or if you like a little element of chance, you probably want to skip right past Dungeon Twister and play something with dice.

I really like Dungeon Twister. Maybe it's because I like all the planning and maneuvering, and maybe it's just because I'm like one sixteenth French (which is why I get to mock the French. But then, I'm not any part German, and I mock Germans, so go figure). But I can tell you from playing some people who hated the game that it's not for everyone, so if you're not sure if this sounds fun, just pick up the base game and try it out before you buy the expansions.

If you do like Dungeon Twister, the expansions can really broaden the game. The three/four player expansion is pretty much a reprint of the two-player game, but with rules that let you add more people. The other expansions are much more interesting, and add new characters, dungeon tiles, equipment and other wacky stuff, because you probably need more things to consider when you're trying to trim your turn down to a very reasonable hour and a half. Then you've got the expansion that's just unpainted miniatures, but I don't see any reason to buy that at all.

In the end, Dungeon Twister brings home one important point in board games: Americans are violent, Germans are boring, and French people are weird.


Deep game play rewards careful planning
Great art
Funny (but odd) theme
No luck anywhere

Turns can drag when players can't make up their minds
No luck anywhere

There's a whole lot of Dungeon Twister stuff, including lots of expansions, and you can get them here:

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Board Game Review - HeroCard: Nightmare

I could get used to game companies coming up with cool ideas. Last week I talked about how Red Juggernaut is putting every game in the same game world, which is a cool idea, but way before Red Juggernaut was giving funny names to awesome games, TableStar Games had a different cool concept for a game company.

TableStar Games makes the HeroCard line of games. Every one of these games is actually two games in one. Each HeroCard game combines a sort of dueling card game mechanic with a board game. The dueling thing is the same every time, but every board game is totally different. The dueling part can be used in every other game, so you could take a character deck from Cyberspace, mix in some cards from Rise of the Shogun, and use that deck in Nightmare. I'm not sure why you would do that - it would be mighty odd to have a hacker using samurai moves to escape a bad dream - but the point is, you can do it.

Before I get into the Nightmare part of this game, I'll go into a little more depth about the HeroCard mechanic. Each player in a HeroCard game plays a different character with three attributes - body, mind and X. Yeah, the last one is called X, because it changes for every game. The label is irrelevant, though. What matters is the score for each attribute, because when you play cards to attack or block, their cost can't add up past their associated attribute score.

It's a little complicated to explain, but if you play it you'll see that it's really not that hard. Each duel is essentially attacks and blocks, and the player with the higher total wins that duel. What that means changes for every game. Basically, the HeroCard duel just determines winners and losers, with varying consequences for winning or losing.

The HeroCard part of the game has considerably more depth than you might imagine at first. Once you play a card, it stays in play (but inactive) until you clear it. You can only clear three cards, and even then it has to be your turn, so if you fill up all your slots attacking, you won't have room for any defense. And different decks specialize in different things - you might have a deck with a decent number of tough nut-kick attacks, or you might have weak base attacks and devastatingly tricky modifiers. You might be able to clear cards out of turn, or you might be able to force opponents to put out worthless cards that clog up their attribute scores. There's a lot of strategy and forethought that goes into playing a decent deck.

So now I'll switch topics like a schizophrenic off his meds, and discuss Nightmare. In this game, everyone is trapped inside the same dream, and a magic camera has shown everybody what dream stuff is going to kill them. Like a dream zombie might take you out in the dream lake, or a dream cultist might kill you in the dream cabin. You can't be killed by the dream coyote in a dream desert, but then, neither could Dream Road Runner.

The trick is that only one dreamer gets to wake up. If you want to be the dreamer that wakes up, you have to make sure the other dreamers get killed. But to do that, you have to find out what killer is going to get each player, and where. You do this by finding out what scares the other dreamers.

So what ends up happening is that you rearrange the dream to set up test scenarios by moving the dreamer, the killers and the scenes, then see if you can make everyone reveal what frightens them. If you can win a HeroCard duel, everyone who is scared of the killer at the current location has to admit to being frightened. If you know what scares a particular dreamer, you can attack them directly, and if you win, they die.

There are four different character decks in Nightmare, and I would like to have a talk with whoever thought these were a good idea. In order to win, you have to make sure the other dreamers die, but these dreamers are some cutthroat sons of bitches if they can go through with this. For instance, one of the dreamers is a girl, one is her boyfriend, and one is her dad. Now, as a father myself, I can completely understand why the dad wants to see a zombie eat the boyfriend's face, but I'm a little unclear on why the daughter wants to kill her dad, and why the dad wants to kill his little girl. I guess I'm reading too much into the game, but it seems to me that the person they should all want to kill is the crazy witch who owns the camera who trapped them all in the first place. Maybe I'm just old-fashioned, but if it comes down to me killing my daughter to survive, I'm throwing in the towel.

Plus some of the card art is downright goofy. The boyfriend, Deon, has more than one card where his eyes are open so wide he looks like he's been freebasing cocaine all night long. Will, the dad, is wearing mirrored shades and sporting a beard straight out of the WWF. Aisling, the daughter, has a card called Malice, which shows her tearing up a picture of her old man. Maybe Will is a real dick, and that's why she wants a leviathan to eat him. Of course, they all have good reason to hate Isis, especially because she looks like she just jumped off the set of a silent porn movie from 1920.

OK, so I'm a little hard on the art and the theme. Maybe I'm just bitter because my own daughter said she wouldn't play when she found out she had to kill her dad (and maybe I'm grateful, and should quit complaining before she changes her mind and pays me a midnight vision with a Menendez-brother shotgun). In all honesty, the game is pretty cool. It's a little like Clue, because you're trying to figure out who is scared of what without revealing your own weakness. There's bluffing, deception and deduction, plus some handy card play. Then it's a little like a CCG, with good hand management and deck-building. Then it's a little like a Nightmare on Elm Street movie, but instead of getting sucked through your bed in a spray of blood that repaints the ceiling, you just put down your cards and walk away from the table.

The best thing I can say about HeroCard: Nightmare is not to praise its cool plastic figures, smooth game play or brilliant graphic design. I could tell you how it gets all tricky and tense, but that's not the best thing I could say, either. The best thing I could tell you about Nightmare is that I would very much like to play it again, and the best thing I can tell you about the HeroCard mechanic is that Nightmare made me want to try all the other games in the series. In fact, I'll be emailing the guys at TableStar for more games right after I post this review. Hopefully they won't be too mad at the fact that I thought Deon kind of looked like he should be wearing a padded helmet and a spit cup, or that Will looks like somebody Hulk Hogan beat up in 1986, or that Isis looks like she got kicked out of a Charlie Chaplin movie.


Really cool interchanging duel mechanic
Tricky and strategic game play
Groovy theme

Card art makes all the characters look like they have Down's Syndrome
Odd character relationships (which happily have nothing to do with the game itself)

I wouldn't say Nightmare is my new favorite game, but I do want to play it again, and I really want to try some of the other HeroCard games. If you want to play, get yourself a copy here:

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Board Game Review - Condottierre

On the very cusp of Christmas, I figured it would be nice to consider the family. You're going to be spending some time around some people who might irritate the hell out of you, and you could be there a while. You might start jonesing for a game, and not be able to round up a game group for some Risk 2210. You know that crotchety aunt who always smells like filterless cigarettes and farts at the dinner table? She's not going to play Last Night on Earth. Ever.

So I had a few criteria for picking out a game to play with your family when you're stuck with them.

1. Lots of players. The game has to go over the traditional four players, but it has to be playable with only two. Because sometimes you're going to be stuck in a corner with that nerdy cousin who can't catch a football, and sometimes both sets of in-laws are going to want to play so they can snipe each other with veiled insults.

2. Neutral theme. Zombies, world domination and dungeon quests might be great fun, but they're no good when you want to play a game with your kids' grandmother, the one who always pinches their cheeks and offers them hard candy. The game has to have a theme that doesn't make anyone in your family question your soul's final destination.

3. Easy game play. Sure, you can wade through a 20-page rule book, but you like games. Your half-drunk father-in-law isn't going to read anything longer than the sports page. If you can't explain the rules to your hyperactive nephew before he lights something else on fire, forget it.

4. Still fun, even with 1, 2 and 3. I can reel off a handful of games I've played at family gatherings, and lots of them suck. And even if I once loved them, after I sit through them for the tenth time with a room full of people I moved half a continent to avoid, I tend to want to either wrap them in chains and drop them into a lake or soak them in gasoline and use them to burn down my house. And by 'them' I mean the games, not the people. Please don't burn your family and drop them in a lake.

For this review, I settled on Condottierre. I don't know anything about the FFG reprint, but from what I've seen, it looks like the same game. My copy predates that one by several years.

Condottiere takes place in Renaissance Italy. For those of you who don't have a background in Italian Renaissance history, this was a time of huge upheaval and turmoil in Italy. The city-states were always haggling, dealing, backstabbing and invading each other. They were making deals, breaking them, and warring like crazy.

Enter the condottieri. These mercenary leaders were smart, tough and powerful. They would start off fighting for the various cities, but would eventually take over. The Medici and Strozzi families are two of the most prominent legacies founded by mercenaries who decided to make Italy home. And in all likelihood, your Uncle Mervyn doesn't give a flying rat's ass about Italian history, and just wants you to tell him how to play before he unbuttons his pants and falls asleep in front of the television.

Each player is a condottiere, leading a mercenary army to try to unite Italy. You'll lead your armies around the board, committing troops where you think they're needed and backing away from fights you can't win. The board shows Italy divided into 17 provinces. To win, you have to own four contiguous provinces. Up to six condottieri can play, and you can generally finish a game in 45 minutes.

When you boil it all down, Condottiere is a bidding game. At the top of every round, you'll get a handful of cards. These cards are mostly mercenary warriors of varying strengths, and you'll use these cards to try to win battles and seize provincial capitals. In addition to the mercenary cards, there are several special cards - scarecrows, drums, bishops, surrenders, winters and heroines. Each modifies the battle in play.

Battles are played out as sequences of card play. The mercenary cards are all numbered, so if you play a 3 and Grandma plays a 4, she's winning the city. If your brother-in-law passes, he's out of the fight, and he's probably a wiener anyway, because he's compensating for something with that expensive convertible. If your usually-inattentive cousin stops picking his navel long enough to play a Bishop card, however, it doesn't matter that Granny's winning, because the bishop declares amnesty and makes the battle end without resolving a winner.

Other cards can modify a battle. For instance, winter means every card counts for 1 point, regardless of strength, unless you can add a heroine, because she's worth 10 points whether it's snowing or not. Drums double the points for all your mercs, and scarecrows are worthless, but they let you stay in the battle and still hold onto your really good cards. Plus they keep the crows away, which is important when you're trying to grow corn (maybe not as useful when you're fighting a battle).

The real kick in the pants is that everyone involved in a fight loses all their cards when the fight ends, so if you blow all your cards to take a place you really want, you'll be standing around with your pecker in your hand when the battle is for your home city (and that weird half-retarded cousin who keeps hitting everyone with his football helmet will wonder aloud why you've got your pants off). The round doesn't end until there's only one guy with cards, so if you get too aggressive early on, you don't get more cards for a long time. But then, if you don't fight when it counts, it won't matter that you have lots of cards, because the round will end before you get the chance to play.

Condottiere is a very easy game to explain and play, which is nice, because God knows your spasmodic cousin can't pay attention long enough otherwise. Come to think of it, she might be better off watching the Spongebob marathon, but good luck telling her that.

I've played Condottiere with lots of different groups. It's perfect for family, because nobody can object to history, and there are no goblins or robots. The art in my version is fantastic, though I suspect Fantasy Flight is going to give it a modern look instead of the cool faux-Renaissance look the original publishers put on it. It's easy enough to play that you can get your extended family to give it a try between games of Pinochle, and engaging enough that you can enjoy it.

In other words, Condotierre is a good holiday game, especially when your family is a bunch of misfits. And you know they are. Don't bother to deny it.


Quick card play
Easy rules
Interesting theme

A little thin for the gamer who wants a challenge, but perfect for non-gamer company

You can get Condottiere here, and if you pay extra, you might even get it before everyone finally gets out of your house:

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Old Game Review - Car Wars

In 1981, we were all pretty sure that we were going to die in a nuclear holocaust. Mad Max wasn't fiction, it was prophecy. There was little doubt that Ronnie Raygun was going to make one joke too many and the Red Menace was going to drop the Big One right on our collective ground-zero faces.

And as gamers, we couldn't wait.

See, if nukes destroyed 90% of the world, that meant the other 10% was going to be the coolest dog-eat-dog slaughterfest ever imagined. We would all drive cars with guns under the hood and shoot rockets at each other from our roving battlestations in the back of semi trailers. Plus maybe the world would be populated by talking animals who knew kung-fu (but that was an entirely different game).

And since we were so excited about the idea of global apocalypse, Steve Jackson made a game for us, and he called it Car Wars. In this bleak future, starvation and destruction have reduced society to a collection of small outposts against total anarchy. Autodueling is America's new sport, and even the ambulances have linked machine guns in turrets. Roving biker gangs stalk the highways that stretch for empty miles between walled truck stops.

In other words, it's awesome.

Car Wars is a tactical recreation of a car fight. Cars have armor, machine guns, lasers, rockets, smoke screens, mine layers, and a whole bunch of other weapons of automobile destruction. Each turn is a second long, broken into ten phases that are .01 seconds long. The average autoduel is over inside a minute, so you better have your finger on the trigger, because if you blink, you'll miss the whole thing.

The rules for Car Wars are fairly involved. You track armor damage for each side of the car, ammo depletion, acceleration, cruising speed, and handling class. Making a simple lane change can involve two die rolls, and even more are required if someone is shooting at you. Try to fire a rocket while you're making a right turn and you could spend the next five minutes rolling dice and checking tables.

On the other hand, if you can look past the time it takes to scratch your ass and check your rearview, Car Wars is a pretty cool game. It feels very much like an accurate reenactment of a moving battle. It sacrifices playability for that accuracy, but in 1981, we didn't have very many games with simple rules. We had bookshelf games with rules sheets full of 8-point type in three columns, organized into structured outlines that would make your eyes bleed after twenty minutes. By comparison, Car Wars was a child's game.

Another thing that made Car Wars awesome was the way you could make your own cars. You could make a big cargo van with a flamethrower in the turret and a laser gun that shot out the back bumper. You could make a convertible that dropped land mines out the exhaust and fired an anti-tank gun from under the hood. You could make motorcycles with side cars, and later expansions even let you make helicopters. Customizing was a blast, and you could spend a whole night figuring out how to balance your acceleration with that last point of armor.

The greatest thing about the 1981 version of Car Wars was that it was cheaper than used dirt. It came in a little plastic box that was about the size of a postcard, and all the map pieces were gray-and-black grids with pictures of roads on them. The game actually suggested you make your own maps. Can you see today's spoiled-rotten preteens stealing a pad of graph paper to spend four hours creating an autoduel arena? Hell, I can't get my seventh-grader to quit playing Club Penguin long enough to finish his art homework.

The car counters were hilarious. They were light cardstock and came in one big sheet that you had to cut out by hand. They all showed a vehicle from the top down. My favorites were the pedestrians - little cardstock counters that were smaller than a thumbnail, with just enough detail to tell that they were wearing cheesy armor and carrying shotguns.

Breaking open Car Wars for this review gave me a mix of nostalgia and gratitude. Nostalgia because I remember spending whole Saturdays playing out autoduels that never lasted more than a minute in game time, but hours in real time, then calculating repair costs and salvage I could get from enemy vehicles. I remember how Car Wars lit up my imagination, making me expand it into a pseudo-RPG so I could play it with a couple buddies, until we all got bored and wandered off to read comic books or talk about girls.

But those nostalgic memories are mixed with a sense of relief. If we had this game today, you couldn't sell it if you didn't give us little plastic cars. The map would have to be full-color illustration, and we would need large cards with counters to track everything. And there would have to be simple rules for those of us who only have an hour to set up and play a game, and it would have to move fast enough to keep today's ADHD video-game addicts occupied long enough to forget about chatting on their cell phones.

When I think about how cool it would be to have a modern update to this game, with a variety of pre-painted cars and 12mm pedestrians, three-dimensional terrain and colorful game boards, I get all excited about Car Wars again. I want to rumble in an autoduel with clean rules and fast-moving game play. Hopefully Fantasy Flight Games would make it. Hell, they brought back Mutant Chronicles, they could bring back Car Wars.

But then, if we saw a redone Car Wars, it would make me realize how slow and unattractive the original was. Car Wars was really a very good game, but it catered to a completely different gamer than the guys who complain about Heroscape turns taking too long with roborats. I want to remember all the lazy Sundays spent recreating city-wide battles in Midville, not how you could run to the bathroom while your opponent took his turn and still get back before he had finished his own movement.

Car Wars was fun. I am glad I have my old copy, along with Sunday Drivers, Truck Stop and a couple other expansions. I like to open up the closet now and then and flip through the stuff I have for the game, pour the counters out on the table, choose the coolest-looking cars and lay out the map of Midville. And then I like to put it all back in the closet, pull out Last Night on Earth and see if I can get someone in my family to play the zombies.


Rules felt very accurate
Incredibly affordable for its day
Absolutely magnificent theme
Great customization rules

Paper maps and cardstock counters
Silly 80s art
Slow game play

I couldn't give you the first clue where you could pick up a copy of Car Wars. It's been out of print since the fall of the Berlin Wall let us start thinking that maybe we weren't going to die at ground zero.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Board Game Review: Battue

New game companies spring up all the time, and lots of them suck. Lots of them have a crappy site and two really dumb games. The worst is when they make party games, because there are like four party game ideas that work, and about 200 that don't. How many adults sit around with drinks thinking, 'you know what would make this gathering great? If we could try to guess movie titles by drawing pictures of stuff we make out of clay, and then something could make a loud noise!'

But sometimes those new game companies are ten pounds of kick-ass in a five-pound bag. Sometimes they've got an idea so cool, you hope they're around for the next fifty years, especially if they'll keep sending you review copies. Sometimes those companies are like Red Juggernaut.

Red Juggernaut was founded by a few guys who used to work for WizKids and got sick of it. Ask Jim Long, the president of Red Juggernaut, about Clix games, and he'll tell you about how they used to destroy tons of plastic to artificially inflate rareness, or how the CMG format went from a cool idea to 'hey kid here's some candy'. So these guys know the industry, and they know what's cool.

And what's cool is having every game be based in the same fantasy world. Not like an RPG, where everything is a sourcebook, until they're reduced to doing books about character options for half-elf magic fighters with acne on their genitals, but like where one game is about sacking a city in that world, and another game is what the nobles play in the imperial court. That's cool. And what's even cooler is when those games rock your pants off.

Battue is a funny name for a game, really. It sounds like I sneezed. But I don't even care what the name is, because it's fake-language-ese for 'sweet frikkin game.' That, or it's what they call it when a bunch of horse-riding raiders descend on a poorly-defended city and rape, pillage and plunder their way to the palace.

Each player in Battue is leading his own horde of horsemen as they assault the city of Tarsos. The horse lords are all competing to get the most loot out of the razing of the city, because the best raider gets to be king of all the horsey clans. There are four different colors of horses, and you wander the city with hordes of warriors, seize locations in the city, and ransack them for treasure. There's no chance of the defenders fending off the attackers - that's never going to happen. Instead of playing out the siege, you're playing out the fun part, when you run around and steal anything that's not nailed down.

The exploration of the city is a blast, because the city is actually made up of a whole damned bunch of building tiles that look like they escaped from Tetris. These pieces start out upside down, and when you attack one, you get to find out if you just sent a half-dozen warriors into a brothel full of hot Tarsonian hookers, or if you can kiss those six guys goodbye because they're about to have the elite city guard clean a toilet with their heads.

You can tell Battue is an American game because there are tons of cards. Every time you raid a neighborhood, there's a good chance you'll draw a bunch of loot cards, and there's no max hand size. These cards can make battles go your way, they can hose your opponents, or maybe they just get you paid. And if you're really lucky, you can capture the Emperor's niece. I'm not making that up - you can do that. It's awesome.

There are event cards that can kick you in the jimmy, too, or they can be a big help. You might flip a tile just to find out that the 15th Legion was waiting for you, and they would like to find out if you can breathe through your forehead. Or maybe the card is great, and bunch of your opponent's horse warriors decide to start working for you. These cards keep the game pretty chaotic, but they sure do make it fun.

The game takes off slow, but it snowballs fast because of those loot cards. Since there's no maximum hand size, you can be holding a dozen cards going into a key fight, and use them to run roughshod over the defenders to claim a swift victory. Only your opponents probably also have a bunch of those cards, and they can stop you. In the end, the game rewards good play, but still relies heavily on luck. One bad card early on can take you out of the running, but one good card can get you back into the game.

It's not hard to tell that Red Juggernaut is a new company. They're obviously lacking some of the production experience of guys like FFG or Avalon Hill. The building tiles in Battue all have a thin gloss coating, and I had a bunch of them flake before I even played my first game. The plastic horse warriors are great sculpts, unless you look at them head-on, and then they kind of look like mules. Some of the design decisions look like they were made by an artist who specializes in package design for flashlights, not playing cards for board games. And an awful lot of the art is semi-generic computer art.

But it's not hard to overlook the production flaws with a game this fun. When you set up the board, start flipping buildings, watch your riders drop like flies, and then finally build a horde to make Genghis Khan proud, you won't care if all the art looks expensive. What really matters here is that this is one hell of a fun game.


Intensely fun game of pillage and plunder
Lots of cool plastic
Exciting theme
Great, chaotic entertainment

A little too much luck
First-game-blues production values

Battue kicks ass, and you should buy it. I hope that's not too ambiguous.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Board Game Review - Last Night on Earth

Boy, do I love zombie movies. You can talk all you want about the 'greater message' delivered by zombie movies, where they show how people can be worse monsters than the monsters, or the ecological morality plays, or how people are all zombies and you can't always tell the difference. But the real reason I love zombie movies is because they're like a super-extreme episode of Survivor. Only instead of getting voted off the island, a zombie eats your face.

I've played a few zombie games, but they tend to miss the point. They lack the zombie movie's 'normal people survive horrible scenario' that you get in most zombie movies. When surviving a zombie apocalypse turns into a tile-laying fiasco or a shopping spree, I just can't really get behind it. The first zombie game I've played that really captures the feel of a zombie movie is Last Night on Earth, from Flying Frog Productions.

For me and many of my friends, GenCon 2007 was the first we heard of Last Night on Earth. It was kind of hard to miss - they had Jenny the farm girl there as a booth babe, and she was smokin' hot. There were other characters there - most notably, some zombies, but nobody really gave a crap about them, because they wanted their picture taken with the hottie in the cutoff jean shorts.

(Quick, funny story about that girl. She wore her costume every day but Sunday, and then Sunday I saw her and noticed aloud that she was in a dress, not a cheesy straw hat and cowboy boots. She said she changed because she was tired of being objectified by guys. I have to wonder, what did she think was going to happen when she went to a gaming convention dressed as Daisy Duke? Did she think there would be this horde of sweaty guys with t-shirts showing pictures of dice and saying, 'THAT'S HOW I ROLL', and these guys would come over and respectfully mention that they loved her work with inner-city kids? Was she hoping she was invited to discuss her views on third-world poverty, and then felt totally cheated when she found out the guys were really only interested in her ass?

In all fairness, she was a really nice girl, and I don't think she had any idea what she was in for when she signed up to go to GenCon. She was a part-time model going to school to teach elementary school. She probably didn't realize that helping to sell the game entailed exposure to 20,000 basement-dwelling, societally-retarded pimple-heads reeking of armpit and sporting beards that wouldn't even look good on Kris Kristofferson.)

So this game is like a no-brainer for anyone who likes zombies. They had the game set up at the booth, and there's a board that displays a little town, dozens of plastic miniatures (more than half of which are extra-cool zombies), and two humongous decks of cards. Just walking past the game is enough to make you stop and look. The art is all photography with models, and any decent graphic designer could tell you what filters were used to modify the images, but the graphics are still really rich. There's just a ton of eye candy here (even if Jenny the farm girl isn't around). The game looks magnificent when it's all laid out on the table.

Last Night of Earth can scale for any size group from two to six, even though you've got one team of heroes and one team of zombies, because either job can be shared. You can have up to two zombie players and four heroes, or just one of each, and the game works exactly the same either way. That's pretty clever, I think. You can whip it out and play with the wife (and when you're done you can play Last Night on Earth), or you can play it at a party with five of your best friends.

The game plays a lot like a zombie movie. There are bunches of different scenarios, so one game might have you trying to kill a host of zombies before they eat your friends, while another just has the heroes trying to gas up the truck and get out of town. The heroes might try to protect the manor house in an homage to Night of the Living Dead, or they might be trying to blow up the zombie nest before the infestation can spread. And whatever the heroes are doing, the zombies have the same goal every time - eat the good guys.

Last Night on Earth is like one clever mechanic after another. The rules for spawning more zombies are ridiculously simple, but still manage to control the zombie hordes while keeping the 'they just keep coming!' feel to the game. Searching for tools and weapons is easy - draw a card instead of moving. That's pretty easy. And fights are easy, too - roll some dice, high roll wins, doubles kills a zombie. Take two or three hits from a zombie and you get to join them in eating your buddies.

The rules are simple, the pieces are great, and the graphics are extravagant. If this felt any more like a zombie movie, you would swear you're watching Dawn of the Dead again. Heroes and zombies each have a huge deck of cards that let them break the rules. The best card is the one called, 'This Could Be Our Last Night on Earth,' where a male and female character in the same building have to pass their turn. Why? Because they're having sex. And as anyone who watches horror movies knows, you never, ever want to be having sex when the zombies are attacking. Zombies are perverts, and they attack naked people first.

Usually the zombies win. If you watch Romero movies, you knew this going in, and shouldn't be surprised. Sooner or later, the zombies always win. There's like five gazillion of them, and three of you. Slow or not, time is on their side. But it's not impossible for the heroes to win, especially if they do a good job of cooperating. One of the funniest games I ever played would have made the worst horror movie ever. It would have gone something like this:

Sheriff: Zombies are attacking! We've gotta get out of town! We have to find the keys to that pickup truck!
Jenny: You mean these keys? They're in my pocket. That's my truck.
Sheriff: But the truck is out of gas! We have got to have gas, and the zombies are all over the gas station!
Preacher: I just filled up this gas can. We can use this gas.
Sheriff: Quick, then, everyone in the truck! They're coming! Where's Billy?! Oh, God, where's Billy!?!
Billy: I'm right here in the back of the truck. I was reading a comic book and smoking a doobie. Why?

It was fun to be the heroes for that one. But it's a lot more typical for the unending hordes of shuffling undead to overwhelm the heroes, especially if the dice like the zombies. But you really can't complain - that's how zombie movies go. The zombies tend to eat a lot of people. If they were really bad at it, there wouldn't be very many zombies, would there? This isn't meant so much as a competitive game as a recreation of a genre, and while there is a contest to be had, the game is more about living out a zombie apocalypse.

You will be hard-pressed to find a zombie game that does as faithful a job of making you feel like you're in a zombie horror flick. Last Night on Earth sports great components, fantastic art, simple rules and plenty of variety. Plus Jenny the farm girl is all over this game.


Excellent recreation of a genre
Clever mechanics simulate zombie movie standards
Great pieces
Excellent support from the publisher - new scenarios and cards, often free
Jenny the farm girl

Boring 'scary' music CD

It can be tough to run down a copy of Last Night on Earth. It tends to be sold out a lot. Thoughthammer lists them in stock right now, but I don't make any guarantees.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

General Gaming Observations - Evolution

No review tonight. Sorry. Instead, I will wax unapologetic about the evolution of board games. I will be so painfully obvious that many of you will be bored to tears. And to those people who would complain, I say, 'Shut up. Get your own blog.'

I come from old gaming stock. When my old man started gaming, he didn't even know my mom. He and his buddies would stay up all night playing Risk - that, or they would steal stop signs and fill the neighbor's pool with live lobsters. (I haven't ever done that lobster thing, but I have stolen my share of road signs.) My dad was into historical recreations, so the old-school Avalon Hill games appealed to him in a huge way. Before I was old enough to wade through all of the Jack Chick anti-D&D pamphlet, my dad had me pushing cardboard chits around hexed-off maps that were supposed to be North Africa, or Eastern Europe, or Ancient Rome.

Back then, games did not come with miniatures. Sure, you could buy them and paint them - my old man had a ton of HO scale Germans that were half-painted - but the games came with cardboard sheets full of perforated counters, and there were these little plastic organizers that would let you separate them into their different designations. Man, what a pain in the ass!

Another thing missing from those early games was colorful rulebooks. You break open a Days of Wonder game and you get a book where they spent so much on graphic design that the artists drive Jaguars. You can't sell a game any more with a type-written rulebook all divided out in outlined form. My old man would read those eye-bloodying rules and highlight the important parts. When I read rules any more, I kick back on the back porch with a beer and cigar. If I'm still reading when the cigar is finished, there are too many rules and I play something else.

One thing most of those old games did have was a dedication to historical accuracy. Before Chainmail spawned Dungeons & Dragons, we didn't have hundreds of different fantasy worlds. We had THIS world, and you didn't recreate goblin hordes assaulting elven strongholds, you recreated the Hundred Years War. Even the games that brought you down to a man-to-man level were based in history, like Squad Leader and Assault.

Of course, those games weren't the only thing going. Back around the time I was born, the start of what would become Dungeons & Dragons was taking root, and society as a whole was about to change. Before D&D, fantasy movies were few and far between. Once D&D came out, we started to see lots more. And now perfectly normal (read: non-geeky) people own the Lord of the Rings trilogy extended version on DVD.

All this meant that as I was growing up, we were seeing a new kind of game. Games had pictures in the rules now, and expensive illustrators made a name for themselves decorating game boxes. Games started to depart from the historical corral, and crazy stuff like Melee and OGRE and Car Wars were published in plastic bags or snap-shut plastic boxes. Counters didn't have symbols on them any more, they had drawings of cars or monsters or giant robots. And as the games got less accurate and more fantastic, they started drawing in the kids a lot younger.

Of course, selling a game to a ten-year-old nerd requires considerably different marketing than selling games to 40-year-old college professors. And so as gamers started parting with their money at an earlier age, games started to appeal to us kids. Themes got paired with art, rules got easier, and cardboard chits turned into plastic toys. Of course, this didn't all happen at once, but the article is about evolution, not the Big Bang of gaming.

Jump forward to today. Now we've got Tannhauser, Heroscape, Battlelore and Descent. These aren't games, they're boxes full of toys that happen to have rules. When I say, 'components,' you think, 'plastic.' When I say, 'production value,' I'm talking about how much the publisher paid for the linen stock and the top-notch art.

So now you're expecting me to rail on about how in my day, we didn't have these fancy-schmancy plastic figures, and that's the way we liked it. You're expecting me to bemoan the fall of the bookshelf game and the game-in-a-bag. You want to hear me tell all about why we had it so much better when we were kids, when games were games and not boxes full of toys.

And who am I to disappoint?

You know how much it costs to get into Heroscape? If you said, 'forty bucks', you're dreaming. Trying hundreds, if not thousands. Sure, you can play with just a master set, but only if you don't like the game enough to buy the expansions. And how about Descent? Eighty bucks for the basic game! My kids can't hold on to their money long enough to save up for a comic book, let alone put together eighty bucks. The kids who made the pretty games possible grew up, and now we're the only ones who can afford 'em.

So the response would seem to be cheap games, right? Just roll out the rules on the office copy machine and have a handful of cardstock sheets printed up. Go old-school! I can name a few companies off the top of my head who have gone that route... and you probably can't (if you can, good for you, now shut up, I'm working here). The point is, those games just don't sell. They don't employ hundreds of people and have distribution centers in Sioux Falls with corporate offices in Des Moines. Those game companies are like four guys in a basement somewhere who get together on weekend breaks from their tech support jobs.

I think it's sad that we can't get those old-school games any more. Yeah, you can maybe run one down on eBay, but I mean there just aren't people making a name for themselves with games published on a shoestring. Sure, you can publish your game on the web, but then, so can every other Tom, Dick and Knuckledragger, and there's just too much noise-to-signal to get your games out there (I would like to take this opportunity to thank both of my readers).

Furthermore, our hobby has gotten painfully expensive. It used to be you could skip a couple lunches and use the money to get a new game; now you have to skip a week's worth of lunches, and a couple dinners, too. And the games still have to get made in China - some nine-year-old boy is painting your plastic soldiers and then sleeping under his desk, and you still have to mortgage your soul for the next Arkham Asylum expansion.

Why, in my day, we didn't have these plastic figures and painted maps! We had...

Wait, I like plastic figures. I like toys. I like illustrated game boards and pre-painted miniatures and professional card art. I love Days of Wonder games, that feel like Christmas morning when you open the box, with hundreds of little plastic soldiers or knights or Egyptian castles. I adore Heroscape maps, with castles and trees and waterfalls and ruins. I love the snap-together dungeons of Descent, and the tiny robots of Risk 2210. I like to flip through a full-color rulebook with cool art in the corners and admire the designer's skill.

So I'm a sell-out whore. I admit it. I like flashy toys.

But I can still miss those bygone days, when I could pass on a movie and spend the money on a game. Where my imagination filled in what the game was missing. Where I didn't need to spend a week making terrain and painting miniatures just so I could play a two-hour game of Warhammer. Ah, for simpler times.

Now help me decide - more dwarves for Battlelore or the latest Descent expansion?

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Haba Game Review - Akaba

You may be wondering why I titled this one 'Haba Game Review,' and not 'Board Game' or whatever. See, Haba games are not like other games. They're in a league of their own. They're dexterity games meant for kids, only they're usually so interesting that adults end up liking them. They often have some strategy, which can be odd in a game made for children, except that apparently German kids are smarter than American kids. Maybe they're on the voucher system or something.

Akaba is one of those Haba games. At first glance, it's exceptionally weird. You've got flat plastic Arabians on flying carpets mounted on square sponges. You've got wooden walls and a game board with holes in it. You've got little picture cards with holes in them. And you've got what the game calls a bellows.

I'll take a minute and describe a bellows for you. This is a bulb-shaped apparatus made out of rubber with a nozzle on the end. When my kids were babies, we had a blue one, and we used it to suck boogers out of their noses. We called it the deschnozzalator. It gave me a start when I opened the Akaba box and saw a snot remover. The purpose of this thing is that you squeeze it and air comes out the nozzle, and then you release it and air gets sucked back in. Also, it was remarkably bad at sucking up boogers.

The object of Akaba is to collect the five gifts you need to give the members of your family. You fly around the bazaar on your magic carpet to get these gifts. And in order to move your magic carpet, you use the snot sucker to shoot air underneath the carpet.

Seriously. That's the game mechanic. You use a little turkey baster to shoot air at a tiny sponge. I am not making this up. And that, children, is why this is a Haba game review. Because a rubber bellows and a little sponge is the kind of mechanic that you'll only find in a Haba game.

There's even a little strategy in Akaba, because like I said, German children are smarter than American children. German kids would scream at you in harsh, guttural tones if you ever made them play Candyland, and then when they got to high school they would wear all black and be stylishly depressed.

It's a little tough to segue out of that last line, so I'm just going to go ahead and tell you about the strategy now. See, you float your carpet into these little shops, avoiding sending your carpet flying off the board or into the well. And if you get in a shop, there are these little present cards, and if it matches a present you need, you can put that little present on your little magic carpet. Once you take one present out of a store, you can replace it with another. Lots of times you won't need that present that you saw, so you have to put it back, but then everyone will know what it is.

So sometimes you might blow yourself into a store and then blow yourself out again, then blow yourself back in to see what the new present is. (There was altogether too much blowing yourself in that last sentence, and it's making me feel a little awkward.) And sometimes you'll deliberately capsize your carpet, or dive into the well, because someone else just turned up the present you need and it's way back by the other start point.

Also, you can't just wail on the de-snotter for as long as you want. Another player has two dice with colored circles on them, and as soon as you start wheezing on the rubber bulb, they're rolling. As soon as they roll doubles, you have to quit squeezing your turkey baster (another phrase that might be a little awkward). The fact that time is going to run out, but you don't know when, means you might shoot that air a little harder than you meant. It also makes my daughter keep hitting her carpet with the snot sucker and flipping her little Arabian into the air.

It should be obvious to anyone reading this review that this is not a game adults are going to break out at parties, unless you turn it into a drinking game (and then I would play every single time). This is indisputably a kids' game. The thing is, once a couple adults see kids laughing hysterically and squeezing the bellows like their lives depended on it, the game will start to grow. The grownups will want to take turns hosing their fliers with a rubber bulb (yes, I did that one on purpose, and it doesn't even sound that dirty).

Akaba is a blast. It's made for kids, and my kids love it, but there's no pretending the adults don't get into it, too. If you've got kids, you've got a great excuse to pick up this riot of a Haba game.


Wacky dexterity game
Funny art
Great components
A little bit of strategy

You feel like a retard when you play - but you don't care
Totally a kids' game

If you want to blow an Arabian around a bazaar (last one, I swear), you can buy it here:

Sunday, December 9, 2007

Xbox Live Arcade Review - Band of Bugs

If you have an Xbox, you're probably aware of Xbox Live, the pay-per-month service where you can play with other gamers online. And if you have Xbox Live, you've probably at least cruised past the Xbox Live Arcade, where you can find old classic arcade games and new stuff that you can download. And if you've downloaded many Xbox Live Arcade original games, you know that most of them suck like a high-powered vacuum hose.

Developing content for the Live Arcade must be tough. I don't know if it is or not, really. I just know I've downloaded a whole slew of trial versions, and it's like developers are really trying to make games that make me wonder why I don't just turn off the Xbox and see if I can find some soft porn on HBO.

So when someone suggested I check out Band of Bugs, I was skeptical. When nine out of ten games I've tried for Live Arcade are worse than free games I could play online (and some of them actually ARE free games I could play online), I'm hesitant to try a new one. It's something about nine times bitten, tenth time shy. But I figured I could at least take a whirl at the demo and see if I felt like asking for a review copy, and I'm glad I did.

Band of Bugs is like Final Fantasy Tactics, if instead of assassins and black wizards and clerics you had grasshoppers and cockroaches and mosquitoes. Except that the mosquitoes are more like thieves, and the grasshoppers are archers, and since the art in Band of Bugs is... stylized, I don't have any idea what the cockroaches are supposed to be. I think the ladybugs are warriors. There's a praying mantis who is apparently just a bad-ass.

Basically, you'll be moving your bugs one at a time in a turn-based game of tactics and strategy. You'll try to get a height advantage, strike from behind, maximize your offense and shore up your defense. You'll maneuver all over the map, and then because your main character has Popeye arms, shove your enemies off cliffs and laugh when they hit bottom.

Band of Bugs has something that a lot of games are missing - humor. In fact, having looked at other games from developer Ninja Bee, I think the humor comes from the programmers. And it's not lame anime jokes that can only be enjoyed by young children and fat guys dressed as Sailor Moon, it's actually really funny stuff. Like the load screens have these little tips and facts, but they're not really tips or facts, they just make you laugh. One of them mentions that there are hundreds of insects that are not identified, and that makes those bugs very sad. The game doesn't take itself seriously despite being a seriously decent game.

The mission types are widely varied, and it is extremely unlikely that you will get bored with the game before you finish the single-player mode. You can find yourself racing for the exit while the road collapses behind you, holding the wall against an impossible horde, throwing all your forces into a single-minded assault on a target, or just engaging in a classic game of last-man-standing.

The terrain types keep the game challenging as well. Water will instantly kill any non-flying bug that enters that space, and shifting sands will push your bugs into the pond. Exploding spores will damage any bugs next to them, and spider webs will slow you down. You can freeze a water space, push an enemy bug onto that space, and then thaw it back out again to watch your enemy drown without ever taking a hit. I was a little disappointed that I couldn't shoot hairspray over a Zippo to cook the bugs, but that only really works on slow-moving insects anyway, and besides, why would a flea carry hairspray?

Band of Bugs isn't perfect. The campaign mode is way too short, and while there are several single-player matches you can play outside the story, you'll still finish the game in less time than it took you to beat Halo 3. And if you do want to play multiplayer, you'll have to get some friends to buy the game, too, because as many times as I looked, I only ever found one other person playing online, and he quit halfway through our first game. I would love to tell both of my loyal readers how fun the multiplayer is, but the truth is, I don't have any idea, because I could never find anyone to play.

The game itself has a few minor flaws, mostly where I wanted to have more options and more control. Your characters go up in levels, but you don't control this. If you get to a level where your guys are supposed to be level 4, they'll be level 4. You can't do practice runs to get better. You can't find better weapons. You can't cycle through eight different options for helmets, all with the same armor rating, to find the one that makes your main character look the most dangerous (come to think of it, this last one might not be a flaw after all). It's a little simplified, but it's wicked fun, and really, that's what matters.

Basically, Band of Bugs is a very good turn-based tactical game that you can get for ten bucks and download to your Xbox 360. The graphics are great, the jokes are hilarious, and the tactics are tight. Good play is rewarded with wins, and bad play is penalized with wedgies (but only if someone bigger than you is watching you play). There's a level editor to make your own maps and a good amount of downloadable content. Now all we have to do is persuade another couple thousand people to buy the game, and you can hop online and play a smart-mouthed 12-year-old asshole any time of day or night.


Fun graphics
Great sense of humor
Good story
Engaging tactical game play
Ten bucks - stop your whining and buy it

Lack of options
A little too basic
Can't find anyone to play online

If you want to own a copy of Band of Bugs, fire up your 360 and cruise over to the Live Arcade.

Thursday, December 6, 2007

Board Game Review - Mutant Chronicles: Siege of the Citadel

This week has been all about science fiction games, but there's a bigger theme - telling a story. In Star Frontiers, a continuing saga of heroism and high adventure unfolds as you play. In Battlestations, it's more like you skip all that boring dialog and get right to the part of the story when people start shooting at each other in space (of course, that means you miss the tear-jerking love story, but do we really need that anyway?). And for our final review in this sci-fi series, we'll review Mutant Chronicles: Siege of the Citadel, in which the players tell an episodic story that is pure bullets-and-blades action.

So you can see from the continuing theme that I like games that tell stories, especially if they're exciting stories. Mutant monsters and cyber-enhanced warriors in a dark tower of doom make for a pretty exciting story. Of course, the story mostly boils down to, 'then the good guys found the bad guys, and bullets started flying,' but who cares? It's like watching a Van Damme movie. You don't go for the story, and you sure aren't there for the dialog. You're there to see Jean Claude Van Damme do the splits and punch a bad guy in the junk. If someone happens to break out guns and start spraying bullets everywhere, that's just a bonus.

With all this talk of story, it might be nice to explain the premise of the game. For starters, there is some kind of evil, mutant-making force, and it's centered in a citadel. The mutants are a little like a cross between Toxic Avenger and George Costanza - they look gross and they're not too bright. The armored, gun-toting warriors of the future (called doomtroopers) can kill them pretty easily - until, that is, there are a couple dozen slop-faced undead facing off against two mercs. Then it gets a little closer to a fair fight. The troopers have to storm this citadel, gather intel, locate the bad guys and kill 'em all.

The ambiance in Siege of the Citadel is accomplished in several ways. First, every combat participant in the game gets its own plastic miniature. From the ten different doomtrooper figures to the dozens of mutant minis, there is just a ton of plastic in this box. And these sculpts are great, so you could even use them in different games just because the figures are so cool. If I was a lot more industrious, I would paint them all because that would rule.

Then you've got the cards that describe the weapons and gear the mercs can carry. There are full-color illustrations of the various implements of destruction, and these weapons are gnarly. Big ol' chainswords and automatic plasma cannons, injectable performance boosters, and high-tech targeting devices can all be added to an experienced trooper to make them even more deadly than they were before they strapped into a big suit of armor and whipped out a sword with a chainsaw in the blade.

Finally, the board itself is great. Cracked stone tiles, metal plates, conduits snaking underneath steel grating - these all make the citadel a pretty creepy place to hunt. And since there are eight different tiles, they can be rearranged to make a wide array of maps. There's even a stand-up cardboard decoration with creepy gothic art all over it, to add just a little more freak factor to a board already overrun with zombie soldiers, alien gunslingers and six-limbed mutant horses with rail guns.

The mechanics of the game are simple. On a player's turn, he can move twice, attack twice, or do one of each. Attacks are carried out by rolling dice whose number and color are determined by the trooper's ability and his weapon. These dice have two, three or four hit marks, and in order to kill a mutant, a trooper needs to roll as many hits as his target has armor points. These are undead bad guys, so there's no points for second place - you either drop the mutant, or you wasted a shot.

Doomtroopers get quite a few more details, since these are the heroes and everyone is paying attention to them. The doomtroopers have armor levels, promotion points, credits, extra actions, and a whole bunch of things that they hope will give them the quality edge over the mutants' quantity.

The real beauty of Siege of the Citadel is that it does not require one player to always be the bad guys. Ideally, you'll have five players, and at the beginning of every scenario, one player is chosen at random to be the mutants, with each other player controlling two doomtroopers. The bad guy can score points for mutilating the good guys, and could spend these points on the next game to improve his own team of mercenaries. It works out great, and pretty much means everyone gets to play the bad guys now and then.

There is a downside to Siege of the Citadel, and it's a really bizarre player requirement. The game can be incredibly stilted if there are less than five players, and you can't play it with more than five. There are some rules to try to make it scale down for fewer players, but they don't really work very well, and the game even admits that. So you'll have to find four friends, invite them over, and then make sure none of them cancels or brings someone extra. It makes coordinating a game exceptionally difficult when you have to have exactly five. The game really does work best with five, and it's fun as hell when you can pull off five players, but I can't recall a time I ever set up a game night and was able to control exactly how many people showed up.

It's worth trying, though, because if you can get five people to form a regular gaming group, the campaign option in Siege of the Citadel is fantastic. Each scenario builds on the last, with primary and secondary objectives, and promotion points carrying over from one scenario to the next. You can get weeks of regular play out of the game, if you can get the same four guys to come over every week (and good luck with that).

But even if you can't arrange the ideal group size, Siege of the Citadel is still a pretty cool buy. There a 38 really cool figures and a board you could use for other games. You could adapt the rules to be a two-person game and build your maps on Heroscape terrain. The whole mood of the game is dark and creepy and awesome. And you can even play it with less than five, as long as you don't mind the bad guys routinely stomping a mud-hole in the good guys.


Great ambiance
Fun and fast-paced violence
Tons of high-quality plastic figs
Easy but flexible rules
Great campaign mode

Who the hell can get exactly five gamers to commit every week?

It's a real shame Mutant Chronicles: Siege of the Citadel is long out of print. For one thing, it means I have to shoot the opening photo myself, and that's a pain in the ass. But really, it means the only way you'll find this game is on eBay.

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Hybrid Game Review - Battlestations

Picture the scene:

The little scout vessel is bravely battling the star cruiser around a deserted mining asteroid. The pilot (who resembles a tumbleweed) is trying to keep the ship steady as he throws it into another turn. The marine (who looks like a bowl full of earthworms) throws himself into an empty missile and launches himself into space. The engineer (a gorgeous woman, because no sci-fi epic is complete without a smokin' hot dame) is trying to evade an incoming missile by ejecting the breakfast dishes into space.

That's actually a pretty silly scene, come to think of it. I don't know why the breakfast dishes make missiles explode. I don't know about the wisdom of using a missile as a boarding device. But I know this - it sure is fun to try.

Battlestations is an exceptionally small-press game from a company called Gorilla Games. The company is Jeff Siadek and his brother Jason, but I'm pretty sure it's mostly Jeff, which means that if it was any smaller it would be run by semi-intelligent lemurs. In Battlestations, you do all that crazy stuff in that opening scene. You fly a spaceship around and battle bad guys, but the action takes place in the ship at the same time that it's occurring in space.

This clever idea is accomplished by using different maps. The ship-to-ship action is tracked on a black hex grid. The actual operations of the two ships, including piloting, firing cannons, fixing drives, scanning and targeting, and everything else, occurs on maps showing the insides of the ships. And the really cool thing is that the ships are made up of 5X5 square grids depicting different stations on a ship - the science bay, the bridge, the engine rooms, and the cannons are all individual pieces, and you build a ship by putting in all the necessary components. This means that you can use one set of cards to make a huge variety of ships.

This dual-action nature of Battlestations means you can do just about anything. You can board an enemy vessel, sabotage the science room, then launch yourself back to your own ship in the enemy's boarding missiles. You can fire a cannon blast that blows clean through the engine room in a massive hull breach, then have your science officer scan the enemy ship to find the hostages. You can use the heat from the engines to microwave some popcorn and watch Gilligan's Island reruns on the view screen in the bridge.

Battlestations also includes character generation rules that would do a light RPG proud. There are six different alien races in the base game, and more in the expansions. Aside from the afore-mentioned tub of worms and the leafless shrub, there are also rockpile aliens, six-limbed starfish and bug people.

[Tangential rant: What is it with space and bugs? Why are there always smart bugs? Why can't we have intelligent marsupials instead of intelligent insects? Hell, how about intelligent duck-billed platypus people - those freaky-ass animals look like aliens anyway.]

So you pick a race, you pick a job, you pick some skills and you pick some gear. This is a lot of work for a board game character - but this is no ordinary board game.

Battlestations is a hybrid game. It combines a tactical space simulation with a character-based RPG. I played this with my kids, and they would have conversations in character. It was really irritating, because their characters were even more retarded than they were, but they were having fun and their mom was listening, so I had to go along with it (who am I kidding, I was totally doing it, too).

Your characters can earn prestige, money, ship parts, experience, and otherwise develop as science fiction characters. Just because you don't have to explore your motivations doesn't mean this isn't role-playing. You get attached to these knuckleheads, give them names, and shout at the other players when their stupid maneuvers get your guy shot.

The actual mechanic of Battlestations works great. You roll some dice to attempt a task, and if you're good at it, you can reroll some dice. If you spend luck points, you can roll more. If you roll high enough, you succeed.

The Battlestations book is way too thick to discuss in lots of detail, so I'll sum it up. There are rules for dozens of skills, lots of weapons, a bunch of different ship segments, and page after page of scenarios. In essence, the game is too detailed and personal to just be a board game, and too tactical to just be an RPG.

There are several expansions for Battlestations, and they each have a different theme. Each expansion comes with a book, some new space tiles, new character pieces, and whatever else you might need. There's one expansion where you fight an intergalactic war, and another where you take the fight to the pirates. There's even one where you continually rescue stupid walking fungi as you tool around the galaxy. I don't have all the expansions, but I sure wouldn't mind picking up the ones I'm missing, because this game is fun.

The saddest thing about Battlestations is that the components are total crap. The illustrations in the book are fantastic, but the art on the game pieces is uninspired computer graphics. The boards all get dinged up at the corners if you look at them sideways, and the character markers have to be cut out and glued together. It's like they spent their whole budget for the rules and didn't have any left to spend on the pieces.

I don't care about the aesthetics in this case. My kids don't either. We would, but we're too busy trying to get just a little more power out of the engines, launching a boarding missile, hacking enemy battlestations and otherwise getting a huge kick out of the game.


Great blend of RPG and board game
Nearly limitless options
Easy-to-learn mechanic

Cheapest components ever.

Battlestations is so good, it's all sold out everywhere. If you get a chance to pick it up, take it.

Sunday, December 2, 2007

RPG Review - Star Frontiers

I think it's time for a science fiction series. I love science fiction games, especially if the theme is good enough to stick to your ribs. When I was a younger man, I played the heck out of Star Frontiers. I can still remember my character's name... no, wait, I can't. It was junior high. Sue me.

Anyway, I like sci-fi games, so I'll be reviewing three science fiction games this week. I'm going to sort of cover the spread. I'll lead off with Star Frontiers, a classic role-playing game from TSR, way back when games came in boxes, not books. Then we'll do a crazy little hybrid game called Battlestations, which combines the best of tactical space combat and frenetic role-playing. We'll wrap the series with another old classic, Mutant Chronicles: Siege of the Citadel.

When I was ten years old, I spent a weekend washing cars to earn enough money to buy the red box of D&D. I loved that game. I would DM my brother through the module that came with the game, and he would slaughter unsuspecting goblinoids left and right and steal their stuff. Then my dad overheard us playing, and that game went in the trash and he bought me Star Frontiers instead.

It turns out, I'm lucky he did that. I was pissed at the time, and swore I would hate Star Frontiers just because it wasn't D&D, but I was an idiot. I did mention I was ten, right? Star Frontiers was SO much more appropriate for a kid my age. Instead of chopping heads off kobolds to steal their headdresses made of human ears, I was an agent of the Pan Galactic Federation, exploring new worlds, breaking up crime rings, and foiling pirates. I was an undisputed good guy, and better yet, I got to fly a spaceship.

Star Frontiers remains in my memory as one of the greatest role-playing games ever made. It came right on the heels of Star Wars, when every kid in the United States wanted to battle bad guys in a starfighter. It had a fairly decent background, but not one I couldn't adapt as needed. I didn't have to read 300 pages of source material to decide where to stage my next adventure, yet I had enough background to choose a world and put a couple bad guys there and keep everything consistent.

Of course there have been other sci-fi role-playing games since then, but Star Frontiers is always highlighted as my personal favorite. I had a brief dalliance with Traveller, but it bored me to tears, because it was for adults. There was the classic Star Wars RPG from WEG, but I could only ever think of plots that were taken out of the movie, and there's so much background that everyone always knew more than me. There was one called Space Opera (the world's least original name - like if TSR had named D&D 'Fantasy'), but that was one of the worst games ever made in any format, so it really doesn't count. The owner of that particular intellectual property is probably holed up in a shack somewhere in Montana mailing scratch-n-sniff bombs to George Lucas.

Star Frontiers had four main races. First off, of course, was the human. Every game has humans. And the other three weren't even that original - you had the anthropomorphic monkey aliens called the Yazirians, the anthropomorphic bug people called the Vrusk, and the blob critters called the Dralasites. Not exactly stretching the ol' imagination to come up with bug people, monkey people and blob people, but when I was a junior-higher, I didn't care. I loved 'em all.

The core mechanic of Star Frontiers is still one of the cleanest and slickest systems I've ever played. You just rolled two ten-sided dice that were different colors to get a percentile result. That's all you ever needed - just those two ten-siders. There were modifiers, sure - stand up close to someone and use a weapon you trained with in the marines, and you'll do a lot better than firing a gun you've never seen before across a football field. But it was all easy to figure out, and it took me just two days of reading the rules to be ready to run the combats in the adventure that came in the basic rule book.

Which brings me to another reason I loved Star Frontiers - pre-made adventures came with the game. And better yet, there were hundreds of counters to use as miniatures, and double-sided poster maps, and you even got two dice when you bought the box. I can't think of an RPG that comes with dice these days, and most of them don't even have a starting adventure. And if they do have a starting adventure, most of the time it's some pathetic, half-assed crap nailed on when the game was done so the writers could say they included an adventure. But in the good old days, your boxed set of Star Frontiers came with two rule books (for basic and advanced), a sheet of counters, a double-sided map and a complete module. That's the way it was in my day, and that's the way we liked it!

Now, not everything about Star Frontiers was perfect. Anyone who has ever run a big gun fight in a star freighter's cargo bay knows exactly what I mean when I say that it was a logistical nightmare to keep track of health levels. The problem was that weapons tended to do damage in terms of 1d10 or 2d10, while health levels went up to 70 or 80. Add in body armor and ablat screens, and you could take about 30 direct hits before you ever fell down.

That actually reminds me of the worst battle I ever ran in any game. There was this group of monkey people who lived in trees (yes, a different group of monkey people, because God forbid the writers would come up with another race) and some pirates were attacking them. There were like a dozen pirates, fifteen or so monkey dudes, and the four player characters. I actually tried to track damage for every combatant, but after the fight had lasted two hours and nobody was dead yet, my little brother told me it might be better if I just said the monkey guys won. He was right, but I still had a pirate shoot him in the butt, just for telling me what to do.

Of course, as a kid, my solution was easy - I didn't count those hits. If a player took a hit, I made him fall down and scratch off ten points or so. If a bad guy got shot, I described how the blast hit his eyeball and killed him instantly, so that I didn't have to do math. As a kid, this was a perfect answer to a difficult problem. These days I would need an abacus to track any fight with more than two shooters. And hostage situations seem a little less urgent when the bad guy is holding the science fiction equivalent to a Nerf dart gun to the lab guy's head.

That's what made Zebulon's Guide so magnificent. It fixed a lot of the damage issues and even streamlined the resolution with a crazy little table. Instead of adding and subtracting all this stuff, you just slid up a column and rolled the dice, and a colored bar told you if you hit. It was a little odd, and complicated a system that I loved for its simplicity, but I was at least able to finish a shootout before everyone got bored and went home.

The greatest thing to ever happen to Star Frontiers, however, was not Zebulon's Guide or the white crayon that came with the box so you could color your dice (you old-school gamers remember this, and you teenagers with your fancy pearlescent dice and your $20 dice bags probably think I sound crazy). The best thing that happened to Star Frontiers was Knight Hawks, the starship combat expansion. Because all of a sudden, we were no longer limited to laser blasters in corridors. Now we could fire assault rockets at Sathar cruisers, dogfight with pirate fighters, and emergency land on a planet's surface because my idiot brother farted in the cockpit again.

If you have kids and you want to get them into role-playing games, you could do a lot worse than to pick up a copy of Star Frontiers. It's long out of print, but you can still find copies floating around. And if you just really want to play the game, that's not out of the question - there are at least two sites where you can download the rules to the game for free, and they even have the blessing of Wizards of the Coast, so you don't have to pretend to feel guilty about it.

So remember an easier day, when games came complete in a box, when good guys were good and bad guys were bad, when you could just sit down and play without having to worry about your character's back story or motivation. Draw your blaster, jump in a speeder, board a freighter and strap in for some old-fashioned RPG fun.


Cool 1980s art
Simple system
Everything in one box!!!
Enough background to make a game but not enough to bore you

A little too simple for serious gamers
Odd damage system

You can download everything ever printed for Star Frontiers right here: