Thursday, September 30, 2010

Board Game Review - Those Pesky Humans

I've been giving my life a lot of thought recently, and I think I've finally decided what I want to be when I grow up - an ogre. And not metaphorically, in the sense that people think of crotchety old bastards who punch people in the face and urinate in their lunch boxes as ogres. I mean I want to be an actual ogre, a big, tough bruiser, and I want to run a dungeon.

Sure, it sounds like a ton of work, running a dungeon, and my co-workers are likely just as irritable as I am. But on the other hand, look at the perks - endless hordes of minions jumping at the chance to do my bidding (I want breakfast in bed every single day), nubile witches and dark elf enchantresses who want me to impregnate them so they can breed monstrous children (if there's a downside here, it's that those children may grow up and try to kill me), and the paycheck is enormous (just ask anyone who ever played D&D - ogre lairs are loaded up with treasure). I don't care if the retirement plan sucks, though I am a little disappointed that my office won't have a window.

It would all be fantastic, but for one little wrinkle - Those Pesky Humans. For some reason, every so often, groups of cash-hungry home invaders crash through the front door and make off with anything that isn't nailed down, and they bring pry bars for anything that IS nailed down. The only way to stop them is to kill them, and even then, more will follow. Sooner or later, some group of human thugs is going to break into my kick-ass pad and get away with my stuff. It makes me mad thinking about it. No wonder ogres are always so touchy - they have to put with a constant parade of armed burglars wading through their homes like they belonged there.

So maybe the life of the ogre overlord isn't all champagne baths and naughty chicks in chainmail bikinis. It would be great if I could try it before I decide on a career change - and that's where Minion Games comes in. They've created a game called Those Pesky Humans (wild coincidence, if you ask me) where you get to experience just how tough it is being the master of a dungeon full of evil minions. Of course, the other player is going to be living out the joys of armed robbery, playing as the humans, but that's a job for someone else. I want to be the ogre.

The humans will have to invade your dungeon, find three enormous gems, and then get out again. Not all of them have to live - and honestly, they'll be lucky if any of them survive - but if just one human gets out the door carrying your belongings, they win, and you're a chump. You'll need to stack the deck a little to make sure you get them all.

For starters, you build the dungeon yourself from ten randomized rooms. Put Fido the Killer Lizard Puppy at the front door, to take a bite out of those rascally humans, and hide the gems as far away as you can. Stick one in the back of the meat locker, and you'll really make those humans work for it. Stock your place with killer treasures for your minions to wield, and put traps all over the place. Just remember where they are. No sense killing off all your goblin cohorts just because you didn't tell them to keep their greasy mitts out of the pantry.

Speaking of cohorts, you'll have a ton. You move slower than molasses in a blizzard, so you'll need some helpers who can shag it a little. Kobolds, orcs, imps and a whole lot of other nasty goobers are just waiting around for the chance to kill something for you, like a cat who leaves dead squirrels at the door. You'll be calling up these minions like they were free - which is good, because they are. If you're holding the card for the troll on your turn, just put him on the table and let him do his thing.

Of course, the humans come in remarkably well-prepared. The priestess can keep the others alive long after you should have been chopping them up for soup. The rogue will walk right past all the trapped doors you put all over your dungeon, and the paladin can chop up your employees like raw veggies in a soup kitchen. As if that wasn't bad enough, the wizard delights in lighting up your little helpers like holiday fireworks. Happily for you, the human player has to pick just three, so you won't have to deal with all of them at once.

To play out all the ensuing madcap violence, you'll roll a heck of a lot of dice. Combat is simple - just add your roll to your attack, and then compare it to the other guy's roll plus his defense. If you're higher, he starts bleeding from the face. It's fast and easy - which is nice, considering how often you're going to be hitting each other. Minions will come and go so fast, you won't even remember their names (not that you would be likely to remember their names anyway - you just need someone to fetch your slippers and bring the paper. Any dopey kobold will do).

Both players have decks of cards that they'll use to twist fate their way. Healing spells, speed potions, killer blows and last-minute dodges can keep the humans alive a long time after Fido the Scary Dog should have been chewing them up for kibble. And the pure rage of the ogre, along with the not-infrequent ability to kill the lights and make the humans stumble around, is great for keeping the interlopers from getting too comfortable in your underground home.

If the humans play well, they'll sidestep a lot of your monsters and rush around the dungeon grabbing whatever they can steal. Eventually, they're very likely going to get their mitts on your priceless gems, and then they'll be running for the door. At that point, you'll have to pull out all the stops and send your monsters running willy-nilly after the escaping thieves. It can come right down to the wire, and it might take some serious maneuvering to get that lone runner out the door before your spider queen poisons his liver and glues him to the floor. And every so often, those rotten bastards actually get away!

If Those Pesky Humans is any indicator, being an ogre overlord would be a blast. The game is very fun - my favorite so far from Minion Games - and the art is a hilarious blast. A few minor issues hurt it, though. There aren't enough stands for all your monsters, meaning that you're going to end up having to swap out bases as you play, and this is a pain in the ass. Seriously, are those little plastic stands used as currency in Canada? Would it be so hard to put in enough to fit all the guys? Incursion had the same flaw, too, and it's ridiculously irritating.

I've mentioned that Minion Games got hosed by their Chinese printer, and you can see that in the crappy cards. It's a shame, but what are you gonna do? The game is fun. Sleeve your cards. It's worth it.

I still haven't decided if I want to go back to school for a degree in dungeon management, but I can definitely say that I'll play Those Pesky Humans again. It moves fast, with a nice balance of tactical maneuvering and balls-out dice fest. The theme is fun, the art is a hoot, and the game is ridiculously playable. It might not work for everyone, but it sure as hell works for me.

Now if I could just get my kids to carry spears and bring in dark sorceresses to tend to my every need, I would be in business.


2-4 players

Great art
Fun theme
Fast and easy, but with room for smart plays
Randomized dungeon setup and varying human parties makes for good replay

Not enough plastic stands
Unfortunately crappy cardstock
Bunches and bunches of luck (not a con for me, but I thought I would warn you)

Minion Games has Those Pesky Humans, and a few other good games, too. In fact, since they know their cards fall apart, if you buy Nile (a very fun game), they include sleeves. You should take them up on that.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Card Game Review - Bhazum

When I was preparing to write this review, I was a little bit torn on which joke to use. My options were to either mock the name of this game, or to do the entire thing 'in character' as Borat. I've decided on a mix of the two, and I may be bouncing back and forth a little.

Bhazum is a game about a city, apparently located somewhere in Turkey, but potentially part of Kazakhstan. Whether or not they export high-quality potassium is unclear. What is clear is that the name of the city sounds an awful lot like a word used by sailors in 1944 to describe breasts. 'Look at the bazooms on that dame,' one sailor would say to another, and then the other sailor would say, 'She is number one prostitute. Very nice!'

In Bhazum, two players compete to gain control of the city. They have cards representing the citizens of this oddly named metropolis, and those citizens vary in political power, taxable income, and the ability to have people killed. There are four councils, and these councils can be influenced by sending your people to sway the council your direction. They do not help you kill people, but they have a ton of political clout, so maybe after you poison some poor bastard's yak milk, the council can sweep it all under the carpet like a third-world version of Teddy Kennedy.

Actually playing Bhazum is fast and easy, maybe like that hot hooker with the nice bazooms (happily, it is not as expensive). You take turns playing a few of the nice citizens of the city, and then they do stuff for you, like call up friends to come to your parties or steal stuff from the other player. If you're lucky, they may persuade the other guy's minions to jump ship to your side, and failing that, they may just make a couple phone calls and put your opponent's people into shallow graves. I'm pretty sure one of them can help you afford a clock radio that will one-up your irritating neighbor. High five!

These abilities are the real high point of Bhazum. A drafting step takes place before the game starts, where you can try to stack your deck with the cards you think will be more helpful once you start. You can then try to bend the game your direction, by having more cards that will kill the other guy's senators or maybe just call the councils so you can control all of Congress at once. These abilities are good for lots of other things, too, from forcing your opponent to discard or stealing his cards to drawing some extra cards for yourself, or even just taxing the piss out of them so you can play a lot more characters to your side.

In the end, all that matters is who has more clout. If you wind up with more political sway, you win. The whole thing takes about fifteen to twenty minutes, which means you can break it out and play a few quick games with the other dumb-ass who showed up thirty minutes late just to find out everyone had already started a game. Plus it's a fun enough game that you might just break it out whenever you want to play a light, quick game with a friend. If your lunch break is only thirty minutes, you can squeeze in a game and still make it back to your desk before you have to acknowledge how pathetic it is that you're a grownup whose lunch is shorter than that of a seventh-grader.

One final note - Small Box Games has really been stepping up in the art department. Bhazum is a very good-looking game. The art fits the theme wonderfully, and the design is slick and attractive. All joking aside, this is one of the better-produced Small Box games. It's a slick game in a pretty package. It's almost worth driving across the country to California, so you can visit Pearl Harbor. And Texas.

[Editor's Note: Many of the non-sequiturs in this review are based on bits from the movie Borat. If you haven't seen Borat, you should. If you have seen it, be grateful I didn't use any of the anti-Semitic or misogynistic bits. I was tempted.]

[One Final, Final Note: I don't have an editor. As if you wouldn't have guessed that on your own.]


2 players

Fast and easy to learn
Neat art fits the theme wonderfully
Plays in less than twenty minutes
Great success

Rather silly name

If you want to pick up Bhazum, or any other game from Small Box Games, you can check them out here:

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Card Games Review - Insyllium

One of the reasons I like small-press publishers as much as I do is because they've got a ton of heart. They may not have the persistence or business savvy to sell their creations to actual, successful publishers, and they may not have the resources to make games that don't look like they were created by a fifth-grade art class using Elmer's Glue and erasable markers, but they believe in their own work to such a high degree that they're actually willing to dump tons of money into their products and send them out into the world to be mocked and degraded. That takes balls and heart and faith.

Unfortunately, the kids who audition for American Idol also have balls and heart and faith, and most of them totally suck. That also holds true for small-press games. There's a reason big publishers don't want your games, kids, and it's because they know something you don't. Namely, they know that your game is a flawed mess that wouldn't sell to retarded billionaires.

Take, for instance, Small Box Games. This one-man show makes a game or two every month. Back when they did one at a time, they turned out some shockingly fun stuff. Politico was their first game, and it was great. More games followed, and most of them were pretty good, and a few were awesome. Hell, Dirge was one of my favorite games of 2008.

I don't know why that all had to change, except that more publishing means more income. Unfortunately, it means you also get a less complimentary ratio of good games to weak games. I think there might be a breakdown in the playtesting, because honestly, when you're creating new stuff this fast, how can you really take the time to have it properly tested? It's like when car companies rush a new vehicle to the market, and then six months later, they find out that they all flip over when you turn on the stereo.

In the case of Insyllium, happily, you don't have to worry about having your clavicle crushed in a freak accident, and you won't have to take it in for a recall. You'll just have to figure out what you want to do with it after you decide not to play it again.

Insyllium is a contest of intergalactic superpowers and their mad quest for power. There are viceroys, political juggernauts who lead their nations. There are agents, who may or may not work for the viceroys, but who are able to perform the unsavory deeds that sway entire planets to join their side. And then there are the planets, which you'll need to gather into your fold if you want to win the game.

Every turn, you'll take turns picking viceroys and then claiming some planets. Then you'll pick agents, and use them to grab planets, and then you'll use action cards to do stuff that helps you claim planets, and you might combine them with your agents, but only if you have the right viceroy, and then the agent has to work for the viceroy, and then you have to be holding the right action cards, and then you have to take a BC Powder to kill the throbbing headache you've acquired from trying to keep all of this straight.

If that last paragraph sounds confusing, you should read the rules for this game.

No, wait, you should not.

It's not like Insyllium doesn't contain a couple good ideas. Hell, it has a lot of good ideas. But it's a little bit of idea overload. It's like Clowdus (the one man behind Small Box Games' one-man show) decided to combine elements from a dozen different games, but couldn't decide which parts were his favorite, so he left them all in there.

The viceroy thing is a cool concept. You appeal to these various power brokers to flex their political muscles for you, and different viceroys provide different benefits. The concept is sound, and has seen use in a variety of games with varying degrees of success. If you plan to get all military, take the robot warrior, and if you want to be diplomatic, you might consider the cutesy bug chick. This part works fine on its own.

Then you've got the agents. You can draft the agents who work for the viceroys to improve your abilities, but you might also mix it up and use some foreigner who fits better with whatever strategy you've decided to use. This gets a little more tricky, because there are several interactions between the agents and viceroys to consider later, and these can affect your success rates when you decide whether to bomb a world from orbit or bribe the local government with cheese and shiny beads.

Insyllium also allows each player a hand of action cards, which also interact with the agents and viceroys, and allow a variety of special abilities (which are printed on some different cards, in case you weren't already overwhelmed trying to keep up with all the different kinds of cards). You can go to war, or raid and pillage, or just talk someone into joining your side. You can do all kinds of different things, as long as you can keep track of how everything works at the same time.

And this is where you really break down. If you go to war with another player, you both play cards to get the best total, and add in your agent for some extra firepower. If you decide to persuade a planet to join you, however, you just put some cards down and then at the end of the turn compare them with everyone else. Plundering uses another resolution method, and if that wasn't difficult enough, abilities are almost completely different from anything else. It's desperately counter-intuitive (that's a five-dollar phrase we erudite game reviewers like to use when we can't figure out the rules to a game).

There's a good game here. The problem is, you would have to cull most of the rules out to find it. In fact, looking at the game, it's hard not to see some potential. If you had a game where you bid cards for your pick of viceroys, and then used those viceroys to choose which abilities to use in any given turn, that might be really cool. Or if you each got a viceroy at random at the start of the game and had to build a strategy around the one you got, that could be fun. But given the rules the way they are, the best way to have fun with Insyllium is probably to put it back in the box and sit around watching stag films while you do tequila shooters.

(Quick question - do people still do tequila shooters? Is that still cool? Because I don't hear about them like I did when I was younger. Now all I hear about is gin and juice or sake bombs, and I'm not sure the dopey kids talking about sake bombs don't think it's spelled 'socky bomb'. Come to think of it, do people still drink gin and juice? And whatever happened to Jello shots?)

I still have a lot of faith in John Clowdus. He has made some exceptional games. I'm just wondering if he has succumbed to the pressure of constantly coming up with new ideas, and his quality control process may be suffering. Insyllium could have been a pretty bitchin' game, but it just seems like it needed someone to say, 'dude, it may just be the marijuana talking, but I think this game is a little too complicated.' I hear his next game is supposed to be pretty bad-ass, though, and given the number of successes he's got under his belt, I'm definitely looking forward to it.


3-5 players

Neat ideas
A dizzying array of strategic options
Some of the best art I've seen come out of Small Box Games yet
Kernels of brilliance

Complicated to the point of being confusing
Too many competing ideas make it hard to keep track of what they're for
Capricious card draws and oddly arbitrary rules can ruin any chance at strategic plays
Possibly the worst font choice ever

It gets tough to figure out what Small Box games are available when, but if you sign up for the mailing list, you'll know when to get the next batch of goodies:

Friday, September 24, 2010

Trivia Game Review - Fictionaire

It’s tough to improve on the standard trivia game format. Trivial Pursuit pretty much nailed it - you ask a question, and if the other guy can answer it, he gets ahead. It’s straight-forward and simple, and fun for people who know a hell of a lot more than I do.

But when an idea does really well, copycats are inevitable. If you start shopping for trivia games today, you’ve got a huge variety of options, most of which totally suck, because the really great idea has already been taken and adding to it is just screwing it up.

Which is where Fictionaire comes in. This is more of an obscure factoid game than a trivia game (a distinction that I recognize is not especially obvious). But instead of having you just answer the question and get points for getting it right, the game adds the opportunity to lie your pants off.

The questions are incredibly obscure, for the most part. Like, if I ask you what the German town of Grafenroda was famous for making 100 years ago, would you guess garden gnomes? Because I would not. I would not have guessed anything, because I’m not even sure I spelled the name of the town correctly.

So one person reads the question, but not the answer, and passes the box of cards to the next player, who reads the answer and decides whether to spin a fabrication out of thin air or give the real answer. Only one person can tell the truth, so everyone else needs to be very convincing. If the first guy chooses your answer as the correct one, you win a point, and if you fooled him into guessing something that was wrong, then you get another point.

That’s where the game breaks down. Eventually, after you play a couple times, everyone figures out that if you’re the first person to answer, the easiest thing to do is to give the real answer, real fast. Then everyone else has to make up an answer, and they’ll stumble over it and look stupid, and the guy who has to guess will be able to tell at a glance that they’re lying. Even if he was thinking that a tautogram is a medical procedure, when you tell him right off that it’s a sentence where every word starts with the same letter, he’ll know. Then the rest of the players will be stuck coming up with complete gibberish, and the game will suck.

Well, in all fairness, it won't completely suck. It's still fun to try to see if you know what a cereologist studies, and it's somewhat entertaining to come up with ridiculous answers that you try to sell as the truth. But as competitions go, Fictionaire breaks down in the first twenty minutes into a tiny bit of rules with a lot of silliness on top. It's more an exercise in slinging bull manure than it is a trivia game - or a game at all, for that matter.

Now, I will give mad props to Days of Wonder for the packaging. The cards needed to slide halfway up and be easily stored to be effective, and rather than try to reinvent the wheel, the designers went with the most obvious choice - cigarette boxes. Having smoked for nearly twenty years, I am quite familiar with the packaging, and Days of Wonder didn't just get close. These boxes look like they shook the Marlboros out of them before they put the cards in. And then, deciding that if they were in for a dime they were in for a dollar, they made the outside of the box look like a pack of cigarettes. It wouldn't be hard to mistake a deck of Fictionaire cards for a pack of cigarettes, especially when the designers spent so much effort making them look like a 1975 pack of Pall Malls.

There are four different varieties of Fictionaire, and each one has a very different look (though they all look like packs of coffin nails). Each pack also contains a completely different theme - one has you trying to guess the definitions of rarely used words, and another asks you to call on your knowledge of incredibly weird true stories, like chickens who lived after their heads were lopped off. With all the varieties available, there's no way you know all this stuff, and that will let you enjoy all the random guessing and complete malarkey the game helps you create.

If you're in the market for a serious trivia game where knowledge is power and the best educated players win, then you're probably one of those insufferable people who drags a copy of Trivial Pursuit to every party you attend, and you will not like Fictionaire. But if you want to have fun coming up with ridiculous answers to silly questions, and maybe learn something in the process, you might get a kick out of Fictionaire. It's light and fast and a little absurd, and even if it fails as a competitive game, it can still be a lot of fun as an exercise in fooling your friends.


As many players as you can fit in a room

Fast, silly fun
Fantastic, politically-incorrect packaging
You just might learn something

Less of a game than a social event

This may come as a shock, but Dogstar Games is not carrying Fictionaire. You can probably find it at an online retailer, or you could just take your butt to the Days of Wonder site and buy it there:

Monday, September 20, 2010

Board Game Review - Incursion

If you're like me, your favorite games are combinations of really exciting stories wrapped around really fun rules. Not always, of course - I play the hell out of Dominion, and the theme in that game could literally be anything at all. But most of my other favorites, stuff like Warhammer Quest or Railways of the World or Last Night on Earth, combine a good story with good rules to make a great game. Games like Agricola prove that you can still have a good game even you're working with a lame theme (I like the game, but being a red-blooded, meat-eating American, I would rather shoot aliens than plant corn). But can a really great theme carry a mediocre game?

Maybe, if the theme is good enough. For instance, start with zombies, and a game's potential instantly jumps. Now make them Nazi zombies, and it's getting even better. Add in powered armor, a couple werewolves, a hot German villainess and an underground bunker full of doomsday devices, and you may just have the greatest theme ever made (we are assuming, of course, that the target market for your game is comic book nerds who like ridiculous violence, which would be me). And this is one theme that can carry a game, even if the rest of the game has a few problems.

Incursion is all about some supernatural wackiness in World War II, where the Nazis are making zombies and werewolves and all manner of sick perversions (by which I mean awesome monsters). The evil Nazis have set up shop underneath Gibraltar, where they send out exploding zombies to sink enemy ships and otherwise cause mayhem. The Allies aren't having it, though, so they build some power armor and go in, guns blazing, to shut down Hitler's freak show. Madcap violence is sure to follow.

The art supports the theme perfectly. The zombies are gruesome, the werewolves are lean and cruel, and the tasty German broad is, well, tasty. The Allied soldiers of the Lucky Seventh are tough and well-armed and ready to blow large holes in everything. Beautifully illustrated cardboard standups depict all the various fighters who can mix it up in these grunge tunnels, and if you've got the scratch to pay for them, you can also buy miniatures (though the standups are nice enough that you may decide you don't need the minis).

The game is basically Space Hulk with a fresh coat of paint. Never-ending hoards of zombies run around the tunnels while some incredibly well-armored and extremely violent good guys blast them into piles of rotting goo, which means that at its basic level, the differences between Incursion and Space Hulk are essentially cosmetic. But Incursion has one thing Space Hulk does not - variety. Sooner or later, you'll get bored with genestealers, but you can whip up a different army every time you play Incursion. Try it with werewolves and the creepy German dame. Try it with the deep-sea diver and his cadre of exploding zombies. Try it with the zombie-controlling dominatrix and an enormous zombified horde. All the mixing and matching will let you customize the bad guys eight ways from Sunday. The good guys can be hand-picked, too, but honestly, they're not as much fun. They mostly all have big guns and armor. Nazis get all the good toys.

Another thing missing from Space Hulk is a big, double-sided board. In all fairness, the tiles in Space Hulk were more fun, and while I know a rookie publisher could never afford to compete with the brilliance of those embossed tiles, it would have been nice to see a more attractive board. The art on the board gets the job done, but it has places where the Photoshop work is pretty obvious, and a few pieces just don't go with the others. I hate to be a snob (I don't really), but a fully illustrated board would have been much better. This board is a little visually bland, and could have been a lot better if the same guy who did the mind-blowing figure art had drawn the board.

The rules, by comparison, are not bland. They are extra-spicy. There's a ton of cool stuff happening, and enough options to let you choose a lot of different strategies. You might juice up your wolves a little and send them to outflank, or you might send a mighty zombie horde charging straight into the guns, hoping to run them out of ammo so that the remaining shuffling undead can get close. You can run a screen with the bomber zombies, or you can set up a fire lane and cover the most important exits. In one game, the Nazis completely surprised the Allies when, in a scenario where time is of the essence and speed should win the day, the Germans decided on a frontal assault, and ended up chewing through the Lucky Seventh like metal-wrapped taffy.

To create a feeling of the ever-shifting whims of fate, Incursion includes a large deck of cards that can be played to change things up or gain advantages as you go. You might be able to spawn extra zombies, or give your armored troopers a little more speed. Flood the tunnels, cave in the roof, or turn off the lights. Dodge a bullet or guarantee a hit. These cards can really twist the game, and provide a lot of extra tactical options on the fly.

Command points are nothing new, either, but this time both sides have them. You might have a huge bank of them, too, and this is one of the things about Incursion that could feel a little silly. Normally you'll probably spread your points around a little, but if you want, you can spend everything on one guy who suddenly takes enough amphetamines to shoot down the hallway like he has a rocket shoved up his ass. Or maybe he just shoots ten times in a row when he could normally only shoot three. And then at the end of all that, he sets himself to reaction fire, and waits for the enemy to walk in front of him so he can shoot another seventeen times.

Reaction fire is just overwatch. It's not like this is new. What is different is the way a soldier can cover all the directions of a very long tunnel, leaving no way for the enemy to approach without being gunned down in a hail of bullets. And in addition to having a huge field of fire, guns almost never miss. If you're playing the Nazis, your only hope is to send endless waves of walking dead down the tunnel until the good guys run out of bullets.

Reaction fire differs from overwatch in another critical manner. If you end your turn looking at a bad guy, you can't use reaction fire. So a seriously viable tactic, if looking at more zombies than you can shoot on your turn, is to turn around. Yeah, I just said that. You can't see them any more, so now you can shoot. Of course, you can't shoot the ones who are behind you now, but if there are zombies coming from another direction, it might not be a bad idea. In terms of strategies, this can be mildly irritating. Thematically, however, it's absolutely ridiculous. How do you explain that? Do you just say that this armored trooper decides that if he can't see them, they're not there? It's absolutely silly.

Speaking of things that you can spend points on, remember those cool cards? Well, you can spend a few points when another guy plays a card to make it disappear. This would be a great way to run both players through command points, except that the other player can't do anything about it. The dialog would go something like this:

Me: "Ha! I got you!"
Other Guy: "I play Lucky Devil! You missed!"
Me: "I spend two command points to kill that card. So I still got you!"
Other Guy: "Asshole."

It's frustrating to have these cool cards, and have them so often thrown away without doing anything. Turn your guys into killing machines, and before they even get to fire a gun, the other dude turns them into knee-biting hamsters. If you could burn your own points to counter the card-killing, that would help, but as it is, some of the coolest cards just seem like a waste of time.

Despite the fact that both complaints affect the game in major ways, they’re still pretty minor. And they’re minor because, even counting these rules that feel clumsy and potentially irrational, Incursion is still a whole lot of fun. The variety of strategic approaches combines with a huge number of tactical options to make a game that would be quite playable even if it was about farming (though this would be very messy farming, and sooner or later, the police would be forced to intervene). But when you take a fun game and then wrap it in zombified Nazis and power armor, it’s awesome. It’s like starting out with a decent chicken sandwich, and then adding a bunch of bacon.

Incursion is a huge pile of fun. You’ve got your ludicrous body count. You’ve got zombies. You’ve got Nazis. You’ve got werewolves and power armor and hot German women in tight pants. And you’ve got a game system that, while not perfect, is more exciting and varied than nearly any other game of its kind – including Space Hulk. It’s essentially the difference between the prom queen and the hot rebel chick. The prom queen might look amazing and be really clean, but the rebel girl will take you all kinds of different places. She may not be a supermodel, but she’s a freak in the sack.


2 Players

Lots of different options, so you’re not always doing the same thing
Fantastic art
Solid rules make for fast play
Nazi zombies and werewolves, in case I hadn’t mentioned that enough

A few things that just don’t feel well-tested
Some odd rulings that may leave you confused

Grindhouse Games is running some absolutely insane deals on Incursion right now. Hurry up, because they end in less than two weeks:

Friday, September 17, 2010

Drawing Game Review - Identik

I must be on a roll. Last night, party games, and tonight, drawing games. If this is where Drake's Flames is heading, I may as well just start writing about games you can play while sitting on the toilet.

I shouldn't have a problem with a drawing game. I'm an artist for a living. But anyone who ever played Pictionary knows that drawing games have virtually nothing to do with actually knowing how to draw. Identik, for example, is all about drawing the right thing as fast as you can, even if it's butt ugly.

It's not really a complicated game. One player gets a card with a goofy picture, like a worm who built a clothesline between two apples, or a cartoon hobo with a cardboard ukulele. He has to describe the picture to all the other players, including how many hairs are sticking out of the hobo's nose or whether or not you can see both of his ears. It's important to be detailed, because the other players have to draw what this guy is describing.

Once the timer runs out (you know games like this have to come with sand timers. It's like the way Subway sandwiches always come with too much lettuce, or foreign hookers come with crabs), everyone puts down their pencils and passes their horrifyingly bad pictures to someone else to grade. Then the guy with the card reads off the ten things that have to be in the picture, and everyone gets one point if they drew the right thing.

The problem is, neither job is interesting. The reader might get all wrapped up in describing how many windows are showing at the Taj Mahal and completely fail to mention that there's a guy playing a flute while he gets a gigantic woody through a straw basket (in all fairness, that may have been a snake - I could have been confused by the fact that it only had one eye). And if the 'art director' forgets to mention that one of the maids has her hair in a bun, nobody will draw that, and then nobody gets any points for that bit.

I'm not really sure why a game where you describe art and then make everyone draw it in less than a minute has any appeal to anyone. However, I don't have to understand it to know it's true. My kids thought this game was a hoot, and asked me to keep playing even after the first game was over. I declined, because Identik was not fun from where I was sitting.

However, unlike many other lame games I play with my family, the wonder wore off pretty fast. While they did ask for one more game, they have never mentioned it again. By comparison, I get requests for Buzz It! nearly every night, and it has even fewer rules than Identik. But where the one game has you laughing about the ridiculous things you might answer for 'reasons you can't make it to work', the other game just makes you scribble furiously and then have other people make fun of your work while you cry, 'No! It's a party hat! I don't know why it's in her pants!'

So I didn't like Identik very much, but props to the creators for a cool idea. Someone out there might get a kick out of the game, but it just seems too frantic to be any fun. Maybe it's because I am an artist that I like to take a little time when I'm drawing stuff, but I can't really claim to get any enjoyment out of creating picture that might be anything from a giraffe juggling chainsaws to a Roman orgy.


Players: 3-6 (more if you score a few more pencils)

Cool idea, sort of

Frantic and unfocused
Leads to prolonged arguments among teenagers (and probably adults, too)

Dogstar Games doesn't carry Identik any more than they carry Buzz It!. But I'm sure someone is. Give me a couple weeks to get my eBay account updated, and I may be selling it, too.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Party Game Review - Buzz It!

One day I'm going to figure out why people think party games are fun. For the most part, they're stupid. They're essentially a tiny handful of largely nonsensical rules meant to force social interaction for people without enough creativity to simply talk to each other. Half of them are centered around knowing something about the other people in the room, and most of the rest are irritating wordplay.

But I must confess that every now and then, I find one I can more-or-less tolerate. It doesn't mean the game is any good, mind you. It merely means that I can play it without wanting to do violence or take a nap (or violence followed by a nap). Buzz It! isn't a great game. In fact, I used to play a similar game when I was in college, only when we did it, there was a lot of alcohol involved.

The rules for Buzz It! are about as complicated as plugging in a hair dryer. One person reads a theme from a card, then everyone names something that fits. The guy with the buzzer decides whether the answer is worth a damn, and either hits the button on top (making a beep that tells the next player to say something) or lets the clock run out so the buzzer can make a sound vaguely similar to a mountain goat running head-first into a dishwasher full of plates stored inside a gigantic tin can. I can only assume that's supposed to be a buzz.

If the buzzer makes its broken glass sound before you can answer, you take the card and the buzzer passes to the next person. After a handful of cards have been played and passed around, the game is over. The winner is the one with the fewest cards, but really, you're not going to bother to keep score. It's a party game. Nobody cares who wins.

The entertaining factor in Buzz It! is the silly things people will say to answer the theme. For instance, when asked to come up with uncool ways to break up, my wife said, 'e-mail,' my daughter said, 'write a mean song,' and my son said, 'murder.' I laughed uncontrollably, and made a mental note to check the locks on my bedroom door.

In fact, the real reason Buzz It! is even playable is because the creators of the game spent a long time coming up with some rather amusing things. You might be asked to name things you should not buy at a garage sale (my daughter recommends you not purchase small children), cartoon heroes (again my daughter amuses with 'Green Ivy', by which she means Poison Ivy, who is, for the record, not a hero at all), or things said by moody teenagers (in this case, my children could not lose, because every single word either of them said was, by definition, a correct answer). This is better than the way we did it when I was in college, because our rules went as follows.

Rules for My Favorite College Drinking Game

1. Buy a case of Keystone Light. Consume all of it between three guys and two girls.
2. Return to the 7-11 across the street and purchase another case of Keystone Light. Consume that, too.
3. Now that you're out of money, but still half-sober because you've only been drinking Keystone Light, rummage around the kitchen for a nearly-empty bottle of tequila left behind after last week's party, and only still around because it was shoved behind the milk, which had gone visibly sour, and everyone in the house was avoiding having to move it.
4. Pour a shot of tequila. The loudest person in the room (who, by sheer coincidence, is probably also the one who has consumed the greatest number of beers) announces loudly, 'I've got one!' He then declares a theme that probably has something to do with sex, unless there are no girls present, in which case it probably has something to do with stupid things girls say.
5. Everyone takes turns naming something that fits. 'Rubber fist' is perfectly acceptable. 'Live animal' is not.
6. When someone cannot come up with an answer in a timely fashion, he must drink the shot of tequila. Preferably, this person is a girl, but in nearly every game we ever played, the girls were smart enough not to play this game until we were all too drunk to win.
7. The person who lost (probably a guy) comes up with another theme, unless he is throwing up into the kitchen sink.
8. After ten minutes, get bored and go back to watching television.

As you can see, this game is not acceptable for families. It's only barely acceptable for college students. And Buzz It! is not only more fun, it also involves far fewer cases of alcohol poisoning. Also, nobody has to move the spoiled milk.

So the rules are practically nonexistent, and really just there to take my favorite college drinking game and make it socially appropriate. But the cards really do make the game more fun, and if I were still in college, we would own a copy merely so we could shout down the loud drunk when he says, for the third time that night, 'things you can put in your butt!'


Players: 3 or more

A fair amount of thought went into the cards, so that it's actually somewhat entertaining

Still a lame party game
Does not include tequila or college girls

There are probably cheaper places to find this blast from my past, but here's a link in case you want to buy it right from the publisher:

Monday, September 13, 2010

Board Game Review - Charon Inc.

If publishers were athletes, Fantasy Flight would be some NFL star who occasionally gets caught in motel rooms doing cocaine off a hooker's ass. Rio Grande would be a Major League Baseball superstar who rarely does interviews, but always manages to hit the homer when the team needs it to finish off the series. And Gryphon Games would be a minor-league batter with a respectable hitting average, for the minors.

Gryphon Games doesn't make those games that get everyone all riled up. They have a lot of Reiner Knizia reprints, and a handful of light, interesting games that appeal to about one in four gamers. So when they have a game as good as Charon Inc., it's worth taking a look. The game might not be a grand slam, but it's a solid double, possibly a triple, if it can find its legs and really hustle.

Charon Inc. has a handful of players competing as rival corporations for control of Pluto's largest moon. Only instead of simply battling for space, players will find themselves working to grab up the resources they need to build the best buildings on the planet. Actually controlling an insanium mine is worthless, unless you really need some insanium to build a space dock.

The planet is broken into a whole bunch of sectors, and each sector is going to produce some quality resources every turn. They might be purple resources, or blue or yellow or black or green, but either way, you'll probably need some. So you'll take turns placing control flags, though it will never seem like you have enough to grab all the stuff you want, and you'll have to be particularly clever if you want to have enough mineral resources to build your interplanetary gentleman's club, complete with three-breasted prostitutes (those may just be on Mars, though).

The flag placement is the main part of the game, and you have to be really careful here. Place a flag at a crossroads, and you'll exert influence on four different sectors, but you'll lose ties to the player who builds between sectors and only influences two. More than half of the control contests will be decided by tie-breakers, so there's a tricky balance between grabbing for too much and attempting too little.

Once the flags are placed and everyone snatches up their rocks, you can try to build stuff. The really good buildings require lots of rocks, so you have to hope you nabbed the right resources. This part of the game isn't all that tricky, except that you had to prepare for it or you're going to wind up without enough magic Pluto rocks to build so much as an all-night gas station.

There's a lot more to the game, too. You don't place your last flag, you just leave it on a special ability space that might let you store some resources for next turn, or trade stuff at a favorable rate, or maybe move a flag after everyone else is done. You can also trade your unwanted minerals for stuff you can use, which means that if you can't get those two purplonium crystals, you may be able to mine enough yellonium to swap out for it.

Once you get the hang of it, Charon Inc. plays fast, though it will take you a few games to really understand the tricky parts. Planning your flag placement is critical to success, and you really need to choose a bonus action that dovetails with your strategy. Will you build a bunch of low-rent tattoo parlors, or go for the gusto and slap down an embassy? Save your resources for one turn and really come on strong the next round, or burn everything to make the best stuff you can get right now?

Charon Inc. is a very fun game, even though there's no body count anywhere. These are very polite corporate executives, and shooting at each other is out of the question (though it would have made the game a bunch more entertaining). The art won't blow your mind, but it gets the job done, and the quality of the rest of the components is very nice. Like I said earlier, this is a really good hit - not a home run, exactly, but enough to drive in an RBI if the last batter got on base. I definitely recommend it, especially if you're able to enjoy a game where nobody gets stabbed.


2-5 players

Decent art and very nice components
Tricky placement of influence combines with limited resources to create considerable tension
Good family game with a nice mix of tactics, strategy, and tough decisions

Possibly a little bland if you're a theme-whore

Unsurprisingly, Dogstar Games does not carry Charon Inc. They tend to have more of your major league games. But you can probably find it at the Eagle Games website.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Board Game Review - Alien Frontiers

I think it's time I raved all about the brilliance of small-press games. Specifically, I want to rave about Alien Frontiers, one of those incredibly rare cases where a pint-size publisher proves to have some serious staying power. The first game from Clever Mojo Games, called Ogre Castle, was fun, but it smacked of small-press corner-cutting (a cloth game board seems like a neat idea, but it's really just a neon sign that says, 'we can't afford to pay the printer'). But Alien Frontiers is not only great for a fledgling publisher, it could hold its own against anything cranking out of Rio Grande or Mayfair.

And I'm not just saying it's a good game, either. Everything about the production of Alien Frontiers stands tall and demands to be taken seriously. The art is absolutely brilliant, not only because it's fun to look at, but because it delivers the theme with more consistency and clarity than you'll see on 75% of the games you could buy at your local game store. The board has a delightfully smooth matte varnish. The cards have that sweet linen stock that makes them really durable and easy to shuffle. Even the dice are bright and chunky and attractive. This is one slick product.

Even if the eye candy sucked, Alien Frontiers would still be a really fun game. The object of the game is to settle an alien world. Each player gets a handful of colonies, but you can't just put them on the board. You have to develop them into colonies, or convert your ships into cities, or get really lucky and come across a ready-made colony waiting to happen. You'll need fuel and ore to build colonies, and you'll need them to make more spaceships, which you'll need in order to grab more resources that you can turn into more spaceships and more colonies.

The twist, and the reason Alien Frontiers is so damned much fun, is that your ships are represented by dice. At the beginning of every turn, you gather your fleet (which means you pick up your dice) and deploy them (which means you roll them). Then, depending on what you roll, you place them at the various orbital facilities around the planet to do stuff for you. You might put a 5 at the solar converter to pick up some fuel, and put a 1 and 2 at the lunar mines for some ore. You might use a set of doubles to start work on a new ship. You might use a 4-5-6 as a raiding party and go steal the stuff you need from the other players. You could even dump some dice at the alien outpost, to grab up the swanky cards that let you do stuff like change your dice or clear out the space you need or maybe just send freeze-dried steak dinners to the astronauts.

Basically, Alien Frontiers is like a cross between Yahtzee and Carcassonne, but without the near-obligatory medieval theme that seems to dominate every third game that comes out of Germany or England (the French, God bless 'em, seem more prone to making games where demons with machine guns fight flying robots for control of horrifying deathtraps, which is why I have a hard time hating the French). When you execute a well-planned turn, it comes together like a thing of beauty - use two dice to buy a card, use that card to bump a die, use that die to establish a colony and grab a bonus, use that bonus and another die to score an indecently enormous stack of fuel cells, then finally use those fuel cells to re-use one of your dice and establish yet another colony and steal points from the guy in the lead.

Which brings me to another reason Alien Frontiers is awesome - you can totally screw with people. And you can do it a lot. This isn't just the Agricola thing where you grab the cow to keep your buddy from putting it in his living room. I mean, you can do that - put a 6 on the moon mines and you'll block everyone else until your turn comes back around - but you can also straight-up ruin people. You can steal their cards. You can kick them out of their colonies. You can eliminate the bonuses they get for controlling an area. You can do just about anything short of standing up and kicking them in the privates, and depending on your regular gaming buddies, you might be able to do that, too (though that's not in the rules, and I wouldn't normally recommend it unless you play with some really useless bastards).

So I'm raving so much about Alien Frontiers that half of you are thinking, 'as soon as I finish reading this, I have to go buy a copy.' Well, before you rush out and spend your hard-stolen currency on it, let me warn you - if you like games where prepainted miniatures take turns shooting off each others' faces with plasma rifles, and hate any kind of game associated with phrases like 'resource management' and 'worker placement', this will not be your bag. It's not dry, by any stretch of the imagination, and it's certainly not some boring, multi-player solitaire economics simulator. However, it has a lot more in common with Puerto Rico than HeroScape, so if you're not able to enjoy the kinds of games that tend to be translated from German, you're not going to enjoy this one very much. Essentially, if a different publisher made Alien Frontiers, it would be Rio Grande, not Fantasy Flight.

If you're in the market for a slightly brutal family game with great art, killer components and nearly addictive gameplay, you should definitely check out Alien Frontiers. It's fast, smart, fun and pretty, and is a definite sign that Clever Mojo Games is going to be a serious contender in the endless contest to gobble up our gaming dollars.


2-4 players

Fantastic art channels space pulps from the 1920s
High-quality components show a commitment to quality
Easy rules and fast play
An excellent mix of long-term strategy and quick decision-making
Plays just as well with two players as with four
Everyone has a chance to win until the game is over

Feels pretty European, which is not a con unless you hate games that feel European

You can't buy Alien Frontiers yet, but you can pre-order it from the publisher. If you do, you can save ten bucks, and at the same time, support the kinds of people we want making games:

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Board Game Review - U-Build Battleship

I have got to revisit my policy regarding review copies. I've always said that if you send me a game, I'll review it, period. This has resulted in an awful lot of very bad games arriving at my house, to the point that sometimes, I think someone is pranking me. It's like that gag where you sign up your boss at a bunch of gay porn websites. But without that policy, I may never have received review copies of some of my favorite games, like Caladea or Alien Frontiers (review coming this week). So it's hard to think of changing it. Or it was, up until a couple weeks ago, when I received...


Battleship is one of those games that I was all excited to try when I was about eleven. Back then, it was Electronic Battleship, and the theory was that the board would tell you when you hit the enemy ships. Only my copy was second-hand, and instead of alerting me to hits and misses with exciting explosions and dramatic splashes, it would burp out warbling tweets at random moments that sounded like a dying giraffe, until we finally took out the batteries. Having played the game as well, I decided the entire affair was best donated to some other poor bastard - in this case, my little brother.

In case you entirely missed grade school, or maybe you were born deep in the jungles of Borneo and just recently got Internet access, Battleship is quite possibly one of the lamest games of all time. You set up your ships at random on this little hidden grid, and then your opponent does the same on his grid, and then you call out grid numbers to see if you hit anything. If you did, your opponent lies about it and moves his ship. At least, those were the rules in sixth grade.

U-Build Battleship is Hasbro's latest attempt to make Battleship even remotely marketable as an enjoyable way to kill time. They decided to do this by adding the one thing all children find irresistible - Legos. Only they're not called Legos, because Legos are German or Swiss or something. These are just U-Build blocks. And to be fair, not all children are obsessed with them, even when they are the European variety. I was, but neither of my kids ever had any interest in them, much to my personal dismay.

Now you can customize your aircraft carrier and submarine with more guns than normal, so that instead of firing one shot at a time, you fire as many as your best-equipped boat, and as your ships get blown up, you have fewer shots. This little twist is honestly as good as it gets. Customized Battleship is still, unfortunately, Battleship, and has all the intellectual appeal of pre-chewed gum that you found stuck under the table at the pizza place.

I'll say this for Hasbro, though - the stuff in this box is really nice. The blocks fit together great, and if you've ever played with old-school Megablox, you know that's not a given. The board is swanky, with cool art and neat little standups, and there are little storage trays and a recorder board. All things considered, this is way better than Electronic Battleship, because for one thing, it won't electrocute your fifth-grader. It's still Battleship, which is one of the worst things anyone can say about a game, but it sure is pretty.

In fact, in my history of playing games, only two games have stood out to me as being worse games than Battleship. One was Candyland, and the other is Snakes and Ladders. Neither has anything resembling a strategic component, which is a feature they both share with Battleship. But at least in Battleship, there's violence. And in U-Build Battleship, there are fake Legos and customizable violence.

But it's still Battleship.


2 very bored or very stupid players

Neat pieces
Not Candyland

Still Battleship

If you somehow manage to wind up owning U-Build Battleship and needing an opponent, consider calling this guy:

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Board Game Review - Horus Heresy

Here's a short list of some things I like:

Pralines and Cream Ice Cream
Scotch Whiskey
Video Games
Backpacking in the Mountains

If you offer me any one of those things, I will like you more. Many of these things would even go well together, like ice cream and video games. Some of them would not go well together, like scotch and woodworking. And some go great with anything (strippers make nearly anything more entertaining).

But if you put all those things together, you will not have something amazing. You will have something weird and potentially felonious. I will, of course, be delighted to attempt having all those things at once. But in the end, it would be overwhelming, and I would probably end up passed out in a bowl of pralines and cream with my fingers stuck in a table saw and lipstick stains on my pants.

To relate this to board games (specifically to Horus Heresy, which is what I am reviewing, and not strippers, though I certainly wish I could review strippers and get free strippers in the mail), there are times when you can combine a whole pile of great game ideas and wind up with something that is way too much. Horus Heresy practically embodies this concept.

For starters, this is a wargame based on the 40K universe, where some bad guy from outer space comes to Earth to kill the emperor, who may or may not be something of a penis. Violent hijinks ensue, with a delightfully brutal body count. This is an enormous point in favor of Horus Heresy, and for many people, is enough to buy the game without knowing anything else about it.

Then you've got plastic. This is Fantasy Flight, so when I say there's plastic, I don't mean a couple dice. There are more than a hundred tiny plastic soldiers, from titans and space marines to demons and tanks, and lots more besides. They come in green and purple and gray and blue and red, all colorful and destructive, like a hurricane at a gay pride parade. This much plastic makes the game prettier, and that means it's more fun to play.

Even the game board is tricked out. It's got holes in it so you can insert plastic fortresses and a huge plastic palace from underneath, and it's ginormous, with all this art that makes the future look extraordinarily depressing (which is kind of an ongoing theme in Warhammer stuff). There are eight different decks of cards, coming in two sizes, and they're all beautifully designed.

Beyond the components, there's a hell of a game here. There are all these different regions, including four spaceports, half a dozen forts and factories, and even the palace is broken up into different, three-dimensional areas. You'll put whole bunches of plastic guys on the board, plugged into plastic stands that tell you if they're damaged and how hard they fight, and then you'll move around and hit each other with heavy things that cause massive internal bleeding (and possibly death).

Doing stuff requires you to have order cards, which could mean you're stuck without a move, except that you have extraordinary control over which order cards you have in your hand. If you really need to be able to attack the emperor in his palace, just make sure you get the card you need, which isn't hard to do, if you're patient. The orders are useful and smart and add a ton of strategy to Horus Heresy.

Then you've got the initiative track, which rewards players for careful planning and penalizes them for being overly aggressive - though there are, of course, plenty of good reasons to just jump in and get dirty sometimes. Sure, you may give your opponent four turns in a row, but after you destroy his main force and beat the crap out of his heroes in a surprise move you've had planned for half an hour, it's worth it. This initiative track is pure brilliance, and really helps to make Horus Heresy incredibly deep.

Let's not forget the innovative combat system. I've heard complaints about the way cards are used to handle bloodshed, but it's really quite cool, and dice would never have worked as well. You can save your troops from the worst of the beatings, but if you do, you may not have the cards you need to retaliate, so you might just sacrifice a pile of your soldiers for the option to punt your opponent into orbit later in the fight. It's intuitive and smart and really fun.

Oh, and then there's the various movement and combat rules that go beyond the cards, like Thunderhawks that can pick up friendly hitchhikers and drop them off on their way to a rumble. There are dozens of little details that can be used to really add punch to your fights, and provide an incredible array of options at nearly every juncture.

But that's not all! There are also orbital lasers, and boarding parties, and multiple winning conditions. There are advanced scenarios, event cards, activation markers and a whole lot more! In fact, all this stuff adds to all the other stuff that goes with the enormous box of yet other stuff to make a game that, after giving you wave after wave of incredibly awesome stuff, completely overwhelms you and makes you nostalgic for when you were a kid and could just make explosion sounds while you reenacted the disturbing violence that spawned in your imagination, without having to refer to a rulebook every time you want your hero to board a plane.

Horus Heresy is indubitably a very good game. It's deep and strategic and tactical and full of complex decisions with far-reaching implications. It's also a painfully disjointed Vegas bachelor party, complete with hookers, frozen desserts and power tools. There isn't one single thing in the game that I don't like, unless you count the fact that after a three-page FAQ was released to cover the pile of questions posed by players, the fans still had to go back and make another FAQ to cover all the questions that the first FAQ didn't answer. I don't even mind the 44-page rulebook, because all that great stuff had to fit in here somewhere.

But while I can't pick one thing I didn't like, I can tell you that when you combine all those awesome single things in one place, you wind up wondering why you thought it was a good idea to take a gallon of ice cream on a six-mile hike through the Rockies. It has all these great pieces, but collapses under its own weight. If you like wargames and 40K, you'll have a lot of fun playing Horus Heresy, but even if you're an obsessive compulsive who reads the rules four times before his first game, you're going to miss something or forget something or do something stupid halfway through the game, because there are just too many different things going on.

The overdose is obvious beyond the rules, too. The stacking limit for a fortified area is three guys from each side, which means you could have six of these big clunky bases all competing for space in one spot. And to really spice it up, heroes (which are cardboard art mounted on big plastic stands) don't count toward that limit. Neither do orbital lasers, which are also little plastic sculptures. And none of this would be a huge problem were it not for the fact that the detailed plastic bunkers are all dimensional and textured, and use up most of the real estate for slanted walls and power stations, so that when you actually try to put all those guys in one place, you have to lay down the heroes and stack your units on the flat side of the standups, and even then you'll be balancing them so carefully that you'll wonder if you've taken a quick break to play a couple turns of Jenga.

I should repeat one more time that every time I've played Horus Heresy, I had fun, and I would play it again, and I don't plan to trade it off any time soon. But it could have been so much better if it had just been streamlined a little. I know lots of the bits are in there for the purists, but if Fantasy Flight has just exercised a little restraint, Horus Heresy would have blown my mind with a blast of awesome. As it is, I'm just hungover and wondering why there's a naked girl in the linen closet, sawdust in the bathtub, and an Xbox controller dropped into a half-empty tub of ice cream. But I know I had a good time.


2 players with a lot of time on their hands

Incredible components
Fantastic depth and nearly limitless options
Challenging and smart
Brilliant initiative system rewards planning without overly penalizing bold risk-taking
Quick-playing combat system layers on the genius
Order cards that let you plan your turns and don't remove flexibility

Near-criminal lack of restraint

So you're probably thinking something like, 'that sounds fun, and I'm up for it, but $100 is way outside my budget!' Well, not to worry - Dogstar Games has an amazing deal on Horus Heresy.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Word Game Review - Scrabble Flash

Recently, a reader asked me what I thought about the future of board games, especially as related to the progress of technology. Being something of a dirty old man, I immediately began to wonder if in the future, blow-up dolls would be hooked to USB ports so you could watch videos of yourself banging a porn star while you pretended to bang a porn star. After all, nearly any innovation in technology is first utilized by the adult film industry, and it would make sense that first advances in interactive technology would relate to sex toys.

That was about the only thought I put into the entire idea, until I received a game called Scrabble Flash. Now, I'm not a fan of word games, and I find Scrabble painfully dull, but this appealed to me because it was all gadgets. The game is composed entirely of five electronic tiles, and when you line them up and turn them on, letters pop up on the little screens. Rearrange the tiles to create words, and the five tiles track how many words you've made.

This is almost ridiculously cool. The tiles detect when they are next to other tiles, and remember which words you have already spelled. Like if you spells 'PANTS' and then remove the S, you can score again, and then remove the P and you can score again, and then put the S back in, and you can be a little confused unless you're taking the time to follow along at home with pencil and paper.

If you get bored of using the same five letters over and over for a minute and a half, you can try one of the other games. You can try the game where you get five letters and only a few seconds, and you have to spell a word with all of them before time runs out. If you succeed, the letters change and you can do it again. Keep this going, and you could get a score of 20 or more. My personal best so far is 4. Apparently, I am not very good at this game.

The problem at this point, however, is that these are not exactly group activities, and I play board games because they let me hang out with other people (which is especially odd when we consider what a misanthropic shut-in I am most of the time). So to create a game that you can play with a group, there's one more option. You can choose the third game, which is like the second game, except that when you successfully spell your five-letter word, you pass the tiles to the next player, who hits the button and gets five letters of his own. If he can't do it, he's out. Keep going until there's only one guy left, and you will know that he is the biggest dork in the room. He will still probably be proud of himself.

I still don't like Scrabble, because to me, it's a little too much like work. However, Scrabble Flash appeals to the part of my brain that wants to do something for five minutes and then be distracted by something shiny. I can break it out while I'm waiting for dinner, play for five minutes, then put it away without a second thought. Or I can challenge my kids to a quick game and be humiliated within a matter of seconds with my inability to parse the English language. It comes in a handy black case, so putting it away takes less time than it normally takes me to pick out a pair of work socks.

So Scrabble Flash got me thinking about the possibilities for using electronics in board games. I mean, I just review Monopoly Revolution, which uses a fake credit cards to keep a balance and do away with money, and now Scrabble Flash actually knows where each tile is in relation to the others. The future is rife with possibilities - miniatures games that spot range and line of sight, board games that know when one piece is close to another, and even the ability to simulate true fog-of-war in a war game, by having the pieces find out accidentally if they just stepped on another guy's testicles while tramping through overgrown corn fields.

Unfortunately, there are not a whole lot of people who can take advantage of technological advances this way. Hasbro had to have spent a ton of money figuring out how to make Scrabble Flash, and hired expensive programmers and engineers. Until someone else actually makes it work, other companies can't afford to do this. Maybe Wizards of the Coast, but then, they're still Hasbro, aren't they? Nobody else has the budget, the manpower and the financial pull to make this stuff work this well.

However, it won't stop them from trying. The problem is, the smaller publishers (by which I mean anyone who isn't Hasbro) will have to assume that their customers have stuff that's not in the box. There are already games that make you use a laptop, which is great unless you're 14 and you don't own a laptop. Or games that have an assist from an app on your smartphone, and let's face it, we don't all have those, either. Hasbro doesn't have to make you install an executable on your Windows machine, because they include the fancy electronics in the box. So why doesn't everyone else?

Because they can't. Hasbro can make a game out of five electronic tiles because they've got two things that no other publisher has. One, they have budgets so high they can hire engineers, and two, they have such an enormous market share that they could publish Electronic Turd Burglar and sell half a million copies off the shelves at Target.

For now, you can enjoy the cool factor in Scrabble Flash. It's cool and fun and makes me actually want to play word games, which is remarkable because of how little I like word games. And at some point in the future, when the stuff Hasbro is doing takes hold and everyone can afford their cool gadgets, you'll see card games that plug into scanners to have blind face-offs, or dungeon crawls that make creepy noises and have monsters ambush you out of nowhere.

But the porn stuff will still be on the leading edge. I'm pretty sure that sex doll is probably out there already. I'm a little surprised I don't own one.


1 player, or as many as you want if you play Game 3

Super cool gadgets
Actually an engaging word game
Play for as long as you want, then stop when you get bored
Near instant setup and clean up

Will hold your attention until you see something more distracting, like a USB-enabled sex doll

Scrabble Flash doesn't appear to be out just yet. But once it is, you should totally get it.