Monday, June 29, 2009

Card Game Review - Arctic Scavengers

There's something about a self-published game. Your average game company, they make games, and it's their job. Yeah, they might love the job, but it's a company, it's a business, and somewhere between the game designer scribbling notes on a cocktail napkin and the company's spit-and-polish version, some of the soul leaks out.

But when you're playing a self-published game, the soul is still there, all of it, in its naked, unrefined glory. A self-published game jumps up and says, 'I love doing this!' You can feel the passion with a self-published game, in a way you never can with a big-press publisher with shiny bits of plastic and varnished, splashy, colorful game boards.

That's the first thing you'll notice when you pick up Arctic Scavengers. You can look at the box and feel the creative fever that went into it. You can flip through the rules that look like they were printed with love on the office copier. You can rifle through the cards, with their amateur-but-really-damned-cool art. You can even just look at the box, with its wrap-around graphics that look like the creator applied them himself with a ruler and a glue stick. And you can feel the love that went into the game.

And then you'll play the game, and you'll be blown away. I know I was.

Arctic Scavengers starts off with one of my all-time favorite themes - post-apocalyptic survival. Only instead of surviving nuclear winter, now humanity is surviving actual winter, thanks to some crazy global climate change. People are reduced to hunter-gatherer tribes, and you have to gather a gang of thugs, scavengers and refugees and carve out your own little piece of end-of-the-world frozen Hell.

Every person you hire can help. Refugees are the weakest, but they can man a shovel and dig through the snow to find medicine. Scavengers are decent at everything, great at nothing, but when you need 'em, it's handy to have 'em. There are lots more characters to recruit - snipers, sled teams, group leaders, hunters and a whole lot more. The really good ones are scarce, and you'll have to fight the other gang leaders (also known as the other players) to get them.

The cool thing is, after you play a card, it goes into your discard pile, and when you run through your deck, you shuffle and keep going. So playing your medical supplies and a hunter to recruit a saboteur isn't a bad call, because you'll see them all again soon. You'll end every turn with an empty hand, and redraw, so while you're trying to build up your gang (you win with a high head-count), you're also trying to nab powerful cards that can help you win fights, draw more cards, and dig through the junkyards of humanity's collapse.

There's a ridiculous amount of stuff going on for a game that's this easy to learn. Each card has the potential to help out in one of four actions - drawing more cards, digging through junkyards, hiring more help, and fighting - and you won't be able to afford to do all of them well in any given turn. You'll need to beat the other players to the really capable hired help if you want to have a chance in the fight, but if you don't dig in the junkyard, you'll never get the meds you need to lure a sniper team into your little sociopathic family.

Some people have compared Arctic Scavengers to Dominion, in that you're constantly building your deck and playing it at the same time, and to a certain, limited degree, that's a fair comparison. But where I think Dominion is a little dry due to a minimal amount of interaction, every turn in Arctic Scavengers ends in a brawl. You can't help but interact with the other players, and even better, you can totally hose them while you play. You can sabotage their equipment, snipe their best fighters, and beat them to the wolf pack. You can bluff by playing a hand full of weak refugees, and get everyone to skip the recruitment phase to try to beat you to a card that you don't really want anyway.

I can't even adequately describe how much fun I had playing Arctic Scavengers for the first time. You know you enjoyed a game when you spend the next three days wishing you could quit whatever you're doing to go play again. There are games I like to play, but at least for now, Arctic Scavengers is edging them all out. I have a half dozen unplayed games waiting for reviews, and yet I don't even want to finish reading the rules. I just want to play Arctic Scavengers again.

Word on the street is that the creator of Arctic Scavengers is working on an expansion. If it's even half as much fun as the base game, I know I'm in.


Incredibly fast to play
Everyone is in the game, all the time
No way to verify who's winning until the game ends
Intuitive and easy to learn
Self-published, so no big game company has had a chance to suck out all the soul

No cons today. If you want to read some cons, you can check out The Worst Case Scenario game.

Right now you can only get Arctic Scavengers from Driftwood Games, because it's self-published and that's the only way you should ever buy a self-published game:

Friday, June 26, 2009

Card Game Review - Scarab Lords

I have a sort of love/hate thing with Reiner Knizia. Specifically, I love to hate him. Maybe because he's like the board game equivalent of George Clooney. Maybe I just love to bait the Reiner drones who get whipped into a foam every time someone takes issue with some element of his games (like the weakest themes in history being totally pasted onto a game that is nothing more than an abstract. Yeah, drones, I wrote that one for you). Or maybe just because he sometimes has a tendency to completely mail it in on a game and sell a game that couldn't get published by anyone, anywhere, if it didn't have his name on it.

On the other hand, Reiner Knizia probably doesn't even know I exist, and if he did, I don't think he would be as complicated as love/hate. He could probably narrow it down to just hate.

But every now and then I play a Reiner game and go, 'yeah, I guess he does deserve all his success.' It doesn't happen a lot, but Scarab Lords is one of those games. It's got everything - tricky card play, easy rules, and great theme. Plus people totally die. I love games with a body count.

The theme is richer than a Vegas whorehouse. Each player (there are only two) represents an Egyptian noble house trying to wrest control of Upper and Lower Hekumet from the other. The two families try to dominate in three different areas - economics, religion and military - and they have to do it in both sides of the board.

Now, when I say, 'board', you might say, 'hey, jackass, you said this was a card game'. And you would be right - it is a card game, and I am almost certainly a jackass. The board is really just a little strip of game board that tells you where to play your cards. You could probably play without the board, but I don't know why you would bother. It comes with the game.

Players get a restricted number of actions on their turn (this is classic Reiner, and usually it bothers me, but it really works here). You can do as many phase zero actions as you want, but the bitch is, you probably don't have very many of those, because the cards have numbers that say when you play them, and not enough to matter have a zero. You only get one action in phase one, and one action in phase two, and then it's on to see who's winning. You compare your strength in each area - there are six areas, plus a place to put whichever gods you've bribed to help out for a while - and if you have the edge, you get a bonus. You might draw a card, or curse your opponent's cards, or make him throw away cards from his draw pile. Since you win when he runs out of cards (assuming the game lasts that long before one of you grabs the supreme spot), that last one can be pretty cool.

The trick is, if you want to win by actually grabbing control, you have to own four out of six areas at the beginning of your turn. So it doesn't really matter if you pull out some sweeping coup, it ain't over until your foe gets a chance to kick you in the privates (this is metaphorical. I cannot recommend a game where you allow anyone at all to kick you in the privates).

Scarab Lords plays really smooth, with quick, cutthroat turns and really simple math (it's Reiner, so there has to be math, but it's really simple math). The cards are really nice, printed on that cool linen stock that feels great in your hand, and they boast some magnificent art. And if you really want to mix it up, you can break out the advanced cards and change your deck between games.

A lot of people like to call short games 'filler', as if they're playing them because they're trying to lose weight and games are low in saturated fats (they are, but not many gamers end up losing weight by replacing food with games. In fact, many gamers combine the two, and just wind up fatter than all outdoors). But even though you'll probably finish a game of Scarab Lords in about 15-20 minutes, the idea is to play several times in a row. And that turns a short filler into a full meal.

Now, I won't tell you the game is perfect. For one thing, you can take a completely one-sided beatdown if your cards don't come up right. You're allowed to refresh your hand, but if you do, you lose your whole turn, so that option blows. I've lost or won several games due to the completely capricious nature of the cards. But then, that's why you want to play four or five times in a row - it'll even out a little.

But bad luck or not, Scarab Lords is a really cool game. I picked it up in one of FFG's crazy Christmas sales three or four years ago, and I like it enough that I still have it (I can't say that about many of my games). I think if I played it a lot more, I would probably be so good at it that I could work around the luck, but since I don't play anything enough to be wicked good at it, that's not real likely.

So I admit it - Reiner Knizia has some serious game design chops. Scarab Lords proves it.

But I still hold him personally accountable for Penguin. Man, did that game suck.


Absolutely fantastic art
Really well-executed theme
Easy and quick to play, but with amazing depth
Tough decisions require quick thinking and really smart plays

A bad first draw can really ruin you

I wish I could tell you Dogstar Games has Scarab Lords, but let's face it - when I could get a game for five bucks, brand new in the shrink, it's probably not a big seller. In fact, it's completely out of print. I checked a lot of places, and only found it at Troll & Toad. They have one copy, and if any of you has any sense, they won't have it for long:

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Big Pile of Excuses

OK, see if any of these would get you out of jury duty:

1) My wife has been gone for two weeks. Her plane lands tonight, like in four hours. I've had nobody but dogs for company the whole time, and can't wait to see her.

2) My house is not very clean. I'm going to spend most of the next two hours sweeping and hiding the porn (not really, the porn is all on my computer. I can clean that up really fast).

3) Every member of my regular game group canceled last weekend, leaving me with nearly a dozen games to play and nobody to play them with. And my kids are out of town, so I can't even rope them into a game.

4) I'm hungry, and a little tired, and I don't much feel like writing a whole game review, even if I had one to write about, which I don't because [SEE #3]. I might feel like writing after I eat dinner, but then I have to do the dishes, because as I may have mentioned, my wife is coming home tonight. Otherwise I would chuck them in the sink and then write about something, but it would probably be a review of some dog food or something, since as I mentioned, I don't have any games to review right now.

5) The dog ate my homework, and I've got blood in my stool.

So instead of a review this evening, I invite both of my regular readers to peruse my pile of excuses. You can pick any one of them, if you like, or you can take the whole thing as a group. One or more of these may not be true - in fact, one of them definitely is not true - but what's important here is not the excuses. What's important here is that I'm not writing a review tonight.

I'll write something Friday, though, so come back real soon.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Board Game Review - Settlers of Catan

It seems nearly inconceivable to me that there's a real hardcore board gamer who hasn't played at least one game of Settlers of Catan. It's like saying you like frozen treats, so you might as well give this 'ice cream' thing a shot, since you've heard good things about it. Heck, you could probably even argue that Settlers was one of those games that gave the entire board gaming sub-hobby the kick in the ass it needed to really get cranked up.

I could go on about games we had before 1995 and games we had after, or the dramatic rise of the Eurogames, or a lot of other crap that would be half history lesson and half conjecture. But I'm not going to, because really, I'm just a game reviewer. I write about games - not the history of games, or the phenomenon of games, or other highbrow, pseudo-academic horse pucky. I had a reader ask me if I would review Settlers of Catan, so here we go.

In Settlers of Catan, each player is trying to build up an empire on a teeny little island. It's not easy, either, because the island is small and resources are scarce. Plus there's this bastich of a thief who keeps running around and swiping your crap. But you'll manage to build settlements and roads, raise an army, and try to rule the world. Well, you'll try to rule a tiny little island. OK, you'll try to carve out a little corner of it that's a bigger corner than anyone else has.

There's virtually no reason I can think of to recite the rules to you. For one thing, 90% of you probably already know the rules. For those of you who don't know the rules, you can go to BGG and download the rules. Or you can read a really boring review by someone who will tell you the rules in exhaustive detail. Or you can just stop nearly any gamer in any game store in any part of the country, and if they play board games, they can probably tell you the rules. So we'll skip right to the part where I tell you why I don't play Settlers very often, but still haven't sold my copy.

There's a fairly retarded amount of luck in Settlers of Catan, which is kind of funny, given its status as the kingpin of Euro games, and Euro games tend to be sort of short on luck. If you need to roll mountains, you'll probably get everything but mountains. If you spend your sheep and rocks to buy a development card and need a soldier, you'll probably pull a library. The luck can really bite you, but the real key to being good at Settlers of Catan is knowing how to play the hand you're dealt, so the luck tends to separate the boys from the men, unless you're actually playing with women, in which case it will separate the women from the other women.

On top of the luck, there's a lot of strategy and tactical maneuvering. You have to develop long-term plans that are flexible, and then you have to know how to position your roads and developments to maximize your potential for success. If you are trying to have the biggest army, you could be wasting your efforts if you get in a pissing match for the longest road. Dump all your resources into a city, and you might get the victory-point bump, but you might also break your bank and wind up with no way to trade some barley for a couple bricks when you need them.

Player interaction is not really all that high in Settlers, not compared to a lot of the games I love to play. Sure, you can block your opponents with well-placed roads, and steal their cards with the robber, but it's not like you're going to march on their capitals and ride off on their women. I'm OK with that relatively weak interaction, but it's not my favorite. On the other hand, it does limit the revenge player - you know, that one guy who had one territory way off in the boondocks, and you needed it so you took it, and then he spends the rest of the game attacking you, even though it means he loses. So now he can rob you a couple times, but it's not like he's going to take you out of the game.

I don't even play Settlers of Catan once a year. I keep it, though, because while it's not at the top of my list of games, it is a remarkably good game. It's a little on the dry side, but there's stuff to do even when it's not your turn, and you can finish in an hour or two. There's no body count, but you don't need violent deaths to make a good game (though it helps). It's very intelligent, not too tough to teach, and rewards the skilled player over the rookie, while giving the rookie enough of a chance to at least hold his own.

I don't guess I would recommend Settlers of Catan to everyone I know. If you can only have fun when your team of space marines is chasing aliens down starship corridors, or you really only like games that you can play while you're all sitting in the living room with a cold beverage, Settlers is going to bore your face clean off (and let me tell you, if you've ever lost your face to a boring game, it's no picnic. You'll need Jagermeister and Red Bull to get it back). But if you like to really think about what you're playing, and you can get behind a theme with no bloodshed, you ought to at least give it a try.

Just ask any gamer who preaches for the Church of Knizia - they probably have a copy of Settlers. And they might even play it with you, if you agree to play a Reiner game afterward.


Deep strategy mixes with unpredictable luck
Downtime is limited - you're always in the game
You'll rarely see a runaway leader

A little dry
You can't shoot anyone

Of course Dogstar Games has Settlers. So does nearly every other game retailer on the planet. But Dogstar has it just as cheap as everyone else, and they'll ship it for free, which saves you even more than anywhere else. So if you're going to buy a copy of Settlers of Catan, you should do it here:

Friday, June 19, 2009

Card Game Review - Bang!

Monday I reviewed Attack!, and complained for the whole thing about games with titles that end in unnecessary punctuation. Tonight I'm reviewing Bang!, and since I already spent too much time dwelling on my irritation with exclamation marks, I'm going to gloss right over it.

Instead I'm going to express my disapproval of games whose rules don't make any sense at all.

Bang! is a card game where everyone is in an Old West town, and outlaws ride in, and there's a shootout. The sheriff has to kill the outlaws, the outlaws have to kill the sheriff, the deputies help the sheriff, and to round it out, there's a renegade who wants to be the new sheriff, so he wants to kill everyone else, period.

And then Indians ride through the town, and everyone stops shooting at each other for a second to shoot Indians. I guess it's like a carnival game - you shoot the targets, and if the pink bunny pops up, you take a shot at him real quick so you can win the giant foam snake.

That's only one silly rule. We'll get to more.

Every player in Bang! gets a role card to start off. Only one of you can be the sheriff, but there will always be some outlaws, and you'll have that sneaky renegade, and if you have enough players, you'll even have a deputy or two. Only the sheriff reveals his card, though - everyone else has to be sneaky and try not to let the others guess who they are, to keep from becoming a target. It's like Werewolf, only everyone is a wolf.

It's even more like Werewolf because the idiot sheriff can kill his deputies, because he doesn't know who they are. I completely understand why the game needs to keep identities secret, but seriously? Is the sheriff blind? Retarded? Did he not recruit this hired help? And how about the deputy? After one bullet bounces off your face, don't you kind of want to go, 'Hey, hotshot! You're with me, remember?!'

OK, so the identity thing is a little goofy, but the idea is great - you have to trick people into shooting the wrong people so that you can win. It's a great bluffing feature, and the card play makes it even better. To shoot someone, you need Bang! cards, but they can totally dive under the porch and avoid harm if they can play a Missed! card (don't ask me why all these cards have excess punctuation. For that matter, don't ask me why all the titles are actually in Spanish, and you don't see 'Missed!' unless you read the fine print).

To complicate matters, you can only shoot people you can see - and to start off, you can only see people to your right and left. So in a big game, you can't even shoot the people across the table (apparently you start the game with a slingshot and a couple of smooth rocks). And if the guy right next to you jumps on a horse, he is suddenly completely invisible, though he can still see you. Because that's what gunfighters in the Old West did - they jumped on horses so they could disappear.

You'll need weapons if you want to shoot farther than next door. Different weapons offer different ranges - except the Volcanic revolver, which still only shoots next to you, but it lets you shoot a whole lot of times in one turn, instead of just once during your turn, like if you have normal guns. This only makes sense - the Volcanic was the only weapon in all of the Wild, Wild West that could fire twice in a row. Every other weapon required you to let everyone else shoot at you before you could shoot again. As I recall from Totally Fictional History 101, there was a kind of Miss Manners thing where it was just plain rude to fire without giving everyone else in the fight a chance to shoot you back, but the Volcanic got you a pass.

There are lots more cards that do lots more stuff, like beer that makes you healthy (I wish they bottled that locally), barrels you can hide behind (unless Indians come running through the middle of your gunfight), and a jail where you can just lock people up in the middle of a shootout. It's handy, too, because you can toss another player in jail, and then everyone can ride past and shoot at him, and he can't even hide under the bed. And he certainly can't shoot back.

To add to the mayhem, everyone gets to play special characters, and each character gives you a cool ability. Like Calamity Janet, who gets to use Missed! cards like Bang! cards, or Bart Cassidy, who draws a card every time he takes a bullet. Some of these abilities are a lot more powerful than others - Slab the Killer is approximately 37.8% more deadly than everyone else, but the unfortunately named Jourdonnais is only slightly better at avoiding damage than he is at convincing people his name has nothing to do with sandwich spread.

So I've got a lot of problems with some of the absolutely silly rules in Bang!, but the fact is, it's a really fun game. It doesn't even try to be balanced - the outlaws are incredibly likely to win, and the sheriff is almost guaranteed to get his ass shot off - but that's not the point. The point is fooling your friends into shooting someone else, and the guy who does that the best is very likely to at least hold out for a while. It's a total hoot to try and guess which players are your enemies, and which are your allies, even if it's completely nonsensical that the outlaws wouldn't recognize each other from campire night back at the hideout.

There are some problems with the game play, though. For starters, you could get eliminated before you ever have a chance to play a card (not likely, but possible) and then the game could go another 30 minutes while you catch up on your stories. Some abilities are far more powerful than others, and sometimes it seems like your opponents are drawing magic hands while you keep trying to pull the one card you need to break out of prison.

But problems and all, Bang! is a lot of fun. There's a lot of bluffing, a little bit of clever card play, and some thoroughly nonsensical gunfighting. And as I like to say, real men play games where people die - and this is one of those games. It's a lot of fun, even if you can stop a fight so that everyone can make a quick run to the general store.


Great bluffing combined with smart card play
Ludicrously easy to learn
One of the few games that actually plays really well with a lot of people

Doesn't even try to be balanced
Early elimination totally sucks
So much luck that a whole team of chess players threw themselves off a cliff after just one game
Routinely nonsensical silliness abounds

This is a review of my old version of Bang!, but there's a new one out that comes in a giant plastic marital aid... I mean bullet. You can get it here (sorry, it's not Dogstar Games):
(Really long link)

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Card Game Review - Pink Godzilla Dev Kit

I am in the wrong line of work.

Well, technically, my day job is pretty much awesome, but when it comes to reviews, I ought to be writing about video games. There are some obvious downsides - I don't really know that much about video games, I vastly prefer board games, and I don't play video games very often - but aside from those tiny hangups, I could actually pull an income writing about video games.

I know there's money in video games because a video game store in Seattle called Pink Godzilla actually created an entire card game just to promote their store. That's pretty darn clever, if you ask me, and it's the kind of advertising that you don't do if you're a regular ol' broke-ass comic-and-game store. These cats must have some bank. Maybe if I talked about Final Fantasy instead of Fantasy Flight, I could turn my business cards into a cash cow.

The funny thing is, for what essentially amounts to viral marketing, Pink Godzilla Dev Kit is actually a pretty fun game. It's not a 'play every damned time I can' game, but it's definitely a 'break out at least once or twice a year because we loved it last time' game. It would get old in a hurry if you played it every week, but heck, that's why there are expansions.

The idea behind Pink Godzilla Dev Kit is that you're all video game developers, and you have to make games that rack up big scores, and you have to do it fast. You can create a bunch at a time, but the game ends when one player has four finished games, and then you want to be able to show that you got something done so you can score some points.

While the theme sounds like it might be a little technical, in all honesty, it's just a set collection game. Each game has to have a title and a couple important pieces, but you can add stuff like special characters or Easter eggs to make them score higher. The trick is making sure that after you dump all those extra cards into your set, you finish it before you end up wasting all that effort.

The game play is good, but not amazing. It's not going to get nominated at Essen, but it's fun. The real fun, though, is in the cards themselves. You'll make a game like Dance Dance Team Ninja Suppressors 2, add a plastic guitar and a couple combo moves, and round it out with the ludicrously cute Pixel character. Or you might direct your efforts to Elder May Cry 4, or Pink Gear Solid 4: Ninjas of Liberty, or Pinktroid Prime.

Unfortunately, Pink Godzilla Dev Kit can take a while. We've had games take a couple hours, which seems a little out of whack for a card game. Sometimes they go really fast, and you're done in 30 minutes, but if the cards just aren't coming up, you might wind up stopping the game a couple times for smoke breaks and toilet visits. That's not a good sign in a light, silly card game, but since it's actually a pretty involved game, it's forgivable.

The reason that it's OK to take a while is that there is a lot going on. Every turn you'll have the chance to pick the card you want, or dump the ones you don't, or hold an auction for cards. You might have special abilities in play that let you get bonus cards when opponents finish games, or guardians that let you really break the rules - but just once. There are lots of opportunities to block opponents, or weasel the cards you need, or plan a complex series of moves three turns ahead. That may take a while, but it's fun.

I don't really know how well Pink Godzilla Dev Kit did for the store that created it. It's not like I tracked their sales. I just know that I got a review copy a few years ago, I play it all now and then, and I like it. That other stuff about writing about video games? That's a load of crap. I would have to be way funnier to write about video games - there are all these really clever people writing about video games. We mostly just have boring people whose mothers still tell them they're handsome. And I can compete with that.


Surprisingly involved game play
Light and easy to learn, but with lots to do
Whimsical, bright art that works exceptionally well
Amusing and silly and fun

Can drag a little at the end
The cards have square corners, so they get all bent really easy and poke you when you shuffle

Pink Godzilla's web site has all the info on Dev Kit:

Monday, June 15, 2009

Board Game Review - Attack!

As a writer (an amateur, of course, and a total hack, but still a writer), I have a pretty serious grammatical complaint. This may not bother a lot of people, but it bothers me, because it poses difficulties if I have any intent to adhere to the rules of the written language. The complaint I have is about punctuation. Specifically, my complaint is with games whose titles end in an exclamation mark.

No matter how good a game might be, it makes it more difficult to review when I have to insert an exclamation halfway through a sentence. Plus, if you're writing in Word, the software will usually auto-correct and capitalize the first word following the erroneous punctuation, which makes more work for me, unless I choose to let it just roll on with the 'repaired' sentence the way it is. Consider, for example, this following sentence:

Playing Attack! Is a lot like playing Risk, but completely different.

See how that got turned into two sentences? What the heck kind of sentence is 'Playing Attack!'? And furthermore, what if I want to put a comma after the exclamation mark, or even worse, a different form of punctuation? And what if the name of the game ends a sentence, but I didn't feel like shouting? Example:

Attack!, one of the big ol' board games from now-semi-defunct publisher Eagle Games, is a world domination game where players attempt to take over the world. Only in Attack!, you're not going to end up playing for eight hours while you try to eliminate every other player, because the game ends as soon as one player is out. It goes faster than Risk, and has more depth, so if you like Risk, how could you not love Attack!?

See how awkward that was? That last question reads like something a comic-book villain might yell - "where are you, Batman?!?!?!" It's clumsy. And it only gets worse when you explain rules. For instance:

In Attack!, players each start with just four regions, and must expand through diplomatic and military means. Most of the board is wide open, but when you launch an offensive against a neutral area, you draw a card to see what kinds of troops you must defeat. It is often more strategic to attempt to gain the province through diplomatic means - but this could result in you losing the area to another player. But then, that player will only have one lone infantry to protect the new region, which means you could probably overrun it, so a strategy develops where you force opponents to grab up a region just so that you can hit it when it's weak. The strategy in Attack! is quite deep, and includes even more options that make it a very cerebral game.

OK, that paragraph was easier, because I only listed the game twice. Of course, that means there were two sentences that were completely hosed, but it also meant I got most of a paragraph without the offending punctuation. So I must continue, if I hope to illustrate the clumsy nature of the misplaced exclamation:

The feature that best sets Attack! apart from other global warfare games is the fact that you can only take three actions on your turn. In Risk, you can attack over and over, but in Attack!, you may only perform each action once (except for diplomatic attempts, which are incredibly likely to fail anyway). You can move troops, engage in a battle, then blitz with your tanks and planes - and then you've taken two actions, and just have one more. Buying troops isn't automatic, either - you have to use an action for that, and instead of just counting up regions, you count up the points on the cards you get for grabbing land. This means that you have to really plan your entire move before your turn even starts - an element that I like to see in any game, and which is used exceptionally well in Attack!.

Now that period just looks lost, but what can I do? Sound like I'm yelling? That doesn't make any sense. But my only other option is irrational, redundant punctuation. What's a crappy writer to do? I could try just leaving out the name of the game, like so:

In addition to the normal land-based actions, players may also battle for control of the seas. As an action, players may initiate naval battles using cards that represent their ships, and a regular ol' pair of dice. A little dice-off/match-up lets both players decide quickly who will control the ocean, and controlling the ocean is a potentially huge ability. If you can control the seas, you can stop other players from crossing. This can keep them from coming after you - but it can also keep them from picking on easy targets, thus keeping you in a position to dominate. Not much time will typically be devoted to naval battles, but when they happen, they're usually very important.

So that works, but sooner or later, I'm going to have to mention what I'm reviewing. So rather than just mention it once and then say, 'the game' throughout the rest of the review, I'll try putting the name at the end of the sentence:

There is an incredible amount of strategy and tactical maneuvering in Attack! Building the right army, targeting the right country, and forming the right alliances can be critical to winning Attack!

That works because it doesn't really matter whether or not I yell. I mean, it's kind of dumb to yell those sentences, but what the heck. It's just a game review. Faulkner I'm not. So I'll close with this last attempt to make this work:

In short, fans of large-scale tactical games - and even a few Eurogamers who like to blow stuff up - will enjoy playing Attack!


Difficult decision-making
Clever long-term strategy
Interesting tactical options
Fun art, neat pieces and pretty cards

Can plod a little bit - turns can take five to ten minutes, which is rough with five players
Quite a bit of luck
That damned exclamation mark

Even though the original Eagle Games is pretty much gone, you can still get Attack! Just go here, save some coin, and get it shipped free:

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Game Expansion Review - Cutthroat Caverns Expansions

I was torn on just how to write reviews of the three expansions available for Cutthroat Caverns. On the one hand, they are three separate products, and so three different reviews would make sense. On the other hand, there's not really enough meat on each expansion for me to write more than a few paragraphs, which means that I would end up writing three different, really short reviews, and thus take up a whole week of updates with articles that were just me trying to pad the reviews like a twelfth-grader trying to beef up a term paper. So I decided to just write one review about all three, and that way I can still review two more games. Then you don't have to skip a bunch if you don't really give a crap about Cutthroat Caverns.

Plus I'm lazy, and this kills three birds with one stone.

If you haven't read the review of Cutthroat Caverns, you can check it out here. If you have played Cutthroat Caverns and didn't really like it, then you can do two things - first, you can have a doctor check your blood work, because you may be missing your fun gene. Second, you can skip this review and catch up on your webcomics. Who knows what crazy hijinks Gabe is up to now?

So now that you're caught up (and still reading), we'll start with Deeper and Darker, the first expansion for Cutthroat Caverns. As you know, the original game has six different characters players can pretend to be, but they're really all the same except for the picture on the health tracker card. Deeper and Darker includes character abilities, which are total game-breakers that you can use once per game. These powers are super-powerful, often able to swing the battle in your favor, and if used properly can totally steal the big point monsters. Use them wrong, of course, and they're wasted, but then you only have yourself to blame.

Plus Deeper and Darker comes with a bunch of new monsters. My favorite new monster is the Obsidian Gate, because it's not really a monster as much as it is a proxy that lets you throw in an all new encounter. You can make your own, or you can use one of the new encounters you can download from the Smirk and Dagger website.

The other new monsters are also pretty darn cool. There's a Hydra, and you have to kill all the individual heads. Ashtongue the Cruel is a big mean dragon who spits flame all over everybody and takes forever to kill. You've got the Psy-Pod, a psychic monster who predicts which attacks will miss. Plus there's the best non-combat challenge ever, the Ogre's Challenge, where everybody plays a high-stakes game of blackjack to either get tons of prestige or take one hell of a beating.

Relics and Ruins is the second expansion, and on top of a bunch of new monsters, it adds relic cards and events. At the end of every encounter, you draw an event card, which might change the rules for the fight or let some players draw relics. The relics are cool treasures that can really give you a boost as you play - and these are especially cool because the art on these cards is actually photographs of actual things that got actually made. That's actually pretty damned cool - and you can even buy these sweet-ass little widgets. They would be perfect accessories for your Ren Faire costumes. You could even pretend they were magic, and had the incredible ability to make you talk in a horrible accent that sounds like you just fell out of a bad 80s sword-and-sorcery movie.

The new monsters are great. The vampyre is really cool, with the ability to turn players into evil minions who turn on their allies - but then just like in Lost Boys, if you can kill the main vamp, the others all get better. The other encounters are also really original and cool, but my favorite is the wereboar. Every time you get hit, you get a special card, which you only look at when the game ends. If one of you flips the card and sees 'you are a wereboar', then the game continues, and everyone has to kill the wereboar before he kills everyone else. Awesome.

These expansions build on each other like a kid playing with a box of Legos, so that each expansion has more stuff than the one before, and adds stuff from the previous expansions. The third expansion, Tombs and Tomes, has what is arguably the most interesting new concept - the module. Now, instead of facing a bunch of random monsters in a tromp through a virtual dungeon that's really just a back-stabby card game, you've got a book that tells you a story, tells why you're in the dungeon, and connects all the encounters. More than ever before, Cutthroat Caverns actually starts to resemble a roleplaying game. Encounters tend to make a little more sense, and a sense of context adds a frame to the game.

Now, I'll step out here and throw up a big caution sign. Don't jump into the modules in Tombs and Tomes if you're not prepared to spend some time at the table. The story element that gets added in is really cool, but it is going to take a lot longer to finish the game now. Plus if you're only playing for the card game where you get all tricky and hose your buddies, this is going to weigh down the game like a bag full of sand on an olympic swimmer. You'll only enjoy the adventure modules if you really want to get a more 'immersive' RPG experience. If you want the game to haul ass and cut to the chase, you should avoid the adventure modules - they'll just piss you off.

But you should still totally get Tombs and Tomes. The new monsters, encounters and relics are thoroughly bad-ass. Ashkara runs around the table stabbing the crap out of everybody. Ragnarok is probably going to kill someone, but then the guy who kills Ragnarok can bring back all the party members who get killed. And what is probably the most difficult and exciting bad guy of all time closes out the game with his ability to turn fallen comrades into undead enemies - as soon as you battle past his skeletal horde.

If you don't really like Cutthroat Caverns, the expansions are not going to suddenly make you change your mind. They don't fix anything that was broken - but then, I don't think anything was broken, so there's nothing to fix. Instead they just add more to a game that was a hell of a lot of fun in the first place, and give you enough replay value that you could roll this sucker onto the table once a week for a year and not see the same game twice.


Every expansion adds a new mechanic, and builds on stuff from previous releases
New encounters, events, relics, player abilities, and more
Everything adds to the game, and you can cherry-pick through to build the game you want to play

The modules are the only possible downside - they can add a lot of time, and if you don't care about the story, they're really pointless.

As noted previously, Dogstar Games carries all the stuff for Cutthroat Caverns. You can get it here, cheap, with free shipping:

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Card Game Review - Monopoly Deal

Being on Hasbro's list of favored reviewers has its upsides and down. For instance, I once got Operation. It was fun - when I was seven. But I also got Risk: Black Ops, which was close to the highlight of my reviewing career. Recently I got a press package for Spongebob Squarepants Sorry, and I can tell you, I'm hoping the actual game does not arrive.

When I opened the most recent package from Hasbro and pulled out a little card game called Monopoly Deal, I was initially a little chagrined (for those of you who don't know what that means, go look it up). A card game spinoff of Monopoly is not the first game I would generally bring to the gaming table. However, I have a fairly solid policy of reviewing anything someone sends me, so I broke it out and read the rules anyway.

Turns out, it's not Monopoly (cue all the people saying, 'well, duh', including me if you had said the same thing to me). It's a set collection game using Monopoly properties. The winner is the first player to get three full sets of properties. You can't bankrupt your opponents, so everyone is playing until the game is over, and there's no such thing as Free Parking. Also, nobody gets to be the race car, which I found a little disappointing (I'm always the race car).

On your turn, you get to play three cards. You can bank a card - there are cards that are specifically money, but every card also has a value if you decide to turn it into money. You could play a property, placing it in front of you, or you could play an action that lets you do something like charge rent, pass Go, or steal money when nobody else is looking (you don't actually need a card for that last one - it's actually cheating, so you only get to do it if you can get away with it).

Every one of these possibilities is important, but you only get to play three cards, so you have to plan ahead. Sometimes you might even pass, just to make sure you set up your killer play for next turn. You can swipe money from other players with some of the action cards, and if they can't pay, they have to give you properties (cha-ching!). Since you also have to set up those collections, and you only get three cards per turn, you have to be building as you go. Playing money might seem like kind of a waste, but if you don't have money in your bank, you can't protect your properties, and you'll spend the whole game with nothing in front of you.

Monopoly Deal is a surprisingly good game, considering that the publisher of this game is also responsible for the intensely boring Game of Life. It's also really fast, so you can play with four people in 15-20 minutes. There's planning and strategy and luck and all that stuff you like in a decent card game.

Now, I do have a complaint. There are a couple cards that absolutely ruin the game, in my opinion. Of course, this is a mass-market game by the people who make Chutes and Ladders, so they probably don't mind if you can build a game-breaker hand with just two cards, but for those of us who like games that reward skill over blind luck, those cards just suck. For instance, in one game, I went from having nothing on the table at all to a sweeping win in just one turn. It's fun to win, but that's a crappy way to do it.

But this lucky card thing is not enough to keep me from playing Monopoly Deal again. For one thing, there are only two of the game-breaker cards, and we've pulled them out, so that we don't have a great, tense game ruined by one stupid card draw. Without these lucky cards, Monopoly Deal is a fun combination of luck, strategy and good card play that can lend itself to a fantastic, tense endgame where anyone could win.

Which is funny, because I would not have expected that from the people who make Candyland.


Easily learned and fun
Really tense end game
Lots of strategy and quick thinking and planning

A couple cards completely ruin the game for serious gamers

There's no effing way Dogstar Games has Monopoly Deal. But you know what? Target does.

Monday, June 8, 2009

Board Game Review - Wings of War: Famous Aces

I tend to know stuff about games in general (though I admit to some embarrassing ignorance on the topic of Japanese console games). When I start writing about a game, I usually already have a pretty good idea what's out there, and how long it's been around, and whether it has had a bunch of expansions come out. But Wings of War took me completely by surprise, because this game has more expansions than I have books in my D&D collection (if you're just counting third edition, and maybe three-five, and not the old stuff, where I have like a bajillion books I've held onto since I was twelve).

So it seems to me that if there are this many expansions, there must be something to this game. It must be a pretty decent game - that, or Fantasy Flight just churns stuff out and shotguns it at the wall to see what sticks. Could be either one, really. It is with great delight that I report that it's the first one - and aside from some unfortunate scale decisions, Fantasy Flight tends to make pretty bad-ass games, so that second one is unlikely anyway.

Wings of War is definitely a simulation-style game. Each player commands a fighter plane from World War I, and then commences to shoot holes in the planes commanded by the other guys. I wouldn't say it's an entirely accurate representation of how biplane battles happened, but then, I remember a game my old man bought when I was a kid - it had the same theme, but tried really hard to be true-to-life, which meant that there were so many rules that it was a little more interesting than long division, but only if there was an awful lot of long division.

Each plane has a different maneuver deck, which is a bunch of cards that all have the same letter on them. You choose three in order, put them down, and then resolve them. It's the same kind of mechanic you see in something like Robo Rally or Great Space Race, only there are no grids, just your open table. The cards have blue paths and black arrows, and you put the card on the table and then put your plane so the black arrows match up. It's almost a hybrid between having a map with all the hexes marked off and having to use a tape measure. Of course, this means that while you probably know where you're going when you start moving, it could be a little dicey by the end of the turn, when you're accidentally flying your plane right into the other guy's poop chute.

Which brings us to shooting at each other, which is also pretty darn easy. You have a little ruler that tells you whether your opponent is in range, and if he is, how many damage cards he draws. There are no dice here - each card has different numbers on it, from 0 to 5, which indicates how badly you get perforated. When your damage cards add up to the strength of your plane, you go down in flames. Or maybe you're not on fire, but you crash anyway, and then the Germans pick you up and put you in a prison camp where you start digging tunnels and then Steve McQueen tries to jump barbed wire on a motorcycle... wait, wrong war. Never mind. You just die.

At this point, you've pretty much heard all the standard rules, but the optional rules are what make this game. The damage cards have little icons on them, and you might wind up with your rudder stuck, or your plane on fire, or your guns jammed (and before Johnny McRules corrects me, the guns jam in the basic rules, too). Plus if you can start the turn right on your opponent's butt, you can tail him, which means you'll probably get to shoot him a couple more times. Which is fun for everyone, with the possible exception of the guy who gets shot.

I think Wings of War is a blast, and so do my kids, but it's worth mentioning that my wife didn't like it. She's not a fan of games where you measure stuff (needless to say, no Warhammer 40K at my kitchen table), and Wings of War does have a bit of the measure-and-move factor. The cards do most of the measuring work for you, but you can still get that 'no, I'm pointed this way another half a degree, so I can just barely shoot you' that makes you wish you weren't playing with that rules lawyer/bad sport/jackass who is always trying to exploit loopholes.

Unlike my wife, however, I really liked the card-based moving. I want to see what else this game has to offer - and let me tell you, there's a lot. There are like four or five expansion boxes with two-seater planes, more powerful guns, different maneuvers and - well, frankly, I just have Famous Aces, so I'm not sure what else is in there. Plus there are a whole heck of a lot of miniature planes on cool plastic bases that let you adjust for altitude, and those look great (on the website, at least - I don't have those, either). I'm probably going to end up spending more money on this game.

I'm really glad a reader requested a review of Wings of War. Otherwise, I probably never would have played it, and I never would have found out how easy and fun it is. But then, now I also have another great way to spend all my extra money, and let's face it, if I had a bunch of money, I would just buy all the games I want and not have to write snarky reviews and lewd comments to try to get people to give them to me for free.


A nice balance between an accurate simulation and a clever board game
Neat art
Different planes behave differently, which makes them more interesting
Easy to learn, but still has plenty of depth

There's a little measure-and-move in there, which might turn off a lot of people
There are about 20 more thing I want to buy now
A fairly irritating amount of luck, especially if you happen to draw the one 'crap, I'm dead' card

Never mind what this said before. Now Dogstar Games has Wings of War, and you can get it cheap with free shipping. So there you go.

Saturday, June 6, 2009

News Post - New Advertiser

So I'm on the phone today with my friend John Clowdus, who owns Small Box Games, and we're talking about his newest crop of games. In case you don't come here a lot, or if you just found this game review sinkhole, I'll update you real fast.

John and I have been friends for four or five years. I don't know for sure how long, I don't count real good. We both started companies about the same time - I started making dice towers, and he started making games. I've reviewed just about everything he's made, and even when I don't particularly love his games (which is really rare), I gotta hand it him - they're not like anything else you've ever played.

So anyway, he's got like ten games coming out right now, and he's only going to print up as many as people pre-order. He's as small-time as I am (except he's a lot less lazy and a lot more creative), so he can't afford to have 10,000 copies printed up in Taiwan. What this means to you, gentle reader (and you too, dickhead who reads this site) is that you've got a narrow window in which to place an order. The new version of Dirge is one of those games, and Dirge is a freaking blast. I played the updated version at GenCon last year, and it's even better than the original.

Here's where I throw down a win-win for everyone involved. Now that you know about Small Box Games, you can go place your order and pick up all these awesome games. They're pretty cheap, and they're really fun. If I hadn't told you, you wouldn't have known, would you? And it's a win for John, too, because he would really like to sell some games.

It's a win for me, too, because John sends me free games all the time. Which, OK, he would have done even if I hadn't written a special post just to advertise his games, but if you keep John in business, he keeps me afloat in free games. And that's a win-win-win I can get behind.

You can find Small Box Games here:

You can also click the new ad over on the left over there. See it? It's blinking a little. It's kind of irritating, huh? Yeah, that's the one.

Friday, June 5, 2009

Some Clarification - The Rules

A few things have happened recently that got me to thinking about how I do stuff at Drake's Flames. I think I'll share.

1) I got a new fan. A likable chap (and by 'likable' I mean 'he's a douchebag') named Shreveport Jimmy took issue with one of my review titles at BGG - and he chased it like a dog after a cat with raw steak stapled to its tail. I've seen dedicated people before. I've seen men who work eighty hours a week just because the job demands it, mothers who stand in line for three days to get their kids into the right schools, and gamers who can play for eighteen hours on nothing but Pocky and Mountain Dew. But I've never seen anyone as dedicated to looking like a complete jackass.

Good news, Jimbo - mission accomplished. You look like a complete jackass.

If you would like to meet my new friend Jim, you can run over to BGG and check out the review of Bombay. The conversation there is a delight, as long as you like to see a man foam at the mouth like a rabid panhandler.

The reason this is relevant is because my new BFF at BGG has promised that under no circumstances will he play any game I ever make. Since Feral Instinct is my first attempt at a game that doesn't involve a 200-page rulebook and reams of boring information about make-believe worlds, I fear I'm already down a fan - and I don't even have a game yet. Woe is me.

(Really, this isn't relevant, but when I'm over there, I do my best not to come right out and call people assholes. I kind of dance around it, but I try to stay in the lines. You may have noticed, there are no lines here. And I really wanted to call Shreveport Jimmy a douchebag.)

2) I got another new fan. Jose, who seems like he's probably a decent guy, disagreed with my last review and called me a whiner. I questioned his capability in the English language and suggested that he might be giving himself a close-up prostate exam, at which point he responded by telling me I might be a racist (like a Jeff Foxworthy joke - if you've got a shed full of napalm and cheap wooden crosses, you might be a racist) and then taking his ball and going home.

Look, I don't have many rules here. Well, OK, I really don't have any at all, they're more like guidelines. But if you're going to come to my playground and throw a mud pie, you gotta have a thick hide, because I keep a mud pie catapult behind the shed, all oiled up and ready to rumble. I love to play, but when I'm here, I play rough. I don't wear kid gloves when I'm here. Here I have grown-up gloves, and I fill them with sand.

However, I don't mean to chase anyone off. The only comments I'll ever delete are spam. You can cuss, you can call me names, you can question my lineage and mock my outright disdain for the rules of the English language. I'll respond in kind, but I won't tell you to leave, and I won't delete your crap. Even Jimmers, the Shreveport douche nozzle, is welcome to come and speak his piece. If you can handle the sarcastic insults I'll heap on your head like the lice you leave on your pillow, you can say anything you want. If you're good at it, I'll even laugh. I may even invite you to go out for beers.

3) I got exactly two review requests in the last month, and that's getting silly. Listen, kids, I write this thing so people will read it - and if all I'm reviewing is cheap pap I picked up at a garage sale, you're going to get bored and leave. And then I'm going to have a hard time getting free games. So what I need you to do is simple - tell me what games you want to hear about, so that I can write about them. Piece of cake, right? I try my best with every request. I reviewed Power Grid because it was requested. I reviewed Android after it was requested. I'm reviewing Wings of War next week - same reason. If you have a request, ask. I'll do my best to get the game, and if I do, I'll let you read all about it. And thanks to Dogstar Games, I'm able to get an awful lot of games that I couldn't get before. So do us both a favor and tell me what you want me to talk about. Also, tell me if you would like to see me end a sentence in a preposition (because, see, I just did).

4) There is no fourth thing. Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition.

So here's the deal, just so we're all on the same page.

If you post in the comments section, it's not automatically open season. If you have a question, or request, or honest disagreement, you get to choose how I reply. If you're sincere and respectful, so am I. I welcome discussion, and will be as nice as I can be if you're as nice as you can be (unless 'as nice as you can be' is still a total dick). And if you're snarky and sarcastic, I won't be mad at all - but I'll also be snarky and sarcastic. Hellfire, what do you expect? Doctor Phil? I'm crassly opinionated. I'm not Oprah.

And make some requests. I want to write the reviews that you want to read, but to do that, you have to tell me what you want to read. I've got sources, and I can run down review copies like a New Orleans street performer after spare change.

And for the love of God, would someone please take the Feral Instinct playtest survey? It's been weeks! I'm starting to think you people don't love me!

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Board Game Review - Hybrid

I've never tried to candy-coat the fact that I am not a fan of games with weak themes. I don't want a theme that could be swapped out with a dog race, elephant hunting or midget dance contests. I like my games to deliver a 'yeah, I sorta did that' feel. I want to hear the screaming starfighter engines (despite the fact that you couldn't hear them in space). I want to feel the hot breath of the minotaur before I cut him down to size. I want to taste... OK, never mind, I don't actually want to taste anything, unless it's a cooking game.

So it feels horribly out of character for me to say that a game can actually have too much theme. It seems like saying you have too much money, or too many strippers. It doesn't seem possible.

And yet, here I go - Hybrid has too much theme.

Hybrid is essentially a dungeon crawler for two players. One player is the Order of the Griffin, a group of elite slayers-of-evil lead by the enigmatic and powerful Ambrosius. The other player gets to take on the roll of pure evil bad guys, the creations of the evil emperor Dirz. Dirz is long gone, but he left countless underground crypts full of his undying creations - terrible monsters built in cloning tubes and activated hundreds of years later.

So far, this has one of the coolest, darkest themes ever made. The miniatures that come with the game are all metal, and they are just as detailed and amazing as anything Rackham ever made (which is not that big a coincidence, since the game was made by Rackham). There are 12X12 tiles that you lay out to build your dungeons, and the art on these is just amazing. Even the doors are jaw-dropping gorgeous. You'll be able to smell the stale air and hear the dripping water (as long as you're playing in a leaky basement). It's awesome.

The combat system works incredibly well, too, and continues to contribute to the feeling that you're reenacting desperate battle against unholy terrors. Every figure has a natural value - the number under which you must roll to swing a weapon (or shoot a gun, or block a blow). Rolling under this number on an attack causes a point of damage, and reduces the natural value of your target by one. When that natural value becomes zero, your genetic Tinker Toy monster or self-righteous templar takes a dirt nap.

This would be interesting enough, but then you add in action modes. When you activate a figure, you have to choose an action mode. The options are stabbing, shooting, blocking or hauling ass (that's a paraphrase). And each action mode has six levels, and each one does something a little different. The novice strike allows your warriors to ignore their wounds when attacking, while the heroic strike deals out a little extra pain. Skilled firing lets you cover a doorway and shoot out of turn at the bad guys who come through, while the expert move lets you tie up your enemies as you run past. By choosing the right level for your action mode at the right time, you'll be able to attack twice, or get bonuses to your rolls, or sneak around and dodge your foes until the time is right to jump out of the shadows like Jason Voorhies.

To give you that extra bump now and then, you can also play action cards - but you don't get very many, so you better make 'em count. Play them when you just have to get the initiative, or when you really need to hit, or when you want your opponent to blow a roll. Just don't play them too often, or you won't have them when you need them, and then the clone monsters will just run around blowing up your heroic warriors and laughing diabolically (if they had mouths. I'm not sure they do).

And the cards are the first sign that Rackham might have gone just a little bit overboard. On most of the cards, there is more flavor text than game text. So you can read six paragraphs in miniature italics about how Ambrosius once used his cape to filter his coffee before he told one of his knights to tie his shoes, and then you get one line that says, 'remove this card from play after you play it.' There's so much flavor copy that all the text has to be incredibly small - and it's reversed out against a dark background, which, as any serious graphic designer will tell you, makes it even harder to read. It would have been nice to just have a couple lines, like "Ambrosius consulted his maps and said, 'oh, hell, we were supposed to exit three miles ago," and then rules you could actually read without medically-prescribed trifocals.

Then you've got the map tiles. When I say that these are a visual triumph and true works of art, that's not entirely good. Because they're so God-Bless-America illustrated that you can't tell where the squares are. You're moving on a 1-inch grid, but you can't see the grid for all the climbing vines and puddles of goo and skeletal remains. I'm not lying when I tell you that it slowed us down trying to figure out where the figures belonged (maybe we were both retarded, but we played several games, and this problem came up more than once).

Finally you've got these fantastic miniatures. The templars are so detailed and amazing, you can see the wrinkles in their faces and the wind in their hair. The hybrid monsters are so lovingly sculpted that you can pick out veins and tendons. And they have swords sticking out, and guns, and shooty-thingies (not guns - more like Chewbacca's bowcaster) - and you can't put two of them next to each other, because the one guy's weapon pushes the other guy back. I'm just glad I hadn't painted my figures, because all those arms sticking out everywhere would have been knocking off paint all the way to the primer.

But you know what? It's totally worth it. Hybrid is a sickening amount of fun, once you break out the magnifying glass for the cards, establish whether any given space is a floor tile or a cow patty, and figure out how to put your figures so their arms don't fall off. The combat is insanely smooth, incredibly flexible, and seriously fast. Tactical and strategic opportunities abound - plan your moves, set up screens, approach with caution, hit hard and fast, or choose some other strategy to win the day (as long as the dice cooperate). This is more fun that a kiddie pool full of jello shooters (unless the Girls Gone Wild are in the pool. That definitely would be more fun).

Unfortunately, to get to all this fun, you have to wade through what is easily the worst rulebook I've ever read. I'm not even remotely exaggerating. The rules that tell you when to draw event cards are not in the section on event cards. No place in the rules does it explicitly tell you how to make an attack - you have to read two or three different sections to find those rules, and then put them all together. The rules are drop-dead gorgeous, full of miniature dioramas and fantastic illustrations, but they seem to have fired anyone who might have said, 'yeah, this looks nice - but can you tell me how I move again?' The first time I read the rules, I actually gave up and put the game away for three months.

So yes, you can have too much theme (still not sure about too much money, though). When all that flavor and mood and atmosphere actually impedes you from playing the game, someone should have practiced just a little bit of restraint. And when you have to read the rules five times, then find one of Universal Head's rules summaries just to figure out who goes first, then it's pretty clear that the creators of Hybrid spent too much time focusing on aesthetics and not enough on practicality.

But then, when you've got pieces this gorgeous, and a game this good (once you figure out how to play it), you should be able to tolerate a little confusion. So you're not sure if that's a vine or a wall. A couple games from now, you'll know exactly what to do every time, the game will move like clockwork, and you won't even notice when your gargantuan mauler beast can't actually stand next to the hard-on warrior with his gun sticking out in front of him. You'll just play, and you'll flat-out love it.


Incredibly cool backstory
Stunning quality components (mostly)
Smooth, intuitive game play with ludicrous amounts of flexibility
Incredible replay value (I know I can't wait to play again)

Too much chocolate, not enough milk
Rules organized by anaesthetized rodeo clowns
For some reason, Rackham decided that the single tokens you use the most should be printed on the thinnest cardstock they could find, and be almost impossible to manipulate easily.

I couldn't tell you where to find a copy of Hybrid. I got mine at GenCon. Now and then, they pop up on eBay.

Monday, June 1, 2009

Board Game Expansion Review - SUPER (for Heroes Incorporated)

I don't usually review expansions separately from the base game. For one thing, I don't usually get expansions, because I don't really buy games. For another, there's not usually enough meat on a game to warrant reviewing the expansions, which is why I generally just kind of roll in any expansions I might know about when I write the review of the main game.

However, when the guys at Quest Machine agreed to let me review Heroes Incorporated, they asked that I review SUPER, the expansion, separately. And since I really wanted the game, I agreed. I'm kind of a whore like that.

Turns out, that was a good call. When I wrote about Heroes Incorporated, I complained of a few things. One was that the super villains didn't have art on their cards, which is weak sauce for a game about super heroes. It's like a steak dinner without a baked potato - you can have a bowl of chili without a potato, but steak and potatoes go together like... well, steak and potatoes. Super villains and art - same thing. I want to see what these bad guys look like.

Another thing I bitched about was that there was often no way to beat the villains. Here you are, champions of justice and corporate sponsorship, and if you have to fight a villain, he's going to kick your ass nearly every time. Spiderman never had to put up with that - he might have taken some beatings in his day, but he almost always whipped of Doc Ock. How lame would it have been if he could only ever beat up teenagers on stolen bicycles, and every time Green Goblin came by, Spidey just pooped his unitard and hid under a park bench?

SUPER fixes both of these problems. For starters, the expansion includes replacement cards for all the villains, this time with art. Just like that, problem fixed! Now I can see what Toxica looks like! Also, she's kind of nasty, so now I really want to beat her up, so that's just gravy.

And then there are justice tokens. Every time a handful of robotic ninjas hands you your head, you get a justice token. So if you win all the time, you'll never see these - but you won't win all the time, so you'll probably get a few of these puppies. You can have up to three, and you can cash them in at any time to flip the die to a higher score. So now, if you've pumped up your hero a little, you can beat super villains after they beat you up and hang you by your underpants at the end of a flagpole.

This is especially handy because super villains don't just disappear any more. Now they run off to their super villain lairs underneath such dire locations as the Lucky Discounts store. I'll bet you didn't know that while you were shopping the dollar store, a super villain might be creating the ultimate doomsday device - and the first people to die will be the people buying off-brand detergent and Chinese knock-off action figures! Unless you get there first - and then they're worth more points than any mundane band of mole-people tunneling into a bank vault.

As should almost be expected of any expansion for a super hero game, there are more super heroes. A few aliens show up, and while they can't have gadgets, they're pretty damned tough otherwise. They can steal powers, or fight crime at the speed of sound. One of the new heroes can send his army of robots to apprehend the kids stealing quarters from phone booths, and still have time to coldcock a band of bank robbers.

You get new gadgets, too, and more super powers, and basically, Heroes Incorporated isn't a whole game until you have SUPER. I mean, the base game is fun, but without the expansion, Heroes Incorporated is just a decent game. With the expansion, it's easily the best super hero game I've ever played.


More heroes
Art for the villains
More gadgets
Justice tokens fix the flawed combat system
More super powers
If you play Heroes Incorporated, you need the expansion. Period.

I know it's self-published and wicked small press, but the die cut is freaking awful. I tore a third of the pieces I punched.

If you like super hero games, you need Heroes Incorporated. And if you're going to get Heroes Incorporated, you need SUPER. Get 'em here: