Sunday, March 30, 2008

Dungeon Game Review - Dungeon

I've been wanting to do a series of dungeon reviews for a while now. Dungeon crawl games are near the top of my favorite kinds of games - the combination of light role-playing and tactical combat mean 'fun' to me. So for the next two weeks, I'll cover these games right here:

Dark World
Dragon Strike
The Dungeons & Dragons Adventure Game

We'll start with an oldie but a goodie - Dungeon. The name may not be original, but at least it's got some truth in advertising. You'll assume the role of one of a handful of dungeon delvers and spelunk your way through a progressively dangerous dungeon. The goal is to pick up money and treasure and work your way up to the big boss critters - sure, you can wade through giant rats like a high-school bully stealing lunch money from grade-school nerds, but you may want to reconsider taking on the dragon before you've got some kills under your belt.

Dungeon is the least creative and expandable of the dungeon crawl games I listed above. The board represents a dungeon with a layout that never changes - the skeletons and goblins will always be hiding in the red rooms, and you won't score the really great treasure until you get past the yellow and purple rooms.

Combat is pretty basic. Each monster has six different numbers on the card, in six different colors. Different adventurers using different weapons (including magic) have to beat different numbers. For instance, warriors use the red number, which tends to be pretty low. The thief attacks on green, which tends to be considerably higher than the red. You roll two dice and if you beat your number, you kill the monster. Roll lower, and you have to roll again to see how badly the monster whipped your ass.

Turns tend to be fairly quick. You race your fellow adventurers from room to room like rats scurrying to hit the feeder bar at the next station. You collect a little treasure after each kill, and in some cases, even ambush the other dungeon delvers to steal their stuff. If you get enough treasure, the game is over and you win.

Dungeon is fun, but it's not much of a classic dungeon crawl-style game. Think D&D with all the interesting rules stripped out, the dungeon master replaced with a simplistic combat mechanic, and no cooperation with your fellow players. Come to think of it, that pretty closely resembles how we used to play D&D when I was a kid, which might explain why I like playing Dungeon - it's not really a good game, but it brings back some great memories of killing things and stealing their stuff.

Dungeon also doesn't tell a story, really, and it doesn't make much sense. There's no rhyme or reason to why a goblin might be in the closed-off room next to a giant lizard, or why the green slime is guarding a jade idol. This also reminds me of playing D&D as a kid - the stupid kobolds had a stone golem in one room and a horde of flesh-eating spiders in another, yet they kept their best treasure behind the dried fish in the pantry. And they never had bathrooms.

One enormous downfall to Dungeon is that, as you get close to winning, it's ridiculously easy to lose. You might be one gold ring short of winning the game, go into a room to fight a troll, and wind up getting knocked out and losing everything. Without gear, you're back to being as weak as a new adventurer, but all the rats and kobolds are dead now so you don't even have any chance of finding another magic sword. Your opponents can converge on your juicy pile of booty, and as long as they can kill the troll, they'll win the game without having to do much of anything.

But despite lots of drawbacks and inconsistencies, I still drag Dungeon out and play it now and then. My kids can get into it, I can play while I watch TV, and it's fun to remember the days when I was ten years old playing an enormous barbarian warrior with horrible hygiene and a taste for expensive jewelry. We would tromp around nonsensical dungeons, slaughtering lizard-men and orcs, goblins and shark people, and then run off with all their stuff.

Dungeon isn't a mature game, or even a very good game, but it can still be fun, and I wouldn't part with my copy for anything like reasonable money.


Happy trip down memory lane
Easy to learn
Easy to play
Whatever its faults, it is, after all, a dungeon crawl game

Not even an attempt at consistency
Arbitrary combat rules don't make for exciting fights
No story, just killing and collecting

I can't get you a link for this one. You can try eBay, and you might be able to find a copy at the thrift store, but it's really, really out of print.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Contest Results

The Spread the Word contest has come to an end. If you meant to send me pictures, you took too damned long and you missed your shot. And when you lazy slackers see how many entries I got, you're going to kick yourselves.

First place goes to Hendal. This hard-working prophet of Flames spread flyers all over the place. And when I say 'all over', I mean he went international. There are game stores in Costa Rica sporting Drake's Flames flyers. Panama City gamers can find reviews of all kinds of games now, even if they can't read them all. And by calling on some friends, he got flyers up in the States, too. He easily earned first place, and I'm delighted to give it to him. Here are just three shots of his work in action:

Second place was also a really easy call. Because Hendal's buddy Kruvallox (my apologies if I slaughtered your screen name, Kruv) did so much work, I'm awarding him a prize just for hooking up his friend. He did banner work, and I mean to thank him for it.

Third place went to the man known simply as Jim. Jim works at Hasbro, and took this shot:

OK, so while that is an awesome place to have my flyer up, it should be pretty obvious that it couldn't stay there. So Jim posted another flyer, right in his work space:

Jim has assured me that Rob Daviau has a copy of the flyer on his desk. Not only that, but Rob read my review of Risk: Black Ops. So that sure as hell earns a prize. Big-shot game designers read my reviews. Shouldn't you?

I'm awarding an honorary fourth place, even though I didn't even get ten entries. For that matter, I didn't technically get three - this last one is a Photoshop job. Either that, or Malechi works in a zoo and knows some really good printers. He may not have spread the word to people who can read it, but he did send in this awesomely creative shot:

For that, I've decided to send him a prize, too.

So you see, if anyone else had bothered to snap just one shot - just one! - you would have been guaranteed of winning something. You might not have been able to beat flyers on two continents, or personally handing a flyer to world-renowned game designers, but even a flyer in the bathroom at your local watering hole would have won a prize.

I get 400 readers a week, and only two of you have cameras?

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Board Game Review - Conquest of the Fallen Lands

Before I get started here, allow me to remind all you loyal readers that you've got two more days to send in your pictures for the Spread the Word contest. I've had several great entries so far - one guy gave a copy of the flyer to Rob Daviau! - but I've got lots of prizes, and as long as you send in something, your odds of coming away with a prize are pretty damned good. Like approaching 1.

So with the blatant self-promotion out of the way, allow me to discuss one hell of a good game that you've never even heard of before. And the reason you haven't heard of this game is because it's published by a little one-horse company out of Seattle called Assa Games (I may, as I write this review, 'conveniently' leave off the last 'a' now and then). The publishers are also the designers, and honestly, that doesn't usually bode well. Most self-published games rate somewhere between crappy and soul-suckingly horrendous. Small Box Games is one exception; Ass Games (see, I did it already) is another. Except that, where Small Box Games manages to release games on a pretty regular basis, Assa has only managed one. It's a good game, but I wonder why they don't ever pull their heads out and make another one.

Anyway, the theory behind Conquest of the Fallen Lands is that monsters have taken over this remote realm. The entire countryside (which is composed of randomly-placed hexagons) is occupied by the forces of evil, and you and your fellow noblemen feel obliged to kick them out. Of course, once you invade, you're probably stuck there fighting insurgents without an exit strategy, but that happens after the game is over, so it's not our problem.

Every noble starts off with two loyal followers. These can be any combination of mages, craftsmen or warriors. Sadly, vice presidents are not potential followers, which is a shame because then you could get really juicy contracts to redevelop the area after you kick out the orcs. You'll have to get by with Blackwater knights and Halliburton craftsmen.

In order to take over a section of the Fallen Lands, you'll need to play troop cards. You can afford these if you call on your warriors. They have to be volunteers - that goes without saying. Institute a draft and everyone will be coming home tomorrow.

Every troop card has a cost in warriors, craftsmen or wizards (or combination of those). You need three craftsmen to build a catapult, two warriors to put together a team of light cavalry, and two craftsmen plus two wizards to fabricate a war golem. You need forty-two contractors to build a toilet seat, which is probably why there aren't any in the game.

Troop cards have two values. Their attack value is a measure of how well they'll fight at the front of the battle, and for the first field you take, that number is all that matters. You'll probably start off slow, taking out a couple one-point orc stragglers, but you'll need some pretty hefty firepower to take out the dragon, and the Orcish Republican Guard will require considerable support.

And to get that support, each troop card on the field lends its support value to any hexes next to it. So if you've got archers in one spot, and cannons next to them, even light cavalry can take a pretty tough opponent. Since your troops all stay on the field for the whole game, you'll start small and build up, so that the game builds to a big finish. Then you're stuck there for a hundred years, but that's a small price to pay for the spread of democracy.

You can also build fortifications in lands you already occupy. Craftsmen can turn a previously conquered area into a green zone, and the forts you erect can add their support to attacks on outlying areas.

To really mix things up, you can make your wizards go to work casting spells, making wondrous devices, and calling in tactical air strikes. The magic cards can really turn the game on its head - your opponents may be eyeballing a field they think you can't take, and then BAM! one troop surge later, you're in there.

Of course, you can't go attacking your fellow liberators. You're one big coalition for world peace. So even if your opponent wants the same spot as you, he can't grab it if you get there first. And if you're a great big military force that generates a historically significant national debt to support an oversized army but still somehow can't find the cash to armor your siege engines, you'll probably be able to grab a lot of land from the guy who placed all his troops in stupid places while you went in and grabbed the capital city.

The goal of the game is to get paid. Every time you grab land, you get cash equal to the strength of the troops you had to defeat to get there. Happily, the Fallen Lands are rich in resources, so you can really clean up if you can take out the big enemies. This is probably why you're not going after the Tin Despot Lands - they don't have anything to steal (their people have to eat dirt, for crying out loud!), even if they do pose a more significant threat, and you can't win if you're broke. Of course, that money might be spent before the game is over - you've got to keep recruiting if you want to stay in the game. You'll need to hire more warriors, and then more wizards, and then more warriors, and more craftsmen, and more warriors, and you might wind up with a barrel full of pork for your trouble.

Once the entire country is liberated, it's time to count up your money. The player with the most cash wins. You don't even have to do real accounting - you get to keep all the money, and you don't even have to pay back the national debt. You can leave that for the people who have to clean up the mess you made in the Fallen Lands. Maybe it's for the best that you decided against bringing freedom to the Chaotic Lands - that's a mess you won't ever be able to resolve, as previous leaders have illustrated by getting their asses handed to them. Plus the Chaotic Lands don't have oil.

Conquest of the Fallen Lands is a really good game. It's a shame the creators don't make more games - I would play them. Considering the low budget production for the game, it's surprising how fun the game is to play. It would be more interesting if you could fight your fellow liberators, especially if you could claim friendly fire and offer a big mea culpa and a shrug, but that would sort of ruin the whole concept.

Maybe later Assa Games will make a game where two equally incompetent lords compete to be the next prince by offering empty promises and pointless-but-charismatic speeches, while a rival prince takes Geritol and talks really slow. The primary qualifications of the rival lords could be basically handy gimmicks that make the peasants think they're part of history. That might be a fun game, too.


Clever, nearly luck-free game
Lots of forethought required to stay competitive
Plays pretty fast, and turns go quickly
Opportunities for not-so-subtle political commentary abound

A little too Euro for lots of people
A little too Ameritrash for lots of other people
Fairly crappy art and components (but don't let it sway you - this is still a good game)

Most retailers won't carry Conquest of the Fallen Lands, but you can buy it direct from the publishers:

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Board Game Review - In the Year of the Dragon

I know Euro games aren't supposed to be about violent conflict, so I was delighted to find out that In the Year of the Dragon from Rio Grande has an atrocious number of deaths, often in fairly ugly ways. It's still a Euro game, so you don't get to kill your fellow players, but you sure can run up a body count of tax collectors and hookers.

Each player in this game represents a Chinese prince doing his best to get through what has to be the worst year ever. January and February go fine, and then everything goes to Hell in a handbasket. There are famines, plagues, and Mongol invasions. And while your country is being torn to pieces by internal and external strife, the emperor still wants his taxes and the citizens still want their festivals. It's a giant balancing act just keeping everyone alive, much less paying your bills.

At the beginning of every turn, you get a chance to up your revenue, improve your stores, or just impress the emperor with your wit and classic charm. The problem is, if you want to do the same thing as one of the other princes, the emperor has a 'doing the same thing as another prince' tax, and he gets to bill you. You can gather rice, make fireworks, put on a military parade, collect taxes or other things that are boring in American games but are the bread and butter of European games.

Then you hire people. At first you don't get to kill them - if you can fit them in a palace, they're fine, and they'll work for you as well as they know how. Farmers will let you gather more rice, healers will combat the plague, and whores (known in the game as 'court ladies') will make the emperor like you more. There are nine different kinds of people to hire, from soldiers and tax collectors to monks and scholars. Every one of them has a different job, and none are unimportant in your quest to come out ahead of the other princes.

The problem with hiring people is that you can wind up with one hell of a housing shortage. If you don't have room in a palace, you have to fire one of your people who is already there. Then the guy you just fired goes and hangs himself in the attic. Nothing says, 'Ameritrash' like a tax collector stretching his neck from a ceiling beam, but I swear this is a Euro game. Some people might say, 'hey, the game doesn't say you kill him!' Oh yeah? Well, if that's the case, explain why the guy is permanently removed from the game. He's out of the employment pool. It doesn't matter if he winds up getting rolled for his spare change and left to die in a pool of his own blood, or if he falls on his sword - either way, he's not looking for work any more.

After you hire people, then Something Happens. For two months, that Something is peace, which means nothing happens, but after that it gets interesting. You've got three dangerous events and two that aren't as bad, and each one happens twice. The safer events aren't even all that safe - if you can't pay your taxes, you have to behead one of your helpers for failing to pull in the required revenue. The emperor is really a dick like that.

It's funny, though, Mongol invasions are less threatening than famine. Apparently these are limp-wristed Mongols, because only the person with the fewest warriors loses anyone, and even then they only lose one person. And you can choose who has to stay behind to have the Mongols cut out his liver and eat it with fava beans. I like to use the scholars for that. Frigging academics.

Famine and plague are the worst. You can lose lots of helpers to famine or plague. If you don't have enough rice, your already-anorexic 'court ladies' starve to death and wind up being food for nearby hungry rats - and then the emperor is not quite as impressed with them. And if the plague hits and you don't have enough healers, you get to choose which of your employees winds up with a terminal case of hepatitis A. It could be a lot of them, so it's not a bad idea to bolster the ranks with enough doctors to tell everyone to wash their hands after they leave the toilet.

To simulate each prince's ability to manage his little corner of the kingdom, players earn victory points at the end of every round and at the end of the game. So if you have scholars earning you victory points all the time, it might be worth letting them live when the Mongols come and instead giving up the fireworks tech - especially if you have enough fireworks for the big Dragon festival. You can shoot off the fireworks while the Mongols cut off his head.

Even though there's a really kick-ass body count in In the Year of the Dragon, it's still pretty obviously a Euro game. There's a victory point scoring track. There's almost no luck. It's really hard to screw your opponents. It's all strategy and decision making, and no positioning or tactics. You never roll dice, and when you play cards, you get to look at your whole deck first. But then it's got a very good theme, and one that sticks to the rules very well. It's like a compromise - rope in the Ameritrashers with a high body count and cool theme, and keep the Euro gamers around with a little resource management and tough decision-making.

I was skeptical when I read the rules for the game, but after just a couple games, I've found myself a pretty big fan of In the Year of the Dragon. Especially once the bodies started piling up.


Lots of strategy
Tons of planning and forethought
Bodies stacked up like cordwood
Virtually no luck at all

Rules are confusing - you have to play it a couple times to get the hang of it
Extremely punishing for early game mistakes

If you like games where people die, or if you like resource management and games with no luck, get this game. Here's a link:

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Sort of a Rant - Gaming Blogs

I recently visited BoardGameGeek and noticed a list of gaming blogs. It's long. It's really, really long. There are so many game reviewers, it's no surprise I don't get as many review copies as I did when I wrote for Knucklebones. And since all those people are drowning out my awesome voice, I'm going to rant about it, be hypocritical, and point one finger so the other three are pointing back at me.

When I decided to create this site and update it regularly, I figured I was really on to something. I've been writing game reviews for years. I've even been paid to write them. I've reviewed games you've never heard of, and lots of games you're glad you don't have to see. I went to GenCon 06 with a press badge and wrote the official convention recap for Knucklebones Magazine. I interviewed and wrote about Richard Borg, and I'm on a first-name basis with marketing people and game designers at dozens of game companies. So I figured I had the rep and the pull to make a site like this work.

The good news is, I'm making it work. I do get the games I need to make this thing fly. The bad news is, I've got lots of competition, and they're making it hard for me to be taken seriously. After all, when there are 100 other guys writing game reviews, isn't my little site just another drop in the bucket? Sure, I've got between 300-500 regular readers, but that's really not that impressive. When I reviewed for, my reviews would get a thousand reads in a day.

Which brings me to the topic at hand. Why on Earth do we need this many gaming columns? Could all these people actually have something interesting to relate? Are we all just talking to hear our own voices?

Actually, I know the answer to that last one, and the answer is 'yes.' Most bloggers - including myself - write stuff because we like to write stuff. We like that we can get our words published. It makes us feel important to see our names in print. And it gives us something so we can sound pompous around other people - 'Well, that game is OK. I reviewed it for my blog. Allow me to spend the next thirty minutes boring you with minutia about my crappy blog that nobody actually reads.'

Not only do we love to spout off like we know stuff, we love to act like rock stars. We're not rock stars, we're nerds, and we know that, but we can pretend we're rock stars. We can show up at game nights with games you've never seen before and talk about the aesthetics and mechanics like we know stuff you don't. We can have people ask us questions about games and respond with comments like, 'I didn't care for the combat mechanic' or 'the components were a little drab' or 'I hate everything because I think that's cool.'

I want to make sure nobody thinks I'm slamming all the other gaming bloggers and not including myself. I like to feel important just like anyone else. I love when people ask for my opinion about a game. I thrive on people laughing at my stupid jokes, and it's especially great when I can get the designer of a game to read my review. But just because I'm guilty of this self-absorbed nonsense doesn't mean I'm the only one.

There are exceptions. Tom Vasel has to be the most likable game reviewer ever. He talks about board games because he loves them, and wants you to love them, too. Shannon Appelcline is not just a good game reviewer (he's forgotten more about games than I'll ever know), but he's a good writer, and he's incredibly professional. The guys at Fortress Ameritrash aren't really game reviewers, but they're damned brilliant writers, and they amuse the crap out of me. I don't come close to the audience these writers can generate... but I sure beat hell out of a lot of others.

I'm going to step out of the self-incrimination now and talk about the enormous quantity of dross that floats to the surface and refuses to die. I'm not naming any particular sites, mostly because I don't visit them more than once. But suffice to say that there are far too many crappy gaming blogs, and it's making kick-ass sites like mine get lost in the shuffle. These guys will have 1000-word game reports that give you a blow-by-blow account of the most obscure games you never saw, or they'll spout some drivel about their podcast, or they'll just type like trained monkeys with Ritalin dependencies.

If you read most gaming blogs, you'll notice something important - they suck. They're boring. They drop punctuation, they misspell words, they leave sentence fragments and they mix their subject/verb agreement so badly that dead English teachers wake from their graves to hunt them with metal rulers and heavy dictionaries. The authors are just gamers who decided one day that they should pontificate about something, and settled on talking about games because it's all they do with most of their lives.

But you know what? Those guys think their sites kick ass. They don't like that there are hundreds of gaming blogs. They think the other sites suck. In short, except for language you won't hear on kids' cartoons and endless parades of stupid jokes, they're just like me.

And I don't care. After all, it takes a lot of confidence (or arrogance) to decide that your ideas are worth committing to a permanent record and showing them to the entire world. Anyone that arrogant (like myself) is going to assume his stuff is better than anyone else's stuff. People as cocky as I am are going to go ahead and write, and to Hell with the hack writers who run those other sites.

So you want to know why there are so many gaming blogs? It's because we're all cock-sure and full of ourselves. We like to feel important. We think our opinions matter more than other opinions. Even when we suck, we won't ever admit it, because we couldn't possibly suck more than everyone else. We're really just petty, overconfident, self-absorbed assholes who want you to read our words and ignore whatever anyone else is crapping out after a big taco lunch.

And I'm the worst of all of them.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Party Game Review - Apples to Apples

There's an old saying that says, '50 million Americans can't be wrong.' Predictably, it's an advertising slogan. People will say anything when they're trying to sell you something.

The cover of Apples to Apples boasts quite happily that it has sold three million copies. That's not 50 million, but it sure ain't peanuts. That's an awful lot of games sold. For the sake of comparison, if every person who had a copy of Apples to Apples were to read this review on the same day, my email would be flooded with hate mail.

Because I'm going to swim upstream here. I'm going against the grain. I'm bucking the system. I'm a maverick. If I need to, I'll even invent new stupid cliches, because I really don't see why anyone likes Apples to Apples.

It's a very simple party game. One player is the judge, and he gives every other player seven red apple cards. These have random stuff on them, like Robert DeNiro, Popcorn or Penguins. Then the judge draws a green apple card and reads it aloud. The green apple cards have descriptive terms like Peaceful and Lucky and Global. Each player picks a red apple card that matches the green apple card, and the judge looks at all of them and chooses the one that fits the best.

There are no rules as to how the judge decides which red apple fits the green apple the best. If the green apple card says, 'Harmful' and you pick 'Penguins', the judge might choose that over nuclear bombs and the electric chair, just because it makes her laugh (yes, I said her. Because where I usually use the more correct male pronoun, in this case, there's every likelihood a woman wanted to play this game. Real men want to play stuff where people die).

The green apple card goes to the player who picked out the match the judge liked. If you get a certain number of green apple cards (the exact number depends on the size of your crowd), you win.

You might be reading this and thinking, 'that actually sounds pretty fun,' or 'wow, what a clever idea.' If you are thinking that while you read this, bang your head on something really hard, then check with your doctor to see if you have a brain tumor. Because that's not a game, it's a word-association exercise with an incredibly limited vocabulary. In fact, that's really my problem with Apples to Apples - there's just no game here. There might be an inane conversation, there might be some giggles, but there's no game.

Apples to Apples is just stupid. My family picked up this stupid game because so many people rave about how much fun it is. And having played it twice (and being unwilling to finish it the second time), we have determined that not only can 50 million Americans be wrong, the three million who thought this game was a good idea are quite possibly simpletons.

I fully expect to get a huge pile of negative feedback for this review. I didn't write it just to be provocative, though. I mean, I don't mind having people send me hate mail, but I really wrote this review because someone ought to stand up and say, 'Enough is enough! This is not a good game!' It's like a public service announcement, and sometimes you have to just bite the bullet and say something the public won't like. Cigarettes give you cancer, kids, and Apples to Apples is a waste of money and time.


Some people like it
OK, lots of people like it

I don't know why anyone likes it

No link today. I'm going to be taking enough heat as it is, without linking to a site about laxative suppositories.

Oh, who am I kidding. This is my favorite part.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Disastrous Game Review - Monster Quest

If I were to think about what it takes to make the world's worst board game, I think Monster Quest would have most of those elements. Confusing, nonsensical rules? Check. How about being unnecessarily long, to the point that most players would rather eat sewage than finish the game? Yep, we've got that, too. Thoroughly ugly cards and game board? You betcha! How about horrible components, so bad that they actually make it harder to play the game? Yeah, baby, it's all here. This is less like a board game, and more like an earthquake taking place during a tornado. It's possibly the worst game I've ever played.

The game is supposed to be about rival adventurers. Think Runebound, but with a Candyland board. You follow this path, and if you get lucky, you land on a side path and can take a trip through a haunted dungeon, criminal-infested boatyard or boring desert. The goal of all this traveling is to win six jewels. These little beauties are represented by ugly, black, plastic, cribbage pegs shoved into a completely undecorated piece of white foam board. And when you get six of them, you win. Only in all fairness, the winner is the guy who, just before you started playing, stepped on a rusty soup can lid and had to be taken to the emergency room, and was thus spared an evening wishing one of his children would light the house on fire so he could rush home.

Sometimes, you will land on a space and have to fight a monster. Then you will find the monster card with that monster's name on it. I would say 'that monster's picture', but sadly, there's no art. Just the name. Want to know what the giant gillamonster looks like (no, I didn't spell that wrong, that's what the card says)? Tough nuts. Use your imagination.

So then combat starts, and you start rolling dice. Combat is pretty straight-forward - you roll two dice, and if you hit, you do damage, and if you miss, you get hit. If you hit the beastie, you roll a die for damage, but monsters always do consistent damage. So far, nothing original, but nothing terribly wearisome. Just slightly boring fighting.

Oh, but you're not getting off that easy. You have up to 41 hit points, and with armor, you'll lose like 2 at a time. And the monsters? They've got anywhere from 10 to 35, so even fighting weak monsters means you're going to roll a lot of dice. You roll, miss, take damage, roll, hit, roll damage, roll, hit, roll damage, roll, impale your hand on a kitchen knife to get out of having to play any more.

And then there are all these cards. Map cards and spell cards and wisdom cards can be drawn all over the place, and they let you teleport, or reroll dice, or otherwise change how you move, or just get back some of your hit points when monsters stab you (apparently with butter knives). You can collect a hand of 20 or more cards over the course of the game, and you'll use them to have a little more control over where you go. Which is smart to do, because otherwise you have to go past all 226 spaces to get back to where you came from...

Unless you've bought property. Yeah, because a game this bad has decided to also be Monopoly. You buy property, which lets you go backwards, and when other people land on it, you get to charge them rent. So now, not only are we eternally roaming this enormous and convoluted board, but we're turning into real estate moguls. If you ever wanted to build a hotel in a gypsy's tent, this is the game for you.

If you could finish Monster Quest in an hour, it might not be such a travesty. You still wouldn't want to play it, but at least it would be over fast, like ripping off a band-aid. But a four-player game can take five hours. There are flights across the country that could take off as you lay out the board and land before the game is over. You could get from New York to Los Angeles in less time than it takes to play Monster Quest. And if your plane has horrible turbulence and the stewardess spills a drink on your pants, you will still have had a better time.

Monster Quest is like what would happen if your 13-year-old cousin decided to make a game with two stoner buddies in the basement of your mom's house. The rule book is nearly incomprehensible. The components are just this side of worthless. There are meaningless rules meant merely to make the game longer and aggravate people who have families. It is definitely the least professional game product I have ever seen, and I am thoroughly sorry I ever asked for a review copy.

So you know what I'll do? I'll save it, and down the road, I'll have another contest. And the poor bastard who comes in last place can have my copy of this game. It will be a consolation prize, at least until the sucker tries to play it. Then he'll be stuck with it, and I'll be laughing hysterically.


Heavy box can be used to deter home invaders
Great threat material - 'do your homework or you'll have to play Monster Quest!'

Worst game I ever played

Should you desire more information about Monster Quest, you can get a better idea of the game here:

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Contest - Spread the Word

I know I've mentioned this before, but I'm going to say it again for the cheap seats - I'm a total attention whore. I write this thing so people will read it. Not to mention I need readers to get free games. It doesn't do me much good to say to publishers, 'yes, I'll review your games, and both of my readers will really enjoy them.'

I chat up the site when I can, of course. I tell people. But I'm only one man, and I don't actually have a budget here. If I did have a budget, I could probably just buy the games I want and not have to write about them. Instead I have to save my money for more important things, like whiskey and hookers.

So this is where you come in. I want you to tell people about Drake's Flames. Word of mouth is great, but you gotta really get the word out. I need my current readers to turn into my loyal cadre of viral marketers. And to help you, I've worked up a little flyer for you to show off.

Post it at the game store. Post it in bars. Slap it on the side of your car. Glue it to your apartment windows. And then, because this is a contest, take a picture.

Here's how the contest is going to work.

1) Download the flyer. It's right here:

2) Print it out. The first page is color, the second is black and white, for all you luddites without color printers.

3) Cut each page in half on the dotted line, and then go put the little flyer wherever you can get away with it. Make damned sure you have permission, though - the last thing I need is a game store sending me hate mail.

4) Take a picture and email it to me. I don't need anything huge, so don't send me something I could turn into a billboard. I just need to see where you're spreading the word. Send your entries (along with your address) to:

I'll be the sole judge of how creative, persistent, or hilarious you are. I get to do that. It's my column. I'll be picking winners based on quantity (so feel free to send lots of pictures of lots of different places), quality (the men's room floor is not as good as the register at a game store), and general awesomeness (which I will be deciding entirely based on my own personal taste). Get wacky. Get creative. But most of all, get me more readers.

Just to clarify one point - I'm not looking for professional photography. Feel free to take the shots with your camera phone. I don't need resolution, and I'm not going to be using the pictures in future marketing campaigns. I'm looking for creativity, not professionalism.

I'll give this whole thing two weeks. On March 28, this column will show off the winners. I'll choose the number of winners based on how many people enter - up to 10 entries means there will be a first, second and third place, and for every 10 after that, I'll add one more prize, up to ten prizes. Here's what you can win:

* Key Harvest (still in the shrinkwrap)
* Elfball (with one team fully painted, and another awfully damned close)
* Herocard: Nightmare (played, but it's all there, and I'll throw in some promo glow-in-the-dark figures)
* Mr. Jack (played, but it's also all there)
* Conquest of the Fallen Lands (played just once, and yeah, all there)
* The Conan RPG
* The D&D 3.5 Edition Deluxe Dungeon Master Guide (it's got a black padded cover)
* A VixenTor Games deluxe dice tower
* A VixenTor Games adventure bag (whichever size and design you want)
* Cineplexity (I had to have at least one gag prize)

With the exception of the gag gift, these are all actually pretty decent prizes, unlike last time when I gave away games I hated and dice I can't sell. This time, there are some real pearls. Key Harvest, for instance - great game. I spent a week painting those Elfball figures. And I'll swear by those dice towers (because I make them).

So get busy! Get out there and get me some readers!

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Board Game Review - Recess

If you're a gamer nerd like myself, you might remember grade-school recess with a mix of humiliation and horror. You might remember regular fisticuffs, dirt in your hair, and taunting by girls. You might also remember wishing you could kiss the big bully's girlfriend, but then, you also knew that just thinking that meant that you were very likely going to wind up nursing a black eye and hanging by your underpants from a towel hook.

And just because Atlas Games knows how much we all miss those halcyon days of abuse by kids with hormonal imbalances, they've provided us with a special treat called Recess. This is a game where you have two goals: make out with a girl and beat the crap out of other kids in order to steal their lunch money. Yep, that's pretty much how I remember recess... except for the part where the girls didn't even want to talk to me, much less kiss me, and the kid losing his lunch money to those oversized gland conditions was me.

Recess takes place at a parochial school, complete with two nuns to watch the playground. Each player gets two boys and two girls, and they set them up at opposite ends of the playground. On your turn, you can move one piece three spaces, another piece two spaces, and a third kid just one. Then you move a nun, and those nuns can haul ass, so you can move them as far as you want.

To start a fight, you just move one of your kids onto one of your opponent's kids. The attacker takes a coin from the victim, and the victim falls down and gets dirt in his or her hair. In old-school tradition, the girls can get in just as many fights as the boys. This must be a pretty rough parochial school, because when we played, the girls were involved in a disturbingly high number of assaults.

Playground equipment blocks movement and visibility all over the board, so it's best to start a fight when a nun can't see you. And if someone ends their turn on a space with a nun and tattles on your little fracas, one of your kids is going to time out.

The big maneuver, though, is to try to get one of your boys in a space with one of your girls in a place where the nuns can't see you. Apparently the nuns don't mind nearly as much if you beat the unholy stuffing out of your classmates, but God and Heaven forbid you should lock lips. Fighting is bad, but public displays of affection are grounds for justifiable homicide.

If you can manage to arrange a rendezvous before recess ends, the game stops and everyone gives you two coins for managing to beat the odds and unite two star-crossed sixth-graders. If recess ends first (you get 30 minutes, tracked on a little spinning timer), then everyone goes back to class, and you'll just have to satisfy yourself with passing notes that the teachers intercept and then call you up to the front of the class to make you read them out loud.

The winner is the player with the most lunch money. Getting into fights is really, really easy, and getting two kids to smooch is really hard. So if you really want to win, the best strategy is to keep your kids clustered up, running in packs so they can start multiple fights every turn and protect themselves when the other kids come after them. Come to think of it, Recess isn't so much like my sixth grade. It's like West Side Story.

Recess plays very fast. You can finish a whole game in about 20 minutes, and thanks to the included sand timer, it won't last more than 30-40 minutes. It's a pretty clever game, and requires a good bit of planning ahead and maneuvering. If you really play well, you can wrap up your opponents' kids in fights, protect your own with nuns, and haul those two kids to their prepubescent make-out session.

And best of all, you get to be the cool kids. Unless you were one of those kids with a unibrow and a lower jaw that stuck out too far, this might be just the opportunity you've been wanting. Finally it's your turn to steal the lunch money and kiss the girl.


Quick turns
Mentally engaging decisions
Fun and a little brutal

Can get really repetitive, really fast
Not much depth

If you want to recreate your own grade school, but from the winning side, go here and get a copy of Recess:

Sunday, March 9, 2008

Board Game Review - Elemental Rift

An elemental rift is what you get when you eat a lot of Taco Bell. Your stomach gets a little queasy, you can feel the gas building up, and then when you finally relax your butt cheeks, you break one hell of an elemental rift. You know what I'm talking about. And you know full well you can't blame that on the dog.

Coincidentally, an elemental rift is also a metaphysical pool of the four basic magical elements - water, earth, wind and fire (which, without the water, is a fantastically horrible nouveau jazz band). Sorcerers cast spells to manipulate the elements in the rift, and use the released energy to power more spells. And if the game called Elemental Rift is any indicator, the goal of casting all those spells is to make the other sorcerers see how impressive you are. It's like writing a dissertation, but for wizards.

The elements in Elemental Rift are represented by black tiles with images of the four elements. Spells are represented by cards. Sorcerers are represented by you and your friends, and considering the average gamer's diet, you may get to see both kinds of elemental rift before the game is over.

Spell cards include two sets of information - casting cost and effect, and failure triggers. To cast a spell, you have to decay the required quantity of the indicated element. Elements decay by removing the requisite number and replacing half of those tiles with a new element. For instance, to decay four fire tiles, you remove them from the rift and replace them with two earth element tiles. This allows the sorcerer to carry out the effect of the card, which is generally to manipulate the rift, though sometimes it allows the sorcerer to call on a wider selection of spells (you know, by drawing more cards).

These spells remain active in front of the player after they're cast, but they fizzle and die when the rift displays the correct number of elements in a row. For instance, if your trigger is four earth, then when there are four earth next to one another in the rift, the trigger occurs. This can be fairly chaotic - it might remove all of one element in the rift, or turn one element into something else, or it might just let you access more spells (yeah, by drawing cards). It also means that spell's not active any more.

The purpose of all this spellcasting and manipulation is to earn the respect of your peers, as dictated by specific accolades. You might earn an accolade if, at the end of your turn, you have four spells active (no mean feat, considering the instability of these things). You might be able to reduce the rift to one element, which earns you an accolade. There are several of these accolades to earn, so while one player is working to get three spells of the same element in play, another might be working to make sure there are six linked elements in the rift.

You win the game if you can start your turn with two accolades. It's important to note that you have to start with two, not end with them. After you build up your accolades, the other sorcerers have one round of playing to take those accolades from you. Creating the fast food version of an elemental rift is not covered in the rules, but keeping in mind the detriment to everyone in the room (not to mention potted plants and livestock), it's generally considered bad form to try to gas your opponents out of the game.

So that's basically how you play the game, but what's important here is the big question - is it fun? Well, anyone who has walked into the bathroom after a fast-food meltdown can tell you that the more crass definition of an elemental rift is certainly not entertaining, and can actually damage your nostril hairs. On the other hand, the Elemental Rift created by Small Box Games does not stink at all, and is, in fact, brilliant.

I'm going to drop out of the bathroom humor here for a second and crow about this game. See, when you get a Small Box Game, you're not looking at your average board game. So many games can be pigeonholed into categories - resource management, bidding, tile placement, or tactical recreation, for example. But Small Box Games are so unique and clever that when you read the rules and start playing one, you quickly realize that this is not like something you've done before. It's not just a pretty version of another game, or a rules clean-up, or a new entry into a genre. This is a whole new beast.

And at least in the case of Elemental Rift, it's a total blast. The game will make you think so hard that you'll be mentally exhausted when it's done. You'll be holding three cards, putting together combinations to see if you can play them all, examining trigger effects and spell effects and accolades and making sure the other guys can't win, and before you know it you need a nap.

I played one game with my kids, who are 11 and 12. When we were done, my daughter said, 'this sure isn't a game for stupid people.' She may have been bragging because she won, but she had a point - Elemental Rift will punish those who lack foresight or are too lazy to examine the entire play field. I don't know how many times my son said, 'oh, man, I forgot about that.' That's probably why he lost. I lost because I pushed too hard, and when I finally managed to get a really huge lead, I left too many openings for my daughter to swipe the win out from under me.

So you see, there are two kinds of elemental rift, and they are not at all alike. One is created by Small Box Games, and is a great game that does not stink at all. The other is considerably less pleasant to experience. While you can get either one for about 20 bucks, one will fill a room with happy gamers, and the other will clear it.


Incredibly clever rules
Very unique
Incredibly deep strategy
Hand-assembled with love

Tricky to figure out the first couple games
Feels very Euro (only a con if you hate Euros)

I can heartily recommend Elemental Rift. Go here and get one:
Just don't go here to get one:

Thursday, March 6, 2008

Card Game Review - The Red Dragon Inn

The final review of Slugfest Week is here, and it's the big one - The Red Dragon Inn. En Garde is an interesting (though shallow) sword fighting game. Kung Fu Fighting is like playing out a scene from Hong Kong Action Theater. But The Red Dragon Inn takes it to the HNL - Hole Nutha Level.

In En Garde you can beat up your friends if you make them lose their poise. In Kung Fu Fighting you have to whack your pals until they lose all their chi. But in The Red Dragon Inn, your goals are not nearly as destructive - you get your friends drunk and steal their money. Now that's good clean fun, and it's far more strategic than either Kung Fu Fighting or En Garde. It's like the final evolution of the ass-kicking mechanic, the culmination of the years of Slugfest research.

At The Red Dragon Inn, violence is really not your goal. You and your fellow players have just returned from a successful dungeon crawl, arms loaded with treasure and ready to celebrate. The Red Dragon Inn is a great place to strap on a drunk and gamble until dawn, and these four adventurers are more than up to the task.

Each player is a different character representing one of the four basic fantasy adventurer types - Fiona, the rather volatile fighter; Dierdre, the tasty elf priestess; Gerki, the halfling sneak; and Zot, the wizard with a cute but terrifying sidekick - Pooky the white rabbit. Each character has different abilities that allow him or her to stay in the game while booting opponents - Gerki can cheat at cards, Zot can send Pooky to attack his friends, Dierdre can get all self-righteous and turn down drinks, and it's really hard to hurt Fiona.

Where En Garde and Kung Fu Fighting had just the one statistic, The Red Dragon Inn give us three. The first and most obvious is fortitude, better known as life, health, hit points, stamina, endurance, or any other word that indicates how long you have until your heart stops beating. Then you've got alcohol content, and as this rises, it gets closer to your fortitude, and when your alcohol content exceeds your fortitude, you pass out and the bar wench gets someone to drag you to your room. The final stat, gold, is indicated with a handful of coins, and when you're broke, the wench kicks you out of the bar and you spend the night in the barn.

For the first time this week, we're looking at a game with a whole lot of strategy and forethought. It's easy to make Fiona drink, but you can beat her at gambling. Dierdre might be tough to damage, what with her goddess looking out for her, but it's not tough to get her drunk. Gerki will pour all his booze on the floor, but it's not too hard to sic Pooky on him. And Zot is quite balanced, which means that while he's not weak anywhere, he's not strong, either, and so he has to maintain defense against drinking, getting hurt and going broke.

The key to winning in The Red Dragon Inn is to exploit weaknesses and protect soft spots. Force Fiona to gamble, and you can steal all her gold, but make sure you keep some kind of defense from Zot's psychotic rabbit. Shore up your fortitude when you get the chance, but don't waste a good defense card to get out of drinking light beer. Timing is crucial - don't try to poison Dierdre when she's got lots of cards, or you could wind up drinking your own medicine. Instead, 'accidentally' stab Zot in the back right after he uses up all his cards gambling. And don't bother to try to get Fiona drunk if she's about out of money - break her bank and send her packing.

But wait! There's more! As if just being a really fun game was not enough, The Red Dragon Inn presents us with absolute hilarity. The card titles should almost always be read aloud, in character, for maximum amusement. A typical exchange might sound like this:

Gerki: Zot, have you seen my poison? I left it in a mug right here. (Except for the name, that's actually what it says on the card, and Zot is about to lose 3 fortitude.)
Zot: I don't think so! (That's also the title of the card, and it lets Zot ignore the damage.)

It gets better. My favorite's are for gambling and drinking, with great cards like 'Five of a kind! Does that mean I win?', 'Not now, I'm meditating,' and 'The wench thinks you should stop playing with your drinks.' The card titles add a whole layer of amusement to the game by really bringing the characters to life and getting everyone laughing and joking around the table as they try to get each other drunk and steal each others' money.

The first time I played The Red Dragon Inn, I kept thinking, 'this needs expansions. This needs more characters.' And lucky for me, there's an expansion coming, a complete second game with four new adventurers. Once that's out, you can play an eight-player free-for-all, or just swap out Gerki the Sneak for Dimli the Dwarf. Hell, you'll be able to play the new one without even owning the old one, but that won't be nearly as much fun as having both.

The Red Dragon Inn is an incredibly clever game. Subtlety abounds and strategy is paramount. Every character plays differently, so your strategy has to depend on the adventurer you're representing. And the best thing is, it uses the same basic idea as En Garde and Kung Fu Fighting, but substitutes drunken debauchery for violence. As a big fan of drunken debauchery, I heartily approve.


Easy game play
Subtlety and strategy
Great art
No killing (but tons of violence)
So damned much fun

Lots of backstabbing might turn off some players
A fair amount of luck (though in this case, that's not much of a con - it makes the game more fun)

If you're a hardcore Euro gamer that hates luck, don't get The Red Dragon Inn. But if you have a sense of humor and like fun games, go here and get a copy:

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Card Game Review - Kung Fu Fighting

Slugfest Week continues, and for my second entry this week, I bring you Kung Fu Fighting. And yes, I will be peppering this review to references to the one-hit wonder song of the same name.

Kung Fu Fighting is extremely similar to En Garde, in that the goal is to beat the crap out of your friends. But instead of all that prancing around, with your parrying and riposting and maintaining poise, you're trying to keep your Chi up while you bring your opponents' Chi down. In Kung Fu Fighting, players are opposing kung fu fighters, like funky Billy Chin and little Sammy Chung, and they all take turns beating on each other. The art on the cards makes it obvious that the game is taking place in an older China, and therefore not in funky Chinatown.

Every player starts off with 20 Chi and a handful of cards. Just like in En Garde, you play an attack on your turn - but now there's a twist. If you don't have an attack card, but you have a weapon, you can play that instead. You can attack without a card if you have a weapon, and these weapons tend to do a little more damage than a simple punch in the face. And because this is kung fu and not fencing school, you get to use stuff like chairs and tables in addition to swords and staffs.

And if that wasn't enough, now you also add in stances. Drop into drunken stance, drink some rice wine, throw out some wild kicks and add a combo for a chair to the face, then withdraw into snake stance for the defense bonus. Those two card types - weapons and stances - add a whole lot more depth to the basic En Garde template. You're still just going after one stat - the Chi - but now you've got all these wicked card combos to do it. In fact, where before you really just played what you had in your hand, now you might hold on to something for later. You can actually balance your hand a little better now, and use things when you can link them together. Now you can fight with expert timing.

The combinations also allow you to dish out a lot of pain in a hurry. You can play a combination attack to do a flying punch sword kick, and if you do it from the right stance, you could take away half of an opponent's Chi in one whirling attack. Now that's a little bit frightening.

There are some devastating combinations in this game, but there are some incredible counter attacks. No longer can you simply pick on the guy with only two cards; if you drop four or five for a combination attack, and that guy breaks out the card that says, 'Your Kung Fu Is No Match for Mine', he can come back and beat you senseless when your defenses are down.

Lots of attack enhancements make Kung Fu Fighting more interesting than En Garde. For instance, your opponents might come at you with a magnificent fast punch, and if they do it from snake stance, then it'll really hurt, because they'll be fast as lightning. And it'll hurt more, too.

En Garde is a shallow game, but it was a good start. If you like the concept, but want a little more pizazz, Kung Fu Fighting should be right up your alley. There's still a lot of luck involved - tough to defend those invincible kicks when you just drew seven attack enhancements - but now there are so many great ways to use what you've got. It's a lot more interesting than En Garde, plus you can hum bad disco while you play.


Lots of killer card combinations require timing and a little foresight
Fun theme
Neat art
Opportunity to annoy everyone with silly song

Still a lot of luck

Go here and get this game, and at your next game day, everybody can be Kung Fu Fighting:

Monday, March 3, 2008

Card Game Review - En Garde

I hereby declare the first week of March to be Slugfest Week. As it is now Slugfest Week, we will be required to beat each other about the face and body with our fists. Or, if that doesn't sound entertaining, you can just read three reviews of games from Slugfest Games, which interestingly enough, are mostly about hurting each other. So the name works either way.

We'll start the week off with a review of En Garde, a game of dueling with swords and stuff. Then we'll expand to Kung Fu Fighting, where I will make multiple references to 70s music. Friday's the big day, though - The Red Dragon Inn will be the anchor for the week, so that we can find out what happens when a bunch of sociopathic adventurers has a drinking contest.

All of these games utilize a similar mechanic - card-driven competitive play designed to reduce your opponent's key statistic while preserving your own. In En Garde, that statistic is called Poise. Poise is your ability to stay cool and calm in a swordfight. You're not trying to make your opponent bleed profusely, you're just trying to get him to look like a buffoon. Of course, a bullet to the face has been known to make a guy look pretty silly.

Every player starts with ten Poise and a handful of cards. There are attack cards like 'Thrust' and 'Slash', and blocking cards like 'Parry' and 'Parry Riposte.' There are attack enhancements and cards to press the attack, items like cloaks and bucklers and a main gauche, and cards to recover your poise. On your turn, you play an attack (if you have one) on someone else, preferably someone who has what you have decided has altogether too much Poise.

Then your opponent plays a card to block your attack or reduce the damage, if he has one. In some cases, he might even counter attack and hurt you on your own turn. You might then try to block his card, if you have blocking cards, or try to press the attack and discard his blocking cards, to make sure he takes the hit. When all else fails, you can bust out the pistol and really make someone look bad, because nothing ruins your dueling jacket like bullet holes and spreading bloodstains.

This goes on around the table until there's only one player left. This isn't a particularly subtle game - you play the cards you have and see if you can be the last man (or woman, there are women on the cards, so you might get girls to play with you) standing. It's about as deep as a puddle in a parking lot. The meager strategy that the game provides is all in the form of picking on the person who appears to be leading, and discarding cards you don't think you'll need to see if you can get the cards to keep yourself in the game for one more round.

As I play En Garde, I'm reminded of one of my favorite filler games from several years back, a slightly disturbing game called Lunch Money, where little kids beat the piss out of each other in what has to be the most horrifying recess fight ever. Neither game has much finesse. It's appropriate that En Garde comes from a company called Slugfest, because the game is little more than repeatedly whacking the bejeezus out of your friends.

Now, before you despair of seeing any good games reviewed this week, I'll point out that I'm going for a big finish. No reason I can see to start with the big winner and shoot my load, then be trying to persuade you to stick around all week to cuddle. En Garde may not be a very good game, but I'm saving up for bigger and better. Just a taste here - Kung Fu Fighting is better, with plenty of opportunity to make jokes about disco music. The Red Dragon Inn is even better than that, and in that game, the jokes write themselves.

But this review is about En Garde, so I'll finish with it. And I'll tell you that you probably should not buy this game. It's not really very much fun, because the winner of the game is usually going to be the one that consistently draws the best cards. If that's not you, you're not looking at a very enjoyable evening. And the bullet holes will really piss off your tailor.


Cool art
Could be fun if you don't want to think

Almost no strategy
Almost all luck

Normally when I pan a game like this, I'll give you a link to a municipal dump or a chemical waste plant. But since I'm reviewing three from the same company this week, here's a link to the guys who make it: