Saturday, June 26, 2010


I've been writing Drake's Flames for a couple years now, give or take a few months, ever since my gig at Knucklebones went away, which was a direct result of Knucklebones going away. For most of that time, I've updated three times a week, although every now and then, I only write two articles in a week. I took my wife on a New Orleans vacation, and updated twice from the hotel. I went to GenCon twice in that time, and still managed to squeeze out some stuff, despite being neck-deep in stank-ass gamer nerds and alcoholic binges.

But now I'm doing something I haven't done before on any level - I'm taking some time off. I need a week, because things are getting a little hectic over here and I've got too much going on. It doesn't help that I'm running really low on review copies, either.

I'll have my next article July 5. In the meantime, if you're just plain jonesing for some snarky reviews full of piss and vinegar, you can check out the Superfly Circus right here:

Those should be relatively offensive, so that you won't get the shakes and start raiding methadone clinics while I'm out.

See you in a week!

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Event Review - Not Exactly Smoking

I've been a smoker for nearly twenty years. If I could go back in time and do things differently, I would pass on that first smoke, because ever since, I've enjoyed a number of benefits of smoking. Those benefits include, but are not limited to, coughing until my face turns red, panting like a fat guy on a treadmill every time I climb a flight of stairs, smelling like dirty sweat socks, and hocking up tarballs that look like they just floated in from the BP oil spill. But that damned nicotine is more addictive than heroin (or so I hear), and every attempt to quit has resulted in me being pissed off for three weeks and then sneaking out at two in the morning to pick up a pack from an all-night gas station, except for the one time I tried Chantix and my wife shoved a pack into my hands and told me to smoke until it killed me.

The thing is, I really like smoking. I know it's all in my head, and I only like it because of the addiction, but so what? If I told you that you only enjoy receiving oral sex because you were addicted, would you stop wanting to get blowjobs? The long, deep breath in followed by that feel of the smoke punching the back of your throat, and then the mellow buzz you get off that first morning smoke - that stuff is nice. It feels good (unless you don't smoke - my first cancer stick included short puffs that made me hyperventilate, then I choked on the smoke and my eyes started running, and then I got sick all over the sidewalk. It's only nice because I've been at it so long. Like I said, I'm addicted).

But whether or not I like it, I still always wished I could quit. I hate that elephant-on-your-chest feeling every morning. I hate not being able to laugh for more than five seconds before I start to cough like I had a wasting disease. I really despise not being able to wear anything twice because it all smells like the bottom of a dirty ashtray. And then, you know, there's the death, which I would rather avoid if possible. The only problem is, I've tried everything. I tried drugs (they caused psychotic fits), lozenges (killer dry mouth), gum (not a good idea to inhale that), and patches (couldn't keep 'em lit). I tried other stuff, too. Nothing worked. So I basically just turned those lemons into lemonade, and decided to be happy because I knew how I was going to die.

And then I discovered the personal vaporizer, also known as the electronic cigarette, also known as the greatest invention of the 21st century. This is a little tube that looks a lot like a long cigarette. It consists of a battery, an atomizer and a cartridge. The atomizer screws into the battery, and the cartridge is full of this liquid that has nicotine and flavoring in it, and when you push a button on the side, it vaporizes the liquid and turns it into water vapor. Then you suck on the thing and pull all that water vapor right into your lungs.

Now, there are several reasons why quitting has not worked in the past. Specifically, I like these specific things from a cigarette:

1) The nicotine. It stops the cravings. It keeps me mellow when I want to get all Hulk Smash.
2) The long inhale. It calms me down and feels good to suck in that much air, even if it is full of cancer.
3) The throat hit. After 20 years, you start to really enjoy that throat punch that says you're about to feel good.
4) The cloud of exhaled smoke. I don't know why I love this part - it seems unnecessary - but I do.

And when I use my e-cig, I get all that stuff. I get the nicotine. I get the long inhale. I get the throat hit, and I blow out plumes of what seriously looks like smoke. So it has everything I love about smoking, but with none of that nasty dying.

Possibly the coolest part is that you can buy the liquid in different flavors. Right now I'm switching back and forth between cappuccino and Atomic Fireball. The taste doesn't really linger, and the vapor has virtually no odor and dissipates almost immediately, so you don't stink like wasted dreams or have the inside of your mouth taste like you've been licking out the fireplace. Compared to cigarettes, it's also a lot cheaper - I can vape for three weeks for what it would cost me to smoke for two days.

As an added bonus, you no longer have to worry about second-hand anything. The vapor is gone within seconds, and doesn't stick to anything, so I can smoke in my house, in my car, and even at my desk at work. I went out to lunch today, and when we got to the part of the meal where I usually excuse myself to go outside, I just whipped out my e-cig and puffed away. If you're worried about getting someone pissed at you, you can inhale and hold it a little, and the vapor will dissipate inside your lungs, which is probably not particularly great, but then again, it's better than deliberately coating your lungs with tar and rat poison. Every year, hundreds of people are admitted to emergency rooms with smoke inhalation. Do you ever hear about ER visits for water vapor inhalation? No, you don't, because that doesn't make you die.

If you don't smoke, just thank your lucky stars and ignore this article. Or better yet, if you know someone who wishes they could give up the coffin nails, let them know about it. But if you smoke, then the odds are incredibly good that you wish you could quit, and if you ever wanted to give up the bad parts without losing the good parts, I cannot recommend these things enough. I am incredibly grateful to the friend who introduced me to them, and I plan on sucking on these things until I'm on my death bed. I haven't quit a damned thing. But it's been three weeks, and I know that there's no good reason for me to buy another pack of cigarettes. I would rather vape.


Vaping kicks ass. Smoking sucks.

If you ever wanted to quit smoking, or you know someone who does, these guys have absolutely fantastic service:

Monday, June 21, 2010

Expansion Review - Okko Expansions 2 & 3

Before I start reviewing the smokin' hot expansions for Okko, allow me to direct you to this review of the original game:

This review of the original game.

There, now you can go there and read about how fun it is to play Okko. So with that out of the way, now I can tell you how much better the game is when you add in the expansions.

Now, one caveat is necessary up front - I don't have the first expansion. I have the second and third, and I'll be pestering my contact at Asmodee for the first one, because now I'm addicted to the game and suddenly have collecteritis (you know what that is, it's when you have to have every part of a game, even if you hardly ever play it, and even if you won't ever use the part you got off eBay for 75 bucks). In fact, I also need to go see if there are promo pieces or anything for the game, because I'm going to need those, too (but probably not the minis, because the best cure for collecteritis is expensivexx, a drug created by making something so costly that the only way you'll ever own it is if you mug a wealthy nerd).

The base game for Okko is just the beginning of the addiction. You can buy it pretty damned cheap - I saw an eBay copy for $25 when I was trying to find a set of the miniatures - and you'll definitely get your money's worth. It is a very good game, even if you don't have the intensely awesome expansions. But if you really want to get hooked (and you know you do, because of how much you hate having money), you should pick up Era of the Kerasu.

Okko: Era of the Kerasu is expansion #2, and it mostly adds sorcerers. But it also adds a lot more, like a bad-ass executioner guy who can kill demons in one hit, and some cheap undead who suck, but come in packs. If you want a swarm army, this is how you get it. Plus there are six more boards, so you can create really big maps (which would make the game totally blow), or just have fights in a lot of different places. For those of you who like it dark, one of the boards has a battleground with a dead horse on it. The horse still has a spear in him. That's pretty gross, by the way, but it definitely lets you know that you're not playing some limp-wristed family game about raising potatoes. There's a body count, so you're playing a man's game.

The sorcerers are fantastic. They're not overpowered (especially because both sides can get them), but they have some incredibly handy abilities. For starters, they can reroll your inspiration dice. If you've played this game, you know exactly how excellent that is. For those of you who have, for whatever reason (I blame senility) not played Okko, those inspiration dice are often the difference between hitting your enemies with swimming pool toys and stabbing them so hard their kidneys fall out. So that makes sorcerers pretty cool, even if they couldn't summon elementals. But they can.

Yeah, that's right. They summon elementals. I had to say it twice, because it's that brilliant. You can even get in a sort of bidding war with your elementals, where the evil sorcerer summons a water dude who looks all green and gross, then the good guy sorcerer calls up a water dude, which steals it from the bad guy and makes it cute and a little tubby. You can control these kami (that's what the elementals are called, because the game takes place in Pajan, which is like Japan, except totally different). You can make them punch people, which is pretty cool, but you can also make them fly up close to your enemies and explode, which has an ugly tendency to kill the guys on the other side. And that's pretty damned awesome, if you ask me.

The stuff in Era of the Kerasu makes Okko, which is a wicked awesome game to start with, into a game with an addiction risk on par with heroin or potato chips (for the record, I am not addicted to heroin, though the verdict is still out on potato chips). And in case you weren't entirely hooked yet, the third expansion (called Pajan Gun'Tai, which probably means something like 'People from Japan if Japan was spelled incorrectly' but sounds more like a Number Eight with fried rice) will set you well on the path to needing an intervention and a twelve-step program.

Pajan Gun'Ati is a little mini expansion. It has ten dudes and four equipment cards. But the characters are simply fantastic, from the soldiers flying their battle standards that help everyone around them, to the ambassadors who grant extra inspiration dice (because they're civilians) and have special powers of sucking (OK, that's not that fantastic. But they're cheap, and they also have some powerful support abilities). They're all mercenaries, which means they'll work for either side, and if used properly, can really turn the battle around. But most importantly, they give you a lot more options for building your team of ass-kickers, and the more you have available, the more fun it is to play Okko.

If you don't already have Okko, you should get it. Play it first, and if you like it, get the expansions. If you do already have Okko and you like it, you should definitely get these expansions, because they make a game that is original, creative and fun into a game that is original, creative, fun and pure concentrated awesome. Okko is so addictive, I'm considering stealing money from my mom. Not that I need the money - everything about this game is affordable (not counting the miniatures, which may require you to turn to prostitution). I was just going to get some drugs to help me with the withdrawals, in case I can't find someone to play.


2 players

Very cool art (though the board tiles are still too dark)
Makes a great game into cardboard cocaine
Adds new layers to the game without adding complexity
Quite affordable

Still cardboard standups and flat board tiles
May be habit-forming

Dogstar Games is carrying the base game and the first expansion (yeah, the one I don't have), but I'm still sending you there because they'll get the rest eventually.


Friday, June 18, 2010

Board Game Review - Galaxy Trucker

You know what chaps my ass? Well, OK, lots of things, but specifically today, it's when games are funnier than I am. Not that I'm Richard Pryor, or anything, but when I read the rules for Galaxy Trucker, I was laughing my balls off the whole time. Literally - I had to have them surgically replaced. It hurt like hell, but I couldn't stop laughing.

OK, it's not really THAT funny, but in all fairness, the only time I can't stop laughing is when I'm watching someone falling down. Or when I watch Jackass, and often, those two things coincide. So maybe I was able to quit laughing, but these rules are funny enough that they upstage me, and I take personal offense.

The problem is only exacerbated (that's a word almost as much fun as titular) by the fact that the game is a boatload of fun. You're all intergalactic profiteers who agree to pilot spaceships built from plumbing parts across the galaxy, and then sell those parts at the other end of your trip. Your ships will be ramshackle and makeshift, and when meteors start flying at you and pirates start to shoot at you, your ship will just fall apart. If you can finish with enough to sell, you're in good shape.

The most important part of the game is building your ship. You've got a template in the shape of a space ship, and it's got empty squares everywhere, and there's a kind of mad, simultaneous scramble to grab parts and slap them on your space-faring jalopy. You stick engines in the back and lasers on the front, cabins for crew and batteries for power, and hopefully all the parts connect properly, or parts of your disastrous vessel fall off before you leave the dock. Since everyone is competing for parts at the same time, you may have to place some pieces you don't really want, and you might end up completely unable to get that last life support system, which means the alien mechanics will tell you to blow a goat before they get on your deathtrap.

Once you all have ships, you race to be the first to get to your destination, and all the while, you deal with hazards that threaten to tear your little space rowboat to shreds. The first trip isn't too bad, but by the time you get to the third trip, you'll be lucky to cross the line with more than a cabin and a couple battery compartments. All your crew will be drifting in space and your engines will be flying random orbits around planets far from your destination.

In other words, it's fun.

And like I said before, the rules are freaking hilarious. I don't know how many times I was laughing right out loud. I mean, the book could have been co-authored by Dave Barry, who is, in my estimation, one of the funniest men alive. There are little paragraphs scattered here and there that provide background information on the ludicrous universe, and these will make you laugh out loud, but even the standard rules are a gut-buster. For instance, if you have brown aliens on your ship, they help with the engines, unless you don't have any, because as the rulebook states, 'they don't get out and push.' And before you ask, yes, that is funnier in context.

Now, a funny rulebook is not enough reason to buy a game, because you could always just go buy a Dave Barry book, and as I mentioned, he is side-splitting funny. But the funny rulebook in this case is just gravy, because Galaxy Trucker is a really, really fun game, and it would be just as much fun if the rules were duller than the instructions for stove cleaner. In fact, it would be a nice gesture if the rules were boring. It would make me not feel so bad about myself.


Quick-thinking puzzle-style ship-building (all with hyphens)
Good planning must be balanced with fast action
Light-hearted, but with plenty of meat
The rules really are very funny

The rules are funnier than I am

Here's the deal, in case I haven't driven this home often enough. Dogstar Games provides me with review copies, which is great, because after comparing games to prison love and transvestites, some publishers do not like me. If it wasn't for Dogstar Games, my options would be to give everything a positive review, or only write about games that I could get from the dollar store. So if you're going to buy Galaxy Trucker, you can support Drake's Flame by buying it from the guys who got me the game in the first place:

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Board Game Review - Chinatown

You know, we just don't see enough blatant disregard for cultural sensitivity. We get plenty of games with violence, but the various factions are so often completely fictional. It's not exactly insensitive to make fun of dwarves, unless by 'dwarf' you mean like that little dude from Austin Powers.

So sometimes it's just really nice to open up a box of games and have so many ridiculously overstated stereotypes that it almost makes you pull your eyes into pseudo-Asian squints and talk with a choppy fake accent. When you break open Chinatown and see that you'll be building take-out joints and Chinese laundries, you'll know that you're about to play a game that will allow multiple opportunities to say, 'No ticky, no washy!'

The object of the game is to build business in New York's Chinatown that will make you rich. You have to get adjacent spots with the same kinds of businesses to turn them into really big businesses, but your opponents will get in your way. Then you'll have to make deals with them to trade your tea house for a fish monger, and then swap your storefronts so that you can put your child-labor factory deep inside a huge apartment building. Meanwhile, you can all forget how to pronounce the letter 'R' and bow instead of shaking hands.

The whole thing starts off slow, but it builds up pretty fast, with wild negotiations flying all around the table, often in ridiculous fake accents. Everything and anything is negotiable - if you own it, you can trade it away. And since it's generally pretty obvious how much a particular trade is worth, sometimes you'll just throw down a giant pile of money in order to get the big payoff. It's basically all the greatest parts of Monopoly, and none of the boring dice-powered snooze fest. I love Monopoly, but this is better - you get to do all the dealmaking and none of the endless passing Go.

It looks great, too. The board is a map of Chinatown, all broken down into shops. A parade with paper dragons flies through the middle of the board, while off to one side, a couple of bad Asian drivers have had a car accident, causing them to get out of the cars and argue about who spilled more bags of rice on the ground. The art on the store tiles is very nice, complete with Chinese characters and pictures of prawns and sewing machines. It's all great for getting you in the mood to cater to stereotypes. What the game really needs is a massage parlor, so that every time you collect money on it, you can say, 'Me ruv you rong time,' but even as it is, there's plenty of chances to make tasteless jokes that are not funny but betray a complete ignorance of foreign cultures. (And in this case, betray an ignorance of modern film, since that line is more associated with Vietnam than China. Same continent, though.)

I'm not that big on political correctness, so I'm not really offended by the thematic elements in Chinatown, but if you're prone to fits of righteous indignation, Chinatown is likely to make you drop into an apoplectic fit. Hell, even the counter you use to mark the turns is a little guy wearing one of those round rice paddy hats, just like every person illustrated on the cover. It seems far-fetched to me that everyone living in New York in the late 1960s still dressed like they just ran over after filming at the kung fu matinee theater, but what the hell, it's cute anyway.

What's not cute is how fast Chinatown can get brutal. Any time you have a game built almost entirely on negotiation and trading, there's a great opportunity for someone to get their feelings hurt, and Chinatown is better at it than most. Most of the game is the trading, swapping real estate for shops and paying cash for the chance to complete your businesses. This is the kind of game where Donald Trump would steal everything and run away with it, except that being so heavy in negotiation, it falls prey to the second big problem with negotiation games - the close-out. This is that thing where you know someone is good at trading, so you refuse to deal with them, often cutting off your nose to spite your face and making horrible deals with other people while that one guy who should be winning just sits there fuming because nobody will talk to him unless he's making a deal so one-sided that it's obvious how badly he's going to lose.

But even with the problems inherent in a game that's all about negotiating and making deals, Chinatown is a really fun game. I liked it enough to play it several times, even after I had played enough to write the review. It's got lots of things I love in a game - shrewd deals, fast-talking, tactical maneuvering, bluffing and smart plays. And that's not even counting all the opportunities you'll have to mock a foreign culture.


Tons of negotiation and tricky deals
Long-term planning pays off, but sometimes you have to act fast
Very attractive
Hilarious cultural stereotypes

A little on the brutal side
Those stereotypes really are pretty offensive

Dogstar Games is carrying Chinatown, with a great discount off retail and free shipping! If you like hardcore wheeling-and-dealing games, you could do a lot worse.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

General Rant - Fixing What's Not Broken

I have a review already written for tonight. It's pretty good, too, with plenty of crude, base humor and some truly tasteless nods to cultural insensitivity. I actually had it ready to post last night, and then something happened.

Wizards changed the HeroScape bases.

OK, that's not the end of the world. Hell, it's not that big a deal on any level. But it pissed me off, and now instead of writing lewd jokes about people I don't know, I'm going to rant loudly about game publishers with their collective heads jammed up their collective assholes.

For those of you who don't know yet, Wizards of the Coast has decided to alter the look and feel of the HeroScape bases. For five or six years now (I can't be bothered to check a calendar), HeroScape has had large, unique bases with a bevel. Now the bases are one inch across, and the bevel is gone. The reason we were given for this change is that Wizards wants to appeal to RPG fans who don't want to put those larger bases on their one-inch grid battlemaps. That's a really stupid reason, by the way.

Follow me here. For a very long time, we've had one size base. Now we have a base that doesn't even look like it belongs with the same game, which we're doing so that the miniatures will appeal to people who want to use them for D&D. Only at this point, the only miniatures being made are repurposed D&D minis, which means that the figures already exist, and they already have smaller bases. So Wizards has made a decision that will alienate and confuse thousands of HeroScape fans in order to appeal to D&D fans who are now able to buy a product that they could already get because Wizards made these once already.

They're counting on us wanting to play the game even if the new figures don't go with the old figures. Apparently they don't think the visual appeal is all that important to us. Apparently they forgot that the reason most of us picked up that first set is because it looked freaking awesome. If I didn't care about the visuals, I could play a game on a paper board with cardboard cutouts. It's not just about the game play - though it still has all the great game play that it always did. It just doesn't look right any more.

I could go on about this at length, but I think what I would like to do is bring up a broader point. Hopefully some game company big-wig is reading, so that they can get this relatively simple message. The message is in two parts. First, if it ain't broke, don't fix it. And second, listen to your fans.

Anyone else remember the Mutant Chronicles CMG? I would still love to find out who was the marketing genius (by which I mean dumb-ass) who decided to make those 54mm. Every other game uses 28mm figures, but FFG decides to release prepainted miniatures for a game with a huge, loyal user base, and make them all look twice normal size. Good luck using those with Warzone now, huh? And where is that game now? Yeah, the discount bin, because it died, because they tried to fix a miniature size that wasn't broken, and they didn't listen to the fans.

Another example would be Doomtown. I used to collect this Deadlands CCG like it was gold-plated. I had every card for the first two story arcs, even the promos. It won two Origins awards in 1998, one for best trading card game. It was a blast, and if you were a serious collector, you could get everything. But then it moved to Alderac, who messed with the distribution. This game was making money and selling like hotcakes, and suddenly you were paying more for more commons and fewer rares, and some cards were only available in Canada. Doomtown died so fast, the last set was a one-of-each-because-they're-already-printed special. It went down like a broken space shuttle, and now you could pick up whole sets of these cards for a fraction of what they used to cost.

I could keep going. Nearly every game company has made these stupid mistakes, especially the ones who specialize in expandable games. It seems like there comes a point when some executive up the chain decides that he wants to pad his annual bonus by screwing the fans and cutting himself a little bigger slice. That's the only possible explanation I can see, because the mistakes I'm talking about here are so obvious, so stupid, that any game nerd on the planet could have pointed them out. But greed throws blinders on the jackasses at the top of the food chain, and they start ignoring that basic, two-part message.

I have talked to several fans who are not too angry about the base change in HeroScape. Some of them are just kind of rolling with it. But I have yet to talk to one fan who thought this base change thing was a good idea. There were two basic principles here - they fixed something that wasn't broken, and they ignored their fans. That's the kind of stupidity that comes back to bite you in the ass, and in the case of the people making these idiotic decisions, could result in head injuries. Because, you know, their heads are up their asses. Yeah, it's not funny when I explain it.

It's not like this is a new trend for Wizards. They excel at fixing things that aren't broken, and they suck at listening to the fans. The fourth edition of D&D is widely reviled. I play D&D with my family, and although I have the books for 4e, we still play the old 3e stuff, because the new edition blows. Lots of competitors are stepping up to fill in the gaps, and Wizards is losing market share to a comparatively tiny competitor because they wanted to make everyone go buy new books.

But they're not alone. Nearly every company that gets too big for its britches makes this bone-headed mistake at some point, usually because decisions start getting made by people who are businessmen, not gamers. We could point to dozens of companies who have forgotten those two basic rules and cost themselves lots of money. If I have one goal with this post, it's to get someone in charge to go, 'Hellfire, maybe we should listen to the fans, and stop fixing things that aren't broken.' But I'm not optimistic, because greed hollers a lot louder than one pissant game reviewer in his cranky corner of the Internet.

I don't particularly care what people do about this base change thing. Buy more, don't buy more, sell your collection, or buy everything and convert the bases so it looks right. I don't care. I won't be buying any more HeroScape, because I want all my stuff to match, but I certainly don't care if every other gamer on the planet keeps picking up their plastic crack. But I'll tell you right now that they won't. Sales will take a digger on this one. Maybe Wizards can change back before they ruin the entire franchise, and maybe Joe Corporate will end up taking his golden parachute and leaving Wizards to wonder where they went wrong.

And if that happens (and that's what I think will happen), then I'll be able to get tons of HeroScape, really cheap. So it's a win-win... for me.

For the fans, not so much.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Board Game Review - Flash Duel

I get games from small publishers all the time. Usually, they have several things in common, such as:

* The rules are somewhere between manageable and catastrophic failure. People have great ideas, but they don't have any idea how to put them on paper, and the rules for many small press games tend to resemble junior high term papers.

* Components often suck. Small publishers have incredibly small print runs - like 500 copies (or less), and that means they can't get decent breaks on printing and assembly. And that means they have to settle for sub-par bits. Cards have raised ink that rubs off with your fingernail, pawns are ugly plastic doohickeys stolen from old copies of Sorry, and game boards are glued to that heavy cardboard you find on the back of spiral notebooks.

* Even when the games are brilliant, playtesting seems to have been a low priority. Without a huge market to test for flaws, small publishers sometimes overlook obvious errors because they know how the game is supposed to work. This often results in me flipping back and forth through the rules, apologizing to everyone else and saying, 'I swear, it's not in here.'

But Sirlin Games is not messing around. Maybe because the guy who makes the games was a pro working with other companies before he forged out on his own, he knows how to put together a slick product. Flash Duel, the first game from Sirlin, is a very nice package, and falls prey to none of the usual small press problems.

For instance, the art is fantastic. It has a definite Japanese cartoon look to it, but that look is getting more popular and accepted all the time, and it definitely works here. In a game where a gambling panda bear fights a stone golem, manga art fits the bill. And the illustrations aren't the only parts that work - the design is simple, but highly effective, with everything working together to make the game play smoother and easier. It's damned slick.

And the rules are simple to read and understand. They're short, and if you've played Knizia's En Garde, they'll make sense almost immediately. You advance on a track by playing numbered cards, then play numbers to attack and retreat and block and stuff. In fact, the differences between En Garde and Flash Duel's basic game play are very subtle. A slightly shorter board and some tiny rules variances fix every issue I had with En Garde, and even without the character abilities, this becomes a much better game.

To really power it up, Flash Duel comes with ten different special characters. These are where Flash Duel really sets itself apart. For instance, you might be able to go Dragon Mode and hit so hard your opponent can't block, but he might be able to drag you one space closer and punch you with an attack you weren't prepared to block. Then there's the eccentric painter chick, who has some abilities, but her main power appears to be holding up a blouse with the force of her mind when gravity would otherwise make this a game for adults and very horny teenage boys (which is probably redundant - who ever heard of a teenage boy who wasn't horny?).

The cards in the standard game are nice, but the deluxe game features components nicer than nearly anything else you'll find. The box is wood, victory coins are engraved wood, and the board is actually mounted on wood. It's fun just to hold the box. The pieces are so great that you may find yourself looking for an excuse to play Flash Duel just because it's so much fun to put on the table.

To illustrate how much I enjoy Flash Duel, I'll use purely anecdotal evidence. I played En Garde exactly as many times as were necessary for me to write the review, and I haven't even looked at it since. By comparison, I've played Flash Duel five times in the last two days, and I keep pestering my kids to play it with me again. It helps a bunch that you can finish a whole game of Flash Duel in about ten minutes, meaning that I can break it out, play a few games, and put it away again before my wife gets home with the groceries.

Now, this is one time when I don't want every reader to just go out and order a copy of the game. If you're not in the mood for a light, quick game with a campy theme, you won't like this one. It's great for two players with very little table space and not a lot of time, but there's no way you're going to love it if you're a deep thinker who can't enjoy anything that doesn't require the kind of planning skills commonly associated with air traffic controllers or economic theorists. If games were food, and Through the Ages was a ten-pound brisket, Flash Duel would be a mouthful of whipped cream.

But now that the obligatory cautionary statement is out of the way, I'll come right out and gush. Flash Duel is really fun, and I plan on keeping it handy any time I have people over for games. If you get the deluxe set and the regular set, you'll be able to have both players using the same characters, if you want. I'll have no trouble talking my kids into a quick game now and then, and if Flash Duel ever gets put away in my office, it won't be there long. I anticipate playing this game until the pieces wear out, and since it's made out of freaking wood, I think that's going to take a while.


2 players

Quick and fun
Fair amount of depth, especially with the characters
Easy as hell to learn
Top-notch production values

Not much meat on this one (but still more than you'll find on En Garde)

If you're in the mood for a quick and easy game with some neat tactical play, you can go here and pick up either version of Flash Duel:

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Board Game Review - Zooloretto

As far as I can tell, I'm pretty stupid. I can't figure percentages in my head, I don't have any idea what's in the new healthcare reform bill, and for the life of me, I don't know why I can't win at Zooloretto. It seems like such a simple game, but somehow, I always wind up building a zoo where most of my animals are hiding in the barn and all we sell is stale peanuts.

The object of Zooloretto, in case you hadn't guessed yet, is to populate your zoo. You start with three pens to hold your critters, and you can get another one later. There are many different animals, including zebras, camels, elephants, teenage children and grown men with mullets (those last two might be in an expansion). You take turns filling up trucks with animals and vending machines that you find on the side of the road, then when a truck looks nice, you grab it. Then you put all the stuff that's in the truck into your zoo, and hopefully you don't pick up extra animals, because each pen can only hold so many of a single kind of animal. Leftovers have to be stored in the barn, where tourists can't see them but you still have to pay someone to haul away their poop.

Since each truck only holds three tiles, the trucks fill up fast and the game goes in a hurry. You have to grab the trucks at the optimum time if you want to win - grab early, and you might miss out on a sweet truck with that breeder panda you were hoping to get. And if you grab late, you could be stuck with monkeys when your zoo is already full up with a bunch of other animals, so the chimps wind up going all Lord of the Flies inside the barn, until one of them figures out how to start a fire and they burn your zoo to the ground.

Maybe part of the reason I was so much worse at Zooloretto than my wife and daughter was because I didn't like it. They both seemed to click on it right off the bat, but I never timed my truck grabs properly. If I grabbed early, I missed the animal I needed. If I grabbed late, I wound up holding a violent hyena and a third popcorn cart. To me, the game felt like an exercise in efficiency management, and while I wouldn't say I was outright bored, it just never made me want to play.

My opponents, on the other hand, grabbed this one and ran with it. They were delighted with the colorful art, and they loved the idea of building a zoo. They grabbed the bonuses for filling up enclosures, and they both managed to fill pens by getting the Mommy panda and the Daddy panda to take the night off and relax by the fire with a nice bottle of red wine, which resulted in them having babies while my sterile, grumpy, sexually frustrated animals paced their enormous empty cages and complained loudly about the onset of menopause.

It's especially sad that I can't win Zooloretto because I was the only one who understood the scoring when we started playing. You get a big score if you completely fill a cage, and a smaller score for almost filling it. Keep your extra animals to a minimum and diversify your vending stands, and you'll lose fewer points. I knew this going in, and yet my daughter (who picked up the scoring halfway through) filled all her pens to capacity before we were two-thirds of the way through the game. She whipped the hell out of me.

After we played our last game, as we were putting it away, I remarked that I didn't care much for Zooloretto. My daughter was outraged, and told me that I just had to give the game a positive review. My wife agreed with her, and told me that it would not be fair to blast the game just because I found it rather dull. So here's the deal - I don't like Zooloretto, probably because nobody dies. My opponents found it charming and engaging, probably because nobody dies.


Really cute, colorful art
Good mix of risk-taking and micro-management

Feels like a European efficiency exercise
Nobody dies

Dogstar Games has a decent price on Zooloretto, plus free shipping, so if this sounds like your kind of pastime, you can check it out here:

Monday, June 7, 2010

Board Game Review - Runewars

Making games is a tricky business. I like to think of it like baking - take your bread out before it's done, and it's all gross and sticky in the middle. Put too many ingredients into your bread, and you can't even taste the good parts because you're too busy picking the orange rind and flax seeds out of the crust. Leave it in the oven too long, and you wind up with this blackened chunk of inedible charcoal.

So if making games is like baking, then Runewars is like a flamboyant fruitcake. I sort of like fruitcake, but sometimes it seems like the people who make fruitcake get completely insane with the ingredients. Like if you just had some dried cherries, maybe some nuts and some candied orange, you would be fine, but then they add dates and figs and pomegranates and God knows what else until you pop a bite into your mouth and immediately feel a need to spit it out into a napkin.

Runewars starts off with great stuff. You've got four warring races from the world of Runebound - elves, humans, undead and the spiky Uthuk (I guess all the orcs got stolen by the Games Workshop people). You're all trying to quest for the dragon runes, but there aren't many out there, and sometimes the best way to get them is to steal them from someone else. To do that, you need armies, and to build armies, you need resources, and to get resources, you need to grab land.

But that's not all. Most of the land you could grab is occupied by neutral armies, tough bastards like dragons and hellhounds who can totally repel your invading hordes (especially because you don't start off with much in the way of hordes). But if you're feeling lucky, you can try to persuade those neutrals to team up with you, and if you do, you can double the size of your army without spending a dime. Which is nice, because you don't have many dimes, either.

The game lasts for six years, or until someone wins, either of which could take you most of your afternoon. Every year is broken down into seasons, and you issue orders every season to do stuff like recruit or start wars or tax your cities. You can only do any given order once a year, and there's real incentive not to dive right into the war-mongering. Real strategy and planning goes into each year of the game, which makes Runewars one of the better thinking-man games I've played in a long time.

Of course, anyone who reads much fantasy fiction knows that to really sway the course of a war, you need heroes, and Runewars is no different. You can send Mad Carthos or Sillhouette or Ronan the Slightly Gay Ranger into the wild to grab powerful magic items, and maybe even those all-important dragon runes. They don't often turn the tide of a battle, but they might, especially if you've got the right tactics cards.

So yeah, you also have tactics cards. And you also have objective cards. And order cards, and fate cards, and season cards, and reward cards. You have a lot of cards, because if Fantasy Flight made a Christmas dish, it would be the wackiest fruitcake you ever had, full of odd nuts and jellied fruits and maybe avocado.

You also have lots of markers, for training your heroes and tracking influence and for fake runes and real runes and damage. And in case you think your game doesn't have enough extra stuff in it already, you can use exploration tokens, which are an optional variant for anyone who absolutely loves chocolate-covered raisins in their fruitcakes.

Admittedly, there's already a lot going on here. There's definitely more than is needed. For instance, training heroes seems almost superfluous, and could be eliminated with a couple simple tweaks to hero stats. The seasons are a great idea, but they could have simply put four symbols on a little board and moved a token around it to say which season it was. Instead, you have four stacks of cards, so that you can have totally random events that seem to help out the guy in the lead and let people who are already losing enjoy the warm glow of a painful beating. These events, in case I wasn't clear, slow down the game without adding enough to justify them.

The worst offender in the 'too much crap in a fruitcake' department is the battle system. We found ourselves avoiding battles simply because they were too much effort. A couple quick die rolls and we could have gone on with our turns, but the game doesn't use dice. It uses a complicated and irritating card thing that makes battles that could end in two minutes take as long as five or ten.

And the heroes are a great part of the game that you can't afford to ignore, but there are still too many things surrounding the hero part of the game. We didn't need all the extra crap with the heroes. You're just moving and drawing cards anyway. Put the card draws on dice, have simple and quick resolution, and get on with your game. But no, you have to take ten minutes for the guy with three heroes to wander all over the board, collecting treasures and smiting villains, so that the dude whose only hero got killed can go, 'yeah, I'm done.'

But even with all this extra stuff, Runewars is still really fun. It's like eating a tasty fruitcake, but you have to steel yourself for the bitter walnuts. There's a level of strategy and planning that seems to be missing from a lot of your epic-scale warfare games. You kind of have to pick one direction, push hard, and be willing to adjust on the fly to meet the changing circumstances around you. You'll need some cautious gambling, a few bold risks, and a healthy amount of reading your opponents' minds. It's very fun, even if there is too much to do.

With a good bit of discretion and self-control, Runewars could have been the world's finest banana bread, with just the right combination of fruit and nuts to make anyone beg for a second slice. And it's still really fun - I'm itching to play it again, so any slights to the game are overlooked. But even while I'm playing it again, I'll be complaining about all the stuff that bothers me, and I will probably be inventing a quick dice mechanic that can replace those damned fate cards. Because I can get past almond slices and dried prunes if the cake has enough awesome bits, and Runewars has more than enough positive appeal to get past the fact that you have to spit out all the grape seeds.


Great strategy
Magnificent components (including sculpted 3D mountains)
Tons of cool options to customize your plans for world domination
Incredibly deep

Too many dried dates and prune pits get in the way of a damned fine fruitcake

Dogstar Games has Runewars, and as you probably know by now, Dogstar Games supplies me with games so that I can supply you with reviews. If you're going to buy the game, check it out here:

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Board Game Review - Grind

If I were to start thinking of cool stories for board games, I would probably start obvious, with some elves and orcs and big men with heavy swords. Then, since that particular idea has been beaten so far into the ground that it has popped up in China, I would move on to my personal favorite - animal people, ninja-turtle-style. And as a grown man with a little too much testosterone, I might also come up with a game where you look at a lot of naked women and then shoot people.

I would have to make a pretty long list before I got to steam-powered robots playing indoor football. But someone over at Privateer Press made that leap, and created Grind. Not content to come up with one hell of a wacky theme for a game, they went whole-hog and made detailed miniatures, a huge spiky ball, and a game board that looks to have been forged out of metal recovered from a nuclear bomb testing site.

I should mention at this point that I have rarely played a sports-themed game that I really enjoyed. I bought a copy of Battle Ball a few years ago, but I took out all the miniatures to make HeroScape customs and never even read the rules. I have played several others, and know that many of them have die-hard fans, but I find them slow and rules-heavy and generally a bit boring. So I admit that I was not all that optimistic about Grind. It's just not the kind of game that tends to appeal to me, any more than games about selling stamps or packing luggage.

Grind surprised me, though, in a good way. The rulebook scared me off for a long time - I've owned it several months, and finally finished the rules last week. The rulebook is long and full of small type that hurts my eyes (I may need reading glasses, but seriously, there's a lot of small type). There are lots of unique circumstances in the game, each covered by a block of text heavier than a garbage can full of oatmeal. I read the rules, put them away, read them again, put them away again, read them one more time and played the game wrong, read them yet again and then finally figured out how it works.

Turns out there's a tutorial on the Privateer Press site that actually tells you how to play. Once I looked over the tutorial, all those rules clicked, and I was more than a little irritated that I had spent that much time re-reading the rules when I could have watched a quick how-to on the Internet. And there are two handy reference cards so each player can keep up with all the stats and abilities that would otherwise require flipping through the rules every two minutes. So the game is not nearly as intimidating as I thought, especially because most of the rules are pretty intuitive. To put the final touch on my humiliation, my 15-year-old son picked it up in five minutes, and then declared that it would be boring if we didn't play with the more complicated rules. I'm either too old, or he's too smart. Probably both.

So here's how this works. Each team gets five steamjacks (huge steam-powered robots) and various interchangeable arms. On your turn, you activate your entire team, then pound the crap out of everything in your way to try to get this giant spiky ball into the opposing team's goal. There are two kinds of robots on each team, and you can outfit them with various cool arm weapons like magnets and interceptor fists and grapple guns. Each arm does something different, and some of them create great combinations when you put the right two together. Combine the power fist with the porn magazine arm, for instance, and you'll wind up with a robot that keeps hiding in the bathroom.

If you've played other Privateer Press games, especially Monsterpocalypse, the use of dice should be pretty familiar. You get a bag full of frustratingly tiny dice, all with pictures of explosions on them. There are white dice and red dice and blue dice, and you get different kinds of dice for different things. You get ten white dice every turn, and once you use them all, your metal monsters can't do very much any more. You get one red die every turn, but these add up, so that you'll eventually have five of them. And then you get blue ones at various moments throughout the game, depending on which arm you're using, what you're hitting, and whether your opponent is watching very closely. You get fewer dice if you drop these stupid tiny dice on the floor, because a die that small is virtually guaranteed to wind up under the fridge.

One of the reasons the game appears to be pretty complicated is that there's a lot you can do. These giant robots are pretty versatile, and they can throw the ball (or each other), punch the other guy's robots into the gutter, and dribble downfield (think soccer dribble, not basketball dribble. Seriously, this ball is like those old earthballs they used to break out in 7th grade PE so that we could slam them into the little nerdy kids and then put that huge ball on top of them until they got grass stains in their ear canals). You can call plays, combo attack, set screens and tend goals. These robots are damned clever. Compare them to your average YMCA kids' team - five coordinated steel warriors, or twenty fourth-graders hopped up on sugar and ritalin. I'll tell you which sport I would rather watch (hint - it's not the one where the players start crying if a shoe falls off).

I'll be the first to admit that there are lots of barriers that might keep you away from Grind. It's a sports game with a fantasy theme, which is a big divider right off the bat. It's got a very long and very detailed book of rules. It comes with ten really great robot figures, but they're an absolute bitch to assemble (I got a blood blister on my index finger, and lost two of the heads when they popped off). The dice are ridiculously small, so that if you roll them in a dice bowl (like I do), it can be tough to see what you rolled. Basically, there are lots of reasons for a guy like me to take a pass.

But if you can get past the chunky rules, the wacky sports theme, and the pain-inducing assembly issues, Grind is a bunch of fun. When it comes down to it, everything I like about a game is in there. You've got planning, positioning, strategy and tactics. You've got luck, but it's manageable if you play well. It's got killer art and awesome components. When you spend two turns setting up the play, then call a long-shot Hail Mary that turns into an Alley Oop slam-dunk for the win right at the buzzer, you won't care who's watching, you'll jump up and wave your hands around in exultation, at least until you bang your finger on something and break open that blister you got from trying to shove the robot legs into place.

It should go without saying that many people are not going to like Grind. People who like light rules and shallow learning curves are going to hate this like it came with a swarm of angry hornets, and if you prefer games that represent everything with wooden cubes, you'll never have the patience to assemble your robots. On the other hand, if you dig a crazy theme, and you like a healthy mix of strategy and tactics, Grind is worth a look.


2 players

Wicked awesome robot figures
Incredibly cool art
Planning, maneuvering, strategy and a little luck

Intimidating rulebook
Robots are a bastard to put together
Tiny, tiny dice

Grind is the sort of game you'll enjoy, if you enjoy this sort of game. And Dogstar Games has it below retail, with free shipping! It's been a while since I ran out my spiel on this, so here it is again. Dogstar Games sends me games so I can review them. Because some of my reviews have, historically, been... less than complimentary, many large publishers refuse to answer my emails. Without Dogstar Games, Drake's Flames would go tits up. So if you like this site, I don't ask you to donate or write your congressman. Just buy the games you would buy anyway, and buy them from Dogstar Games. Like Grind, which you can get right here: