Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Card Game Review - Suicide Bomber

It's not often you get to play a game that grants a really powerful moral guide. I mean, most games offer lessons like, 'don't let your guys get surrounded' or 'build sections of high-scoring tiles' or 'put this one piece on top of that other piece'. But how often can you say that you've played a game that really drives home how bad it is to blow up a church-going grandmother with a homemade bomb? Not very often, I'll tell you that. Sure, you can learn about how the good guys should beat the bad guys, but it takes real balls to come right out and say, 'don't blow up old ladies. It's freaking rude.'

In Suicide Bombers, you equip crazed killers (who may be anything from mailroom clerks or corporate drones to political activists or politicians) and then send them out into the city to wreak destruction and havoc. And I must say, this is one messed-up city, because it gets bombed more often than Paris Hilton.

The city is made up of a grid of people cards. Not all the people cards show people - some are buildings. It's totally awesome to blow up the morgue and have it fall on nuns. It's also horrible. You should never do that. You hear me? Don't blow up a nun. It's wrong. But it is worth two points, which might confuse your moral compass a little.

You blow stuff up in this city by slipping bomb cards underneath people cards and then counting them down. Every turn, bombs tick closer to detonation, until they go off in a fiery blaze and kill bike couriers and people who are eating at the cafe. When they explode, arrows point to which cards get destroyed, and you get points for destroying them - unless you kill the puppy, because he's worth negative points. You should never blow up the puppy. It's sick and wrong. Don't do it.

In addition to loading up the population of the most ruinous city in the world, you also get to move these little psychos around to maximize their potential damage. And since you want your opponent to blow up the wrong things, you'll probably also move his bombers so that they destroy wide-eyed innocent bystanders and get him a few penalty points. Those penalty points are how you know it's wrong to blow up innocent bystanders. You should be ashamed of ever thinking about blowing up innocent bystanders. That's disgusting and morally reprehensible.

There are lots of card combos working here. Like if you move a courier, you can move someone else, and then you can move a bomber next to the undercover agent, who takes a bomb counter off him and makes him take longer to blow up. Or you could play the political leader next to the secret service agent, to try to protect him a little, or hide everyone behind a building so that they can't be moved out into the open where the bomb can get them. But since you don't know which directions the blast will travel, sometimes you'll think you're tricky, but the other bomber is really the tricky one, and he fools you into putting his bomber next to the high priest and a couple altar boys, and then he moves your bomber next to the sorry-assed corporate drone and ends his miserable life, costing you points while he laughs all the way to the bomber's bank.

I joke a little about the moral lesson in this game, but it really is a little tough to stomach, even for dark humor. I'm not kidding about the puppy. He's really in there, and you can really kill him (though you don't want to kill him, unless you can maneuver your opponent into killing the puppy, but then you're still trying to kill the puppy, aren't you?). You can kill altar boys and political activists and CEOs (granted, I don't feel guilty about the CEO. That part is fine with me, especially if the CEO took a bailout).

But it's humor, and it's meant to be amusing. My son and I laughed while we played, though my wife left the room because she thought the game was too twisted. And it's clever, too - timing explosions to go off when you want them, and screwing up your opponents plans, and maneuvering to maximize body counts are all things that make this a pretty decent little game. There's just enough strategy to reward the better player, and enough guesswork and luck to let anyone win if he's lucky enough.

I can't really think of much bad to say about Suicide Bomber, really. It's fun, and the art is amusing as hell. And it completely avoids making any ethnic stereotypes (I'm especially happy about that, because the first thing I thought when the planes brought down the WTC was, 'I bet it was those damned Swedes').

In fact, I guess if I had a complaint, it would be that this game isn't offensive enough. Sure, you can blow up a puppy with a bomb strapped to a child, but honestly, is there anyone in the US who thinks, 'suicide bomber' and then thinks, 'nun'? It seems to me that Suicide Bomber slaps on a heavy coat of twisted dark humor, but still tries to play it politically correct. Let's face it, there aren't that many French Canadian suicide bombers, and I think that if you're going to make a game as effed up as this, you should have the stones to come right out and say what we're all thinking.

But really, that probably would have been a bit much, and they almost certainly would have been shouted down as racists if they had made the bombers come from the Middle East. Besides, it wouldn't really have worked, because in this game, ANYONE can be a suicide bomber (except the puppy and the undercover agent), which is kind of the silly-but-black point. In fact, it's likely that they're trying to be all subtle about pointing out that not only Middle Easterners strap bombs to their chests. All I'm saying is, the game seems to be stomping hard on suicide bombers while going on tip toes around the most likely candidates for the job.

So in the end, Suicide Bomber was the best game I've played yet from Bucephalus Games, but it is really, really dark, and the timing on the humor might have been better. It's light and tricky and fast and sick and funny. I recommend it, as long as you're the kind of sick bastard who can find humor in getting a couple more points because you scored the televangelist/tax collector/marketing weasel trifecta.


Dark and funny, with fun art
Easy to learn and plays really fast
Surprising levels of strategy and planning

You can blow up a puppy

You can get your very own copy of Suicide Bomber right here:

Monday, April 27, 2009

Board Game Review - Android

It was a cold, rainy night in New Angeles. I took another long pull off the flask and settled back in the front seat, eyes trained on Vinnie's front door. It was gonna be a long night, another lonely night, but I could afford to sleep. I had to know if Vinnie had evidence in the Randolph case, and I meant to ask him about it one way or another. And then that damned robot showed up, and went right in Vinnie's apartment, and then Vinnie's car went shooting right through the roof, and all the while my car kept telling me that my girlfriend wanted to see me on the moon.

Android isn't a noir detective novel - but it sure seems like it ought to be. It's also not exactly a science fiction game, despite having a self-aware robot investigating a murder that might have been committed by a clone who got tired of being a slave at the mines on the moon. It's more like a game about figuring out about fifty complicated rules and then somehow making them all work so you can decide who did the murder.

Now right off the bat it might seem like I don't like Android, and I don't want to give that impression. I really enjoyed playing it a lot. It's got tons of depth and strategy and tricky plays. You have to read your opponents, hit them when they get too far ahead, and protect yourself so that you don't leave yourself open. You have to plan two hours out, make plays that won't come to fruition until the game ends, and come up with brilliant card plays that let you gain whatever slight advantage you can find - because you'll need it. It's also about exploring the lives of five different, flawed investigators as they attempt to solve a murder and untangle a conspiracy, and it's a ton of fun.

But it's incredibly complicated - far more than was needed. There are so many small, complex rules that you have to explain, you could spend thirty minutes just teaching someone else the game, and they'll still be asking you whether they can go to the moon from there. There are redundant, unnecessary rules all over the place. It's like when your dog knocks over a box of carpet tacks in the shag rug, and you know sooner or later you'll be cussing and pulling one out of your foot.

The basic theory here is that it's the future. We've settled the moon and had a civil war on Mars. We've got a space elevator that can take us from the Earth to the moon in less than a day, and we've developed two kinds of artificial life - androids and clones. And most importantly, we finally have our flying cars. I'm still bitter that we haven't got flying cars yet, but at least in this game, we do.

The players each assume the role of an investigator trying to solve a murder. Raymond is a deeply troubled, alcoholic private eye. Caprice is a psychic clone, property of Jinteki and only slightly prone to complete insanity. Floyd is an android, a robot owned by Haas-Bioroid, who has a bit of a tendency to fall apart and require maintenance. Rounding out our happy band are Louis, a cop deep in the mob's pocket, and Rachel, a bounty hunter with more debt than good sense. They each have their own reasons for solving the murder and uncovering the conspiracy, and as the game progresses, you'll explore different plots in their lives. Like you might have to keep Louis from getting a divorce, or keep Raymond from crawling into a bottle and staying there, or maybe just get Caprice laid (I'm not making that up. Caprice really does need to get laid).

So you've got to solve a murder - but kids, this ain't Clue. You're not going to wander around, asking players to see their cards and then checking to see if you guessed right. You're going to wander around, putting evidence on suspects and then, when the game ends, you'll see who is the most guilty, and the most innocent, and the most dead (there's not really levels of dead, but it did finish off the thought pretty well).

You can also investigate a massive conspiracy involving various organizations, from the big robot manufacturers to the mining corporations to the ever-so-corruptible great big church. Investigating the conspiracy lets you put puzzle pieces into this big grid, and if you can get five across, you get BINGO and get four points! I'm not sure how that plays into the theme - kind of seems like it doesn't at all - but it's how I won the last game I played, so I'm not complaining.

While you do all this driving around and questioning suspects, you'll also have to pay attention to your plots. These are backstories that have little or nothing to do with the case, but they're critical in deciding whether you wind up happy (and get lots of points) or sad (and lose lots of points). If you're Caprice, you might also go crazy, especially if you weren't able to have sex. I don't know why, but it seems psychic clones need sex fairly regularly.

With all this cool stuff going on, Android seems like it should be a stone riot - and to a certain degree, it is. Like I said, Android is a lot of fun - but it has so much wrong with it, I'm not even sure where to start. Oddly complex evidence placement? Tiny print on your opponents' cards that you absolutely, critically have to track? Thirty minutes of setup time? Fourteen decks of cards?

No, I'll get to those, but I guess I'll start off with the time. Sweet Mary, does this take a long time to play, and you're going to feel every minute. Some games blow a whole afternoon and then you say, 'man, is it that time already?' Android blows three hours, and then you're halfway through the game, and you go, 'holy crap, I need a break.' I love long games, but only if I'm doing something the whole time. There's so much downtime in Android, I seriously took a ten minute break and came back before it was my turn again. You could take up another whole hobby and pursue between your turns. Sure, you can play cards on your opponents during their turns, but this isn't as prevalant as it seems it should be, and you barely have to pay attention to what the other players are doing. You have to see where they place evidence, and you have to wait for Raymond to walk into a bar so you can make him drink himself half to death, but otherwise you just sit there - unless you're the guy that knows the rules, and then you get to spend the whole time saying, 'no, you can't do that. No, you can't do that either. No, you can't pick that up. Yes, you can draw that, but you can't use it like that, and you can't put it there. Yes, I would like some Vicodin and some hard liquor.'

Part of the reason this is going to take a long time, at least for your first few games, is that the game is 40 pages of rules that should have been streamlined to about 20. You'll spend five minutes trying to explain why testimony evidence goes at the bottom of Vinnie's sheet and the middle of Eve's. What's especially frustrating is that, aside from a slight amount of misdirection (and I mean small enough to be negligible), there's virtually no benefit derived by having three kinds of evidence. And whatever benefit there is, it's totally offset by how ludicrously complicated the whole thing is.

Speaking of complicated, how about having nearly 20 different decks of cards? Each detective has a light deck, a dark deck and a plot deck. Then there are innocent hunches and guilty hunches, and event cards (split into two decks), and each character also has his own special cards. It's bewildering at first, and after you play it a few times, it's still a mess. Much of the same end result could have been achieved by putting two effects on each card and letting everyone draw from the same pile.

To make matters worse with these cards, there's ridiculously tiny print that you absolutely have to know if you're going to try to make your opponents crash and burn. You have to know how to make them sad, and how to slow them down, and what cards they're using to their advantage. And that means every time a new card is played, you need to read it, unless you've played so often that you've memorized all the cards (with more than 300 cards in the game, you had better get started now. Yes, you can wait until you finish memorizing the dictionary - this will probably take a little longer than that).

As if having more than 300 cards to sort isn't enough trouble, you've also got the patented Kevin Wilson Giant Pile of Pieces. There are favor tokens (in four colors), evidence tokens, conspiracy tokens, player tokens, and Chuck E Cheese tokens (those may not be in your game - I have kids). The first time we set up, it took thirty minutes. The second time, it took thirty minutes, but that's because I was stupid and didn't bag everything up separately after the first game. If you invest a good amount of time shoveling all these little bits into their separate baggies, (thus adding a good ten minutes to the time it takes to put them away), you should be able to set up in about twenty minutes. And yes, if you're good at math, you may notice that you don't actually come out ahead, time-wise.

This isn't the end of the stuff that bothers me about Android, but honestly, it's gone on long enough. It's really important that you understand why I would play Android again, and hope to do it pretty soon. It's fun, and there are lots of great things about this game. In fact, it's kind of like a huge bag of gold bricks stuck inside a pile of elephant poop - there's a real treasure in there, but it can stink a little getting to it.

I really love that this is not a typical guess-the-bad-guy crime game. Some people might complain that it feels like you're framing a suspect, but that's not the feel I get. It's more like you're telling a story, and your detectives have these hunches, and maybe they're right and maybe they're wrong. Yes, you manipulate the game to prove people innocent or guilty, but really it's more like you're hunting for clues, and at the same time, you're above the whole thing unwrapping the story. This part feels absolutely brilliant, and combines the best of story-telling and strategy to create a really fun experience.

Another great thing about Android is the conspiracy (aside from that BINGO thing - that feels silly. In fact, to emphasize how silly it is, we actually call it scoring a BINGO). The conspiracy is another part of the story that you're telling, and you're linking corporations, politicians and even religious organizations to build an evolving story of corruption, greed, and murder.

But my favorite thing about Android has virtually nothing to do with the murder. The plots that each character plays out over the course of the game are engaging, and you'll find yourself sacrificing potential advantages in the game to make sure your character winds up happy. Not just because you're trying to win, either - I got so invested in my characters that I wanted Raymond to turn down a drink, find his missing sarge, and finally put his nightmares to rest. I wanted Floyd to find the humanity in his robotic shell. I wanted Caprice to be sane. I wanted Rachel to pay off her debts, and I wanted Louis to get blackmailed by the mob and have his wife leave him (but that last one is just because it makes me laugh to see my friend Rockford get totally hosed). Of all the parts of the game that I liked, the plots were the best at making me feel like I was in a story. The actual murder felt like an academic exercise, but seeing Raymond get tossed out of bars while Caprice struggled with her basic human rights was very satisfying.

At the end of the game, Android is a lot of fun. It's not without considerable pitfalls, and there are enough unneeded rules to choke a paper shredder, but the good definitely outweighs the bad. Don't try this one if you're short on time or afraid of thick rulebooks, but if you've got the stamina and imagination to take Android for a spin, you'll probably enjoy the heck out of it. Especially if you take up crochet, because then you could make sweaters between your turns.


Lots of great theme elements
Tough decisions and deep strategic gameplay
Plots are one of the coolest things I've ever seen in a board game

Takes way, way too long with far too much downtime
Enormous piles of rules that should be been streamlined or eliminated completely
Too many pieces and too many cards - less would have been more

If you've got the time and the dedication, and you dig some cool futuristic theme, you should get Android. And you should get it from Dogstar Games, because you'll save some green and get free shipping. And in case you're not following along at home, they also send me games so that I can review stuff that the big boys don't like to send me, because they're worried I'll compare them to piles of elephant poop.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Party Game Review - Rorschach

Here's an interesting tidbit about the game Rorschach - it's going to take me longer to write a review about the game that it would take to actually play it. Heck, by the time I'm describing what's on the cards, I probably could have pulled it out, played twice, and put it away. But then, I write slow.

Rorschach is a party game where you look at inkblots, then decide which looks the most like it has boobs. Well, OK, the questions vary, but if you're a grown man who thinks about sex more than he thinks about his own survival, you'll probably end up seeing a lot of girl parts, regardless of whether or not you're looking for them.

Here's how it works. Each player gets an eight-sided die. Then you put out cards with inkblots on them (one less than the number of players) and put numbers next to them. Then you flip a card that asks a question, like which one looks the most nimble, or the most unpleasant to step on, or the sexiest (for me, it's the one that looks like boobs). I would have vastly preferred an adult version, one that asks which blot looks most like your vanishing 401(k), or which one looks most like it would steal your identity and pass bad checks with your name on them, but I guess the designers wanted a family game. Which also means asking which blots look like they would be the best in bed are right out, even though that's the question I kept answering anyway.

The object of the game is to get a chip from each player, including yourself, which you do by matching the other players to get theirs, and matching nobody to get your own. The thing is, this wacky scoring mechanic (which coincidentally is the same as approximately two-thirds of party games) means you can technically win on your second turn. And when I say that can technically happen, what I mean is that it actually did happen when we played. Woohoo! Break out the next game, that one was too easy.

So we expanded the rules. We put out more vaginas - er, inkblots. And the game still went ridiculously fast, so we swapped out the boob pictures after every round, which prolonged the game by about 45 seconds. Then since we were playing with just four (it can go to eight), we decided to try getting two of each color. That was the most satisfying, because while it wasn't any harder to get the chips you needed, now it just took twice as long, which meant that it took nearly ten minutes.

But then, one of my main beefs with party games is that they take too long. When I've been sucking down Johnny Walker for two hours and following it with beer chasers, I don't tend to have the patience I would need to spend two hours providing clues so you can guess 'grease monkey' or drawing balloon animals. It's kind of cool to sit down around the table, toss back the rest of your brew, and play a game that's over before anyone can pass out.

I liked Rorschach, and so did everyone who played with me. It's not one of those games that makes you say, 'man, I wish I could play that again RIGHT NOW!!' but it's fun, diverting, and fast. If you're looking for a deep, engaging, lasting experience, buy a house or get a tattoo. If you want to break out a little light fun with simple rules and the opportunity to make nipple references, Rorschach will fill the bill.

But only for as long as it takes you to finish another beer and wonder whether your co-worker's wife wears a thong.


Nice components and big, pretty cards
Easiest rules since Candyland
Plays faster than you can get a refill

Shallower than your empty beer glass
Won't seem like much of a game with less than a crowd, and won't last long

You can get Rorschach here:

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Board Game Review - Toboggans of Doom

If you ever wanted to pilot a super-powered sled down a mountain full of yetis, ninja and acid pits, then you're obviously more than a little out of touch with reality. You can't do that. They don't put all that crap on mountains. Can you imagine what it would do for tourism? Aspen would be shut down!

But it would be kind of cool to watch. Maybe we can convince Justin Timberlake to make a new reality TV show where people drive insane sleds down mountains full of blade-wielding snowmen and sharks. It might have to be a cartoon, but then, I'm not sure Justin Timberlake isn't a cartoon.

So that's not all that likely either - which leaves us with our next alternative, make the idea into a game. And that's what Bucephalus Games decided to do when they created Toboggans of Doom, one of the silliest games I've ever played. Player take turns buying ridiculous upgrades for their super-toboggans, then race them down mountains and try to avoid being destroyed by meteor showers and really boring accountants.

Toboggans of Doom is really more of a dice game than anything else, but the theme in this game is off the chain (I hear the kids say that these days, but I'm not really sure what it means. In my day, we said it was radical, and my old man said it was far out. I think those all mean about the same thing). You roll a handful of those crazy RPG dice (the ones with four sides, or eight, or twelve, or whatever else) and use them to buy upgrades. This part is actually pretty darn clever - if you plan your purchases, you can do pretty well. You might be able to build a sled that could conquer Everest, as long as Everest was overrun with sasquatches and your ex-girlfriend.

Then you jump on your pimped ride and head down the mountain, revealing tiles as you go. If a tile shows an obstacle you have to go over, you must have an 'over' upgrade. The same applies to obstacles you have go through or around - you have to have an upgrade that gives you the ability to pull that off. These upgrades might be anti-gravity devices, or chopper blades, or an army of moles. And then you have to roll dice.

In my opinion, this is where this crazy, silly, fun game starts to derail a little. The mechanics seem sound - 'over' obstacles make you roll high, 'around' obstacles make you roll low, and 'through' make you roll between two numbers. But your opponent rolls, and then you roll, and sometimes you couldn't succeed if God himself blew on your dice, and sometimes you couldn't fail if you wanted to. Early on, that's OK, but by the third run, it gets a little tiresome to be trying impotently to stop your opponent, and then when he rolls, he has you trying to get under a 1 when the best you could possibly do is a 3.

But this part I can excuse as a wacky, silly dice game. It's still fun to avoid caffeine withdrawal with a Quake rocket jump, even if the dice are horribly unpredictable. You race down the mountain, trying to be the first person to complete a whole run, and hoping you can stop your opponent with a bear trap or UFO tractor beam. But there's one rule in this game that I find completely destroys the game - the winning condition. The first person to complete a run is the winner, but you only get three chances to run, so if the first player in the second round finishes a run, the game is over and you only got to try once. That can leave you feeling pretty darn cheated.

Happily, there's an easy fix, and one that I'm surprised Bucephalus Games didn't create on their own. We simply change the winning conditions. Since you get points for every tile you get past, just compare points at the end of the game. That's it. It's the easiest game fix ever, and now when we play, that's how we do it, and we have a lot more fun.

I can't understand why someone didn't tell the designers of Toboggans of Doom to fix the endgame rules, or why they ignored the advice if someone did, but it doesn't really matter. If you play the game the way the rules tell you, you're not going to be happy. If you change it just a little, it's actually pretty damned cool. Changing the winning condition feels wrong, to be honest, but not nearly as wrong as rolling a 1 when you need a 12 and having to look at the other guy and say, 'yeah, OK, you win,' and you didn't even get a chance to try out your portable hole on the commandos.

If you're a hardcore, play-by-the-rules kind of gamer, I cannot recommend Toboggans of Doom, because the winning conditions ruin what could be a diverting entertainment. But if you're willing to be a little flexible, and you like a lot of silliness now and then, and you don't mind tons of luck, and you're OK with using orbital re-entry to get past the Viking opera, you'll probably enjoy Toboggans of Doom.


Silly and funny
Fast and fun
Neat dice mechanics

Buckets of luck
Unforgivably bad winning conditions could have been easily fixed, and should have been

If you want a silly, random, funny dice game with crazy art and goofy powers, Toboggans of Doom should just about do it. Dogstar Games tells me they're trying to get these in stock, and if they do, you'll save bank on the shipping, but in the meantime, you can find the game here:

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Board Game Review - Looting London

London has been hit with a crime wave! The crown jewels have been stolen, along with priceless Incan artifacts, invaluable paintings, and other stuff you have to get back! Questions suspects and find the missing loot! Don't let the thieves get away!

Or, the cows are getting away! The bull has run off, and so has the milk cow and the prize-winning calf! Round up some cowboys and chase down the herd before the storm comes! Save the ranch!

Or, Forgetful Larry has forgotten where he left the stash of booze! You can't find the Wild Turkey, the Colt .45, or the Boone's Farm! Get the other bums to help you find the missing bottles! Get drunk!

Or, there are some round counters with numbers and colors! Collect square counters with numbers and colors and try to have enough to grab the round counters! Have the most points!

So yeah, Looting London is a Reiner game. I could spend another five paragraphs coming up with themes that would apply just as well as the crime spree theme, but then you couldn't reuse the art from three other Reiner games to make a new Reiner game, unless all the other Reiner games somehow included cattle or cheap alcohol.

In Looting London, five things have been stolen at once. Apparently Scotland Yard took the night off to go on a team-building retreat, and in their absence, thieves stole everything that wasn't nailed down. The five treasures are represented by round counters with numbers on them. The crown jewels are worth 5 points, the painting is worth 4, and the Incan statue is worth 3 (apparently not that many people were going to the Cultures of the Amazon Basin exhibit anyway).

You also have a grid of 25 square counters. These are in different colors (matching the stolen treasures), with numbers on them, and pictures of people who might have seen something. There are four witnesses, and they have basically equal chances of having seen the bad guys running around London with a huge rental van, tossing everything from the crown to your granny's dentures into the back.

Finally you've got a deck of cards. There are only four different cards, each showing a witness - the cop (who was apparently working, but who was probably spread a little thin thanks to being the only policeman on duty that night), the organ grinder (he's an idiot, but his monkey might have seen something), the street urchin (who was probably begging for money to give to the organ grinder, so he could watch the monkey dance) and the society dame (who is on the cover of High Society).

The object is to play sets of matching cards to pick up the square tiles. If the square tile shows the overworked cop, you'll need to play cards that show the cop, and if it's the urchin, you'll need his cards, and if it's the society dame, you can probably get by with a fancy invitation (but since there are none of those in the box, you'll need cards with her picture on them, which you probably figured out, but it's worth mentioning). The square tiles are worth points on their own, but if you have the majority in a particular color, you also solve the crime and find out what happened to the matching loot. And since you're trying to cover up the fact that you were all playing paintball in the woods instead of stopping the criminals, you might want to destroy evidence now and then, which you do by discarding matching pairs of witness cards, but then you have to be able to take the next square tile in line.

That's the basics of the game. It's not particularly deep, but it is fairly tricky. You can't draw after you play cards, so you might have what you need to grab a tile you might want, but you might want to hold off and try to get a better tile, but in the meantime someone else might grab the tile you want and then you'll feel stupid. You want to grab tiles in the colors that will get you bonuses, but since the square tiles are still worth points, you might also want to grab a few big numbers even if they don't get the round tiles. There are enough tricky decisions that you may find yourself taking longer than you should, and the other players will get annoyed at you (until it's their turn, and they do the same thing, and then you'll be annoyed at them).

Looting London ends pretty quick. We played several games back to back in less than an hour, and the fact that we were all willing to play three times in a row says that even if the theme was completely pointless (aside from a way to recycle art), the game itself was pretty fun. There's a fair amount of strategy and quick thinking, nice quality components, and easy rules that play pretty fast. If you're looking for a quick game that won't overtax you but still puts up a fight, Looting London might be what you want.

Or Catching Cattle.

Or Boozing Bums.


Quick to learn and play
Simple, but with a good amount of depth
Good opportunities for strategy or planning

Why even bother with the theme?
Art seems to be recycled from two or three other games

OK, here's the deal with Looting London. As far as I can tell, it's not out yet, except in Germany where it has a completely different name that is, coincidentally, in German (I think). It's new from Gryphon Games, so I figure if you give it a bit, someone ought to have it somewhere. Hell, keep an eye on Dogstar Games - they'll probably end up throwing you some free shipping.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Board Game Review - Living Labyrinth

OK, here's the deal. I woke up this morning with what I can only assume is the flu. I think this because my head feels like I've got a bicycle pump stuck up each nostril, only instead of air, these pumps are shooting out snot. My joints hurt from my toes to my earlobes, and I hardly have the energy to climb the stairs to my office, much less write some witty, humorous pap about a game. Normally I would spend the day in bed, but by happy coincidence (and by 'happy' I mean 'crappy'), my daughter fell off her bike last night and had to go to the doctor this morning to see if she had a broken arm. She didn't, but I also didn't sleep today.

So now it's half past midnight, and I've played Living Labyrinth, and it's fun, and there's got to be something funny in there somewhere, but frankly, I can't come up with anything. So with massive apologies to Bucephalus Games, I'm just going to straight-up tell you about the game. Then I'm going to have a cup of tea and pass out.

Living Labyrinth is from Bucephalus Games (I may have said that. The snot is interfering with my ability to communicate clearly). These guys just announced their presence at GenCon last year, and they've already got a bunch of games out. I'm not entirely clear on their exact count, but I got four games from them, so there's at least that many.

Living Labyrinth is like a kids' game meant for adults. You build a 5X5 board out of double-sided tiles, and all the tiles have paths on them. But when you first build the board, the paths don't tend to go anywhere, so you have to spin the tiles so that you can move. To spin the tiles, you play cards, and then you move on your trail and try to cross the board and go out the other side.

You also have to try to stop other people from winning, which you do by flipping their tiles and spinning them and switching them with other tiles. It would be awesome if you could play a 'shoot that whiny asshole in the eyeball' card, but they don't have those, because it's a kids' game that adults can play. Instead there are panda bears and monkeys.

Living Labyrinth plays pretty fast. From the time you open the box to the time you put everything away it's probably about half an hour. Since you really only have to cross five tiles, it's not all that tricky to get across the board. It's also kind of tough to stop anyone for very long, so someone is going to win before you can finish making popcorn.

This is the kind of game that would play best with a family. It's not too deep, but it's fun, and the pieces are pretty nice (though I'm not sure why the Bucephalus guys though plastic wafers make good pawns - a little dude from Sorry would have been a lot easier to manipulate). You can play fast, before everyone gets bored and distracted and your jackass kids start to fight just to make you tell them to leave.

I have three more games from Bucephalus to review, and honestly, I'm hoping the others have a little more meat on them. I didn't dislike Living Labyrinth, but I would almost always rather play something more interesting. But kids can dig this one, and adults can probably get behind it, so even if the rest of the games are as easy as Living Labyrinth, I'm still going to have fun trying them out.


Playful, fun art
Really easy to learn
Fast to play

Flat wafers make clumsy pawns
Not much meat on these bones

Dogstar Games is supposed to be trying to get these Bucephalus Games in stock. When they do, you'll probably get them below retail, with free shipping. So check there first, and if they still don't have them, you could get a copy here:

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Dungeon Game Review - Dungeon Plungin'

I don't review free games. If you can download it, print it and play it, I don't bother to review it. There are a few reasons for this:

1) I write Drake's Flames to get free games. If a game is already free, I don't need to write about it to get a copy, do I? I'm basically a game mercenary. Or game whore - that's probably more appropriate.

2) I tend to think that most free games are worth what you pay for them. If a game was really worth anything, it would be for sale. If a game is free on the ol' Interweb, I tend to think that's because it's not good enough to ask money for it.

3) I don't usually have time. Print n' play games are a freaking beating. Yeah, you get it for free - but then you have to print it, glue it together, mount it, and otherwise spend countless hours on it just so you can get out of paying for a game. Who has time for that? Not me, I'll tell you that.

So after I reviewed Warhammer Quest and a reader asked me to review Dungeon Plungin', my first gut reaction was a big fat, 'oh, hell no.' I'm supposed to download this game, print out like a hundred full-color pages, spend hours gluing pieces together, and then write about it, to boot? No, I don't guess I will.

But as you can see (because you're reading the review right now), I changed my mind. I looked at the rules, and asked around, and then noticed that a friend of mine was one of the testers. He said it was worth a try, so I figured what the heck, I could give it a shot.

I'm incredibly glad I did. I recently started sorting my games to choose my top 50 and sell or trade off the rest, and this one is definitely a keeper. It helps that I couldn't sell it if I wanted to, but if it was a collector's item and I could get huge bank notes for it by selling the different pieces in separate bids like some sort of scalper eBay scab, I would still keep it. It's wicked fun.

Before I was able to find out how fun Dungeon Plungin' is, though, I had to put it together - and this is where I started paying for my free game. First I had to print out the rules (40 or so pages), plus another 50 or so pages of color tiles and miniatures. The rules aren't even laid out that well - it just looks like they were built in Microsoft Word. And the tiles all need to be mounted on something. And the miniatures have to be glued together and cut out. This is a lot of work. And by 'a lot of work', I mean it took me three weeks to get enough assembled to play the first scenario, and I still haven't assembled half of the skeletons, or any of the squirrels (yes, there really are squirrels. Ducks, too).

(It might not take you three weeks to put together this set. You might have some free time, and you might also not be quite as anal retentive about game pieces as I am. But if I'm going to play a dungeon game, I want it to be pretty. Plus I'm a grownup, and don't have eight hours a day to spend with a can of spray mount and a sheet of foamcore. I have a job, and a family, and a fairly busy company on the side, and I write this site, and I pick up freelance work now and then, and on occasion, I even like to sleep a little.)

Once I built the tiles and miniatures to play, I had to make characters. This turned out to be pretty easy, actually, and the character creation rules are not only ridiculously simple, but they're really flexible. I made a warrior priest, a shadow thief, a fire mage and a pit fighter in about 45 minutes, and they're each more-or-less thematic - the warrior priest can heal and swing a sledge hammer, the shadow thief has spells that let him detect traps, the pit fighter swings two weapons, and the fire mage... burns things. The only drawback is that the miniatures you get don't include a two-fisted gladiator or a holy brawler with a warhammer, so my warrior priest uses the miniature that has a battle axe and my two-fisted pit fighter has a shield. I could have used a few more hero figures.

So with characters, miniatures, tiles and rules all ready to go, I finally got to play the sample dungeon. It's fairly straight-forward - you open a door, find out what's beyond the door, find out if there are monsters, and if there are, you kill them and take their stuff. Basically, it's a lot like D&D, only you don't need someone to describe the sounds of rats scurrying and battle cries and all that other stuff that is uncomfortably similar to playing dress-up and talking like characters from bad fiction.

Now, a word of warning to those who don't like dice - just about everything in Dungeon Plungin' is predicated on a die roll. You roll to see if the door is locked, then you roll to see if it's trapped. You roll to see what's beyond the door. You roll to see how many monsters there are. You roll for each monster to figure out where it's at. You roll to see if there are chests in the room. You even roll to see which direction the monsters are looking, to see if you can sneak in and stab them in the kidneys before they know you're there. Almost all these rolls make you check a table, and I'm not going to lie - this is the opposite of streamlined. Like if we compare Dungeon Plungin' to Warhammer Quest, and we're talking about how you figure out where stuff is at, Warhammer Quest would be a lear jet, and Dungeon Plungin' is a boxy antique Land Rover.

Happily, when it comes to beating things to death, Dungeon Plungin' actually improves on Warhammer Quest. All that rolling means that your opponents might all be scattered across the room, or they might be clustered right by the door. You'll have to use a little tactical planning to maximize your ability to kill the monsters in a hurry, because while my pit fighter is one bad-ass, weapon swinging, mean motor scooter, he's a target waiting to happen. So I need to get him in position to deal out some pain, and then get my warrior priest up there to block for him so that the monsters don't rip out his spleen. Then my fire mage needs to chuck a few fireballs, and if there's anyone left standing (hopefully all alone in a corner somewhere), my shadow thief can run in and poke their eyes out.

All this bloodshed is facilitated by a couple quick rolls - you roll your attack score, count the 5s and 6s, and do that much pain. The defender rolls his defense score, counts the 5s and 6s, and blocks that much damage. Most monsters only have one life, so they're going to drop pretty quick, especially if you can roll a lot of dice (like my pit fighter). But since the defenders only have to tie you, they can get by with fewer dice, so it's sometimes a little tricky to make sure you drop the right guys before the other ones start carving on you like a chainsaw ice sculpture.

Magic also works really well. Spells have difficulties, and you have to roll your magic dice to beat the difficulty to cast the spell. Succeed, and you can drop flaming pain all over your opponents. Fail, and you can stand there looking like a bad David Copperfield impersonator. And there are lots of spells to choose from (though I would have liked a few more).

The beginning of a dungeon can seem a little simple sometimes, because your heroes are going to act before the monsters, and every monster seems to have a double major in falling down and crying. But the boss monsters make up for this by being really brutal, and even better, you're not exactly sure how much damage you have to do to kill them. You just keep swinging and hoping you can bring them down, and if they're tough, that could take a few turns. And in the meantime, the big bad bogeys are slapping you around their dungeon like a ping pong ball. I breezed through the dungeon (mostly - my shadow thief did get poisoned once, but luckily I bought an antidote, and the fire mage had a piece of roof tile fall on his head like a giant stone anvil, but the priest healed him back up again). And then the troll killed three of my guys before I managed to bury him and his minions, so I finished the quest by the skin of my teeth.

Speaking of minions, there are a ton of really fun miniatures to build for Dungeon Plungin'. There are goblins, orcs, skeletons, zombies, wraiths, demons, dire bunnies and flying monkeys. But there aren't any kobolds, or rat men, or owl-headed bears or minotaurs, and frankly, I wanted more. Sure, I can play the four adventures you can get off the Oversoul Games site with just the figures I have now, but I'm also going to need more adventures, and I want more monsters to go with them.

So this is where the real beauty of the free downloadable game comes into play - if there's something you want, you can make it. I've already drawn my pit fighter, shadow thief and warrior priest (I resurrected them after the troll killed them. You can do that). I've started drawing a stone elemental and fire drake, and I'm working on an elf archer and some evil knights. When I finish the four quests that I downloaded, I'm going to make my own, and I'm going to use figures I make to go with them. I'm going to write more spells for my fire mage to learn, and invent some weapons for my pit fighter to swing. And then I'm going to go to the Oversoul Games forums and show them off, and ask for input, and see if all my ideas totally suck, and then use them anyway.

The astute reader may have noticed that I did not describe how I played Dungeon Plungin' with anyone else (I'm pretty sure some relatively stupid readers have noticed the same thing, and now they think they're astute). This is because I played it solo. You can play with up to four people, but since dungeon creation is random and monsters are ruled by laws that determine how they react to you, you don't actually need a referee or bad guy player or dungeon dude or whatever else - you can do it all by yourself. And that's awesome, because it can be a tough sell to persuade a room full of buddies to quit playing with their pre-painted plastic and fold-out battle mats and try a game whose rules I currently store in a three-ring binder.

I may have to reconsider my stance on free games, to be honest. There's no way Dungeon Plungin' is the only free game that's this much fun. I had a good time building my set, and even more fun playing it, and I'm thoroughly grateful to the reader who asked me to check it out. Yes, there are lots of tables, and yes, the rules are poorly edited and horrifyingly unattractive. But the game is a blast, and I can tell you right now I'll be playing it again - just as soon as I finish assembling all the miniatures for the next quest.


Neat, fun art
Solid rules that let players apply some basic tactics and effective teamwork
Easy and flexible character creation
Effective combat rules

Block out a few weeks to build everything
Rules are not very well organized or laid out
Art style is very cartoony, which might turn off some potential fans (but I love it)

You can't buy Dungeon Plungin', but you can go right here and download it:

Monday, April 13, 2009

Board Game Review - Moto Grand Prix

Here's a hint for all you budding game designers - don't pick a game, and then say, 'I'm going to make a game just like that game, only I'm going to make it suck.' That should probably be pretty obvious, but it seems some game designer out there was using that for his mantra when he made Moto Grand Prix.

OK, not really. Nobody really says that. But Moto Grand Prix does seem like it wants to be a Formula D clone, only with motorcycles. Only maybe the designers thought the gear box was too complicated, so they made up some silly thing with flipping dice, and then thought having bikes that could lean into turns and do wheelies would make up for having thoroughly unappealing game play.

There are admittedly a few things that make Moto Grand Prix seem pretty damned attractive. Like there are these cool little bikes with wheels that actually turn, and they lean and do wheelies and even stoppies, which is that crazy thing where you stop really fast and jam on your brakes so that you ride on your front wheel. You're probably not supposed to do that in a bike race, but since the little motorcycles in this game are on really flimsy little ball joints, they lean every which way, regardless of how you mean for them to stand.

And the track seems full of promise. You get a box chock full of cool road parts that you can hook together to make a ridiculous number of tracks. Only they're not easy to hook together because there are all these weird angles, and if you get one piece in the wrong place, the track looks like it's built on the San Andreas faultline. And another thing - there's this racing line that's supposed to tell you that you're in the fast lane, but the problem is, it only matters if someone is passing you in a turn, and otherwise there's no preferred lane, because you have the same number of spots in every lane.

So the roads and bikes might have some redeeming value, but where the game really fails to impress is in the dice mechanic. The entire thing is predicated on the fact that two sides of a die add up to seven, and so if you flip a 6, you get a 1, and a 3 flips to a 4, and so on. The rules relate the concept behind the flipping mechanic like they were telling you about how they discovered pasteurized milk, but bad news - I knew that when I was six. Admittedly, I was living in Nevada, and I think Nevada public schools teach junior high kids how to deal blackjack. But still, it's really not that huge a revelation.

The idea is that when you're on a straight piece of road, you can flip your dice to get the best roll, and when you're in a curve, you can't flip them as much as you might want. So you try to spend as little time as possible in a turn, right? No, not really, because if it's a difficulty 1 turn, it doesn't matter, you can still flip your lowest die, and even if it's a tougher turn, you'll probably end up rolling boxcars and just screaming out of the turn, laughing your ass off at the savvy racer who started braking right before the turn to make sure he didn't get stuck there and then rolled horribly.

And this is where it breaks down. The player who tries to calculate the turns, planning ahead and braking when he needs to, is going to spend a lot of time trying to figure out why he keeps losing to the guy who always takes the highest roll he can get. If you have a choice between a 5 that leaves you on the braking line for a steep turn and a 10 that takes you right into the middle of the turn, take the 10, every time. And that means that for all the super-genius dice flipping, you just roll and hope you roll high. It's slightly more awesome than Chutes and Ladders, and that's just because it has motorcycles.

I could go into the extra rules - spending engine points for an extra move point here and there, burning up your brakes, slipstreaming and whatever else, but these extra rules don't really make up for the fact that the most basic element of the game - the dice mechanic - is crap. And I don't mean like Vegas dice games, I mean like poop. You're entirely hostage to the whims of your dice, with virtually no way to force control over the outcome of the game, and so what looks like it had promise turns into a game you might enjoy with a handful of elementary school kids who just love to play with dice.

So maybe the designer was just trying to make Formula D with motorcycles and no lawsuit, and he almost achieved it, except that it sucks. Where Formula D tends to reward the player who knows when to play the odds and when to play it safe, Moto Grand Prix just has you roll dice until someone wins. That turns a lot of promise into a boring dice-off, and I would just as soon play something else.


Neat little bikes
Cool customizable track
Rules for stuff like slipping and braking and redlining are cool

Bikes are floppy, and won't ever lean the way I want them to
Track is a bastard to build
Rules for actually moving your motorcycle are boring

To illustrate how much I disliked Moto Grand Prix, I was going to link to a picture of a motorcycle crash, but do you have any idea how deadly those are? It's depressing. So instead, here's a kitten:

Friday, April 10, 2009

Card Game Review - Race for the Galaxy

I play a lot of games. That probably goes without saying - I mean, I review three games a week (unless I'm ranting, or running a contest, or just posting lame-ass filler because I'm completely unprepared or too tired to write anything - but those don't happen more than once or twice a month, so I think we could probably average it out to about three a week, give or take). I play every game I review, so I'm a busy gamer. And one thing I've seen, for the most part, is that most games fit relatively neatly into a 'you might like' or 'you might not like' division (except for games that outright completely suck. Those get their own category, called 'any reasonable human will agree that the creators of the game should be forced by court order to stay away from games completely'). Usually, when I finish a game, there's a consensus at the table - good or bad, most of the time, we basically agree.

Race for the Galaxy, however, is a lot more difficult to nail down. This is one of those few games I've played where two of us were having more fun than a box full of coked-up monkeys with a water balloon full of strawberry jello, and the other two were just hoping against hope that the pain would end soon so they could do something more fulfilling, like organizing the silverware drawer.

The game is all cards, but the funny thing is, it doesn't really feel like a card game. I mean, yes, you draw and discard and play cards and stuff, but you don't do things like counting cards or ranking or collecting sets. You don't move around a board, and you don't stack wooden resources so that you can efficiently trade them for cash, and you don't even roll any dice, but it still feels more like a board game than a card game, despite not having a board and being basically a box full of cards.

The reason Race for the Galaxy doesn't feel like a card game is because while it uses cards to play, you don't do the normal stuff you would do with a card game. You build properties, and trade goods, and conquer planets and generate resources and a whole lot of other stuff that seems like it ought to be in Settlers of Catan, but it couldn't be, because like I said, there's just the cards.

Race for the Galaxy uses a play mechanic that is starting to show up more and more, ever since Puerto Rico ruled the BGG pop charts like Thriller (in case you're too young to get that, Michael Jackson had a huge hit with Thriller, back in the early 80s, when he was black. In case you're still too young, Michael Jackson used to be black. In case you're really, really young, don't let that scary looking guy with the pet chimp give you any candy). It's that thing where players choose actions, and then everyone does the action, but the guy who chose the action gets a bonus. So if you explore to get more cards, everyone can draw two and keep one, but the guy who played will either get to draw a whole lot more or maybe keep two. When you produce goods, everyone gets to produce, but the guy who played the card gets to produce more. But unlike many games like this, if nobody chooses an action on a particular turn, it just doesn't happen, and since everyone chooses their actions at the same time, it's entirely possible that only one thing happens during a turn. You might have a turn where no planets are settled, or no developments are created, or no goods are produced, or nobody has any fun (except those of us who think Race for the Galaxy is just about the best game we've played in months, which I do).

The point of the game is to settle planets, build developments and trade goods, all of which will earn you victory points, unless they're the short-term trade-off cards that get you a quick fix and then aren't worth a hill of beans. There are planets that produce expensive goods, and planets that can spend those goods. There are developments that beef up your armies, and developments that make you ridiculously good at diplomatic peace. In fact, with all the different bonuses and point differentials and every other danged thing, there are about a bazillion different ways to win (for you math geeks out there, one bazillion is approximately equal to a quarter jillion, but only if you're converting using the English system. The metric conversion makes a lot more sense, but God-fearing Americans don't use metric).

The nitty gritty basics of Race for the Galaxy can be explored at nauseating length by reading other reviews, but a few basics may help you decide if this would be up your alley or if you would rather just play Talisman again. For starters, the thing to understand is that when you pay for a planet or development, you discard cards to equal its cost. Military planets can't be purchased this way, though - you have to have a big enough military to conquer them, which you get from some planets and developments. Some planets produce goods in one phase, and you can sell them for more cards or victory points in a different phase, if you have a planet that can consume the goods you produce. There's lots of planning, spending cards like cash, and a fair amount of good, old-fashioned gambling. If you really need to trade this turn, but you also want to recruit some space marines, you're going to have to hope someone else plays the other action - so do you play the trade action to get the cards to pay for the marines, or do you do the development action to build up your armed forces and bankrupt yourself, hoping that someone else really wants to trade?

One reason that I love Race for the Galaxy is that it's actually got an incredible amount of theme working. You really do feel like you're developing a galactic consortium, or conquering the galaxy one planet at a time. You can search for alien worlds or establish enormous trade franchises. You might defeat the rebels, or build a Pangalactic senate. If you're really good, you'll do more than one of these, and you'll be so impressed with yourself that you'll want to celebrate with good friends.

Unfortunately, half of your good friends are likely to want to punch you in the face if you ask to play Race for the Galaxy (unless your friends are a little less violence-prone than mine are). While I absolutely adore Race for the Galaxy - in fact, I think it's the most fun I've had playing a game since Formula D - there are lots of people who are not going to enjoy it at all. The rules can be confusing, especially the trading rules, and the little symbols the game uses to describe the various effects of planets and developments can start to run together in your head until every time you see a blue box, you'll just want to punch a kitten (if you're one of those erudite super-gamers who can grasp every detail of every complex game the first time you read them, and who always says, 'well, I understood the rules just fine', please shut up. I understood the rules, too, but not everyone does, because they ARE complicated and the symbols ARE confusing. I just read the rules three times before I played).

I can't actually give a blanket recommendation for Race for the Galaxy. I love it, and would play it nearly any time - heck, I wish I playing it now - but too many people are going to be bored, confused, and frustrated. There's not a lot of player interaction, outside holding cards other players might want or trying to outguess which actions they might need, and there are lots of people who won't like that at all. But if you like a lot of thinking and a ton of options, and you aren't intimidated by lots of symbols and some slightly difficult rules, you might think Race for the Galaxy is just about the most fun you could have with your pants on.


A card game that feels like a board game
An incredible number of effective strategies
Lots of balancing short-term versus long-term gains
Really entertaining art
A fantastic amount of theme for a card game
Symbols speed up the game immensely, once you understand them

The rules are not intuitive until you've played - and still might be confusing afterward
Symbols are confusing as hell until you understand them

I am absolutely delighted to report that Dogstar Games does, in fact, carry Race for the Galaxy. Better yet, they have free shipping. Better yet, when you buy from them, they get all excited and keep giving me games, which lets me review stuff you request. So if this seems like your bag, go here and get a copy:

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Rant - Armchair Quarterbacks

I write about games. People read what I write. And lots of ignorant bastiches seem to think that it's their God-given right - no, their holy duty - to disagree with me when they have no idea what they're talking about.

Now, let me say up front that I have no problem with people disagreeing with me, provided that they have any basis whatsoever for their arguments. Like, if you love Puerto Rico and don't think it's intensely boring, feel free to say that (though you will be wrong, because it totally is). If you have played a game more than I have, and feel a need to tell me that I don't understand the game properly, go ahead. I may ignore you, but I won't be offended because you have a different opinion. You're allowed, even if you're dumb. But if you have NOT played the game I reviewed, why in the name of Black Hades would you disagree with me?

Actually, I have some theories.

1) You are an Involuntary Celibate. You feel a desperate need to be right, desperate enough to tell people they're wrong even though you don't actually have any salient information on the topic at hand. Or you pick apart something written by someone else to find any bit of minutia that may be slightly incorrect, because your parents didn't love you and the only times you ever have sex, you have to clean off the doll afterward.

I see this pretty regularly. I'll write a whole piece about a particular game, often spending an hour or two on it just to make sure it's got enough crude humor, fact-checking myself here and there, and then some dildo with too much free time will jump in and say something like, 'great review! Just to pick one little nit-' (quick aside - who talks like this? Do people actually think they sound more intelligent when they take a common word and break it up so they sound like bad ren fair actors?) '-just one little nit, the green guys have a pointed hat, and the blue guys have a fedora, and I have a tiny penis.'

I can almost forgive this. If you're so freaking pathetic that you can only feel superior to someone else when you spot a typo, I'm more sorry for you than I am angry. I just shake my head at these people, and hope some bored prostitute takes pity on them and gives them a reason to want to bathe.

2) You are an Arrogant Craprooster. You think you're always right and feel that everyone but you is stupid (and I don't mean me. It's OK when I do it). This doesn't happen as often as the first group, which is good, because these people make me want to reach through the monitor and shake them like a baby.

For instance, in one review, a total nob felt that it was his sacred obligation to tell everyone reading that he could have designed the game better, and that I was wrong about my assessment of the game. Keep in mind that the game I was reviewing was an advance copy - nobody else has one yet. So this nozzle is actually telling me that I don't understand the game when he has not played it. Or even seen the pieces. Or even seen the damned box. He then went on to tell the game's designer that he would have done it better, and that if he is not happy when the game comes out, he will, in fact, improve upon it. And then he'll probably talk for a long time about how much better he made the game, irritating everyone except the three greasy-haired losers who think he's hot snot until someone actually flies out to meet him and beats him like a red-headed stepchild.

There is no cure for these people. These people are simply a blight. There are only two potential solutions to such know-it-all, worthless ass pirates. The first is the simplest - staple their mouths shut. Since that can be problematic, the second solution is more feasible - club them over the head with a large blunt object until their brains scramble and they find themselves physically incapable of forming sentences longer than three short words. Or ignore them. So I guess there are three solutions.

3) You're a Wannabe Insider. You love trying to make people pay attention to you and be impressed with the fact that one time you talked with Richard Borg while he was trying to get some work done. Now, these are the rarest of big-mouth assholes who spout off without any basis, and they are (in my opinion) the most amusing. If there's anyone more lame than a dweeb who thinks he has to name-drop to impress board game nerds, he's probably running around BGG thinking that he's a big deal.

These people have endless humor potential. When they actually do comment on topics where they are the least bit knowledgeable, they often have virtually no opinion, because while they have plenty of brainpower when it comes to showing off their inside information, they often have no actual original thought. Their main talent seems to be trying to tear down other peoples' work and trying to look cool because they know someone who did something one time.

4) You're a Dumb-ass Blockhead. You love the sound of your own voice, but nobody actually listens to you, so instead you post all over the Internet trying to get people to follow you. When I see one of these throwback cock monkeys, I delight in showing them how stupid they are. These kinds of blowhards will disagree with commonly accepted fact, not so that they can form their own opinions, but because they think fighting on a website makes them better than you (there may be a crossover with the second category).

The funny thing about these knuckle-dragging, argumentative losers is that they will never, ever admit that they may have been wrong. You can show them clear documentation. You can point to decades of precedent. You can point out that out of ten thousand people who have played the game to date, they are the only ones who think the way they do. And yet they will continue to bury themselves with inanity and pointless contention, showing the world their pasty white butts so that they don't have to admit to themselves that there's something they don't know.

Collectively, I like to call anyone who falls under any of these categories an 'armchair jackass.' They are no better than hecklers, producing nearly nothing but a desire to do violence. And yet, I should be grateful for these losers, because the incessant barrage of critique from gender-ambiguous fat kids, self-important dickheads, celebrity wannabe douchebags and bullheaded crap magnets was one of the reasons I decided to try my hand at making a game of my own. I've been working on it a lot recently, and it's fun. Holy crap is it hard, but it sure is fun.

So the next time you see an armchair jackass, you've got one of two options. On the one hand, you could attempt to show them the error of their ways. This is usually completely pointless, because if they were smart enough to learn, they would have been smart enough to keep their big mouths shut. The second option is to simply ignore them. This is effective, but often not as much fun.

Come to think of it, there is a third option. You could start your own review site and use it to call these people names. That solution is my favorite so far.

Monday, April 6, 2009

Board Game Review - Galaxy's Edge

When I read that Assa Games was coming out with a new game, I felt like running around yelling, 'The new phonebook is here! The new phonebook is here!' and then inventing the Opti-Grab until everyone sues me for making them crosseyed (if you didn't understand that at all, go watch The Jerk. If you haven't seen The Jerk, go watch The Jerk. I'll wait here).

Up until now, Assa Games has had one game on the books, called Conquest of the Fallen Lands. I liked it a lot, and have wondered for years why these guys would make one great game and then rest on their laurels. Turns out, it just takes them a really long time to make their genius magic work. And thankfully, the wait is over. In just a couple months, you'll be able to get your mitts on Galaxy's Edge, the long-awaited second game from Assa Games. I was so excited, I spent all my Geek Gold (if you don't know what that is, you're probably better off) on nabbing an advance copy, then played it with my playtest group this weekend.

And it's just as awesome as I had hoped it would be. The pieces are far nicer than those in Conquest, and you don't have to mess around with a bunch of cards. The art is great. The big chunky hexes that make up the game board are easy to read and lay out. There are also little wooden space ships, which I must say totally kick ass.

Like Conquest of the Fallen Lands, Galaxy's Edge features a board made randomly from hexes. Each hex represents a different star system, and each system has planets in it (except for the ones that only have one planet. Those only have one). Each planet has a value from 1 to 9, which is how many points you get if you can hold onto that planet until the game is over. If it's a 9, that's pretty hard, in case you were wondering.

Every system has already been settled by an alien race way before you get there. There are tree people and bug people and robot people and crystal people and people people. When you colonize their regions, these aliens start to make friends with you, and different aliens provide different scoring bonuses at the end of the game. So you might get to be friends with the Wargers, who are some really unpleasant robot dudes who love bloodletting and reward you if you have the most military bases at the end of the game. On the other hand, maybe you get in good with the Saplenti, who are peace-loving hippie tree-huggers - well, OK, trees - and they reward you if you have the fewest war bases. The Humanoids just want everyone to get along, and give you points if you share a system with a bunch of other players. But here's the thing - you only get the bonus for an alien species if that species likes you best.

You can grab those loyalties by building colonies in the alien systems - but if you want to keep them, you're probably going to want some military bases. Only colonies get you points, but without bases, you might not be able to hang onto your colonies. And only colonies count toward making best buds with the big bugs, so you have to carefully balance colonies and military bases. Or just play a lot better than I did, because I got completely destroyed.

To explore this burgeoning galaxy, you're going to fly around the board in your wooden spaceship, and maybe (if you get the chance) draw and play some cool event cards. Or you might just put interstellar bans on the area you're in, in which case you'll have to leave before you can do anything interesting. Apparently there's some kind of galactic zoning committee that decides you can't pave over Saturn. Damned hippies.

So those are sort of the rules - but what's important is how the game plays. There is a ton of strategic placement, reinforcing important areas, balancing expansion with defense, and a whole bunch of really nifty little wood pieces. Strategies can shift during the game, and until you play it a couple times, you won't even begin to understand how many different ways there are to win. Maybe you try for military dominance - but you could still lose to the diplomats who make lots of friends. Or maybe you just try to spread yourself all over the place, and lose to the mining superpower that snags all the cheap spots nobody else wanted just to score big with the Crystalloids.

Now, if you're thinking this is your standard galaxy takeover game, think again. Galaxy's Edge teeters on the edge of being a Euro game. Hell, it might even be one, but the line defining Euro games is blurring all the time, and since you can trash an opponent's colony with a surprise attack, you've at least got some potential body count, which doesn't happen a lot in Euro-style games. This isn't a game about starting fights and killing people, though. It's about controlling important areas and influencing the rest. It's actually a little abstract, in fact - I'm not entirely convinced that the theme here was completely required, but it's damned fun anyway.

I was not the least bit surprised at how much I enjoyed playing Galaxy's Edge. Conquest of the Fallen Lands is just a really cool game, and Galaxy's Edge is every bit as good, if not better. There are similarities between the two games, but they're still very different games. If you liked Conquest of the Fallen Lands, you should be chomping at the bit to get Galaxy's Edge. If you haven't played Conquest, you should. And come June, when you can order yourself a copy of Galaxy's Edge, you should buy that, too.


Neat pieces and great art
Clever game play and slick rules
Tons of tough decisions
Plays pretty fast

Theme is a tad weak
May induce Too Much Thinking syndrome, forcing you to beat your friend with a rubber mallet

You can't get Galaxy's Edge at Dogstar Games, unfortunately. But then, you can't get it anywhere, so I guess we can't really hold that against them. All you can do is go here and keep an eye out for it:

Friday, April 3, 2009

Board Game Review - San Quentin Kings

When I play a game, theme is important. I like to feel like a Japanese warlord waging mayhem across the island, or a muscled barbarian shattering orc skulls, or a world-renowned race car driver screeching through tight turns on the streets of Monaco. A good theme can transport us to deep space, or the Roaring 20's, or the Wild West.

Or prison.

Yes, when I think of a theme that makes me want to play a game, prison falls somewhere between alpaca farming and sewer maintenance. And that would have to be a pretty graphic game about cleaning sewers, or prison is even lower than that. If there's a place I don't want to be transported, it's the hoosegow. Prison is not a fun place where fun stuff happens. When I think prison, I think of painful stabbings, painful beatings, and painful loving.

Apparently the theme appealed a lot more to the guys that made San Quentin Kings. In this game of questionable moral value, players take on gang leaders who recruit, buy drugs, stab people and bribe guards. You can also work out.

San Quentin Kings isn't just a game about prison, it appears to have been made in prison. The cards are semi-decent, probably from a short-run custom card printer, but the art is really not great at all. There's one picture that shows horses and a green monkey crawling out of what looks like a vagina, but is more likely a baggie of mixed drugs (short aside - I know brown horse is heroin, and white horse is heroin, but I confess to having no idea whatsoever what kind of drugs would be depicted by a green monkey). The board is mounted on a single piece of thick card that bows up and won't lay flat. The pieces are wooden cubes and cylinders that look like they rolled out of my copy of Carcassonne. The box has about the same component quality as a bag of stale fish.

So right off the bat, as soon as I open the box, I'm dreading my open statement that I'll review anything you can send me. The game is not just unattractive, it's about prison brawls and drug habits. I'm groaning out loud, especially when I try to think who I know who would play a game where you cut your opponents with knives made out of bedsprings (for an extra chuckle, the game has been translated into German. This is funny because Germans tend to make games about raising sheep and building churches, so I question the decision to allow them the opportunity to try their hand at trading cigarettes for homeade weapons).

But when I accept a review copy, I do my damnedest to write the review, so I went ahead and played San Quentin Kings.

And liked it. Sweet merciful mother, San Quentin Kings is very well-designed game. I can't pretend I wanted to like this game. The theme alone is a good reason to avoid it like genital warts, but when you add in some really low production value, it just doesn't seem like this game should have anything going for it at all. And then you wind up playing, and it's not only a really clever game, it's actually a whole lot of fun.

(I have to pause for a moment and wonder about the final destination of my soul, when I had a great time playing a game where I pulled a close second because I had the most heroin. I also did pretty well in the fights, and managed to stab a man to death. Wheeee!!)

The funny thing is, San Quentin Kings is not at all the game you would expect it to be. You might be expecting a tactical brawl with blood all over the place, but instead you get what is almost a Euro game (and probably would be, if it weren't for the knife wounds and prison tattoos). You have a limited number of thugs to carry out your orders, and an unlucky fight might send them to solitary - or the prison morgue. You'll need felonious assistants to make knives from discarded license plates, to pick up a carton of smokes and a box of ramen noodles, or to recruit new fish as they step off the bus. And you don't just spend them - you have to fight with them. You plan ahead, seize actions when they work, and otherwise try to improve your standing without throwing away all your resources. It's a lot like Puerto Rico, but instead of raising coffee and building a hacienda, you stab people in the face and steal their drugs.

I can't be the only person disappointed that a game this good has a theme this objectionable. I really hope the guy who made this game decides to make another one. Maybe for his next game, he can make a trick-taking card game about a terminal cancer ward, or a kid's game about African genocide. If he does, they'll probably be really fun, if you can bring yourself to play them.

Which is about how I feel about San Quentin Kings - boy, this is a fun game. Too bad it's about prison.


Very quick game play keeps the action moving
Intuitive rules make sense pretty much as soon as you start playing
Excellent balance of short-term reward versus long-term payoff
Way more fun than it ought to be

The art is not just weak, it's flat-out bad
It's about prison

I was so going to link to a picture of a Mexican border jail, but I can't because San Quentin Kings is a really good game. If you don't mind the theme, and if you're not overly concerned with physical appearance, you really ought to try this game:

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Board Game Review - Hour of Glory

Way back in the old knight days, there were these priests who would walk around with whips and beat the crap out their own backs. They also wore a lot of black, which is why these were called the Dark Ages. These priests were doing this crazy stuff with the whips and the backs and the black clothes in the middle of a hot summer because they were really sorry about the bad things they had done (though their bad things were not all that impressive compared to, say, the Spanish Inquisition, which I understand was one of the causes of the Great Depression).

Those priests have recently been an inspiration to me, because I'm really sorry about something I did. Only I don't have a whip, so instead I've been sitting in a really uncomfortable chair, and occasionally skipping dessert.

See, about a year ago, I asked Warm Acre Games if I could review Hour of Glory, their game of espionage and sneaking and shooting Nazis. And they were very excited, and sent it to me, along with some of their metal miniatures that they make specifically for playing this game. And then the mail lost it, so they sent another one (but this time without miniatures. Damned mail).

And then I didn't review it. It's been like a year. They paid postage from Britain to Texas - twice. They sent me a copy of a game that had to have been expensive to print and package (the rulebook is chock-full of color illustrations and diagrams) and I just never played it. For about a year. By now, they have to be wondering if I ever will. They've probably written me off completely - and who could blame them? It's been a year!

Happily, they're still in business, and more happily, they've even released another game. And best of all, I've played the game, and now I'm reviewing it. Maybe the fact that I have about ten times as many readers as I did a year ago will make up for the fact that I sat on the game for an unconscionably long time. In case it doesn't, I've also taken to wearing a pair of underpants that's just a little too small.

One of the reasons I didn't play Hour of Glory sooner was that I didn't really understand the rules. I read them, and while they're mostly straightforward, they're also spread out all over this 40 page manual. Hell, I read them three times, because every time I decided I was going to By God play it this time, I had to read them again. And I still made a ton of mistakes the first time I played.

Another problem might have been the pieces in the box. The box itself is cool - it looks like a little foot locker - but the cardboard in the box is drab at best. The room tiles are kind of boring. The counters for the game are printed on card stock and perforated, and I tore several of them punching them out (I would have used the minis, but those were in the first box. The one the mail ate). The art is not very impressive, and the worst thing is that the little standup men don't stay in their stands unless you glue them in place. I was just not inspired by the appearance of the game, but that is absolutely no excuse to avoid reviewing a game for nearly a year. I feel so bad that I've started using very affordable toilet paper.

But the worst punishment for me is to play the game - not because it's bad, but because it's absolutely a blast. I missed out on all this fun for months, and it's all due to my own bias toward nifty pieces. I feel so dumb for having deprived myself of this awesome game for so long. And so guilty, too. That's why I've started eating my ice cream without any caramel topping.

In Hour of Glory, one player is the Nazis, and the other person plays up to three Allied spies sneaking around in the secret German base and stealing sensitive equipment. The Nazis really can't do a whole lot most of the time, because most of their guys are sentries who never move (until an American spy sneaks up and stabs them in their sensitive parts). They do have a commandant, but I swear he's Colonel Klink, because he moves slower than Christmas and tends to be almost completely ineffective at anything but asking the sentries for directions.

The spies should definitely have the edge. They're better fighters, better spies, they sneak around, they can hide right out in plain sight, and they're all-around bad-asses. The sentries appear to be retarded kids who got lost on the way to the zoo. But the Germans have a few tricks.

For one thing, once a few sentries start to hear odd footfalls, or if they get killed and leave messy bloodstains, the commandant gets a little worried. When the Nazi player thinks he has enough to warrant it, he can sound the alarm and summon guards. Where the sentries stand around and offer their bodies as target practice, the guards run around the base firing guns and yelling at each other. It's a little like a family reunion in East Texas. The guards can find the spies and perforate them, assuming they don't wind up catching a few bullets to the face (which happens pretty regularly).

The greatest trick the Nazis can break out, though, is the timer. The spies have just one hour to collect enough intelligence to win the game, and if the clock runs out first, every guard post for fifty miles is going to descend on the base like a flock of vultures, and those spies are going to spend the rest of the war in a basement in Berlin wearing blindfolds and jumper cables.

The Allies can sneak around, probably evading detection for most of the game, but they're really limited in sneaky mode. They can't fire a gun, or run, or even chew loudly. If they're spotted, they can't sneak any more, and when they start shooting, they'll alert tons of sentries, and then the commander is going to be able to bring is more guards than that scene at the end of Blues Brothers.

For nearly any action in the game, the spies have two options - risk it with a die roll, or take the time to do it right. The die roll might fail, but uses no time. Taking time could take a couple minutes, but it's guaranteed to succeed. So the spies have to decide - play it safe and try to get out before the clock kills them all, or take their chances and run like hell?

In the end, it comes down to a little of both. With the clock rapidly ticking downward, bodies piling up like credit card offers, and bullets flying every direction, the Allied player is going to be hard-pressed to get out before he runs out of time. The end of the game is tense and exciting. We were literally standing up and using what cannot possibly be described as inside voices as the spies, intel in hand, ran for the door. There was shooting and falling and stabbing and more than a little cursing, and then, with just minutes to spare, they managed to shoot down the commander and slip past his guards, escaping into the night just as the massive doors swung closed.

I simply cannot recommend Hour of Glory highly enough. It's got ugly cards, irritating cardboard standups, and long and involved rules. But when you set it up and play a game, you won't care if it's pretty. You'll be too excited to notice.

And it gets even better. If you ever get tired of storming the stronghold, stealing the intel and shooting the bad guys, you can download three episodes of the free webzine from the Hour of Glory website. This will let you add guard dogs, stormtroopers, and even a fourth spy (she's hot. All girl spies are hot). You can even see how you could build a three-dimensional stronghold and make what is currently a visually bland game into a gorgeous tabletop extravaganza.

Now if you'll excuse me, I need to go watch some television, and not skip through the commercials even though they're recorded.


Deep opposing strategies
Tough balance of speed and stealth
Lots of options for both sides
Insanely fun, with an exciting finish that will keep you coming back
Killer expandability and online support (FFG could take some notes)

Bland and unattractive right out of the box
Rules may take a few reads to grasp

Please, please order yourself a copy of Hour of Glory. It'll make me feel a lot better, and maybe I can quit drinking Rice Dream and go back to milk. Plus now you can get it with all the minis! Get it right here: