Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Party Game Review - The Game of Things

I'm pretty skeptical of party games. For the most part, they're rehashed crap. Most of them could be played without actually having to buy anything, and most of the best party games don't require any components at all (like Truth or Dare, Have You Ever, or Quarters. OK, Quarters has components, but not many game companies are going to start selling rolls of quarters and pitchers of beer). The end result is that, while I see lots of party games, I don't tend to like very many of them.

The Game of Things, from Hasbro, is one I like. In fact, it's one of the few I break out on a regular basis. It has the potential for a huge amount of hilarious fun, and it's equally playable with a room full of teenagers or a geriatric nursing home. Like nearly every party game ever, it relies on not playing with idiots to have fun, but I think that applies to nearly anything, from Risk to water-skiing (there are exceptions - it can be hilarious to play Red Light, Green Light with a retard).

In Things (I'm abbreviating the name because I'm lazy), you've got a big deck of descriptions. These descriptions might be 'Things you would like to do with chocolate', or 'Things you would do if you could change genders for a day'. One person reads the description out loud, and everyone writes a thing that would be an answer, like 'eat it' or 'play Darjeeling.' Then you go around the table and take turns guessing who wrote what.

Like most party games, the actual scoring is almost completely irrelevant. You don't really care who wins. The point is to hang out and have fun with people you may or may not like, unless you're playing with my father-in-law, in which case the point is to be as horribly inappropriate as possible (when asked for 'Things you wish you could check out in the library', he wrote 'the librarian'. In all fairness, I wrote 'whiskey and whores,' so it was kind of a tie for worst place).

It's tough to write an in-depth review of a game as simple as The Game of Things. You read a card, everyone writes an answer, then you guess who wrote what. That's really it. It's not like there's strategy, outside playing like my son and writing answers that sound like someone else wrote them (like for 'Things cannibals think about while dining,' he wrote, 'I wish I had a good dark beer,' and everyone thought I wrote that. I wrote 'Mmm, tastes like chicken.') But even though it's not very deep, if you can get the right crowd of miscreants together, this can be a lot of fun. I've laughed myself through dozens of games of Things, although it's not always safe to play with kids (especially if you're playing with people who would answer 'Things you should not photograph' with 'your junk'. Like me).

Apparently, Hasbro was trying to appeal to collector-types when they made The Game of Things, because it comes in a really nice wooden box. There's no reason it couldn't have come in a cardboard box like every other game, but the wooden slide-top box is a really nice touch. And the pretty box makes people think it must be better than other games, which it really is not, but they don't know that, so they'll play with you.

On a scale that goes from Strip Spin the Bottle to Apples to Apples, The Game of Things falls somewhere around Taboo. It's a damned good time, but not as much fun as being 19 and getting naked with a roomful of pretty girls while you drink yourself into a stupor. But then, you can play Things with your in-laws, and if you play Strip Anything with your in-laws, please don't tell me about it.


Recipe for hilarity
Really funny cards make for some really funny good times

Deep as a kiddie pool (but it's a party game, so what did you expect?)

If you want to play The Game of Things, you can get one here:

Sunday, April 27, 2008

Computer Game Review - Slay

You know how addictive those crappy games can be that come with Windows? Like how you end up playing Free Cell just to kill time while you finish your breakfast and you're done checking e-mail, and then you're late for work because you had to squeeze in just one more game? Or that time-sucking void of a game, Minesweeper? Man, I've lost some hours of my life playing that silly game.

But I never would have touched either one if I had installed Slay. In fact, as I type this, I'm half-tempted to cut the review short just so I can go squeeze in a quick game. The genius of this little Windows game blows my mind - enough that it makes me want to review a clever little $20 download game from a near-unknown game designer who just cranks out cool games for Windows.

A quick spin through the archives will tell even the most casual observer that I tend to review board games over anything else. But reviewing Slay is like a board game that you play on the computer. Yeah, that sounds retarded. But stick with me a minute here, and I'll lay it out.

Slay is a turn-based game where you're trying to take over an island. The island is basically a bunch of hexes, all in different colors, and your goal is to make them all your color. The catch is that all those other colors represent other guys trying their damnedest to make the whole island their color, which means somebody has to die. All too often, that someone is you.

The rules are fairly simple, and the game is easy to understand. First, you've got one or more territories, which are clusters of adjacent hexes in your color. Each territory has a capitol city where all your money is stored. At the beginning of the turn, you get money equal to the number of hexes that are your color. Then you buy little dudes who go out and grab more land for you.

But the little farmers you start with are not particularly good brawlers. In fact, they're total pansies - they can't even get close to a capitol city without crying like little girls. But they're not all bad - the little boogers are cheap, and they hardly eat anything. They'll chop down trees, grab open land, and bring home the bacon.

If you want someone with a little punch, you can combine two of the wimpy farmers and get a soldier. Soldiers can stomp capitol cities into the mud, and they run over farmers the way I step in dog turds when I mow my back yard (if my son's life depending on his ability to do his chores, we would be collecting his life insurance). Of course, soldiers eat a lot more, which means if they're stuck in a small territory, they might end up going hungry. And then they die, which sucks, especially for them.

To stop the soldiers, your enemies will make castles. You might make some of your own, because your enemies will be making soldiers before too long. Soldiers can't even get close to castles, so the castles will hold them off for a while. But you can combine a farmer and a soldier and get a knight, and knights love to crush castles. But knights eat three times what a soldier eats, so if you promote yourself a knight before you can afford him, you'll get one good attack before everyone in the area starves to death.

Of course, really tough knights mean you need something tougher, so you can combine a knight and a farmer to get a... I don't know, a super-knight or something. This big bastard can't be killed by any other guy in the game, but he eats like an army of teenagers after a basketball game, so he's unfortunately easy to starve. He's horribly expensive to get and maintain, but he's incredibly hard to beat. Sort of like Alex Rodriguez, but not as prone to blowing the whole season in the last six games.

To complicate this festival of starvation and wholesale murder, wherever somebody dies of starvation, their corpses are so fertile that they turn into trees. That would work great in real life, but in this game, trees do two things: they keep you from collecting money, and they spread. It doesn't matter how big your territory might be - if it gets covered with trees, you don't generate any money, and if you don't generate money, your army dies.

The game goes until one player controls the whole island. Happily, once you're so far ahead that the only thing left is to hear the lamentation of their women, your computer opponents will throw in the towel, saving you the five minutes it would take to grab every single spot.

The whole game can generally be played in about 15 minutes, but if I had a buck for every night I said, 'just one game' and was still sitting at my computer an hour later, I would have... I don't know, fifty or sixty bucks. The computer opponents can be set anywhere from dumb as a post to insanely clever, and once you beat an island on 'stupid' it's too tempting to try it again on 'DAMN that's hard.'

There's a network mode that will let you play multiplayer games if you buy the game, but to be perfectly honest, I've never found anyone playing when I want to play another person. If you buy this game, drop me an email and let me know when you'll be online. I'm great at beating the crap out of the AI. I would love to try my hand against a person.


Cheap and fun
Great strategy game

Unimpressive graphics
Horribly addictive

If you want to try Slay for free, you can play download the demo here and play the first island as often as you like:

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Coin Game Review - Pieces of Eight

Cool gimmicks have powered some really big games. The clicky base, for instance, was a huge gimmick that was actually a game mechanic. Sure, you could have replaced it with a card with a little slider, but that would have killed the gimmick (and probably the game - they weren't going to sell the first Mage Knight sets just on the god-awful sculpts and pathetic paint jobs). And Dark World, which I reviewed for the dungeon series a couple weeks ago, used that silly mace with the colored balls - which was actually pretty cool, but entirely unnecessary. I could go on, but then I would get bored.

Gimmicks can actually be pretty cool (never mind that the two examples I used were either ugly or stupid). The clicky base was a great idea, whether you liked the games or not. The little shaker mace was the coolest (and stupidest) part of Dark World. Dungeon Twister has spinning rooms. Ca$h N Gun$ has foam pistols. A properly-implemented gimmick can turn a mediocre game into a great game, speed up game play, or just help everyone have more fun.

So I've seen some gimmicks, but Pieces of Eight has one of the coolest tactile gimmicks ever - actual metal coins. Big as a silver dollar, each coin has a special ability, and stacked in a pile, the coins make up each pirate's ship. The game is played entirely with these metal coins - no board, no timers, no meeples, no cards. Just a handful of awesome metal coins.

Each player is a pirate captain. Each captain has a ship. And like I said, the ship is a pile of coins. And not cheap plastic crap churned out by some disreputable Chinese manufacturer; these are actual metal coins, engraved on one side with the name of the game and on the other with a cool symbol describing that coin's abilities. They've got some heft to them, and they're pretty, and they're actual metal coins. Yeah, I said that already. I just think that's a pretty cool gimmick.

Players hold their coins in a stack, so that any opponents can see the first coin in the stack, but only they know what's at the back. They can transfer a coin to the crow's nest (you or I might call it 'your other hand'), and so have three active coins - the one in the front (fore), the hidden one in back (aft) or the one in the other hand (the crow's nest). On a player's turn, he decides which coin he's going to use.

Using a coin involves invoking its ability. Like you could use the cannon to blast away at your opponent's ship, which involves you pointing at one of his coins and saying, 'I'll blast that one.' Or you could use the bomb to blow up two coins. Or you could use the pillage to steal coins from your enemy and add them to your own ship.

The most interesting coins, however, are the combo and reactive coins. Like you discard your cutlass to destroy an enemy's coin, but if you've got an active mate, you can keep the cutlass to use again later. Or treachery, which you destroy when an enemy uses a coin to negate that coin's ability and destroy it. Or my daughter's personal favorite, the captain's monkey, which is nearly impossible to destroy (but easy to steal, which makes my daughter punch me every time I do it). There's a barrel of grog, which you can use to get back one of your destroyed coins, but unfortunately, there's no tawdry tavern wench. I don't care what that one would have done, I would have used it.

The object of the game is to destroy your opponent's gold-colored captain coin. This isn't easy, because the captain is buried in the middle of stack of coins, so you have to wear down the stack to get to the captain. And to make matters worse, once the captain is exposed, he (or she - there are girl captains) can just smack the bejeezus out of your coins without having to work for it. And some coins let you rearrange your coins, so you can get your captain protected after the front half of your imaginary ship is blown off.

There are two keys to winning this game. The first is building your ship properly ahead of time. There's no use putting bombs into your ship if you don't include mates, because bombs have to have mates to fire them off. The order you use to stack your coins is terribly important - put the monkey next to the captain as a last-resort shield, but make sure you keep those mates where they can help - and include enough to keep them around a while when your opponent finds out where they are and starts mowing through them like your fat uncle on a Thanksgiving turkey.

The second key to winning is actually playing well. Use the combos and reactive coins to make your opponents miss turns, or steal their coins, or rescue your own blasted coins. Hold out with the treachery until your opponent breaks out the captain's monkey, or tries to pillage your captain. Play the right coin at the wrong time, and you may as well just play the wrong coin. Yeah, it's good to blast your opponent's cutlass before he knocks off the cannon in your crow's nest (and how you got a cannon in the crow's nest is your business), but it might be better to take aim at the call to quarters coin that your foe is about to use to rearrange his whole ship.

You may be reading this and thinking, 'gee, that sounds an awful lot like a collectible card game, what with the deck-building and careful card play.' To which I would reply, 'well, duh.' I did say the coins were a gimmick, and they really are. You could replace them with cards - but then the game wouldn't be nearly as fun. Besides, it's called Pieces of Eight. If it only had cards, they would have had to call it Pieces of Paper, and that does not sound like a fun game. It may have been cheaper to produce, but it wouldn't have sold too well.

Right now you can buy two different sets of Pieces of Eight. Each set has enough coins for one player to make a ship, with a few extra coins left over. The two sets differ in their composition, but only slightly, and you'll need to buy two sets if you want to play anyway, so start out with one of each.

One last note - these are metal coins. Don't eat french fries right after you play the game. Your mother would be horrified if she found out you were playing with coins and then eating. She would tell you that you don't know where those coins have been.


Great pseudo-deck-building
Quick (15 minute) games
Easy to learn
Pretty damned fun
Clever game play and no luck

Not particularly deep

If you want to play a really cool game with a sweet gimmick that you can enjoy in 15 minutes and teach to a twelve-year-old, Pieces of Eight should be a must-buy. You can get it here:

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Gaming Rant - Lighten Up, Francis

I write a game review site, like about every other fourth gamer nerd on the planet. So I feel qualified to make unreasonable assumptions about people I haven't met, because I must be an expert - I write a game review site. And one thing I feel compelled to note is that gamers take this gaming crap way too seriously - me included.

Two of the last three games I reviewed were games that are commonly labeled Euros. Darjeeling and Oregon are both Rio Grande games invented by people who, if they spoke English at all, almost certainly used it as a second (or third) language. Being as I am too ignorant to speak more than one language, I like to poke fun at Europeans to make me feel better about myself, kind of like NASCAR fans who make fun of people who play polo (real polo, on horses, not water polo - everyone makes fun of people who play water polo). So my reviews of the games indicated two things: first, that taken merely as games, they were both pretty good, and second, that the themes were way too watery for my uncultured American tastes.

In my never-ending quest to get more people to pay attention to me, I posted both reviews at BGG. And I found out something that did not surprise me at all - people were not always happy with me. I managed to offend some gay rights activists, some hardcore Euro gamers, and at least one Norwegian. All of these people were irritated with me for saying bad things about games they liked (except the Norwegian - he was displeased because I called Norwegians peaceniks). Of course, I was at BGG, so I'm not sure what I was expecting - pointing out that Darjeeling, a game about collecting tea, is about as manly as wearing a skirt and buying open-toe sandals, may strike a little too close to home.

I would like to say that only hardcore Euro nerds are this filled with high anxiety, but that would be a biased lie. For one thing, I have enjoyed countless Euro games, and will generally play anything Rio Grande Games ever produces. For another thing, Ameritrashers are just as guilty of taking themselves too seriously. They just do it in a completely different way.

The difference is, Euro games tend to think that they are smarter than people who want their games to include bloodshed. Ameritrash fans, on the other hand, think that Euro gamers are square-headed stuffed shirts who wouldn't know fun if it bit off their tiny peckers. For the most part, both groups are wrong, and they even know they're wrong, but good luck getting them to admit it.

However, even if you're not firmly in one camp or the other - and I'm not, I love Risk and Settlers of Catan, Descent and Dungeon Twister, Battlelore and To Court the King - even if you can play any game based solely on the enjoyment you're having at the time, if you're a serious gamer, you probably take games way too seriously.

You can probably discuss games and compare them based on their mechanics. You probably know what I mean when I say mechanic, for that matter. You may or may not use the word 'elegant' when describing a game, but you're still able to evaluate it based on the complexity of the rules.

I'm actually not going to say there's anything wrong with taking games seriously, especially because I'm more guilty of it than most people. I did mention I write a game review site, right? If you love games, you take them seriously. When you're deciding whether to drop fifty clams for a box of plastic bits and a cardboard map of Poland, you want to know whether you could enjoy the game or not. Comparing it to other games you know you love or hate will help you make that purchase, and if you do make the purchase, you'll be more able to persuade friends to play with you.

But you can get a little overboard. I mean, it's one thing to like model trains; it's another thing entirely to have a full-scale steam engine driving around the basement. It's awesome to be able to remember how flame breath works in Descent, or to know why 'got wood for sheep?' might be funny to someone (for the record, that is not funny to me). But when you can't enjoy a dumb game with your friends because you're unhappy with the unbalanced ruleset, you're taking it too far. When you can't enjoy the Pokemon Adventure Game with your kids because the collection mechanic is too clunky and the battle system too arbitrary, you need to remember why we play these damned things in the first place - to have fun.

Now, I'll be the first to tell you, not every game is fun for every player. Even more unfortunately, some games are just not fun at all (Monster Quest springs to mind). But even when you're not playing a game you like, you can still have fun. You can just say, 'hey, this isn't my bag, but I'm spending time with friends and/or family, enjoying some downtime, and playing a game. Life could be worse.' Play Candyland with your tots, and don't whine later to your gamer buddies that Candyland just has too much luck to be entertaining. Let your wannabe-game-nerd cousin teach you how to play Ticket to Ride. Maybe even let him win.

Throughout this whole rant so far, I've counted myself among the people I'm describing - I think the battle system in the Pokemon Adventure Game is arbitrary, and I hate Candyland for having too much luck. But there's one facet of the too-serious gamer that bugs the everlovin' horse apples out of me, and it's the rules lawyer. Nobody admits to being one - especially the rules lawyers - but if there was ever a gamer to avoid, it's the douchebag who overthinks the rules. Even if you love a game so much that you write strategy articles about it, or you start an Excel spreadsheet to organize your game collection by genre and game mechanic, you're still OK if you don't nitpick stupid crap about the rules to try to get an edge.

Because these damned things are supposed to be fun. I write this site to get free games, because I love playing games, because they're fun. I go to GenCon to play games, because it's fun. And nothing sucks all the fun out of a game like a gamer who takes them too seriously. Winning is only important because the fun is in trying to win. You don't prove larger manhood because you can whip my ass at Heroscape. You're not more awesome because you managed to win with the zombies in Last Night on Earth. Everyone comes out to have a good time, and the guy with the rod up his ass who takes his hobby too seriously sucks the fun out of a room like a ten-year-old sucking the blue juice out of a snow cone.

So lighten up, fanboy. Have fun, but remember that your hobby seems retarded to the little old lady up the street who collects Franklin Mint plates.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Board Game Review - Elfball Introductory Rules

Today is a double review day... sort of. Since this Elball game review is more of an update than a whole review, I went ahead and reviewed Oregon, too (the game, not the state). So after you read this one, stick around and read that one.

My original review of Elfball (you can read it here) was titled a 'Miniatures Game Review.' It was kind of hard to decide what to call it, exactly - there are elements of board games, and elements of miniatures games, and a whole lot of sports game. The guys from Impact! Miniatures talked with me at some length after that review, and discussed how Elfball could be made a little more palatable for the board game crowd, as opposed to the minis game people. I made a few suggestions, but hadn't really thought more about it until just recently, when they sent me an updated, introductory ruleset for Elfball.

The introductory rules are still very Elfball. The rules are basically the same, the action is just as chaotic (maybe a little more so), and you'll still hate to see that black 'X' pop up and ruin your die rolls. You still roll challenges to throw, catch, tackle, and everything else that rough-and-tumble football players do, especially when there's a chance they've got magical powers.

Rather than reinvent Elfball, or dumb it down, Elfball Lite hits that sweet spot between being not different enough to be considered introductory, and so insipid that the ideal player is a thumb-sucking retard in a padded helmet. The rules make the game a lot faster with just a few small adjustments.

The biggest and most important adjustment is the modified use of the star on the success dice. Instead of being a conditional success, requiring more die rolls (and maybe more after that), the star just counts as two successes. This means that where you might roll, then roll a few less dice, and maybe roll again for good measure, now you just roll and count up hits. It's way faster, and results in far more competent Elfballers. The standard game ends up causing dozens of flops throughout a game, to the point that the teams mostly remind you of extremely violent versions of Larry, Moe and Curly. Now they seem downright good at their jobs. Where they used to drop the ball more often than drunk clowns at a first-grader's birthday party, now they can manage to hold onto the pigskin long enough to get slammed into the dirt by opponent defenders.

In fact, that's one element of the game that just got a lot more interesting - tackles. Tackles depend on a lot of extra successes to get some really prime hits, but now that you're actually getting an average of one or two more successes per roll, the pain factor goes through the roof. Winning by attrition becomes a very real possibility - but not a strategy on which you can rely, because if you focus solely on slamming opponents into jelly, they're going to chuck the ball to someone fast and score while all your guys are making cleat-shaped patterns in the other team. Body count doesn't get you a win... but it doesn't help the other guy, either.

The other slight modifications to the rules really help speed up turns, improve your odds of success, and force players to rely on planning, strategy and positioning over crazy rolls. If you play Elfball, or if the last review made the game sound like too much trouble, just download the new rules and give them a shot. They're one page, so it's not like you're looking at printing a novelette. And best of all, these easy-to-remember rules modifications turn a chaotic miniatures game into an exciting board game.

By way of endorsement, I played this with my son, who was adamant about not liking the original. When we played the introductory rules, he said, 'man, I wish you weren't giving this away. That was fun!' So there you go. It must be good if my teenager liked it.

You can get your copy of the rules right here:

Board Game Review - Oregon

One of my most favorite genres is the western. I love old gunfighter comics, shoot-em-up western movies, and biographies of outlaws. I love Deadwood, Unforgiven and Jonah Hex. I know hundreds of lines from old Clint Eastwood spaghetti westerns, and I can adequately compare the caliber of The Quick and the Dead to 3:10 to Yuma. I mean, I love westerns.

So along comes this game from Rio Grande Games called Oregon, where you're settling that territory. And I pick up the box and go, 'hot damn! A western game!'

Well, you can probably guess what happened. It's a Rio Grande game, which means it's a Euro, which means it's made by people who don't dig violence. Somebody went and made an entire game themed on the frontier of the Old West and managed to have not one single gunfight. No outlaws, no sheriffs, no cattle rustlers or gunfighters. Not even any gambling or whiskey. It's like a western game made by the Women's Temperance League.

The board game is a stylized, illustrated map of Oregon with a big square grid all over it. There are five symbols across the top, and the same down the side - Old West symbols like a campfire and a bison and a covered wagon. No bullets, though, and no beat-up playing cards or faro tables. John Wayne would not have been impressed.

The symbols across the top and sides match the landscape cards every player has in his or her hand. You play two cards, and that lets you place a farmer in any of the squares where those two symbols meet on the grid. Norwegians made this game, so your little cowboy-hat-wearing meeples are farmers, not settlers. Everyone in America knows settlers are cooler than farmers, but Norwegians apparently didn't know that. Cowboys are also cooler than farmers (no offense to any farmers out there, but Willy Nelson didn't say, 'Mommas, don't let your babies grow up to be farmers').

There's a second deck of cards with buildings on them, and you can play a building card and a landscape card to put out a building. These are mostly pretty western - there's a church, and a general store, and a train station. But there's also a post office, another dead giveaway - a Pony Express stop would have been western. Post offices are a little too 20th century for a western game. But the Norwegians might not have known that.

You score points based on having farmers next to buildings. If your farmer is next to a post office, you get three points; if he's next to a coal mine, he can pull a coal marker that's good for points at the end of the game; if he's next to a general store, he gets one point, but he can also flip over his joker token; if he's next to the train station, he gets a point and can flip over his extra turn token.

These tokens - the extra turn and the joker - are key to winning the game. If you have the joker available, you can place a farmer or building almost anywhere, and if you've got the extra turn active, you can play twice in a row. Sometimes grabbing the juiciest spot on the board depends on these tokens, so any time you can get them active, you're doing yourself a favor. Really good plays use a joker to put a farmer next to a general store, essentially making the joker free and getting a decent scoring opportunity in the bargain.

Taken simply as a game, Oregon is pretty damned good. These Norwegians don't know what made the Old West great, but they do know how to make a fun game. Swiping key spots, making cunning plays, and denying opponents the opportunity to place their farmer meeples where they want them can be tricky, but it makes a great game. There's a fair amount of luck - you may need an eagle and a wagon to place a farmer where you want him, but all you seem to pull are bison and campfires. But building a flexible strategy, planning your placement and working with what you have are key to the game, and the luck tends to favor the better players.

The theme, on the other hand, could use a little work. Even if they didn't want to introduce gunfighters and Indians, they should have at least made the meeples into settlers. Farmers are great in Carcassonne, but Oregon is a long ways from France. This game would not earn an endorsement from Wyatt Earp, I'll tell you that. But then again, if Wyatt Earp could appreciate a good game of strategy (as opposed to running a faro table), he might have liked the game, even as he laughed at the Norwegians who thought Oregon didn't have six-shooters.


Great strategy
Minimal luck that can be mitigated through good planning
Really neat components, including little wooden cowboy meeples

Almost an abstract game, which will not appeal to Ameritrashers
Peacenik Norwegians might not be the best people to consult about the Old West

I recommend Oregon for anyone looking for a good family game, or a light-to-medium Euro. You can get one here:

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Board Game Review - Darjeeling

I think there should be a new classification of games. We've got the basic split of Ameritrash and Euro game, but I think we should add 'Ladyboy' games to the mix. Euro games have mostly abstract violence, if there's violence at all, and are mostly about non-violent things like farming and going to parties. Ameritrash games are all about the body count, with the winner generally determined by a last-man-standing rule. And for the new Ladyboy segment of games, there is no violence at all - the games are so tame that if you get hooked on them, you might as well tuck your manhood between your legs and walk like a girl. These are not abstract games - they actually have themes. It's just that the themes are so sissified that manly men will crave hard liquor and fistfights after the first turn.

Darjeeling would be my candidate for the first game in the Ladyboy classification. This game is imported from Europe by Rio Grande, and in all fairness, is not a bad game. But the theme will make even the most effeminate heterosexual men wonder how they got talked into playing. Because in Darjeeling, you collect tea.

Yeah, you read that right. You collect tea (not even coffee!), and then you sell it, and then you collect more tea. The board is made of tiles with half-crates of tea on them, and you move a little wooden tea collector around the board and pick up the crates. You hide them behind a little screen and when you can use the tiles to build whole crates of tea, you can ship the tea off to the little ships that await your thoroughly unmanly beverages.

In all fairness, there is quite a bit more to the game than simply picking up crates of tea. If it weren't for the theme, the components would be 100% kick-ass. There are wooden boats that fit into slots in the board, and a cardboard ramp that holds round tokens so they roll when you pull one out. The little tea collector guy isn't even dorky or anything - he looks like a dude pushing a box, but he's made out of wood, and he's pretty cool. Hell, the components would almost make you decide to stop flirting with men, if it weren't for the fact that they're all there to help you collect tea.

There are four kinds of tea, so there are four different colors of half-crates on the tiles you can pick up. The rolling ramp tells you how much demand there is for your tea, so you can make sure to get the best possible price for your tea. Sometimes you may want to hold off shipping our collection of lovely green tea to wait for better demand, and sometimes you won't mind having to pay a little cash to jump over spaces or ship long distances, if the tea you have is in demand. And sometimes you'll wonder if it might not be a good idea to change out of your hot pants and halter top, but if you're still collecting tea, you may want to wait on that.

The thing is, the theme actually works really well with the rules. The fabulous (yeah, I used that word on purpose) components really lend a feeling of wandering around the countryside, picking up choice selections of tea from exotic locales and sending them by boat to England, where poncing aristocrats will comment on how much they like your red darjeeling (that's tea, it's not a euphemism for anything).

As much as I feel nearly obliged to hate a game that fits so well into the Ladyboy category, Darjeeling is still a Rio Grande game, and I've yet to find one of their games that isn't actually a pretty damned good game. It's a little confusing the first time you play, but it doesn't take long to start seeing how important planning, timing and strategy will be if you want to win. If you ship early, you may get a good running start on the other players, but if you wait to ship, you could wind up getting a much better payoff, and even cost the others some money as their tea becomes devalued. It's an incredibly clever game, but for God's sake, it's about collecting tea!

OK, even if it means I have to buy a shirt that labels me a 'Gay-mer', I have to admit that I really like playing Darjeeling. There's no dead people. There's not even any alcohol or dames or loud cars. There's just the typical Rio Grande genius for picking games that Europeans make and selling them to us white-bread, meat-and-potatoes Americans to make us feel like Ru Paul when we love to play them.

Not everyone will love this game. Many men would rather shove hot needles into their foreheads than admit to liking a Ladyboy game. But if you can get past the completely emasculated theme, you'll realize that Darjeeling is actually a really good game.

Now, if you'll pardon me, I'm off to pick out some lip gloss.


Really great components
Good planning and strategy
Clever - don't know how anyone thought of the game mechanics, but they're smart

You collect tea

If you're comfortable with your masculinity, or just never thought that collecting tea was a sissy game, go here and get a copy of Darjeeling:

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Board Game Review - 10 Days in Asia (and/or Europe)

Out of the Box Publishing recently confused me by sending me two games that are virtually identical, which put me in something of a conundrum. The two games are 10 Days in Asia and 10 Days in Europe. If I write a review of the Europe version, the review of the Asia version will be pretty short - 'just like 10 Days in Europe, but in Asia'. After playing them both, I decided that the best way to review the games would be to lump them together into one review. I hope Out of the Box doesn't chop me out of their reviewer list for this, but it just didn't make sense to review them individually. And hopefully they'll still like me a little after they read how much I like both games (assuming they don't already hate me for panning Cineplexity).

The premise of 10 Days (wherever it is) is pretty basic - you have to plan a ten-day trip around the continent, connecting countries by ship, plane, train or just plain walking. So you can start in Iran, walk to Azerbaijan, take a train to Turkmenistan, fly to China, walk to Mongolia, walk to Russia and fly to the Philippines. That's a ten day trip. Yes, it's a little stilted - it takes as long to fly from Thailand to Taiwan as it takes to walk from Laos, through China, to Russia. But that's basically irrelevant - a flight takes a day, a train takes a day, a ship takes a day, and a stroll takes a day. If the game didn't work that way, it would be called 10 Days in China and all the cards would just have pictures of China. It would be a pretty boring game.

You plan the trip by drawing cards. You can always see three face-up cards, plus the face-down pile, so you draw the cards and try to get them in order. If the countries are next to each other on the map, you're fine; those two cards can be next to each other. But if the countries are connected by a railway, you have to put a train card between them. And the countries have to be the same color on the map, with a matching plane, to fly between them. Ship travel is the easiest - you're either on the Pacific or the Indian, so there are only two kinds of ship cards in Asia. Europe has three seas - the Baltic, the Mediterranean and the Atlantic - which makes ocean travel a little trickier. But on the other hand, Europe doesn't have trains, so that helps a little.

Yeah, it sounds a little confusing, and I'm probably not explaining it very well. The game is a lot easier to explain when I can show you the deck of country cards and vehicles and say, 'see, China has a railroad, so you can use a train to connect to India, and Yemen and India are both orange, so you can fly between them with an orange plane.' If you're not confused, then one of two things is happening. Either you're a lot sharper than you let on, or I'm not nearly as bad at this as I feel.

One of the coolest things about the 10 Days games is that you get a geography lesson without really meaning to learn anything. For instance, before we played 10 Days in Asia, I never could have found Bhutan on a map. But now I know right where it is. I can also find Montenegro and Moldova - at least, I'll be able to find them until some violent uprising turns them into satellite states or splits them into warring nations. Come to think of it, both games would have been a lot easier before the Soviet Union fell apart.

If my inadequate explanations do a piss-poor job of explaining how the games are played, I can at least tell you this - both games are a hell of a lot of fun. We break them out and play them on a very regular basis, and since I wind up owning an awful lot of games, it means something when I play them more than once, let alone once a month.

See, the 10 Days games require more than a knowledge of geography. You have to be able to plan your trip, know when to toss cards you can't use, place the right cards in the right slots, and avoid making stupid mistakes, like putting Nepal right in the middle of your trip. But even though you need more than geography does not mean you don't need it at all - in fact, the quicker you learn where Belarus is in relation to Latvia, the lower the chance that you'll end up putting a boat between them. You have to know which nations are landlocked, which are connected by train tracks (in Asia), and whether you can fly from Jordan to Japan. Malaysia may not seem like much of a country in the broad scheme of things, but since is straddles two oceans, it's one hell of a strategic card to pick up.

And then you also have to watch what your opponents are trying to connect. There's a little poker face needed here - if you grimace when someone covers up that yellow plane you were hoping to nab, you can kiss goodbye any chance of an accidental discard letting you have it later. If you can see that one opponent is routinely discarding blue countries, it's a safe bet you can dump your own, though you may want to be careful dropping Macedonia if your opponent just snatched up Bulgaria.

I tend to hate educational games, just on general principle. I like my learning to come from Wikipedia, thank you very much. But 10 Days in China and 10 Days in Europe are both quite educational, and reward the player with more knowledge of geography, and are still somehow a great big pile of good times.


Great strategy and planning
Limited luck, but it's still there (and you'll know it when you're drawing card after card thinking 'God, I just need something green')
You can learn stuff even when you don't mean to

Out of the Box needs to hire a wicked awesome graphic artist - these games aren't pretty

The 10 Days games are a total blast, even if you do accidentally learn stuff. Go here and get 'em:

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Playground Game Review - Hopscotch

When reviewing games designed for children, it is important to consider how well those games can be enjoyed by adults. Generally, playground games are not considered proper adult fare, but some of those games can, occasionally, have some merit.

Hopscotch is not one of those games. Hopscotch has so little to recommend it as a game that it is almost more like a playground diversion than an actual game. There is very little luck - in that, it resembles a Euro game. It also has rules simple enough to have been designed by Reiner Knizia.

The game consists of two components. The first component is a chalk outline drawn on asphalt or sidewalk. This diagram has a series of numbered boxes, most placed in a vertical line, but often with one or two placed horizontally.

The second component is a rock, and that speaks volumes about the quality of this rather insipid little game. Adults are going to find the components for this game crude and unattractive. Obviously, this is going to affect their desire to play this silly game, and overall call into question the intelligence required to commit time to such a miserable pastime, especially when you could be playing Risk: Black Ops or Descent (both of which have fantastic components).

The rules for Hopscotch are just as simplistic as the components. A player simply throws the rock into a numbered square, hops to it on one foot, then bends to pick it up, still standing on one foot. Then he completes the pattern, landing with only one foot on the vertically-aligned boxes and with both feet in the horizontal boxes.

As you can see, very little strategy or forethought is required to be skilled at Hopscotch. You simply throw a rock and then hop around a little. Even Reiner's boring games have more substance than that. And yet, children all over the world play this game, and seem to enjoy it.

Thank God adults generally know better, and can see this simple-minded game for what it is - a poor way to spend your time. Adults know that they should be playing Key Harvest or Last Night on Earth, or any other games that have intellectual depth and far superior components.

Of course, to be perfectly fair, it should be noted that children who have resorted to playing Hopscotch generally do not have access to Heroscape or to such wonderful games as Battlelore or Dungeon Twister. But if they were to simply get online, they could find many games that they could print and play, or even rules for old classics that they could recreate from whatever they had on hand. Sadly, children who play Hopscotch seem to lack the creativity and competitive spirit to cobble together even the simplest board games.

It is important, as adults, to show children how much better games should be. Teach your child how to play HeroQuest, or Condotierre, or Carcassonne. Children must be taught the value of friendly competition, strategy, tactics and forethought. Don't let your young ones be fooled into thinking that Hopscotch is an acceptable pastime. They should know from an early age how much better games can be - no, how much better they should be.


Physical exercise as a game mechanic
Priced reasonably (free)
Scales well for multiple players

Very poor components
Overly simple rules
Uninteresting play
No penalties for poor performance
No planning, strategy, tactics or forethought

If your children insist on playing Hopscotch when they could be playing Age of Gods, you may need to check this link for advice:

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Dungeon Game Review - Descent

I have a longstanding rule - I do not review games that I have never owned. I am quite firm on that. When I write reviews, I generally have the game sitting next to me, often flipping through the rulebook for clarification, or counting pieces, or otherwise fact-checking myself for accuracy.

But Descent is different. For one thing, I don't own a copy of Descent. I've played it several times, and understand the rules very well, and have even downloaded a copy of the rules from the Fantasy Flight Games website. And the reason I can comfortably write a review of a game I've never owned is that wanting to play Descent is like wanting to go out on the lake in a boat. You don't actually need a boat; you need a friend who has a boat.

Descent is like a boat, because both are quite expensive. Descent is also like a boat because both require a lot of time investment outside of the actual time when you're enjoying them. Descent is also like a boat in that both become worth considerably less if you turn them upside down in a body of water, but at this point I think the boat/game metaphor has probably been played out.

Descent is a huge game. Not just in raw bulk, though it is a little tough to store in a crowded trunk. Descent is also huge because it comes with an incredible amount of stuff. There are no less than 80 plastic miniatures in the box, and they're easily the best plastic miniatures in any dungeon game made before or after. They're simply gorgeous. Then there are 61 map pieces, 10 door markers, 180 cards (in 10 different decks), effect tokens, threat tokens, treasure markers, and a whole hell of a lot more. You'll spend an hour just punching out the cardboard pieces.

And then you'll spend two weeks reading the rules. The rulebook is 24 pages of small print. My friend who owns the game spent an incredible amount of time trying to remember them all, and our first couple games were still bumpy. For instance, one of our heroes was poisoned by a giant spider, which meant that we had to look something up. Then later, we met a sorcerer who had the undying ability, which also meant that we had to look something up.

Once you're ready to play, everyone is dealt a hero. The game scales (to a certain degree), so you can still go into a dungeon with just two heroes, in case you're a little short on players. Then you get special abilities by drawing cards and assigning them as you see fit - your adventurer may be able to shoot better, or control a familiar, or raise vanquished foes to fight for him.

Adventurers are described by several statistics, which are all listed on their character cards. Speed describes how many spaces you can move, maximum wounds describes your character's sturdiness, and armor absorbs damage. Combat traits are expressed in black dice - a powerful warrior might have three black dice in melee, a ranger might have them in ranged combat, and a wizard might have them in magic. Some adventurers spread these around a little, which means they suck at everything.

Once you've built your party, the overlord (the dungeon master, but this isn't Wizards, so they had to call it something else) will show you the first area by building it with the map tiles. These are damned pretty, too, so your dungeons are really cool right out of the gate. Then you've got doors, and treasure chests, and piles of rubble, all of which help make the dungeons really come to life. Then the overlord will put out some monsters, and you'll jump immediately into rumble mode.

Sadly, rumble mode can take a while. On a player's turn, he can take two actions - and there are lots of options. Unlike other dungeon crawl games, players can do much more than move and attack. You can put yourself on guard (overwatch, for those of you who dig an old-school game reference), take a turn to rest and recover fatigue, expend fatigue for a special ability, aim a weapon to be fired next turn, or several other things. It can take a little while to work all that out, especially when there are four heroes and possibly a half dozen monsters, all of which need to take these rather complicated turns.

Combat is great, though. One of the coolest things about Descent is the way attacks are resolved. It seems that every decent dungeon crawl game has to have groovy dice, and Descent is no exception. Descent dice come in several different colors, each with differing numbers of hearts, lightning bolts and numerals (numbers to you and me, but I already said numbers once, and was trying not to repeat myself). The numbers add up to your range - roll too low, and you miss. The hearts add up to your damage - you need more of these than your target's armor. And the lightning bolts are called surges, which can be used by some weapons or characters to add a little more range or pain. You roll your dice, count up your range and your hits, and then either laugh triumphantly at the overlord's busted-ass minion or groan as your shot goes wide.

One important aspect of dungeon brawls is knowing your opponents. When a hellhound appears, he might have the breath ability - and that will mean that you have to look something up. Watch out for the spiders, because they can poison and cast webs - and that will mean you have to look something up. You might be stunned - and that will mean you have to look something up. Unless you have been playing a long time, you're going to spend a lot of your game time flipping through the rulebook.

Another important aspect of Descent is line of sight. Sure, you've got to be able to see your foes to shoot them, but that's not what I mean. In Descent, any corner you can't see might hold a monster, even if you just came from that corner. If the overlord has accumulated enough threat tokens - and there are lots of ways for him to do that - he can place a monster anywhere you can't see. So you never really clear the dungeon, and you're never really safe. Even if the only villain in the room is a weak-ass skeleton archer, there's every possibility he might be about to be reinforced by a beastman with the aura ability. And that means you will have to look something up.

So your heroes will tromp through the dungeon, always operating against the clock because at any time, the overlord might be able to spawn more monsters. Not only that, but if the overlord can run the heroes out of conquest tokens, he wins the game - and this gets easier as the game progresses, so the quicker the heroes can finish the dungeon, the better chance they have of getting out with their hides intact.

Of course, finishing quickly is not always easy. Not just in terms of a small number of turns - Descent is a marathon game. It can take a really, really long time to finish a game. The first time we finished a game, we were all feeling pretty damned good about ourselves. Even the overlord was happy - it was a first for him, too. Where some dungeon crawl games can be played in a spare 90 minutes, Descent can take four or five hours for one dungeon, especially if you meet a monster with the command ability - because that means you will have to look something up.

Unlike the other dungeon games reviewed this week, Descent places a great deal less emphasis on the story (even compared to the D&D Adventure Game, which has a painfully anemic story). Each dungeon is a separate game, often with completely different heroes. So the ongoing story is not really a big deal, because the adventures aren't necessarily all in one big story. That's not normally a problem, but it does remove some of the ongoing adventure element from the game.

But fear not! If you want an ongoing story, you can make that happen. Well, not with the base game - that's really pretty much it. But if you pick up the awesome expansion Road to Legend, you'll be able to set up campaign games. And these are way, way better. The heroes don't lose if they botch one dungeon, and the overlord doesn't lose if the heroes kill one particular villain. Instead, they both dive into dungeon after dungeon, attempting to gain experience and magic items that will let them win the game. The overlord chooses whether he intends to rule or destroy the world, and the heroes have to stop him. The whole time the heroes are advancing, the overlord is, too, and so neither side can afford to let up. It's a race against time for everyone.

One of the most important differences between Descent and its predecessors is that it is much more a contest. In HeroQuest and the D&D Adventure Game, the bad guy player is really only there to facilitate the adventure for the heroes. He is virtually guaranteed to lose. However, in Descent - whether you're playing Road to Legend or not - the overlord has a very real chance to win. The heroes will be hard-pressed to defeat the ever-growing horde of monsters before the overlord can claim a complete victory. This is not so much cooperative story-telling as it is a battle of luck and wits.

So I have now reviewed a game I never owned - a first for me. And you know what? I'm glad my friend is the one who owns it, and not me. Because he had to read all the rules, spend the hundreds of dollars for the game and all its expansions, and since he knows the game, he always has to be the overlord. See, I didn't have to own Descent to play it; I just needed a friend who owns it. Still, I'm glad he does own it, because we play it about once a month, and we always have a whole hell of a lot of fun.

This brings a close to the dungeon crawl series, and I am a little sad to see it end. It has been great fun writing these reviews, and even more fun playing the games. Next week I'll have some more standard reviews, but I may just open the week with a review of hopscotch, just to ease back into it.


Incredible miniatures
Great map-building
Really exciting and diverse
Lots of tactics and maneuvering, with a body count any psychopath can be proud of

Poorly organized rulebook
Rather long game
You'll have to look something up

For the first time in two weeks, here is a link where you can buy this game:

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Dungeon Game Review - The D&D Fantasy Adventure Game

I know many of my readers really love it when I beat the hell out of a game. For that matter, so do I. It's cathartic to lay into a game with both feet and a crowbar. Plus it's usually funny. When I can compare a game to a lazy whore, or crusted snot, or even retarded children, it saves my kids from a couple nights of painful beatings as I release my pent-up anger over their constant yammering.

(That was a joke. I do not beat my kids. Please do not call Child Protective Services.)

But I can't verbally abuse every game. Sometimes - okay, most of the time - the games I review are at least decent. Sometimes they're very good. And sometimes they are, to borrow a phrase from Jimmy Walker, DINO-MITE!

That last one would be the poorly-named Dungeons & Dragons: The Fantasy Adventure Board Game. I say the game is poorly named because, unlike nearly every other game ever published, this game is very easy to confuse with other games. You've got D&D: Basic. You've got Third Edition (and 3.5, and 4). You've got D&D: Starter. But the real kick in the scrotum about this game is that it totally could have had a different name, because aside from the decorations, this game has more in common with HeroQuest than the reigning emperor-for-life of RPGs. So for the sake of this review, I'm going to call this game the D&D Adventure Game, despite the fact that such a name does almost nothing to distinguish it from all the other games it could be.

So anyway, DINO-MITE. I love the D&D Adventure Game, no matter how unwieldy the title. It's one of my favorite games. I play it a whole hell of a lot more than HeroQuest. It's been a year or so since I broke out HeroQuest; it's been a couple weeks for this one. I mean no disrespect to HeroQuest - that is one magnificent game, and if I didn't have this one, I would play that one. But the D&D Adventure Game is just so damned fun.

You've got four basic characters - Lidda, Mailee, Regdar and Jozan. Aficionados of Third Edition and later will recognize those characters as the example characters from the Player's Handbook. They are a rogue, a wizard, a fighter and a cleric, respectively. And they just love to bust goblin heads and kick bugbear ass. You can't customize these characters for a damn - you get a character card, and it tells you what they carry for weapons and spells and abilities, and you're stuck with 'em. And that's fine, because you don't need to come up with names or anything. This isn't really an RPG, it's a board game. It says so right in the extremely clumsy title.

The dungeon master player is called the dungeon master, because after all, this is D&D. Simplifies a lot that way. And the dungeon master (DM to you and me) has a book full of scenarios, and he lays out the dungeon and tells the characters when they're about to get jumped by monsters. Then he does his level best to beat the unholy bejeezus out of them - and sometimes he pulls it off.

The board is a series of thick card boards that show different layout for dungeon areas. There are lots of dungeon rooms, a couple grassy areas, and even a bridge over burning lava (which almost never gets used, because seriously, how often do you cross a river of molten rock?). A diagram shows the DM where these go, and he lays them out before the game starts. Like the HeroQuest boards, these rooms don't have doors, so the only way to get from one room to the next is when the DM puts a door token on the board. Then the heroes line up at it, open the door, and get ready to rumble.

Before the trigger-happy adventurers can enter a room, the DM sets up the monsters with some really great miniatures. They're not as stylistically brilliant as HeroQuest monsters, but they're made from much sturdier stuff, and the sculpts are still damned good. Better than Dragon Strike, I'll tell you that. And the DM can put the monsters wherever he wants inside the next room, but he has to be careful - there's a good chance all the heroes will be able to take their turns before he can, and if he sets up too close, he could lose his whole team before they get a turn at bat. But if he sets up too far away, he might end up out of range and have to just wave at the heroes and offer them candy if they'll go away.

And the reason the DM doesn't know when it's his turn is because of the excellent initiative mechanic. Because there will always be four adventurers (in the case of less than five players, someone will have to double up), you know there will be five turns. And the DM has a deck with five cards, numbered 1 to 5, which he shuffles and deals. It's so simple, but for some reason so many games keep making us roll dice. Which makes it a lot harder to cheat - and I admit without apology to cheating like a Vegas con-man. See, I usually play with my kids, and even if I act like I really want to kill them and use their ribs for toothpicks, I actually want them to win, so about once a game I deliberately deal myself the five, when the chips are down and a failed initiative is probably a dead character.

Combat is so freaking brilliant and fun it screams to be played. Every weapon card shows a number of colored dice, and different colored dice have different numbers of sides showing little swords. The yellow die has two blanks and four single-sword sides; the purple has two triples and four doubles. Obviously, it's better to roll the purple than the yellow. You roll your weapon's dice, tell the DM how many swords you got, and he subtracts the monster's armor from that roll. Anything left is damage.

Combat is fast and furious, and one of my favorite ways to play this game is to describe the horrific ways that monsters die:

"Your throwing star sticks in the gnoll's helmet, and just as he starts to laugh, it explodes and blows his forehead out his ears."
"Your spiked gauntlet catches him right underneath the armor below his stomach, and rips metal and furry skin to shreds. The bugbear drops to the ground, trying desperately to stop his gushing belly wound."
"The electricity from your spell plays over the ogre's body, and he roars in pain, twitching uncontrollably, then falls dead, limbs still flailing. The smell of burnt hair is almost overpowering."

And when I do that, my daughter always acts like she's grossed out. "Ew, Dad!" To which I always reply, "Oh please. Quit pretending you don't love it."

Anyway, once the heroes rack up a body count that would make Charles Manson send you fan mail, they can search the room. They have to be careful - it's best to let Lidda use the special trap die to look for traps, and then the special disarming die to make them safe. The DM knows where there are traps; the characters are not quite as lucky. I've snagged God knows how many heroes with pit traps, snares, explosions, gas bombs and my personal favorite, the resurrection trap - the most recently slain monster pops up, ready to brawl. This is a great one to pull off just as the heroes think they have cleared a room, finally killed the big ugly beast, just to have it rise up and beat them down a little more.

Treasure is handled wonderfully, with a deck of cards that represent goodies you can find. There are spells, potions, weapons, armor and other cool stuff - and there are also booby traps, which I love. Yeah, I want my kids to win - but just barely, and when I can make the thief so wounded that she can't risk another treasure chest, it makes it that much easier to spread the pain to the rest of the group. Then it's a down-to-the-wire, desperate fight for survival. Just the way I like it.

Unlike HeroQuest, there is no gold in the D&D Adventure Game. There's no store, for one thing. The treasure in the chests is geared for the expertise of the heroes - at the beginning, the weapons are a little weak, but by the end, they'll have some pretty wicked gear. My son's Auger of Torment is a really gruesome weapon - but it sure gets the job done, and it gives me a chance to describe some really horrible wounds.

The adventures in the base game all follow a single story, but like most D&D games, the story is kind of irrelevant. The objectives change - you'll chase down an artifact you need for later, or kill a chieftain, or escape a dungeon - but you probably won't give a flying rat's ass about the story. I know I don't. I just love the adventure.

As the story progresses, the heroes will gain levels. This is almost silly, honestly - when the adventure says, 'now everyone is level two', they are. That's it. They get a couple more hit points, a few more spell points, and now they can use better gear. No point allocation, no skill shopping, no rolling for advancement. Now you're level three, because the game says you are. That's fine with me - saves me some trouble - but it seems kind of arbitrary.

It's difficult to describe the scope of kick-assery in the D&D Adventure Game (I know kick-assery isn't a word, but it should be). The art is awesome. The miniatures are brilliant. The dice are a blast. The different boards are extremely expandable, and even after you finish all the scenarios, there's still room to make more. But that doesn't sum up how much the D&D Adventure Game is ten pounds of awesome in a five pound bag. You'll have to play it for yourself.

As if this game couldn't get any better, there are two really fantastic expansions. One is a forest expansion, and the other is an arctic expansion, and they both come with more of everything, including another hero in each box. More great monsters to kill, places to explore, treasures to find, and villains to vanquish in their lairs. The snowy expansion even has an ice dragon.

If you don't have this game or HeroQuest... get them both. They're both really good. But if you're not sure which one to start with, here are a few considerations.

-The D&D Adventure Game is easy to learn and easy to play. So is HeroQuest, really, but the D&D Game is even easier.
-HeroQuest is a lot more expandable, and has a substantially larger fan base.
-HeroQuest has better miniatures.
-The D&D Game has better art.
-The D&D Game has way prettier boards that can be set up in a huge variety of configurations.
-The D&D Game requires no accounting or character sheets. HeroQuest has character sheets, and you'll have to do math.
-The D&D Game was only released in the UK, which means it's a real bastard to try to run down a copy in the US. They had it at GenCon a couple years ago, but good luck finding it now.

If you can think of anything I missed as you're reading this, feel free to comment below.

So there you have it - I love the D&D Adventure Game, and I don't even care if that's not the real name. It's my personal pick for dungeon games, barely edging out HeroQuest. It's great with the kids, and I've played it with adults and had a blast. The DM isn't going to win, but really, he's not supposed to win, so that works out pretty well.

Join us Friday for a review of the big dungeon game of the month - Descent. I'll even talk up Road to Legend, which should give you even more reason to make sure you don't miss it.


Great minis
Great boards
Great dice mechanic (with great dice)
Great treasure cards
Great googly moogly, I love this game

Silly level progression
No character customization
Really hard to find on my side of the pond

Here's you if you're trying to find this game:

Sunday, April 6, 2008

Dungeon Game Review - HeroQuest

The first week of the dungeon review series was a warm-up. The old TSR game Dungeon is basically Candyland with green slimes, Dark World is more like a toy with some bad rules, and Dragon Strike is the almost-ran stepchild of dungeon games. This week, though, I'm pulling out the stops and throwing down with the big players of dungeon games. The opening act will be HeroQuest, widely hailed as the finest dungeon game ever created by fans all over the planet, despite the fact that the game has been out of print for almost twenty years.

HeroQuest was the kind of game that pimply nerds like myself dreamed about when we started playing D&D. We didn't get into roleplaying games so we could explore our characters' motivations or sit in the dark with our platonic partners and reenact sex scenes with barbarian queens. We got into Dungeons & Dragons because we wanted to pick up a big weapon and chop a bunch of subhuman monsters into little wet chunks, then we wanted to steal their crap. We didn't bother with in-character dialog, or story-driven characters, or the angst of discovering where our half-drow rogues fit into a society engineered to hate them. We just threw fireballs and asked questions later.

So when HeroQuest came out, it was a must-buy game. I played this game with my little brother until we had finished the scenarios that came in the box, then we bought the expansions and played those, too. It's no wonder the game maintains such a magnificent fan following - if even a fraction of the gamers who bought this off the shelf at Kay-Bee Toys enjoyed it as much as I did, they'll remember the good times until they're too old to roll dice. Hell, I played it with my kids, and it was good times all over again (or as good as times can be when you're trying to get two grade-school siblings to quit arguing long enough to decide whether they want to open the door or not).

HeroQuest has an incredibly simple combat scheme, but one that is still quite clever. In fact, it's so clever, it has seen use in many games since, including that gaming juggernaut, Heroscape. Your character rolls attack dice looking to get skulls, then bad guys roll defense dice hoping to get shields. Shields cancel skulls, and any leftover skulls are worth one point of damage apiece. Weak monsters like goblins have just one body point, and a single skull will kill them; the dreaded gargoyle has three body points, and with five defense dice, is not likely to lose them in a hurry.

The miniatures in HeroQuest are just plain great. In fact, they're so great, I went and painted all the orcs and the heroes. I would have done the rest of the monsters, but I'm not much of a painter. These are the highest-quality figures in any dungeon game that came before or after for at least a decade. In fact, these are often better figures than you could buy from Ral Partha. Not only are they detailed, but they have so much character that you want to break out whole armies of bad guys just to look at the figures.

The game board is a little funny, though. At first glance, it's actually kind of ugly. It's just a bunch of dungeon rooms, all walled off. Long corridors connect the rooms, but without doorways, there's no way to get from one room to another. But what might look like a liability is actually one of the greatest strengths of HeroQuest.

See, all these rooms can be made into a dungeon simply by placing the little door standups that come with the game. The bad guy controller (called Zargon, in what is probably the silliest name for a dungeon master ever made) has a map that shows where there are doors, and traps, and monsters, and treasure chests, and desks and fireplaces and tables and lots more stuff. When the heroes enter a room, he pauses the game long enough to put out all this stuff. And then the previously rather bland map comes to life, because now there are actual three-dimensional tables, torture racks, and tombs, because one top of coming with a big fat pile of awesome miniatures, HeroQuest comes with an enormous quantity of beautifully-sculpted dungeon dressings. Suddenly the bland and slightly ugly map becomes a fully-articulated dungeon, complete with skeletons in hidden chambers and pentagons in the wizard's lair.

Treasure collection can be dicey for the heroes. They can search the bodies of their fallen foes, but as they do, there's a chance more monsters might find them. Or they could trigger a deadly trap. Or they might just fall through a crumbling floor and twist an ankle. But what mostly happens is that they find gold and jewels and potions that they can use to improve their chances of success.

Every scenario in the base game follows a story line. The heroes trek through progressively more dangerous dungeons in their quest to defeat the Witch Lord and become champions of the realm. The same board is used every time, but it is so incredibly versatile that every adventure is different. HeroQuest is simultaneously a great game, in terms of tactics and strategy, and an exercise in imagination. You can almost hear the barbarian warrior screaming a lusty battle cry as he impales a chaos warrior on his trusty sword.

Between adventures, heroes can buy better gear. This is actually fairly crucial, because it's the only way they improve. Unlike D&D, where your character actually gets better at hitting things, the only improvement HeroQuest characters can see is by shopping. In that, they're a little like Paris Hilton - no matter how much crap that girl buys, she continues to be just about worthless as a human being.

And that is my biggest complaint with HeroQuest. I want my barbarian to get tougher. I want my wizard to learn how to do more damage with a fireball. I want my dwarf to get better at disarming traps. It's all well and good to get better gear, but after spending half a year playing this game, I really want to see my heroes be better, with or without a truckload of gear. After all, there's only so much you can get at the store, so unless they can pick up magic weapons in dungeons, they've got a definite ceiling on their rise to power. And that ceiling means that Zargon can't ever trot out new bad guys, either - you'll play 14 missions and still be fighting orcs and goblins.

But that little oversight is not too painfully dramatic. Milton Bradley figured out pretty quick that they had a hit on their hands, and dutifully released a bunch of expansions. Several of them - like the Barbarian Quest Pack and Against the Ogre Horde - had more kinds of monsters, and many of the expansions had rules for more powerful foes. More artifacts and magic stuff were in there, too, so you could get a little past the rudimentary weapon set that came with the base game.

Even writing this review has me jonesing for a little HeroQuest, and is just about to send me on a shopping spree to see if I can pick up some of those expansions I don't have. Sure, I've got Kellar's Keep and Return of the Witch Lord, but I really want the European-only releases, and the character quest packs, and the adventure design pack, and... you know, I may need to get a night job. I don't even play this game any more, and I still want to pick up all those expansions. Because the game is that good.


Great combat system
Incredible miniatures
Fantastic story lines
Infinitely expandable
Just plain amazing game

Will make you want to spend a lot more money

If you're into dungeon games, you know HeroQuest. If you don't have a copy but wish you did, you can almost always find a few on eBay. The question is whether or not you want to mortgage your children for an unopened copy.

EDIT: When I wrote this review, I meant for it to include links to Aginn's Inn, an absolutely amazing HeroQuest fan site. Sadly, that site has shut down. Happily, there are a couple good fan sites still out there:


Thursday, April 3, 2008

Dungeon Game Review - Dragon Strike

The late 80s and early 90s were great times for dungeon gamers. HeroQuest was all the rage, and was only improved by Warhammer Quest. TSR was quickly slipping as the only dungeon gaming company in town, and to try to gain back a little lost ground, they came up with their own answer to HeroQuest. Unfortunately, their game wasn't as good as HeroQuest, and so ended up sliding quietly into obscurity.

Dragon Strike was, in my opinion, mostly bad timing, which was kind of par for the course when it came to TSR. If it had predated HeroQuest, it would still have dozens of fan sites and it would have spawned a half dozen expansions. If it had come about five years later than it did, it would have been a breath of fresh air in a rapidly stagnating dungeon market, and might have even held off the fall of the mighty TSR for another year or two. But coming right on the heels of what would turn out to be the barometer against which all other dungeon games would be measured, it just never really had a chance. It didn't catch on, and slipped out of print and into thrift stores everywhere.

It's kind of a shame, really, because Dragon Strike is a cool game. The miniatures are decent, for what they are, and there are plenty of them. The game incorporates a lot more roleplaying than any other dungeon game, including rules for letting players do stuff that isn't in the rules. Of course, it was made by TSR, publishers of the dreadnought of Dungeons & Dragons, and so they were willing to be a little fast and loose with rules requirements.

Combat in Dragon Strike is easy, but still manages to be exciting. It could take a little while to clear a room, unlike many dungeon games where the bad guys are like paper dolls wearing 'kick me' signs. Each character - monster or adventurer - has an armor class, and you roll a single attack die, trying to beat it. If you do, the target takes a point of damage. An orc only has one hit point, so you can smoke him in one shot, but the troll has three, and the dragon has eight. Not only that, but sometimes these bad guys can pack a wallop, so sticking around for a long brawl has a serious downside.

Another serious downside of long battles is that the heroes are on a timeline. Turns are counted, and after 20 turns, Darkfyre the dragon enters the board, intent on cooking up some hero munchables. Darkfyre can burn all the heroes at once, moves fast, hits hard, and takes a long time to kill. If you have to fight him, you're doing something wrong - but that problem is likely to rectify itself, because if you are fighting Darkfyre, you probably don't have much time left to make mistakes.

Two double-sided game boards come with Dragon Strike, and each side details a different adventuring environment. One is a natural cavern, one is a classic dungeon, another shows a forest glade, and the last is a castle. Unlike many other dungeon games that came after and before, and are a great deal more customizable, these boards don't change from mission to mission. The Dungeon Master might cut off one passage with a fallen rock, or decide that one door doesn't go anywhere, but for the most part, after you play four different boards, you've played them all.

The boards are actually a good news/bad news sort of scenario. They are really well done, and boast some great art. It's a lot easier to get into the mood for dungeon crawling when the board has skulls on the floor and bubbling mud pits. The boards in Dragon Strike make HeroQuest look downright drab.

But the real problem is that you've got exactly four maps to throw at the heroes. You can't say, 'pretend this is a snow-blown mountain top', because it's pretty obviously NOT covered in ice. It won't ever be a desert temple, and the heroes will always know exactly how many exits lead out of the next room. You can't surprise your heroes with new maps, and you're really limited in where you can put your adventures. So that sucks.

Another suck factor was that the graphic designers responsible for most of the game would have been better off as janitors in a Thai brothel than making art. The character cards are not just bad, they're flat-out horrible. Each character card has a really bad photograph of some total douchebag pretending to be a D&D hero. The warrior looks like he just left an 80s hair band, and he's not even ripped. The wizard is wearing a ludicrous hat made out of a coyote, has stupid green face paint and nostrils big enough to hide a B-52. The elf is downright geriatric, and the dwarf has to be seen to be believed. It's almost embarrassing to get the game out of the box.

As if this disaster of design decisions wasn't enough to make Dragon Strike a running gag, the makers of the game thought it would be a good idea to tie in with existing technology - in this case, VCRs. The game comes with a video that is easily one of the most horrible things ever made. Sitting down to watch this video tape will either be horribly uncomfortable or a complete laugh riot.

Ugly designs notwithstanding, Dragon Strike is not a bad game. I know I said that already, but it's worth repeating. The game had legs. Sadly, they weren't as nice as HeroQuest's legs, and so all the boys wanted to dance with HeroQuest and left poor, dejected Dragon Strike to go home alone and cry itself to sleep.

Dragon Strike is really an unfortunate experiment. It should not have been made if TSR didn't want to do it right. They should have hired better sculptors, hired illustrators instead of autistic models for the character cards, and put a little work into the reference cards. Done right, Dragon Strike could have been pretty damned decent, and maybe even given HeroQuest a run for its money. For many gamers, Dragon Strike might have even been better than HeroQuest - the option to perform feats and do stuff that wasn't in the rules is the kind of thing that will appeal to RPG fans. But in classic TSR style, they did the job halfway and released it at the worst possible time. For most gamers, it blipped on their radar and then faded away, forgotten in the search for the next HeroQuest expansion.

If you're looking to try out an easy dungeon crawler, you can do a lot worse than Dragon Strike. I still dig this out and run it now and then, even though it's in such bad shape that I had to borrow the photo from Jormi_Boced at BGG (thanks, Jormi!).


Beautiful game boards
Decent minis
Workable mechanics
Fun missions
Really cool feat system

Photos of retarded people - not a good design decision
Only four boards
Piss poor timing on the release

Yes, you guessed it - another game without a link. What can I tell you? They just don't make dungeon games like they used to do.

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Dungeon Game Review - Dark World

If Dark World were a girl, she would have the following to say regarding geography lessons:

"I truly believe, that U.S. Americans cannot do so, because, um, such as, they don't all have maps, such as, because, the Iraq..."

Because, see, Dark World is really fun to look at, but it's pretty dumb.

The game pits up to four adventurers against the evil Korak, who is not Russian. He is a snake man. Korak controls a dungeon full of monsters, through which the heroes must wind to finally face the snake man in his castle.

The monsters are not half bad. They're all that 90's colored plastic we loved in Heroquest and Warhammer minis before all the games started using that cheap soft plastic that makes your paint crack. The sculpts are... well, they suck, but they're still better than cardboard counters. The heroes are all plastic figures, too, and they have holes in their hands to hold little interchangeable weapons (until the weapons fall out, which happens just about every time you touch them).

All the figures in the game come separate from their bases. This is because the bases are special - hero bases click through the numbers 1-8, and monster bases have a numbered disc pushed up into the bottom to show how tough they are. For the record, the monsters are not tough, but they sure are fun to look at, like Demi Moore pretending to be a Navy Seal. They seem intimidating enough until you realize that old women with Life Alert bracelets could beat them up with their walkers.

Combat is pretty lame. There are three identical dice, with blank sides, one dagger, or two daggers. You roll the dice, you check under the little monster figure, and if you've rolled as many daggers as the number jammed up under the monster's base, you kill him. Otherwise he punches you in the junk. Repeat until one of you is pushing up daisies. This will almost always be the bad guy.

The dungeon is really cool, though. It's composed of nine rooms leading to the castle (which is also awesome to see). Cardstock walls and plastic holders combine to make this grid of rooms, each connected by actual swinging plastic doors and spinning secret panels. The graphics are really impressive, too. Like dating a stupid cheerleader, the eye candy can be fun for a while, and more than make up for the complete lack of meaningful content, at least until the novelty wears off.

The castle actually has to be built each game, and is composed of six or seven different parts, including arches and stairways and swinging doors. There's no reason for the doors to swing, but there they are, like a girl in a thoroughly impractical but really hot bustier. You can store extra monsters underneath the castle, and there are trays for storing money and spare magic items like healing potions, speedy boots, and holy hand grenades of Antioch.

There's a really cool (but completely unnecessary) turn order mechanic - a plastic mace with colored balls. You shake the mace and stick it in the top of the castle, and the colored balls fall into order to tell you who goes when. This is simultaneously the coolest thing about the game, and the dumbest. It's a really cool idea, and it's so much fun to shake the little mace and then call out colors, but it could have been completely replaced with four colored cards. It's like a Dallas trophy wife - worthless for anything that counts, but great for impressing people who don't know better.

As the game draws to a close, the heroes converge on Korak's castle, intent on driving their golden weapons through his scaly face. Korak is a real beast to kill - he's got a half-dozen helpers surrounding him, plus a manticore. Except that the heroes can use their magic items to wade through the monsters like a fat guy at a pizza buffet, so that the real race is to see who can get to Korak first to deal the killing blow. Then all the heroes compare their earnings, and the hero who was the best at killing wins the game. Korak wins if he can kill all the heroes, but that's so unlikely it's not worth mentioning. Sort of like the odds of getting to third base with that hot chick from HR who always forgets not to wear a black bra with a white shirt.

All thing considered, Dark World is pretty fun to have for novelty value, but as games go, it's kind of a loss. All set up, the game is beautiful, but like a well-sculpted pair of fake boobs on a porn starlet, it promises much more than it can deliver.


Easy to play
Moves pretty fast
Smokin' hot

Almost impossible for the bad guy to win
Somehow makes killing things dull
Dumber than a bag of hammers

Dark World is yet another game for which I cannot provide a link, as it is also pretty out of print.