Thursday, November 29, 2007

Board Game Review - Tsuro

Ancient China was steeped in tradition. One of those traditions was the Boys' Night Out, in which the emperor would gather a handful of cronies and call up a bunch of expensive hookers. Then everyone would hit the opium pipe, drink the rice wine and party all night. In those few hours before dawn, the security guys would pay the call girls to leave, and the emperor would roust out his loser buddies to play some games, just to while away the time until the cleanup staff hid the evidence from the emperor's 47 wives.

The emperor's favorite game was Tsuro. This game involved a bunch of silk carpets with paths painted on them, a stone platform 60 feet in the air, and slaves. The emperor and his cronies would take turns placing the carpets to make paths, and the slaves had to follow the paths. When a player's path led off the edge of the platform, the slave had to jump off, and the player had to drink. The last player with a slave on the platform won the game and got to go home, though just to be fair the players still threw the last slave over the edge when the game was over.

(Some of this story is unverified. Reliable counter-sources indicate the game was actually played using the hookers instead of slaves, to get out of having to pay them.)

Thousands of years later, archaeologists dug up a scroll depicting the game. It had been shoved up the ass of a terra cotta soldier, and still never would have been found if it hadn't been for a severely confused grad student who was, ironically, drunk as hell on rice wine.

At first, purists wanted to recreate Tsuro accurately, but while the Chinese government could readily find plenty of people they could spare as playing pieces, nobody really wanted to let them walk on silk carpets. Those things are expensive!

So instead, WizKids bought the rights from the grad student as he recovered in a Hong Kong emergency room. They reduced everything down so it would fit in a box, and mass-produced it for an American market. The greatest thing is that it's still made in China, as a nod to its roots. And occasionally, a small Chinese sweatshop worker will fall into the plastic vat and wind up baked right into the game. We call that history repeating itself.

When you buy a copy of Tsuro, you won't get any of the classy pieces the emperor used. Your silk carpets are replaced by heavy cards, and instead of being four feet across, they're about two inches square. The stone platform has been replaced with a foldout board, and instead of slaves (or hookers) the game comes with a bunch of plastic tokens that look like engraved stones.

Considering the fact that you can't get silk carpets at anything resembling a reasonable price, the pieces in Tsuro are actually really nice. Nice enough to leave out when company comes over. There's a cool picture of a dragon, some crazy phoenix thing on the board, and the colors of the player tokens complement all the art beautifully. All things considered, this is probably better for most homeowners than the enormous stone platform, and better for most married men than a box full of Oriental call girls.

Each player starts off with three cards. You place a card, then slide your token on the path you just made. These paths bend and cross each other and sometimes even just go in a straight line. As you build your own path, the other players are building theirs. And sooner or later, somebody is going off the edge of the board. Happily for American players who don't have time to hide bodies, the only thing that goes anywhere is the little plastic token. The last player with a token on the board is the winner.

Unlike the ancient Chinese version of this game, which could take hours to complete, what with all the carpet arranging and body removing, the American version of Tsuro can be finished in less than fifteen minutes. Lots of times the game is done in five minutes. So even if you get driven off the edge, you can just grab some pretzels and open another beer, and be back in for the next game.

Of course, American players and ancient Chinese players have different reasons for playing Tsuro. The cronies had to play Tsuro or the emperor would have them killed. Americans are just playing to kill five minutes while they wait for the last guy to show up. Very few players are going to break out Tsuro and expect anything like a strategic challenge. It's not a game that begs to be replayed, because you know how it's going to go - you play for five minutes, run out of options and die, and then two minutes later everyone is picking teams for Trivial Pursuit.

Tsuro is a very pretty game. It's not on the caliber of Front Porch Classics, with their metal figures and cloth game boards, but it's still nice enough to leave out when people come over (as opposed to gamers). It has all the depth of a puddle of parking-lot runoff after a five-minute rainstorm, but it's fun enough that you can blow through a couple games before everyone gets into some serious gaming.


Sure is purty
Incredibly quick game
Easy, easy rules

Almost no strategy to be had anywhere

If you're looking for something to kill a few minutes, or you just want something you can play with your cousins when they come over for Thanksgiving, you could do a lot worse than Tsuro. Get it here, if you're so inclined:

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Awesome Game Review - Heroscape

Usually when I start a review, I have to pull the game out of my collection so I can have it handy. I need to be able to check the rules, designers, art - stuff like that, just to make sure I've got my facts straight. I don't have to do that with Heroscape, because I really, really know this game. It's my favoritest game ever in the whole wide world. If Heroscape were a girl, I would marry her. Except I think my wife would kick me in the jimmy if I tried to be a polygamist, so I'm probably better off with Heroscape being a whole lot of plastic.

The funny thing is, the theme of Heroscape turned me off for a long time. I kept seeing it and thinking, 'robots versus elves? This is dumb!' Even after I read the background information, I still thought it was dumb. And you want to know something? After more than three years of playing Heroscape, several tournaments and hundreds of games, I still think the premise is stupid. Maybe I'm just a snobby genre purist, but I don't like having orcs on dinosaurs battling alongside the 101st Airborne, or having Charlie's Angels throw makeup powder at soldiers of the American Revolution. Throw in giant anthropomorphic snakes, werewolves, ninjas, dragons and Captain America and I can't even imagine a dumber theme. It's like when the school cafeteria mixes all the leftover lunches for the week and passes it off as sloppy joes.

So for Heroscape to be my absolute favorite game, it has to have a lot more than theme. It has to have a good mix of tactics and strategy (yeah, there's a difference). I have to be able to make every single game different from the one before. I have to be able to customize it. It has to combine the genius of deck-building with the tactical maneuvering of a miniatures game, and do it all with simple rules that allow for a dazzling array of options.

Heroscape does all that.

First off, it's a miniatures game with pre-painted figures. That is a huge draw, because what starts as a game turns into a toy, and I love toys. Then you've got this incredible, hex-based, interlocking terrain from which you can create just about any map you can imagine. I've seen towering castles, frozen caverns, and I even saw one map that looked like Grand Central Station. Even if it bothers you to have a samurai getting kicked in the nards by a Roman legionnaire, you have to admit that any game that lets you build a to-scale, three-dimensional, fully-playable map of Hoover Dam has a lot going for it, especially if you can use those same pieces to make a ruined temple in a wintry forest.

The rules go with the pieces the way peanut butter goes with jelly. They're easy to understand and brilliant in their simplicity. At the most basic level, you've got attack/defense dice. Anyone who has ever played a Stephen Baker game will recognize these dice - they've got three skulls, two shields and a blank side. The attacker rolls the dice looking for skulls, and the defender rolls looking for shields. More skulls than shields means somebody is getting a boot to the head. Of course, this means there's luck in this game, and in some cases, there's more luck than I like (don't get me started on DeadEye Dan). But the luck can be mitigated through army building and game play, so in my opinion, the luck comes out to a reasonable level.

To make it even easier to drop the pain, or to give yourself a better chance to block, you have to move around that killer map you just made with all those locking hex pieces. Height advantages, glyphs, adjacency, and special powers can all improve your odds of attacking or defending. A player with a weak army can often beat a superior force through improved tactical and strategic maneuvering.

Speaking of weak and strong armies, you get to build these armies yourself. Sure, you have to sift through a pile of vampires, cowboys and mechanical rats, but there are hundreds of figures to choose from, and you can make an army that does whatever you want. If you want a high-defense turtle army, you can do it. If you want speed, it's in there. Range, maneuverability, strategic options, tactical superiority - it's all here. Since every figure has at least one special power, and they all have different statistics, you can build an army that works the way you want it. You can put all your eggs in one basket and throw a couple powerhouse heroes on the front lines, or you can swarm your foes with dozens of cannon-fodder foot soldiers.

If you love being able to customize a game, Heroscape has your name on it. You can take miniatures from any other game and make Heroscape stats for them. That's no exaggeration - I've seen people make Heroscape units out of six-inch action figures. Mage Knight, Dreamblade, Warhammer, and Haloclix - all these games are great sources for Heroscape customs, and there are plenty more.

You can also make custom terrain for Heroscape. Some fans go so far as to flock entire terrain sets, put reeds on their water tiles and snow on the trees. I have a crashed airplane and a graveyard that were both custom-made Heroscape terrain, and the great thing is that they are completely playable.

A game like Heroscape screams for expansions, and the good folks at Hasbro are more than happy to accommodate. There are dozens of blister packs of expansion figures available, and several boxed sets to let you add roads, bridges, trees, snow, ice, castles and swamp - and there's more coming. Individually, most of the sets are very reasonably priced. Of course, you'll have to sell plasma to get everything for the game that's available now, but at least you know you've got options. Hopefully, you've also got lots of plasma you don't need, because even though Heroscape is not sold blind (you always know what you're getting), it's still very expandable.

All things considered, Heroscape is the game I was waiting my whole life to play. The incredible terrain, the pre-painted figures, the great rules, the customizable play - it's like I have been playing other stuff for years just as practice to get ready for this game. And there's an amazing fan base for this game - go to to see what thousands of fans have created for their favorite game. With all that Heroscape has going for it, I can even overlook the fact that my team of soulless robots can be dismantled by a bunch of hammer-swinging angels and a sharp-shooting cowboy.


Awesome pre-painted minis
Incredibly versatile interlocking terrain
Simple rules with surprising depth
Sky's-the-limit customization

A theme designed for third-graders

I can't recommend Heroscape enough. Go get you some!

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Xbox Game Review - Gears of War

You know how in war movies, when the good guy comes face-to-face with some bad guys, he always pops out from behind cover and starts walking sideways, sometimes completing a full circle around his targets who, for some retarded reason, always shoot right where he just was? That's how Rambo does it, right?

No? Well, maybe that's because if you tried that circle strafe horse crap in real life, the bad guys would be smart enough to shoot you before you were able to kill 50 of them without ever having to hide behind a rock to wait for your armor to recharge. And since anyone with any sense knows that doesn't really work, why have we adopted such a technique so readily in video games, and never stood up and said, 'I call BS! This doesn't make sense!'? If you don't play shooters, you don't know what I mean, and if you do, you're sitting there nodding your head and going, 'hellz yah bitches dats how i roll'.

(I should interject at this point and state, in the interest of full disclosure, that I will be mocking video gamers at every possible opportunity, despite being a huge fan of video games. Anyone who has ever visited a forum for Grand Theft Auto has had to plow through endless threads involving people cursing each other in cave-man English, and anyone who has ever played Xbox Live has had the opportunity to mingle with some of the world's most misanthropic idiot children. Some of those idiot children are actually adults, and in many cases have idiot children of their own.)

I guess the silliness of the circle strafe is what the designers of Gears of War were thinking when they made their game. Because if you try a circle strafe in this game, your enemies will blow so many holes in your ass you won't know which one to poop out of. In Gears of War, you have to hide behind stuff, like short walls and piles of rubble, crouching down to avoid catching a bullet with your face, and poke your gun over the top to spray bullets at random toward bad guys who are hiding just like you and only popping out now and then to hose down your hidey hole with their own automatic weapons.

That's only one of the things that makes Gears of War a lot more gritty than your average shooter. Other factors that make the game gritty are things like believable blood sprays and a chainsaw on the end of your gun that lets you cut a bad guy into very gnarly chunks. The fact that your character spends the whole game covered in a thin layer of grime doesn't hurt, either.

The graphics lend a lot of grittiness to Gears of War, too. They're beautiful, taking full advantage of the 360's graphics, but almost anywhere you go has been blown to shreds before you got there. There's rubble everywhere, boarded-up windows, bomb craters, broken glass, and assorted other mood enhancers that make you feel like you're in the middle of a war zone. And to make matters even more interesting, all the characters in the game are built like professional weight-lifters. Everyone in the game looks like it's completely normal to take more steroids than Barry Bonds and Rafael Palmeiro put together. Even the bad guys, gruesome alien humanoids, eat too many Wheaties.

The story behind Gears of War is not particularly deep, but it's fun anyway. It seems that instead of being invaded by aliens from space, Earth was invaded by aliens from space that were hidden underneath the ground and popped out. You can see the difference between this and... every other shooter where aliens invade. Instead of boarding alien space ships to kill the invaders, you have to go crawling through grimy tunnels to kill the invaders. So that makes it completely different.

In all fairness, there is a decent story, with your guy (Marcus Fenix) being sprung from prison to help fight the Locust (that's bad guys to you and me). The unfolding plot of the game could basically be turned into a big-budget Hollywood B-movie and probably make a decent amount of money. It falls somewhere between the 'proceed to next stage and kill enemy' plot of most shooters and the 'who the hell is that guy?!' convoluted madness of a Japanese RPG. But any more, you can find some kind of plot in just about any game, so even an evolving story doesn't make Gears of War all that different from every other kill-the-aliens shooter on the market.

What does make the game completely different is the cover thing. You can no longer run around willy-nilly, shooting from the hip and sniping on the fly, because if you don't grab some cover, the bullets out there will tear you right to pieces. You can crouch behind cover if it's low, lean against cover if it's tall, and jump from one piece of cover to another. Then you stick your gun out and spray some bullets, and if you're feeling lucky (and ammo-conscious) you can also stick your head out and spray some bullets.

This cover concept is not entirely new, but it is a dramatic advancement for shooters in general. Grenades become a lot more valuable when you can't shoot your enemy from where you're sitting, and you can't circle around because if you leave that pile of rubble your friends will carry you back home in a collection of Ziploc bags. You can't even really call the cover mechanic a gimmick, because in this case, it's integral to the game. And more than that, it feels a lot more like a fight when you can't dodge a bullet just because you're walking sideways.

Unfortunately, Gears of War has a problem, and it's not the departure from the norm. The real problem is that when you put it next to some of the other shooters you can get, it just doesn't hold its own. Especially now that you can compare it side-by-side with Halo 3, the controls just don't seem as smooth as they should. In Halo 3, I never feel like I get killed because the controls don't do what I want (it's usually because I can't shoot for crap). In Gears of War, that happens relatively often, usually because my guy won't grab cover when I want, and happens to be standing up when a bad guy lets loose with a chain gun.

But don't let my complaints here dissuade you - Gears of War is a blast. The single-player mission has to be seen to be believed, and before Halo 3 stole all its thunder (and the thunder of every other multiplayer shooter on the planet), there was a thriving online game community. You can still find people playing Gears of War Live, even though most of the hardcores have moved on to the next big thing. And there's a great co-op mode for the campaign game that lets you heal your buddies when the bad guys drop them.

You just can't say lots of bad things about a game that lets you run up to an enemy firing full-auto, and then when you get close, chop off his face with the chainsaw underneath the barrel. The graphics are top-notch, the missions are varied enough to stay interesting, and the cover mechanic makes every fight feel desperate. It's not for everyone - I don't let my kids play games where you can chainsaw enemies into dog food - but it's a very fun game if you can get over the occasional death-by-control scheme.


Incredible graphics
Great cover mechanic
Chainsaw on the end of your gun!
Decent story

Controls don't always do what you intended
Community has suffered since Halo 3

I really enjoyed Gears of War, even when I was getting shot to death because I couldn't tell my guy to keep his head down.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Horrid Game Review: Lord of the Rings (for kids)

There's a riddle in Germany. It goes, 'how do you get Reiner to make a bad game?' The answer is, 'make him start with a theme.'

That riddle isn't very funny. In all honesty, it's not even a real riddle. I just now made it up.

Real or not, though, I maintain that this riddle is true (that's probably why it's not funny). If you make Reiner Knizia start with a theme and try to build rules that match it, you're just begging for trouble. Everyone knows real Reiner games are supposed to have interchangeable themes, so you could make Through the Desert into a sci-fi game or make Kingdoms into a game based on a movie. Say, Beowulf.

So when Reiner Knizia starts off with Lord of the Rings instead of some wacky adding mechanic he came up with while he was fixing his calculator or counting his money, you know there's trouble a-brewing. And then make him take that theme and make it into a kid's game. If there was any hope of this being a cool game, it's gone now. But that's what he went and did in the Lord of the Rings game for children.

In this light-hearted adaptation of Lord of the Rings (you know, that trilogy about the ring that dominates minds, and the horrible entity that seeks it and destroys all before him? Yeah, that light-hearted story), the players each take on the role of one of five hobbits.

No, I didn't type that wrong. There are five hobbits. Apparently, you can play as Merry, Pippin, Sam, Frodo, or Brian Epstein. That's the hobbit who didn't make the final cut and was heartbroken to be left behind, until he found out that the other four had to get chased around, tortured, beat up, frozen and otherwise abused, while he was left home smoking a bowl of Longbottom and banging Sam's lonely girlfriend. Then he didn't mind as much.

So anyway, all the kids pick out a picture of a hobbit and they get a matching wooden token to move around the board. There's a path, just like Candyland, except that the path branches, so you can cruise through Moria and Mirkwood or take the scenic route through Barrow-Downs and Isengard. You roll a die and get to move on the path you choose.

When you get to a place with a name, there will be a disc with a picture of a friend or enemy. You can fight the enemies (hobbits were kick-ass brawlers, is what I hear) or befriend the friends. If you don't win the fight/negotiation, your turn is over.

The fighting system makes a huge amount of sense in a kids' game. There's a spinner with four spaces on it. One space has two red blocks. One space has three. One space has one block and a picture of a black bird, and the last space has a spooky red eye that your kids will see in the closet after you tuck them in and turn off the light. You spin the spinner and remove the number of blocks from the enemy, unless you roll the horrible red eye, and then your turn is over. If you've pulled off all the red blocks, your kung-fu is more powerful and Billy Preston is able to shiv the Uruk-Hai in its sleep.

These are obviously very tricky rules, which is why this game has a basic version and an advanced version. God knows your kids are suffering from Down's Syndrome, and could therefore not handle advanced rules until they mastered the basics of rolling a die and then spinning a spinner. In the advanced game, you can throw away your friend cards to avoid capture or take another turn. This advanced tactical possibility proves one massive, important point - there's no way Reiner has children, or he would know that they're not all retarded.

I would like to say that this Lord of the Rings game has limited strategic decision-making, but if I did, I would be exaggerating. That's like saying Death Valley gets limited rainfall. You roll the die, then you move, then you spin the spinner, then your turn is over. This is Candyland with hobbits and orcs.

Making games for kids is tricky, I'm sure. Chutes & Ladders and Cooties have apparently made game designers think our kids all have persistent brain damage from which they fully recover at age twelve. I don't know about you, loyal readers, but when I was six, my dad taught me checkers, and when I was eight, I played chess. I know seven-year-olds who can whip me at Connect Four. The point is, kids are smart enough that after they hit kindergarten, you can break out rules with a little meat on them.

Lord of the Rings fails completely for many reasons. First, if you're going to make a theme game, try to follow the theme. I can't figure out who this fifth hobbit is supposed to be, but I would love to know how he's able to throw a beating on the Witch King of Angmar. The Nazgul are represented by black wooden tokens that were evidently taken from a game about ravens, because they just look like big black birds, and they don't do a damned thing except move around the board and be a pain in the ass.

Another reason the game blows is because the game itself has no meat at all. The entire thing comes down the toss of a die and the spin of a spinner, and even kids are smart enough to see right through that. Any kid old enough to have outgrown Candyland will be bored to tears by this game.

Reiner Knizia is obviously a clever guy. He's able to make some really cool games with really cool mechanics. He's easily the world's most successful board game designer. But few game designers are able to so completely ruin a game. Other game designers would have to test the game for a long time and iron out all the kinks before they sent it to a publisher. For some reason, Reiner can crap out a game on a piece of toilet paper and get somebody to publish it, and every now and then, that's exactly what he does (metaphorically speaking, of course).

This concludes my series on Reiner Knizia. Just for laughs, I'm going to review a video game next. If you've been wondering what Gears of War is like, come back in a couple days and I'll tell you all about it. And in the meantime, sleep easier knowing that Reiner's Lord of the Rings kids' game is out of print.


A very nice storage tray
Lots of wood pieces

Takes the richest theme a game can have and ruins it
Somehow has four pages of rules designed for people too young to read
More luck than roulette
Five hobbits

You can probably find a copy of the LotR game for kids around here somewhere:

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Board Game Review: Beowulf

The other day I got a copy of a new Reiner game called Beowulf from Fantasy Flight Games. And today I'm reviewing a Reiner game called Beowulf, from Fantasy Flight Games, but they're not the same game. Blows your mind, huh? That, or I shouldn't write reviews when I've been drinking.

I'm not going to tell you about the new game right now (it's actually called Beowulf: The Movie). I might eventually, but right now I want to tell you about the old one (with the full title of Beowulf: The Legend). This is a series about Reiner games, and I'm swapping off between games I like and games I don't. This one is the 'game I like' Reiner game. In fact, this is more like a 'game I love' Reiner game.

I like games with themes. Maybe I just played too much D&D as a kid, and so I want every game to invigorate my imagination and tell me a story. Actually, I can virtually guarantee I played too much D&D as a kid, but that may or may not have anything to do with my love of games with themes.

Reiner Knizia doesn't specialize in themes. He's a math nerd, and his games are often mathematical exercises. Check out the Atlanteon review to see what I mean. For that matter, check out nearly any Reiner game ever made. Just about all of them entail more math than I generally want to do, whether I'm playing a boring game or balancing my checkbook. Beowulf is the exception, and it's a wonderful exception.

Unless you dropped out before your senior year (or you're under 16, and your parents would not approve of you reading my reviews), you've probably read the tale of Beowulf. But my 12th-grade English book left out a lot of stuff, like Beowulf raiding Friesland and becoming king and getting poisoned by a dragon. I hope I haven't ruined the story for you, but then, I don't really care. If you don't know the whole story, you will after you play this game, because Beowulf: The Legend starts with sailing to Denmark and ends with Beowulf's death.

In Beowulf: The Legend each player takes on the role of a friend and ally of the great hero. You join him on his exploits as he rips off Grendel's arm, kills the monster's mom, and all that other heroic stuff. And as you go, you try to get fame and fortune, so that when Beowulf finally dies, you can take over as king.

The mechanics of the game occur in episodes. One episode might be Sail to Denmark, where another is King Hygelac and yet another is Swedish Betrayal. At each stop along the hero's journey, players bid for fame, fortune and cards. Each stop is different, too - good things in Beowulf's story let you stock up on the cards you might need, while the dangerous scenes might just entail avoiding loss or injury, but might get you some fame or treasure as a reward for surviving the scene.

Each player carries a hand of cards showing axes, helmets, longboats and other Viking stuff. Each encounter where these cards come in handy shows two pictures, and players try to have the most of whatever is showing at that episode. If this sounds complicated, that's because it is. I'm not going to run down an eight-page rulebook in a game review, so I'll just tell you that it's fun. Players will be trying to out-bid opponents, weighing risk over reward, and plan for future turns while making sure they get what they need now. Sometimes it's worth getting scratched up by the troll to have the advantage when it comes time to hunt down Grendel's twisted bitch of a mommy.

Players compete at the big conflict episodes, and each player gets something. The highest bidder might get a bunch of fame, the second bidder might get a little gold, and the lowest bidder might wind up with a bloody nose and nothing else. But at the next stop, that lowest bidder is going to be holding all the cards, while those high-rollers have blown their wad and don't have any way to keep from getting curb-stomped by Swedish backstabbers.

Despite having rules more complex than I intend to relay in a game review, Beowulf is actually very easy to play. There are icons everywhere to remind you of what you're supposed to be doing, and everything tricky has a very clear description. I've played the game with a 9-year-old, and she understood it just fine.

This game is the optimal mix of Reiner cleverness and theme. The great story is inseparable from the game play, so you may not even recognize it as a Reiner game (I know I didn't). Then you get to the beauty of the rules and nail-biting decision-making, and you can really see the Reiner genius. If you like theme, bidding, strategy and long-range planning, you should get a kick out of Beowulf: The Legend.

Beowulf: The Legend has everything I like in a board game. There's great theme. There's fantastic strategy. There's tough decision-making. There's beautiful art. If the only Reiner games you ever play are Maginor and Beowulf: The Legend, you'll probably think Reiner Knizia is God's gift to gaming. I would certainly stop playing his games before you get to the Lord of the Rings kids' game, because MAN ALIVE is that a stinker. Like dead-body-in-the-sun stinky. It's so bad, I'm going to review it as the last game in this Reiner series, because that will be fun.


Fantastic art
Great theme
Follows the story beautifully
Nail-biting strategy and decision-making
Great cutthroat bidding

Takes a play-through to understand the rules

If this review makes you want a copy of this game, run over to the FFG website and buy it. You'll be glad you did:

Friday, November 16, 2007

Bored Game Review: Atlanteon

My last review was for Maginor, which I really like. It's a Reiner game, and I'm willing to admit that he makes some really good games. What I want to emphasize, however, is that he also makes some of the most horrible, overrated crap you'll ever have the misfortune to hate.

Which brings me to Atlanteon. I will not beat around the bush here - this game really, painfully sucks. It blows my mind how many people say they like this game, because I couldn't find anyone to play with me who didn't think it was horrid.

I came to own Atlanteon when Fantasy Flight Games sold a whole pile of games really cheap, right around last Christmas. It was a great sale, and I scored some really fun games. When the box came it was like Christmas - which was a weird coincidence, because it really was Christmas.

I punched out and played the games as quickly as I could, so I could decide which ones I loved. A few rose to the top. Some were OK. One in particular sticks in my mind, the way images of starving African babies stay with you until you die. That one is Atlanteon.

The box says that Atlanteon is a game of undersea conquest. The theme for this game is so weak, however, that it could be a game of dogs marking trees, or bums taking each other's subway vents in the middle of a New York winter. In fact, you could strip the theme off the game completely without affecting it in any way at all. The box ought to say that Atlanteon is a game of boring math with some pictures of sea monsters.

The fact that there's a theme at all is almost an insult, except that the art is really cool. The board is a grid with this kick-ass painting of an Atlantean city, with a mean-looking mer-dude perched on either side (yeah, it's the same merman, they just colored him different). Even the pieces look like there should be quality in the box - they're heavy-duty cardstock and wooden markers, and they're classy.

Too bad Reiner Knizia couldn't have been bothered to make some rules that actually went with these pretty pieces. Instead the game is a sleep-inducing math class. What you do is, you get someone who you're pretending is your friend, and the two of you take turns putting down numbered tiles to try to surround spaces. You don't want to leave room for the other guy to surround a tile, and if you do have to leave room, you want to make sure your tiles all have bigger numbers than his. When a tile is surrounded, you add up the point values for every tile around it, and the one with the higher point value gets to say that tile is his.

That's pretty much it. If you've ever played that stupid game where you connect the dots and try to block off squares while you wait for your dental appointment, Atlanteon should be a snap. You put down tiles until both people are out of tiles or one dumb bastard gets his king tile surrounded, and then the game is over and you see how many tiles each player owns. There's some lame crap about who surrounds castles or what-not, but it's irrelevant - the game sucks.

I wanted to like this game. I bought it, paid money for it, and I hate it when I pay money for horrible games. I can tolerate a mediocre 'meh, we'll break that out when family visits' game, but 'hide this crap so nobody knows we own a copy' games really bother me. So I wanted to like it, and to make sure I hated it, I played Atlanteon four times. I had to find four different people to play it with me, because nobody else had paid for it so nobody else was willing to subject themselves to the game twice.

After four failed attempts, I had to admit that I really hated Atlanteon. I didn't just hate it because the theme was completely pointless. I didn't just hate it because the dark tiles used the exact same art as the light tiles. I hated it because it was more boring than long division.

Some people have asked me why I don't like Reiner Knizia. In all fairness, I don't entirely despise Reiner games. That's why I started this series of reviews with Maginor - that's a really fun game, and I don't want people to think I just dislike the man's games in general. He's obviously a clever guy, and when he puts his mind to it and does a little playtesting, he can make a great game.

But I have little patience for a man who could make great stuff and settles on making garbage he can sell. At this point, Reiner trades on his name, and manages to sell perfectly legitimate game companies total crap because they can put his name on it. When a game like Atlanteaon can be purchased at nearly every game store in the country, someone is a little too big for his britches (I mean Reiner, in case that wasn't clear). And when stupid suckers like me will buy these rotten chunks of mucal fungus because of his name, someone is too dumb to know not to buy a game just because it's on sale (in this case, I mean myself).

Now maybe I'm being too hard on the guy, but I tend to think that if Atlanteon had been Reiner Knizia's first game, there would not have been a second. I tend to think that Reiner's early games had to be better than his later games, because otherwise nobody would know who he is today. He's the Quentin Tarantino of board games (seriously, did anyone like the last half of Grindhouse?).

So now you know why I don't like Reiner games. I don't actively avoid his games, it's just that I don't really care if his name is there or not.

Join us next time when I'll review Beowulf, another Reiner game I enjoy. Then I'll wrap with one more I hate because it's as cathartic as beating rude children.


It's from Fantasy Flight, so it's pretty
You can get it real cheap
Finished in five minutes, so you can go play a game you like

Boring math game
Theme is completely worthless
Recycled art

If you want to get yourself a copy of Atlanteon, I suggest looking here:

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Board Game Review: Maginor

Maginor is a pretty old game. I actually bought it long before I ever started reviewing games. It's from the Silver Line of games from Fantasy Flight Games. Since this is an older game, and it seems odd to review a game this old, I'll explain exactly why I decided to make it my third review here at Drake's Flames.

If you read my introductory post, you may have noticed that I'm not a big fan of Reiner Knizia. You may be wondering why I dislike Reiner games (yeah, I'm going to be all flippant and refer to the man by his first name, despite never having met him, because I can pronounce 'Reiner' and 'Knizia' sounds like Polish food). So I decided to review four different Reiner games and be crystal clear exactly why I like to say bad things about the world's most well-known game designer. We'll lead off with a great Reiner game, and then I'll get into some real stinkers.

So back to Maginor. To start off, Maginor is not like most other Reiner games in that it has a fairly decent theme, one that doesn't feel like it was pasted on after the game itself was designed. The time has come to choose a new High Wizard, and the potential successors (the players) must garner the support of not just the wizarding council, but a panoply of oracles. Centaurs and dragons, witches and unicorns must all be wooed to gain their support, for without the support of these supernatural allies, you don't stand a chance of taking the top job.

So the players hit the election trail. They have spells ready to cast to impress these unearthly creatures, but time is not on their side, because the current High Wizard (his name is Maginor, which explains the game's rather silly name) is making the rounds and asking the oracles to commit to their favorite candidates. Players must travel quickly and persuade effectively to get the oracles to back them, because once Maginor talks to an oracle, the votes are collected and there's no point in going there again. Kind of like New Hampshire.

So far, this is almost as un-Reiner as a game gets. Theme in a Reiner game is like a baseball uniform on a little league team - you've gotta have one, but it doesn't really matter what it is. So for Maginor to lead off with a theme this deep means it's not your average Reiner game.

There are twelve oracles, each with different values. It's a lot better to get the big red dragon to vote for you than to get the wise old owl, for instance. That makes sense - the red dragon has lived for thousands of years, and is a powerful creature. The owl can only tell you how many licks it takes to get to the Tootsie Roll center of a Tootsie Pop. But the owl is easier to persuade, so players may focus on the smaller targets and let their opponents fight over the dragon's attention.

To get support from an oracle, a player has to travel to an oracle and then cast a spell using one of the four elements. To cast a spell, a player rolls a die that has six different symbols. If an elemental symbol shows up, the player places one of his vote markers on the oracle next to the corresponding symbol. If the star shows up, the player usually gets to choose which symbol gets the voting marker. And if the die shows the hat, the player still gets to choose, but Maginor moves forward. Choosing your symbol only matters in case of ties, because the top symbol always wins ties.

As Maginor moves forward, he talks to the oracles and collects their votes. If the players have spent enough time campaigning at a particular oracle, they get to collect the support of the oracle. Once Maginor completes his rounds and gets back to the High Council, support is added up and the player with the highest total support wins, and gets to be the new High Wizard.

If all you did in Maginor was move to a location, roll a die and wait to see who wins, the game would suck. It would be really boring, and my kids would probably want to play it all the time. They seem to have a soft spot for games that make me want to tear out my eyes. Happily,
Maginor has quite a bit more.

For starters, each player gets a handful of spell cards. These let the player choose which symbol to place on an oracle where they're standing, or lets them roll on an oracle where they're not standing. You can only roll for your location once a turn, but you can use all the spell cards you want, so you can use spell cards to force an oracle to throw all its support behind you in one turn. The trick is, once you use a spell card, it's gone. A smart player will save a few for the end, to have the deciding vote where he needs it, but if other players snatch up all the prime oracles early on, it won't matter if you do have spell cards left, because there won't be anything left worth grabbing.

Then there are second-place prizes at every oracle. See, the oracles will support the candidate they like the most, but they feel sorry for the runner-up, so they give them consolation prizes. I'm not sure why the Sphinx feels sorry for anyone, but if you come in second for his attention, he'll throw you a bone.

These runner-up ribbons can save your bacon, because these are really powerful spells. They let you move for free, or bump out another player's vote, or even reclaim some of your spell cards. In some cases, a player who wins an oracle may even decide to take the spell instead, because being able to break the tie at the High Council is worth a lot more than getting the support of some lame pixie.

I have played Maginor countless times. It is easily my favorite Reiner game, and one that gets pulled out of the game closet more often than most of my other games. That's impressive, especially because I have a lot of games. My kids like it enough to play it a lot, my wife will play with me, and my dad even plays with us when he visits. It's a really fun game that requires minimal setup and plays in about an hour.

Plus Maginor looks great. That's not a surprise - you don't see Fantasy Flight Games making ugly games on anything like a regular basis. I guess FFG is like a sorority house full of cheerleaders - now and then their stuff might be boring, but it's almost always pretty.

If Maginor was the only Reiner game ever made, I could get behind Reiner Knizia 100%. This game is fun, pretty and easy to play. It's affordable, too - twenty bucks and shipping can make it yours, and you can probably even find it cheaper somewhere. I heartily recommend Maginor to just about anyone who likes playing board games, because it's got enough theme, strategy and plain-ol' fun to please nearly any gamer I've ever met.

So why don't I like Reiner? I'll tell you next time, when I review Atlanteon. Because man, does that game suck.


Really fun
Great art
Ridiculously affordable
Quick and easy to learn and play
Great decision-making with minimal luck

There really aren't any. This is a really good game.

You can get your own copy of Maginor right here:

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Board Game Review: Fire & Axe

Being a Viking had to be the worst job ever. Sure, there were perks, like running off with all the women and pillaging at random, but the commute was hell. You think you have it bad getting stuck in traffic? Try doing it in a boat with no roof on it, rowing to your next raid, while freezing rain soaks through your clothes and your beard crusts over with salt from all the waves crashing on your face. And then when you get to work, instead of boring memos and bad coffee, you've got angry villagers throwing all manner of sharp things at you to get you to leave.

On the other hand, Viking stuff makes great stories. And in Fire & Axe from Asmodee US, it also makes a really cool game.

Fire & Axe is a beautiful game. The board is all illustrated - none of the computer generated slop you see on some game boards these days, with its complete lack of soul. It's a map of Europe, but with some parts slightly exaggerated. For instance, the physical distance between England and North America is less than the distance between Rome and Paris. But you can still tell where everything belongs, and since there are names at all the ports, you can also figure out where they put the coast of Spain.

The pieces in the box are fantastic. The cards are decorated with gorgeous paintings. The little plastic Vikings and their kick-ass long boat are excellent little sculpts. The money markers, the plastic cities and towns, and the round boat card are all some of the highest quality art you'll ever see in board games.

Game play is just as sweet. Each Viking leader (you know him as 'the player') gets seven days every turn, and he can spend this time loading Vikings or trade goods, sailing around Europe, or drawing up Rune cards. Once he gets to a port, the Viking leader can elect to trade, settle or raid, and each has its benefits.

(Quick aside - the astute reader will notice that I've used the male third-person pronoun instead of the more politically-correct 'he or she'. See, female Vikings didn't ride in the longboats - have you ever heard of Janice the Purple? No, because she was home having babies and dodging axes thrown by hairy psychopaths. The Vikings who were storming the castles and riding off on the women were dudes.)

Since you only have seven actions every turn, you have decisions to make. Do you get loaded for bear, but then spend the turn in port, or do you run lean so you can make it all the way to Ireland this turn? Do you sit around Denmark drawing Rune cards, or do you get underway and go sack Constantinople (not Istanbul - that's nobody's business but the Turks)? In this way, the game somewhat resembles a Euro game, but no Euro game I ever played had this much killer theme.

Raiding, settling and trading all have different requirements. Trading is the easiest - just take a trade good off your boat and put it on the port, then collect your cash. Settling and raiding can be trickier, because you can lose perfectly good Vikings that way. You have to roll dice to see if you can pull it off, and if you're unlucky, you could get the deck wiped with your ass before you ever set foot in Rome. And that kind of theme means that I love this game.

The goal of all this raiding and pillaging (then, in some cases, burning, which everyone knows must come after pillaging) is to get the bards back home to sing songs about you. And you get those bards singing by completing Sagas. These cards give you goals - settle three cities in Eastern Europe, trade with some ice-hole in Russia, or burn Antioch. Complete the mission on the card, and it's yours, and the bards have to start tuning up.

The game goes until all the Saga cards have been collected, and this can take a couple hours. It might take more with more than three people, and then again it might be faster, as you have more people to do those hits on Scotland and Nova Scotia. I couldn't tell you, because I've only ever played with three. But if you don't have two hours to play a game, this is not the game you're looking for. Try Politico - you can finish that in 15 minutes.

Up to this point, Fire & Axe is a total blast. You're sailing, trading, settling and raiding. You're the baddest Viking of them all, you just sacked Rome, you've got Janice the Purple sitting in your lap and you're spilling a huge wooden mug of mead all through your braided beard hair. And then the last Saga card is gone, and the game ends, and it's time to figure out who won.

Then everything comes to a screeching halt, because scoring this game is like cold water in your lap. Like you're making out with Keidi Klum, and then she tells you she's really a dude. The entire celebration of manly misdeeds comes to a screeching halt as you call in the best accountant in the room to tally up the score for you.

See, you get points for every spot you settled. Then you get points for every town you raided. Then you get points for completing Sagas. Then you get points for still being awake, because at this point you've been doing math like a nerd at a calculator show. Then you add up any points that you've earned so far, from stuff like trading or stealing underwear from hot Roman chicks (who may or may not have been wearing underwear).

Once all the points are totaled up (this will take a while), the one with the most points wins. It's a little anticlimactic to have all this bloodletting and ocean-going end with a financial report, but it's not that big a deal. Yes, the scoring is a pain. I won't lie to you. Well, I will, but not about this. But the game is really fun, and as long as someone at the table can do math in his head (or her head, we're out of character now and there may be girls present), it's not that hard to add up points.

Fire & Axe is not the perfect game for any player. You have to love the theme of pillaging and settling and sailing. You have to be ready to play for a couple hours. If you're a huge Euro gamer with a disdain for luck in your games, you won't like this one at all. But if you can spew lines from Beowulf and 13th Warrior, or if you just always wanted to braid your beard, this game can be two hours of pure fun. And then half an hour of math.


Great theme
Beautiful pieces
Exciting play
You get to talk like Vikings

The game ends in lots of math
Thick-ass rule book means you'll play wrong the first time

Never mind the calculus, I love this game, and can't wait to play it again. You can get your own copy here:

Friday, November 9, 2007

Board Game Review: Politico

What the hell, I'm up late already. I may as well write a review to start this thing off.

Before I dive into my world- shattering review of Politico, I should get this off my chest - I know the publisher, and more incriminating, I like him. But before you start screaming that I've got a conflict of interest, please consider the fact that you can't be as involved in the business of game publishing as I am and not have some friends in the field. Hell, if I only wrote reviews for people I don't know, I would have to cut half my sources for review copies. So quit yer bitchin. Unless you weren't bitchin', in which case I apologize for insinuating anything untoward.

Politico is the first game from Small Box Games, a new game publisher specializing in Euro-style board and card games. The company is founded by the guy who makes all the games, a funny little dude named John Clowdus.

John Clowdus is the guy everyone hopes is going to be a success story. He designs his games himself, half in hopes of making it big as a game publisher, and half hoping to get picked up by a bigger publisher who will pay him to make games all day. His friends are his playtesters, and they get worn out with the games that don't make the grade. They got lucky on Politico, though, because this is a really good game. I'm not just saying that because I like John, either - I've played some of his games that really sucked.

Politico's premise is largely irrelevant, and honestly, that's not usually my preference. I like a theme so thick that the rules have to work around it. But I can still recognize a good game, and my kids prefer games that are simple and clean, so I play my fair share of Euro-type games. The theme in this game is something about an old king and heirs and an election, but since it's not a theme that really affects the game, I don't care and I'm not going to waste time explaining it.

The pieces in Politico are exceptionally nice, considering the fact that the publisher is working on a shoestring budget. The cards are better stock than I've seen in some big mainstream games, and the little follower markers are really nice plastic counters. For some reason there's also a little drawstring bag in the box, but since it doesn't hold all the follower counters unless you carefully stack them, I already threw that out.

The game starts with each player getting two action cards. These let you recruit or influence followers, and on any given turn, you can only do one of them. That's why they're on cards - so they can be secret. Unless you're like my son, who can wreck games just by looking at them, and you bend one card so the other players always know what you're going to do. Then it's not quite as secret.

There are two other decks of cards in the game. The first depicts the four different classes of follower - merchant, peasant, guild member and clergy. These have different colors, which match the colors of the follower counters. At the beginning of every turn, someone will flip over the top card from this deck, and all the actions will pertain to that particular follower class. The second deck is the influence cards.

Now pay attention, because this is where it gets tricky. See, everyone around the table plays an action card face down, and then the number of actions you get depends on the number of people who didn't play the same thing you did. So if you're playing with Betsy, Ralph and Hugo, and you play the influence action, and the other three play recruiting, that means you get four actions and they each get two. It also means you need nicknames for your friends, because your friends have silly names.

Recruiting is really straightforward - you just take one follower of the active class for each action you get. Influence is a little trickier, because you can draw off that third deck or play your influence cards. If you've got three actions, you could draw two cards and play one, or draw three cards, or draw one and play two, or play three cards, or discard cards that match the current class to get followers. (See? That's more complicated.)

The goal of the game is to get 13 followers, and you need one of each class to win. Those damned influence cards will kill you, too - some cards will make you throw away your merchants, some will let you steal peasants, and some let your followers change jobs. The game is in constant flux, because even if you have all four classes and 12 total followers, it ain't over 'til the fat lady sings. And that tubby bitch can be warming up backstage for a while.

There's a little more to the rules, but if you want to know what else you can do, go buy the game. What am I, Mister Wizard? It's less than $20, for crying out loud. If you can't figure out yet if you'll like the game, just pull the trigger and give it a shot.

Politico is a surprisingly good game, especially for being the first game from a fledgling publisher. The components are nice, the rules are tight, and it was obviously well tested. It's a quick, fun game that you can play with your kids, or you can break it out at a bar and run through a game or two while you swill your favorite malted beverage. I've done both, incidentally.

The thing about Politico is not that it's a mental exercise along the lines of chess or Othello. It's a light, 15-45 minute game that requires almost no setup or explanation. The thing about Politico is that you'll play it once, and then when somebody wins, you'll look at the clock and go, 'Do we have time for one more?'


Quick play
Nice pieces
Fun game
Not by Reiner Knizia

Weak theme
Crappy drawstring bag

You can buy a copy of Politico here:

Game Reviewer at Large

Board game reviewers are not exactly a dying breed. I can name four or five other reviewers off the top of my head, and if I bothered to look around, I could find another twenty without much effort. So what makes me think anyone is going to read one more crappy site about board games?

Hell, I don't know. I get lots more credibility by writing for Knucklebones, and tons of exposure writing for I get free review copies in the mail, half the time without asking for them. So not only are we at a place now where I don't know why people would read this blog, but now I'm wondering why I'm bothering.

I guess I could run this down pretty easy, if I think about a little. First off, most game reviewers are good gamers, but mediocre writers. Nobody reads game reviews because they're entertaining. People read about car crashes and adult video stores for entertainment. They read about game reviews because they might want to buy the game, and if they don't fall asleep by the end, they consider that a bonus.

Then you've got the fact that most reviewers hate writing bad reviews. They want to make game companies like them, because otherwise they quit getting free games. So when you read a review, most reviewers will have gone to great lengths to find something they like, so that they don't have to tell you their honest opinions. A rave review is still a rave review, but a fair-to-middlin' review might just be as low as a reviewer wants to go.

To address the first issue, I'm going to write entertaining reviews, and beyond that, I'm going to comment on things like gaming trends and events. This thing is called 'Drake's Flames', and I intend to voice off now and then. And hopefully it'll be the kind of gaming site that people want to read. Even if you own the game, even if you have played it hundreds of times, I want you to read my ramblings because you want to be entertained.

Plus I'm going to be blunt as a rubber mallet. If a game is boring, I will tell you that I would rather pull out my fingernails than play another round. I'll tell you exactly why I hated it, and what could have been done better, and if I really hate the game, I may just question the lineage of the game's creators.

Oh, and I'm going to make a habit of telling you why Reiner Knizia has seen better days.

So now that I have resolved why you should read my reviews, now I have to figure out why I'm going to bother writing them. I suppose it comes down to the same reason I started reviewing in the first place - free games. I sometimes have trouble getting some publishers to send me the games I really want to play, because other reviewers at my usual haunts have beaten me to the punch. And that irritates me to no end.

I'm going to try to add at least two articles a week. They may not all be very long, but I think if I set myself reminders for Tuesday and Saturday, I should be able to start compiling a healthy review library in a month or two. And then maybe FFG will finally send me a copy of Tide of Iron.