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

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